Category Archives: Original Essays

Followed Through

18579549_1670127713295036_4028566310173540352_nPepperdine Law’s graduation ceremony occurred last Friday at Alumni Park, and the venue is simply unbeatable — a spacious green lawn on a hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean under the warm California sun. Spectacular.

Having recently resigned from the law school, I had no official responsibilities at graduation, but having recently resigned from the law school, I had hundreds of reasons to be there.  I ran into several friends on the way in, and knowing how graduation works decided to wander over to the place where the graduates would march in to see if I could offer a high five or two as they passed by.  (I really did not know that this would produce a lead candidate for my life highlight reel.)

I was dean of students when the Class of 2017 began its law school adventure and had the honor of welcoming them aboard on their very first day as well as cheering for them on their arduous journey.  There was no way that I would miss this culminating event.  As I stood there on Friday, my high five or two suddenly became a line full of hundreds of high fives and hugs.  It was an amazing experience for me. At one point I wondered if I was holding up the ceremony, but then I remembered that they couldn’t fire me and just kept hugging these wonderful human beings.

Several mentioned that they remembered to “follow through” as they passed by, letting me know that they remembered the little talk that I gave during their law school orientation when I taught them how to shoot a basketball. I explained that you could do everything right but forget to “follow through” and the shot would be unsuccessful. I gave them a little stress ball that looked like a basketball that day with the words FOLLOW THROUGH printed on.

They remembered.  And they surely followed through, and I am proud of them.

I stuck around afterward and met family and friends and posed for pictures and offered congratulations. It was their day of honor, but the warm smiles and good hearts of the Class of 2017 provided a happy day for me, too.

Running in Circles

Heritage-High-School-Wake-Forest-Latex-Track-New-Construction-2A recent morning run triggered memories of high school track meets in the 1980s.  I ran the distance races for the mighty Falcons, and we barely had time to get off the bus in those days before the 3200 meters race began.  Nothing like racing eight laps around the track to get your afternoon going.

Our first meets of the season often took place in a tiny town called Corning, Arkansas, whose population sign answered, Yes, please.  (Just kidding, more like three thousand.)  Corning’s track sat in the middle of, well, nothing but empty space that provided no break from the strong March winds that seemed to be ever-present.

So it was always cold on those eight laps around the track.  Coach Watson insisted that we remove our sweats and wear only our track uniform when we raced despite the weather conditions.  Our uniform consisted of tiny maroon shorts that as best I recall were made out of cheap construction paper and a white mesh tank top with a maroon stripe.  We provided our own goosebumps.

I remember Corning in particular and those killer eight laps because a quarter of the time was spent running directly into that terrible wind.  Another quarter involved flying down the track with the wind at our back unable to breathe because all available oxygen had been snatched from our desperate gasps.  The corners in between were the best shot of relief, although there the wind tended to blow you into the lanes you had not intended to run in.

So it was a good memory.

Well, it was good in the sense that it occurred to me that those races are pretty indicative of life in general.  There are times when the wind is so at your back that you can hardly breathe.  There are others when the wind is so in your face that you can hardly move.  And there are still others when the wind blows you off course despite your best efforts.  Life leaves you longing for some gentle rhythm yet wondering if you are accomplishing anything beyond running in circles.

My best advice is to move to Southern California where the weather is far more hospitable for running.  But that doesn’t speak to the reality of life.  For that, all I have learned is that you can expect all of the above and more.  And that bracing for each shift in the winds is preferable to being surprised at each turn.

 

Dreams

18380491_1304245319630140_7970860990956830720_n(1)My sweet wife visited the Field of Dreams Movie Site in Dyersville, Iowa, last week and brought home several souvenirs since she knows Field of Dreams is my favorite movie of all time. And, it seems, because she loved it there.

It still feels strange to say that Field of Dreams is my favorite movie. It has a corny plot–literally–set in that spooky Iowa cornfield complete with ghost baseball players and disembodied voices. It surely wasn’t my favorite movie when I saw it at the theater in 1989. Sure, I enjoyed the baseball history and the touching storyline, but I tend to prefer movies that aren’t set in fantasy world (nothing personal against Iowa).

