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Archive for August, 2008

Alana and the Generations

Monday Morning, September 1, 2008

She was a quiet, diminutive woman, people would say.  The years pressed in, eighty-seven to be precise.  Age took away some of the height and weight, making her frame delicate and perhaps better said, fragile.  When she woke up last Friday morning, she seemed disoriented and distracted.

She couldn’t swallow her breakfast or her medication for that matter.  By noon, she settled calm and serene in her favorite chair, and after awhile she sighed her last sigh.  The daughter who so attentively cared for her these last few years was there in the room, along with her daughter, now a mom, and her four young ones – the oldest, another daughter.  Alana is her name.  She’s nine.  Great-grandma breathed her last in the presence of the next three generations of women who loved her.  From a living room out in the country on a sunny summer day, about high noon, with her cherished girls in the room in a single moment, she slipped into the presence of her Maker… Who could possibly ask for more?

I found a quiet spot, in my brother-in-law’s basement, just underneath that living room.  It was cool and felt good after a hike on a warm late summer afternoon with the gang up the hill to a lookout point over the green valley here in Southern Wisconsin.  Dairy country.  We looked out over to the Wisconsin River, now receding after the summer floods and just up the road, Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s world renowned school of architecture.  I wrote the first two paragraphs (above) on my PDA, when Alana skipped own the stairs into the finished cellar. 

It’s a classic playroom; a mid-west basement with a Coca-Cola puzzle, probably two thousand pieces, glued into a frame and hanging on the wall.  The shelf is home to a collection of traditional board games (Yahtzee, Monopoly, Clue, Scrabble) and boxes of puzzles.  Over in the corner is a Foosball table and Carom board.  There are toys for the grandchildren now over in the bin, and a small television set that doesn’t get much use.  I sat on the couch, enjoying the quiet, writing, when Alana walked in.

“C’mon over here, Alana,” I said, and folded up my PDA.  “OK,” she said, and jumped up beside me.

I’d just written about Mom’s passing (Carolyn’s Mom), and the four generations in the living room as she passed.  I realized that I was now sitting next to the newest of the generations down in the game room – a perky, bright nine year old with long straight blond hair and an engaging smile and an eagerness to tell stories.

“Alana,” I asked thoughtfully, “would it be OK if I asked you about last Friday?” 

“Sure.”  She didn’t even hesitate.

“You were there right in the room, weren’t you?  When Grandma Hunerdosse died…” I smiled and gave her a hug.

“Uh huh,” she replied.

“I’d like you to tell me the whole story.”  And I hugged her again.  She nodded.  “OK.”

And then as only a nine-year-old could, well, I should say, as this very special nine year old could, she told me the whole thing.  She talked about how Grandma (Dora) didn’t feel well at all and that she couldn’t swallow and how her Grandma (Arlene, Dora’s daughter) was upset and how her mother (Erin, Arlene’s daughter) hugged her Grandma Arlene and how she watched the whole thing.  Then she said, as Grandma Dora was breathing hard, they put some hymns into the CD and played music for Grandma Dora and how they held hands and hugged and prayed, and then called in Marguerite (her other great-grandma) who lived next door to come over and how she read passages from the Bible to Grandma Dora and then sang the hymns out loud as Great-Grandma Dora sat peacefully in her chair and  then she died, Alana said.

“Alana, it’s amazing that you were all there,” I said. 

“That’s the best part,” Alana said.  And then she proceeded with the story of how it could be that they all “happened” to be in the same room on the very day that Dora May died.  Erin and her four children were alone in their home two and a half hours away.  Their father, Scott, was off  on his first mission project visiting a home for children orphaned by the aids epidemic in Zambia.  Back home, one night last week, a stray bat flew into their house and frightened the family so that they took refuge first in Scott’s parent’s home and then packed up into the car to head south to spend the remainder of their time without dad at Erin’s parent’s place, a favorite destination for all the children, out in the dairy country just outside Spring Green.

