Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Halloween and "Living Gospel Lives"

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. - Philippians 4:8

Here it is, Wednesday September 30. Tomorrow it's October, and this morning there was a refreshing hint of the possibility of cooler temperatures in the air. I love this time of the year.

But what I don't love so much is what's been happening to Halloween, especially at our theme parks. The commercials started early and they are - in a word - offensive.

This time last year I published an Op-Ed in the Tampa Tribune that aired some of my concerns. The column generated a lot of response; I think it's worth airing again.

When Halloween Celebrations Send The Wrong Message
DEREK MAUL, Columnist
The Tampa Tribune, October 15 2008

I recently heard someone say, "If Halloween is a window into the American soul we should all be worried."

The remark was intended in jest, and everyone chuckled. But – and I know I'm going to sound prudish here – I didn't laugh. In my mind, Halloween has gotten out of hand, and to be honest, I think it really is a window into the murky American soul.

Halloween doesn't ring true anymore, and it hasn't for a long time.

The celebration has lost its innocence, and the festivities have moved far away from their original purpose. The holiday was designed to point out we have nothing to fear from our superstitions; today it actually celebrates terror. How we made that journey is far more serious than most of us understand.

About this time every year, I try to take some kind of a stand in favor of light over darkness. But each successive October seems to go a step further down the road to indecency, and every year we go along for the ride.

So I can't help myself, I've got to say it: Enough is enough, people. Far too much of what we call entertainment is over-the-top horrific and it simply has to stop.

I'm not talking about ghosts, goblins, skeletons, witches and the like. It's not the supernatural that bothers me so much as the cruel, the sadistic and the malicious.

Let me put it this way. If watching pain, torture, mutilation or suffering gives you pleasure, then you should be ashamed, not catered to. I don't care if events like "Howl-O-Scream" at Busch Gardens or "Halloween Horror Nights" at Universal Studios turn a profit, they promote evil as a value, and I'd like to call on the organizers to close them down for good.

There's something fundamentally wrong with a society that sends people to jail for violence, rape and murder, then turns around and cheers when the same and worse is acted out or splashed across video screens in high-definition.

Today's celebration of horror sends a message that says, "There is no absolute right or wrong, so long as it gives me a thrill; anything that entertains me is OK by definition."

No. No, it's not OK. Not anywhere – and especially not in this community.


One disgruntled reader (at least he was reading) complained that "You Christians... worship a God who damns people to hell if they don't believe in Jesus...." He then went on to say that he also dislikes the violence... "but it's a lot better than the terrible things Christians believe...."

The man is a telling representation of this "post-Christian culture". My reply spoke to the imperative we have to get the truth out about Jesus, and why I often refer to myself as "Jesus-follower" instead of "Christian" - because Christianity is painted with such a broad brush and then rejected because of such misinformation. We simply must redeem the message.

"Thanks for participating in the dialogue," I wrote. "But I'm concerned you've been listening to too many television preachers. Evidently, you have not been introduced to the Jesus I know...."

So, this Halloween - all month long - let's make sure that we are communicating something true and compelling about what it means to live Gospel lives.

Peace and Joy - DEREK

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Party Party! At the Maul Home

I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other the same way that I have loved you. - Jesus (John 15)

Rebekah and I love the folk she works with at First Presbyterian Church in Brandon. We had another staff party at our house yesterday evening and the experience was - again - delightful.

The excuse this time around was "goodbye" to our accountant, who's moving with his family to Texas, and "happy retirement" to Jackie in the front office. A few weeks ago we all gathered to celebrate summer birthdays; before long it will be something else.

The other day I was picking up flowers for Rebekah's executive secretary and the lady at the store acted surprised. "I didn't think bosses did that kind of thing anymore!" So I also told the flower-store sales clerk about the Godiva chocolate Joyce gets sometimes, when she goes above and beyond, and the lady wanted to apply for a job on the spot!

The point of this post is the value of a positive work environment, and how far-reaching mutual respect is in the office. We really do love and appreciate these folk; and what goes on in the office will not fail to seep through to mission and ministry and worship - in fact, everything that we do as a community of faith.

But I hear stories all the time about hostile workplace issues, and it seems to happen on the staff of churches just as much as anywhere else. Pastors jealous of one another's successes, posturing for influence and always looking over their shoulders. Support staff treated as unequal partners in ministry; a "corporate model" where numbers are more important than people.... All this and more....

To me any situation other than a staff operating as brothers and sisters in Christ is antithetical to the thrust of living Gospel lives ("Living Gospel lives" is a phrase I used in yesterday's blog and I like it so much it may be making regular appearances). If our faith doesn't stand up to the rigors of nine-to-five in the church office then I'd think there would be a lot of re-imagining necessary in terms of vision - and a lot of questions needing to be asked about the purpose of church in the first place!

A couple of staff members have young children, and since the remodel the house sets up extra well for eating all over - so there were people chowing down pretty-much everywhere, the kids were free to move around, and Scout labradoodle had a holiday.

I'm thankful that Rebekah has such a great staff to work with - what an awesome group of dedicated folk! But at the same time I have to admit that Rebekah's leadership style has a lot to do with it; primarily - and you can take this to the bank - because it isn't about her, it's about Jesus.

One more way in which we know we are blessed.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Living with courage in a graceless age

I just got off the phone with our son, Andrew, who flew to St. Louis yesterday. He's there for a 10-day conference before he ships out to Bahrain in a couple of weeks. His Italy experience is over now, and his heart is already aching for Tuscany, his home for 12 months.

I'm thinking about the courage it takes to fall in love with a place you know you're going to have to leave. It's a common dilemma for people who have short assignments; six months, a year, maybe two at the most. There's always this choice: Do I make my self vulnerable, throw caution to the wind, and jump in with both feet... or do I keep my distance; cautious, holding back, guarded - safe?

