Archive for September, 2009


Sunday, September 27, 2009

The dedication of children may be one of the best things we do in church.  Well, maybe not the best, but certainly one of the best.

It always gets me.  I’ve been sentimental all my life.  I got it from my mother.  Come to think of it, my Dad, too.  As I picture my Dad choking up over one of those touching moments, I guess I would have to say – he got it from Mom, too.  It’s why he picked her way back when.  She’s got heart.

Baby dedications do it to me.  Like this Sunday morning this week.  Moms and dads file up onto the platform as music sets the mood.  The kids aren’t quite sure why they are there.  They are groomed and polished.  You can tell just looking at them all, this event has been eagerly anticipated.

In our church, we repeat a certain series of presets.  You might call it tradition.  But even though it is all entirely predictable, it still gets me.  Every time.

First, our children’s pastor introduces the parents and the children.  She says something about what a privilege it is to work with these families and the staff that prepares and welcomes and cares for the kids week after week.  You can tell, they all like coming here as a family.  They may not be accustomed to the bright lights or the big crowd or the live feed that puts their bright faces up on the video screens.  But Pastor Lauren holds the mike and greets them all warmly.  The infants are oblivious.  But even the toddlers, well, they reach up for daddy’s strong hand.  They seem to know this is a big deal.

Especially when Lauren hands the mike over the Pastor Matthew, and he summarizes the purpose of the affair.  Together as a church family, we officially welcome these new children as a gift from a loving God who does all things well.  He congratulates the young parents, who really are not quite sure what happened to them.  They fell in love.  Made a promise.  Dreamed some big dreams, and now they are no longer just two.  They are three, or four or more.  And they look at each other, husband and wife who are now transformed into Dad and Mom and they are smiling broadly.  There is a sense of accomplishment that passes understanding.  A brand new capacity for love and generosity and giving was born in them along with the birth of that little one.  You can see it on their faces and right there in that bundle of blankets.

Matthew connects with their new life stage, mainly because he’s a Dad himself.  He challenges those new parents to teach their children about the God who made them and loves them and sent his son to redeem them.  And then he turns to us and invites us to express our commitment to these new parents and these little children to be an assist.  In whatever ways we can we will stand with these young parents as an intentional part of the growth and development of these families.  Especially the kids.

We all answer in unison. “We will.”  And we do, because we all share this strong conviction that this is really big.  It is among our primary reasons for being.  As we watch those new families, we remember when we were there with our little ones and now look what happened since.  And thankfully a likeminded community was there to help us, too.

Following a well-established protocol, Matthew invites all the extended family members who are in attendance to stand up so we can see them, and up around the front, a surprising number of aunts and uncles and grandmas and grandpas and cousins and brothers and sisters all take to their feet as though they were hoping the pastor would notice.  Then Matthew tells them that they have his full permission to take pictures and video and he doesn’t blame them at all because this is a moment worth remembering and every one of them has good reason to be very proud.  They all are.

A bunch of them take advantage and step into the aisle with all manner of digital recording devices and move toward the front for the best possible angle, flashes popping.

Then we pray.  Matthew goes down the row, eyes wide open, laying his gentle hand on the little ones, naming each child, each mom and dad, in a prayer of thanksgiving and challenge and dedication.  There is a warmth and a love that permeates the big room that you can feel.  A good wordsmith would call it palpable.

And that’s when I lose it.  Every time.  My eyes are open, too.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m tuned into the prayer.  I’m listening.  I’m watching those parents, those children, that pastor.  I know what’s coming next.  No surprises.  Step by step.  Down the row.  And it still gets me.  A warm, moist swelling in my throat and around my eyes.  I know it is biology and chemistry at work, but that does not come close to explaining it.  This is big.

And then as the prayer comes to an end, we all speak, one more time, in unison.  We say it together.  “Amen!”

So may it ever be.

This is one tradition I hope we never change.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2009

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Mr. Ayers

Monday, September 21, 2009

Steve Lopez, writer for the Los Angeles Times, needs a story.

