Archive for November, 2009

Monday, November 30, 2009

Queen Elizabeth addressed the Parliament in November 1992.  It was the fortieth year of her reign; a time for Kingdom celebration.  But in that formal room filled with specialists in the art of the stiff upper lip, she wearily announced to all that it had been indeed an annus horribilis. Hardly the stuff of rosy optimism or sunny royal cheer.

What prompted her rare attempt at self-disclosure?  Well, there was the fire at Windsor; but mainly it was the children.  Marital problems set the legendary British tabloid network ablaze with searing headlines and sordid photos.

Maybe she took her cue from the American President, normally self-possessed and sober.  Six years earlier, July of 1979, Jimmy Carter addressed the nation in a televised address to let us all know we had an attitude problem.  Apparently, all the bad news got to him.

“It is a crisis of confidence,” he declared.

The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next five years will be worse than the past five years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.

As you know, there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.

The following year, Ronald Reagan denied him a second term.

In another month, we will close out the first decade of the new millennium.  Good riddance, says TIME Magazine.  Andy Serwer’s cover story calls it “The Decade from Hell.”  Maybe those Y2K guys were right after all.  The calamities catalogued in TIME’s piece just about measure up to their apocalyptic predictions.  No, the computers worked all right, thanks to the upgrades most everyone had in place by December 31st.  There was no immediate need for all that fresh water, non-perishable foodstuff and cash stashed in the safe.  But the New Year, January 1, 2009, signaled an avalanche of disaster, all rehearsed in detail in the nation’s influential weekly.

It is distinctly un-American to dwell on the negative.  Our capacity for denial matches only our resilience and aptitude for recovery.  We prefer not to dwell on calamities past.  We are the nation that escaped the injustice and tyrannies of Europe, crossed the great ocean and staked our claim in the New World.  And we’ve been building a New World ever since.

That’s why Jimmy Carter got the boot.  When the Monarch admitted defeat, we Americans privately cheered.  But the Brits figured it was time for the Monarchy itself to be cut loose.  Now TIME raises the banner of malaise, a decade horribilis.

It may well be that TIME itself believes the end is near.  The print media is facing the real possibility of extinction.

While Serwer does a pretty good job of summing up the disasters – from market crash to market crash and everything in between – his attempt at a happy ending rings a little hollow.  It is tired stuff like “the market always moves in cycles” and “government regulation is sure to move in with preventative measures” and “America is still the World Leader” and “the other nations still want to be like us.”

But think it over.  I have been around long enough to remember a half dozen decades, and every one of them could have been summed up as the worst ever.  Every one.  Go back and count them.  1949.  1959.  1969.  1979.  1989.  1999.  2009.

Yes, we are all waking up to a brave new world.  Perhaps like never before, we are all in a process of reinvention.  We are adapting to new realities.  We are learning new skills.  We are thinking in new ways.

But certain realities remain; foundational things upon which we built a life.  Like last Thursday, when we held hands around a table still bountiful and drew our collective attention toward the faithful God who sustained the generations on whose shoulders we stand; the God who sustains us still.  We looked around the circle at the grandmas and grandpas and moms and dads and those giggly children.  Enveloped by the aroma of turkey and dressing and hot gravy and spiced cider we smiled in the presence of goodness and beauty and wonder and then we bowed our heads.

We expressed our thanks.

For a few moments, we let go of the dangers and toils and snares, and we felt gratitude.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

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Monday, November 23, 2009

Collective memory is powerful.  Shared experience settles somewhere in the recesses of our minds.   With that mysterious but effective mechanism, memories can be recalled and replayed especially in the company of someone else who was also there.

We marvel the ready access to mountains of information we enjoy at the simple push of a button via the electronic superhighway.  I now carry Google around with me everywhere I go.  I can even search by simply speaking my question out loud.  And I often do.  Carolyn and I wondered about Amy Grant’s age.  Within seconds, we had it.  She turns forty-nine on Wednesday.  Thanks, Google.

But as amazing as our technology is, we still have not plumbed the depths of the operation of the human mind and the software that drives it.  We are, as Ekhart Tolle says, caught in the now.  This is the only moment we possess.  But our minds are also recording devices, and we can call up the past, reminisce, rehearse and with a little imagination thrown in and a few photos as an assist, it is almost as though we relive it.

