Category Archives: Original Essays

The Nashville Scene

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At Douglas Corner Cafe

Music City is apparently the popular kid in class these days due to its unique combination of live music, yummy food, Southern hospitality, and distinctive attractions. The Grand Ole Opry is an experience all by itself. I was told that you never know what you will see at the Opry, and when NFL Hall-of-Famer Terry Bradshaw and NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip took the stage to sing an Eagles song, I had to admit that I never saw that one coming.

It was good to see several old friends during my recent visit to Nashville like Caleb, Ken, the entire Walker family, and my old buddy, Jon, from Arkansas. Jon is an accomplished musician, and since he wasn’t touring I also had the special opportunity to see him in action at a singer-songwriter night at the Douglas Corner Café (pictured above).  It was great to see these friends, but due to a limited schedule I missed many other friends who now live in Nashville, too.

In fact, it is hard to know who lives there now since lots and lots of folks are moving to Nashville. I went for an early morning run and noticed the new and cramped residential construction and heard somber talk of sharp increases in housing costs and the terrible traffic accompanying such rapid growth. It is the next Atlanta, they say, and if the speaker is really in a bad mood, maybe it is a future L.A.

Nashville is a cool city, but the collective concern is that it might have become so cool that it will inevitably lose its special appeal. It seems that contentment is an elusive virtue, so it is hard to blame anyone. It is the human condition to take something good and then push for more until it isn’t so great anymore.

But personally and ironically, I don’t want to be content with the inability to be content.  Try that one out on your therapist.

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Guest Post by Request (Terry Austin, Communications & Development Director, CRA)

logo-craheader4Today, we’ve replaced the fine writing usually served here at Al Sturgeon’s blog with the literary equivalent of Folger’s Crystals. Let’s see if his readers can tell the difference…

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If you’re reading his blog, you’re either a friend of Al Sturgeon or you’re stalking him for nefarious purposes. I suppose both could be true, but let’s focus on the former option.

I’m firmly in that first group and have been for literally as long as I can remember. Al and I grew up together (though he is much, much older). We lived in the same small town in the northeast corner of Arkansas, attended the same church for several years, and went to the same school. I was even his deadbeat roommate for a time, which I choose to recall as a practicum of sorts for his later work in helping the needy.

So if it’s a skeleton in Al’s closet you seek, I’m the man to ask. I could tell you about the time he… well, no, that wasn’t Al. Or how about when the cops busted him for… well, shoot. That wasn’t him, either. That might have been me.

Clearly, the plain if somewhat aggravating truth we must face about Al Sturgeon is this: He’s always been this way, folks. Head of the class, seeker of justice, dispenser of mercy, speaker of truth, friend to all. That’s Al. The darkest stain on his character is his affinity for canned tamales and the Dallas Cowboys.

And so, because of those characteristics (and in spite of the tamales), I’m honored to take over Al’s blog today to announce this:

For his personal and professional accomplishment and his faithful spiritual example, Al Sturgeon has been selected as the 2017 Distinguished Alumnus at Crowley’s Ridge Academy in Paragould, Arkansas.

Al graduated from CRA in 1988 as the valedictorian of his class, the president of the student council, co-winner of the basketball award, and — as chosen by the school’s faculty — holder of the honorific “Mr. CRA.”

Shortly after college, he returned to the school as coach and teacher. His track teams delivered the school’s first-ever state championships (1994 and 1995). And his office was frequently a refuge for students quietly wrestling with turmoil within or at home. They naturally gravitated to Coach Al. He was, then as now, a solace for those in pain and need.

While teaching at CRA, Al met his wife, Jody, and they and their daughters, Erica and Hillary, have since journeyed together from Paragould to a pair of coasts, always together, always building or rebuilding, and always serving.

Readers of this blog are likely familiar with Al’s work in the years that followed, first picking up the pieces after Hurricane Katrina in Ocean Springs, Miss., and then as student, dean, elder and minister at Pepperdine. Along each step in the Sturgeons’ remarkable journey, those of us “back home” have watched with pride and claimed a small, mostly undeserved ownership in it.

And so, at CRA’s Homecoming on Friday night, December 8, in the same gym where Al once rained three-pointer after three-pointer, we’ll claim that stake once again. If you’re in the area, please join us as we honor our friend, Albert Andrew Sturgeon, III, as our 2017 Distinguished Alumnus.

