Tag Archives: malibu

The View from Above

IMG_2777My daughter and I decided to hike the scorched hills behind our house on Thanksgiving Eve to get a firsthand look at the aftermath of the Woolsey Fire, and we witnessed the vast expanse of earth charred to smoldering nothingness. It was breathtaking, and I’m not even talking about air quality. Imagine strolling through a gigantic ashtray with a spectacular mountain view of the sun dropping into the Pacific Ocean and that pretty much captures the scene.

It had been an indescribable couple of weeks with one difficult to comprehend event stacked on top of another. Our daughter had not planned to visit for Thanksgiving, but the dramatic events at home led to a change of plans. That we were there together, standing on a mountain with a spectacular ocean view, surveying such immense devastation just steps above our house was more than a little surreal.

Standing there I realized on Thanksgiving Eve that I had much for which to be thankful. Friends and family. Life and love. Work and community. Health and safety. Even that moment. An unforgettable moment.

We walked back off of the mountain and returned home with that slight feeling of exhilaration that comes when you realize that you have just witnessed something special.

Later, looking out at that mountain ridge that from our window is the color of dark-roasted coffee grounds, it dawned on me that things look very different from the top of the mountain than they do just a few steps down here below. The perspective changes everything.

Sometimes it is a pretty comforting thing to realize that somewhere up above things look significantly different.

In Good Times and in Bad Times

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A mere fifteen hours after a ruthless gunman opened fire on an innocent crowd in Thousand Oaks, California, the Woolsey Fire ignited about fifteen miles away near Simi Valley. Both apparently man-made events have devastated our community, and the week that followed has somehow been both blurry and unforgettable.

After spending over a week at Pepperdine, however, I finally ventured off campus this past weekend to officiate a wedding ceremony about seventy miles away. Hilary and Tyler had planned to marry in Malibu, but like so many places in our area, their wedding venue burned to the ground. They kept their chins up and scrambled to relocate and successfully secured a gorgeous resort in Newport Beach to exchange their vows.

I was Tyler’s dean of students at Pepperdine Law and was honored to do this for him and his lovely bride, but I confess a bit of mixed emotions when I left campus to drive to the wedding. It was literally a breath of fresh air to drive to Newport Beach and be with this lovely couple on their special day, but it was strange and hard to leave what felt like fellow soldiers battling on in such difficult conditions with so much work to do. It was jarring, and refreshing, and just plain odd to leave.

But I am glad that I was able to go.

I have now officiated eighteen weddings involving someone from Pepperdine Law, and each time I am struck by the great honor of having the best seat in the house. I get to watch the groom lose his breath when he sees his bride enter, and I get to see the bride’s heart melt when she sees the way her groom looks at her. I get to see them stare in each other’s eyes while I rattle on about whatever—and then nearly lose my own breath when I notice them actually listening to what they promise one another at such a holy moment.

And this time I particularly noticed—in good times and in bad times. Wow. For better or worse, and in good times and in bad times. That has surely been on my heart this past week. The good times are easy and not worth the trouble of a vow. It is the bad times that call for a ceremony.

I did not stay for the reception and got an early start on the L.A. traffic to return home. I could hardly wait to get back to everyone. For we have been in the throes of the bad times. When love is challenged to prove itself.

A note from a disaster pastor

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There doesn’t seem to be many of us left on campus now. With the Woolsey Fire only 5% contained, Pepperdine decided to utilize remote learning options and not hold classes on the Malibu campus until after Thanksgiving break, so most all students have now safely headed home. It is a motley crew that remains, and we are standing strong together. We are tired, but fine, and our houses are probably safer than ever since the threatening fires scorched the surrounding hillsides so that there isn’t anything left there to burn. But the winds have returned, so we continue to watch and pray.

We currently have a front row seat to an impressive air show as planes and helicopters use our campus as staging area for their heroic efforts. I’m not exactly sure how I have been privileged to have a front row seat to the worst hurricane in American history and then the most destructive fires in California history some two thousand miles and thirteen years apart, but that is the way this life has played out. Someone called me the “disaster pastor,” which is probably both funny and an accurate way to describe my approach to things!

