Monday, November 30, 2009

One for the Ages!

Picture (at left) taken on Christmas Eve of 1986, heading out the door on the way to church. Do you think they look guilty of conspiracy? Andrew is 4 yrs 6 months; Naomi is 2 yrs 4 months. How on earth did they pull this caper off?

Yesterday I promised Advent stories. Today is one of my favorite family tales from "In My Heart I Carry A Star." But it started its life in print as a newspaper column, published in the Tampa Tribune just a few days before Christmas back in 2002.

This is the original version, plus a few photographs of the wise guys in question!

The Case of the Missing Magi
It was the Christmas of 1986, and we were still in our first house, so Andrew and Naomi couldn't have been any more than four-and-a-half and two-and-four-months. Family tradition placed our rough-hewn manger scene close to the floor, near the underside of the tree so that carefully placed stars and angels could hover over the tableau.

Setting up is a ritual for the ages (They are young adults, now, and nothing much has changed). "She had the baby Jesus last year." "Why do I always get the camel with the broken leg?" "Your sheep is blocking my shepherd." "Give me a break, Joseph doesn't go there!" "Seems like after all these years you could let your father have a turn . . . ."

But that year, the day after we had set everything out, there was a terrible disaster. Every last wise man disappeared, all their camels too, even the baby Jesus. Rebekah and I searched in vain. We held interrogations. We issued ultimatums. Nothing.

That evening, just after bed time, we found the missing group of Magi huddled against a baseboard between their two rooms. "Good," we said, "they must understand how important this is." We placed them carefully under the tree again, thinking that - maybe - Jesus would show up the next day.

Instead, much to our dismay, Caspar, Balthasar, and Melchior went on the lam again, along with their camels! That night we found them in the back hallway, in much the same place. "Leave the Nativity alone!" We chided them, unaware of what we were saying. The manger still stood empty.

Three nights later, after three more nocturnal kidnappings, Rebekah stopped me from scooping up the evidence. "Derek," she said; "can't you see a pattern?"

Well, I have to admit that she is usually brighter than I am when it comes to this kind of thing, so I made my standard reply. "Huh?"

"Every night," she explained patiently, "our group of traveling Kings has showed up a little farther down the hall. "Derek, let's leave them alone and see what happens. They may have lost the baby Jesus, but it looks as if the Magi are traveling toward the star."

Sure enough, each day over the next three weeks the small group of pilgrims made their way a little nearer to the Christmas Tree. Usually, they huddled close to the base boards, but trekked from table-leg to table-leg and then to the shelter of the chairs when faced with the dinning room. They spent the last few days before Christmas crossing in front of the patio doors, out in the open. But they were never once disturbed. Not even by Naomi, who at two and a half managed to remain a remarkably cooperative co-conspirator.

Christmas Eve morning the magi, bearing gifts that spoke of royalty, divinity, and suffering, camped under the coffee table, just a short journey from the stable behind the inn. That evening, when we all returned from the candlelight communion service, the entire diorama was complete once again. There, in the middle, born anew, was the missing baby Jesus.

I don't know how they had pulled it off, because we never once caught Andrew in the act. But, we did learn this very important lesson. The Nativity is not a stagnant museum piece. It is an interactive drama that, at its best, draws the entire family into the story of Christmas, bringing the infant Jesus into our homes at just the right time.

Grace and peace this Christmas. The wise still seek Him.

"Open the Promise Box". Advent: Countdown to Christmas!

Yesterday marked the first Sunday in Advent. Advent is the season in the church calendar that immediately precedes Christmas. Most people forget that Christmas actually begins December 25th, and continues for 12 days. "Advent" is the time of preparation, a time set aside to make sure that our hearts and minds are ready to receive the amazing gift of Christ coming into this world.

So I was invited to speak at Palm Harbor United Methodist Church to help kick-off Advent. The congregation is reading "In My Heart I Carry A Star: stories for Advent" as a church-wide study. Thirty small-groups are meeting to discuss the book and so they thought bringing me in to give a message on "HOPE", the book's emphasis for this week, might be a good idea.

I had an awesome experience, getting to speak to around 300 people at the 8:15 service, and then close to 1,000 at the 9:45.

