Archive for August, 2010

Melodious Sonnet

Monday, August 29, 2010

The hymn is more than two hundred fifty years old.  To this day, the lyrics remain alive in new melodies and arrangements that match contemporary style.  The author, born to a modest family, lost his father at the tender age of eight.  His widowed mother had high hopes but no means.  She taught him to love books, but formal higher education was well out of reach.  As a teenager, young Robert ran off with a pack of troublemakers about the same time Ben Franklin flew his kite in a thunderstorm across the Atlantic in the New World.

As the story goes, Robert and his pals found a feisty Fortune Teller in the countryside.  Apparently, she took a liking to the pack of debauched ruffians.  Late one night, together they consumed prodigious amounts of hard liquor and through a drunken stupor, the woman looked directly into Robert’s bloodshot eyes and slurred through a cloudy prediction.  Unlike your own father, you, she said, will live long enough to see your own children grow up, and more, your grandchildren, too.  Shaken, Robert Robinson the next day suggested that his pals go to an assembly hall in the city to hear the popular preacher, George Whitfield.  Their stated purpose: make trouble.  Robinson and his buddies expected to find opportunity for raucous ridicule.  Instead, the evangelist imposed a heavy dose of reality on the rabble-rousers.  That, combined with the Fortune Teller’s prophesy, drove the sensitive boy into a period of dark introspection, pondering the big questions: what kind of man will his children and grandchildren know and what if Whitfield is right about a holy God who may well visit justice on Robinson’s devil-may-care life?  Young Robinson turned his considerable mind and wit to godliness.  He spurned his rowdiness and became a lay preacher and writer of books and poetry.

“Come thou fount of every blessing,” he wrote.  Remember, this is Shakespearian England, home of the King James Bible.  “Tune my heart to sing Thy grace.”  Then, “Streams of mercy, never ceasing.”  As I listened to these lyrics recently, my thoughts went to Buckingham Fountain on the Lakeshore in Chicago.  I remember going there as a boy with my mother and father and the joy it brought us to see the dancing waters and the blue expanse of the oceanic Lake Michigan as a backdrop; and the sound of the waterfall over the gray stone sculptures and the spray, jets spouting white plumes into the cloudless sky.  I know now that Buckingham Fountain is, to this day, an exuberant celebration of fresh, clear water; the city’s bountiful supply one of its most basic needs.

And somehow, to this converted hooligan in 1750s England, the gift of mercy is expressed in a prayer, “Come thou fount,” as the picture of a flowing fountain, which is the first stanza of his most memorable hymn.

When the living waters flow as a fountain of blessing, Robinson asks that his heart be “tuned to sing thy praise.”  These “steams of mercy,” that never cease, “call for songs of loudest praise.”  But then a request, “teach me some melodious sonnet.”  And right there in those words written more than two hundred years ago is a petition for a new song; new music and lyrics that express praise in a new way; a fresh reflection of the heavenly choir’s uninhibited outburst of exaltation and adoration… “Sung by flaming tongues above.”

Through the decades and centuries, that prayer has been answered.  Every generation finds a way.  I remember when my good friend and musician, Scott Last, journeyed to Australia to hear a new worship band: Hillsong.  He needed to see it for himself.  It changed his life.  He returned with new energy to write and perform.  Out of Australia, a new group started a new wave of creative energy that sparked a global phenomenon.  It crossed over cultural, language and denominational boundaries.  Today, mega-churches, urban churches, Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Nazarenes, Reformed, Independents, Episcopalians, Congregational, all of them, all over the world, sing from the same playlist.  “Come thou fount of every blessing…”  It has.

I don’t expect it to end.  Of course, among our doctrinal purists, there is always controversy: over style and theological implications and content.  It is human to think we know better than everyone else.

But in the mid 1700s, as Robert Robinson stood in the front row of one of those great gothic Cathedrals filled with worshippers and the pipe organ opened up all the stops and the stained glass windows rattled and in full voice together they sang “Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it, Mount of Thy redeeming love,” I don’t believe for a moment that he imagined the worship wars to come giving the faithful yet one more reason to live in isolation.

