Friday, July 31, 2009

Soul Care for the New Day

One reason I try to post a new blog entry each morning (six days a week) is the devotional value of organizing my thoughts around who I am and what I'm up to. My writing isn't necessarily spiritual in the "Bible lesson" sense every day... but it is spiritual inasmuch as it connects me to my root motivations and identity. It's more of a launching pad than an altar.

Of course my understanding of spirituality is constantly evolving. What is spiritual to me today might not have been a couple of years ago - and will probably morph some more as time goes by.

This begs the question "Then is it all in your head, Derek?" The answer is that it's more likely all in my soul. My soul is constantly informing my head; it's a part of the created order that simply must be attended to; it's impossible to define because it plays by a different set of rules than the elements of my "self" I more readily understand.

These morning "devotionals" are a critical discipline in the process of harnessing the strength of my soul. Are you at all in touch with yours? What might you possibly do to remedy the neglect? Maybe now is a good time to talk with God about it?

Peace and love - DEREK

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Kitchen re-do initiates domino-effect!

BRANDON - Kitchen re-do initiates domino-effect!

Our huge (13-years in the making) kitchen remodel is pretty much wrapped up. All that needs to be completed now is some tile work, a little paint, and then details like switch covers, the one piece of molding that's on back order, what goes where in the new design ... that kind of thing. I've posted a few pictures to give the idea.

It's very evident - at least I hope it is - what a well-conceived project this is. Rebekah did all the conceptual design drawings, the "imagineering", and our friends the Doolans (the folk who actually did the work) helped her to finesse the details; the Doolans are real craftsmen. It looks custom, and in a sense it is custom; but we used 100% standard cabinetry/appliances etc. Everything was just that carefully worked out.

But now... and ask me if I'm in the least bit surprised... it turns out that the family room and the living room are concerned that they might be left out of the excitement. So there's going to be a little extension of "fun-with-painting" and some yet-to-be-named projects.

The truth is we get used to shabby. I know I do. Then, when something happens in the way of restoration, it's a lot easier to see other areas that could benefit from some kind of an intervention.

To be honest, I like being a "work in progress." Not just my home, but my entire life. There's a passage from my new book that speaks to this idea, so I'll close today's blog with my own works:
  • Following Jesus is not for those who seek to be undisturbed; yet I know real peace. Discipleship is more about questions than easy answers; but still I know complete assurance. This unmaking of part-time Christianity is guaranteed to grate against this culture; regardless, I know Jesus. And I know every day and without a shadow of a doubt that I am finding my way home.
- From "THE UNMAKING OF A PART-TIME CHRISTIAN" (Upper Room Books, 2009)
Grace and Peace - DEREK

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Announcing! My new book is now available!

Click on the book cover to purchase my new book!

I've talked before about my new book; I think I've said that the official release date is coming up in September... But I found out today that "The Unmaking of a Part-Time Christian" has started shipping already - so I'm going to take this opportunity to - hopefully - generate some excitement.

Well I'm excited. So I guess I've succeeded!

The book really is about a life examined... "THE UNMAKING OF A PART-TIME CHRISTIAN" certainly fits the focus of this blog. There's tons of gut-level honesty between the covers: Difficult experiences; doubt; assurance; growth; critical events in my life; pain; joy; tears; exuberance... It's all there.

Book # 3 is different. My first book was exciting. Having a second manuscript published was a thrill. But # 3 - especially when I put them all side by side in a little pile on my desk - #3 feels more like I now have a set; almost a legitimate body of work!

There are lots of ways to describe my new book, but one of the best is this, from a conference I spoke at in North Carolina: "Derek Maul invites readers to join him in an ongoing conversation about what it means to follow Jesus."

Then Eva Stimson, editor at the "Presbyterians Today" magazine, writes the following:
  • With the skill of a gifted storyteller, Derek Maul weaves his own life experiences into a practical and engaging guidebook for Christians seeking a deeper level of commitment. Scripture, prayers and questions for reflection in each chapter reinforce the author's challenge to live as if you mean it. - (Eva Stimson Editor, Presbyterians Today)
Obviously I'd like to see as many people as possible purchase the book. I can say without hesitation that it has the potential to be an important element in our national dialog about faith over the next few years. I know that the topics addressed are both cogent and vital. There's not a person - from serious believer to doubtful fence-sitter - who would not benefit from the read.