I've known people (I know people) who approach relationships the same way; "Let's not take the risk of something too meaningful, you know we'll be moving in a year." Or churches; "We're going to just hover around the edges and not take on any serious relationships." And faith; "I'll hedge my bets with this God thing; no point in putting myself out there."

But Andrew didn't waste a single minute in Italy. While many Americans working in and around the base lived in close proximity to one another, cooked hamburgers, watched American television, and tried to replicate U.S. culture while talking about what was wrong with living oversees... Andrew rented a villa in a village where he was the only English speaker, learned the language, made friends with Italians, put together a series of "awesome Italian adventures", opened his heart, and made himself vulnerable.

One part of this observation is that my son is living like he means it. If he hadn't lived Italy with such enthusiasm he wouldn't be hurting now he's left. But it's an orientation to life that he's going to gift Bahrain with as well, and it's going to serve him (and those around him) well.

The other part is that so many of us shrink back from living as if we mean it because our experience of this world is that it holds so little in the way of grace. We experience pain when we give ourselves away, in large part because we don't live in loving, selfless community; we don't live in authentic covenant community; nowhere near enough of us live Gospel lives.

So we hold back, we build walls around ourselves, we fail to relate to other people at the point of our deepest need, and we replicate that experience where ever we go.

My son Andrew lives with unusual courage and he is having adventures most of us are too timid to miss... But it shouldn't take that much courage to live that well. We live in what singer/songwriter Don Henley referred to as "Such a graceless age" (The Heart of the Matter).

My commitment, this week, is to do what I can to move the bar back in favor of more grace.

Love and blessings -DEREK

Friday, September 25, 2009

Building Online Community

I've been thinking a lot about the new world of technology and how my message can best engage the new media. Not only that, but also how the message itself becomes shaped by the system of delivery. I believe it's important that my writing maintain its integrity - but at the same time I understand that communication must be pliable, flexible, malleable, if it is to be at all effective in real time.

Of course the very fact that people are reading this blog speaks to the cogency of the topic. My commitment to post blog entries six days every week is not only a consequence of this technology (and the "24-hour news cycle") but it - in effect - becomes a contributing factor to the credibility of this mode of communication. Participation is - in a large sense - sanction.

My message itself is becoming shaped by the fact that I do not have a few days, a week, or a month, to carefully craft my post - and, at the same time, the authenticity of what I have to share is necessarily improved by the very immediacy that makes it difficult to produce.

- Posting on this blog is not the same as writing a chapter for a book. But, rather than trying to force blog readers to digest book-segments in this context, it's incumbent on me to meet visitors here and share good news with them in the language of this venue. It's another way to follow Jesus in terms of "Be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

This is - in a very real sense - the ends of the earth.

Meanwhile, I'm in the process of taking my first "on-line" class. I'm participating in a workshop offered by the Institute for Discipleship (IFD), through , a learning extension program housed on the campus of Southwestern College in Kentucky. When I have completed my class, I'll be certified to teach on-line through the IFD.

A lot of our conversation (there are 14 of us taking the class) these first few days has been about how to build community in a virtual environment. Community requires interaction... but the on-line model deprives us of many of the cues involved in human contact. Handshakes, eye-brow raising, hugs, posture, proximity, looking people in the eye - or not, frowns, the way we are dressed... just a few of the elements that contribute to communication.

But, at the same time, barriers are removed. People tend to be less shy, more willing to speak their minds, more comfortable with their viewpoint. Some of the barriers - of course - are for our own protection and the protection of others. Being less circumspect is not necessarily a helpful factor when building community; holding back can actually promote dialog; catching someone's eye mid-sentence - when they're stepping all over someone else's toes - can serve to promote unity....

So a lot of new skill sets must be developed by those of us who moderate (or facilitate) on-line community....

Obviously there's a lot to talk about, not only in my class but here in this particular venue. I'm open - as always - for feedback. I know some of my facebook friends will jump on board this discussion the moment this is posted. I'd love to hear from you.

Most of all I want to be able to utilize emerging media to communiccate what I know to be true and healing and hopeful and encouraging and challenging and life-changing about the Gospel.

As always, I'll keep you posted. Peace - DEREK

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Reading the photographs

Last week I enjoyed the privilege of taking my mum out to lunch (no, that's not a picture of anyone taking my mum out to lunch; it's my brother Geoff and his granddaughter, Haley!).

Mum was the birthday girl that day, and it was another one of those occasions when I'm so thankful to have a flexible schedule and a job that allows me to plug in some family time whenever possible.

We had the actual celebration the previous weekend. Rebekah and I came down from Brandon, my brother Geoff lives close by in Sarasota, and my niece Hannah was there along with her husband, Drew, and their two kids, Haley and Hudson.

Quite the contrast from my more recent nieces and nephews experience (read the series of 4 posts)! My niece Hannah is thirty and has her own babies! This, of course, makes my OLDER brother a grandfather.

But it's also why he gets the coveted "lead picture" in today's blog. It's all about the relationship. That's what a good photograph does - it tells you a lot more than the "who" and the "where". Photography that works says something profound about the "so-what", and the so-what in this picture is the redemptive nature of relationships. Hannah and her family have been the presence of God to my brother in so many ways.

This is Hannah and her husband, Drew. Hannah works with children and families for the state, and Drew is shoring up his medical credentials. My niece has a generous heart and a very sharp brain. She was raised in a religiously fundamental environment, and it's been interesting to see how her intelligence and compassion have combined with real world experience to effect a shift in theology that makes for some illuminating conversation. She also has an interest in political science and has become very adept at stating her case. She is a thinking Jesus-follower with a deep sense of social responsibility; it's a stance I wish more of the "Loud for God" crowd could see their way to adopt.

Their son, Hudson, is a squeezable toddler at the moment and his personality is emerging as good-natured and easy-going. But this blog is really about the pictures, so I'll leave you with the set up to my mum's official birthday portrait.

