Thursday, April 30, 2009

"Resurrection Dinner"

Yesterday evening I was asked to talk to the Wednesday evening crowd at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church in South Tampa. The occasion was their post-Easter "Resurrection Dinner". We moved into the sanctuary after an excellent meal, and a good number of people were gracious enough to hang around and listen to what I had to say.

The invitation came from my friend, Linda Beckham, who is Christian Education guru and all around mover-and-shaker at the church. "We want you to speak to the topic, 'Why I believe in the resurrection'," she said a few weeks ago.

"Great topic!" I replied.

Yes it is a great topic... but it was both easy and difficult at the same time. Easy because the resurrection is foundational to the idea of being a Jesus-follower. And yet difficult inasmuch as too many of us go through the motions of this Christian allegiance without living as if the resurrection ever actually happened; or, if it did, that it was an event frozen in time and more of an historical footnote than a present reality.

So that's where I started (Don't worry, I'm not going to blog my entire twenty-five minute talk!).

"One reason that I believe in resurrection" I said, "is the evidence of God's redemptive initiative that is so obvious in many people I know..." And I said that - for a lot of people outside the faith community - believing (and, quite often, NOT believing) hangs on the kind of evidence presented by those of us who profess to follow Jesus.

Or, put another way, "So do we follow a RISEN LORD, or do we gather in a mausoleum every Sunday to commemorate the memory of someone else's conviction?"

Bottom line is this: Those of us who claim to follow Jesus are evidence. We don't get to chose to participate in carrying the message or not. By virtue of our profession we are - by definition - part of the body of evidence when it comes to resurrection. This uncomfortable reality necessarily begs the question: "What kind of evidence are we?" When people meet us, have they encountered evidence of resurrection... or have they run into evidence of what I call "Commemorative religion" (a system or philosophy that honors the memory of a good man, one with an active ministry that ended on Good Friday 2000 years ago).

Here's a great quote from Gregory of Nyssa (circa 360 AD): "Concepts create idols; only wonder grasps anything."

Grasp this: I believe in the resurrection!
- DEREK

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Look for the ancient paths...

The Lord says: "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls." - Jeremiah 6:16 (NIV)

Today the idea of serenity is on my mind. It's not surprising, considering yesterday's post about darkness. But I don't want to discuss serenity as some feel-good guaranteed consequence of a life of faith but instead as a deliberate or purposeful initiative that requires the application of spiritual truth regardless of circumstance.

I have a friend who is - correctly in my opinion - suspicious of situationally induced piety. He's an atheist, but he is consistently reactive when confronted with a religious enthusiasm that rises and falls on what he understands as natural phenomenon. If Christians cite the fact of God only when they're confronted with awesome beauty, he reasons, then what do they see in response to devastation, destruction and disaster? (forgive the alliteration, it just came out that way...).

He makes a valid point. It is too easy to fall into a one-dimensional pattern of "What a beautiful morning; God is so good." or "The sunset was awesome, isn't the Creator marvelous." and "When I look at the stars how can I do anything other than worship God...."

Let me be clear - there's nothing about any of those statements that is not valid. The problem is the way in which we tend to limit our acknowledgment of the Divine to those easy-to-fill-in-the-blank moments, while leaving God out of our consciousness when things don't look so pretty to our eyes. It's the inconsistency that marks us as shallow.

That's why I'm glad I wrote yesterday's post about darkness. Yesterday's darkness, and the eventual breaking in of peace, makes it more possible to talk about this morning's quiet time on the porch with at least a tad of credibility.

So there I was, reading my morning devotional material, drinking in good coffee, perfect temperatures, our inviting back garden and the lush golf course, when Mr. Noisy Lawnmower Man sails onto the green to shatter the stillness with his persistent noise.

What was I to do with my peace? Is it really serenity when the favorable background ceases to be favorable?

So I continued in conversation with God. "Bless the man on the lawnmower," I said. "He looks like he's really enjoying his work." then, "Please solidify this relationship we're working on so I'm not so easily disconnected from the fact of your being." and then, "I'm beginning to understand that true serenity has more to do with my choice to acknowledge your being than the impact of your creation (at least, the parts I like) on my superficial consciousness."

OK, so now we're getting somewhere. I just acknowledged how shallow my spirituality is when it depends on physical cues to kick in. This journey is a stuttering undisciplined series of epiphanies - I realize that. But they are epiphanies all the same.

Grace and Peace - DEREK

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sometimes We Struggle

If this blog is truly "A Life Examined", then I should share some of the difficult stuff along with the mountain-top experiences. Sometimes, of course, the two can go hand in hand. That's why I chose the photographs I took of the sprinkler system - because God's spirit can be like refreshment on a dry and desolate day...

Yesterday morning I woke up tense after several disturbing dreams. I climbed out of bed with both a headache and a heart ache. I felt dark, oppressed, and almost hopeless. There was pressure around my heart and in my head and I felt like something bad was pressing in.

So I washed my face, drank a cup of orange juice, and set out with Scout labradoodle for our morning walk. Typically I shake the cobwebs out of my head in the first few hundred yards – a half mile tops. But this time the shadows persisted, and by the time we’d put in three miles I felt a palpable sense of dread.

I tried praying, humming hymns, and talking to God about my day. After breakfast I read some scripture, went through the motions of morning devotions, and prayed again. But the sense of oppression pushed back.

Later, I hopped in my car and headed out for an interview over in Plant City. But the feeling was so strong I wasn’t sure I could pull off a positive conversation. Again, I asked God to intervene.

And that’s when it hit me, driving with the windows down and the roof open, sunlight streaming in on a simply gorgeous morning. “I’m under attack, aren’t I?” I said out loud. “This is spiritual.”

Then, and as if the Spirit had planted the thought (which remains an excellent explanation)... “Attack means I must pose some threat to the enemy. The New Testament writers talked about being considered worthy of persecution for the sake of Jesus. Hmmm, why don’t I approach this whole idea as a potential blessing – something that indicates I’m actually achieving some ground for the Kingdom - and therefore worth taking the trouble to mess with.”

