Category Archives: Original Essays

Our Purple Anniversary

Paisley Park-StudioB2-76787

Inside Paisley Park with Prince’s Guitar & Piano in the Background

Today marks our silver wedding anniversary, but never known for following conventions we opted instead for purple.

For the big 2-5 we considered some remarkable international locations. We thought about Rome. Then it was Bali. Then Tahiti. Later the Kenyan coast. But when our Nashville move materialized we thought that might be plenty of travel and abandoned planning the massive vacation. But then I had an idea.

Minnesota.

I know. I am a romantic at heart.

To say my wife is a Prince fan is like saying Tiger Woods plays some golf. Jody puts the fan in fanatic. Much earlier in our marriage we were in Minneapolis on business and Jody mentioned that Paisley Park, Prince’s home and studio, was open for tours. I was too stupid to catch the hint, so we didn’t go. Jody has pointed out multiple times since that fateful trip that we did happen to go to a Twins baseball game, which I was interested in. How has she put up with me for twenty-five years?

Well, last weekend and long overdue, we did the Ultimate Paisley Park Experience.

Although only a Prince fan via secondhand smoke, I thought it was incredible. We spent time in his multiple recording studios and his intimate video editing room. We saw his dove cage and his motorcycle from Purple Rain. We sat on his couch and played ping pong on his table. We held his tangerine Cloud guitar and even ate a lunch from his kitchen featuring some of his favorite foods (including grilled cheese sandwiches and cowgirl cookies). All and more to a constant musical soundtrack. Very cool for me and mind-blowing for Jody.

Probably my favorite moment occurred at the beginning of the three-hour tour. Our tour guide showed us a nondescript guitar that was one of Prince’s favorites. It was the first guitar he used during his legendary Super Bowl halftime performance, but among his spectacular collection, this one seemed so plain. Well, we learned that he bought it for thirty bucks off a guy at a roadside gas station one day, and our guide said, “It just goes to show that it is more about the person than the gear.”

The past twenty-five years of my life have been the best and include many amazing moments sprinkled among the normal routines of a life together. But when I pause and look back, instead of the value of any individual moment, it is clear that it really is all about the incredible person I have the privilege of walking alongside every single day.

Happy Anniversary, Jody!

The Teacher

IMG_0452“I had my first racial insult hurled at me as a child. I struck out at that child and fought the child physically. Mom was in the kitchen working. In telling her the story she, without turning to me, said, ‘Jimmy, what good did that do?’ And she did a long soliloquy then about our lives and who we were and the love of God and the love of Jesus in our home, in our congregation.  And her last sentence was, ‘Jimmy, there must be a better way.’ In many ways that’s the pivotal event of my life.” – Reverend James M. Lawson

It took me nine days to read a 700+ page book from cover to cover. The bulk of that was made possible by a cross-country flight that included an unexpected six-hour layover, but it was the captivating story and skilled story-teller that really did the trick. I would steal a few pages when I awakened each day, and at bedtime, and any time possible in between.

When we accepted the opportunity to move to Nashville, I stumbled across The Children and purchased it immediately. I am fascinated/humbled by the civil rights movement and wanted to know the history of my new community, of course, but more than that, Halberstam wrote one of my all-time favorite books (October 1964), and I could not believe that he was a young reporter for The Tennessean assigned to cover this story when it happened.

The book cover states, “On the first day of the sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee, eight young black college students found themselves propelled into the leadership of the civil rights movement, as the movement—and America—entered a period of dramatic change. The courage and vision of these young people changed history.”

Our move has been hectic but good, and I had been simply intimidated to open the cover and start on such a hefty book. But wow, all it took was reading the first page. I was immediately embarrassed not to know the significance of what occurred in Nashville. I knew of the horrific murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, the Little Rock Nine, Freedom Riders, the Selma marchers, and the murder of Dr. King in Memphis, among other famous events, but I was stunned to discover that what took place here in Nashville was at the heart of it all—because “the children” (aka college students)—were the heart of it all.

I knew some of Diane Nash’s heroism but had no idea that John Lewis started his amazing journey in Nashville, and I was especially shocked to know that the infamous Marion Barry was a part of that early group. I somehow knew nothing of Jim Bevel or Bernard Lafayette, Rodney Powell or Gloria Johnson, Curtis Murphy or Hank Thomas. But I will never forget them now.

