Tag Archives: pepperdine

By Blessing Brightly Lit

Malibu“Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by so quick you can hardly catch it going.” – Tennessee Williams, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore

To say there is much to do this week is an understatement that borders on absurdity. My farewell sermon yesterday was followed by such a sweet farewell reception—that all four of “us” could be there was very special—but now the rollercoaster whips around an unexpected turn and we will worry about breathing later on. The week ahead is packed floor to ceiling (hey, like that moving metaphor?) as we tie up loose ends and then move to a new stage of life in Tennessee.

A nice and clean reflection has proven impossible. Do I write about the unforgettable people? There are too many. Do I write about stunning California? I wouldn’t know where to start. Do I write about law school or Pepperdine or Malibu or the Labor Exchange or University Church or running or…

I give up.

Maybe I will just say that our time here has transformed our lives in every conceivable way. Physically. Intellectually. Professionally. Emotionally. Spiritually. You name it.

And we are thankful.

I have been told repeatedly that I will miss the views here. With all due respect, I don’t believe it. Those views have been permanently imprinted on my memory and will always be nearby—and I’m not simply referring to the natural scenery. Edgar Allan Poe said, “To observe attentively is to remember distinctly.” If nothing else I was sure to pay attention, so I’m not worried.

I have shared my favorite Wendell Berry Sabbath poem before, but it is most appropriate today:

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
The blessed light that yet to us is dark.

Exactly.

So here we go on these crazy final few days. I will blog from the road next week—Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise. The South, here we come.

Friend & President-Elect

Me GashYesterday Pepperdine University announced that my colleague, friend, and teacher, Jim Gash, would be its eighth president. I truly believe that there is no one on this planet who loves Pepperdine more than Jim loves Pepperdine. His administration will undoubtedly be a labor of love.

Last summer Dusty Breeding led a church class in an exercise where we outlined our individual lives and identified the people who influenced our personal stories. When I thought through my life and work in Malibu and at Pepperdine, it was clear that Jim stood (and still stands) as the most influential person in this phase of my life journey.

Jim was my Torts professor and Dean of Students while I was in law school — as well as my boss when I had the opportunity to do legal research for his important justice work in Uganda.  It was Jim who, when I considered working at Pepperdine following graduation, suggested that I apply to be the Director of Academic Success at Pepperdine Law—and in fact used his impressive litigation skills to convince me to choose it when I had other options within the University. It was Jim who, in my first few months on the job, approached me with the idea that I succeed him as Dean of Students at Pepperdine Law—a decision that shaped the trajectory of my professional career. Around that same time both Jim and I accepted the invitation to serve as elders of the University Church of Christ, something we have done together for the past eight years—and it was Jim who co-chaired the “preacher search committee” and brought my surprising interest in the position to the committee a couple of years ago now. And when I made that particular transition, it was Jim who picked up much of the work that I left behind at the law school.

Those are just the most visible points of our relationship—I will keep the private jokes and endless personal conversations to myself. Jim has been my advocate, promoter, supporter, confidante, and good friend.

In a couple of weeks, on Sunday, March 3, I will deliver my final sermon at the University Church of Christ in Elkins Auditorium at Pepperdine, and Jim will deliver the benediction that follows. The next morning, Monday, March 4, Jim will be introduced as president-elect in that same auditorium. In the days that follow, Jody and I will pack our house and move to Nashville where we will dive into the exciting work at Lipscomb University. I am not sure what to make of the timing of it all. I just know that I owe the very possibility of the exciting work ahead of me to my friend, Jim Gash.

Go get ‘em, my friend. May your faith in God and your deep, deep love for Pepperdine provide constant energy for the road ahead.

Just the Two of Us

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Trent Dilfer is the new head football coach at Lipscomb Academy in Nashville, and I am the new Vice President of Student Life at Lipscomb University. Coach will relocate from Texas in February, and I will relocate from Pepperdine in March. At the recent Board of Trustees meeting at Lipscomb, our two hires were announced side by side. In terms of news splash, it reminded me of the time Stacey King said, “I’ll always remember this as the night that Michael Jordan and I combined for 70 points.” (Note: MJ had 69, and Stacey had 1.)  Stacey who?  Exactly.

The two of us are around the same age and height and have similar hairstyles, and we are both apparently over-the-moon excited about the opportunities afforded us in what will soon be our new home. But on the one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the other side of the equation, Coach Dilfer is a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, longtime NFL analyst for ESPN, and head coach of an elite quarterback camp.  I, on the other hand, was once the starting quarterback for my peewee flag football team in elementary school. Don’t laugh: We were pretty good.

Coach Dilfer is such an exciting hire, and I am not just referring to his obvious credentials. If you get the chance, listen to his testimony — and his heart. At his press conference, Coach referred to his decision as a “calling” and said, “I am passionate about getting the most out of people.” I feel the same way.

One of Coach Dilfer’s daughters plays for the outstanding beach volleyball team here at Pepperdine, and his youngest daughter has signed to play indoor volleyball at Lipscomb. It dawned on me that my new office has the beautiful task of welcoming Coach’s youngest daughter to campus when she arrives and doing what we can to get the most out of the thousands of students that will live in community with her. That gets me fired up, too.

So, Coach, I look forward to seeing you in Nashville, and I will be on the sidelines on Friday nights cheering you on. I am glad to be on the same team. We both have some good work to do.

Major News

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I announced to our church family this morning that Jody and I will move to Nashville, Tennessee, in March where I have been hired to serve as Vice President of Student Life at Lipscomb University.  I am humbled and honored to serve in this important role and join the Lipscomb community, but it will be difficult to say goodbye to the Pepperdine community that has been our family for the past eleven years.

Our time at Pepperdine has been transformative for all for us—for Jody, Erica, Hillary, and for me. And when I say transformative, that touches on all aspects of our lives: intellectually; physically; socially; spiritually; emotionally; and professionally. We are and will forever be grateful.

But for my sweet wife and I, it is very clear that we have been called to another stage of this pilgrimage called life. I can say that a decision “has never been clearer,” but in fact we have experienced such clarity on a few other memorable occasions. When we met and knew instantly that we would be married. When we decided to be houseparents at Children’s Homes, Inc. When we chose Ocean Springs over another offer. When we chose Pepperdine over other schools. None of those previous choices made sense in an easily-articulated way, but we were 100% sure that each was supposed to happen—and each time that strong feeling was rewarded over and over again.

So although it makes little sense to leave such wonderful people in such a wonderful place, we leave with deep gratitude and a most confident expectation that we will discover a world full of blessings beyond anything we ask or imagine. We have seen this show before.

 

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.