Archive for June, 2008


Monday, June 30, 2008

King David was a piece of work.  Any biographer would love to tackle the life story of David – it is filled with high drama.  The complexities, the contradictions; add to that power, greed, wealth, sex, political intrigue, family dysfunction, spirituality, epic battle scenes, the birth of a city – it’s all there.

He is emulated as a force to be reckoned with.  His detractors point to his human frailty.  Some have even wondered if he ever existed at all.  (Modern archeology has proven them wrong.)  He was bigger than life.  But he exhibited a compelling humanity that makes him accessible.  His journal is one of the most cherished books in the Bible.  His vaulted language exalted Almighty God.  But in those dark hours, when he took his quill in hand, he revealed his inner, private self – the haunting questions, the deep doubts, the resentments, the rage, the keen fears that robbed him of sleep.  He openly approached his God.  Toward the end of David’s life, God revealed himself as “Father.”  David’s secrets were opened up in those prayers.  If you read them carefully, you’ll find some of them disturbing – as disturbing as your own.

I remember like it was yesterday that unforgettable preacher who proclaimed from his pulpit a startling declaration – “David.  Ah, David.  I could never figure out how God could love that bastard!”  It was a stunning line, but penetrating, too.  How could God love any of us?  And how could David, the one with such a promising start as a young warrior, the one whom Jonathan loved as a brother, the one whose feats of courage and conquest on the field of battle sparked the open affection and acclaim of a nation, the one who, at the height of his career could have fallen so badly… how could this one be so highly blessed as God’s anointed?

Maybe some came to doubt his existence simply because he was such a complete archetype of the human race.  He is a composite of us all; the seeds of greatness and the seeds of destruction both planted in the garden of his heart.

No wonder Michelangelo, when faced with his greatest challenge – to chisel sculpture out of a monster slab of marble into a grand work of art – chose David as his prized subject in 1504.  To this very day, that statue stands under a magnificent dome in Florence at the Gallery of the Academies receiving a steady stream of awestruck visitors; seventeen feet tall.  He carries a sling over his shoulder and his eyes gaze off into the distance at a giant, ready to engage in battle.  David is ready.  Fearless.

But even David, when he comes to the end of his life, must let go of his most cherished dream.  He envisioned a city; a shining city on a hill.  By then, he accumulated considerable wealth.  He wasn’t obsessed with a palace, or a burial site or some other monument to himself.  He was, rather, possessed with a passion for God.  As he sat with his prophet and friend, Nathan (the one who told him the truth; the one who exposed his dirty little secret), he reflected on the state of the Ark of the Covenant. It was Israel’s most prized possession.

He’d traveled to other lands.  He saw what the stone-masons and the architects and the engineers built in honor of their gods.  It embarrassed him.  It inspired him.  So he complained to Nathan, “The Ark of the Covenant sits there under a tent!”  What’s up with that?

Nathan affirmed him as a visionary.  And that’s what David became.  He marshaled all the talent and material he could find.  He drew up the plans.  A fantastic Temple would sit on the most prominent hill in Jerusalem.  It would stand as a world-class monument to the God of Gods.  But by the time David conceived the plan, age caught up with him.  His options narrowed.

And as hard as it was to imagine a new generation, represented by his young son, Solomon, taking on the challenge – he had to learn how to let it go.  Now, in the twilight years, he must adapt.  He must –

…trust the God who brought him this far.

…bless his untested, bright-eyed son.

…transition from implementer to encourager.  From King to Emeritus.

* * * * * * *

On this Monday, the summer of 2008, you are in transition, too.  Maybe it’s age.  Maybe it’s career.  Maybe it’s money.  Maybe it’s family.  Whatever it is.  It’s hard.

Welcome the change.  Let go.  Learn to trust.  Learn to bless.

Like David, who said to Solomon –

“Now, my son, the LORD be with you… Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or discouraged.”

 Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

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Out of Print

Monday Morning, June 23, 2008

Fiction enables us to suspend reason just long enough to enter joyfully into worlds that don’t exist; or do they?  That’s the challenge of great fiction.  If you press the questions hard enough, you’ll be forced to admit that you’ve crossed some sort of dubious boundary.  You’ve moved away from the world caught in time and space – the world we occupy from moment to moment – into some other marvelous dimension.  Non-fiction does not allow for such transport.  Fiction enables it.