So I thanked God for being active in and through my life to the extent that the enemy feels threatened. And I immediately felt this rush of peace replace all the anxiety, and I thanked God for being there, with me, in the middle of it all.

Then, as if on cue, when I un-muted the radio the opening measures of a song came through: “Lord, make me an instrument of your love.”

And then I understood; God had allowed me to struggle for a reason. God wants me to realize what an important fight this is, how far-reaching the repercussions are, what a tenacious enemy we have, and - most importantly - what a gracious presence the Holy Spirit is willing to be, teaching us all we need to know in the Father’s good time.

So there you have it. A slice of darkness. Something I'm no longer fearful of - but would just as soon not repeat just the same.

Peace - and I mean that - DEREK

Monday, April 27, 2009

The evidence of Love

It was another good weekend; but I'm more than ready for Rebekah to come home from her week-long retreat in Indiana. Even the best experiences lose their edge when I'm on my own. I was also disconnected from my church family yesterday, as I spent Sunday morning with the Seffner United Methodist Church.

I preached both services with the Methodists and then skipped their fried chicken lunch on the grounds to rush back to First Presbyterian for "Dancing with the Youth."It felt strange to walk in from the parking lot to something already in progress. The event was both hilarious and successful - probably more successful because it's so funny.

Some of the adults totally hammed it up, some took their roles very seriously, and the young people who danced with them were good sports. It's the kind of creative event that makes our church unique (even more unique than it already is!). What works is the authentic love and sense of vital community that we share. Jesus pointed out on more than one occasion that the best witness is love; that the rest of the world will be convinced that we really do follow Jesus because of the love evidence. We love with excellence at First Presbyterian in Brandon.

That was the heart of my message to the Seffner church. "When people meet us; when they come to visit our church or when they come across us in day-to-day life... is there any evidence that might lead them to believe Jesus really did rise from the dead Easter Sunday?" Or - and this is the question I've been asked to speak on at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church Wednesday evening, "Why do I believe in the resurrection?"

Well, I believe in the resurrection for more reasons than I can outline here this morning. But the number one slice of evidence is Christ's life within me, and within the church community where I worship. The Risen Lord is all over the place at my church! That's good news any day, and especially on a Monday morning...

Love and blessings - DEREK

Saturday, April 25, 2009

People Hungry for Gospel

I’ve been thinking about the “Susan Boyle” phenomenon; you know, the video seemingly everyone in America has now watched. The non-descript 47-year-old pulled off a jaw-dropping performance in England's equivalent of the TV show American Idol.

Pundits have spun the story to highlight prejudice, stereotyping, ageism, bias, and the cult of surface-level beauty. Both judges and audience were caught with their superficial values showing. I’m pleased that the beautiful people at least had the decency to look guilty, but if they learned anything long-term, I’d be surprised.

So why has this story made such an impact? Why is the video viewed time and again, with lumps in the throat and tears welling, and spontaneous applause? I’ve heard better singers; I’ve seen worse dresses; don’t we always pull for the underdog?

REDEMPTION:
Here’s my theory. I believe this is a story about redemption. I believe the tale of Susan Boyle calls to us in the middle of our hopelessness and the void of meaning. The three-minute clip reveals the true implication of gospel, presented in a way people have been longing to hear for a very long time.

I think that the telling of this story has reached so many millions so compellingly because there is so little of genuine hope offered in a world where meaning is calibrated in terms that are guaranteed – ultimately - to disappoint.

SUCH POETRY LIVES INSIDE US ALL:
As Christians we have been entrusted with this Good News: God created each human being on this earth with care and purpose. When Susan Boyle’s gift was uncovered people believed, even if only for a moment, that beauty and meaning and fulfillment and satisfaction are something other than what they have been repeatedly told; they believed that such poetry lives inside all of us, and that the pointless games we all play are not the answer. They believed for an instant that something is the answer.

WHY WE CHEER:
That is why we cheer. That is why we cry. That is why we gasp and clasp our hands over our mouths. What happened on that stage is the closest to the truth about redemption many people are ever going to get…

…Unless, that is, those of us who have been commissioned to share the Good News of Jesus stop living it without enthusiasm or truth or passion, offering faith like a limp handshake or an apology; because, maybe, we don’t even believe any more?

“Shine like stars in the universe”, Paul said, as we “hold out the word of life.” (Philippians 2:15-16) Why not live as if we believe it to be true?

Love, blessings and truth - DEREK

Friday, April 24, 2009

Back to School










Picture: Teacher Cheryl Johnson and some of her journalism class.
I had fun yesterday at a local high school. The journalism teacher asked me to come in to talk with a couple of her classes. There's something compelling about the sheer verve of teens, the audacity of their spirit; the way they make your understand that they don't have one iota of tolerance for anything other than the very best you have.
"I only have a handful of rules," I told them. "Be respectful of one-another; participate to the best of your ability; offer the truth when you have something to say; let me know if I'm failing to engage your interest."
The students were great. They immediately sensed my enthusiasm and validated my theory that people across the board are more receptive to passion that they are to any other credential
I conjured up an opening statement that I wrote on the board and had them copy. The idea was to address the question, "Why do I write for the newspaper? What's my end game?"
Here it is: “My job – the way I see it – as a journalist, is to observe life and people in the milieu where I find myself, and then to interpret what I see so that three things occur:
  1.  Other people will read and say “Yes, that’s exactly what I was feeling/thinking but I wasn’t able to articulate it until now…"
  2. Readers will respond, “I’d never thought about it that way before; but you know what… I believe you have revealed truth to me and now I understand at a deeper level…
  3. (and a distant third): “That was an entertaining read; I just enjoy the way you string words and phrases together.”
My milieu is the environment - people and/or the physical setting - where I am writing. Could be Brandon, could be Tampa Bay, could be the entire world. But it's always about observation, about finding out how people tick and then, rather than merely passing on the bare-bones facts, I'm interested in interpreting what I see to further the stated ends (1, 2 & 3) above.
I got the impression that the young people were/are really interested in discovering how their emerging skill as writers
 can help them to interpret life as they experience it - and ultimately as others experience it.
By way of example I aloud a piece I wrote on the Susan Boyle phenomenon, the British singer who made such an impact recently. The commentary is running in the Presbyterian Outlook soon. But I'll debut it here tomorrow and we'll talk about what it means to be an interpreter.
Love and blessings - DEREK

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The edge of reason

Photo: Derek, standing on the edge of where eternity washes up against this life...

