Unarmed Truth & Unconditional Love

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Ralph Abernathy and Will Campbell grieve the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Lorraine Motel (April 1968)

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I was deep in the heart of rural Texas when the chaos in Charlottesville unfolded last weekend and found myself in a conversation with a couple of local police officers about other matters. I mentioned that they should visit us in California sometime and one offered a kind smile and said, “Nah, Californians don’t like Southern Republicans.” We laughed, but there is some measure of truth to his statement. And vice-versa, of course. There is plenty of not liking to go around these days.

I am a Christian, which unfortunately means many things to many people, but for me it means that I must love everyone. No exceptions. So I stand in opposition to hate in any form, which most assuredly includes all versions of white supremacy. And because I must love everyone then I am necessarily opposed to acts of violence. It is a package deal. Violence toward a loved one is unfathomable, so when you choose to love everyone it kind of takes the wind out of Violence’s sails.

“‘Don’t the Bible say we must love everybody?’ / ‘O, the Bible! To be sure, it says a great many such things; but, then, nobody ever thinks of doing them . . .'” – In Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Will D. Campbell is a personal hero of mine who was an important leader in the Civil Rights Movement and a fierce advocate for the victims of deep racism. However, Campbell started to notice that many of his fellow activists used the same dehumanizing language  and tone toward the “segregationists” that segregationists used toward African-Americans. Since Campbell was a Christian, he took a stand against that, too.

“With the same love that is commanded to shower upon the innocent victim of his frustration and hostility, the church must love the racist. Moreover, the church is called to love those who use and exploit both the racists and their victims for personal wealth and political gain. The church must stand in love and judgment upon the victim, the victimized, and those, both black and white, who exploit both, for they are all the children of God.” – Will D. Campbell, in Race and Renewal of the Church (1962)

Some things in this country have improved in the half century since the milestone moments of the Civil Rights Movement while many others have quite obviously not. And the version of Christianity touted by “Brother Will” and Dr. King often appears unopened in the shrink-wrapped box.

But I remain hopeful. For I, too, believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will someday have the final word.

Come Together

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“A few found what they came for, filling their pockets easily and heading home convinced that California was God’s apology for ousting Adam and Eve from the Garden. But the many more toiled in a decidedly post-Edenic state, with uncertain and often diminishing success.”

– H.W. Brands, The Age of Gold (Anchor Books, 2002) 194.

I’ve been reading a lot more since my latest career switcheroo, which has been a welcome change. One of the books in the feeding frenzy was a history book by H.W. Brands titled, The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream. For a transplanted Californian and former history teacher, it was a natural choice.

It was fascinating to read selected accounts of those intrepid souls who set off on terrifying journeys from all over the nation and all over the planet, all with their sights set on the part of the world that I now call home. Reading about the experiences on those seemingly interminable voyages and dangerous journeys…  I really can’t imagine, but Dr. Brands’s book helped me try. And certain facts about California that should have been obvious before—like the reason San Francisco is such a diverse city—make so much sense to me now.

But of course one of the transformative events in the history of this nation and one of the most astonishing accomplishments in American history emerged from these dangerous pilgrimages, and that was the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

On my recent travels I drove out to the historic location where the golden spike was driven that completed the grand project. Almost unbelievably, that epic dream began in 1863 when the nation was right in the middle of trying to kill itself by self-war. Two companies, the Central Pacific led by Leland Stanford and the Union Pacific led by Dr. Thomas Durant set out from Sacramento and Omaha respectively building track in the general direction of the other in a race for economic victory. The Central Pacific effort had to traverse the treacherous and snowy Sierra Madres—at time digging through solid granite at a pace of eight inches of progress a day—while the Union Pacific had its own challenges crossing the Great Plains while encountering the desperate Sioux and Cheyenne only to run into the Rocky Mountains.

Somehow, almost miraculously, these two companies met up north of Ogden, Utah, in just six years and had a little ceremony that rocked the world.