Not all those recollections edify.  I have been around long enough to wish more than a few of those memory files away; recollections tucked away in those mental subdirectories that require a password.  Would that the delete button on my failings would be as efficient as the one right here on my keyboard as I write.  I would happily dispatch those forgettable moments into cyberspace without a trace.

But then, we have the capacity to choose.  We can decide which memories we will pull up for review.  We can choose where we go.  With whom we associate.

Choice is, perhaps, one of our most basic duties as humans.  It is a duty and a privilege.  An opportunity and an obligation.  Some suggest that choice is simply an illusion; that forces from the outside control all of us, and ultimately we are helpless.  I have never subscribed to this view, though like you, I have been helpless before overwhelming circumstances before which I am powerless.  Sometimes it is hard.  But then there is serendipity, too; surprise by joy.  Like last weekend.

All these thoughts swirled around me as I sat with Carolyn on a crisp, sunny Sunday morning out in a valley on a farm near a pumpkin patch with the people who ten years ago responded to the call of a local visionary to start a church.  I resisted, at first.  Bill was likeable enough.  But I was weary of religion.  When Bill knocked on my door, I had pretty much given up on the idea that church mattered.

We were new in town.  We moved, happily, because that church situation we left behind was a mess.  Political infighting trumped joy.  Turf wars left good people broken and bleeding.  We started out with the right motives, but in time we became a sorry collection of Pharisees and Sadducees.  The factions all claimed to be in step with their hero.  Some were of Paul.  Some were of Peter.  Others, Apollos.  And that Jesus crowd was the worst.  All claimed to be biblical.  Mainly, our gatherings were occasions for debate, one-upmanship, spiritualizing, posturing and confrontation-in-love.  The forced smiles didn’t fool anyone.

Settled into our new home out in the country, I found a great big church where I reveled in my anonymity.  It was twenty-five miles away.   We could slip in any given Sunday morning and not meet anyone by name.  No one seemed to notice we were there.  I liked it that way.  On the Sundays we slept in, no one missed us.

But then, Bill, the ultimate networker, with an easy, natural way about him, began to pull us together.  We started meeting our neighbors.  We found out some of them had been praying that God would bring new neighbors who would be a source of spiritual encouragement and nourishment.

The first Bible study took place in our living room.

That was ten years ago.  We gathered to celebrate what happened since.  Hundreds of lives have been changed.  We pooled our resources and bought a fixer-upper up on the ridge.  We faced fire and rain and sunny days we thought would never end.*  And there we were, worshipping with abandon out there in the open air, celebrating God’s goodness.  In spite us.  In and through us.  Because of us.  We call it Ridgeview.

I have written a couple of books about those days out there in our very own Lake Wobegone.  Before long, you’ll find links on the Internet.  Stay tuned.

Paul had it right.

Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

*Thank you, James Taylor.
Scripture quote from The Message, Eugene Peterson

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Monday, November 16, 2009

When the shots rang out, Sgt. Kimberly Munley was on traffic detail.

This is hardly the kind of duty she found motivational.  Her training and her experience made her an eminently overqualified traffic cop.  Mainly, the wiry compact young police officer was prepared for whatever.  At five foot three inches tall, she hardly dominates.  But what she lacks in size, she balances out with attitude and heart. It is her life.

A mom with two daughters, juggling schedules and following orders come with the territory.  She shows up on time and takes her assignment.  A regular at Fort Hood, up until that moment, it was just an ordinary day.

Most of us experience violent confrontations from the comfort of an overstuffed chair or a reclining theater seat.  We sip on something pleasant, maybe munch on handfuls from a bucket full of popcorn, and watch images on a screen.  Sound effects add to the “experience.”  We have climate control and comfortable seating.  We feel a contrived sort of emotional connection; fears and starts, gasps and the instinct to take cover.  The editors enhance the images with slow motion close-ups, replayed from several angles and surround-sound crashes and blasts.  This week, a movie was released that portrays the end of the world.  Every city, every landmark, every wonder of the world is digitally destroyed.  “It’s almost like being there,” we like to say.  But of course, we are not.  When it’s over, we go out for a burger, fries and a shake.