The Life of Pie

Pie Festival PicI like pie.  I like pie a lot.  So there is very little arm-twisting involved when the opportunity to judge the Malibu Pie Festival heads my direction.

Several years ago in my first pie-judging experience I met Linda Hamilton of The Terminator fame who served as a fellow judge.  I had chosen the “fruit” category, but she mentioned that she had decided to take one for the team and judge the pies submitted by children.  This led to an ongoing moral dilemma in my life.  Do I judge wonderful strawberry, peach, and blueberry pies?  Or, do I judge pies adorned with gummi worms and breakfast cereals?

I have gone back and forth over the years based on my current walk with Jesus.

This year, I may have found a happy compromise by judging the pies submitted by older teens.  There were three lovely pies to judge, including a cannoli pie, a pina colada pie, and a strawberry pie.  All of them were terrific, and I left with very little guilt.  Win-win, as they say.

My friends at the Malibu United Methodist Church have put on the annual Malibu Pie Festival for twenty-eight years now as a fundraising effort for the many good works they perform and support in the Malibu community, including a weekly community dinner for our homeless friends.  I preached at MUMC one Sunday morning several years ago and was shocked to learn that it is a small church in terms of numbers.  Malibu really is a small town.  But MUMC is a huge church in its heart.

So sure, it is quite a privilege to judge pies at the Malibu Pie Festival, and sure, it is wonderful to see friends from the community out for the fun alongside celebrities like Jamie Foxx and Kelly Osbourne.  More importantly, it is inspiring to know that good hearts seeking to serve the underserved make it happen.

Trash to Treasure

22344381_224265931440152_753211283737673728_n(1)My friend, Danny, unexpectedly brought Sister Rosemary by my office last week during her visit to Pepperdine.  What a gift!  I have seen a handful of people who made TIME magazine’s 2014 list of the 100 most influential people in the world in person, but it was most definitely the first time one dropped by my office to say hello.  I have my fingers crossed that either Beyoncé or Pope Francis will follow Sister Rosemary’s lead soon.

[Click HERE to read what Academy Award-winning actor, Forrest Whitaker, wrote about Sister Rosemary for TIME in 2014.]

At her evening conversation event last week Sister Rosemary featured stylish purses created at her Tailoring Center using aluminum can pop-tops. She told the audience that she uses this process to teach the women and girls who have been ravaged by war that throw-away trash can be transformed into treasure.  What a lovely metaphor.

I’m not so sure that I can take trash and turn it into an actual fashion accessory.  But I’m up for changing the way I look at human beings who have been discarded one way or another in this world to see the treasure waiting there in what Mother Teresa once called “distressing disguise.”  Sister Rosemary does this with what Whitaker called contagious energy and boundless love.  And in the copy of her book “Sewing Hope” that she gifted me she wrote that “love is the key.”  

So if it is just as well with you, we might as well get started loving.

Spinning Out of Control

IMG_5410With the world apparently spinning out of control, I thought I might as well join the dizzying ride on an indoor bicycle.

My wife is a spin class veteran and certified instructor, and until recently, I was a conscientious objector.  By that I mean that my conscience told me that I would probably throw up should I ever try spinning, and I object to throwing up.  But as any good husband I listen to my wife more than I do my conscience, so recently I suppressed my fears and went to spin class.

It was actually pretty good.  Not only did I survive, but after several weeks now, I sort of like spinning.  No throwing up (yet), so that helps.  The workout is good, and the music is fun, and best of all it is great to do this with my sweet wife.  She is way better than me at spinning, but she is kind and does not rub it in.

I do have one complaint.  I am one of few men in the class, and although my wife claims that the seat of a spin bike is not friendly to the female anatomy either, it is quite clear that it is designed to inflict the ultimate degree of discomfort to members of the male species.  I am given two messages in response, neither of which is comforting.  The first is not to sit down very often, but no one has given this message to our instructor, Ashley, who is fond of the “up two, down two” maneuver that is the absolute worst for someone trying to avoid the sitting procedure.  And second, I am told that you get tougher “down there” with time.  I will preserve the anonymity of a male friend who responded to such a statement by saying that he has no interest in getting “tougher” in such a region.  I concur.

But I am returning week after week and plan to keep doing so.  I enjoy being amazed by my wife and doing my best to respond to Ashley’s pleading face encouraging us to climb those imaginary hills.  And who knows, maybe someday I will recognize the difference between Imagine Dragons and Bruno Mars and possibly even get “tough” enough for that blasted seat.

