Living on Top of a Battlefield

IMG_0235There are several historical markers regarding the Battle of Nashville from the American Civil War in our new neighborhood, including a monument just north of and less than a mile from our current house. I ran over at dawn last week to remember the fallen, and the early morning fog created an appropriately eerie vibe.

I had decided the night before that I should learn more about that terrible battle that occurred in my new hometown, and Wikipedia informed me that in just two days here approximately three thousand soldiers died just before Christmas in 1864. I also learned—and this caught me completely off guard—that we “are living on top of a battlefield.” In fact, our current neighborhood is basically the place where the Confederate troops drew their lines on the opening day of the battle.

I really did not know what to do with that information.

But I could, and did, imagine that fateful day. It was reportedly a foggy morning, and in December it must have been bitter and cold. In my imagination I could see those young men in gray uniforms filled with adrenaline, antsy and eager, thinking they are ready for a fight. They stood there on my street, and we nodded at one another in recognition. I thought of them as contemporaries, but in reality I am much older, and they are just kids—as well as my great-grandparents. By the end of the day many will be on the run, and by the end of the following day many will be dead. But 155 years later all of their spirits remain, and I could see them there, in the fog, yet clear as day.

What were they saying? I heard no voices, but their ghostly presence still spoke to me. But what were they saying? I leaned in and strained to listen.

Finally, one young ghost-soldier, who looked remarkably like me, said in a whisper, “We are the same, you and I. We are no different. I once lived on this battlefield, too, and I stood here just like you do now, proud and brave and self-assured and afraid. I once lived on this battlefield, too, but I died here. You still have the gift of life. Don’t waste it. Don’t waste your life. Choose carefully what you live for — and would die for.”

The ghostly images of those who came before me faded from my mind’s eye, but their presence and their voices remain. They keep saying, “We are the same. Choose carefully.”

In the Spotlight

Bright Lights

“All the world’s a stage…” – Jacques in As You Like It, by William Shakespeare

As I prepared last Friday night to enjoy my first experience with Singarama, a wildly popular campus tradition that showcases large numbers of ultra-gifted Lipscomb University students, I was mesmerized by the stage lights illuminating the auditorium in celestial royal blue. We in the audience instinctively knew that the lights were simply teasing us. Before long, they would disappear completely, only to explode again and dazzle us with the glittering magic of brightly-costumed performers singing and dancing and delivering a delightful evening of entertainment.

It is a different experience for those on stage. Blinded by the light, they must remain focused in ironic, light-flooded darkness, remembering the steps, remembering the lyrics, remembering to smile. It is a rush of a different kind, one that arrives by hard work, nerves, adrenaline, and execution. In the end we are all happy, but none more so than those who stepped up and delivered in the spotlight.

I also considered this earlier in the week sitting in the famed Madison Square Garden, the self-described most famous arena in the world, watching another set of college students put on a show in front of a crowd under the bright lights. This time it was athletic talent and a live national television audience, but it necessarily involved the same light-flooded darkness, the same adrenaline, and the same task to focus on what had been practiced over and over.

It was a pleasure on both occasions to watch students stand and deliver under the bright lights.

Some seem to crave the spotlight, while others avoid it. There are reasons to be wary of the spotlight, but others to embrace it. It is simultaneously compelling and terrifying. And some who crave the spotlight never receive it, and others who avoid it who find it thrust upon them.

It isn’t a bad metaphor for life, as might have occurred to Shakespeare.

So how does one respond to an impending moment on life’s stage under the bright lights? Discipline. Preparation. Courage. Persistence. Hard work. Good habits. Resilience. Endurance.

And maybe most important of all, an active imagination that envisions in faith that glorious and transcendent moment when you have done your part and the curtain falls or the buzzer sounds—in the spotlight.

Courage & Conviction

IMG_0125

“Nashville sure loves its breakfast places.” – Jody Sturgeon

Before arriving in Nashville my wife suggested that Saturday morning brunch serve as our weekly date, and so far we are two-for-two. We opened with Holler & Dash Biscuit House where I sampled/devoured the biscuits & gravy and a unique approach to beignets, and then on Saturday number two we drove past the long lines at two iconic brunch spots, The Pancake Pantry and Biscuit Love, and ended up at Frothy Monkey where I enjoyed bacon, eggs, and pancakes as well as a decent portion of my wife’s meal, too. I like this new tradition a lot. And as Jody observed, we are in no danger of running out of new places to try out anytime soon.

As we walked down Fifth Avenue toward our latest brunch adventure, we noticed the historical marker for the 1960 Nashville sit-ins across the street from the Walgreen’s. I confess to knowing little about the Nashville sit-ins prior to our decision to move, but when I discovered that David Halberstam was a reporter for The Tennessean during this critical time in history and had written a massive book about it titled, The Children, I bought the 783-page monster and am eager to dive in.

Our national sin of white supremacy and the Civil Rights Movement that literally placed it on public display have captivated me on multiple levels, not the least of which being the Movement’s proximity to my world both in location and time in history. It is mind-boggling to remember that not so long ago fellow citizens with black or brown skin could not have sat at the same table with me for brunch in Nashville—and that when a group tried and white citizens assaulted and degraded them, only the former were arrested.

I am both impressed and proud that Nashville marked the spot, but do not be mistaken: There is much more work to do. However, what struck me last Saturday was that the world did change, and it changed due to the courage and conviction of college students. That makes me want to go to work today even more.

Today is April Fool’s Day, so consider yourself warned about some good, clean fun out there today. But let’s remember the lessons from our yesterdays that the students taught us and look toward a tomorrow with the courage and conviction that eschews foolishness and embraces wisdom.

Student Life

student life pic

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

23A52F53-0489-4D6D-85CB-30A31AFF4DF8

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

jdjd-45

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.