On the contrary, he reveled in the power of a melodious sonnet to draw a people into the presence of the Living One and lift us up.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Ira Glass, the perennial soothing voice on Chicago’s This American Life, pointed it out.   You’d think by now I had noticed it myself.  But I hadn’t.  It came up in a conversation with his sister, who is a producer at Disney films.  Ira reviewed the 1937 film, Walt Disney’s first full length animation, and complained that Snow White was more like a Broadway musical than a motion picture.

“Ira,” she corrected, “that opening song…  it’s the archetypal wish song.” And then she explained that all those great movies open with the “wish song.”  It’s the hook.  It connects you with the character, and launches the story line.  So when Snow White looks into that reflecting pool and sings, “I’m wishing (I’m wishing – echo) for the one I love to find me today; I’m hoping (I’m hoping) and dreaming of the nice things he’ll say,” she establishes the entire plot line and draws the audience in to the character.  We sympathize.  We empathize.  We care.  Those lyrics pull us in like a powerful magnet.  In the hearing, we are wishing right along with her.  We wish for her dream to come true, and maybe ours, as well.

With that idea planted, all those other familiar wish songs came to Ira’s mind.  Like Tevye, the Fiddler on the Roof: “If I were a rich man, Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.  All day long I’d biddy biddy bum.  If I were a wealthy man.  I wouldn’t have to work hard…” and Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, “All I want is a room somewhere, Far away from the cold night air. With one enormous chair, Aow, wouldn’t it be loverly? Lots of choc’lates for me to eat, Lots of coal makin’ lots of ‘eat.  Warm face, warm ‘ands, warm feet, Aow, wouldn’t it be loverly?”

Don’t forget the Little Mermaid as the film opens, “…I’ve got gadgets and gizmos aplenty, I’ve got whozits and whatzits galore, (You want thingamabobs?  I got twenty)  But who cares? No big deal – I want more…”

Then there is Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, who sings from his tower hideaway, “Safe behind these windows and these parapets of stone, Gazing at the people down below me, All my life I watch them as I hide up here alone, Hungry for the histories they show me.  All my life I memorize their faces, Knowing them as they will never know me.  All my life I wonder how it feels to pass a day… Not above them… But part of them…”

Maybe the most famous wish song of all is Dorothy’s.  Trapped in a black and white Kansas, dreaming of anywhere but here, over that horizon on the edge of the big sky over the flatlands, she sings, “Somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high.  There’s a land that I heard of, Once in a lullaby.  Somewhere, over the rainbow, skies are blue.  And the dreams that you dare to dream… Really do come true.”

So it should be no surprise when our kids decide that it’s time to explore that world beyond the one we introduced them to.  It’s painful, hard to let them go.  We want to be their interpreter and guide.  We think we know better then they about what they’ll find out there and what they must avoid and the dangers that lurk in the shadows.  We want to steer them and advise them and warn them not to step on the landmines that got us back when; and the pitfalls and potholes we tripped over and fell into, we’ve got plenty of insight.  But off they go.  On their own.  We bought them the videos, read them the stories and took them to the movie theater and theme parks.  All those wish songs.  Should we be shocked?

Longings are powerful, maybe more powerful than logic or rules or boundaries.  We know some of those yearnings can get us into trouble.  They need to be checked.  But when the capacity for longing is extinguished, well, the dark clouds form over a life.  The absence of longing may well be a prime symptom of depression.  It signals despair.

So Ira Glass tries his hand at writing his own “wish song” for his radio show, which he performs.  “I only wish these stories will be gripping and special… you’ll remember what they said, and mention them at dinner… bring on the conflict!  Make the people speak!  It’s radio!  I wish for decent stories on the radio!”

Well, it’s not Rogers and Hammerstein, but we get the point.

