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.

Star Sightings

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One week after the terrible mass shooting during Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, interfaith gatherings appeared all over the nation like tender flowers sprouting from the bloody soil.

My new friend, Rabbi Michael Schwartz, who is new to Malibu, graciously invited me to take part in an interfaith service at the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue as Sabbath began last Friday evening. Rabbi Schwartz conducted a beautiful service filled with thoughtful songs, prayers, and reflections, and the musical gifts shared by Cantor Marcelo and his special guests were deeply moving.

At the outset of the service, we who represented local clergy from various faith backgrounds, along with important community leaders, were invited on stage to light eleven candles in honor of the lives that were tragically taken in Pittsburgh. We were then asked to share a short blessing. Without knowing exactly what to say at such a difficult moment, I chose to share a quote from Dr. King’s famous mountaintop speech, the last before he was assassinated: “Only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars.”

Looking at those flickering candles and out at the diverse audience in the synagogue, I can say with confidence that I saw stars shining in the darkness.

There is plenty of darkness to go around. May we see the stars. May we be the stars.

The Mystery of Life

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“Mystery is endless knowability.” – Richard Rohr

We hosted our second annual murder mystery dinner party for our church young adult group on Saturday evening. Last year we created an ‘80s prom, but this year’s rendition was superhero-themed so I went to the dark side and attended as Lex Luthor since all I had to do was put on a suit and buy a green (kryptonite) ring pop. We had a blast.

It is odd to host a fun church party around such a dark theme, but we could hardly wait the full year to host another one it is so awesome. (And if you are interested in hosting one yourself I recommend shotinthedarkmysteries.com.)

I don’t think it is the costumes that make a mystery dinner party such fun, although the costumes are pretty great—I think the fun in the whole ballgame is that it is a mystery. We don’t know “whodunit”—and we are on a quest to figure it out. There is a reason we read mystery novels and watch mystery movies and television shows. There is simply something compelling about mystery.

Which is a little misleading because we really want to “know” the answer, right? It wouldn’t have been a great party if at the end of the night we had told everyone, “Sorry, but we don’t want to call anyone an actual murderer, so let’s just forgive and forget and move on with life, okay?” No, the compelling part of a mystery is that there is an ultimate answer.

Richard Rohr is pretty great, and in his writings on faith he teaches that living in mystery is not really a negative because mystery does not mean that you cannot know (how many negatives did I use in that one sentence?).  He writes, “Mystery is endless knowability. Living inside such endless knowability is finally a comfort, a foundation of ultimate support, security, unrestricted love, and eternal care. For all of us, it takes much of our life to get there; it is what we surely mean by ‘growing’ in faith.”

As I grow older I am less drawn toward the need to know everything and more inclined to enjoy the journey inside the ever-evolving mystery of life. Welcome to life—that long mystery dinner party.

A Waste of Time

blog carRecently I finished a nice morning run on Zuma Beach just as the sun rose over the ocean and felt pretty good about myself when I pulled into the Arco station on the PCH. The Arco has the cheapest gas in Malibu, which isn’t saying a whole lot, but since I had to drive into Los Angeles that day and was in that part of town anyway it made sense to fill up. I pulled up to the pump behind a small SUV, placed the car in park, and glanced over to make sure my tank was next to the pump, but when I looked forward again I noticed that the SUV was in reverse and coming at me. I honked just a moment before impact. Well, the driver was a nice guy who felt terrible about the accident that did no damage to his vehicle but a number on the front end of mine. We exchanged information and left to face the day.

Later, I reflected on how privileged I am. Let me count the ways: (i) I have a car; (ii) the other driver’s insurance paid for the repairs; (iii) it also paid for a rental car (and side note on even more privilege: the rental was a Toyota Corolla, so compared to my Honda Civic, I continued to turn heads in Malibu); and (iv) a great body shop returned my car good as new.

So given all that, how come everyone I mentioned the accident to responded as if I had lost a pet? And why did I feel as if this was all such a pain in the derriere? Am I really that spoiled?

Probably.

But on second thought, maybe everyone knows, and everyone includes me, that things like this take up time—and that time is one of our greatest possessions. When I thought of it that way I almost felt justified in pouting over the time I lost getting the car repaired.

Until I considered that pouting over anything is a pretty crappy way to use such a great possession, too.

All Madden

With MaddenI flew to Oakland and back last Tuesday to facilitate a half-day session on conflict resolution for a group of pastors. The Uber driver from the airport to the conference did not stop talking for the entire trip, and on the flip side the driver that took me back said exactly two words–Which terminal?–in the full forty-five minutes. In between all that was an unexpected and cool experience.

The meeting was held at a quiet hotel in Pleasanton. Pleasanton, as you might expect, appeared to be a pleasant little town, and I was told that the lovely hotel was one of several owned by hall-of-fame football coach/broadcaster and video game legend, John Madden. That was cool enough, but what soon became way cooler was that John Madden himself was sitting in the lobby and someone, somehow, had arranged for our group to have our picture made with him! I nearly ran down the stairs to get there.

