Malls, The Tooth Fairy and Wonder

Wonder is like grace, in that’s it’s not a condition we grasp; it grasps us.  David James Duncan

Amy and I are not mall people or shopping people. So, we hate shopping at the mall.  The mall changes me – I become an over-fed, over-stimulated consumer with less money and decidedly crotchety.  Yet, when the two little guys were three and five, I had to take them to the mall for reasons now forgotten. It never occurred to me that it would be an event for them until I walked through the doors and their little hands tightened in mine. They were uncharacteristically silent and still; eyes wide, mouths open, they huddled up to me as we walked by shops, enthralled by the lights, colors and noise, a little scared and overwhelmed. To me, all excess and consumerism run amok. To them, it was a wonder, and they stayed close to me the whole time, never letting go of my hand.

247645_10150211564306361_1613434_nI was reminded of that experience when, a year ago, Robby came shuffling out of bed, blanket trailing behind him, tears in his eyes.  (This exchange is seared in my memory.  All true.)

“Daddy, the tooth-fairy didn’t come.” Nuts.  Totally forgot to be tooth-fairy.

“Well,” I told him, “the tooth fairy died in a horrible farming mishap in Dublin, Ohio.”  No, actually, I didn’t say that, but it did cross my mind. Thinking fast and noting it was Sunday I said; “Ah, of course not bud, the tooth fairy doesn’t work on Sabbath.  Let’s try again tomorrow.”  (Amy had to hide a snort.)   This actually mollified him a bit.  Sadly, just last week, Richey came snuffling into the room with the same complaint.

“What happened to the tooth-fairy?” he asked.  (Let’s just say we won’t be written up in parenting magazines anytime soon.)  For a moment, I considered it a small act of grace that Richey, too, lost his tooth on a Saturday night.  As I begin to launch into my tooth-fairy Sabbath observance explanation, Robby my budding cynic blurts out:


Do the Next Right Thing

“Why, even the hairs on your head are numbered.”  Luke 12:7

Early in my daughter’s softball career she had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad coach.   Figuring I couldn’t do worse, I signed up and quickly became a world-class coach, until my daughter fired me. “Hey, dad, you think someone else could coach me next year? I just want a someone new.”  It sounded a whole lot like a high-school break up – “It’s not you, it’s me.”  So,  Ouch.  Ironically, I was just getting to a point where I could give signals to my batters without everyone thinking I was having a seizure.  The single most important lesson I learned as a coach is that when they make a mistake, it’s not an opportunity to teach the mechanics of trapping a grounder: “HEY, CLEMENTINE, KEEP YOUR GLOVE DOWN,” is completely ineffective, because when Clementine misses a grounder she is thinking: “I’m a loser.  Everyone hates me.  Bethany won’t invite me to her party.”  The trick, and it’s quite a trick, is keeping them “up” and “in the game” when they muff a play.  So, I learned to open every season with the following Dr. Phil-esque training. Pretty much verbatim:

scan“Hey, girls, how many of you have made a mistake in a game?” After what seems like interminable feet shuffling, and a bit of cajoling – “C’MON.  Really?  No one?”  – everyone finally raises their hand, uncomfortable.

“Wanna know a secret? You’ll make more mistakes. That’s a promise.”  Now they’re just bummed.

“You know what to do after you’ve made a mistake? The next right thing . . .  Do the next right thing!”

This is actually a Narcotics Anonymous theme which, in hindsight, may have been a bit strong for such a young audience. I saw a lot of blank stares from the girls, at first.  Notably, all the parents would reflexively nod their heads and “Pops,” a grizzled, tattooed, former Marine really latched on.  Every time I saw Pops, he’d growl, “Do the next right thing, baby. Do the next right thing.” So, I hammered the idea into the team as often as I could, because it’s a great lesson, and I’ll be darned if it isn’t a lesson I desperately need to learn. Easy pop-up dropped? “Do the next right thing.”  Strike out?  “Do the next right thing.”  Lose the game forgetting to run home because you’re making sure your socks are the same height?  “Do the next right thing,” which, at that point, included eating ice-cream and giggling. Continue reading

Of Don Draper and Dante

 You taught me hour by hour / How man makes himself eternal – Inferno: XV 83-82

Don Draper reading Dante's Inferno on the beach. (Apparently, classics of western thought was the go-to reading before the invention of people magazine.)Every time I watch Mad Men, wearing a fedora seems like an excellent idea.  Sadly (or thankfully) Amy has informed me, in her wonderful Idaho bluntness, “Yea . . . no. That really wouldn’t work on you.  You’d look kinda ridiculous.”  Still, if anyone could bring back the fedora, it’s Don Draper.  Mad Men fans may recall that Season 6 opens with the camera slowly panning over the supine body of Don’s young wife, Megan, lolling on the beach in Hawaii.  Next to her, Don holds The Inferno (book 1 of Dante’s Divine Comedy) while the voiceover (Don) reads the opening lines:  When I had journeyed half of our life’s way, I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray.   A moment later, Megan pops up with a fruity drink.  It’s actually a little jarring.  Knowing that The Inferno is about Dante’s journey through hell, I half expect her eyeballs to start spinning or something equally creepy.   No such plans in the script.  Instead, we see Don living what appears to be an idyllic life.