Look at this photograph... What do you see? There's a transference here; the passing on of something important. Let me trace if for you, from left to right. My brother Geoff's hands... to his granddaughter Haley's heart... to her brother Hudson's aspirations (see how he is watching his big sister?). And then, in the final photograph, to their great-grandmother's joy.

Nice way to share a birthday.

Family, it [can be] all about redemption.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Goodlife Recipe

Rebekah's dog, Scout Labradoodle, is - by and large - a deeply contented animal. Life for our amicable fur-ball is fairly uncomplicated, and when the key ingredients are in place she's guaranteed good to go. Yes, dogs really do smile - and this one seems to wear one pretty-much 24/7.

I was watching her this morning, after our long walk, and I thought about contentment. We were in the kitchen, where I was making coffee. Scout was sitting patiently by her food bowl, looking at me expectantly, occasionally breaking off the stare to glance back at her bowl. There was a small puddle of drool on the floor between her paws.

"What's up?" I asked. Then I remembered; I'd fixed her breakfast a few minutes earlier... the bowl was full and sitting on the floor in it's usual place... but something had distracted me and I'd forgotten to give her permission to eat.

"Good girl," I said, then snapped my fingers in the direction of the bowl.

Her food - which she loves desperately - is called "The Goodlife Recipe". I love the name and - if I can pull it off without any copywrite problems - I'm calling "dibs" on the concept for the title of my next book.

However, wonderful as that particular dog-food brand may be, the factors that make's Scout's life a good one are less complex than a good bag of yummy food. Here they are:
  • Scout is loved.
  • Scout knows she is loved.
  • Scout has people who translate that love into action.
  • Scout knows that our family cares for her, and she is confident that we will follow through.
Beyond that, food is simply a detail.

Sometimes I wonder if we pay attention to the clues that God places around us?
  • I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day. (2 Timothy 1:12)
  • For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. - Romans 8:38-39
  • How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!- 1 John3:1
  • And these amazing words from Job - chapter 19: Oh, that my words were recorded, that they were written on a scroll, that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead, or engraved in rock forever!I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

To Infinity and Beyond...

Image, below: the Hale-Bopp comet is steered by the gravitational pull of the earth

Have you ever felt like you were on the cusp of something significant?

Over the past week I've had the sense that I am brushing up against the edges of possibility; it's as if "what is" and "what can be" have entered one-another's orbit... as if what can be is within reach in a new way... as if the spectacular might come crashing into the mundane... as if the uncharted and unimagined is washing against the shore of predictability... as if some of the strands and threads of my work may be weaving together to produce a new thing and it's going to surprise me....

There's this story in the New Testament about a woman who had been sick for a long time. And then she found herself in the same crowded street as Jesus. "If I can just get close enough to brush against his coat..." Then there's the one about the blind guy who just knew that something special was passing by, just out of reach. "If I can just move in a little more, who knows what might happen..."

I have to be careful here; I don't want to sound like Bilbo Baggins on the verge of setting out from his Hobbit Hole with Gandalf and a confederacy of mythological characters! But in a way I do, because in many ways I'm as Hobbit-like as they come. I love comfort, and predictability, deep armchairs and afternoon tea - and the aura of undisturbed, curl-up-with-a-book-on-the-sofa-as-if-there-is-no-other-world, adventure-free, Mayberry-like ease....

It's not as if I'm asking God to mess with the tranquility.

Instead, my feeling these past few days has been more along the lines of, "I can feel the gravitational pull of something." Or, "There's something in store that's spectacular." Or, "It's time to walk a little more by faith and a little less by simple sight."

Stay tuned. When "What is possible" does come crashing into my limited world of "What I can do by myself" - then people reading this space will certainly be among the first to know.

"To Infinity and Beyond!" - DEREK

Monday, September 21, 2009

On the lighter side - Twelve things women need to Understand about Men!

This morning has started out well enough, but my reflections while dog-walking and the insight gleaned during my devotional time seem routine and on the "no-duh" side this morning. Nothing "share-worthy" and so I'm not going to spoil this blog by boring you!

So, instead, I thought I'd post my response to another one of those classic "Ten Things Men Need to Know About Women" articles I came across recently. The world would be a much better place, the writer suggested, if the X-Y population simply took the time to understand.

Here's some Monday morning satire:

Twelve Things Women Need to Understand About Men
Derek Maul

Having read another waiting room article suggesting "Ten Things Men Need to Know About Women," I thought it was time that some information flowed in the opposite direction.
  1. We don't like bugs any more than you do. Men think roaches and spiders are disgusting. We only handle those things, at great personal cost, and because we love you.
  2. Ditto the above regarding hair-balls, cleaning dog po off the carpet, and those dead - typically decapitated - remains the cat sometimes leaves on the porch.
  3. This may come as a shock, but we also don't enjoy giving ourselves hernias, moving really heavy stuff, digging out shrubbery that shares root systems with the foundation of the house, or changing tires in the rain.
  4. But... men do love to do things for women. We're not sure exactly why, but it makes us feel important. So we try to fix things, including appliances we have no business touching; and we buy you useless stuff you don't need. Humor us. If it's an evolutionary thing, we'll eventually get over it.
  5. "Chick-Flicks," are really okay, just so long as something actually happens in the movie. It's not so much that we're for sex and violence as it is that we are against spending all that money to watch Hollywood celebrities playact the same pathetic failed relationships they pursue in real life.
  6. We acknowledge that we are often stupid, just don't confuse that with insensitive. There is an important distinction. Also, please understand the difference between the concepts "clueless" and "contentious". Being witless does not mean we deliberately intend to cause problems.
  7. Related to #6, above, neither do we intentionally fail to read your minds. Being from this planet, men don't actually have ESP.
  8. Nobility is not dead. Many men are still honorable, virtuous, courageous, gallant, and courteous. For examples, see #s 1, 2, 3, & 4 above.
  9. We really have no idea what we did to make you angry, so please help us out. If we knew, we wouldn't have done it, or we would have apologized by now . . . or we would at least have started trying to fix stuff around the house.
  10. Dr. Phil is not helping! While we do acknowledge that women are more highly evolved than men, we don't need it rubbed in all the time. We are no more like Mike Tyson than the average woman is like Barbie. Give us a break already.
  11. Men have hormones, too. It's called "andropause;" you can look it up if you don't believe me. Okay, so "male menopause" is more psychological than physical, but it wouldn't hurt to be sensitive when a man says "just hold me." Or, you could simply offer us a cold beer.
  12. I didn't write this list. I just found it sitting on my desk. I think my friend Gerard made it up. I don't agree with anything it says.
Have a great Monday!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