My first television football memory is Coach Madden on the shoulders of his victorious team after the Raiders defeated the Vikings in Super Bowl XI, and I can’t even guess how many games that followed where I enjoyed having Madden explain and entertain. Like, “There’s a lot of letters in Ladanian Tomlinson.” And, “If your hair covers your name, I guarantee you you’re going to get clipped.” Classic Madden.  “Boom!”

He is 82 years young now and as nice a guy as I had always imagined. Same wide smile. Same great voice. Same wit and sense of humor.

Through the magic of television the voice of John Madden is one of the narrators of my life journey, and honestly, one of my favorites. Likable, funny, non-pretentious, honest, and approachable. He was always just himself — and one of us. The best part of his famous fear of flying that had him criss-crossing the nation on a bus was that he didn’t fly over anyone. He was down to earth quite literally.

On meeting him, I was surprised that I was surprised that all this was true in person. More specifically, I suppose that I was more relieved not to be disappointed. I admire real, down-to-earth people. Thanks for that, Coach.

Keep Climbing

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On a trail last Thursday morning in a neighboring canyon I found myself running alone. I had started with others but when I faced a steep, narrow trail straight up an imposing mountain, unplanned, there seemed to be no one in the whole world but me and the trail to the heavens.

I attacked the hill with every ounce of my strength, arms pumping, calves burning, lungs fighting, and heart firing to conquer the challenge in front of me. I was strong—for a while—and then it was too much. I had to walk, but I refused to give up entirely and kept climbing the mountain step by step. In a few moments it seemed that I could sort of breathe again, so I challenged my legs to run the rest of the way. I thought I could do it, and I did.

At the top, seemingly on cue, I looked out at the crazy view across the morning sky and just at that moment the sun exploded over the mountains and above the clouds that lay across the hills like a cotton blanket. It was spectacular. The picture above is okay but doesn’t do it justice.

I’m not sure I want to run that hill again, and in retrospect, not sure that I really wanted to run it in the first place. But there was a feeling in my soul when I made it to the top and the sun broke through that felt like it was a special gift just for me, just for running, just for not stopping and finishing the climb. Pardon me, but it felt like a holy moment, and I was thankful. I felt a deep gratitude standing there on top of that mountain. The warmth of the sun. The beauty from above. The fullness in my lungs. The unplanned smile on my face.

I have friends on steep mountains today. I will have others. And it will be me again, too. My hope is that we all keep climbing, keep trusting, and keep believing that at the top of the mountain we will discover a spectacular gift. And smile.

We travelers, walking to the sun, can’t see
Ahead, but looking back the very light
That blinded us shows us the way we came,
Along which blessings now appear, risen
As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,
By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward
That blessed light that yet to us is dark.
Wendell Berry

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Tennis, Anyone?

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My oldest sister had a tennis class in college and seven-year-old, sports-infatuated me was a convenient choice for a practice partner. That was my introduction to tennis. We played on an elementary-school playground that had a metal chain-link “net” bisecting a concrete basketball court. Not ideal conditions, but I loved every minute of it. I followed professional tennis a little back then, and my childhood was a fun time for it. As a good American I cheered for Chris over Martina but could not get into the screaming antics of Connors and McEnroe, so when it came to international options I opted for Lendl over Borg because Lendl looked cool with those huge white sweatbands. But tennis never made it to center court in my life, other than as a diversion on long summer days when I took a break from shooting hoops to hit tennis balls against a brick wall.

Last year I decided to be a Pepperdine Waves fan across all sports, and as the calendar played out, I had many opportunities to watch our ultra-talented women’s tennis team in action and got a little hooked. What a terrific sport! In fact, one afternoon when I was nursing a nagging running injury I mentioned my interest in playing tennis to my friend and neighbor, Mike, and before I knew it we were playing each Friday morning.  My wife bought me a brand new racket, and I bought some cool Waves-colored tennis shoes. You might think that I am a serious tennis player—until you see me play. What a terrific and difficult sport!

Andre Agassi noted that “Tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, break, fault, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature.” Last week I watched a tennis match following such a tumultuous week in our national politics, and as I watched two warriors on a tennis court playing their violent game of chess with the ball sailing back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, I considered the adversarial nature of life. Maybe Agassi was on to something. It does seem to be the nature of things that we face one another across a dividing line and take our best shots.

At the end of the match, however, I watched the two warriors shake hands across the net out of respect for one another. That doesn’t seem to resemble life at all right now.

Everybody Crokinole!

