Tag Archives: joy

Innate Potential for Joy

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One of the many programs that I love at Lipscomb is the LIFE Program (a program that received global attention in the story of Cyntoia Brown Long). The LIFE Program holds classes inside the Tennessee Prison for Women and the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, and I shared before how the opportunity to lead a class session in the LIFE Program impacted me, not to mention the soul-cleansing experience of a graduation ceremony that came later on.

Statistics of incarceration in the United States are troubling. Our country has 25% of the world’s prison population but only 5% of the overall population. You may be surprised to learn that women represent the fastest-growing demographic going to prison in the United States. The mass incarceration of Black men is particularly egregious—statistically, Black boys have a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in their lifetimes compared to White boys whose chances are 1 in 17. I am glad to be a part of a university program that has at least engaged and invested in shifting such troubling narratives.

Unable to hold in-person classes due to COVID-19 or allowed to communicate with its “inside” students by phone, the LIFE Program deftly shifted to writing letters. If not for COVID-19, I would have had my first opportunity to teach a class session at Riverbend this week, the facility that holds most of Tennessee’s fifty-one death row residents (of which over 50% are Black, compared to 17% of Tennessee’s population). This summer, Dr. Kate Watkins has initiated a “common read” to connect with the residents. I was honored to be invited to read The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky and exchange letters with three men at Riverbend.

I should say that my admiration for the work of Bryan Stevenson knows no bounds, and I agree with his statement “that each person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” but I learned too late that it is not the best idea to Google the names of your prison pen pals. And yet, that made the choice of book and the thoughts it had generated in me even more profound.

I confess that The How of Happiness would not have been my natural book choice. I have benefited greatly from several self-help books in my life, but that is not the section of the bookstore that I gravitate toward. However, it has turned out to be exactly the book that I needed to read, and I devoured it. (Thanks, Kate!)

So, consider: The book is based on scientific research, and the underlying premise is that a full half of our happiness is basically genetic—i.e., some of us are simply hard-wired to be and feel more cheerful than others—another 10% is based on our circumstances, and the remaining 40% is within our power to change. As the back book cover describes, we each have an “innate potential for joy.”

So here’s the deal: I am exchanging letters with men who live in a prison that houses not only them but also the State of Tennessee’s electric chair and lethal injection facility. And we are reading a book that argues from science that despite any possible circumstance that we face, we all have within ourselves four times the power to experience (are you ready for this?) happiness.

It is unquestioned that 2020 will be unforgettable, but in the middle of it all I will be checking my mailbox for letters from men who are considering how to find happiness and joy while in prison. Talk about unforgettable. I love that we are providing education for people who are incarcerated, but as is often the case, I suspect that I will be learning from them.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Tis the Season

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I love this time of year but am also the sort of person who sees the glass as half empty and half full all at the same time—a realist, if you will. So I realize that this time of year is all mixed up with positives and negatives. Merry Christmas to all, with some Bah, Humbug, too.

I love the giving. We share gifts at this time of year with family and friends, colleagues and strangers, even faceless people whose names we learn from angel trees.  We give a lot, and as we do we celebrate words like Believe. Hope. Joy. Peace.

And then we go and buy more and more stuff like it’s going out of style, which it is, but we can’t seem to help ourselves. I hate that part. The commercialism, the consumerism, and lots of other –isms that are better described as Greed. We crave More and can’t find Enough.

All that jumbled together in one season.

And then there are the people. Those merrily singing that it’s the hap-happiest time of the year, and those mired in depression. Those lavishly decorating cozy houses, and those sleeping outside in the dark and cold.

This entire semester, one of our amazing students planned an event she called, Sleep in the Square, that occurred this past weekend. The entire point was to raise awareness regarding homelessness in our local community. As she so eloquently put it, “A night for friends and strangers alike to gather and hear stories of those who have experienced homelessness, attempt to sleep while exposed to the elements of the outdoors, and encounter an evening filled with transparent cross-cultural conversations.”