In retrospect, young Alana is firm in her conviction that God sent the bat for a purpose.  That awful creature that terrorized the house when dad was gone is the reason that the gathering in the living room was orchestrated on just the right day by Someone unseen.  Great-Grandma Dora was not alone her last day on earth.  Grandma Arlene was not alone, either.  Her daughter was there to comfort her.  Neither was Erin alone.  Alana was there.  Dora.  Arlene.  Erin.  Alana.  Four generations.  Together with Grandma Marguerite to send a Great-grandma Dora May off to heaven.  They were together.

I hugged Alana again.  “You know Alana, I’ve been around for awhile, and I’ve never been there at the moment someone died.”  Alana looked up at me.  “But my mom has,” I said.

“Really?”

“And she was nine years old, just like you.”  True story.  Then I told Alana that my mom still remembers it very clearly, and “I know, Alana,” we were making eye contact now, “that you will remember last Friday for your whole life.”  It’s God’s good gift to you, I added.

And it was a sweet moment for me, too.  Just to be there with Alana in the game room thinking about some of life’s great mysteries, and God’s amazing grace and his faithful care and the wonders of his mercies, new every morning.

I had the good sense to marry into this family. 

On this Monday morning, I have new and fresh insight into the heritage upon which our own family is built.  I see something of the strength of these women in my wife and in our children – generation after generation passing down the things that matter the most.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2008

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Farewell, Beijing

Monday Morning – August 24, 2008

Maybe the Olympics were that much more stunning simply because so many of us watched it in high definition.  We’ve had high def for a while now, but those images from China were made for the big screen.  The Bird’s Nest filled the pixels with dazzling color; it was the re-discovery of cinemascope right there in our living room.  It was Cecil B. CeMille and a cast of thousands – this time from the heart of Communist China, of all places.  And we sat transfixed.

It’s over now.  We’ve got the memories.  A couple weeks back, I told you about the three athletes in whom we had taken a special interest.  Michael Phelps lived up to, and even surpassed the pre-competition hype.  Two of those finishes will forever live in our memory.  The come-from-behind 4×100 relay barely beating the French, who had the lead, all the way to the end.  The Americans won.  But best of all, in the 100 meter butterfly, Phelps, in a photo finish, eclipsed champion Milorad Cavic of Serbia by one one hundredth of a second.  The electronic pad declared the winner in an instant, but it was so close that doubts remained until the electrifying moment could be reviewed from several angles.  Sure enough, Cavic’s glide to the wall failed to nail down the lead as Phelps took a lightning-fast final half stroke to secure victory, slapping the pad just ahead of Cavic, taking home the seventh of an unprecedented eight gold medals.

The camera trained on his mother, elementary school administrator and single mom, Debbie, seated between his two sisters.  The video crew caught one more unforgettable moment.  Debbie watched as her son trailed just behind the Serbian.  She held up two fingers, acknowledging that her her boy would fall short of his goal, and settle for his first second place.  “It’s OK.  It’s OK,” she thought.  Until she looked at the electronic scoreboard.  In complete astonishment, she caught the news.  Her knees buckled.  In utter disbelief, she sank to her seat, eyes like saucers.  He won.  Michael won.  Gold.  Unbelievable!

Her two daughters exploded in squeals and held her tight.

Not every winner took home the gold.  I identified two other champions.  They didn’t win the gold, but they are winners none-the-less.  Laura Wilkinson astonished the world in Athens with her diving perfection.  I wrote about her in a LeaderFOCUS back then.  The American media loved her, too.  They profiled her exploits in Athens, and her amazing track record in national and world competitions since.  Now, at thirty-one, she still had the edge.  She won a spot on the team – and as an older member, she became a beloved coach, mentor and encourager to the younger members of the team.  She sent a personal response email to the LeaderFOCUS I forwarded to her four years ago.  I signed up a few weeks back to her web-site newsletter.  Here’s her note just before the final competition –

For my prayer warriors out there, please pray that I can focus on Jesus and let all the other “junk” go- like results, expectations, what people think, etc.  The focus of most of my prayers are for the people watching, both in the 17,000 seat venue and watching on tv.  I’m praying that they will see the light of Jesus and that this place will become a House of Praise for Him!  I’m just excited to be His servant here! 

