Our church family has long prepared and served periodic meals for the weekly meetings of a local ministry that serves marginalized people in Malibu. After the meal there is a Bible study for those interested in staying, which ends up being a decent number of people. Last week, the message from the ministry leader was part sermon and part motivational speech that encouraged those in attendance to live with courage. I was particularly impressed by the connection he had with the motley audience. It was obvious that they liked him, which I suspect is in large part because he likes them.
At the end there was a short time of prayer — short because it was getting dark and the audience was well aware of when the city bus made its last run through Malibu. As the leader went person to person for short prayer requests, I was stunned to hear that the emphasis of a majority of people was on how thankful they were to God for their blessings.
Marginalized. Poor. Damaged. Broken. Homeless. And thankful.
I got in my car as the sun descended over the Pacific Ocean and drove back to a beautiful home on an immaculate university campus. And as I headed out I drove past this slow line of individuals that will cause citizens to roll up their windows and lock their doors. They were headed to the bus stop. To the beach. To the woods. To God knows where.
I have much to learn from those good souls. The car and the house and the job and the respect of society — none of it is worth very much if I do not live thankfully. To live thankfully regardless of circumstances is a true sign of success regardless of the outside packaging.
I want to see everything there is to see. All of these United States. All the regions of the world. (Well, except Antarctica. If I want to see frozen beauty I will go to the ice cream section of the grocery store.) I can hear all the wonders of the world calling my name. The world is vast and wild and beautiful and alluring, but it turns out there’s an argument to be made for just staying home.
Ronnie and I chased our friend, Brad, for 5.6 miles through Zuma Canyon Trail in the May Gray of Malibu last Saturday morning — and it was good. Good friends. Good run. Good conversation. Good stories and laughter. Beautiful scenery. Gentle trails. Birds and flowers. Pleasant temperatures. A light mist.
And yet I wondered how a runner like me who has lived in Malibu for nine years had never heard of Zuma Canyon Trail until Brad suggested we check it out. What else have I failed to see in my own backyard?
I know that I could never take in all the wonders of this magical planet. Believe me, I did the math. And I know that I could never drink from all the intoxicating wonders of California, or even Los Angeles. But now I am wondering if I could ever exhaust the beautiful secrets of this one little town!
There is value in travel and adventure, but a frantic effort to see and do everything is a fool’s mission. Foolish because it is doomed to failure, but also foolish because you just may miss out on the cleverly disguised magic in your everyday world.
Enjoy the occasional globetrotting adventure if you get the opportunity, but you don’t have to leave home to discover amazing hidden treasures. Take a look around and see for yourself.
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.
Posted in Original Essays, Poems
Tagged bible lectures, california, henri nouwen, life, malibu, mississippi, motivation, pepperdine, present, reflection, unpredictable, wendell berry
Our 2008 move from Mississippi to Malibu sounds like a seismic culture shift, but moving from affluent, artsy, coastal Ocean Springs, Mississippi, to affluent, artsy, coastal Malibu was not as mind-blowing as you’d think. Okay, it was mind-blowing, just not as mind-blowing as you’d think.
One of the major differences is simply topographical. Ocean Springs sits on the super flat Mississippi Gulf Coast. Malibu officially sits at sea level, too, but that is only half the picture since the vast ocean spectacularly combines with equally stunning mountains. The views we are privileged to enjoy on the Pepperdine campus are ridiculous, and quite often we awaken to see that we are actually above the clouds. It is like a flight with adequate leg room and spacious bathroom facilities.
Recently, on such a morning, I drove from Sunshine Mountain down into the murky clouds for a beachside run along Malibu Road. It is one of my favorite runs because it is nearby, flat, quiet, and scenic, but it isn’t quite as scenic on mornings when the clouds decide to take a nap on the surface of the planet. Despite the cloud cover, I took off with eyes wide open since I have developed a habit of memorializing each morning run with a photograph. It was a challenge. The crashing waves were pretty great in the fog, but not so much for my increasingly outdated iPhone camera, and the horizon was simply nowhere to be seen.
And then I noticed the flowers. The reds and purples, the yellows and lavenders, all nestled in a setting of green and white, almost shy and hiding in the morning fog.
Life lessons exploded from the haze like the colorful flowers. For starters, when life descends into a fog, remember to look for the beauty that is ever present. But also, when life floats in the sunshine above the gray clouds, remember to go to the trouble of joining the world struggling through the smothering gloom. It would be tragic to miss out on the stunning grace that can be found in the obscurity.
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged beauty, clouds, flowers, fog, grace, gulf coast, life, malibu, mississippi, ocean springs, pepperdine
Some days it feels like my wife and I should move to Nairobi to be with the children we met there who live on the hard streets. On others I consider Delhi where I learned that young girls are vulnerable to sex traffickers. On still others I remember the poor Brazilians we saw living in the favelas of Rio. But today, I live in California.