When I first heard about him, I had difficulty understanding how a writer could possibly run out of stories.  I see them everywhere.  I wish I had more time to write all of them.  But then again, this is not a paid position.  I can write about anything that strikes my fancy on any given Monday morning.  That gives me a freedom most paid writers do not enjoy.

Writing for Lopez is his job.  His next piece has to be original.  Compelling.  And suitable for a sophisticated Southern California audience.  The year is 2005.  Way back when the Times still believed (naively) that it had a future even in the age of the Internet.

All morning, he looks at a blank new page on his monitor.  Nothing but backlit white.  He surfs the net long enough to know that this is the sort of day that is going to be a fine writer’s torment.  No ideas emerge to get the proverbial ball rolling.  Not one.  So Lopez takes a walk downtown just outside the storied offices of the Times, stumped over his paralyzing writer’s block.

Generally, professionals like Lopez stay clear of the street corners where the homeless gather.  But this time, he doesn’t care.  The scent of unkept bodies and piles of discarded debris, odd collections of anomalous treasures heaped up in baskets and backpacks and smelly faded threadbare blankets tied up at the corners fills the air.  Unwashed fabrics retain their pungent stench.  Lopez knows this world.  But on this particular life-altering lunch hour, he hears something new.  It is the clear strain of a soulful violin.  The player is indistinguishable from the mass of neglected human beings sprawled on the concrete sidewalks, abandoned entryways and graffiti covered block walls except for the way he holds the bow.  He moves like a concert violinist.  Perfect pitch.  Lopez freezes.  He is mesmerized.

He walks up to the man propped up by a wall and on closer look, he notices.  Two strings.  The banged up violin is missing two strings.

Lopez strikes up an awkward conversation.  This is not the first time outsiders have engaged the homeless man.  He is cautious.  In and out of coherence.  In the stream of words, Lopez, the researcher/writer, picks up a few details.  Among them – Juilliard.  And a name – Nathaniel Ayers.

It is enough to get Lopez started.  He telephones the celebrated Juilliard School in New York City.  Acquiring an acceptance letter from this renowned academy would put Nathaniel Ayers, the wretched street dweller, in the company of the finest musicians in the world.  The people in the office of admissions were helpful; but on the first round, they only reviewed the list of graduates.  “No one named Ayers,” they say.  Disappointed, Lopez hangs up the telephone, shaking his head.  He tells himself that this just happens to be a homeless man with a healthy imagination and rare talent.

A few minutes later, the phone rings.  It is Juilliard.  “Yes, we found him.  Nathaniel Ayers studied here for two years and then dropped out.”   Lopez’s eyes widen.  He fist pumps the air.  He finds his story.

How does one man get from New York’s prestigious Juilliard to the mean streets of the Lamp Community in Los Angeles?  Lopez determines to find out.

Lopez goes back to that same street corner.  Ayers is there, playing his violin.  And over the next few weeks, the Times reporter writes a series of articles that captures a wide audience first in Los Angeles, and then around the world.

Lopez and Ayers become friends.  Lopez finds a new instrument, a cello, and delivers it to Ayers on the street.  He entices him to come to a studio.  He introduces him to other musicians.  He offers lessons.  He believes the day might well come when Ayers will experience a break-through and emerge whole and thriving in some philharmonic orchestra, among his true peers.

It is so typically American to immerse ourselves in a project, believing somehow that we can achieve what no one else can.  We dream of the day we will appear on the other side as conquering hero.

But for Lopez, such is not to be.

Not that he didn’t try.  Ultimately, it is Lopez, not Ayers, who experiences that breakthrough moment.  His spirit broken in the effort, Lopez comes to a new level of self-awareness.  It is enough, enough to be a friend.

* * * * *

Lopez’s collection of articles for the Times is now a book.  The book has been made into a full-length feature film, too.  The Soloist stars Robert Downey, Jr as Lopez and Jamie Foxx as Nathaniel Ayers.  You may have seen the story on CBS’ 60 Minutes.

* * * * *

On this Monday morning, you are committed to making a difference.  You are boundless in your optimism.  You have seen transformation.  You know change is possible.  You believe.

