Saturday, January 31, 2009

A life well lived

This morning I attended a memorial service celebrating the life of an old friend. I haven't spent much time with Danny in a couple of decades, yet his quiet, positive, and humble spirit always spoke volumes when we did cross paths.

Danny was just 57, but an aggressive opportunistic cancer kind of snuck up on him and his sudden death took absolutely everyone by surprise. However, as is always true of people who own a deep, authentic, faith, he was more than ready and his passing simply confirmed his living testimony of grace and practiced peace.

I was struck by the significant impact a life can have when it is lived in real faith - honest, committed, authentic, trustworthy, true. Several family members talked about a man whose testimony spoke volumes in terms of living, a man who followed Jesus but who seemed to waste very little time on the talking part. He was open about his Christianity, but people could be around him and they would understand the truth of the gospel without being assaulted, condemned, button-holed, manipulated or guilted into the kingdom of God.

That beautiful story was told eloquently by his brother-in-law, his son-in-law, his sister and a poignant series of pictures from Danny's faithful life. No-one could have listened and failed to have been touched by the truth of such a compelling and foundational faith. That's what made the endless rambling altar call that followed so disappointing; nothing about the loosely connected talk had the ring of truth so evident in Danny's life. The message was already clear - it was obvious why Danny's life had such meaning.

Fortunately my niece, Hannah, concluded the memorial service by singing "How Great Thou Art." She sang beautifully and from her heart. It was the exact invitation people needed to receive; it was the invitation to know the kind of God whom she loves, and the invitation was both clear and true. It's a message we simply must stop fouling up, both in the church and in our everyday lives.


Thursday, January 29, 2009

More on the light

(Image of our Sun taken from web. Credit: NASA; Skylab)
Irony = planning to write about the light today and then waking up to a deep gray rainy morning. Even dog-walking got put on the back-burner and I languished in bed well beyond my usual 6:30.

But of course it is still light. No amount of cloud cover can stop the truth of it.

There's a story I like to tell about a trip we took with the children to Colorado. We took one of those "old abandoned gold mine" tours. The train took us about a half mile into the heart of the mountain and - what with a few elbow turns along the way - we came into contact with dark on a level I'd never experienced before. Our guide turned off all the lights until there was just one remaining.

Then he stood on a chair.

"Close your eyes and put your hand two inches in front of your face," the guide said. "Keep them closed. Now I'm going to turn out the single remaining light and I want you to open your eyes after I count to three. One... Two... Three...."

I've got to tell you the result was shocking. Not only could we not see the hand in front of our face we could see absolutely completely nothing at all. It was like there was nothing in existence any more except sound and there wasn't much of that because we were all too nervous.

About thirty seconds later - and thirty seconds is a looooonnnnng time - our guide told us all to be perfectly still and to be completely quiet because he was going to light a single wooden match. When he did the effect was amazing. We could see everything. We were in a cavern about the size of a 300 seat auditorium and there wasn't a cubic foot of the space that wasn't at least somewhat illuminated.

Well, our guide got the "WOW!" element he wanted, the tour was a success, nobody found any gold, and we all went on our way. But my mind couldn't stop working. I thought about the devastating effect even one small spark of light will always have on darkness. "The light shines in the darkness," the Living Bible phrases verse 5, "and the darkness can never extinguish it."

Here's the really cool part. Even though the wooden match produced "artificial" light, it turns out that the phosphurescent energy that illuminated our cavern was still simply a conduit for the power of the sun. All energy is derived from sunlight. Energy absorbed, stored, recalibrated, reconstituted, unearthed, transformed, released via a thousand different pathways...

Right back at the beginning of John's Gospel there's some discussion regarding the role of human beings who feel called to play the part of the match in a dark cave. "There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light..."

This is the life force DYNAMITE that was resident in and through God even before the very beginning, and it is at the heart of everything – all creativity; all joy; all life and discovery and goodness and verve.

Oh yeah, it's still raining here; more fuel for the beautiful Spring to come.

The blog behind the blog

This whole idea of examining my own life has been a long time coming. There's a lot of posturing in the world of being an adult male, and after a while even the best of us can get confused about who it is that we really are.

Unsure to begin with, we then listen to such a wide and contradictory variety of loud, persuasive, voices:
  • "You should be like this..."
  • "Americans are supposed to be like this..."
  • "Well, you say you're a Christian..."
  • "Now you're associated with this group of people - then this is how you are..."
  • "The really cool people – and we all want to be cool – act/think/speak/believe… this way..."
  • "This is a corporate culture and it's important to fit in..."
  • "A good citizen will stimulate the economy..."
  • "A good American will think this way about the world..."
  • "This is your station and you're expected to..."
  • "You're English… American… White… College Graduate… A believer…A child of the 60's… … A school Teacher… A Republican… A Democrat…a conservative... Presbyterian… Catholic… Baptist… Atheist…
Then, and most especially when you're around thirty years old, and a new father, and so busy it hurts, and haven't spent much quality time with your wife in maybe five years, and there's all this pressure to be and do and provide and solve and WHATEVER - then it is too easy to carefully erect a barrier of some kind, or a series of barriers, just to protect yourself, and you hide behind this carefully or hastily constructed partition - just a little maybe at first - and before you know it you can't even find yourself anymore for all the pretending….

So in my personal journey I went through so much clearing out. It hurt a lot but it was good for me. And I grew by leaps and bounds - but even so always temporarily, because the honesty is supposed to be ongoing, and that has got to be pretty much a daily deal if you want it to really take. And besides, as we all know, the overwhelm can sneak in and stake its claim - subtle like - and the first casualty is almost always integrity.

This year, then (and now we're almost a month into 2009) I have made a conscious decision to try to be more proactive regarding the looking closely and being honest part. Or, as Jedi Master Yoda pointed out in Star Wars - "Do, or do not. There is no 'try.'" That's really my motivation behind this "A Life Examined" idea/process/witness.

That said, I really can't think of a better place to begin than at The Beginning – right there in the Gospel of John. "In him was life, and that life was the light of men." (John 1: 4)

More on the light probably tomorrow.
Joy and gratitude - DEREK

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How well do we know each other?