Munley is a police officer with plenty street experience, a firearms instructor and an award-winning marksman.  One night, while a working crime on the streets of Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina, Munley stopped a suspect along with Investigator Shaun Appler.  The detainee shouted obscenities at the two officers and then charged Appler.  Apparently, the man discounted the threat of the short, female officer standing beside her uniformed partner, and with reckless abandon tackled the larger man knocking him off his feet.  His radio and flashlight flew up into the darkness.  They rolled down a grassy embankment.  Munley spotted the assailant reaching for Appler’s holster, which twisted around his waist onto his back.  The attacker pulled loose the strap and grabbed for his pistol.

Appler remembers the scene in detail.  Kimberly Munley leapt after the two wrestlers, flying down the hill and pouncing on his assailant.  She slapped his hand loose from the pistol, ripped him off her partner by sheer strength, neutralized his assault and held him under her own drawn gun.  In those moments of shock and terror and helplessness, Appler believed he would die – until he saw the flash of an airborne officer coming to his rescue.  To this day, he claims that she saved his life.  Since that night, he calls her “Mighty Mouse.”  He’ll break out in the old theme song, “Here I come to save the day!” He’s not joking.

“She’s mentally and physically tough,” Appler said.  “I’d rather have her by my side on patrol than anyone else.”

So last week, as Sgt. Kimberly Munley waved the traffic through outside the Soldier Readiness Processing Center at Fort Hood, and she heard the shots.  Instinct from years of training and street experience sent her towards the door from where the pop-pop-pop came.  She drew her weapon.

Major Dr. Nidal Malik Hasan had already wreaked havoc on a room crowded with troops waiting idly for their inoculations.  He chased one of his victims out the door shouting and shooting, two hands each with a pistol firing as Kimberly ran full speed around the corner on a polished concrete floor.  The marksman took her aim, shouted at the shooter, and pulled her trigger.

Malik turned from his target, and aimed his two guns directly at her.  He fired.  She fired back.  He fired again.  First her hand, then both legs.  Three hits.  But she kept charging and kept firing.  She brought Malik down.  The shooting stopped.

On her way to the hospital, she pulled out her cell phone.  They controlled the bleeding.  They used a bandage for her hand, and a tourniquet for one of her wounded legs.

She called a neighbor.  “Could you pick up my little girl this afternoon?  I got delayed.”


“Thank you so much.”

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp

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Monday, November 9, 2009

These are shared national experiences.  Many of us know people or have family who are serving our country in uniform.  We track the news.  We look up locations on Internet maps.  We imagine life in Iraq or Afghanistan; out where the fighting takes place.  We think about the dangers of combat and hidden bombs triggered by remote and snipers hiding in the shadows, behind the thick brush or a crag in the rocks or concrete walls around the corner.  We pray for safety.  We pray for peace.

Many of us have attended the graduation ceremonies and watched the commissioning.  We’ve also been there when the troops come home.  It all gives us a personal sense of the sacrifice.  We get in on the camaraderie and among the troops.  We get a taste of military culture.  We see at close range the impact of hierarchy; the mutual respect among the ranks.

I always pick up on the phrase “my soldiers.”  When one of the guys talks about the battalion, the personal possessive pronoun comes into play.  It implies ownership.  Responsibility.  These are “my” people, they will say.

There is, perhaps, no other context in which American diversity is so plainly evident.  Men and women.  Every ethnicity.  All dressed the same.  All learning to work together, and see past the prejudices and biases learned somewhere on the outside, and see rather, the person in battle beside me on whom my life now depends.  The differences that seemed so significant back in civilian life melt away in the face of combat.

The stunning moment at Fort Hood, when in one of those crowded rooms as troops prepared for deployment, a high ranking officer in uniform stood to his feet shouting an Arabic phrase, commonly employed as the prelude to an act of violent terror, and then opened fire on an unsuspecting gathering of troops seated around tables, has us all in a state of utter bewilderment.  Sadly, stories of individuals who snap and get their hands on weapons and then engage in a killing rampage are not all that uncommon.  We are all too familiar with these episodes of senseless violence.  But when a medical doctor, a psychiatrist, trained to heal, becomes the perpetrator of such pointless aggression, it takes your breath away.

