Archive for January, 2008

Some Melodious Sonnet

Monday Morning, January 28, 2008

Rip Van Winkle was the envy of some of his neighbor friends up in the Castkill Mountains of New York just after the Revolutionary War.  Twenty years before, he escaped his irksome wife and the tedious chores back home on the farm, wandered up into the mountain forest, chatted with some odd characters in the deep, dark woods, drank some of their hard liquor and drifted off to sleep under a shady tree.  When he woke up after a nap that spanned two decades, his world had changed.

His wife died.  The farm was sold.  His village no longer hailed themselves as loyal subjects of King George of England.  His Dutch friends, many of them hen-pecked as he had been, envied his transformation – the new life and the new world he awakened to after a twenty year disappearance.  So goes the old familiar children’s tale of Rip.  (Rest in Peace – ha!  I just now noticed that.) 

At this stage in my life, in an odd sort of way, I identify with the old storybook character.  (Certainly, I’m not thinking of his marriage – mine is quite an enviable and satisfying partnership after all these years.)  My identification with RVW has more to do with the world of Christian ministry; the church and pastoral leadership and worship and that sort of thing.

I was a card carrying member of the professional clergy some twenty years ago or more.  Then four years ago, I re-activated the credentials and joined up once again.  I took a twenty year leave of absence, immersing myself in the world of business before making a kind of come-back.  I stretched and yawned and rubbed my eyes, stood to my feet, scratched the back of my skull and wandered off the hill, out of the dark forest and back into the village I’d left behind.

I woke up to a new world.  Me and Rip. 

Four years ago, I would have vigorously denied that I had been asleep; unplugged.  I considered myself engaged.  But Sunday after Sunday, same church, same folks in the row beside you and in front and back, same preacher, same ecclesiastical routines and without knowing it, you are lulled to sleep in a familiar, dreamy world of predictable ritual until someone or something wakes you up.  In two decades, especially in this era of ever accelerating rates of change, the rest of the world moves on.

When Rip awakened, his children were grown, his village prospered and the government changed hands.  Since I re-entered “The Ministry” four years ago, I encountered a depth of fundamental change on the order of an American Revolution.  Sometimes, to this very day, I am wide-eyed in amazement; a Rip Van Winkle caught up in re-discovery.

And it has changed me.

For one – I’ve learned to worship.  This Sunday would be Exhibit A. 

Back in the days of the hymnal (I’m old enough to remember those), singing was a mechanical ritual.  (Well, not for everyone.  I remember well one pastor I worked for who Sunday after Sunday stood ramrod at attention bellowing a joyful noise caught up in praise and wonderment as though he really believed the lyric.  And I think it did.  It was an infectious sort of singing; and we got a taste of it then.)

But something happened while I was sleeping.  I hear maybe it started in London or Australia or some exotic place way beyond the neatly manicured suburbs of the U.S. of A.  A new song took hold; maybe it was the generation that followed Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa when Chuck Smith baptized Flower Children at the beach in Corona del Mar when acoustical guitars and tambourines replaced electronic organs and upright pianos.  A new song grabbed hold of the hearts of believers all over the world; crossing denominational lines and ethnic boundaries and even bottled up Lutherans might dare raise up hands lost in the marvel of praise.

Some churches separate the old-timers from the new-comers.  They segregate themselves into separate rooms at separate meeting times.  There are delicate, non-offensive ways of saying it: Traditional vs. Contemporary.  The Hymn Crowd vs. The Chorus Crowd.  (Anyone who calls them “Choruses” betrays their old-school roots.)  And now that I’m awake, there are countless variations on the theme.  We Christians have an enormous capacity for grouping – some call it “Venue Preference.”

So here I am, back in worship.  And the lyrics of an old hymn appear on the screen.  “Come thou fount of every blessing,” and our worship leader draws us in.  The music is first rate.  The musicians so good you forget they are there.  “Tune my heart to sing Thy praise.”  And like a gift too long forgotten, my heart tunes in.

“Streams of mercy, never ceasing…. Call for songs of loudest praise.”  Indeed.

But the next phrase hits me.  “Teach me some melodious sonnet…”

That’s it.  For decades the church prayed in the words of this old hymn that God would by his Spirit inspire a new song.  A new melody.  A sonnet – on the order of Shakespeare and Keats and Shelley in lyric and rhyme to touch hearts, new every generation.  “Sung by flaming tongues above…” just like the first church, caught up the wonder of it all.

