Tag Archives: california

In Good Times and in Bad Times

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A mere fifteen hours after a ruthless gunman opened fire on an innocent crowd in Thousand Oaks, California, the Woolsey Fire ignited about fifteen miles away near Simi Valley. Both apparently man-made events have devastated our community, and the week that followed has somehow been both blurry and unforgettable.

After spending over a week at Pepperdine, however, I finally ventured off campus this past weekend to officiate a wedding ceremony about seventy miles away. Hilary and Tyler had planned to marry in Malibu, but like so many places in our area, their wedding venue burned to the ground. They kept their chins up and scrambled to relocate and successfully secured a gorgeous resort in Newport Beach to exchange their vows.

I was Tyler’s dean of students at Pepperdine Law and was honored to do this for him and his lovely bride, but I confess a bit of mixed emotions when I left campus to drive to the wedding. It was literally a breath of fresh air to drive to Newport Beach and be with this lovely couple on their special day, but it was strange and hard to leave what felt like fellow soldiers battling on in such difficult conditions with so much work to do. It was jarring, and refreshing, and just plain odd to leave.

But I am glad that I was able to go.

I have now officiated eighteen weddings involving someone from Pepperdine Law, and each time I am struck by the great honor of having the best seat in the house. I get to watch the groom lose his breath when he sees his bride enter, and I get to see the bride’s heart melt when she sees the way her groom looks at her. I get to see them stare in each other’s eyes while I rattle on about whatever—and then nearly lose my own breath when I notice them actually listening to what they promise one another at such a holy moment.

And this time I particularly noticed—in good times and in bad times. Wow. For better or worse, and in good times and in bad times. That has surely been on my heart this past week. The good times are easy and not worth the trouble of a vow. It is the bad times that call for a ceremony.

I did not stay for the reception and got an early start on the L.A. traffic to return home. I could hardly wait to get back to everyone. For we have been in the throes of the bad times. When love is challenged to prove itself.

A note from a disaster pastor

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There doesn’t seem to be many of us left on campus now. With the Woolsey Fire only 5% contained, Pepperdine decided to utilize remote learning options and not hold classes on the Malibu campus until after Thanksgiving break, so most all students have now safely headed home. It is a motley crew that remains, and we are standing strong together. We are tired, but fine, and our houses are probably safer than ever since the threatening fires scorched the surrounding hillsides so that there isn’t anything left there to burn. But the winds have returned, so we continue to watch and pray.

We currently have a front row seat to an impressive air show as planes and helicopters use our campus as staging area for their heroic efforts. I’m not exactly sure how I have been privileged to have a front row seat to the worst hurricane in American history and then the most destructive fires in California history some two thousand miles and thirteen years apart, but that is the way this life has played out. Someone called me the “disaster pastor,” which is probably both funny and an accurate way to describe my approach to things!

Our condo is fine but without WiFi, so we are on lower campus often to communicate with the outside world and to eat together and be together as a community. I sat down at my office desk this afternoon to try to write and noticed my breathing mask next to my Pepperdine Waves hat. The absurdity reminded me of the craziness of these past few days: a horrible, horrible mass shooting targeting college students followed by raging wildfires.

It is strange to say that I am glad to be here. I was glad to be in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, thirteen years ago when a group of people I loved were threatened and vulnerable, and I am glad to be in Malibu, California, today for the same reason. The word “pastor” is just another word for a shepherd, and a shepherd is there to protect and care for sheep. That doesn’t have to be your job title, of course. It is more of a posture, and it feels like such an honor to be there for others in times of vulnerability. I am surrounded here with like-minded people, including the leadership of this great university, although my wife might just be the best pastor I know.

I never learned the source, but I remember reading a couplet from a poem as a young man that took my breath away and seems to have shaped the trajectory of my adult life that said:

Some want to live within the sound of church and steeple bell.
I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.

That still gets me after all these years.

