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Up In The Air

Monday, January 4, 2010

When Walter Kirn released his novel to mediocre reviews, it was September 5, 2001.   Six days later, the whole world changed.

His book makes air travel a metaphor for modern life.  It is a bona fide subculture, whose members know themselves and each other, but rarely by name.  If we are not card-carrying members ourselves, we all know someone who is.  These high altitude, high speed jet-setters live in a world of anonymity, detached and unfettered, except for their loyalty to aircrews and private lounges, reserved for those who have accumulated enough of airline currency to gain entrance and revel in the perks of warm baked cookies, overstuffed seating, free WiFi and drinks, all compliments of hard earned frequent flier miles.  The book’s protagonist, Ryan Bingham, calls bonus miles “private property in its purest form.”  They are non-taxable.  Inflation-proof.  An intriguing badge of success; a peculiar brand of conspicuous consumption.  The Holy Grail for the seasoned road warrior.

“Where do you live?” a fellow first-class passenger asks Bingham.

“Here.”  Bingham answers with a nod and a grin from his upgraded wide seat paid for by miles.  He’s not joking.

When Kirn’s 2001 book became the basis of a new hit movie in 2009, some updating was required.  The main character, Bingham, kept his original job.  His “core competency” as a “transition specialist” (that is to say he is a hired gun who fires people) remains the same.  But in a post 9-11 world, air travel has been transformed by high volume, intrusive security measures.  The pre-board screenings were a minor part of the story in the book, but became a high profile focal point in the movie.  The economy jittered at the turn of the century, but the fiscal earthquake hit only recently.  Downsizing was a profit making strategy for corporate mergers and takeovers then.  Now, downsizing is a global tsunami.  Kirn’s Ryan Bingham was a nuisance then.  Now, he is everyone’s nightmare.  The part was made for George Clooney – the amiable Dr. Doom.

Up In The Air is a film for our times.  Our mobility has wrenched us away from meaningful, human connectedness.  The corporation’s promise of long-term security has gone bust.  The glamour of air travel has been reduced to mass transit.  A new digital generation views the Internet as a global cure-all.  Casual encounters as common as movies on demand.

Two women invade Bingham’s over-managed world.  Alex is as detached as he; just as cynical, self-absorbed and quick-witted.  She is a match to Ryan’s untethered, nomad existence.  The other, Natalie, fresh out of graduate school, tackles corporate challenges as though she is competing in the boardroom, doing whatever it takes to avoid getting fired by Donald Trump.  But she is all brains and no know-how.  An “A” student with no experience.  Equipped with rapid-fire charm and a thorough business plan, she convinces Ryan’s boss to go digital – meeting with clients via videoconference feed rather than in person.  This will save the company millions in airfare, hotels, car rentals and per-diems.  The call centers can originate anywhere.  This paradigm shift, of course, threatens to render Ryan’s obsession to accumulate mileage points, not to mention those five star hotels and fine restaurants, an exercise in futility.

Ryan surprises himself by inviting Alex to join him for his sister’s wedding in Northern Wisconsin (not far from where I married Carolyn).  Alex surprises him by accepting.  Ryan’s family is hilariously dysfunctional; but it is family.  The entire pre-wedding scene is the complete antithesis of the life Ryan leads.  It is Lake Woebegone all over again.  Uncharacteristically, Ryan and Alex are irresistibly drawn in; you can’t buy this with frequent flier miles.

To everyone’s shock and dismay, the groom gets last minute “cold feet.”  Hours before the scheduled nuptials, Ryan is recruited to convince the groom to go ahead and marry his sister as planned.  At first, he declines.  Ryan has little regard for marriage as an institution.  He offers every excuse in the book.  But because he the most skilled negotiator in town, and because he just cannot resist the challenge, he reluctantly sits down with the young groom, Jim, for a pre-marital counseling session.  Man to man.

“You know, I was just thinking,” Jim says.  Fidgeting.  Staring at the floor.

“Yeah.  Tell me,” says Ryan.

“Well… first you’re born.  No one asks your permission.  Ya sit in a boring classroom all those years.  And then you think you are an adult.  You get a job.  You get married.  You get a house payment and a car payment.  You go to work in the morning.  You come home at night.  Then there are kids.  Then they grow up, and they do the same thing you did.  And then you get old.  You get sick.  They put you in a senior center.  And then you die.”  Jim pauses, tux and no tie, collar open, and keeps his gaze on the floor.

“Yeah?”  Ryan asks.

“So what’s the point?”  Jim wants to know.

Ryan stares out the window.  They sit on small chairs in a Lutheran Sunday School class room.  Ryan is the king of the comeback.  But this one seems to stump him.

