Tag Archives: tennessee

LIFE in Prison

5c5d1067e460c.previewIn January, while I prepared for a job interview in Nashville, then Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam made national news by commuting the life sentence of Cyntoia Brown. In the ensuing media frenzy I learned that Ms. Brown graduated from Lipscomb University while in prison through Lipscomb’s unique LIFE Program. That basically describes everything I knew about the LIFE Program until last week.

However, I arrived at Lipscomb enamored with Dr. Richard Goode, having no idea that he founded the LIFE Program back in 2007. All I knew was that Dr. Goode had the good fortune of spending time with iconoclast, Reverend Will D. Campbell, and had written a couple of my all-time favorite books with and about Campbell. I simply wanted to meet Dr. Goode, so you can imagine my surprise when he emailed one day asking to drop by and get my advice about a course he was teaching. My advice? Ridiculous, but I could not resist the chance for a one-on-one with Dr. Goode.

We met and discussed his History & Politics of Reconciliation course, and when I mentioned a particular documentary that was new to him, he asked if I would come to the Tennessee Prison for Women (“TPW”) to show the documentary and lead a discussion.

Um, yes.

Life. Changed.

Despite the recent national attention, the LIFE Program is the best-kept secret at Lipscomb. Get this: traditional Lipscomb students (“outside students”) can drive to TPW and take some of their classes inside the prison alongside “inside students.” It is brilliant and beautiful and unlike anything I have ever seen.

Last Wednesday I rode with Dr. Goode to TPW, the primary correctional facility for women in Tennessee that houses over seven hundred women, including any inmate on death row. Some parts of the evening were simultaneously expected and unforgettable: the glistening razor wire; the careful pat down; the explosive sound of the door locks; the expanse of the prison yard; the heartbreaking and inspiring stories of the inside students; the fascinating conversation with Dr. Goode.

But what I did not expect—and what in my opinion is the breathtaking genius of the LIFE Program—is the relationships between the inside and outside students. I was astonished to witness the authentic and comfortable friendships that had developed in that classroom.

I am scheduled to attend the Lipscomb graduation for inside students just over a month from now. One of the anticipated graduates is a student in the class I taught last Wednesday, and I learned that she was recently granted parole. After so many years behind bars she had one request. Can you guess? She wants to stay in prison long enough to get to walk in graduation.

This all gives “LIFE in prison” an entirely new meaning.

[For more information (including videos) on Lipscomb’s LIFE Program, click HERE.]

Evening Sky in Summer

IMG_0751I sat in the rocking chair on our front porch to finish Joyce’s Dubliners and propped a foot up on the post, a picture of serenity on a late and sticky Tennessee summer evening. But I confess that the picture was deceiving.

I love to work, which has been a good thing lately because there has been a lot of it. There is the normal (abnormal) load associated with my role on campus, and then there is the typical added challenge when moving to an entirely new environment. But add to that the departmental reorganization that we are walking out and then the fact that my wife has been gone for the past couple of weeks moving our youngest daughter across the country so that nothing has prevented my working around the clock—the result is a level of intensity that is abnormal even for me.

It is obvious that this pace is unsustainable and even unhealthy. One of my role models in the profession recently shared an Instagram meme that said, “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes. Even you.”

Thanks, Connie. I will get there soon.

But on that evening, sitting in that rocking chair after another exhausting day, I tried to slow my mind and escape to a Christmas soirée in Dublin over a hundred years ago. And once there I looked up and noticed the loveliest evening sky. And smiled.

The Teacher

IMG_0452“I had my first racial insult hurled at me as a child. I struck out at that child and fought the child physically. Mom was in the kitchen working. In telling her the story she, without turning to me, said, ‘Jimmy, what good did that do?’ And she did a long soliloquy then about our lives and who we were and the love of God and the love of Jesus in our home, in our congregation.  And her last sentence was, ‘Jimmy, there must be a better way.’ In many ways that’s the pivotal event of my life.” – Reverend James M. Lawson

It took me nine days to read a 700+ page book from cover to cover. The bulk of that was made possible by a cross-country flight that included an unexpected six-hour layover, but it was the captivating story and skilled story-teller that really did the trick. I would steal a few pages when I awakened each day, and at bedtime, and any time possible in between.

When we accepted the opportunity to move to Nashville, I stumbled across The Children and purchased it immediately. I am fascinated/humbled by the civil rights movement and wanted to know the history of my new community, of course, but more than that, Halberstam wrote one of my all-time favorite books (October 1964), and I could not believe that he was a young reporter for The Tennessean assigned to cover this story when it happened.

The book cover states, “On the first day of the sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee, eight young black college students found themselves propelled into the leadership of the civil rights movement, as the movement—and America—entered a period of dramatic change. The courage and vision of these young people changed history.”