There it was.  Right there in the old familiar hymn. 

And as I awake, I see it happening.  And it touches me.  Even me. 

Rip van Ken.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

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More on Oratory

January 21, 2008

When Barak Obama stirred a national audience with a powerful sample of classic oratory, it stirred something in me to write a few lines in praise of the craft (oratory).  The occasion was Obama’s victory in the first of the national contests – the Iowa Caucus.  My lines churned up some fascinating comments… particularly from those who participate in the world of education where the arts must compete in an arena dominated by a utilitarian crowd who just can’t seem to quantify the value of such things as public speech to their satisfaction.

I never intended to take a political stance.  Instead, I made an attempt to underscore the power of a seemingly lost art.  Now with a week or two past in a rough and tumble national campaign in both parties, oratory takes a back seat to other dynamics.  To date, assumptions surrounding any notion of a “presumptive nominee” of either the blue or red party have pretty well been set aside.  The whole contest is up for grabs.

Melvin B. Tolson wrote an epic poem he called “Libretto for the Republic of Liberia” in 1953.  For it, this young, unlikely African American college professor turned Mayor of a small southern town was named Liberia’s Poet Laureate.  That, along with published works in such prestigious journals as Atlantic Monthly, would have opened many doors.  But Tolson lived in relative obscurity.  Until now.

Tolson died after a nasty cancer surgery in 1966.  But study his influence, and you’ll find that Tolson’s students made a powerful mark in history.  He was honest.  Direct.  Articulate.  And he believed in oratory.  You’ll find his work in the Harlem gallery.  Back at Langsdon College, you’d find him directing the drama team at the Dust Bowl Theater.  When he was at Wiley College, he coached the debate team to a dramatic, surprise victory.

He was an educator who transcended the ordinary expectations of a college professor.  His passions embraced the unmasked expression of truth.  Langston Hughes, another poet, said this: Tolson is “no highbrow. Students revere him and love him. Kids from the cotton fields like him. Cow punchers understand him … He’s a great talker.”

A great friend and mentor to Tolson was James L. Farmer, Ph.D.  Dr. Farmer was the first African American from Texas to earn a doctorate (Boston University, 1918).  Their friendship grew at Wiley as the debate team went off on an unprecedented winning streak.

It’s no surprise that Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey collaborated on a feature film based on the debate team’s ascent from the depression era small town where the tension of racism was a way of life to the high profile victory that stunned the academic community – and the watching world in 1935.

Critics give The Great Debaters high marks, in spite of the liberties taken by the film’s creators.  The movie version strays from the facts on several levels.  For example, the themes of the debates are contrived and the final contest took place at the University of Southern California, not Harvard.  But the essence of Tolson’s persona his captured in a powerful performance by Denzel Washington.  The same can be said of Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Farmer, Sr.  I can’t help but see a link between that discussion of oratory a couple weeks ago and the commanding message of “The Great Debaters.”  Perhaps Obama has taken his oratory cues from Denzel Washington.  And Forest Whitaker.  And the others in this powerful cast.


“Debate is a blood sport,” proclaimed professor Tolson.  Words… the use of words, the context of words, the delivery of words… have a powerful effect.

They can launch the civil rights movement.  They can clean up corruption.  They can challenge injustice.  They can inspire what is best.

* * * * * *

Last Saturday morning, in a small town a few hours north of here, I followed a young Tolson protégé around a campus on the eastern slopes of the Sierras.  He’s a high school teacher (with a doctorate) and the creator of a thing he calls Playhouse 395.  They are mobilizing the town for a sizable production of The Music Man.  (It’s a follow-up to their most recent highly acclaimed presentation of Annie.)

Tolson’s students went on to achieve enormous goals.  Same with my new friend up north.  His students have been introduced to a whole new level of achievement and possibilities.

On this Monday morning, you are a leader, too.  Maybe more than you know, your influence touches lives.  You inspire.  You open doors.  You paint a picture of what can be.  You help them over the hurdles.  You help put the past in proper perspective.

It’s your life.  It’s your actions.  It’s your initiative.  It’s your words.

It’s your oratory.