Keep praying for our area if you don’t mind: for those who have lost so much, for those who are still in danger, and for those who are fighting fires of all kinds. We will be strong and make it together.

Manzanar

ManzanarI elbowed my way through afternoon L.A. traffic to begin a four-hour mountain drive that ended in a surprising thunderstorm and finally some peace and quiet. Early the next morning I drove the few remaining miles to my destination: Manzanar.

I forget exactly when I learned about Manzanar, but it should have been sooner.

Asian-Americans endured prejudicial treatment prior to Pearl Harbor in 1941 but that terrible attack brought specific ethnic hostility to those of Japanese ancestry. In early 1942, FDR signed Executive Order 9066 that authorized the military to remove “any or all persons” from the West Coast and ultimately over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated in ten American concentration camps simply because of their ethnicity. Ten thousand of those Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants were incarcerated in California at Manzanar.

My interest in visiting Manzanar intensified a few years ago when I learned that two of the ten wartime camps were located in Arkansas—I grew up in Arkansas and taught history in Arkansas and had never been told that Arkansas incarcerated 17,000 people of Japanese descent from California, half at Camp Jerome and half at Camp Rohwer. I knew then that I needed to visit Manzanar to feel the pain of a camp and ponder this terrible connection between my two “home” states—and my native country.

Manzanar is easy to visit on one hand: It is free, uncrowded, and only takes an hour or two to see everything there is to see. But it is difficult to visit as well. For what it represents, and what it proclaims.

Out of the 110,000+ imprisoned out of fear of espionage or sabotage, exactly zero were convicted of espionage or sabotage. That unwarranted fear destroyed many lives and families and even flirted with destroying a culture. In Hawaii where 158,000 Japanese-Americans faced less prejudice and enjoyed more freedom than those on the mainland, they were still discouraged from speaking the Japanese language and practicing the Buddhist religion. Hawaii’s military governor explained why: “We must remember that this is America and we must do things the American Way.”

And what, pray tell, did this chapter of American history communicate about the American Way?

The barbed wire at Manzanar stands as a reminder of how fear and power work together. But Manzanar also reminds us of the potential resilience of oppressed people and that even when fear and power lace up on the same team that victims can band together and rise above their circumstances. Possibly my favorite poster in the visitor’s center hung outside the theater and featured a quote from Hank Umemoto: “We were screwed, but then we made the most out of it and we turned Manzanar into a community.”

May there be no more Manzanars. But in the meanwhile, may all such peoples find that kind of courage and hope.

A Hostel Environment

Hostel 2I spent the night in a hostel in Lone Pine, California, last Thursday. Lone Pine sits on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevadas and is interesting in its own right, but let’s focus on the first thought: I spent the night in a hostel.

It was my first. I texted my youngest daughter/world traveler in advance for any advice for an old man, and she replied, “Don’t be one of those weird old men who just stays in the hostel all day.” Quality feedback. So I chose to be one of those weird old men who does not stay in the hostel all day. She asked why I was staying in a hostel, and I answered truthfully: Because I am cheap. It is surprising that this personal trait had not led to previous visits. That could be because I am also an introvert, and the prospect of zero privacy may have overcome my cheapskatedness prior to last Thursday.

Well, I arrived at 7pm and was assigned to Bed #4; thankfully, a bottom bunk in the small room outfitted for ten occupants. There were several men there when I arrived, engaged in a natural hiking/climbing conversation given the mountain location of this particular hostel. I, the Introvert, used our one bathroom and then immediately left for dinner.

When I returned a couple hours later, it was a different story: still several men, but zero conversation. I dropped my backpack, laid down, and got my bearings. Six of my new roomies were around—one tall, Danish-looking young man out on the balcony, and five others in their respective beds with the lights on either reading, snoozing, or on cell phones. Two were older than me (although I’m not sure if either spent the day hanging around the hostel!). The room stank, which is unsurprising when several men, most of whom had spent the day backpacking, take off their boots. There was a mini-fridge and a microwave and a television—none of which were in use. The two older men soon fell fast asleep. One immediately started snoring. Great. Otherwise, there was a lot of awkward silence.

