Saturday, January 30, 2010

Refocus, Reexamine, Wrestle, and Renew

I enjoy the sense of refocus that weekends bring. Even working out of a home office and doing tasks that I enjoy tremendously leaves me needing some kind of a break. So today I did lots of yard work and lots of housework and almost nothing in the way of writing.

The hard (for Florida) freeze a couple of weeks back did a lot of damage in the garden. Fortunately, Rebekah has so much plant life growing out there that the probable 25% fatality rate may have been exactly what we needed. Consequently there was a lot of debris to rake out and bag up.

I found out that, while giant 80 gallon construction site garbage bags look very impressive standing beside the road, being able to fill one with 79.9 gallons of compressed yard trash by no means guarantees I'll have the strength to move it once I do. Wet leaves smooshed into large trash bags weigh a ton!

Then of course it rained - along with a stiff breeze - dislodging another storm of leaves, acorns, small branches and various items of organic material. So now the yard looks pretty much the same as it did right after breakfast when I first started...

The good news is that I enjoyed the fresh air, exercised some muscles that have been AWOL for some time now, and managed a good visit with my neighbor.

Part of me wishes I had a way to actually jot down mental notes while I'm out in the garden, because I invariably generate all kinds of potentially useful commentary when I'm working with my hands:
  • Gardening just lends itself to mulling, cogitating, ruminating, and masticating ideas. Today I wrestled with myself a lot. I tend to take both sides of a debate, question myself relentlessly, think impulsive thoughts through to their logical conclusion and then start over. Don't be confused - this doesn't make me brilliant so much as honest.
  • I thought a lot about the damage so many Christians continue to do to Christ's message by loading it up with their own prejudice, judgmentalism and exclusivity. I'm still thinking about my friend Marvin's question: "One has to wonder how (insert name of bigoted, judgmental Christian leader here: ___ _________ ) got that influential in the first place?"
  • In a related line of thought, I found myself wondering about the tendency of many Christians to create a religion that is - essentially - interchangeable with nationalism.
  • And I also took a long look at the way that I act and interact, and examined my life to see if it says anything substantial about the life abundant. Do I - as Paul suggested in Philippians - "hold out the word of life"?
Just musings. Just getting back in touch with myself. Just working on the home we are so blessed to enjoy. Just being a pilgrim in progress.

By now, near the end of this quiet evening, with a chapter or so to read for my Sunday morning study group and a long walk with Scout just a half-hour away, I'm pretty much prepared to go to worship tomorrow - with an open heart and an owned need for seeking God's grace.

Grace to you this weekend; and peace - DEREK

Friday, January 29, 2010

Bon Appétit!

Looking back over the past few days I'd have to say this week's postings have all been fairly philosophical and somewhat on the "deep" side. So today the timing is good for the latest report on my ongoing "2010 Gourmet Initiative."

It's the end of January and I'm still - just - keeping up. Four new recipes in four weeks; pork-loin, tuna steak, turkey cutlets and - it was about time - steak. The official name - from p 107 of "Cooking New American" - was "Sliced Sirloin Steak with Rosemary, Lemon & Arugula".

I was tempted to substitute fillet, add some garlic, saute onions etc., but I was good - I behaved myself! I held off the free-style and kept up my commitment to cook 100% from the recipe, exactly as directed.

My one mistake was cooking the steak a little closer to medium than rare, because it happens so quickly when the meat is sliced like that. I seared the two steaks in the grill pan, then sliced them, placed the meat in the saute pan with olive oil and fresh rosemary (the fresh rosemary was awesome!) and finally tossed in the arugula with squeezed lemon just a minute before serving.

Meanwhile I prepared yellow rice and black beans. It made a very tasty combination and a great accompaniment for the excellent Chianti Andrew helped me pick out when he was home over Christmas.

So that's today's news from Maul hall. You can see how pleased Rebekah seems to be with the "gift that keeps on giving". I'm enjoying every minute of it, and I believe I'm already a better cook than I was before.

But isn't that the opportunity of life, and in every area? Learn, grow, improve, live out loud! It's not like we're here for ever, so why not invest time and creativity - and make the commitment to gourmet living across the board?

Bon Appétit!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Are our faith symbols translucent, or opaque?

This weekend, my Sunday morning study-group spent some time talking about how we tend to create "distance" between ourselves and God.

One way is the tendency of many religious traditions - including much of the way we tend to talk about Christianity - to define God as a "transcendent other", a being who exists exclusively in some alternate dimension ("heaven"), who is essentially unapproachable outside a rigid code of rules (legalism... "my" rules... "I'm in and you're out"...) , and who has no "need" for people because God is - by definition - "perfect", in the sense that perfection owns no need to change or grow or pursue relationships because God "has" everything a deity would ever need (if the word "need" is even applicable)....

This of course begs a discussion of what "perfect" really means, and a conversation regarding how we tend to distort and diminish truth by our tendency to mangle previously elegant constructs, chipping away at ideas until they fit the limitations of our small minds and stunted imaginations.

But we don't have time to go far with that line of thinking this morning (or at least I don't) - but I do want to turn our attention to the difficulty of working with symbols, and how symbols can serve to create distance between people and God.

Words are symbols too; but they are pretty much most of what we have to work with in terms of communication (for further reading on the idea of a functional vocabulary, I recommend the chapter "God-smacked in the cranium" from "The Unmaking of a Part-Time Christian").