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Crokinole is a game that somehow manages to combine elements of curling (minus the ice), marbles (minus the color), and shuffleboard (minus the cruise ship) into a table-top game enjoyable for all ages. The object of the game is to flick your little cookie-shaped discs into the higher-point regions in the middle of the board, but the greater challenge is to knock your opponent’s discs off the board while keeping yours on and avoiding the crazy posts that protect the inner circle. Trust me, it’s awesome.

The game originated in Canada, which is where I first learned about it thirty years ago when my oldest sister married and moved there. My mother loved it. Although the game is designed for two or four players, like a gambling addict at a poker table my Mom would sit alone for hours on end flicking the crazy discs toward that elusive hole in the middle of the table on our annual visits north of the border.

Last Christmas my wife surprised our family with a crokinole board as a family gift, and it has been a hit at our house with guests ranging from preschoolers to college students to young adults and beyond. There is something addictive about the game, and I confess to feeling a little like a pusher getting people hooked. I mean, c’mon, everyone (in Canada at least) is doing it?

I learned that there is an annual World Crokinole Championship tournament that draws entrants from multiple continents. For some reason that makes me happy. I’m not exactly sure why a simple game draws people from around the world, nor why it makes practically everyone who walks in our doors want to play—but it does. Maybe it is the easy, accessible challenge. It may be that the game is unique. But I prefer to think that it is because we are all drawn to sit down at a table with each other as equals and laugh together.

I mean, check out this video and just try not to smile! 🙂

JuneBaby

Junebaby1We signed our youngest daughter up for TIME magazine her senior year of high school when she indicated an interest in international affairs, but when she took off to Seattle for college I became the beneficiary of knowing what’s up in the world. As time flies and all that, that daughter is about to begin her senior year of college, and I thought I would sneak up to see her for a couple of days last week before the entire college experience slips away. As fate would have it I was reading TIME just before the trip and stumbled across the magazine’s inaugural run at identifying the “World’s Greatest Places.” The list contained one-hundred places from forty-eight countries on six continents and was chosen using factors such as “quality, originality, innovation, sustainability, and influence.” One of those one-hundred places is in Seattle, a restaurant featuring Southern food named JuneBaby.

Well, we are from Arkansas and were in Seattle, so we just had to go. We arrived when the doors opened and noticed an expected line out the door, but the wait wasn’t long. We enjoyed a delicious meal—gumbo for Hillary and catfish for me with wheat buns and honey butter to share. It was awesome.

But I don’t think it was the Southern food or even the ambience that landed this little restaurant on a list of the one-hundred greatest places on the planet. I suspect such a prestigious designation came from the beautiful idea behind the place.

Here is its self-description:

Southern food’s humble beginnings embarked when West Africans were taken from their home and were forced across the middle passage to North America. The term soul food originated during American slavery to not only describe a type of cuisine but also a period of time of oppression and overcoming hardships. It is traditionally cooked and eaten by African Americans of the Southern United States and merges influences from West Africa, Western Europe, and North America. As a result, America’s culinary history was built on cornrice, peas, and the hog; many of the ingredients associated with Southern food. Southern cuisine has always had and continues to have stereotypical connotations. Seen through the eyes of most Americans as inferior, unsophisticated, and unhealthy, Southern food reflects hard times and resourcefulness and is nothing short of beautiful. It is a cuisine to be respected and celebrated.

Yep, that’s why I am suddenly in love with JuneBaby. It bears repeating: “Southern food reflects hard times and resourcefulness and is nothing short of beautiful. It is a cuisine to be respected and celebrated.”

Beauty can and often does rise from ashes. And when it does, it should be respected and celebrated in all of its various forms, including fried catfish and gumbo.

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Travel Well

YA at UCLA

UCC Young Adults at UCLA

On Friday evening a group of friends from University Church traveled to UCLA to cheer on our Pepperdine women’s soccer team in a match against the Bruins. Although we came up short on the scoreboard our student-athletes battled hard and it was good to cheer on their great effort, especially on the road. Over the past two seasons I have gone on the road to cheer for multiple Waves teams, including baseball, basketball, cross country, track, and soccer. There is something fun about entering someone else’s turf to cheer on your team, wearing the colors, looking for friendly faces.

I am a St. Louis Cardinals baseball fan and in the past month had the opportunity to watch the Redbirds play in two different stadiums while on a western road swing. The Cardinals are said to “travel well,” a sports world phrase that means that the fan base shows up in support whenever and wherever the team happens to play.

Travel well. I really like that phrase. Sounds like something I would like to do in life in general.

The problem it seems is that you don’t have a ton of control over whether others will show up to support you when you are away from home and outnumbered. I guess the way that you conduct yourself can influence others to represent, but truth be told, even that isn’t required. What would it be like to rest assured that wherever you go in life you will find supporters out en masse, wearing your colors, and cheering you on? What would it feel like to travel well?

I guess most of us will never know.

One thing we can control, however, is whether or not we are individuals who help others travel well. Yes, that we can do. And, wow, what a world that would be.