My "sermon" was titled "Open the Promise Box", (click on the link to find the 25-minute audio file) and I built the message around a childhood memory. The story went something like this:

Whenever we went to visit my grandma Lily, one of the highlights was always “Can we see the Promise Box?”

There are over 3,000 promises in the Bible… And my grandmother had just about every last one of them in a box, rolled in tight little tubes of hope and standing upright – like they would – so that when we took the lid off and looked down all we could see was around three-thousand small circles.

And so we’d open the box, taking the lid off carefully – almost reverently – and pick up the pair of ivory-handled tweezers that always lay across the top.

“Now pull out a promise,” she’s say; “And let’s read it together.” And we would. Something like:
  • “The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. (Deut 31:8 NIV)
  • Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; You will cry, and He will say, "Here I am.” (Isaiah 58:9)
  • (Heb 10:23) - Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.
  • (Phil 4:6-7) - Do not be anxious about anything.... And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
  • (Mark 10:27) - But Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible.”
And Grandma Lily would make us memorize the promise - and then we’d put it away, carefully, and the promises of the scriptures became seared into our minds… and seeded into our subconscious… and became a part of who we were as children of light….

For me, the idea of HOPE is bound up in the theology of Promise. I concluded the message by referencing the Apostle Pauls' amazing declaration in Second Corinthians 1: 18-22

But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not "Yes" and "No." For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by me and Silas and Timothy, was not "Yes" and "No," but in him it has always been "Yes." For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ. And so through him the "Amen" is spoken by us to the glory of God. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

Now that's something to head into December holding on to!

Love and blessings - DEREK

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Exhausting Fun

Now that was one exhausting day. Fun and wonderful, but exhausting. We ended up with 22 before it was over - although Liam Black never occupied an actual seat because he wasn't all that interested in the proceedings and only wanted to be held - but not really. Very much the six-month old and pretty-much fussy for the duration.

The new kitchen worked out beautifully; Rebekah bonded with the new setup and had fun making all sorts of scrumptious goodies. She says that granite counter-tops work very very well for making "angel biscuits" and she was right.

Cleaning up was actually easier as I can now see everyone and what's going on. Heather and then our neighbor, Bill, helped things run smoothly. Two of the casseroles were in Heather's "Pampered Chef" dishes. I was told not to use soap, just hot water and one of those plastic scrapers. The reason, apparently, is to protect the special "patina" - it takes years to set just right.

"Patina", I have discovered, is actually a little known French word that, translated, means "Stained and dried-on rotting food."

The nieces were great all week long. Lindsay and Jordan, both high school freshman, came a couple of days early and did things such as shine silver (left) and chop vegetables (right). They worked hard and were perfect guests. In fact - and parents everywhere will laugh at this - they're always excited to come: "Please let us go to Brandon and work our rear-ends off for Aunt 'Bekah this week!"

These are the days I miss our "off-grade" home in Pensacola, with the crawl-space under the house, decking and then wooden floors. So much gentler on the shins and knees when standing in the kitchen for hours on end!

So everyone just about went home by 9:30 PM and just the Jacksonville Alexanders stayed. Late night tea and Rebekah's amazing date-nut bread. Then more cooking this morning as the kids just "had to" have "Uncle-Derek's best pancakes in the world."

Yeah, I'm that good!

Peace to all. But, as tomorrow is the first Sunday in Advent, let's say "Hope" and Peace - DEREK

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thankful - very thankful

Thanksgiving! That's what I'm talking about. We do it Friday at Maul Hall (It's a long story). Consequently I'll be cooking and cleaning and organizing etc this morning instead of blogging. Maybe later.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the company of around twenty family and friends. All family, really. Thinking with gratitude of Andrew - enjoying the weekend in Athens, Greece - and Naomi, living her heart out with Craig in Connecticut.

Blessings abound. Love grows. Peace, hope, promise, faith, gratitude and joy - all overflowing from a thankful heart.

We are full - DEREK

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thankful for Spirit FM 90.5 - plus thoughts on Media saturation

There's a lot to be thankful for Today; family most of all. But I'll save most of that for tomorrow because Friday's always Thanksgiving at Maul Hall.