It was a lonely weekday morning at the Golden Spike National Historic Site when I visited, and it was quite surreal to be the only person standing at such an historic spot.

And, of course, I was filled with conflicting emotions about it all, given the materialistic fervor that produced the initial desire and drove the work along with the terrible treatment of particular peoples, including the very destruction of the ways of life of nations that were here first.  Still, it was impossible not to find some measure of respect in the simple fact that it was dreamed and accomplished.

But I think my favorite part is the metaphor of the very project that seems so foreign to our world today.  Imagine a world where competitors are positioned so that their very task is to see how fast they can come together as one.

That’s worth celebrating.

 

 

Big Dreams, Small Places

1889There is nothing quite like minor league baseball. Young and hopeful talent, goofy small-town promotions, and unsurpassed fan access all wrapped up in a classic sport.  On my recent stay in Ogden, Utah, I could not pass up the opportunity to see the hometown rookie league affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers in action, so I splurged the twelve bucks required for the best seat in the house and sat on the second row behind home plate in the middle of scouts with radar guns evaluating the 18-24 year old athletes on the field.  It was awesome.

Lindquist Field is reportedly the most picturesque venue in the league, and I cannot argue. The view from my high-priced seat featured the centerfield flagpole, which stood in front of the city’s Mormon temple, which stood in front of a gorgeous mountain range lit up by the evening sun.

It was clearly the minor leagues, however, complete with the civilization-insulting Chicken Dance, a corny hometown announcer, and a grounds crew consisting of a grown man dressed like Elvis and two unfortunate children dressed like a Dalmatian and some sort of hound dog. If I was the kid dressed like a hound dog sweeping the dirt, I would be crying all the time, too, simply from sheer embarrassment.

I ignored sound nutritional advice and downed a hot dog, nachos, and churro and root, root, rooted for the home team Ogden Raptors like I was a local. There was no shame in Ogden that evening since a couple of teenagers planted home runs over the sponsorship-laden wall en route to a 3-1 victory over the Grand Junction Rockies in exciting Pioneer League action.

I couldn’t help but think of my trip to Dodger Stadium earlier in the summer when I paid much more than twelve bucks to sit about as far away from home plate as one can manage and still be in the ballpark. The Dodgers are the hottest team in baseball this year and are the darling of a star-studded city, and not that long ago their crazy good all-star rookie Cody Bellinger was just a kid playing for the Ogden Raptors. As was their all-star closer Kenley Jansen. Even the legendary Dodger manager, Tommy Lasorda, once managed the Raptors, too.

The road to the big show always begins in much smaller places. To me, those small places where dreamers set their sights on the distant mountaintops are more fun than the actual object of their dreams.

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The Sky’s the Limit

20478813_400498847013419_4964910068790198272_n(1)Few states are known for a single thing more than Utah. Okay, maybe none are. The Mormon Church is Utah, or so it seemed before I made my first trip there last week. And sure, there were lots of LDS church structures — the unique temple architecture was even utilized to design local high school buildings.  And there were lots of families with the stereotypical brood of children. But there was far more than the Mormon Church in my brief hibernation-style visit to Utah. “Pioneer Days” in Ogden had just ended but the town and the festival aftermath displayed a fondness for cowboys, rodeos, railroads, and all things western. And a quick walk down Historic 25th Street in Ogden did not feel very Utah-like with its quirky shops and colorful artwork alongside historical descriptions of the street’s seedy beginnings. 

[Note: Not sure where to file this one, but the state troopers had electronic signage on the interstate that read, “If yer eyes are saggin’ pull over yer wagon.” That’s a new one for me, but you know, safety first.]

And although I was not on a nature vacation (and far from what I understand to be the most breathtaking scenery in Utah), I saw enough to know that Utah is majestic.  The huge sky, puffy white clouds, and towering mountains were unavoidable, and although I spent the majority of my time alone and in a library, I did dedicate enough time for a run along a river trail and a hike to the “big fill” near the Golden Spike National Historic Site. Out in the open spaces, the quiet was practically deafening.  And the great expanse of the never-ending sky found me impersonating Tom Petty: Into the great wide open / Under the skies so blue. 

