Tag Archives: lipscomb

Loss

Savannah

Savannah

Following a heavy week in a heavy world, Saturday began with a pleasant early morning run and a beautiful phone call with my sisters before shifting to a pile of work that will not relent. And then the day turned tragic.

My chief of security sent an emergency text that someone apparently experienced a heart attack on university tennis courts and that emergency personnel had arrived on the scene. He soon confirmed that it was Coach Lynn Griffith, a well-known professor and coach for forty years in our community. The prognosis was not good. Later, it was confirmed that he did not survive.

I met Lynn not long after we arrived in Nashville at an open house when Jody and I were house shopping, and I had the opportunity to visit with him from time to time and experience his kindness. But I had nowhere near the relationship and memories that so many in the Lipscomb community treasured. His passing is a major loss.

And then the tragedy compounded.

I have written before of how I absolutely adore our IDEAL program, an incredible gift to our campus that serves students with extra intellectual and developmental challenges. Last summer, we attended a celebration at the end of the IDEAL program’s residential summer camp. Truly, every single camper/student was our favorite, but Jody and I agreed that Savannah Miller had some sort of special sauce. Lots of “s” words work for Savannah—sweet, spunky, sassy, smiles, spirited. Savannah was a Lipscomb student this past year, and she was a presence on campus! I tried not to be a groupie and dampen her coolness factor, but I was secretly ecstatic when my office had the opportunity to welcome Savannah as a student worker. What a gift.

We had been praying hard for Savannah recently. Following surgeries, Savannah was in critical condition in Vanderbilt ICU and unable to have visitors due to COVID restrictions. And yesterday, just a few hours after the notice of Coach Griffith’s passing, we received the heartbreaking news that we lost Savannah, too.

I am oriented toward constant progress, but this has been a year of significant pain and loss. And just when you think that we must be at some sort of sinister limit so that we might regroup and move forward, there is more loss.

I’m not trying to fix or explain it today. Someday soon we must rise to fight again, but some days all there is room for is sadness.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

(Ab)Normal

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I have experienced more than my fair share of disasters, but someone opened up a big tent for this one to include a whole lot more people. Thinking back to the first time I encountered an upside-down world, I recall a particular phrase that made me crazy when interacting with someone outside the disaster zone: Are things getting back to normal around there?

I strongly oppose throat-punching in general, but the thought did cross my mind.

While recognizing the innocent ignorance of the question, what made it particularly infuriating was the lack of understanding that “normal” is the first fatality in a major disaster. Normal is gone forever. Coming to terms with that is not easy.

Classes resume at Lipscomb University today, online of course, and my “student life” team is reinventing the ways in which we facilitate the special Lipscomb community while physically separated from one another. But there is nothing about today that indicates life returning to “normal.”

A new normal isn’t necessarily bad. Change is inevitable, and change represents an opportunity to let go of negative habits and routines and embrace positive habits and routines. What is bad about situations like this is that we did not get to choose the destruction of normalcy; thus, we did not get the opportunity for closure. We did not choose the new normal—it chose us.

So here we are in this new world, and from past experience I do not recommend devoting a lot of energy longing for things to return to the way they were before. That’s just not going to happen. Now grieving that loss is more than okay. We owe it that.

But once you are finished grieving, work to create a new kind of normal that is somehow better than ever.

Social Distancing as an Act of Love — A Sermon in Absentia

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PC: Lipscomb University (Kristi Jones)

I spent a significant number of years delivering Sunday morning sermons, but that is no longer part of my life. Even if it was, our local churches are canceling services due to the pandemic, so where would I deliver a sermon anyway? But a sermon came to me nonetheless, so I will just deliver it right here. I have titled it: Social Distancing as an Act of Love—A Sermon in Absentia.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” – John 1:14 (NRSV)

Good morning, and welcome to Virtual Church. Members and guests, please fill out an attendance card and place it in the comment box below.

The Incarnation serves as the foundation of the Gospel. God came and “lived among us”—or as Eugene Peterson put it, “moved into the neighborhood.” God’s love is such that God simply could not stand to be at a distance. God came near.