My mistake was watching it years later. After my father died. That did me in. That famous last scene when a father is reunited with son and they play catch once again and Annie says to Ray, “Introduce him to his granddaughter” . . . 

Okay, I might need to change the subject. These darn allergies.

Mother’s days and father’s days mean something different to those of us on the other side of the great divide called death. It can be quite depressing, but oddly enough, it never has been for me. And I don’t even have to work hard to understand why. 

As fantastic as it sounds, although Field of Dreams is crazy fiction, I believe it touches on something that is actually very real. In my heart, I believe that someday I will once again hold my mother’s hand and play catch with my dad and introduce him to his youngest granddaughter.

The very thought of it nearly makes my heart explode with anticipation.    

All by Myself

18380808_1524829434235903_6230348940479299584_n(1)“Language . . . has created the word ‘loneliness’ to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word ‘solitude’ to express the glory of being alone.” – Paul Tillich

Our kids are grown, and my wife was out of town for the past week.  You do the math.  The house sure was empty.  I read a lot and for some diagnosable reason made the bed each morning and carried on with life’s responsibilities, but since television isn’t my thing and I rarely listen to music, other than the weird times when I carried on a conversation with myself, it sure was quiet around the house.  As they say, too quiet.

I think everyone would agree that loneliness is a terrible thing, but as Tillich noted, the English language makes room for an optimistic approach to time alone and calls it solitude.

Wendell Berry described solitude as the place where “we lose loneliness,” which is just a delightful thought.  He claims it a space where your “inner voices become audible” (tell me about it) and you sense “the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.”  It is a time and place where you reconnect with the inner you.

I don’t always like the inner me, but he deserves notice from time to time, and given the noisiness of this party called life it takes a little work to find the space.  Or your kids grow up and your wife takes a business trip.

When my dad died in 1994, I worried that my mom would be lost every day.  Turned out I was wrong.  When I spoke with her about it, she said, “I’ll be sad from time to time, but I’m not going to let myself be sad all the time.”  And for the eighteen years she had left on this planet, she was right.

Berry concluded that one emerges from solitude more useful to others: “The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.”¹

In solitude, I reflected on solitude and concluded that it deserves incorporation into the rhythm of life.  But I’m sure happy to have my wife home again.

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¹ Wendell Berry, “What Are People For?: Essays” 11 (Counterpoint, 1990).

 

Backyard Treasure Hunting

Zuma CanyonI want to see everything there is to see.  All of these United States.  All the regions of the world.  (Well, except Antarctica.  If I want to see frozen beauty I will go to the ice cream section of the grocery store.)  I can hear all the wonders of the world calling my name.  The world is vast and wild and beautiful and alluring, but it turns out there’s an argument to be made for just staying home.

Ronnie and I chased our friend, Brad, for 5.6 miles through Zuma Canyon Trail in the May Gray of Malibu last Saturday morning — and it was good.  Good friends.  Good run.  Good conversation.  Good stories and laughter.  Beautiful scenery.  Gentle trails.  Birds and flowers.  Pleasant temperatures.  A light mist.    

And yet I wondered how a runner like me who has lived in Malibu for nine years had never heard of Zuma Canyon Trail until Brad suggested we check it out.  What else have I failed to see in my own backyard?

I know that I could never take in all the wonders of this magical planet.  Believe me, I did the math.  And I know that I could never drink from all the intoxicating wonders of California, or even Los Angeles.  But now I am wondering if I could ever exhaust the beautiful secrets of this one little town!

There is value in travel and adventure, but a frantic effort to see and do everything is a fool’s mission.  Foolish because it is doomed to failure, but also foolish because you just may miss out on the cleverly disguised magic in your everyday world.

Enjoy the occasional globetrotting adventure if you get the opportunity, but you don’t have to leave home to discover amazing hidden treasures.  Take a look around and see for yourself. 

This Unpredictable Life

18253094_119542288608447_7804326198149906432_n(1)We travelers, walking to the sun, can’t see
Ahead, but looking back the very light
That blinded us shows us the way we came,
Along which blessings now appear, risen
As if from sightlessness to sight, and we,
By blessing brightly lit, keep going toward
That blessed light that yet to us is dark.
– Wendell Berry, Given: Poems 74 (2006).

