Archive for March, 2011

Monday, March 28, 2011

When I passed along a hand-me-down iPod to Chris, I also explained how to download his CD collection on his PC via iTunes, and then add his favorite songs from the iTunes store for just under a buck apiece.  The next week, I asked if he had made the transfer.  “No,” he replied, “I’ve been enjoying your stuff too much.”  I didn’t take the time to erase my forty gigs worth of music and all.  It remained on that old iPod in its entirety.

“Really!” I exclaimed.  “What did you find on that old thing?” I wondered to myself what might still be stored in that massive memory.  I couldn’t imagine Chris listening to my Jim Croce collection.  But then…

Chris smiled.  “Les Miz” he said.

“No way,”

Chris’ enthusiasm brought it all back.  “You like Les Miz?” I asked, trying not to sound as astonished as I was.  Well, why not?  The 1980 French musical opened that year in Paris to unbridled acclaim.  (Five years later, an English production opened in London, and it is still running.)  Why wouldn’t this twenty-four year old be as entranced as me?  The answer is simply that his parents took him several years back to a San Francisco performance.  He was captivated.  I had not anticipated that our shared appreciation of an iPod might create such a powerful inter-generational bridge.  I am easily old enough to be Chris’ father.  Here we are talking about mobile technology and we discover that we share the same fascination with the Jean Valjean, Javert, The Bishop, Fantine, Cosette and the Thénardiers (for starters).  Master of the House.  Lovely Ladies.  Castle on a Cloud.  Look Down.  Bring Him Home.  We were off and running.

When Susan Boyle went viral with her stunning performance on Britain’s Got Talent back in 2009, she sang that powerful piece from Les Miz, I Dreamed a Dream. It made her an instant star.  (cf. LeaderFOCUS April 26, 2009)

We made a commitment to talk more.  We would capture the lyrics from some Internet site, then listen to the actors breathe life into the lyric and we would make notes along the way.  Then we would talk.  Just this afternoon, we finished our first foray into the world of Jean Valjean.  We lost track of time.

Victor Hugo’s epic novel of French revolution is a powerful commentary on the tension between law and grace.  The story opens when Valjean is released from prison after nineteen years hard labor.  His crime?  Stealing a loaf of bread.  Breaking a window.  His attempt to escape added to his sentence.  His prison identification number is tattooed on his forearm – 24601.  The law requires that he present his prison papers whenever he enters a village, applies for a job or seeks housing.  When he gets work in the fields, his employer learns of his record after the fact, and on the same day sends him walking with half pay.  An innkeeper turns him away, too, claiming no vacancy (untrue).  Finally, a kindly Bishop (of Digne) opens the door of the rectory, and welcomes the convict into his home.  He feeds him.  He gives him the first real bed he has slept on in nearly twenty years.  He overwhelms him with kindness.

Jean Valjean is undone.  The anger, the rage, the obsession with revenge, the despair, the blinding fury toward his accusers (especially the tormenting Javert) all close in on him.  He has been branded a thief.  He lives up to his billing.  In cover of the night, he stashes the Bishop’s precious silver service in his cloak and vanishes into the darkness.

Just outside the village, in the twilight of the dawn, two constables apprehend him.  They find the silver.   They recognize the place settings as the Bishop’s.  They throw the frail criminal down at the Bishop’s feet.  “Identify him, and he’s back to prison for life!” they cry.

The Bishop pauses, then lies.  “The silver was my gift,” he explains.  Then the clergyman adds, “And he forgot the candlesticks.  I gave him those as well.”  All three men, the two constables and the accused, are stunned, speechless.

And for the first time in his life, Jean Valjean knows grace.  Mercy.  Care.

One word from him and I’d be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?

Jean Valjean has a soul.  He is not a prison number.  He has a name.

As does Chris.  Me, too.

And you.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011

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Monday, March 14, 2011

My Amtrak train slowed to a stop about forty-five minutes outside Bakersfield.  Outside, lights flashed.  Emergency vehicles from the fire and police departments, paramedic units all gathered on a side road in the open country just after sunset.  The conductor’s voice came up on the intercom with the explanation.  Our southbound train would pick up both the passengers and railcars of the northbound train.  We would haul them all back to Bakersfield, where they started.  Apparently, the engine pulling that train picked up some sort of heavy metal object on the track punching a gaping hole in the side tank, which resulted in a steady spray of diesel fuel over the tracks for several miles before the engineer realized the problem.  “Thank you for not smoking,” one of the passengers joked.

Our mission meant delay.  Everyone was good-natured.  I finally arrived at my destination – Anaheim – at about 1:15AM that morning.  I started up my car, and punched up AM radio for the quick trip home.  It’s been years since I listened to late night radio.  I soon found out what I have been missing – I got an eye-opening look into the world of conversation that heats up out there while I am generally asleep.  It was a full-on discussion of the End Of Days.  It was not exclusively the Hal Lindsey Late Great Planet Earth conversation, although the Bible got honorable mention, particularly the Book of Revelation.  It was mainly the Mayan calendar and the predictions swirling around the year 2012.  Earthquakes.  Paralyzing storms.  Changing weather patterns.  Drought.  Floods.  Hurricanes.  Food shortages.  War.  Tornadoes.  Economic collapse.  Depletion of natural resources.  Overpopulation.  Political turmoil.  Civil unrest.  Runaway inflation.  Global conspiracies.  Religious fanaticism.  The End of Days.  It was a lively conversation.  The host taking the calls tossed as much fuel on the fire as the leaky diesel engine did a few hours earlier.  The only difference is that the talk show fuel was lit.

And that was a few weeks ago.  Before the massive Japan quake.

