America’s Team(s)

nfl playoffs“They appear on television so often that their faces are as familiar to the public as presidents and movie stars. They are the Dallas Cowboys, ‘America’s Team.’”
– Dallas Cowboys 1978 Season Highlight Film

The Dallas Cowboys: You love them or you hate them. Me, I have done both, often during the same game.

Bob Ryan first called the Dallas Cowboys “America’s Team” when preparing the team’s highlight film following the 1978 season and defended his controversial term by saying that they were the most popular team in the nation both in fan support and television appearances. In the forty years since, the franchise has maintained a huge fan base in good times and bad times, for better or worse, ‘til death do they part. The franchise is now worth $5 billion—the highest of all NFL teams.

I am afraid that I am one of those people. I joined the bandwagon at the height of Tom Landry and Roger Staubach in the late 1970s and survived until Emmett, Troy, and Michael in the glorious 1990s and then survived again until the late 2010s with Dak and Zeke. It has surely not been an easy ride, but it has never been boring.

The first time I saw the Cowboys play in person was a Christmas Eve road game at the Superdome against the New Orleans Saints in the closing days of 1999, which happened to be the game that snapped a streak of 160 games the Cowboys played before sellout crowds. My wife and I were in the stands that day to see Aikman, Irvin, Smith, and Sanders play in person. But we lost.

The second time I saw the Cowboys in person was a Monday Night Football game against the Giants in old Texas Stadium in 2006. It was so awesome to be in a place I had dreamed about as a child with my best buddy, Dave, and see colorful characters such as Parcells and T.O. in action. In the first half things went poorly and the hometown fans jeered starting quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, and chanted their desire for backup quarterback “Ro-mo, Ro-mo, Ro-mo.” When the second half opened and Tony Romo ran on to the field for his debut as quarterback the crowd went wild! He threw an interception on his first pass. And we lost.

Last Saturday was my latest opportunity—a playoff game at the famed L.A. Coliseum against the Rams. The playoff atmosphere was electric, and I loved hearing the roaring voice of the Rams’ stadium announcer (who also happens to be my Pepperdine friend, Sam). I am not sure why I was surprised at the massive number of Cowboy fans at the game or how vocal they were—from my seat it was hard to tell which team’s fans were loudest. But it wasn’t hard to tell which team was better. I was proud that our overmatched team made it a game in spite of our two major weaknesses in the game: offense and defense. We lost again.

Maybe I should stop attending games for my favorite football team.

I got to thinking. American football really is American in all sorts of ways, particularly the way it displays the adversarial nature of our society. We compete head to head in business, politics, the justice system, and many other ways—even in our entertainment. And the more I think about it, maybe the Dallas Cowboys really are America’s Team. More than any other franchise, they inspire people to choose sides and root one way or another.

Competition isn’t necessarily evil. And yet, it is one thing if we shake hands after we compete and another entirely if we just keep on shaking our fists at one another. I have been watching the news lately and continuing to wonder: What kind of world will we choose to be?

Educated

tara-westover-educatedI love reading books but hate writing book reviews and yet I must take the time to recommend Educated by Tara Westover. Not since reading Angela’s Ashes years ago has a memoir so affected me. Read the ridiculous list of accolades to discover that I am not alone.

The story is almost too much to believe, much less summarize. Tara grew up in the Idaho mountains with survivalist parents and six older siblings. Her mentally unstable father was the unmistakable (and very religious) family leader who operated a junkyard and prepared his family for the end of the world by stockpiling food, fuel, and weapons. He distrusted all things government as well as the medical establishment so, shielded by their isolation, none of the children attended school or visited doctors. With time and forced practice, Tara’s mother became well known as a midwife and healer. Miraculously, with not even a semi-serious attempt at home schooling, Tara got into college at Brigham Young University—and to shortcut the full mind-blowing story, now has a Ph.D. from Cambridge. But it is the full story, and in fact, the journey itself, that produced words in the promotional blurbs like remarkable, breathtaking, heart-wrenching, inspirational, brave, and naked.