It is hard to describe the magical sensation that comes with that combination of shocking silence and wide open vistas, but if forced to choose a word, the one that comes to mind is “possibilities.” With the bright sun shining down and the wind in your face and that great big sky, it seemed like anything was possible.

If you ever feel trapped in this old world, I suggest a trip to Utah.  Heh, come to think of it, maybe old Brigham Young had that very idea.  

A Personal Spiritual Retreat

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I’m the sort of person who doesn’t mind going to a movie alone.  That’s weird I know, but then again so am I.  All of the voices inside my head get along pretty well most of the time so the occasional time alone is positive more often than not.

My new preaching gig graciously allows me to attend some sort of conference each year, but since nothing particularly appealing fit into my calendar and since I never really had a chance to reflect prior to jumping from one job into another, I opted for a personal spiritual retreat this year—retreating today and returning on Friday.  I suspect that I will talk to a person or two along the way at a restaurant or convenience store, but the plan is to spend time alone in silence.  Listening to the sound of stillness.  Meandering on a couple of scenic runs.  Praying and meditating.  Reflecting and planning. Dreaming.  Preparing my mind, heart, and soul for a new year (as our church family marks time) that is rapidly approaching.

Utah is my chosen destination, partly because I have never been, partly because it is far enough away and yet not so far either, and partly because of a landmark there that may or may not have something to tell me about the sermon series I intend to deliver in the fall.  We’ll find out soon enough.

We are all different.  For some, such a week ahead may sound like torture, but I am almost giddy with excitement.  Who knows what might emerge when I get away from routines and responsibilities, meetings and appointments, emails and notifications long enough and far enough to take a deep breath and truly listen?

The Secrets of a Sacred Space

Stauffer“Let the site tell you its secrets.” — Christopher Alexander

I joke that my propensity to arrive early for absolutely everything is a sickness, but in reality it is a treasured quality since it reminds me of mom and dad.  Being early is my heritage.  With age, it seems that I am less impressed with my unique qualities and particularly value those characteristics that connect me to a larger story.

I arrive very early for work on Sunday mornings to prepare for our church’s collective time together, a couple of hours early in fact—and love it.  We decided to meet in stunning Stauffer Chapel this summer thanks to a brilliant suggestion from my friend, Sara, and the setting has made the early morning solitude particularly delightful.

I like the strange sensation of opening the door to discover that no one else is there and being the first to step inside.  I like turning on the lights and straightening the hymnals and removing the leftover trash from the pew racks.  I like arranging the podium and communion table just right and reviewing the sermon, imagining the congregation at breakfast preparing to join with me and with others.  I like propping open the doors and hearing the gurgling fountain outside and then returning to the deafening quiet inside and the intense feeling of anticipation. I like to notice the sun pierce through the massive stained glass spraying psychedelic graffiti all over the quiet sanctuary.

Famed architect, Christopher Alexander, argued that users of a space know more about their needs than the architect and wrote, “Let the site tell you its secrets.”  In my sacred Sunday solitude, I don’t seem to be able to articulate my needs, but it sure seems that the space has secrets to tell.  I listen each week and can almost hear them.  Maybe if I listen long enough?

In reality, I’m not sure that sacred spaces have actual secrets to tell.  But maybe the wonder that is found in showing up early to listen is secret enough.

Warm (-ing up to) Embrace

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“Loving your enemies . . . Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this demand is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes it is love that will save our world and civilization; love even for our enemies.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I war privileged to hear Yale professor and prominent theologian, Miroslav Volf, speak in March, and although late to the party I just finished his most famous book, Exclusion & Embrace.  It was in a sense required reading since I teach a course in the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University School of Law titled, Apology, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation—topics that are at the heart of his book.