I first traveled to California ten years ago to attend the 64th Annual Pepperdine Bible Lectures.  At the time it seemed possible that it would be my first and only trip to beautiful Malibu (ironically blogging at the time, “I cannot imagine working in this gorgeous setting.”).  Life is funny.  By the next year, we were planning a crazy cross-country move to Pepperdine for law school with absolutely no idea that we would just stay—and “absolutely” absolutely no idea that I would ever return to full-time ministry.  So you can imagine the crazy déjà vu feelings this week when “Lecture Central” took up residence in my office for the 74th Annual Pepperdine Bible Lectures.

Life apparently is analogous to a box of chocolates (all rights reserved).

Life is unpredictable, and if you give me enough time to think about it I can pull my brain muscle.  What if we had stayed in Mississippi?  What if we had left California?  How did we really end up here?  Where are we headed now?  What’s for lunch?

But you know what?  I do know exactly how we got here: One day at a time.  And I’m pretty sure that’s how we will get wherever it is we find ourselves ten years from now, too.

Henri Nouwen wrote, “The real enemies of our life are the ‘oughts’ and the ‘ifs.’  They pull us backward into the unalterable past and forward into the unpredictable future.  But real life takes place in the here and now.”  I’m with Nouwen on this one.  I’m not good at it, but I’m with him.

Still, looking back every now and then, as Berry so beautifully described, provides nice motivation for the journey forward.

The Hard Work of Democracy

12bMy wife and I attended the opening night of Twelve Angry Americans at Malibu High School last Thursday.  Nobody does high school theater quite like Malibu High.  It was our first time back since our youngest daughter exited high school stage right a couple of years ago, and it was no surprise to discover that Jodi Plaia is still delivering terrific shows.  The entire cast was fantastic, and we particularly enjoyed seeing two of our talented high school friends–Dominic (Juror 1) and Taylor (Juror 3)–in starring roles.

Twelve Angry Americans is Twelve Angry Men adjusted for gender equity, and if you are unfamiliar with the story, it is a moving drama of jury deliberations in the murder trial of an inner-city teen that carried a mandatory execution sentence. The play was written and set in the 1950s in the age of McCarthyism and the Civil Rights Movement and portrayed the fragile nature of democracy in a powerful way.  Twelve Angry Men hit the big screen starring Henry Fonda before the decade ended in what is now considered an all-time classic film.  

It was sobering to realize that around the time the play ended on Thursday evening my home state of Arkansas executed its fourth person in eight days after twelve years with zero executions.  A law school classmate of mine represented the first to be killed and had shared a poignant description of the final hours just days before.  Arkansas tried to execute eight people in eleven days because a drug it uses for executions that has been involved in several botched executions is now difficult to obtain and expires today.  It is awful to believe that is true, but apparently that was the motivation behind the rush. 

I have definite opinions about the death penalty and am bright enough to realize that not everyone agrees with me — or has to.  But I would hope that we would engage in deeper conversations on such a grave issue that would at least prevent situations where a state government races the clock to kill citizens because its controversial prescription is running out.

The real message of Twelve Angry Americans is that we must overcome our individual desires, passions, and prejudices to work together for the good of all.  As the play so powerfully shows, that is painful, difficult, courageous, and time-consuming work.  It feels like the world is less and less interested in putting in that sort of effort.

I am grateful to the young actors and actresses for the important invitation.

Save the Critical Thinkers!

UAFMy new office is in the heart of Seaver College on the Pepperdine University campus, and after close to a decade in a law school setting it is interesting to be around undergraduate students on a daily basis.  This has led me down memory lane.

I earned my undergraduate degree a full quarter century ago at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.  My specific bachelor’s degree was in secondary education, but I took more history classes than any other subject, and my favorite was an upper-division course titled “History of the American Indian” with Dr. Elliott West.  I never carried on a personal conversation with Dr. West but have often declared him as my favorite professor of all time.  As proof, I recall showing up to class one day to discover a sign on the door informing us that class had been canceled — and feeling disappointment.  Even then I realized that any professor who was good enough to cause a college student to be disappointed when class was canceled was something special.

