Archive for November, 2008

Stop and Listen

Monday Morning, November 24, 2008

When Forrest Gump turns to a stranger on a bus-stop bench and utters his now immortal line, “My momma always said, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get,'” he not only points to the seeming randomness of life, he suggests an unmistakable sweetness in it all.  Maybe that’s why his words get quoted so often.  There’s a lesson in his box-of-candy metaphor.

In the case of Forrest, the sweetness hardly meant the absence of tragedy or hardship.  The character of first the novel and then the movie wanders through life with no apparent purpose or intentionality.  And yet, Forrest Gump stumbles into the vortex of historic and life-altering events one right after another.   War, sickness, and disappointment are mixed in with success, influence and friendship.  But always surprise.  Forrest takes them all like one more Sees Candy served up in a brown wax paper cup.

Sometime in October, our church launched a month-long project that included the spiritual disciplines of fasting and prayer.  It happened in the context of a global vision for ministry and outreach that inspired even the most jaded of believers.  We felt that we had heard something from God; that we knew something about his heart for a needy world and our role in making a difference.  It spanned out from our local neighborhoods to folks on the other end of the globe.  But our leaders felt that before we lit the fuse on an ambitious capital campaign to fund the vision, we needed to stop long enough to listen.  So we were taught from the Scriptures about the real world practice of fasting and prayer.  We were challenged to map out a personal plan and to be open to divine prompting on both an individual and corporate level.

That was over a month ago.  It’s striking to look back now and see what happened.  The outcome is not what we anticipated. 

As I sat in a darkened room for prayer last night, I jotted down four powerful unanticipated events in my journal that came out of that month of fasting and prayer.  The first jolt came from a public announcement that the capital campaign would be postponed.  In an open meeting that followed corporate worship, it was also announced that a top pastoral staff member was released from his duties along with another member of his team.  “Inappropriate behavior” was the cause.  No financial improprieties, we were told.  But everyone understood.  Grief and disappointment filled the room.  Tears and sadness.  Brokenness.  Such violations of trust are serious.  But grace flowed, too.  Purification is hard.  None cast stones.

So all of those well-laid visionary plans are up for grabs.  What was meant to solidify support around the cause became the catalyst of a new awareness of our own need.  We all left the meeting in the solemnity of introspection.  “Search my heart…” became the byword. 

About the same time, news hit the headlines that the economic crisis in this country was far more profound than anyone understood.  Financial institutions were on the verge of total collapse.  Without a nearly trillion dollar bail-out by the federal government, high level officials predicted dire consequences, the likes of which the nation hasn’t seen since the prolonged depression of the nineteen-thirties.  The stock market began its precipitous slide.  I was on an elite golf course that day with my three brothers and as the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged, we tried to keep the golf ball on the fairway.  None of us did very well that day.

The praying and fasting continued through the month.  Last Saturday, I wrote a note to a long time friend who is campus pastor at Westmont College.  The day before, I heard him on a kind of conference call describe the terrible fires in Montecito that took several structures on the prestigious, upscale campus, leaving some fifteen faculty and staff without homes.  As I wrote, the smell of fire came through my window here in Southern California.  It signaled the dreadful start of the Yorba Linda fires that took over one hundred homes right here in the hills surrounding our house. 

So we gathered for worship this weekend in the aftermath of the fires.  Our plan to fast and pray around a global vision has taken a new turn.  We had set aside time to listen; to voluntarily impose a modest sacrifice on ourselves; to align our lives with those who for centuries have come before with a hunger to know God, to feel his heartbeat, to look through his eyes, to consider the needs of the world around us as he must consider it, and almost as through he stood ready to answer, we caught a profound, undeniable look.  We will never be the same.

As we prayed, an election brought a paradigm shift in national leadership.  The greatest economy in the world we thought invincible has proven to be as fragile as a dry tinder bush on a Southern California hillside.  It became abundantly clear: our personal moral choices matter.  Homes behind iron gates, surrounded by pools and fountains and gardens and elegant entryways can be reduced to ashes in a flash.  None of these outcomes were on anyone’s prayer list.  We asked God to speak.  He did.  Call it coincidental.  That will be your word.  Not mine.

Our Sunday morning service was divided into three parts.  And without introduction, an unnamed artist took to the canvass.  She created three corresponding images – a second painted over the first and the third then over the second.  As Matthew spoke, she produced a series that step by step, told a story.

The first image – a little cozy village nestled in a verdant valley, surrounded by green hills under a blue sky.  Pleasant.  Inviting.  After a song and some scripture from Matthew, the artist took to the scene for a second round this time with black paint; it covered up the lovely cottages in the valley with dramatic intent; then reds and yellows sprang from the charcoal as flames licked the green hillsides and reached for the sky and then smoke, thick and gray covered the blue and as she painted the scene, our pastor enumerated the damage, the homes lost, the schools damaged, the businesses destroyed, the fire equipment and firefighters and emergency crew and the acres scorched.  Our artist stroked the canvas with blacks and reds and gray and the village disappeared.  Taken by fire.  Art can move us deeply.  It did me.  The music.  The color.  The biblical text.  The mounting, devastating statistics. 