It turns out that my original fears were unfounded.  They so often are.

 

Jesus, Malibu, and the Immigrant

8592897_origOn Wednesday evening I will join several friends to present Jesus, Malibu, and the Immigrant at Pepperdine.  The event will focus on the Malibu Community Labor Exchange and discuss its work in the context of a Christian worldview of immigration and current political debates about immigration in the United States.  It should be a fascinating evening.

Speakers will include MCLE director Oscar Mondragon (a Malibu legend), Professors Cindy Miller-Perrin and Robin Perrin (Pepperdine legends), yours truly (a legend in my own mind), and Hollywood legend and MCLE supporter Martin Sheen.

I joined Mr. Sheen and several MCLE friends for lunch at Marmalade Café recently, and it was a delightful opportunity to hear entertaining stories from President Bartlet’s, um, I mean, Mr. Sheen’s fascinating life and to witness his heart for service as inspired by his deep faith.  I looked across the restaurant to see Pat Riley having lunch with friends and realized that I really do live in Malibu.

You should come to Elkins Auditorium at 7pm on Wednesday for the conversation.  In addition to Mr. Sheen, I guarantee that listening to Cesar Chavez’s old friend, Oscar Mondragon, is worth it every single time.

For my part, I will focus on my stunning realization that the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is played out every day by those of us who live behind gates in Malibu and the workers who gather in hope waiting for opportunities at the Malibu Community Labor Exchange.  Today, I will simply leave the story as Jesus told it here for your consideration:

“There once was a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped on his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores. Then he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell and in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in his lap. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, mercy! Have mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue. I’m in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here. Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented. Besides, in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.’ The rich man said, ‘Then let me ask you, Father: Send him to the house of my father where I have five brothers, so he can tell them the score and warn them so they won’t end up here in this place of torment.’ Abraham answered, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.’ ‘I know, Father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but they’re not listening. If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.’ Abraham replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.’” – Jesus (Luke 16: 19-31, MSG)

Kids Club

DCF 1.0

“The soul is healed by being with children.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The idea for “kids club” emerged a very short thirteen years ago when my youngest daughter was in the second grade. The two of us were driving somewhere when she innocently asked if I might study the Bible with her sometime, which was crazy embarrassing since I was, in fact, a preacher. Yes, sweetie, that could be arranged. 

But before we even made it to wherever we were driving the innocent question had transformed into a fully-developed plan for a weekly kids club for elementary school children at our church where we not only studied the Bible but also went on adventures and hosted interesting guests. We went to the Ruskin Oak (pictured above). We wandered around an old cemetery. We went to the fire station where everyone got to blast the fire hose, and we hosted a police officer where everyone got cuffed and stuffed. We listened to sweet Ms. Josephine tell sobering stories of growing up black in Jim Crow Mississippi. It was inspiring and sweet and good.

Well, I’m a preacher again and am giving kids club another whirl. We recently launched Kids Club 2.0 with a short Bible study and a visit from amazing art students from Pepperdine, and the next week we hosted a brilliant plant physiological ecologist (look it up) who took us on a nature walk. It has been awesome. I am nearly overwhelmed by the indescribable wealth of potential guests at my disposal here in the heart of a university campus.

But possibly the biggest change from 1.0 to 2.0 is that we typically had 6-8 kids attend in Mississippi while we had triple that number at our first get-together in Malibu! That just triples the fun! (But thankfully I have a fantastic assistant/photographer this time around.)  

Dr. Seuss reminded us that a person is a person no matter how small, but those of us not directly responsible for such little persons may forget the great benefits that come from investing time in kids.  I know that I did.  But I’m sure glad to be back in the fun again.

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” — Frederick Douglass

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PC: Annie Little

#WavesUp

With XC Team Pictures

“[T]he task of the first half of life is to create a proper container for one’s life and answer the first essential questions: ‘What makes me significant?’ ‘How can I support myself?’ and ‘Who will go with me?’  The task of the second half of life is, quite simply, to find the actual contents that this container was meant to hold and deliver.  As Mary Oliver puts it, ‘What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’”

– Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life

Richard Rohr’s description of two halves of life in Falling Upward has me interested in emerging from the locker room for the second half.   We shall see.  Since the first half is so much about achievement and success, the transition is surely difficult to wrap my brain around.  It is much easier to try to be someone than to actually be someone.

