Archive for December, 2008

Monday December 29, 2008

One of the greatest gifts of grandparenthood is watching the children who grew up in your house take their parenting seriously.  Something is born in them – just as it was born in you – that accompanies the birth of that little child.  It’s an innate longing to create a home in which this little person can thrive; to learn and grow and capitalize on the capacity for intelligence and stoke the fires of wonder and prepare for a world of challenges.   This parenting thing is a most demanding role, if you stop and think about it.

When your own children take on the mantel, it becomes a your reward for aging.  Let’s face it: there is a downside to growing older.  You’ve got to experience it to really understand.  We older guys don’t expect you young folks to appreciate the challenge.  We didn’t grasp it either back when we possessed the blinding glow of youth.  But the offset to the aches and pains and physical limitations that grip us these days comes at Christmastime when you re-united with your own children and see their devotion to keeping the traditions of the season alive in the hearts of their own offspring.

We heard the news as the day approached: our oldest daughter purchased an eleven-pound standing rib roast for Christmas eve dinner.  Prime rib.  All the associated trimmings.  Mmmm.   

They moved into their new home just after Thanksgiving.  Decoration of the new place took a back seat this year; unpacking boxes, painting walls, ripping out old carpet and laying down a truckload of travertine on the first floor, well, it meant there was a little less time for outside lights.  But even so, the house was ready for Christmas.

Gifts wrapped.  Tree decorated.  And over the fireplace, a stenciled greeting – Christmas – the most wonderful time of the year.  Kris is a determined lady.  Not only was the new house prepared for the family, all of us – Grandma and Grandpa, her two siblings and their spouses and all the little ones (all seven grandchildren) – but she also scheduled in their church’s Christmas Eve celebration mid-afternoon.

The whole extended clan would arrive after the service.   But for now, Ben would leave the clinic where he worked all day and meet Kris and their four kids at the church in time for spiritual orientation.  There would be the singing of carols and lively worship and heartwarming drama and a stirring biblical message and that would set up the Christmas Eve of 2008 as one for the memory books.

Kris dressed her four kids (ages 6 to ten months) and they all piled into the van in time for the opening of the program.  Ben wished his colleagues a “Merry Christmas” and raced to his car in the lot.  He checked his watch.

It was on the freeway that Kristyn thought about the roast.  “Uh… how long does it take to cook an eleven pound prime rib?” she thought.  “Better call Mom.”  When Carolyn checked her sources and relayed her findings – three and one half hours – Kristyn’s heart sank.  She made a quick calculation, and tried calling Ben.   No answer.

Everything else dropped off the radar.  “Oh no,” she thought.  We won’t eat until nine o’clock!  No way.  These thoughts consumed her.  As she herded the kids into the sanctuary, she hoped to find Ben and send him home to get the roast in the oven.  But the entire Inland Empire arrived at the same time for the same service.  Crowds gathered around every entryway.  Kristyn got to the main floor entrance, but could not locate her husband.

A few minutes before, Ben arrived, too.  He snatched an open row of seats and dutifully reserved them for his family.  He stood guard at the end of the aisle and time after time, informed ushers and families that these seats were taken.  He never saw Kris on the other side of the back entrance.

Nor did Kris see Ben.  An usher blocked her entry and directed her to the balcony.  Kris tried to explain her situation.  The usher, fresh from his staff meeting, repeated the rules.  No.  We may not allow you inside, he stated flatly.  He did his duty.  The tone of his voice made the point: there would be absolutely no exceptions even on this day of generosity and giving of gifts.   That’s when the tears welled up in Kristyn’s eyes.

She and the four kids missed the Christmas Eve service.  She loaded them back up in the van and headed out the parking lot driveway and home to the meat still in the fridge.  Ben sat through the whole program with five empty seats next to him.  On the way down the freeway, tears streaked down her cheeks and she told her kids she was alright and that it would be a great Christmas in spite of it all.  She put the Christmas CD in the stereo.  She tried to sing along.

When I heard about what happened, I went straight to the market on the hunt for an appropriate bouquet of flowers.  I don’t know why, except that my heart filled up with such enormous pride over our daughter’s planning and the cruel encounter with Murphy’s Law and the well-meaning but Pharisaical usher who would rather state policy than help a young and harried Mom caught in a Christmas dilemma and Ben, my terrific son-in-law sitting there on Christmas Eve in a nameless crowd next to five premium seats, all empty.  The remainder of the big hall was jammed.

