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Archive for January, 2009

Reading for M.L.K. Day

Monday Morning, January 26, 2009

Thanks to a friend who forwarded me a link, I’ve just completed what I expect will become my way of remembering Martin Luther King on this annual national holiday established in his honor.

I read his “Letter from a Birminham Jail.”  (from April 1963)

It’s been a long time (sometime in the 1970s) since I explored the ten-page letter.  I think it impacted me then, but how much more so now.   From a prison cell in Alabama, King responded to a group of “moderate” clergy who released a letter of their own (A Call for Unity).

King’s command of language; his reference to biblical passages and characters, as well as theologians and philosophers, both contemporary and from the pages of history is compelling.  His passion for justice, his clarion vision of freedom and the cost of it and his determination to follow the dictates of his conscience engage the reader powerfully.  It is no wonder that King’s Southern Leadership Christian Conference sparked a movement that would bring segregation to the forefront of American life back in the sixties.  Civil Rights legislation was inevitable.

I’ll look on this document as evidence that the written word has enormous power to affect change.  His discussion of civil disobedience, his critique of a “disappointing” church, his challenge to clergy and his defense of an oppressed people stirs the heart, informs the mind and challenges the reader toward the courage of his/her convictions.

It’s inspirational reading.  Click on the link.  Find a quiet spot for a half hour or so.  See if you feel the same.

And now, on occasion of Inauguration Day 2009, Dr. King must know.  The dream certainly is not fully realized, but my my my, what a step, a giant step, in that direction.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2009

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Double Bird Strike

Monday, January 19, 2009

Alas – we needed some good news.  And we got it. 

Flight 1549 left the runway at LaGuardia as I was having lunch with a friend here in California this week.  A few minutes later, I got a text message from CNN – BREAKING NEWS – something about an airliner in the frigid waters of the Hudson River.  I shrugged, and went back to my conversation.

It wasn’t long before reports filled in the detail.  It’s been the headline story all weekend, right up there with Tuesday’s run-up to the historic Inauguration of our 44th President. 

All of us who travel by air identify with the passengers of the US Airways flight.  We’ve been in those cramped seats.  We’ve worked to block out the possibility of disaster as the big machine barrels down the runway under maximum power with a full load of passengers, baggage and fuel.   We silently wonder if, just maybe if, this routine flight might become a headline grabber of its own.  We clutch our book, whisper a prayer, think about the people we love, look out the window and watch Planet Earth drift away.  We breathe a sigh, and comfort ourselves with the statistics – millions of flights and passenger miles without incident.  We’ll be fine, we believe.  Just fine.

So when a loud thump rattled through the passenger compartment, just ninety seconds into the flight at three thousand feet, all those pent up, unspoken fears materialized.   Suddenly the roar of the engines went silent and the noisy thrust turned into the whisper of the wind holding up the wings and a hush fell over the long lineup of seats.  It was as “quiet as a library,” said one of the attendants. 

Moments before, up front, Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger saw the flock of large Canadian geese, just as one splattered across the windshield.  Sully, as his friends call him, instinctively ducked.  He heard and felt the thud.  But the bird that ended his life on the windshield of the jet liner was only one of the airborne casualties.  The two powerful Pratt and Whitneys ingested several more – too much fleshy, feathery mass to digest.  In an instant, the hot, high-speed fans gummed up and flared at impact, clogging up the works and flaming out killing the power as well as the birds in the intense heat.  Both sides at once.  The big, heavy airliner became a glider, a few thousand feet over some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in America.

I’ve got to believe that Sully is uncomfortable with all the accolades.  He just did his job.  No question, he ranks among the best of the best.  His charming wife called him a “pilot’s pilot” and described him as one who is captivated by “the art of the airplane.”  He trains other pilots to fly the big aircraft.  He knows the routines of flight as well as anyone.  He’s a veteran who decades ago flew hundreds of sorties over Vietnam.  And now, the test of his career came on a routine frigid day under the gray skies of New York on a milk run to Charlotte.  Sully has lived with the burden of leadership for a long time.  Now, engines gone, the succession of rapid-fire decisions will determine the fate of his passengers and crew and countless innocent people on the ground below.

No time for philosophical meanderings.  Sully and his co-pilot, Jeffery Skiles, went to work.   They were losing altitude.  First instinct: a go-round, back to LaGuardia.  Too far.  Second choice, a general aviation airport.  Also too far.  Runway too short.  The Hudson.  Sully made his decision.  Ditch in the Hudson.