We did all of that—we gathered, heard, attempted, and encountered. I was amazed by our students and their friends who slept out in the cold (pictured above the next morning), although I went home and slept in a warm bed for a few hours before returning for the closing liturgy of repentance and joy (there’s that dichotomy again!). The experience left me mixed-up just like the season, filled with love and hope, right alongside a sobering realization of my undeserved privileges and weakness.

Sometimes I feel that I should apologize for pointing out the dueling natures at this time of year—until I remember that the Christ-ian story underlying Christ-mas is exactly that kind of story.

‘Tis a mixed up season, one that reminds us that It’s a Wonderful-but-Messy Life.

An IDEAL Evening

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The IDEAL Chef Winning Team Celebrates on Stage!

The IDEAL program is easily one of the most delightful discoveries we have made in our brief time at Lipscomb University. IDEAL stands for Igniting the Dream of Education and Access at Lipscomb, which as the website describes, is a program “uniquely designed for students with intellectual or developmental disabilities” who want to receive the full college experience—classes, cafeteria, residence halls, events—alongside traditional students. We noticed this right away when we arrived on campus, and it was love at first sight.

I recently met with Misty and Andrea who lead the charge and, having been properly smitten with their good work, made it clear that I wanted to be invited to anything going on. You don’t have to ask them twice, so last Friday evening my wife and I happily attended the IDEAL Summer Academy Showcase and Dinner. The Summer Academy is a week-long residential summer camp experience for prospective IDEAL students, and the Friday night event was a dinner competition (prepared by the campers) and a show (prepared and performed by the campers). My goodness, it was awesome.

When we left, we both noticed that we had headaches from smiling so much. True story. It was an evening of indescribable joy.

Stanley Hauerwas is a provocative theologian who has written on a wide range of topics, including medical ethics, and I remember his essay on suffering in which he turned a spotlight on those with developmental disabilities and argued that such people threaten the rest of us “because they expose our own fear of weakness and dependence on others.”  He wrote, “[T]hey do not try to hide their needs. They are not self-sufficient, they are not self-possessed, they are in need. Even more, they do not evidence the proper shame for being so. They simply assume that they are what they are and they need to provide no justification for being such. It is almost as if they have been given a natural grace to be free from the regret most of us feel for our neediness.”

Perhaps that glimpse of liberation is why we smiled so much that it hurt last Friday evening. It appears to be an IDEAL way to live.

#WavesUp

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“[T]he task of the first half of life is to create a proper container for one’s life and answer the first essential questions: ‘What makes me significant?’ ‘How can I support myself?’ and ‘Who will go with me?’  The task of the second half of life is, quite simply, to find the actual contents that this container was meant to hold and deliver.  As Mary Oliver puts it, ‘What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’”

– Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life

Richard Rohr’s description of two halves of life in Falling Upward has me interested in emerging from the locker room for the second half.   We shall see.  Since the first half is so much about achievement and success, the transition is surely difficult to wrap my brain around.  It is much easier to try to be someone than to actually be someone.

As I struggled over the summer just to imagine such a thing, I tried to remember myself as a child before I boarded the train to Achievement Town.  What did I enjoy back then?  What did I love?  What made me smile?  What would I do just for the joy of it all?  Well, one of the primary answers was sports, so I made the calculated decision to be a huge Pepperdine Waves fan this year.

I haven’t been a very good Waves fan in recent years.  This is my third year to serve as volunteer chaplain for the cross country team (see proud team picture above), but I have been a sporadic fan at best for the other sports on campus.  My excuse was that I was just too busy, but “too busy” is undoubtedly the sort of thing you say when you are stuck in first half of life thinking.

The thought that got me was that if you had told “Little Al” that I/he would one day live on an amazing university campus with a fantastic NCAA Division I program fielding seventeen teams and would have open access to watch all of them in action, that would have sounded like heaven.  And I am too busy?  Give me a break.  Literally.

I am off to a great start so far.  I have been there in person to cheer on our cross country, soccer, volleyball, and water polo teams in the last few weeks – with many more teams to cheer on soon.  

Being a sports fan is surely not the point of or secret to life.  But for me, it just may be the secret to remind me not to be too busy to enjoy it.