This week I responded to a prompt sent by a friend on "Facebook." The idea was to quickly produce a list containing 25 fairly random facts about myself (details that other people probably do not know) and then to circulate the list, with the prompt, thereby contributing to the development of on-line community.

So I quickly wrote up my list - I'll copy it below this blog entry - and sent it around. Then I read a few that other people has posted.

It occurred to me that more honest self-revelation was taking place in this "virtual" community than often happens at church, between colleagues at work, or even around most family dinner tables. What is it about an electronic list that gives people more confidence to be honest about themselves?

Then I realized this beautiful irony. It's the anonymity of the Internet that makes people willing to talk more openly. Humanity has this desire to know and be known, but we run from it at the same time as we reach out.

So I took my list and I read it aloud to my wife, Rebekah. It was a great starting point for a deeper conversation. I'm going to read my list at my small-group Bible-study tonight, then encourage my friends to make a similar "declaration" and share it with their spouse over coffee or a cup of hot tea.

When my daughter, Naomi, was dating Craig long-distance (Florida-Alaska), they went through a list of questions designed as conversation-starters for small-groups. They got to know each other better over hours of in-depth phone conversation than had they not been divided by a continent and three time-zones.

How many of our families would be infinitely healthier just by turning off the television during meals and actually talking? Spouse... children... friends.

Just something to think about. My "facebook" list is pasted below.

25 things
Mon 8:31pm |
  1. I believe my actual life is better than most people's "bucket lists."
  2. In high school I ran the second fastest 100 meters in the SE of England.
  3. My definition of "middle aged" is "half gone"; I'm not middle aged.
  4. I haven't been old in a long time.
  5. My favorite writers are Graham Greene, Philip Yancey, Don Miller and the apostle Paul.
  6. I didn't believe I was smart enough to go to college - I eventually graduated summa cum laude.
  7. When I was 19 I spent three months touring Europe with a bus-load of fundamental Christians...
  8. ... if you want to know what happened then you'll have to read my next book...
  9. ...All I'm saying is it wasn't always pretty.
  10. If someone wrote my obituary today I'd want it to read: "Derek Maul: child of God; friend of Jesus; faithful husband; loving father; author & storyteller; joyful member of the community of faith..."
  11. Some of the things remaining on my "bucket list"... See my column syndicated; speak at a college graduation; own a convertible; do a three-month road trip coast to coast with Rebekah; be on the New York Times bestseller list; play Pebble Beach; eat dinner with a sitting president; give a million dollars to charity in one year...
  12. I smuggled Bibles into Russia back in 1974.
  13. Back in high school I once held the record for most runs scored in a "20-over" cricket match.
  14. A British newspaper described me as "brilliant" several years before the term became a UK cliché.
  15. London is still my favorite city in the world; San Fransisco, Portland, Seattle, and Tucson are close. Tampa is not bad.
  16. Cities I wouldn't mind living in: Tallahassee; Atlanta; Tuscon; San Fransisco; Portland; Columbia, SC; Asheville....
  17. I really and honestly DO believe Rebekah Maul is the best preacher I've ever heard.
  18. I often listen to John Ortberg or Rob Bell sermons on my ipod while walking the dog.
  19. My children - Andrew and Naomi - have turned out to be two of the most wonderful young adults this world has ever known.
  20. My favorite book in the Bible is the Gospel of John.
  21. My favorite hymn is "Great is thy faithfulness"...
  22. ... Because it's true.
  23. Sometimes - while I'm walking the dog on a cool evening and thinking about my family and my church and my job and this world - I feel so good about being alive that I almost cry.
  24. I'd like to own an archtop guitar and learn to play some jazz.
  25. My favorite food is Italian....

Monday, January 26, 2009

Another redemptive weekend

We've already discussed how much of a blessing Saturday morning's "Super-Saturday" workshop turned out to be. The gathering was part of a specialized leadership training event, and I only had men in my class. But then, Sunday, I enjoyed the privilege of talking with a whole new demographic at a church in Palmetto, just north of Bradenton.

I knew the experience would be a good one when I drove up and read the welcome sign outside the church: "COME HEAR DEREK MAUL; AUTHOR, STORYTELLER."

I've been described a lot of ways over the past couple years, in everything from church bulletins to newspaper articles to conference biographical sketches. But this has to be far and away my favorite so far. Come to think of it, it's the kind of thing I'd like to read in my obituary one day... "Derek Maul: child of God; friend of Jesus; faithful husband; loving father; author & storyteller; joyful member of the community of faith..."

In my ongoing "Life Examined", the quality of deliberate constructive introspection that I'm advocating for all of us via this blog, looking ahead to the particular words and phrases that might summarize our lives in an obituary turns out to be an excellent "pause" at this the beginning of another week of work. Obits are typically brief, dense, concentrated - a kind of reduction-sauce or a distilled life-essence squeezed into a couple of inches of newsprint.

So go ahead; I challenge you. Don't be morbid, that's not the point, but take time today to write a simple, one-paragraph obit - an honest one - that might be 100% accurate if written today. Then (after you've got off your knees having begged God's forgiveness!) write the obit you'd like to earn in - say - the year 2014, just five years from now. You see it's true, as the song suggests, the rest really is still unwritten.

So I walked into the Palmetto church, spent a delightful hour with their adult Sunday-school, then had the privilege of bringing the message during worship. It's a small church, with less than 100 members, mostly retired; but well over 150 people joined together yesterday, singing hymns of faith with enthusiasm, praying with sincerity, and listening to the word with the kind of intense receptivity that made it a real joy to be with them for the day.

What a great start to the week! You see, Monday morning is not the first day; the first day of the week is Sunday, and it is a deliberate living out of the context of worship that makes Monday morning and the next few days full with such promise and redemptive possibility.

God's rich blessings - DEREK

Saturday, January 24, 2009

You should be nervous about following Jesus...

This morning I was invited to teach a workshop - "Designing a Men's Group for the 21st Century" - at the Presbytery of Tampa Bay's "Super-Saturday for Leadership." I led an hour-and-a-half class and was able to form some solid connections with men from a dozen different Presbyterian churches.