So I'll round-out today's post by simply listing the chapter headings. Please buy the book, and buy it for your friends. If we can make a bold move on the ratings, then who knows what kind of positive attention THE UNMAKING OF A PART-TIME CHRISTIAN might generate? All we need to do is to get the word out.

Introduction: Live As if You Mean it
  1. We Can't Sit on This Gospel
  2. God-smacked in the Cranium
  3. Christianity is a Team Sport
  4. Judge or Redeemer?
  5. Life Is Hard: Follow Jesus
  6. Check the Manufacturer's Label
  7. Subversive for Jesus
  8. Holding the Ungraspable
  9. Reversing Columbine
  10. A Collision of Worlds
  11. Where Grace Shatters Darkness
  12. Living Large for Jesus
Love and blessings - DEREK

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Church = Community = Koinonia

Today I've been writing a story for the Methodists about a Summer Nutrition Program (SNP) the Florida Conference has adopted as an initiative. My research involved a visit to a participating congregation and interviews with some of the key players.

One astounding tidbit of information pointed to the additional 75,000 children added to Florida's free-lunch eligibility just last year. These are children identified as likely NOT receiving adequate or appropriate levels of nourishment at home. This year, with a burgeoning economic crisis affecting the poor most of all, the rolls will undoubtedly expand again.

This is where the SNP comes in. Kids who are not in school for the long summer months are losing ground in a variety of ways. Children who are not eating properly also tend to miss out on the kinds of enrichment activities that help keep them learning and ready for school in the fall. It turns out to be more than a double whammy. Not only are they behind academically, they're behind socially and culturally. Poor nutritian just makes the situation worse.

And so Methodist districts have committed to working with Florida Impact (a Tallahassee based non-profit) to open feeding centers wherever possible. The response has been good, but the people I talked with in Tallahassee estimate only 12% of eligible children are being reached.

The church I visited was utilizing economic stimulus monies from the state to employ and train youth to run a day camp and also serve nutritious meals to children from the neighborhood.

The church is economically challenged itself. With a small membership and lots of financial crisis, from lost jobs to forelosures to crippling debt. It made sense to have the day camp and nutritian program there because that's the neighborhood where it's needed. But what astounded me is the fact that the larger churches in the district were not helping out, with volunteers or resources or both.

It reminded me of why it is so critical that we always look outwards as faith communities, that we are blessed to be a blessing, and - most importantly - that churches are not isolated or individualistic... but a part of the body of Christ.

Ultimately, it's all about community.
Grace and peace - DEREK

Monday, July 27, 2009

Lessons from children and inmates

Now that was a busy and interesting weekend:

First, and lots of fun, was Friday evening's musical "Children's Letters to God." It was one of those true community occasions, evoking the sense of small-town that Brandon is trying so hard to hold on to.

The show, produced and directed by my friend, Janet Frenkel, utilized the small theater at Center Place, a center for the arts occupying the same building as Brandon's main library. It's a cozy setting, and the room was nicely filled with people from all over the community. The performance was stellar, with all the young people - spirited and talented actors - nailing their parts. Then 99% of the audience stayed for a 20-minute "talk-back" designed to add an interactive element to the evening.

Five of us - supposedly community leaders - were invited to sit on the stage with the cast and field questions that emerged from the show.

The discussion easily gravitated to the faith of children, and what we can all learn from the ability of the young to ask honest questions and then - just as easily - live with the absence of technical or narrowly rational proofs. It turns out that kids are not asking questions that demand tidy answers - they're actually sharing their hearts. All they're doing is looking for people to take the time to listen and to provide a little assurance.

I believe we dishonor the integrity of children's spirituality when we attempt to pound their odd-shaped questions into our neatly symmetrical holes. Bombast and any kind of "party line" simply reveal our own dependence on triviality in the face of the majesty of God. Children, more often than not, cut through all that.

Then, Saturday afternoon, I spent some time visiting my friends at the Polk County Correctional Institute. This is another group of people who tend to cut through the crap and speak their minds. When they do, they invariably find room in their hearts for God. Here's a sampling from a conversation I had with one prisoner and another visitor.
  • Me: He's a wonderful writer; I'm very impressed with his work.
  • Inmate: Thanks.
  • Visitor: It's too bad he'd already committed the crime when he started writing classes. I guess it was too late.
  • Me: It's never too late to live. Here we are, incarceration is a tragedy, and nobody wants to spend all this time locked up. But isn't meaningful life about living forward?
  • Inmate: I don't plan on wasting my time; I plan on starting to live right away.
  • Me: You might as well! It's why we were created.
  • Visitor: But his gift is wasted in here.
  • Me: Not if he uses it.
  • Inmate: That's what I plan to do.
So let's live already. It's why we were created!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Thinking Out Loud

Today's photographs have been selected from the Italy trip to support the content focus of "spiritual retreat."