But I am most thankful that yesterday's radio interview seemed to come off fairly well. I didn't embarrass myself and I don't think I stumbled too badly over any of my ideas. Thinking on my feet is not exactly the same as composing and carefully re-writing a few sentences for the newspaper. But I must admit the immediacy is exhilarating.

I am fairly technologically savvy - at least for a man in the throws of "middle-age" - whatever that is! However, try as I might, I can't find any way to post an audio file to this blog. So, if you want to hear the interview (two 3-4 minute segments) then send me an email and I'll get it to you that way.

Not long after it aired, by the end of the evening, a local AM Christian station got in touch with me to ask if I'd be a talk-show guest Dec 9th, so I must have said at least a couple of things worth repeating!

My mother was funny. She called to say she really enjoyed listening to me talk on the radio - but "it was a pity people had to listen to that terrible music in between!" My guess - and I'm no professional critic - is that most listeners tune in to Christian music stations for the afternoon drive-time music selection. It's a safe bet to assume the average driver stuck in traffic was more than ready for me to shut up so they could get back to the tunes.

But the experience did make me think about the vast wave of media that floods over most of us every day. Television, radio, computers, gaming, smart-phones, billboards, newsprint, ads, magazines, books, commercial messages from every which way, DVD, CD, iPod...

"But the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful." (Mark 4:19)

I'm thankful that ministries such as Spirit/FM do such an important job of adding balance to the mix, streaming cutting edge Jesus-based music, and presenting the Gospel in the marketplace of contemporary values. (Image to right: "Neiman Marcus 2009 Christmas Catalog toned down in view of economic climate.")

But still, most of the messages we download into our collective subconscious are packed full with testimony, spin, and persuasive argument designed to push the agenda of a consumption-centric culture bent on the enslavement (or at least allegiance) of every person in the world.

Think about it. Our entire way of life revolves around the principle that ownership, acquisition, and consumption are the primary values, and that they must demand pretty much all that we are and all that we aspire to.

This is the thrust of so-called civilized society. It's the key message that runs through most of that tidal wave of media we bath in daily.

So I got a few words in. I'm pleased.

I'm thinking out loud here. I'm "in" this world - but am I also "of" this world? Probably to a much deeper extent than I'd like to own. We're called to be radically counter-cultural and to live out lives anchored in the perfect life of Jesus.

So I guess I got a few words in - and they were directed at myself. I sure hope so.
  • Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn't take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I've become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn't just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it! - Corinthians 9:19-23 (The Message)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hold out the Word of Life

Busy day today. First off I dropped off Scout at "A Handsome Hound" for her day-spa experience. Actually, it's more like a wild bath followed by running around the salon, chatting with her friends, and generally goofing off all day before being picked up in the afternoon.

I really should have taken a "before" picture to post, because she's so unbelievably scruffy and really does clean up nicely (and, please, those of you who are thinking is he talking about the labradoodle or the picture to the left? just keep your laughter to yourself...). The only problem is that the "handsome" part of the equation only lasts about 90 minutes once she gets home!

My real focus this morning is Sunday's message. I've been invited to "preach" at Palm Harbor United Methodist Church this weekend. I put the word preach in "quotes" because that's not what I do. I'll be talking, I tell them, during the time-slot typically reserved for a sermon. They can call it "The Message" if they like, or even "Bringing the Word" - but the only time I've ever preached was "at" Andrew and Naomi when they were teenagers and - believe me - it wasn't pretty.

More about this after the weekend (when I'll know what I actually said!). They want me to talk about "HOPE", and generally kick-off the church-wide Advent study using my book, "In My Heart I Carry A Star". It's one of those congregations where the minister usually uses Powerpoint slides to illustrate parts of the message - so that's pretty much where I am today.

Here's one of the slides; I'm using it to support the idea that hope is like light that we carry. and how do we, as the First Century blogger Paul writes in a post to his friends in Philippi, "Hold out the word of life." (I found the image on the Internet, unattributed)

I'm also looking forward to what I pray turns out to be a good interview with Jamie on SpiritFM. A couple of segments of our conversation will be featured on his "The Way Home" drive-time show this afternoon. He said the feature should air "starting at 4:20ish."