However, what may have had the greatest impact on me was not one of the children—but their teacher, Jim Lawson. Lawson is now ninety years old and lives here in Nashville. Some of my new friends have met him, and though I am envious of that honor, it is almost too much to imagine.

Lawson grew up and attended college in Ohio as a young man with deep faith and convictions. Lawson was fascinated by Gandhi and conscientiously objected to serving in the military, which for his time in history, sent him to prison for two years. Afterward he was a Methodist missionary in India where he studied Gandhi more deeply and then returned to pursue graduate work in religion at Oberlin College. It was at Oberlin in 1957 that Lawson met a like-minded (and aged) visiting speaker in Martin Luther King, Jr. He told Dr. King of his plan to pursue graduate degrees and then come to The South to work for reconciliation, but Dr. King told him that he was needed now and not to wait.

So Jim Lawson moved to Nashville, where he started teaching nonviolence training workshops to a small and eclectic group of college students—who changed the world.

There are a thousand things to note about Jim Lawson’s life, not the least of which being that he was the Memphis pastor that hosted Dr. King’s fateful trip, and I am sure that many have wildly different opinions about the stances he has taken along the way. But what I will never get out of my mind is Lawson teaching that group of young college students there in Kelly Miller Smith’s church in Nashville. He absolutely knew the dangerous road these “children” were embarking on—and did not hide it from them. How did it feel to know that? But it was the road to a better way, so he taught them anyway.

I live in a different Nashville today because of Jim Lawson’s courageous teaching. But Nashville, as with any other city, is nowhere near what Lawson described as the “beloved community” that inspired his teaching. With his example forever imprinted on my mind, I hope in some small way to teach courageously, too.

Hand in Hand

Mother's Day

My wife has long claimed that she lacked the natural maternal instinct other girls seemed to have as she was growing up in Arkansas. I am in no position to question her inner feelings, but I sure can note the irony. Through her incredible life as a mother, I met a phenomenal little girl who changed my life forever. And just over a year after our marriage, Jody accepted the challenge to stand in the place of mother for many teenagers with unfair early challenges in life and spent the next three years (and beyond) loving those sweet people with ferocity and grace. While there she gave birth to our youngest daughter and glided through her days seemingly able to mother the whole world.

Truth be told, she confessed one afternoon that she really couldn’t mother the whole world, which launched our life together on a trajectory where instead of mothering the whole world, I have had a courtside seat to watch her love lucky kids all over the world. I watched her teach and love on children in Mississippi. I watched her informally adopt children in California and teach them how to bake cookies and homemade biscuits and the yummiest communion bread. She is sneaky with her gift-giving talent, but I have caught her enough to know that she regularly gives thoughtful and secret gifts so that children know that they are special and that she loves them. I have watched her become Mama Jody to children in Kenya and am especially moved when she gravitates to the young girls there who are also young mothers. And for someone who lacks that maternal instinct, you don’t want to get between her and a brand new baby to hold.

And the relationship she has now with our adult daughters? Wow. It is a thing of beauty.

I am fully aware that mothering is more than biology, so maybe instinct is not that important after all. Maybe motherhood is more of a posture one adopts.

Some know that Jody and I met on New Year’s Day and married that Memorial Day weekend, and those who don’t know the story might guess that our meeting was instant love. However, many don’t know about our second meeting. I tracked down Jody’s phone number but was afraid to call and actually prayed to God as I went to sleep one night that I would bump into her the next morning when I arrived at work and she dropped Erica off at school. Well, my prayer seemed a bit suspect the next morning when I slept through my alarm and made it to work just as the school bell was ringing. Later that morning, however, I turned to walk down the main hall and was stunned to see a beautiful picture at the far end—Jody and Erica walking hand in hand my direction. We stopped and talked and arranged our first real date, and we are still dating twenty-five years later.

But on Mother’s Day this year I am reminded of that early scene down that long hallway. Of Jody walking alongside her sweet girl hand in hand. The motherly posture. Today that hand-in-hand might happen across the miles via text message or phone call, but she continues to walk by our daughters (and others) day after day after day. What an honor it is simply to watch.

