Archive for March, 2008

Interstate 69

Monday Morning, March 31, 2008

The north-south Indiana super-highway is familiar to us now.  It connects Indianapolis to Forth Wayne right through America’s heartland.  One farm after another, barns and silos, wheat and cornfields and dairy cattle line the highway.  All along the straight, interminable road are big ponds and unpaved roads among the full oak trees and hedgerows and under a big blue sky it’s hard to imagine anything more beautiful.

When I took our middle child, our daughter, on a college tour her senior year in high school, we took our first drive up Interstate 69, passing what became a familiar Billboard identifying the home town of favorite son James Dean. Back in the 1950s, for a brief and shining moment, he maintained his place as heartthrob of the decade.  From a small farm town in rural Indiana he escaped boredom at a New York acting school.  The rave reviews over his performance won him a Hollywood contract and his one major performance on the big screen, Rebel Without A Cause.  In his shiny new Porsche Spyder, Dean found the one country road in California that reminded him of rural Indiana, and on September 30, 1955 on highway 41 in Cholame at a very high speed, Dean collided head on with another car.  A nation of teenagers mourned.

Maybe that billboard is the reason this dad worried all four years about the safety of the daughter who was determined to study two thousand miles away from home.  That separation is hard.  The headlines are a daily dose of tragedy.  Parents whose children grow up and wander far away wonder – will she be safe?

Taylor University has a solid global reputation.  It’s a sophisticated school with high academic standards and a first rate learning environment.  It ranks with the best of the Christian colleges across the nation.  Surprisingly, Upland’s sprawling campus is surrounded by cornfields.  It was our daughter’s choice.

I remember hearing about students traveling to the Fort Wayne Campus.  Vanloads of them would frequently assist with special events.  Late one night, on the return trip home, such a van traveled down Interstate 69 after a banquet in Fort Wayne and a pizza stop.  They headed home on the final stretch of the familiar trip.  Without warning, the driver of an eighteen wheel tractor trailer fell asleep on the opposite side of the long straight road through the farmland.  The rig jumped the center divider and smashed headlong into the small van filled with students.

The possibility of such a telephone call late at night is every college student’s parent’s worst nightmare.  When Colleen Cerek picked up the phone and the caller identified himself as a county coroner, her knees gave way.  “Your daughter Whitney was among the dead,” he said.  Whitney’s sister Carly helped her mother to her feet.  They held each other and through the sobs, Carly said, “We’ve got to call dad.”

Newell, a forty-five year old Youth Pastor at the Gaylord Evangelical Free Church in Michigan, was on a mission trip.

The same night, Laura Van Ryn’s parents, Don and Suzie also got a call.  “Laura is the only survivor,” they were told.  Immediately, they left home with sister Lisa for the long drive to an Indiana hospital where the young blonde student lay in a deep coma, broken and bruised and on life support.

For the next five weeks, Don, Collen and Lisa stayed on a twenty-four hour vigil; praying, singing, reading, blogging, welcoming visitors and fellow students and a boy-friend, Aryn Linenger.  In the meantime, there were memorial services for the other five victims of the crash.  On campus.  And in the home towns.  Grief swelled up.  But hope, too.  These families share a firm faith foundation.  And hope filled that hospital room where a mom and dad, a sister and a boyfriend surrounded a swollen, broken twenty-year-old co-ed with love and care.

As she mended, in the long weeks following the trauma, little hints struck the support team.  Odd things.  Like the teeth.  The belly-button ring.  The eye color.  Each by now was so attached to the person in the bed as Laura that these little signs meant little.

Until Lisa, the articulate sister who wrote a nightly blog for a caring world to read, rolled the patient down the hallway in a wheelchair and called her by name, “Laura…”  The girl corrected Lisa.  “Whitney,” she said.  Lisa’s suspicions firmed up into fears.  She stopped, knelt before the girl in the chair, looked her straight in the eyes and asked, “What are your parents’ names?” 

“Newell and Colleen,” was the straightforward, unemotional reply.  Lisa’s stomach tightened.  She thought about her mom and dad, Don and Suzie.  It was a terrible moment of truth.  This was not her sister.  That meant her real sister, Lisa, was dead and buried.

