Before & After

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Four years ago I posted about a powerful book and the opportunity to hear its author speak. The book was Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, and four years later I have never fully recovered. When I learned that a feature film based on the book would hit the box office, I made sure to be there opening night to soak it in. Like the book and the real life it represents, the movie is disturbing, emotional, and inspirational.

But it is this special day to remember Rev. King that has me thinking about Bryan Stevenson today. Stevenson has often been interviewed about King, been given awards named after King, and even been described as one whose work best embodies King’s legacy. Although we remember King today, examples like Stevenson remind us that his famous dream is still very much alive.

And then there is the other side of the MLK equation that is represented by Howard Thurman, the “before” to Stevenson’s “after.”

Howard Thurman was a classmate of Rev. King’s father and has been described as one who had a “profound influence” on his classmate’s famous son. Legend has it that King carried a copy of Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited, in his pocket during the trying days of the bus boycott in Montgomery (the city where Stevenson would later center his work).

I recently received a copy of Thurman’s important book and was stunned to consider his observation that Christianity appeared “as a technique of survival for the oppressed.” Thurman continued, “That it became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and the dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus.”

It is difficult for me even to imagine Christianity NOT as a religion of the powerful, much less consider that its entire presentation—the very idea of “salvation”—was a path to survival to Jesus’ original audience. But it wasn’t too difficult for Thurman to imagine. Or King. Or Stevenson. Considering their writings and speeches helps me read the Bible with fresh eyes.

Today our nation rightfully remembers Martin Luther King, Jr. I am also remembering the before and the after and considering what changes that demands of me.

Law and the Bible

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I am beyond honored to teach an undergraduate course this semester titled, Law and the Bible, in Lipscomb’s Fred D. Gray Institute for Law, Justice, and Society—even more honored that it is based on a course built (and using a text edited) by friend and former colleague, Professor Bob Cochran. To have the opportunity to combine my legal training and ministry experience in a classroom is pretty great, and that there are eleven brilliant and passionate students enrolled is almost too good to be true.

Professor Cochran divided the Bible in nine sections and teamed legal scholars and theologians to write each chapter (he joined his friend, Dallas Willard, to approach the Gospels) and explore what the Bible teaches about law and its relevance to current issues.

We have much to discuss.

I have a complicated relationship with politics and rarely write publicly on political issues anymore, not because I no longer have opinions, but for other reasons. To sit in a classroom, however, and consider contemporary issues starting with the Bible, that has me excited.

I confess disappointment that religious folks often react to major political moments by supporting their predetermined political candidate/party without wrestling with the individual issue at hand based on theological arguments. One would think that those who claim religion would avoid automatically supporting one political party and examine each individual situation in light of their sacred text. Maybe the penetrating question is: What is truly sacred?

I’m excited to consider such questions this semester with a gifted group of college students.

20 for 2020

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Here is my 2020 bucket list for your consideration on this first Monday of the new decade:
1. Vote anyway.
2. Read more novels.
3. Write fiction.
4. Become an expert at something new.
5. Make family memories.
6. Run farther.
7. Serve my new city.
8. Deepen a friendship.
9. Be productive at work.
10. Provide stronger leadership.
11. Do something revolutionary.
12. Make a discovery.
13. Cheer loudly.
14. Visit someplace iconic.
15. Recover joy.
16. Meet more neighbors.
17. Learn from respected magazines.
18. Promote conservation.
19. Encounter unfamiliar cultures.
20. Teach.

Respecting Time

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“Time is an illusion.” – Albert Einstein

Tick, tock, the clock does its rhythmic work without fail, and without complaint, while we lament that it goes too slow or marvel that it goes too fast. But time never misses a beat. And as the 2010s approach their finish line and the 2020s prepare to take the baton, like everyone else, I stop to reflect on the mystery of it all.

A decade ago I was approaching forty, smack dab in the middle of law school, living in a university residence hall with my family in California. For obvious reasons I anticipated launching a new life as an attorney in my forties, but here I sit a decade later in Tennessee, approaching fifty as a university vice president. Life surely is unpredictable.

I dare not venture a guess at life a decade down the road. The past has at least taught me that much. Two decades ago I was a baby preacher in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Three decades ago I was a college student in Arkansas preparing to coach high school basketball. Four decades ago I was wearing a yellow ribbon to Mrs. Conley’s fourth grade class for the hostages in Iran, and fifty years ago? Well, I was born nine months later, so I’d rather not think of that too much.

Einstein said that time is an illusion. And that dude was pretty smart.

Last week we spent Christmas in Arkansas with extended family. It was a great visit. Most of our trip occurred in or driving by farmland, and it reminded me of what Stephen Covey referred to the “law of the farm”—his way of describing how certain things cannot be rushed. One might cram for a test, but you can’t cram on the farm. Planting, cultivation, and harvest must occur in order, and in due time, and the rhythm cannot be forced.