Names

blog pic names“Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.” – Hafez

I threw out the ceremonial first pitch for a Lipscomb University baseball game last Friday, which was easily the most difficult and embarrassing thing I did all weekend. But I received far more sympathy for reading around three hundred names at the undergraduate commencement ceremony on Saturday afternoon. (For the baseball fans, the pitch was in the dirt, low and away, and the manager made the wise decision to pull me after a single pitch—no Tommy John surgery, but the trainer has me icing the old arm anyway.)

This was not my first time pronouncing names at graduation, having done so while at Pepperdine Law for three consecutive years sometime back.  My favorite memory from those inaugural years was when I announced Hillary Mace, and much to my surprise (and I’m sure the fury of the events team), she ignored our wonderful dean and president and jumped up to my podium to give me a hug instead of accepting her diploma first.  That kind of made my life.

But there are the haunting memories, also known as the attempts to pronounce the most difficult names given my cultural background.  I remember practicing with my friend, Mr. Dehbozorgi, and feeling confident and ready.  However, when it was showtime, I remember the sinking feeling when I looked at the next graduate in line and noticed Farshad’s excited face—and yet it wasn’t his turn!  Farshad’s encouraging facial expression was saying, “C’mon, big guy, you can do this!”  My facial expression was saying, “I am a deer, and I see headlights.”  We somehow survived the interminable showdown, although therapy must have helped me forget exactly how.

My first foray reading names at Lipscomb had some definite pronunciation challenges, but given my return to the American South (and that Lipscomb is a more regional university), the names were most definitely easier.  The best part was that I got to share the load with two new friends, Brian and Catherine (pictured above), so that each of us pronounced about three hundred names. Brian and Catherine are fantastic, and I was honored to be on their team.

That we have names is interesting all by itself, and the phenomenon of announcing names at formal recognition ceremonies even more so.  It is a powerful feeling to stand on stage under bright lights wearing bizarre attire and declare a name over a powerful microphone that signifies the end of years of rigorous academic study and unleash wild applause from family and friends.

What is it about hearing that name?

Maybe it is because more often than not it is the first thing we do to a human being—give it a name. We are given a miracle, and we feel compelled to identify it in some way, and we say, You are _______. There. That is who you are. With time we learn to say it ourselves: I am ______. It is our linguistic attempt to establish a foundational identity, this curious mix of sounds and syllables.

We are each somebody. Every single one of us.

If you ever doubt it for yourself, give me or Brian or Catherine a call. We are seasoned professionals who can declare your name and unleash the applause.

Capturing the Imagination

Hillary Award Picture

Fiesta de la Trashumancia by Hillary Sturgeon

“I enjoy photography” is a better sentence, but it gives the impression that I understand something about the art, which I don’t, so I simply say, “I like taking pictures.”  That I have a decent eye for a good shot (and Instagram filters) provides some nice gets from time to time, but that’s about all I’ve got.

My youngest daughter, on the other hand, has long been light years ahead of me and can now claim that she is an award-winning photographer.

This is the eleventh year that the College of Arts & Sciences at Seattle University has hosted a photography competition titled, “Imagining the World,” and tomorrow night when this year’s exhibition opens in Kinsey Gallery, Hillary’s photograph, Fiesta de la Trashumancia, will be featured as the first-place award winner in the Study Abroad category.  I am sad to be 2500 miles away from the awards event, but I look forward to seeing the exhibit during graduation weekend since it will be on display in the gallery throughout the summer.  Hillary’s photograph will also be the cover photo for the book that is produced each year featuring all of the award-winning photographs.  I might be a little proud.

I credit our friend, Cecily, with planting the original photography seed in Hillary’s heart during her teenage years and then Malibu High School’s photography department for helping develop her talent (alongside Cecily).  Following high school, Hillary spent an entire summer in college as a photography intern in Kenya and obviously did not waste the opportunity to capture incredible moments while studying abroad in Spain.  Recently, she returned from a service trip to Mexico with some extraordinary photographs, too.

Imagining the world?  Yes, indeed.  I imagine there is more to come.

Hillary has not become a photographer by trade—yet, at least—and considers it a hobby, but unlike her proud dad, she knows what she is doing.  I like taking pictures, but Hillary enjoys photography.

image in spanish department

On Display in the Spanish Department (Seattle University)

 

Happy Earth Day to You

IMG_0239“Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces up, snow is exhilarating; there is no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.” – John Ruskin

I am apparently not immune from turning into my parents.

