Monthly Archives: September 2015

Responding to Criticism

My experiences as a coach and pastor and now administrator include public scrutiny and sharp critique of my words and actions. For my next trick, I think I will run for Pope. Pope Francis’s visit to the United States has rightfully garnered much attention, including strong banter about what he should or shouldn’t say (or now, what he should or should’ve said). I have a picture of how the private conversation between Pope Francis and President Obama might have gone last week:

Pope Francis: “I heard you aren’t really a Christian.”
President Obama: “I heard you aren’t really a Catholic.”

And then a belly laugh, followed by a conversation about the best recipe for macaroni salad or anything else as a relief from such intense scrutiny. I could be wrong.

Criticism comes with the job, but the responses are optional. For many, the choice is to avoid the job that receives heavy criticism. If I had a dollar for everyone who said they wouldn’t want to be president today because of the scrutiny, I could form a PAC. For others, the choice is a fretful attempt to please everyone, which is a recipe for long-term therapy. For still others, the choice is a condescending dismissal of critics as idiots, which makes for a dangerous leader.

Instead, I have four suggestions for responding to criticism:
1. Don’t avoid criticism or surround yourself with adoring fans. In fact, seek diverse feedback and hold loosely to your plans. Odds are that you will need to change every once in a while.
2. Maintain realistic expectations of your own abilities. You will fail and deserve criticism if you ever hope to accomplish anything worthwhile. That is (and has to be) okay.
3. Don’t let fear of criticism keep you from attempting to do something worthwhile. The only things worth doing in life are hard. (As Mellencamp sang, “No one said it’d be easy . . . . So suck it up and tough it out, and be the best you can.”)
4. Remember that your best is good enough. Because it is your best.

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Stronger Backs

Dave+Dravecky+St+Louis+Cardinals+v+San+Francisco+1xL7IA71CKTl

As a lifelong baseball fan, the story of Dave Dravecky is firmly imprinted in my memory. It is hard to forget an all-star pitcher whose cancer led to the amputation of his pitching arm.

Dravecky was (and is) an outspoken Christian who speaks and writes openly about his experiences. In one of his books, he wrote the following about members of his faith tradition:

“In America, Christians pray for the burden of suffering to be lifted from their backs. In the rest of the world, Christians pray for stronger backs so they can bear their suffering.”

Although I question the validity of such a broad statement, I believe the allusion to a worldview that sees suffering as optional is worth contemplation. Because it isn’t optional.

The premise of this entire blog is that hope is possible regardless of circumstances. If I am not careful, “starting to look up” may sound like what happens once suffering leaves the building, and while I cannot blame anyone for wishing suffering would go away, research is pretty solid on the ubiquitous nature of suffering in this life we share.

Therefore, my personal goal is to develop the strength of character so that suffering will not win the war. It is that strength, i.e., a stronger back, that transforms any situation so that things begin to look up.

Reinvent Yourself

you-can-call-me-al

I join those who say Facebook is at least worthwhile on your birthday. I liked every nice message last week, although it took forever to “like” each message, but as I worked through the list, the number of names I have collected over the years was striking.

#1: LITTLE AL: That made me smile. I was named after my dad who was named after his dad, so I was Little Al to my dad’s Big Al for many years until I outgrew him by eight inches, which led to…

#2: BIG AL: That was high school and college, partly due to my height, but partly because Al is a name that just feels right with Big in front of it, like John, Dave, Bird, Brother, Trouble, Sur, Government…

#3: COACH AL: My first job was coaching my high school alma mater, and when the superintendent introduced me to the student body, he simply couldn’t bring himself to refer to someone he knew since Little Al as Coach Sturgeon; henceforth, Coach Al.

#4: MR. STURGEON: I moved to a non-coaching job at a new school. Good job, but boring name.

#5: BROTHER AL: My next career was preaching, and we remained in the South, so you get it.

#6: DEAN STURGEON: And then there is now. This one is slowly catching on.

Which do I like best? All of them because each brings awesome memories of great people. Which do I prefer? I don’t, but if you have no reason to use one in particular, then Paul Simon’s song (and classic music video) sums up my advice: You Can Call Me Al.

What does this have to do with anything? Whatever you think about the scientific theory of human evolution, it is undeniable that we evolve as individual human beings, and our capacity to reinvent ourselves appears limitless. So are you happy with all of “you” right now? I suspect none of us are, so the question emerges: Which version of you comes next? You do get to choose.

