Student Life

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The plan worked. Starting the new job on spring break week was the right call. New house, new office, new computer, new work phone, new cell phone, new business cards, new driver’s license—even a new car with new a Tennessee license plate—all taken care of last week. But today is the day that I targeted all along: The first day on the job—with students.

I am a university vice president whose area of responsibility is listed as “student life.” I love those two words so much — independently, but especially, together. For those unfamiliar with the lingo of higher education, student life, also called student affairs or student development, refers to the large number of student experiences outside of the formal academic setting. From dorm room to intramural field, from student organization to fraternity/sorority, from career counseling to intercultural experience, from campus ministry to veterans’ services, from student government to campus safety, from disciplinary action to behavioral intervention—all this and more is our world. Student “life.”

We are educators. At times we stand in front of a group of students in some formal way (for instance, I speak to approximately 1400 students in Allen Arena tomorrow!), but our teaching posture is far more often one-on-one, or small group, or even side by side. And the lessons we teach are often the kind that, to risk sounding overly dramatic, the world needs and that you never forget. “Life” lessons.

I am raring to go this morning, and I hope you can catch a glimpse of how I can be so energized about this new work so quickly after leaving such an amazing community two thousand miles away. To put it simply, there are over four thousand students here, and I get to lead a fantastic team doing important work in an exciting place at a crucial time in history. That is why I am ready to go.

Jesus once said about his intent for humanity: “I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.” (John 10:10, MSG)

Today, on my first day here with students, I aim for that, too. Student “life”—that authentic, permanent, full, and better life that defies imagination.

Heading Home

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From our seat in Jackson Square

Somewhere in Texas on a flat and lonely stretch of interstate my wife broke the silence to share, “I started to say that we are a long way from home, but I’m not sure where home is right now.” This wasn’t a sad statement, just a true one.

#1: We are forever from Arkansas, and before our trip ended we spent quality time there. Family. Farmland. Razorback license plates. Home.

#2: But we lived a decade of our married life on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a special place we also visited on our cross-country journey. Live oaks. Shrimp boats. Humidity. Also home.

#3: Our trip originated in California where we lived together the longest. Palm trees. Mountains. Crashing waves. Yet another home.

#4: But we eventually arrived in Nashville, Tennessee. Music. Rolling hills. Hot chicken. Our new home.

So where should we say is home? It is a question far deeper than our uniquely mixed-up situation. “Home” may generate thoughts of a specific residential structure or a group of people or a city/region/state/country, but I think home is more of a sensation. It is a place of belonging. From personal experience it seems to me that there can be more than one, and today, as I start my new job, we are excited to add a new one to our list.

But then again I’m not certain we human beings ever really locate home on this life journey. Our talk of “something more” than this life leads me to wonder if we are all simply on an epic odyssey to find home.  As Sojourner Truth once declared, “I am not going to die. I’m going home like a shooting star.” Maybe we are all headed home?

We took a break in the middle of our cross-country move to enjoy New Orleans, one of our very favorite places. We were sitting in the warm sunshine in Jackson Square, soaking in the day, when my wife raised the question again, “If someone asks us where we are from, what do we say?” I admit that I was stumped. But later, upon reflection, I think I just might say, “’We’re from everywhere, but ultimately we are headed toward home.”

On the Road Again…Seein’ Things That I May Never See Again

IMG_3476“Here I was at the end of America – no more land – and now there was nowhere to go but back.”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road

We left Malibu before sunrise on Saturday, and if everything is proceeding as planned, we are somewhere in the middle of this great country of ours headed east on an epic road trip—a sort of Route 66 reversal. We do have a definite destination, but we also have our hearts set on enjoying the journey itself. We resisted the urge to stop and see friends along the way and opted instead for one long, amazing date. Just the two of us.

Walt Whitman said, “I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me.” That’s the way we feel about it, too. The last few weeks were filled with unforgettable sweetness—meals and moments, coffees and conversations—and we left California filled to the brim with love. Now, we are enjoying the unique solitude married folk can enjoy since they are one person after all. Today, our to-do list consists of a single item called the open road.

A week from now I will officially start a brand new job in a brand new place, and I am very excited about what is to come. But that is next week and beyond. Today is a day to simply sit and watch the world go by. Together.

By Blessing Brightly Lit

Malibu“Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by so quick you can hardly catch it going.” – Tennessee Williams, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore

To say there is much to do this week is an understatement that borders on absurdity. My farewell sermon yesterday was followed by such a sweet farewell reception—that all four of “us” could be there was very special—but now the rollercoaster whips around an unexpected turn and we will worry about breathing later on. The week ahead is packed floor to ceiling (hey, like that moving metaphor?) as we tie up loose ends and then move to a new stage of life in Tennessee.