#WavesUp

Hold on to Joy

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Loving Joan was not optional. She was eminently lovable. I preached in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, for a decade and could count on Joan and Joel (or, “Joe,” as she called him) to be sitting up front cheering me on every time the doors opened. Joan cheered everybody on.

It was sad to hear that Joan died last week at eighty years young after a heck of a fight with cancer. But it would be a discredit to her memory to linger in sadness.

Joan was no stranger to challenges. Before my time in Mississippi, she lost her son in a tragic car accident. During my time in Mississippi, she encountered the American law of eminent domain when the government decided to put a highway through the house she and Joel intended to inhabit for the rest of their retirement years. After my time in Mississippi, her “Joe” contracted Parkinson’s Disease. And then there was the cancer.

But Joan never let a challenge dampen her positive attitude. She often quoted a line from an old sermon that she accepted as a life approach: Don’t let anyone steal your joy. Joan spent her life giving to others, but she jealously guarded her joy like she was Ebenezer Scrooge.

It has been years since I saw her in person, but Facebook worked its magic to keep us in distant contact. Joan “liked” lots of things on Facebook. That fit her well. Joan was a really good liker of things. She would have made it just fine without the frowny-face option.

One of my favorite memories came as a result of one of Joan’s worst days. Joan had two children, the son whose life was tragically cut short, and a daughter who was her pride and joy. Joan’s daughter pursued a successful career and chose to marry later in life. Joan was ecstatic about the wedding and could not wait to travel to the ceremony. But one afternoon, while shooing blackbirds away from the back porch, Joan fell and broke both ankles, landing her in a rehabilitation hospital and threatening her ability to make it to the wedding.

True to form, Joan kept her joy and started to work. She soon knew everyone in the hospital and worked hard at physical therapy with that beautiful wedding ceremony as her inspiration. The fateful day came when the doctors would decide whether she was fit to travel, and despite her very best efforts, Joan was not cleared for takeoff. I’m not exactly sure how devastated she was, but the rest of us were heartbroken.

In those days before Skype and FaceTime, we tried to invent things like Skype and FaceTime just for Joan, but alas, we were in over our heads. Joel traveled to the wedding alone, and the family had the clever idea to use a cell phone during the ceremony so that Joan could listen in. A group of us from church went to her hospital room that day to share the occasion with a corsage, wedding cake, and being good Southern church folk, sparkling cider. It was a party, but it was no pity party. I will never forget Joan trying to hand the cell phone to the rest of us during the ceremony so that we could listen and our laughing and frustrated refusals — This is for you, Joan!

It remains one of my best days. A terrible day somehow turned into joy.

That was Joan. And today, in her honor, and while mourning her loss, I will hold on even tighter to my joy.

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Love for Rio

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I love Rio.  Spectacular, natural beauty.  Dazzling, exploding colors.  Lovely, diverse people.  Steady, infectious rhythms.  Seemingly endless energy.

And I love the Olympics.  A global convention of dreamers.  Miracles on ice and dream teams.   Guts and glory.  World records.  Pedestals, wreaths, medals, anthems, and tears.

But Rio plus the Olympics has proven controversial with concerns over pollution, health, violence, political strife, economic recession, and corruption.

So, breathtaking beauty and contagious energy on one hand and social injustice and civil unrest on the other.  Heck, sounds like Rio is the world.  And if the true goal of Olympism is to keep us moving toward a peaceful planet, then why not assemble in a place that exemplifies both the goal and the challenge?

I watched a large chunk of the opening ceremonies but was too old to make it past Liechtenstein in the parade of nations.  Next morning, however, I was curious as to who lit the Olympic cauldron.  NBC told me it was Vanderlai de Lima, and although I’m a sports fan, I needed a little explanation.

De Lima is neither an Olympic champion nor a Brazilian sports legend.  Instead, de Lima competed for Brazil in the marathon at the 2004 Games in Athens and surprisingly led the race at the 22-mile mark.  With just four miles to go, however, a crazy dude jumped out of the crowd and attacked de Lima, pulling him into the crowd.  Although the attack only detained de Lima for several seconds, it threw him off his pace, and eventually, he was overtaken by two other runners and finished with the bronze medal.

