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Archive for February, 2008

Atonement

Monday Morning, February 24, 2008

That one of the top Oscar nominees for Best Picture would have as it’s title one of the central themes of Christian systematic theology is quite a curious thing.  Even more curious – the novel on which the film is based was written by an outspoken atheist.

The word certainly can be used in ordinary language without the biblical implications, I gather.  (Atonement: “reparation for an offense or injury” – Webster.)   

In one of the title songs (in the new muscial Wicked), Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West declares, “No good deed goes unpunished!”  Out there in the non-theological world there is this cosmic sense that everything ultimately must come into balance.  Evil is balanced off by good.  Good by evil.  If good outweighs the bad at any particular moment, then something bad must inevitably happen in the same measure and so it goes.  One could also conclude that the opposite of Elphaba’s statement of faith is also true – no bad deed goes unrewarded.

What happens, then, when guilt has nowhere to go?  When forgiveness and reconciliation are impossible?  Where is the balance then?  Ian McEwan contemplates these questions in his highly acclaimed novel (which, I have yet to read).  Christopher Hampton wrote his screen-play (based McEwan’s novel) which contemplates the same perplexities.  Is it simply a matter of cosmic balance, or is there something more?

Young Briony Tallis is a thirteen year old with a rich imagination.  As she wanders around the grand estate outside London as war brews up in Europe with Germany’s crude nationalism expanding rough-shod in all directions, she becomes a keen observer.  Her attempts to synthesize the meaning of the things she sees and hears become an obsession.  But they fall well short.  She is young.  Impressionable.  Unsure. 

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She witnesses a crime.  A terrible crime.  (Rape.)  Her conclusions mix all the raging complexities of adolescence into a place of feigned certainty.  But in her heart she knows full well that certain she is not.  Still, with a convincing sense of moral outrage, she accuses the man who jilted her – Robbie – the subject of her young fancies.  He chose her older sister, Cecelia, as the subject of his affections.  She could not forgive him.  Based on her testimony, Robbie is sent to prison, where, she fully believes, he belongs.

It’s only later that she comes to terms with the awful consequence of her deceitful lie.  And as she ruminates over the news of his fate and that of her sister’s (when they are separated by the prison sentence, they never see each other again), she is overcome by a guilt she can not escape.  The outcome is irreversible.  The moment irretrievable.  It was not some random onset of an uncontrollable outside force; it was her faulty choice.  Her false witness.  Her need for revenge.

So what does she do? 

In an interview1 with The New Republic, the novel’s author talks about his atheism and the “neo-atheists” who are getting so much attention these days.  McEwan complains that “Atheism” is an uncomfortable label because, as he puts it, “no one wants to be defined by what he doesn’t believe.”  He goes on to make the point that even atheists have moral dilemmas and that these complex human questions fascinate him.

Briony’s quest for atonement makes for a best-selling novel and a powerful film.  I won’t spoil it for you by revealing any more detail.

* * * * * * *

But on this Monday morning, as a leader, you carry around a sack full of heavy stuff, too.  When you run out of fingers on one hand to count up the decades, you’ve had sufficient time to fill it up.  There are plenty of missteps logged in the memory bank to stir up the guilt and the remorse and the regrets and the wish to get another shot at trying it again.

How do I know?  Ha!

McEwan borrowed the term not just from the dictionary, but from the theology books.  It’s too bad he so easily dismisses the God dynamic.  Isn’t that where the real answer is? 

It’s not balancing Elphaba’s scales of chance.  It’s balancing the scales of justice.  The primary assumption raised by the term “atonement” is that a price must be paid. 

And on this Monday morning, be thankful. 

Someone did.

Copyright, Kenneth E Kemp, 2008


1 My thanks to Chuck Colson’s colleague, Mark Earley, for pointing me to the New Republic interview in his essay, Theology in the Theater published in Break Point.

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Kate

Monday Morning, February 18, 2008

I’ve written about our children; they provide me with considerable grist for the writing mill.  I am, after all, a self-confessed sentimental Dad.  This week was no exception.  Our oldest daughter delivered one more grandchild to add to our burgeoning family.  Of all the weighty issues swirling around our lives these days, little Kate took center stage.

