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Archive for May, 2009

Story

Monday, June 1, 2009

When Daniel Pink suggests in his book (“A Whole New Mind – why right-brainers will rule the future”) that the left-brain approach to a world in transition is old school, he got my attention.  All my life, I’ve felt something like a misfit.  And now that I’m approaching the autumn of my life, Pink says I’m cutting edge.

Too bad I wasn’t born a few years later.

My left-brain friends call it fuzzy logic, imprecision, and muddy thinking.  Pink says otherwise: it’s all that remains, he asserts, now that all those task-oriented jobs have been outsourced to the other side of the globe.  If we think we’re going to make a fortune putting spreadsheets together or creating databases, Pink warns we’re in for a rude awakening.

In preparing us for the world to come, he identifies six “senses” (he calls them) that need our attention: design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning.  (Yes, in the interest of full disclosure, he admits it in chapter 4 – he’s a Democrat.  Now that I look at his list, it does rather sound like the criteria the President employed when he searched out a new candidate for the Supreme Court.)  But as I write, I’m plowing through the chapter on “Story” and, well, he’s singing my song.

He’s got some salient quotes in this chapter – like E. M. Forster (who wrote Howard’s End) who put it this way:

A fact is –
The Queen died and the King died.
A story is –
The queen died and the King died of a broken heart.

So story goes beyond a recitation of the facts.  It goes to the heart.  Pink also quotes Don Norman who wrote a book called Things That Make Us Smart:

“Stories have the felicitous capacity of capturing exactly those elements that formal decision methods leave out. Logic tries to generalize, to strip the decision making from the specific context, to remove it from subjective emotions. Stories capture the context, capture the emotions… Stories are important cognitive events, for they encapsulate, into one compact package, information, knowledge, context and emotion.”

So I write stories.  I’m doing a lot of that of these days.  It has peaked my interest in story-telling, and those who do it well, like those two business partners Disney and Pixar who just released the new animated feature, Up, for example.

I wish I could write titles like my old boss, Chuck Swindoll.  He’s the master (Hand Me Another Brick, my personal favorite.  How does he do that?)  But titles aren’t the main thing.  It’s what happens when you read.  That’s what really counts.  Disney’s new movie will not draw audiences because of its title (Up… that’s it?)  It’s the story you’ll tell your friends about.  It’ll get you.  It got me.

The first four minutes is the hook.  When shy Carl meets the precocious Ellie, she’s on her way to attack a world of mystery and adventure.  Her keen eyes and laughter draw the boy in and you understand why he decides there is only one way he wants to spend the rest of his life, and it’s with this firecracker of a lady.  She acknowledges his interest with a Grape Soda cap badge, and fastens it to his chest with a safety pin.  In four minutes, we walk through their marriage, their first house, the news that there will be no children and the building of a dream house with a painting on the mantel of their real destination – Paradise Falls – in South America.  It’s the dream that energized their life until all too soon, Ellie falls ill, and dies.

The king of the house sits in the rocker of the house that love built with a photo of Ellie, the painting of Paradise Falls and a faded book of adventure, filled with memories and a plan that never came to be and one more thing – a broken heart.

Enter Russell, the almost Eagle Scout.  A boy with big aspirations, and no dad.

That’s all I’m going to tell you.

Be prepared to be touched by this animated adventure.  It will teach you about life and love and the power of story.

How do those PIXAR guys do that, anyway?

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Well, the college graduations are finishing up, reports of the high profile speeches make the rounds.  The long Memorial Day weekend is now behind us.  We got caught up in it, too.  Ours was one of those quintessential American weekends.  

We had a moving dose of patriotism in our worship on Sunday morning; and a compelling message about the importance of family.  Then, that afternoon, just the two of us rode our bikes on a crowded beach trail, dodging skateboards, strollers, roller bladers, pedestrians on cell phones both talking and texting, other bikers and dogs on leashes.  Somehow we kept our bikes upright.  We finished off the day watching the sunset from the bluff on our beach chairs at Corona del Mar.