But in what can only be called a moment of sublime grace, out of care and love for the fragile, recovering young woman, just five weeks into her return to health and strength, Lisa smiled and said, “That’s right Whitney.  Newell and Colleen.”

And Lisa continued, pushing the chair down the hospital hallway towards the sunlight outside, tears flowing.

* * * * * * * *

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  If you are a parent, and your children have taken flight and left the nest, then your heart breaks with the story of mistaken identity that has so captured the nation’s attention.

As did ours.  The unexpected journey of the Cereks and the Van Ryns is particularly poignant to us because our daughter, Candace, is a graduate of their college in Upland, Indiana.  Both Whitney and Laura look so familiar to us.  We don’t know them personally, but they are so reminiscent of the girls who became our daughter’s close friends and roommates and classmates during those formative years.  They came to her wedding.  We laughed and played; and when this sort of tragedy strikes, we all feel it.

So Carolyn and I tuned in to the Matt Lauer interviews.  The Christian witness was riveting.  Lauer seemed powerfully moved, too.

And somehow, someway, God works in the vortex of calamity to remind folks of all sorts of what is real.  And what is true.

Copyright, Kenneth E Kemp 2008

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March 24, 2008

We work hard to keep it comfortable.  We like predictable.  We design our lives to minimize the surprises.  Eliminate the conflict.  Avoid the accidents. 

But hard as we try, the unpredictable happens.  We are blindsided by the unplanned.  And often, it’s those intrusions on our highly detailed calendars that make all the difference.

Good Friday service always takes me by surprise.  I attend because I need it.  I know he was a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.”  I know “he bore our sins in his body on the tree.”  I know about the agony in the garden.  The trial that was more a political circus than a pursuit of justice.  Thanks to the most recent movie version, I’m keenly aware of the savage cruelty and the barbaric brutality of the scene.  But the familiarity with the story line needs to be re-awakened this time of year.

The celebration of Easter Sunday doesn’t ring true without the dark night of the crucifixion as a backdrop.

I need to enter into those moments of darkness and pain to catch a glimpse of the awful price that was paid for the sins of the world – and my role in it. 

Joseph of Arimathea no more expected the events of the week than any of the other disciples.  He was wealthy.  We know he was a close friend of Nicodemus.  The two were council members.  He socialized with the Sanhedrin.  He was accustomed to spending his weekends in the company of the most influential people in Jerusalem.  I wonder if he was the first to hear Nicodemus as he processed that late night encounter with Jesus when he was told – “You must be born again.”  Joseph and Nicodemus may well have engaged in a secret conversation well into the night pondering the question – who is this Jesus of Nazareth?

So it was from a distance that this wealthy, influential man watched events unfold that final week.  It would change his life forever.  Perhaps he stood in the crowd with Nicodemus, listening to the calls for crucifixion; watching his friend Pilate do the political dance, annoyed and confused about what to do with such a case as this.  Something knotted up in his stomach as he watched the ruthless, vicious attacks and heard the angry shouting, the mockery, the contempt.  As he made eye contact with Nicodemus, his long time friend and peer, what message was communicated?  Disgust? Outrage?  Sadness?  Despair?

So it was no surprise that Joseph of Arimathea would be the one to make a behind-the-scenes visit to Pilate.  “Let me take care of the body,” he said.  And Pilate nodded.

The disciples knew.  All four Gospels include this detail.  His generous, sensitive act fulfilled Isaiah’s prophesy.

Joseph of Arimathea, encountering an unanticipated moment in history that took him by complete surprise, was forever changed. 

A life transformed.

* * * * * * *

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  You and I are fresh off the annual weekend celebration of the death and resurrections of Jesus.  We observed the programs.  We watched the performers.  We listened to the messages.  We heard the music.  We sang along.

Did we participate?  Or did we simply watch from a distance?