Our condo is fine but without WiFi, so we are on lower campus often to communicate with the outside world and to eat together and be together as a community. I sat down at my office desk this afternoon to try to write and noticed my breathing mask next to my Pepperdine Waves hat. The absurdity reminded me of the craziness of these past few days: a horrible, horrible mass shooting targeting college students followed by raging wildfires.

It is strange to say that I am glad to be here. I was glad to be in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, thirteen years ago when a group of people I loved were threatened and vulnerable, and I am glad to be in Malibu, California, today for the same reason. The word “pastor” is just another word for a shepherd, and a shepherd is there to protect and care for sheep. That doesn’t have to be your job title, of course. It is more of a posture, and it feels like such an honor to be there for others in times of vulnerability. I am surrounded here with like-minded people, including the leadership of this great university, although my wife might just be the best pastor I know.

I never learned the source, but I remember reading a couplet from a poem as a young man that took my breath away and seems to have shaped the trajectory of my adult life that said:

Some want to live within the sound of church and steeple bell.
I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.

That still gets me after all these years.

Keep praying for our area if you don’t mind: for those who have lost so much, for those who are still in danger, and for those who are fighting fires of all kinds. We will be strong and make it together.

Star Sightings

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One week after the terrible mass shooting during Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, interfaith gatherings appeared all over the nation like tender flowers sprouting from the bloody soil.

My new friend, Rabbi Michael Schwartz, who is new to Malibu, graciously invited me to take part in an interfaith service at the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue as Sabbath began last Friday evening. Rabbi Schwartz conducted a beautiful service filled with thoughtful songs, prayers, and reflections, and the musical gifts shared by Cantor Marcelo and his special guests were deeply moving.

At the outset of the service, we who represented local clergy from various faith backgrounds, along with important community leaders, were invited on stage to light eleven candles in honor of the lives that were tragically taken in Pittsburgh. We were then asked to share a short blessing. Without knowing exactly what to say at such a difficult moment, I chose to share a quote from Dr. King’s famous mountaintop speech, the last before he was assassinated: “Only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars.”

Looking at those flickering candles and out at the diverse audience in the synagogue, I can say with confidence that I saw stars shining in the darkness.

There is plenty of darkness to go around. May we see the stars. May we be the stars.

A Waste of Time

blog carRecently I finished a nice morning run on Zuma Beach just as the sun rose over the ocean and felt pretty good about myself when I pulled into the Arco station on the PCH. The Arco has the cheapest gas in Malibu, which isn’t saying a whole lot, but since I had to drive into Los Angeles that day and was in that part of town anyway it made sense to fill up. I pulled up to the pump behind a small SUV, placed the car in park, and glanced over to make sure my tank was next to the pump, but when I looked forward again I noticed that the SUV was in reverse and coming at me. I honked just a moment before impact. Well, the driver was a nice guy who felt terrible about the accident that did no damage to his vehicle but a number on the front end of mine. We exchanged information and left to face the day.

Later, I reflected on how privileged I am. Let me count the ways: (i) I have a car; (ii) the other driver’s insurance paid for the repairs; (iii) it also paid for a rental car (and side note on even more privilege: the rental was a Toyota Corolla, so compared to my Honda Civic, I continued to turn heads in Malibu); and (iv) a great body shop returned my car good as new.

So given all that, how come everyone I mentioned the accident to responded as if I had lost a pet? And why did I feel as if this was all such a pain in the derriere? Am I really that spoiled?

Probably.

But on second thought, maybe everyone knows, and everyone includes me, that things like this take up time—and that time is one of our greatest possessions. When I thought of it that way I almost felt justified in pouting over the time I lost getting the car repaired.

Until I considered that pouting over anything is a pretty crappy way to use such a great possession, too.

Chama Chama

 

Our eight-person team from the University Church of Christ in Malibu recently spent two weeks in Kenya on a mission trip and experienced the full spectrum of emotions, which most definitely included gut-busting laughter. One of the chief causes of hilarity was a popular Swahili song titled, Chama Chama (translated, Party, Party). It is unbelievably long (fourteen minutes) and the cheesiest kind of romantic, which is even funnier when the sultry voice transitions from Swahili to broken English, e.g., “I can’t get off my eyes from your photos.”