And then, after another interlude of worship, the artist returned for a third time to the same canvass.  Now, the charcoal at the base became soil.  And out of the ash, the sturdy trunk of a tree emerged.  And as the great oak reached for the sky, branching out over the scene like a covering of life, green leaves and blossoms appeared; the reds and oranges and yellows transformed from hungry flames to flower pedals; bougainvillea, daisies, poppies and the sky to blue.

And on this Monday morning, as we leaders all anticipate time around the table with the people we love in Thanksgiving to the God who gives perfect gifts, there is sweetness, even in the presence of deep loss, that brings us together in a bond of peace that knows no end.  It is real.  It is good.

No matter what you are facing on what just may be for you a bleak Monday, listen to songwriter Matt Redman:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
Your perfect love is casting out fear
And even when I’m caught in the middle of the storms of this life
I won’t turn back
I know You are near
In every high and every low
Oh no, You never let go
Lord, You never let go of me

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

Lyrics by Matt Redman “You Never Let Go” 

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Sudden Schedule Adjustment

Monday November 17, 2008

Inspiration is the dividend paid by the unanticipated events that make our calendared plans obsolete.  I’ve always been fascinated by those unexpected moments, usually outside our control, that, well, call the whole assumption of control into question.  They often become the very things I choose to write about.  Sometimes these events provoke laughter.  Sometimes terror.  Sometimes tears.  But always emotion.

A pilot friend e-mailed a video to me with the simple phrase attached – “Check this out.”  Darrol is known for his one-of-a-kind sense of humor.  The well is deep, and he never stops pulling up yet another bucket full of laughs.  Often the punch-line is preceded by a story that captures your worst fears, greatest imaginable embarrassment, or some impossible scenario with no way out.  So when Darrol says “check it out,” he knows I will.

It’s an air show video.  The camera held by an amateur videographer in the bleachers fixes on a single seat, single engine aerobatics plane as it makes a low high-speed pass.  The pilot pulls back on the stick sending his sleek silver bullet soaring into a steep vertical climb.  Engine screaming.  The camera zooms in close.  As he flips and spins at the pinnacle, a grainy close up reveals what only the stunt pilot knows at that moment.  The violent g-force separates the fuselage from the main right wing.  It falls away like an October leaf.  The spinning goes on, but now out-of-control.

The video-cam picks up the audio.  “He’s lost his wing,” someone says, sounding as though she doesn’t really believe her own words.  “What happened to his wing?”  says another, who apparently didn’t hear the first.  The camera stays on the broken airplane, now sputtering and spinning at an altitude of barely a thousand feet.

My friends who fly airplanes all think about moments like this.  And even a wanna-be like me can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be in the pilot’s seat at that moment of sudden calamity.  It’s the stuff of nightmare; night sweats; the adrenaline shot of fear that grips you as the reality of certain doom strikes like a lightning bolt.  In the cockpit, everything remains intact.  The engine is still running.  The stick is in your hand.  The rudder pedals at your feet.  The throttle operational.  But the wing’s gone just outside the Plexiglas.  You check it again.  Yep, it’s gone.  You have but a few seconds to attempt everything you can think of to regain some semblance of control.  You feel the pull of gravity; the absence of lift.  And you are smart enough to know the outcome.  It’s not going to be good.

As I watched Darrol’s clip, I remembered a couple similar videos that I’d seen before.  When a tragic aviation incident gets captured on film and replayed on the news these days, it’s recorded on my DVR.   With my remote in hand, I can replay it over and over until I figure out exactly what caused the fatal break.  Like the four-engine tanker flying by on a low pass with a heavy load of chemical to drop on a raging Southern California brush fire when both wings snapped off.  Or the Aero-Commander (also an aerobatic airplane) that lost both wings in a steep climb.   And now Darrol presented me with one more visual of aviation tragedy.  And I imagined myself at the top of the curve, glancing first at the wingless space on my right, then at the bleachers filled with on-lookers below, then at the runway spinning toward me like an impenetrable brick wall.  My heart raced.  Palms got sweaty.