I’m pleased to report – she’s absolutely beautiful.

At the beginning of the week, it took awhile for Kris and Ben to accept the plain fact that Kate was settled in the breach position and had no intentions to re-arrange her comfortable spot.  Last minute efforts to manipulate a rotation proved to be just too risky.

So the good news is that Kate’s delivery was scheduled.  It trimmed away what otherwise would have been hours of hard labor.  I was there at just before seven on Friday morning when the doctor dropped by.   Kris was freshly prepped for her surgery.  Ben stood by, attentive, proud.  He’s a card carrying, devoted, determined dad himself.  That makes us kindred spirits.

I think the doc knew he was going to be working with someone very special.  He looked across the bed at the enlarged woman’s dad and her husband, and I do believe he thought about what he’d be dealing with if he messed up.  But his self-assurance and friendly manner made us all feel confident.  The OB doc smiled and after some brief pre-op banter, he left.  I’ll never forget those quiet moments there with Ben and Kris before they wheeled her into the surgical ward.

Thanks to the prayers of many and the tireless research and good counsel, Kris had a peace that only God can give.  It’s hard to put into words the pride of this father in his daughter; the amazing person she’s become.

A “c-section” is in the “major surgery” category.  So just a short time later while Kris lay post-op on the hospital bed, she worked hard to smile and appear to be in the celebratory mood she knew was real.  But she clearly showed the residual signs of the high impact passage she just crossed through moments before.  (The photos capture it; curbed smiles checked by sharp discomfort.)  The drugs and the trauma to her body took their toll.  In spite of all that, Kristyn was, from the first moments after delivery, an incredibly beautiful Mom.

I heard her say under her breath, “Oh… if I could only escape this body…”

But after a long, well earned nap, the heaviness of the medications wore off, and the benefits of all those marathon runs kicked in.  She bounced back.  The laughter and hugs and tears all flowed easily as all of us welcomed Kate.

We walked into the room, all of us, Dad (the Pied Piper), the three siblings (two brothers and a sister), Grandma and Grandpa, as Kristyn lay waiting, propped up on pillows.  The children squealed to see their Mommy again.  And all of us stood around the infant crib and there surrounded by Plexiglas and a hand written label filling in all the essential stats wrapped tightly in a white blanket was their new little sister, Kate.  Their eyes were wide.  They all reached out to touch her soft cheeks, her pink nose.  The introductions were made; and the two boys pleaded to hold the little bundle while seated on the rocker.  Dad’s video camera captured the moments.

And me.  I just couldn’t stop looking at Kristyn, the woman who delivered all four of the rascals now filling the room with giggles and questions and territorial claims (“It’s MY turn to hold her.”).

And I held Carolyn tight beside me.

She had her eye on Kristyn, too.

* * * * * * *

So on this Monday morning, you’re in full agreement.  The leadership role will inevitably take an occasional hiatus.  The personal stuff trumps the business.  The people in your care need you.

There was a time, I’m told, when family was readily sacrificed in the pursuit of someone’s definition of success.  Even spiritual leaders believed that devotion to a heavenly cause legitimized neglect of family.  Certainly the pursuit of business achievement all too often meant prolonged absence on the home front.

But on this Monday morning, I’m here to tell you that there is no better place to be.  We are leaders, you and me.

And maybe the most important way for us to lead is in that place where the heart grows warm; and the moments that last forever have a chance to get our attention and make their mark.

Copyright 2008 Kenneth E Kemp

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Chasing Francis

February 11, 2008

Another one of those changes I’ve encountered since my Rip Van Winkle style spiritual awakening is the emergence of fiction as a genre for Christian books.  Seems like someone has figured out that the mountain of how-to volumes over at the Christian bookstore can be livened up some if you put your message in the context of an engaging story line.  Check it out.  There’s a whole section called Fiction.

My mentor of seventeen years didn’t like fiction.  He told me so.  He became famous for his “book a week” rhythm.  It was no empty claim; he read a book every week for his entire career.  I still remember how painful it was for him when his eyes went.  He bought a contraption that would project the pages on the wall enlarging the print.  He listened to books on CD.  He had an insatiable appetite for books.  Right up until his transition to Heaven at age ninety-one.

