Archive for October, 2008

Different Drummer

Monday Morning, October 26, 2008

This week, I heard about a Nobel Prize winning author named Günter Grass who wrote a novel called The Tin Drum in 1959.  It’s autobiographical and filled with allegory and metaphor.  It’s the story of a young boy named Oskar Matzerat who grows up in Germany through the nineteen twenties and thirties up through World War II. 

As a young boy, he receives the gift of a tin drum, which he learns to play with great enthusiasm and skill.  He watches adults around him slip into all sorts of complicated conformities; and children his age caught up in the Nazi youth movement.  Brown shirts seemed to catch the spirit of nationalism and Arian supremacy and young Oskar finds that he prefers his little tin drum to the mindless demands of uniforms and salutes.  The singing and marching seemed to him a robbery of the joys of childhood.  Young Oskar determined in his heart to resist.  He found solace in the cadence and rhythms of his little drum.  He decided to stay forever young.

I did a little homework, and learned that the novel is filled with all sorts of social experimentation.   It’s a provocative effort to find an alternative to the senseless and head-long line up of his friends behind a screeching Hitler and his racist drive to reign supreme over all of Europe and then beyond.  In his heart, he knew there was something desperately wrong with the national obsession with superiority.

Aha, I thought.  This must be the origin of the famous phrase – “he marches to the beat of a different drummer.”  Certainly, Oskar did.  Unlike just about everyone in his neighborhood, he set himself apart from a regime that would become the scourge of Europe and forever live as a paragon of infamy. 

But in my research, I learned that Günter Grass’s Oskar Matzerat came well after Henry David Thoreau’s immortal lines from his Walden in 1854 – “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”  Grass’s novel came just about one hundred years later and while I have no evidence to support it, one must wonder if Thoreau’s thought inspired the basic story line.

We can’t compare our current crisis with Germany’s National Socialism early in the last century.  But few could argue with the assertion that conformity played a role.  A substantial role.  When the airwaves are saturated with an unbridled no-strings-attached to borrow, and lenders have strong economic incentive to book the marginal loans, people will do just that.  In droves.  When banks are incentivized by new laws that loosen the former and purposeful restrictions on lending, they will exploit the possibilities.  When money managers are released from old and proven investment guidelines to embrace instruments that once guided the wise, greed kicks in.  Insurance policies (derivatives) become indistinguishable from casino gambling. 

We can speculate as to the causes of our current economic crisis.  But one thing we know: it’s human nature to follow the crowd; to take our neighbor’s liberties as permission to go for it too.   And before long, we find ourselves in the company of the masses wondering what in the world happened.  How did we get here?

By the fifties, Günter Grass knew full well the utter disintegration of his homeland, the Motherland, taken hostage by a smooth talking tyrant who seduced an entire nation into thinking they had some sort of divine right to excess.  So he created a character – a young boy who listened not to the powerful voice of conformity, but to the rhythm of his little tin drum.

* * * * * *

It’s Monday morning, you are a leader.  We are together re-imagining our future.  I sat down this morning with an old friend who told me he is postponing his retirement.  He’s not alone.

As a church, we are putting together a “Box of Love,” filling it with a collection of foodstuffs which will be distributed to hungry families right here in Southern California.  I generally don’t go to the grocery store on Sunday mornings, but there I was.  Carolyn had duty with the three-year-olds over at the church.  I chased up and down the aisle looking for things like canned cut beans and fruit juice and cornbread mix and pinto beans. 

Maybe it’s the Sunday morning crowds.  I saw too many shoppers up and down those aisles with hangover eyes, red and puffy, one who looked as though she’d cried herself to sleep last night.  It made me think of the pain and the fear that is out there these days.  Despair.  Paradise lost.  And I wondered.  Who are we listening to these days?

And in the stillness, a little drummer boy.  Beating out a message of hope and joy and confidence.  I heard it in worship today.

“He gives and takes away.  He gives and takes away…  My heart will surely say, blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

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Traveling Light

Monday, October 13, 2008

One commentator put it this way: “If you aren’t anxious and frightened, you aren’t paying attention.”  Another called it the financial equivalent of the collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.  For many of us, it’s simply headline news and numbers on a page.  So far, abstract.  But not for long.

