Thursday, December 31, 2009

Seventh Day of Christmas - Mac mini

I'm writing a very short post today (even though there's enough going on to warrant pages and pages!) But most of this morning is dedicated to setting up the new Mac mini.

  • Short story - my very old HP crashed so many times this fall that it was time to "re-boot" so to speak. Andrew - at home on loan from Bahrain for a few days - talked me into making the switch to Mac. Consequently there's almost no time to blog before my 11:00 phone conference and then heading to Orlando for New Year's Eve festivities with Rebekah's siblings and all the cousins.
So, this "Seventh Day of Christmas" is about the meaning wr
apped up in the number 7. In scripture, the number is used to denote completion/perfection, and for me that is a good way to wrap up 2009.

No, I'm not suggesting that 2009 has been a perfect year. But, I'm more and more in contact with the purposes and the direction God has for my life; I am moving forward and I am claiming what is possible and what is loaded with such a rich sense of potentiality.

So, 2009 has continued to lay foundation; it's as if this decade - now completed - has served as an ongoing launching pad. I believe - with conviction - that the coming year, the coming decade, will continue the trajectory of discovery and unbounded opportunity.

My responsibility, then, is to walk into 2010 with my eyes open, with my spirit synced with the eternal, and with a renewed commitment to serve and to grow...

... I'm conscious, you see, that my life-span is moving forward too, and that what defines me must continue to shift. I want to be as productive as possible over the next few years, and to touch the life of every person possible who stands in need of encouragement and inspiration.

That's not a resolution, it's a commitment. Hopefully my new Mini mac can help!

HAPPY NEW YEAR - we'll pick this up again tomorrow - DEREK

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sixth Day - Six People for Dinner

On the sixth day of Christmas... six people for dinner.

This week Rebekah's sister, Rachel - along with her husband, Tom, and their second son, Micah - graced Maul Hall with a visit; lots of good conversation, lots of good coffee. And, yesterday evening, a fine Tuscan meal directed by Andrew and produced by pretty much the entire team.

I enjoyed tandem-cooking with Andrew at the range, with everyone else bustling around making salad, setting the table, pouring drinks etc. We took the pasta, bread, wine and sauteed vegetables into the dining room and surrounded the table with good cheer and great conversation.

Six. Six people helping define the evening's entertainment as a good meal in good company. Six people enjoying one another. Six people sharing matters of faith, adventures of travel, family stories, tall tales, more family stories....

We broke out some of the new cookware (Rebekah and I splurged on a sixteen-piece set of matching Emeril Lagasse cookware this weekend). It's the first time in 30 years of marriage we've had matching anything in the kitchen. The other stuff has been literally falling apart and this was a cool way to wrap up the kitchen remodel.

Part of the conversation around the dinner table was about conversation around the dinner table! Both our families had insisted on at least four-five family evening meals together when the children were growing up, and we actually taught them how to engage in meaningful discourse in such a setting. That kind of committed family time was priceless, and - I believe - would do a lot to re-civilize our society if it were re-instituted on a wide scale.

The privilege of sharing long conversation with people you love, around the table, is a gift I will always cherish.

Six people around a common meal; on the sixth day of Christmas; just another way I am truly blessed.


Monday, December 28, 2009

On the fifth day of Christmas...

- pictures: me, my dad and Andrew, Rebekah and me...

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
Five days of work...
Andrew and Naomi...
And a Savior to set us all free....

I absolutely love working for myself. I'm a great boss, I've decided, but I'm going to have to talk to myself about pay and benefits! Just yesterday I listened to a report on CNN citing a study that documented above average job satisfaction for those who operate their own business. Duh!

I say, "duh" because - time and again - the evidence comes in that people enjoy their lives more when they engage in meaningful work. Not necessarily lucrative work, but work that scratches the particular itch placed there by the Creator.

Sometimes I think I'm "lucky" to be able to work full-time at something I enjoy so much. But I'm not so sure. I guess I'm naive enough to believe that each one of us has been created with some kind of desire built in that can only be satisfied by productive work... and that the world would actually run more smoothly if we all did the kinds of activities God had in mind for us to enjoy when he equipped us, work that satisfies our intrinsic need.

Obviously, practicality dictates more than idealism, and a job is a job - especially when there's nothing else available. But I can't help but think that we miss the mark more often than necessary, and that there's no good reason why close to 100% of the population should not be meaningfully engaged in work that is both satisfactory and useful.