There was one very brief conversation that included yours truly. A young man of Asian descent in Bed #1 dropped his metal water bottle with a loud clatter, and I crawled under Bed #2 to retrieve it. He said several things in a language I did not understand until he said clearly and carefully, “Thank you a lot.” Not a problem, my new friend.

Eventually Mr. Great Dane came in and turned off the lights for the seven of us, and the night that followed was eventfully uneventful. One of the older men had a coughing fit that seemed to last for an hour. There was a bit of a snore fest to which I may or may not have contributed. At one point I noticed a stealth Roomie #8 arrive for the night and when morning dawned I was surprised to notice that at some point apparently a Roomie #9 had claimed one of the two remaining top bunks. And with morning this band of hostel brothers arose one at a time and left in silence. Upon reflection I decided that maybe hostels are actually designed for introverts. I was number seven of nine to hit the road, thirty-one bucks poorer and one experience richer.

I have not formed a strong opinion on the hostel experience. My daughter/hostel fan calls it “an underdeveloped industry in the U.S.” and I suspect that is true. At least I now know what to expect. And if I learned anything, maybe it is that I am not yet too old to try something new.

These United States

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The United States of America is 242 years old today. It seems to be in a bit of a cranky stage but those of us who love her hope she will grow out of it someday (soon). It is a spectacular country in about every way you define spectacular. I have now traveled to five continents and have a better frame of reference—enough to recognize that the land of my birth is unique in its global influence.

And I have now spent time in thirty-six of these United States and hope to complete the set someday. I already have remarkable memories.

I stood outside the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Alabama and threw snowballs on the Fourth of July in Alaska. I stood at the Grand Canyon in Arizona and called the Hogs in Arkansas. I watched the sunset in California and ran in the snow in Colorado. I saw a rocket launch in Florida and ate peach cobbler in Georgia. I ran along the Snake River in Idaho and sang Take Me Out to the Ballgame at Wrigley Field in Illinois. I shot hoops at Larry Bird’s restaurant in Indiana and drove by corn fields in Iowa.

I saw the wide open horizon in Kansas and watched horses run behind white fences in Kentucky. I ate beignets in Louisiana and crab cakes in Maryland. I toured the Ford Museum in Michigan and the Mall of America in Minnesota. I saw a hurricane in Mississippi and the Gateway Arch in Missouri. I sang in the capitol rotunda in Nebraska and walked the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada. I drove Route 66 across New Mexico and ran Central Park in New York.

I ate banana pudding in North Carolina and had a VIP tour of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Ohio. I dodged tornadoes in Oklahoma and crossed breathtaking rivers in Pennsylvania. I saw Fort Sumter in South Carolina and the Lorraine Motel in Tennessee. I witnessed Monday Night Football in Texas and the Golden Spike National Monument in Utah. I crossed the Potomac in Virginia and ascended the Space Needle in Washington. I drove up a winding mountain in West Virginia and ate cheese curds in a bar in Wisconsin.

I am ready for more.

This is an incredible country, and I choose to celebrate these United States today. And I choose to do my part in making it better tomorrow.

Surprised by Nostalgia

Front BeachI was born and raised in Arkansas. I love Arkansas. Now I live in California. And I love California. But recently I was reminded that a significant part of my heart remains in Mississippi.

We lived in Mississippi for about ten years and then moved to California about ten years ago. When we moved I expected to visit Mississippi from time to time, but somehow that had not happened in nine years until an unexpected invitation to officiate a funeral for a sweet friend arrived a couple of weeks ago. After a crazy couple of days of rearranging plans, I woke up to discover that I had been blasted into the past. I was unprepared.