Sully’s responsibility is simply to “put her down.”  Safely.  Few have as many landings as the Captain in their log-books.  This touch-down was anything but routine.  It was textbook perfect.  Some are calling for a ticker tape parade – New York’s version of standing ovation.

In this highly populated area, in this digital age, it was inevitable that video and photographs would emerge.  My personal favorite is the shot looking directly at the nose of the airplane still afloat, passengers standing ankle deep from wing-tip to wing-tip in the frigid open waters of the wide river filling the frame left to right with the silhouettes of one hundred-fifty some survivors almost as though they are walking on the water.

New Yorkers aren’t really comfortable with the word miracle.  It smacks of a power greater than our own.  New Yorkers are pretty much self-reliant as a people group.  But it was the new Governor David Paterson who used the “m” word – comparing the happy ending to that familiar Miracle on 34th Street.  The media pounced on the thought – The Miracle on the Hudson.

* * * * * * * *

On this Monday morning, the pile of tough news keeps growing.  You are a leader.  Personal stories are rolling in.  Lay-off here.  Drop in sales there.  Closure down the street.  Foreclosure across the way.  Companies in jeopardy.  Banks on the auction block.  Portfolios bleeding.

It’s as though we’ve suffered a double bird strike.   The nation’s economic thrusters have been cut off.  We’re gliding and losing altitude fast.  But think about it.  Sully and Skiles set the pace for what to do in a national in crisis.

Leaders don’t retreat into the dangerous, time-consuming black hole of “why?”  Leaders get to work.  Leaders focus.  Leaders draw on their training.  Leaders pull out the instruction manual; go over the checklist.  Leaders find a landing site.  Leaders buckle up; brace for impact.  Leaders reach out and help their neighbors to safety. 

Some leaders know the One who walked on water.  For them, miracle is more than a default headline.  It’s an expectation. 

These are leaders who follow – follow Him.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

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WALL-E and Isaiah

Monday, January 12, 2009

I was not prepared for sheer delight of Pixar’s latest entry, now on DVD.  I knew it would be charming and whiz-bang eye-popping on the special effects.  Computer generated animation has come of age.  The only limits are those that exist somewhere in the collective imagination of the creative team.

But I was not ready for the Huxleyan level social critique and underlying biblical themes.  I remembering hearing someone discount the film as Al Gore by Pixar – one more cinematic vision of doomsday apocalypse by self-destruct ignorance – a tired rehash of the evils of global warming and all that.  But this movie is way more.

His name is an acronym: Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth Class.  The time frame: seven hundred years from now.  Computers are intelligent.  WALL-E is the last of the solar powered robots programmed to clean up the trash generated by capitalist consumerism gone amuck.   The human race appears to be extinct.   If humans survived the ruinous collapse of sustainable life – photosynthesis – they are no-where to be found in the opening scenes.

WALL-E takes us for a tour.  He doesn’t seem to know he is alone, or troubled by isolation.  His only sidekick, a lively, indestructible cockroach (Jiminy Cricket?) named Hazy, follows his every move like a pet Labrador retriever.   Mainly, WALL-E puts in a solid workday.  He’s a mobile trash compactor, collecting garbage and reducing the junk to manageable cubes that look like building blocks.  From the looks of things, he’s been at it for several hundred years.  On the side, he collects the objects he scavenges during the day and stores them in his makeshift home.  If an object he finds makes him curious – he takes it with him.  To name a few: a string of Christmas lights; a Zippo lighter; a Rubic’s Cube.  These artifacts of a bygone era connect our world to his.

It’s not until an alien space ship makes a noisy, disruptive landing that WALL-E’s mundane world is shaken up.  The ship delivers an egg-shaped probe then returns to the heavens with the roar of the space shuttle booster.  WALL-E watches from the shadows, curious, fearful.  Before long, the two creatures find each other and become friends.  WALL-E and Eve.

Their language is all nuance.  Their eyes.  Their chirps.  Sighs.  Gasps.  It’s a charming interplay that leads to friendship – and pure romance.  But that’s not the story.  The focal point, the hinge pin of the storyline is contained in an old, discarded leather boot.  Its color is a brilliant contrast to the dusty, rusty, hazy backdrop of the film.  It’s a bright glowing green shoot – a plant with three leaves that emerges from the soil in the boot as an irrepressible life form.  Eve is stunned.  She captures the specimen as she is programmed to do, and soon afterwards, the rocket that delivered her to WALL-E’s yard returns to pick her up.  WALL-E can’t bear the thought of her departure, so he manages to hitch a ride on the rocket to follow her back from whence she came.