She finished wthout a medal – but the standing ovation on her final dive told a different kind of story.

Perhaps my favorite moment of all came when Allyson Felix, after a “disappointing” silver medal in the women’s 200 meter race.  She knew she could win it.  But she finished sixty-two hundredths of a second behind Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown in a rematch which was an eerie repeat of Athens.  In between Olympic games, she faced the world-class runner – and won.  But the commentators noted – she just didn’t have the edge in Beijing.

Add to that the fumbling of the baton in the women’s 4×100 relay – and the third expected medal vanished into thin air.  Allyson worked for three gold medals.  She settled for one gold and one silver.

After the prime time 200 meter race, with all the hype and backgrounders, behind her fierce Jamaican competitor, she turned and trotted back to the gallery.  She stopped briefly to smile for the camera and tell the world that she’s happy to have competed on the world stage at this level and that Veronica earned her gold that day.  She smiled bravely.  A class act.  Some ninety-thousand fans filled the Bird’s Nest and looked on as Allyson, draped in an American flag, found her family, her mom and dad, Marlene and Paul, and her brother Wes, and they held on to one another as the camera looked on.  Allyson let the emotion go, and her family spoke words of love and pride and care to their amazing daughter and sister.  Here’s the note I sent to my friend Paul that night…

What a sweet moment in “The Birds  Nest”… as Allyson came to terms with a “disappointing” silver, she gathered with her mom and dad and brother on the sideline, draped in the American flag, and you spoke to her and loved on her… there were tears in our eyes; ours were not disappointment – rather we were deeply moved by the warmth of a family; a witness of what God can do when a family honors Him.  Who’d a thunk, Paul, when you left Toyota to follow a calling that transcended a corporate computer career… I’m proud of you, buddy.  But mainly, as I’ve watched your calling unfold, to see the enormous blessing of a beautiful wife, son and daughter, a champion whose real goal is to be teacher, like her Mom.  The world is inspired.  So are we.

Take time to watch the NBC Nightly News video on Allyson and her family.  She’s seen as the new breed of drug-free athlete, who in the shadow of the Marian Jones debacle, is bringing integrity and character back to the sport.

On this Monday morning, post-Bejing, let’s take those amazing moments of inspiration, and make them our own.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

News about Carolyn’s Mom

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High School Atheists

Monday Morning – August 18, 2008

Summer camp is woven into the fabric of American life.  I went to church camp as a little boy, across the state line from our little mid-western town into Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Geneva.  When we became parents, we sent our kids off to camp, too.  All week long, their room neat and quiet and vacant, we wondered how they fared.  Were they making friends?  Did they like their counselor?  Were they having fun?  Anybody hurt?  Were they getting to know God out there in the shadow of the mountain peaks by day and under the stars by night in the company of all those fellow believers?

In my growing up years, some of the coolest camps I could imagine were portrayed in the Disney movie Parent Trap.  Haley Mills (I still remember that serious crush I had) attends a girl’s camp, but down the road there is one for the boys.  They finished the week with a dance.  Wow.  That wouldn’t happen at our camps (dancing was strictly prohibited).  In my world, camp and church were synonymous.  Up on the movie screen, the twin sisters of the movie classic navigated a secularized camp – all the camp stuff including pranks and adventures in the woods and on the canoes, but no religion.  Religion was (apparently) off limits.

These days, we get a feature film called The Jesus Camp.  Here, summer camp looks more like a fanatical version of a terrorist boot camp that trains young fundamentalist mercenaries to engage in culture wars.  It’s much more than a simple get-away at the lake for swimming and fishing.  This is camp with a purpose – a laser beam focus on indoctrination from creationism to the explosive global conflict of the end times, complete with whistle blowing drill sergeants.  In our day, the “exposé” gets high praise.