There is a class of hard-core realists who spurn fiction.  To them it’s folly.  Child’s play.  Escape.  But they are bucking a mega-trend.  Some call them “moderns,” caught in a reductionism that allows only verifiable, “factual,” demonstrable conclusions as a basis for rational conversation (spoken or written).  The rest is non-sense.  We’re told that we now live in a post-modern era.  The “modern” era is passé, irrelevant, like the Tyrannosaurus-rex.  “Put the Moderns in a museum where they belong” is the cry of the post-modern.  The old rigid rules that determine the difference between the reliable and the unreliable are sadly out of date.  If you want to communicate to this new emerging generation, forget the finely crafted argument firmly rooted in the classic demands of logic.  Tell them a story.

The suspension of reason is a starting place.  And what a delightful starting place it can be.  Let go of reason for awhile, and you can step into a Wardrobe, into the hanging wool coats and sweaters with the scent of mothballs filling the air and fall suddenly into the wintry world of Narnia; filled with all sorts of nonsensical creatures and fantastic adventures.  Or at the subway station (the Tube), you cross over into a land where you are recognized as Royalty; Kings and Princes and Queens and Knights who save the day.  You can wake up with your grandchildren to the sound of a steam engine thundering across your front yard in the middle of the night and an imaginary Conductor will beckon you on board for destinations North.  Polar Express!  There are wonderful worlds to explore, if you’ll just let go.

Even business gurus are catching on.  One hot seller aimed at leaders who carry the burden of top executive decision-making addresses the issue of inter-departmental discord.  The author is a seasoned corporate sage, with a résumé that resembles the list of top performers on the Dow or NASDAQ.  He wants companies to understand that leaders are responsible to bring the best out of their teams.  But one of the most common enemies of high performance is corporate infighting, which all too often escalates to cold war.  To the detriment of the bottom line.

So when Pat Lencioni produces a book for corporate execs called “Silos, Politics and Turf Wars,” he writes in fiction.  He understands that people are more likely to get the point if they are told a story, rather than walked through obvious, simple, didactic “how to” bullet points.  These same folks who sit through endless board-room meetings, numbed to unconsciousness by yet another predictable Power Point presentation, will learn better if they are drawn into a fast-paced novella.  It’s curious to read a business consultant attempting to duplicate a Hemingway effort.  I’m here to say, Lencioni falls well short.  You won’t find many lines that will make the “Quote of the Day” database.  You won’t get lost in the prose.  But hey, it works.

My long time friend, John Frye, has done much better.  He’s written a little book of fiction that kept me turning the page.  And here, I did get lost in the prose.  I checked my need for verifiability at the door, and let John guide me into a fictional world where something profoundly disturbing takes place – on a global scale.

The Bible disappears.

Our world of excess is saturated with The Book.  It’s everywhere.  Even many of the most remote people groups have diligent linguists and translators pouring over obscure languages with an unrelenting intent to present illiterate people with The Book in their own native tongue.  It’s astonishing.  In our world, The Book is available in your choice of translation or paraphrase.  It’s in the drawer over at the hotel.  It’s on the shelf along with your other books.

And yet, for the most part, our culture is sadly unaware, strangely unfamiliar, surprisingly uninformed.  Its contents remain mysteriously obscure.  Those who claim to affirm it, more often use it to proof-text their prejudices than allow it to transform their mind and heart.  What if?  What if the book vanished?  Without a trace?

With one exception – the remnants of the text that remain in our memory.  What if?  Think about it.

That’s brother John’s fictional premise.  What happens next will keep you wide eyed and turning the page.  You’ll want to read it – Out of Print(click on the title)

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  You live in a world of conflict and controversy.  Today, you need to tend to business.  Not much time for contemplation.  Not until later tonight, or early in the morning.

And business has never been more challenging.  The hard numbers don’t look good.  The prognosticators sound grim.  The consensus seems to be “it will get worse before it gets better.”  This brave new world is no place for the fainthearted.

Fainthearted you are not.  This is no time to check out.  It’s time to grab that Book on the shelf, and immerse yourself in that Story.  God’s story.

It’s not fiction.

Copyright, Kenneth E Kemp 2008

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Big Ed

June 16, 2008

I can hardly remember life before DVR.  We almost never watch live television anymore.  We race past commercials.  (Some of them, I’m told, are pretty good.)  If the news story doesn’t strike a chord, we just hit fast forward.  For example, the “pain at the pump” headliner at the top of the news is so predictable, so redundant, so, well, painful, we skip that one every time.