But a short time later, when we all arrived at the new address to the aroma of prime rib filling the house and stuffed mushrooms and chilled Martinelli’s and the children squealing with delight to be a gathering of cousins around the fireplace and music filled the air and we hugged and the burst of flowers became the centerpiece of a beautifully set table and we held hands and offered our thanks to God in heaven for his indescribable gift, well, the empty seats and the gruff usher back at church faded into oblivion and this Grandpa looked around the room and the seven grandchildren and the three children and their spouses and woman he’d married nearly forty years ago and felt a swelling up of gratitude that came from somewhere deep.

* * * * * * *

You are a leader.  And on this Monday morning, in a world as unstable and unpredictable and filled with turmoil as ever, a new confidence emerges.  The God who dispensed that Greatest of all Gifts so long ago, still gives.

Be anxious for nothing is what he said.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

ADDENDUM – Kristyn shared one more incident that flared up on the afternoon of Christmas Eve.  (“No one knows this part,” she said.)  When she got home, eager to get the prime rib going, she fired up the oven and then the stove to sear the meat.  The flame inadvertently ignited a dishtowel.  Thankfully, she managed to put out the fire before it triggered the smoke alarm and interior sprinkler system.  This story used by permission.

Read Full Post »

A Christmas Carol

Monday December 22, 2008

When the children were young, I would read some of the (what I considered to be) classics out loud on a rare open evening, sometimes by a crackling fire.  There were all the predictable complaints.  Television shows seemed, at first, to be preferable to dad’s voice.  Or so they all said.

But Carolyn agreed.  Stories from a good book trumped the flickering images on the screen.  Unity in parenting is paramount at a time like this.  We worked together to get our three settled into the living room to listen to dad read a book.  One of the standards at Christmas-time was Dicken’s A Christmas Carol.   Three or four years in a row, we read the story in its entirety over a series of chilly pre-Christmas nights, the fireplace aglow.  I don’t know that the kids enjoyed the text as much as I did (sometimes one or two dropped off to sleep as I read on), but now all these years later they all three love to read good books and they are teaching their kids to do the same, so I guess it was worth the effort.

Another one of the residual benefits is that I’ve got those stories planted firmly in my otherwise overloaded memory bank.  Phrases like “dead as a door-nail” and “Have we no prisons?” and “surplus population” and “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted man at the grindstone…” stay with you once you’ve read them out loud.  It’s an amazing thing, really, that a book first published in 1843 (under the title “A Little Christmas Book”) could be as relevant now as it was then – one hundred and sixty five years later.  As Mr. Scrooge is guided by clever spirits, spirits summoned by his departed business partner Jacob Marley, through Christmases past, present and future, he is forced to look into his own reflection and contemplate the things he’s covered over with obsessive record-keeping and endless lists of transactions and other self-absorptions and see his own life as it really was.

He saw that his boyhood laughter and rich friendships and wild imaginations somehow got lost in the pursuit of money.  And ever more of it.  When it cost him the only pretty young girl he ever loved, he shrugged and moved on as though it didn’t matter.  He danced and laughed with the unforgettable Fezziwigs on Christmas Eve, but those days faded into oblivion long ago.  Lost love.  Lost laughter.  Well, they gave way to a petty, desolate miser.  His partner, Jacob, apparently shared his views – all that mattered was profit.  Profit for profit’s sake.  Joy became the frivolous occupation of the lazy and the irresponsible.

So Marley returns as a ghost late one snowy night to the frigid, sparse apartment where Scrooge sits alone with his tepid bowl of gruel.  He delivers a message from the other side.  Marley knows now that an eternity of regret, in a world where reconciliation is no longer possible, is his portion.  It’s a hell that falls short of Dante’s inferno, but it is hell nonetheless.  It’s the torment not of flames, but eternal regret.  The apparition of his life-long business partner warns Scrooge that a similar fate waits for him.  But unlike Marley, Scrooge still has time.

Dickens’ classic appears every year in a constellation of venues.  The great actors all want to give it a shot – a demanding role that takes a man from rank cynicism to open hearted generosity.  We’ve seen it performed on stage and on screen; and every time the message rings true.  Frank Capra made a classic with the Dickensian theme – good man gets lost and almost gives in to the dark side; then finds redemption on Christmas Eve:  It’s a Wonderful Life.

Maybe it’s time for a contemporary re-make for our own generation.

* * * * * * * *

Dr. John Coe (Talbot Seminary – professor of spiritual formation) tells the story of coming to faith in Christ as a college student in the mid-seventies.  It was an overnight transformation.  The devil-may-care party-animal caught up in a sea of narcissism found a way out.  He came alive to God.  He exchanged self-destruct indulgence for a wholesome, drug-free natural high.  He told everyone he met.  He read books like a starving street kid attacks an all-you-can-eat buffet court.  One of the things he would say over and over again is “Yes.  I’ve found new life.  But it’s not religion.  It’s a relationship.”