Full disclosure: I am not an idiot—unless you are simply comparing me and Mirsolav Volf that is.  I understood a good number of the words he used in the book but most of the time was intellectually flailing and gasping for air.  He is brilliant.  Which is why I was particularly intrigued to read such a brilliant mind analyze the components of a hug.

Exclusion & Embrace addresses our fractured “us vs. them” world where exclusion is coin of the realm and presents the image of embrace as a theological counter—almost literally.  Volf properly discloses that an embrace is too intimate for some cultures and not intimate enough for others but that he is interested in the metaphor more than the actual practice.  And then he breaks a hug down into four distinct parts that led me to imagine a Sesame Street song: First, you open your arms; then, you wait; then, you close your arms; then, you open your arms again.

You may not have analyzed the components of a hug before, but stick with me here…

To open the arms indicates a desire for the other and an invitation to come into personal space that I have created for you.  To wait is an act of vulnerability that refuses the path of force and respects the autonomy of the other.  To close the arms—the actual embrace—is a tender and reciprocal act of shared space.  And to open the arms again is a sign of release and respect that provides both the freedom and independence to leave—and to return again.

Okay, this is great for your spouse or kids or friends.  For them, I’m a hugger.  But what about the people you despise (unfairly assuming that the latter isn’t your spouse or kids or friends)?

To put down the weapon and open-armed invite those you despise into your intimate space is almost unthinkable.

To go one further and silently, vulnerably, allow your enemy the choice to either accept or attack—both choices are hard to stomach.

To then actually and tenderly embrace the despicable is a simply nauseating thought.

And then to release the enemy as friend?

I’m glad that Volf is super smart because he would be up a creek if he needed to raise a following or lead a team or run for office.  Nobody is going to want to do this.  Being right and feeling proud and getting even are going to be way more popular than seeking reconciliation.

But being right and feeling proud and getting even sure produce an enormous supply of ugly.  I, for one, am interested in any alternative that leads to a true and lasting peace—even if it does sound like awfully hard work and more than a little loony tunes.

The Choice Is Yours (Or, If the Horse Is Dead, Dismount; But If It’s Still Alive, You Might as Well Learn How to Ride It)

e20816c1dce70514b76bc07c6327d641--jimmy-v-quotes-inspirational-cancer-quotesPeyton Manning hosted the 25th annual ESPY Awards about twenty-five miles from my television set a couple of nights ago in downtown Los Angeles. The ESPY phenomenon was conceived as the MTV Awards for sports, but the original show in 1993 instantly became so much more when Jim Valvano — Jimmy V — delivered his heroic speech less than two months before he died from bone cancer.  He was 47 years old.  Guess which birthday I’m looking at?

I remember that inspirational speech quite well because I had just completed my first season as a high school basketball coach and was scheduled to attend a Nike coaching clinic in Chicago later that summer where Jimmy V was a featured speaker — legendary Villanova coach, Rollie Massimino, had to fill in following his good friend’s untimely death.

The entire clinic was a heady experience for a baby basketball coach from small-town Arkansas like me what with Rollie eulogizing Jimmy V, foul-mouthed John Chaney stringing together profanities like an auctioneer, classy Lute Olson sharing Arizona’s secrets, a potentially inebriated P.J. Carlesimo basically phoning it in, and upstart Cincinnati head coach Bob Huggins sharing a story that has helped shape the trajectory of my adult life.

Huggins was just a year removed from a shocking run to the Final Four in Minneapolis where his Bearcats lost by four points to the uber-talented Fab Five from Michigan. Following the loss, a dejected Coach Huggins walked the cavernous halls of the Metrodome and bumped into his father, who himself had been a successful high school basketball coach.  Huggins told us that he expected his dad to give him a hug or something but instead heard him say, “If you would have rebounded better you would have won.”