So today, what are your yearnings?  For what do you pine?  What colors your hopes and your dreams?  Hollywood has known for nearly a century that tapping into those longings will build an eager audience every time.  We can dismiss it as manipulation.  But what do you really care about?  Care about so much that we can call it a longing.

I remember those longings that made Carolyn an obsession back when I was a twenty-one year old with hopes and dreams that could hardly be contained.  It got us to the altar.  That was forty-one years ago today.

And the longing is still alive.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010

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Monday, August 15, 2010

By the time young Martin Luther dropped out of law school to become a theologian, the stage had been set over in England.  The seeds of reform were planted.  More than hundred years before Luther, The Lollards had their own Bible, in English.  It was published and then outlawed by the church, of all things.  Imagine.  Bible reading deemed a crime by the ecclesiastical hierachy.

Why would the church ban the publishing of the Bible?  In retrospect, one can see the problem.  The author of that English translation, John Wycliffe, who translated from the Latin Vulgate in 1382 (before Guttenberg’s invention of movable type), put handwritten copies of the Scriptures into many local churches, even private homes.  As eager students poured over the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, they found a church that looked very different from the opulent, powerful, hierarchical institution that emanated from Rome’s tyrannical authority.  Wycliffe, by his early readings, was struck by the modesty of the early New Testament church.  The Gospel appealed to ordinary folks.  It taught them that their relationship with God transcended temporal authority.  Their meeting places were common, often in neighborhood homes; a far cry from the grand soaring cathedrals and spires that could be seen on the horizon for miles.

But there was more.  The New Testament said nothing of indulgences or Cathedrals or transubstantiation or Cathedrals or bishops or the Pope.  The church of Rome strayed far from the church of the Book of Acts.  Wycliffe found his answers in the text of Bible itself.

His followers, the Lollards, were so named for their quiet muttering in devotion and prayer.  Wycliffe and his Oxford colleagues not only translated the Bible for popular reading, he also published his sermons attacking Rome and its corruption.  The church responded quickly and harshly.  They burned Wycliffe’s Bibles.  They branded him a heretic.  They handed out harsh punishments to anyone found with a Wycliffe Bible.  Ultimately, the founder of the Lollard movement, John Wycliffe, was condemned by a church court proceeding and labeled a stiff necked heretic.  He never backed down.  He was 64 when a stroke took his life while attending church, his opus “Of Antichrist” still unfinished.  Some thirty years later, the Council of Constance declared that all his books be burned and that his remains be exhumed, burned and that his ashes be dumped in the River Swift for his “crimes” against the church.

But it was too late to stop the momentum.  It would take a hundred years, but all over Europe, the abuses of the church grated against mistreated congregants and local administrators.  It was the clear teaching of the Bible that gave reformers cause to rise up in rebellion.

When Henry VIII appealed to the Pope for an annulment (his first), and was denied.  He called for excommunication.  He would form his own church, Henry bellowed.

He called on Thomas Cranmer to make it happen.  Cranmer read his own copy of Wycliffe’s translation and found what he needed to declare the Church of England independent from a corrupt Rome.  While Cranmer supported independence, he became conflicted over the King’s strategy to circumvent providence (that string of wives who paid with their lives for failing to produce a male heir) and not only spurn the Pope but also the Holy Scriptures.  Cranmer survived Henry’s reign and thus became central to the establishment of the Church of England.  He wrote the Book of Common Prayer.

An Oxford colleague of Cranmer’s, William Tyndale, took up the translation where Wycliffe left off.  He polished up that translation of the English Bible, making it even more accessible to a mass audience of eager readers.  Tyndale’s conviction, stemming from his study of the Scriptures, caused him to write in stern opposition to King Henry’s escapades.  He argued not that Henry’s behavior was more than insubordination to Rome; it was disobedience to the Holy Scripture.  For this, Tyndale was burned at the stake.