For me, this is another reason I see my marriage to Rebekah not only as an awesome love story, but a helpful example of God's plan. I can write full time (earning very little money but certainly making a significant contribution to the world) and Rebekah has a salary while using her phenomenal ministry gifts to radically impact people's lives. Such teamwork is - I believe - a crucial element of God's economy.

So today, the fifth day of Christmas, I'm recognizing the gift of work. And - once in a while - actually getting paid!

Love and blessings - DEREK

On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
Five days of work...
Andrew and Naomi...
And a Savior to set us all free....

The gift of extended family

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
Andrew and Naomi...
And a Savior to set us all free....

My four grandparents may have passed away many years ago, but they do a great job representing the idea of extended family.

I told a story about my mum's mother - Grandma Lily - just a few weeks ago; she's the one with the Promise Box (Nov 30). She raised my mum and her siblings in East London during WWII, along with my Grandad Arthur. Arthur was a "jack of all trades" and when they were older they shared our house on Avereng Road in Folkestone, England.

My dad's parents were Connie and Fred. Fred Maul and his father started F.W. Maul & Son, Ltd., the business that defined family life for many years. I have great memories of large family gatherings at their house in Rayleigh, just north of the Thames River in Essex.

All that goes to make the backdrop for the traditional "Boxing Day" gathering my side of our family enjoys the day after Christmas. My mum still prepared most of the food, but this year it was held at my niece Hannah's home in Sarasota. She and her husband, Andrew Roberts, did a great job of hosting - with the help of my brother, Geoff.

Geoff asked everyone to share "Something you're thankful for and one thing you learned during 2009." Everyone opened up their hearts and my dad made my mum cry (in a good way!). Dad came through very serious surgery this fall, and we're all extremely grateful for that; but in general there was far too much in the way of gratitude to even begin to summarize here.

The learning part ranged from my dad's wonder at how (in the hospital) "they can take you apart and put you back together again," to my new-found appreciation of Italy, Andrew's extensive travels, and some of the stuff that has come across Hannah's desk since she started working in child welfare for the state.

Rebekah and I have hosted so many parties and gatherings over the past couple of months it was good to sit back and watch everything go on around us. My "great-niece" and "great-nephew" Haley and Hudson enjoying the day; my parents soaking up their great-grandchildren; my brother so proud of his daughter and her children....

It was a coolish sixty-degrees out (don't laugh, my northern and mid-western readers!), so walking a couple of miles in the afternoon was most enjoyable. No agenda, just a long saunter with family who simply can't get together as often as we'd like.

So that' s my not so deep and insightful blog post for today. On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me an extended family.

... Gifts, by the way, are supposed to be enjoyed, not just visited on special occasions.... Something to remember.

My greatest gift is still Rebekah, and the amazing opportunity we have to live and love and serve and have fun together. I'll never get over how blessed I am, and how good our life is in terms of faithfulness, mutual commitment, and joy...

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Three French Hens...

Okay, then, about those three French hens... "On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, three citizenships..."

I've talked about this particular triad before - the idea shows up in my book "The Unmaking of a Part-time Christian" and quite possibly I've used it here in this blog. But I'm writing from the heart today - not cutting and pasting, so I believe you're cleared to continue even if you think you've already heard what I have to say!

My three-pronged gift is citizenship, and I hold three allegiances that help to define me: it's a great way to introduce exactly who I am in terms of belonging.
  1. First; in 1956 I was born into the human race. Before I acknowledged any state or any nationality, I was born into life on earth, and I am a citizen of the world. My long-overdue appearance as a breathing being occurred on March 26th, at 6:00 in the morning according to Greenwich Mean Time, in the town of Folkestone in the English county of Kent. I am, by the reckoning of this world, 53 years old.
  2. Another kind of birth was my decision to become an American. When I took my oath of citizenship (February 15, 1985) I made some huge commitments in terms of loyalty and allegiance. I am now 100% American. When I left the Federal courthouse in Pensacola that beautiful Spring day, I was no longer British. I was still a citizen of the world - and that responsibility has a deep hold on me that nothing can shake - but I became American by choice.
  3. My third citizenship is that of the Kingdom of God. When I made the decision to follow Jesus the process was a lot like becoming an American. Now pay attention carefully here... I'm not saying being an American is the same a being a Christian! What I'm saying is that becoming a Christ follower involves the same quality of commitment and "no-going-back" that comes with a new passport and the promise to "defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic". If I stand with my allegiances divided, wanting to inhabit both camps, then I have to be lying to somebody - most especially myself - and such a game simply will not work.
So these are my three gifts, my fill-in for the three French hens; I believe they are all gifts given to me by the Creator. The most important of these allegiances is my role as a disciple of Jesus. It's a difficult one to date, because I am very much a work in progress. What I do know is that this morning I decided to follow Jesus, around 6:30 and just before my first cup of coffee - it's like my wife Rebekah says when people ask her to date exactly when she made the decision to follow Christ: I've been choosing Jesus for years and I plan to do it again every day.