Leaving aside the (fair) question of who reads The Inferno while relaxing on a beach, we can assume that the writers are using the text for a reason.  At this stage in the story, Don is a successful, named partner at a New York advertising firm.  He’s very good at his job – creative, tough, brilliant, confident and a genius in ‘the pitch,’ the point at which he is selling an advertising plan to the C-level managers of a company.  True, he’s had what might be generously described as rough patches in life, but now he appears to be at the top of his game and is in Hawaii with his (some would consider ) beautiful wife.  Is Don now lost, even though all the trappings of his life seem to indicate he has succeeded brilliantly?  Possibly.  We don’t get a sense that Don has, in any sense, found his ‘true north.’  His various vices, particularly infidelity, plague him.  There’s a foreboding to the episode.  Something’s off.  And the writers, using a sledgehammer of foreshadowing with lines from The Inferno, alert us to the possibility that all is not well. Continue reading

Being Princely

The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization, and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’  Max Weber

“Look,” I said in exasperation to my two little anarchists in training, ages 6 & 4, “This isn’t a democracy . . . it’s a benevolent dictatorship.”

This sort of thing actually buys me some time as they noodle over the new words.   Really.   New words might mean there’s a treat somewhere in the equation.  “Benevolent” could very well be a new flavor of ice-cream, so they paused and waited for an explanation.

302690_10150296614656361_1087186_n“That means I’m king and you’re not.”

My youngest immediately lost interest.  He doesn’t like words like “not” or “no.”  His older brother, insatiably curious, furrowed his brow and asked:

“Well, if you’re king, what’s mamma?”

Potentially treacherous ground.  “Well, I guess she’s queen,” I replied.

“Does that mean you’re her boss?”

“BAHAHAHA . . . . no, no, no.  Nope.   Actually, we kinda lead in different areas, in different ways.”  I started losing him.  “Anyway, it means we share power.  But you know what else that means?”  I asked.


“It means you are princes.  And you know what princes do?”

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Sabbath-ey Rhythms

“Time to us is a sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.”  Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

When I started attending Church of the Ascension – a small, quirky, Episcopal church in Sierra Madre, CA – the rector explained the theological distinctive of Episcopal worship:  “For Episcopalians, time and space matter.”  I remember nodding, trying to look sage and thoughtful, but it took me at least 4 years of weekly attendance to understand his words.  Space matters: the physicality of our worship – what we see, hear and smell, the position of our bodies – impacts our spiritual disposition.  Time is broken into seasons – Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, ordinary time – and these seasons give a certain texture to our life, a movement that, we hope, reflects the biblical narrative.  Episcopalian worship weaves the rhythms of faith into the passage of time; it uses all the senses to draw the worshiper into the liturgy, the work of the people.

Paying attention to time and space was a slow, experienced revelation for my faith and ultimately led me to consider taking the Sabbath more seriously.  That and a study of the Old Testament during which I could see no definitive reason why I should dismiss the 4th of the 10 Commandments.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work . . . For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.  Exodus 20:10

If our call to “be fruitful and multiply” and “subdue the earth” is lived out in the work-week, then Sabbath is a time for rest in the fact of our existence, a moment of pause and thanks.   Notably, the first use of the word holy is attributed to the Sabbath.  All the goodness of creation is exactly that, good.  The fact and remembrance of Sabbath, on the other hand, is holy.  On Sabbath, we remember that God is revealed as creator, redeemer and sustainer.  We also try really, really hard to learn (way deep down) that we are, in the end, none of those things.

 Sabbath is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.  (Heschel)

How does a fidgety evangelical practice Sabbath?

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Particularity It’s standard practice for grooms to give their groomsmen a gift for “showing up and suiting up” in solidarity and support.  Common gifts are flasks, watches, pocket-knives, tie clips – manly things.  The Lent before I married, I read the book to the right, Death on a Friday Afternoon, by Richard John Neuhaus, was amazed, so wrapped up a copy for each groomsman.  The response was, at best, tepid:  “Oh, hey, a book . . . that’s . . . ok, great . .  death on . . . super.  thanks.”  To be fair, the title is a bit raw in the midst of a marriage celebration.

Nevertheless, if you are looking for a good Lenten read (and who isn’t?) then I’d suggest nudging this book up to the top of the list.  Fair warning:  it is not a late night snack of Coco Puffs.  It’s a multi-course buffet best consumed over a number of days, if not weeks.  You’ll need time to digest.  Why?  The author, a Catholic priest, meditates on the seven last words attributed to Jesus as he hung on the cross.   Through these meditations he addresses, among other topics, the following:  Why did Jesus need to die?  What happened on the cross?  Are all saved by the sacrifice?  What does it mean to be justified?  No light topics here.  However, he ruminates in a way that is both richly theological and intensely personal.  The tone is not professorial, but pastoral.  He refuses to soften the idea of atonement, the hoped for reconciliation we all seek, into limp platitudes about love’s power.  Neuhaus asks us to pause, to “stay for awhile” at the cross and consider what is happening, what had to happen, for us to have any hope of the wholeness for which “all creation groans.”   A brief reading from the opening chapter.