I'm talking about symbols such as communion elements (cup, table, wine, bread), the cross or crucifix, a church building, a favored translation of the Bible, the organ, vestments, icons, stained glass, an entire church service, a rosary; all these representative elements that we employ to help us understand and experience God.

But the problem with symbols is they can easily shift from representing the idea to actually being the idea. For example, paper money was originally designed to represent literal pieces of gold stashed in a safe place - typically a bank.

Here's an interesting historical note from the Bank of England website: In 1759, gold shortages caused by the Seven Years War forced the Bank to issue a £10 note for the first time. The first £5 notes followed in 1793 at the start of the war against Revolutionary France. This remained the lowest denomination until 1797, when a series of runs on the Bank, caused by the uncertainty of the war, drained its bullion reserve to the point where it was forced to stop paying out gold for its notes...

Money is just a symbol, pointing to a reality beyond the symbol. Not just gold, but buying power, land, business, opportunity. Yet so many people (all of us!) value the paper itself - often beyond reason - and the symbol becomes the end rather than a means or a vehicle.

I have a lot of symbols in my study. The picture of Rebekah on my desk would simply be a stunningly beautiful woman absent the relationship; the apple on my shelf with my name etched in metal would be little more than an elaborate paperweight if I had never been a "teacher of the year"; behind the photo book of Tuscany there is a magical trip to Italy that the images merely point to as best they can...

Our faith-related symbols are most useful when they are transparent; a lens of sorts, through which we can "see" God more clearly. But if we're not careful they become clouded over time, from translucent to opaque, and eventually not even a trickle of light makes it through and all we see is the symbol - and God is hidden once again. And we will have substituted faith and trust in an object for a life-animating relationship with the Living God.

This is always a work in progress! But it's meaningful work, with purpose in the journey and joy in the discovery, and I am convinced that the more I think about faith and what it means to live my life as a pilgrim, the more my commitment to follow Jesus will animate every element of my experience.

Peace - DEREK

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Renée Fleming made me cry

Art can be understood as a prism; authentic art takes light and truth and inspiration, and it refracts the essence into smaller pieces that we can more readily manage - given the limitations mortal beings carry as regards time, and space, and intellect, and emotional capacity...

Believe me, I'm not turning into a classical music aficionado - it's just coincidence that I'm posting consecutive blogs about the impact of long dead composers who wrote in languages I cannot understand! But, there's no way I could possibly let yesterday evening's Renée Fleming concert go by unmentioned; the experience was that awesome.

Renée Fleming, if you don't know, is the premier soloist on the planet. No argument from anyone. She recently shattered a 125 year tradition by headlining the Metropolitan Opera's season opening - the first time in history a woman had been so honored.

The program, with the exception of a group of songs by Strauss and the final encore, was operatic - not necessarily my cup of tea. But, I've got to tell you, she won me over. There is something about beauty and creativity and giftedness on that level that goes way beyond preferences of genre.

Once again I'm writing about my (recently) recurring theme of beauty and art and creativity - and the overarching concept of what I have began to understand as "Gourmet Living".

I believe we are tragically confused in our culture when it comes to understanding what makes life worthwhile, what counts as "blessing", how to measure "satisfaction", and the path to true meaning and enlightenment.

Renée Fleming's first encore was the Puccini aria, "O mio babbino caro", from Gianni Schicchi. I have to admit - and I noticed the scene repeated throughout the Performing Arts Center - the pure beauty of the music immediately made me cry; I could not help it. Tears filled my eyes and we were all transported into the kind of experiential plane of insight that declares, quite clearly, "This is a representation of the music of heaven; this is a moment of revelation; this is your invitation to believe."

So I guess I'm saying Renée Fleming is a kind of evangelist; at least, she's my kind of evangelist.

Art can be understood as a prism; authentic art takes light and truth and inspiration, and it refracts the essence into smaller pieces that we can more readily manage - given the limitations mortal beings carry as regards time, and space, and intellect, and emotional capacity - DEREK

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Two-minutes fifty-six seconds of God

Yesterday evening I had one of those spiritual experiences that was a result of both left-brain and right-brain processes. It was a sublime moment, very much limited to time and place and contingent on any number of unique variables. But I thought I'd have a shot at trying to explain it because - I believe - such apprehension of divinity is closer than many of us generally credit; and it's a shame to miss out.

Scout and I were near to the end of our late evening walk. It was clear and cool in Brandon, and the stars shone with both brilliance and clarity - unusual for the typically moisture-laden Florida air. We had walked close to three miles, and I was listening to a message by one of my favorite authors - John Ortberg.

The message itself was good; not necessarily something to write home about, but solid Ortberg fare nonetheless. However, and this can often happen, the message attuned me to deeper things, and my thought processes were primed for receptivity on my spiritual frequency. Consequently, when the message concluded - about ten minutes shy of arriving back home - I felt inspired to cultivate the mood and I scrolled through the iPod menu until I found Robert Shaw's "Choral Masterworks" album.

I played just one track - Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus (K. 618) - and the rich tapestry of layered voice and organ resonated with my soul in a way that invited both wonder and reflection.

I looked around me and found that it wasn't only the majestic night sky that touched the inner places of my being, but also the human elements of street-scape and golf-course and street light and automobile and iPod and choral masterworks...