But he had no time for fiction.  “Waste of time,” he called it.  I guess I can confess now what I kept to myself in those long conversations I miss so much today.  I like fiction.  There, I said it. 

A long time ago, another friend challenged me to take on James Michener.  Sure his books are hopelessly voluminous; but sure enough, I got caught up in the big landscapes, the sweep of history, the scope of the centuries and the characters who shaped nations and fought wars and built cities and civilizations and when I put down one, read cover to cover, I picked up another.  I devoured so much Michener back then I managed to figure out his formula.  That’s when I moved on.

But in the journey, a whole world opened up.

So when a successful businessman handed me a book of fiction a couple weeks ago and said, “Ken, you’ve got to read this,” I did.  It’s the story of the pastor of a mega-church who, after twenty years, had to admit to himself that the CEO role he played so well publicly was about to crush him.

One of the first real hints of burn-out happened in front of the home theater.  He watched a movie with his youth pastor; Jim Carrey in The Truman Show.  Pastor Chase Falson opened up as the movie credits rolled.  “What a great movie,” he said.  “I loved Truman’s search for meaning in a contrived and shallow world.  He longed for something more.”

Chip, the youth guy, shrugged and said, “I thought it was dumb.”  He thought about it for a moment.  “Yeah, I like Carrey a whole lot more in Dumb and Dumber.”

Falson knew it.  The generation gap.  A yawning chasm.  Dumb and Dumber.

It wasn’t long after that, The Truman Show became his story.  The final trigger – the young daughter of a single mom dies in a random bicycling accident.  After the memorial, in a private room, Maggie, the little girl’s mother, cries out in agony.  “How could God do this?”  Her reddened, weary eyes reflect the horrific tragedy.  She locks her painful gaze on the man who just officiated the memorial of her child.  And Chase runs out of answers.

He melts down on a Sunday morning, thousands in attendance.  Video cameras rolling.  He confesses that he’s empty.  The old easy answers don’t work anymore.  He’s not sure that this mega operation, burning up millions of dollars a year, comes anywhere close to living up to its mission.  He’s finally told the truth.  But it’s going to cost him.

The Elders put him on a leave of absence.  They think a rest will bring him back.  That’s chapter one.

And that’s where Chase Falson’s unexpected journey begins. 

The airplane lands him in Rome.  His Uncle Kenny, an American refugee who left it all behind to become a Franciscan Monk, meets him at the gate.  Father Kenny.

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An in a pilgrim’s tale, the weary senior pastor embarks on a new quest – Chasing Francis.1

* * * * * *

It’s Monday morning, and as a seasoned leader, you can point to those moments in time when everything changed.  They were turning points.  Or tipping points.  Like Chase Falson, you emerged to a whole new world of experience.

In one of God’s mysterious twists, just this morning, just after writing the text above, I listened to the pastor of a large church share some tragic, unsettling news.  A little eighteen month boy, Isaac, the son of new young missionaries en-route to their first tour of service in Cambodia.  The accident occurred in the Denver area.  Isaac’s mom is recovering from a serious corrective surgery.  Two other adults traveling in the car were killed.

Unlike the character in my book, this pastor relayed the hard facts with passion and grace, pain and hope, sorrow and grace.  People were moved to care.  Tears flowed in that sacred place.  No easy answers here.  He invited us to enter into the grief; and there find living water.

Falson’s fictional journey led him to a new and deeper understanding of God’s work in the world… in history, in a far away land, and in an open, honest search for the living God.  The spiritual crisis led to spiritual renewal.

As it has for me.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2008


 1 Chasing Francis, Ian Moran Cron (2006, Navpress)

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Heliocentrism

February 4, 2008

Ptolemy had his work cut out for him back in the second century.  The night sky fascinated him.  He would start with the only fixed point in the sky, the North Star (as we call it).  Night after night, from his home in Egypt, he would record the motion of the stars and the planets visible to his naked eye.  (Telescopes came later.  Much later.)