Copyright, Kenneth E Kemp 2008

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Passages and Buckets

January 14, 2008

I was cornered yesterday by a fifty-eight year old man named Terry who heard that for twenty-five years I had been a financial advisor.  He launched a speech I’ve heard many times.  “I suppose I need one of those,” he sighed, “but I have no idea how to choose the one that’s right for me.”

Then he complained that many claim to be financial advisors and most of them, it seemed, come with a self-serving agenda that has little to do with the real needs of the client.  Mostly their advice benefits the advisor, he postulated.  So what’s one to do?  It’s a jungle out there, I said flatly.

Just that morning, he continued, he and his wife had an animated conversation over the whole issue.  She thinks there is undone business.  He thinks they are doing just fine.  Point/Counterpoint.  So it went.  The longer they talked, the higher the heat.

“What’s the undone business she’s thinking of?” I asked.  Oh, it had to do with things like portfolio management and estate planning and retirement issues, he said.  She’s not confident that he’s got it under control. 

This is hardly an unfamiliar tale.  It made me glad, frankly, that my career as a financial advisor is behind me.  I smiled and commented that it appeared as though he was a competent do-it-yourselfer; that he can manage his portfolio just fine on his own and that the living trust documents are readily available on the Internet for free and that he must be up to speed on the tax consequences of his choices.  But then a more interesting issue came up.

Earlier, he heard me tell about a friend of mine who had little time for church, was happily retired and living what appeared to be a very good life.  I asked him one day, “What are you doing that brings your life purpose and meaning?”  A simple question.  But I’ll never forget the long silent pause.

Looking back, it was clearly a turning point for my friend.  Since then, he’s realigned his priorities.  Made some firm commitments.  Today, his life is way more than rounds of golf and aimless airplane hops (he’s a private pilot).  He is making a difference in ways that have surprised him and the people who care about him.

Terry thought about that story, and then he made a fascinating confession.  “Yep,” he said, “I think I’ve got the nuts and bolts of this retirement thing pretty well in hand… but that other stuff you talked about…”  Clearly he was referring to the purpose and meaning thing.  His sentence drifted off into temporary silence.

“If you were to ask me the same question you asked your friend,” he paused again.  He looked back at the chair he’d been sitting in.  He pointed to the chair.  “There I sat, just today, age fifty-eight, and if you’d asked me that question, uh… well,” he scratched his head.  “I flat have no answer for you on that one.  I don’t know what to say.”

“And that’s the big one,” I said.

“The big one,” he nodded.  I smiled.

Then he told me more.  He’s got some “health issues.”  He’s a new grandfather.

(Mortality is closing in, I thought.)

But more important; significance is closing in.  We laughed over our high energy pursuit of high octane performance back in our forties when we were convinced that we had all the tools to be sitting in the top spot.  And laughed more about how most of that just doesn’t matter anymore.  We’ve crossed the line.  We don’t care so much about success as we care about significance (to borrow a phrase from Buford in Halftime).  But what does that mean?

I understand Nickolson and Freedman have a new movie in the theaters.  I like the story line.  Two guys, one (Edward Cole – Jack Nicholson) fabulously wealthy, the other (Carter Chambers – Morgan Freeman) a working auto mechanic.  The first has burned through several marriages, the other still happily married to his childhood sweetheart.  Both heard their oncologist announce the same conclusion: it’s cancer.  Inoperable, pervasive, terminal.  Cancer.

Ed and Carter find each other in a hospital room.

The movie becomes a pursuit of undone business.  Two strangers.  Two separate world-views.  Some of it, I’m told, is the standard stuff of extreme adrenaline.  Some of it, the need to see far-away places.  But ultimately, it comes down to the reawakening of the relationships that really matter.  Before they “kick the bucket.” 

So they call their wish list – “The Bucket List.”

* * * * * * *

It’s Monday, er… Tuesday morning.  You are a leader.  The New Year brings new perspective, built on lessons learned, from successes that firm up the foundation and mistakes that have lingering consequences.  It‘s a changing world. 

And for you it signals one more turning point.  It’s yet another passage.

You may not be thinking about kicking the bucket – but if you’re like me, you have a bucket list.  Like my friend who probably won’t be talking to a financial advisor any time soon, you are probably considering the things that go well beyond nuts-and-bolts all the way to the stuff of significance.

It’s a New Year.  Why wait?