It was a moment of what's called "Natural Theology" but with a twist. Natural Theology argues that there is evidence in the created order that points to God; for me - at least last night - it was the evidence revealed in civilization that pointed me to a spiritual experience. I thought about how short my life is, how fragile I am and how it could so easily be over in a moment - and then I considered all the skill,and imagination, and creativity, and hard work, and cumulative knowledge, and design, and commitment, and generations of thought that it took to provide the elements that made up that three hundred yards or so of Laurel Oak and Summit View Drives, and the two minutes and fifty-six seconds of musical accompaniment.

I simply felt overwhelmed by the complexity and the creativity that defines even the most routine of moments in my day-to-day. The experience spoke directly to my soul and I was full with the truth of God.

I'm not saying that everyone should have the same response as I did. But what I am saying is that we should all allow ourselves more room to wonder, and that we should all learn to listen more closely to the extant messages, more present than we realize - even if it's just for two minutes and fifty-six seconds during Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus:
  • Ave, verum corpus - natum de Maria Virgine,Vere passum immolatum in Cruce pro homine, Cujus latus perforatum unda fluxit (et) sanguine, Esto nobis praegustatum in mortis examine.
"Hail, true body born of the Virgin Mary
Who truly suffered, sacrificed on the Cross for man,
Whose pierced side overflowed with water and blood,
Be for us a foretaste In the test of death."

Love and blessings - DEREK

Monday, January 25, 2010

You can't beat the genuine article

Hmmm - this is the second time in a week my early morning walk has been rained out. Fortunately, things cleared up nicely by 8:00, so Scout and I still managed to get around the neighborhood. Yes, I'm sure I could have grabbed an umbrella an hour earlier but - believe me - 75 pound of shaggy wet labradoodle is not what you want in the house first thing on a Monday morning!

It was an awesome couple of days at church this weekend. Saturday saw the official kick-off for our building fund campaign. A couple of hundred or more people showed up for a tailgate party on the grounds that included grilling, games, a chili cook-off, vehicle decorating, Dixieland jazz and a well orchestrated "pre-game show" featuring coach Maul and coach Black - loaded with classic football cliches and exquisitely redundant analysis.

Tim and Rebekah have excellent interactive "chemistry" in front of a crowd. They took the natural "banter" that works so well on Sunday morning, and mixed in every lame sports cliche they could think of. They really got the crowd going, and a casual observer would have been hard-pressed to come to the conclusion "Presbyterian" based on the clapping and shouting and general crowd participation in the church!

Sunday morning the enthusiasm continued. Here's my "status update" from facebook yesterday: "Derek Maul is proud of is wife, Rebekah. If you'd like to experience world-class preaching in a mid-sized church - now you know where to come... I'm just saying..."

Fact is the messages we get from the pulpit Sunday mornings are consistently awesome! Both Rebekah and Tim are interesting, inspirational, in-touch and illuminating. (There, I did it; I didn't start that phrase intending to go for alliteration, but after "interesting" and "inspirational" the challenge was on!)

Add to that Rebekah's inimitable (another "i" word) enthusiasm, genuine passion, heart-wrenching story-telling and can't-fake-this authenticity, and you can see why I'm genuinely puzzled she's not on everyone's short-list for conference keynoting and "must have her preach at our next big event" invitations.

My real question, however, is why it's not like that at every church, of every denomination, every Sunday morning? Rebekah may have above average gifts in communication, but at the heart of her message there is a vibrant living relationship with the God who called her to share the Good News.

I'm thinking that - while the level of giftedness in communications may vary from preacher to preacher - the same good news is available to each one of us, and there's no excuse for not allowing the good news to speak loud and clear through the message on a Sunday morning?

I'll take genuineness over polish any day. Rebekah happens to have both, but for those pastors who lack the skills, please oh please at least allow the Holy Spirit to animate your life and then don't be afraid to let it show during church!

Enough for today. The adventure continues - DEREK

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Blessing the Children

Fun, fun, fun yesterday evening as Rebekah and I took care of Micah and Liam Black, while Kelly and Tim headed out for a six-hour date. (these cell-phone pictures are grainy, but they do help tell the story)

Tired, tired, tired yesterday evening as Rebekah and I realized that - while we may still be cutting-edge mentally and we may still be growing spiritually - physically we're pretty much all washed up!

So we took the kiddos to a high-school girls basketball contest (Who knew that scoring points was such a small part of the game!). It was actually a lot of fun. One of our church youth, Shelby Dale, was up for her "senior send-off". Shelby actually did score points, and grab rebounds, while helping her team to a very important "W".

Liam only lasted a quarter before trying to out-yell the spectators, so we took the party back to the kids' house, where we spoiled them some more until Liam's bedtime. Then Micah and I drove back to our house to feed and walk Scout - Scout LOVES the presence of small fry.

Rebekah and I don't exactly have the stamina we had when our kids were little! There's a reason young people have babies and the rest of us just pitch in and help sometimes. Apart from my right shoulder nearly separating due to Liam's gravitational excess, there was the sheer constant-ness of kids. Every time we do this we're reminded of how systemically exhausting it is to raise children.

Having small children grow up in our home was well worth every wonderful moment of constant overwhelm - but taking care of them, and stimulating them, and teaching them, and planning, and worrying, and guiding their little lives and so much more amounts to a mammoth effort we easily forget after just a few years.

The point of this post is to remind us to do everything we can to support and encourage young families. We can pray for them, listen to them, share our stories, make sure they have the level of support they need in the community, lobby on their behalf.