Like few other figures in history, Cranmer was caught in a web of political and social intrigue.  Henry’s heir, Edward (a son finally arrived after six marriages), continued the reform and relied heavily on Cranmer’s biblical expertise and theological network, which included Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon in Germany.  When Edward died, his two daughters battled for the throne.   Mary, later known as “Bloody Mary,” edged out Jane and made it her legacy to reverse the reform and bring England back to Rome and the Pope’s Authority.  Many of England’s Bishops were caught, including Cranmer who by this time served as the revered Archbishop of Canterbury.  Under enormous pressure from Rome and the London, Cranmer acquiesced.  A human being, caught between the church’s power and the plain truth of Scripture, Cranmer issued a series of recantations to satisfy the Pope and the newly crowned Queen.  But Cranmer’s long association with reform and Mary’s feigned allegiance to Rome and determination to extinguish the damage done by her uncle Henry was too much.  Cranmer, in spite of his recantations, was convicted of treason by the high court and sentenced to death by fire.

It took two years.  Held in prison, forced to witness the brutal executions of his colleagues, Cranmer had time to weigh his conscience.  In a stunning reversal, during a forced public confession in which he would renounce the Reformation and the work of Luther and Melanchthon and Zwingli and Calvin, Cranmer gathered the courage of biblical conviction and openly renounced his own former recantations.  He vehemently denounced the Pope as the enemy of Christ.  Up until this moment, Mary fully believed she had silenced her greatest foe.  But she had not.  She ordered his execution.  As a bloodthirsty crowd watched in horror, like Tyndale before him and Wycliffe’s remains, Cranmer perished in the flames.

But his courage “under fire” galvanized a legion of reformers who followed.  Mary’s enforcement of England’s allegiance to Rome would be short lived.

Reformation continued.

And continues, to this day.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2010

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Monday, August 8, 2010

Admittedly, my interest in Stephen King did not come from extensive reading of his voluminous work.   It was sparked by an interview (with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross) about his life and his devotion to books.

Check out the Stephen King booklist.  The descriptors prolific and prodigious will come to mind.  He and I are the same age (he was born a few months before me) and while I can claim weekly blog essays for twelve years running, King has published forty-nine novels; most of them lengthy novels.  He produces so much text that his publishers feared he might suffer over-exposure.  So back in the eighties, seven of those books were published under a pen name: Richard Bachman.  An astute reader noticed similarities in style and reported to the Library of Congress that he believed King wrote the Bachman’s books.  The story found its way into the press.  King and his publishers were forced to admit the marketing strategy.  Shortly afterwards, they announced Bachman’s demise citing “cancer of the pseudonym” as the cause of death.

The King book that captured my attention has been around for nearly a decade, but works like this do not go out of date.  Writing is writing.  So when I heard him speak to Terry Gross about his “Writing – A Memoir of the Craft,” I downloaded my free sample from Amazon Kindle and in just a few page turns, I was hooked.  I clicked BUY NOW.

I don’t know why it should be a curiosity to me that Stephen King is still married to his first wife, Tabitha (Tabby), and that the fabulous estate created by signing bonuses, a royalty stream the size of the Mississippi River and the sale of a string of movie rights has not changed his life-style or work-habit all that much since he taught high school English and wrote Carrie on his off hours, but it was.  He’s a regular guy from upstate Maine who is, simply stated, a writing machine.  He talks about Tabby as though she really is his best friend.  “Whenever I see a book dedicated to a spouse, I understand,” he confesses.

Oh, I know he tapped into the comic book horror genre early on.  And I certainly do not know all of the scenes he created in print, but the man can tell a story.  His insights and observations, his pace and his style, have attracted a monster, loyal audience.

The short book is a great read for any writer.  He shares his odyssey; the drug and alcohol years that nearly destroyed him.  He talks about the amazing phenomena of the craft – how a writer can engage a reader in a hauntingly mystical sense.  His fascination with science fiction introduced him to the concept of telepathy – transferring thoughts and ideas from one mind to the other without the use of the five senses; one magically reading the mind of another.  He understood that the writing process is just that kind of telepathy.  By placing thoughts in the linear progression of words, ideas are magically transferred from the mind of the writer to the mind of the reader.  Heady stuff.  I sit in my chair transferring my thoughts via this means, and at some other time and place you will absorb those same thoughts.  From my mind to yours.  It’s magic indeed.  It hooked King.  And me.