“Jim,” Ryan finally speaks.  “There is no point.”

Their eyes finally meet.

“Marry the girl,” Ryan advises.

He does.

It is a turning point for Jim.  But for Ryan, too.  Up until now, there was no point.  But it’s this moment of warmth and family and commitment and relationship that is a tipping point for the calculating Ryan Bingham.  Maybe there is a point after all.

I won’t spoil the rest.

But as we begin another year, we are all up in the air.  Our high altitude, high speed, obsessive soaring in an endless rainbow chase is behind us now.  Our hot pursuit of frequent flier miles has left us empty handed.  If you have sat across the table, as I have, from the man wielding the axe, you’ll connect with those scenes played by real life folks who have lost their jobs.  It is painful.  Disorienting.  But it is not an end.  It is a beginning.

So, when Ryan flatly states to his soon-to-be brother-in-law Jim, “there is no point,” he is mistaken.

Now that we are back on the ground again, with a New Year ahead, what we have left is a Wisconsin wedding.  And with that, who needs bonus miles?

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Tiger Woods takes the phrase to a new level.

What is “The American Dream” anyway? Generally, it involves a house, a car, job security, a family, a neighborhood, a good reputation, social standing and physical wellbeing. The order of priority would be a matter of personal preference, I suppose. In general, spiritual wellbeing is not even part of the equation; not, at least, in the public square.

The old quandary for gift givers (what do you buy for the man who has it all?) would certainly apply in the case of Tiger. What would you buy?

When you ponder the question of achieving the American dream, thirty-three year old Tiger Woods would certainly be a candidate.

I have gone on record as being a fan. I’ll admit once more that I am one of the myriads of viewers who checks in mid-week to see if Tiger’s name is on the tournament roster. If so, then I’ll set the DVR. An open Saturday or Sunday afternoon is just that much better in high definition when Tiger is on the prowl on one of those picturesque courses made for wide-screen. Just the way he gets himself in and out of trouble keeps me coming back for more.

Maybe it’s the opulent houses, the choice of cars, the corporate jet, the picture perfect family, the access and the admiration of his peers. The rest of the guys on the tour gave up on catching him a long time ago. They all seem to have come to terms with the reality. Tiger Woods plays golf at a different level. He’s from a different planet, they’ll tell you. Our media drenched culture has rewarded him handsomely.

Sure, the opulence stirs the imagination of any one of us capitalist consumers. But my personal admiration has more to do with the game: that trademark performance under pressure. It’s hard enough for me to hit a shot when the other three guys are watching at the tee box. I can’t imagine striking a ball straight toward the pin while enveloped by a throng of eager admirers measuring every movement, just inches away. Then there are those cameras; the long lenses catching every subtle nuance, every inch traveled by a rolling white ball with the Nike logo. And on day four, when hundreds of thousands of dollars hang in the balance with every stroke of the club, every putt – the focus, the mental toughness, the eye-on-the-prize, the set up, the address and then the execution – it’s my kind of Sunday afternoon.

But now, Tiger is one more name on the long list of guys who by all appearances has it all, but doesn’t. Not really. Not anymore.

Which begs the question – what does it really mean to “have it all”? What is missing? And maybe that is a spiritual something after all.

There is lots of irony here. Who would have imagined that a one-hundred-sixty-three dollar traffic citation would mark the turning point? I have to admit it, I found myself in a state of denial as the news dripped out. “Not Tiger,” I said more than once and meant it. “No way.”


So now the one-liners are floating around like fireworks. Puns are back in vogue. With a name like Tiger, the possibilities are endless.

Maybe I just care about the guy. Not to let him off the hook or to excuse the inexcusable; but I’m just sappy enough to hope that in the crucible of this crisis, he figures some things out. Maybe it’s all those prayer meetings. Back in the day, we called this sort of thing an “unspoken” request. God knows. But we really shouldn’t talk about it. Not out loud. Not in mixed company.

Unspoken, unspecified requests are pretty well out the window anymore. Seems to me like the tabloid press has pretty well taken over the scene. Yellow journalism is print media’s last best hope. In the ratings game, Edward R. Murrow and Helen Thomas are relics of a distant, forgotten past. The media experts call for full disclosure – now. Sooner not later. We don’t have time to wait for film at eleven.

I hope that the Internet buzz has it wrong. The idea that Tiger can somehow buy silence or worse, buy back his stunningly beautiful Swedish wife, the mother of his two children, with massive bank deposits and a beefed up pre-nup misses the mark entirely. It will take considerably more than that if he wants Elin to stay with him as she has up until now.

They like to talk about Tiger as though he is a “brand.” He’s not a person in this view, he’s a publicly held corporation.