I dislike clichés like “it’s a must read.” So I will quote what Bill Gates said about the book instead: “It’s even better than you’ve heard.”

What I am struggling with now is what to do with this powerful story. It has thrown me for a loop, and in my disoriented state I am trying to recover some measure of equilibrium to see what it has done to me.

My life in no way resembles Tara’s life. I can’t even imagine. And yet we read ourselves into every book—or at least I do—and I suspect that part of its power is my identification with growing up in a rather self-contained world and later moving to radically different worlds and trying to make sense of it all. I, too, love my roots and yet have been “educated” by a journey that I never even imagined. Further, I continue to work in the heart of an institution of higher education and see this sort of thing play out day after day. As the book review in The New York Times concluded back in March 2018, “She [Tara] is but yet another young person who left home for an education, now views the family she left across an uncomprehending ideological canyon, and isn’t going back.”

Tara shares mixed feelings, and I get it. Not only does she value education, she values her education. Read the story: Not only did it probably save her physical life, but it also saved her—her very self. But the sacrifice was great — and painful.

I check the box for “Christian” on surveys, but the word the Bible uses for self-description instead is “disciple,” a word that means “student.” Jesus made it quite clear that the call to discipleship requires sacrifice, possibly sacrificing your very family. Jesus didn’t even pretend this would be easy. But he said it was good. And ultimately worth it.

Maybe that’s what Tara’s story is doing to me. Thankfully, I never had to give up family on my particular journey, but maybe her story serves as a dramatic illustration for Bonhoeffer’s “Cost of Discipleship.” An education can cost you everything. At times that may very well be worth the price.

Yet Another Lap Around the Sun

2018 Running

I like to run and find it useful as a metaphor for life itself (as does the Christian Bible—see 1st Corinthians 9: 24-27; Hebrews 12: 1-3). Since we humans apparently like to mark our laps around the sun, it is common practice at year’s end to look back before heading off for another lap. We consider the bests and the worsts from the past year. We remember the new things that came our way and the people who made their departures. And then we throw a party in honor of and in spite of it all.

We have had some tough stuff to deal with where I live in the past few months, but that is no surprise to those familiar with anything requiring endurance. The year to come will surely have its own challenges. Therefore, we keep going, placing one foot in front of another, never stopping until we reach the finish line.

As I reflected on the run known as 2018, I remembered the actual running I did this year. I ran alone, and I ran with friends, and I ran all over the place. The year kicked off with a great run along the Rose Parade route in Pasadena with my running buddy, Brad, and by year’s end I had enjoyed runs in six states and two nations on two continents. I nearly froze my running shoes off running in the snow high in the mountains of Colorado. I ran across the Idaho-Washington border for a lovely run along both sides of the Snake River. I braved the mud and traffic for an unforgettable run in the heart of Nairobi. And I went back home to Arkansas where it all started and ran around my high school track on the morning of our thirty-year high school reunion.  In between I witnessed breathtaking scenery on trails and along the beaches here in beautiful California.

If all goes well, 2019 will be another great run. I suspect that at times I will again run alone, and at others I will run with friends—and that I will explore all sorts of interesting new places. Now I am talking about life again.

Bring on the new year.

The Mood of Christmas

Thurman QuoteOn this Christmas Eve, I share with you the Prologue to Howard Thurman’s wonderful little book, “The Mood of Christmas.”

Christmas is a mood, a quality, a symbol. It is never merely a fact. As a fact it is a date on the calendar — to the believer it is the anniversary of an event in human history. An individual may relate himself meaningfully to the fact or the event, but that would not be Christmas.

The mood of Christmas — what is it? It is a quickening of the presence of other human beings into whose lives a precious part of one’s own has been released. It is a memory of other days when into one’s path an angel appeared spreading a halo over an ordinary moment or a commonplace event. It is an iridescence of sheer delight that bathes one’s whole being with something more wonderful than words can ever tell. Of such is the mood of Christmas.