Then on Monday, a family day in the pool with grandkids – one of the best swimming pools in the world; with climbing rocks and waterfalls and diving platforms into clear, deep water.  Apparently, the boys are hardwired at the level of DNA, taking dares and making the leap from every possible launch point with abandon.  It’s built in, this need for death-defying thrills that make their mothers nervous.  It’s who they are.  But just before they jump, you hear one of the greatest phrases of all – “Watch this Grandpa!”  And off he goes into outer space for a few spilt seconds of weightlessness before hitting the water with a noisy splash; but not until he knows I’m watching.  And when he pops up with that look of triumph, I say, “High five!”  And we do, right out there in the deep water, while dog paddling.  I can’t think of a place I’d rather be on Memorial Day than in a pool with squealing grandkids pushing the envelope trying something new and courageous under a sunny sky with the smell of burgers coming off the BBQ.

Because I’m the oldest of the siblings, I am frequently asked to offer the prayer before we dig into the burgers, baked beans and salads.  This year, I was reminded, “Don’t forget… it’s Memorial Day.”  It’s always good to prompt old guys like me whose memory needs to be jolted now and then.  So I had a couple of minutes to think it over as the clan was gathered into a circle and my brother offered an official welcome and we got caught up on the whereabouts of those who could not join us today.  And that’s when it got to me – the awareness that ought to hit every Memorial Day – that we would not be enjoying this kind of afternoon in this kind of place were it not for many who laid down their lives for our freedoms. 

And then I thought about the two in our extended family who did answer the call to serve: one who just completed his second tour in Iraq, a Marine named Barrett, and the other, the father of the little boy in the arms of his mother standing just beside me – an officer (First Lieutenant Tim) in command of a group of men and women in harm’s way on the other side of the globe as we gathered around the pool on a breezy Southern California day. And for those few moments it became very real – this sacrifice made by so many, like my nephew so far away, and his beautiful family right here with us, missing him.

So I was ready to pray.  A prayer of gratitude.  A prayer for protection.  A prayer for peace. 

And that’s what I did.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Ben Patterson introduced his third session in a series on prayer for a group of pastors up at the mountain conference center. He commented that some of his long time friends find it intriguing that the man we knew back in the day would have landed on this devotional topic as his primary focus at this life stage. I’m one of them.

Ben just published a wonderful volume – God’s Prayer Book – the Power and Pleasure of Praying the Psalms.  I first met him in the mid seventies just about the time he started a Presbyterian Church in the heart of the OC (Irvine).  Since then, he’s been one of my heroes.  In those heady days just out of seminary, when Nixon resigned and the Vietnam War weighed heavy on the collective unconscious of a nation in turmoil and evangelicals hadn’t yet celebrated “The Year of…,” Ben and his pals put together “The Wittenburg Door” to keep us young believers entertained.  I was a big fan.

In the mid-sixties, he was a football player at Occidental when he first got serious about his Christianity.  It was a two-hour lecture by J. Edwin Orr, the Oxford scholar with two doctorates that got him thinking about the power of collective prayer, and its impact in history through student led movements.  He organized a dorm-wide prayer vigil, aiming at an entire restless post-war baby-boom generation.  He never fit in with the separatist fundamentalism of the fifties and sixties.  He knew there was more.  But at the heart of it, a powerful, authentic connection with the living God had him anchored.

He would often ascend to this mile-high conference center nestled between steep granite slopes, high rocky peaks and tall pines and a deep blue sky by day and bright stars by night.  He even joined the summer staff.  He confessed that he was a frequent clandestine visitor to a little stone prayer chapel up the hill from the meeting hall.  Not many of his friends knew it.  He mostly kept it to himself.  The Presbyterian craftsmen who built it added stained glass windows all around, one for each of the twelve apostles and then at the center, Jesus kneeling over a large boulder in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Ben would slip into the quiet shelter and talk to God – about his career plans and about a life-mate and a future family and about a troubled generation and how he might play a role in helping others find the good God he addressed there in the stone chapel a mile above sea level.  A peace filled him up in that place, along with an inescapable exhilaration about the days to come.  He knew it was real.

Ben told the story of bringing his first-born son, Danny, to the mountain when he was in the first grade.  When Danny explored the grounds, he stumbled across the little chapel in the trees and ran back to tell his dad about it.  The two of them walked up the trail marked with stones along the perimeter of the path and opened the heavy wood door and the two of them, father and son, sat on a bench facing a podium with a big open Bible and Jesus kneeling in stained glass.  As Ben recounted the moment for us pastor types, his voice caught with emotion, because sitting next to him on that bench all those years back in the chapel on this very mountain across the valley and up the hill was the answer to the prayers he prayed as a collegian from that very spot.  Daniel.  And on that day, Ben told his little boy Danny about the prayers of a college guy who asked God for a family and a life.