On reflection, for so many years now, we’ve stumbled into a routine that makes a guy like Tim Russert feel like a real live friend.  I’ve never met him.  I wish I had.  Before the news hit on Friday, I can recall a sense of both admiration and envy… Russert seemed to “have it all.”  I would imagine myself doing the interviews, summarizing complex issues, enjoying the company of smart people, leaders in the mix of political wrangling, high level decision-making.  Russert had this ability to draw folks out, ask the tough questions without the mean spirited, self-serving, “gotcha” sort of questioning we’ve come to accept as a way of life in public discourse.  But he also seemed so real, so approachable; the kind of guy you’d look forward to seeing in the hallway.

It’s also curious to me that two top guys at the network (Brokaw and Russert) end up writing their best-selling books about fathers.  Understand, these guys could pick from a wide array of possibilities.  They’ve traveled the world.  They know world leaders by name.  They’ve reported on the rise and fall of political movements, economic crises, wars and rumors of war, assassinations, bombshell disclosures of indiscretions both public and private; they’ve been there for the great victories and the devastating defeats – and what do they choose to write about?  Dads.  Think about it.

Brokaw spawns a label for his father’s era – the Greatest Generation.  And Russert writes about “Big Russ.”  You might assume Russert would be embarrassed.  Maybe Brokaw gave him permission to think otherwise.  Russert’s dad drove a trash truck.  Remember, Russert went to college.  Then law school.  And then on to the halls of power in the nation’s capital as a top aide to a United States Senator and a presidential candidate.  The son of a garbage truck driver.

But he writes a book paying tribute to his father’s role in making him the man he is.

I knew all this before Carolyn called and asked if I’d heard the news.  I hadn’t.  This morning, it still seems impossible.  A vibrant, lively guy, unashamed of his faith, open about his pride in his family, affirming friendship at every turn, a guy at the top of his profession, a guy in whom I relied for insight and perspective in the uniquely American political game, sat down at his desk to prepare for his weekend duties in front of the camera – and in one awful moment in time, felt a sharp pain in his chest.  And he died.

And I felt grief. 

You might call it excessive.  And it probably is.  The media stopped what they were doing. They turned to the Russert loss.  The sheer number of people this man touched is nothing short of astonishing.  And many of these are the people who decide what we watch and hear and read.  All the networks and radio and print media tuned in.  Everyone wanted to weigh in.  Including me.  (I left a message on his blog – along with a few thousand others.)

And the tributes are as striking for their personal connection as they are their professional affirmations.

Surprisingly, the whole story, an untimely death two days before Father’s Day, got me thinking in new ways about my own father.  Big Ed.  That’s what I and my three brothers call him – to this very day.  (My three sisters still call him “Daddy.”)  He ran a machine shop.  When I’d get up for school in the morning, he was gone to work.  I didn’t really understand what he did then, except that he loved to fix things.  I remember an eight cylinder Oldsmobile engine in pieces in our garage – he pulled it from under the hood and took it apart – the whole thing.  Then rebuilt it.  Just like he built the photo lab, a dark room out there for us to learn photography.  Just like he built model rockets with us, and then he flew them with us out there on a dry desert lake.  Just like he put together the camping gear and introduced us to places like Big Sur and King’s Canyon and then drove all night long to show the folks we left back in the mid-West what a great family he had.

He was the plant manager.  He ran our family like he ran the shop. When he hired me during the summer to help pay my college bills, I found out how much his crew of nearly fifty loved him.  The respected him.  They had great affection for him.  He was tough, but he laughed often.  He had nicknames for all the guys.  Like Russert, I had a dad who sacrificed, without complaint.  He gave all seven of us a start at this thing called life.  He taught us the simple values of a strong work ethic, love for family, commitment to marriage, reverence for God, providing a home, engaging community, showing up at ball games and concerts and graduations; and expressing his pride.  He didn’t have to say much.  You could just sense it.

Big Ed’s been gone now over ten years.  He died too soon.  I wish he was here to see the photo I carry around now of Kenny and Wil and Becca and Kate and Noah and Amelia and Emerson.  He’d smile.  And laugh.  And call it all “a handful.”  Handful indeed.

Thanks, Dad.  Big Ed.  Your words stay with me.  I can still feel your handshake.  I can still see the pride in your eyes.