What was striking about de Lima, however, was how he finished the race.  No complaints.  No anger.  Instead, he came down the home stretch blowing kisses and pretending to be an airplane, filled with joy.

That spirit is why he was given the great honor of lighting the cauldron to commence the 2016 Games in Rio.  That spirit personifies the Olympic creed that claims, “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.  The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

Maybe that spirit is what I sensed in Rio last summer, and why I love it so.

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Jeremiah’s Joy

My daughter, Hillary, is in the middle of a summer photojournalism internship in Kenya and recently published her first blog post and set of photographs.  First off, she didn’t have to show up her dad by out-blogging him on the very first post, but what can you do with these millennials?  And second, her photographs are simply stunning.

With no actual reason, I immediately set out to narrow the 150 pictures to my favorite one.  This proved impossible.  There are several that feature little kiddos that are just too awesome.  Like, for instance…

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But my quest continued, and I succeeded in identifying two photographs that go together in my opinion to tell a powerful story.

As its website explains, “[t]he mission of Made in the Streets is rescuing children from the streets of Nairobi, Kenya, meeting their physical, emotional and spiritual needs, loving them fully, equipping them to earn a living and sending them out to a new life.”  It is a beautiful thing to observe firsthand, and what is full of beauty are the children.

Now don’t be mistaken.  This is not some make-believe world where staff members ride in on unicorns and pick up innocent children off puffy clouds and ride off on rainbows while angels sing.  No, it is messy work, and these children have seen and done and had done to them terrible things.  But what is striking when hanging out with these rescued kids are their good hearts in spite of such a painful past.  Their smiles are contagious.  Their basic human dignity is unmistakable.

Which is why I narrowed down my daughter’s works of art to two particular photographs.  The first is of a young man still living on the streets, and I love this particular picture because his smile betrays that good heart although he remains in the frightful streets of Nairobi.

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But there is a second picture that in my mind completes the story.  It is Jeremiah, the first student I met on my trip earlier this summer.  Jeremiah is a big boy, close to my height and twenty times stronger.  He could be intimidating, but he is just the opposite—a kind, thoughtful, funny, tender young man.  Jeremiah sits in the front row of his classes and is an eager learner.  He likes to act in drama productions.  He is a good friend to many.

Hillary took a picture of Jeremiah being silly, and I absolutely love it because at one point Jeremiah was that young man in the other photograph, living in abject poverty but with a smile that betrayed his good heart I’m sure.  And the “after” photograph powerfully shows Jeremiah’s joy.

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(And, I can’t help but say it given the title of my entire blog, I love that he is looking up.)

The Greatest

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My dad was a boxing fan, which made sense for a member of what Tom Brokaw termed “the greatest generation.”  Boxing was the American sport when he was a boy in the 1920s and 1930s, and I remember his tales of the great Jack Dempsey as we watched fights together a half century later.  I somehow failed to inherit his love for the sport, but the combination of his love and the golden age of heavyweight boxing that coincided with my childhood unleashed personal memories when Muhammad Ali’s passing was announced last Friday.  Elvis Presley, John Wayne, and Muhammad Ali—those were the names that seemed larger than life to this little boy in small-town Arkansas.  Now, all three are gone.

That Ali is a popular American hero is fascinating.  I doubt that his outspoken racial pride and conversion to Islam in the 1960s endeared him to all who now mourn his passing.  I doubt that his refusal to accept military service makes him a hero to all patriotic Americans.  And his brash, in your face, “I am the greatest” trash talking is not typically the personality that leads to universal love and admiration, the Donald Trump phenomenon notwithstanding.

Maybe America just likes a winner?  I don’t buy it.  Call me crazy, but I’m guessing that Barry Bonds, Bill Belichick, and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. will not be universally adored when they ultimately move on from this life.