But there are some signals, however faint, that there is more. He seemed a little closer to it when he employed the ancient concept of “transgression.” Someone told me that he even used the word “sin.” I am hoping that maybe he’ll grasp other concepts like repentance. Remorse. Humility. Atonement. Rebirth. Forgiveness. Trust.

Transformation can happen. Even for the man who has everything.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp

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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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Double Bird Strike

Monday, January 19, 2009

Alas – we needed some good news.  And we got it. 

Flight 1549 left the runway at LaGuardia as I was having lunch with a friend here in California this week.  A few minutes later, I got a text message from CNN – BREAKING NEWS – something about an airliner in the frigid waters of the Hudson River.  I shrugged, and went back to my conversation.

It wasn’t long before reports filled in the detail.  It’s been the headline story all weekend, right up there with Tuesday’s run-up to the historic Inauguration of our 44th President. 

All of us who travel by air identify with the passengers of the US Airways flight.  We’ve been in those cramped seats.  We’ve worked to block out the possibility of disaster as the big machine barrels down the runway under maximum power with a full load of passengers, baggage and fuel.   We silently wonder if, just maybe if, this routine flight might become a headline grabber of its own.  We clutch our book, whisper a prayer, think about the people we love, look out the window and watch Planet Earth drift away.  We breathe a sigh, and comfort ourselves with the statistics – millions of flights and passenger miles without incident.  We’ll be fine, we believe.  Just fine.

So when a loud thump rattled through the passenger compartment, just ninety seconds into the flight at three thousand feet, all those pent up, unspoken fears materialized.   Suddenly the roar of the engines went silent and the noisy thrust turned into the whisper of the wind holding up the wings and a hush fell over the long lineup of seats.  It was as “quiet as a library,” said one of the attendants. 

Moments before, up front, Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger saw the flock of large Canadian geese, just as one splattered across the windshield.  Sully, as his friends call him, instinctively ducked.  He heard and felt the thud.  But the bird that ended his life on the windshield of the jet liner was only one of the airborne casualties.  The two powerful Pratt and Whitneys ingested several more – too much fleshy, feathery mass to digest.  In an instant, the hot, high-speed fans gummed up and flared at impact, clogging up the works and flaming out killing the power as well as the birds in the intense heat.  Both sides at once.  The big, heavy airliner became a glider, a few thousand feet over some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in America.

I’ve got to believe that Sully is uncomfortable with all the accolades.  He just did his job.  No question, he ranks among the best of the best.  His charming wife called him a “pilot’s pilot” and described him as one who is captivated by “the art of the airplane.”  He trains other pilots to fly the big aircraft.  He knows the routines of flight as well as anyone.  He’s a veteran who decades ago flew hundreds of sorties over Vietnam.  And now, the test of his career came on a routine frigid day under the gray skies of New York on a milk run to Charlotte.  Sully has lived with the burden of leadership for a long time.  Now, engines gone, the succession of rapid-fire decisions will determine the fate of his passengers and crew and countless innocent people on the ground below.

No time for philosophical meanderings.  Sully and his co-pilot, Jeffery Skiles, went to work.   They were losing altitude.  First instinct: a go-round, back to LaGuardia.  Too far.  Second choice, a general aviation airport.  Also too far.  Runway too short.  The Hudson.  Sully made his decision.  Ditch in the Hudson.

Sully’s responsibility is simply to “put her down.”  Safely.  Few have as many landings as the Captain in their log-books.  This touch-down was anything but routine.  It was textbook perfect.  Some are calling for a ticker tape parade – New York’s version of standing ovation.

In this highly populated area, in this digital age, it was inevitable that video and photographs would emerge.  My personal favorite is the shot looking directly at the nose of the airplane still afloat, passengers standing ankle deep from wing-tip to wing-tip in the frigid open waters of the wide river filling the frame left to right with the silhouettes of one hundred-fifty some survivors almost as though they are walking on the water.

New Yorkers aren’t really comfortable with the word miracle.  It smacks of a power greater than our own.  New Yorkers are pretty much self-reliant as a people group.  But it was the new Governor David Paterson who used the “m” word – comparing the happy ending to that familiar Miracle on 34th Street.  The media pounced on the thought – The Miracle on the Hudson.

* * * * * * * *

On this Monday morning, the pile of tough news keeps growing.  You are a leader.  Personal stories are rolling in.  Lay-off here.  Drop in sales there.  Closure down the street.  Foreclosure across the way.  Companies in jeopardy.  Banks on the auction block.  Portfolios bleeding.

It’s as though we’ve suffered a double bird strike.   The nation’s economic thrusters have been cut off.  We’re gliding and losing altitude fast.  But think about it.  Sully and Skiles set the pace for what to do in a national in crisis.