It’s Monday morning.  You’re a leader.  You may well be a dad.  Or you may be married to one.  In a social order that all too often devalues, degrades, demeans and denigrates the role, let’s think otherwise.

And as the media mourns the loss of one of its own, valued not simply for his professional accomplishment (which is considerable) but for his affirmation of bedrock family values rooted in faith and character, and friendship that exudes loyalty and trust and honesty… as the nation considers the life and times of a high profile but humble Dad, let’s contemplate the gift of our own.  And honor him,

With words.  And heart.  And thanks.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2008

More on Tim Russert and Big Russ

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A Week Unplugged

Monday Morning – June 9, 2008

I landed on Friday night.  But I’m still in the zone.  Most of us live with the fantasy of LOST; on an island, removed from civilization as we know it, isolated with folks we hardly knew before, with an unprecedented opportunity for reflection, imagining, connecting and growing.

So I’m gradually re-acclimating to the world I left behind.  Hilliary’s dropped out.  Storms pound the mid-west.  The pain at the pump intensifies.  The Lakers take on the Celtics.  Detroit wins the Stanley.  The economy slows down.  Barack resigns Trinity Church.  And somehow all this, which can take hours of any given week, came to me in summary fashion – no talking heads.  And I’m just fine with it.  Our grand-daughter turned two on the day after my return; she’s transforming before my very eyes.

Out there beyond Horseshoe Bay just north of Vancouver, BC, around the back side of Bowen Island, across from the tiny waterfront village of Gibsons, a hill pokes up out of the sea.  Tall pines reach skyward in a thick green forest up the slopes.  A rocky coastline surrounds the base where a fifteen foot tide rises and falls almost daily for time immemorial, advancing across tide pools, then retreating back; up the steep granite faces, then down, as though the entire mass of earth and granite is afloat, bobbing like a cork.  The docks must accommodate this hour by hour adjustment in sea level.  A carnival of floating platforms jet out from the shoreline all the way around.  Boats tie up and unload their passengers and cargo.  It’s the only way to get here.

Little cabins set back in the woods on the waterfront are the ultimate book-writing hide-aways.  Someday I’ll write mine while holing up in one of them.  The big stone fireplace will be crackling over there in the corner while I’m tapping away at the keyboard; an occasional look out the big window through the trees to the water and over there on the other side snow capped peaks poking through lazy clouds hanging in and over the ridges in the distance.  Inspiration aplenty.  All I’ll need.

That’s someday.  But for now, I’m gathering with a group of seasoned leaders; all of whom in one way or another have distinguished themselves from the pack.  They’ve not only been told about their potential; they’ve achieved a level of leadership that takes many of them by surprise.  Now the privileges of accomplishment have become the mantle of leadership – and in many ways, burdensome.

Up on the bluff, overlooking the coastal Village of Gibsons and the snowy peaks of the Pacific Coast range of the Rockies is a grassy knoll manicured with gardens and lawns and pathways around several inviting structures that resemble a Thomas Kincade setting; colorful blooms and flower boxes hanging from the porch beams and paned windows with yellow light glowing from inside and a pond out front reflecting the sky and the distant landscape.  It’s a place called Barnabas, named for Paul’s New Testament companion – the one known for his capacity for simple encouragement.

This is the place where we gathered.  No television.  No pre-occupation with Internet connection.  A quiet place; separate from, well, everything.

I’ve never experienced a week like this.  We focused on self-assessment.  We shared our hopes and dreams.  Our challenges.  Our injuries.  We laughed and played a silly but addicting game called Firth.  (It’s an original game – group competition around a traditional pool table – and can become an obsession.  It gets physical.)

Alone on a deck for an extended period of time looking out at the big open waters, the big sky and the distant islands, I rediscovered Paul’s penetrating words in the second half of the eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans.  Those words brought healing, perspective and hope.

We reaffirmed the restorative power of Sabbath.

But mostly, we experienced a series of collective breakthroughs.  We are not alone.  God is not silent.  There is power in mutual openness.  We are not condemned to live under the consequence of the misfires of the past.  We are partners with God and each other in shaping the future.

And this Monday morning, picking up where I left off two weeks ago, I’m thinking about you today.  You are a leader.

Find yourself a Keats Island.  Get yourself alone.  Then, connect up with those people who share your vision and your passion; those people who will let you hurt; the ones who build you up.

And as I did, you’ll find strength for the journey. 

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2008

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