But you also know that some of the things you would change never will.  You have tried so hard.  Invested so much.

Before you walk away in utter frustration, look back.  Think harder.  You may be missing something.  Open up.  Listen.

Instead of changing it, it may well change you.  For the better.

How do I know?  It’s happened to me.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2009

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Monday, September 14, 2009

When Tom Chappell pulled up for a routine pick up one weekday afternoon, he was late.  He knew Phoenix pretty well after covering these streets for some twenty years, but this time, he got confused.  It was a full twenty minutes after the dispatcher told him to be there, and his passenger was not pleased.  He understood.  It was a quiet drive through town as Tom delivered his passenger.  No tip.  Later, she said, “I expect a cab driver to know where he’s going.”

In the next couple of weeks, he got the call again from the dispatcher.  Then again.  Same passenger.  Same destination.  No more tardiness.  By now the route was all too familiar.  Tom is one of those friendly cab drivers who likes to engage in conversation, if the passenger is willing.  One of the reasons he enjoys the job, he says, is because he meets interesting people on their way to interesting places.  “If they need it, I’d give ‘em the short off my back,” he told the interviewer.

But this passenger sat quiet in the back seat, no interest in small talk.

He wondered why she made these regular stops at the clinic.  It was plain to see, she didn’t like it.  He had always been healthy himself, a wiry guy with a bushy mustache and a baseball cap, barely a hundred and fifty pounds, active, hard working and not much in tune with medical issues.  He had to stop by a library to look up the word “Dialysis” which was on the door of the medical building where Rita Van Loenen went several times a week.  There, in the local library, Tom came to understand Rita’s crankiness.  Sitting alone next to a clicking machine for three hours at a time with one big needle in your artery and then one more back into your vein to mechanically clean out your entire supply of blood is no pleasant affair.  So Tom just brought it up outright one day, and Rita opened up for the first time.

She confided in him that she needs a kidney transplant, but no one in her circle of friends or family is a match.  She’s on the national registry, but it is a long, unpredictable wait.  No guarantees.  So she sits at the machine.  Without it, the toxins would take her out in a week or two.

Wow.  Tom said.

The next week, Tom shocked Rita with a question.  “Can I get one of those tests?”

“What test?” Rita asked, nonplussed.

“The one that tells you if you are compatible,” Tom said.

Rita, to this day, could not believe what she was hearing.  Tom later told CBS newsman Steve Hartman that he had a little talk with God about it and got the go-ahead.  When the results of the testing came back, Tom and Rita, chatty cabbie and reluctant passenger, were confirmed as a perfect match.  Tom said, “According to the doctor, we are so close, we could be siblings.”

The news of this rare close encounter of the “coincidental” kind hit the local media outlets.  Tom scheduled the surgery.  It takes several months.  Rita can barely speak when she talks about her unlikely donor.

But that is not the end of our story.

“One of the reasons I’m doing this,” he tells Rita, “is that you’ve got a life.  I didn’t think I had that much more to live for anyway.  No big deal then.”

Shortly after the account of Tom’s offer aired on the local news and appeared front page on the Phoenix newspapers, Tom got an unexpected telephone call.  On the other end was the daughter who left at age eight with her determined mother when Tom’s wife walked out and disappeared over thirty years ago.  It had been a nasty divorce.  The cab driver pulled a picture book out from the dashboard glove compartment of the taxi and showed Hartman the photo of his estranged daughter, a little girl with curly strawberry blond hair and a bright smile.  He brushed away the tears when he said, “Not a day has gone by in these last thirty years that I didn’t think about her…”

“Dad, I heard about the kidney,” were her first words on the telephone.  It was as though she missed him, too.  The word reached her in Kentucky.  The act of kindness made this obscure Phoenix taxi driver something of a local hero, not only to the folks in the neighborhood who knew him and Rita’s friends and family, but now just as much a hero to the daughter who left at age eight so long ago, now a mother with children of her own.  “I found out about the grandchildren I didn’t know existed,” Tom told Steve, choking up again with emotion.  “She wants me to see the children.  To get to know them.”