Leaders don’t retreat into the dangerous, time-consuming black hole of “why?”  Leaders get to work.  Leaders focus.  Leaders draw on their training.  Leaders pull out the instruction manual; go over the checklist.  Leaders find a landing site.  Leaders buckle up; brace for impact.  Leaders reach out and help their neighbors to safety. 

Some leaders know the One who walked on water.  For them, miracle is more than a default headline.  It’s an expectation. 

These are leaders who follow – follow Him.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

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Striped Pajamas

Monday December 1, 2008

When a pampered little boy in clean clothes and groomed hair parks himself outside the barbed wire fence of a Concentration Camp somewhere in a forest clearing in Nazi Germany, he meets an eight year old born the same year.  They strike up an unlikely friendship.   One is confined.  The other free.  They are too young to know the difference.  Or perhaps a more profound observation – that they both are prisoners.  And – they are children.

Fiction always requires a suspension of common sense at some level.  We are quite accustomed to the obvious license literature and cinema often take.   Animals don’t speak English.  Spiders don’t take on human form.  Coincidences often push the limits of plausibility.  And yet these are the hallmarks of compelling story-telling.  We cut our writers and movie-makers plenty of slack – even when the fiction’s backdrop is historical.

John Boyne’s novel has been adapted to the big screen.  It’s not a simple one.  The premise is unsettling.  The horrors that will forever live in infamy as the most appalling atrocity in the advance of the Arian race are indelibly etched into the consciousness of every student of history.  To deny the inhuman elimination of over six million of Hitler’s innocent targets, as some apparently do, is to rewrite history to one’s own liking.  We all know the culprits.  We shrug them off as illiterates.  But they are dangerous illiterates.

So efforts will continue to keep the memory alive.  The mantra echoes through the decades, “So that it will never happen again.”  And yet with all our sophistication, with all our strategies to prevent it, genocide continues.  Terrorism lives.  Ethnic cleansing persists.  The stories must be told and retold.  Perhaps someday the world will learn.

Accounts of the Nazi atrocities abound.  Carolyn and I have visited three Holocaust Museums (Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Jerusalem).  But this cinematic account takes a new tack.  It’s a devastatingly potent approach.   Two recommendations came along that we view the new film.  Chuck Colson encouraged his readers to see it.  Then Pam, one of my regular readers and frequent commenter said this –

Tonight I saw the most painful movie that I have ever seen. This movie shows Nazi Germany through the eyes of two eight-year-old boys, one a son of a German officer, and the other a prisoner in a nearby camp. I can’t stop crying. Please see this movie.

If “happily ever after” is your kind of evening out, then this won’t be your cup of tea.  It’s a dark conclusion.  Without giving away the ending, know that you’ll need to sit for awhile before you’ll gather whatever is required to get yourself out of your seat and moving toward the exit.  It’s a stomach punch, as reality sometimes is.

That caution raised, be prepared for a story that will grip your heart.  The genius of the film is that it draws you in as though the outcome of this gruesome moment in our collective consciousness becomes your story.  It happens because you become so readily attached to this little boy – Bruno is his name.

Bruno is proud of his father.  He’s a distinguished officer in the Armed Forces.  He is admired and respected in his upscale neighborhood.  Everyone is pleased with the progress of nationalism.  It’s a welcome era of prosperity and affluence.  There is a new orderliness, a new patriotism sweeping the Motherland.  His older sister, Greta, feels it, too.  Bruno runs the streets of the city with abandon.  He and his friends fly up and down the sidewalks like a squadron of fighter planes – imaginary dare-devils soaring through the neighborhoods where adults smile knowingly at the charm of little boys at play.  Their father’s “promotion” comes as a surprise.  At first, mom is proud, too.  But it will mean a farewell to the house they love. An adventure.

Only the officer’s mother (Bruno’s grandmother) seems to know intuitively that something is terribly wrong with this idyllic family portrait and national giddiness.  Their relocation puts Lieutenant Karl Kotler in command of a prison camp, which, we soon learn, has devised the machinery of mass murder and high volume incineration.  Too much for an eight-year old who takes pride in his father’s position and his place in the country to understand.  Schmuel sits across the fence, and lives on the “farm.”  (This is his parent’s explanation.)  It all seems normal to Bruno.

What unfolds is a lesson in personal morality.  At what point does conformity to the framers of an unjust cause become co-conspiracy?  What do we teach our children?  Who do we invite into their world to become their mentors and educators?  At what point to we share responsibility for systemic injustice?

Chuck Colson believes we should watch the film “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” (Bruno’s way of describing his friend Schmuel on the other side of the fence) because it forces these questions upon us.  The innocence of childhood can be taken away all too soon.