So, no deep profundity from yours truly today, so I'll leave it to the First Century blogger Paul to finish with balance of his post: "Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life—in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing."

Amen and Amen....

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Nonplussed" - The Best Laid Plans...

I had this great blog planned for today. Pictures and everything. But so much for lining ducks up!

"Enjoy lunch and dinner dance cruises that offer the best waterfront views of coastal Florida, and a tantalizing selection of entrees from a full menu."

So here's the story: Rebekah (my amazing wife) and Tim Black (the other pastor at our church) were given these really cool gift-cards by their staff recently. "Two-hour luncheon sightseeing cruise for two: everything included - dining, dessert, unlimited coffee and tea, tax and service charge..."

So we all agreed on a date, Tim and Kelly lined up five-hours of babysitting, and I called to make the reservation. There were three cruises listed, from three points of origin. We wanted a Monday, so the reservations folk recommended the "Sea Life Safari" cruise out of Clearwater Beach.

We picked up the Blacks and drove out to the marina. That's a one-hour and ten minute drive. When we arrived, they had our names but seemed confused when I said, "We're here for the luncheon cruise."

"It's a great cruise," they said. "But we don't serve lunch."

I was - to employ a great word that doesn't tend to get out much anymore - nonplussed.

"But the gift certificate says, 'luncheon cruise' and it details the dining experience," I pointed out.

"Then I don't know why you'd choose the Sea Life Safari?" she replied.

"Sea Life Safari is listed on the gift certificate," I responded, "right next to the word 'luncheon'. The reservations agent knew we had a gift card for a lunch cruise and she recommended this one."

"There's a snack machine on the boat," was the best the lady at the marina could come up with and the conversation was over.

By then it was close to one-thirty so we walked across the street and had lunch at a pub before driving home.

So, no great pictures of happy people eating lunch on a boat while cruising the bay; no action shots of dolphins playing in the wake; no iridescent gulf waters sparkling against the backdrop of Clearwater Beach.

But it was a beautiful drive out - and back, across the causeway. And lunch was excellent. Not exactly a destination restaurant, but a good time all the same.
  • This is Florida, in late November.
  • 78 degrees
  • Good friends
  • Two miles of beautiful views (then another hour of city traffic)
  • It's all good!
I am not sharing this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. - Philippians 4

- Life really is very, very good - DEREK

Monday, November 23, 2009

How can learn when we know all the answers?

Today I'm wrapping up the on-line class I've been teaching for the past couple of weeks. I've enjoyed the experience, but it's involved about five times as much work as I first imagined!

"Once you get your materials in place the class will pretty much run itself," someone told me. Well, that may have been true if I had no interest in the actual people enrolled in the workshop. What I discovered instead was a very real opportunity to build meaningful community. It really doesn't matter what the setting is; given the chance, most people will build relationships when they find themselves "in the same boat."

We may have been from Florida, Texas, California, New York and a bunch of other states in between; we may have been from a wide variety of backgrounds; and we may have met on a thin slice of virtual space, reaching out to one-another through a trillion miles of fiber-optic cable - but these were real people with real lives, facing real challenges that impacted everything from their ability to keep up with reading to the content of their writing to the focus of their prayers.

The reason we were able to build a viable sense of community was our interest in what we had in common. We talked about the implications of Christ's purposeful coming into this broken world, and what it might mean for each one of us to make our way through December and into Christmas without losing sight of what is important.

But there's a difference between having a common goal and walking there in lockstep. Our goal was "Making it through December with our faith intact". But then our differences kicked in: our unique perspectives, our families, our experiences, our varied creativity, our connection with particular cultures and traditions. All these were and still are opportunities to learn from one another and to help each other along the road.

Rather than drive a wedge between us, our different points of view moved us along as a learning community and contributed much more than I could have brought to the table alone.

I can't help but think about how unfortunate it is that the wonder of diversity is not valued so much in our wider culture. We focus much time and effort in relating to (or talking at) other people on the basis of what separates us rather than what brings us together - as if our differences are weaknesses to be eradicated rather than strengths that will ultimately build us all up.