GOD with us. God WITH us.  God with US.

God did this in the humanity of Jesus, and in Jesus we see “the image of the invisible God.” We see what a walking-talking-breathing God looks like, and in Jesus we encounter one who notices the unnoticeable, one who touches the untouchable.

So we aren’t even surprised when we hear Jesus tell a story in Luke 15 about a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine safe sheep and goes traipsing all over the countryside to find the goofy one who wandered off. And how he is giddy with joy as he carries it home draped across his shoulders. Of course he does. That’s God. So we are even less surprised at the follow-up story about a woman who still has nine coins but turns the house upside down looking for the one that is MIA. And how she throws a party like she won the lottery when she found that crazy coin of hers. Of course she did. That’s God.

But Jesus can be a little hard to figure at times.

That same Jesus, the one who moved into the neighborhood, that God-image who chases after lost folks and embraces them in bear hugs says nutty stuff like, “It’s better for you that I leave.” Um, what? He was apparently serious. (If you don’t believe me, check out John 16:7, MSG.) And back in Luke 15, right after those stories that picture God on a search and rescue, Jesus offers a third story where God is a dad who loses a son—and just lets him walk away. Doesn’t even follow him down the driveway.

That’s what has me thinking today. Love typically seeks people out, brings people close with hugs and high fives and holy smooches. But maybe sometimes love allows for distance.

In this time of pandemic, we are advised that the way to love your neighbor is to keep them at a distance. That feels so counterintuitive because, well, it typically is. But maybe not always.

My wife and I live in Nashville, Tennessee. Our oldest daughter lives in Los Angeles. Our youngest daughter lives in San Antonio. Our family practices social distancing all the time now. How did we let all that happen? Every once in a while it dawns on me how wrong that seems, and every once in a while it really hits me hard how much better it would be to be in close proximity to both of our sweet daughters. But more often I remember that it isn’t always right or better simply to be in the same zip code.

Love might can be gauged, but I don’t recommend a tape measure. Sometimes love draws near. Sometime love stands at a distance.

The last official event before spring break at Lipscomb University as announcements were made about an extended break and online classes was the Welcome to Our World Fashion Show, hosted by our Office of Intercultural Development. It was as beautiful as I anticipated. In a time of global pandemic, it felt so appropriate to recognize that our world is bound together in important ways. The closing line of the show reminded us that there is UNITY in DIVERSITY. That there can be a oneness in our many-ness.

I guess what I am saying is that from time to time there can also be a knitting together of hearts in a period of social distancing, as strange as that may seem.

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always ‘me first,’
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
 – 1st Corinthians 13: 4-7 (MSG)

When Times Are Hard…

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I confess that it felt good to get in the car with my wife and drive away for a little while.  2020 has had an inauspicious start.  Last week’s tornadoes devastated our community and garnered national attention (and a presidential visit), but the tornadic metaphor—a swirling disruptive force—has characterized the past couple of months at work and in our community.

We weren’t running away, although I can sympathize with an urge to do so. Instead, we drove to Virginia to cheer on our men’s basketball team in their championship game against heavily-favored Liberty with an NCAA tournament berth on the line.

As we drove from Nashville heading east we saw what the storm left behind. We traveled through Putnam County and Cookeville, which took the brunt of the storm, and silently ached with that grieving community. But eventually, thoughts of the storm began to fade as we ventured into new territory.

We skirted the Smokies and entered southwestern Virginia, an area of the country that I had never visited. Although not spectacular, the meandering countryside and hills were charming, and I thought that they just might be spectacular when the denuded winter trees are explosions of color in autumn. We drove through Roanoke, where I tried unsuccessfully to remember why everyone has heard of Roanoke, before arriving in Lynchburg to spend the night.

