Tag Archives: pepperdine

The Secrets of a Sacred Space

Stauffer“Let the site tell you its secrets.” — Christopher Alexander

I joke that my propensity to arrive early for absolutely everything is a sickness, but in reality it is a treasured quality since it reminds me of mom and dad.  Being early is my heritage.  With age, it seems that I am less impressed with my unique qualities and particularly value those characteristics that connect me to a larger story.

I arrive very early for work on Sunday mornings to prepare for our church’s collective time together, a couple of hours early in fact—and love it.  We decided to meet in stunning Stauffer Chapel this summer thanks to a brilliant suggestion from my friend, Sara, and the setting has made the early morning solitude particularly delightful.

I like the strange sensation of opening the door to discover that no one else is there and being the first to step inside.  I like turning on the lights and straightening the hymnals and removing the leftover trash from the pew racks.  I like arranging the podium and communion table just right and reviewing the sermon, imagining the congregation at breakfast preparing to join with me and with others.  I like propping open the doors and hearing the gurgling fountain outside and then returning to the deafening quiet inside and the intense feeling of anticipation. I like to notice the sun pierce through the massive stained glass spraying psychedelic graffiti all over the quiet sanctuary.

Famed architect, Christopher Alexander, argued that users of a space know more about their needs than the architect and wrote, “Let the site tell you its secrets.”  In my sacred Sunday solitude, I don’t seem to be able to articulate my needs, but it sure seems that the space has secrets to tell.  I listen each week and can almost hear them.  Maybe if I listen long enough?

In reality, I’m not sure that sacred spaces have actual secrets to tell.  But maybe the wonder that is found in showing up early to listen is secret enough.

Warm (-ing up to) Embrace

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“Loving your enemies . . . Far from being the pious injunction of a utopian dreamer, this demand is an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization. Yes it is love that will save our world and civilization; love even for our enemies.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I war privileged to hear Yale professor and prominent theologian, Miroslav Volf, speak in March, and although late to the party I just finished his most famous book, Exclusion & Embrace.  It was in a sense required reading since I teach a course in the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University School of Law titled, Apology, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation—topics that are at the heart of his book.

Full disclosure: I am not an idiot—unless you are simply comparing me and Mirsolav Volf that is.  I understood a good number of the words he used in the book but most of the time was intellectually flailing and gasping for air.  He is brilliant.  Which is why I was particularly intrigued to read such a brilliant mind analyze the components of a hug.

Exclusion & Embrace addresses our fractured “us vs. them” world where exclusion is coin of the realm and presents the image of embrace as a theological counter—almost literally.  Volf properly discloses that an embrace is too intimate for some cultures and not intimate enough for others but that he is interested in the metaphor more than the actual practice.  And then he breaks a hug down into four distinct parts that led me to imagine a Sesame Street song: First, you open your arms; then, you wait; then, you close your arms; then, you open your arms again.

You may not have analyzed the components of a hug before, but stick with me here…

To open the arms indicates a desire for the other and an invitation to come into personal space that I have created for you.  To wait is an act of vulnerability that refuses the path of force and respects the autonomy of the other.  To close the arms—the actual embrace—is a tender and reciprocal act of shared space.  And to open the arms again is a sign of release and respect that provides both the freedom and independence to leave—and to return again.

Okay, this is great for your spouse or kids or friends.  For them, I’m a hugger.  But what about the people you despise (unfairly assuming that the latter isn’t your spouse or kids or friends)?

To put down the weapon and open-armed invite those you despise into your intimate space is almost unthinkable.

To go one further and silently, vulnerably, allow your enemy the choice to either accept or attack—both choices are hard to stomach.

To then actually and tenderly embrace the despicable is a simply nauseating thought.

And then to release the enemy as friend?

I’m glad that Volf is super smart because he would be up a creek if he needed to raise a following or lead a team or run for office.  Nobody is going to want to do this.  Being right and feeling proud and getting even are going to be way more popular than seeking reconciliation.

But being right and feeling proud and getting even sure produce an enormous supply of ugly.  I, for one, am interested in any alternative that leads to a true and lasting peace—even if it does sound like awfully hard work and more than a little loony tunes.

#MyMile

19275276_10154444289351784_2410358217710841199_nStrava is the self-described “social network for athletes.” I accepted Brad’s invitation to join anyway. Strava challenged its users to go for a personal record (“PR” in runner lingo) in June in The Strava Mile. For some reason I accepted that invitation, too.

We jogged a warmup mile to the Pepperdine track last Thursday morning for this midlife crisis, er, I mean, historic event only to discover college basketball, soccer, and cross country athletes there in early morning workouts. They must have been entertained to see two middle-aged men take turns laboring at (our) top speed around the track to see how fast we could run a solitary mile. Will Ferrell and David Spade will play us in the movie.