I don't care if it's the practice of our faith, or social policy, or politics, or international relations, or the debate over health care... there is no one set of narrowly focused rules that could possibly be - exclusively - the absolute correct answer and the only way of looking at the world.
  • If you disagree with me, then at that point we both have something to learn.
  • If we see the world differently, then it can only strengthen us both to talk about it with respect and mutual interest.
  • If either one of us knows beyond a doubt that we hold the only truth and that there's no room for "give and take"conversation... well, then God help us all.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Florida in late-November

- Hibiscus in the side yard

Florida's extended summer went so long this year that I honestly got tired of hearing myself complain. But, now, the long wait has been worth it and we're experiencing late November how late November was intended to be experienced back when God first thought up the idea of creating a Florida.

Morning coffee on the porch; open up all the windows so the fresh seventy-two-ness and 60% humidity can wash through the house; mow the lawn before it climbs to the current seventy-eight; lunch on the porch; afternoon tea on the porch; watching myself not finishing the lawn - again from the porch!

The Hibiscus seems especially delighted with the conditions. In fact, everything has the air about it of being refreshed. It's a good way to feel over the weekend. There is a rhythm to time and seasons and work and relaxation that works balance and refreshment when properly observed, and is a requirement for life to flourish.

For me, worship tomorrow morning is a key element of what my soul needs for me to function anywhere close to optimal levels. Maybe it's a good thing my lawn-mower broke down, after all...

Psalm 23: (CEV):

You, LORD, are my shepherd. I will never be in need. You let me rest in fields of green grass.

You lead me to streams of peaceful water, and you refresh my life. You are true to your name, and you lead me along the right paths.

I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won't be afraid. You are with me, and your shepherd's rod makes me feel safe.

You treat me to a feast, while my enemies watch. You honor me as your guest, and you fill my cup until it overflows.

Your kindness and love will always be with me each day of my life, and I will live forever in your house, LORD.

Friday, November 20, 2009

On the Air

Short post this morning. I've had some quiet time; I've read some Bible; talked with God. There just isn't any time right now to write about it. But maybe later, after I've got some things checked off my list!

I got up early to spend some time working with my on-line class. We've been following my outline for Advent preparation, and have focused on HOPE, PEACE, and LOVE. Today we launch into JOY, and I believe that JOY is a more natural occurrence once we understand Hope - in terms of God's promise, the Jesus kind of Peace, and the unconditional Agape-quality Love that God extends to all creation.

But right now the focus is going to have to be SPIRIT. I have to get a few details taken care of and then I'm driving in to the Spirit/FM radio station, down in South Tampa, to chat with the drive home D.J., Jamie. Not sure what the format will be, or how long we'll get to talk, but they want to air some conversation about "In My Heart I Carry A Star" and "The Unmaking of a Part-Time Christian" sometime during next week.

Should be simultaneously fun and stressful! I've done radio before, but it always makes me a little nervous. It's one thing to craft a pithy phrase for a newspaper column or a book, but it's something else to think on your feet and sound halfway intelligent with a big fat microphone in your face!

I'll let you know how it goes.
Better yet, listen in next week (but only if I tell you it's something you'll want to hear!)
Love and blessings - DEREK

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Holding the Ungraspable

Yesterday evening was another perfect example of why meeting together in small groups is one of the best ways to do Bible-study, move forward in our spiritual journey, and to experience meaningful community.

Our discussion root was "Holding the Ungraspable", chapter eight of "The Unmaking of a Part-Time Christian". Conversation moved around the general idea of putting our arms around - or wrapping our minds around - concepts that are by their very nature impossible to pin down.
  • "It remains one of those logical fallacies - or non-sequitures - to first wait for evidence that is small enough for us to grasp in order to believe in God, who is beyond grasping at all." (page 94)
So I threw out the question, "If it's ungraspable, then how do we really know what it is we're having a conversation about?" That's when I realized I was in the company of insightful men!

David offered that faith was the opposite of the "I can do it myself" mentality. "When we realize we can't do it ourselves," he said, "that's when faith takes over. And the beautiful thing is that the person who does not rely on self-assurance anymore turns out to be much more secure. That's what faith achieves."