My intention this morning was to spend a few hours here at home in a low-key private spiritual retreat. It may still happen.

There are a couple of reasons behind this. First, the elders at our church are doing just that. Rebekah and Tim are leading a half-day retreat at CedarKirk Camp & Conference Center. It makes sense to me to join them in prayer, study and contemplation. In fact, now I think about it, I like the idea of (next time) launching a church-wide initiative that would coincide with the elders' retreat. We could provide guidelines for how to approach the morning, either at home or in the sanctuary, so that the entire body would be praying for the leadership while they are in retreat.

Hmmm... maybe I'm already having the spiritual retreat I was considering...?

Then, I like this emerging idea of a weekly personal mini-retreat. But how would this fit into the way I'm already doing faith? Let's take a look:
  • I'm already committed to a daily devotional time and ongoing meditation throughout the entire day.
  • My personal plan (to more thoroughly engage the concept of "prayer without ceasing") is making measurable headway.
  • I'm faithful in worship, and pretty much never miss Sunday morning in church.
  • Teaching my adult Sunday-school class keeps me intellectually focused.
  • I meet with my men's Bible-study posse (The Gathering of Most Excellent Dudes) every Wednesday.
  • My Sunday-evening dinner and discussion group helps keep things in perspective...
So I'm thinking that a time of personal reflection (one that expands on my daily devotional initiative) sounds like a useful intervention. Once every week would be a good idea. Then again, one time a month might work as a more practical alternative. But there's a sense in which the natural rhythms of our lives are built around the seven-day cycle. Consequently, every week might in practice prove easier to pull off than once a month.

I'm thinking out loud here (it's what I do!), not laying down a rule or suggesting this is what the rest of you should do. But I'm learning more and more how useful it is for me to develop what I'm beginning to understand as "Sacred Rhythms" (See my Lent book - hopefully in 2011).

My prayer today is this: "Lord God, please be with the leaders of my church - and the leaders of all churches - as they look for guidance in terms of immediate and long-term direction. Also be with the rest of us, grant us wisdom and grant us courage. Amen."

Peace, love and every blessing - DEREK

Friday, July 24, 2009

Too much going on to write in the house!

It's been very hard to get much if any productive work accomplished recently, what with all the constant work going on in our kitchen. So I've processed a lot of Italy pictures and done my best to at least keep a lid on the writing deadlines as they loom.

Yesterday the granite guys showed up to install counter-tops. Good grief those things are heavy! But it's amazing how close to done the place looks with that one dramatic touch. We're beginning to see the "light at the end of the tunnel". Sometime next week - two weeks tops, and we should be able to occupy the new space and actually cook again.

What's interesting is how this process took 13 years to evolve. We both realized the kitchen needed serious help the day we moved here in 1996. There have been a lot of changes over the years, but nothing this radical. At some point - and we've always know this - we were simply going to have to start from scratch.

To be honest, I'm glad we waited. Our style has evolved over the past decade and this is going to be awesome.

I can't help but think about how my "style" is evolving across the board in my life... Bottom line:
  • Stagnant is never good -
  • Reformation needs to be a constant -
  • New ideas must keep pouring in if we are to do justice to anything that means anything -
  • "Cutting Edge" should go a lot further and deeper than my kitchen...
Grace and Peace - DEREK

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Wary of living a cliché

The stained-glass in the duomo in Milan includes some of the finest examples in Europe.

I often wonder about what it means for me to be "A Spiritual Man." I actually spent a good deal of time mulling over the concept during my long walk with Scout last night and then again this morning.

We use terms like that quite glibly in the Christian world. We're quick to use phrases such as, "I gave this day over to God..." Did we - really? Then there's "I'm holding you up in the Lord this week..." and the perennial "Jesus is walking with me..." OK, but just what did these clichés actually look like? How about another favorite, "I'm seeking the Spirit's leading in this decision..." How's that working for you, and just how much effort did that involve?