A nice and clean reflection has proven impossible. Do I write about the unforgettable people? There are too many. Do I write about stunning California? I wouldn’t know where to start. Do I write about law school or Pepperdine or Malibu or the Labor Exchange or University Church or running or…

I give up.

Maybe I will just say that our time here has transformed our lives in every conceivable way. Physically. Intellectually. Professionally. Emotionally. Spiritually. You name it.

And we are thankful.

I have been told repeatedly that I will miss the views here. With all due respect, I don’t believe it. Those views have been permanently imprinted on my memory and will always be nearby—and I’m not simply referring to the natural scenery. Edgar Allan Poe said, “To observe attentively is to remember distinctly.” If nothing else I was sure to pay attention, so I’m not worried.

I have shared my favorite Wendell Berry Sabbath poem before, but it is most appropriate today:

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
The blessed light that yet to us is dark.

Exactly.

So here we go on these crazy final few days. I will blog from the road next week—Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise. The South, here we come.

In a Seattle Coffee Shop

IMG_3395I sit sipping cocoa in a Seattle coffee shop and let the world slow down. It is a busy shop but not frantic, filled with locals in their regular weekend rhythms, not a selfie-seeking tourist in sight. I only know to be there because they called my daughter in for work, so I am an interloper with a free pass for the morning. I am honored.

It is cold outside. I could be exploring but am dizzy from the past few months of life and revel in the opportunity to sit still in the warmth of someone else’s community with an interesting book and a hot chocolate. I read for hours and suspect I could go all day.

I sit alone. And not. There are other solo customers, most with laptops, and one with an old-fashioned page-turning book like me. Parents occasionally bring their toddlers in and gather in the play area in the back. A few couples are there for conversation. It is a good crew, and I am proud of us. They are mine if only for the morning.

The hours float by like an ever-present Seattle rain cloud, and the time comes for me to step back on the moving sidewalk of life. I don’t mind. I have work to do. But I cherish this extraordinary morning.

I like many things about the fast-paced life. It is the life for me. But I love how from time to time the adventurous pace leads me to quiet places like this lovely Seattle coffee shop.

Friend & President-Elect

Me GashYesterday Pepperdine University announced that my colleague, friend, and teacher, Jim Gash, would be its eighth president. I truly believe that there is no one on this planet who loves Pepperdine more than Jim loves Pepperdine. His administration will undoubtedly be a labor of love.

Last summer Dusty Breeding led a church class in an exercise where we outlined our individual lives and identified the people who influenced our personal stories. When I thought through my life and work in Malibu and at Pepperdine, it was clear that Jim stood (and still stands) as the most influential person in this phase of my life journey.

Jim was my Torts professor and Dean of Students while I was in law school — as well as my boss when I had the opportunity to do legal research for his important justice work in Uganda.  It was Jim who, when I considered working at Pepperdine following graduation, suggested that I apply to be the Director of Academic Success at Pepperdine Law—and in fact used his impressive litigation skills to convince me to choose it when I had other options within the University. It was Jim who, in my first few months on the job, approached me with the idea that I succeed him as Dean of Students at Pepperdine Law—a decision that shaped the trajectory of my professional career. Around that same time both Jim and I accepted the invitation to serve as elders of the University Church of Christ, something we have done together for the past eight years—and it was Jim who co-chaired the “preacher search committee” and brought my surprising interest in the position to the committee a couple of years ago now. And when I made that particular transition, it was Jim who picked up much of the work that I left behind at the law school.

Those are just the most visible points of our relationship—I will keep the private jokes and endless personal conversations to myself. Jim has been my advocate, promoter, supporter, confidante, and good friend.

In a couple of weeks, on Sunday, March 3, I will deliver my final sermon at the University Church of Christ in Elkins Auditorium at Pepperdine, and Jim will deliver the benediction that follows. The next morning, Monday, March 4, Jim will be introduced as president-elect in that same auditorium. In the days that follow, Jody and I will pack our house and move to Nashville where we will dive into the exciting work at Lipscomb University. I am not sure what to make of the timing of it all. I just know that I owe the very possibility of the exciting work ahead of me to my friend, Jim Gash.

Go get ‘em, my friend. May your faith in God and your deep, deep love for Pepperdine provide constant energy for the road ahead.

Just the Two of Us

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Trent Dilfer is the new head football coach at Lipscomb Academy in Nashville, and I am the new Vice President of Student Life at Lipscomb University. Coach will relocate from Texas in February, and I will relocate from Pepperdine in March. At the recent Board of Trustees meeting at Lipscomb, our two hires were announced side by side. In terms of news splash, it reminded me of the time Stacey King said, “I’ll always remember this as the night that Michael Jordan and I combined for 70 points.” (Note: MJ had 69, and Stacey had 1.)  Stacey who?  Exactly.

