Category Archives: Uncategorized

Leaving on a Jet Plane

Amsterdam
“I love to travel, but hate to arrive.” – Albert Einstein

For those who actually read my blog ramblings (to whom I am most grateful), Starting to Look Up will go silent for a couple of weeks as my wife and I journey to Europe to see our youngest daughter who is studying abroad this semester. We leave tomorrow.

I had not been off the North American continent until 2015 but since that summer have enjoyed trips to South America, Asia, and Africa, and am pretty excited to add another continent in this apparent attempt to make up for lost time. But we are especially excited to see Hillary.

Hillary may have caught the travel bug without our help but we surely did our part by putting her on a plane all by herself to visit a friend in London while in middle school and then shooting her off to Kenya on a couple of youth group mission trips in high school. This college semester in Spain is simply fuel for the fire. On a recent weekend trip to Amsterdam she sent us a text that read: “Just a warning I’ve already decided I’m moving here one day and living on a houseboat, there’s not convincing me otherwise.”

We had better go see her while we can.

I look forward to many adventures over the next couple of weeks and a heart full of new memories on return, and later, the chance to process those precious gifts into words.

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Lift Every Voice and Sing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAArtwork by Stephen Towns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Natural World

34973774115_987464cc46_oMy wife and I went camping last weekend. Well, that’s unfair. You should at a minimum struggle to set up a tent and consider cursing to be able to say that you went camping. Better stated, around sixty of our good (church) friends went camping last weekend and we spent Saturday with them. We ate delicious food and enjoyed relaxing conversations and then went home to sleep in our own bed. For us it was like an all-day backyard barbecue if your backyard was an entire river valley in the middle of nowhere. It was a most fantastic day.

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The highlight of the day was a nature hike led by our friend, Steve. Specifically, he is Dr. Stephen D. Davis, world-renowned plant biologist and winner of the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching, which is the college professor equivalent of a Nobel or a Pulitzer. To say he is respected in his field is like saying Willie Mays could play baseball. But to us he is Steve, one half of “Steve & Janet,” members of our church family and the couple my wife says that she wishes we could be when/if we grow up.

Steve took about thirty of us on a nature hike and opened the world to us. And I’m not kidding. We were a diverse group of children, teens, and all ages of adults who saw, touched, smelled, and tasted a variety of plants along the way. Steve was an amazing guide. It was like getting a tour of the Sistine Chapel from Michelangelo, although Steve’s area of expertise is Planet Earth.

Toward the end of the hour-long hike our group decided to trek down to a stream of water, which was a little bit of a physical challenge. Steve said, “We have one rule: If you start to fall, be sure to yell so that the rest of us can watch!” Once we arrived safely at the water’s edge, Steve asked us to listen to the sound and share how it made us feel to hear the gurgling water making its way through the rocks. (Turns out the correct answer was Peaceful, although I still think my thought of having to pee was equally valid.) Steve suggested that we need to find and listen to the babbling brooks of the world today more than ever–and I think he is right.

Nature. It just seems so unnatural these days. How messed up is that?

It’s About Time

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If you ever feel like time keeps slipping away from you, avoid Saturday night when Daylight Savings Time snags a full hour without so much as a please or thank you. The big jerk.

I know, I know, it donated a free hour half a year ago, which I celebrated at the time, so this is just time to settle up. Doesn’t mean I have to like it. I try to make good use of all the hours I get in this blessed life, but it is kind of hard to keep up when they just disappear without a trace.

So here is my plan: I’m going to take it back. Ha! Try to mess with me, Mr. Time; you don’t know who you’re messing with. I’ll play along, change my clocks, actually show up to work on time, like everything is cool, but when no one is looking I’m going to take an hour all Harry Potter like, just out of thin air, and do something awesome with it and rub it in Time’s face. The big jerk.

I haven’t decided exactly what I will do with this reclaimed hour, but I have a few ideas. Like a mountain hike. Or people watch. Or count stars. Or play goofy games with children. Or savor an ice cream sundae. Or, just sit and feel the ocean breeze. Whatever it is, it won’t make sense or be productive or check anything off a list. It will be something excellent, and it will drive Time crazy since it seems hell bent on stealing precious hours from me. The big jerk.

If time slips away from me, I think I’ll just take it right back.

#winning

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We live in a world of competition.

This weekend, a mind-boggling number of people will tune in to see who wins and loses when Jimmy Fallon hosts the Golden Globes a few miles down the road at the Beverly Hilton.  Since I watch more football than movies, I will be more interested in the winners and losers of the College Football Championship and the wildcard round of the NFL playoffs.  Whatever your fancy, there is a competition for it—just look at the ridiculous number of reality competition shows on seemingly every network, e.g., Cupcake Wars; America’s Next Top Model; Last Comic Standing; The Bachelor/ette; Whisker Wars (yes, that was a real show).

And why should it surprise us that a former reality show celebrity emphasized “winning” so much in his shockingly successful presidential campaign?

