The Party Spirit – Not Necessarily as Fun as It Sounds

george-washingtons-farewell-addressGeorge Washington’s 285th birthday is two days away, my how the time flies, but today marks the federal holiday in his honor.  Close to half of these United States extends the holiday to all presidents, but I live in one of the many states that sticks with the federal designation of “Washington’s Birthday” in honor of the man known as the father of this country.

Washington served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, a position he notably resigned after its stunning victory to retire to his farm in Virginia, but public service called again when he was elected as the new nation’s first president.  Washington never joined a particular political party, however, and warned against “the spirit of party” in his famous Farewell Address—an interesting admonition given today’s polarized society.

Washington argued that the party spirit is natural and pervasive and produces desires for (and acts of) revenge that lead a nation away from liberty and eventually toward despotism.  As a result, Washington argued that it is the “duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain” the party spirit.

“It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.”

Now it’s funny, I can picture readers from various political viewpoints reading much more into this than I intend.  My critique is of all and my point is simple: Encourage coming together, and discourage choosing up sides.  Unity good.  Polarization bad.  That would be my party platform should I have one, but ironically, a Unity Party is a contradiction in terms.

President Washington concluded his remarks on the party spirit with the following dire warning: “A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”

Thanks for the heads-up, Mr. General President Washington.  And happy birthday.

Ch-Ch-Changes

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I was just a toddler when David Bowie released “Changes,” reportedly a throw-away ditty that with time became one of his best-known songs.  “Changes” seems a fitting title track for the world today, but as I attempt to accomplish the trifecta of moving houses, jobs, and offices in the next week or so, I kind of have it stuck in the old noggin for personal reasons.

There are benefits to moving, of course.  Like mental and physical exhaustion.  The aroma of cardboard.  An urge to google “hoarder assessment quiz.”  Noble attempts at impossible to-do lists.  Locating unused muscle groups.  Discovering spiders in little-trafficked areas of the house.  Mental and physical exhaustion.  Did I mention that one already?  Forgetfulness.

But don’t forget the magical feeling of a fresh start that comes along for the ride, too.  And the opportunity to throw away junk and live more simply.  And the glorious break from the old routine to attempt to create a better routine.  And the sudden appearance of the word “possibilities” in daily conversations.  Changes can be downright invigorating, and I for one am excited by the prospect in spite of the unavoidable challenges.

“I hate moving” seems to be the natural and popular thing to say.  But I sure love getting somewhere, and it stands to reason that it is hard to get somewhere if you are immovable.

Alone but Not Lonely on Valentine’s Day

1“Love cares more for others than for self.” – Paul (1st Corinthians 13, MSG)

Tomorrow, on Valentine’s Day, my beautiful wife will be relaxing in a luxury hotel in Maui, which sounds fabulously romantic except for the fact that I will be at work 2500 miles away.

Sigh…

To explain, our oldest daughter teaches at a school that hosts a major fundraising event each year, and last year’s event included a trip for two to Maui as a raffle prize.  Guess who won?!  Somewhat surprisingly, she chose to take her mother along as her plus one, which I think is fantastic on multiple levels.  My wife thinks it may primarily be so that mom will pay for the non-free portions of the trip, but even if so, it is what we call a “win-win” in the negotiation business.

Except for me, that is, who will be home alone enjoying a meal prepared by my favorite Italian chef, Mr. Chef Boyardee.

In the spirit of planning ahead, my wife and I created another daughter a couple of decades ago on the off-chance that our oldest daughter won a trip for two to Maui and invited her mother along on Valentine’s Day so that I would have another beautiful person to spend time with on such a special holiday.  But that kiddo is 1100 miles away at college in Seattle.

Despite the three beautiful women in my life, I guess that I am destined to be alone this Valentine’s Day.

And yet I am genuinely happy.  Seriously.  No, I like those three human beings as much as you can like anyone ever and would love to spend time with them all, but it is so fun to stop and imagine the memories Jody and Erica will make together in Maui this week as well as how much Hillary enjoys being in Seattle.  Love does that sort of thing to you.  It produces genuine feelings of peace and joy when the objects of your love are blissfully happy without a second thought about what that means for you.

It doesn’t always look so great on paper, but I’m telling you that love is where it’s at.

