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Archive for April, 2008

Intelligence Expelled

Monday Morning, April 27, 2008

Ben Stein may well have borrowed his title from Lily Tomlin’s Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe which I saw live and in person and thought it was hilarious.  I didn’t expect her to be particularly sensitive to Christians like me, but her wit and comedic instincts were never better.  I laughed until my sides hurt.  Stein calls his opus nexus “Expelled – No Intelligence Allowed”.

We now have a whole new genre of film documentaries that seek to entertain and inform, all at the same time, in that order.  Objectivity is no real concern to us post-moderns, so don’t expect consistency; that’s not really that important.  What’s important is to use the media of film and sound to make a point.  Some call it propaganda.  Story and images are powerful, especially on the big screen.  Add a killer sound track, whiz-bang special effects, an “Ah-shucks” narrator and high definition clarity and in ninety minutes or so, you’ve got ‘em.  So film-maker Michael Moore built an empire taking down empires, and picked up a few Academy Awards along the way.  And Al Gore wins a Pulitzer Prize. 

Writer/producer Ben Stein utilized this now popular modus operandi for making his film.  Just this week, he released a documentary/exposé designed to get people thinking about “Intelligent Design.”  I’ll have to admit I was skeptical at first.   I watched the old movie about the Scopes Monkey Trial, Inherit the Wind (with Spencer Tracy), and frankly, it embarrassed me.  Religious types who embrace outmoded, indefensible ideas and hold on to them as though their eternal destiny hangs in the balance have sometimes made me want to hide my own lamp under the bushel.  There are plenty of them out there carrying banners and shouting slogans.  But then, the media loves it when we present them with the opportunity to make Christians look like dolts.

It’s not surprising that the New York Times reviewer considers her colleague (Stein writes a regular column in the business section) to have gone way over the top on this one.  She excoriates the film.

I’d have to say, after viewing the film, I’m still somewhat skeptical.  I’m not so sure that the entire scientific community is engaged in a dark overt or even covert conspiracy against God.  I’m still not convinced, either, that teaching Intelligent Design as a science ought to be mandated by a secular state.  But I do have to say that the discussion was compelling.  Entertaining and enlightening, too.

The Design argument is powerful.  I’m not smart enough to know that it qualifies as “science.”  But it is convincing.  And the debate comes into focus when you boil it down to this question: is the universe the result of an endless series of random collisions of matter?  Or conversely, does the cosmos as we know it, macro and micro, require intelligence?  Which is it?  A monumental accident or a grand blueprint?

We can be grateful for authors like Francis Collins, the celebrated head of the groundbreaking Genome Project, a physician and a geneticist, who has taken a public stand as a believer in both God and Jesus Christ.  He became a Christian when he was a graduate student and an atheist.  The clincher was the day he read the account of another atheist’s conversion – Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.  He argues eloquently in his book The Language of God that his Christian faith is the framework for his high level pursuit of science.  (His team was the first to map the human genome, June 2000.)  It energizes his research, and he says, and is the grid by which he understands the universe.  I’ve wondered why Ben Stein didn’t interview Dr. Collins for his film. 

But for me, the film was powerful as a response to the new cottage industry of the Richard Dawkins’ brand of atheism.  His book, The God Delusion, has been a hot best-seller.  It’s a weighty catalog of the atrocities committed throughout history in the name of religion; and left on its own just might convince you that religion has no place in this new period of enlightenment.  Dawkins’ stated purpose is to liberate the world from the burden of religious mythology.  It’s this materialistic science that Stein confronts, with charm and wit.

I’m not so sure that atheism is one of our greatest challenges.  It’s no easy thing to defend the notion that there is no God.  Agnosticism is probably a greater challenge.  More people are content to dismiss the whole question of God with “I don’t know” than “There isn’t one.” 

But even the articulate philosopher Dawkins faltered on camera.  Stein managed to find a chink in his armor.  Only a Jewish economist in a bad suit and tie and tennis shoes could get there.  “Dr. Dawkins…” Stein offers, “if somehow you missed it… and the time comes when you find yourself on the other side.  You meet God.  You realize you were wrong.  God asks, ‘Richard, you were given great gifts.  Many privileges.  What did you do with those gifts?'”  Dawkins is clearly uncomfortable.  Stein continues, “What would you say?”

This was the moment I felt good about the price of admission.

* * * * * * * * *

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  The argument for design has you, too.  It doesn’t really matter to me that this argument belongs in the realm of pure science, whatever that is.  For some, clearly, empirical science is much more than a process, it’s a world-view.  To me it’s a subset.  If you make the case that the material world is all there is, then we’ve got a disagreement.  Let’s talk.

