Final(s) Approach

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My office sits in the middle of Seaver College where a few thousand students will take final exams this week. Just up the hill in the world I inhabited for the past nine years are hundreds of law students sitting for final exams this week, too. Meanwhile, my youngest daughter is facing final exams in her study abroad experience six thousand miles away.

But I’m happy as can be. Been there, done that, as cool people used to say (and obviously I still do).

Well, there is the tiniest bit of guilt at the lack of cumulative examinations in my own life. No, my bad, I think that was just a little indigestion. I’m good now.

It has been interesting to compare the way the bulk of undergraduate students and law students cope with the stresses of finals season. One set apparently prefers letting stress go through singing loudly and/or funny Internet videos while the other likes to curl up in a fetal position and cry. I’ll let you guess which is which.

My job is and has been to offer kind smiles in the general direction of the test-takers wherever they happen to be.  It is good work that seems to be appreciated.

I guess this reflects life in general. Sometimes you face testing. Sometimes you are off the hook. When the latter applies, encourage the former. It has been my experience that you will appreciate it when it is your turn to be tested.

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Homecoming

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“You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s all right.”   – Maya Angelou

At week’s end I intend to be two thousand miles away from home to attend the homecoming basketball game of my high school alma mater. Pretty weird, huh, to leave home to come home? My life has turned out like that.

I am at home in California, and I have a driver’s license and mailing address and license plates to prove it. California is where everything I own in this world is located. It is where I live and work and go to sleep at night. California is filled with relationships and experiences and places that I treasure. I know it like the back of my hand and love it here. Home is where you hang your hat, and my hat hangs in California.

But Arkansas has always been my home. It is the land of my birth. Born, and raised. Arkansas is where I fell in love and became both a husband and a father, and it is where both of my sweet parents were laid to rest. Arkansas is filled with relationships and experiences and places that I treasure. I know it like the back of my other hand, and I love it there. You can never really leave home, so I never really left Arkansas.

Arkansas and California could not be more different if they tried. And I’m pretty sure that they do. But they are both dear to me.

It promises to be a strange week. I haven’t lived in Arkansas in twenty years and only visit on rare occasions, and I could not tell you the last time I watched the Falcons play a homecoming basketball game despite having participated in so many of them in years that are now long gone. But I will feel at home there, because that is where I will be. Home.

Pliny the Elder famously said that home is where the heart is. Well, my heart has two homes.

I will leave my love for Mississippi for another day.

Freedom is a Road to Love

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“[T]he ultimate goal of human beings is not the ‘kingdom of freedom.’ Rather, the kingdom of freedom is a process toward the kingdom of God, which is the kingdom of love.” – Miroslav Volf (explaining Jurgen Moltmann), Exclusion & Embrace, 105

I chose “Freedom Road: The Exodus Story” as our church’s fall semester sermon series and brought it to a close yesterday morning. We will now turn our attention to the birth of Jesus and a brand new year and a consideration of how to live once liberated from oppression.

I have enjoyed the freedom road journey despite having to listen to myself speak along the way. It is a spectacular story. We started with the birth of Moses in Egyptian slavery and followed the stunning liberation narrative until Joshua stood in a land of promise and called the Israelites to fully commit to God.

It has been particularly interesting to consider freedom in a land that loves the idea so much because the American preoccupation with independence is at odds with my particular faith. Freedom is a good word, of course, if for no other reason than because oppression is a bad word, but there is danger in making freedom the ultimate goal—and our unfortunate tendency is to value our independence above all things. I agree with Volf/Moltmann in recognizing freedom instead as a pathway to a beautiful land where love rules.

But I still don’t trust myself. While drawn through compelling hints toward the land where love rules, I have been conditioned to be in control and to avoid answering to anyone other than Me. The cultural indoctrination runs deep.

So I find myself still on Freedom Road, ironically in the process of being set free from the oppression of Freedom. But my journey is filled with hope and faith in a beautiful future that to date remains unseen.