And then some days I drive down L.A.’s “skid row” and wonder how I can live in Malibu instead of with those in absolute squalor just a few miles away. And then I open my eyes to Malibu and see homeless and un/under-employed friends looking for work at the Malibu Community Labor Exchange.
The needs are simply everywhere.
How does one live in this old world? I have worked for several causes, from at-risk children to poverty housing to disaster relief to homelessness to day laborers…
And then I see those heart-wrenching images of Syrian children on television. And then churches in Egypt are bombed while celebrating Palm Sunday.
The needs are everywhere, and they are overwhelming.
My personal belief system leads to public policy opinions that seems to place me at odds with all presidents, not to mention most of my friends, but it also leads me to devote (some but far) less energy to public policy discussions and more to being with the sufferers. Knowing names. Sharing hugs. Sharing tears.
But there are so many.
So here is my plan:
I will not let such overwhelming need harden my heart so that I give up on caring. I refuse the temptation to apathy.
I will not allow the impossibility of being everywhere at once immobilize me so that I give up on trying. I refuse the temptation to quit.
And I will encourage others to make similar commitments. I refuse the temptation to think that it is all up to me.
May the privileged few share with the underprivileged masses. Everywhere. Together. Today.
Syrian Refugee Children (via the International Rescue Committee)
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged action, california, delhi, favelas, injustice, labor exchange, los angeles, love, malibu, nairobi, privilege, rio, share, skid row, syria
I’m hoping that preaching every Sunday is like riding a bicycle because it has been nine years since I broke the habit. We’ll find out soon. Come see for yourself if you are near Malibu starting this weekend (10:15am, Elkins Auditorium, Pepperdine University).
I have known several impressive teachers and scholars who regularly communicate complicated material to large groups of people and yet are totally freaked out by the prospect of delivering a twenty-five minute sermon. At first I thought they were crazy, but it actually does make some sense. Preaching is its own animal.
When I moved to Malibu for law school in 2008 after a decade of preaching, I had the pleasure of listening to Ken Durham preach each Sunday. After my first year here, Ken asked me to fill in for him one Sunday. I accepted and on that Sunday in the summer of 2009 read a classic selection from Frederick Buechner that is my all-time favorite description of the preaching moment. As I mentally prepare to climb back on the proverbial horse, here it is once again:
“So the sermon hymn comes to a close with a somewhat unsteady amen, and the organist gestures the choir to sit down. Fresh from breakfast with his wife and children and a quick runthrough of the Sunday papers, the preacher climbs the steps to the pulpit with his sermon in his hand. He hikes his black robe up at the knee so he will not trip over it on the way up. His mouth is a little dry. He has cut himself shaving. He feels as if he has swallowed an anchor. If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, he would just as soon be somewhere else. In the front pews the old ladies turn up their hearing aids, and a young lady slips her six year old a Lifesaver and a Magic Marker. A college sophomore home for vacation, who is there because he was dragged there, slumps forward with his chin in his hand. The vice-president of a bank who twice that week has seriously contemplated suicide places his hymnal in the rack. A pregnant girl feels the life stir inside her. A high-school math teacher, who for twenty years has managed to keep his homosexuality a secret for the most part even from himself, creases his order of service down the center with his thumbnail and tucks it under his knee . . . . The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this minute he has them in the palm of his hand. The silence in the shabby church is deafening because everybody is listening to it. Everybody is listening including even himself. Everybody knows the kind of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of the silence, he will tell them? Let him tell them the truth.”
The Great Southern California Drought seems awfully wet nowadays. I read that it will take several wet years to rescue SoCal from its drought condition, but you have to give it to January 2017 for trying to do it all at once. Last Friday’s rains produced multiple mudslides that effectively turned Malibu into a peninsula in advance of the heavy rains that hit on Sunday. If the Pepperdine deer and coyotes start lining up in pairs, you will find me consulting Waze for the nearest Noah.
So it appears that the prayers for rain produced so much of it that the world around here is literally falling apart. Figures. Life’s strong suit does not appear to be producing a happy medium.
While not below the poverty line, I grew up relatively poor. In the early 1980s, my dad was laid off from his longtime work as a butcher in a meatpacking plant and took a part-time job at a neighborhood grocery store. I knew the store well, having built my baseball and football card collection from its candy counter thirty cents and one pack at a time. When my loving father found out that I liked a particular brand of candy, he would bring home so much of it in brown paper bags that I couldn’t stand to look at it anymore. You don’t get upset with a dad who loves you that much. But you do start secretly feeding Laffy Taffy to stray animals.