Each and every guy who showed up for my class this morning was there because they sense a serious disconnect between most men "in the pew" and the passion and purpose that should define the life of a Christian in their local church. "Is it enough," they were asking, "for men to show up a couple of Sundays out of the month, shake hands, exchange a few anecdotes about their favorite sports teams and return to business as usual the rest of the week?"

We don't have time for an extended in depth "Why men don't get anything out of church" conversation in this space... but there are a couple of things I just have to say.
  • Church is not supposed to be a club for people who want to be "in" with God - The Church is a body of people who have made a commitment to follow Jesus and to let the power of the resurrection transform their lives and the world in which they live.
  • Men who meet together and encourage one another in their faith journeys become a force to be reckoned with.
  • The only possible way to design a men's group for the 21st Century (or at least one that is worth starting) is to begin on our knees, and to begin a more serious spiritual journey ourselves... before asking one, or maybe two, others to join us in humble prayer for the work of our local congregation. Then, when two or three are so gathered and so directed by the Spirit, the small group can begin to grow...
  • It only takes a small group of people, seriously turned on to Jesus and open to the leading of God through the Spirit, to dynamically transform the spiritual core of a congregation...
So, do you want to be that kind of catalyst in your church? Of course another important question would have to be this: "If you don't want to be that person... then why on earth not?" Although I seriously do understand if you don't want to be that person, because Jesus can be very challenging and uncomfortable-making much of the time. I mean, have you ever read the Gospels? Good grief, Jesus is nowhere close to easy.

Now, going back to the question that came from the Atlanta men just yesterday, what on earth does it mean to be a spiritual man in this 21st Century? How is that supposed to look... and how do I get there?

All I can say is this - "Watch this space!" Maybe we'll learn something, together, as I try to be honest about what God is teaching me from day to day.

Love and blessings - DEREK

Friday, January 23, 2009

Conversations about Faith

One of the things I enjoy about my writing life is the dialog that often emerges after people get into my work. 

With the newspaper - especially my opinion column - it runs the gamut; everything from "You're an idiot, you should be taken out and shot!" to "Your column today said what I've always believed, only I have never been able to express it before."

Now that I'm writing books the conversation becomes neccessarily more involved. Sometimes there simply isn't enough time to engage every question that comes along, and then other times short answers turn into speaking engagements and friendships and even retreats with whole groups of people interested in talking together about what it means to be a Jesus-follower in this Twenty-first Century world.

This week I fielded a question about a short section in my book "GET REAL: a spiritual journey for men." A group of guys in an Atlanta church are studying the text together. This is what came up... "Last night we discussed your claim of the emergence of a new spiritual man in America.  Many said that they really didn't see evidence of this and wondered where you were coming from on this. Can you expand on this any?"

My response will - hopefully - get all of us to thinking... 
 I'll give you a quick answer for right now. 
  • First, the idea is - hopefully - prophetic. This is how I see God using men in this emerging 21st Century, this is where I believe we can make a difference in shaping the culture. 
  • Next, it's kind of an ideal as set against the more conservative politically compromised man the "religious right" tried to create over the past 20 years. 
  • Most importantly the new spiritual man in America is potentially sitting in a circle in the room, discussing this stuff together and making renewed commitments to follow Jesus faithfully. We can be a force for cultural change inasmuch as we follow Jesus and commit ourselves to actually being the presence of Christ in our day-to-day lives. That's how we can change this culture - by living faithful redemptive lives. It's more effective than trying to legislate a political agenda... 
  • OK - that's probably more than I intended but - hey - if they don't see any evidence they can step up and BE the evidence...

More on this conversation as it unfolds - DEREK

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sunshine State of Sunshine

Weather for Valrico, FL
Current: Clear
Wind: NW at 0 mph
Humidity: 95%
It's a cold and frosty morning, here in Tampa. Don't laugh, those of you who regularly freeze your buns off; for this part of Florida this is some serious cold. Also, I'm not complaining. My morning walk with Scout was invigorating and the golf-course looked beautiful with its dusting of frost iridescent in the thin morning light. I can enjoy the occasional trip into the mid 20's. Just let's not go there too often!

Great story about the cold: My newspaper writing puts me in touch with a bunch of interesting people. One question I often ask is this: "Why did you move to Florida?" Inevitably some story comes out about keys frozen in the car door, icicles in the fireplace, walking to work because the snow-plow got stuck in a drift... that kind of thing.

Then one day a woman from New England told me that decision point for her family had come early one morning - after her dad went out to the street and spent two hours digging his car out of a drift.

When he finally finished he realized he'd actually dug out his neighbor's car by mistake. He stormed into the kitchen and vented
in the general direction of his wife. "Put the house on the market and get a newspaper from Florida," he instructed. "Tampa, Miami, Orlando; any city, I don't care. Let's look at want ads for work - because we're moving."

Got to love this sunshine. It's 35 degrees already (9:00 AM) and we're looking for a projected high temp of around 60. There will be people up on the green in another hour, playing golf.

This is Derek Maul reporting from Valrico, Florida, where just a hint of winter keeps us grounded and grateful.

(snow photo found on the internet - unattributed)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cold wet humble renewal

I had an interesting memory this morning. I was walking the dog up a modest incline, cold, and in the face of a biting breeze; you know, the kind of wind that works its way between the joins and the buttons and you never can quite get warm. It was only 32 degrees, but this is Florida, so it was cold enough to get my attention. Well, I don't know exactly what it was, but something about the combination of sensations put me back on a chill English street in 1975. The memory just hit me, unsummoned; it was like I was actually there.

The occasion had been my admissions interview for Westminster College in Oxford, England. I was about to turn 19, and I really didn't know why I was there. My high school grades had been abysmal, and my examination results were worse. But maybe I needed to see for myself and so I took the train to England's oldest college city and I hiked up the long hill toward inevitability. I had to walk several miles and halfway to the school it started to rain. So there I was - cold, unsure of myself, purposeless, floundering, and soaking wet; not one of the bright spots of my young life to that point.

I'm not sure that I have ever thought about that moment since - at least not until something stirred the memory today.