My citizenship in God's kingdom informs my role as a committed citizen of the World. My position as an heir of the kingdom also says a whole lot about how I go about engaging the responsibility I own to use the rare privilege of citizenship in these United States for the benefit of my brothers and sisters all over the globe.

On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me...
Three citizenships...
Andrew and Naomi...
And a Savior to set us all free....

  • I did everything the Law demands in order to please God. But Christ has shown me that what I once thought was valuable is worthless. Nothing is as wonderful as knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have given up everything else and count it all as garbage. All I want is Christ and to know that I belong to him. I could not make myself acceptable to God by obeying the Law of Moses. God accepted me simply because of my faith in Christ. All I want is to know Christ and the power that raised him to life - Philippians 3

Saturday, December 26, 2009

"On the Second Day of Christmas...."

No, people, it's NOT over! Advent is over... Christmas started yesterday... and today is only the Second Day of Christmas. We're just getting warmed up around here! Our lights are staying lit, the tree is going to be enjoyed for another week and a half, and each day between now and Epiphany I'm going to publicly celebrate one more aspect of the wonder and the blessing of ongoing Christmas JOY.

Everyone has heard several standard, traditional, interpretations for "The Twelve Days of Christmas" song. But I'm going to go with my own this year.

That said, there's no way I'm messing with Christmas Day! The "Partridge in a Pear Tree" simply has to be Jesus, and the gift of Christ is and always will be the foundational bedrock of any reason to celebrate. The coming of the Christ-child remains the most awesome event in history.

But today, the 2nd day of Christmas, my "two gifts" - the two turtle doves - are Andrew and Naomi. "On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me - Andrew and Naomi...."

It even rhymes - kind of - if you draw out "Na-o-mi" and give her her three very distinct syllables! They are both most definitely a gift from my true love; from the stand point of my true love being Rebekah and my true love being God. I can't say enough about the blessing of being a parent right now.

My scripture for today is this short passage from Luke 2. When the shepherds saw Jesus, they told his parents what the angel had said about him. Everyone listened and was surprised. But Mary kept thinking about all this and wondering what it meant.

When we were raising our two turtle doves we were constantly "thinking about all this and wondering what it meant." Wondering was our natural state of being. It's hard to see beyond the immediate present when you're raising children. But those were a short couple of decades. We always knew that Andrew and Naomi were special gifts and that our home was exactly where God was "working his purposes out"; we never doubted God's faithfulness, no matter what was going on.

Of course that's easier to say now. But the thing is, we always believed God's providence was at work. Sometimes we still "wonder what it all means"; but that's just a part of the adventure.

Thank you, God, for our "two turtle doves". Rebekah and I are blessed beyond measure or understanding.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas pictures from Maul Hall

Scout Labradoodle (left) was the first to find her stocking, then she ran around at 100 mph until she realized no-one was going to take it away or put her in time-out!

It was good to be in church last night. But this morning (Christmas Morning) was exceptionally special, too. We're so blessed to have Andrew home for Christmas this year. We really, really miss Naomi, but we're glad she's around people she loves and who love her.

So I walked Scout early, set the coffee going, and we gathered around the fireplace around 8:00 to see if the stockings had been filled. They had, and by some very thoughtful Santa's helpers. Stockings in our family are usually stuffed with fun items such as flashlights, chewing gum, ornaments and Christmas socks - small things like the new dog-collar for Scout, my new spatula, fancy hand-lotion for Rebekah, English marmalade for dad...

Then, after a break while I started a fresh pot of coffee and put the brunch casserole in the oven, we tackled the presents around the tree. We didn't spend that much money this year, but creativity was through the roof. Rebekah and I both gave each other (without knowing ahead of time) stuff for the new kitchen, including a couple of very inspirational cookbooks; Naomi and Craig sent festive packages from Connecticut; Andrew came home armed with a suitcase full with Middle Eastern goodies; and my parents generosity is always inspirational.