Just a short post this morning. Waaaaay too much on my plate so I'd better get busy. Busy is just about impossible to handle, however, by running into the day headlong; full tilt. That's why a devotional interlude - even if it's as short as five minutes - is more than worth the investment of time.

So this morning, with a nasty headache, my back killing me and several responsibilities crowding in, I absolutely know that I will be more productive moving out from the context of prayer.

I've been talking with a friend about "how come?" faith has any place in the life of someone he knows to be intelligent (thanks!)... My answer - admittedly rambling - picks up some of the themes I explored in this space yesterday.
  • "It puzzles me," he said, "that you put your faith ahead of your power to reason..."
How I replied reveals the importance of thinking about what faith actually means:
  • That I understand. I wouldn't say "euphoria" so much as enthusiasm - and growing realization/understanding that truth is often a deeper concept than facts... facts in isolation can be kind of flat at times. It's this interface between the known and the unknown; time and eternity; chronos and kairos; the spiritual and the physical; what I understand empirically and what I "know"... I think this is more trans-reasonable than un-reasonable. Sometimes I feel that my faith journey is a splashing around in the surf at the edge of the ocean - a place where something that is both true and unfathomable washes against what is measurable and containable. I am a witness in the sense that a witness in the courtroom simply tells what they experienced or saw - no complete argument from me, just what I "know" myself. Thanks - again - for encouraging me to think out loud..
Have a day full with blessing, and full with the realization that "all things are possible" in terms of belief.
- DEREK

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

God is not as small as my arguments

This morning my part of Florida is experiencing a welcome extension of Spring. Perfect walking weather for my morning jaunt with Scout labradoodle, and extra perfect "all the windows and doors wide open" temperatures that make me thankful that I get to work out of our home.

However, despite the wonders of Florida in April, I'm already missing the North Georgia mountains that I enjoyed so much over the weekend. The Wieuca Men's Ministry retreat would have been a deeply meaningful experience regardless of location. That said, I couldn't help but notice the mountains, the dogwoods, the lakes and the woods.

A friend who asks good questions recently challenged me vis-à-vis my statement "God is good." He thought, because I'd posted "God is good" along with a blog about the weekend retreat, that I reached the conclusion (that God is good) as a direct response to the beauty of the scenery.
  • "You say 'God is Good' when you feel good in a beautiful area. When you see a destroyed area right after a tsunami, is God still good?"
Fortunately, my evolving relationship with God is not dependent on one-dimensional thinking. If it was, then straight-line logic could easily dislodge my faith. In recent years there have been a number of best-selling books that promote what I call evangelical atheism. Both "The God Delusion" and "God is not Great: how religion poisons everything" rely on similar arguments.

It's fairly easy to appear reasonable in dismissing something (that you have already decided is false) if you first define it in terms you know in advance you can "prove" to be flawed. In debate this is called setting up a "straw man" that's then easy to topple. The technique is sophomoric at best.

Of course, many Christian apologists play the same game, and it looks no better from that side of the conversation. That's one of the reasons I've always shied away from using simple logic to either prove or disprove the deeper reality of my life of faith. All that debate demonstrates is the intellectual prowess of one side or the other. God does not need me to win arguments on God's behalf... God is much more interested in finding me faithful.

So, it's a beautiful day outside. Thank you, God, for the gift of this beautiful day. I'd also be thankful if it was 45 degrees and raining...

...There's this idea - something that I talk about at length in my new book (The Unmaking of a Part Time Christian, Upper Room Books, Sept 2009) - that considers the juxtaposition of eternity and time, the sacred and the mundane, the spiritual and the physical; there is an interface between what we know and what we do not know, chronos and kairos, natural and supernatural. Sometimes I feel like I am exploring a kind of shoreline, where eternity washes up against the nitty-gritty of "natural" experience.

I often fail miserably when I attempt to put words to these yearnings and these realities. But I'm going to continue to try. Truth is so much more than mere observable "fact."

More to come. Blessings - DEREK

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Art of the Possible

A trip to the mountains is always good. More so when summer is beginning to settle in around Florida and the cool north Georgia air provides welcome relief.

The weekend retreat I attended was more than refreshing - it was redemptive. The men had come because they wanted to replenish their faith and to encourage one another along the way. By Sunday lunch they’d accomplished a lot more; they’d answered the call to discipleship, and they’d made promises to God that have the potential to revolutionize their North Atlanta congregation.

Saturday night's camp-fire was powerful, and then Sunday morning pulled everything together. Several shared what God is up to in their lives; I gave a short message; then Matt - one of the pastors - led communion. I asked for five minutes at the end, and what transpired became a poignant benedictory.

“This morning I spent two reflective hours walking the grounds with this basket,” I said, holding out a heavy container of stones. “As I picked up these stones along the way I thought about each one of you, and I prayed that God would use you in your church.”

I took out a large round rock and held it in my palm. “I dug this one from the bed of a stream; I found another off the path, and one out by the front gate. Eventually the basket became heavy, but I held on to it and I thought about the burden you’re carrying for this church.

“Here’s my invitation: If you’d like a tangible reminder of the work God is doing in your life, then leave your seat, come up to the basket, and take a stone. There are enough for every man here.”