I’ve always thought of Ben as a man’s man.  He knows what it takes to survive the gridiron and to play to win.  He’s a thoughtful intellect, widely read.  He quotes the great thinkers, secular and sacred.  He’s tuned in to the needs of families and professionals and neighborhoods.

So here we are, nearly thirty-five years after our first encounter, and we’ve come full circle.  We’ve still got our finger on the Text.  We’re still in the company of men and women who want more than a paycheck.  We’ve survived the church wars and the temptation to chase after something other than the Kingdom.

Ben has for nearly two decades now been a spiritual director on two major college campuses.  He’s written several books and countless articles.  His network of colleagues and friends extends around the world.  And as he spoke to us, we all noticed it.  When he pointed us listeners in the direction of a scripture passage, he would quote it from memory.  In three or four messages, he covered it all – the books of Moses, the Psalms and Proverbs, the Gospels, the Epistles.  Without fanfare, he simply quoted it, a paragraph at a time, with near thespian quality inflection and diction as though the text were simply an extension of his identity.  Coming from somewhere deep inside.

In an open discussion of his new book on the psaltery, we asked him about memorization.  He talked about it freely, easily.  He realized, as a pastor, that when he brought a passage to his people they would listen more attentively when he quoted from memory.  He got hooked.  More and more, he would memorize.

Several years ago, at the prior college in the Mid-West, a colleague challenged both Ben and one other.  On a Friday night, after a lengthy and concentrated preparation, the three of them stood at the front of the historic Dimnent Memorial Chapel on campus before seven lit candlesticks and repeated the entire book of Revelation from memory without missing a word.  Twelve hundred students packed the sanctuary – standing room only.  And at the end, the collegians and faculty stood to their feet in amazement – a standing ovation.

A few months later, an encore: The Book of Romans.

And now, Ben, six years older than I, has transformed from a witty, original, thoughtful, non-conformist; an articulate collaborator of the Wittenberg Door to a deeply devotional, authentic brother who draws people in everywhere he goes to genuine conversation with the living God.

He’s a dad.  Soon to be grandfather.  Lauretta still at his side.

And to this very day – one of my heroes.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

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Monday, May 11, 2009

The older I get, the more I like to prepare in advance for a day like Mother’s Day. That said, I was one of those last minute guys picking up the Hallmark Card over there at the corner Drug Store on Saturday afternoon.

I wasn’t alone. There were several other guys like me there at the card rack. As I walked through the automatic doors with one of them, I knew we just might be heading to the same place. Sure enough, there we were, two strangers searching for the same card category in the expanded “Mother’s Day” section.

“I guess we both know why we’re here,” I offered.

“Yep.” And he pointed to the tabbed file card. “TO WIFE.”

“Looks like the selection’s getting slim,” he said.  By Saturday afternoon, they are pretty well picked over. “Yeah,” I agreed.  Us guys are not regulars at the Hallmark counter. An occasional birthday, maybe. Anniversary.  And Mother’s Day.  Three times a year.  We’re there.  Whoops, almost forgot. Valentine’s Day.  Make that four.

Generally, I prefer to do this one on my own.  I’m not real eager for strangers to look over my shoulder and read these rather personal sentiments I plan to pass along to Carolyn on these occasions.  Maybe there are guys who want help.  For me, there’s a privacy issue.  But there we were.  Guys tentatively reading the text on Hallmark cards.

I looked down the row, and at the end was a guy I won’t soon forget.  I’ll never see him again, but he made an indelible mark.  I’d call him six-foot-four, maybe two-sixty to two-eighty. Maybe more.  Big tattoo on his upper arm.  Baseball cap.  Earring.  He held up one of those glossy sacks with a pair of white string handles, a combination lime green and sky blue and brimming out of the top were multicolored tissues.  A bright red bow tied neatly to the handle.  He was working on a gift package, adjusting the paper just so, and it clearly was not intended for a teammate on the football squad or a buddy out there on the job site.  He tinkered with it in a world of his own there on the drug store aisle by the gift packaging section.  Guys do goofy stuff when they are in love.  Tomorrow is Mother’s Day.