Today, an elderly couple passed me on the 101 test driving a sparkling white Mercedes convertible with a handicap placard dangling from the rear view mirror in the breeze. That isn’t my personal style, but hey, Fred and Myrtle are making a choice!

It Is Better to Have Loved

I write this on a dark airplane late at night on my birthday.  It is at once the most consequential and inconsequential birthday of my life because who really cares about birthdays on the day you leave your youngest child a thousand miles away at college?

We began the college search process a long time ago, and it was a brilliant success.  All the lists, tutors, visits, tests, applications, and t-shirts produced the perfect outcome.  It was also a blast.  The parent-child memories extend from a Dairy Queen in Wisconsin to an anarchist bookstore in San Francisco to crab cakes in a Maryland bar to, in the end, Seattle.  As the credit card commercial says, priceless.  It turns out that the credit card statement is more specific.

It may be an act of will that I am happy tonight.  How can you already miss someone like crazy and still be touchdown-celebration happy for this person who held your heart from the moment you first held her when she was two seconds old?

I suspect it is love.  Pure, unselfish, father-daughter love.

Several friends want to know what today feels like so they can prepare.  For me, it feels great.  Well, great, with a touch of nausea.  Yes, I’d say three parts great and one part nausea.  After all these years, what a great and slightly nauseating day this turned out to be.

Freedom is Respect

As I reflect on last week’s inaugural (and wonderful) Diversity Week at Pepperdine Law, the following passage from my hero, Will D. Campbell, comes to mind.

“The civil rights gains we have made are largely cosmetic,” my old friend, Kelly Miller Smith, told me just before he died. One would have expected to hear those words in earlier times, when the gains of black people had been more modest than it seemed to me they had been during his lifetime and mine. He had been a pivotal figure in it all. Buses and taxicabs, schools, restaurants, theaters, parks, swimming pools, as well as participation in the political process had all been desegregated since he and I had come to Tennessee from Mississippi in the rigidly, segregated decade of the fifties. He from a black church in Vicksburg, I from a white university in Oxford. His little daughter had been one of the nine brave children who faced the violent mobs to begin the slow and painful process of integrated education. The church he pastored for thirty-four years was headquarters for the massive sit-in movement. Quietly or obstreperously, whatever the situation indicated, he negotiated with mayors, governors, merchants, and owners such issues as employment, housing, fairness, and decency in general.

All that he had been party to and more. Yet here he lay, a few weeks from death, saying that all his efforts had produced no more than a cosmetic coating over an inveterate malignancy as socially lethal as the one claiming his life. I protested with a roll call of the improvements he had presided over. He listened in his usual smiling, affable manner as I listed them one by one, beginning with public transportation in 1956 and concluding with his being a dean and teacher in one of the most prestigious universities in the South where he could not have been more than janitor not many years earlier.

“But they still don’t respect us,” he said sadly. After a long pause for needed oxygen, he continued. “Look at the television shows. Listen to the rhetoric on the streets. They still don’t respect us.”

His words were a startling awakening. How far I had missed the point of it all. How dissimilar the promised lands two Mississippi men had envisioned. To grant the truth of his words would be to acknowledge that the years of both of us had been wasted. He spoke with approval and gratefulness for the things I recited, but as he did it became clear to me that the one thing which was behind all else was never his. Respect.

Freedom is respect.

– Will D. Campbell, Forty Acres and a Goat 269-70 (2002).

That is what gave me great joy this past week—the giving and receiving of respect.

The Heroic Life

We have grown weary of recounting where we were on September 11, 2001. There may come a day when new generations ask us to remember, and we most assuredly will for the memories are too strong to fade. But the jury is still out on whether the lessons will endure.

There is one image-turned-lesson that I have pledged never to let fade: Firefighters racing up the stairwells of the World Trade Center as the buildings crumbled. They were simply doing what they were trained to do, which was to be heroic. I want to live like that, too—racing toward danger and not away from it—so it stands to reason that I also want to die that way. That is neither thrill-seeking nor pushing limits nor adrenaline addiction; instead, it is a compelling desire to make the world better for those in great need, which I remain convinced requires leaving safety and venturing toward danger.

Years ago, I read a couplet that captures this goal and have shared it often:

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

That.

