Tag Archives: life

Keep Climbing

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On a trail last Thursday morning in a neighboring canyon I found myself running alone. I had started with others but when I faced a steep, narrow trail straight up an imposing mountain, unplanned, there seemed to be no one in the whole world but me and the trail to the heavens.

I attacked the hill with every ounce of my strength, arms pumping, calves burning, lungs fighting, and heart firing to conquer the challenge in front of me. I was strong—for a while—and then it was too much. I had to walk, but I refused to give up entirely and kept climbing the mountain step by step. In a few moments it seemed that I could sort of breathe again, so I challenged my legs to run the rest of the way. I thought I could do it, and I did.

At the top, seemingly on cue, I looked out at the crazy view across the morning sky and just at that moment the sun exploded over the mountains and above the clouds that lay across the hills like a cotton blanket. It was spectacular. The picture above is okay but doesn’t do it justice.

I’m not sure I want to run that hill again, and in retrospect, not sure that I really wanted to run it in the first place. But there was a feeling in my soul when I made it to the top and the sun broke through that felt like it was a special gift just for me, just for running, just for not stopping and finishing the climb. Pardon me, but it felt like a holy moment, and I was thankful. I felt a deep gratitude standing there on top of that mountain. The warmth of the sun. The beauty from above. The fullness in my lungs. The unplanned smile on my face.

I have friends on steep mountains today. I will have others. And it will be me again, too. My hope is that we all keep climbing, keep trusting, and keep believing that at the top of the mountain we will discover a spectacular gift. And smile.

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

Pic 2

Pay Attention

Writing Books
“He could go anyplace he wanted with a sense of purpose. One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches and tramps around. Writing taught my father to pay attention…”
– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I avoided writing whenever possible in high school and celebrated upon testing out of both required English composition courses in college. And now I love to write. For whatever reason I cannot seem to pick up the curveball in this game called life.

When my dad died in 1994 I experienced a strong urge to write—the first time I wanted to write an essay—and the urge returned not long afterward when the moms and dads of my elementary school daughter’s local soccer team acted completely insane and nearly drove me bonkers.  Around then it occurred to me that I should not have prayed so fervently to test out of English composition.  On both occasions writing was my way of processing the confusion of life.

And then, on the eighth day, God created a host of things like home computers and Microsoft Word, grammar check and spell check, print-on-demand publishing and blogs.  I became a writer in spite of poor life decisions.  Sort of like how Donald Trump became the president.

Somewhere along the way I purchased and devoured two wonderful books on the craft of writing: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and On Writing by Stephen King.  Both are chock full of hilarious, practical, and straight-shooting advice on this creative outlet that I now adore.  It was Lamott, however, who zeroed in on what I love the most: Writing teaches me to pay attention.

I shouldn’t need anything to make me pay attention to life, but then again, maybe I do.  Maybe my cousin, Amy, is right when she claims that we all have a creative side that needs exercising, and maybe it is that need to create that leads us to lean into this thing called life, to have a reason to head out into it, to use all of our senses, to take notes on everything that is there.

Maybe.  That’s all I’m saying.  I just know that writing is now a part of who I am—and that I am thankful.

Beauty from Chaos

IMG_0422It was a crazy idea, but I am generally a fan of crazy ideas.

Avery is a retired art professor and an incredible artist, and I approached him just before Christmas with the vision of creating an original painting for Easter Sunday that was inspired by his thoughts of Mary Magdalene from John 20. I could not believe that he said yes. His paintings sell for thousands and thousands of dollars, and I asked him to produce an original work of art for free. And he said yes. How crazy is that!

So the approach to Easter was extra exciting this year. Periodically I would get an update from the artist himself, which only heightened my anticipation. Avery let me know that it was the running of Mary, Peter, and John that struck him in his meditations on the text, so that provided the direction of the painting. He showed me pictures of his work in stages—and as an abstract, contemporary artist also shared his concerns about painting people and working with a looming deadline!

But then it was finished.  Fleet Feet at the Dawn of Redemption.  Even the title of the painting is awesome.

I interviewed Avery at the beginning of yesterday’s sermon just prior to the unveiling and asked if there was a spiritual connection to his work. He quickly said yes and then described his process of creating chaos and then watching a phoenix rise from the ashes, of witnessing something beautiful emerge out of chaos. He then asked if I understood, and I answered that I so badly wish that I did.