Many are enraged that such a collapse could result not by the savage assault of some foreign enemy, but by an enemy within.  Greed.  Misrepresentation.  Disregard for the rules in pursuit of quick, front-loaded profits.  Wealthy money-lenders put vulnerable borrowers at risk and pocketed the cash.  Naïve borrowers accepted the offer to take on impossible debt.  Housing values reached unsustainable heights.  The resentment is at a fever pitch, and will certainly be a factor in the coming election.  The real impact all of this will have on our personal lives remains to be seen.  Untold wealth vanished in a week’s trading.  The flow of money came to a screeching halt.  Giant institutions turned up with empty pockets.  Politicians shrugged.  The finger-pointing reached new levels.

The enormity of this economic earthquake is difficult to grasp.  We wake up each day with new questions.  And yet, for now, most of our lives remain pretty much the same.  Those of us who’ve been around for awhile have seen the markets crash and burn and then recover.  We know the cyclical nature of capitalism.  Adam Smith taught us that free markets inevitably purge themselves of wrong-doers.  And yet, this one seems qualitatively different than the others.  Theologians and prophets will point to the simple wisdom that has held society and culture together for time immemorial: ignore your Creator and the revealed rules of the game at your own peril.  Eventually, we will reap what we sow.

As the week unfolded, I’ve observed two personal responses from close range that will stay with me; two friends who faced the blistering hot winds of the storm from differing vantage points.  I’ll not name them for reasons that will be apparent.  One has a considerably large portfolio of investments.  The other divested himself of his stock holdings in December of last year.

The first, let’s call him Bill, is one of the smartest financial guys I know.  He’s a numbers guy who has spent his career patching up sizable companies who have lost their way.  He knows balance sheets as well as profit and loss; receivables and payables and exotic financial instruments and the strategies of principals for whom cooking the books is a way of life.   Not that long ago, he sat in a penthouse conference room in New York with some of the high level executives at AIG to sort out a company’s woes; he said it was like jumping into a lagoon stocked with hungry, agitated Great White sharks.  Over the years, he’s built up a respectable, well diversified portfolio of high quality stocks and bonds.  He’s a conservative at heart; no hedge funds.  No short selling.  No options trading.  Just good dividend producing stocks.  Carefully selected.  And these last two weeks, he’s seen a substantial, devastating drop in the value of his hard earned investments.

“I’m angry,” he confessed to our small group.  And we knew it was true.  Bill understands the headlines better than the rest of us.  “All my life, I’ve taken pride in taking control of my own future, working hard for my clients and caring for my family.  And like never before, I feel I have no ability to control my financial destiny.”

My second friend, let’s call him Pete, is also a hard-working businessman.  He’s helped countless others open and build small town businesses.  Lots of the Inland Empire gas stations and convenience markets are serviced by Pete.  He’s also built a solid financial base.  And when he saw oil break one hundred dollars a barrel and continue upward last year, he knew it was only a matter of time before the stock market would be hit.  In December, he went to cash.

All of us would like to say we had Pete’s insight and fortitude to go against the popular tide of optimism.  This week, Pete is not concerned about his personal portfolio – his concern is actually more profound.  It’s his business guys.  Volumes are way down.  Spending has come to a standstill.  People don’t stock up on those extras at the convenience store when the economy slows.  He’s wondering how many of his people will survive.

* * * * * * * *

It’s Monday morning, you are a leader.  The dark clouds are forming over there on the horizon carrying a message of gloom.  The politicians have lost their ability to persuade.  Business leaders and the executives of financial institutions have diminished credibility.

As the week came to a dismal conclusion, both my friends had good advice.  Pete said, “Ken, you know it’s always been my philosophy to travel light.”  It’s true.  He has.  Stick with what you need, Pete’s always advised.  Don’t feel you have some sort of claim on excess; some kind of divine right to the trinkets that give the impression of wealth.

Bill’s remarks continued the other night, and were moving.  He went on to tell the group – “You know, I’ve never before been so challenged to think about where my security really comes from.”  It was a rare, vulnerable moment.  My strength, he added, does not come from politicians or my capacity to fill a need in the marketplace or my month-end statements, for that matter.

“My security,” Bill said, “comes from the One who lives and loves and protects and sustains.”  And then he added, “Really, I’ve got nowhere else to go.”

So there it is.  Travel light.  Trust God.  Open heart.  Open hand.

