Tag Archives: pepperdine

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.

Imagining the Unimaginable

MedeaListen. This is a story that has to be told.

That was the opening line of the classic Greek tragedy, Medea, that my wife and I attended at Pepperdine over the weekend. If you are familiar with the play, it is a story that you probably wish had never been told. But we continue to show up for resurrections of Euripides’ terrible tale century after century—so maybe it is true that the story is unavoidable.

I try to attend anything produced by the Fine Arts Division Theatre Program at Pepperdine because every production is always fantastic, and given that our friend, Brad, was the director of and that our friend, Lincoln, composed original electronic music for this particular performance, we marked our calendars for Medea months ago.  But wow, what a heart-wrenching story.

I remember the name, Euripides, from some high school textbook mostly because I thought it sounded funny.  (“Euripides pants and you’re in big trouble, mister!”)  But wow, how unhinged must this classic playwright have been to write such a horrible tale of cold-blooded, unthinkable revenge? What demented mind could imagine Medea, the character?

Obviously the mind of one of the more important playwrights in world history.

Maybe there was method to such madness.  Maybe Euripides wrote such a messed-up story to shine a light in the ugliest places of our world so that we might sheepishly walk out of a dark theater committed to building a world that is brighter?

I read that Euripides is known as someone whose work sympathized with society’s outcasts. In Medea we encounter someone so powerless that she resorts to maniacal actions to scream at a world in which she had heretofore been silenced. It is only through unimaginable actions that she is heard.

But I hope we do more than hear her screams. I hope that we listen. I hope that we listen because this is a story that has to be told. If not, we may find ourselves destroyed by the last resorts of the voiceless should their predictable actions not be prevented by the only safeguard remaining — the goodness of their own hearts.

Beauty from Chaos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Jesus, Malibu, and the Immigrant

8592897_origOn Wednesday evening I will join several friends to present Jesus, Malibu, and the Immigrant at Pepperdine.  The event will focus on the Malibu Community Labor Exchange and discuss its work in the context of a Christian worldview of immigration and current political debates about immigration in the United States.  It should be a fascinating evening.

Speakers will include MCLE director Oscar Mondragon (a Malibu legend), Professors Cindy Miller-Perrin and Robin Perrin (Pepperdine legends), yours truly (a legend in my own mind), and Hollywood legend and MCLE supporter Martin Sheen.

I joined Mr. Sheen and several MCLE friends for lunch at Marmalade Café recently, and it was a delightful opportunity to hear entertaining stories from President Bartlet’s, um, I mean, Mr. Sheen’s fascinating life and to witness his heart for service as inspired by his deep faith.  I looked across the restaurant to see Pat Riley having lunch with friends and realized that I really do live in Malibu.

You should come to Elkins Auditorium at 7pm on Wednesday for the conversation.  In addition to Mr. Sheen, I guarantee that listening to Cesar Chavez’s old friend, Oscar Mondragon, is worth it every single time.

For my part, I will focus on my stunning realization that the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is played out every day by those of us who live behind gates in Malibu and the workers who gather in hope waiting for opportunities at the Malibu Community Labor Exchange.  Today, I will simply leave the story as Jesus told it here for your consideration:

“There once was a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped on his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores. Then he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell and in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in his lap. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, mercy! Have mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue. I’m in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here. Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented. Besides, in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.’ The rich man said, ‘Then let me ask you, Father: Send him to the house of my father where I have five brothers, so he can tell them the score and warn them so they won’t end up here in this place of torment.’ Abraham answered, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.’ ‘I know, Father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but they’re not listening. If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.’ Abraham replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.’” – Jesus (Luke 16: 19-31, MSG)

#WavesUp

With XC Team Pictures

“[T]he task of the first half of life is to create a proper container for one’s life and answer the first essential questions: ‘What makes me significant?’ ‘How can I support myself?’ and ‘Who will go with me?’  The task of the second half of life is, quite simply, to find the actual contents that this container was meant to hold and deliver.  As Mary Oliver puts it, ‘What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’”

– Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life

Richard Rohr’s description of two halves of life in Falling Upward has me interested in emerging from the locker room for the second half.   We shall see.  Since the first half is so much about achievement and success, the transition is surely difficult to wrap my brain around.  It is much easier to try to be someone than to actually be someone.

As I struggled over the summer just to imagine such a thing, I tried to remember myself as a child before I boarded the train to Achievement Town.  What did I enjoy back then?  What did I love?  What made me smile?  What would I do just for the joy of it all?  Well, one of the primary answers was sports, so I made the calculated decision to be a huge Pepperdine Waves fan this year.

I haven’t been a very good Waves fan in recent years.  This is my third year to serve as volunteer chaplain for the cross country team (see proud team picture above), but I have been a sporadic fan at best for the other sports on campus.  My excuse was that I was just too busy, but “too busy” is undoubtedly the sort of thing you say when you are stuck in first half of life thinking.

The thought that got me was that if you had told “Little Al” that I/he would one day live on an amazing university campus with a fantastic NCAA Division I program fielding seventeen teams and would have open access to watch all of them in action, that would have sounded like heaven.  And I am too busy?  Give me a break.  Literally.

I am off to a great start so far.  I have been there in person to cheer on our cross country, soccer, volleyball, and water polo teams in the last few weeks – with many more teams to cheer on soon.  

Being a sports fan is surely not the point of or secret to life.  But for me, it just may be the secret to remind me not to be too busy to enjoy it.

#WavesUp

Waves of Memories

PepperdineUMemSunriseFlags1jpg-3376683_p9Our youngest daughter started middle school when we moved from Mississippi to Malibu in 2008 and needed certain shots to enroll in school, (make up your own jokes friends from Mississippi and California, but be nice!) so we went to a local urgent-care facility and waited. There in the waiting room I met a super-friendly Pepperdine student who was the incoming president of the College Republicans at Seaver College. He excitedly shared with me his plan to place a large American flag on the magnificent front lawn of Pepperdine University for every life lost in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. He said it was going to be awesome. I was impressed by both his initiative and enthusiasm.

He delivered. The display was such a success that Pepperdine immediately latched on to the idea, and this year marks the tenth consecutive year for the breathtaking “waves of flags” display. 

Walking among the flags is an experience in and of itself, not to mention a photographer’s dream in the Age of Instagram, but my favorite thing to do is to watch the first responders and the veterans park their fire trucks and motorcycles on the iconic Pacific Coast Highway and walk up the hill to take in the experience.  They are far more inspiring to watch than the flags themselves.

In the early years, someone had the proper idea to place flags of other nations among the American flags to represent the correct nationalities of the victims of the attacks on that fateful day. After all, the attacks were acts of aggression against the entire world. International students and guests to campus are happy to find their flag and yet sobered by the reminder of the loss that flag represents. 

We still remember that terrible day. In a year or two, incoming college students will remind us that they were not alive in the fall of 2001, but as of today the flags are still flying and those of us who remember still share our stories. 

President Abraham Lincoln predicted that the world would soon forget what he said that historic Thursday afternoon in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, but elementary school children still memorize his speech over 150 years later. Some things are simply unforgettable.

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