Much of contemporary church culture tends to promote a kind of "insider" lexicon that makes as much sense to other people as the confusing world of technical terminology and acronyms employed by so many professions.

When I was a teacher I was a leader in the fight to de-institutionalize our language when meeting with parents, especially in the world of exceptional-education. I almost got the sense that - for some educators - the use of confusing techno-jargon made them feel more important, as if we were custodians and even guardians of a body-of-knowledge that only we could wield.

But the idea of "insiders" and "outsiders" achieves little more than condescension and alienation... and I suspect that often (and in a wide variety of disciplines) that is exactly the idea.

It's often that way with Christians, too. As if we breathe some kind of rarefied air in a place reserved only for those who know the password and the secret handshake; a place where you have to be "in the know" to understand what anyone is talking about; a place where we become the gate-keepers, so to speak, the decision-makers regarding who is in and who is not.... Whereas the Bible tells us very clearly that the job belongs to Jesus.

"Jesus said again, 'I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.'" (John 10:7-10)

To be a spiritual person, then, is to engage life with the passion and commitment God designed us to enjoy. Fullness of life! I'm not done with thinking about what it means for me to live as a spiritual person. In fact, I'm committed to exploring and experiencing that posture more and more - so that I can communicate the truth of it with more authority and less cliché.

Question for the day: "Does my spiritual profile give any indication that I have life to the full?"

Below: Lake Como, Italy. Keep in touch! Derek

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Newspaper columns, dreams, and reality...

Today being Wednesday, it's a good time to talk about the newspaper "Op-Ed/Commentary" column that pretty much launched my writing career; as of this month it looks like it's been deep-sixed by the Tampa Tribune - for good.

We all know newspapers are struggling. But I honestly believe the decision-makers are shooting themselves in the foot by dropping a popular column that's been around almost a decade - just to save $60 a week.

That's pretty much a car-payment for me and it stings. But my real disappointment is the loss of what has - essentially - become an ongoing conversation with tens of thousands of people about life, faith, and what it means to make a positive difference in this broken world.

The good news is my weekly column in North Florida survives, and I recently launched a monthly column in the Presbyterian Outlook, a weekly journal that puts me "in the loop" with Presbyterian leaders nationwide.

But my heart was (and still is) in my relationship with the people of Tampa. If you're interested, here's a little history:
  • It started back in Pensacola in the late 1980's. Rebekah and I taught a huge Sunday-school class for young families (because, then, we still qualified). I begun a regular five-minute devotional/meditation that was well-received. Eventually, people started saying "We need a newspaper column like that."
  • A decade later I finally put the idea to the test and landed the front page of the Tampa Tribune's Sunday Opinion Section with a piece titled "Let's Not Return to the Dark Ages".
  • The column generated a lot of buzz. I repeated on the Trib's main pages 6-12 times a year for the next few years.
  • Meanwhile the Brandon News offered me a weekly opinion column. It was soon picked up by other "zones", often running in the majority of the Tribune's local papers.
  • In 2001, the column won the Florida Press Association (FPA) award for "Best Serious Column." Two years later it won another FPA award.
  • After I quit teaching I picked up some regular feature work with a variety of the Tribune's local papers, sometimes publishing as many as four articles per week.
  • Over the past two-three years, however, more than10 different editors have handled my work, always getting re-assigned (or let go in another downsizing) just as soon as our working relationship was solid.
  • So now I run one, two, or zero weekly features... but have been happy to keep the column...
  • This year one of my columns won an "AMY" award. The Amy is a high-profile national journalism prize that recognizes writers who honor and communicate biblical truth in the secular media.
  • Until now, that is....
So, prayers are coveted. Please pray that: A) New opportunities surface B) The Tampa Tribune will re-instate my opinion column C) So many people read this blog and then pass it on that I'll get an offer from some syndicate group and "go nationwide"!

There's more, of course, but this is enough fornow. Below my signature you'll find the column I wrote for today. Enjoy! Grace and peace - DEREK

Clean up before trying to rebuild

I have to admit – it’s nice to be back in Brandon.

Our adventure in Europe was awesome. Three weeks of vacation; seeing our son; falling in love with some of the most inspirational places we’ve ever seen; stimulating the Italian economy. But it’s good to be home. There’s a continuity and a purpose to our lives here that my wife and I are both anxious to re-engage.