Our entire social order is based on competition.  Our justice system is adversarial with the thought that the fight to win will produce just results.  Our economic system is designed to pit businesses against one another so that prices are lowered and products are improved.  Our political system sets parties against one another to determine the will of the majority and promote compromise.  And sports and entertainment?  Well, again, just turn on your television.

We live in a world of competition.

Even if I thought competition was a bad idea, any attempt to speak against it would be a losing battle (Ha!).  Competition is apparently inherent to human existence, but it sure makes it hard to promote love for and cooperation with others in a world that teaches us to see each other as competitors.  What’s a blogger to do?

In 2011, actor Charlie Sheen had a public meltdown and in a series of bizarre statements famously declared that he was “winning” and created one of the more popular Twitter hashtags to date.  Unwittingly, he also may have solved my dilemma.  You can apparently redefine what it means to win!

So here’s my proposal: Be a winner, sure, but first pick a battle that is worth the struggle and then carefully consider how to calculate true success.

Thoughts From a Side Show

side-show-2I confess that I primarily attended the Conejo Players Theatre production of Side Show on Saturday evening because my friend and colleague, Randi, had a leading role, which is plenty reason to go because she is uber-talented, but my wife was sick and needed to stay home so I probably would have missed the show had it not featured Randi.

And I confess that Side Show did not have a great run on Broadway.  Its initial run in the 1990s did not catch on, nor did its attempt at revival a couple of years ago, so the name of the musical just doesn’t have much of a draw.

But I’m sure glad I went.

Side Show is a musical loosely based on the lives of conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton (1908-1969).  It is a sad but important story.  Randi and her “twin” were phenomenal in pulling off their demanding roles—imagine singing/acting/dancing/costume changing with someone literally joined at the hip!  More importantly, they effectively led their audiences to consider what it is like to be a “freak” on display.  Spoiler: It is not a life you would choose.

While we can all relate to feeling different, by very definition most of us spend more time staring at anomalies than being one.  From the homeless to the celebrities to all stops in between, all whose very existence creates material for stand-up comics have a unique challenge in this particular life, and it is easier to point, laugh, stare, critique, and/or avoid them than to pause and consider what it must be like—not to mention pause to get to know, care about, and dare I say love—those unique human beings we prefer to remain as caricatures.

My favorite moment in the musical came at the end of the first act when the twins led the “freaks” in a song titled, “Who Will Love Me As I Am?”  I think that is a question endemic to human existence.  Most of us find a safe and comfortable spot in this world to locate an answer, but not everyone does.

My deep thanks to Randi and the cast of Side Show for reminding me that everyone deserves an answer.

Reality Check

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Virtual reality is all the rage, and an interesting phenomenon for sure, but reality itself is weird enough for me.  Last week’s business trip provided plenty of proof.

For instance, while watching baseball in a New York City hotel I saw a commercial hawking Chia Clinton and Chia Trump for twenty bucks a pop (Trump is winning that race 79% to 21% at present).  This was immediately followed by a commercial promoting an online dating service just for overweight people.  I’d say you can’t make this stuff up, but the point is that people do.  A few days earlier, I visited the president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, which is crazy enough, but also had the chance to hold Brett Favre’s Hall of Fame ring before it was presented to him at Lambeau Field yesterday.  Who needs virtual reality?

But the best part of the crazy business trip was connecting with Jon Wood, an old college roommate, who seems a little unreal in the one-of-a-kind sense but appears to have us all beat on what it actually means to be real.

Jon never meets a stranger.  No, you have no idea, Jon never meets a stranger.  He talks to anyone.  And everyone.  I’m sorry, but I can tell that you don’t get it.  He talks to EV-ER-Y-ONE.  No exceptions.  In the less than twenty-four hours I spent with Jon last week, I met multiple members of a country club, the entire staff at Diamond Deli, work colleagues at Bridgestone Americas, his elderly barber (no haircut, just stopped in to say hello), a friend that staffs a parking lot in downtown Cleveland, the bartender where we stopped for dinner, and every staff member at a Cleveland Cavaliers preseason game (who got a fist bump from Jon whether they wanted it or not).  Half of the people met Jon for the first time, while the other half met him with a massive smile as if he was their very best friend.  I know Jon, so none of this surprised me, but each time I am fascinated by his approach to this precious life we all get a chance to play.

Jon is a successful attorney with a wonderful family and much to admire from any vantage point, but what I admire the most is that to Jon every human being he encounters is someone with boundless dignity and worth getting to know regardless of appearance, age, income, race, education, or any other category that normal folks use to decide whether someone is worthy of interaction.

Who knows, I might end up the biggest fan of virtual reality, but as I sit here today and see pictures of people wearing goofy googles the size of car batteries reaching out for something that isn’t there, I vote for Jon’s approach of experiencing reality by actually seeing everyone he meets with eyes (and heart) wide open.

Future Friends

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hk4I fiercely disagree with Donald Trump’s assertion that the firestorm surrounding his 2005 remarks “is nothing more than a distraction” and strongly believe that the resulting conversations on misogyny and sexual assault (not to mention presidential choices) are significant and important.