But I guess that I sort of do. In a sense that describes life itself—the attempt to create something beautiful out of the chaos. In that sense we are all artists, using our gifts to create something out of the mess day after day after day.

The artwork that is my life is surely a work in progress and a little bit messy, but that is what Avery finds interesting about art in the first place. He once said, “That’s where the joy is and the struggle is and where the meaning comes.”

Excuse me while I get back to work. I have unfinished art that needs attention.

Eyes on the Prize

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I love me a new year, but I like it better one week in.

The starting gun fires, the race commences, and some yahoos foolishly sprint to the lead for a brief moment until reality reminds them that they are in over their heads and they fade into oblivion. That is when the race really begins. Once the crowd thins and the race gets real, the true competitors search for their pace and ask themselves important questions about their hearts, minds, souls, and strength. That is what happens about one week into a brand new year, and I want to be a true competitor in this race called life.

So here we go.

I want to look deep into my soul this year. Will I avoid the unsettling quiet required to explore the frightening corners of my own heart?

I want to spend myself on others this year. Will I allow fear, pride, and privilege to keep me away from confronting the injustice in my own community?

I want to remember important stories from the past this year. Will I let the sirens pull me mindlessly forward and forget the treasures found in old experiences?

I want to push my boundaries this year so that I grow. Will I permit the deception of comfort and routine lull me into complacency, or will I have the courage required to test uncharted waters?

I know the right answers to all of these questions, but the breathless pace and the long road ahead demand that I maintain focus, avoid distraction, and keep my eyes on the prize.

It is time to settle in and do the work.

Home Run

25010686_659397667781726_6878480645274730496_nWe crossed the Mississippi River bridge in Memphis in the rental car, ironically a Malibu, and remembered what the Arkansas Delta looks like in early winter. Many of the trees had long ago shed their leaves leaving cold bare branches that reach toward the sky, and those still holding leaves that had only recently been brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges had faded to the color of rust and stood clustered together for warmth next to the brown dirt of the silent farmland. The winter sun was setting, and it looked as if someone had plastic-wrapped the entire pastel sky. It isn’t your typical picture of natural beauty, but I now find it strangely wonderful.

It was good to spend time in my hometown. Seeing family and old friends was special as expected, but there was something special about just being there, too. I don’t miss temperatures in the upper twenties even a little bit, but it was even refreshing to remember what home felt like on my skin once upon a time. I went for a seven-mile run one morning that gave me a good long time to remember.

My wife and I went for a drive one afternoon to remember more. We drove by her first workplace and the places we lived together and even Joel and Alicia’s apartment where we spent many an evening in the early days of our relationship sitting on the couch and talking and falling in love.

And then we drove to the grave sites of my sweet parents. I used to make a point to do this alone on each visit home to talk to them; first, my dad, who died so long ago, and then more recently to both of them, sort of like I would go to their bedroom seeking comfort following a childhood nightmare in the middle of the night—comforting even when I couldn’t see their faces. But this time I went with my beautiful wife. We walked across the crunchy leaves under a cold sun and stood there as a couple — as my parents were a couple once upon a memory. There was nothing really to do other than stare at the flowers and the name plates and silently wonder where the years go and what to think about it. It was good to stand there together, like my parents who also made the choice in life to stand together. And who now Rest In Peace together.

I developed a strong sense that someone has pressed pretty hard on life’s accelerator and that the years are really starting to fly by now. It may sound a little spooky to say such a thing, but strangely enough I find it to be a most peaceful feeling. Life is quite the ride, and fear now seems like such a waste of precious time.

I think my parents are telling me this as I still stand by their bedside in the darkness.

#WavesUp

With XC Team Pictures

“[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

Hurry Up & Wait

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We knew prior to departure from LAX that we had a near impossible connection to make at DFW that was only made less likely when our flight left twenty minutes late. I was sure we would not and could not make it, and as we prepared for our final descent into Dallas I asked a flight attendant if he had any advice. He was kind and checked on our connecting flight and learned that it was (unfortunately, for once) on time, but he gave us the gate number and instructions on how best to race across the terminals.

I am a runner.  Let me loose.

The voice on the crackly airplane speaker asked everyone to show kindness and let those with tight connecting flights deplane first, and apparently 98% of the passengers on that particular flight had tight connecting flights. So we weren’t super quick getting off the plane.

I decided not to push the two elderly ladies waiting for wheelchairs out of the way, but when they created an opening, I was off. And we made it. Just in time. To what turned out to be the wrong gate.