In our church Friday night, we were invited to come to the foot of the cross, and leave our burdens there.  Together, Carolyn and I did just that.  We held each other in the shadow of the cross. Wet-eyed and hanging on tight.  And then we shared the bread and the cup.  It was a Good Friday we will not forget.

Joseph of Arimathea watched his friend Nicodemus.  He knew he had questions.  Somehow that late night encounter with Jesus changed him.  As the hostility heated up and the violence escalated and the options narrowed, Joseph was gripped by the injustice of it all.  He couldn’t help himself.

He took action.  Took advantage of his connections.  Got an audience with Pilate.  And gently, with great passion and sadness and grief, placed this Jesus in a suitable burial place.

No longer the distant observer.  He now had a stake in the outcome.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2008

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Monday Morning,  March 17, 2008

Dear Reverend Wright,

My guess is that by now your mail-box is filled with vitriol and “how dare you call yourself a Minister of the Gospel” and that sort of stuff.  It may well be that the diatribes unleashed since the video tapes of your sermons hit the Internet and the front pages of the newspapers and the headlines of the talk shows leave you feeling vindicated.  Reactions have served to validate the points you were trying to make in the first place.  Or so it seems.

Racism is alive and well.  Misunderstanding abounds.  We may think we have ascended to a time when ignorance has been eliminated by enlightenment and bigotry by education.  We’ve no doubt come a long way; but we still have a longer way to go, don’t we?

As odd as it may seem, we have some things in common, you and me.  I was born in Chicago and spent those formative post-high school years living in the heart of the city.  I remember well when Malcolm X met his tragic end in February 1965, and Alex Haley’s piercing autobiography captured my imagination.  I remember the turmoil downtown in the aftermath of the brutal and cold-blooded murder of Martin Luther King; the rioting in the streets and the awful feeling of despair and apocalyptic sense of the world coming to an horrific end.  Harvey Cox predicted that there would be no place for religion in the Secular City and Hugh Schonfeld exposed Jesus as a fraud in his Passover Plot. Many embraced the conclusions of those popular books.  Too many.  The Democrats asked host Richard Daley to keep the bums outside which he did.  Chicago’s police force brutally “kept the peace,” and the bloody violence is recorded on splotchy black and white film.   Later that fall, we met Ralph Abernathy just after he prevailed over Jesse Jackson to become heir apparent to Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

I do believe you were making your mark at the University of Chicago about that time.  You were steeped in the literature of liberation theology; believing that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has powerful social implications.  And you built a church on that foundation.

I hadn’t heard the phrase “white flight” until I lived in the city and outlying suburbs.  Racial animosity reached a fever pitch in those days.  Sadly, it’s always been an undeniable piece of the fabric of the Windy City.

In this world of sound-bites and slogans and labels, your moment in the national spotlight came and went like Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes.  It’s sad that a lifetime of ministry and service and pastoral care could be so diminished in a few out-of-context rants that got served up to your adversaries on a silver platter.  And the relish with which they pounced is a wonder to behold.

I can only imagine the pride you’ve taken in one of your church’s favorite sons – Barack Obama.  (I, too, have been a pastor.)  Twenty years ago, you stood there watching over an open Bible as he declared his promise and took those vows he made to God and Michelle as her parents listened in.  You where there as his pastor and observed from close range as he became a voice of hope mobilizing a colossal throng of otherwise tired and cynical and ambivalent people; and transform them into energized, hopeful players in a system that heretofore seemed too distant and too coldly indifferent.  You were there when the girls were born and when he won a high State office and then a Senate Seat and then blew the roof off the arena with a spellbinding speech at the last Democratic Convention.  You knew like few others from whence he came.  And Obama is only one of the stories of people whose lives were transformed over there on the South Side at Trinity Church.  I saw you in one scene bent over on the platform on your knees, washing the feet of your people.  If you could, you would tell the world of their stories, too.  But the world isn’t listening now.

By necessity Barack has been forced to repudiate those biting words of yours on the church video tapes in the most convincing terms he can find in the English language.  I can only imagine the depth of loss you must feel.  Certainly, there is the strident part of you that has framed a potent defense.  You’d like to give it.  But no one wants to hear it.