The good news about my cold wet walk to rejection in Oxford was the fact that the experience helped me clarify the need for direction in my life. It wasn't enough anymore to simply mark time. The danger, today, is still to fall into patterned familiarity - no matter how good it is - at the expense of what is possible. Typically I'm not cold, I'm seldom unsure of myself, I haven't floundered in years and my purpose is clear... But that doesn't mean I should settle in too comfortably as if I have graduated beyond the need for renewal or re-direction.

God's plan eventually did involve a college education - but not at the top of that particular cold, wet hill. The people at Oxford didn't give me the time of day - but when I was ready I earned my degree summa cum laude. So my question is this... is God still calling me to push the envelope and to scale new heights?

I may be in my 50's now; but in terms of purpose I may yet be coming into the fullness of what is really possible...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Day

Inauguration Day. Well, I have a busy day lined up. Too busy, so far as I'm concerned, because what I'd rather do is to brew a pot of coffee and watch all the inauguration coverage and soak in the weight of history.

(Photo by AFP/GettyImages)

Those of you who know me also know that I choose not use my newspaper column to promote party politics. I won't be doing that in this space, either. In fact I've often said that "Somewhere around half the people I know, give or take, probably believe they could predict how I might vote in any given election, and most of them believe I voted for their preferred candidate; and around 50% of them, give or take, are - quite possibly - correct."

Whatever your preferred political flavor you've got to admit that this is some day for America. It's also some day for the world. It's a day where the gravitas of history, wrapped up in the reality of this 232 years (and counting) American march into freedom, is eloquently and very loudly demonstrating what is possible for all of us. 

My prayer is that the world's six billion plus people ALL somehow internalize the fundamental value on display in Washington today. That value is the promise of individual determinism in the context of a free society. I'd also like to explore with you the awesome truth that such a day is also a direct result of the liberating message of Jesus. This could not have happened absent the Gospel.

There may not be time to explore the specific impact of faith at this particular moment; but, if you read me on a regular basis, be assured that we'll be talking about it some more - because what becomes possible in light of following Jesus is fundamental to our future, not only as individuals but as a nation and as a world.


Monday, January 19, 2009

An annoying start to the new week

Well it's Monday, I have a fairly busy day ahead, it's a beautiful morning, there was a nice light rain in the night... and the new roof on our porch leaked yet again. Then, while I was processing the roof leak annoyance, I realized that our newspaper had failed to arrive on the front driveway, effectively sabotaging the morning routine.

It's amazing how - like a tiny rock lodged in the toe of a shoe - something relatively insignificant in the great scheme of life can work disharmony and angst so easily, and serve to frustrate an otherwise great day, a day full with promise and possibility.

So I'm reporting this as part "A" of today's blog - the reality part. I'm zooming off to an interview in a few minutes and I'll be discussing my spiritual "blahs" with God on my way there. Watch this space for part "B", my report back on how this life-examined manages to process an early morning lean toward a bad attitude...

PART B: All righty then; I'm back from my morning stuff and now have a little time to reflect. So here's a good question... Does God teach us more deliberately, when we begin the day by asking for a little divine wisdom? Or, is God always in the teaching mode and we just happen to notice when we task ourselves with paying attention? Or, am I simply riding some kind of a hot streak here and I'm going to wake up one day wondering why I ever thought God was interested in talking with me...?

So I arrive at my interview and it doesn't take more than a skinny minute to realize that it's all about perspective... This woman had lost her flower shop to fire, just a few days after Christmas. The inventory was a total loss, the building was a wreck. One story after another poured out, and things haven't got much better in the past few days. But, and this is so important, she is committed to moving forward. She rented the space next door, she's working her tail off, and she plans to be selling flowers again by Wednesday this week.

So my roof leaks... so my newspaper didn't show up... so? Big hairy deal! I am blessed with so much - but more importantly I'm blessed with the grace of life, and it is a life lived with people I love and it is experienced in the context of a community that - pretty much - "gets it" most of the time.

This is going to be one amazing week. I can tell already.
Grace and peace - DEREK

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A fresh Decision Every Day

Join me each day, as I get my devotional thoughts in order via the Upper Room Daily Devotional Guide

This morning, Saturday, I slept in a little later than usual before walking Scout. I got up around 7:00, stiff and reluctant. It was cold - for Florida, my head was thick, and my sinuses were congested. Overall, and certainly without the encouragement of one enthusiastic "let's go!" labradoodle, I'm sure I would have chosen to snuggle back under the covers and drift back out of consciousness.

But I got dressed, downed a small glass of orange juice, got the coffee going, bundled up in my oversize leather jacket and ventured out into the light. It was around 34 degrees outside (not quite the minus three Naomi and Craig woke up to in Connecticut), the sun was beginning to climb in the eastern sky, and we quickly found the rhythm in our step.

It always surprises me just a little how naturally my body and my spirit are rejuvenated when I make the choice to get going. Inertia is compelling, seductive, debilitating and - ultimately - dishonest. But (and way too often) the memory of how good it feels to actually live is not always enough to tip the scale against inactivity. So I have to make a fresh decision, every day, to break out and to engage whatever it is that life has to offer.

My wife, Rebekah, said this in a sermon recently. "Some people like ask When did you make a decision to follow Jesus? When did you become a Christian? When I woke up this morning I made the choice to follow Jesus - I've been doing it every day now for a long time, and I don't intend to ever stop making that decision...."

There's a sense in which we have to get up and get going every single day of our lives; a sense in which we must make a conscious choice to allow the light to infiltrate our experience once again, and we must set a deliberate course. When we do, we're going to be glad we set the alarm again, glad we got out of bed, glad to be alive at something approaching 100%, and glad that we are children of the Great King.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Life saturated word

Typically, I'm more of a traditionalist when it comes to Bible translations; it's probably the allure of the familiar. I love the King James Version around Christmas; most of my early memorization was in the old RSV; I've been using the New International Version from day-to-day for the best part of twenty years; and now I'm beginning to go to the NRSV more routinely, because it's my publisher's "go-to" translation.

The danger for me, in spending too much time re-reading passages in the exact same set of words, is growing a comfort level that limits itself to responding to the words as an echo rather than a first hearing, and there's a consequent sense of already knowing what God was going to say before the Holy Spirit can even get a nudge in.