 

A Litany of Thanksgiving — by Howard Thurman

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In Your presence, O God, we make our Sacrament of Thanksgiving.

We begin with the simple things of our days:

Fresh air to breathe,

Cool water to drink,

The taste of food,

The protection of houses and clothes,

The comforts of home.

For all these we make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

We bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that we have known:

Our mothers’ arms,

The strength of our fathers,

The playmates of our childhood,

The wonderful stories brought to us from the lives of many who talked of days gone by when fairies and giants and diverse kinds of magic held sway;

The tears we have shed, the tears we have seen;

The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the eye with its reminder that life is good.

For all these we make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

We finger one by one the messages of hope that await us at the crossroads:

The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of our security,

The tightening of the grip of a single handshake when we feared the step before us in the darkness,

The whisper in our heart when the temptation was fiercest and the claims of appetite were not to be denied,

The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open page when our decision hung in the balance.

For all these we make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

We passed before us the mainsprings of our heritage:

The fruits of the labors of countless generations who lived before us, without whom our own lives would have no meaning,

The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;

The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp, and whose words could only find fulfillment in the years which they would never see,

The workers whose sweat has watered the trees, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations,

The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons, whose courage made paths into new worlds and far-off places,

The savior whose blood was shed with the recklessness that only a dream could inspire and God could command.

For all these we make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

We linger over the meaning of our own life and commitment to which we give the loyalty of our heart and mind:

The little purposes in which we have shared with our loves, our desires, our gifts,

The restlessness which bottoms all we do with its stark insistence that we have never done our best, we have never reached for the highest,

The big hope that never quite deserts us, that we and our kind will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the children of God as the waters cover the sea.

All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel, I make as my Sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee, Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.

  • Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart, 147-149

Works of Art

23333990_10154824095986784_819298701828859346_oOf all the things I have been called in life, art aficionado is nowhere on the list. Now if art is defined broadly to include beautiful things like a perfectly executed squeeze play, well that’s a different story, but the traditional definitions leave me out in the artless cold. I am not a hater. I am simply an art doofus.

Our recent two-week vacation in Madrid that included a weekend jaunt to Paris provided more opportunities for art appreciation than in the combined 47+ years of my life that preceded the trip. We visited the colossal Louvre as well as the Orsay in Paris. We toured three amazing art museums in Madrid, including the Prado, Reina Sofia, and Thyssen. We witnessed the jaw-dropping art and architecture involved in the cavernous 2800-rooms of the Royal Palace in the Spanish capital city and multiple cathedrals in Toledo, Madrid, and Paris. We marveled at wonders such as Plaza Mayor and the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe and Sainte-Chapelle.

I am so full of artistic appreciation right now that I should not operate heavy machinery. But of all the things I witnessed during this unforgettable vacation, there is one moment that stands head and shoulders above the rest.

We were somewhere in the Louvre. Who knows where we were really—without the art involved in creating the exit signage I might still be wandering lost in the Louvre. But we were somewhere in the Louvre when I noticed that we were in a room with a gentleman and his daughter with Down’s Syndrome. They were wandering at about our pace through the maze of paintings.

I am so thankful that I happened to look back as I exited one room for another and noticed that the father was down on one knee to take a picture of his daughter in front of a massive and colorful painting created by someone whose name I am sure that I cannot pronounce. I did not know then nor do I now which uber-expensive painting the man’s daughter was standing in front of, but for the rest of my days I will remember precisely my view of the massive posed smile the daughter had on her face but more importantly the exuberant joy on the father’s face as he saw his beautiful girl through the camera lens in all of her glory. It was obvious that in that camera lens was the most enchanting and priceless picture that he had ever seen.

And that, my friends, was the most beautiful thing I witnessed in all of Europe.

As the father of two amazing daughters of my own, I have long appreciated that kind of art.

Leaving on a Jet Plane

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“I love to travel, but hate to arrive.” – Albert Einstein

For those who actually read my blog ramblings (to whom I am most grateful), Starting to Look Up will go silent for a couple of weeks as my wife and I journey to Europe to see our youngest daughter who is studying abroad this semester. We leave tomorrow.