My heart - God's home; My home - God's grace.

Today I've been thinking about our home; the physical house where Rebekah and I live.

This is the context. I'm sitting here at the counter, working at the laptop and sipping coffee while enjoying the view of our lush back garden. There's a serenity here that's a kind of cumulative consequence of the past thirteen years.

One of my friends left a few minutes ago, having stopped by for coffee and a chat. His household is full with young children, challenging family dynamics, and the kind of layered chaos that it's difficult to see the end of when you're young and seemingly permanently off balance.

We had a good visit, and I feel confident that some of the peace I'm enjoying now found it's way into my friend's spirit - I hope so. So now I'm thinking about the importance of calm, quiet, restorative space - for everyone. Rebekah and I need the atmosphere this home provides - Lord knows we're involved in enough high-density work - but I'm also thinking about how we can share this with others.

I'm not thinking about our home as a retreat center so much as a place where the spirit of God is resident as an expected and recognizable feature.

How does that work? But I don't think the question is so much, "Does God in habit physical space?" so much as it is, "What is the cumulative spiritual witness of this home?"

I'm thinking that our Jesus is sometimes too instant, freeze-dried, or pre-packaged - we want him at the drop of a hat, a kind of spiritual zero-sixty in five seconds. But - this afternoon - the spiritual bones of our home seem to be stretching with a long-term maturity, and they're chock full of all 13 years we've been here. Those 13 years have included hope, love, prayer, tears, disappointment, triumph, overwhelm, rebellion, restoration, pain, commitment, joy... you name it. But the most enduring quality has been faithfulness. God's faithfulness, most consistently, but certainly ours too.

So this feeling I have, writing in this quiet space, is 13 years in the making. Actually, it's 30 years in terms of the commitment Rebekah and I have shared to make a faithful home.

I want this to be a place of grace for all who enter. For coffee, dinner, parties, meetings, or simply a moment of prayer.

My heart - God's home; Our home - God's grace.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Blowin' in the wind

It's been interesting to observe the outpourings of sentiment over the past few days, in response to the death of two pop-culture icons - Patrick Swayze and then Mary Travers. One of the functions of increasing chronological age seems to be that we recognize more and more of the names in the obituary section of the newspaper.

It certainly puts the passage of time in perspective, to realize that people who once stood center stage - as the epitome of what it means to be young and changing the world - are now passing into the footnotes of history.

One friend, thinking about the classic song, "Where have all the flowers gone" posted the following comment "... back then when they and I were young... too touching... because we really did have hopes that there would be a world like that... someday... still blowing in the wind."

I've been hearing a subtext of loss beyond that of "I'll miss so-and-so; I'm detecting a wistfulness and a yearning that seems to be saying that maybe all the hopes and the dreams of youth have been in some way disappointed.

I can understand where they're coming from. There's a generation - mostly 5-25 years older than me (Mary Travers was 73) who must be frustrated that their visions of a world at peace have never materialized. Peace - they protested - would come because the young people (them) would not tolerate war.

So what can we do? How can we resist disappointment and disillusionment?

Jesus put it this way: "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)

I, as we discussed yesterday, am not old in any meaningful sense of the word. The answer, my friends, is not blowing in the wind, the answer is right in front of us. Follow Jesus; give your life away; do peace; love justice.

The prophet Micah is just as encouraging: "The LORD God has told us what is right and what he demands: "See that justice is done, let mercy be your first concern, and humbly obey your God."

Peace - and I mean that - DEREK

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The real "real" age

This morning I was doing my "walk the dog" thing and had one of those "out of body" experiences where it felt like I was someone else, watching myself walk the dog. Weird, huh?

What I noticed was an ostensibly middle-aged man kicking an acorn along the sidewalk - counting how many times he could kick the same acorn before losing it, and then starting over to improve the score! A little later I noticed the same guy balancing along the top of a long landscape timber alongside the Bethel Baptist parking lot. Then I saw him with a handful of acorns, pitching them at mail-boxes just to hear the metallic "ping" when they hit just right.

It was during the mailbox pinging incident that I - back inside my own head by this time - observed a man looking at me as if I were not quite right. He was standing halfway down his driveway in a bathrobe, wearing sandals and black socks halfway to his knees, puffing on a big cigar and scowling.

Wow, I thought, waving brightly in his direction with a cheery "Good morning!" He looks really really old.

However, on closer examination - I walked over to introduce him to Scout - he was probably a few years younger than me.

So I spent most of the rest of the walk thinking about the idea of age, and how much of an impact our approach to life has on the process. Then - just ten minutes ago at this writing - I took one of those "Real Age" tests on line. Chronologically I'm 53.4. The test put me at 45.1, based on their mostly health-related criterion.

Interesting... but.... if I developed a "Real Age" test it would include items such as, "Given the opportunity to walk on the sidewalk or balance along a landscape timber, what would you choose?" Or, "Do acorns on the sidewalk annoy you while you puff your big fat cheroot, or do you scoop them up and throw them at things, just for fun?" and the all important "What do you read first when you open the newspaper in the morning, the front page news headlines or the comics?"

