Category Archives: Original Essays

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

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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.

L. A. Extra

rams game (2)Los Angeles has taken the Noah’s Ark approach to professional sports by lining up teams two-by-two in professional baseball, basketball, hockey, and football, and during the past eleven years while I have called L.A. home, one franchise has at least made it to the championship game(s) in each respective sport. Kobe and the Lakers won the NBA Finals in 2009 and 2010. Quick and the Kings hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014. Kershaw and the Dodgers came up just short in the World Series in 2017 and 2018. And just in time to round off the set before I head to Music City, Goff and the Rams go and give the Patriots a run for their money in the Super Bowl in 2019. Not a bad record for a single city.

So I don’t complain about L.A. as a sports city—the quality and quantity is really amazing. The only odd thing is that (rabid Laker/King/Dodger/Ram fans notwithstanding) there is so much going on in this great American city that Sports-mania never really takes over the town. It would be crazy to know how many Angelenos were unaware that the Super Bowl was yesterday—I suspect far more than there would be in other smaller market cities with a team in the big game.

This is neither bad nor good—just odd—and I attribute it entirely to the sheer size and diversity of Los Angeles. Over 100 million people watched the Super Bowl yesterday, a mind-boggling number, but even crazier is that over 10 million people live in Los Angeles County (a recent graph showed that 43 states have a smaller population than L.A. County!).

So there’s a lot happening here. That’s one of the things I have really enjoyed about living in the City of Angels. But it is possible to miss remarkable things happening in your own backyard because there is so much going on.

There’s your life lesson: Keep your eyes open. The extraordinary is all around us.

 

Major News

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I announced to our church family this morning that Jody and I will move to Nashville, Tennessee, in March where I have been hired to serve as Vice President of Student Life at Lipscomb University.  I am humbled and honored to serve in this important role and join the Lipscomb community, but it will be difficult to say goodbye to the Pepperdine community that has been our family for the past eleven years.

Our time at Pepperdine has been transformative for all for us—for Jody, Erica, Hillary, and for me. And when I say transformative, that touches on all aspects of our lives: intellectually; physically; socially; spiritually; emotionally; and professionally. We are and will forever be grateful.

But for my sweet wife and I, it is very clear that we have been called to another stage of this pilgrimage called life. I can say that a decision “has never been clearer,” but in fact we have experienced such clarity on a few other memorable occasions. When we met and knew instantly that we would be married. When we decided to be houseparents at Children’s Homes, Inc. When we chose Ocean Springs over another offer. When we chose Pepperdine over other schools. None of those previous choices made sense in an easily-articulated way, but we were 100% sure that each was supposed to happen—and each time that strong feeling was rewarded over and over again.

So although it makes little sense to leave such wonderful people in such a wonderful place, we leave with deep gratitude and a most confident expectation that we will discover a world full of blessings beyond anything we ask or imagine. We have seen this show before.

 

Mudbound

mudbound picWe were simply looking for a movie to watch on Netflix and Mudbound had rave reviews. Watch it. But fair warning: It is difficult to watch. It is difficult to watch because the storytellers do a masterful job of portraying the sort of lives that were difficult to live. The movie is a disturbing, compelling, haunting, yet beautiful work of art.

Mudbound features the intertwined stories of two rural Mississippi families, one black and one white, when one member from each family returned home following World War II. I will spare you the full movie review (especially preserving the memorable ending) and just state that systemic poverty, racism, and PTSD are terrible things and that all sorts of people—the beautiful, the complicated, and the perverse—are all mixed up in it.

I learned that the movie came from a novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan, and since we all know that books are better than their movies, I can only imagine how good it must be. The novel reportedly contains the line, “Death may be inevitable, but love is not. Love, you have to choose.”

This seems particularly important to consider on this special holiday that remembers Dr. King. On this day and every day, like Dr. King, may we choose love. “Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

 

America’s Team(s)

nfl playoffs“They appear on television so often that their faces are as familiar to the public as presidents and movie stars. They are the Dallas Cowboys, ‘America’s Team.’”
– Dallas Cowboys 1978 Season Highlight Film

The Dallas Cowboys: You love them or you hate them. Me, I have done both, often during the same game.

