Monthly Archives: July 2017

The Sky’s the Limit

20478813_400498847013419_4964910068790198272_n(1)Few states are known for a single thing more than Utah. Okay, maybe none are. The Mormon Church is Utah, or so it seemed before I made my first trip there last week. And sure, there were lots of LDS church structures — the unique temple architecture was even utilized to design local high school buildings.  And there were lots of families with the stereotypical brood of children. But there was far more than the Mormon Church in my brief hibernation-style visit to Utah. “Pioneer Days” in Ogden had just ended but the town and the festival aftermath displayed a fondness for cowboys, rodeos, railroads, and all things western. And a quick walk down Historic 25th Street in Ogden did not feel very Utah-like with its quirky shops and colorful artwork alongside historical descriptions of the street’s seedy beginnings. 

[Note: Not sure where to file this one, but the state troopers had electronic signage on the interstate that read, “If yer eyes are saggin’ pull over yer wagon.” That’s a new one for me, but you know, safety first.]

And although I was not on a nature vacation (and far from what I understand to be the most breathtaking scenery in Utah), I saw enough to know that Utah is majestic.  The huge sky, puffy white clouds, and towering mountains were unavoidable, and although I spent the majority of my time alone and in a library, I did dedicate enough time for a run along a river trail and a hike to the “big fill” near the Golden Spike National Historic Site. Out in the open spaces, the quiet was practically deafening.  And the great expanse of the never-ending sky found me impersonating Tom Petty: Into the great wide open / Under the skies so blue. 

It is hard to describe the magical sensation that comes with that combination of shocking silence and wide open vistas, but if forced to choose a word, the one that comes to mind is “possibilities.” With the bright sun shining down and the wind in your face and that great big sky, it seemed like anything was possible.

If you ever feel trapped in this old world, I suggest a trip to Utah.  Heh, come to think of it, maybe old Brigham Young had that very idea.  

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A Personal Spiritual Retreat

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I’m the sort of person who doesn’t mind going to a movie alone.  That’s weird I know, but then again so am I.  All of the voices inside my head get along pretty well most of the time so the occasional time alone is positive more often than not.

My new preaching gig graciously allows me to attend some sort of conference each year, but since nothing particularly appealing fit into my calendar and since I never really had a chance to reflect prior to jumping from one job into another, I opted for a personal spiritual retreat this year—retreating today and returning on Friday.  I suspect that I will talk to a person or two along the way at a restaurant or convenience store, but the plan is to spend time alone in silence.  Listening to the sound of stillness.  Meandering on a couple of scenic runs.  Praying and meditating.  Reflecting and planning. Dreaming.  Preparing my mind, heart, and soul for a new year (as our church family marks time) that is rapidly approaching.

Utah is my chosen destination, partly because I have never been, partly because it is far enough away and yet not so far either, and partly because of a landmark there that may or may not have something to tell me about the sermon series I intend to deliver in the fall.  We’ll find out soon enough.

We are all different.  For some, such a week ahead may sound like torture, but I am almost giddy with excitement.  Who knows what might emerge when I get away from routines and responsibilities, meetings and appointments, emails and notifications long enough and far enough to take a deep breath and truly listen?

The Secrets of a Sacred Space

Stauffer“Let the site tell you its secrets.” — Christopher Alexander

I joke that my propensity to arrive early for absolutely everything is a sickness, but in reality it is a treasured quality since it reminds me of mom and dad.  Being early is my heritage.  With age, it seems that I am less impressed with my unique qualities and particularly value those characteristics that connect me to a larger story.

I arrive very early for work on Sunday mornings to prepare for our church’s collective time together, a couple of hours early in fact—and love it.  We decided to meet in stunning Stauffer Chapel this summer thanks to a brilliant suggestion from my friend, Sara, and the setting has made the early morning solitude particularly delightful.

I like the strange sensation of opening the door to discover that no one else is there and being the first to step inside.  I like turning on the lights and straightening the hymnals and removing the leftover trash from the pew racks.  I like arranging the podium and communion table just right and reviewing the sermon, imagining the congregation at breakfast preparing to join with me and with others.  I like propping open the doors and hearing the gurgling fountain outside and then returning to the deafening quiet inside and the intense feeling of anticipation. I like to notice the sun pierce through the massive stained glass spraying psychedelic graffiti all over the quiet sanctuary.

Famed architect, Christopher Alexander, argued that users of a space know more about their needs than the architect and wrote, “Let the site tell you its secrets.”  In my sacred Sunday solitude, I don’t seem to be able to articulate my needs, but it sure seems that the space has secrets to tell.  I listen each week and can almost hear them.  Maybe if I listen long enough?