As I struggled over the summer just to imagine such a thing, I tried to remember myself as a child before I boarded the train to Achievement Town.  What did I enjoy back then?  What did I love?  What made me smile?  What would I do just for the joy of it all?  Well, one of the primary answers was sports, so I made the calculated decision to be a huge Pepperdine Waves fan this year.

I haven’t been a very good Waves fan in recent years.  This is my third year to serve as volunteer chaplain for the cross country team (see proud team picture above), but I have been a sporadic fan at best for the other sports on campus.  My excuse was that I was just too busy, but “too busy” is undoubtedly the sort of thing you say when you are stuck in first half of life thinking.

The thought that got me was that if you had told “Little Al” that I/he would one day live on an amazing university campus with a fantastic NCAA Division I program fielding seventeen teams and would have open access to watch all of them in action, that would have sounded like heaven.  And I am too busy?  Give me a break.  Literally.

I am off to a great start so far.  I have been there in person to cheer on our cross country, soccer, volleyball, and water polo teams in the last few weeks – with many more teams to cheer on soon.  

Being a sports fan is surely not the point of or secret to life.  But for me, it just may be the secret to remind me not to be too busy to enjoy it.

#WavesUp

Waves of Memories

PepperdineUMemSunriseFlags1jpg-3376683_p9Our youngest daughter started middle school when we moved from Mississippi to Malibu in 2008 and needed certain shots to enroll in school, (make up your own jokes friends from Mississippi and California, but be nice!) so we went to a local urgent-care facility and waited. There in the waiting room I met a super-friendly Pepperdine student who was the incoming president of the College Republicans at Seaver College. He excitedly shared with me his plan to place a large American flag on the magnificent front lawn of Pepperdine University for every life lost in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. He said it was going to be awesome. I was impressed by both his initiative and enthusiasm.

He delivered. The display was such a success that Pepperdine immediately latched on to the idea, and this year marks the tenth consecutive year for the breathtaking “waves of flags” display. 

Walking among the flags is an experience in and of itself, not to mention a photographer’s dream in the Age of Instagram, but my favorite thing to do is to watch the first responders and the veterans park their fire trucks and motorcycles on the iconic Pacific Coast Highway and walk up the hill to take in the experience.  They are far more inspiring to watch than the flags themselves.

In the early years, someone had the proper idea to place flags of other nations among the American flags to represent the correct nationalities of the victims of the attacks on that fateful day. After all, the attacks were acts of aggression against the entire world. International students and guests to campus are happy to find their flag and yet sobered by the reminder of the loss that flag represents. 

We still remember that terrible day. In a year or two, incoming college students will remind us that they were not alive in the fall of 2001, but as of today the flags are still flying and those of us who remember still share our stories. 

President Abraham Lincoln predicted that the world would soon forget what he said that historic Thursday afternoon in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, but elementary school children still memorize his speech over 150 years later. Some things are simply unforgettable.

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Listen & Respond

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We sang a cute little song in church when I was a child about rains coming down, floods coming up, and houses that went splat. The splat was easily the most fun part of the song, but when I experienced that reality as an adult it was far less entertaining. Victims of Hurricane Harvey are facing that same reality today.

My hurricane experience came at the same time of year as Harvey, and it was Labor Day weekend when the first large group of heroes arrived to give us hope. I suspect that has been the same experience for many in Texas. 

We only had a few negative encounters in the aftermath of the storm. Like a group bringing a personal photographer to document their own kindness. And like another insisting that we needed their massive clothing donation immediately even though we had no homes, much less closets. Oh, and every encounter with every level of government and insurance company was its own disaster.

But the biggest flood of all was the beautiful flood of kindness from individuals and churches from all over the world. It was overwhelming in the very best way, and it was our salvation. 

So I have two pieces of advice to share from personal experience:

First, although “news” is ever-changing by definition, remember that the needs will not go away quickly. Join in for the long haul. I love the first responders so much. And I have a unique respect for those who still came months later.

Second, give freely. Find an organization or individual that you trust, and then trust them. The victims know what they need. Listen first. Respond second. 

Losing everything in a hurricane is in retrospect, but only in retrospect, a strangely wonderful time in the history of our family due to the love that we witnessed and received. I pray that many in Texas will be able to look back with similar fondness someday.