The test would also include such items as:
  • How often do you go out on a date with your wife?
  • Do you wrestle your dog on a daily basis?
  • Do you sometimes open the roof and the windows in your car and listen to loud rock-'n-roll while driving?
  • Do your nieces and nephews find you fun, or boring?
  • When you awake first thing in the morning, are you grateful or irritable?
  • What kind of aura surrounds you? Is it 'joie de vivre', 'Philippians 4:4-9' (reproduced below), or talk-radio-esque gloom and doom?
The list could go on, but I think you catch my drift. That kind of test may have some of us come in at "21" again, "16", or even "6". Many of us, on the other hand, would receive a resounding designation of "Over the Hill."

This morning my Bible reading reminded me that I am God's child, and that I have eternity stretched out before me to discover and to engage with a fresh and renewed spirit every day.

What does the way we live say about our spiritual age?

Grace and Peace - DEREK

The Philippians passage:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Religion vs Following Jesus

Some useful conversation emerged from yesterday's post about rampant public stupidity! Pretty much all of the exchanges came via facebook, where my blog automatically posts a little later in the day. So, if you're reading "A Life Examined" directly, rather than via your status as a facebook friend, then you've been missing some excellent comments (as well as the occasional "What were they thinking?" post).

So today I'm picking up from yesterday's comments. Here's the relevant part of the thread:
  • M.L. - "...Well, that does say something about religion if religion is supposedly necessary to be moral and good."
  • E.P. - "Ah wait; necessary ... probably, but sufficient? Certainly not."
We've talked about this topic before, but it simply won't go away. Just because I'm connecting with a deeper truth doesn't mean everyone else is going to climb on board (or anyone at all) - especially if they don't want to. For many people, holding on to incorrect information about faith is too important to walk away from simply because they are exposed to a new way of thinking. In fact, elective ignorance is one of our more serious national maladies.

"Religion" is simply a system created by people in order to - among many other things - understand, channel, contain, facilitate, utilize, communicate, harness, grasp, or codify the particular journey they are on.

Religion is also used - too often - to control other people, abuse power, advance personal desire, manipulate emotion, amass wealth, strong-arm governments, deceive... etc. etc.

Some of what's involved in religion is in all likelihood "necessary" in terms of the process, the "getting some kind of a handle on faith" part of the seeking-God equation. But religion itself is not faith. Religion, as E.P. points out above, is nowhere near "sufficient".

This computer, by way of illustration, is necessary in order for me to engage in my daily interaction with a wide range of people via email, my webpage, facebook, this blog... and a host of other media. But the computer is by no means sufficient. I understood that clearly the other week, when an eager gardener cut the fiber-optic cable outside my study window! I could type and click and program to my hearts content - but be no closer to reaching any of you than before.

The computer is simply a tool, employed in service of a less easy to define reality - the the real connection between me and you, and the possibility of meaningful communication.

By faith I am a Jesus-follower. I am a disciple of Christ. My experience of Christianity as a religion has provided a framework that supports that relationship - for the most part - beautifully.

The Christian Religion has many and various incarnations - some more helpful than others. "Christianity" has been presented to the world in many guises, many of which have contributed heavily to the misunderstandings and the hostility that is rampant today.

But Jesus did not come to this earth to start a religion. Jesus put it this way in Luke 19:10 - "The Son of Man came to look for and to save people who are lost."

When I follow Jesus, he shows me the way; I'm not lost any more. Jesus-followers in New Testament times were also called "Followers of The Way."

So let's get off this "Religion is supposedly necessary to be moral and good" nonsense. Jesus didn't say that; I'm not saying it; it's not true.

I'm saying religion is not sufficient.

I'm saying this: "Follow Jesus and become people of The Way".

I'm saying it's not about religion, it's about Jesus.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Is it just me, or is public stupidity running rampant?

A local newspaper headline this morning has given me a great idea. Today's Tampa Tribune, front page upper right, reads: "District to Mask Kids with Flu Signs". The plan, designed to arrest the spread of swine flu in Hillsborough County's schools, is to have school kids don protective masks at the first sign of illness.

It's not an unreasonable idea. No problems here.

While we're at it, though, wouldn't it be sweet to slap duct tape over the big mouths of people - especially public figures - at the first signs of stupidity. Then, for good measure or as needed, we could add a paper bag over the head.

Remember the Baptist minister in Arizona who prayed for the president's death? "Rev. Steven Anderson," we could say; "You have been found publicly stupid. It's duct-tape time for you."

Kanye West could have been apprehended on the spot at the MTV Music Awards. "Put down Taylor Swift's microphone and report immediately to the office. You may have to wear this duct tape the rest of your life."

Immediate censure for the politically inept: "Representative Joe Wilson, you have the impulse control of a three year-old. Sit still while we apply some duct tape. Any more out of you and it'll be the paper bag."

The list goes on: "Serena Williams, come on down." "Michael Moore, hold still for a moment." "_____ ______, this is your final warning."

Today I'm writing up next week's "community profile" column for the newspaper. I interviewed a middle school principal. "Our job is academic," she said. "But a lot is teaching students how to cope with adversity, how to be nice, how to treat each other with respect; you've got to do what's right in this world."

How on earth are our schools going to even begin to achieve that kind of result when the grown-ups they see on television are so disrespectful, so hateful, so inconsiderate, so uncivil?

Wake up America. Stop acting the fool. I've got duct tape, and I'm not afraid to use it.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Freelance writing in a nutshell

This morning I'm attempting to get all my ducks in a row but they just keep waddling off! Sometimes it seems that my brain simply refuses to cooperate when it comes to the initial launch sequence to get a new week moving forward.

The good news, of course, is that I actually have ducks. This freelance writer gig is a constant game of lining up work, maintaining relationships with editors, finding new editors when the ones I know lose their jobs, trolling for new opportunities, tracking down leads, and what essentially amounts to selling myself on a day-in day-out basis.