The quality of Christmas — what is it? It is the fullness with which fruit ripens, blossoms unfold into flowers, and live coals glow in the darkness. It is the richness of vibrant colors — the calm purple of grapes, the exciting redness of tomatoes, the shimmering light on the noiseless stirring of a lake or sunset. It is the sense of plateau with a large rock behind which one may take temporary respite from winds that chill. Of such is the quality of Christmas.

The symbol of Christmas — what is it? It is the rainbow arched over the roof of the sky when the clouds are heavy with foreboding. It is the cry of life in the newborn babe when, forced from its mother’s nest, it claims its right to live. It is the brooding Presence of the Eternal Spirit making crooked paths straight, rough places smooth, tired hearts refreshed, dead hopes stir with newness of life. It is the promise of tomorrow at the close of every day, the movement of life in defiance of death, and the assurance that love is sturdier than hate, that right is more confident than wrong, that good is more permanent than evil.

Bring on Christmas

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I confess that I like Christmas. I typically resist all things popular, but if that ever happened with Christmas it won me over anyway.

The attraction surely has nothing to do with massive commercialization; nor do I need a specific holiday season to remember the birth of Jesus. Red and green are not my favorite colors. I’m pretty sure I would choose fasting over fruitcake and egg nog. And although falling snow is undeniably a beautiful sight, I would easily choose a warm-weather locale to a winter wonderland.

I still really like Christmas.

There is a hard-to-identify loveliness to the season—a “mood” as Howard Thurman once described it. Words like joy and peace define Christmas, actions like giving and singing are ubiquitous, and it is a time both to remember and to hope.

I grew up in a tiny house with a wonderful family and not much in terms of material possessions. Still, we celebrated Christmas each year, and I always had presents to open. I distinctly remember the time my Dad rushed in a couple of weeks before Christmas and breathlessly exclaimed, “Santa Claus was just here! He was in my bedroom!”  Well, away to my parents’ bedroom window I flew like a flash, and as fate would have it, I just missed seeing Santa. But he had obviously been there since a huge gift-wrapped present was there with my name on it! To this day I cannot believe Santa was able to sneak that massive present in our tiny house in broad daylight without getting caught.

Did I mention it was a tiny house (with, for illustrative purposes only, no room to store a large present for a couple of weeks until Christmas)? And did I mention that I may have been a rather naive child?

I love imagining today the laughter my parents shared alone in their tiny bedroom that night. (And since the gift was a set of drums, I love knowing that someone else had the last laugh. That Santa is such a jokester!)

I am ready for Christmas.

Now, when I walk through the house and see our tree, it calls me back to Christmases past and propels me forward toward Christmases yet to come. Time marches on. My parents are now gone, my sisters are now grandmothers, and my daughters are now adults. But very soon my wonderful wife and our wonderful daughters will be together to celebrate that special day together and make more memories for future smiles.

Bring on Christmas.

Personal Book Awards for 2018

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“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” – Dr. Seuss

One year ago I shared the following: “I counted twenty-five books that I read in 2017, which is easily the most I have read in a very long time, and predictably more than I will read in 2018.” Well, here stands yet another reason not to pursue professional gambling: Last week I completed my twenty-fifth book in 2018. That’s over 7,000 pages this year, my friends. The total number of books is the same, but there was greater variety in the genres chosen and I’m pleased to see more fiction on the list: I always intend a 50/50 split but never even come close. This year was at least a step in the right direction.

Books written by friends are always favorites, of course, and I was honored to read Les Ferguson’s book, “Still Wrestling,” this year. Of the rest, I would bestow the following four awards:

HARDEST BOOK TO READ THAT I’M GLAD I READ: The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone (referred by Ray Carr)

HARDEST BOOK TO READ THAT I’M GLAD I READ BUT WOULDN’T RECOMMEND AND NOT BECAUSE IT IS 834 PAGES LONG: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (referred by a former student)

BEST COMBINATION OF HUMOR & INSPIRATION: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (referred by my wife and a gift from my oldest daughter)

BEST GUILTY PLEASURE READ: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (referred by Chris Doran)

But awards aside, I am glad that I read every book. Well, maybe one exception, but I’ll keep that to myself. 🙂 Here is my full list for 2018:

Books written by friends (1 this year; 6 last year)
Still Wrestling by Les Ferguson, Jr. (208 pages)

Novels (6 this year; 3 last year)
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (417 pages)
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (267 pages)
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (834 pages)
Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse (237 pages)
Where the Line Bleeds by Jesmyn Ward (230 pages)
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (254 pages)

Sports (3 this year; 3 last year)
Tales from Out There by Frozen Ed Furtaw (224 pages)
The Phenomenon by Rick Ankiel & Tim Brown (304 pages)
The Curse: The Colorful & Chaotic History of the LA Clippers by Mick Minas (558 pages)

History (1 this year; 1 last year)
I Will Fight No More Forever: Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War by Merrill Beal (384 pages)

Biography/Memoir (3 this year; 5 last year)
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (261 pages)
Promise Me, Dad by Joe Biden (210 pages)
Cotton Patch for the Kingdom by Ann Louise Coble (240 pages)

Theology/Church (8 this year; 6 last year)
Cadences of Home: Preaching among Exiles by Walter Brueggemann (176 pages)
Overrated by Eugene Cho (240 pages)
Barking to the Choir by Gregory Boyle (224 pages)
Trouble I’ve Seen by Drew G.I. Hart (198 pages)
The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight (240 pages)
The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone (224 pages)
Christians at the Border by M. Daniel Carroll R. (176 pages)
You are What You Love by James K.A. Smith (224 pages)

Poetry/Essays (1 this year; 1 last year)
The Kindness of Strangers – edited by Don George (272 pages)

Writing (1 this year; 0 last year)
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (re-read) (272 pages)

Crime (1 this year; 0 last year)
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer (384 pages)

Star Searching

Xmas Pic

“Christmas comes during a season when the Earth is in its darkest time.”
– Melissa Etheridge

We have three Christmas parties on the calendar this week and three more next. I used to make fun of such things, but not this year. This past season has been rough, and we are more than ready for a season that is merry and bright.

So do what you will, but I suggest: Decorate the tree. Play the music. Bake the cookies. String the lights. Wrap the presents. Wear the sweater. Watch the movie. Mail the cards. Hang the wreath. Dream the dreams.

Does this make everything magically wonderful?  No, I’m afraid not. Is it simply an act of denial? Well, not necessarily. What I’m suggesting is to look despair in its face and proclaim hope. We will not live in the darkness forever. There will be light. We expect it. In fact, we are counting on it.

I am reminded each year that the story behind the Christmas season does not actually feature Jimmy Stewart. Instead, it is of a displaced family in a barn delivering a baby in a feed trough—and against all odds that turned out to be the hope of the world.

There were a few wise dudes back then with enough hope in their hearts to scan the night sky for a star. They spotted it right away, and I suspect it’s because they were looking for it.

So join me in some star searching this year. Because this year I’m going to look up so that I can see it, too.

The View from Above

IMG_2777My daughter and I decided to hike the scorched hills behind our house on Thanksgiving Eve to get a firsthand look at the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire, and we witnessed the vast expanse of earth charred to smoldering nothingness. It was breathtaking, and I’m not even talking about air quality. Imagine strolling through a gigantic ashtray with a spectacular mountain view of the sun dropping into the Pacific Ocean and that pretty much captures the scene.

It had been an indescribable couple of weeks with one difficult to comprehend event stacked on top of another. Our daughter had not planned to visit for Thanksgiving, but the dramatic events at home led to a change of plans. That we were there together, standing on a mountain with a spectacular ocean view, surveying such immense devastation just steps above our house was more than a little surreal.

Standing there I realized on Thanksgiving Eve that I had much for which to be thankful. Friends and family. Life and love. Work and community. Health and safety. Even that moment. An unforgettable moment.

We walked back off of the mountain and returned home with that slight feeling of exhilaration that comes when you realize that you have just witnessed something special.

Later, looking out at that mountain ridge that from our window is the color of dark-roasted coffee grounds, it dawned on me that things look very different from the top of the mountain than they do just a few steps down here below. The perspective changes everything.