Thanks, dad.  Huggins reported that he was furious.  Until he thought about it and determined that if they would have rebounded better they would have won.  So that’s what he set out to work on instead.

I needed to hear that at the time and have needed to hear it again on many occasions ever since.  Feeling sorry for yourself is easy work that feels surprisingly good and well-deserved, but that and a dollar can rent you a movie on iTunes.  It is far more productive to figure out what you can control and get to work on that instead.

In a Few Words

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The Airbnb concept is somehow both weird and intuitive.  It is weird to spend the night in a perfect stranger’s home, but then again it makes sense to get some use out of something otherwise unused at a mutually beneficial price.

The service thrives on customer reviews, of course.  For instance, any review with “there were creepy people playing with snakes” will pretty much guarantee that I will keep looking.  On the other hand, “there were creepy people playing with snakes—and free churros” might persuade me to stay more than one night.  So it is in the best interest of the host to provide a pleasant stay, which leads to good reviews, which leads to more business.  You know, Economics 101.

What I did not know until recently is that the hosts can also review the guests.  Makes sense, I guess, but I will admit to being a little nervous when I recently received my first review by an Airbnb host.  Here is what I got: “Al is clean and kind.”

I am incredibly proud.  Absolutely love it.  Mark it down, when I check out of the Airbnb called Life, I believe that is headstone worthy.

It reminded me of a great Anne Lamott story (in Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, 37-45) when she helped her friend with a dance class for adults with special needs.  Several days later, Anne’s friend told her that after the class one of the students said, “I liked those old ladies!  They were helpers, and they danced.”  Those are the words Lamott wants on her gravestone.

I have had more opportunities to be around death so far than I remember requesting and each instance got me to thinking.  After all the resume drafts, and after all the performance reviews, and after all the updating the LinkedIn profile—and even after the obituary is written, read, and recorded—a few numbers and a few words are engraved on a rock in an attempt to sum up one’s life.  An entire life in just a few words.

What will your words be?  I’m just saying, clean and kind ain’t bad.

Arizona Beauty

19625082_960791194061285_1186972924452536320_n“Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am embarrassed to admit that I avoided art appreciation in college because it just sounded terrible. While we are all naturally drawn to beauty, some of us are raised to find that hard to admit or believe or even notice. The creation of beauty (as Emerson defined art) was not my native language, and it has taken me years to recognize that my reticence to embrace an appreciation of beauty is the real terrible.

So I am making up for lost time.

Last week my wife and I gorged ourselves on beauty with a trip through stunning Arizona. At one moment we were rocketing through the searing desert in our air-conditioned car in silent admiration of the towering cactuses (saguaros) standing proudly against the otherwise nothingness. At another we are winding our way to otherworldly Sedona where the colossal Red Rocks attract their spiritual disciples—and we were speechless in our reverence.  And then we climbed to higher elevations where the ponderosa pines seemed to appear out of nowhere and made us wonder if we had been magically transported to Colorado, especially when we saw the summer snow high on the San Francisco Peaks.  Oh and there was this little place called the Grand Canyon up there, too.  Breathtaking is no hyperbole.

We were determined to watch the sunset at the Grand Canyon, and it was a good decision. We arrived about an hour early—the magic hour—and found a point just west of Mather Point to watch the sunlight play off the canyon walls and witness the beauty for which no human being can claim credit.  Words and pictures all fail.  The sandy browns and the sleepy blues and the flashy reds and oranges undulated across the vast expanse like a wave of exploding fireworks in extreme slow motion.

I would love to say that it was unforgettable, but I know myself too well to say such a thing. I still have the ability to dismiss the grand spectacle of nature and revert to seeing beauty merely in utilitarian terms.  That is my particular training, and I am nothing if not a good student.

Utilitarian Me asks what good watching something like a plant or a tree or a big rock or a ravine or a sunset does for me. Utilitarian Me can be a pain in the butt and doesn’t always deserve a response. But I will give in this time and respond with a quote from Kafka: “Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”

I feel younger already.

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