Archive for December, 2010

Happy New Year

It’s not just the end of the year, it’s also the end of the decade: the first decade of the new millennium.  The media loves to cash in on these calendar markers, highlighting moments that become the signature events of the timeframe.  Cynics and skeptics point out that the whole exercise is incredulous.  It is more entertainment than illumination.  Decades, it appears, are in the mind of the beholder.

Well, I hereby confess: I am a beholder.

Thank you for sticking with me all these years as I sit down once a week and write a completely random account of my personal musings.  LeaderFOCUS is now as much a part of my life as mealtime and workouts.  Your comments keep me going.  It’s nice to know someone tracks my reflections.  I’ll confess it here, as other writers do, that when I begin each week, I never quite know where I’m going to end up.  My hope is that when I hit my seven or eight hundred words, there’s an emotional punch that brings motivation for the week ahead.

As this decade draws to a close, of all the things I think about, the most important of all is family.  So this week, because we are friends, as I reflect on a memorable Christmas weekend with our family, I’d like to get you current with our three children, their spouses and their children.  I’ve compiled a little video – it lasts less than two minutes.  But when you get to the end, you’ll see why it is that I consider myself blessed.

It was a Merry Christmas!

And now, in this final, personal installment of LF, let me wish you a Happy and Prosperous New Year!

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010

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Presents or Presence?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Over dinner in a funky restaurant on Haight Street (as in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District) this week, Scott, Louise and I compared notes on the sermons we would deliver this final Sunday before Christmas Day, 2010. She had been working on hers just that afternoon. I liked her title: “Presents or Presence?” I stole the word play; made it the conclusion of my Sunday morning Christmas message. It seemed to work.

Maybe it’s because these past few months I have found myself immersed in the challenging world of the recovery community.

What a decade. In another week, we’ll close out the first ten years of the new millennium. Looking back, the Y2k fiasco of 12/31/1999 turned out to be a farce. The failure of early programmers to make the current year field four digits instead of two did not have the calamitous effect that many predicted. But ten years later, one could make the case that the decade ranks among the most calamitous of them all, beginning with the surprise attack on New York City and Washington D.C. in 2001. While the instigators of that horrific assault believed they brought down an entire economy with the collapse of the two World Trade Center towers, Americans rallied for the next five or six years. It was a stunning turnabout – sizzling hot economic growth. But we ignored the most fundamental rules of sound financial management, creating a towering but flimsy house of cards that would in one short week fold up into itself bringing the market, major financial institutions and governments to their collective, fiscal knees. We’re still counting casualties.

According to Steve Bancroft on 60 Minutes this weekend, we are hardly out of the woods. We’ve been through the market bubble, the housing bubble, the jobs bubble and all of them have burst. Still reeling, our economy faces yet another daunting Goliath: the imminent collapse of many State governments. Revenues have dried up. Reserves are long gone. Impossible liabilities of entitlements and escalating cost of services threaten to sink our most populous States. Our young David has been wielding his sling, but he’s running out of rocks.

In this quagmire, more than a few of us have found solace in compulsive behaviors that in the short term bring some sort of relief; dulling the pain, calming the fears, quieting the anxieties, short-circuiting the panic attacks and getting us through the night. It’s an avoidance tactic we are ready to embrace, given the enormity of the challenge outside our door. But finally there is a price to pay, a demon to face, when that compulsion becomes addiction.

Without seeking it out, I’ve been across the table now from several who have faced or are facing that demon, that Dragon, that other Goliath we call addiction. We’ve had long talks about avoidance and denial and self-medication. We’ve explored the depression and the shattered dreams and the broken relationships and the self-deception. We’ve tended to the wounds. We have also found hope.

It’s possible to detoxify the spirit as well as the body. The two are inextricably connected. When James Taylor said decades ago, “They’ll take your soul if you let them,” he identified a dynamic that continues to this day. Addictions are soul stealers. People in recovery are listening to Taylor’s warning as he completes the thought: “Ah but don’t you let them.”

Addicts are not the only people on planet earth who deny, self-medicate, withdraw, rationalize and sabotage relationships. The self-confessed addicts I am coming to know have a lot to offer the rest of us. I’m learning from them. There is liberation in truth telling. There is forgiveness. There is mercy. There is grace. Some Prodigals do come home. There is restoration in a good night’s rest. There is a Higher Power waiting to be tapped.

So there will be presents under the tree this weekend. Hopefully, they will be meaningful and express both generosity and sensitivity. The gift will say, “I know you.” “I value you.” “I affirm you.” “I love you.”

But maybe, this Christmas, there will not just be presents; but presence. My buddies who are now committed to recovery will be present as they have not been for months, even years. They will be rested, clear-eyed, alert and aware in ways that have eluded them for too long. Their presence will be welcomed and cherished by the people who love them the most. For some, it has been a long wait.