There are style insights.  For example, he despises the adverb.  And the passive voice.  Most amateur writers overwrite.  Overwrite needlessly.  See, there it is.  Not only is that phrase redundant (if you overwrite it is, by definition, needless).  But it is tedious and a failed attempt at sophistication.  Adverbs too often appear in dialogue attribution and they ought to be edited out.  “Go away!” she said harshly.  The “Go away!” is harsh enough.  No need to tell us.  That’s the stuff you think about when you write.

The passive voice, common in conversation, is evidence of a writer’s inexperience.  “The author has been excoriated by a contemptible critic” (passive voice) ought to be revised to the active: “A contemptible critic excoriated the author.” It took the grammar check built into my word processor to introduce me to the hideous passive voice.  I’m not sure I always catch it.  All too often, I have been torpedoed by that passive voice.  Oops.  There I go again.  All too often, that passive voice torpedoed me.

Another surprise.  King discounts the value of plot.  In the creative process, story emerges in the writing, not because of a clever outline.  The writer does not know where the story will go until he writes it.  The muse comes to call as the words flow.  King is singing my song.  That is my experience, too.

Most of all, King underscores the simple but unmistakable power of reading and writing.  Writers write.  Hemingway wrote just three hundred words per day.  King hammers out two thousand.  Every day.  He starts early in the morning and usually finishes by lunch.  He says a serious writer ought to produce at least a thousand words a day.  Does that mean Hemingway wasn’t serious?  Hardly.  King calls him a, well, “friggin’ genius.”

Writers also read.  According to King, if you want to write, there are the two primary activities.  The twin disciplines.  The basics.  The fundamentals.  Read.  Write.  Read.  Write.

It reminded me of my mentor’s adage. “Leaders are readers,” he repeated often.

So are writers.

– 893 words.  Just short of a thousand.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010

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Vernal Falls

Monday, August 2, 2010

Perhaps I am a sensory learner.  Sometimes I wonder if I have a touch of dyslexia, you know, being left handed and all.  When I’m reading, my eyes move all over the page.  I have learned to deal with it, mainly by marking up my books.  I highlight, make notes.  And when I listen to a lecture, I write furiously.  It keeps me from running down mental rabbit trails, which is all too easy, too common.

In spite of this propensity for the random, I am quite capable of sitting over a good book for hours at a time, especially in the early morning hours (when schedules permit).  And recently (maybe it’s the new whiz-bang technology of digital books), I’ve discovered a few new ones that have held me captive, the most recent breaking a thousand pages.

Because I am an aspiring writer, I justify (rationalize?) all that as grist for story material and honing of skills; sharpening the verbal blade.  Perhaps I really am a writer – there’s an unmistakable fascination with the craft.  I am hooked.  My admiration for those who are capable of grabbing my attention and holding it has only deepened with age.

DiCaprio’s new movie, Inception, takes us on a wild cinematic ride.  The whirlwind pace is right in there with the dream state during REM sleep.  Here’s the basic premise: ideas are powerful.  They have the potential to change a life; change the world for that matter.  DiCaprio’s character, Dom Cobb (“the Extractor”), utilizes a new technology that enables him and his team to enter into the minds of their subject, and become active players in the dream-state drama.  What if, the screenplay imagines, it were possible to influence others by dream invasion without their permission or their knowledge?

The obvious point is that we don’t really need the technology.  Idea implant is nothing knew.  We do it all the time – especially us writers who converse with readers at another time, in another place (as in right now).  We are idea implanters.

But all that said, as much of a word-junky that I apparently am, I possess an alternate passion as well: sensory learning.  There are no better teachers than John Muir and Ansel Adams.  Their spirit comes to life every time I emerge from that long tunnel through solid granite on Highway 41, after winding out of the Fish Camp entrance at the South, through Wawona along the pine forest ridge.  It is a riddle to me, how people can break into that panorama and simply drive by unaware of that classic, one-of-a-kind scenic turnout.  What could be so all-fired important?  What could possibly be more soul satisfying than that lookout point at the Yosemite Valley entrance?  So I always stop.