Then, over the next few minutes and one at a time, each man in the room came forward to choose one of the rocks.

“God’s love is spiritual,” I said, “But it’s also emotional and intellectual and physical. Jesus trusted his disciple Peter enough to call him ‘Rocky’; then he said, ‘on this rock I’m going to build my church.’”

That small group of men, taking refreshment in the Georgia mountains, has the same audacious, propulsive, purposeful, life-giving creative power at their disposal as Christ’s disciples had, 2,000 year ago.

It’s the art of the possible; it’s what Jesus staked the future of his church upon when he commissioned the Twelve. It’s up to us where this Gospel goes from here.

Love and blessings - DEREK

Monday, April 20, 2009

Strong Rocks run deep





It was a good weekend in Georgia up in the mountains. Somewhere around 30 men shared a weekend of reflection, prayer, Bible-study and mutual encouragement, and I was privileged to be asked to provide some words to bring the weekend into focus. This post will be heavier on the pictures than my typical blog. But sometimes photographs tell the story so well.



The weather was warm, the setting beautiful, the men open-hearted, the accommodations comfortable and the fellowship genuine. It was evident from the start that the leadership team had prepared with prayer. The interactions were defined by unity and love; you couldn't miss the fact that the group genuinely love Jesus and want to move forward as more deliberate Christ-followers.

Consequently, the format - built around the "4-Ds" - fit like a glove. So we talked about what it means to be hungry for a closer walk with God (DESIRE), we exchanged ideas concerning our decision to be focused when it comes to following Jesus (DISCIPLESHIP), we shared stories that told the story of our love for God (DEVOTION), and we challenged one another to be courageous and determined servants who share that story via the way we live (DARING).

I'll simply round out today's entry with some more photos and leave it at that.

Tomorrow, I'm going to talk about the rocks. More pictures, too: you won't want to miss the story - DEREK

Friday, April 17, 2009

Adventure time! "Big-D" goes looking for the "4-Ds"

I'm going, so hopefully I know. It looks like a bunch of  "Big Ds" - so as I'm the featured speaker let's hope I have an idea of what it's all about. 

Funny thing about that. Back in England, during high school, a few of my friends called me "Big D." I was never actually big, but six foot was far above average in that time and place. A kid named Micky Cullen (I may have spelled his last name wrong) coined the moniker. He was a gifted soccer player, an excellent artist, and a genuine quality human-being in every way. He dropped out of sports the last few years, but we remained friends and his "set" always called me Big-D. It's a detail I'd entirely forgotten about until I just posted the retreat flyer with all the big Ds. Brief pause here while I think about my old friend and pray for him...

Meanwhile, back at the airport.... I have time and to spare out here at the AirTran gate, due to a fortuitous combination of 1) no traffic on the Cross-Town, 2) next to no traffic in down-town Tampa, 3) Rebekah's secret route to the airport, 4) very little traffic to speak of on the Interstate, 5) friendly and accommodating folk at the security line.

Consequently I can actually blog while I wait. But I suspect it will be my last entry until Monday morning. I'm guessing it's highly unlikely that the retreat center in the North Georgia foothills will offer wi-fi in my cabin.

The retreat, sponsored by the "Wednesday Weiuca Guys" men's ministry, features my book, GET REAL. The header they created for the Weiuca Road Baptist Church men's page is plugged in here, below this paragraph. I think they did a good job with the design.

Anyway, if you're reading this post please pray for the weekend. Pray that  I'll be faithful to the message God has given me; pray that the Georgia men will have receptive hearts and be motivated to move forward in their personal pilgrimage; and pray for Weiuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta, that God will use these men to bring a deeper Kingdom-sensitivity to the day-to-day workings of minitry through that particular part of the faith community.

I'm still stoked about the creative directions this writing path has and is taking me. Life is good, opportunities abound, and I see nothing but an increasingly positive and fulfilling road ahead.

Love and blessings, always - DEREK



Thursday, April 16, 2009

Some Days are Just Like That

Wow! What a gorgeous morning! Cool enough to wear a flannel shirt for my walk with Scout; sunny enough to add a luminescent golden border to the edges of my world as we came up Laurel Oak for the last stretch; inviting enough that I could open the French doors when I woke Rebekah and served her morning coffee.

So this busy, busy day has already been launched in terms of wonder and gratitude. That's a good thing considering the amount of work that has to be accomplished.

But, as I frequently tell people, I'm too busy not to spend a good chunk of time one-one-one with my Creator at the beginnings of the day. If I skip my devotions because there's "too much to do", then I have already started behind and never catch up. I find I'm always significantly more productive if I have my spiritual ducks in a row at the onset.

A few days back I had a 9:00 AM interview with a magazine owner over in Plant City (see picture, above). I had to hurry my routines in order to make it on time, but I didn't skip my daily re-commitment to follow Jesus. Consequently, although things were stacked up, I entered the coffee shop below my subject's offices and had time to prepare a cup of premium Joe and reflect again on the gift of the day.

After a really good interview, I made a 10:30 tee time at the Walden Lake golf course. Seventy-five degrees and gentle sunshine. Things went unusually smoothly, and I finished with a birdie to log my first sub 80 round (78) in over a decade.

Then, on the way home, cruising with the roof open, windows down and rock-'n-roll blaring, I was pulled over for speeding! First time in thirty years.
  • The cop said, "You were doing 52 in a 35 zone. "
  • I said, "I was full of myself because I've been having such a great day!"
  • He said, "You're Derek Maul! I read you all the time; you wrote a great article about my mother last year."
  • I asked his mom's name, then told him, "Your dad hired me for my first teaching job in this county a dozen years ago."
  • He said, "I could right you a really big ticket for speeding".
  • I said, "Yes, and I know I'd deserve it."
  • He said, "But I'm not going to..."
  • Then he said, "It's so great to meet you - I'd like to shake your hand."
  • I said, "I can tell it's going to be another really great day."
That's all.
Love and blessings - DEREK

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Peace Like A River

Confession time. This morning, for the first time in a while, I am quite literally overwhelmed with deadlines and responsibilities.

