Tag Archives: mississippi

Closure One Way or Another

DCF 1.0

Hillary’s Bedroom, Ocean Springs, Mississippi (2005)

I turn in my grades this week, and graduation is scheduled for Saturday—a “virtual” ceremony, of course. We plan to have as many graduates as possible return here in December for the in-person version, but it made sense to do something now to commemorate the occasion since these wonderful students have completed the requirements and are college graduates. Many faculty and staff have given their best to make the virtual ceremony meaningful. Our hurt for our graduates’ loss is only exceeded by their own pain. But we sure are trying our best.

Closure is important, and when the typical ways are impossible, we need to create some version anyway.

When my youngest daughter was eight years old, we lost our house to a hurricane. We gutted the house and sold it at a significant loss, and that little girl asked me to take her to visit the house one final time in early December to say good-bye. That seemed like a harmless thing to do.

It was cold that afternoon [note: the picture above was months earlier], and looking back, I guess it was sort of fitting. The wind cut straight through you, foreboding. We didn’t need a key to get in. Or even hands now that I think of it. All of our doors and most of our windows had not been on the house for the past quarter of the year, so when Hillary and I walked in the house, there really wasn’t much to see. But it felt different.

Hillary took over as tour guide and led me from room to room. At times she was less tour guide and more tourist, asking me for some clarification in each place. “Daddy, was this where the couch was?” “Daddy, wasn’t this where we had the television?” From time to time, the tour guide would pop up with a few declarations: “This is where the big red chair was.” “Here is where I would play with my bouncy-balls every once in a while.” “Here was my bed!”

I didn’t recognize what was happening because I am a moron. Hillary was studying. It was cramming for finals time. She did not want to forget.

I started to see that little “I wanna cry” face a few times, but I told myself I was wrong. It’s probably just the wind whipping through the house, making her cold. I didn’t take any chances, however, so I asked Hillary if she wanted us to pray and thank God for all the good times in this house. She did. So we held hands in that cold and drafty gutted-out mess of a house, that house where Hillary left for her first day of school, the place where magical creatures like Santa and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny brought wonder to that child’s imagination, the site of bed-snuggles and family nights and fevers and boo-boos and birthday parties and loose teeth and special suppers and homemade cookies and every single one of Hillary’s memories that defined “home”—and we prayed. And God saw it. And it was good.

Then, like a march to an execution we began our last trip out of that house of memories, though an eight-year-old seemed to skip playfully more than shuffle in shackles even if the journey was final and difficult. She made the declaration on her way out that this would be the last time she stepped foot in that house. She didn’t say it in such a sad voice, but she said it from a sad heart. The house had to have been sad, too.

The bone-chilling wind was just a bit colder on the outside of the house, and I was ready for some heat in the car, but Hillary wanted one more treasure-hunting trip to the front ditch where we had tossed our belongings for debris removal months earlier. Like a good father, I said, “Okay, don’t step on a nail. I’ll be in the car.”

This was another in my long line of parental mistakes.

The good news is that she didn’t step on a nail. The bad news is that she saw her prize-winning science fair display ground into the front ditch. That was not good at all.

She made it into the car without crying. She bravely mentioned that she had spotted something very important to her in the front ditch, then went on to share what it was. She had the face-thing going full strength now, doing her best not to cry. We told the house good-bye, made one last drive-by of the front ditch, and we made it part of the way down the road before she lost it. As always, Hillary had my full permission to do just that.

Fifteen years later I still remember the lesson that little girl taught me: Closure matters. Even if it is a weak substitute for normal methods, it matters.

It is hard to explain and even harder to fathom, but we think back on those hurricane stories with some odd type of fondness now. It turned out to be a special and unforgettable time in our lives.

It is my prayer that our graduates can do that someday, too. But for now, and this weekend in particular, let’s make up some kind of moment to close the door on a special time. And it is more than okay if it brings a tear.

Respecting Time

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“Time is an illusion.” – Albert Einstein

Tick, tock, the clock does its rhythmic work without fail, and without complaint, while we lament that it goes too slow or marvel that it goes too fast. But time never misses a beat. And as the 2010s approach their finish line and the 2020s prepare to take the baton, like everyone else, I stop to reflect on the mystery of it all.

A decade ago I was approaching forty, smack dab in the middle of law school, living in a university residence hall with my family in California. For obvious reasons I anticipated launching a new life as an attorney in my forties, but here I sit a decade later in Tennessee, approaching fifty as a university vice president. Life surely is unpredictable.

I dare not venture a guess at life a decade down the road. The past has at least taught me that much. Two decades ago I was a baby preacher in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Three decades ago I was a college student in Arkansas preparing to coach high school basketball. Four decades ago I was wearing a yellow ribbon to Mrs. Conley’s fourth grade class for the hostages in Iran, and fifty years ago? Well, I was born nine months later, so I’d rather not think of that too much.

