Tag Archives: california

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.

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Come Together

1853

“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.

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.

Refuse to Be Overwhelmed

Jody1

Some days it feels like my wife and I should move to Nairobi to be with the children we met there who live on the hard streets.  On others I consider Delhi where I learned that young girls are vulnerable to sex traffickers.  On still others I remember the poor Brazilians we saw living in the favelas of Rio.  But today, I live in California.

And then some days I drive down L.A.’s “skid row” and wonder how I can live in Malibu instead of with those in absolute squalor just a few miles away.  And then I open my eyes to Malibu and see homeless and un/under-employed friends looking for work at the Malibu Community Labor Exchange.

The needs are simply everywhere.

How does one live in this old world?  I have worked for several causes, from at-risk children to poverty housing to disaster relief to homelessness to day laborers…  

And then I see those heart-wrenching images of Syrian children on television.  And then churches in Egypt are bombed while celebrating Palm Sunday.

The needs are everywhere, and they are overwhelming.

My personal belief system leads to public policy opinions that seems to place me at odds with all presidents, not to mention most of my friends, but it also leads me to devote (some but far) less energy to public policy discussions and more to being with the sufferers.  Knowing names.  Sharing hugs.  Sharing tears.  

But there are so many.

So here is my plan: 

I will not let such overwhelming need harden my heart so that I give up on caring.  I refuse the temptation to apathy.

I will not allow the impossibility of being everywhere at once immobilize me so that I give up on trying.  I refuse the temptation to quit.

And I will encourage others to make similar commitments.  I refuse the temptation to think that it is all up to me.

May the privileged few share with the underprivileged masses.  Everywhere.  Together.  Today.

from international rescue committee

Syrian Refugee Children (via the International Rescue Committee)

 

Rising From the Ashes (Waters, Rubble, Ice, or Whatever)

al-jody

Mother Nature cleared her throat this week and shut down several roads leading to our life here in sunny (once again) Malibu.  My wife and I apparently collect natural disasters, starting with Arkansas tornadoes and ice storms, continuing with Gulf Coast floods and hurricanes, and now that we’ve hit the jackpot, California drought, earthquakes, wildfires, and mudslides.  We just need a blizzard, tsunami, and volcano to complete the set.  Stockpiling seashells sounds significantly safer (sweet sentence!), but since an ice storm played a major role in the early days of our relationship, I guess the disaster collection is appropriate.

Jody and I met on New Year’s Day 1994 at a high school basketball tournament in Jonesboro, Arkansas.  I was there as a high school basketball coach, and she was there, according to her own rendition, in part to meet me.  You can picture me there at a guardrail in the arena, standing by myself, watching basketball, unsuspecting, when this beautiful young woman innocently (ha!) walks up to introduce herself.  I never knew what hit me that night, but it turned out to be love.

I didn’t have much of a chance according to the Vegas oddsmakers given my dating record yet somehow didn’t mess things up right away.  We talked through several basketball games that night, followed by a trip to Steak ‘n Shake since we weren’t particularly ready to stop the conversation.  We subsequently went on a date or two in January and could sense that something special was in the works.  And then came the infamous ice storm of 1994, a disaster that The Weather Channel ranked as #2 in their list of the “Nation’s Worst Ice Storms.”

Best.  Disaster.  Ever.

Classes at my school were canceled for what seemed like forever.  Jody’s work was not canceled, but since she lived about a forty-five minute drive away on super treacherous roads, she stayed close by at a friend’s apartment throughout the ice storm.  Over the course of that week or two we had the equivalent of a year or so of dating.  At least that’s what we tell ourselves since we were engaged a month later and married by May.

Jody and I have seen a natural disaster or two along the way, and living in California we can count on encountering more.  But we’ve also seen some pretty amazing things emerge “naturally” from both natural and unnatural disasters, and the past twenty-three years of my life is the best evidence of all.