Avoiding a Repeat of History

charleston-picI set my alarm for 5:30am most every morning, but when I did so on Tuesday in Charleston, South Carolina, it was actually 2:30am for the old California-tuned biological clock.  But I got up anyway and met a new friend in the hotel lobby for an early morning run.  We ran four miles through that beautiful city with its gas lamps, stately mansions, cobblestone streets, peaceful waterfront, and general gorgeous-ness before the sun really even thought about making an appearance.  It was great—the run, the conversation, the city, the sights, and the weather.

When we first located the ocean on our run (fyi, those oceans aren’t always as easy to find as you might think), my new friend pointed toward a gleaming set of lights in the distance and said casually, “Oh, there’s Fort Sumter.”

I nearly had to stop running.  Fort Sumter.  Where the American Civil War began, a fact I taught an unknown number of teenaged history students a few decades and careers ago.  I knew Fort Sumter was in Charleston but hadn’t thought about it in the days leading up to this hastily-planned business trip and surely didn’t expect to see it pointed out in casual conversation.

That location, sitting silent in the darkness, is where the citizens of my country chose up sides and literally started killing each other.

Times are a little crazy right now, and I don’t wish to sound overly dramatic, but a professor friend of mine who is an expert on Lincoln has pointed out more than once recently that our current political climate reminds him of the decade leading up to the American Civil War.  Surely such a thing couldn’t happen again?  Could it?

Not if I have anything to do about it.  And I do.  We all do.

While Fort Sumter sat silently in the distance, I considered the contrasting metaphor of our morning run where two American brothers ran side by side in the same direction sharing deep thoughts and good stories.  That was nice.  We did, however, meet people traveling different directions than us, and as we tend to do in the South (and as this Southern boy does wherever I happen to be), we said hello in warm greetings to those traveling in the exact opposite direction.  That was nice, too.

Now don’t get me wrong: There is a time and a place to stand in opposition to others.  And we should.  But there is also a way to treat your brothers and your sisters when you stand in opposition, and when the collective decision concludes that the best way to do so is to pick up weapons and start shooting each other, then something went horribly wrong a long time ago.

Something may have already gone wrong in this country of ours a long time ago.  If so, I suggest that we find a way to reverse course before some random runner a couple of centuries from now is jarred by the sight of the place where we once again chose a violent answer.

Respect the Animal

pepperdineSo we get that we are spoiled.  We have lived on the stunning campus of Pepperdine University for nine years now, which just isn’t fair.  Perched high on a mountainside overlooking the Pacific Ocean in sunny Malibu, the campus is consistently ranked one of the most beautiful in the world.  I heard that a federal judge once said that Pepperdine is the sort of place where God would live if he had the money.

As if the geographic setting wasn’t enough, there are deer that lazily wander around the campus as if they own the place.  They drive our hard-working groundskeepers crazy, but the beautiful deer are popular with the steady stream of campus visitors who just can’t believe that such a place exists.

But once every year or two we receive notice of a mountain lion sighting somewhere on campus.  Not cool, but balancing living in breathtaking beauty with a fleeting moment of potential terror every year or two is not a terrible trade off.

And then there is now.  There have been eleven mountain lion sightings in the last six weeks.  An expert came in to advise the University, and we were told that “[t]he expert expressed with confidence that this is a healthy mountain lion, moving within its territory, and acting normally.”  There is no good news anywhere in that sentence.  I have no desire to live in the territory of a normal, healthy mountain lion.  If forced to coexist, I’d prefer a mountain lion that’s sort of antisocial and experiencing a curious loss of appetite.

We were also provided a list of tips on how to respond if we encounter a mountain lion.  I’m not very excited about most of the items, including “Do NOT run,” which seems like the sort of advice the mountain lion would give instead.  And, “Appear as large, loud, and powerful as possible,” which if you know me, really just isn’t possible at all.

My friends often comment on the pace of my morning runs.  One word, my friends: Motivation.

There is one piece of advice, however, that I am particularly good at: “Respect the animal.”  Done.  No problemo.

In this crazy, crazy world of ours filled with fear of each other and the “other” and the toxic vitriol that such fear produces, I wonder how much progress would come if we chose to truly respect one another.

It supposedly works with mountain lions.

What Gives Me Hope

interfaith-group-2017As nostalgia sets in at the prospect of leaving the law school, the privileges I enjoy become more pronounced.  One of my favorites has been hosting the Interfaith Student Council.

Early this week, sixteen wonderful people—fourteen law students, one undergraduate student, and one lawyer—showed up for an evening of discussion (the lawyer took the picture above!).  This fine group represented various flavors of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Atheism.