In reality, I’m not sure that sacred spaces have actual secrets to tell.  But maybe the wonder that is found in showing up early to listen is secret enough.

Warm (-ing up to) Embrace

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“Loving your enemies . . . Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this demand is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes it is love that will save our world and civilization; love even for our enemies.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I war privileged to hear Yale professor and prominent theologian, Miroslav Volf, speak in March, and although late to the party I just finished his most famous book, Exclusion & Embrace.  It was in a sense required reading since I teach a course in the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University School of Law titled, Apology, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation—topics that are at the heart of his book.

Full disclosure: I am not an idiot—unless you are simply comparing me and Mirsolav Volf that is.  I understood a good number of the words he used in the book but most of the time was intellectually flailing and gasping for air.  He is brilliant.  Which is why I was particularly intrigued to read such a brilliant mind analyze the components of a hug.

Exclusion & Embrace addresses our fractured “us vs. them” world where exclusion is coin of the realm and presents the image of embrace as a theological counter—almost literally.  Volf properly discloses that an embrace is too intimate for some cultures and not intimate enough for others but that he is interested in the metaphor more than the actual practice.  And then he breaks a hug down into four distinct parts that led me to imagine a Sesame Street song: First, you open your arms; then, you wait; then, you close your arms; then, you open your arms again.

You may not have analyzed the components of a hug before, but stick with me here…

To open the arms indicates a desire for the other and an invitation to come into personal space that I have created for you.  To wait is an act of vulnerability that refuses the path of force and respects the autonomy of the other.  To close the arms—the actual embrace—is a tender and reciprocal act of shared space.  And to open the arms again is a sign of release and respect that provides both the freedom and independence to leave—and to return again.

Okay, this is great for your spouse or kids or friends.  For them, I’m a hugger.  But what about the people you despise (unfairly assuming that the latter isn’t your spouse or kids or friends)?

To put down the weapon and open-armed invite those you despise into your intimate space is almost unthinkable.

To go one further and silently, vulnerably, allow your enemy the choice to either accept or attack—both choices are hard to stomach.

To then actually and tenderly embrace the despicable is a simply nauseating thought.

And then to release the enemy as friend?

I’m glad that Volf is super smart because he would be up a creek if he needed to raise a following or lead a team or run for office.  Nobody is going to want to do this.  Being right and feeling proud and getting even are going to be way more popular than seeking reconciliation.

But being right and feeling proud and getting even sure produce an enormous supply of ugly.  I, for one, am interested in any alternative that leads to a true and lasting peace—even if it does sound like awfully hard work and more than a little loony tunes.

The Choice Is Yours (Or, If the Horse Is Dead, Dismount; But If It’s Still Alive, You Might as Well Learn How to Ride It)

e20816c1dce70514b76bc07c6327d641--jimmy-v-quotes-inspirational-cancer-quotesPeyton Manning hosted the 25th annual ESPY Awards about twenty-five miles from my television set a couple of nights ago in downtown Los Angeles. The ESPY phenomenon was conceived as the MTV Awards for sports, but the original show in 1993 instantly became so much more when Jim Valvano — Jimmy V — delivered his heroic speech less than two months before he died from bone cancer.  He was 47 years old.  Guess which birthday I’m looking at?

I remember that inspirational speech quite well because I had just completed my first season as a high school basketball coach and was scheduled to attend a Nike coaching clinic in Chicago later that summer where Jimmy V was a featured speaker — legendary Villanova coach, Rollie Massimino, had to fill in following his good friend’s untimely death.

The entire clinic was a heady experience for a baby basketball coach from small-town Arkansas like me what with Rollie eulogizing Jimmy V, foul-mouthed John Chaney stringing together profanities like an auctioneer, classy Lute Olson sharing Arizona’s secrets, a potentially inebriated P.J. Carlesimo basically phoning it in, and upstart Cincinnati head coach Bob Huggins sharing a story that has helped shape the trajectory of my adult life.

Huggins was just a year removed from a shocking run to the Final Four in Minneapolis where his Bearcats lost by four points to the uber-talented Fab Five from Michigan. Following the loss, a dejected Coach Huggins walked the cavernous halls of the Metrodome and bumped into his father, who himself had been a successful high school basketball coach.  Huggins told us that he expected his dad to give him a hug or something but instead heard him say, “If you would have rebounded better you would have won.”

Thanks, dad.  Huggins reported that he was furious.  Until he thought about it and determined that if they would have rebounded better they would have won.  So that’s what he set out to work on instead.