So we anticipate a Christmas to savor and to cherish. Our three children will all be with us along with their spouses and all ten grandchildren.

There will be presents under the tree. And beyond that, I plan to be present.

They called him Emmanuel. God with us. The present became present.

So maybe with all those presents wrapped and ready, presence is the greatest gift of them all.

This Christmas, be there.

Thanks, Louise.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010

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Amen Chorus

Monday, December 13, 2010

The tradition is now more than a quarter of a millennium old. Today, the YouTube videos go viral as the music rings out in shopping malls across America and the familiar strains Handel’s Messiah breaks unexpectedly into the noisy food court; surprised patrons stand to their feet and cast off inhibition and join in the exuberant singing. Pocket cameras appear capturing a serendipitous holiday moment that will be the topic of conversation for the whole season.

George Frederick Handel drew from the King James English Bible in 1741. He wrote the masterpiece in less than a month (twenty four days, to be precise). The oratorio, taken as a whole, is a summary of the entire Bible, from Creation and the first Prophecies of Salvation through an Anointed One, to Messiah’s appearance and Eternal Reign. That this frontal declaration of biblical monotheism would resonate so clearly and broadly and universally in our increasingly secular age speaks volumes about the spiritual appetite of the masses.

Maybe one of the greatest gifts of the Chicago years, those formative days in my development when singing occupied a considerable portion of my routine each week, my professors and mentors put me in long rehearsals, handing me a thick, dog-eared paperback book, well worn, containing the entire text of Handel’s complete Messiah. Night after night, we would work through the sections. Our world was divided into four equal groups: sopranos, altos, tenors and baritone/bass. We learned pitch and harmony, tempo, crescendo, decrescendo and fortissimo. Some of the passages would be tedious, repetitive and complicated. Others would take us to the heights, ascending well above our post-adolescent imaginations. A piano would bang out the parts until we mastered them, and then the four sections of the room would come together in harmony.

We prepared for the first performance in the Great Hall, now dressed in formal black tie and gown. Behind us, a massive pipe organ. Before us, a full orchestra. Soloists took their chairs on the stage. The seats in the massive auditorium filled, none vacant. The bitterly cold winter wind blew snow flurries outside. Candles glowed across the stage.

That first performance sealed it. Up until now, the various pieces of the magnum opus seemed disparate, scattered. But as the oratorio unfolded, filling the massive sanctuary with sound, the story took shape. I had known nothing of the tradition. Handel’s celebration of the fulfilled promise, the appearance and victory of the Messiah releases a vibrant Hallelujah! as an exclamation. And as we launched that selection, without fanfare, the people rose to their feet until the entire multitude stood in wonderment and praise. The full impact of The Hallelujah Chorus (as many of us call it now) closed in, and I could barely sing my baritone part as the organ rattled the windows and the strings and woodwinds and brass and percussion joined in the revealed mystery of the arts – a moment of transcendence that can only be a taste of the eternal.

I knew nothing of the London performance and King George II who started the whole thing. There have been many theories postulated as to why it was that the King stood. No one knows for sure. But when I saw it that first time as I performed on those bleachers in my black tie, a nineteen year old surrounded by fellow baritones, animated tenors, energized altos and soaring sopranos, I was moved beyond measure. And since that day, it has only felt right to stand at the sound of that melody.

For three years back then, we repeated that tradition. Every year. We rehearsed. Donned the tuxedo. Performed. That dog-eared book might otherwise have remained on the shelf. I would only know Handel’s work as a traditional holiday musical, like all the rest. Instead, those lyrics and phrasing, the harmonies and now the message lodge somewhere deep in my memory, all come together like a complex tapestry worth the contemplation, long and deep.

And when this weekend with a collection cherished friends we filed into the magnificent Segerstrom Hall at the Performing Arts Center (a wondrous blend of modern and traditional, acoustically exquisite), and on cue, the choir appeared in black tie and gown and the orchestra took its place before the massive pipe organ and harpsichord and timpani, the soloists in white tie and tails, women in spectacular gowns, from the start it all came back. The timing. The four vocal groups, all singing in sync from their dog-eared books. And those sopranos reaching for the heavens. Pitch perfect.

And I thought about the gift given to me at age nineteen. At the time, I was unaware of its priceless value. But now as I muse over every strain, and the years gone by, and the crowds in the mall standing in joyous rapture, Hallelujah!, and those King James allusions, Comfort Ye, Since by Man Came Death, By Man Came Also the Resurrection of the Dead, I Know that My Redeemer Liveth and Finally, the Amen Chorus.

So this Christmas season, many decades after those first tedious rehearsals, the power of Handel’s work remains alive.

Remains alive in me.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010

If you missed the YouTube Videos… CLICK HERE

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