The plane sputters and spins above the bleachers when someone yells, “Run!”  But the cameraman, perhaps knowing he was about to capture a scene that might just make the evening news, stays on his crippled subject.  With no horizon in the scene to give perspective, it is hard to tell just how fast he is falling.  But as the airplane approaches the bleachers, it becomes clear.  The pilot, utilizing the enormous power of the acrobatic four-cylinder engine, using the what was left of the elevator and vertical stabilizer, slows the plane just enough to pull up in a stall just above the runway.  The pilot strapped to his seat, pulls on the stick, pushes hard on the rudder, hovers on his side, perpendicular to the ground.  The good wing above, empty space below, you hear the screaming on the audio from the stunned fans in the bleachers.   The tail gently strikes the ground and bounces the plane upright.  You hear the wheels hit.  The pilot releases the throttle.  The plane bounces on its landing gear and coasts to a stop.  Safe and sound.  The crowd screams in utter disbelief.  One shouts out an expletive.

It’s hard not to cheer right there in the presence of your computer monitor.  Darrol did it again.  I laughed out loud.  I wanted to high-five that pilot.

Another friend who is also a pilot watched it, too.  He’s doubtful.  He thinks maybe this dubious Internet video is the product of some guy’s clever CGI (Computer Generated Imagery).  Perhaps.  If it is, it’s very good.

But either way, it got me thinking on this Monday morning.  You are a leader and now that you’ve got some time and experience on your résumé, you remember well those moments when the wing fell off.  It was unexpected.  Uncalendared.  Unplanned.  There was no time to assess blame, no chance at a “redo,” no easy out.  It was you, your wingless craft, and a couple of control switches and levers with little or no capacity.

All you had was your training, your ingenuity, your seat-of-the-pants navigation… and God.

And somehow, someway – as a watching world expected a spectacular crash and burn, replayed again and again in freeze-frame and slo-mo – you set her down.  You survived to fly again.  One more time.  You had a new awareness of the power and care of the God who made you.

And today, you are here to tell the story.

This weekend, here in North Orange County and up there in Montecito, the winds blew and the fires raged.  Our friends and family packed their cars and evacuated.  Some experienced indescribable loss.

But on this Monday morning.  We are still standing.

Copyright Kenneth E. Kemp November, 2008

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Monday Morning, November 10, 2008

It’s fair to say that the theme of this historic election can be reduced to a single monosyllabic word – change.  Both parties embraced it in their own way.  The polls and the focus groups all confirmed it.  The nation wants change.  The politicians vowed to give it.

And now we are about to find out what that means.  We’re told that the dramatic impact of the financial crisis has yet to play out.  The current administration seems as eager to move out as the new administration is to move in.  The House and the Senate are poised to implement a dramatic shift in the policies of the past, with a President ready to sign off on new directions.  And we are left to sort through the possibilities.  What’s next?

I, for one, welcome many of the changes.  When I consider the run-away and absurd run up in real-estate values to impossible heights, the no questions asked availability of credit, the spending fueled by borrowed money, and the piling up of national debt and the imbalance of trade – something had to give.  And it has.

In the years I spent as a financial advisor, we knew that economic vitality depends as much on psychology as policy.  The great engine of economic progress relies on the fuel of confidence.  When confidence goes, so does the GNP.  That’s why Wall Street works so hard to alleviate the fear of risk.  The buildings themselves are designed to give us a sense of permanence and strength.  The officers of the “the firm” exude trustworthiness.  That’s the way it works.

We all know the domino effect from Economics 101: when people no longer trust, they stop spending.  They cancel their travel.  They pull their money out of the market.  They pare back on all the extras.  They batten down the hatches and hold on to what they have.  They postpone the new car purchase.  They make do.  And pretty soon jobs are lost, businesses close down, unemployment lines lengthen, and ordinary people deal with painful, personal loss.

I’ve been around long enough now.   This cycle has played out before.  And it will again.  The tide of economic well-being ebbs and then it flows.  Confidence becomes over-confidence becomes loss becomes fear becomes recovery becomes confidence.   And around we go again.   The question really is this: can we handle change?  Can we adapt?  Can we find new ways to bring solutions and meet the needs of the marketplace?

It takes a boatload of cynicism to miss the resurgence of confidence that exploded onto the scene Tuesday night.  It’s as though an entire nation longing for new direction was unleashed to a new world of possibility.  The crowds.  The cheering.  The tears.  The global celebration.  In the aftermath of the announcement that hit the airwaves at 11PM EST (8PM PST) something new was born.  It’s the dawning of a new day.  And even those who opposed the Obama candidacy are offering up their expressions of admiration for a stunning victory.

McCain’s concession speech may well have been his finest moment.  President Bush appeared the following morning to affirm this turning point in American history.  Pastors who shepherd flocks that were put on notice by screeching conservative voices that an Obama victory would be calamitous reminded their people that God is still in control.  He is sovereign.  While we may be surprised at the outcome, he is not.

And on this Monday morning, you, as a leader, along with me enter into uncharted territory once more.  We thought we were dealing with change when Bill Clinton was elected (that was 1992).  We thought we were finished as a nation in the aftermath of the Florida debacle when the election went to the Supreme Court.  When the World Trade Center collapsed after the attack of 9/11 we feared that we might never recover.  And now, we face more change.