These pictures say it all. Love plus generosity equals a great morning.

That's me with my new cast-iron grilling skillet - I've made a commitment to cook at least one new recipe from the new cookbooks each week. My parents are evidently very happy about a gift they just opened from Naomi. Rebekah is unpacking a basket-load of kitchen goodies from me. Andrew is pleased with the digital picture frame from his loving parents. Scout is very proud of her new collar.

Finally, at the bottom of this very un-literary but totally newsy post, you can see the middle-eastern nesting dolls from Andrew. A very merry Christ-mas to all, and may the peace of God, the promise of the risen Christ, and the presence of God's spirit fill you all with Joy - DEREK

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Joy to the World!

- Pictures (other than the church shot) all taken around our home yesterday evening.

For some people, it's a long and wearisome road to Christmas. Mary and Joseph - along with their faithful donkey - are not alone in arriving at today exhausted and stretched beyond reason. For all our best efforts, North American culture has crafted a tedious run-up to what should be a time of refreshment, celebration and joy. But that quality of experience requires preparation, prayer, meditation and deliberate steps to move out of the main-stream and into the presence of the Creator.

And so today is the last of the days of preparation. Across the nation, thousands of people have joined me in the series of readings collected in the book "In My Heart I Carry A Star: stories for Advent." I received an email just a couple of minutes ago from a lady who wants me to write another book, this time with 365 short chapters... For the time being I'll simply invite her to read this blog!

So this morning, all I want to do is invite you to set aside an hour today and attend a Christmas Eve celebration of communion and worship. Why communion, you may ask? For me the pause to take bread and wine is a poignant reminder that Christmas is diametric - beautiful and costly at the same moment. We can't fully appreciate the presence of the baby in the manger outside of the brutal image of a young man nailed to a cross.

At the church I attend, First Presbyterian of Brandon, Florida, we have two services. 5:00 is the most crowded - it's where the younger families tend to gather; then we have an exact replica at 7:30. My favorite momentcomes almost at the end...

...Rebekah always delivers an amazing and inspirational message; then, after communion is served, all the lights are extinguished except the "Christ Candle" in the Advent wreath. As Rebekah lights her candle and then Tim's, I begin to play "Silent Night" on my acoustic guitar. Eventually, as the pastors pass the light to each of the elders, the congregation begins to sing and the church leaders make their way around the sanctuary, touching flame to wick and spreading the gentle light to every worshiper present.

By the time the timeless carol is finished the entire church is a blaze of light. Finally, after a brief prayer, the house lights come up and the the choir leads the congregation in a upbeat rendition of "Joy to the World, the Lord is come!"

And, I've got to tell you, JOY abounds and we leave with spirits renewed and hearts warmed.

Now, and (as the Bard would say) "here's the rub." We may not do the whole candle thing on average Sunday mornings; but, otherwise, the experience of worshiping together with my church family is just as inspirational every week of the year. Christmas Eve helps bring this season into focus - but Sunday worship brings life into focus.

And Rebekah and I will come home, after hugging hundreds of wonderful people and "Merry Christmas-ing" ourselves hoarse, and we'll quietly walk the neighborhood before Rebekah in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap, will just settle down for a long winter's nap... And we will hold hands and smile - because nothing else really needs to be said or done in terms of making anything merry when we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that we are loved and cared for by a Creator who reached out through time and space to gift us with the promise of the new-born King...

... MERRY CHRISTMAS!!! - Derek

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

So, how are your kids, Derek? - HAPPY!

It was nice to wake up this morning knowing that our son, Andrew, is in the house. He arrived yesterday afternoon after stopping off in Connecticut for a few days to visit Naomi and Craig. The blizzard followed him there over the weekend, and they all enjoyed the "Winter Wonderland" experience. Quite the contrast from his desert home in Bahrain.

Sunday I sent them a text message in response to the pictures they sent from playing in the snow.

"Remember when you were kids and you'd ask us what we wanted for Christmas?" I wrote.

"Yes," Naomi replied. "You'd always say 'All we want for Christmas is for our children to be happy and to get along...' Why do you ask?"

My one-word response said it all. "Bingo!"

So I really don't care what is or isn't under the Christmas tree this week. I really don't mind if I get that classic arch-top guitar, or the Amazon Kindle book-reader, or the Mac desktop, or the Audi A-4 convertible, or the round of golf at Pebble Beach... (and it's a good thing because no-one's going to get me anything like that anyway!)