Which is funny because I don't do sales, I've never done sales, and I never wanted to do sales. But nothing - even the best writing I can possibly do - is ever going to sell itself. I can't afford a publicist and I'm not big enough yet to justify an agent; that leaves me as the only person either motivated enough or capable of placing my ideas or my work.

Talent is all well and fine, and it's an undeniable prerequisite to success... but - ultimately - "making it" is all about tenacity, patience, lucky breaks and - most importantly, believing in myself and believing that I really do have a skill/product that people would want to invest in.

So this morning, as I'm offering a deeper glimpse into my writing world, I'd share a list of the regular work I have at the moment. It's a good list, most of it pays, and all the writing involves work I enjoy doing.
  • "The Tampa Tribune" - One weekly feature, one monthly feature, one "occasional" feature, plus the occasional assigned column when my editors are in a pinch.
  • "e-Review" (Florida United Methodist News Service) - One monthly article
  • "FOCUS" magazine; starting next month - One commentary and one feature per month
  • "The Suwannee Democrat" - One weekly column on their religion page
  • "The Presbyterian Outlook" - One monthly commentary
  • Photographs - Whenever possible I provide great pictures to go with what I write.
Beyond the regular stuff, I occasionally place articles, Op-Eds, and commentaries with a wide range of newspapers and magazines. Such speculative writing, however, has to take a back-seat to all the work I'm already committed to. "Unsolicited" work takes valuable time, and it's still rejected at a ratio of around 50-1.

Then there are the books. Not, as many people dream, any kind of a guaranteed cash-cow! I have three books out now (2007, 2008, and 2009), all with the same high-quality niche publisher.

Here's what you need to know. First, and this is 100% accurate statistical data from the publishing industry, the average book sells - wait for it - around 300 copies. Having a book published is a tremendous rush, it's a boost to confidence and it opens doors... but it's not going to pay the rent.

My approximate book sales have been as follows: in 2007 and 2008 "GET REAL" sold a total of around 12,500 copies (including a bulk, discount, purchase by the United Methodist Men). In 2008 "In My Heart I Carry a Star" sold around 4,200 copies. I'll know this year's totals - including sales of "The Unmaking of a Part-Time Christian" when I get my royalty statement sometime next March.

But remember what I said about open doors...? Book writing has opened up this new world of public speaking. It's not huge, because not that many people have copies of my books! But once in a while I'll get an invitation to speak at a church, lead a retreat, or teach at a conference. Most of the time this involves travel.

For the freelance writer, speaking is a tremendous opportunity, and it was one I honestly didn't see coming.

Bottom line is this: I believe passionately that God has entrusted me with an important message of encouragement and challenge for this world. I'm writing it, I'm teaching it, and - once in a while - I'm even invited to preach it. This is one fabulous life!

Meanwhile, I'd better get back to those ducks, I really do need to get them all lined up....

Saturday, September 12, 2009

"To teach is to learn". Here's why

It's a well-used cliche to say that "To teach is to learn;" but being an aphorism doesn't make the statement any less true! Fact is, "sayings" become cliches because they are so consistently useful.

That's one reason I'm spending some quality time in preparation for teaching Sunday-school in the morning - even though the book I'm teaching is a book that I wrote. Because, in teaching my own material I'm still learning a lot about the subject at hand. One of the best things a good book does (and I do think my books are good books!) is to stimulate additional thought and growth in the individual taking the time to read.

When an entire class of people read the same book, and then come together for a few weeks to talk about the content, then learning can take place on a level far beyond the ability of the original author to effect one-on-one.

That's why this author believes in teaching in the context of small-groups. I have a lot to learn, and the company of fellow-seekers is a great place to get the job done.

Sometimes I get tired, and I seriously consider giving up some of my leadership roles. But then I remember how much I am nourished and encouraged in the context of faithful community...

Fact is, I'm the one who gets the most out of a class I'm privileged to lead.

So, here's my prayer for this Sunday:
  • "Lord God, thank you for placing me in the company of such honest seekers and authentic Jesus-followers. Please be with each one of us as we apply our creative and curious minds to the task of discussing what it means to follow Jesus and to share God's love in this world. Grant us insight and humility in humble service. Amen."

Friday, September 11, 2009

Dating as an article of faith... in the marriage

Yesterday I enjoyed a day-long date with Rebekah. I'm not sure if I've mentioned it before in this space, but we're seriously committed to regular dating and we "preach it" to other couples whenever we get the chance.

It's kind of like the "family devotions" conversation I had with a friend the other day. When our children were growing up we made a decision to eat dinner together, as a family, a minimum of four nights a week (more, if possible). That was also the time we had family devotions, just a short 10-minute routine at the end of the meal time.

"That's a great idea," my friend said. "It's something we've tried to do but it just doesn't work."

So I retorted with a quick Yoda quote (In addition to being a Jedi Master Yoda was, interestingly, less well known as an obscure Presbyterian theologian): "Do, or do not. There is no 'try.'"

"Do," for our family occasionally meant dinner in the van - parked somewhere between commitments, or at a hamburger stand after a game - followed by a short Bible-reading and family prayer time. It's more than possible to pull off stuff like that if the guiding principle is a proactive "do" rather than the a "let circumstances make my decisions" "try".

Like I said, the same deep truth applies to dating. Rebekah and I have been married 30 years and one month (pause for polite applause...). We made a promise, a faithful commitment, to date at least one time per week. That adds up to 1,564 opportunities - and I'm here to say we're easily well over 2,000. Often it's been dinner and a movie, or a picnic on the beach; sometimes simply lunch; some weeks walking the mall and buying a cup of coffee because there were no funds; then, when the kids were young, we tried hard to arrange overnight dates at least once every couple of months.