I think we impressed ourselves if no one else. That was true for me since my regular exercise routine never includes speed work and because Michael Dukakis was running for president the last time I ran a competitive mile. It got me to wondering what an old man could really do if he was committed to a solid workout plan?

So I consulted my good friend, Google, and discovered John Trautmann. John was an elite college athlete and a 1992 Olympian who like most young adults gave up exercising, got a job that paid actual money, and started eating a lot of doughnuts. He added sixty-five pounds of Krispy Kreme by the age of forty and then decided that he preferred being in shape. So he went to work and at age forty-six (my age now) established the world record in the mile for the 45-49 age group by running an astonishing 4:12.33. 

Okay, that’s not going to happen for me. But it did happen, and that fact alone is crazy inspirational.

What needs changing in your life? And what are you waiting for?

Followed Through

18579549_1670127713295036_4028566310173540352_nPepperdine Law’s graduation ceremony occurred last Friday at Alumni Park, and the venue is simply unbeatable — a spacious green lawn on a hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean under the warm California sun. Spectacular.

Having recently resigned from the law school, I had no official responsibilities at graduation, but having recently resigned from the law school, I had hundreds of reasons to be there.  I ran into several friends on the way in, and knowing how graduation works decided to wander over to the place where the graduates would march in to see if I could offer a high five or two as they passed by.  (I really did not know that this would produce a lead candidate for my life highlight reel.)

I was dean of students when the Class of 2017 began its law school adventure and had the honor of welcoming them aboard on their very first day as well as cheering for them on their arduous journey.  There was no way that I would miss this culminating event.  As I stood there on Friday, my high five or two suddenly became a line full of hundreds of high fives and hugs.  It was an amazing experience for me. At one point I wondered if I was holding up the ceremony, but then I remembered that they couldn’t fire me and just kept hugging these wonderful human beings.

Several mentioned that they remembered to “follow through” as they passed by, letting me know that they remembered the little talk that I gave during their law school orientation when I taught them how to shoot a basketball. I explained that you could do everything right but forget to “follow through” and the shot would be unsuccessful. I gave them a little stress ball that looked like a basketball that day with the words FOLLOW THROUGH printed on.

They remembered.  And they surely followed through, and I am proud of them.

I stuck around afterward and met family and friends and posed for pictures and offered congratulations. It was their day of honor, but the warm smiles and good hearts of the Class of 2017 provided a happy day for me, too.

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.

Beauty in the Fog

17932387_153447835186184_4417267868438102016_n(1)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.

Just Stop

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The classic Christian hymn, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, contains the line, Drop Thy still dews of quietness / Till all our strivings cease.  That last part just sounds terrible.  You see, I’m a striver.  Striving’s my thing.  I like accomplishment.  Give me a problem to solve, yours or mine, and I will strive all day and night to solve it.  One of my latest projects is striving to learn how to take a break from striving, which it turns out is just as complicated as it sounds.

Last week Pepperdine hosted theologian, Miroslav Volf, who in his final lecture extolled the Jewish practice of Sabbath as a weekly event where one stops striving.  I have long agreed with that concept but am just terrible at it.  Since my new preaching gig sees Sunday as work day, I approach Friday-Saturday as weekend and Friday in particular as a personal sabbath.  Well, that’s the idea at least.  It hasn’t gone well so far.

For starters, I don’t want to stop striving for a day.  I prefer catching up on unfinished striving and go a little bonkers ignoring things that need attention when I actually have time set aside to do them!  But even when I try, presumably non-striving activities morph into things to accomplish.  A nature walk becomes the quest of the perfect picture or story.  A novel becomes a mission that needs to be completed in a certain time frame.  A sport becomes a personal competition.

I am more than a little nutty.  How exactly do I not strive?  I could say that I will work on it, but that is exactly the problem.

John Greenleaf Whittier wrote that 19th century poem-turned-hymn that imagined the cessation of strivings.  Ironically, he hated the very idea of singing in church and wrote the poem to promote silent meditation in contrast to musical worship, but his poem became a tool of the thing he despised.  Life is funny.  He was also an abolitionist, who in his lifetime saw the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing the practice of slavery in the United States.  So he was a striver, too! 

Well, obviously striving and Sabbath are teammates, not opponents.

Breaks are important for any endeavor, which obviously includes life itself.  This may not come naturally to me, but the secret just may be when it no longer feels like something to accomplish.  Stopping is the opposite of accomplishment.  It is a gift.

Madness

17126701_1108437092601567_4197244785582407680_nBasketball used to be my thing.  I thought about it all day, every day, and dreamed about it at night–and sometimes still do.  Hour after hour alone in the driveway getting sunburned, soaked in rainstorms, and frozen in the snow and ice.  Dreaming I was Dr. J.  Dreaming I was an Arkansas Razorback.  Dreaming I was the hero of a state championship game for the C.R.A. Falcons.  Alone in my dreams.