In other words, recognizing the "meta-natural" order of things (Nov 3 post) is a more realistic foundation for security than advancing ourselves (the "original" sin of Adam and Eve) as if we can supersede/replace/abandon the God-relationship we were created to enjoy.

Then I fumbled around trying to get my mind around the idea that "believing is seeing" rather than "seeing is believing". "We can't wait until we see clearly before we take the risk of believing; we have to be in motion - moving forward in some way - in order to steer our course," I said. "You can't steer if you're standing still. God is more interested in our moving forward in this spiritual journey than in our seeing the way clearly. If we wait for everything to be crystal clear before moving then we're never going to go anywhere."

Eric threw this out: "So you're saying that we don't have to make the right decision for God to be with us? That God's going to be with us even if we're going down the wrong path...?"

Pretty much on target - except I hadn't been articulating my thought process very well and the idea needed more meat.

Then Eric nailed it. "Maybe the point is that God is less interested in small stuff such as 'Do I work in this job or this one?' or 'What should I do today?' or even ' Does God want me to live in Brandon or Atlanta or Daytona Beach...' The point is that we live day-to-day in relationship with God, and that we follow Jesus."

We get caught up in the details, but God is simply saying this: "You could be anywhere, doing any job, interacting with any group of people - but if we do it together and you totally rely on me... then THAT's WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT..."

Nice, Eric. Or, as I said from my mostly irrelevant position at the "head" of the table - "What he said."

Peace - DEREK

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The wonderful world of book-writing

Sometimes I have to pause and remember the title of this ongoing blog - "A Life Examined". And then I remember that the idea is to be introspective... yet at the same time relevant to the world around me. Once in a while, if all works appropriately, something that I'm examining in my own life will maybe resonate for those of you who take a look into this space.

Consequently, with the above in mind, I just ditched the really interesting post about obesity I finished writing just five minutes ago. Why? because I realized it was more of an "opinion column" and not a real blog post. I'll be find-tuning the piece and sending it to some lucky newspaper editor later today.

Instead, I'll share what's on my mind on a more personal level. If you're a facebook friend (and I invite any of you to "friend-request" me - along with a personal introduction), then you may have spotted my status update yesterday evening. Here it is: "Derek is excited because he just got a contract for a new book!"

Whoo Hoo! Yay!! Drum-roll, please!!!

Book writing, for those of you who don't know, is a long drawn-out process. There are a lot of reasons for this.
  • First, it takes a long time to write a book. Duh!
  • Then (and this really drives a lot of the process) publishers work out their projected "lists" well in advance, often 2-5 years.
  • Also, and this is hard for many wannabe writers to accept, a completed manuscript will need around three or four months of extensive editing - and that's after I think it's just about perfect!
  • Next, and somewhat overlapping, page-design and format and cover work and typeset and fact-checking and permissions and marketing proposals and a host of other details are in process.
  • Finally, it's time for production, proof copies, delivery, stocking etc etc.
So my new book, all other things being equal, will be rough-drafted by March 2010, fine-tuned by June, submitted by the middle of July, tossed back and forth over the next few months, in production by the middle of 2011, and available in the Fall list - designed for Lent 2012.

My basic approach is going to be to prepare a guide for those who want to engage the Easter story on a more personal level. It's about allowing the "sacred rhythms" of deliberate observances to play a more meaningful role in our ongoing pilgrimage, about working out what it means to be spiritual people in a secular culture, and about utilizing the beauty and mystery of the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday to bring us closer to God.

The working title (always subject to change) is "Fresh Eyes On Easter: a devotional journey through Lent."

Here's a quote from my cover letter:

  • What I have in mind here is simple, but potentially very powerful. This book is a guide-book, a companion text for the journey through Lent. I firmly believe that – in much the same way that "In My Heart I Carry A Star" prepares readers for Christmas – those who read “Fresh Eyes on Easter” will arrive at Holy Week refreshed rather than tired; inspired rather than discouraged; reflective rather than overwhelmed. Readers will complete the season of Lent walking with Jesus, prepared to go wherever Christ leads, Followers of The Way rather than consumers looking for another Easter Sale.
So that's where my mind is this morning. Like Rebekah said when I was all excited and "Yay!" (I still am and I will be for a long time) - "Good luck getting any of your regular work done today!"