Yesterday we built our day-long date around a speaking engagement Rebekah had in Orlando. We drove over together "ROAD TRIP!!!!", enjoyed attending the worship event, wandered around a favorite destination in the afternoon, and then spent the evening uninterrupted - no phone answering, just mutual focus.

The point, rather than the details of my dates with Rebekah, is the value of being deliberate. Relationships don't take care of themselves. We're deliberate in our jobs, maintaining our vehicles, looking after the house and yard.... So why not apply some imaginative intervention to the most important element of a happy life?

Seriously. Why not?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Do I remind people of Jesus?

Wednesday evening I started a new 8-week study with my men's group, affectionately known as "The Men's Room" - or "The Gathering of Most Excellent Dudes."

I'm teaching my new book, "The Unmaking of a Part-Time Christian," and so we kicked off by talking about exactly what we mean when we say something like, "I'm a Christian."

I asked for sound-bite definitions. "Imagine you're at a party," I said, "or sitting next to someone on an airplane, or maybe in casual conversation during the intermission at some kind of event... How, given only a few sentences, would you answer the question 'How would you define Christian?' or 'What do you mean when you say you're a Christian?'"

The answers - and I gave everyone a few moments to think first - were a hodgepodge of loosely related phrases. I wrote them on the chart. They didn't look all that compelling!

"Where did you get the information?" I asked. "How did you know what to say?"

It's a question I've asked upwards of 500 people as I've been traveling around and talking about the project. Here are some of the responses - from Florida, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
  • Well, everyone knows what a Christian is...
  • It's what my preacher said...
  • I got it from the people I hang out with...
  • I got my definition from the Internet...
  • I've been reading the Bible...
Okay, kudos to the person who's been reading the Bible! In Acts, folk like Peter, James, John and friends were first called "Christians" (they didn't make it up themselves) because they reminded people of Jesus. As in, "Hey, that James guy makes me think of Jesus." or, "Every time I'm around that Nathanial dude it reminds me of Jesus."

Then Jesus - who didn't spend much time talking about church politics, denominational preference, or who's got the best church - said this. "Look, everyone in the world is going to know you're my disciples because of the way you love one another." Then he said this: "People will know you're my followers if you keep my teaching."

It's one reason I tend to say "I'm a Jesus follower." Because everyone already thinks they know what a "Christian" is. They don't want anything to do with that. So I say I'm a Jesus-follower; people ask "what's that?" Then I can explain.

It's a good idea to understand what we believe. Not so we can prove other people wrong, but so we actually have something of substance to share.

Think about it. Not enough of us do.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Children and our responsibility to heal this world

“Look out!” Jesus said, “if you are the kind of people who do anything to discourage little children.”

Having the nieces and nephews around (pictured with their parents - Heather and Jesse - yesterday afternoon) made me remember an old newspaper column I wrote about a similar visit, eight years ago. There were just three of them then, and the oldest was six, the same age her baby sister is today.

The year was 2001. We were staying at Melbourne Beach, over on the Atlantic coast:

"The beach always takes on a fresh perspective through the eyes of small children. Our own children are now teens, but we do have nieces and nephews close by, and they were able to spend some time with us as we vacationed on the sandy Atlantic shore.

"Rebekah took Seth, four years old, for a shell finding walk. Along the way she taught him about dragging his feet to make cool looking tracks - an indispensable skill at that age. 'Aunt ‘Bekah,'
he said with a very serious look on his face, having got the hang of the technique, 'I think my toes must have been made for this.'

"His sister Jordan, a very sophisticated six, commented that this was 'The very best beach day of my whole entire life.'

"The very best beach day for us, though, came a few evenings later, when Rebekah and I took a long walk as the sun was going down, following a school of dolphins who were heading South. I saw something moving in the sand a few yards ahead of us, and we were delighted (having seen eggs being laid last year) to watch the mass birthday of more than one hundred sea-turtles who were hatching at that very moment.

"We tracked the trail of scuttling babies to a slowly erupting mound at the high end of the beach. One by one, tiny, perfectly formed, mini-turtles blindly clawed their way to the surface and scurried in circles before finally settling on the direction of the moon and the beckoning waves.

"We followed them to the edge of the water, encouraging the occasional newborn who found themselves stuck in a deep footprint or an extra big crab hole. They made a comical sight when they finally caught a receding wave and shot like overpowered windup toys into the roaring surf. We must have spent an hour there, witnessing the overwhelming imperative of life.

"And I thought about how emphatic the power of creation is, placed inside even the smallest of creatures. They were irrepressible. My niece and nephews are the same way - curious, open, full of the incredible scope of possibility that life is, ready to take on the world, ready to embrace all that they were created for.

"How I pray that they grow up in a world in which they find all the encouragement and the support that they will need. I don’t worry about their home, because they have remarkably loving and capable parents. But I do worry about the rest of us sometimes, and the kind of world that we are crafting for all our children.

"Look out! Jesus said, if you are the kind of people who do anything to discourage little children.

"We might not all be teachers, or parents of small fry, or even aunts and uncles. But we’re not off the hook, either. My nephew’s toes may have been made for dragging in that sand, and my niece
may have enjoyed her best beach day ever, but let’s also make sure that we give them the kind of world they can continue to grow and shine in - wherever they happen to be."

Love and blessings - DEREK

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Starting the morning with God

No real time to write this morning. Nieces and nephews tumbling into the day, interview to do, then off to the airport to pick up the kids' mom and dad. This is why I didn't blog back when I had children at home and taught middle school.

Of course blogging wasn't even on my radar in those days. But, I did have an idea of how to invite peace into whatever was going on, so I'll talk briefly about that in the few minutes I have.

Every morning, pretty much as soon as I arrived at work, I'd take about one minute at each student's desk in my classroom. I'd pray for each child, by name, while sitting at their desk. Then, back at my teacher's desk, I'd finish the devotional time and ask God's blessing on the day.