Einstein said that time is an illusion. And that dude was pretty smart.

Last week we spent Christmas in Arkansas with extended family. It was a great visit. Most of our trip occurred in or driving by farmland, and it reminded me of what Stephen Covey referred to the “law of the farm”—his way of describing how certain things cannot be rushed. One might cram for a test, but you can’t cram on the farm. Planting, cultivation, and harvest must occur in order, and in due time, and the rhythm cannot be forced.

Life apparently subscribes to the law of the farm. Tick, tock, the clock does its rhythmic work without fail, and without complaint, while we lament that it goes too slow or marvel that it goes too fast. But time never misses a beat.

Heading Home

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From our seat in Jackson Square

Somewhere in Texas on a flat and lonely stretch of interstate my wife broke the silence to share, “I started to say that we are a long way from home, but I’m not sure where home is right now.” This wasn’t a sad statement, just a true one.

#1: We are forever from Arkansas, and before our trip ended we spent quality time there. Family. Farmland. Razorback license plates. Home.

#2: But we lived a decade of our married life on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a special place we also visited on our cross-country journey. Live oaks. Shrimp boats. Humidity. Also home.

#3: Our trip originated in California where we lived together the longest. Palm trees. Mountains. Crashing waves. Yet another home.

#4: But we eventually arrived in Nashville, Tennessee. Music. Rolling hills. Hot chicken. Our new home.

So where should we say is home? It is a question far deeper than our uniquely mixed-up situation. “Home” may generate thoughts of a specific residential structure or a group of people or a city/region/state/country, but I think home is more of a sensation. It is a place of belonging. From personal experience it seems to me that there can be more than one, and today, as I start my new job, we are excited to add a new one to our list.

But then again I’m not certain we human beings ever really locate home on this life journey. Our talk of “something more” than this life leads me to wonder if we are all simply on an epic odyssey to find home.  As Sojourner Truth once declared, “I am not going to die. I’m going home like a shooting star.” Maybe we are all headed home?

We took a break in the middle of our cross-country move to enjoy New Orleans, one of our very favorite places. We were sitting in the warm sunshine in Jackson Square, soaking in the day, when my wife raised the question again, “If someone asks us where we are from, what do we say?” I admit that I was stumped. But later, upon reflection, I think I just might say, “’We’re from everywhere, but ultimately we are headed toward home.”

Mudbound

mudbound picWe were simply looking for a movie to watch on Netflix and Mudbound had rave reviews. Watch it. But fair warning: It is difficult to watch. It is difficult to watch because the storytellers do a masterful job of portraying the sort of lives that were difficult to live. The movie is a disturbing, compelling, haunting, yet beautiful work of art.

Mudbound features the intertwined stories of two rural Mississippi families, one black and one white, when one member from each family returned home following World War II. I will spare you the full movie review (especially preserving the memorable ending) and just state that systemic poverty, racism, and PTSD are terrible things and that all sorts of people—the beautiful, the complicated, and the perverse—are all mixed up in it.

I learned that the movie came from a novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan, and since we all know that books are better than their movies, I can only imagine how good it must be. The novel reportedly contains the line, “Death may be inevitable, but love is not. Love, you have to choose.”

This seems particularly important to consider on this special holiday that remembers Dr. King. On this day and every day, like Dr. King, may we choose love. “Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

 

These United States

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The United States of America is 242 years old today. It seems to be in a bit of a cranky stage but those of us who love her hope she will grow out of it someday (soon). It is a spectacular country in about every way you define spectacular. I have now traveled to five continents and have a better frame of reference—enough to recognize that the land of my birth is unique in its global influence.

And I have now spent time in thirty-six of these United States and hope to complete the set someday. I already have remarkable memories.

I stood outside the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Alabama and threw snowballs on the Fourth of July in Alaska. I stood at the Grand Canyon in Arizona and called the Hogs in Arkansas. I watched the sunset in California and ran in the snow in Colorado. I saw a rocket launch in Florida and ate peach cobbler in Georgia. I ran along the Snake River in Idaho and sang Take Me Out to the Ballgame at Wrigley Field in Illinois. I shot hoops at Larry Bird’s restaurant in Indiana and drove by corn fields in Iowa.

I saw the wide open horizon in Kansas and watched horses run behind white fences in Kentucky. I ate beignets in Louisiana and crab cakes in Maryland. I toured the Ford Museum in Michigan and the Mall of America in Minnesota. I saw a hurricane in Mississippi and the Gateway Arch in Missouri. I sang in the capitol rotunda in Nebraska and walked the Las Vegas Strip in Nevada. I drove Route 66 across New Mexico and ran Central Park in New York.