This post, then - written with the help of a strong cup of coffee in my "Get Real" mug, is simply a short and heartfelt prayer.

"Be with each one of us today, Lord. Infuse us with your peace, motivate us by your love, equip us in your truth, guide us via your Word, accompany us through your Spirit... and use us bring your kingdom perspective into this broken world. Accomplish all this, we pray, despite our busy-ness, our distractablility, our selfishness and our evident inability to manage our time."
  • Jesus said this: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." (John 14:27)
My response is to the point: Bring it, Lord; bring it on. Today is a good day for your kind of peace.

Love and blessings - always - DEREK

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Mission to Romania

This week my son, Andrew, is in Romania. He's helping lead a team of young people from Italy on an 8-day mission adventure. The picture at left is the official prayer card the team sent out a couple of weeks back; if you click on it you should be able to read the details.

It's difficult to put into words how happy it makes me to know that Andrew has chosen to move into this deliberate path of daily discipleship; that he has moved from the periphery of a life of faith and into a closer walk with God.

Things started to come together for him on the plane-ride to Europe, but if you're interested in his story I'll let you read for yourself. Click on this photo of Andrew and the "leaning tower" to read about my son's journey in his own words (it's a long entry, but worth it).

It's interesting - and no coincidence, I'm sure - that the title of my new book is "The Unmaking of a Part Time Christian" (Sept. 2009, Upper Room Books). I'm working on one of the final edits this week, and I can't help but note how being involved in mission - along with other Jesus-followers - has had such an impact on my personal movement from part-time faith and into this "live as if I mean it" adventure.

So I want to invite everyone to pray for Andrew's mission in Romania this week, and especially to pray that his path forward from this point will be made clear.

Life has the potential to be full with challenge, blessing, meaning, and opportunity - every day. We were gifted with this day - today; I wonder how I will respond to the possibilities over the next 24 hours?

Love and blessings - DEREK

Monday, April 13, 2009

Post-Easter: destination AND guide

Well, I did it! To be honest I'm quite proud of myself for hammering out close to 50 consecutive posts through the season of Lent.

And so this blog now returns to its previous format, characterized by the following:
  • Five to seven new posts every week
  • The "stream of consciousness" style that is in itself an exercise in self-examination
  • More immediacy - both in terms of its response to my life and the news in the here and now.
So welcome to the day after Easter. The picture I included (taken during church and without a flash) tells the story that yesterday's celebration is still very much on my mind.

Church last weekend was a supercharged celebration in all the right ways. The experience electrified me and I’m still full with the life that saturated the day. But I’m concerned the charge may be residual rather than active.

Rebekah used her morning message to discuss how easily we tend to consign Jesus back to the tomb (where he can't bother us) and then roll the stone securely in place once again. Later, and only maybe - depending on how we're feeling at the time - we just might open it a crack and take a peek at the Christ-life, but only every week or so.

I call this the “Jesus as museum exhibit” syndrome.

Do we come to church each year to listen to the story – or do we actually want to be a part of the story?

Easter Day may be growing harder to remember as it falls away in the rear-view mirror, but Jesus hatched a plan to be vital and real and relevant in every moment of every new day. So it’s with deliberation that I have chosen to start today and every day in a devotional posture with the empty tomb front and center.

It’s all about getting the right start, and I know how vitally important initial trajectory is to anything we want to accomplish. Today's trajectory is not only toward Jesus but it encompasses Jesus too. Jesus is both destination and guide.

I'm wondering how all the details, and the concerns, and the deadlines and the conversations will change character in light of Easter truth; I’m wondering about the story my life will tell via this day, next week and the coming year; I'm wondering if I will have the spiritual fortitude to keep the Prince of not only on my mind but also in my heart.

And I am wondering, “What will we do with this Risen Lord?”

Sunday, April 12, 2009

EASTER SUNDAY!!!

I found this image of sunrise from Mount Sinai at "http://www.rc.net/wcc/israel/ecce.htm"

"Jesus said to her; 'Mary,' She turned to him and cried out in Aramaic, 'Rabboni!' which means teacher." (John 20:16)

If the disciples had been able to sleep at all last night - after the long, stressful, Saturday - they would have awoken to another day anticipating the bitter pain of promise broken; defeat still bitter against the unremitting backdrop of disappointment, dankness, death.

But they were still stuck fast in their "Kingdom of THIS world" mindset. It would have to take a miracle to shake that limited ideology loose.

And a miracle is exactly what happened! Jesus abandoned the tomb and was immediately ready to move on to the next stage of his mission here on Earth. But his friends were not ready, they still didn't quite understand what exactly was going on.

Resurrection was almost too much for them - and who could blame the frightened group of men and women - and so it took several interviews with Jesus over a number of days and in a variety of settings for Peter and Co. to finally get on board with the Master's intentions and to understand the next stage of the Great Plan.

They were elated, excited, thrilled beyond measure... but they were still unsure of themselves, doubting and fearful. Of course it was a dream come true to see the Savior once again, but they still needed to understand that his Kingdom was not of this world, that he would not physically direct their activities any more, that his time with them was only Phase One of a greater, long-term, universal plan.
  • "Peace be with you", he said, and "Receive the Holy Spirit".
Even the stunning victory over death on Easter Sunday did not mean that Jesus intended to lead a popular campaign, a hands-on movement where hoards and masses of people would follow God in and through the physical presence of Jesus. God's plan was far more involved and infinitely more far-reaching (the word "infinitely" is used here with care). "Because you have seen me, you have believed," he told them. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

Which puts the Easter message firmly and squarely on the backs of us, his Easter People. "Peace be with you"... "Receive the Holy Spirit."