I understand that your people this weekend have entered into a time of fasting and prayer.  You helped them find healing and hope and purpose; forgiveness and reconciliation.  Now they feel misunderstood.  They are angry at a media and a system hungry for an opportunity to stir up old racial stereotypes and bitter animosities.  They know you.  They love you.  They want to come to your defense.  But they are confused, too.

This will be an Easter like no other in the history of Trinity Church.  We’ll all walk down that Via Dolorosa again, and remember the One who was “despised and rejected.”  The One who agonized in the garden.  The One who said, “Father, forgive them.”

I will pray for you, Pastor Wright.  Here’s my prayer: that in this dark night of the soul, when enemies surround you with hatred in their hearts and fire in their eyes, that you will embrace the love of your people.  That the transformation you have seen in so many who apart from Christ would be lost and alone would fortify your own heart.  That you would emerge with a message of reconciliation and hope; and work to serve a Gospel that breaks down the dividing walls.

You’ve found a capable successor in young Otis Moss, III. 

I understand that Obama got the title of his book from you.  There is an unmistakable audacity in genuine hope.  May the hope that can only come from God be audacious in its scope.

May your powerful voice, the decades of pastoral care, the academic and scholarly accomplishments, the network of influential people, come together now and usher us to a new level of mutual respect, understanding and determination arm in arm – to serve the Kingdom.

And the One who called us.


Pastor Ken

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

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Mnday Morning, March 10, 2008

I got up before sunrise to breakfast with a bona fide, card carrying, published theologian.  I needed some counsel.  I was eager ask some key questions.  I read some of his stuff. His blog site intrigued me.  If it’s true that the way we think about God is the most important thing about us, then who better to talk to than a theologian?

He taught at the seminary I call my alma mater.  Of course, he began his tenure there a few years after I graduated.  My era is considered history now.  Not quite ancient history, but history nonetheless.  Some of my favorite professors from back then have since been labeled heretics by the new batch of “scholar/theologians.”  It’s a new world.

The battle to be the Leading Evangelical Voice is as intense as it is diverse.  Some of us have only one or maybe two favorites.  We adopt their label proudly.  We claim to have come to the conclusion that they are right based on our unbiased research.  We’ve considered all the alternatives and in the tradition of Martin Luther (not King) we declare, “Here I stand!”  Stay on your chosen track long enough, and you may not even be aware that there are others out there who are deeply convinced you’ve missed the mark – by a mile.

Most of us who have thought about it have some trouble with the label “Evangelical.”  A long time ago, “Fundamentalist” was a badge of theological courage… until the Scopes Monkey Trial got the nation sneering in ridicule at Bible-believers.  Evangelical was a step up over Fundamentalist on the scale of sophistication.  And it remained in place for decades.  But now with the media caricature of “Evangelical equals Religious Right,” many jettison the “E” word for something else.  Some of the more recent tags, as I’ve encountered them, are “Reformed” (better neo-Reformed, or as some call them, neo-Fundamentalists), “Emergent,” “Postconservative,” and “Postmodern” to name a few.

If you are confused by now, don’t feel alone.  Ever since there were twelve, we followers of Jesus have competed for the First Chair (like the First Violin in the Symphony Orchestra).  Of course, we’re not the Conductor.  But oh, that First Chair.  Now there’s a role!  You’ll find candidates from every grouping who figure that’s their place in the Kingdom.  (I prefer the concert metaphor to “Top Gun,” or “Top Lieutenant” which evoke a militaristic view of the Kingdom.  But either one works.)

We wonder at the end of time when the Great Orchestra gathers for the first celestial symphony whose hand Jesus will shake as he takes the baton for the music to begin.  Who will be honored as the grand master theological virtuoso?

So it’s dangerous territory to be a Theologian.  Tough enough to be a Pastor.  I had breakfast with one (a theologian) who is tough minded but possesses a humble heart.  He was delightful company for two hours that went by way too quickly.