It was a simple discipline, yet it had a profound impact. Again, and I've said this many times, I have no idea how prayer works, but it has been and continues to be my experience that such times - spent in open-hearted communion with my Creator - are invaluable. Peace - DEREK

  • My research methodology may be unscientific, but the anecdotal evidence I have collected tells me that less than ten of every 100 Christians I talk with have an active, well-considered daily devotional life. That’s a really low number. But here’s a piece of completely reliable corollary data that turns out to be remarkably interesting: 100% of those who do maintain a regular devotional discipline report that the daily routine pays off in ways that are nothing short of huge. By “huge” I mean eternal, unremitting, awesome, satisfying, and unarguably life-changing. By huge I also mean discernible improvement in daily lives across the board. Relationships, parenting, work attitude, productivity, work satisfaction, effective Christian witness, love life; need I go on? This is true even when the people I talk with believe they are only just beginning to scratch the surface regarding their daily walk with God. The investment of just a few short but deliberate minutes, every day, makes a difference in the lives of Jesus-followers that cannot be accounted for by any other variable. If any advertised manufactured product could claim anywhere near the level and consistency of the verifiable results found in consequence of a daily devotional life then that product would sell off the shelves. (GET REAL - 2007)
Peace - DE

Monday, September 7, 2009

Living "Story-Worthy" Lives

Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. - Deuteronomy 4:9

When the nieces and nephews were very young, story-time with "Aunt 'Bekah" was always the after-bath-and-brushed-teeth treat before settling down for the night. "Can we read a story on the most-comfortable-bed-in-the-world," they'd say, then race to the book shelf to pull something wondrous from our most excellent library of children's classics.

Now they range (this particular set) from six to 14 but - as you can see from the picture - no-one is quite ready to let go of the ritual yet. Sarah, the youngest, typically gets to pick out the story, but there's not a one of them close to suggesting they're too old for story-time, with Aunt 'Bekah, on the most comfortable bed in the world.

Of course, story-time is by no means limited to the content of a picture book, or two. The children are always interested in hearing adventures that include their dad and their aunts and uncles.

There are the old favorites they love to hear over and over:
  • Such as the time uncle Joe blew up a large retaining wall by pouring gasoline in the cracks to force out the ants so he could smash them with a hammer. The plan worked just fine until the wall became saturated with gas and the hammering inevitably generated a spark!
  • Or the time their dad's experiment with home-made explosions (yes, there's a theme here) literally melted the front of his prescription glasses and he tried to walk past his parents - with a bright red face and huge raccoon circles around his eyes - as if nothing had happened.
There's a connection and a depth of relationship that forms via family stories that can't be achieved any other way; huddled up together on the bed, or the sofa, or around the table after a meal.

We pull out photographs and share stories about relatives they barely remember or they never knew. We point to a grouping and ask, "Who knows who this is?" Then fill in the details. Uncle Pete - their great-uncle, who died in WW2, after his boat was torpedoed in the North Atlantic. Grandma Nell, pictured sitting on the knee of a Civil War veteran in the ancient photo on the trunk. John Duncan who didn't steal a horse (the story behind that fact is awesome) and the unfortunate Tennessee woman who did (her story is very sad)....

Here's a thought. Consider this when you have time to spend with your own children (whatever age), your nieces and nephews, your spouse, or an elderly relative.... Are the things we invest our time in story-worthy? Might this occasion, or visit, or excursion, or day around the house, ever be retold on someone's "most comfortable bed in the world"? Or when your picture is sitting on some shelf thirty years hence?

Are we living "story-worthy" lives?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Weekend Edition - Family Devotions

Having the four fabulous nieces and nephews for the long weekend has been a flashback experience for us confirmed empty-nesters! Yes, I said four; that's two boys plus two girls. I'd forgotten (we raised two children) how many more four is than two. No, it's not simple math! Right now the OctoMom has climbed up rather high on my prayer list.

But it was when we stayed around the dinner table after supper for family devotions together that we missed our own children the most.

Now that Rebekah and I are in our 50's, with children raised, productive, happy and solvent, people tend to ask us questions about raising a family.

There are two primary problems with this. 1) We've pretty much repressed all the hard stuff by now and we don't remember that much anymore! and 2) There's very little that works anything close to the same way in more than one family.

It's kind of like an education. Schooling that teaches to a particular test, stresses a technical skill-set, or deals with specific answers - is not very adaptable outside the laboratory or when faced with new or evolving circumstance. Information and technique become out of date quickly and the student is left with useless or obsolete knowledge...

... But a good solid Liberal Arts or Humanities education, one that stresses problem-solving and teaches the student how to think critically, is good no matter what. Because the learning curve is ongoing and adaptable; problem-solving and research skills support innovative critical thinking and make for the ability to evolve solutions right along with the changing body of knowledge.

It's the same thing with raising children. The pile of parenting books and techniques that were circulating back when our kids were in elementary school have mostly all gone by the wayside. My family is unique, and so is yours. The moment we attempt to replicate circumstance or try "one-size-fits-all" we're doomed to frustration.

So what does remain steady and true?

Consequently there's pretty-much only one core principle we urge all the families we know to follow. Here it is: keep your relationship to the Creator central to family life. Worship together, pray together, talk together, learn together, serve together.

For us, family dinnertime was the foundation of family cohesiveness and where we had family devotions. We ate at the dining table, no television, no phone answering. It involved good conversation, questions from the parents, more talking after the meal was complete, and sharing about our lives as a cornerstone of the family covenant.

Then, we shared our concerns, enjoyed a short Bible-reading, and prayed around the table. Visiting kids participated too. And, guess what, ours was still a popular house for dinner.

"Thank you, Lord, for Aunt Bekah and Uncle Derek," Seth prayed. "And thank you for a good Southern dinner."

That's what I'm talking about.