That's why, as a discipline, I often turn to unfamiliar phrasings - and sometimes even paraphrasing - as a way to jump-start my curiosity, prime my spirit, break through patterned rote, and willingly open myself up to learn anew.

That's what happened this morning when I was reading Hebrews, chapter 12. Translator Eugene Peterson (The Message) recasts these familiar words (for example: "
Looking diligently lest any man fail of the grace of God" - v 15) - utilizing language that called to the deep and literally burned in my spirit. Read the following aloud, and listen to the voice of faith...
  • "Work at getting along with each other and with God. Otherwise you'll never get so much as a glimpse of God. Make sure no one gets left out of God's generosity. Keep a sharp eye out for weeds of bitter discontent. A thistle or two gone to seed can ruin a whole garden in no time. Watch out for the Esau syndrome: trading away God's lifelong gift in order to satisfy a short-term appetite. You well know how Esau later regretted that impulsive act and wanted God's blessing—but by then it was too late, tears or no tears."
Today's blog, then, is about doing all we can to get God's word not only in front of us but seriously inside as well. Allow that much, and I promise you that God will begin a good work on the inside that will be timeless. The Holy Spirit breathes life through God's good word. Dare we saturate ourselves, and see what might happen?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Skype - Family - Reconciliation - Techology - Creation

I just love this little guy! If you haven't been introduced then please allow me. It's my web-cam and - along with the wonders of "SKYPE" - it keeps me in amazingly close contact with our son, Andrew. Much closer than when, for example, he was living here in the house, attending high school, and practicing the highly specialized skill of teenage enigma.

So yesterday I'm sitting on the back porch working, when the incoming SKYPE call alert gets my attention. It's Andrew, of course, and we chat for 20 minutes about everything from the contents of his kitchen, the mountain view from his house,
his extensive travel plans, and the weekly middle-school Bible study he's been asked to lead.

He held his computer to the window to let me enjoy the view, he walked me around to show the layout of his villa, and he put several items, such as a pungent local cheese, up to the camera - thank goodness SKYPE doesn't have live odor technology!

So we're chatting, literally face to face, five thousand miles apart - closer than ever. Is it the technology? Is it simply the power of parent-child connectivity? Or is it God? The answer is - most definitely - yes! I'm beginning to understand more and more how thoroughly integrated life is.

Some religious orientations like to talk about the sacred and the secular as "either-or" propositions, or they describe this human condition as simply an "only visiting this planet" scenario (apologies to the late Larry Norman). But I don't think we were created, then placed here on Earth, as two separate acts; I'm thinking we were created to live here on this planet, and that our identity as created beings is bound deliberately with this particular time and place. That's why, in some sense, life beyond physical death is often described as both a continuation and some kind of a re-creation.

Consequently our relationships as family members, our place in creation and our responsibility to it, the technology that we - made in God's image - co-create, our ongoing relationship to our Creator... all this and more, is necessarily caught up in and subject to the urgency of redemption.

Technology is one way that God empowers us to move forward in terms of reconciling the world to God's purposes. We don't always use technology this way, but we have that opportunity if we only allow ourselves to interact with creation in the greater context of ongoing redemption, reconciliation, re-creation....

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Not either-or ... but eternal

There's usually only a very small window in the day where an observer - rooted to the terrestrial crust - can simultaneously see both the heavens and the earth with any degree of clarity.

Typically the moon is hard to photograph during the day because the space around it is too light to provide adequate contrast; while at night any effort to coax color from the earth results in a moon too brilliant to reveal its beauty in detail.

So this past weekend, walking the dog after an early supper, I was excited to see a full moon ease gracefully over the horizon to the east. I ran inside for my camera, fumbled with the right lens, and made it back outside a little late for the best but just in time to capture the idea.

I could not help but think about my interface with God. I strive diligently, sometimes, to apprehend the presence of glory but God is all too difficult to distinguish when ambient reality presses in. Then, when I do get a handle on worship I can't see anything else but God and the experience seems to have nothing to do with daily life.

But then there is twilight. It is there that I can hold the truth about eternity in equal measure with the mundane.

It's not easy to maintain the divine presence in face of glaring and noisy "worldness". But it is of critical importance that I learn to cultivate my ability to see God in the middle of what we call reality... because God is - in truth - more real and compelling. It is the plan of the Creator to be evident in and through creation, especially the nitty-gritty of the day-to-day lives those made "in the image of God" grind out 24/7. Not seperate, but integral; not either-or, but integrated; not in contrast, but in constant.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

When "O-D" = Over-Derek

One seriously effective step toward actually achieving the "Life Examined" is the privilege of listening to your friends. Consequently, all I've been able to think about for the past few hours has been the very real possibility that, in intending to examine my own life, I have in effect achieved a kind of de-facto overindulgence in self; that I have become preoccupied in promoting my own agenda at the expense of actually contributing anything of substance in terms of mission.

The question becomes "Am I a vehicle for Christ... or am I simply using faith as a vehicle to deliver more of Derek Maul?" I like the response John the Baptist gave when his followers shared some exciting news about Jesus. "The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less." (John 3:29-30)

I am very conscious of the dangers inherent in commanding any kind of an audience. I realize that I need to live up to my name more accurately. "Derek" is not an ancient Hebrew name... but, the two syllables (De-rek) manage - in concert - to approximate the Hebrew phrase that translates "The Way." I want to point the way to Christ.

So what I would like to achieve is the following: 1- Significantly less in terms of "O.D." (over-derek). And - 2 - Much more in terms of allowing myself to be a pathway, a conduit, a road the leads directly to Jesus. "This is the confidence we have in approaching God," John writes in his letter: "that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us." (1 John 5:14)

So I'm asking, God, and I am believing even as I pray - because I do have this confidence. Speak through this page; speak in my life; speak through my life; speak in spite of my limited and selfish agenda. Please empower my witness to become so loaded with your truth that the light is difficult to miss.

This space is not going to be just another family newsletter - although my family will appear here from time-to-time; it's not going to be about Derek - but I will show up every day; and my writing is not going to stand and watch, playing the part of reporter while others actually get off their duffs and follow Jesus.

This is Derek on the half-shell; someone turned up the oven and I guess I'm getting cooked!
Grace and Peace...