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Eichmann in Lent

I stumbled upon the release of a movie on Hannah Arendt recently.  You can see a trailer here.   It’s a good movie, not a great one, but worth watching.  Amy and I cuddled up to it over two nights and, while not the self-indulgent escape of Downton Abbey, it did make us think and talk about the nature of evil and human culpability, certainly worthy topics in Lent.  Hannah Arendt was a 20th century German philosopher and political theorist who escaped to France as Germany fell under Nazi control.  She was placed in an internment camp and, by chance and good fortune, escaped deportation to an extermination camp.  She spent the remainder of her life teaching in the United States and is perhaps best known for her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, her report on Adolf Eichmann’s trial.  Eichmann was a high-level bureaucrat in Nazi Germany who engineered the transportation of millions of Jews to concentration camps where they were, of course, ultimately killed.  He was very good at his job.  After the war, he fled Germany but was captured in Argentina by Mossad agents in 1960, taken to Jerusalem to stand trial, found guilty and hung.

Eichmann In Jerusalem

The staggering revelation of Eichmann’s trial, in Arendt’s reading, is that he was a rather normal person who knew exactly what he was doing but declined to be held culpable for the death of any particular Jew.  “I never killed a Jew or, for that matter, I never killed a non-Jew . . . I never gave an order to kill a Jew nor an order to kill a non-Jew.” He was following orders, the law of the land, and had given his oath to do so.  That oath required that he do his job and do it well.  He cared little about ideology or outcomes; those matters were left to his superiors.  He was a functionary, a mover of people.  Responsibility for the decision to exterminate Jews lay elsewhere.   Per Arendt, “This was the way things were, this was the law of the land, based on the Fuhrer’s order; whatever he did, he did, as far as he could see, as a law abiding citizen  He did his duty . . . he not only obeyed orders, he obeyed the law.”

To the end, he argued that he was more pawn than devil, more faithful citizen than master criminal.    “I am not the monster I am made out to be.”  He felt he was suffering for the sins of others, those who had set the gears in motion of which he was only a small, inconsequential cog. “His guilt came from his obedience, and obedience is praised as a virtue.  His virtue had been abused by the Nazi leaders.”  He died well, bravely almost, accepting his fate.  Arendt concludes her book as follows:  “It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us – the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.” 

It’s a brilliant work and a remarkably sobering, almost jarring, conclusion.  For page after page she recounts how the deportations had take place, how an entire continent conspired – with enthusiasm, resignation or ignorance (real or feigned) – in the destruction of millions.  Banality is not the conclusion we want.  Banal is normal; it’s work-a-day life.  It’s the Wednesday afternoon with its duties and bills and chores.   We want to know why Nazi Germany happened, why lines of children were marched into box cars, transported and killed.  We don’t get an answer.  Instead, Arendt brings conclusion close to home; she does not allow the evil of Nazi Germany, or of Adolf Eichmann, to be wholly other.
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About this Blog

Samuel Richey Kamm teaching at Wheaton College
Samuel Richey Kamm teaching at Wheaton College

In the corner of my office is a box of my grandfather’s papers. He was a professor of political science for 30 plus years Wheaton College. There’s a picture of him in the box: short and slender, silver-gray hair, a half smile and kind eyes, standing in front of a chalkboard. He was right smack in the middle of fundamentalism reformed, of faith looking outward and engaging the world. I rummage through the box occasionally, reading his syllabi, lecture notes and publications, envying that he seemed to have found his niche and to have lived in it so well.  My family’s history is filled with professors and college administrators. Books, ideas, stories and words are the currency we trade over holiday dinners.

Words matter for us all of course. They reveal and create the world in which we live.  The Constitution and Bill of Rights. The Nuremberg Laws. The Emancipation Proclamation.Mein Kampf. Das Capital. The Bible. Wedding vows and divorce decrees. Poems, songs, novels. Dinner conversations and goodnight prayers. Fights and apologies. Words build up and words destroy. “In the beginning was the Word,” the Gospel of John tells us, “and the Word was made flesh; it dwelt among us.” The ineffable was made known. There are lesser examples of incarnation in our lives each day. Words are made flesh in who we are, what we become, what we might hope for in life.

Grandfather Kamm earned a PhD in history from the University of Pennsylvania in the 1940s.  My father was all but dissertation in history from Washington State University. I eked out a MA in theology at 48 from Fuller Seminary. The trajectory isn’t promising. Still, I enjoy books and stories and ideas, what we can learn from them about life and, hopefully, about living faithfully. So I fill the margins of my books with notes and blank journals with thoughts. This blog is an attempt to scratch an itch, to share some of these words of life and faith with the hope that my time in words and with words is not in vain

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