Life apparently subscribes to the law of the farm. Tick, tock, the clock does its rhythmic work without fail, and without complaint, while we lament that it goes too slow or marvel that it goes too fast. But time never misses a beat.

Christmas Candles

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Howard Thurman at Marsh Chapel March 6, 1959

I Will Light Candles This Christmas — by Howard Thurman

Candles of joy, despite all sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch.
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all the year long.

Reading List (2019)

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“I guess there are never enough books.” – John Steinbeck

I am happy to report that I read twenty-five books for the third year in a row in spite of a crazy cross-country move. I have every intention of keeping up this particular discipline as the 2020s roll in. Here are a few observations from 2019:

#1: Five of the books were authored by friends: I sure have talented friends.
#2: It feels like Reimagining the Student Experience: Formative Practices for Changing Times was written just for my new job.
#3: I’m still enamored with Jesmyn Ward but am embarrassed that it took me this long to read beautiful novels from literary giants like James Baldwin, James Joyce, and Toni Morrison.
#4: Educated by Tara Westover blew my mind
#5: All in all, The Children by David Halberstam was my Book of the Year.

Here is my overall list for 2019:

Novels (6 this year—6 in 2018, 3 in 2017)
* Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
* Bowling Avenue by Ann Shayne
* Your Killin’ Heart by Peggy O’Neal Peden
* Dubliners by James Joyce
* Sula by Toni Morrison
* Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

Books written by friends (5 this year—1 in 2018, 6 in 2017)
* White Jesus: The Architecture of Racism in Religion and Education by Allison Ash; Christopher Collins; Tabatha Jones Jolivet; and Alexander Jun
* Kingdom Come by John Mark Hicks & Bobby Valentine
* Colonel Jonathan: An American Story by John Francis Wilson
* Ten Frames at the Galaxy Bowl by Kyle Dickerson
* Letterville: The Town That God Built by Aaron Sain

Theology/Church (4 this year—8 in 2018, 6 in 2017)
* Conversations with Will D. Campbell, edited by Tom Royals
* Homosexuality and the Christian by Mark A. Yarhouse
* (Re-read) Falling Upward by Richard Rohr
* (Re-read) Law and the Bible: Justice, Mercy, and Legal Institutions, edited by Robert F. Cochran, Jr. and David VanDrunen

Leadership/Politics/Sociology (3 this year—0 in 2018, 0 in 2017)
* Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele
* Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland by Jonathan M. Metzl
* Dare to Lead by Brene Brown

Biography/Memoir (2 this year—3 in 2018, 5 in 2017)
* Educated by Tara Westover
* Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash

Education (2 this year—0 in 2018, 0 in 2017)
* Roaring Lambs: A Gentle Plan to Radically Change Your World by Bob Briner
* Reimagining the Student Experience: Formative Practices for Changing Times, edited by Brian Jensen and Sarah Visser

History (2 this year—1 in 2018, 1 in 2017)
* How Nashville Became Music City U.S.A.: 50 Years of Music Row by Michael Kosser
* The Children by David Halberstam

Poetry/Essays (1 this year—1 in 2018, 1 in 2017)
* The Farm by Wendell Berry

Sports (0 this year—3 in 2018, 3 in 2017)
Writing (0 this year—1 in 2018, 0 in 2017)
Crime (0 this year—1 in 2018, 0 in 2017)

‘Tis the Season

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I love this time of year but am also the sort of person who sees the glass as half empty and half full all at the same time—a realist, if you will. So I realize that this time of year is all mixed up with positives and negatives. Merry Christmas to all, with some Bah, Humbug, too.

I love the giving. We share gifts at this time of year with family and friends, colleagues and strangers, even faceless people whose names we learn from angel trees.  We give a lot, and as we do we celebrate words like Believe. Hope. Joy. Peace.

And then we go and buy more and more stuff like it’s going out of style, which it is, but we can’t seem to help ourselves. I hate that part. The commercialism, the consumerism, and lots of other –isms that are better described as Greed. We crave More and can’t find Enough.

All that jumbled together in one season.

And then there are the people. Those merrily singing that it’s the hap-happiest time of the year, and those mired in depression. Those lavishly decorating cozy houses, and those sleeping outside in the dark and cold.

This entire semester, one of our amazing students planned an event she called, Sleep in the Square, that occurred this past weekend. The entire point was to raise awareness regarding homelessness in our local community. As she so eloquently put it, “A night for friends and strangers alike to gather and hear stories of those who have experienced homelessness, attempt to sleep while exposed to the elements of the outdoors, and encounter an evening filled with transparent cross-cultural conversations.”

We did all of that—we gathered, heard, attempted, and encountered. I was amazed by our students and their friends who slept out in the cold (pictured above the next morning), although I went home and slept in a warm bed for a few hours before returning for the closing liturgy of repentance and joy (there’s that dichotomy again!). The experience left me mixed-up just like the season, filled with love and hope, right alongside a sobering realization of my undeserved privileges and weakness.