We can love them with the pro-active, healing, life-giving Jesus quality of love.
  • People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them. - Mark 10:13-16

Friday, January 22, 2010

Snow Leopard and Colossians - believe it!

As I've said before - I truly love my new mac mini desktop computer (and the mind-boggling "magic" mouse). But I've just about come to the conclusion that I may have to go to the apple store and cash in some of my pre-paid mac-tutorial hours.

Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard) is an awesome innovation. I'm getting glimpses of some of the elegance that defines the operating system. The way things work together is virtually seamless.

BUT... and this is (no offense to people dealing with girth issues) a big but... I still use the computer like I'm living in Windows. I use the mouse for everything, when keyboard shortcuts are just waiting to be utilized; I try to manipulate iPhoto (which is superior) using the protocols I learned in Windows Photo Gallery... and so it goes.

My epiphany this morning ties in with one of my (recent) favorite scripture references. "Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules?" – Colossians 2:20

So I'm working on my new computer, with a new, elegant, operating system - but I mostly interface with the experience as if I am still governed by Windows protocols.

What real difference, then, am I experiencing - when I sill live according to the basic principles that ruled my former allegiance?

(That, by the way, was hopefully the transition sentence that applied equally to the computer illustration and the Colossians tie-in!)

Unbelievable!! As I was typing that last parenthetical phrase, I was alerted to a new email. It was - I kid you not - from Apple. "Get the most from your Mac: Great ideas for sharing, shooting, and editing your photos..."

It turns out that I don't have to flop around like a fish out of water. There is help available if I seriously intend to make good use of the new world I have chosen to occupy.

Tutorials.... daily devotionals, Bible reading, prayer.
Tech support... mentoring from experienced friends.
Help line... reaching out to those who have already navigated the waters...

So what's it going to be? Am I going to act as if I still lived in - belonged to - another world? Or am I going to engage all the amazing possibilities and utilizes the resources and the creativity and the support and the newness that's just waiting for me to move to the next level...

Peace - DEREK

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Quiet strength to follow Jesus

Yesterday evening two more people made the commitment to join my men's group for the "Quiet Strength" study; it brings the number to 16. It's the perfect number for the mixture of lecture, round-table discussion and break-out groups I'm utilizing for the 8-week class.

Once in a while I get invited to speak at churches, retreats and conferences - it's a direct result of the book-writing thing. A lot of people make the assumption that because I write I can also speak in public. So I accept the invitations to help dispel the misnomer; I'm fairly cheap so it'll save them money in the long run! I like to think of it as a public service.

Anyway, one observation I often share with men's ministry folk is the strong correlation between the visibility of enthusiastic men and the overall health of a faith-community.

A lot of statistics tend to get thrown around regarding church vitality: the percentage of membership in weekly attendance; Sunday-school enrollment; ten-year trends; median age; annual baptisms; professions of faith...

But a key demographic, I believe, is the number of men of work-force age (25-70) who both identify themselves and "live out loud" as proactive followers of Jesus Christ.

I'm not talking about men who "admire" Jesus; I'm talking about men who understand what it means to be a disciple, actively follow Jesus, and who are not afraid to let their love for God be known.

It's one of the reason's I'm so committed to leading my Wednesday evening men's group. It's a place where we study God's word, pray together, talk about our lives, and encourage one-another to live each and every day as Jesus-followers.

What makes this gathering so powerful is - in my understanding - the foundational principle that we were created with a God-purpose in mind. Living God-centric lives is the most natural thing in the world, because kingdom living (see yesterday's post) is written into our spiritual DNA.

Simply put, I'm thrilled to be involved in a ministry that leads men into a deeper walk with Christ.

Any way you look at it, the presence of a core-group of guys who are excited about Jesus is key to the overall health of any faith-community.

If you don't have such a group, start one right away. What happens will in all likelihood change your church for ever.

Love and blessings - DEREK

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

thinking out loud about salvation

For some unknown reason - walking the dog on a cool early morning with my hands deep in the pockets of my snug leather jacket - I've been thinking about the concept of salvation.

I know, it sounds like the spiritual equivalent of nerdy (kind of a Jesus Geek!), but this kind of "meditation" has become a natural byproduct of the intentionality that is beginning to define my devotional life.

I was thinking about how the foundational Jesus message has become so distorted, and how the Gospel is tragically misrepresented via the day-to-day witness of people and institutions who claim to speak directly for God... and I started wondering about one of the central questions of "Evangelical Christianity...."

You know the question. It's "Are you saved?" But I'm beginning to think that it's the wrong question - or at least the wrong form of the question. I think a better question is this: "Are we participating in the ongoing work of salvation?"

"Are you saved?" has a punched-ticket quality to it, something checked off a list, something leveraged, something people are bludgeoned with, something that's only about me, something limited in scope.

Salvation is the invitation to a full and complete experience of all the potentiality that life as a child of God promises.

Jesus said this in his Sermon on the Mount: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'" - Matthew 7

At first glance it sounds as if Jesus is simply being another legalist - follow all the rules and you'll earn your way to heaven. But that's not where Jesus is coming from. Christ's invitation is to participate in God's work of salvation. Christ suggests that salvation is a way of life in response to a decision. Christ talks as if salvation is God's gift to this world and that we - as God's children - are tasked to be the delivery system.