Last-minute gate change? You have got to be kidding me.

So I was off to the races again. The voice on the loudspeaker declared that the doors to our (actual) gate would be closing momentarily and that every passenger should be on the aircraft. I ran even faster. Chariots of Fire music wafted through the airport. And we made it. For real this time. Barely. The last two to board.

We collapsed in our seats, breathing hard, and sweating, but happy to have made it in the nick of time. And then the captain announced over the intercom that there was a tiny lightbulb that needed changing and that maintenance was on its way, which took a good twenty minutes.

My sweet wife declared, “Hurry up and wait.”  Exactly.

That seems to be an accurate life mantra: Hurry up and wait. I long for some actual rhythm, but our mad dash through the airport only to wait on a maintenance crew is a pretty good descriptor of my days, weeks, months, and years. Hurry up and wait.

Distance runners do such a thing on purpose and call it interval training. It supposedly makes you better on those long runs. If that’s the case, I’m really going to be good at life someday.

In a Few Words

airbnb

The Airbnb concept is somehow both weird and intuitive.  It is weird to spend the night in a perfect stranger’s home, but then again it makes sense to get some use out of something otherwise unused at a mutually beneficial price.

The service thrives on customer reviews, of course.  For instance, any review with “there were creepy people playing with snakes” will pretty much guarantee that I will keep looking.  On the other hand, “there were creepy people playing with snakes—and free churros” might persuade me to stay more than one night.  So it is in the best interest of the host to provide a pleasant stay, which leads to good reviews, which leads to more business.  You know, Economics 101.

What I did not know until recently is that the hosts can also review the guests.  Makes sense, I guess, but I will admit to being a little nervous when I recently received my first review by an Airbnb host.  Here is what I got: “Al is clean and kind.”

I am incredibly proud.  Absolutely love it.  Mark it down, when I check out of the Airbnb called Life, I believe that is headstone worthy.

It reminded me of a great Anne Lamott story (in Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, 37-45) when she helped her friend with a dance class for adults with special needs.  Several days later, Anne’s friend told her that after the class one of the students said, “I liked those old ladies!  They were helpers, and they danced.”  Those are the words Lamott wants on her gravestone.

I have had more opportunities to be around death so far than I remember requesting and each instance got me to thinking.  After all the resume drafts, and after all the performance reviews, and after all the updating the LinkedIn profile—and even after the obituary is written, read, and recorded—a few numbers and a few words are engraved on a rock in an attempt to sum up one’s life.  An entire life in just a few words.

What will your words be?  I’m just saying, clean and kind ain’t bad.

Running in Circles

Heritage-High-School-Wake-Forest-Latex-Track-New-Construction-2A recent morning run triggered memories of high school track meets in the 1980s.  I ran the distance races for the mighty Falcons, and we barely had time to get off the bus in those days before the 3200 meters race began.  Nothing like racing eight laps around the track to get your afternoon going.

Our first meets of the season often took place in a tiny town called Corning, Arkansas, whose population sign answered, Yes, please.  (Just kidding, more like three thousand.)  Corning’s track sat in the middle of, well, nothing but empty space that provided no break from the strong March winds that seemed to be ever-present.

So it was always cold on those eight laps around the track.  Coach Watson insisted that we remove our sweats and wear only our track uniform when we raced despite the weather conditions.  Our uniform consisted of tiny maroon shorts that as best I recall were made out of cheap construction paper and a white mesh tank top with a maroon stripe.  We provided our own goosebumps.

I remember Corning in particular and those killer eight laps because a quarter of the time was spent running directly into that terrible wind.  Another quarter involved flying down the track with the wind at our back unable to breathe because all available oxygen had been snatched from our desperate gasps.  The corners in between were the best shot of relief, although there the wind tended to blow you into the lanes you had not intended to run in.

So it was a good memory.

Well, it was good in the sense that it occurred to me that those races are pretty indicative of life in general.  There are times when the wind is so at your back that you can hardly breathe.  There are others when the wind is so in your face that you can hardly move.  And there are still others when the wind blows you off course despite your best efforts.  Life leaves you longing for some gentle rhythm yet wondering if you are accomplishing anything beyond running in circles.

My best advice is to move to Southern California where the weather is far more hospitable for running.  But that doesn’t speak to the reality of life.  For that, all I have learned is that you can expect all of the above and more.  And that bracing for each shift in the winds is preferable to being surprised at each turn.

 

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.