The two of us are around the same age and height and have similar hairstyles, and we are both apparently over-the-moon excited about the opportunities afforded us in what will soon be our new home. But on the one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the other side of the equation, Coach Dilfer is a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, longtime NFL analyst for ESPN, and head coach of an elite quarterback camp.  I, on the other hand, was once the starting quarterback for my peewee flag football team in elementary school. Don’t laugh: We were pretty good.

Coach Dilfer is such an exciting hire, and I am not just referring to his obvious credentials. If you get the chance, listen to his testimony — and his heart. At his press conference, Coach referred to his decision as a “calling” and said, “I am passionate about getting the most out of people.” I feel the same way.

One of Coach Dilfer’s daughters plays for the outstanding beach volleyball team here at Pepperdine, and his youngest daughter has signed to play indoor volleyball at Lipscomb. It dawned on me that my new office has the beautiful task of welcoming Coach’s youngest daughter to campus when she arrives and doing what we can to get the most out of the thousands of students that will live in community with her. That gets me fired up, too.

So, Coach, I look forward to seeing you in Nashville, and I will be on the sidelines on Friday nights cheering you on. I am glad to be on the same team. We both have some good work to do.

L. A. Extra

rams game (2)Los Angeles has taken the Noah’s Ark approach to professional sports by lining up teams two-by-two in professional baseball, basketball, hockey, and football, and during the past eleven years while I have called L.A. home, one franchise has at least made it to the championship game(s) in each respective sport. Kobe and the Lakers won the NBA Finals in 2009 and 2010. Quick and the Kings hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014. Kershaw and the Dodgers came up just short in the World Series in 2017 and 2018. And just in time to round off the set before I head to Music City, Goff and the Rams go and give the Patriots a run for their money in the Super Bowl in 2019. Not a bad record for a single city.

So I don’t complain about L.A. as a sports city—the quality and quantity is really amazing. The only odd thing is that (rabid Laker/King/Dodger/Ram fans notwithstanding) there is so much going on in this great American city that Sports-mania never really takes over the town. It would be crazy to know how many Angelenos were unaware that the Super Bowl was yesterday—I suspect far more than there would be in other smaller market cities with a team in the big game.

This is neither bad nor good—just odd—and I attribute it entirely to the sheer size and diversity of Los Angeles. Over 100 million people watched the Super Bowl yesterday, a mind-boggling number, but even crazier is that over 10 million people live in Los Angeles County (a recent graph showed that 43 states have a smaller population than L.A. County!).

So there’s a lot happening here. That’s one of the things I have really enjoyed about living in the City of Angels. But it is possible to miss remarkable things happening in your own backyard because there is so much going on.

There’s your life lesson: Keep your eyes open. The extraordinary is all around us.

 

Major News

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I announced to our church family this morning that Jody and I will move to Nashville, Tennessee, in March where I have been hired to serve as Vice President of Student Life at Lipscomb University.  I am humbled and honored to serve in this important role and join the Lipscomb community, but it will be difficult to say goodbye to the Pepperdine community that has been our family for the past eleven years.

Our time at Pepperdine has been transformative for all for us—for Jody, Erica, Hillary, and for me. And when I say transformative, that touches on all aspects of our lives: intellectually; physically; socially; spiritually; emotionally; and professionally. We are and will forever be grateful.

But for my sweet wife and I, it is very clear that we have been called to another stage of this pilgrimage called life. I can say that a decision “has never been clearer,” but in fact we have experienced such clarity on a few other memorable occasions. When we met and knew instantly that we would be married. When we decided to be houseparents at Children’s Homes, Inc. When we chose Ocean Springs over another offer. When we chose Pepperdine over other schools. None of those previous choices made sense in an easily-articulated way, but we were 100% sure that each was supposed to happen—and each time that strong feeling was rewarded over and over again.

So although it makes little sense to leave such wonderful people in such a wonderful place, we leave with deep gratitude and a most confident expectation that we will discover a world full of blessings beyond anything we ask or imagine. We have seen this show before.

 

Mudbound

mudbound picWe were simply looking for a movie to watch on Netflix and Mudbound had rave reviews. Watch it. But fair warning: It is difficult to watch. It is difficult to watch because the storytellers do a masterful job of portraying the sort of lives that were difficult to live. The movie is a disturbing, compelling, haunting, yet beautiful work of art.

Mudbound features the intertwined stories of two rural Mississippi families, one black and one white, when one member from each family returned home following World War II. I will spare you the full movie review (especially preserving the memorable ending) and just state that systemic poverty, racism, and PTSD are terrible things and that all sorts of people—the beautiful, the complicated, and the perverse—are all mixed up in it.

I learned that the movie came from a novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan, and since we all know that books are better than their movies, I can only imagine how good it must be. The novel reportedly contains the line, “Death may be inevitable, but love is not. Love, you have to choose.”

This seems particularly important to consider on this special holiday that remembers Dr. King. On this day and every day, like Dr. King, may we choose love. “Hate is too great a burden to bear.”