We live in a broken world, and it's a world that needs to experience redemption on every level. Jesus talks constantly about God's kingdom in action here on Earth and how it is qualitatively different to business-as-usual: The kingdom of God is like this... the kingdom of God is like this... the kingdom of God is like this.... Rob Bell (Mars Hill Bible Church) uses the phrase "Heaven crashing into Earth" to explain the effect of kingdom living.

Salvation is not a ticket to heaven that we get punched. Salvation is an invitation from God, delivered by Jesus, to participate in kingdom life, in bringing that reality into our world on a day-to-day basis.

In other words, I'm saved into something. That something is the ongoing initiative of God in this world - the work of salvation.

I am 100% certain that this kingdom life will morph into something more beautiful and eternal after I no longer inhabit this (rapidly aging) body of flesh and blood. When I die I am going to be with God even more profoundly that I am now. Jesus made all this possible by offering himself as an atoning sacrifice on my behalf, on your behalf, on behalf of this world.

What Jesus did do was to restore the opportunity for relationship between the Creator and the creation. What Jesus did do was to invite people to participate in all that this new relationship makes possible. What Jesus did do was to bring God's Kingdom to earth.

"Are you saved" is not so much about where we go when we die as it is about what we're up to now we're alive. Salvation is the ongoing work of God.

Our opportunity is to participate.

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

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

New Sound System Completes Study

Praise God with trumpets and all kinds of harps. Praise him with tambourines and dancing, with stringed instruments and woodwinds. Praise God with cymbals, with clashing cymbals. Let every living creature praise the LORD. - PSALM 150

A few weeks ago I checked in with my credit card "rewards" program. We've had this card for a long time and tend to run all sorts of money through it, while doing our best not to keep too much of a balance (although there is still a little residual "Italy 2009" to deal with before we head out on any more epic adventures...).

Consequently, we've been piling up the points. So I took a look see at what they're offering and was pleased to discover a very nice digital music system from BOSE. I snapped it up and it arrived yesterday afternoon.

It may look small, parked innocuously on the top shelf above my guitar, but anyone who appreciates good quality sound will understand when I say that the audio fidelity of my writing study just took a quantum leap forward.

My iPod is sitting very happily in the dock; I am sitting very happily at my desk, and my favorite version of the Celtic tune "The Water is Wide" is literally filling every crevice of this space.

Most of you know me as a writer, but my appreciation for good music runs deep. I'm a decent acoustic guitarist, I play with the praise band at church and I have a good ear. But until I met Rebekah my listening was pretty much one-dimensional. Great relationships tend to open our eyes to so much more of the world than the narrow focus we're used to; Rebekah has done that for me in many ways - including classical music.

Consequently, the best concerts we've attended in the past few years have been: Rod Stewart at the Forum, Harry Connick Jr. at the Performing Arts Center, Mary Chapin Carpenter at Ruth Eckerd, and Van Cliburn with the Florida Orchestra; next week we have tickets to hear Renee Fleming and I can't wait.

I'm almost tempted to say that the new sound system now completes my construction of the perfect creative writing environment. But I'll hold off on that declaration till we've built that writing retreat in the mountains....

Meanwhile, I'll keep you posted - DEREK

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Epic Purge

"The seed cast in the weeds represents the ones who hear the kingdom news but are overwhelmed with worries about all the things they have to do and all the things they want to get. The stress strangles what they heard, and nothing comes of it. But the seed planted in the good earth represents those who hear the Word, embrace it, and produce a harvest beyond their wildest dreams." Jesus: Mark 4: 18-20 - The Message

Sometimes I find myself having to forge an uneasy truce between my natural tendency to run a variety of projects simultaneously and the need for at least a modicum of order in my study. It's not that I'm messy... so much as I don't file very well! So I tend to let it all pile up on my desk (and then every other available surface) until I need a leaf-blower to find lost items that have been heard, faintly, gasping for air and offering muffled yells of "DEADLINE!!!"

So, Saturday, what started as an innocent vacuuming turned into an epic purge. I got rid of close to half the "stuff" that hangs around and does nothing productive other than simply get in the way. Books, rough drafts, notes for lectures and messages, bills and taxes and insurance from years past, memorabilia that has lost any meaningful associations and - gasp! - half the books that I know I'll never open again.

Then I reorganized, emptied the shelves, dusted every surface, and turned my study into a functional, inviting space.

Here's the irony - well, it's irony for me because I've been digging my heels in and fighting acknowledging this principle, understanding that, once I do, then I have no excuses - the irony is that my study is now more conducive to productive, creative work. It turns out that I like my workspace this clean and I may have to keep it this way!

What a writer needs:
Rebekah gave me this wonderfully comfortable leather chair where I can read, as well as some cool containers for storage and easy access. I've heard it said that all a writer needs nowadays is a computer and Internet access. But I beg to differ. There's a lot I can do on-line, but I still prefer a familiar edition of the Bible in my hands; Roget's Thesaurus next to my "Encyclopedia of Quotations" on my desk; works by my favorite authors on the shelves; and - in general - my personalized signature on the space.

More than that, of course, I need to be intimately connected to the source of life, the epicenter of creativity, the author of inspiration; my best writing comes when I allow God to flow through me and add the Creator's signature to my work.

So here I am, surrounded by good books, well organized, and connected to "The ground of all being" in my heart and soul.... What else could I possibly need to produce some monumental work...?