Thirty-six hours after our plane landed the crew showed up to demolish our kitchen. By lunch the cabinets were gone, next the appliances, then they went after the tile floor. By day two the room was reduced to a shell, a wall was history, and a new opening was framed in. Today it’s “goodbye” to the drop ceiling and then fun with wiring.

We’ve been in this house thirteen years, and we’ve “had a go” at the kitchen (as the British would say) a number of times. An appliance here, a sink there, counter tops, molding and paint; but the footprint of flooring and cabinets always remained. Hemmed in by the structures that defined what we believed possible, nothing ever changed beyond superficiality.

This time it’s different, and the reasons are 13 years in the making. There’s a sense in which – as the Bible suggests – everything old needs to pass away before anything significantly new can take its place. “The old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5).

The analogy may be a stretch, but this may be such a time for Florida. The old ways have been, in the words of the prophet Daniel, “Weighed on the scales and found wanting” (Daniel 5:27).

Patching up and painting over rot and mildew behind the bead-board does nothing to add real value. At some point we need to bite the bullet and come in with a sledgehammer so the problem is revealed.

Light it not only incisive – penetrating and razor sharp – light reveals decay so it can be removed before we attempt to move forward. I’m not going to describe what we found behind the kitchen cabinets yesterday - sufficient to say it bought to mind what’s happened to this economy over the past generation. Yes, the walls were that bad.

I believe that, here in Hillsborough County, we should see this crisis as an opportunity to reinvent ourselves. All of us: Individuals; institutions; business, government.

Right now we have a nice clean slab of concrete in our kitchen and some strong studs on the wall. It’s a great place to start.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Certainly mortal... very visible... not all that wise

"Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible hid from our eyes..." - Walter Chalmers Smith

Picture at left: Leaning on the top of the tower of Pisa!

Disclaimer: Don't mistake this entry for theological scholarship, doctrinal purity, philosophical insight, or well-reasoned argument. I'm simply an observer and - mostly - an examiner of my own life. Feel free to participate in the conversation.

I woke up (kind of) today, feeling exceptionally mortal. That's not to say that I ever feel exclusively immortal, just that the part of my consciousness that finds it's identity in the non-transcendent is doing a bang-up job of stating its case at the moment!

Regardless, 6:00 still means "walk the dog," especially when the tile-guys are scheduled to launch day-two of their performance around 7:15. My body, however, had serious issues with the schedule and I felt as if I was moving in an exaggerated slow-motion. Not pain so much as resistance; not stiffness so much as heaviness - a sense of super-high viscosity, a walking through heavy mud or that "pit of plastic balls" in the kids' play area at a fast-food joint.

But getting up and walking a few miles can be redemptive in so many ways. Not only were the cob-webs shaken out (somewhat) but my evolving spiritual sensitivity has the opportunity to reconnect with the rest of me. We often speak of body and spirit, mortal and immortal, or time and eternity as unresolvable dualities. But I am more inclined to experience them working together, interconnected, mutually dependant.

That's one reason I've never appreciated the theology in the old song "This world is not my home, I'm just a-passin' through...." My understanding is that we were created specifically for this world. This world is my home and my home is in the heart of God. These are two truths that can be held at once. I believe that body and soul have this ongoing dance together, something that cannot be properly understood in terms of complete independence.

My thinking sets up potential difficulties when talking about life beyond death. But that's OK, because tidy explanations are typically even less satisfactory. So I'm going to sound contradictory and say that my experiences with death (other people's, I haven't had any "near-death" experiences myself) have demonstrated beyond a doubt that the essence of who we are cannot be exclusively contained by the physical shell we inhabit these few years as mortals.

A woman I talked with recently described her experience of visiting with her two-year old son when he was in a coma (He remained alive, broken and unconscious, for several months after a terrible accident). "Sometimes when I arrived by his side his body was a shell," she said; "he simply was not there. Then other times I would visit and it was obvious that he was still very much in the room, and I felt close to my son. It was definitely the kind of coma that would not ever reverse and in many respects he was already gone... but, on those memorable occasions he was present with me all the same."

So today I feel exceptionally - maybe "excessively!" - mortal. My spirit, however (like the surprising life that animated almost-60-year-old Tom Watson while he dominated the world's best golfers "in their prime" at the recent British Open), while not existing independently from this "mortal frame" during my life, plays a critical role when it comes to how I use this tired body... and my spirit receives its sustenance and its animation independent from the purely physical realm - it receives nourishment and meaning from the source of all life.