So we all lined up to pay our bill.  Holding our cards.  A few held colorful bouquets.  All of us seemed a little uncomfortable; except for that big guy with the gift bag and the tattoo.  You could tell the checker was amused by the scene.  It’s one of the seasonal perks for an otherwise dull occupation.

After a minute or two it was just me and the big guy.  He punched in his debit card code, grabbed his receipt, thanked the checker and turned toward the door marked OUT.  I handed the woman behind the counter my card and some cash, but I was thinking about how good it is that we have Mother’s Day and while most of us fall short of meeting up to expectations most of the time, at least we’re there standing in line somewhere with something chosen off the shelf that will communicate our love and pride and appreciation to the one waiting for us back home.  The big guy must have known I was thinking about him, because he turned back toward me, caught my attention, pointed to his gift bag and surprised me with an explanation.  

He said,  “Day at the spa.” And from under his cap, he broke into a big, broad smile.

“Wow.” I smiled back. “That’s cool.”

“She’s never been to one,” he added; grinning like he’d just won the championship game.

“Way to go,” I responded with a fist pump.

He nodded back, acknowledging the universal sign of victory still smiling, and then he turned back and walked out the door. Maybe I was just imagining it, but I noticed a little bounce in his step.

The checker didn’t make eye contact, but she smiled knowingly as she worked the register.

So my imagination went to work again. Maybe I missed it entirely – but this is what I thought: I pictured the woman who said yes to this giant of a man. I imagined the little brood of kids she produced and cares for and the pride this young father feels every time he thinks about the rascals who call him Daddy.  He recognizes the thankless hours she puts in every day and he’s bringing it home: a gift pack with a gift card tucked inside the tissue.  For you, sweetheart: a day at the spa.

He didn’t strike me as a guy who was out to buy affection; to offset some sort of misbehavior.  Not this guy.  He was clearly rewarding a job well done and a future he embraces.  Largely, because of her.  Mother’s Day is a good thing.  That’s the way I saw it.

So he inspired me.  I thought about Carolyn.  And Kristyn.  And Candy.  And Sonya.  And my Mom.  All of them.

Moms who deserve a day of joy and thanks.

I wonder – who was that big guy?

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

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Monday, May 4, 2009

Several years back, a good friend recommended Laura Hillenbrand’s compelling book, Seabiscuit, An American Legend.   She said that I would enjoy the author’s work as much as I would the story.  She was right on both counts. 

The story kept me engaged from beginning to end.  Hillenbrand’s style kept me there.  Leslie Green was spot on.  Hillenbrand’s prose inspires me.

It also introduced me to the world of thoroughbred horses.

According to my strict religious upbringing, dancing, drinking, smoking, profane language, movie going and gambling were all lumped together as out-of-bounds for us true believers.  As we advanced from adolescence to adulthood, one of the real challenges for us moderate-to-progressive believers with advanced academic degrees was to remain true to our roots while at the same time ignoring or even violating a bunch of those old prohibitions.  This abandonment required a refined capacity for rationalization backed up by a complex biblical hermeneutic; but we managed to make the case – to the horror of grandparents everywhere.  Many of my fellow believers have become wine connoisseurs, aficionados of microbreweries and fine Cuban cigars, die-hard fans of Dancing with the Stars and quite capable film critics.  Some salt and pepper their speech with one time prohibited vocabulary.  Perhaps deprivation enhances curiosity and then ultimately – indulgence.  All things in moderation, of course.

But gambling.  I never could get over than one.  Las Vegas always made me feel like I was walking the streets of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Casinos still trigger flashes of guilt and shame and holy trepidation.  It’s built in.  A conditioned response.   A hailstorm of fire and brimstone are the inevitable outcome for visiting such places.  It’s the way I was raised.

The racetrack is in that category.  You know, gambling.  So, I wouldn’t know much about the track at all except for the story of Seabiscuit; Red Pollard (jockey) and Tom Smith (trainer) and Charles Howard (owner).  As Hillenbrand’s story unfolds in the depths of the Great Depression, jockey, trainer, owner and horse come together and bring out the best in each other – reawakening and reviving broken careers.  They inspire a nation – and a full-length feature film.