Sometimes it is a pretty comforting thing to realize that somewhere up above things look significantly different.

In Good Times and in Bad Times

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A mere fifteen hours after a ruthless gunman opened fire on an innocent crowd in Thousand Oaks, California, the Woolsey Fire ignited about fifteen miles away near Simi Valley. Both apparently man-made events have devastated our community, and the week that followed has somehow been both blurry and unforgettable.

After spending over a week at Pepperdine, however, I finally ventured off campus this past weekend to officiate a wedding ceremony about seventy miles away. Hilary and Tyler had planned to marry in Malibu, but like so many places in our area, their wedding venue burned to the ground. They kept their chins up and scrambled to relocate and successfully secured a gorgeous resort in Newport Beach to exchange their vows.

I was Tyler’s dean of students at Pepperdine Law and was honored to do this for him and his lovely bride, but I confess a bit of mixed emotions when I left campus to drive to the wedding. It was literally a breath of fresh air to drive to Newport Beach and be with this lovely couple on their special day, but it was strange and hard to leave what felt like fellow soldiers battling on in such difficult conditions with so much work to do. It was jarring, and refreshing, and just plain odd to leave.

But I am glad that I was able to go.

I have now officiated eighteen weddings involving someone from Pepperdine Law, and each time I am struck by the great honor of having the best seat in the house. I get to watch the groom lose his breath when he sees his bride enter, and I get to see the bride’s heart melt when she sees the way her groom looks at her. I get to see them stare in each other’s eyes while I rattle on about whatever—and then nearly lose my own breath when I notice them actually listening to what they promise one another at such a holy moment.

And this time I particularly noticed—in good times and in bad times. Wow. For better or worse, and in good times and in bad times. That has surely been on my heart this past week. The good times are easy and not worth the trouble of a vow. It is the bad times that call for a ceremony.

I did not stay for the reception and got an early start on the L.A. traffic to return home. I could hardly wait to get back to everyone. For we have been in the throes of the bad times. When love is challenged to prove itself.

A note from a disaster pastor

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There doesn’t seem to be many of us left on campus now. With the Woolsey Fire only 5% contained, Pepperdine decided to utilize remote learning options and not hold classes on the Malibu campus until after Thanksgiving break, so most all students have now safely headed home. It is a motley crew that remains, and we are standing strong together. We are tired, but fine, and our houses are probably safer than ever since the threatening fires scorched the surrounding hillsides so that there isn’t anything left there to burn. But the winds have returned, so we continue to watch and pray.

We currently have a front row seat to an impressive air show as planes and helicopters use our campus as staging area for their heroic efforts. I’m not exactly sure how I have been privileged to have a front row seat to the worst hurricane in American history and then the most destructive fires in California history some two thousand miles and thirteen years apart, but that is the way this life has played out. Someone called me the “disaster pastor,” which is probably both funny and an accurate way to describe my approach to things!

Our condo is fine but without WiFi, so we are on lower campus often to communicate with the outside world and to eat together and be together as a community. I sat down at my office desk this afternoon to try to write and noticed my breathing mask next to my Pepperdine Waves hat. The absurdity reminded me of the craziness of these past few days: a horrible, horrible mass shooting targeting college students followed by raging wildfires.

It is strange to say that I am glad to be here. I was glad to be in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, thirteen years ago when a group of people I loved were threatened and vulnerable, and I am glad to be in Malibu, California, today for the same reason. The word “pastor” is just another word for a shepherd, and a shepherd is there to protect and care for sheep. That doesn’t have to be your job title, of course. It is more of a posture, and it feels like such an honor to be there for others in times of vulnerability. I am surrounded here with like-minded people, including the leadership of this great university, although my wife might just be the best pastor I know.

I never learned the source, but I remember reading a couplet from a poem as a young man that took my breath away and seems to have shaped the trajectory of my adult life that said:

Some want to live within the sound of church and steeple bell.
I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.

That still gets me after all these years.

Keep praying for our area if you don’t mind: for those who have lost so much, for those who are still in danger, and for those who are fighting fires of all kinds. We will be strong and make it together.