Don't mistake this entry for theological scholarship, doctrinal purity, philosophical insight, or well-reasoned argument. I'm simply an observer and - mostly - an examiner of my own life. Feel free to participate in the conversation.

Peace - DEREK

Monday, July 20, 2009

Renaissance in Brandon, Florida

Monday morning... and the "tile-guys" were already in our kitchen by 7:30 AM! Fortunately Scout and I took our trek around 6:00, so Rebekah and I were already loaded up on coffee when the latest installment of noise and mess got underway.

I can't help but think about some other tile-work we've been admiring lately. Namely the amazing marble and mosaic designs all around Tuscany and Rome. Simply breathtaking!

Here's a sampling from Pisa, on the Duomo at the Field of Miracles. The color, the design, and the sheer sense of celebration in the work is awe-inspiring. It doesn't matter what our vocation is, what exactly we do for a living; what counts is the commitment and the creativity we bring to the job.

So I'm praying that the tile-guys have the same idea. Whenever possible I want to work with artisans and laborers who see everything they do as an extension of their life of faith, and as a response to this tremendous opportunity we all have to act as co-creators with the One who got the process going in the first place.

Here's how I see things once the news-media get a hold of the story:
  • DATELINE: BRANDON, FL - "Here in the suburbs to the east of Tampa there is a new renaissance under way. Scholars have identified the home of Derek and Rebekah Maul as an active site in this movement. Reports are also surfacing that the impetus is taking root in many families associated with the First Presbyterian Church of Brandon. It's a Reformation of sorts, a re-capturing of the spirit of light and creativity that first galvanized Europe 500 years ago..."
Hey, it's a great concept. Get on board.
Love and blessings - DEREK

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Weekend Blog - Home Again

Just a short blog entry today, a post pretty much designed to move forward from my teaching/travels and back into life here around Brandon. The pictures are mostly Lake Junaluska: Me teaching, the keynote (Trevor Hudson) teaching, the amazing views. Then, close to the end, there's an update on the kitchen remodel - making some progress.

The house, of course, is a a huge wreck! Some amazing movement forward has been made vis-a-vis the remolding, but it is still very much consuming life-as-we-know-it around here. The kitchen, I guess, is having it's own spiritual retreat, reinventing itself from the ground up in accordance with the "everything must be disassembled and then rebuilt from scratch" school of thought.

We’ve been in this house thirteen years, and we’ve “had a go” at the kitchen (as the British would say) any number of times. An appliance here, a sink there, counter tops, molding and paint; but the footprint of flooring and cabinets always remained. Hemmed in by the structures that defined what we believed possible, nothing ever changed beyond superficiality.

This time it’s different, and the reasons are 13 years in the making. There’s a sense in which – as the Bible suggests – everything old needs to pass away before anything significantly new can take its place.

The old ways have been, in the words of the prophet Daniel, “Weighed on the scales and found wanting” (Daniel 5:27).

Patching up and painting over rot and mildew behind the bead-board does nothing to add real value. At some point we eventually need to bite the bullet and come in with a sledgehammer so the root of the problem is revealed.

Light it not only incisive – penetrating and razor sharp – light reveals decay so it can be removed before we attempt to move ahead. I’m not going to describe what we found behind the kitchen cabinets - sufficient to say it bought to mind what we all-too-easily allow to happen to our spiritual lives and our resources and our priorities if we're not willing to undergo the occasional remodel.... Yes, the walls were that bad!

This time last week ten days ago we had a nice clean slab of concrete in our kitchen and some strong studs on the wall. It was a great place to start. This week we've moved along very well... thanks to the radical nature of the preparation.

It turns out there's always something to think about! DEREK

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Shaped by Beauty and Faith

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good." (Genesis 1:31)

Yesterday was about wrapping up the conference, good visits with friends, and birthday shopping for Rebekah. Birthdays are always fun to prepare for when you really love someone, and being in the North Carolina mountains certainly makes it easier to find gifts I know will work. The key after several decades of gift-giving is to remain creative and motivated, and to enjoy the process; if I'm excited about Rebekah's birthday, it's a safe bet that she will be too.

But I've got to say it's hard to leave these mountains. It's a beautiful world all over, but there is something extra compelling about the deep layers of tree and hill that recede endlessly into the distance. Then the daylilys and wildflowers are in full bloom along every roadside, a riot of color and creative expression.