Their arrival introduces us to a world that elicits an “a-hah.”  It’s a massive space station; home to thousands of fortunate refugee humans who several hundred years prior escaped uninhabitable earth for life in a completely controlled environment until such time as planet earth might once again sustain life.  These humans are pampered.  Advanced technology provides each with individualized care.  Their life is entirely virtual.  They recline in deeply padded, high-tech, hovering Lazy-Boys, equipped with individual wide screens that deliver a steady stream of images on demand.  Central Authority carefully controls messages and communication.

After several generations of life in a space station that resembles a Disney World Resort, each has sacrificed any hint of individual identity for the satisfying pleasures of a virtual world.  They are all horrifically obese.  Big brother has them right where he wants them.  They are not free.  They are captives to their appetite for comfort.

And the most threatening invasion to this idyllic sterile world just arrived in the ship’s receiving dock: a green shoot – growing out of an old, worn, tattered boot.

* * * * * * *

It’s Monday morning.  The news hasn’t improved much.  Transition is in the air.  The stress levels climb.  The uncertainty closes in.  We are tempted to give in and conform to the flow.

Isaiah saw it coming.  The powerful Assyrians and then the Babylonians threaten to destroy everything Israel built.  He knew Jerusalem was next, and the wonders of the city would be reduced to rubble and ash.  But the prophet also new that the mighty armies of the enemy would not have the final word.  Out of the ground would appear a little green shoot – and it would signal that life had not been extinguished.  God would provide, and prevail.

He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground.

And for those who will see and hear, even this era of broken dreams, devastating loss, fear of the unknown, a little green shoot appears.

To set us free.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

Note: Isaiah 11 and 53

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Security

Monday, January 5, 2009

This is not the first rough start for a New Year.  Remember Y2K?  We thought the turn of the Millennium (12/31/1999) would usher in the End of Days.  But that midnight turned out to be something of a global gag.  Mid-year predictions of the collapse of all things digital turned out to be an excuse for the world to upgrade hardware and software – creating what we now call the Internet bubble.  The NASDAQ climbed like the launch of the space shuttle and didn’t take a nose-dive for another couple of months; after we replaced all of our computers.

But the New Year following the attacks of September 11, 2001 was no joke.  The market lost considerable value once more as the nation picked through the rubble at the base of the demolished World Trade Center.  Innocence vanished.  The belief that two wide oceans buffered us from enemies that wish us harm evaporated, and a wave of unprecedented vulnerability swept over us like a tsunami.

Back then we didn’t imagine that we were on the brink of an economic boom.  But we were.  The years that followed brought unbridled global expansion.  That awful vulnerability transformed into a vain invincibility.  Someone will someday write a book on how a nation at war with terror somehow embraced the fool-hearty notion that the rules of the economic game no longer applied.  Once there were respectable guiding principles like “the generally accepted rules of accounting” and “conflict of interest” and “full disclosure” and “proof of creditworthiness” and “objective appraisals” and “independent audits.” 

The guiding proposition that dominated the era: “Greed is good.”

Maybe greed is one of those serious sins after all.  Today, we are paying the price for our neglect of those time honored professional standards.  And it makes for uncertainty as we face a new year.  The market sustained record-smashing declines.  Real estate values followed suit.   Which came first?  Does it matter?  Unemployment is on the rise.  Manufacturers close plants.  Stores, stocked with unsold merchandise post large signs: “Going Out of Business.”  Any takers?

The experts tell us that we are too smart to fall into another Great Depression.  Whew.  But for those of us who review our investment reports, or check the comparative sales down the street, or look at the gross income figures and company stock price, well, there is reason to be concerned.

So what’s a leader to do on a Monday morning like this?

I, for one, am starting this way: I’ve asked myself three questions.  First, where is my security, really?  Second, am I willing to change?  And third, what immutable principles do I affirm?

I’ve been programmed to believe that my security comes from my job, my home and my investments.  On this Monday morning, the starting point of another calendar year, it’s time to rethink that assumption.

Maybe the reason I’m confessing that I need to reconsider is simply because that security has been called to question on all counts.  Maybe that’s the benefit of economic hard times. 

And maybe “security” is a destination to which we never really arrive anyway.  At least not in this life.

Unless, perhaps, real security is something else.  Like knowing who you are.  To whom you belong.  Resting in a confidence that comes from somewhere that transcends a world of calculations of net worth and net equity.

Like Psalm 118 where David says, among many other wonderful things –

“His love endures forever.”  And –

“It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in princes.”

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2009

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