Bring on Christmas

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I confess that I like Christmas. I typically resist all things popular, but if that ever happened with Christmas it won me over anyway.

The attraction surely has nothing to do with massive commercialization; nor do I need a specific holiday season to remember the birth of Jesus. Red and green are not my favorite colors. I’m pretty sure I would choose fasting over fruitcake and egg nog. And although falling snow is undeniably a beautiful sight, I would easily choose a warm-weather locale to a winter wonderland.

I still really like Christmas.

There is a hard-to-identify loveliness to the season—a “mood” as Howard Thurman once described it. Words like joy and peace define Christmas, actions like giving and singing are ubiquitous, and it is a time both to remember and to hope.

I grew up in a tiny house with a wonderful family and not much in terms of material possessions. Still, we celebrated Christmas each year, and I always had presents to open. I distinctly remember the time my Dad rushed in a couple of weeks before Christmas and breathlessly exclaimed, “Santa Claus was just here! He was in my bedroom!”  Well, away to my parents’ bedroom window I flew like a flash, and as fate would have it, I just missed seeing Santa. But he had obviously been there since a huge gift-wrapped present was there with my name on it! To this day I cannot believe Santa was able to sneak that massive present in our tiny house in broad daylight without getting caught.

Did I mention it was a tiny house (with, for illustrative purposes only, no room to store a large present for a couple of weeks until Christmas)? And did I mention that I may have been a rather naive child?

I love imagining today the laughter my parents shared alone in their tiny bedroom that night. (And since the gift was a set of drums, I love knowing that someone else had the last laugh. That Santa is such a jokester!)

I am ready for Christmas.

Now, when I walk through the house and see our tree, it calls me back to Christmases past and propels me forward toward Christmases yet to come. Time marches on. My parents are now gone, my sisters are now grandmothers, and my daughters are now adults. But very soon my wonderful wife and our wonderful daughters will be together to celebrate that special day together and make more memories for future smiles.

Bring on Christmas.

Personal Book Awards for 2018

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“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” – Dr. Seuss

One year ago I shared the following: “I counted twenty-five books that I read in 2017, which is easily the most I have read in a very long time, and predictably more than I will read in 2018.” Well, here stands yet another reason not to pursue professional gambling: Last week I completed my twenty-fifth book in 2018. That’s over 7,000 pages this year, my friends. The total number of books is the same, but there was greater variety in the genres chosen and I’m pleased to see more fiction on the list: I always intend a 50/50 split but never even come close. This year was at least a step in the right direction.

Books written by friends are always favorites, of course, and I was honored to read Les Ferguson’s book, “Still Wrestling,” this year. Of the rest, I would bestow the following four awards:

HARDEST BOOK TO READ THAT I’M GLAD I READ: The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone (referred by Ray Carr)

HARDEST BOOK TO READ THAT I’M GLAD I READ BUT WOULDN’T RECOMMEND AND NOT BECAUSE IT IS 834 PAGES LONG: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (referred by a former student)

BEST COMBINATION OF HUMOR & INSPIRATION: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (referred by my wife and a gift from my oldest daughter)

BEST GUILTY PLEASURE READ: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (referred by Chris Doran)

But awards aside, I am glad that I read every book. Well, maybe one exception, but I’ll keep that to myself. 🙂 Here is my full list for 2018:

Books written by friends (1 this year; 6 last year)
Still Wrestling by Les Ferguson, Jr. (208 pages)

Novels (6 this year; 3 last year)
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (417 pages)
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (267 pages)
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (834 pages)
Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse (237 pages)
Where the Line Bleeds by Jesmyn Ward (230 pages)
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (254 pages)

Sports (3 this year; 3 last year)
Tales from Out There by Frozen Ed Furtaw (224 pages)
The Phenomenon by Rick Ankiel & Tim Brown (304 pages)
The Curse: The Colorful & Chaotic History of the LA Clippers by Mick Minas (558 pages)