.... Well, I could start by taking care of some of those looming deadlines. It is, after all, still Monday morning!
  • The seed cast in the weeds represents the ones who hear the kingdom news but are overwhelmed with worries about all the things they have to do and all the things they want to get. The stress strangles what they heard, and nothing comes of it.
Love and blessings - DEREK

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Gourmet Living!

Yesterday afternoon I headed back to the grocery store, once again in search of ingredients not typically sitting around my kitchen. This time it was a turkey breast, shallots, heavy cream, fresh parsley and spinach. These new purchases combined with what I had on hand - fresh garlic, mustard, olive oil, mushrooms, baby carrots, white rice, a few wedges of lemon and ground sea-salt.

I prepared a cup of fresh turkey broth ahead of time, chopped and measured the various elements, heated the olive oil in a large frying pan, cut the turkey into half-inch strips, and quickly cooked the cutlets before creating the most amazing reduction sauce - adding the heavy cream in the final stages.

The rice, carrots and mushrooms were fairly easy to prepare, but the last ten-minutes before I served amounted to one frenetic flurry of activity. It will probably be easier once I get used to these new recipes, but for now I have the cookbook open and I'm leaving nothing to chance!

At one point, while flash-cooking the spinach leaves in olive-oil and sauteed garlic, I had all five units glowing and the oven heating up bread.

Okay, so why all this cooking detail in today's blog post? Well, apart from making you hungry, this story amounts to another chapter in this week's ongoing theme of "Living as if we mean it."

It's not enough for me to just say I love Rebekah enough to go the extra mile in our relationship... it means following through with 100% conviction when I promise a new recipe each week for 2010. This week (the third recipe in the series) we sat down together Wednesday evening and she picked page 101 from the "Cooking New American" text. No coaching from me, no "Well I'm not sure that's one I can handle" - just one more opportunity to give.

And, yes, that's Peet's Coffee I'm grinding to serve after dinner. I'm telling you - I don't mess around!

Likewise it's not enough to say, "2010 is going to be defined by improvements in my life..." It means sitting down with the book (the Good Book, that is) and making regular plans and adjustments.

With my cooking I made the commitment for one "push the envelope" experiment per week; it's about being faithful to follow through and that means constant planning and reevaluation.

It's the same spiritually, relationally, or any other area where we're interested in making progress. We don't carry such significant commitments through from one big push January 1, followed by 52 weeks of coasting. It turns out there are 365 opportunities during the year to make adjustments, ask for help, review the instructions, and do whatever it takes.

Gourmet cooking is fun - hard work but fun. But it's only a small part; I'm shooting for a gourmet life!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti - Prayer and Love and more Grace than some of us have...

AP Image: CNN International
I think that Haiti is pretty much front and center in everyone's hearts and minds today - particularly here in Florida where we have so many Haitian-American residents.

Rebekah and I are not late-comers, however, in either our awareness or our support of the beleaguered nation. Since her mission trip to help build a community center in a small town, to support ongoing medical missions, and to sponsor a sewing industry that promoted self-sufficiency, we have been involved in some way for many years.

We unhesitatingly renounce messages spewed by graceless voices such as the televangelists who use judgment as a means to promote themselves and their own narrow, sectarian, interests. God's love is far greater than their limited imaginations evidently fathom.
  • You are a sad, confused man, Mr. Pat Robertson, and you do not speak for followers of the Jesus Way! God loves you so much, as he loves all of his children - regardless of where they live and the culture that surrounds them; I pray that, one day, you will embrace the wonder of that truth and break free from the chains of judgement that appear to define you.
I attended a prayer vigil for Haiti yesterday evening at a Methodist Church the other side of Tampa. I was sent to do an article for the Florida Methodist News Service - but, mostly, I was simply a participant in the service of prayer and communion.

One particular family got my attention. It was a young couple, in their 30's, with two restless children, probably around seven and ten.

So I talked with them afterward and asked them why they came. They said they were extremely busy, with lots of stuff scheduled for the evening and certainly no time to come to church...

So they thought about it, and decided that made it exactly the right time to come.
- So they could show their love and support for all people
- So they could participate in something important as a family
- So they could demonstrate to the children just how valuable it is to prioritize and not allow their life together to become overrun by... stuff.

That impressed me. It also inspired me. Would that we all evaluate and re-evaluate exactly what is worthwhile - and on a daily basis.

Love and blessings - DEREK

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Potency! I am about to do a new thing!

Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
- Isaiah 43:18-19

I read the above selection from Isaiah as part of this morning's Upper Room Daily Devotional. It served as a great follow up thought to yesterday's blog post that finished up "WE DON'T HAVE TO WAIT!!! Today could be the day you begin the revolution!"

It turned out to be exactly where we started at my "Men's Room" Bible-study yesterday evening. We've launched a new 9-week study using coach Tony Dungy's book, "Quiet Strength". 14 men showed up for the kick-off discussion.

Every one of us in that room said that we are open for God to "Do a new thing" with us - and that was why we were there. Imagine the potential for revolutionary change represented around the table!
  • Marriages that truly represent Christlike love in action
  • School teachers motivated to literally be the presence of Jesus in the classroom
  • Fathers interacting with children in terms of agape love
  • Retirees with the freedom to plan out their day in response to the initiatives of the Holy Spirit
  • Men disappointed with marriages defined by conflict making the choice to - first and foremost - be kind to their spouse
  • Friends relating to one-another in terms of Galatians 6:2: "Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ"...
Having lived in this world over 50 years now, I truly believe that what happens today, tomorrow, next month, next year and for the rest of our lives (however long that may be) is HUGELY impacted by the decisions we make, by the frame of mind we bring to the table, and by what we believe is (or is not) possible.