I ate banana pudding in North Carolina and had a VIP tour of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Ohio. I dodged tornadoes in Oklahoma and crossed breathtaking rivers in Pennsylvania. I saw Fort Sumter in South Carolina and the Lorraine Motel in Tennessee. I witnessed Monday Night Football in Texas and the Golden Spike National Monument in Utah. I crossed the Potomac in Virginia and ascended the Space Needle in Washington. I drove up a winding mountain in West Virginia and ate cheese curds in a bar in Wisconsin.

I am ready for more.

This is an incredible country, and I choose to celebrate these United States today. And I choose to do my part in making it better tomorrow.

Surprised by Nostalgia

Front BeachI was born and raised in Arkansas. I love Arkansas. Now I live in California. And I love California. But recently I was reminded that a significant part of my heart remains in Mississippi.

We lived in Mississippi for about ten years and then moved to California about ten years ago. When we moved I expected to visit Mississippi from time to time, but somehow that had not happened in nine years until an unexpected invitation to officiate a funeral for a sweet friend arrived a couple of weeks ago. After a crazy couple of days of rearranging plans, I woke up to discover that I had been blasted into the past. I was unprepared.

I often say that nostalgia is just not my jam. For better or worse, my brain is oriented toward what is ahead, so life’s rearview mirror is relatively unused in my world. Well, it got used a bunch on this return to Mississippi.

Upon landing in Gulfport, I rented a car and drove down Highway 49 to the Gulf Coast and then along the beach that had been ravaged by Katrina thirteen years ago and, as the kids say, I started to feel all the feels. I saw familiar landmarks such as Beauvoir, the Biloxi Lighthouse, and Mary Mahoney’s. I saw the Coast Coliseum where my oldest daughter graduated high school and Point Cadet where my youngest had her first dance recital. There was the familiar Sharkhead’s souvenir shop and Jaws-inspired entrance but with a post-Katrina transformation that turned the entire first floor into a shaded parking lot. The Treasure Bay casino pirate ship is simply gone forever, and although I had never stepped foot inside, that made me want to cry. I had misplaced certain memories like the unique combination of bright white sands and murky waters and wondered what else I had forgotten over the years. It appeared that my GPS had sent me unwittingly down Memory Lane.

Our old hometown of Ocean Springs really threw me for a loop. I drove downtown past Lovelace Drugs and the Walter Anderson Museum and had to get out on Front Beach just to breathe. I stopped for a heavenly Tato-Nut donut and drove to our old Katrina-flooded house and discovered that it now looks like it did that fateful day when we evacuated for the storm. I wasn’t sure what to think about that sort of resurrection.

But seeing old friends nearly made my heart explode with love. Jim and Dimple. Gene and Eileen. All the Fains. Bruno and Linda. Angie and Carol. Todd and Robin. Samantha and Shelly. Tandy and Peggy. Bernice and Cathy. Frances and Mark. Tim and Katie. Connor and Amanda. Debbie and Brynlee. There is so much love in my heart for Ocean Springs and the Mississippi Gulf Coast—especially for our friends. I knew that in my brain and held it in my heart, but this trip resurrected the feeling from deep in my soul. Nostalgia hit me like a wave and left me dizzy. Like that old storm surge.

I texted my wife to say that we have to go back and visit together sometime. She said that she had wanted to do that for a long time now.

I know that I should learn to stop and smell the roses. But I am learning that I should also stop, turn around, and head back to Mississippi to smell the magnolias from time to time.

As I Sit Writing

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It is kind of cool to say that I read Jesmyn Ward before reading William Faulkner, but as a former Mississippian it felt wrong never to have read Faulkner so I purchased As I Lay Dying and devoured it while strapped to an airplane on a recent business trip. Faulkner is a legend, of course, especially so in Mississippi what with his Nobel and multiple Pulitzers and all.

As I Lay Dying is probably Faulkner’s runner-up to The Sound and the Fury for his best-known novel and is most assuredly a depressing story. The pitiful Bundren family’s sad series of misadventures attempting to bury the family matriarch is, well, pity-full, but instead of proceeding straight to therapy upon completing the book I found myself reflecting on Faulkner’s style.

If you remember (and/or care), Faulkner used fifteen different narrators for fifty-nine tiny chapters and a stream of consciousness literary technique that shared the disparate thoughts passing through the minds of his grieving characters. As he did, I found myself noticing and relating to their obvious loneliness, their feelings of detachment from everyone else. Each was so very alone. Alone with his or her thoughts.

I surely get how that feels.

There are many odd things about me, but the one I will share today boys and girls is that for some undetermined reason in my loneliness I regularly write down my inner monologue and share it with the world at large. That is odd, best I can tell. Most people learn to keep their thoughts to themselves, but I presumably was absent that day.