So I took a short detour onto the Blue-Ridge Parkway, just for a mile or so... and it was all I could do to make myself turn around again and head into Black Mountain, when a possible hike up Mount Mitchell was so close, around just a few more turns in the road.

But I've been travelling, off and on, for over a month now. I've slept just four nights in our own home since June 15; ten different beds so far; I haven't been to church at First Brandon for almost five weeks; there's a ton of work I need to attend to; we all need to reestablish some sense of routine.

But it's going to be a routine informed and shaped by all the beauty and places and people and stories and faith we've encountered along the way. That's the point of enrichment: it gives us more to share, more depth to draw from, more to be thankful for, and more of God's dynamic creation to inspire and direct us.

I feel so privileged and so blessed to have had this opportunity. I pray that my life does honor to all we have seen and all we have heard.

It's Time to Go Home

Time to go home:

I woke up this morning (a little late) ready to go home. It's been a great retreat, and it was preceded by an excellent men's conference in Nashville... but this morning it's like, "Enough already with the meetings and the worship stuff, let's get on with it!"
  • No disrespect to worship - I love God and I can never do or say enough to adequately express how I feel.
  • Nothing against meetings - This has been one of the best series of encouragement and motivation sessions I've ever attended.
  • Nothing wrong with all the teaching - I was one of the teachers, Trevor Hudson has been awesome, some of the other preachers have knocked my socks off.
But... and as our keynote speaker has intimated on several occasions, being "up on the mountain" isn't about us enjoying ourselves so much as it is about us becoming better equipped to live lives of meaningful faith that engage the real world.

My last lecture yesterday contained a section titled "Living Large for Jesus." I'll write more about the idea in the coming days, but the bottom line is this, I'm done with the retreat and I'm ready to go out there and live like I mean it - because God most certainly does.

Love and blessings - always - DEREK

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"What does the worker gain from his toil?"

(Slightly cheesy picture from yesterday's book-signing event!)

Ecclesiastes 3:9-13 - What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God.

I, my friends, really am happy to do good while I live, and I honestly am finding satisfaction in all my toil. Everything is beautiful in its time!

It's also a lot of fun to teach your own book! This book, my new volume - THE UNMAKING OF A PART-TIME CHRISTIAN (available for purchase in a couple of weeks), pretty much emerged from teaching my first book (GET REAL).

It's an interesting cycle. First, you get invited to speak about a book. Then, the teaching/speaking experiences are invariably interactive, and new stories emerge from the ongoing conversation. Meanwhile, it's been a year or so since the first book was written, and of course God hasn't stopped teaching me. I haven't stopped praying either, and the ideas certainly haven't stopped growing. So new work naturally emerges from existing work and before long there's something more to share that will - in turn - continue to fuel the creative fire.

I love how newness seems to be an increasing element of my life as the years pass by. I'm conscious of how easy it is to become unimaginative and to get stuck in a comfort zone that resists new ideas, and so I am grateful that I am involved in so much discussion and study and interaction with people who keep me on my toes intellectually, inspire me spiritually, and motivate me professionally.

The keynote preacher/teacher this week, Trevor Hudson from South Africa, communicates with an earnestness and an authenticity that is at once both inspirational and grounding. He's a gracious man, generous with his time, and I felt a genuine sense of family when we talked. I pray that our paths cross again.

I've signed a few books this week and taught some well-received classes. Then a few new opportunities have presented themselves for possible travel and speaking engagements... But the real meat of the experience is grounded in people: renewed friendships, new brothers and sisters, good people with a genuine vision for serving God in any way that they possibly can.

This is my prayer: "Continue to show us the way - your way - O God... Amen."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Living in the real world

It's interesting to be in a place where each person is here for the same reason, where everyone identifies themselves as a child of God, and where that relationship to the Creator is the definitive attribute... not race or gender or political alliegence or nationality or age or any other of the thousands of ways we tend to seperate one from another.

You'd think that such a gathering would be fundamentally inwardly focused... but it's not. The spirit of this conference has more to do with the way we respond to God's love as people who live in the real world.

I've often said that our spiritual journey must engage with real people in the nitty-gritty of our day to day if it is to go anywhere at all. And our speakers here have all focused on the same idea.

We don't - we can't - go through spiritual formation in isolation, and it is contrary to God's plan for our lives to live in a kind of spiritual vacuum that fails to deal with the imperative to serve.