So it should be no surprise that another kind of summer camp for high school students has emerged.  It’s a camp for humanists – an alternative to religious camps – that invites young skeptics and atheists to gather together to share ideas, find support.  Here, at Camp Inquiry, there is freedom to explore the night sky and the forests and streams and the camp library for a world without the distraction of religion.  Counselors are screened to reflect the camp’s mission.  Speakers expound the not-so-subtle nuances of the material-world writings of Dawkins and Hitchens.

Public Radio sent a crew over to check out the camp and talk to the students and their leaders.  It’s a fascinating conversation.  For openers, the students share enthusiasm for finding a refuge from annoying religious types – evangelizing Christians in particular.  They take on creationism and moralism as articulate spokespeople for an alternate world-view.  It’s as though John Lennon’s lyrics have become a prophesy fulfilled – “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try; no hell below us, above us only sky…”

One misplaced Christian shows up.  Maybe he didn’t read the brochure.  In the spirit of openness, he is accepted.  But he’s directly challenged by the other students.  He holds his ground.  His atheist parents failed to convince him, he says, that his God-fearing grandfather was wrong about the universe and its Maker.

But the turning point of the conversation comes when the NPR interviewer asks an innocent question.  “You know,” she says, “many people embrace religion because it speaks to the question of life after death.”  The giddy banter stops.  An eerie silence follows.  “Do you guys think about that?  Is it something that bothers you?”

Yes, they agreed.  One talked about lying awake at the age of nine trying to cope with the notion of nothing beyond the material world.  “If you think about it, you can’t sleep,” she stated flatly.  She stayed awake all night she said, and in the morning, well, “it was like… ah-ohhhhh….”  Her voice trailed off.  Another, also in a shaky voice, admitted, “I’m terrified of non-existence… I’m kind of stuck there…”  His emotion welled up in fearful tones.  “I don’t know what else to think,” he added.

Their counselor/mentor at Camp Inquiry chimed in from the back of the room.  “Well, here you all are skeptical of the afterlife, but you’re not sitting here alone in a room obsessed with it.  You’re here at Camp Inquiry and having fun…” 

“…Until now…” one of the campers observes.  Nervous laughter from the others breaks the spell.  “An awkward silence…” a girl says.  “Deep down,” a boy offers, “deep down, it’s tough.”

The NPR narrator fills in.  “After a few uncomfortable moments, Jared and his friends stop pondering the meaning of life and death, and move on to the water balloon fight.”

* * * * * * * *

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  Maybe your kids have just returned from summer camp.

I think about that boy’s grandfather, an authentic man who was well acquainted with the God of the cosmos, a man who transferred his conviction: that God of mine knows the name of my grandson. 

This young grandson, whose parents convinced themselves that Dad was a poor deluded fool, stood his ground.  This boy at the discussion table up at Camp Inquiry, in spite of the sharpened, reasoned argument of his parents, would not be swayed.   By his peers that week.  Or by his quick-witted counselors.

He knew something the others didn’t.

I want to be that kind of grandfather.

Copyright, Kenneth E Kemp 2008

Listen to the fascinating NPR Broadcast 7 minutes

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Gone fishin’…

No LeaderFOCUS this week.  See you next Monday.

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Tony Snow, et. al.

August 4, 2008

Tough to get ‘round it.  We hope and pray for healing.  We are grieved by a grim prognosis.  We are lifted up by the courage and the good fight and the technology of medicine.  And then, the end comes.  It’s the one thing we didn’t want.  It’s what we prayed against.

It’s in those final weeks and then days that we grow accustomed to the idea that our hopes of “complete recovery” grow dim.  Ultimately, we cross over into new territory – we are willing to let go.  The suffering has lasted long enough.  We release the one we love.  And in the passing, we hurt.  We find peace.