The joy and the excitement we feel today, dressing up for church and singing great hymns of praise, is real. It really is the presence of the Living Christ, right here with us in the 21st Century. In fact, the thrilling miracle of Easter is this: that today, April 12, 2009, we can experience the grace and peace of a Risen Savior!

God is not limited by time and space, but instead by our willingness (or otherwise) to carry his love and living presence into this broken world. What a privilege! what an awesome responsibility!

I wonder what might be next...?

PRAYER: We are most privileged and blessed, Lord, to know you in your resurrection power - TODAY! Amen.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

What Good is a Kingdom Without a King?

This morning I woke up to an uncommon stillness. Yes, it's Saturday - and it's the tail end of Spring Break, so I didn't expect the rush of traffic and the general noise of a weekday; but this morning is heavy with a sense of everything being stopped...

The feeling is probably subjective on my part, a response to the powerful Good Friday service at my church last night; I'm caught up in the stark fact of crucifixion...
  • "At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no-one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there." (John 19:41-42)
Jesus was dead. There was no getting around it. Christ's life was over and yet there was no perceivable change in the state of things in Israel. My kingdom is not of this world.

So they dragged him down from the cross, wrapped his body with spices and strips of linen, and sealed it in a nearby tomb. My kingdom is not of this world.

Funerals always have this stunning air of finality about them. I can imagine the dark, empty emotions that Christ's friends must have felt through that Friday night and Saturday. Passover was being celebrated all around them, but instead of festivity, the angel of death had visited the disciples with devastation and finality.

My kingdom is not of this world.

All of the hopes and the dreams that had been kindled and nurtured through the past years had been wrenched from the cross and buried - in haste, before being sealed a a tomb; a burial that signified the end of everything they cared for. Jesus was not just their future - they loved him too; he was their best friend, and how his life had been snuffed out.

What was there to do? Where could they go? Would they be next? Or would they all be such obvious failures without their Master that no-one would need to even bother...

My kingdom is not of this world.

And what about his teachings? What about all the talk about The Kingdom of God is like this, or this? What good is a kingdom without a king? And how could they continue to follow with their leader cold in the grave?

Such a desperate day. Passover? Not likely. Would that this experience had simply passed them all by. It was left to Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus to take care of Christ's body, because his disciples had crumpled, drifting off in their depression and their fear.

This Saturday had to have been one of the darkest days in all of history.

PRAYER: Even with our hindsight, Lord, we forget that your kingdom is not of this world. Show us your way and lead us into understanding. Amen.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday

"When he had received the drink, Jesus said, 'It is finished.' With that, he gave up his spirit." (John 19:25)

Triumphal entry; a week of growing controversy and tension; the Last Supper; Gethsemane; betrayal; arrest; questions; denial; trial; abuse; crucifixion; death... - finality.

It is finished. Completed; achieved; accomplished; consummated; fulfilled. This statement was, in effect, Jesus's last deep breath, the kind you take after the completion of a long an arduous task; the successful conclusion; a compact benediction.

Christ's ministry here on earth had been remarkable to the extreme. His three years of public service were so crucial that he had spent a full thirty years in preparation. Thirty years! Thirty years of preparation for Immanuel - God incarnate; the wisest, most complete, perfect human ever to walk the face of this earth.

Terrible as it was, the statement "It is finished" was an exclamation point, an affirmation that the Son was completely successful in his mission. Because the moment Christ died the possibility of my redemption was born.

Sometimes I wish that Adam and Eve had not set the ball rolling in terms of rebellion; I like to think that I would have been different, and that people like us would not have had to leave the Garden. But I know it is not true, that it wouldn't have been any different if it had been me, that my particular predilection toward disobedience would - quite quickly - have severed the relationship God intended.

I'm not sure if I would have been deceived like Eve, or if I would simply have been defiant and contemptuous of God without any prompting. But I do understand that I have equal share in the guilt, and that I am fooling myself if I think I would have handled things any better.

What Jesus accomplished on Good Friday, when "It is finished" echoed through the enormity of time, was to open the door for me, and to present me before God as if I actually were worthy. In fact, because of Jesus, I am worthy; we all are. And for us, this life of redemptive grace has only just begun.

PRAYER: Thank you, God, for giving us a new beginning because of Jesus. Thanks for restoring us to the possibility of relationship. Amen

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Gift of Presence - Maunday thursday

Read: John Chapters 13-17
“It was just before the Passover feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.” 13:1

It may be four complete chapters, and, yes, we have already covered it a passage at a time. But today, Maunday Thursday, I recommend a reading of the entire Last Supper narrative in one sitting. It is the only way to get a feel for the collective weight of all that Jesus said, all that transpired there.

Imagine the scene. A group of close friends getting together for dinner. The participants certainly included all twelve disciples, and probably the women who were a part of the group too.

Good supper conversation is one of my favorite experiences. Friends together, good food, and heartfelt dialogue that reflects our shared history as well as the mutual love that we all feel. We have been privileged to share many such meals with our family here at First Presbyterian church.

This particular occasion turned into another one of those experiences where the disciples learned from the Master. He was pensive, thoughtful, more reflective even than usual. He shouldered the load of the world’s cumulative guilt on his heart, and it was beginning to show.

No fear, but certainly uneasiness at what was about to transpire. If you read between the lines you can almost feel Jesus reaching out to his friends and inviting them to help share this tremendous burden. But they were not able to. They were not able to fully grasp what was beginning to happen, and they could only follow him, as they always did, when he went to Gethsemane later that evening, pulling tentatively at the edges of his experience, just a couple of beats behind.

The result, or course, was that Jesus went to Gethsemane alone that evening. Physically, they were there, but he bore the heaviness of the coming horror without the conscious support of his friends, because they just couldn’t bring themselves to believe.

I hold that it hurts Jesus today when we take the position of his friends and skirt around the periphery of what he is really up to. This is a serious observance, and Christ knowingly went into Good Friday for each of us personally. Let us at least give him the gift of our devotion and the evidence of our love.