Monday, January 12, 2009

Why winning and losing can never lead to peace

News headlines this morning continue to concentrate on and around the ongoing events in Gaza. Destruction, reprisals, retaliations, preemptive actions, terrorism, slaughter; the Middle East in startling microcosm.

Saturday I read an interesting cover headline: "Why Israel Can't Win". It was my TIME magazine; I've subscribed for over 25 years. I'm not going to critique the article here, nor summarize the contents. In fact, I apologize if I say anything to suggest feelings about the content of the cover story, either pro or con; I'm simply using the statement "Why Israel Can't Win" - emblazoned on the cover of one of America's most widely circulated news weeklies - as a jumping off point for discussion.

You see I believe that this whole "win/lose" mentality, the playbook that has dominated human life for the entire spectrum of history, is almost without exception misguided, counterproductive, anti-redemptive, and - at its roots - contrary to the essential purposes of God and God's intentions in and through creation.

OK, so I said a mouthful. It sounds, at first glance, as if I am suggesting that pretty-much the entire engine that runs our culture, the economy, international policy, the way we dish-out rewards and prizes, much in the way of human interactions and the way relationships work, and even a lot of what is labeled religion - all this and more - has its foundation in an orientation to life ("win/lose") that is fundamentally wrong....

Well, in a word, "YES"!
  • My point is that, so long as the Middle East conflict is about somebody winning and somebody losing, then we will never know peace.
  • That, so long as relationships are based on the idea that we are always posturing for power, for oneupmanship, for an accounting, or give and take as if it were all a measurable transaction, then we will never know peace in our families.
  • That, so long as my advantage is your disadvantage or you owe me or I am concerned that this time you need to buy me lunch or have I paid my dues and even if I tithe then maybe I'll be squared away with God... then we will never own an authentic spiritual peace...
I can't recommend the book "The Shack" as good theology or a great novel or a resource for people looking for answers. BUT, what author William Young does achieve is a masterful job of imagining what relationships within a Trinitarian God-Head might look like given the limits of our understanding of time and space. Complete self-giving mutual submission, in a never-ending overlapping celebration of love and respect; a relationship that has nothing to do with "I win" but everything to do with "We have this awesome opportunity to bless one-another" overlaid with "My only goal is peace and joy for the 'other'."

Until the same self-giving love that is perfected in the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit becomes deliberately practiced in this world then we will never know peace. Our relationships as individuals within the communities of family, church, neighborhood etc. all desperately need to understand the practical application of such love.

Israel, then, does not need to win. Winning will do nothing other than prolong the conflict. Sacrifice... respect... love of neighbor... love of enemy... These are the most powerful weapons we have in the world community - if we ever intend to be one.

PEACE - and I mean that - DEREK

Saturday, January 10, 2009

"Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. The man who walks in the dark does not know where he is going. Put your trust in the light while you have it, so that you may become sons of light." Jesus: John 12:15-16

I am often taken with the power of early morning to lift my spirits and appropriately frame my day. Today I got going both earlier and later than usual: Earlier to make coffee for Rebekah (as she needed to get up and prepare for a retreat she is leading) and later because I waited to walk Scout until after she had left.

Consequently I enjoyed a different view of the world as it emerged from the night's rest. The air was cool enough to coax a little thin mist from the ground, and our garden was gently back-lit as I meandered up our drive.

So I came back out with my camera to record the moment and to employ the image to jump-start both my praying and my thinking this morning.

Hopefully - and this is my long-term goal - my prayer and my thought will become barely distinguishable as I learn what it means to "pray without ceasing"; prayer not separate from myself but prayer integrated into myself, so that my thoughts are subsumed into the ongoing creative processes of God... If, indeed, God actually thinks - or does God simply emanate divine being?

Is the creative urgency of God limited by something as distinctively cerebral as thought, or does God by definition transcend such discrete activity? Of course, God is not restricted in terms of scope; nor is the Great I AM prevented by unbounded divinity from limiting the parameters of his being should it please his purposes...

Yet what I do understand, and with increasing clarity, is that God desires to enter into communion with me to the extent that I can grasp; and that God intends to expand the limits of what I now grasp to include a future virtually unimaginable today. My responsibility - my opportunity - is to simply follow Jesus, and to trust, and to always enter each day guided by the light.

It's just as well I'm still so young (!!!) because I sense there is a long road yet to journey.

Blessings, always - DEREK

Friday, January 9, 2009

Fun with insurance.... ARRRRRGGGGHHH!

Pictures. Left: just a glimpse of the foolishness spattered all over my desk! Below, left: Our dog, Scout, on her way home from the beauty parlor. She obviously isn't worried about health care or insurance.

When you wake up in the morning and the first thing on your mind is a huge bill your insurance company won't pay but the hospital wants badly enough to send to collections... then you know the universe is out of kilter - or at least my particular universe.
A few points come to mind:
  1. Do they really believe I'd have an MRI just for the fun of it?
  2. Does the my doctor's office have any idea how much time and anxiety resulted from their "small" error in calling the wrong verification company to get pre-approval?
  3. Does my doctor's office even care?
  4. Is there not anyone in the business who understands the inverse relationship between mental/financial stress and physical healing?
OK, now I guess I put my finger exactly on the problem. So I'm going to say something that possibly sounds a little left-wing-whacko-liberal-socialistic. So be it. Here goes: Medicine and the provision of health care should be completely unrelated to means, finance, money, ability to pay etc. etc....

America must adopt a universal health care system, something that is paid for collectively, via taxes, and does not overlay and or interfere with care via the stress of payment, claims, mind-numbing and uncooperative phone calls and paperwork, rejection of claims... or anything other than "What can we do to solve the problem and get on with our lives."

I'm tired of people pointing at other countries - such as the U.K. - and saying smugly, "Well you're not saying we should have that kind of medical fiasco over here are you?"

Well, yes, I am. For all the faults and foibles and baggage and inefficiency of a national health-care plan, if my doctor ordered an MRI I might have to wait an inordinate amount of time, but I for sure wouldn't have my credit and my house on the line because some "I could care less" functionary or series of functionaries failed to jot the right "i" or cross the correct "t" and so I'm stuck with $1,500 worth of bills and - count 'em - over twenty hours of phone calls etc trying to straighten it out....