If I have time I'll add to this post later in the day. Meanwhile, I've added a couple more photographs from my walk around the lake. This place is beautiful.

Peace - DEREK

Monday, July 13, 2009

Up at the "Thin Place"

Lake Junaluska is, in the nomenclature of retreat and conference buffs, "A Thin Place." By that I mean it is one of those locations where the divide between this world and the spiritual realm seems a lot less resistant and it's much easier to break through. There is a portal of sorts here, that is fixed and in place.

Traditional Celtic religious practices - so I understand - describe a "membrane" surrounding the temporal realm. At certain times, or at certain places, the membrane is stretched thin and it becomes possible for people to penetrate and experience the "other-worldly". Think of it like a balloon, or the bladder of a football.

I understand the concept. Sometimes a church can be like that; sometimes a particular moon-lit night; sometimes a conversation with a friend or even a stranger. But there are places that seem to hold that quality all the time. I think of Mo-Ranch in Texas, the Cathedral at Ely in England, Lookout Mountain near Montreat, NC, any meeting of my Sunday-evening small-group... and then here, at Lake Junaluska.

One of the wonderful things about Jesus is that God actually entered time and space so that we would not be dependent on such "thin places" to experience the presence of God. Because of Jesus my spiritual being can be active and fed every single day!

Still, I am weak, I am poorly disciplined, and I often struggle in the way Paul outlines so clearly at the end of Romans chapter 7. And so I am thankful for the help places such as this provide. I am thankful that my spiritual sensitivities are heightened when I participate in events such as this, and I am thankful that God loves me so much that God reaches in and touches me, even when I struggle - especially when I struggle.

Love and blessings - DEREK

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Exercising my listening ears..

It was sunny and clear this morning when I pulled out of Nashville. The drive along I40, through Knoxville and on into North Carolina, made for a beautiful ride.

The United Methodist Men's conference I attended was excellent. Around 130 guys showed up for my workshop and - most importantly, I had the opportunity to talk one-on-one with several men during the breaks, and God graciously used me to be an encouragement in their various journeys.

Yesterday evening, country artist Vince Gill was on hand to lend support to a UMM mentoring initiative. He stayed around to give an informal concert and I was blown away by both his songwriting and his guitar-work. (forgive the poor cell-phone image, but it was all I had with me!) It was a treat to see a superstar on a stool with his guitar and no band to overwhelm the purity of his gift. Good stuff.

I've been thinking today about how important it is to be available to other people, to enter into conversations about the road they're on, and to listen carefully. I may have been invited to Nashville to talk, but some of the best work I did this weekend was only possible in response to active listening.

So many people have powerful stories to share. I love capturing stories and using them in my newspaper column - but that's only the tip of the iceberg. I'm grateful for the willingness of people to open up... but I also suspect it's too rare an experience for many of us. So let's put our listening ears on, ask good questions, and make sure than the people we love don't have to take this next leg of their journey alone.

Believe me, it's a lot better than what they're showing on TV.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Learning and Teaching in Nashville

This photo has nothing to do with my weekend in Nashville. It's just one more gratuitous Italy picture - taken on a great hike I enjoyed with Andrew just two weeks ago.

This weekend I'm participating in a huge United Methodist Men's conference. This is their national gathering, with men from all over the United States.

It's fun to be a speaker and an outsider. I'm here by myself, am staying in a nice hotel off-campus from the conference, and I feel more like an observer than a participant.

But that's OK. One of the challenges of being in leadership in a home church is this constant sense of responsibility, and a connectedness with the details, and the sometimes overwhelming burden of helping to carry the struggles of so many people. That's also true when I'm leading a smaller conference or a retreat. But here I'm simply listening, worshipping, praying and learning.

When I teach my workshops I'll be there 100% for the men in that room. I have what I believe is a dynamic presentation ready to go, and I'm working hard in preparation. I'm looking forward to the interaction, and I'm excited about what I get to share.

But on balance this conference is more relaxing and restorative, and so far I'm having a good time. (They picked me up as a speaker because so many Methodist churches have been using my book, GET REAL: a spiritual journey for men, and there's a huge pile of copies in the conference bookstore.)
  • So here's my prayer: "Lord, use me today for your great purposes. Give me words that will inspire, a willing spirit to listen, and the kind of passion that communicates compelling truth. It's a joy it is to serve you in this way. Today I want it to count for something eternal in the lives of the men I teach. Amen."