Looking back, the times in life when I felt most alive were those spent at the Hellside Rescue Shop. In that shop, there must be a portrait of a New York City firefighter racing up those steps. The firefighter is young and brave and determined and has so much to live for, which is exactly what you find in that image—someone living for so much. Today, I spend extra time looking at that inspiring image.

I invite others to consider such a life, one that acknowledges fear but meets it head on. Living for others is preferable to living for self-indulgence, self-preservation, and self-promotion, and the lines to get in are way shorter.

Best Seats

With Stephanie and Brian

This holiday weekend included the opportunity to officiate the beautiful wedding of two special friends.  Top that.

My wedding officiant experience is rather extensive, which now includes seven for law school folks with three more in the queue.  In the early (read: pre-law school) years, my primary role was to keep the terrified groom from puking on his tuxedo prior to the ceremony (note: puke prevention responsibility presumably extended throughout the ceremony), but I have found that grooms with law school experience are a different breed–the Socratic method, law school finals, and the bar exam seemingly combine to make repeating after me in public far less intimidating.

There is one wedding officiant moment that is hands down the best.  It isn’t perspiring in public, which of course is great.  It isn’t staying on task despite the best efforts of Wedding Screaming Baby, although who wouldn’t love that challenge?  No, the best moment is when the bride appears at the back of the venue prepared to be escorted down the flower-strewn aisle.  The crowd rises simply out of respect for the beauty of it all, and everyone turns and stretches to catch a glimpse of the bridal march.  Except me.  I watch the groom watch the bride.  That is the best moment, and I see it all from the best seat in the house.¹

Brian could hardly stand it yesterday.  Brian is typically a reserved sort of guy, the kind who holds his cards close to the chest, but when Stephanie appeared, illuminated by the Georgia late afternoon sunshine on the arm of her loving father, he almost had to sit down.  We were all perspiring, but I am nearly positive that wasn’t perspiration happening inside his eyelids.

If love really is all we need (and it is), and weddings are the most vivid expressions of love (and they just may be), then yesterday I had the best seat for the best moment in the best expression of the best thing in the entire universe.  Yes, I am gloating.

I am convinced that the best things in life are not for sale.  My advice for you is to figure out what those things are and jockey for the very best seats.  As per usual, I accidentally stumbled into this one, but I can promise you that it is better than anything available for purchase on StubHub.

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¹ For Bible fans: “…as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” – Isaiah 62:5b

A Framework for Meaning

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I have a new side gig as team chaplain for the Pepperdine Cross Country team. Go Waves! My friend, “Coach Rad,” graciously offered the opportunity to join the team at an early morning practice each week to share a five-minute devotional message. I like both running and talking, so I feel confident that my messages will live up to the compensation package (as a volunteer).

This week, I shared my suspicion that the team was an ordinary cross-section of humanity so that some of the athletes appreciated a devotional message at dawn while others were ambivalent but would kindly listen and still others wished that I would go to the wrong practice location.

Regardless, faith, religion, etc. is an historic attempt to develop a framework for meaning in life. From births to deaths and all the in-between major moments in our lives, we have an inherent need to make some sense of it all, so even if my morning devotionals fall flat as a running track, deep consideration of meaning in life is worth the trouble.

I then shared the foundational-yet-downright-disturbing Bible story of Cain and Abel. Geographers cite the domestication of plants and animals as the launch of civilization, and Cain and Abel represent this great beginning. In the story, one of the brothers (Abel) pleased God while the other brother (Cain) did not, so guess which one bled out in a field at the hands of his brother? Yeah, I guessed wrong the first time, too. The Bible’s editorial department could have used some marketing experts at least in the first few pages.

But here we are, trying to make sense of it all, realizing from an early age that sometimes the bad actors win while the good folks get the shaft. Welcome to life as we know it. Instead of filing a formal complaint with the Fairness in Life Committee that never seems to respond in a timely manner, the necessary question shifts from How do I always win? (which I voted for but apparently is not on the menu) to What is worth living for? (which is on the menu). Or, maybe better stated in the negative: What is worth dying for?

I have my answers.

You may remember from middle school the wonderful book by Lois Lowry, The Giver, a compelling science-fictiony story that challenges our assumption that a pain-free world is best after all. Nobody without a masochistic personality disorder prefers pain, but a well-formed framework for meaning in life allows one to endure it when it comes—and those meaning-full things are even worth the pain.

These cross country runners have a pretty good handle on enduring pain for a greater goal, so I think they have a pretty good shot at getting a handle on this old life, too.