Basketball became my community.  Countless practices.  Pickup games anywhere there were players and some version of a ball and goal.  My very best friends and mortal enemies.  Jammed fingers.  Shirts and skins.  Dunk goals.  Make-it, take-it.  We got next.  Cut-off t-shirts and short shorts.  High tops and two pairs of socks, pushed down to be cool.  Arguments and hurt feelings.  High fives and heroics.

Popular culture fueled my obsession.  “Hoosiers” hit the big screen when I was in high school, the peak of my love affair with the sport.  Rap music became a thing, and I wore out a cassette learning every word of Kurtis Blow’s “Basketball.”  Thanks to an NBA commercial, the Pointer Sisters’ “Let’s Get Excited” became my warm-up song–even though I don’t think that’s what they were talking about.

I was valedictorian of my high school class and had options, I suppose, but all I cared about was basketball.  Since I wasn’t talented enough to play at the college level, my attention shifted to coaching.  I made every home game at Barnhill Arena during my college years.  Rollin’ with Nolan.  Dreaming that I would some day coach in the madness of March.

I remember the exact day my basketball dreams began a rapid disintegration.  It is hard to forget since it was one week before my wedding.  Appropriately, I was playing basketball in a outdoor three-on-three tournament at a local festival when a nasty fall shattered my right leg in three places.  Emergency surgery led to a four night hospital stay, released in enough time to make it to my wedding in a wheelchair.  In sickness and in health, right?  

In 1994, I began a love that has grown stronger year after year, and maybe not ironically, began to lose my feelings for basketball.  With my broken leg, after the lengthy recovery, I learned that I just couldn’t play all out anymore, and that stole all the fun.  I really don’t follow basketball much anymore.  Sure, I root for my Pepperdine Waves, and sure, I fill out an annual bracket and will be rooting for the old alma mater today as they take on Seton Hall (Go Hogs!), but it is no longer the center of my life.

I’m not sad about this.  I follow other sports as a spectator and am now somewhat obsessed with running.  But what I learned is that it is possible to walk away from something that was once important to you without regrets.  What is not okay, at least in my book, is pretending something is important and then doing it halfway.

Tell Them the Truth

17075864_1838189199788768_4657554125959987200_n1I’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.”

Me & Pepperdine Law

 

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Me as a 1L (August 2008)

In October 2007, in the midst of what now seems like a mid-life crisis my wife and I concluded that I would apply to law school, so I went to Barnes & Noble to purchase an LSAT study book and signed up for the December administration and secretly began to imagine where we might end up.

Initially, there were two schools on the list.  Ole Miss was a strong choice for a Mississippi resident, but I also had dreams of Pepperdine two thousand miles away.  I had visited the breathtaking campus once for the Pepperdine Bible Lectures and spent time with my good friend, Mikey, who taught English there, and the idea of law school at Pepperdine was how I imagined it would feel to win the lottery.

Here I am, over nine years later, and I am pretty sure that I won the lottery.

My wildest dreams did include law school at Pepperdine, but nowhere in those wildest dreams did I think it would be my home for nine consecutive years.  Well, during my first semester of law school, I did think that it might take nine years to learn enough to graduate (if ever) but once I survived that first semester it never occurred to me that I might have the honor to work in this special place for six years after law school.

Tomorrow, I hear there is some sort of farewell party as I transition into a new role as the preaching minister for the University Church of Christ here on campus.  This is directly backwards.  I should be throwing a party for the law school out of sheer gratitude for these past nine years.

I learned so much from the faculty, many of whom became close friends.  I was a proud member of the staff and developed deep relationships as we worked together.  But the students…well, I don’t even know how to begin to describe how special the students have been to me.  From being a student to serving them, spending time with students has been my deepest honor.

Meetings with prospective students.  Move-in days at the George Page apartments.  Launch Weeks.  Freak-out moments.  Personal tragedies.  “Is-law-school-right-for-me-after-all” conversations.  Academic successes.  Academic challenges.  Final exams.  A zillion emails.  Facebook groups.  Administrative announcements.  Just for 1Ls/2Ls/3Ls.  APIL auctions.  Santa Anita horse races.  Orange books.  Dodgeball tournaments.  Quiet gyms.  Saturday morning runs in Santa Monica.  Law school dinners.  Student organization events.  Open conversations.  Global village days.  Sack lunch Saturdays.  Interfaith evenings.  Sunday morning Bible studies.  Wednesday nights at the Gashes.  Thanksgiving dinners.  Job searches.  Moral character applications.  Graduation celebrations.  The dark days of bar summers.  Bar lunches.  Swearing-in ceremonies.  Even officiating twelve weddings!

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It is all too much to capture in words right now.  I can just say that it has been a deep honor to walk alongside impressive human beings on an arduous journey.

We law school folks say that law school is a marathon, not a sprint.  Mine took nine years.  And it was awesome.