I had not been off the North American continent until 2015 but since that summer have enjoyed trips to South America, Asia, and Africa, and am pretty excited to add another continent in this apparent attempt to make up for lost time. But we are especially excited to see Hillary.

Hillary may have caught the travel bug without our help but we surely did our part by putting her on a plane all by herself to visit a friend in London while in middle school and then shooting her off to Kenya on a couple of youth group mission trips in high school. This college semester in Spain is simply fuel for the fire. On a recent weekend trip to Amsterdam she sent us a text that read: “Just a warning I’ve already decided I’m moving here one day and living on a houseboat, there’s not convincing me otherwise.”

We had better go see her while we can.

I look forward to many adventures over the next couple of weeks and a heart full of new memories on return, and later, the chance to process those precious gifts into words.

The Nashville Scene

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At Douglas Corner Cafe

Music City is apparently the popular kid in class these days due to its unique combination of live music, yummy food, Southern hospitality, and distinctive attractions. The Grand Ole Opry is an experience all by itself. I was told that you never know what you will see at the Opry, and when NFL Hall-of-Famer Terry Bradshaw and NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip took the stage to sing an Eagles song, I had to admit that I never saw that one coming.

It was good to see several old friends during my recent visit to Nashville like Caleb, Ken, the entire Walker family, and my old buddy, Jon, from Arkansas. Jon is an accomplished musician, and since he wasn’t touring I also had the special opportunity to see him in action at a singer-songwriter night at the Douglas Corner Café (pictured above).  It was great to see these friends, but due to a limited schedule I missed many other friends who now live in Nashville, too.

In fact, it is hard to know who lives there now since lots and lots of folks are moving to Nashville. I went for an early morning run and noticed the new and cramped residential construction and heard somber talk of sharp increases in housing costs and the terrible traffic accompanying such rapid growth. It is the next Atlanta, they say, and if the speaker is really in a bad mood, maybe it is a future L.A.

Nashville is a cool city, but the collective concern is that it might have become so cool that it will inevitably lose its special appeal. It seems that contentment is an elusive virtue, so it is hard to blame anyone. It is the human condition to take something good and then push for more until it isn’t so great anymore.

But personally and ironically, I don’t want to be content with the inability to be content.  Try that one out on your therapist.

Guest Post by Request (Terry Austin, Communications & Development Director, CRA)

logo-craheader4Today, we’ve replaced the fine writing usually served here at Al Sturgeon’s blog with the literary equivalent of Folger’s Crystals. Let’s see if his readers can tell the difference…

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If you’re reading his blog, you’re either a friend of Al Sturgeon or you’re stalking him for nefarious purposes. I suppose both could be true, but let’s focus on the former option.

I’m firmly in that first group and have been for literally as long as I can remember. Al and I grew up together (though he is much, much older). We lived in the same small town in the northeast corner of Arkansas, attended the same church for several years, and went to the same school. I was even his deadbeat roommate for a time, which I choose to recall as a practicum of sorts for his later work in helping the needy.

So if it’s a skeleton in Al’s closet you seek, I’m the man to ask. I could tell you about the time he… well, no, that wasn’t Al. Or how about when the cops busted him for… well, shoot. That wasn’t him, either. That might have been me.

Clearly, the plain if somewhat aggravating truth we must face about Al Sturgeon is this: He’s always been this way, folks. Head of the class, seeker of justice, dispenser of mercy, speaker of truth, friend to all. That’s Al. The darkest stain on his character is his affinity for canned tamales and the Dallas Cowboys.

And so, because of those characteristics (and in spite of the tamales), I’m honored to take over Al’s blog today to announce this:

For his personal and professional accomplishment and his faithful spiritual example, Al Sturgeon has been selected as the 2017 Distinguished Alumnus at Crowley’s Ridge Academy in Paragould, Arkansas.

Al graduated from CRA in 1988 as the valedictorian of his class, the president of the student council, co-winner of the basketball award, and — as chosen by the school’s faculty — holder of the honorific “Mr. CRA.”