But my heart has been fixed on contented children since the first day we brought Andrew home from the hospital, June 1982.

So these pictures pretty much say it all. Connecticut, December 20 2009; love and laughter and peace and joy.

Andrew dodged the snow at Heathrow airport in London, where he got out just before wholesale cancellations. He watched the snow come in at Philadelphia, taking off for Connecticut just ahead of the main storm. Then he slept in Naomi and Craig's guestroom while the blizzard raged, just so they could have fun the next day.

I'll take my blessings, I'll embrace the serendipity, and I'll look into the future with anticipation and confidence. More than that, I have faith - DEREK

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Living the Greatest Story Ever Told

Christmas is always a curious amalgam of the present, memory, and promise. The season is seldom experienced in any less than two or three layers of reality. This was brought home to me poignantly, yesterday evening, when Rebekah asked me to scan a couple of older photographs for a project she is working on.

That's Andrew and Naomi, shortly after we moved into our Piedmont Road house in Pensacola. I've shared before how we have always made the story of the Nativity as accessible as possible.

If it's the first Christmas in that house, then the children are five and three; it's the year after the "Case of the missing Magi" adventure. Our time-honored ritual involved placing the figures, one at a time.... "That's my second sheep in a row, I want a camel..." "He got to do the baby Jesus last year..." "Your camel's too close to my shepherd..." "Don't you think Jesus should have his own puppy?"...

Pictures like this one take us right back, in an instant. It's one reason it's so important to share and re-tell our stories, and to always remember. The story of Jesus is known as "The Greatest Story Ever Told" - but it's a story that becomes more meaningful with the living, and by understanding how our personal and family stories fit in...

Five minutes ago I talked with both children. Andrew was at the airport in Connecticut, waiting to come home this afternoon. Naomi was slip-sliding down her ice-covered driveway, heading out to work. Both of them still see the Nativity as interactive; both of them love Jesus; both of them live out their lives as a great adventure; both of them have key roles to play in the on-going story.

More to come - stay tuned - DEREK

Monday, December 21, 2009

Gospel truth in plain sight

"I am giving you a new command. You must love each other, just as I have loved you. If you love each other, everyone will know that you are my disciples." - Jesus

Now that was another great weekend! Lots happening and with so many wonderful people. How great that we can share and enjoy together! The exhausting but fun finale was a party at Maul Hall for a couple of the small groups Rebekah and I are involved with. 24 people, fabulous food, a raucous gift-exchange and then circling up to share some poignant stories.

I don't think there was a single exposed surface in the house that didn't have food on it. But it's interesting; when I'm hosting I find I don't eat all that much myself.

The most remarkable aspect of the evening was the spirit of love and deeply layered joy that pervaded. We all meet on a regular basis to share what's on our hearts, read the scriptures, be mutually encouraging and pray together. We genuinely love one another and there's no better basis for a party that that.

The gift exchange involved just the right amount of stealing, strategy, under the table deals, bribery and hilarity. I think everyone left with a gift they were pleased with. The picture at right shows Steve and JoEllen's reaction to some of the ongoing drama!

The "sharing" instructions were simple. Bring your favorite all time Christmas card - or memory of that card - and tell the story behind it. There were some powerful testimonies to faith, and hope, and belief, and the constant work of grace.

The evening was an example of what a community of faith is supposed to look like: Fun; commitment; love; support; the constant exploration of what it means to believe - and all the questions that go along with it; powerful stories; laughter; tears; generosity; unconditional acceptance...

... The truth is that this Christmas party didn't look much different than any normal Sunday evening with our friends. This is what Jesus invited us to demonstrate to the world. This is what the Gospel message is all about. This is good news in so many ways!

The most compelling invitation Jesus threw out was always the invitation to live. Salvation is something that God is up to, here on earth. We get to participate, and we get to share that life with the world we live in. The good news just keeps getting better.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Our Hatian Angel

This morning I asked Rebekah what image best represents Christmas for her. She immediately went for our Haitian angel - she's been sitting on our tree for the best part of 25 years now. So I guess I'll have to share that story (If you have already read "In My Heart I Carry A Star: stories for Advent" then you can probably skip today's post):

Have you ever found yourself reclining in your favorite armchair, a cup of coffee poised on your lap, staring at the Christmas tree in the corner and kind of wondering? I mean really, let’s be honest, what exactly is it in the wacky world of interior decorating that makes an oversized dead shrub so compelling?

