Tag Archives: life

The University of… “The South”

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Sewanee, Tennessee (and it was not easy to get that butterfly to hold its pose!)

The University of the South is an actual place in Tennessee, although its oft-noted resemblance to Hogwarts might make one wonder. It is officially Sewanee: The University of the South, and the combination of its mountaintop location and Gothic architecture is crazy cool, but that’s not what I am referring to today.

Instead, I am thinking about my education in “The South.” I was born and raised in, shaped and influenced by, and commissioned to leave from and welcomed to return to The South. It is once again both my heritage and mailing address.

I do not have a romanticized vision of The South, though tempting at times, but neither do I focus only on its shameful parts. I attempt instead to see it as it is, warts and all (which is surprisingly not an original Southern phrase!).

None of this is specific to The South. Every place can be both resplendent and repulsive if you look from just the right angle. What makes The South special to me is that it is mine.

If put to an answer for my favorite novelist, I would go with Jesmyn Ward, who has been compared to William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. I am a white man, and Ward is a black woman, so although we grew up in the same region, we grew up in different worlds. Ward matriculated to Stanford University and later the University of Michigan and went on to wild success as a novelist. She could live and work anywhere in the world, but with mixed feelings she chose to return home to The South. Last summer she answered the question why in an essay for TIME magazine. She described her dilemma and then, in her own beautiful way, shared that she, too, has a dream:

I like to imagine that one day, I will build a home of cement, a home built to weather the elements, in a clearing in a piney Southern wood, riven with oak and dogwood. I’d like a small garden where I could grow yellow squash and bell peppers in the summer, collards and carrots in the winter, and perhaps keep a few chickens. I wish for one or two kind neighbors who will return my headstrong bulldog if she wanders off, neighbors who I can gift a gallon of water in the aftermath of a hurricane. I like to think that after I die, my children will look at that place and see a place of refuge, of rest. I hope they do not flee. I hope that at least one of them will want to remain here in this place that I love more than I loathe, and I hope the work that I have done to make Mississippi a place worth living is enough. I hope they feel more themselves in this place than any other in the world, and that if they do leave, they dream of that house, that clearing, those woods, when they sleep.

I have received many lessons in the university of “The South” and have apparently returned to continue my education.

All Roads

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“Truth be told, all roads lead to Nashville.” – Tony Lucca, from his song, “Nashville”

Well, if the truth actually be told, the saying is “all roads lead to Rome”—at least for the past thousand years give or take a few decades. But “all roads” also apparently lead to a winning marketing slogan that a Google image search shows has been used to sell just about everything: colleges and conferences, restaurants and vacation spots. I even saw one that said all roads lead to a jail in Santa Ana, which seems unfortunate on many levels.

But the Nashville version isn’t that far-fetched given my experience so far.

This is our fourth state of residence, and our Nashville experience has been wonderfully confusing since friends from Arkansas live here now, as do friends from Mississippi, as do friends from California, too. We have loved catching up with so many wonderful people, but it has quite literally produced significant disorientation, a sort of memory and relationship whiplash. It feels less like catching up and more like spinning around in circles and then struggling to walk a straight line. Where am I now? And why are people from all phases of my random life all living here, too?

I anticipated moments of self-discovery in this move. We moved 500 miles away in 1999 and then 2,000 miles away in 2008—surely a move back to within 250 miles of where we started would create some significant introspection. I believe it has, and will, but I expected the self-discovery to occur in the occasional nostalgic epiphany, not through a fog of discombobulation.

I don’t really know where all roads lead, but mine has led here, and so far it has been both perplexing and good.

Dark Clouds & Rays of Sunlight

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“Live your life, do your work, then take your hat.” – Henry David Thoreau

Rays of sunlight burst through the Friday evening clouds like glittering eyelashes as my car raced down the lonely highway approaching the Mississippi River Bridge and the Tennessee-Missouri border. The sun was setting, which struck me as profound given the family weekend itinerary. I would visit two uncles on Saturday, Jody’s in the morning and mine in the evening, both deeply loved, and both facing their own mortality. In between my sisters and I would host many of our cousins, all of us having now lost our parents. It promised to be a day filled with thoughts of setting suns.

It turned out to be both a light and heavy day filled with deep laughter and quiet thoughts, sweet memories and sad realities, thoughts of life and thoughts of death—of rays of light and dark clouds.

This is where I insert something profound—should such a thing ever occur to me. The weekend remains too fresh and raw and just about too much to process.

What sticks out now is sitting with Jody’s beloved Uncle Roger in his shop with the garage door open, staring out at the morning fields, watching as friends dropped by in their massive pickup trucks to share their love. One dropped by in his cowboy hat and boots and stayed for awhile, and I listened quietly as those two strong men swapped horse stories and of times when they had to put horses down. They shared how they had done such things a hundred times, but when it came to the horses they loved the most, they just couldn’t stand to do it themselves. It was just too much.

Yes, that is what sticks out to me right now about this weekend.

Yes, I’m Still Running

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I wonder if I am losing the capacity for wonder? I know, the question appears to answer itself.

Life often presents as one massive scavenger hunt for achievements, experiences, knowledge, possessions, and relationships, but I am pretty sure that’s a fool’s game that pays out in colorful erasers at a Chuck E. Cheese. Even if there is a grand prize for the most tickets, I get the impression that when all is said and done those cashing in aren’t that interested.

The problem is that the Life Acquisition Train disembarks in a lonely neighborhood without many obvious options for alternative travel. But at least wandering the streets provides some quality time to think.