As Dr. Coe tells the story, the journey led to a focus on education.  He completed his undergraduate courses with honors and then went on to seminary and a doctorate (Ph.D.).  He made his way up the academic ranks in religious institutions, wrote books and hit the lecture circuit.  But one morning, he says, he woke up to the realization that the relationship that meant so much in those early days had grown stale and cold.

The relationship was gone.  All that he had left was religion.

* * * * * * * *

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  Christmas is only days away.  Like most of America, you’ve let people know that this year will be leaner than last.  You’ve cut back on the extravagance.  You’ll be less likely to rack up the charges on the credit cards.  You’ll get creative this year; do things that cost less but mean more.

Dickens and Capra and Coe are on to something.  Us old guys, guys who once knew the truth and laughed easily and danced to the music with abandon, well, we call it reality.  We think of it as obligation.  We swim in the deep end.  We shoulder the responsibility. 

And we are reticent to admit how it has crushed us.

Like Scrooge and (George) Bailey and Coe, we need to be reborn.  What will it take?  A visitation of ghosts?  An angel named Clarence? 

This year, let it go.  Just long enough to hear the angels sing.  To hear the laughter of the children.

And the wonder of the manger.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

Read Full Post »

‘Tis the Season

Monday December 15, 2008

I’m working on a new challenge as we end this tumultuous year.  It may seem simple enough on the surface.  I’ll say it plainly.  I want to learn better how to live in the present moment.

After all, it’s the only one we have.  I’m quite capable of planning out my list of things to do on any given day.  I spend a fair amount of time assessing the past.  I think about how things might be different if I had only done this or thought of that or said yes instead of no or jumped at that opportunity that came and then went.  My mind never seems to shut down; so I get lost in a television show or a podcast or a book.  I hammer out arguments pro and con, and I develop theories of how we got in this economic mess and I debate with myself over theological imponderables just because I’ve always thought about these things.

I ordered a sandwich the other day at a lunch counter, and my pocket phone vibrated at the arrival of an email so I had to see what it was and by the time I came back to awareness of the task at hand, I realized that the poor woman who simply wanted to know if I cared for mayonnaise and mustard had been trying to get my attention for I’m not quite sure how long.  She feigned patience.  Smiled accommodatingly.  The woman beside her laughed, and let me know that I’d vacated the premises for some time, though my body remained present there at the counter.

“I hope it’s good news,” she finally said, referencing the e-mail that stole away my attention from the lunch order. 

I smiled, “Yes, it’s good news.”

“Good,” she responded, “we all need good news.”

And then she squirted equal swirls of mayo and mustard on to the honey wheat bread.

Aging has this effect, I’m told.   At this stage I complain often about an overloaded memory bank.  From time to time I’ll give my computer some maintenance.  Have you ever watched the “defrag” function on your hard drive?  It’s fascinating how files get fragmented and stored in pieces scattered all over the drive space.  They say it’s a good thing to run the program that reconnects those fragmented files – it makes your machine run more efficiently.  I want to know if there’s a program available to defrag my brain.

We Westerners are known for our cerebral life.  We fire up the caffeine in the morning to get it racing.  It’s the new status symbol to be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.  If you don’t have A.D.D., you’re just not running fast enough.

This year there is a whole new truckload of weighty things to think about – like survival.  So we kick the planning into high gear.

This Christmas day, we’ll be together with our children and their children.  (We’ve got it timed.  On alternate years, they are with their spouse’s family.)  Here’s my confession – I can get so lost in my whirlwind of cerebral noise, that I am capable of being somewhere else while in the very presence of the people I love the most.

It’s like reading e-mail while ordering a sandwich.  “Mayo and mustard?”

* * * * * * * *

It’s Monday morning.  You are a leader.  We’re caught up in the race, like always.  Our comfortable world has been shaken to the foundation.  Our fragmented brains are racing in overdrive.

David looks to God and listens.  “Be still.”

“Be still and know that I am God.”

 And that’s what I’m working on this year. 

So tonight, after turning in the tile cutter over at Home Depot tool rental, I looked up long enough to catch it.  On a brisk winter evening in Southern California with visibility unlimited I saw it.  A spectacular sunset, bright on the horizon painting the clouds spanning from North to South in fiery reds and lavender and magenta and grays and blues so big, encompassing the sky above and I knew it would just last a moment.  So I stopped.  I just looked up, one side to the other, and took it in.

“Be still.”

For just one moment there in the parking lot of Home Depot, I let go of all the stuff.  And on the way home I asked God to make this Christmas season like that sunset, so that the children and the giving of gifts and the squeals of the little ones, well, when all that happens, I want to be there.