There will be plenty of commentary coming.  The talking heads will present their theories.  Experts will be called on to pars all the detail.  But because Major Nidal Malik Hasan survived, there will be a trial.  Who knows how long it will take?  There will be calls for capital punishment.  Will the defense claim mental incapacity?  Some will plead for compassion and mercy.  We will wait for the Major to say something for himself.  We will be schooled on the intricacies of military tribunals; and the possibility of the transfer of the case to a civilian criminal court.

In a surprisingly strong statement, Army Chief of Staff General George Casey said, “Our diversity not only in our military but in our country, is a strength.  As horrific as this tragedy was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that’s worse.”

We can predict with a fair degree of certainty that the shooting by the doctor at Fort Hood will, for some, become the occasion for inflammatory rhetoric.  But as one soldier put it, “Adversity like this only makes us stronger.”

When victims and close range witnesses are asked, “Are you going ahead with your deployment?”  The answer is most often, “Absolutely.”

So we pray for the families who suffered loss.  We pray for the injured who now face rehabilitation, and in some cases, permanent disabilities.  Some of them severe.

And most of all, we pray for peace.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp

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Hand Signals

Monday, November 2, 2009

Australian born, Mardi (pronounced Maw-di) exchanged a career as a world-class soprano for motherhood.  It was a conscious choice.  For her, the dream of performing on the big stage came true.  She traveled all over the world, recorded in studios with big orchestras, and finally landed major roles in metropolitan performing arts centers.

But home and family were more important to her than the bright lights.  More than a decade ago, she declined that last offer to make the stage her life.  Today she has, instead, a husband and three children.

So now she’s a mom.  A worship leader, too.  She didn’t identify which daughter, but as she drew the church into worship, she shared a brief parenting anecdote.   “She will remain nameless,” she said.  “Let’s just call her Precious.”  It was in anticipation of a parenting Sunday with special speakers who brought a direct message to moms and dads.

One ordinary afternoon, one of their two girls had question.  “Mom,” she asked, “what does it mean when you raise your middle finger in the air at someone?”

This generation of parents has learned that gasping in horror or breaking into uproarious laughter or changing the subject are all inappropriate responses to the innocent queries of their young, no matter how surprising.  So Mardi, calm and sure, took a deep breath, gave the best on the spot impromptu response she could.  She sat down on the couch.

“Precious,” she said, pulling the little girl up on her knee, “that hand signal represents a very bad word.  It’s so bad, I don’t even want to tell you what it is.  It is a word we don’t ever say.  And that gesture is one we never use, either.  Ever.”  Mom was firm but gentle.

“Oh,” said Precious.  “OK.”  She seemed to understand.  She jumped off her mom’s lap, ready to move on to something else.  She ran off into the playroom.  Mardi sighed in relief, glad that one was over.

Until a few days later when the phone rang.  It was the Vice Principal.  “Mrs. Cork, you need to know that today your little girl held up her middle finger in class, and the teacher sent her to my office for disciplinary action, which we are obligated to impose,” said the voice on the other end of the line.

This time, Mardi gasped, “Prescious?!  My Prescious?” was all she could say.

By the time mother and daughter would meet again face to face, the little girl was in tears, awash in guilt and shame.  Immediately, Mardi sensed that while a sharp reprimand may have been first on her list, it was not necessary.  She quickly moved to console her little girl.

“Are you sorry, honey?” she asked.

“Uh huh,” she said between sobs.

“Did you tell your teacher you were sorry?”


“Did you pray, and ask God to forgive you?”

“Uh huh.”

“OK, sweetheart.  Come here.”  And mom pulled her young daughter close and held her tight.  “You are forgiven.  It’s OK.”  And Mardi explained the intricacies of forgiveness, how God doesn’t even remember our sins anymore.  As far as the East is from the West, she added.

Precious nodded, signaling she understood.  Mommy brushed away the tears and smiled at her little girl, kissing her wet cheek.

And all of us who heard the story thought how sweet Mommy’s touch can be.  And about the times we all knew better, but did it anyway; and then needed forgiveness.

“Sing with me,” Mardi said.   And the instruments started to play.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me…
* * * *

And after the singing of that powerful hymn, the family life speaker bounded up to the microphone.

“Good morning!” he started with a cheerful tone.  “You know, I think I saw Precious out there on the freeway this morning on the way over here… it was when I cut her off as I merged into the lane…”

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

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