That all I'm saying - for now.
PEACE - and I mean that - DEREK

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Paying Attention to the Spirit

Yesterday evening (Wednesday) I drove to my small group at church without much enthusiasm. I already knew that about half the group were going to be missing, and I actually toyed with the idea of a leadership sabbatical. I was seriously considering putting the group on the back-burner for a few weeks or months until there was a clearer understanding from the guys that this was something important enough to commit to.

My reasoning told me that success can be measured in clear cut mathematical terms; I even had the numbers to prove the equation:
  • 10-12 men equals a good solid group
  • 15 would mean dynamic success
  • Less than 8 guys around the table and I'm wasting my time.
But God, as I am frequently discovering, laughs at my expectations (or at least smiles politely) and tends to accomplishes results of far-reaching significance irrespective of lines I draw in the sand. However, and this is an important caveat, my personal agenda can and frequently does place a roadblock between my will and God's plan. God chooses to use me - however inefficient that plan - and my own selfish ambition very often stands in the way, effectively hindering the promise of the kingdom.

So we met, just the seven of us (note my equation, above), recommitting ourselves to the process of discipleship in the context of this new year. We prayed together, we shared from our hearts, we talked about the reality of God's presence in our lives over Christmas, we read some amazing scripture from the Gospel of John, and we offered ourselves to the future.

The men present yesterday evening also shared with one-another why meeting as a small group means so much to them,
  • "Being with real men who are not afraid to say they follow Jesus is an encouragement I can't find anywhere else."
  • "I feel spiritually recharged."
  • "It's my Jesus fix in the middle of the week."
  • "Knowing that other men are praying for me - and that I can count on their prayers - is huge for me."
My agenda may be one thing; what God has in mind is something more. God's purpose is being worked out in the lives of these men and in God's (kairos) time. If I try to force "my" small-group to be anything else, something "impressive" that I have defined according to my criterion, then it's all about me, not the work of the Spirit.

So, here's my first and probably only "resolution" for 2009:
  • I commit myself to personal spiritual growth and increased knowledge of God's word, and I promise to faithfully share what I learn and what is real in my experience with the people in my sphere of influence. This sphere includes my family; my close friends; my men's group; the parents of grads support group; my Sunday-school class; people who read my various newspaper columns; people who read my books; those who happen upon my blog, participants in conferences I lead, and those who show up to hear me speak.
  • I resolve to be authentic and honest about my spiritual journey... but to refrain from the temptation to present spiritual growth as some kind of a straight-line predictible continuum, as if the people I influence should or must take the same path in the same direction and at something approximating the same speed.
  • My journey is not neccessarily theirs. My journey is unique, as is yours. I do understand that God has called me to be a light, a clarifier of truth and an encouragment to others on the path; but it is time for me to step away from any degree of pressure and to leave both conviction and implementation in the hands of God.
That's just a little of what I learned at my men's small group yesterday evening. May we all be open to hear what the Spirit is saying, to follow Jesus with passion, and to live in the truth of the light.

"He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God." (Revelation 2:7)

Love and blessings - DEREK

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Just another brick in the wall

Today I got up fairly early because I had an 8:00 meeting with a couple of personal trainers who have launched an innovative program at the health club where they work.

With a slow economy hurting business they came up with a plan that pairs documented weight loss with money for local charities. Every pound lost is represented by a brick, stapled to "The Wall" in the fitness center lobby, and every brick is matched by a dollar from each (thus far six) corporate sponsor.

The plan is win-win for everyone involved. Clients lose weight and gain health; charities receive much-needed money; corporate sponsors get great publicity; personal trainers increase their client base. Not only that, but the entire place gets to rock out to Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" every time someone staples their evidence in place!

We're such a "go it alone" culture, but time and again it's in the context of community - with all the attendant support and accountability - where we make the greatest personal strides. We need one another; we were created to experience community and that includes a community that is centered around our Creator.

Pretty-much anything is possible when we live and hope and dream and pray in that kind of environment. Love and blessings, always, DEREK

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Newspaper writing - out of my heart

Tuesday morning is usually about the time I begin to wonder about next week's op-ed column for the Tampa Tribune (published Wednesday, due on my editor's desk the previous Wednesday). That means that, as of this moment, I have around 30 hours to come up with something and then get busy with the writing.

There are some built in difficulties, however, that impact my work:
  • I can't just write about whatever is on my mind anymore. My column is supposed to comment in some way on local news. People have to be able to see the general Tampa connection. (This is one reason I'm enjoying the blog: this more personal space is a more direct window to my soul; "Derek Maul on the half-shell" might be more than the Tampa Tribune wants... but you can still get it right here!)
  • At the same time my column can't be exclusively "Brandon-centric". Sometimes my article runs in Temple Terrace, downtown Tampa, Plant City, Lutz or Apollo Beach; there has to be a tie in that works for them.
  • One whole week between writing and publishing is a long time. Things may change in a big way during those seven or eight days. Therefore my writing can't be so time-sensitive that it looses its relevance too soon.
These are a few of the reasons I always begin the day with some kind of a devotional exercise. I have this awesome opportunity to speak directly into the minds of tens of thousands of people; how can I even contemplate such a task without tapping into the source of light and creation?

If you're willing, I'd like you to pray with me... "Lord of Creation, please infuse my mind and my spirit with your kind of peace. Help me to frame the thoughts you give me in such a way that those who read my words - our words together - with be walking the path toward truth and wholeness. Amen."

Monday, January 5, 2009

Life best enjoyed with enthusiasm - Monday

Starting the new year with our daughter, Naomi, in the house has been a shot of adrenaline to say the least. She loves fun, she loves people, she loves her husband, and she goes directly at things - work... conversation... playing games... joy - as if there's no reason to do anything other than full-tilt.

So we drove out to the airport this morning, where they boarded their flight for wintery Connecticut, and she wanted to stop for a soda on the way. I pulled in at a gas station.

"Can I get a fountain drink," she asked, fairly bobbing up and down on the edge of her seat. "I really enjoy Fountain drinks!"

Then she came back to the car, eyes dancing, and balanced the drink in her lap. "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" she gushed. "Fountain drinks are the best!"