Our move has been hectic but good, and I had been simply intimidated to open the cover and start on such a hefty book. But wow, all it took was reading the first page. I was immediately embarrassed not to know the significance of what occurred in Nashville. I knew of the horrific murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, the Little Rock Nine, Freedom Riders, the Selma marchers, and the murder of Dr. King in Memphis, among other famous events, but I was stunned to discover that what took place here in Nashville was at the heart of it all—because “the children” (aka college students)—were the heart of it all.

I knew some of Diane Nash’s heroism but had no idea that John Lewis started his amazing journey in Nashville, and I was especially shocked to know that the infamous Marion Barry was a part of that early group. I somehow knew nothing of Jim Bevel or Bernard Lafayette, Rodney Powell or Gloria Johnson, Curtis Murphy or Hank Thomas. But I will never forget them now.

However, what may have had the greatest impact on me was not one of the children—but their teacher, Jim Lawson. Lawson is now ninety years old and lives here in Nashville. Some of my new friends have met him, and though I am envious of that honor, it is almost too much to imagine.

Lawson grew up and attended college in Ohio as a young man with deep faith and convictions. Lawson was fascinated by Gandhi and conscientiously objected to serving in the military, which for his time in history, sent him to prison for two years. Afterward he was a Methodist missionary in India where he studied Gandhi more deeply and then returned to pursue graduate work in religion at Oberlin College. It was at Oberlin in 1957 that Lawson met a like-minded (and aged) visiting speaker in Martin Luther King, Jr. He told Dr. King of his plan to pursue graduate degrees and then come to The South to work for reconciliation, but Dr. King told him that he was needed now and not to wait.

So Jim Lawson moved to Nashville, where he started teaching nonviolence training workshops to a small and eclectic group of college students—who changed the world.

There are a thousand things to note about Jim Lawson’s life, not the least of which being that he was the Memphis pastor that hosted Dr. King’s fateful trip, and I am sure that many have wildly different opinions about the stances he has taken along the way. But what I will never get out of my mind is Lawson teaching that group of young college students there in Kelly Miller Smith’s church in Nashville. He absolutely knew the dangerous road these “children” were embarking on—and did not hide it from them. How did it feel to know that? But it was the road to a better way, so he taught them anyway.

I live in a different Nashville today because of Jim Lawson’s courageous teaching. But Nashville, as with any other city, is nowhere near what Lawson described as the “beloved community” that inspired his teaching. With his example forever imprinted on my mind, I hope in some small way to teach courageously, too.

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.”

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.

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.

Out There

barkley 1My body apparently dropped a note in the old Life Suggestion Box requesting that I explore alternative activities to running. The suggestion is under consideration given recurring and depressing minor injuries, but I haven’t thrown in the proverbial towel just yet. Distance runners are notoriously bad at giving something up. And I like to run.

I am still allowed to say that I am a runner.  Four half-marathons in the past several years with a PR of 1:37 plus a 10k in just over forty-two minutes and a 5k under twenty is competitive for someone my age.  But running is a humbling sport, and I am constantly in awe of the truly crazy runners whose performances defy imagination.  Like Kilian Jornet who once ran the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run with 33,000 feet of climb in under twenty-four hours.  Or Yiannis Kouros who once ran a thousand miles in just over ten days. Pure craziness.

But of all the daunting races on the planet, the Barkley Marathons is probably the toughest of them all. I first watched the wildly entertaining documentary about the Barkley several years ago, and if you have Netflix and ninety minutes, you might enjoy watching the insanity, too. Five consecutive marathons with over 50,000 feet of total climb and descent in a sixty-hour time limit in the unforgiving terrain of the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee with less-than-ideal weather conditions under the oversight of a sadistic and taunting race director: That’s the basics of the Barkley. The race that eats its young.

It was once believed that nobody could complete the five loops of the Barkley, but fifteen human beings have now proven it is possible in the thirty-plus years of the race. But just fifteen. The race proudly stands at the limits of human endurance.

At Christmas, my wife gave me a book about the Barkley written by Frozen Ed Furtaw, one of its long-time competitors. Frozen Ed titled it, “Tales from Out There,” with “out there” serving as a consistent phrase to describe the nature of the race. The Barkley is “out there” as a race for sure, but more significantly the firsthand accounts claim that the real challenge of the Barkley is the actual experience of being “out there” all alone in a battle with your body, mind, soul, and spirit.

Sometimes in life being “out there” in the wild is forced upon us but more often than not we have ways to avoid such challenges. You won’t see me entering the Barkley, but I do hope you find me with the courage to sign up to go “out there” in other ways in this old life. You never know what will happen out there. But there is really only one way to find out.