Bob Ryan first called the Dallas Cowboys “America’s Team” when preparing the team’s highlight film following the 1978 season and defended his controversial term by saying that they were the most popular team in the nation both in fan support and television appearances. In the forty years since, the franchise has maintained a huge fan base in good times and bad times, for better or worse, ‘til death do they part. The franchise is now worth $5 billion—the highest of all NFL teams.

I am afraid that I am one of those people. I joined the bandwagon at the height of Tom Landry and Roger Staubach in the late 1970s and survived until Emmett, Troy, and Michael in the glorious 1990s and then survived again until the late 2010s with Dak and Zeke. It has surely not been an easy ride, but it has never been boring.

The first time I saw the Cowboys play in person was a Christmas Eve road game at the Superdome against the New Orleans Saints in the closing days of 1999, which happened to be the game that snapped a streak of 160 games the Cowboys played before sellout crowds. My wife and I were in the stands that day to see Aikman, Irvin, Smith, and Sanders play in person. But we lost.

The second time I saw the Cowboys in person was a Monday Night Football game against the Giants in old Texas Stadium in 2006. It was so awesome to be in a place I had dreamed about as a child with my best buddy, Dave, and see colorful characters such as Parcells and T.O. in action. In the first half things went poorly and the hometown fans jeered starting quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, and chanted their desire for backup quarterback “Ro-mo, Ro-mo, Ro-mo.” When the second half opened and Tony Romo ran on to the field for his debut as quarterback the crowd went wild! He threw an interception on his first pass. And we lost.

Last Saturday was my latest opportunity—a playoff game at the famed L.A. Coliseum against the Rams. The playoff atmosphere was electric, and I loved hearing the roaring voice of the Rams’ stadium announcer (who also happens to be my Pepperdine friend, Sam). I am not sure why I was surprised at the massive number of Cowboy fans at the game or how vocal they were—from my seat it was hard to tell which team’s fans were loudest. But it wasn’t hard to tell which team was better. I was proud that our overmatched team made it a game in spite of our two major weaknesses in the game: offense and defense. We lost again.

Maybe I should stop attending games for my favorite football team.

I got to thinking. American football really is American in all sorts of ways, particularly the way it displays the adversarial nature of our society. We compete head to head in business, politics, the justice system, and many other ways—even in our entertainment. And the more I think about it, maybe the Dallas Cowboys really are America’s Team. More than any other franchise, they inspire people to choose sides and root one way or another.

Competition isn’t necessarily evil. And yet, it is one thing if we shake hands after we compete and another entirely if we just keep on shaking our fists at one another. I have been watching the news lately and continuing to wonder: What kind of world will we choose to be?

Educated

tara-westover-educatedI love reading books but hate writing book reviews and yet I must take the time to recommend Educated by Tara Westover. Not since reading Angela’s Ashes years ago has a memoir so affected me. Read the ridiculous list of accolades to discover that I am not alone.

The story is almost too much to believe, much less summarize. Tara grew up in the Idaho mountains with survivalist parents and six older siblings. Her mentally unstable father was the unmistakable (and very religious) family leader who operated a junkyard and prepared his family for the end of the world by stockpiling food, fuel, and weapons. He distrusted all things government as well as the medical establishment so, shielded by their isolation, none of the children attended school or visited doctors. With time and forced practice, Tara’s mother became well known as a midwife and healer. Miraculously, with not even a semi-serious attempt at home schooling, Tara got into college at Brigham Young University—and to shortcut the full mind-blowing story, now has a Ph.D. from Cambridge. But it is the full story, and in fact, the journey itself, that produced words in the promotional blurbs like remarkable, breathtaking, heart-wrenching, inspirational, brave, and naked.

I dislike clichés like “it’s a must read.” So I will quote what Bill Gates said about the book instead: “It’s even better than you’ve heard.”

What I am struggling with now is what to do with this powerful story. It has thrown me for a loop, and in my disoriented state I am trying to recover some measure of equilibrium to see what it has done to me.

My life in no way resembles Tara’s life. I can’t even imagine. And yet we read ourselves into every book—or at least I do—and I suspect that part of its power is my identification with growing up in a rather self-contained world and later moving to radically different worlds and trying to make sense of it all. I, too, love my roots and yet have been “educated” by a journey that I never even imagined. Further, I continue to work in the heart of an institution of higher education and see this sort of thing play out day after day. As the book review in The New York Times concluded back in March 2018, “She [Tara] is but yet another young person who left home for an education, now views the family she left across an uncomprehending ideological canyon, and isn’t going back.”