It’s Monday morning, and as a leader, you and I are facing new realities.  We’ve enjoyed a weekend of thanksgiving, and found plenty to be grateful for even in this era of doom and gloom.  But now we’re back to the reality of Monday and the final month in the calendar year.

If Bruno teaches us anything at all, we are dealing with issues that matter.  Our choices count.  Evil and good are in mortal conflict.  People get caught in the cross-fire.  We’re here to protect, to warn, to challenge, to think and to put our confidence in the One who will bring it all to a proper conclusion.

That’s why we’re here.

Copyright 2008 Kenneth E. Kemp

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National Day of Prayer

Monday Morning, September 22, 2008

You may not have heard about the perfect storm that blew through the coastline of our economic system this week, unless you read the newspaper or watched cable or listened to the radio or tuned in the Evening News.  The headlines are everywhere.  Some called it “9/11 of Wall Street.”  Others, the Tsunami of Manhattan.  Or the Katrina visited upon our Banking System.

For most of us, especially out here on the West Coast, it’s theoretical.  Abstract.  We see it in the decline in value of our portfolios.  We watch the drop in value of our homes as comps show up on the board.  But as long as our jobs remain intact, life pretty much goes on.  Without the headlines and the shell-shocked talking heads to stir us up, we might not even realize how calamitous the whole thing could be.

But the dreadful metaphors employed by politicians and public spokespersons are unsettling, to say the least.  You may have heard the names Freddy and Fanny and AIG before this month.  Few of us had any real comprehension about how any of those draconian-sized financial institutions impact our lives, that is, before last week.  We remember the “tech bubble” that burst the first year of the current millennium.  We recall the market slide that followed the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  And we knew the skyrocketing climb of the price of housing would someday end.  But none of us imagined the mess that would require a massive, trillion dollar government bail-out to keep the entire system from tumbling irretrievably over the precipice.

Do we simply sigh in relief?  Or do we fasten our seatbelts for more turbulence yet to come?  Whatever we once thought of as “security” has been seriously called into question.  It’s as though all of us, in so many ways, are starting over.

Our pastor called upon a one hundred forty-five year old quote that seemed remarkably relevant.  The President got a directive from the United States Senate in the spring of 1863.  He readily complied.  Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of a catastrophic civil war, was asked to pen a Presidential Proclamation, setting aside a National Day of Prayer.  His language is as powerful as the paragraphs he penciled in preparation for his brief speech at Gettysburg.  Lincoln’s verbal skills were honed in the long debates with Douglas, and now from the White House, in the heady deliberations with the most powerful leaders in the world.  The stresses could not have been more intense.  The risks hanging in the balance, more enormous. 

The proclamation appeared in every newspaper in the country.  Here’s some of what he wrote –

We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us, then to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

As I listened to Matthew read Lincoln’s words on Sunday morning, I was struck by how far we’ve come from those fundamental roots that once anchored our souls.  What might happen if we were somehow gripped by that same sense of the majesty of God; and humbly confessed our ready participation in a chase for wealth and power that has left us empty and fearful?

Lincoln went on…

And I do hereby request all the People to abstain on that day from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite, at their several places of public worship and their respective homes, in keeping the day holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.

All this being done, in sincerity and truth, let us then rest humbly in the hope authorized by the Divine teachings, that the united cry of the Nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings, no less than the pardon of our national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering country, to its former happy condition of unity and peace.

What if our President, or either of the two in hot pursuit of the Office, expressed the same sentiment?  With the same core of sincerity and humility?  Would the Senate concur?  The apparent answer to these hypothetical questions is a sad commentary indeed.

One thing we do know, the Day of Prayer on April 30, 1863 did not bring an end to the fighting.  It went on for two more awful, bloody years. 

But somehow, on this Monday morning, as we leaders contemplate the consequences of bad debt and soaring costs and an uncertain future, maybe it’s time to get on our knees.

And pray.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

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Hockey Moms and Pit Bulls

Monday Morning – September 8, 2008

In this new world of changing political landscapes, Hockey Moms and Soccer Moms are pretty much synonymous.  The notion that either would be different from pit-bulls in only one respect – lipstick – is enough to put a non-partisan smile on just about anyone’s face.  The difference between hockey and soccer would only indicate the ready accessibility of ice.  The farther north, the more likely you’d find a hockey mom, though right here in Southern California I’ve got a card carrying hockey mom for a sister.  (We’ve got that ice in enclosed rinks right here even in the heat of summer.)  Whether it’s hockey or soccer, the moms have become target market for politicians.  Win them over, and you’ve really got something.