PRAYER: Allow us to watch with you in the garden tonight. Amen.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Greatest Story Ever Told

So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). Here they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle. (John 19:17-18)

It is always difficult to think of what to say, or write, about the crucifixion. I've heard preachers elaborate on the pain, preach volumes on the casting of lots for Christ's seamless garment, and wax eloquent regarding the way he was concerned about his mother even while suffering himself.

Then there was Mel Gilson's movie, The Passion(2004). Some one had given us tickets to an advanced screening. So we talked about it, and a kind of apprehension settled in.

I have always had a problem with graphic violence. I understood the educational rationale for the opening scenes of "Saving Private Ryan'' and the horrors revealed in "Schindler's List.'' Yet I still waited a long time before viewing either movie, preferring to screen them at home.

I'm not suggesting that Gibson included the explicit violence for entertainment, as many movie producers do. That approach is inappropriate, even pornographic. History has documented the story of the brutal "Pax Romana'' in excruciating detail. "They make a desolation,'' one historian wrote, "and they call it peace.'' We agree that cruelty is a dimension of the Easter story.

However, as we were eating dinner before the screening, Rebekah put the seal on our decision. "Why would I want to spend two hours,'' she said, "watching someone I love so much being tortured and killed?''

The amazing reality for me, in considering the horrors of that day, is that Jesus not only knew exactly what was going to happen to him, but could have ended it at any moment. He could have stopped the Crucifixion at any time … before they jammed the thorns into his head, before he dragged the heavy cross up the hill, before the next cruel nail was struck… yet he chose to see it through.

I guess I'm still a little stunned by the implications of that violent act of cruelty and hate. Because the horror of it puts the ball squarely in my court.
  • I listen to Jesus teach and recognize his wisdom and I can intellectualize his message.
  • I hear of his miracles and compassion and I can help with my money and time.
  • I witness his ministry to the downtrodden, the rejected and the dispossessed, and I can be encouraged on my own path.
  • I can play my guitar in worship, and I can teach my heart out, and I can fascilitate small groups and train leaders and...
  • And I can avoid most of the emotional baggage that getting too close can rattle loose; I can keep it neat and clean and controlled as I like.
But the cross! The cross forces me to confront the harsher realities of my sin and the real cost of my compounded intransigence. The cross of Jesus demands an emotional response and I'm not so sure of what to do with that kind of Savior.

To be honest, somewhere inside of me I would rather he had not died; I would be more comfortable with the idea that he had negotiated our peace and sponged up my shortcomings with his good deeds. Sometimes I cannot stomach the idea that anything about me might place someone like him on a bloody cross. It just isn't right, and I feel that I want him to take it all away...

But, what really occurred on the cross 2,000 years ago is the only effective antidote to evil that I know. That is the heart of the story. Not Roman brutality, not Jewish culpability, not my squeamishness nor any other distraction that people who are nervous about the idea of God want to talk about instead of the truth.

If you doubt that there is evil in this world, then review some of this month's news, from the massacre of innocents in New York, to the child found in a suitcase, to suicide bombings, to genocide and worse.

What Christ achieved on the cross that day is The Greatest Story Ever Told. I know that story all the way to the bottom of my heart.

Truth like that threatens the status quo on so many levels that controversy is no surprise. I simply hope that the message gets through. Lord knows the world needs it.

Love and blessings - DEREK

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What You See is What You Get - Lent Holy Week

Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be honest. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor... ...He saw through their duplicity. (Luke 20: 20 & 23)

I have a question. Ready? Okay, here goes: What do Rebekah (my wife), Naomi (my daughter) and Scout (Rebekah's fuzzy, galumphing, labradoodle) have in common? Warning, this is a hard one!

First off, they're all girls! Right, but that was the easy answer.

Second is the thing that I'm getting at here: they all have this "What you see is what you get" approach to life. Put another way, there's not an ounce of pretense among them.

This means they don't play games (well, Scout likes to play "tug the rope", and "chase the dog with the wallet" but that's not the kind of game-playing I'm talking about).

What I'm talking about is their "lack of duplicity" quality, the "Let's not waste time with airs and political correctness" approach to life. It's the "Cut to the chase why don't we?" (Okay, Scout likes to play chase but that's something else too) response to most everything. It's a kind of purity but not really... It's more like the gift of living without half-measures or the cloudiness of compromise; it's resisting the urge to allow cynicism any room at all.

It's about authenticity. It's about being real.

Jesus did not have one iota of interest in playing games. Consequently, the Master was always able to see right through people who would posture, and feign, and outright lie, and practice duplicity - and these were the kind of people who tend to expect others to act without authenticity and Jesus always threw them.

Liars have a hard time with people who hold to truth. Truth exposes them, and they don't like it one bit. The sad thing is that the truth is also absolutely willing to heal, to love, and to set people free. But - and we'll go back close to the beginning of John's Jesus-narrative for this one - people who operate in the dark are in point of fact pretty much scared of the light:
  • "This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed." (John 3:19-20)
These "try-to-trick-Jesus" folk could not understand the Savior. They had a value-system that had firmly set filters in place, and the truth simply could not-would not resonate. Understanding Jesus really isn't possible outside of surrender.

We're all going to run up against people like this; it's happening more and more all the time. But the answer is not for us to condemn others, or for us to argue them into submission, or for us to fall into their cynicism trap or to latch onto their toxic way of ordering the world... the only answer is to love them like Jesus loved them - like Jesus loves us. Love is our mandate. It won't necessarily make things any easier, but it will say something critically important to this world about the Lord we profess to follow.

Love and blessings - DEREK

Monday, April 6, 2009

Subversive in this culture!

Palm Sunday, yesterday, at my church (First Presbyterian in Brandon, FL).

Palm Sunday sets up the initial trajectory into Holy Week with some real momentum. Chunky momentum. The definition of momentum, if I remember my high school physics correctly, is weight times speed. And there is significant weight, spiritual gravitas, coming in - especially if we have paid any consistent attention to our observation and consideration of Lent during the past 40 days or so.