History (1 this year; 1 last year)
I Will Fight No More Forever: Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War by Merrill Beal (384 pages)

Biography/Memoir (3 this year; 5 last year)
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (261 pages)
Promise Me, Dad by Joe Biden (210 pages)
Cotton Patch for the Kingdom by Ann Louise Coble (240 pages)

Theology/Church (8 this year; 6 last year)
Cadences of Home: Preaching among Exiles by Walter Brueggemann (176 pages)
Overrated by Eugene Cho (240 pages)
Barking to the Choir by Gregory Boyle (224 pages)
Trouble I’ve Seen by Drew G.I. Hart (198 pages)
The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight (240 pages)
The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone (224 pages)
Christians at the Border by M. Daniel Carroll R. (176 pages)
You are What You Love by James K.A. Smith (224 pages)

Poetry/Essays (1 this year; 1 last year)
The Kindness of Strangers – edited by Don George (272 pages)

Writing (1 this year; 0 last year)
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (re-read) (272 pages)

Crime (1 this year; 0 last year)
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer (384 pages)

Star Searching

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“Christmas comes during a season when the Earth is in its darkest time.”
– Melissa Etheridge

We have three Christmas parties on the calendar this week and three more next. I used to make fun of such things, but not this year. This past season has been rough, and we are more than ready for a season that is merry and bright.

So do what you will, but I suggest: Decorate the tree. Play the music. Bake the cookies. String the lights. Wrap the presents. Wear the sweater. Watch the movie. Mail the cards. Hang the wreath. Dream the dreams.

Does this make everything magically wonderful?  No, I’m afraid not. Is it simply an act of denial? Well, not necessarily. What I’m suggesting is to look despair in its face and proclaim hope. We will not live in the darkness forever. There will be light. We expect it. In fact, we are counting on it.

I am reminded each year that the story behind the Christmas season does not actually feature Jimmy Stewart. Instead, it is of a displaced family in a barn delivering a baby in a feed trough—and against all odds that turned out to be the hope of the world.

There were a few wise dudes back then with enough hope in their hearts to scan the night sky for a star. They spotted it right away, and I suspect it’s because they were looking for it.

So join me in some star searching this year. Because this year I’m going to look up so that I can see it, too.

The View from Above

IMG_2777My daughter and I decided to hike the scorched hills behind our house on Thanksgiving Eve to get a firsthand look at the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire, and we witnessed the vast expanse of earth charred to smoldering nothingness. It was breathtaking, and I’m not even talking about air quality. Imagine strolling through a gigantic ashtray with a spectacular mountain view of the sun dropping into the Pacific Ocean and that pretty much captures the scene.

It had been an indescribable couple of weeks with one difficult to comprehend event stacked on top of another. Our daughter had not planned to visit for Thanksgiving, but the dramatic events at home led to a change of plans. That we were there together, standing on a mountain with a spectacular ocean view, surveying such immense devastation just steps above our house was more than a little surreal.

Standing there I realized on Thanksgiving Eve that I had much for which to be thankful. Friends and family. Life and love. Work and community. Health and safety. Even that moment. An unforgettable moment.

We walked back off of the mountain and returned home with that slight feeling of exhilaration that comes when you realize that you have just witnessed something special.

Later, looking out at that mountain ridge that from our window is the color of dark-roasted coffee grounds, it dawned on me that things look very different from the top of the mountain than they do just a few steps down here below. The perspective changes everything.

Sometimes it is a pretty comforting thing to realize that somewhere up above things look significantly different.

In Good Times and in Bad Times

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A mere fifteen hours after a ruthless gunman opened fire on an innocent crowd in Thousand Oaks, California, the Woolsey Fire ignited about fifteen miles away near Simi Valley. Both apparently man-made events have devastated our community, and the week that followed has somehow been both blurry and unforgettable.