Think about it. It's a tree; what is it doing in the living room? And then we cover the unfortunate specimen with the most hodgepodge assortment of mismatched paper products, figurines, glass ornaments, party-favors, and angels. We top it off with tacky colored lights and hand-made strings of snack food. What’s that all about?

We talk about our commitment to save the forests, and spend extra money to bring home a “live” Christmas tree. But then we cut it off at the knees, strap it to the wall, plug it into a light socket, and electrocute the poor thing. After a while parts of the tree start to die and fall off all over the rug. By the second week of December any open flame within 50 feet is likely to result in Tanenbaum FlambĂ©.

Somebody help me understand?

Yet somehow, standing there dressed in a kind of horticultural drag, our Christmas trees have become just about the most enduring symbol of the season for families all the way from London to New York to San Francisco.

In our house the tree – or several trees depending on Rebekah's decorating inclination - has become a visual journey into family history, an archeological dig on a stick, evolving over the years into an elaborate seasonal scrapbook pasted together as events and people pass through our lives. Each ornament has its own story to tell, from first-grade handkerchief angels, to the hand crafted ornament purchased in Appalachia when we were expecting our first child, to the sterling silver pine cone given by a generous friend who often shared our celebrations.

Our Christmas tree moves from everyday worldly images such as trains, singing birds and snowy houses up through drummer boys, Santas and nutcrackers - to a sacred host of stars, angels, and Nativity scenes toward the top. When the children were little I remember Andrew proud of his growing but inaccurate vocabulary – loudly informing a guest that our tree had, “Sacred ornaments at the top and ‘sexual’ ones lower down!”

It is that meeting place of the sacred and the secular that makes the Christmas tree such a durable and endearing feature of our holiday homes. It is a place where even the least religious feel compelled to stick an angel on the apex, include a Nativity underneath, or simply place a star near the top. Thus we give voice to the yearnings of all hungry hearts to undertake such a journey as wise people still do today following the star, making our way to public worship, singing carols, or at least pausing in some fashion to acknowledge the newborn king.

Our own "angel" was brought back from a mission trip to Haiti over twenty years ago. She’s a tattered homemade doll purchased on the dirty streets of Port au Prince and initially rejected as “Too ugly to keep as a gift” by my niece. But eventually “Miss Haiti” found her way to adorn the very top of our Christmas tree.

“She represents what God means by Christmas,” Rebekah explains each year. “Christ came for the poor, the rejected, the oppressed, and the dispossessed as much as he came for any of us.”

So there our challenged angel sits, every year, ugly yet beautiful at the same time. She decorates the top of our exceptionally gaudy tree, our wonderful symbol of Hope and Peace and Redemption. She tells the most beautiful story of how Christ was born – she tells it unfailingly, and she can testify personally as to how the newborn king died for absolutely everyone. She will tell the truth about Advent so long as we have a tree for her to preach from, and, always, she will share the eternal story of Hope.

PRAYER: Lord of all life, Advent can transform people from darkness into light. We think of your goodness, we think about your love, and we understand that without you there is no durable hope in this world. Thank you for your amazing gift. Amen

Friday, December 18, 2009

Real is better than virtual - but I'll take the connections I can get!

This morning I wrapped up my second "Making it through December with your faith intact" study through the "Institute for Discipleship" at Both classes were unique and my experience was positive. The first was very busy, having filled out at 20 participants; then I repeated the process for another seven.

The on-line format, I've discovered, can only be as interactive as the participants allow. That's true with any learning situation, but in the virtual world people can hide more easily! There is no eye contact, tone of voice, body language or handshake in cyberspace. Typically, in a classroom situation, I can read people quickly and then facilitate from there. I'll certainty offer more classes, because it's an opportunity to reach people I'd otherwise not "meet." But, given the opportunity, I'd still rather fly somewhere and lead my workshops face to face.

My closing "lecture", pasted onto the "announcements" board yesterday evening, was all about face-to-face, and I want to share an edited version as my post today:

...This evening I've been across the street with my neighbor's family, and the long conversation I just had with his daughter helped to put all of this "Advent stuff" we've been considering in clear focus. Here's the short version of what happened:

Two months ago my neighbor's wife was diagnosed with cancer. Things were fairly advanced and she passed away this fall - it hit the family pretty hard. Meanwhile his oldest son has been undergoing treatment for bladder cancer. This afternoon, at around 2:00, he died; he was 55.