Neither of my parents grew up in the age of television but once cable television arrived in their adult years they agreed on a favorite hangout: The Weather Channel. Now boys and girls this was back in the day when The Weather Channel spent most of its time reporting on the weather and therefore before tantalizing shows with titles like “Natural Born Monsters” and “Storm Riders” and “Weather Geeks.” No, it was pretty much all-day weather forecasts and updates, and for the life of me I could not understand why my parents would care about dew points and barometric pressure and precipitation levels. I preferred going outside where there was actual weather to analyzing the hourly forecast.

Now, it is me. No, the background noise of my life is not The Weather Channel. What I do is check the weather on my iPhone a million times each day. Hot or cold, sunshine or rain, calm or wind—I suddenly seem to care.

Our move to The South is partly to blame for the marked increase in said weather-checking because Southern California weather is, in a word, predictable, while Tennessee weather is anything but. I knew this in my little brain before arriving, having spent the first three decades of my life in similar conditions, but coastal living for the past two decades created a form of amnesia that I am working to overcome.

So maybe it is simply that I now need to know when to carry an umbrella. But maybe I am learning to care more about the beauty of our natural world?

Today is Earth Day, an annual day to draw our attention to nature and remember our collective responsibility to take good care of this planet we call home. Earth Day began the year I was born, and although much good work has occurred in my lifetime, it is apparent that revolutionary action is required to provide the care necessary for sustaining this big, beautiful world. I want to care more about that and care less about things far less important.

I grew up caring primarily about sports. And then I grew interested in the news. And now I prefer the weather. It could be that I am finally growing up.

Living on Top of a Battlefield

IMG_0235There are several historical markers regarding the Battle of Nashville from the American Civil War in our new neighborhood, including a monument just north of and less than a mile from our current house. I ran over at dawn last week to remember the fallen, and the early morning fog created an appropriately eerie vibe.

I had decided the night before that I should learn more about that terrible battle that occurred in my new hometown, and Wikipedia informed me that in just two days here approximately three thousand soldiers died just before Christmas in 1864. I also learned—and this caught me completely off guard—that we “are living on top of a battlefield.” In fact, our current neighborhood is basically the place where the Confederate troops drew their lines on the opening day of the battle.

I really did not know what to do with that information.

But I could, and did, imagine that fateful day. It was reportedly a foggy morning, and in December it must have been bitter and cold. In my imagination I could see those young men in gray uniforms filled with adrenaline, antsy and eager, thinking they are ready for a fight. They stood there on my street, and we nodded at one another in recognition. I thought of them as contemporaries, but in reality I am much older, and they are just kids—as well as my great-grandparents. By the end of the day many will be on the run, and by the end of the following day many will be dead. But 155 years later all of their spirits remain, and I could see them there, in the fog, yet clear as day.

What were they saying? I heard no voices, but their ghostly presence still spoke to me. But what were they saying? I leaned in and strained to listen.

Finally, one young ghost-soldier, who looked remarkably like me, said in a whisper, “We are the same, you and I. We are no different. I once lived on this battlefield, too, and I stood here just like you do now, proud and brave and self-assured and afraid. I once lived on this battlefield, too, but I died here. You still have the gift of life. Don’t waste it. Don’t waste your life. Choose carefully what you live for — and would die for.”

The ghostly images of those who came before me faded from my mind’s eye, but their presence and their voices remain. They keep saying, “We are the same. Choose carefully.”

In the Spotlight

Bright Lights

“All the world’s a stage…” – Jacques in As You Like It, by William Shakespeare

As I prepared last Friday night to enjoy my first experience with Singarama, a wildly popular campus tradition that showcases large numbers of ultra-gifted Lipscomb University students, I was mesmerized by the stage lights illuminating the auditorium in celestial royal blue. We in the audience instinctively knew that the lights were simply teasing us. Before long, they would disappear completely, only to explode again and dazzle us with the glittering magic of brightly-costumed performers singing and dancing and delivering a delightful evening of entertainment.

It is a different experience for those on stage. Blinded by the light, they must remain focused in ironic, light-flooded darkness, remembering the steps, remembering the lyrics, remembering to smile. It is a rush of a different kind, one that arrives by hard work, nerves, adrenaline, and execution. In the end we are all happy, but none more so than those who stepped up and delivered in the spotlight.