When Tony Snow announced his diagnosis (colon cancer) in 2005, people who loved him sat stunned.  The popular Press Secretary to the President was the picture of vitality and good health.  The President’s choice was celebrated on both ends of the political spectrum.  He didn’t need the job.  It was a considerable cut in pay.  Snow was well established radio personality – conservative talk.  I first heard his voice when he sat in for the mega-star of the medium, Rush Limbaugh.  Snow was a strong voice for conservative values – without the edge.  Even the tone of his baritone voice had a soothing effect; confident, yet easy.  He unleashed his sharp and engaging wit in a conversational, guy-next-door, over-the-fence style.

In Washington, Tony Snow took to the microphone just about every day to speak on behalf of a President whose approval ratings were on a steep, discernible slide.  Snow brought at least one issue to full consensus – the world would hope for his success against the scourge of the cancer cells rummaging around in his otherwise healthy body.

In our media drenched culture, the hopeful battle gets more play that the final farewell.  When Russert died of a sudden heart attack, the media went non-stop for a week.  But cancer is different.  That long final journey is private, arduous, laborious.  And when the end comes, it’s almost like… oh.  Wow.  We almost forgot.

I was taken by surprise as I reviewed the stats on this LeaderFOCUS blog.  On July 23, 2008, the LeaderFOCUS I called “Time Management” got discovered, on Google, I presume.  The hit count blew the graph right off the scale.  To date, 2,363 people have read it.  An all-time LeaderFOCUS record.  I did a little search of my own.  Turns out, it was the day Randy Pausch died.  The man who gave “The Last Lecture,” and became an instant celebrity thanks to U-Tube, bid farewell to his beautiful family – and the rest of us who feel like we knew him.

Tony Snow left an amazing body of work.  Someone will someday sift through it and provide us a summary.  But perhaps the greatest summary of all appeared in October, 2007 when he wrote…

I don’t know why I have cancer, and I don’t much care. It is what it is, a plain and indisputable fact. Yet even while staring into a mirror darkly, great and stunning truths begin to take shape. Our maladies define a central feature of our existence: We are fallen. We are imperfect. Our bodies give out.

But despite this, – or because of it, – God offers the possibility of salvation and grace. We don’t know how the narrative of our lives will end, but we get to choose how to use the interval between now and the moment we meet our Creator face-to-face1.

You won’t read about Gena Gentry in the media.  A couple weeks ago, along with her husband Darrel and her adult son and daughter, we said good-bye to a woman who gave the world the gift of laughter and hope.  She and Randy Pausch and Tony Snow fought the same battle this summer of 2008.  She was passionate about ministry.  She invested heavily in a couple hundred of the best and brightest of a new nation.  As Kosóva celebrates its independence, scores, maybe hundreds of young collegians from the University of Prishtina will remember the woman who challenged them to know and follow Jesus.

On this Monday morning, as a leader, you and I may well be too busy to reflect on the bigger questions – until we sit long enough to contemplate the journey’s finish for Tony Snow, et. al. 

While climbing a long grade on Saturday morning, another cyclist pulled up beside me and joked about aging and climbing hills on a bike.  We talked a bit.  I learned that Natalie is a CPA.  And she dropped a hint.  I probed.  “Cancer,” she said.  “I’ve got cancer.”

We chatted a bit more before our course diverged at a fork in the trail.  Natalie laughed out loud and said, “We’ll, I’ve got today.”  I answered back, in between pants up the hill, “You go girl!”  She made the turn.  Out of sight.

The sun was bright.  The sky a deep blue.  The Southern California mountains stretched across the horizon.  Bright red bougainvillea against leafy green trees colored the roadside and off in the distance a row of palm trees lined hillside and on the right stretched one of those nursery fields with potted plants and seedlings.  I kept on riding.  And thinking.

I’ll likely never see her again. 

But I’ll remember her words – “I’ve got today.”

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2008

 1Read the full text of Tony’s essay from October 2007 – my thanks to Susan Kemp

 

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