I often say that nostalgia is just not my jam. For better or worse, my brain is oriented toward what is ahead, so life’s rearview mirror is relatively unused in my world. Well, it got used a bunch on this return to Mississippi.

Upon landing in Gulfport, I rented a car and drove down Highway 49 to the Gulf Coast and then along the beach that had been ravaged by Katrina thirteen years ago and, as the kids say, I started to feel all the feels. I saw familiar landmarks such as Beauvoir, the Biloxi Lighthouse, and Mary Mahoney’s. I saw the Coast Coliseum where my oldest daughter graduated high school and Point Cadet where my youngest had her first dance recital. There was the familiar Sharkhead’s souvenir shop and Jaws-inspired entrance but with a post-Katrina transformation that turned the entire first floor into a shaded parking lot. The Treasure Bay casino pirate ship is simply gone forever, and although I had never stepped foot inside, that made me want to cry. I had misplaced certain memories like the unique combination of bright white sands and murky waters and wondered what else I had forgotten over the years. It appeared that my GPS had sent me unwittingly down Memory Lane.

Our old hometown of Ocean Springs really threw me for a loop. I drove downtown past Lovelace Drugs and the Walter Anderson Museum and had to get out on Front Beach just to breathe. I stopped for a heavenly Tato-Nut donut and drove to our old Katrina-flooded house and discovered that it now looks like it did that fateful day when we evacuated for the storm. I wasn’t sure what to think about that sort of resurrection.

But seeing old friends nearly made my heart explode with love. Jim and Dimple. Gene and Eileen. All the Fains. Bruno and Linda. Angie and Carol. Todd and Robin. Samantha and Shelly. Tandy and Peggy. Bernice and Cathy. Frances and Mark. Tim and Katie. Connor and Amanda. Debbie and Brynlee. There is so much love in my heart for Ocean Springs and the Mississippi Gulf Coast—especially for our friends. I knew that in my brain and held it in my heart, but this trip resurrected the feeling from deep in my soul. Nostalgia hit me like a wave and left me dizzy. Like that old storm surge.

I texted my wife to say that we have to go back and visit together sometime. She said that she had wanted to do that for a long time now.

I know that I should learn to stop and smell the roses. But I am learning that I should also stop, turn around, and head back to Mississippi to smell the magnolias from time to time.

Homecoming

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“You can never go home again, but the truth is you can never leave home, so it’s all right.”   – Maya Angelou

At week’s end I intend to be two thousand miles away from home to attend the homecoming basketball game of my high school alma mater. Pretty weird, huh, to leave home to come home? My life has turned out like that.

I am at home in California, and I have a driver’s license and mailing address and license plates to prove it. California is where everything I own in this world is located. It is where I live and work and go to sleep at night. California is filled with relationships and experiences and places that I treasure. I know it like the back of my hand and love it here. Home is where you hang your hat, and my hat hangs in California.

But Arkansas has always been my home. It is the land of my birth. Born, and raised. Arkansas is where I fell in love and became both a husband and a father, and it is where both of my sweet parents were laid to rest. Arkansas is filled with relationships and experiences and places that I treasure. I know it like the back of my other hand, and I love it there. You can never really leave home, so I never really left Arkansas.

Arkansas and California could not be more different if they tried. And I’m pretty sure that they do. But they are both dear to me.

It promises to be a strange week. I haven’t lived in Arkansas in twenty years and only visit on rare occasions, and I could not tell you the last time I watched the Falcons play a homecoming basketball game despite having participated in so many of them in years that are now long gone. But I will feel at home there, because that is where I will be. Home.

Pliny the Elder famously said that home is where the heart is. Well, my heart has two homes.

I will leave my love for Mississippi for another day.

Off & Running

Running Forest FallsIt is a big day. My office sits in the heart of Pepperdine University’s main campus in Malibu, and today is the first day of classes for undergraduate students. Next door to my office is Pepperdine’s high-tech, newly-renovated Payson Library complete with a full-functioning Starbucks, and you can feel the highly-caffeinated energy in the air.