Early Sunday morning I drove downtown for a run. It was 28 degrees, a fact I share just for a little sympathy, and I did a five-miler along the river and through the cobblestone streets of an historic downtown. At one point I ran up a steep downtown street, drawn toward an impressive building I later learned was called Monument Terrace. When I arrived, I continued huffing and puffing up what seemed like a million stairs, and as I climbed the name of the building became clear as I passed multiple monuments to the city’s citizens who died in wars throughout American history. At the top, I looked back on the hill I had climbed, the river, and the early morning sun.

I got to thinking.

2020 has been a hard year so far. But there have been a lot of hard years for a lot of people. Climbing that hill, climbing those stairs, seeing those monuments of lives lost reminded me of the reality of life and the universality of struggle. The lesson that occurred to me: Don’t stop climbing.

On Friday night, before leaving Nashville, we went to see talented Lipscomb students in a dance concert titled, Elevate: A Heavenly View. That’s what I thought about at the top of those crazy stairs on a frigid morning in what has been a challenging year: When times are hard—Elevate.

#NashvilleStrong

Kindertransport

Blog Pic (Kindertransport)

I caught a bit of the Oscars last night and found myself wondering if I might see someone from the Lipscomb University Department of Theatre walk the Hollywood red carpet someday. I am a big fan of Lipscomb Theatre! On Saturday evening my wife and I went to campus to see Kindertransport, and although I expected to be impressed, I was not prepared for the show. When I first saw the name, Kindertransport, I envisioned a play about a school bus. Oh no. Kindertransport is an intense and powerful story.

The story is historical fiction. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, thousands of Jewish children refugees were hastily transported out of Germany to escape the coming savagery. As Dr. Jay Geller, Professor of Modern Jewish Culture at Vanderbilt University who served as theater consultant wrote in the program, “German Jewish parents and their children faced the terrible dilemma of choosing between a perilous staying together and a temporary—quite possibly permanent—separation as well as having to imagine the parent’s possible death and the child’s possible survival.”

Kindertransport is a vivid portrayal of how that might have played out for one family. The entire cast was amazing, and thanks to their masterful storytelling, I cannot stop thinking about it.

As a former history teacher, I am always stunned when I learn of moments in world history that I had never heard of before. I learned on Saturday evening that the United Kingdom welcomed 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children before Nazi Germany closed the borders prior to the outbreak of World War II but that the United States rejected legislation to do the same based on public opinion polls. The talk-back after the show shared that a large number of Jewish refugee children actually arrived at an American port but were sent back to Germany because of the policy. How many of those children were murdered as a result of that decision?

It was easy to connect the Kindertransport story line with our friend at Pepperdine, Hung Le, simply substituting a different place and a different war (Vietnam), and how his beautiful story came to bless so many lives (read it HERE). It made me wonder what stories are being crafted today?

That is the potential power of an incredible story like Kindertransport. Aching with that mother, making it up as she went along, hoping to save her child. Aching with that little girl, also making it up as she went along, trying to survive on her own far too soon. Aching with that good soul, also in uncharted waters, attempting to welcome a stranger in need.

How will that powerful story change me?

Law and the Bible

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I am beyond honored to teach an undergraduate course this semester titled, Law and the Bible, in Lipscomb’s Fred D. Gray Institute for Law, Justice, and Society—even more honored that it is based on a course built (and using a text edited) by friend and former colleague, Professor Bob Cochran. To have the opportunity to combine my legal training and ministry experience in a classroom is pretty great, and that there are eleven brilliant and passionate students enrolled is almost too good to be true.

Professor Cochran divided the Bible in nine sections and teamed legal scholars and theologians to write each chapter (he joined his friend, Dallas Willard, to approach the Gospels) and explore what the Bible teaches about law and its relevance to current issues.

We have much to discuss.

I have a complicated relationship with politics and rarely write publicly on political issues anymore, not because I no longer have opinions, but for other reasons. To sit in a classroom, however, and consider contemporary issues starting with the Bible, that has me excited.

I confess disappointment that religious folks often react to major political moments by supporting their predetermined political candidate/party without wrestling with the individual issue at hand based on theological arguments. One would think that those who claim religion would avoid automatically supporting one political party and examine each individual situation in light of their sacred text. Maybe the penetrating question is: What is truly sacred?