It seems that every political season brings a new word or phrase that permeates the discussion; this year – “vetting.”  These words catch on.  You’ll hear them used sparsely early on, and then the frequency proliferates until pretty soon everybody has the hang of it.  For this year’s winner, the root word is vet.  It’s not the noun form, which is much more familiar as in short for veterinarian.  Or veteran.  This would be the verb form.  Turns out the root word is the same as the animal doctor – who “examines.”   According to the dictionary, to vet is “to appraise, verify, or check for accuracy, authenticity, or validity” which is what Presidential candidates are supposed to do when they consider a running mate.

In this thing we call the blogosphere, I can track how often a LeaderFOCUS gets read.  I can’t tell who reads it, but sometimes one of my little essays takes off.  One of those is the piece I wrote called “In Praise of Oratory.”  I’m not sure why, but it is the second most read piece on my blog.  It somehow shows up on Internet searches, I suppose.  Or it gets passed around from reader to reader.  I wrote about the lost art of public speaking – and how few there are who have mastered the craft.  I talked about a young politician raised by a single mom and grew up on mean streets and managed to get the attention of some of the highest rated schools in America and then emerged as a powerful rhetorician.  His compelling speech at the 2004 Democrat Convention launched an unlikely career. 

I’m left to scratch my head wondering why so few public leaders pay attention to the power and the benefit and the effectiveness of the classic discipline of oratory.  Some of them employ brilliant speech writers who serve up powerful phrases and piercing logic and compelling punch lines, but even with the teleprompter right there, they cannot deliver those lines.  If a good number-cruncher took the time, they could calculate the cost per phrase.  Factor in the weighty issues that hang in the balance, you could put a staggering price tag on the value of each word.  But the inability to deliver leaves those pricey sentences on the trash heap of forgotten verbiage.  There’s nothing more disappointing than a politician who has the right ideas, but can’t persuade the people.

Now we’ve heard some powerful communicators these past couple of weeks.  To call it oratory may be generous.  But compelling.  Energizing.  Persuasive.  If you looked and listened, you will have heard it.

I was on the airplane with Carolyn when the news broke.  We just pulled up to the gate.  I turned on my cell phone with the data connection, and up popped the headline.  “McCain Announces His Choice for Running Mate.”  I read it out loud, and suddenly, the entire passenger compartment went silent.  Everyone stopped cold.  They looked my direction.  McCain’s eagerly anticipated pick was apparently made while we were in the air; and the secret was well kept.  Everyone perked up.  I looked for a familiar name in the text – Romney, Huckabee, Giuliani, Lieberman.  I squinted over a name I’d never seen before – “Palin.”  I had no idea how to pronounce it.

“I’ve never heard of him…” I said.  Perplexed.  Everyone else looked puzzled.  “Pal-in” was my attempt.

A couple rows up, a guy turned and said, “Sarah Palin.  Governor of Alaska.”

“Whoa,” I said in amazement as I noticed the first name.  “I’ve never heard of her.”  It was one more embarrassing moment out there in a public place.

After that speech last week, Sarah Palin is no longer an unknown.  With a hint of Fargo in her voice, she stepped up to the mike and after a couple minutes settling in, she launched the speech of a lifetime.  Even veteran talking heads were left tongue tied.  A political bomb went off.  The pundits, usually self-assured and poised, were shell-shocked.

I’m not ready to call it oratory.  But it was a speech.  A stem-winder.  A barn-burner.  It connected.  It launched a career.  “A star is born,” one commentator said.  Another called it the emergence of an “instant legend.”  (That could well be an oxymoron of the first rank, but who cares?)

I’ve already confessed, I’m a soft touch for a great speech.  They are all too rare these days.  Somehow, I do believe that Obama raised the bar in 2004.  Others, now, have trained like Olympians to reach that bar; and the effect has been nothing short of stunning.  Even Hillary has improved.  Obama hit the mark again in Denver.  Then you’ve got Romney and Giuliani.  And now, Sarah.

Staying power is no small thing in this pressure cooker of American politics.  (“Was she properly “vetted” by the McCain camp?”  They’ll keep asking.)  As a leader, you know how hard it is to sustain serious momentum.

But on this Monday morning, maybe it’s time to put some lipstick on that pit-bull, and get after it.  Just like Sarah did.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

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Farewell, Beijing

Monday Morning – August 24, 2008

Maybe the Olympics were that much more stunning simply because so many of us watched it in high definition.  We’ve had high def for a while now, but those images from China were made for the big screen.  The Bird’s Nest filled the pixels with dazzling color; it was the re-discovery of cinemascope right there in our living room.  It was Cecil B. CeMille and a cast of thousands – this time from the heart of Communist China, of all places.  And we sat transfixed.