So I went over and we talked, I talked with his grandsons, and pretty much everyone in the house; you know, the perfunctory stuff that gets covered "the day of" - the serious work usually comes later.

But then I sat out on the bench with my neighbor's daughter, _____, and we talked for a long time. She lost her mother last month and then her older brother today and she wanted to talk about God - her idea, not mine.
"I hope we're right about God," she said. "I hope that God really is there, and that there is some kind of continuity and that - as my dad keeps saying - death is simply a part of life...."

She told me she's "Not into organized religion..." We all know people who talk that way. So I joked, "Do you prefer disorganized religion?" And she laughed enough that I knew she understood what I was getting at.

And I told her, "I'm absolutely 100% convinced that we're not wrong about God, and that God does love us, and that relationships can be picked up again in eternity, and - yes - there is a continuity that we can count on." (I remember the conversation exactly because it was just thirty minutes ago...)

"Well I'm not sure I can do Christmas this year," she said.

"Christmas is how I got to be so confident in God," I said. "The birth of Jesus set in motion what makes it possible for all of us to know...." And the conversation went on.

This is a long process, this relating to the world around us in terms of light - this "Holding out the word of life". I've talked with _____ a lot over the years - she looks after our dog when we're out of town. But I never knew until this evening how close she is to possibly following Jesus.

What's important is that some of the light - the light that is Christmas - leaks out of me sometimes. What makes an eternal impact is the authenticity - or otherwise - of the way each one of us receives the King, and then allows that faith to direct our paths....

So, last assignment. Please follow through with the two items in the assignment folder for Friday.....

I'm going to miss my on-line class. But I won't have to miss the moment-by-moment imperative that is always there - to be the living presence of God incarnate in this broken and restless world...

Peace - always - DEREK

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Plant City - Community - and Epistemology

I've been having a lot of fun with some new work I'm doing for FOCUS Magazine, a community monthly out of Plant City. It's a good venue for my "Op-Ed" column, and they've also asked me to write a regular feature. Thus far I'm monthly on the column and every-other month with the feature.

This month's edition - published a couple of days ago - includes a story I prepared on the new "Heart of Plant City Mural", painted on the south side of the Whistle-stop cafe downtown. Click on the photograph above for a link to the magazine - and it's worth the trip to page 49 to see how they used my photograph of the people involved and what I wrote (then my commentary appears on page 100 if you're interested).

I enjoy the sense of community that characterizes Plant City. I visited with a friend at the Whistle-stop cafe a couple of weeks back, and the hour I scheduled simply wasn't enough. It's the kind of place where you hang out for a couple of hours, make a fresh pot of coffee, and then start over - an approach to life that we've all but lost just a few miles down the road in Brandon, absorbed into suburbia.

But life is life - reality is seldom Main street in Mayberry; so while it's nice to talk about Plant City, most of us live somewhere else and there's no point in wishing things were any different. There is a point, however, in re-ordering our lives to proactively include the level of community we know that we need.

That's why my Wednesday evening men's gathering is so critically important, and why we spent some time this week talking about how we can extend that blessing to more guys through the men's ministry at First Presbyterian Church. We all recognize the importance of deliberate community, but what are we doing to make it happen?

We had one of those conversations that I wish someone had recorded. We talked about epistemology - although we didn't label the discussion that way and I'm sure most of us still don't know that's exactly what we were doing!

"Epistemology" is that branch of philosophy that is concerned with the nature and the scope of knowledge. We had planned to discuss "A Collision of Worlds", chapter ten in "The Unmaking of a Part-Time Christian". And we did. But, as we exchanged ideas and shared what God is up to in our lives, and as we considered our relationship to the "unseen" or spiritual realm, talking about everything from angels to eternity to how we can "know" the reality of God, I realized that we were talking about truth, verifiable knowledge, and how we know anything at all.

The interesting thing, for me, is that all of this was a very natural progression in conversation. Where we arrived, after just an hour of what is of course a lifetime of progressive thought, was the assurance that - yes - our faith does have concrete and authoritative things to say about most everything that is important in life. "Spiritual knowledge" is as real as what we call "scientific fact." Science is a critically important subset of all knowledge; but it is not the only truth that we can know with absolute certainty.

Thanks for listening to me think out loud - DEREK