I’m excited to consider such questions this semester with a gifted group of college students.

‘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.

LIFE in Prison

5c5d1067e460c.previewIn January, while I prepared for a job interview in Nashville, then Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam made national news by commuting the life sentence of Cyntoia Brown. In the ensuing media frenzy I learned that Ms. Brown graduated from Lipscomb University while in prison through Lipscomb’s unique LIFE Program. That basically describes everything I knew about the LIFE Program until last week.

However, I arrived at Lipscomb enamored with Dr. Richard Goode, having no idea that he founded the LIFE Program back in 2007. All I knew was that Dr. Goode had the good fortune of spending time with iconoclast, Reverend Will D. Campbell, and had written a couple of my all-time favorite books with and about Campbell. I simply wanted to meet Dr. Goode, so you can imagine my surprise when he emailed one day asking to drop by and get my advice about a course he was teaching. My advice? Ridiculous, but I could not resist the chance for a one-on-one with Dr. Goode.

We met and discussed his History & Politics of Reconciliation course, and when I mentioned a particular documentary that was new to him, he asked if I would come to the Tennessee Prison for Women (“TPW”) to show the documentary and lead a discussion.

Um, yes.

Life. Changed.

Despite the recent national attention, the LIFE Program is the best-kept secret at Lipscomb. Get this: traditional Lipscomb students (“outside students”) can drive to TPW and take some of their classes inside the prison alongside “inside students.” It is brilliant and beautiful and unlike anything I have ever seen.

Last Wednesday I rode with Dr. Goode to TPW, the primary correctional facility for women in Tennessee that houses over seven hundred women, including any inmate on death row. Some parts of the evening were simultaneously expected and unforgettable: the glistening razor wire; the careful pat down; the explosive sound of the door locks; the expanse of the prison yard; the heartbreaking and inspiring stories of the inside students; the fascinating conversation with Dr. Goode.

But what I did not expect—and what in my opinion is the breathtaking genius of the LIFE Program—is the relationships between the inside and outside students. I was astonished to witness the authentic and comfortable friendships that had developed in that classroom.

I am scheduled to attend the Lipscomb graduation for inside students just over a month from now. One of the anticipated graduates is a student in the class I taught last Wednesday, and I learned that she was recently granted parole. After so many years behind bars she had one request. Can you guess? She wants to stay in prison long enough to get to walk in graduation.

This all gives “LIFE in prison” an entirely new meaning.

[For more information (including videos) on Lipscomb’s LIFE Program, click HERE.]

Here. We. Go.

IMG_0802In a sense, it all begins today. Clown cars with sentimental parents, excited new students, and implausible piles of possessions arrive on campus in parade this morning for “move-in” day, unleashing a week-long whirlwind of orientation activities that includes ten speaking opportunities for yours truly. There is no option but to jump in and hang on.

It dawned on me recently that although we moved to Nashville five months ago, everything that has occurred to this point—and there has been a lot—won’t register in retrospect since we in higher education count in academic year. Years from now, I will look back on my time at Lipscomb University and recall it beginning in the 2019-2020 academic year.

In a sense, as I said, it all begins today.

My wife and I are settled in a new home, a new neighborhood, and a new church. Our daughters are settling into their new lives in California and Texas, respectively. I am in a new office and the entire office suite received a much-needed facelift this summer, and there are many new faces on a new team in a new organizational structure. Not everything is as settled as I prefer, but it is remarkable how many things have the new car smell in a matter of months.

Today, we truly begin.

Last week I attended a “send-off party” in Murfreesboro, a sweet event that gathered incoming Lipscomb students from Rutherford County along with parents, friends, alumni, and staff to “send off” these young people on their college journey. At the end, we gathered around them and prayed for what is to come, and if they are anything like me, they do not have a clue.

But I hope they sensed the excitement of something unknown but good that is about to begin. That is what I sense today.