It’s over now.  We’ve got the memories.  A couple weeks back, I told you about the three athletes in whom we had taken a special interest.  Michael Phelps lived up to, and even surpassed the pre-competition hype.  Two of those finishes will forever live in our memory.  The come-from-behind 4×100 relay barely beating the French, who had the lead, all the way to the end.  The Americans won.  But best of all, in the 100 meter butterfly, Phelps, in a photo finish, eclipsed champion Milorad Cavic of Serbia by one one hundredth of a second.  The electronic pad declared the winner in an instant, but it was so close that doubts remained until the electrifying moment could be reviewed from several angles.  Sure enough, Cavic’s glide to the wall failed to nail down the lead as Phelps took a lightning-fast final half stroke to secure victory, slapping the pad just ahead of Cavic, taking home the seventh of an unprecedented eight gold medals.

The camera trained on his mother, elementary school administrator and single mom, Debbie, seated between his two sisters.  The video crew caught one more unforgettable moment.  Debbie watched as her son trailed just behind the Serbian.  She held up two fingers, acknowledging that her her boy would fall short of his goal, and settle for his first second place.  “It’s OK.  It’s OK,” she thought.  Until she looked at the electronic scoreboard.  In complete astonishment, she caught the news.  Her knees buckled.  In utter disbelief, she sank to her seat, eyes like saucers.  He won.  Michael won.  Gold.  Unbelievable!

Her two daughters exploded in squeals and held her tight.

Not every winner took home the gold.  I identified two other champions.  They didn’t win the gold, but they are winners none-the-less.  Laura Wilkinson astonished the world in Athens with her diving perfection.  I wrote about her in a LeaderFOCUS back then.  The American media loved her, too.  They profiled her exploits in Athens, and her amazing track record in national and world competitions since.  Now, at thirty-one, she still had the edge.  She won a spot on the team – and as an older member, she became a beloved coach, mentor and encourager to the younger members of the team.  She sent a personal response email to the LeaderFOCUS I forwarded to her four years ago.  I signed up a few weeks back to her web-site newsletter.  Here’s her note just before the final competition –

For my prayer warriors out there, please pray that I can focus on Jesus and let all the other “junk” go- like results, expectations, what people think, etc.  The focus of most of my prayers are for the people watching, both in the 17,000 seat venue and watching on tv.  I’m praying that they will see the light of Jesus and that this place will become a House of Praise for Him!  I’m just excited to be His servant here! 

She finished wthout a medal – but the standing ovation on her final dive told a different kind of story.

Perhaps my favorite moment of all came when Allyson Felix, after a “disappointing” silver medal in the women’s 200 meter race.  She knew she could win it.  But she finished sixty-two hundredths of a second behind Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown in a rematch which was an eerie repeat of Athens.  In between Olympic games, she faced the world-class runner – and won.  But the commentators noted – she just didn’t have the edge in Beijing.

Add to that the fumbling of the baton in the women’s 4×100 relay – and the third expected medal vanished into thin air.  Allyson worked for three gold medals.  She settled for one gold and one silver.

After the prime time 200 meter race, with all the hype and backgrounders, behind her fierce Jamaican competitor, she turned and trotted back to the gallery.  She stopped briefly to smile for the camera and tell the world that she’s happy to have competed on the world stage at this level and that Veronica earned her gold that day.  She smiled bravely.  A class act.  Some ninety-thousand fans filled the Bird’s Nest and looked on as Allyson, draped in an American flag, found her family, her mom and dad, Marlene and Paul, and her brother Wes, and they held on to one another as the camera looked on.  Allyson let the emotion go, and her family spoke words of love and pride and care to their amazing daughter and sister.  Here’s the note I sent to my friend Paul that night…

What a sweet moment in “The Birds  Nest”… as Allyson came to terms with a “disappointing” silver, she gathered with her mom and dad and brother on the sideline, draped in the American flag, and you spoke to her and loved on her… there were tears in our eyes; ours were not disappointment – rather we were deeply moved by the warmth of a family; a witness of what God can do when a family honors Him.  Who’d a thunk, Paul, when you left Toyota to follow a calling that transcended a corporate computer career… I’m proud of you, buddy.  But mainly, as I’ve watched your calling unfold, to see the enormous blessing of a beautiful wife, son and daughter, a champion whose real goal is to be teacher, like her Mom.  The world is inspired.  So are we.

Take time to watch the NBC Nightly News video on Allyson and her family.  She’s seen as the new breed of drug-free athlete, who in the shadow of the Marian Jones debacle, is bringing integrity and character back to the sport.