Tara shares mixed feelings, and I get it. Not only does she value education, she values her education. Read the story: Not only did it probably save her physical life, but it also saved her—her very self. But the sacrifice was great — and painful.

I check the box for “Christian” on surveys, but the word the Bible uses for self-description instead is “disciple,” a word that means “student.” Jesus made it quite clear that the call to discipleship requires sacrifice, possibly sacrificing your very family. Jesus didn’t even pretend this would be easy. But he said it was good. And ultimately worth it.

Maybe that’s what Tara’s story is doing to me. Thankfully, I never had to give up family on my particular journey, but maybe her story serves as a dramatic illustration for Bonhoeffer’s “Cost of Discipleship.” An education can cost you everything. At times that may very well be worth the price.

Yet Another Lap Around the Sun

2018 Running

I like to run and find it useful as a metaphor for life itself (as does the Christian Bible—see 1st Corinthians 9: 24-27; Hebrews 12: 1-3). Since we humans apparently like to mark our laps around the sun, it is common practice at year’s end to look back before heading off for another lap. We consider the bests and the worsts from the past year. We remember the new things that came our way and the people who made their departures. And then we throw a party in honor of and in spite of it all.

We have had some tough stuff to deal with where I live in the past few months, but that is no surprise to those familiar with anything requiring endurance. The year to come will surely have its own challenges. Therefore, we keep going, placing one foot in front of another, never stopping until we reach the finish line.

As I reflected on the run known as 2018, I remembered the actual running I did this year. I ran alone, and I ran with friends, and I ran all over the place. The year kicked off with a great run along the Rose Parade route in Pasadena with my running buddy, Brad, and by year’s end I had enjoyed runs in six states and two nations on two continents. I nearly froze my running shoes off running in the snow high in the mountains of Colorado. I ran across the Idaho-Washington border for a lovely run along both sides of the Snake River. I braved the mud and traffic for an unforgettable run in the heart of Nairobi. And I went back home to Arkansas where it all started and ran around my high school track on the morning of our thirty-year high school reunion.  In between I witnessed breathtaking scenery on trails and along the beaches here in beautiful California.

If all goes well, 2019 will be another great run. I suspect that at times I will again run alone, and at others I will run with friends—and that I will explore all sorts of interesting new places. Now I am talking about life again.

Bring on the new year.

The Mood of Christmas

Thurman QuoteOn this Christmas Eve, I share with you the Prologue to Howard Thurman’s wonderful little book, “The Mood of Christmas.”

Christmas is a mood, a quality, a symbol. It is never merely a fact. As a fact it is a date on the calendar — to the believer it is the anniversary of an event in human history. An individual may relate himself meaningfully to the fact or the event, but that would not be Christmas.

The mood of Christmas — what is it? It is a quickening of the presence of other human beings into whose lives a precious part of one’s own has been released. It is a memory of other days when into one’s path an angel appeared spreading a halo over an ordinary moment or a commonplace event. It is an iridescence of sheer delight that bathes one’s whole being with something more wonderful than words can ever tell. Of such is the mood of Christmas.

The quality of Christmas — what is it? It is the fullness with which fruit ripens, blossoms unfold into flowers, and live coals glow in the darkness. It is the richness of vibrant colors — the calm purple of grapes, the exciting redness of tomatoes, the shimmering light on the noiseless stirring of a lake or sunset. It is the sense of plateau with a large rock behind which one may take temporary respite from winds that chill. Of such is the quality of Christmas.

The symbol of Christmas — what is it? It is the rainbow arched over the roof of the sky when the clouds are heavy with foreboding. It is the cry of life in the newborn babe when, forced from its mother’s nest, it claims its right to live. It is the brooding Presence of the Eternal Spirit making crooked paths straight, rough places smooth, tired hearts refreshed, dead hopes stir with newness of life. It is the promise of tomorrow at the close of every day, the movement of life in defiance of death, and the assurance that love is sturdier than hate, that right is more confident than wrong, that good is more permanent than evil.

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.