My latest thought is that childhood is for dreaming and adulthood is for chasing, but there just may be a mysterious third act of life for something else. I’m not there just yet, but chasing grows less and less interesting all the time. And I hear the third act calling.

Maybe the third act is meant to point back to the first and recover that childlike imagination but with a new perspective? Maybe. So far I just can’t be sure. But I know that I want to find it.

I sometimes worry that I am losing my capacity for wonder, but on good days I consider that maybe I am just finally shedding the first kind.

Yet I don’t want to give up on the one without locating the other, so I keep walking the nameless streets with Bono in my head because there remains an elusive something to look for.

All Good Things

As I rise each morning and retire at night, an unread book sits peacefully on the nightstand, white letters on a bright blue screaming its title in all caps: NECESSARY ENDINGS. My new friend Matt shared it with me, and I only have a general idea of what it has to teach me, but it sure seems appropriate.

This has been quite a year for the ol’ family. Our cross-country move required saying goodbye to a special time in our lives. And then a few weeks ago our oldest daughter received her hard-earned credential to launch a new career teaching deaf and hard-of-hearing children—and that required saying goodbye to a community that loved and supported her, too. And a few days from now, our youngest daughter will hit the road toward San Antonio for a new adventure following her recent graduation from an incredible college experience in Seattle. In reverse chronological order, from oldest to youngest, each of our transitions necessarily involved an ending.

My wife and I smoothly shifted gears into Empty Nest four years ago, but I’m not sure what you call this new place where our children are full-fledged adults, out of college, not really children anymore. It struck me sitting among the masses at the Washington State Convention Center this past weekend that although these two remarkable young women we have tried so hard not to screw up still need us in certain ways, in certain other and very important ways, they do not. They are good, strong, capable human beings. In one specific way—raising self-sufficient humans—our work has ended, and necessarily so.

I confess a twinge of sadness as I sat there in that cavernous convention center and thought of such things, but there were other emotions in this mixed-up heart of mine. There was happiness. Relief. And pride. Oh yes, pride. A deep, full, exploding pride for those two amazing people—our sweet Erica and Hillary.

I hear that all good things must come to an end. It turns out that I’m okay with that after all. It is like that satisfying last page of a long, delicious novel, followed by slowly closing the book and sitting there in that pleasant pause full of reflection and relief—before the anticipation of what comes next.

Living on Top of a Battlefield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the Spotlight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet Another Lap Around the Sun

2018 Running

I like to run and find it useful as a metaphor for life itself (as does the Christian Bible—see 1st Corinthians 9: 24-27; Hebrews 12: 1-3). Since we humans apparently like to mark our laps around the sun, it is common practice at year’s end to look back before heading off for another lap. We consider the bests and the worsts from the past year. We remember the new things that came our way and the people who made their departures. And then we throw a party in honor of and in spite of it all.

We have had some tough stuff to deal with where I live in the past few months, but that is no surprise to those familiar with anything requiring endurance. The year to come will surely have its own challenges. Therefore, we keep going, placing one foot in front of another, never stopping until we reach the finish line.

As I reflected on the run known as 2018, I remembered the actual running I did this year. I ran alone, and I ran with friends, and I ran all over the place. The year kicked off with a great run along the Rose Parade route in Pasadena with my running buddy, Brad, and by year’s end I had enjoyed runs in six states and two nations on two continents. I nearly froze my running shoes off running in the snow high in the mountains of Colorado. I ran across the Idaho-Washington border for a lovely run along both sides of the Snake River. I braved the mud and traffic for an unforgettable run in the heart of Nairobi. And I went back home to Arkansas where it all started and ran around my high school track on the morning of our thirty-year high school reunion.  In between I witnessed breathtaking scenery on trails and along the beaches here in beautiful California.

If all goes well, 2019 will be another great run. I suspect that at times I will again run alone, and at others I will run with friends—and that I will explore all sorts of interesting new places. Now I am talking about life again.

Bring on the new year.

The Mystery of Life

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“Mystery is endless knowability.” – Richard Rohr

We hosted our second annual murder mystery dinner party for our church young adult group on Saturday evening. Last year we created an ‘80s prom, but this year’s rendition was superhero-themed so I went to the dark side and attended as Lex Luthor since all I had to do was put on a suit and buy a green (kryptonite) ring pop. We had a blast.

It is odd to host a fun church party around such a dark theme, but we could hardly wait the full year to host another one it is so awesome. (And if you are interested in hosting one yourself I recommend shotinthedarkmysteries.com.)

I don’t think it is the costumes that make a mystery dinner party such fun, although the costumes are pretty great—I think the fun in the whole ballgame is that it is a mystery. We don’t know “whodunit”—and we are on a quest to figure it out. There is a reason we read mystery novels and watch mystery movies and television shows. There is simply something compelling about mystery.

Which is a little misleading because we really want to “know” the answer, right? It wouldn’t have been a great party if at the end of the night we had told everyone, “Sorry, but we don’t want to call anyone an actual murderer, so let’s just forgive and forget and move on with life, okay?” No, the compelling part of a mystery is that there is an ultimate answer.

Richard Rohr is pretty great, and in his writings on faith he teaches that living in mystery is not really a negative because mystery does not mean that you cannot know (how many negatives did I use in that one sentence?).  He writes, “Mystery is endless knowability. Living inside such endless knowability is finally a comfort, a foundation of ultimate support, security, unrestricted love, and eternal care. For all of us, it takes much of our life to get there; it is what we surely mean by ‘growing’ in faith.”

As I grow older I am less drawn toward the need to know everything and more inclined to enjoy the journey inside the ever-evolving mystery of life. Welcome to life—that long mystery dinner party.