Present.  In the room.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

Read Full Post »

Striped Pajamas

Monday December 1, 2008

When a pampered little boy in clean clothes and groomed hair parks himself outside the barbed wire fence of a Concentration Camp somewhere in a forest clearing in Nazi Germany, he meets an eight year old born the same year.  They strike up an unlikely friendship.   One is confined.  The other free.  They are too young to know the difference.  Or perhaps a more profound observation – that they both are prisoners.  And – they are children.

Fiction always requires a suspension of common sense at some level.  We are quite accustomed to the obvious license literature and cinema often take.   Animals don’t speak English.  Spiders don’t take on human form.  Coincidences often push the limits of plausibility.  And yet these are the hallmarks of compelling story-telling.  We cut our writers and movie-makers plenty of slack – even when the fiction’s backdrop is historical.

John Boyne’s novel has been adapted to the big screen.  It’s not a simple one.  The premise is unsettling.  The horrors that will forever live in infamy as the most appalling atrocity in the advance of the Arian race are indelibly etched into the consciousness of every student of history.  To deny the inhuman elimination of over six million of Hitler’s innocent targets, as some apparently do, is to rewrite history to one’s own liking.  We all know the culprits.  We shrug them off as illiterates.  But they are dangerous illiterates.

So efforts will continue to keep the memory alive.  The mantra echoes through the decades, “So that it will never happen again.”  And yet with all our sophistication, with all our strategies to prevent it, genocide continues.  Terrorism lives.  Ethnic cleansing persists.  The stories must be told and retold.  Perhaps someday the world will learn.

Accounts of the Nazi atrocities abound.  Carolyn and I have visited three Holocaust Museums (Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Jerusalem).  But this cinematic account takes a new tack.  It’s a devastatingly potent approach.   Two recommendations came along that we view the new film.  Chuck Colson encouraged his readers to see it.  Then Pam, one of my regular readers and frequent commenter said this –

Tonight I saw the most painful movie that I have ever seen. This movie shows Nazi Germany through the eyes of two eight-year-old boys, one a son of a German officer, and the other a prisoner in a nearby camp. I can’t stop crying. Please see this movie.

If “happily ever after” is your kind of evening out, then this won’t be your cup of tea.  It’s a dark conclusion.  Without giving away the ending, know that you’ll need to sit for awhile before you’ll gather whatever is required to get yourself out of your seat and moving toward the exit.  It’s a stomach punch, as reality sometimes is.

That caution raised, be prepared for a story that will grip your heart.  The genius of the film is that it draws you in as though the outcome of this gruesome moment in our collective consciousness becomes your story.  It happens because you become so readily attached to this little boy – Bruno is his name.

Bruno is proud of his father.  He’s a distinguished officer in the Armed Forces.  He is admired and respected in his upscale neighborhood.  Everyone is pleased with the progress of nationalism.  It’s a welcome era of prosperity and affluence.  There is a new orderliness, a new patriotism sweeping the Motherland.  His older sister, Greta, feels it, too.  Bruno runs the streets of the city with abandon.  He and his friends fly up and down the sidewalks like a squadron of fighter planes – imaginary dare-devils soaring through the neighborhoods where adults smile knowingly at the charm of little boys at play.  Their father’s “promotion” comes as a surprise.  At first, mom is proud, too.  But it will mean a farewell to the house they love. An adventure.

Only the officer’s mother (Bruno’s grandmother) seems to know intuitively that something is terribly wrong with this idyllic family portrait and national giddiness.  Their relocation puts Lieutenant Karl Kotler in command of a prison camp, which, we soon learn, has devised the machinery of mass murder and high volume incineration.  Too much for an eight-year old who takes pride in his father’s position and his place in the country to understand.  Schmuel sits across the fence, and lives on the “farm.”  (This is his parent’s explanation.)  It all seems normal to Bruno.

What unfolds is a lesson in personal morality.  At what point does conformity to the framers of an unjust cause become co-conspiracy?  What do we teach our children?  Who do we invite into their world to become their mentors and educators?  At what point to we share responsibility for systemic injustice?

Chuck Colson believes we should watch the film “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” (Bruno’s way of describing his friend Schmuel on the other side of the fence) because it forces these questions upon us.  The innocence of childhood can be taken away all too soon.

It’s Monday morning, and as a leader, you and I are facing new realities.  We’ve enjoyed a weekend of thanksgiving, and found plenty to be grateful for even in this era of doom and gloom.  But now we’re back to the reality of Monday and the final month in the calendar year.

If Bruno teaches us anything at all, we are dealing with issues that matter.  Our choices count.  Evil and good are in mortal conflict.  People get caught in the cross-fire.  We’re here to protect, to warn, to challenge, to think and to put our confidence in the One who will bring it all to a proper conclusion.

That’s why we’re here.

Copyright 2008 Kenneth E. Kemp

Read Full Post »