So, why did Muhammad Ali die an American hero?  Some say it is his social activism, his willingness to stand up for what he believed in.  Maybe so.  That has to be a part of it.  But I suggest there is something more to Ali’s universal appeal.

Muhammad Ali embraced life.

He was fun and funny and full of joy.  He lived without fear.  Think about it: the religious conversion, the brash statements in an era of racial violence, the thumbing his nose at the government’s draft, and the claims of boxing greatness all displayed that he was not afraid of any threat.

More importantly, he lost in the boxing ring multiple times—but came back for more with a smile.  Over time, in what seemed to be the cruelty of fate, the powerful and eloquent athlete lost his famed strength and good health and bold voice—but he came out in public with a smile.

Check it out: Muhammad Ali was not afraid of any threat, but he was also not afraid of any consequence.

I believe that is why we loved him so.  We want to live without fear, too.  We want to face both the goods and bads of life with unshakable joy.

Wouldn’t that be the Greatest?

Discovering Diversity

I participated in a “privilege beads” exercise at a diversity conference a year ago that involved reading statements and taking applicable beads to create a privilege bracelet.  As a white, straight, Christian, highly-educated, American male who lives in Malibu, I made a privilege hula-hoop.  It was embarrassing.  It was particularly embarrassing because one of my primary self-identifiers has always been growing up poor (read: underprivileged).  I am all about sticking it to the Man, ironically, and standing up for the little guy, i.e., my people.  Imagine my surprise.

But discovering diversity has been, for me, a humiliating pathway to joy.  The world is a big and beautiful place, and leaving the startling homogeneity of my hometown, though filled with wonderful people, has been an indescribable blessing.  I have learned so much, mainly that I know so little, and what I don’t know is fascinating without fail.  More importantly, I now have relationships with people who represent ethnicity, identities, faiths, interests, and nationalities that I never even heard of as a child.  That is my real privilege.  I am better for knowing these good souls, sure, but more importantly, the world is better for knowing them, too.

I returned to the same conference this year hoping for no privilege beads but anticipating new and deeper relationships and was not disappointed on any count.  One of the many things I learned at this year’s conference is that the majority of the United States will be non-white by 2044 and that 2011 already marked the first year that more non-white babies were born in the United States than white babies.  Significant change is occurring as to several of my privileges, some far more quickly than others.  My Facebook feed reminds me that many find such changes to be frightening.  Since diversity has been a great blessing in my life, I see it with different eyes.  To co-opt the famous FDR quote, the only frightening thing I see is the fear itself.

A Runner’s Thoughts

I ran thirteen miles Saturday morning (well, 13.2, but you know how I hate to brag). My big race is two weeks away, so running the full half-marathon length in advance seemed like a good idea, although sleeping in followed by a trip to Krispy Kreme sounded good, too. My final choices are often a teensy counter-intuitive.

So I had a lot of time to think. Admittedly, several thoughts were of the “uh-oh, am I getting a rash?” variety, while others centered on the theme of “and why not Krispy Kreme?” More often than not, however, I escaped to a sublime place and experienced ineffable thoughts.

• How do you describe witnessing the early morning dawn give way to a new day, revealing a curious mix of pastels and haze?
• How do you describe the irrepressible smile in your soul when you discern the distinct sound of the beach formed by crashing waves and squawking birds?
• How do you describe the spectacular variety of humanity that greet me on the path, reflecting in clothes and shoes and faces the bright and colorful explosion that is the world?
• How do you describe the runner’s sensation of settling into a pace and listening to your body talk in the clearest language?
• How do you describe the playfulness evident in all things, from the dolphins and surfers bobbing together in the open waters, to the hyperactive dogs and children frolicking in the surf?
• How do you describe running with the ocean waves up the Venice Pier and sensing in your heart, for the first time, how it feels to crash into the spongy shore?
• How do you describe the feeling of accomplishment at the end of the road where labored breathing fades into the quiet harmony of the new day and you consider that you have never felt so alive?

You don’t describe it. You experience it. And when you do, you do not forget, and cannot wait for more.

My to-do list is thankful for cars and the occasional airplane, but in my humble opinion, the world is best explored on foot.