There is a new generation coming on the scene with imagination, energy, determination and a new set of skills.  In many ways, my generation has stood in the way.  We had a lock on jobs, wealth, decision-making.  Think about it: this election was as much a referendum on the Boomer Generation as it was on George Bush.  (OK, there’s something I’ll write more about.  Stay tuned.)  Who is it that will inspire this new generation to achieve in the context of a new global economy?

Our role is changing.  It’s up to us now to identify the core values that will outlast us, and do what we can to invest in a new generation.  It’s no time to retreat.  It’s time to engage.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

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The Many Faces of Fire

Monday Morning November 3, 2008

If you’ve been through one of our California October fires, from up close and personal, you’ll have a little difficulty with the biblical imagery of fire.

“Set me on fire, Lord” will have a different connotation for you.  Either you’ll wince at the thought or you will by necessity develop a new appreciation for metaphor.  Children may have some difficulty separating the symbolic apart from the literal, but we adults learn to bounce back and forth between the two levels with relative ease.

In October of 2003, we experienced the literal.  We lived in a town ravaged by out-of-control fires devouring all that dry tinder brush out there in the dry desert heat of the Santa Ana winds.  We woke up early one Sunday morning to the smell of smoke and an orange glow on the horizon.  By the end of the week, it became known around the world as the largest, most devastating and destructive fire in California history.  You’ll remember the satellite photographs from space.  Our church structure barely escaped the blaze, unlike several homes in the neighborhood that were burned to ash.  Two terrible fatalities nearby sobered us all into a keen awareness of life’s gripping uncertainty.  Grieving families stood in the ruins of burned-out structures and out of a stunned numbness, wondered.  How can it be?  How could a lifetime of accumulation be erased in one sweep of intense flames?  Was it what it appeared to be – random?   Or is this some sort of message?  What’s next?  Where do we go from here?

So when in worship we ask God to “send the fire,” we know there is something else at play in the mind of the songwriter.  When the prophets talked about the sense of God’s presence and power “burning within” them; when Moses heard the voice of God in that desert place from a burning bush; on the day of Pentecost, when believers spoke with tongues of flame; when Paul told us not to douse (quench) the fire of the Spirit; when God is described as a “consuming fire,” well, we know there are many levels of meaning.

In 1991, Sam Keen, one of the editors of the popular monthly magazine, Psychology Today, wrote a book on masculinity in the age of feminism.  He defined his view in his title, Fire in the Belly.  For him, to be masculine was to be passionate – that’s what fire represents.  Not the out-of-control voracious flames that bring death and destruction.  Rather, the flames in the fireplace that bring warmth on a cold winter’s night; the flames of passion that ignite the power of romance; the candle that illuminates a dark room and brings a glow of hope and peace; the fire in the belly that fuels meaning and direction and energy to the tasks that fill our days; passion that carries us to the next level and ultimately makes our world a better place.

This week marks the end of a national campaign that most everyone will agree lasted too long.  On the one hand, we are weary of a process that generates more heat than light.  On the other we are grateful for the possibilities of new direction.   We are fearful that something is lost.  The foundations have been shaken.  We wonder how new leadership will fare in the testing that surely will come in the months ahead.  They tell us it will get worse before it gets better.   How much worse?

So in our church, we are praying for the passion of the heart of God to grip us.  We know we are in a vulnerable place.  Much is hanging in the balance.  At least one friend expressed the ancient cry Maranatha! (though she didn’t use the word).   “These are, it seems to me,” she told us with a hint of expectation in her voice, “the last days.” 

“Oh Lord, come!” has been a Christian theme ever since that Day of Pentecost when believers felt that first pang of loss as the post-Ascension era commenced.  And there appears to be plenty of evidence that she may well be right.

“But,” she added, “I’m not really ready yet.”  And after a thoughtful pause, “I want to watch my kids grow up.”

* * * * * * * *

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  We know history will be made this week.  There are candidates to be elected and propositions to be affirmed or denied.   The global economy is in a fragile, precarious place.  Nations are snarling against nations; saber rattling and ominous threats. 

And maybe what’s needed in us all is the kind of passion that renews our vision, kindles our confidence, and drives our pursuits.  Maybe what we need is indeed fire in the belly.  Not a stale creedalism that blandly affirms a set of doctrines, but a genuine ignition of confidence that in spite of the outcomes of popular elections, the God who started it all is not confused as we may be.

Conservative Peggy Noonan, writing for the Wall Street Journal’s opinion put it this way: “Let’s be frank.  Something new is happening in America.  It is the imminent arrival of a new liberal moment.  History happens.  It makes its turns.  You hang on for dear life.  Life moves.  Eras end, and begin.  God is in charge of history.

 (Italics mine.)

Copyright Kenneth E. Kemp 2008

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