Peace - DEREK

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Transformational Chilly-Bumps

Today in my on-line class we're "talking" about small groups, and the remarkable impact being part of a "covenant community" can have on the individuals involved...

But... not just the individuals, but the larger community too. There's good evidence to suggest that developing purposeful small-groups is possibly the most significant intervention available when it comes to moving any given church from stagnant/non-effective to vibrant/transformational.

Unfortunately, the idea is still a hard sell in many faith communities. Especially those where the rot has already set in. I'm an observer by nature, plus I've conducted in-depth interviews with well over 300 clergy in the past few years - and my conclusion is that there's one common denominator in most failing churches.

Pencils out - ready? Here it is: These churches seem to be stuck in a social/cultural reference of what church should look like (typically based on "I remember when I was young..."), rather than a following-Jesus model and - consequently - they're constantly looking backwards instead of "upwards".

The irony is that most of these are so-called Reformation churches! The idea of reformation is supposed to be a constant, where God's Word interacts with the individual and the community, constantly pushing the envelope in terms of what it means to be an active "Christ-like" presence in this world.

My natural tendency is toward inertia. I like my familiarity and I love my comfort level; it's not so much that I'm lazy as that I'm resistant to change, especially when change disturbs my comfortable rut. You know the physics, "a body at rest has the tendency to remain at rest..." That's one reason why the small group environment is so good for me - my friends can be a catalyst for reinvention.

A church that has even 10% of it's membership actively involved in this kind of encouragement, support, prayer and accountability is going to see dramatic shifts in the fundamental drive and steering dynamics.

This movement from passive club-membership to transformational faith-community is not optional - it's a requirement for life. And, in my humble opinion, the best crucible for that kind of dynamic life is active small-group participation for as many members of the body as possible.

In my on-line class we're discussing my Advent book, "In My Heart I Carry A Star". There are twenty congregations represented in the workshop, from five denominations in nine states. One is sponsoring a church-wide study - around 25 small-groups all studying the text at the same time; around 300 people all involved in a transformational experience with the prayers and support of small-circles of believers...

And that - as Rebekah would say - gives me chilly-bumps!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Giving can be so much fun!

I always enjoy the weekend. I love my work, but I also love the change of pace and the refocus that comes from a shift in activities. This Saturday was especially fun with a fund-raising auction at church to benefit one of our local mission projects.

This past year has been tough for many organizations who get by on donations. A lot of people have lost their jobs, or have less disposable income this year. Consequently "over and above" giving has suffered across the board. Our church is part of Tampa Bay Presbytery, and - collectively - we support a lot of projects too big for any one congregation to handle alone. There's a tremendous "trickle-down" effect that comes into play when large numbers of churches reduce their giving.

Our church - BIG SURPRISE! - has not cut back on mission giving. Quite the opposite; we're always looking for creative ways to give more; and that's what Saturday's auction was all about.

Unlike a "garage-sale", the auction looks for donations of really, really nice stuff for other people to then buy back. Items like a handmade wooden glider, for example; a weekend stay at someone's beach house or mountain retreat; a set of my books (!), valuable art, jewelry etc.

One really interesting lot up for grabs was an original, mint-condition, "flapper" dress from the roaring twenties. This "hot" item was modeled by the church's senior pastor and it made quite a splash.

Consequently, over $7,000 was raised for CedarKirk Camp and Conference center. It doesn't sound like a lot, but the idea is that we do what we can as a small faith community and then others do what they can - and it all adds up.

Here's the kicker: generosity always costs something; sacrificial giving doesn't get its power through being easy; if we only gave out of our surplus then we wouldn't really be giving of ourselves, and we wouldn't get in touch with any of the deep principles that come into play.

Everyone who participated in Saturday's event went away spiritually nurtured. Sure, it benefited the ministry of the camp and conference center. But, more importantly, the event connected those who gave of their time and their resources to a penetrating truth that more of us must own: "Giving is foundational to spiritual growth."
  • Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.- Matthew 6
Love and blessings - DEREK