But I doubt you are there.  I’m guessing that the mind-stretching, intricate, pervasive, design of the universe on a cosmic scale – and the cell on the microscopic scale – is as much a jaw dropper for you as it is for me.  And the sheer emptiness of a universe and more important a life without purpose is hardly an attractive option.

How much more satisfying it is to stand in wonder and praise and awe of the One who is the Mastermind of it all.  It triggers worship and praise.

This is God.

Copyright, Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

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Balloons and Blue Sky

Monday Morning – April 21, 2008

We’ve hit the extremes this week – the two ends of the joy and pain spectrum.  A memorial service for a twenty-nine year old we remember as a four-year-old.  And then, for the first time, we entertained all seven, that’s right, seven grandchildren all at the same time.

It was the first gathering of the full compliment of cousins.  All present and accounted for.  The oldest is five.  Our living room resembled something of a child-care center; all manner of toys and open satchels filled with diaper paraphernalia and accoutrements for clean-up and skin care scattered here and there with the ritual opening of every door and drawer in the house and just as we were leaving for church, a crash on the kitchen tile.  Some of the china in the buffet hit the floor, and then made a quick trip into the trash bin.  Thankfully no one was hurt in the incident.  We managed to file into the worship center at a reasonable time; all together.  Somehow the fellowship means that much more with your family gathered from faraway places all in a row.  Even with broken china back home.

Maybe there’s no better reward for parenthood than to see your grandchildren who are also cousins discovering one another in laughter and play.  Some may call it chaos – we call it joy.  The people who design and fund the local parks, with big lawns and climbing trees and injury proof slides and ladders and climbing rocks are to be commended for their efforts.  “Look at me, Grandpa!”  This is a great phrase.

But then a weekend of joy also knew pain.  A faded photo of our two daughters made an appearance.  They both are now busy moms.  Then they were pre-school.  In the picture, they are sitting on the hearth of a mountain home fireplace with two boys the same age.  These are the two sons of a couple who are among our most cherished friends.  One of them, Matthew, too soon after his twenty-eighth birthday left us – just a little more than a week ago.  We thought it was a nasty virus.  Or some irascible intestinal bug.  Pneumonia is generally survivable.  But Matthew’s condition only worsened with each passing hour.  Just two days after the test results came in, acute myeloid leukemia, Matthew was gone.

I’d be hard pressed to name a more loving, affirming, caring mom and dad.  Nick and Colleen ached as they stood by the bedside in the intensive care unit as a first rate medical team battled, as did Matthew, for his life.  In the tears and the holding, a peace surrounded them like a shield, as did a legion of friends who knew them as we did.  They chose a mountain community to raise their boys; in the clear air under the shadow of Tahquitz Peak and found a collection of fellow believers there who built a church that over the years has been a lighthouse on the mountain.  All of them gathered in the waiting room, hoping, praying, reminiscing, story-telling, a gloomy cloud hanging overhead until a burst of laughter at one of Matthew’s pranks that came to mind.  And then the news.

“Matthew’s gone home.”  It was Friday afternoon.

The mountain church was not built for the crowd that gathered to remember and to stand with the Sandens in their grief.  Someone prepared a slide show – reminiscences of mountain lakes and hikes and families gathered in living rooms and dressed for special occasions and a song that captured the mixture of grief and hope and thanks.  Sniffles filled the room.  And the pastor who had known Matthew and his brother Mike for just about his entire life walked us through the Scriptures that Nick and Colleen cling to as a lifeline.  We grabbed hold, too.

I don’t know why the release of balloons has such power to trigger emotion.  But that’s what did it for me.  The whole crowd gathered in the parking lot a mile high in the tall pine trees and the deep blue sky and the grand collection of cousins, many now adults along with the children all held balloons as Pastor Tim explained the meaning of this little symbolic exercise.  Brother Michael was the first to let his go.  I heard him say as he looked skyward, “I love you, Matt” and up went his balloons.  That’s when the tears rolled down my face.  The others followed and released all twenty-nine of them.

* * * * * * *

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  And as parents, maybe the reason we look at our children the way we do is because there are no guarantees.  Each one is a promise.  And each one is a risk, too.

Steven Curtis Chapman puts it this way in his incredible song, “With Hope”

This is not at all how

We thought it was supposed to be

We had so many plans for you

We had so many dreams

And now you’ve gone away…

And as I contemplate those seven little lives in the living room, up and down the stairs, each with their own personality, the high energy, the wide open eyes and the daily discovery and the curiosity about a wide wonderful world I also know is filled “with dangers, toils and snares.”  And risks.  Risks the Sandens now know all too well.