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

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Monday Morning, January 7, 2008

Many would say that oratory is a lost art.  The humanities have taken a beating the last thirty or forty years.  Colleges and universities were conquered long ago by utilitarians who view higher education as a means to an economic end.  The disciplines that thrive are those that prepare their students for high paying jobs and assurance of upward mobility.

Try telling your parents’ friends that you are a history major.  “Well, what are you going to do with that?” will be the inevitable question.  Or an English major.  Or a philosophy major.  Or worse yet, a theology major.  Liberal Arts, once considered to be the primary purpose of higher education, are marginalized by a consumer oriented culture, to our detriment.  But once in awhile there is a break-out, high profile performance that reaffirms the value of the core, too often forgotten, disciplines.

This week, we had a shining example of the power of oratory.

Not that the Liberal Arts department necessarily produces orators.  Fine oratory is a combination of many disciplines.  It can be compared to the skills of a concert pianist, for example.  Music can inspire, transport us to new heights of awareness, express our deepest longings and hopes and fears, can capture our imagination and stir up powerful motivations and determinations.  The musician who can take us there is years in the making.  The pianist, in our example, spends countless hours on technique; overcomes all the temptations to move on to something else in life; connects with a series of teacher/mentors who guide, cajole, prod, kindle and infuse belief; finds joy and wonder in every new level of achievement.  Then, for a distinct few, finely tuned technique combines with a depth of spirit, and the music soars, and us along with it.

Public speaking (oratory) can have a similar effect.  But these days, it seems as rare as a piano concert.  Sure, many folks will take to the microphone a deliver a speech.  But not many.  It’s well known that most of us would rather submit to a root canal without pain killer than stand up before a group and attempt intelligible utterance.   So the simple attempt, as wobbly and aimless as it comes off, wins praise.  Those offering it are simply relieved that someone else is doing it.

It can be argued that the most influential leaders are skilled orators.  For good or ill, they capture something of the major themes, the high aspirations, the deepest yearnings, the eminent hopes, the lofty dreams.  Their speech becomes the embodiment of those hopes.  And masses are moved to action.

I have wondered why more people don’t think about these things.  The technology for the delivery of the spoken word has never been more pervasive.  But what content is poured into this massive delivery system?

I’ve grieved over the ineffectiveness of some of my favorite leaders to stand and deliver.  Some of the problem, it seems, is that those who have the greatest opportunity to speak spend the least amount of time honing the skills.  It’s like a concert pianist who skips practice to watch movies.  Who suffers in the end?

And once in awhile, we witness a performance that reminds us of the amazing power of oratory.  Obama’s speech1 after his remarkable win in Iowa may well be the tipping point in the race to the White House.

Other candidates seem to settle for stream of consciousness banter; peppered with slogans and sound bites conjured up in the conference room.  Speeches become a recitation of bullet points and policy positions.


Where would Winston Churchill’s name appear in the history books without his towering oratory?  Would FDR be remembered at all if not for his powerful voice?  Ronald Reagan is now venerated as the Great Communicator.  Why?  The man could deliver a speech.  (It didn’t hurt him to have Peggy Noonan writing his lines.)

The most memorable moment for our current President was when he stood on the rubble of the World Trade Center with a hand held megaphone.

Joe Klein2 compared Obama to another orator when he contemplated Obama’s opening line in the aftermath of his Iowa victory – “They said this day would never come.”

Klein wrote, “I suspect he was thinking bigger, back to Martin Luther King – and King’s dream that someday his children would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

* * * * * * *

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  You are caught up, as I am, in the race to the most powerful office in the land.

I’m not endorsing Obama’s politics.  There are issues of disagreement on several levels.  But I am moved by his ability to deliver a moving speech; one that may actually have historic consequence.  And I’m left to wonder if, perhaps, this tidal wave of support coming from all corners is the result of his ability to articulate a powerful message as he recaptures what for most of his fellow candidates continues to be a lost art.

I heard two such speeches on Sunday morning.  Actually, they were sermons.  Both speakers brought the preparation and skill set of a concert pianist to the task.  And both impacted a significant group of people.

You and I have opportunities to speak.  We are leaders, after all.  Let’s not be casual about the high potential of those opportunities.

There’s a world out there, hungry for something more.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

1 LeaderFOCUS, July 26, 2004  (My musings on Obama’s speech at the Democratic convention)2 TIME Magazine, January 4, 2008

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