Maybe it is my own meager attempt to defeat loneliness. Or maybe loneliness has liberated me so that I am unafraid to share my inner thoughts.  Or maybe I am just weird. All are valid options.

Regardless, it is what I do, for what it is worth. Welcome to my world. Pull up a chair and stay awhile if you have nothing better to do.

Kids Club

DCF 1.0

“The soul is healed by being with children.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The idea for “kids club” emerged a very short thirteen years ago when my youngest daughter was in the second grade. The two of us were driving somewhere when she innocently asked if I might study the Bible with her sometime, which was crazy embarrassing since I was, in fact, a preacher. Yes, sweetie, that could be arranged. 

But before we even made it to wherever we were driving the innocent question had transformed into a fully-developed plan for a weekly kids club for elementary school children at our church where we not only studied the Bible but also went on adventures and hosted interesting guests. We went to the Ruskin Oak (pictured above). We wandered around an old cemetery. We went to the fire station where everyone got to blast the fire hose, and we hosted a police officer where everyone got cuffed and stuffed. We listened to sweet Ms. Josephine tell sobering stories of growing up black in Jim Crow Mississippi. It was inspiring and sweet and good.

Well, I’m a preacher again and am giving kids club another whirl. We recently launched Kids Club 2.0 with a short Bible study and a visit from amazing art students from Pepperdine, and the next week we hosted a brilliant plant physiological ecologist (look it up) who took us on a nature walk. It has been awesome. I am nearly overwhelmed by the indescribable wealth of potential guests at my disposal here in the heart of a university campus.

But possibly the biggest change from 1.0 to 2.0 is that we typically had 6-8 kids attend in Mississippi while we had triple that number at our first get-together in Malibu! That just triples the fun! (But thankfully I have a fantastic assistant/photographer this time around.)  

Dr. Seuss reminded us that a person is a person no matter how small, but those of us not directly responsible for such little persons may forget the great benefits that come from investing time in kids.  I know that I did.  But I’m sure glad to be back in the fun again.

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” — Frederick Douglass

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PC: Annie Little

Hold on to Joy

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Loving Joan was not optional. She was eminently lovable. I preached in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, for a decade and could count on Joan and Joel (or, “Joe,” as she called him) to be sitting up front cheering me on every time the doors opened. Joan cheered everybody on.

It was sad to hear that Joan died last week at eighty years young after a heck of a fight with cancer. But it would be a discredit to her memory to linger in sadness.

Joan was no stranger to challenges. Before my time in Mississippi, she lost her son in a tragic car accident. During my time in Mississippi, she encountered the American law of eminent domain when the government decided to put a highway through the house she and Joel intended to inhabit for the rest of their retirement years. After my time in Mississippi, her “Joe” contracted Parkinson’s Disease. And then there was the cancer.

But Joan never let a challenge dampen her positive attitude. She often quoted a line from an old sermon that she accepted as a life approach: Don’t let anyone steal your joy. Joan spent her life giving to others, but she jealously guarded her joy like she was Ebenezer Scrooge.

It has been years since I saw her in person, but Facebook worked its magic to keep us in distant contact. Joan “liked” lots of things on Facebook. That fit her well. Joan was a really good liker of things. She would have made it just fine without the frowny-face option.

One of my favorite memories came as a result of one of Joan’s worst days. Joan had two children, the son whose life was tragically cut short, and a daughter who was her pride and joy. Joan’s daughter pursued a successful career and chose to marry later in life. Joan was ecstatic about the wedding and could not wait to travel to the ceremony. But one afternoon, while shooing blackbirds away from the back porch, Joan fell and broke both ankles, landing her in a rehabilitation hospital and threatening her ability to make it to the wedding.

True to form, Joan kept her joy and started to work. She soon knew everyone in the hospital and worked hard at physical therapy with that beautiful wedding ceremony as her inspiration. The fateful day came when the doctors would decide whether she was fit to travel, and despite her very best efforts, Joan was not cleared for takeoff. I’m not exactly sure how devastated she was, but the rest of us were heartbroken.

In those days before Skype and FaceTime, we tried to invent things like Skype and FaceTime just for Joan, but alas, we were in over our heads. Joel traveled to the wedding alone, and the family had the clever idea to use a cell phone during the ceremony so that Joan could listen in. A group of us from church went to her hospital room that day to share the occasion with a corsage, wedding cake, and being good Southern church folk, sparkling cider. It was a party, but it was no pity party. I will never forget Joan trying to hand the cell phone to the rest of us during the ceremony so that we could listen and our laughing and frustrated refusals — This is for you, Joan!

It remains one of my best days. A terrible day somehow turned into joy.

That was Joan. And today, in her honor, and while mourning her loss, I will hold on even tighter to my joy.

DCF 1.0

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.