So we learn to pray.  We hold on to each other.  We celebrate the accomplishments and milestones with enthusiasm.

And then we learn to let go – as Michael released his love for his older brother on up to the heavens.

And the tears spring from the pain.  And then bring healing, too.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2008

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Tuesday Morning, April 15, 2008

Somewhere I got the idea that watching The News legitimizes the watching of television.  Thanks to the new fangled Digital Video Recorder, which we’ve had for years now, we watch what we want, when we want.  Someone might say that we’ve been deprived because we don’t watch commercials anymore.  I guess if the whole country was like us, commercial television would go out of business.

At this stage in my life – with the benefit of DVR technology – news programming, educational programming, history and the arts would be our selection.  So-called reality shows annoy me, probably because I’m past the stage where I’ll ever have that kind of chiseled, tanned body that would prompt me to remove my shirt for the cameras.   Because we don’t record them, we don’t know the name brand characters for the sit-coms or the season-long story lines of contemporary dramas, either. 

But The News is hardly a better place these days.  The long, drawn out contest between the two “historic” Democratic Party candidates for President has descended into the mire of personality and character attacks; the very strategy that just a short time ago all parties gave a solemn oath to avoid.   But here we are; making headlines that smack of Elitism, Sexism, Racism, Plagiarism, Favoritism and just plain old run of the mill Schism.

I’m thankful to live in a culture of Free Speech.  The alternative is no improvement.  But in the process, we must endure those who exercise the Freedom – and those who exploit it.  In that context, there is a cultural phenomena that has me tuned in these days – it’s the issue of race in America.  When Jeremiah Wright appeared on YouTube on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, it opened the floodgates to a whole new level of conversation.  Not all of it comfortable.

David A. Wilson, born in 1980, grew up in the forgotten streets of Newark, New Jersey.  Crime and police raids and helicopters flying overhead were a way of life.  But he had support.  He learned to learn.  He was a reader.  Curious.  Somehow, he managed to avoid the habits that may well have caused him to become a street thug, like many of his peers.  He looks back now and remembers the friends who were gunned down in the streets and carted off to prison where they will probably spend the rest of their lives.  Someone gave David college dreams, and the belief that he could make it.

It was there, at college, he began to pursue the study of his roots.  He learned that he was just two generations from slavery.  More investigation led him to the plantation in North Carolina where his relatives worked in the tobacco fields of a family named Wilson. More investigation put him on the telephone with a descendent of that family – a fifty-something year old man named David B. Wilson.  Two David Wilsons.  Both descendents.  On either side of the Master/Slave divide.  David A. Wilson – college student, black.  David B. Wilson – grandfather, restaurant owner, white.

As the story unfolds, David A. sets out to meet David B.  It’s a journey from the mean streets of Newark to the tobacco fields of North Carolina.  From New Millenia enlightenment to pre-Civil War slavery.

Along the way, David A. finds aunts and uncles and cousins living near the old Wilson Plantation.  It’s a ninety-seven year old woman, the oldest living member of Ebenzer Baptist Church named Daisy, who has some life-changing advice for David.  She takes him to church.  Back home on the couch in the sparse living room, she asks him, “Do you sing?”

“Uh, no… I don’t,” he says with a shy smile, not really understanding the point of the question.

“You’re a WILSON,” Daisy says.  “You gotta sing. You shoulda heard your Grand-daddy.  Oh, he could sing, that big voice, ‘there’s a storm passing through, it’s nearly gone, hallelu..’ he’d sing it big.  Really big.  My my.  He could sing.”

David smiled at the story.  “You can’t sing because you won’t,” she said and then she laughed out loud.  He told her about his plans to meet the descendents of the family who owned their ancestors as slaves.

“Do you think they owe us something?” he asked the old woman.

“Owe us?” Daisy responded, stunned.  “Why no, they don’t owe us anything.  You just get that out of your head right now.”  And then she thought for a minute after the rebuke that could only come from a sweet woman approaching her hundredth year.

“Here’s what you gotta do,” she said with the conviction of a prophetess.  “You spend your life helpin’ our people stay off drugs and outa jail and live their lives with joy and purpose.”  And then she laughed some more.  And hugged him.

So David continued his journey.  To the tobacco fields. To find a surprising friendship with David B.  He found the slave quarters, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church founded by his great-grandfather after the Civil War.  He went on to Ghana and walked through the Gate of No Return at the port in Senegal.  And in the journey, the young man from the streets of Newark learned to sing.

The powerful documentary, “Meeting David Wilson” (MSNBC) ends with David A. in a classroom of young students back in Newark, teaching them the song of freedom and hope and reconciliation.