Moderation is as rare as happiness is elusive, and there just may be a connection between the two. And if the current state of American politics is instructive, moderation is less popular than ever. Extreme is in, and moderation is out.
Imagine changing the names of television shows and events from extreme to moderate:
- Moderate Home Makeover (ABC)
- Moderate RVs (Travel Channel)
- Moderate Weight Loss (ABC)
- Moderate Couponing (TLC)
- Moderate Homes (HGTV)
- Moderate Cuisine (The Food Network)
- The Moderation Games (ESPN)
Not really ratings grabbers.
But the ancient philosophers may have been on to something when they advised moderation. “Never go to excess, but let moderation be your guide.” (Cicero) “If one oversteps the bounds of moderation, the greatest pleasures cease to please.” (Epicetus) “If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it.” (Proverbs 25:16, ESV; see also Laffy Taffy, above.)
As this blessed rain falls and the hills collapse, I guess I’m just thinking that the ancient virtue, Temperance, deserves a second look.
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged california, cicero, drought, epicetus, laffy taffy, malibu, moderation, pepperdine, politics, proverbs, rain, socal, temperance, waze
The results of the presidential election prompted me to visit my friend, Oscar, at the Malibu Community Labor Exchange last weekend. For over two decades, Oscar has directed the day labor hiring site day after day, week after week, year after year. He is a personal friend and hero. I went to see Oscar because I wondered how the day laborers were reacting to the news, but to be candid, Oscar is such a man of peace and wisdom that I anticipated the visit would be good for me, too. I miscalculated the election itself, but at least I got that one right.
Oscar was a Cesar Chavez apprentice back in the day and traveled with Cesar to all sorts of interesting places and situations. It was fascinating to hear him make connections between then and now. As the world remembers, Cesar’s activism was strong yet nonviolent and eternally optimistic. Si, se puede! I think we all need a good helping of strong, nonviolent optimism right now.
As we visited, Oscar recalled times when Cesar was criticized for meeting with government officials who were seen as his direct enemies. Many supporters of the farm workers could not even bring themselves to say the names of those opposition leaders and could hardly stomach witnessing Cesar shake hands, pose for pictures, and sit in conversation with people they believed to be evil. Cesar was willing to talk with them anyway. Oscar explained Cesar’s approach: On behalf of others, he was always willing to talk with anyone to advance the cause regardless of his personal feelings or the reaction it generated.
It is far too easy to surround ourselves with like-minded individuals and forego the arduous task of seeking to engage and understand those in opposition, but we will only move forward if we are willing to talk to each other. That, my friends, requires us to put the needs of others ahead of our own and even risk ridicule from our own people.
Thanks to Cesar for living this out. Thanks to Oscar for reminding me.
Si, se puede!
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged activism, cesar chavez, conversation, day laborers, election, farm workers, hope, immigration, labor exchange, malibu, mexico, nonviolence, optimism, oscar mondragon, politics, president, si se puede, trump
“Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Waze calculates thirty-four miles from Pepperdine University to East Los Angeles College; the Pacific Coast Highway to East Cesar E. Chavez Avenue; the celebrity-populated western side of Los Angeles to Cheech Marin’s East L.A.; Malibu to Monterey Park. It sure seems longer, even in rush hour traffic. They are two different worlds.
I serve on the advisory council for the East Los Angeles College (“ELAC”) Pathway to Law School Transfer Program, a coalition of educators and practitioners brought together to destroy obstacles that stand in the way of a young person advancing from high school to community college, from community college to a four-year college, and from a four-year college to law school. It is an inspiring group, and I am honored to be a part.
It is also personally disconcerting. I’m not exactly sure how I, a first-generation college student from rural Arkansas, the son of a butcher who dropped out of high school to provide for his family during the Great Depression, am suddenly the picture of white privilege in a room full of impressive human beings, but as a lawyer who drove over from his condo in Malibu, even my expertise in denial simply tossed in the towel and admitted the truth. I may be the most reluctant privileged person around.
It was dark when the meeting ended, and on the stroll across the ELAC campus to drive back to idyllic Malibu, I noticed several classes in session. Maybe I was wanting it to be so, but it sure looked like all of the students in those classes were engaged in the instruction and not bored on Facebook. I’m just sure of it. I then wandered by the math tutoring center, and it was undeniably a hub of academic activity late on a weekday evening. All this made me feel particularly hopeful in this perplexing world of ours.
If I must come to terms with privilege, and I just might have to, I must use it to help those inspiring students hungry for knowledge in those hushed classrooms gleaming in the darkness.
Posted in Original Essays
Tagged cheech marin, dreams, east los angeles, elac, hope, justice, law, law school, malibu, martin luther king jr., pathways, pepperdine, privilege, waze