One day we were touring Mathare Valley, a famed slum in Nairobi, and were crammed into a tiny shanty when surprisingly Chama Chama blasted across a neighbor’s radio. Our host was confused by our initial reaction and then burst into laughter when we burst into song.

I took pictures and video clips from our trip and assembled a video to chronicle our trip—the sessions with the graduates, the home and work visits, the safari, and the friendships, both old and new. Of course the video is fourteen minutes long, and of course Chama Chama is the soundtrack. I doubt anyone beyond the eight of us who were there really want to watch, but it might be worth it just to join the Chama Chama phenomenon that is now sweeping Southern California.

The Homeless Count

FB_Shared_1I set my alarm at 4:15am last Thursday and predictably objected on multiple counts when the time arrived to rise and shine. But it wasn’t just the oppressive hour. My head pounded and my body ached after a terrible night of sleep, and the day ahead was scheduled to end seventeen work hours later. That I should stay in bed was obvious, but I slowly eased up and out of bed anyway and arrived at Our Lady of Malibu Catholic Church by 5am per my commitment.

I wasn’t alone. There were 25-30 volunteers there, including my friends David, Reese, and Steve from church, along with an impressive spread of coffee and pastries. I don’t do coffee, and I should not do pastries according to gastrointestinal feedback, so I declined the goodies, which surprisingly included the option of chocolate pie for breakfast. Or whatever the 5am meal is called.

After registration and a training video and a couple of speeches from law enforcement personnel, we were divided into groups and sent out into the morning darkness to conduct our portion of the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count. We church buddies found our way into a group all our own and armed with a flashlight, clipboard, map, tally sheet, and bottled water we drove to Point Dume and Zuma Beach to do our part to provide accurate numbers so that much-needed services may be distributed appropriately.

David drove, Steve navigated, Reese tallied, and I contributed insightful and entertaining conversation (or at least that’s what I told myself). We noted some homeless individuals, automotive “homes,” and located one encampment in our designated area. We were four of over eight thousand volunteers that turned out across Los Angeles to serve in this capacity this year.

I wish I could say that I got out of bed on Thursday out of the goodness of my heart, but it was undoubtedly an awful lot of guilt instead. How do you really convince yourself that you can’t get out of your warm bed in your spacious house to count homeless individuals because you feel sick and had a rough night’s sleep? I couldn’t figure it out on short notice at least.

And I wish I could say that this small bout of volunteerism revitalized my health and produced a day full of rainbows and cotton candy, but I felt pretty terrible all day long. Seventeen hours later I made it home and went straight to bed. And as I crawled into bed feeling achy and chilled and generally crappy, my first thought was of those folks who were homeless again that night. And how they probably felt.

So I’m writing a blog about it for no particular good reason.  A blog entry surely doesn’t make a difference. It would take a national commitment to collectively end homelessness, and don’t hold your breath. There is no national conversation, much less commitment; instead, there are mostly local conversations across the nation as to how to push homelessness into the next community.

But there are individuals who are engaged and trying anyway. I am impressed by those doing something to make a real difference one person at a time despite the odds. Maybe someday, I, too, will have that sort of courage that reflects the counsel of Mother Teresa who said, “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”

Do Things Right

Marv-Dunphy-960x500“Do things right.” – Marv Dunphy (as reported by former player and assistant coach, J.D. Schleppenbach)

I have a strong aversion to being a groupie that is fueled by an unhealthy personal pride that at least keeps me from forcing myself on impressive people who surely don’t need another person attempting to feel important by association. Now don’t get me wrong: I would love to be close to certain famous people. I’m just too proud to act on it.

So living in Malibu is obviously weird for me.

Pepperdine is interesting in its own right. Sometimes Pepperdine intersects with the world famous through its connections and/or location, but in some instances Pepperdine has its own preeminent personalities. Like Marv Dunphy.

Marv Dunphy is a living legend and is to volleyball what John Wooden was to basketball. He coached his alma mater, Pepperdine, to four NCAA national championships in his storied career before retiring in 2017 but has also served his country by coaching the United States in seven Olympic Games and was the head coach of the gold medal team in 1988.