It’s human nature to have heroes.  The historic church called them Saints. Just to be sure, they developed an intricate process called “canonization.”  We evangelicals take pride in knowing that we haven’t carved statues of ours and put their images in conspicuous places in the entrance hall.  But when Paul warned the Corinthians about the tension between the followers of Paul and Peter and Apollos and Jesus, his message still applies.

Christian theologians must root their conclusions in biblical truth.  The Bible trumps Systematics.  When a doctrinal System defines the Scripture rather than the other way around, you’ve got yourself a theologian vying for that First Chair.

Maybe one of the first clues that he’s off track is when a theologian/pastor begins to call for the shunning of others who challenge the integrity of his System.

My friend the theologian, along with the pastor/theologian/author who introduced us, who was also there on that sunny morning in San Diego, helped me to understand these things.

And the journey continues.

Copyright 2008 Kenneth E Kemp

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The Pew Findings

Monday morning, March 3, 2008

What has emerged from the think tank at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life is as comprehensive a snapshot of religion in American life as ever produced.  The nation’s talking about it.  After sifting through a mountain of data, certain conclusions surfaced.  And they are making headlines.

I got a rather curious call from a long time friend who now resides in Florida.  Dan and I remember well the days we wandered around the streets of the big city back in those gloomy years when Apocalypse loomed heavy on the horizon.  We were classmates in Bible school.  The world as we knew it seemed to be coming apart at the seams.  There were assassinations (a second Kennedy, civil rights leader, Dr. King) that sparked rioting in the streets.  The violence and looting and mayhem went on for weeks, then months.  National Guard troops, in a display of armed force, drove up and down the city boulevards and avenues in their in an effort to keep the peace.  (The police force wasn’t enough.)  In the summer of 1968, our city of Chicago hosted the Democratic Convention.  It was a dark night for American politics.  The films of bloody clashes in the streets and angry speeches inside the great hall are all part of American history; a part that many would rather forget.

For three years straight, we traveled on Greyhound busses criss-crossing the nation with a pack of guys in a men’s choir.   A drive-by we’ll never forget was in Memphis, Tennessee.  Thirty days after the shooting, our driver took us past the Lorraine Motel.  I snapped two photos – one of the balcony where Martin Luther King leaned on the railing as he chatted with young Jesse Jackson and a couple of his colleagues and the other of the small window up the hill on the opposite side of the street, a weathered clapboard house where James Earl Ray found the civil rights activist in his sights. 

But for Dan and me, there were lighter moments, too.  Fifty college age guys in a bus find ways to pass the time.  There was no shortage of creativity.  We still laugh heartily at the memories.

But this time he called just to talk church.  Our conversation sounded strangely like the the results of the Pew research, though Dan had not seen it yet.  Here we are, a couple of Boomers who spent our formative years back then living within the confines of protectionist walls built by our spiritual fore-fathers but wandering outside just long enough to have developed some serious questions of our own.  Those questions still linger to this very day.

“What the heck is going on in the church in America?” Dan asked.  It triggered a belly laugh.  “How much time do we have?” was all the response I could muster.  I told him I’ve spent the good part of four years pondering that same question.

We talked for an hour or so and covered topics like “arena church” and “rock-star pastors” and closed door governance and staff big enough to require HR departments and campuses to rival the community Performing Arts Center.  But our talk went way beyond questions about mega-church.  It had more to do with our place in it.  Where do we fit?

The folks at Pew have made several observations.  American’s “like to shop.”  There is a surprising absence of commitment to a religious community based on generational loyalties.  The ranks of the “unaffiliated” is the fastest growing group.  “Evangelical” churches out-number “mainline” denominations.  Denominationalism is on the wane.  The world of religion in America is fluid, highly competitive and filled up with people who share a short attention span.

All this said, Dan and I agreed, there’s something here we can’t let go of.  Do we have hold of it or does it have hold of us?  We’re not sure.  Either way, we can’t escape it.

I think it has something to do with “call.”

* * * * * *

On this Monday morning, as a leader, you’ve got questions, too.  You see the trends of religion in America from close range.  Where is it going?  Is there a place to live out our calling?

Let’s talk.

Thanks for the call, Dan.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2008

The Pew Report

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