Personally, I choose to believe that God's promises are real and that they are actualized in Jesus. Yesterday evening I sat at a table with a group of 14 men who dare to believe the same thing.

Talk about potency! You want to be a real man? You want to define what it means to be potent? Follow Jesus with all your heart, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. On this simple truth hangs all the wisdom of the ages.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Not just change - but real revolution!

I enjoyed a good visit with my folks in Sarasota yesterday. One of the perks of this writing gig is the ability to set my own schedule; so lunch in Sarasota with Mum and Dad simply means setting aside four hours and driving down. It was a beautiful day to have the roof open (just a little), the windows cracked, and the rock-'n-roll cranked!

My reward was a big slice of my mum's famous "Christmas pud", served with hot yellow custard, mince pie and a large mug of tea. Christmas pudding is - essentially - an English-style fruit cake that's been steamed. And - for those "fruit cake nay-sayers" out there - English fruit cake is not in any way comparable to the infamous North American variety that can be used as a door-jam, foundation material for tall buildings, ammunition in large-bore cannon, and ballast for any household project that needs stabilizing.

My dad is continuing to do stellar work in his recovery from open-heart surgery. He walked five miles before lunch and looks better than ever. He's a great example of why "It's not what happens to you, it's how you respond" has always been a great mantra in our family. Dad is making great choices and it shows.

In fact, there are always two distinct choices in any situation: "Is my fate going to be determined by forces that I have no control over?" or, "Am I going to live to my potential, regardless of the challenges and difficulties that present themselves?"

I'd even go so far as to argue that it is adversity that often releases potential that is otherwise being ignored.

For example:
A few days ago I blogged about a couple of the personalities I interviewed for my newspaper column last week. One of the subjects - Althea Kironde-Lee - was a teen and young-adult in New York during the early 1960's. It was a time of social unrest and change was in the air...

“People talk about revolution,” she said, “but we lived revolution because we had no choice. We knew the leaders in the community (Brooklyn) and the meetings were at our house. But revolution died in this country – today we’re too comfortable and that’s it.”

Vital change - both in our own lives and in society - too often waits to be initiated by crisis. In my first book, "GET REAL: a spiritual journey for men" I devote a whole chapter to talking about the crisis that led to a real reformation in my marriage.

Very often it's our comfort that gets in the way of revolution. But, and here's today's "take away", We don't have to wait for crisis to get on with revolution!

Short history lesson:
Most people don't realize that England came very close to experiencing the same kind of bloody revolution that led to the French guillotine and the Russian Bolshevik uprising. Careful students of history, however, point to the Methodist revival and the resultant transformation of social conscience as a key element in substituting positive social change for a violent overthrow of the status quo.

But - and this is very important - each new day can be one more small step forward in personal revolution:
  • We don't have to wait for a marriage to be on the rocks to begin putting our spouse ahead of ourselves...
  • We don't have to wait for desperation to invite God into the details of our daily live...
  • We don't have to wait for children to be gone before we realize how much we love them...
  • We don't have to wait for financial stress before putting our house in order...
  • We don't have to wait for discrimination to enter our neighborhood before working for social justice...
Today could be the day you begin the revolution!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

If a tree falls in the forest... A word to writers

Once in a while I wonder if blog writing is maybe one of those "If a tree falls in the forest" events. If an author writes a blog... and no-one reads it... then is the author actually blogging...?

I get a vague idea of how much traffic hit this page from my "counter". It's useful information, but then a lot of people tell me they read my daily posts via the RSS feeds to facebook, or by checking the feed to my "author page" at That kind of activity doesn't generate a "hit" back at the home page.

Of course it doesn't really matter because (and I tell aspiring writers this all the time) writing is primarily most valuable for the person doing the writing. For me this particular morning exercise, completed either five or six times every week, is both a devotional practice and a way of warming up my writing engine for the day.

God - to paraphrase the old hymn - is in my head, in my mind, in my understanding, in my being. I choose to spend time with the Creator (reading from the Bible... and contemplating God... and engaging God via prayer) as some of my first deliberate actions of the day. Consequently, my blog post is a means to sorting through some of what has already started to happen and becomes - always - a kind of thinking out loud.

The process of articulating thought as a routine discipline is a critical element of the writing equation. It's much like any complex activity in that it requires practice. If writers do not think out loud on a regular basis, if they don't literally listen to themselves, then it's going to be difficult to discover their own, unique, "writing voice".

What's so important about "voice"? Well, it's a kind of finger-print; it overlays and under-girds content with the personality behind the fingers striking the keys. And voice is not/cannot be "affected", like an actor presenting a phony English accent; voice emerges through the act of regular communication. In other words, it's a lot like the need to have acuity in hearing in order to be able to speak with clarity.

Do you want to be a writer? Then write. Or, in the spirit of the New Testament letter of "James" and via the words of the classic Nike commercial - JUST DO IT!

God be in my head and in my understanding:

God be in my eyes and in my looking:

God be in my mouth and in my speaking:

God be in my heart and in my thinking:

God be at mine end and at my departing.

Monday, January 11, 2010

WW2 story about Grace

- Image at left from the web...