And maybe because of Seabiscuit, thanks to the technology of DVR, I can’t help myself.  In spite of that upbringing, I check in to the Kentucky Derby every year.  I’m quite certain my grandfather would disapprove, but what a spectacle. 

It is an irresistible occasion for opulence – conspicuous consumption on a grand scale, right in there with Oscar night – a coming out party for the super wealthy.  The dress code is Scarlet O’Hara meets Tom Wolfe.  The hats.  The colorful blooms.  The celebrity interviews.  The Twin Spires.  A cool mint julep.  The deep green lawns and English country gardens – roses, calla lilies, carnations, Gerbera daisies, and tulips.  Of every variety and color.  Did I mention the hats?  Wow!  The sort a woman might wear to Buckingham Palace for a springtime lawn party.

Lerner and Lowe nailed it in My Fair Lady  – opening day at Ascot –

Ladies and Gentlemen
Every Duke and Earl and peer is here
Everyone who should be here is here.
What a smashing, positively dashing
Spectacle: the Ascot op’ning day.

So who would have imagined the script that played out in this year’s Kentucky Derby?  Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum of Dubai flew in two of his horses on one of his corporate jets.  He declared his determination to win the American classic, no matter what it takes.  And he’s got all the money he needs to make it happen.  He has poured untold millions into his pursuit of the Kentucky prize.  But neither of his champions, Regal Ransom or Desert Party, both potential winners, delivered.  The prosperous Sheik has yet to attain that coveted visit to the winner’s circle.  Without a doubt, he’ll try again.

This year, the surprise winner was a dark horse, brought to the event in a trailer pulled behind a pick up truck for twenty-one hours all the way from New Mexico.  His owners purchased Mine that Bird for a paltry $9,500 and celebrated only one thing: they qualified to show in the famed Derby.  Co-owners Allan and Blach hired an unlikely quarter horse trainer – Bennie Woolley – a former rodeo rider.  Two months ago, he suffered a broken leg while riding a motorcycle.  So when he chased his winning horse into the winner’s circle in stunned disbelief, wearing a broad brimmed black silver studded cowboy hat and blue jeans, he hobbled on crutches.

Just before, on the track, Jockey Calvin Borel held back in last place up until the final quarter of the race.  Then, he cut Mine that Bird loose.  The re-play shot from the aerial view from the blimp that floated overhead tells the stunning story.  The unlikely thoroughbred sprinted his way on the inside bolting past some of the most expensive horses in the history of the event.  Several trained by Hall of Famers.  Two more flown in from Dubai.  A couple of sentimental favorites.  No one imagined Mine that Bird had a chance.  Fewer placed bets on his number.  The odds were fifty-to-one.

But off he went, like a sprinter out of a slingshot.  Like a fighter jet launched off the deck.  It was more than a gallop.  He soared.  Along the rail, he cut inside through an opening no wider than his rib cage.  And then out in the open.  He pulled away.  The raucous cheering for the favorites in the packed house dampened into a shocked dull “huh?”  Who is that horse?  What’s his nameWhere did he come from?  Can this be happening?  From under the broad, flowered hats women in sundresses frowned.  Men in colorful suits and starched collars staggered back in bewildered disbelief.

As Borel crossed the finish line he stood up in the stirrups a record breaking six-and-three-quarters lengths ahead of the second place horse, pointed heavenward and screamed in delirious delight.  A network reporter pulled up on horseback and put her remote microphone up to the winning jockey’s face and caught the unbridled celebration for all to hear.  Calvin Borel, who has already won one Derby, never imagined a second trip to the winner’s circle.  Certainly not on this horse.  Looking toward the gray Kentucky skies, the jockey who finished his schooling with the eighth grade hooted and hollered and cried, “Mom and Dad – I wish so much that you were here to see this!”

And out of the gloom of a sloppy, rainy post-crash afternoon in the Spring of 2009, in a sport forbidden by my childhood preachers and Sunday school teachers, I saw it with my own eyes in high definition: broken down trainers can try again. 

The dark horse can be the winning horse.

Money is no guarantee of success.

The winner’s circle is not for sale.

The race is only over for those who stop running.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

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