There are more accolades and statistics for sure, but it didn’t take me long living around here to learn that Coach Dunphy is a Pepperdine legend for more than numbers and championships. I listened to countless stories from friends ranging from former athletes and friends to the faculty member primarily responsible for Marv’s career at Pepperdine about his character, humility, personal integrity, leadership, and the way that he demanded that his student athletes be good human beings above all.

I have had the pleasure of shaking Coach Dunphy’s hand a time or two through mutual friends but have never had an actual conversation with the man. At first that was due to my weird anti-groupie approach to life but is now due to a deep respect for him as a human being. He surely doesn’t need to talk to me, and I no longer feel the need to extract words of wisdom from him. He has already taught me enough lessons about life just from the legendary stories and from watching him work to keep me busy implementing what it means to do things right.

But last Saturday evening was “Marv Dunphy Night” at Firestone Fieldhouse, and you know that I was there. I attended a pre-game reception in his honor because I wanted to be close enough just to watch him in action.

Hmm, I guess that makes me a groupie after all.

Freedom is a Road to Love

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“[T]he ultimate goal of human beings is not the ‘kingdom of freedom.’ Rather, the kingdom of freedom is a process toward the kingdom of God, which is the kingdom of love.” – Miroslav Volf (explaining Jurgen Moltmann), Exclusion & Embrace, 105

I chose “Freedom Road: The Exodus Story” as our church’s fall semester sermon series and brought it to a close yesterday morning. We will now turn our attention to the birth of Jesus and a brand new year and a consideration of how to live once liberated from oppression.

I have enjoyed the freedom road journey despite having to listen to myself speak along the way. It is a spectacular story. We started with the birth of Moses in Egyptian slavery and followed the stunning liberation narrative until Joshua stood in a land of promise and called the Israelites to fully commit to God.

It has been particularly interesting to consider freedom in a land that loves the idea so much because the American preoccupation with independence is at odds with my particular faith. Freedom is a good word, of course, if for no other reason than because oppression is a bad word, but there is danger in making freedom the ultimate goal—and our unfortunate tendency is to value our independence above all things. I agree with Volf/Moltmann in recognizing freedom instead as a pathway to a beautiful land where love rules.

But I still don’t trust myself. While drawn through compelling hints toward the land where love rules, I have been conditioned to be in control and to avoid answering to anyone other than Me. The cultural indoctrination runs deep.

So I find myself still on Freedom Road, ironically in the process of being set free from the oppression of Freedom. But my journey is filled with hope and faith in a beautiful future that to date remains unseen.

 

The Life of Pie

Pie Festival PicI like pie.  I like pie a lot.  So there is very little arm-twisting involved when the opportunity to judge the Malibu Pie Festival heads my direction.

Several years ago in my first pie-judging experience I met Linda Hamilton of The Terminator fame who served as a fellow judge.  I had chosen the “fruit” category, but she mentioned that she had decided to take one for the team and judge the pies submitted by children.  This led to an ongoing moral dilemma in my life.  Do I judge wonderful strawberry, peach, and blueberry pies?  Or, do I judge pies adorned with gummi worms and breakfast cereals?

I have gone back and forth over the years based on my current walk with Jesus.

This year, I may have found a happy compromise by judging the pies submitted by older teens.  There were three lovely pies to judge, including a cannoli pie, a pina colada pie, and a strawberry pie.  All of them were terrific, and I left with very little guilt.  Win-win, as they say.

My friends at the Malibu United Methodist Church have put on the annual Malibu Pie Festival for twenty-eight years now as a fundraising effort for the many good works they perform and support in the Malibu community, including a weekly community dinner for our homeless friends.  I preached at MUMC one Sunday morning several years ago and was shocked to learn that it is a small church in terms of numbers.  Malibu really is a small town.  But MUMC is a huge church in its heart.

So sure, it is quite a privilege to judge pies at the Malibu Pie Festival, and sure, it is wonderful to see friends from the community out for the fun alongside celebrities like Jamie Foxx and Kelly Osbourne.  More importantly, it is inspiring to know that good hearts seeking to serve the underserved make it happen.