The leaders offered two potential topics for the evening: a heavy discussion about the controversial Trump immigration executive order, and a lighter discussion of dating practices in various faith traditions.  The group decided to do both and briefly discuss the heavy topic before moving to the lighter topic.  It may be unsurprising in the rear view mirror, but we never made it past the first.

Early in the conversation, one of the kindest people I have ever known shared a personal story that involved a close acquaintance sharing things that characterized this person’s entire religion in a terrible light.  I don’t think this kind soul has the capacity for anger, but there was definite hurt.  And confusion.  I mean, what do you do when someone you know portrays you and everyone in your faith as evil?

Everyone tried to help, and a good conversation ensued.

Later on, after the conversation took several twists and turns, a different student spoke up—one who comes from the faith that was used to characterize the other student as evil—and directed remarks back to that tough situation.  And she apologized.  She apologized on behalf of her entire faith.  And then she started crying, which made the other student start crying, and if we weren’t careful it was going to get all of us but they hugged it out and gave us a fighting chance.

If I am honest, as I sit here and type away, you know how your tears like to hang out in your upper cheekbones watching television and how they stand up and put their shoes on when you start thinking about touching moments like this one?  Well, maybe that is happening right now, but you’ll never know.

At the end of the evening, I asked everyone what gives them hope when times seem dark.  Folks shared some great answers, but I have to tell you that what gives me hope is an evening like that one and an encounter like the one between those two wonderful students.

Some may look at the world right now and just see stormy weather, but in that one embrace I believe I saw a break in the clouds.

A Personal Update

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Those who know me well might want to sit down for this one.

The co-chairs of the preacher search committee at our church announced this morning that my name has been proposed as the church’s new full-time preaching minister.  This is most definitely not a done deal since I (and the rest of the elders) insisted on feedback from the congregation this week.  If the proposal proceeds, however, I am willing to transition into that full-time role in March.

(Pause for friends and family who didn’t listen to the suggestion to sit down.)

Both my current work (law school administration) and my church find themselves in important times of transition, and I have struggled for the past several years with serving in effectively pastoral roles in both places and the accompanying feeling that I am unable to do justice to either one.  And I care a lot about doing justice.  At one point during the past year I tried to step back from church leadership but circumstances simply would not allow that to occur.  Maybe that was a sign.  Now, through lots of late-night talks and prayers with my sweet wife, it seems right that I focus full attention on church.

Those who don’t know me well may not know that I served as full-time preaching minister for a wonderful group of people on the Mississippi Gulf Coast for nearly a decade (early 1999 to late 2008).  Some preachers take a sabbatical after such a run.  Apparently, I went to law school for nine years instead.

This is a big week for me and for us.  My law school years have been fantastic, but this may be a time for transition.  I do hope that the congregation will share their thoughts with the church leadership so that the proper decision is clear.  If the time isn’t right, then, well, who would want that?  But if it is, I am ready to dive in.

My blog is titled, Starting to Look Up.  Looking up is surely how I will spend this week.

Rising From the Ashes (Waters, Rubble, Ice, or Whatever)

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Mother Nature cleared her throat this week and shut down several roads leading to our life here in sunny (once again) Malibu.  My wife and I apparently collect natural disasters, starting with Arkansas tornadoes and ice storms, continuing with Gulf Coast floods and hurricanes, and now that we’ve hit the jackpot, California drought, earthquakes, wildfires, and mudslides.  We just need a blizzard, tsunami, and volcano to complete the set.  Stockpiling seashells sounds significantly safer (sweet sentence!), but since an ice storm played a major role in the early days of our relationship, I guess the disaster collection is appropriate.

Jody and I met on New Year’s Day 1994 at a high school basketball tournament in Jonesboro, Arkansas.  I was there as a high school basketball coach, and she was there, according to her own rendition, in part to meet me.  You can picture me there at a guardrail in the arena, standing by myself, watching basketball, unsuspecting, when this beautiful young woman innocently (ha!) walks up to introduce herself.  I never knew what hit me that night, but it turned out to be love.

I didn’t have much of a chance according to the Vegas oddsmakers given my dating record yet somehow didn’t mess things up right away.  We talked through several basketball games that night, followed by a trip to Steak ‘n Shake since we weren’t particularly ready to stop the conversation.  We subsequently went on a date or two in January and could sense that something special was in the works.  And then came the infamous ice storm of 1994, a disaster that The Weather Channel ranked as #2 in their list of the “Nation’s Worst Ice Storms.”

Best.  Disaster.  Ever.