Happy freezing Monday to everyone! It looks like the cold snap here around Tampa may end in the next couple of days but it's been an interesting diversion for us tropical types!

Yesterday morning I drove to Plant City to speak at a Methodist church; all the strawberry fields along the way were covered in a blanket of ice. It may sound counter-intuitive, but the growers actually run their sprinklers as a precaution - the ice acts as an insulation against temperatures in the low 20s that would be catastrophic for the crop.

The church - Trinity UMC - asked me to bring a message appropriate to the launching of a new year. So I talked about the power that is found when we live in the assurance of God's promises. All I had to do was to share a few stories.

People love stories. I began with one from the beginning of the "Grace Shatters Darkness" chapter in my new book. You can read it for yourself if you like, but the abbreviated version goes like this:

... One day, during WW2, my mum was listening and watching as a V-1 "Doodlebug" rocket traced its way across the East London sky; buzz-bombs would often fly low enough to be seen. Suddenly, the engine cut out and my granddad quickly calculated its deadly trajectory.

“Get into the shelter!” he yelled, literally shoving his family through the door.

The bomb hit directly across the street, completely demolishing three adjacent homes. At my mother’s house every window and door was blown out; every ceiling came crashing down; every piece of glass was shattered and the dining room table was thrown across the living room, almost crushing the kitchen wall. The next-door neighbor was standing behind his front entry and the door killed him - shot like a bullet shot from a gun.

Later, after V-E Day, my mother’s church started a ministry to German prisoners of war. They sponsored a weekly Sunday-afternoon reception, contributing tea and snacks from their own ration cards.

Just a short while previously huge German bombs had destroyed much of the neighborhood, people were killed, and my mother’s home had been severely damaged. But war, and the potential for hatred didn't stand a chance against grace. My mother’s church extended grace because they knew Jesus - they simply followed the pilgrim way of Christlike love.

A young soldier named Gunter found a place in the Kemp family's hearts. When he was eventually repatriated, Gunter's home was behind the Iron Curtain and my mother's family lost touch. But eventually, almost five decades later and after the demolition of the Berlin Wall, my mother - along with my dad - was finally able to visit her old friend.

“I never knew what real love was,” Gunter told them, “until those days after the war when your church reached out with God’s love to me and to the other soldiers.”

Grace is active, it is insistent, it is counter-cultural and it is difficult to understand. Grace does not allow evil to dictate the boundaries of its expression; instead, it gets up and does something that makes a lifetime of difference...

My prayer is that this week will be grace-filled for each one of us - DEREK

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The work of a counter-culturalist is never done!

Colossians 2:20: "Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules?"

So I almost started a riot in PUBLIX (Supermarket) this afternoon... The cashier asked me about some of my exotic purchases (cilantro, parsley, mango...) and I let slip I'm cooking a new recipe a week from "Cooking New American" - as part of Rebekah's Christmas gift. Suddenly eight women are smiling at me and waving - and two or three men start giving me evil looks..... The work of a counter-culturalist is never done :-)

That was my facebook status update yesterday afternoon, and it makes for a good introduction for my weekend blog:
  • Yes, I'm writing about my latest cooking experiment from "The 2010 Gourmet Initiative" - but that's not really what today's post is about.
  • And, yes, I'm writing about the joy of performing serendipitous acts of service in the context of marriage - but that's not really what today's post is about.
  • And, yes, I'm commenting on the new phrase I coined - "The work of a counter-culturalist is never done" - and that pretty-much IS what today's post is all about.
I'm also - partially - reacting to what amounts to a facebook chain-letter that's been going around over the past 48 hours. The content - and it varies just a little from status update to status update - essentially asks the question "Will you re-post this message?" It goes on to say that "SADLY 97% of facebook users will NOT re-post the message". The message is that "Jesus was thinking of you when he died on the cross". The implication is that NOT re-posting the message makes the reader "SADLY" one of the 97% who fail to take a stand for Jesus.

Rather than ignore the message, I posted a response that explained why I believe that kind of leveraged "witness" is unhelpful to the cause of Christ. What I wrote led to a positive conversation with the friend who had passed on the original message.

My point was this, and it bears thinking about: Messages such as the "97%" posting cultivate a "them and us" mentality that does nothing to bridge the increasing distance between the truth about following Jesus and what the majority of Americans think they know about church and church people. In fact I believe it exacerbates the divide.

Following Jesus must involve being a counter-culturalist in much the same way that my adventure in PUBLIX drew attention to the fact that I do not live according to the protocols of a culture that is still largely chauvinistic; a status quo that still invests a lot of effort in keeping women in the kitchen and men in key positions of authority.

The way we live faith out loud, and the manner in which we explain what we're up to is the only way that America's "97%" will learn the truth about what it means to follow Jesus.

The truth that really should be prefaced with the word "sadly" is this: The past few decades have witnessed a careful re-crafting of Christianity - a not-so-subtle shift that in effect merges New Testament faith with values and priorities that would require Jesus himself to undergo an extreme makeover or make a quick exit if he were interested in any kind of leadership role today.

Some religious institutions look and act like corporate America. Many leading voices have tried to make faith subordinate to partisan political leanings. Christianity as advertised on television and as demonstrated via the behavior of some of its most vocal adherents deserves - I'm inclined to think - much of the cold shoulder it's been receiving of late.

Like I suggested, the Jesus Way is - at its most compelling - countercultural. Gotta love these words from Colossians 2:20: "Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules?"