Dr. West was a brilliant scholar who knew his stuff, but he was also an engaging and entertaining lecturer who kept us on the edge of our seats eager to hear what he had to say.  One of his unique approaches was to flat out lie.  That’s right, lie.  Dr. West would intersperse his lectures with outlandish statements that sometimes took us a second to realize were outlandish statements, which had the beautiful effect of keeping our slippery attention.

He told us that he had formerly used that technique with freshmen but abandoned it after one occasion when he was explaining how President Lincoln used to wander around Washington wearing a negligee when a freshman finally raised his hand at the back of the room.  Relieved, Dr. West called on the student who then asked, “How do you spell negligee?”

Given today’s never-ending avalanche of information via social media and news outlets more interested in viewers than objectivity, it makes my brain hurt to wonder how many lies we believe each day without batting an eye.

Critical thinking is an endangered species.  I may not have time to verify everything I hear in this Information Age, but I can sure commit to not believing everything.  I learned that in college.  

Beauty in the Fog

17932387_153447835186184_4417267868438102016_n(1)Our 2008 move from Mississippi to Malibu sounds like a seismic culture shift, but moving from affluent, artsy, coastal Ocean Springs, Mississippi, to affluent, artsy, coastal Malibu was not as mind-blowing as you’d think. Okay, it was mind-blowing, just not as mind-blowing as you’d think.

One of the major differences is simply topographical. Ocean Springs sits on the super flat Mississippi Gulf Coast. Malibu officially sits at sea level, too, but that is only half the picture since the vast ocean spectacularly combines with equally stunning mountains. The views we are privileged to enjoy on the Pepperdine campus are ridiculous, and quite often we awaken to see that we are actually above the clouds. It is like a flight with adequate leg room and spacious bathroom facilities.

Recently, on such a morning, I drove from Sunshine Mountain down into the murky clouds for a beachside run along Malibu Road. It is one of my favorite runs because it is nearby, flat, quiet, and scenic, but it isn’t quite as scenic on mornings when the clouds decide to take a nap on the surface of the planet. Despite the cloud cover, I took off with eyes wide open since I have developed a habit of memorializing each morning run with a photograph. It was a challenge. The crashing waves were pretty great in the fog, but not so much for my increasingly outdated iPhone camera, and the horizon was simply nowhere to be seen.

And then I noticed the flowers. The reds and purples, the yellows and lavenders, all nestled in a setting of green and white, almost shy and hiding in the morning fog.

Life lessons exploded from the haze like the colorful flowers. For starters, when life descends into a fog, remember to look for the beauty that is ever present. But also, when life floats in the sunshine above the gray clouds, remember to go to the trouble of joining the world struggling through the smothering gloom. It would be tragic to miss out on the stunning grace that can be found in the obscurity.

Increase the Challenge

PrincePrince died one year ago today. His death was a terrible blow to the music world, and it was also a terrible blow to my wife, who is the biggest Prince fan that I know. I never doubted that she loved me more than Prince, but then again, the three of us never were in the same room.

Regardless of your personal thoughts, Prince was undeniably an amazing performer and a musical genius. In the days following his death, I stumbled across a video produced by the NFL that featured his unforgettable Super Bowl halftime performance at Dolphin Stadium in 2007. Football is tough enough in a rainstorm, but I can only imagine holding a twelve-minute worldwide concert in the driving rain. Come to think of it, I couldn’t play a guitar in high heels under perfect weather conditions.

The video is worth eight minutes of your life, but since all Prince fans have probably seen it and the rest of you probably won’t take the bait, I will share the best part. With the storm bearing down on Miami and threatening to ruin the show, a producer said to Prince, “I want you to know it’s raining…Are you okay?” Prince calmly responded, “Can you make it rain harder?”

When I have work to do in this life and adversity rears its ugly head, that’s the attitude I would like to be strong enough to adopt. Make it more challenging. It won’t stop me.