Shortly after college, he returned to the school as coach and teacher. His track teams delivered the school’s first-ever state championships (1994 and 1995). And his office was frequently a refuge for students quietly wrestling with turmoil within or at home. They naturally gravitated to Coach Al. He was, then as now, a solace for those in pain and need.

While teaching at CRA, Al met his wife, Jody, and they and their daughters, Erica and Hillary, have since journeyed together from Paragould to a pair of coasts, always together, always building or rebuilding, and always serving.

Readers of this blog are likely familiar with Al’s work in the years that followed, first picking up the pieces after Hurricane Katrina in Ocean Springs, Miss., and then as student, dean, elder and minister at Pepperdine. Along each step in the Sturgeons’ remarkable journey, those of us “back home” have watched with pride and claimed a small, mostly undeserved ownership in it.

And so, at CRA’s Homecoming on Friday night, December 8, in the same gym where Al once rained three-pointer after three-pointer, we’ll claim that stake once again. If you’re in the area, please join us as we honor our friend, Albert Andrew Sturgeon, III, as our 2017 Distinguished Alumnus.

The Life of Pie

Pie Festival PicI like pie.  I like pie a lot.  So there is very little arm-twisting involved when the opportunity to judge the Malibu Pie Festival heads my direction.

Several years ago in my first pie-judging experience I met Linda Hamilton of The Terminator fame who served as a fellow judge.  I had chosen the “fruit” category, but she mentioned that she had decided to take one for the team and judge the pies submitted by children.  This led to an ongoing moral dilemma in my life.  Do I judge wonderful strawberry, peach, and blueberry pies?  Or, do I judge pies adorned with gummi worms and breakfast cereals?

I have gone back and forth over the years based on my current walk with Jesus.

This year, I may have found a happy compromise by judging the pies submitted by older teens.  There were three lovely pies to judge, including a cannoli pie, a pina colada pie, and a strawberry pie.  All of them were terrific, and I left with very little guilt.  Win-win, as they say.

My friends at the Malibu United Methodist Church have put on the annual Malibu Pie Festival for twenty-eight years now as a fundraising effort for the many good works they perform and support in the Malibu community, including a weekly community dinner for our homeless friends.  I preached at MUMC one Sunday morning several years ago and was shocked to learn that it is a small church in terms of numbers.  Malibu really is a small town.  But MUMC is a huge church in its heart.

So sure, it is quite a privilege to judge pies at the Malibu Pie Festival, and sure, it is wonderful to see friends from the community out for the fun alongside celebrities like Jamie Foxx and Kelly Osbourne.  More importantly, it is inspiring to know that good hearts seeking to serve the underserved make it happen.

Trash to Treasure

22344381_224265931440152_753211283737673728_n(1)My friend, Danny, unexpectedly brought Sister Rosemary by my office last week during her visit to Pepperdine.  What a gift!  I have seen a handful of people who made TIME magazine’s 2014 list of the 100 most influential people in the world in person, but it was most definitely the first time one dropped by my office to say hello.  I have my fingers crossed that either Beyoncé or Pope Francis will follow Sister Rosemary’s lead soon.

[Click HERE to read what Academy Award-winning actor, Forrest Whitaker, wrote about Sister Rosemary for TIME in 2014.]

At her evening conversation event last week Sister Rosemary featured stylish purses created at her Tailoring Center using aluminum can pop-tops. She told the audience that she uses this process to teach the women and girls who have been ravaged by war that throw-away trash can be transformed into treasure.  What a lovely metaphor.

I’m not so sure that I can take trash and turn it into an actual fashion accessory.  But I’m up for changing the way I look at human beings who have been discarded one way or another in this world to see the treasure waiting there in what Mother Teresa once called “distressing disguise.”  Sister Rosemary does this with what Whitaker called contagious energy and boundless love.  And in the copy of her book “Sewing Hope” that she gifted me she wrote that “love is the key.”  

So if it is just as well with you, we might as well get started loving.