A Little Moderation

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The Great Southern California Drought seems awfully wet nowadays.  I read that it will take several wet years to rescue SoCal from its drought condition, but you have to give it to January 2017 for trying to do it all at once.  Last Friday’s rains produced multiple mudslides that effectively turned Malibu into a peninsula in advance of the heavy rains that hit on Sunday.  If the Pepperdine deer and coyotes start lining up in pairs, you will find me consulting Waze for the nearest Noah.

So it appears that the prayers for rain produced so much of it that the world around here is literally falling apart.  Figures.  Life’s strong suit does not appear to be producing a happy medium.

While not below the poverty line, I grew up relatively poor.  In the early 1980s, my dad was laid off from his longtime work as a butcher in a meatpacking plant and took a part-time job at a neighborhood grocery store.  I knew the store well, having built my baseball and football card collection from its candy counter thirty cents and one pack at a time.  When my loving father found out that I liked a particular brand of candy, he would bring home so much of it in brown paper bags that I couldn’t stand to look at it anymore.  You don’t get upset with a dad who loves you that much.  But you do start secretly feeding Laffy Taffy to stray animals.

Moderation is as rare as happiness is elusive, and there just may be a connection between the two.  And if the current state of American politics is instructive, moderation is less popular than ever.  Extreme is in, and moderation is out.

Imagine changing the names of television shows and events from extreme to moderate:

  • Moderate Home Makeover (ABC)
  • Moderate RVs (Travel Channel)
  • Moderate Weight Loss (ABC)
  • Moderate Couponing (TLC)
  • Moderate Homes (HGTV)
  • Moderate Cuisine (The Food Network)
  • The Moderation Games (ESPN)

Not really ratings grabbers.

But the ancient philosophers may have been on to something when they advised moderation. “Never go to excess, but let moderation be your guide.” (Cicero)  “If one oversteps the bounds of moderation, the greatest pleasures cease to please.” (Epicetus)  “If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it.” (Proverbs 25:16, ESV; see also Laffy Taffy, above.)

As this blessed rain falls and the hills collapse, I guess I’m just thinking that the ancient virtue, Temperance, deserves a second look.

Not Yet

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
– Winston Churchill

The State Bar of California released its July 2015 bar exam results over the weekend, which impacted the lives of a large number of people that I know and love. California is famously the last state to release results and the one with the lowest passing statistics (and this year’s was the lowest July pass rate in three decades). This combination produces enhanced euphoria for some and a particularly hard punch in the gut to others. It is a weekend of tremendous highs and tremendous lows, and with friends in both places, I never know exactly how to feel. It is easy to celebrate the good news, but it is those who are hurting who maintain center stage in my mind.

I try to do all the right things: Give time, then reach out, then wait patiently, and then, when engaged, try to be helpful. As a former pastor, grief counseling is familiar territory.

Truth be told, the answer in the end is simple and involves climbing back on to the bicycle or horse or whatever metaphor you prefer to have fallen from and go at it again. “If at once you don’t succeed…” is technical truth, but it takes time to hear it without punching someone.

There is more. Success after failure is even sweeter. I recall an old article that identified resilience as a key characteristic of the most spectacular figures in history who overcame great challenges and failures on their unforgettable journeys. Of course failure can destroy a person, too. But it doesn’t have to.

Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University tells of a high school in Chicago that gives the grade Not Yet as opposed to Fail. I know this makes some people scream, “Kids need to learn how to fail!” Exactly, and then they need to learn how to get back up again. That is the genius of Dr. Dweck’s groundbreaking research on the importance of mindset when facing failure, which she describes as having a “growth” mindset instead of a “fixed” mindset.

How do you respond to failure? Those with a fixed mindset typically take it personally (e.g., “I’m a failure.”) or blame some external factor (e.g., “It’s your fault that I failed.”). Those with a growth mindset respond with “Not Yet” and determine how to improve to reach the goal.