On this Monday morning, post-Bejing, let’s take those amazing moments of inspiration, and make them our own.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

News about Carolyn’s Mom

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Gone fishin’…

No LeaderFOCUS this week.  See you next Monday.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

One of the unpleasant realities of the onset of aging is that truckload of errors and omissions that you think were properly buried and forgotten long ago.  They’re not, really.  They come back and haunt us old guys; sometimes unexpectedly.  Usually with some degree of pain.

Robert Boyd Munger wrote a little book way back in 1956 and called it “My Heart Christ’s Home.” It suggested that we take Paul’s letter to the Ephesians seriously, and let Christ “dwell in our hearts.”  The original language suggests “making his home” right there in our innermost being.  Munger took the metaphor and worked it, as we writers do.  The book is a little house tour, taking us through the entry-way into the living room, and the dining room and the bedroom and the kitchen and the den and the library.  He helped us imagine Jesus there with us in each room.  We listened to what he might say in the context of those very personal living spaces; where we find rest and nourishment and conversation and renewal.

When Munger wrote back in the fifties, there were no computer rooms connected to the world wide web, and most television sets were black and white flickering screens, rarely larger than twelve or fourteen inches.  The music was high fidelity; two-track stereo would come later.  But there were closets – those dark, foreboding, cluttered, hidden corners in the very back of the house.  One of Munger’s most penetrating and haunting questions – would we let Jesus open the door of those hidden enclosures at the back of the house?  Up there in the attic?  Down there in the metaphorical basement?  Or would we ask him to stay there on the sofa in the living room where everything is in place?  Where it’s safe.

A close, long time friend invited me to hear William Paul Young talk about his new book, The Shack.  Apparently, I’ve been living in some sort of isolation.  I’d not heard of the book.  It has taken off as a hit best seller – no marketing, no publisher.  The only explanation I could conjure up is that word-of-mouth buzz is carrying the book across the continent like a tsunami; between Facebook friends and bloggers and texting and conversations over a latté at Starbucks, the guys in the mail room are having a hard time keeping up with the orders.  I understand the latest count is two million in print.  That’s two million.  Whoa.  It got me curious.  (Maybe my book will do the same!)

When Craig and Carole invited Carolyn and me to hear the author speak to a crowd of well over a thousand folks, I thought I should do a little Google homework.  It didn’t take long.  A few keystrokes, and voilà.  More than I could absorb.  I learned that the book is a fictional, metaphorical account about a guy close to my age who is working through his stuff.  It’s somewhat auto-biographical, but that’s not the point.  I figured (from what I found online) that the shack must be the imaginary place he goes to do battle with his demons.  Now that I’ve heard him speak, and read the book, I know that I was close.  But it’s much more than that.

Young’s personal story is painful.  But it is also powerful.  It’s a story of healing and reconciliation and family and marriage and love and hope.  Healing doesn’t really happen unless there is some sort of malady that needs curing.  Reconciliation is only real against the backdrop of damaging alienation or betrayal or injury.  Family and marriage become rich and full and satisfying where there is adversity to overcome.  Love emerges strong in the presence of honesty and forgiveness and repentance and restoration.  Hope shines brightest when you’ve known the darkness of despair.

To hear Young speak is to hear a man who knows these things from experience.  So I was ready to read the book.

The other day, half way through, I sat reading in the shade by the pool.  A young mom walked by with her noisy little brood and said, “Hey, that’s the same book I’m reading!”  It’s everywhere.

When I finally put it down, having just read the very last page, this time in the privacy of my home office, I wept.  Deeply.  That moment took me by surprise, really.  I’m glad you weren’t there.  I would have been embarrassed.  But I think my journey to The Shack, along with Mac, enabled me in a new and striking way, to open up some of those old doors I prefer to keep closed.  And the fresh air was, well, an oasis.

Now, if you know how to Google search, you’ll find that the good author has stirred up the pot.  We Christians are ever on the crusade for Truth; quick to spot Error.  We think we’ve done God a favor when we Expose It.  I’ve gone through some of the screechy complaints about The Shack… and now that I’ve finished the book I believe that much of the criticism comes from people who haven’t read the novel or just plain don’t understand the nuances of metaphor or worse, just don’t like the idea of opening up those closet doors.  It’s not easy.

Munger’s book took off back in the fifties because people found out that Jesus wants the whole house.  Not to condemn, but to heal.  Not to judge, but to bring forgiveness and wholeness.  If Jesus has a problem with us, it’s because we keep him on the couch.  “Cream and sugar?”  That’s as far as we get.

When Mac overcomes his fear and his pride and even his common sense, and against all odds returns to The Shack, he’s given a surprise gift.  It’s the gift the Prodigal got.

My good friend, my colleague, on this Monday morning, you are a leader. 

That same gift is there for you.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008

More on The Shack

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