You and me.  Pete and Bill.  We’re in it together.  And we’re not alone.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2008

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Fireproof Seekers

Monday, October 06, 2008

Churches are in the movie-making business these days.  It’s not all that surprising, really.  The technology required to make stunning images is available to just about everyone. 

Church folks have long felt that their values and message rarely if ever make it to the big silver screen through established channels.  Seated in those arena worship centers now popping up all over the country are writers and technicians and actors and directors and even investors aplenty.  And there are, indeed, a few success stories (Facing the Giants).  The surprising work of a crew of focused, talented but unlikely people has paved the road – all the way to distribution and release right there in our local multiplex cinema.

Evangelistic film-making has been around for a long time.  Billy Graham was one of the first to recognize the power of cinema to touch people’s lives and challenge their thinking. Along with his friend Billy Zeoli, they pioneered a series of such films.  We watched them back then – Time to Run, The Hiding Place, Joni, The Restless Ones, The Gospel Blimp.  But now, there is a whole new generation of artists creating and producing their original stories.  With the advent of home theaters and new ways of delivering content, I’m guessing we’ll see many more.

This weekend we caught the new release of a touching film about marriage.  A fireman and his young wife, a community relations director at the local hospital, are seven years into their marriage.  Caleb and Catherine Holt are in serious conflict.  Their fairy tale romance has turned into a nightmare; both attractive people caught in their demanding careers and living separate lives.  Captain Holt commands a motley crew over at the fire station. Catherine is a shining light down at the hospital.  But they’ve drifted far apart.  Neither believes that the romance that brought them to the altar is retrievable.

I’m trying to remember a film whose aim it is to deal frankly with the issues that divide a married couple and then find a path toward renewal and reconciliation.  I can’t think of one.  The generally accepted cultural assumption in our world is this: when love goes, so does the marriage and oh well.  We’re all resilient.  We can find what we’re looking for somewhere else.  Mismatches happen.  We just move on.

Ultimately, this movie counters that view.  The dynamics of conflict are real.  But so is the value of hanging on.  No matter what.  The tension is palpable.  And compelling.

Enter Caleb’s (played by Kirk Cameron the former Mike Seaver from television’s Growing Pains) father, a southern gentleman with a story for his self-reliant son.  Caleb knows that his folks nearly broke up a short time back.  Then something happened.  On a walk in the woods, Dad makes a modest proposal – a forty day challenge.  He hands Caleb a leather bound journal with handwritten instructions.  The reluctant son is willing, but extremely doubtful.

Catherine (played by Erin Bethea, in real life a member at the church that made the movie and more recently Disney World employee in Florida) is, well, seared.  The feelings are gone.  The respect, absent.  Neither of them want to be home.  Their dreams have vanished.  She’s vulnerable to a doctor’s advances over at the hospital.

Both of them prefer work, where they are valued and admired.  But at home, well, it’s an empty, stressful place.  They want out.

I won’t spoil the rest.  Fireproof (in theaters) comes on strong.  Be prepared for a frontal explanation of the Gospel.  Bring along your hanky.  The emotion is raw.  There are a few satisfying twists that will make you glad you stayed all the way to the end.

* * * * * * *

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  There are lots of threats to marriage out there.  This week is no exception.  We’re living with a more than usual uncertainty.  There is no shortage of doom scenarios floating around in the headlines and in the boardrooms and across the kitchen tables.

Our churches have been intentional about attracting seekers.  This is a good thing.  But Os Guiness makes profound point.  He distinguishes between seekers and drifters.  He suggests (in his penetrating book, The Call) that many people we may consider “seekers” are in reality “drifters.”  It’s easy to be a drifter.  Short term commitments.  All options remain on the table.  Get uncomfortable, just move on.  No need to explain.  Move with the herd.

Authentic seekers aren’t content until they find answers.  They are ever looking for deeper understanding, higher levels of performance, better ways to explain, greater degrees of efficiency, more powerful measure of impact.  It’s a sanctified discontent that drives the seeker towards a fearless pursuit of the truth. 

We spent five hours this week with a genuine seeker.  Jay Kesler, at seventy-two, is relentless.  As I write, a young friend of mine from Kosova is wearing out a pair of shoes on the streets and sidewalks of Washington DC in tireless pursuit of his calling.  Festim is a seeker.

Fictional Caleb Holt is a seeker, too.  Drifters let it go.  Seekers keep on until the promise is fulfilled.

Seek, and you will find.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

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