After spending over a week at Pepperdine, however, I finally ventured off campus this past weekend to officiate a wedding ceremony about seventy miles away. Hilary and Tyler had planned to marry in Malibu, but like so many places in our area, their wedding venue burned to the ground. They kept their chins up and scrambled to relocate and successfully secured a gorgeous resort in Newport Beach to exchange their vows.

I was Tyler’s dean of students at Pepperdine Law and was honored to do this for him and his lovely bride, but I confess a bit of mixed emotions when I left campus to drive to the wedding. It was literally a breath of fresh air to drive to Newport Beach and be with this lovely couple on their special day, but it was strange and hard to leave what felt like fellow soldiers battling on in such difficult conditions with so much work to do. It was jarring, and refreshing, and just plain odd to leave.

But I am glad that I was able to go.

I have now officiated eighteen weddings involving someone from Pepperdine Law, and each time I am struck by the great honor of having the best seat in the house. I get to watch the groom lose his breath when he sees his bride enter, and I get to see the bride’s heart melt when she sees the way her groom looks at her. I get to see them stare in each other’s eyes while I rattle on about whatever—and then nearly lose my own breath when I notice them actually listening to what they promise one another at such a holy moment.

And this time I particularly noticed—in good times and in bad times. Wow. For better or worse, and in good times and in bad times. That has surely been on my heart this past week. The good times are easy and not worth the trouble of a vow. It is the bad times that call for a ceremony.

I did not stay for the reception and got an early start on the L.A. traffic to return home. I could hardly wait to get back to everyone. For we have been in the throes of the bad times. When love is challenged to prove itself.

A note from a disaster pastor

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There doesn’t seem to be many of us left on campus now. With the Woolsey Fire only 5% contained, Pepperdine decided to utilize remote learning options and not hold classes on the Malibu campus until after Thanksgiving break, so most all students have now safely headed home. It is a motley crew that remains, and we are standing strong together. We are tired, but fine, and our houses are probably safer than ever since the threatening fires scorched the surrounding hillsides so that there isn’t anything left there to burn. But the winds have returned, so we continue to watch and pray.

We currently have a front row seat to an impressive air show as planes and helicopters use our campus as staging area for their heroic efforts. I’m not exactly sure how I have been privileged to have a front row seat to the worst hurricane in American history and then the most destructive fires in California history some two thousand miles and thirteen years apart, but that is the way this life has played out. Someone called me the “disaster pastor,” which is probably both funny and an accurate way to describe my approach to things!

Our condo is fine but without WiFi, so we are on lower campus often to communicate with the outside world and to eat together and be together as a community. I sat down at my office desk this afternoon to try to write and noticed my breathing mask next to my Pepperdine Waves hat. The absurdity reminded me of the craziness of these past few days: a horrible, horrible mass shooting targeting college students followed by raging wildfires.

It is strange to say that I am glad to be here. I was glad to be in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, thirteen years ago when a group of people I loved were threatened and vulnerable, and I am glad to be in Malibu, California, today for the same reason. The word “pastor” is just another word for a shepherd, and a shepherd is there to protect and care for sheep. That doesn’t have to be your job title, of course. It is more of a posture, and it feels like such an honor to be there for others in times of vulnerability. I am surrounded here with like-minded people, including the leadership of this great university, although my wife might just be the best pastor I know.

I never learned the source, but I remember reading a couplet from a poem as a young man that took my breath away and seems to have shaped the trajectory of my adult life that said:

Some want to live within the sound of church and steeple bell.
I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.

That still gets me after all these years.

Keep praying for our area if you don’t mind: for those who have lost so much, for those who are still in danger, and for those who are fighting fires of all kinds. We will be strong and make it together.

Star Sightings

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One week after the terrible mass shooting during Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, interfaith gatherings appeared all over the nation like tender flowers sprouting from the bloody soil.

My new friend, Rabbi Michael Schwartz, who is new to Malibu, graciously invited me to take part in an interfaith service at the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue as Sabbath began last Friday evening. Rabbi Schwartz conducted a beautiful service filled with thoughtful songs, prayers, and reflections, and the musical gifts shared by Cantor Marcelo and his special guests were deeply moving.