Same time, somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand people are dead in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, and as a survivor/veteran/victim of Hurricane Katrina who was a beneficiary of intense public attention and the resulting flood of love and support, my thoughts are especially with those grieving families and all who have suffered from the storm.

Last week, as Matthew grew in intensity, our good friend, Hung, shared a sweet Facebook post that featured a picture from 2005 of cute kiddos working a lemonade stand at Pepperdine University for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.  It touched my heart since the cute kiddos in that picture eventually became friends, classmates, and youth group buddies of our youngest daughter who lost the only house she had ever known in that storm two thousand miles away.  Who could have imagined that years later those same kids would be fast friends?  I am certain that the money collected that day did not specifically rescue us from our homelessness, but as I looked at that picture, in my mind it was as direct a connection as if they had hand-delivered the cash seen sitting in that Tupperware container.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the great needs in this world and the inability to address them all.  As a recovered victim with the luxury of looking back, I can say that the sentiment expressed in both the Quran and the Talmud that whoever saves one life saves them all rings true.  And if we ever need extra motivation to take action, imagining that your pocket change will directly benefit someone you will come to know and love just might do the trick—even more so if you can sense how it will touch the heart of your Future Friend.

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I Have Seen the Enemy, and It Is Email

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I occasionally offer a rant on how email may be destroying the universe, which a few hundred of you appropriately receive by email as encouraged by yours truly.  The word sanctimonious describes me if just to give hypocrite a break.

But, still, I believe that email may be destroying the universe!  And although it would surprise us all, I may be an actual prophet.  A hypocritical, sanctimonious prophet for sure, but a prophet nonetheless.

I shared a Harvard Business Review article in March that proposed the elimination of email.  The latest issue of TIME magazine offered a mini-article titled, “Why we’re addicted to email—and how to fix it.”  The Atlantic shared a video last week that explained “How an Editor Stays at Inbox Zero.”

Though I’m sensing a growing recognition of the problem, I have yet to hear much of a solution.  The TIME article’s conclusion as to how to fix an addiction to email is that “we must learn to say no to some opportunities, in order to say yes to our priorities.”  There you go addicts, problem solved!  And The Atlantic‘s video was all about how to email efficiently (i.e., three sentence emails or fewer; dispense with a salutation, etc.).  Sorry, but increased efficiency simply tells me that I can (must?) handle more volume.

So what to do?

  • Step #1: Recognize the problem. It is growing and powerful.
  • Step #2: Rant about it in appropriate places. I have found that email works well.  (Ha!)
  • Step #3: Adopt all preliminary suggestions you find in magazines. In other words, do your best not to drown while waiting for help to arrive.
  • Step #4: Come up with a miraculous solution. I’m still fleshing out how this step works but feel good about its substance.

Hate to post and run, but I need to go work on a miraculous solution.  First, I should check my email.

For Leaders and Followers

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“I really knew I wanted to be Adam, because Adam was the first man. Ant I chose because, if there’s a nuclear explosion, the ants will survive.” – Adam Ant

It is my great honor to hang out with Pepperdine’s men’s and women’s cross country teams once a week and share a short spiritual message at one of their early morning practices.  Go Waves!  The team boasts impressive athletes, students, and people, and as college students listening to me at half past six in the a.m., they are also generous in not telling me to take a hike.

This year I am generally sharing some message from the Book of Proverbs, which is straight out cheating since I am teaching Proverbs to a class of graduate students in our condo each Sunday morning.  I think even Proverbs would applaud my resourcefulness.  Proverbs often uses observations from the natural world to encourage wisdom, and this week I used its lessons learned from watching ants.  Not the DreamWorks movie.  Actual ants.

Brief interlude for an ant joke: What do you call an ant from overseas?  (Pause for effect…)

Important.

Ha!  That’s okay, college students don’t think I am funny either.

So Proverbs chapter six uses the ant to teach initiative, i.e., it looks like no one is telling an ant to get to work, but it gets to work anyway.  (Translation to athletes: Do what is right without waiting for your coach to tell you what to do.)  And Proverbs chapter six uses the ant to teach against procrastination, i.e., an ant collects food in the summer so that it has something to eat in the winter.  (Translation to athletes: Don’t wait until race day to train!)

But in the spirit of Proverbs, I kept observing the ant to see what other lessons might be hiding there.  Well, actually I googled “lessons from ants” and let someone else do the heavy lifting for me.  Again, resourcefulness!

Researchers at the University of Bristol observed that when an ant discovered a new food source it went back to the colony to show everyone the way.  As it led the others back, there was a predictable gap between leader and follower, but when the leader was too far in front of the pack, the leader ant would slow down to make sure the follower stayed engaged.  And when the gap closed completely, the follower ant would metaphorically give the leader a kick in the butt to widen the gap again.

I think this is important for everyone.  For those times in your life when you are the leader, don’t get so far in front that you lose touch with those coming along behind.  Your job is to bring others along with you, not set a land speed record.  And for those times in your life when you are the follower, encourage your leader to stay out in front.  Your job is not just to follow—your responsibility also includes spurring the leader on toward the destination.

Either way, leading or following, you have good work to do.