So we witness this burst of energy and excitement as Jesus wows his way into town - Jerusalem, or maybe even our town. Crowds, energetic songs, bright clothes and spring-time optimism carrying the Gospel truth into the heart of the city where the power-brokers had set up shop. It was only expected that they were going to push back; and they did.

So I'm wondering this morning where the push-back it hitting us; me and you? In Luke's telling of the Jesus story a whole sequence of incidents take place Monday through Thursday. Jesus tells the truth, and the push back seems to build with everyday. The following is an excerpt from Luke 20 (13-15); this is Jesus talking, telling a lightly cloaked parable of the Now:
  • "Then the owner of the vineyard said, 'What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.' But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. 'This is the heir,' they said. 'Let's kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him..."
IT turns out that the momentum wasn't this irresistible surge toward peace and love and hugs and flowers in your hair... instead it was a tide of inevitability that could only result in death. Push back is most insistent when there is a threat to status quo and when the values that define a culture are so obviously upended; when the truth demands replacement of current power-peddlers with a new gods - the God.

So I am asking people to think this week about the call to be subversive in this culture. Not to be rude, or to be overbearing, or to be holier-than-thou or to be disruptive for its own sake... but to be honest and conscious witnesses to the truth in all that we do; that it will be obvious that our values are the values of Jesus and - in our way of being - to subvert the gods our culture has chosen... and to see what happens.

Love and blessings - every day - DEREK

Picture - Rebekah at the church door: we sing and we pray - but then we're called to leave church and be Jesus-followers in this world.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Riding High on a Dream

This week, Holy Week, my posts are going to follow Christ's last week with his friends, in real time - one day at a time. Today is Palm Sunday:

"They took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord - the King of Israel..."

Palm Sunday is one of my favorite mornings at church. Every year, without fail, the mass of children tug my heartstrings when they march into the sanctuary waving palm branches. Maybe it's the way they sling them about (elderly worshipers have been warned to sit a few seats in from the center aisle), or maybe it's the look on their faces - pure radiant light - as they sing. Even the reluctant, slinking their way in dragging their branch "I'm only doing this because I HAVE to..." can't help but get into the occasion once they're half way down.

I can imagine how excited Christ's followers were.
  • "We've finally done it!"
  • "This is what we've been waiting for!"
  • "It's going to be nothing but smooth-sailing from here on..."
  • "Look! That's MY Savior and friend!"
Sometimes, especially right in the middle of struggle, and tension, and stress, it's good to simply celebrate regardless. We know Jesus; we know the rest of the story; we know how wonderful it is to live a life of exuberant faith; we know how much God loves us.

Sure, it's difficult to maintain optimism and hope in the face of tough times. But Jesus IS our hope, and it's not Pollyanna or pie in the sky when we celebrate Jesus; it's a simple statement of a spiritual truth.

So let's go nuts today! Let's wave the branches and sing the songs! Let's not allow the small things to come between us and the life-giving affirmation of a Savior, riding into town on a donkey, coming for me and for you.

Peace, love, hope and joy!
- DEREK

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Awesome moment to share!!!

"My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,." - Jesus (John 17:20)

I'd like to set up "Holy Week" by sharing a holy moment. This time last Saturday I opened my email to read the remarkable letter reproduced below. The writer gave me permission to use the email, but I'll just use his first name - Christopher. It was a holy moment for me because it was one more slice of compelling evidence that the power that raised Christ from the dead is active in this world today, and that we -as Jesus-followers - are invited to participate in ongoing redemption.

One clarification up front: Christopher believed he met my son, Andrew, in the cafe; but it turns out it was someone else... only making the story more wonderful still...
Read, and enjoy:
  • Derek: You don't know me. And yet, you probably do. About a month ago, I was sitting in a cafe in Italy. The purpose of my visit to the area was to set up outreach camps for youth for the summer. I have been in the ministry overseas now for a little over three years. There I was sitting there in a crowded cafe, but feeling all alone. Maybe it was the fact that everyone else spoke Italian and I only know one language, American. Maybe it had to do with the really difficult last six months that I had been through that included losing a child and having someone make false accusations about me. Or, maybe it was because deep down, I knew that the stories I had been telling were getting older and older.
  • So, as I sat there, sipping on my fresh cappuccino (the best in the world), I heard two gentlemen talking in English. I can't remember everything that was said, but I remember thinking that what the one guy was talking about was piercing me to the core. I had not had this feeling in such a long time.
  • The one guy sort of ends the conversation with "trust me, just read this book." As I watched him hand the book to the other gentlemen, I kind of laughed to myself inside. "Great", I thought, "just what this guy needs, another Christian book." "How about handing him some Jesus." I thought. And yet, I had an urge that had escaped me for some months. I actually wanted to read.
  • See, the prior six years I had spent working on and finishing a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership. I can't even begin to tell you how many books I read over that period of time. So, as the guy, began to pass by me, I said, "Do you have another one of those books?" He reached into his bag and handed me one. We didn't carry on any conversation, he just simply walked on out the door, but after reading your book, I now realize it was your son.
  • The Lord has lead me on an incredible spiritual renewal using your book, "Get Real." The experience has been so enriching and transformational that I just had to Google your name and find your email address. It is so cool how God works. A Brit from Tampa writes a book and his son hands a copy to a missionary serving in Germany in Italy.
  • Anyway, I just wanted you to know. I have also been praying for the "Men's Room" group. I don't know what God has for me and my family next, but I am ready to step out of the boat again and let him have control. Thanks for being faithful to what God has required of you, including writing that wonderful book. If I am ever in Tampa, I would love to get together for a cup of coffee.
  • Grace and peace from Germany - Chris.
So there it is. Grace and peace in action. I am constantly amazed at the redemptive and creative love of God.