At the outset of the service, we who represented local clergy from various faith backgrounds, along with important community leaders, were invited on stage to light eleven candles in honor of the lives that were tragically taken in Pittsburgh. We were then asked to share a short blessing. Without knowing exactly what to say at such a difficult moment, I chose to share a quote from Dr. King’s famous mountaintop speech, the last before he was assassinated: “Only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars.”

Looking at those flickering candles and out at the diverse audience in the synagogue, I can say with confidence that I saw stars shining in the darkness.

There is plenty of darkness to go around. May we see the stars. May we be the stars.

The Mystery of Life

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“Mystery is endless knowability.” – Richard Rohr

We hosted our second annual murder mystery dinner party for our church young adult group on Saturday evening. Last year we created an ‘80s prom, but this year’s rendition was superhero-themed so I went to the dark side and attended as Lex Luthor since all I had to do was put on a suit and buy a green (kryptonite) ring pop. We had a blast.

It is odd to host a fun church party around such a dark theme, but we could hardly wait the full year to host another one it is so awesome. (And if you are interested in hosting one yourself I recommend shotinthedarkmysteries.com.)

I don’t think it is the costumes that make a mystery dinner party such fun, although the costumes are pretty great—I think the fun in the whole ballgame is that it is a mystery. We don’t know “whodunit”—and we are on a quest to figure it out. There is a reason we read mystery novels and watch mystery movies and television shows. There is simply something compelling about mystery.

Which is a little misleading because we really want to “know” the answer, right? It wouldn’t have been a great party if at the end of the night we had told everyone, “Sorry, but we don’t want to call anyone an actual murderer, so let’s just forgive and forget and move on with life, okay?” No, the compelling part of a mystery is that there is an ultimate answer.

Richard Rohr is pretty great, and in his writings on faith he teaches that living in mystery is not really a negative because mystery does not mean that you cannot know (how many negatives did I use in that one sentence?).  He writes, “Mystery is endless knowability. Living inside such endless knowability is finally a comfort, a foundation of ultimate support, security, unrestricted love, and eternal care. For all of us, it takes much of our life to get there; it is what we surely mean by ‘growing’ in faith.”

As I grow older I am less drawn toward the need to know everything and more inclined to enjoy the journey inside the ever-evolving mystery of life. Welcome to life—that long mystery dinner party.

A Waste of Time

blog carRecently I finished a nice morning run on Zuma Beach just as the sun rose over the ocean and felt pretty good about myself when I pulled into the Arco station on the PCH. The Arco has the cheapest gas in Malibu, which isn’t saying a whole lot, but since I had to drive into Los Angeles that day and was in that part of town anyway it made sense to fill up. I pulled up to the pump behind a small SUV, placed the car in park, and glanced over to make sure my tank was next to the pump, but when I looked forward again I noticed that the SUV was in reverse and coming at me. I honked just a moment before impact. Well, the driver was a nice guy who felt terrible about the accident that did no damage to his vehicle but a number on the front end of mine. We exchanged information and left to face the day.

Later, I reflected on how privileged I am. Let me count the ways: (i) I have a car; (ii) the other driver’s insurance paid for the repairs; (iii) it also paid for a rental car (and side note on even more privilege: the rental was a Toyota Corolla, so compared to my Honda Civic, I continued to turn heads in Malibu); and (iv) a great body shop returned my car good as new.

So given all that, how come everyone I mentioned the accident to responded as if I had lost a pet? And why did I feel as if this was all such a pain in the derriere? Am I really that spoiled?

Probably.

But on second thought, maybe everyone knows, and everyone includes me, that things like this take up time—and that time is one of our greatest possessions. When I thought of it that way I almost felt justified in pouting over the time I lost getting the car repaired.

Until I considered that pouting over anything is a pretty crappy way to use such a great possession, too.

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.