“This whole thing didn’t just give you a life,” he explains to Rita.  “You gave me a life, too.”

Hartman gave us more good news as he signed off.  Tom’s employer, the owner of the taxi company, will not only put Tom on paid leave for the time it takes to extract one of his kidneys and then recover, they will also pay for the plane fare and more time off so Tom can be reunited with his daughter and meet his grandkids.

So today, on this Monday morning, fellow leader, whom might we meet?  Are we listening?  An unsolicited act of kindness.  Where may it take us?

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2009

See the video.

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Ode to Yolanda

Monday September 7, 2009

With all of this talk about the health care crisis in the air and the acute need for reform, I suppose it is that much more likely that we will take the cynical view of doctors and nurses who get paid to help us get well.  We are quick to conclude “incompetent,” “negligent,” “frustrating,” “annoying,” “indifferent,” “uncommunicative,” “inability to listen,” “distracted,” “the left hand has no idea what the right hand is doing,” “cost slashing,” “out of touch,” when we talk about our experience in the hospital or the clinic or the emergency room or the doctor’s office.  And if you’ve walked through the system lately, chances are pretty good you found evidence to bolster your case.

Maybe it is a nation-wide malady, fueled by talking heads and media shorts that make the doctor/patient relationship increasingly adversarial.  Throw in the insurance companies and the bean counters and the Hippocratic Oath gets lost somewhere in a footnote on the spreadsheet.

But then, along came Yolanda.

When we held our new little Rachel in our arms, with all the awe and wonder of new brothers and sisters and dad and grandma and grandpa all in that state of glory that shines and fills the room in the first few hours that follow the high level achievement of Mom’s delivery of a healthy baby, Rachel cried out.  At the time, we just thought she knew how to let us know that she wanted something.  We did not know that her sharp cry was a response to a piercing pain just under her neck towards her right shoulder.  We soothed her and sang to her and stroked her soft cheeks and informed her of her spectacular beauty and sweetness and laughed about her size and Kristyn’s amazing work birthing a nine pounder.  We took lots of pictures and posted them in the Internet for the world to see.

But nurse Yolanda noticed something.  Little Rachel’s lips had a bluish tint that just did not seem right.  She mentioned it to Kristyn.  We need to check this little girl more closely, she said.  Kris nodded.  “OK,” and handed the little bundle over to the nurse.

Yolanda convinced the powers that be that our little girl should be photographed by X-ray; and as they scanned the image over the lit board, they noticed that one lung was not filling up like the other.  As they looked more closely to find a cause, they found something else.  There, just under her chin.  A broken bone.  Unmistakable.  During that high-speed, high-powered exit passing through her mother’s birth canal (Kristyn called it “shot from a cannon”), little Rachel broke her right clavicle.

That not only explains the shrill cries, but it also explains the shortage of oxygen.  We know that her injury had the effect of slowing her breathing, decreasing the oxygen supply.  As oxygen level drops, breathing slows more.  We do not even want to think about the possibilities had Rachel’s broken bone and breathing difficulties had gone undetected.

As I left the children’s intensive care unit where Kristyn fed her newborn, I passed by the sink where I had earlier performed the mandatory scrub-down toward the exit and a nice nurse smiled and asked me if I enjoyed seeing my grandchild.  “Yes, indeed,” I replied.

Then I stopped.  “Do you know nurse Yolanda?” I asked.

“Yolanda on the day shift?”

“That’s the one.”

“Sure, we know Yolanda,” she nodded with a knowing smile.

I told her about the blue lips and the skilled observation and the ready testing and the broken bone and the trouble breathing.  And I said, “You are looking at one very grateful grandpa.”

She seemed to sigh one of those sighs that affirmed the Hippocratic Oath she affirmed way back there on graduation day.

“Would you please deliver a message to Yolanda?  Tell her that there is a Grandpa out there looking forward to delivering a warm thank you in person one day soon?”

“I certainly will.”

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009
Story told with permission

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