It doesn’t matter what time of day or how many times you have parked your car there and walked up to the edge.  It is magical.  There are as many shades and nuances and subtleties as there are hours in a day, seasons in the year, weather conditions in the season.  El Capitan stands tall as a sentry, the solid, massive monolith guarding the entrance.  Bridalveil Falls shimmer.  Sentinel Dome hovers high above.  The flat, wide valley, meadows and tall trees, like a living floor, and the meandering Merced River all perform some kind of deception.  It looks peaceful. The water’s awesome power is contained in the currents.  The obelisk shaped Sentinel Rock, and just above Bridalveil, the Three Brothers, all upright, at attention.  And off in the distance, Glacier Point.  And the magnificent Half Dome, posing questions about time and eternity in all its stately wonder.  All over the world, humankind has erected soaring structures, edifices for worship and wonder.  But none match this valley.

So Carolyn and I sit and take it in.  Soul food.  The first time we came, upon our exit we turned back and over our shoulders whispered a promise, “We will be back” (just as John Muir predicted).  And we have been back many times.  We saw it when we were first married.  We determined to show it to our children.  They know the Valley.  And beyond.  Now they are making plans to show it to their children.

We get back in the car, and continue our journey.  First down to Curry Village and the shuttle to Happy Isles.  We disembark at the trailhead, and begin our ascent.  At this stage in our life, with our limited time frame, Vernal Falls is enough.  Up to the bridge and first look at the wide falls; water crashing over the granite boulders.  And then up the mist trail like a scene from your child’s favorite storybook, the roar of the water and the rainbow glittering in the mist, up ever higher, along the ledge protected from the sheer drop hundreds of feet below by a steel rail, and finally the last flight of stone stairs over the top and the shot of adrenaline that only climbers who make it to the summit know.

We remember.  We remember the kids and their fears and their bravado climbing the hazardous trail.  We remember the awesome power of the clear mountain water shooting over the wide solid rock ledge in prodigious quantities.  We remember the giddy laughter, and the photographs right there on the corner at the rail, just inches from outer space.  We hug and wonder out loud where the time went.

The next day, we roll down the windows and take in the high country pine scent and plug the iPod into the sound system and listen to Avalon sing “I’ll Fly Away” (among others) and we stop by a meadow just between the entrance to Bridalveil Creek Campground and the trailhead for Ostrander Lake and marvel at the deep green and mossy Sequoias and high country wild flowers in yellow and white and royal magenta.  In the cool mountain breeze, we sit on a fallen pine tree, protecting us from the wet soil.  We decide to stay awhile.

And then Sentinel Dome, and the lone windswept pine at the top, visible from the highway, and our walk up there with the kids back when.  And the stroll through the fissure field where cracks in the granite open up unseen, a drop of thousands of feet, and we recall our fears of misstep; how we held those young ones tight.  And then around the corner high at Glacier Point where all of Yosemite opens up and you can almost reach out and touch Half Dome.  There below are Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls and the mist trail and Little Yosemite Valley.  And the Tuolumne granite fields and more unnamed domes along the skyline and forests and valleys yet unexplored.  And on a day like today, a clear bright blue sky with unlimited visibility, it is, well, breathtaking.

I listen to strangers there with us as we stand and look.  Invariably, a fellow sojourner will remark, “It doesn’t look real.”  Or, “It looks like a photograph.”

I want to say, “You’ve been watching to many movies.  Too much television.  You need to get out more.  This…,” I would point to the scene.  “This is real.” But I don’t.

DiCaprio plays with our heads.  “What is real?” he asks.

Avalon is playing, “How Great Thou Art.”

This is real.  Yosemite.  Sensory learning.  Not a dream.  It is real.

…We will be back.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010

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