Classes at my school were canceled for what seemed like forever.  Jody’s work was not canceled, but since she lived about a forty-five minute drive away on super treacherous roads, she stayed close by at a friend’s apartment throughout the ice storm.  Over the course of that week or two we had the equivalent of a year or so of dating.  At least that’s what we tell ourselves since we were engaged a month later and married by May.

Jody and I have seen a natural disaster or two along the way, and living in California we can count on encountering more.  But we’ve also seen some pretty amazing things emerge “naturally” from both natural and unnatural disasters, and the past twenty-three years of my life is the best evidence of all.

A Little Moderation

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The Great Southern California Drought seems awfully wet nowadays.  I read that it will take several wet years to rescue SoCal from its drought condition, but you have to give it to January 2017 for trying to do it all at once.  Last Friday’s rains produced multiple mudslides that effectively turned Malibu into a peninsula in advance of the heavy rains that hit on Sunday.  If the Pepperdine deer and coyotes start lining up in pairs, you will find me consulting Waze for the nearest Noah.

So it appears that the prayers for rain produced so much of it that the world around here is literally falling apart.  Figures.  Life’s strong suit does not appear to be producing a happy medium.

While not below the poverty line, I grew up relatively poor.  In the early 1980s, my dad was laid off from his longtime work as a butcher in a meatpacking plant and took a part-time job at a neighborhood grocery store.  I knew the store well, having built my baseball and football card collection from its candy counter thirty cents and one pack at a time.  When my loving father found out that I liked a particular brand of candy, he would bring home so much of it in brown paper bags that I couldn’t stand to look at it anymore.  You don’t get upset with a dad who loves you that much.  But you do start secretly feeding Laffy Taffy to stray animals.

Moderation is as rare as happiness is elusive, and there just may be a connection between the two.  And if the current state of American politics is instructive, moderation is less popular than ever.  Extreme is in, and moderation is out.

Imagine changing the names of television shows and events from extreme to moderate:

  • Moderate Home Makeover (ABC)
  • Moderate RVs (Travel Channel)
  • Moderate Weight Loss (ABC)
  • Moderate Couponing (TLC)
  • Moderate Homes (HGTV)
  • Moderate Cuisine (The Food Network)
  • The Moderation Games (ESPN)

Not really ratings grabbers.

But the ancient philosophers may have been on to something when they advised moderation. “Never go to excess, but let moderation be your guide.” (Cicero)  “If one oversteps the bounds of moderation, the greatest pleasures cease to please.” (Epicetus)  “If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it.” (Proverbs 25:16, ESV; see also Laffy Taffy, above.)

As this blessed rain falls and the hills collapse, I guess I’m just thinking that the ancient virtue, Temperance, deserves a second look.

Beneficence

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“Our culture has made it harder to be good.” – David Brooks, The Road to Character

With the news that former president George H.W. Bush is in ICU and the worldwide attention on today’s presidential inauguration, I found this worth sharing today.

In one sense, today is simply a Republican president succeeding a Democrat president, something that has occurred three times in my lifetime (and three times vice-versa, too).  But everyone knows that this inauguration is almost indescribably different.  Donald Trump won the presidency by brazenly declaring that he is indescribably different.  And today is the day he moves into the White House.

President Obama will cede center stage today.  I have watched him navigate the post-election drama, and I may not be objective enough to comment, but it seems that he has been consistently gracious in what must be an awkward time.  Today will be particularly scrutinized.

A couple of months ago at the height of the election drama, a handwritten letter that outgoing president George H.W. Bush left in the White House for incoming president Bill Clinton in 1993 made the rounds, and given the campaign histrionics this go around, it was almost shocking to read.

He wrote:

Dear Bill,

When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago.  I know you will feel that, too.

I wish you great happiness here.  I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.

There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair.  I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.

You will be our President when you read this note.  I wish you well.  I wish your family well.

Your success now is our country’s success.  I am rooting hard for you.

Good luck,

George

In President (George H.W.) Bush’s autobiography, he describes that day: “And so time goes on and I’m sitting here now alone, the desk is clear and the pictures are gone.  I leave a note on the desk for Bill Clinton.  It looks a little lonely sitting there.  I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but I did want him to know that I would be rooting for him.”

I don’t want to be overly dramatic either, but the graciousness offered by President (George H.W.) Bush to President Clinton is something that in my opinion does more than transcend politics—it transcends life.  And it displays a depth of character not rewarded in our culture today.

I want to highlight it.  Especially today.