Sometimes I feel that I should apologize for pointing out the dueling natures at this time of year—until I remember that the Christ-ian story underlying Christ-mas is exactly that kind of story.

‘Tis a mixed up season, one that reminds us that It’s a Wonderful-but-Messy Life.

Father and Daughters

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A lifetime ago now, when my youngest daughter was in kindergarten, I took her to the theater to see The Wild Thornberrys Movie. I don’t remember much about the movie, which is too bad since I now realize that the movie was set in Kenya, a place on the other side of the planet that that daughter and I would later visit together. But I know that we were at the movie because it featured an original song by Paul Simon that stole my heart. That song was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, and it should have won all the awards if you ask me.

Simon wrote the song, Father and Daughter, for his daughter, Lulu, who was seven at the time. There’s a decent chance he doesn’t know that he wrote it for me, too.

Seventeen years later we just completed our first family Thanksgiving in Nashville, and both of my sweet daughters, adults now, flew in to spend several precious days with us. I am beyond proud of them, and my love and admiration for those two young women knows no bounds.

As a dad you wish you could find a few words to express your heart to your sweet daughters—what you wish for them, what you believe about them, what you would do for them, and your very best advice. But there aren’t really words for those achings of your heart.

Mr. Simon gave it a really nice shot, though, and I am grateful.

If you leap awake in the mirror of a bad dream
And for a fraction of a second, you can’t remember where you are
Just open your window and follow your memory upstream
To the meadow in the mountain where we counted every falling star

I believe the light that shines on you will shine on you forever
And though I can’t guarantee there’s nothing scary hiding under your bed
I’m gonna stand guard like a postcard of a golden retriever
And never leave ‘til I leave you with a sweet dream in your head

I’m gonna watch you shine
Gonna watch you grow
Gonna paint a sign
So you’ll always know
As long as one and one is two
There could never be a father
Who loved his daughter more than I love you

Trust your intuition
It’s just like goin’ fishin’
You cast your line and hope you get a bite
But you don’t need to waste your time
Worryin’ about the marketplace
Try to help the human race
Struggling to survive its harshest night

I’m gonna watch you shine
Gonna watch you grow
Gonna paint a sign
So you’ll always know
As long as one and one is two
There could never be a father
Who loved his daughter more than I love you

 

Gimme a Break

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Although every week is a work week for my department, today marks the beginning of what feels like a much-needed, and much-anticipated, break. Classes are canceled, calendars are less cluttered, and the roller coaster offers an opportunity to breathe.

I love the academic calendar. For someone who simultaneously craves routine and can’t stand monotony, the academic calendar provides the perfect blend of predictability and variety. I love the summer of planning and anticipation, the flurry of the fall semester, the joy of the holiday breaks, and the spring semester sprint toward the finish line of commencement.

But I especially need a break right now.

One year ago, while the power was out in Malibu post-fire, I set aside the breathing mask and trusted my laptop battery in the dark of my office for a job interview. Life has not slowed down for a minute since.

I am so excited that our daughters are visiting our new Nashville home this week, and you’ll surely hear more about that later. But this morning, I am headed to the office with a smile. I don’t need a break to rest. Instead, I simply need time away from the frenzy of meetings and events, with time and space to think, to process, to clear the old mind so that I can dream again.

I give thanks for that today, three days ahead of schedule.

#HornsUp

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I have been a Falcon and a Ram, a Bison and a Razorback, a Greyhound and a Shark, a Golden Eagle and a Redhawk, a Wave and now a Bison again—all the while rooting for Cardinals and Cowboys, and once upon a time, a patriotic team called the 76ers.

Sports mascots are weird. There, I said it. Weird, but obviously a big deal. Can grown human beings wearing ridiculous costumes really be considered serious business?  Well, an $18 million Mascot Hall of Fame opened earlier this year in Whiting, Indiana. Let that one sink in.

Weird, yes, but it isn’t that I don’t feel a close kinship to mascots, with my closet as my witness. In fact, at the Greene County Quiz Bowl competition during my senior year of high school, I wowed the crowd with a remarkable depth of sports mascot knowledge (while my teammate, Trevor, answered all the academic questions). I do love me some mascots. But they’re weird.

So now I am a Bison. Thanks to the National Bison Legacy Act signed into law by President Obama in 2016, the American Bison is now our “national mammal.” Because it is specifically mine now at Lipscomb University, I am suddenly more interested in this lumbering beast. The American bison is described as “broad and muscular with shaggy coats of long hair.” This is going to be a stretch for me. However, “Bison temperament is often unpredictable. They usually appear peaceful, unconcerned, even lazy, yet they may attack anything, often without warning or apparent reason.” That sounds much more interesting!

My friend, Tom, shared a link recently of four bison being released back into Badlands National Park. As a new and proud Bison, this actually touched my heart. I’m not sure you will care if you are an Anteater or Banana Slug or Horned Frog. But I suddenly do.

Mascots are surely weird, but maybe even mascots can teach us how to care for something beyond our individual selves. If so, may their kind increase.