The Haiti quake staggered our imaginations.  Now, the Tokyo quake expands our concept of catastrophe even further.  The proliferation of video cams captured sweeping images that heretofore were seen only by eyewitnesses.  Without those videos, we are simply left to imagine the incredible forces that caused the astonishing destruction, leaving crunched cars and trucks and boats and trains scattered in the accumulated debris of wood and steel and desks and file cabinets and torn furniture turning an open field into an instant watery landfill.  Now, thanks to YouTube, we watch the buildings sway, the cracks open, the falling ceilings, the crashing shelves, the dancing power poles; the wires snap and crackle and spark, the people wide-eyed in stunned disbelief running for cover, the dust clouds form.  And then as an encore to calamity, the tsunami appears.  Momentarily, it causes the shoreline to recede.  This is only a prelude to the sweeping current that rolls in a powerful vengeance that picks up tall ships as though they are bathtub toys and gathers them along with the sailing and fishing vessels and speedboats up and over the seawalls smashing them against the ocean view restaurants and hotels and apartment buildings knocking them off their foundations, clearing the parking lots of their cars and motorcycles rolling the whole tangled mess inland up and down the coast.  For most of us, most of the time, the ocean view is peaceful.  The great expanse seems benign.  Breezy.  Calm.  But this tsunami released unimaginable force.  And the cameras caught it.  We watch in horror and amazement.  We grieve for the victims.

But the terror does not end with the stillness of the earth or the settling of the great waters.  We now stand by as Japanese engineers frantically work to cool down three nuclear reactors.  A third horror, after earthquake and tsunami, hangs suspended over the people of Japan like a mushroom cloud: nuclear meltdown.  The radiation leaks.  These folks are not unaware.  The devastating effect of nuclear radiation lingers in the collective memory of the people of Japan like a ghastly nightmare.

So we pray.  We give.  Some of us go.

And on late night radio, chatter over the End of Days only intensifies.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010


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Monday, March 7, 2011

Now that I’ve been through McCullough’s amazing book start to finish, it made sense to watch HBO’s wonderfully produced miniseries.  Paul Giamatti is John Adams; Laura Linney, his beloved Abigail.  Washington (David Morse), Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) and Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) are also resurrected and brought to life.  If you stay with either the book or the miniseries, you will encounter an ending that will challenge your materialistic, Western, scientific worldview.  A mysterious coincidence emerges that transcends simple accident.  It happened on July 4, 1826.

Warning: if you have not read the book nor viewed the HBO series and you despise the spoiler, do not read any further.  Stop here.  Do not allow your eyes to drift down the page.  Close the browser.

(Whew… it’s like recording the Super Bowl while you are away from the television and then hearing the score on the radio on your way home to watch it.)

Alright.  Now where was I?  Ah yes, coincidence. At this stage of my life, in spite of all the theology and spirituality that pervades any given day, I have come to understand how thoroughly Western is my default thinking.  Perhaps the year I spent immersing myself in the ways of India has only served to underscore the point.  When my college professor pointed to the clarion difference between astronomy and astrology, I understood.  My preference, since those early days, would clearly be on the astronomy side of that spectrum.  Likewise, chemistry over alchemy.  History over mythology.  Rationalism over mysticism.  Even my schooling in theology reflected a similar bias – we called it “systematic theology” as though all the data of revealed religion could be reduced to an internally consistent set of non-contradictory propositions just like my science texts.  It is a challenge to weave the transcendent into this eminently Western perspective on the world.  But Jefferson and Adams left us with one.

I believe it was the fascinating interplay between these two fathers of American history that motivated McCullough to spend all those years piecing together the story of John Adams from all those handwritten letters.  The basic principles that formed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were largely born out of the conversations between these two intellectual giants – Adams and Jefferson.  Franklin pitched in.  But if McCullough is right, Franklin was as much a referee as a contributing editor.  Adams, the staunch and stoic New Englander, steeped in the classics, deeply committed to his wife and family brought a regimented sort of moral high mindedness to the conversation.  Jefferson, in contrast, was a near libertine.  England and France were bitter rivals on the world stage – England obsessed with the rebellion across the Atlantic and France boiling over in a revolution within.  While all three, Jefferson, Adams and Franklin, spent considerable time in Paris courting the French for support in the revolution against the British, Adams despised the indulgent excesses he witnessed there.  Jefferson and Franklin, in contrast, reveled in them.

So Jefferson and Adams had been close friends.  But the tensions of post-revolution politics would drive a wedge between them.  Adams would barely win the election as second President of the United States, succeeding George Washington.  In his bid for a second term, Adams would be defeated in a bitter contest by his old friend and collaborator, Thomas Jefferson.

In the retirement, the two men would mend the fence and re-establish their friendship.  Adams wrote Jefferson from Peacefield, Massachusetts.  Jefferson answered from Monticello.  As time passed, the relationship deepened.  The rich correspondence leaves us with an enduring history.  Each year, the new nation celebrated its hard-won independence on the Fourth of July.  In many of those early years, Adams and Jefferson appeared together, making speeches to great throngs of admirers.

And here is the stunning coincidence that transcends accident, challenges even the most hardened empiricist among us.  On the fiftieth anniversary of Independence Day, Thomas Jefferson, age eighty-three on a bed in his home in Monticello, surrounded by his family, expired.  John Adams, on a bed in his home in Peacefield, surrounded by his family (including the fourth President of the United States, his son, John Quincy Adams), died.  July 4, 1826.  Two of the greatest in American history, came to the end of their lives hundreds of miles apart, on the very same day.

Coincidence?  Wow.  This Western thinker is still working on that one.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2011


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