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.

A Party Worth Imagining

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PC: Tim Horton

The party was phenomenal. No, not the kind of party you might imagine happening in Malibu. In fact, this was the kind of party one might never imagine happening anywhere, including Malibu.

It was a beautiful Saturday where the bright blue heavens slowly faded into a starry sky that featured a spectacular orange moon, and when day transformed into dark the lights that had been carefully strung across the trees and green space lit up the night. Everyone was welcome to attend at no charge, and it seemed as if everyone did. There were people everywhere enjoying the tacos and pupusas and hot dogs and the ice cream cart that never slowed down the entire evening. There were crafts and piñatas for the children along with two, count ‘em two, mariachi bands that entertained and inspired the crowd to dance well into the night. We wanted a celebration, and we had a celebration.

The crowd was a cross-section of the community, and thus, a cross-section of the world. There were homeless and underemployed friends in conversations with world-famous celebrities. Every age level, every education level, every income level, every type of national origin, every faith, every ethnicity—it was all there in a singular party.

I love the Malibu Community Labor Exchange and could not have imagined a more appropriate atmosphere to celebrate its twenty-five years of service.

Late in the evening, while standing under the twinkling lights, I looked across the parking lot and noticed a photographer lurking under a tree with a long-range lens snapping pictures of the party’s celebrity host. That scene is my enduring memory of the party. There were homeless and underemployed men and women feasting with the rich and famous, and lurking in the shadows was paparazzi trying to sneak a shot. There was something right about that scene, something that said that the world needs to know what was happening there—a place where the lion and lamb decided to have a party together and everyone was invited.

Maybe I should have wandered over to the paparazzi and invited him to join us for a taco.

A Conversation Going South

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Is there a term for an escalator that is going down? A de-escalator? Well there should be a term. Anyway, I exited the Denver airport last Friday and stepped on the escalator headed down (sigh) when I heard, “Sir! Sir!”

I turned and saw a blonde woman about my age running and trying to get my attention. “Is this the way to the light rail?” she asked as she stepped on the escalator (?) behind me.

“I think so,” I answered. “That’s where I’m headed.”

“Where are you from?”

“California.”

“Oh,” she replied, obviously disappointed. “I thought I detected an accent.”

“Well, you probably did. I’m originally from Arkansas.”

“Oh,” she replied, suddenly in a better mood. “I would claim Arkansas.”

Well I won’t repeat what came to mind at this juncture of the conversation; instead, I made the difficult choice to smile and simply said, “I like them both.”

I thought that made a nice conversation ender, but she reluctantly replied, “Yes, I guess there are good and bad people wherever you go.” Saying this appeared to disappoint her once again.

There were many things I might have said at that point, but I just agreed and ended the conversation by turning and facing ahead. Which happened to be down. On both literally and metaphorically one of the longest rides I have taken on whatever one should call an escalator going down.

The Labor Party

MCLEOn the big screen Martin Sheen is probably best known for his leading role in Apocalypse Now and on the television screen for his portrayal of President Bartlet on The West Wing.  In Malibu he is known for his generosity.

Several years ago some teenagers from our church were at our local ice cream shop and one of the teens did not have a jacket with him. There was a bit of a chill in the air, and, you know, there was ice cream. One of the group noticed that the teenager was suddenly wearing a sweatshirt or jacket, I forget the specifics, and when asked where he got it he pointed to some random man that gave it to him. He had no idea it was Martin Sheen.

I have been involved in a unique and wonderful day labor hiring site called the Malibu Community Labor Exchange for ten years now and am embarking on my second stint as president of the board of directors. Martin Sheen has been involved since its inception twenty-five years ago, prominently at the beginning, and more behind the scenes in the years that followed, but he is stepping out front to host a major silver anniversary celebration that is open to public this Saturday evening at the Labor Exchange (23595 Civic Center Way – the Malibu Library parking lot).

As we planned the party, I had several opportunities to interact with Martin in person, including interviewing him for a promotional video. The word “celebrity” did not factor into conversation in my Arkansas hometown, so this is a novel experience for me. We were both interviewed by a local newspaper about the event, and one line in the article made me smile: “Sturgeon and Sheen emphasized that the joyful occasion is intended to recognize the Labor Exchange’s contributions to the community and its gratefulness to Malibu.” I know my name is a big draw, but Mr. Sheen’s name should have come first alphabetically.

If you are near Malibu this Saturday, I invite you to drop by the Labor Exchange trailer from 6-9pm to dance to the mariachi band, grab a free taco, and celebrate this local institution. You are welcomed. That’s the thing I love the most about the Labor Exchange. Everyone is always welcomed.

Do Sweat the Big Stuff

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Last October the New York Times published an article now credited with sparking the #MeToo movement that exposed producer Harvey Weinstein’s history and practice of sexual abuse and harassment. The first woman mentioned in the article was actress, Ashley Judd, and the second was a wonderful former student of mine at Pepperdine Law. In less than a month there were scores of other names added to the list.

Exactly one week after that landmark article my good friends at Pepperdine Law hosted an important conference titled, “In Search of Sanctuary: Strengthening the Church’s Response to Intimate Partner Violence.” The featured speaker at the conference was Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune, and I was honored to be in attendance to listen and learn from her great wisdom and work. As a preacher now/again I was particularly surprised that when Rev. Fortune asked for a show of hands of all familiar with the story of Vashti only a few of us were. She then asked how many knew the story of the nameless Levite’s concubine (from Judges 19), and there may have been one other person besides me who raised a hand. Dr. Fortune’s point was that texts dealing with intimate partner violence are not popular preaching texts, and as a result, the Church is sadly unfamiliar with and at the very least complicit in sustaining an environment that results in a deafening silence. She told of one particular pastor who simply mentioned his plan to attend a conference on intimate partner violence and was shocked to have multiple victims approach him afterward in their pain—a simple off-handed reference was the most the topic had ever been broached in the congregation. I have been no better.

That conference planted the seed that resulted in my summer sermon series on the Book of Judges at my congregation. I learned that those who faithfully follow the Revised Common Lectionary will only turn to the Book of Judges for one text in their lives (the Song of Deborah) and never face the violent texts, especially not the sickening story of the nameless Levite’s concubine in Judges 19. Yesterday I forced myself to deliver a sermon on that text, which also happened to be the first sermon I had ever heard on that particular text.

I do not write today to redeliver the sermon—I will upload it today to uccmalibu.podbean.com if you are interested in that sort of thing. And I do not write today to congratulate myself. No, my attitude is one of embarrassment for my complicity, and I write in a spirit of confession.

The sermons this summer have been difficult to deliver, but one of the enduring images I will take from it are of those who periodically stopped to say that they sincerely appreciate the effort to confront the difficult texts.

I have often told my daughters that the only things worth doing in life are difficult. I hope to listen to my own advice.