I needed to hear that at the time and have needed to hear it again on many occasions ever since.  Feeling sorry for yourself is easy work that feels surprisingly good and well-deserved, but that and a dollar can rent you a movie on iTunes.  It is far more productive to figure out what you can control and get to work on that instead.

In a Few Words

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The Airbnb concept is somehow both weird and intuitive.  It is weird to spend the night in a perfect stranger’s home, but then again it makes sense to get some use out of something otherwise unused at a mutually beneficial price.

The service thrives on customer reviews, of course.  For instance, any review with “there were creepy people playing with snakes” will pretty much guarantee that I will keep looking.  On the other hand, “there were creepy people playing with snakes—and free churros” might persuade me to stay more than one night.  So it is in the best interest of the host to provide a pleasant stay, which leads to good reviews, which leads to more business.  You know, Economics 101.

What I did not know until recently is that the hosts can also review the guests.  Makes sense, I guess, but I will admit to being a little nervous when I recently received my first review by an Airbnb host.  Here is what I got: “Al is clean and kind.”

I am incredibly proud.  Absolutely love it.  Mark it down, when I check out of the Airbnb called Life, I believe that is headstone worthy.

It reminded me of a great Anne Lamott story (in Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, 37-45) when she helped her friend with a dance class for adults with special needs.  Several days later, Anne’s friend told her that after the class one of the students said, “I liked those old ladies!  They were helpers, and they danced.”  Those are the words Lamott wants on her gravestone.

I have had more opportunities to be around death so far than I remember requesting and each instance got me to thinking.  After all the resume drafts, and after all the performance reviews, and after all the updating the LinkedIn profile—and even after the obituary is written, read, and recorded—a few numbers and a few words are engraved on a rock in an attempt to sum up one’s life.  An entire life in just a few words.

What will your words be?  I’m just saying, clean and kind ain’t bad.

Arizona Beauty

19625082_960791194061285_1186972924452536320_n“Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am embarrassed to admit that I avoided art appreciation in college because it just sounded terrible. While we are all naturally drawn to beauty, some of us are raised to find that hard to admit or believe or even notice. The creation of beauty (as Emerson defined art) was not my native language, and it has taken me years to recognize that my reticence to embrace an appreciation of beauty is the real terrible.

So I am making up for lost time.

Last week my wife and I gorged ourselves on beauty with a trip through stunning Arizona. At one moment we were rocketing through the searing desert in our air-conditioned car in silent admiration of the towering cactuses (saguaros) standing proudly against the otherwise nothingness. At another we are winding our way to otherworldly Sedona where the colossal Red Rocks attract their spiritual disciples—and we were speechless in our reverence.  And then we climbed to higher elevations where the ponderosa pines seemed to appear out of nowhere and made us wonder if we had been magically transported to Colorado, especially when we saw the summer snow high on the San Francisco Peaks.  Oh and there was this little place called the Grand Canyon up there, too.  Breathtaking is no hyperbole.

We were determined to watch the sunset at the Grand Canyon, and it was a good decision. We arrived about an hour early—the magic hour—and found a point just west of Mather Point to watch the sunlight play off the canyon walls and witness the beauty for which no human being can claim credit.  Words and pictures all fail.  The sandy browns and the sleepy blues and the flashy reds and oranges undulated across the vast expanse like a wave of exploding fireworks in extreme slow motion.

I would love to say that it was unforgettable, but I know myself too well to say such a thing. I still have the ability to dismiss the grand spectacle of nature and revert to seeing beauty merely in utilitarian terms.  That is my particular training, and I am nothing if not a good student.

Utilitarian Me asks what good watching something like a plant or a tree or a big rock or a ravine or a sunset does for me. Utilitarian Me can be a pain in the butt and doesn’t always deserve a response. But I will give in this time and respond with a quote from Kafka: “Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”

I feel younger already.

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Lift Every Voice and Sing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAArtwork by Stephen Towns

The multi-talented James Weldon Johnson wrote the poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in 1900 to commemorate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. His brother later set the poem to music and with time it became known as the Black National Anthem.

I first heard the song when the group Acapella included it in their “America” album in 1992.  It instantly became my favorite patriotic hymn.  The song has been performed by so many artists, but I still think the version I first heard is one of the best—probably because it touched my heart so deeply.

I have learned firsthand that it is possible to grow up both poor and privileged, and the concept of freedom means something far different to someone who did not grow up privileged.  Maybe that is why this particular song resonates on such a powerful level.  It was conceived by those who dreamed of freedom.

Independence Day arrives tomorrow in this strange and conflicted land, and I confess that my heart is pretty strange and conflicted right now, too.  But as this celebration of freedom arrives, and as I reflect on these lyrics, among many options I choose to raise my voice in song and join the chorus.

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.