My youngest daughter attends a different university that runs on a different calendar, but because she is studying abroad in Spain this semester and her plane is scheduled to touch down right about now it feels like the first day for her, too. It simply feels like a big day at every turn in my world.

Last week had a different feel. I was honored to be invited to attend a retreat high in the San Bernardino Mountains with fifty or sixty rising Pepperdine sophomores as they prepared for a brand new year. It was such a tranquil setting. The view by day featured a beautiful lake and stunning views of the surrounding mountains, and the night featured actual bear sightings and a sky so full of stars that I had to remind myself that it was real.

But I decided to go for a run one afternoon because that is the sort of thing I do, and though stunning, I wouldn’t snag the word “tranquil” to describe it. For one, we were a mile above sea level, and let’s just say that my lungs noticed. For two, although the temperature was nowhere near extreme, maybe it seemed so hot because we were that much closer to the sun. And for three, there was nothing flat in sight. It surely wasn’t my easiest rave run.

We went on this retreat to get away and find focus for the year to come. Peace and tranquility are good for such things, but on reflection I think that difficult run was pretty good preparation, too. In fact, my major take-away on the retreat was that I need to remember how to choose to do without. And that run surely reminded me what it felt like to do without, oh, let’s say, air.

So here we go. The year ahead looks full and awesome and slightly terrifying, but good. I’m ready for it. Let’s run this race.

Come Together

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“A few found what they came for, filling their pockets easily and heading home convinced that California was God’s apology for ousting Adam and Eve from the Garden. But the many more toiled in a decidedly post-Edenic state, with uncertain and often diminishing success.”

– H.W. Brands, The Age of Gold (Anchor Books, 2002) 194.

I’ve been reading a lot more since my latest career switcheroo, which has been a welcome change. One of the books in the feeding frenzy was a history book by H.W. Brands titled, The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream. For a transplanted Californian and former history teacher, it was a natural choice.

It was fascinating to read selected accounts of those intrepid souls who set off on terrifying journeys from all over the nation and all over the planet, all with their sights set on the part of the world that I now call home. Reading about the experiences on those seemingly interminable voyages and dangerous journeys…  I really can’t imagine, but Dr. Brands’s book helped me try. And certain facts about California that should have been obvious before—like the reason San Francisco is such a diverse city—make so much sense to me now.

But of course one of the transformative events in the history of this nation and one of the most astonishing accomplishments in American history emerged from these dangerous pilgrimages, and that was the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

On my recent travels I drove out to the historic location where the golden spike was driven that completed the grand project. Almost unbelievably, that epic dream began in 1863 when the nation was right in the middle of trying to kill itself by self-war. Two companies, the Central Pacific led by Leland Stanford and the Union Pacific led by Dr. Thomas Durant set out from Sacramento and Omaha respectively building track in the general direction of the other in a race for economic victory. The Central Pacific effort had to traverse the treacherous and snowy Sierra Madres—at time digging through solid granite at a pace of eight inches of progress a day—while the Union Pacific had its own challenges crossing the Great Plains while encountering the desperate Sioux and Cheyenne only to run into the Rocky Mountains.

Somehow, almost miraculously, these two companies met up north of Ogden, Utah, in just six years and had a little ceremony that rocked the world.

It was a lonely weekday morning at the Golden Spike National Historic Site when I visited, and it was quite surreal to be the only person standing at such an historic spot.

And, of course, I was filled with conflicting emotions about it all, given the materialistic fervor that produced the initial desire and drove the work along with the terrible treatment of particular peoples, including the very destruction of the ways of life of nations that were here first.  Still, it was impossible not to find some measure of respect in the simple fact that it was dreamed and accomplished.

But I think my favorite part is the metaphor of the very project that seems so foreign to our world today.  Imagine a world where competitors are positioned so that their very task is to see how fast they can come together as one.

That’s worth celebrating.

 

 

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.