And in the laughter, you heard the voice of a ninety-seven year old woman.  David found his voice.

It’s Tuesday morning.  You are a leader.  Do you sing?

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008 

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Excellence and Worship

April 7, 2008

When the orchestra assembled and the strings tuned up in preparation, the scene had a familiar look and feel.  It took me back to the days in the big city when in the great concert hall, the instruments and voices filled the room with magical sounds and harmonies.  Moods created by crescendos and pianissimos and swells and minor keys resolving into majors and instrumentalists who lose themselves in the blend of a grand cooperative effort all under the baton of a single maestro who appears to know every part, every tempo, every pause and momentary silence, every anticipation all the way up to the grand finish that prompts everyone in the room to jump to their feet in wild applause and approval and gratitude, well I have those memories.  They haven’t gone away.

So in another great room, this one more a contemporary arena than ornate classical auditorium built for acoustics, the big stage was set for the strings up front, violins on the left, cellos and stand-up basses on the right, woodwinds along the back (no brass, no blaring horns to dominate this group).  The performers wore black, as a means of diminishing their individual role, as though the music they produce far outweighs the attention they might otherwise attract by their personal appearance.  Then on risers that stretched the full distance left to right behind the orchestra were the voices; soprano, alto, tenor and bass at the ready; each on their own with a passable voice, perhaps not quite solo quality, but with permission to let it go and a neighbor on either side seeing the same green light.  Their vocals add the human element to the big sound, blending with string and bow and the percussions with timpani and snare give us listeners a preview of what it will be like when on That Day the heavens open up and the angels join in and the whole earth is filled with His glory.

Even the big screen in high definition and 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound falls short of these rare moments.  They are too rare.  Maybe it’s the absence of the arts in our schools.  Budget cuts eliminate the orchestra as the first to go.  Maybe it’s the proliferation of technological toys.  The iPod is a lot easier to play than the oboe.  Maybe it’s the trend toward plugged-in, amplified instruments or sound tracks made with synthesizers instead of humans.  I don’t know.  But I hope the orchestra doesn’t fade away into oblivion; live orchestra.  Someone needs to put it on the endangered species list.

I scanned the platform (thanks to some good friends, we had front and center seats in the fourth row) from left to right and thought about the discipline of each musician and wondered if they felt the same. (That this venue is on the endangered list.) I wondered about the parent(s) who instilled in them a love of music; a parent who surrounded the child with a balance of strict discipline and warm approval – the kind of balance that keeps those practice sessions going day after day.  I wondered if maybe that instrument they played with such intensity and focus had become the kind of friend who brought a blend of comfort and joy and insight and companionship that rivals therapy and intimacy and regular, beneath-the-surface conversation.  I wondered, too, what might have been if I had kept up those practice sessions of my own.

Among the grand collection of musicians, there were four friends on the stage.  First chair cello.  Last chair violin.  (That’s right – last chair.)  A flutist.  The pianist.  Each with a  story.  The cellist is a mom and a fine artist whose CD is marked as most often played on my iPod.  The last chair violinist played in our church when I was a twenty-something pastor too many years ago.  After the concert, we found out why he seemed somewhat pale and weary.  He’s scheduled for open heart surgery next week.  Still, he played.  Last chair.  The flutist is a special friend to Carolyn, a Stephen Minister, with a great heart.  She called it the most challenging score she’d ever attempted.  Wouldn’t you know, she said, they placed me right next to the piano at center stage and when I played my one and only solo lick, the pianist, who was also the arranger and producer of the whole event heard it, looked for just a moment away from the keyboard over to me and my heart sank, thinking maybe I missed it, until the flash of momentary eye contact was accomapnied by a knowing, approving, smile.

Thanks to the mentor I miss these days (he died a year ago last summer), I know this pianist.  He’s the dean of the music department over at the university and when he played at the two memorial services (my mentor’s wife’s service first, and then my mentor’s), I knew he was exceptional.  But on this night, in the great room, surrounded by a full orchestra and a mass choir and his partner, a world class violinist who mastered the full range of his classical instrument, I understood that this friend who played “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us” with such grace and passion at Dorothy’s funeral, was more than an accompanist.  He’s a full on concert pianist.

Before the concert began, we chatted briefly on the platform.  “This one’s for Ted and Dorothy,” we agreed.  “Cut loose, Duane,” I said.  We high fived.

Afterward, I saw Duane again just long enough to suggest, “Ted and Dorothy gave you and your friends a Standing O.”  Along with the rest of us.

* * * * * * *

On this Monday morning, as a leader, thank God along with me for the musicians who, by their commitment to excellence, bring us to Heaven’s gate.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

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