I also considered this earlier in the week sitting in the famed Madison Square Garden, the self-described most famous arena in the world, watching another set of college students put on a show in front of a crowd under the bright lights. This time it was athletic talent and a live national television audience, but it necessarily involved the same light-flooded darkness, the same adrenaline, and the same task to focus on what had been practiced over and over.

It was a pleasure on both occasions to watch students stand and deliver under the bright lights.

Some seem to crave the spotlight, while others avoid it. There are reasons to be wary of the spotlight, but others to embrace it. It is simultaneously compelling and terrifying. And some who crave the spotlight never receive it, and others who avoid it who find it thrust upon them.

It isn’t a bad metaphor for life, as might have occurred to Shakespeare.

So how does one respond to an impending moment on life’s stage under the bright lights? Discipline. Preparation. Courage. Persistence. Hard work. Good habits. Resilience. Endurance.

And maybe most important of all, an active imagination that envisions in faith that glorious and transcendent moment when you have done your part and the curtain falls or the buzzer sounds—in the spotlight.

Courage & Conviction

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“Nashville sure loves its breakfast places.” – Jody Sturgeon

Before arriving in Nashville my wife suggested that Saturday morning brunch serve as our weekly date, and so far we are two-for-two. We opened with Holler & Dash Biscuit House where I sampled/devoured the biscuits & gravy and a unique approach to beignets, and then on Saturday number two we drove past the long lines at two iconic brunch spots, The Pancake Pantry and Biscuit Love, and ended up at Frothy Monkey where I enjoyed bacon, eggs, and pancakes as well as a decent portion of my wife’s meal, too. I like this new tradition a lot. And as Jody observed, we are in no danger of running out of new places to try out anytime soon.

As we walked down Fifth Avenue toward our latest brunch adventure, we noticed the historical marker for the 1960 Nashville sit-ins across the street from the Walgreen’s. I confess to knowing little about the Nashville sit-ins prior to our decision to move, but when I discovered that David Halberstam was a reporter for The Tennessean during this critical time in history and had written a massive book about it titled, The Children, I bought the 783-page monster and am eager to dive in.

Our national sin of white supremacy and the Civil Rights Movement that literally placed it on public display have captivated me on multiple levels, not the least of which being the Movement’s proximity to my world both in location and time in history. It is mind-boggling to remember that not so long ago fellow citizens with black or brown skin could not have sat at the same table with me for brunch in Nashville—and that when a group tried and white citizens assaulted and degraded them, only the former were arrested.

I am both impressed and proud that Nashville marked the spot, but do not be mistaken: There is much more work to do. However, what struck me last Saturday was that the world did change, and it changed due to the courage and conviction of college students. That makes me want to go to work today even more.

Today is April Fool’s Day, so consider yourself warned about some good, clean fun out there today. But let’s remember the lessons from our yesterdays that the students taught us and look toward a tomorrow with the courage and conviction that eschews foolishness and embraces wisdom.

Student Life

student life pic

The plan worked. Starting the new job on spring break week was the right call. New house, new office, new computer, new work phone, new cell phone, new business cards, new driver’s license—even a new car with new a Tennessee license plate—all taken care of last week. But today is the day that I targeted all along: The first day on the job—with students.

I am a university vice president whose area of responsibility is listed as “student life.” I love those two words so much — independently, but especially, together. For those unfamiliar with the lingo of higher education, student life, also called student affairs or student development, refers to the large number of student experiences outside of the formal academic setting. From dorm room to intramural field, from student organization to fraternity/sorority, from career counseling to intercultural experience, from campus ministry to veterans’ services, from student government to campus safety, from disciplinary action to behavioral intervention—all this and more is our world. Student “life.”

We are educators. At times we stand in front of a group of students in some formal way (for instance, I speak to approximately 1400 students in Allen Arena tomorrow!), but our teaching posture is far more often one-on-one, or small group, or even side by side. And the lessons we teach are often the kind that, to risk sounding overly dramatic, the world needs and that you never forget. “Life” lessons.

I am raring to go this morning, and I hope you can catch a glimpse of how I can be so energized about this new work so quickly after leaving such an amazing community two thousand miles away. To put it simply, there are over four thousand students here, and I get to lead a fantastic team doing important work in an exciting place at a crucial time in history. That is why I am ready to go.

Jesus once said about his intent for humanity: “I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.” (John 10:10, MSG)

Today, on my first day here with students, I aim for that, too. Student “life”—that authentic, permanent, full, and better life that defies imagination.