He operated under the generally accepted assumption that the earth, Terra Firma, remained stationary.  The points of light in the far distance were set on the surface of a spherical dome that rotated around planet earth; as did the sun and moon.  The planets were somehow suspended in space floating in perpetual motion in cyclical patterns that from the earth look like the looping scramble of cables behind the PC, or the home theater.  Mercury and Venus and Mars and Jupiter and Saturn moved in cycles, strange swirling cycles in complicated but as Ptolemy learned, predictable patterns.

The scientist was obsessed with the journey of these celestial objects.  He recorded their progress night after night, month after month, year after year.  The perplexity of their looping gyrations fascinated him; what emerged was a triumphant work he called Planetary Hypotheses.  His network of “nested spheres,” which could predict the position of the planets in the night sky with remarkable precision, became the accepted view of the universe for the next fifteen hundred years.  To understand the model required advanced academic studies in Astronomy, Mathematics and Physics.

You and I know that Ptolemy’s complicated theory of nested spheres missed a fundamental point.  It wasn’t until Copernicus and then Galileo, that Ptolemy’s “discoveries,” considered to be “brilliant,” the work of a “genius,” were summarily dismissed; placed forever on the trash-heap of discarded ideas.  Galileo’s primitive telescope confirmed it.

It was a simple test, really.  Galileo observed the light and shadow moving across the face of the giant planet Jupiter.  He compared it to Ptolemy’s cycle in the text-book.  Impossible, he concluded.  The only way to explain the movement of the shadows, Galileo proclaimed, is for Jupiter to orbit around the Sun. 

Heliocentism.  Copernicus suggested that Ptolemy was wrong.  Galileo confirmed it.  The earth is a rotating sphere, orbiting the Sun, just like the other planets.

Those who had mastered the complicated concept of nested spheres shrugged.  It was so obvious.  The motion of the planets suddenly became simplified.  They fell into place.  The solar system went from celestial scramble to orderly rotations.  The series of complicated loops were reduced to a series of concentric, symmetrical ellipse. 

It was a paradigm shift.  And a satisfying one.  But it required that humankind let go of the solipsistic notion that the earth was the one stationary point in the universe.  Not an easy concession. 

I met this week with a group we call The Desert Fathers.  One of them told this story of this Astronomical shift in paradigm.  It was Henri Nouwen, he said, who made the point that when we place ourselves at the center, our universe appears to be as convoluted as Ptolemy’s collection of nested spheres.  It’s only when we place God at the center that our world makes any sense at all.

Curiously, the same story was told again when I took my grandson, Kenny, to the Griffith Park Observatory just a few days later.  He passed a milestone just the week before when we celebrated his fifth birthday.  The sign on the Planetarium Kiosk confirmed it.  You can’t see the show if you are anything less than five.  “If you aren’t five,” Kenny told me, “you get too scared.”  As we walked up to the landmark structure perched on the bluff a thousand feet above Los Angeles under a bright blue sky, Kenny walked and talked like a grownup. 

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I passed a milestone the same week.  The Kiosk confirmed this one, too.  I qualified for the senior discount.

So with eyes wide, together we watched the spectacular Planetarium show, Kenny and me.  I’m not sure he got the “nested spheres” thing or Galileo’s radical challenge to Ptolemy’s world view.  But he did find out why the under five crowd should take a pass on the presentation.  Under the dome, in high-definition clarity, on an IMAX sized screen, in surround sound, the BIG BANG is truly startling.  Kenny jumped in his high back seat, grabbed my arm and said, “It’s OK Grandpa. 

“I’m not scared.”

* * * * * * *

On this Monday morning, as a leader, you’ll agree with me that the world makes a whole lot more sense when heliocentric becomes theo-centric; God centered.  When BIG BANG illustrates the biblical assertion: “in the beginning… God…”

There’s no better way to re-discover Nouwen’s point than to spend a day with your grandson, particularly a five-year-old who is fascinated by outer space and astronauts and starry starry nights, so full of questions.  So eager to learn.

If senior citizen means more days like Saturday up at Griffith Park hand in hand with a curious grandson, then I’m all over it.

Copyright 2008 Kenneth E Kemp

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