I took in the scene. The enthusiasm, the absence of cynicism, the genuine joy, the appreciation of the small things, the no-holds-barred approach to even picking up a soda. And a smile edged its way across my face. What a great way to approach the day!

Then I thought, "Why not?"

Joy to all - DEREK

Sunday, January 4, 2009

January 4 - Sunday Rest

8:30 worship today turned out to be a great way to launch church for the new year.  The praise band "hit the groove" early, and it was one of those rare occasions where I could simply feel my way around the guitar and enjoy the worship experience without having to watch too closely to make sure I was playing the right notes.

The music touched me deeply; and the preaching was excellent. But it was communion that set the tone for 2009 (Stock photo image). Remembering Christ's sacrifice; understanding why we were there - together; taking the elements in the context of community; confirming what we already knew yet so easily forget. The knowledge that we are God's children, that we are loved unconditionally, and that we have this opportunity to respond through living faithful lives.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

January 3: Redemption

Yesterday evening Rebekah and I ate dinner on the back porch with our daughter, Naomi, and her husband, Craig. I cooked Naomi's favorite dish, and we enjoyed one another's company as the balmy early winter's evening gave way to cool darkness.

I made a pot of Peet's coffee, "sweet and well-rounded" the package promises, and we moved out to the patio to sit around the fire-pit, talking of hopes and dreams and futures and stories from the past.

Then, while they were gone, I played guitar for Rebekah, we listened to our favorite holiday CDs and we sat by the Christmas tree, talking about the different ornaments, the memories, and their meaning to our celebration.

Later, after the young people had been out somewhere and then back again, we picked up the natural rhythm of community inside.

The evening was, to be honest, far beyond the scope of my dreams or even the reach of our prayers just a few years ago. Our daughter, snuggled up on the sofa with her mother, joy and contentment radiating, her husband and her future nestled in at the other end. I often realize how limiting my imagination is and how far-reaching and surprising the grace of healing can be.

This weekend my life emanates from a spirit of deep gratitude. It's going to affect the way that I write; it's going to work its way through my fingertips as I play guitar at church; it's going to infiltrate my Sunday-school class and my small group and my walking the dog and my cooking... and even my paying of bills and wrangling with the health insurance Monday morning...

This is what it means to inculcate the practice of faith into life; it's an aroma, 
a seasoning, a posture, a realization. It is God.

Friday, January 2, 2009

New Year's Day and Providence

New Year's Day Rebekah and I spent the afternoon in Sarasota, with my parents and - almost -the entire Maul side of the family. It's a small group, but the eleven of us managed to fill their small house with a lot of noise and laughter. Only Andrew (our son in Italy) was missing, but we all managed to talk with him before we sat down to eat.

Here's the roster:
  • My parents, Grace Kemp and David Maul.
  • My brother - Geoff, along with his daughter - Hannah, her husband - Andrew Roberts, and their children - Haley and Hudson (#3 is on the way).
  • Then me; Rebekah; our daughter Naomi, and her husband - Craig Campbell.
Before the meal we joined hands together and gave thanks. We thanked God for our family, the food, and the amazing providence that brought us all to that place and time. It's the beginning of a new year, and the concept of providence is foundational to the journey I am taking into 2009 - so I'm going to re-iterate my definition of the idea one more time.
  • A lot of people confuse providence with fatalism, but the two ideas are nowhere near compatible. Providence is the confluence of our Creator's best intention and his people's sometimes hesitant response. Without our willing participation, God's purpose for our lives and for this world is seldom realized with the specific impact of the original design. We were created for active partnership with the divine, but that ideal remains an illusive dream outside of our day-by-day decision to follow Jesus...
So the afternoon unfolded with conversation, many pots of tea, games, photographs, memories, hopes and dreams. None of us know the exact path 2009 will take; but we do understand with growing clarity the assurance of God's presence in and through the journey.

Check in from time to time and see where we all end up!
Love and blessings - DEREK

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New blog start-up: Derek Maul on the half-shell

Welcome to my new blog! It's a new year (Jan 1, 2009) and "Derek Maul on the half-shell" is a key element in my commitment to re-tool my writing life. I'll grant that today's entry, the initial start-up, is a little long. But that's necessary in order to lay the groundwork, and to talk through what I have in mind.

It's a new year and I intend to be more deliberate when it comes to writing - across the board, and one of my goals is to move away from simply clattering away on my keyboard in reaction to deadlines and to enter into a more disciplined regimen that is actively responsive to daily life.

I'll still write my weekly Tampa Tribune columns: the op-ed, the community profile, and my Q&A feature for Plant City. I'll continue the weekly column I pen for the Live Oak paper in north Florida. And I'll maintain the blog I already post, at But the direction of all that writing, plus my new book-length projects, will be rooted in this space, my new routine week-day exercise, where I intend to get my writing head together for the day - with God's help, and see where the Spirit leads me.

Those of you who already read me know that I started experimenting with a blog just a few months ago. What I came up with was fairly typical for first efforts: haphazard, prepared in a rush, unfocused, few and far between... I didn't know what to call the blog and I misread the instructions; so the web address - "" - was hard to remember.

Then in December - during the season of Advent - I tried to write something fresh every day, kind of a "getting ready for Christmas" journal. I managed 26 entries over 31 days - not quite 100%, but creditably close.

Something else happened in the process, and if I'm correct in my conclusions then this next phase of the blogging experiment is going to be an important step in my writing life.

What transpired was this. I discovered – in the discipline of writing every day – why I was writing in the first place. It turns out that, in the slicing open of my life and laying it out for other people to read, I am not engaging this journey alone. Fact is, none of us are; and that is exactly the point.

So I have retooled my blog, and I've re-titled it. Now it's simple, uncluttered, and designed to serve as an encouragement for fellow-travelers on this journey we're all taking through 2009 and into our future.

This new blog is titled "Derek Maul on the half-shell: A life examined". Interactive writing requires accountability, so I'm asking for some feedback as I take the plunge.

Theoretically, this process will make me better equipped to do all of my work. The Greek philosopher Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living". It's a maxim we could all take to heart as we work together to steer our passage into the immediate future.

Love and blessings - always - DEREK