Wednesday, March 31, 2010

John 3:16

Once in a while I find that it's a useful exercise to paraphrase scripture.

The idea, for me, is to re-write verses from the Bible in my own words. It's so that I can listen more distinctly. I always learn something new, and several things happen when when I do this.

  1. First, I have to read and re-read the selection very carefully - that's always a good thing.
  2. Next, I find that I pray about what I'm doing, because I want to really hear the word. Prayer is the best context for Bible reading, and I can only hear the word if I involve God from the beginning.
  3. I also end up reading the text immediately before and after my selection, putting it in perspective, and finding out some of the historical/cultural/physical context as well.
  4. Then, I think about how God's word is currently interfacing with my life. I personalize the text. I imagine what relevance the ancient words have in my world at this particular moment.
  5. Finally, I take great care with my interpretation, understanding that I have no skill in ancient languages and no formal training in biblical scholarship. So I proceed with caution.

John 3:16-17: And so I woke up this morning with one of the Bible's most oft-quoted verses on my mind. John 3:16 is a classic, but I've always felt it was an incomplete message without at least including verse 17.

Today, Wednesday of "Holy Week", this selection is resonating with special meaning for me. It worked its way into my head and into my heart. So I'm taking this risk and writing my own paraphrase. Remember, this is a personal devotional exercise. I'm thrilled that a handful of folk are "listening in", looking over my shoulder as I think out loud. But be reminded that I am not a scholar, just a thinker.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17) NIV

Now, my (amplified) paraphrase:

  • John 3:16... The Creator - so infused with committed love for creation and for people (formed from both spirit and dust) - willingly gifted this world with Emmanuel (the fullness of God, resident in the frailty of human form). Why would God do something like this? Jesus was - and is - our solution for the cumulative weight and the toxic residue of every act, thought, condition, word, disposition and intention that has served (and still serves) to separate humanity from a dynamic relationship with the Divine, with light and life.
  • 17... God's intervention is not designed to denounce the world, or to condemn its people. God's plan was not calibrated to discourage, castigate, reject, destroy, or pile on like a ton of bricks. Instead, Easter is an imperative born of love, a self-sacrificial gift initiated by the great compassion that under-girds God's purposeful, redemptive nature. Christ's action reveals the author of creation as both architect and sustainer; hope for reconciliation; the ground of all being; our clear pathway to salvation.

I understand that my written language is limited by my knowledge, my skill with words, and my personal experience. Regardless, this is as good a week as any to embrace the meaning of John's powerful rendition of what Jesus has to say about why he came.

So, to answer my question at the end of Monday's post: To some extent God's love for me is what sent Jesus to the cross. Jesus got himself killed by being the flesh and blood presence of God in the middle of a world that had no room for courageously redemptive love.

Our great opportunity is to take similar risks every day. The world today is no less dangerous a place for an authentic witness to God's embracing, non-condemning, welcoming love...

Peace - DEREK

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The promise of Holy Week is the ending of half-measures

"So I'm learning to be open to growth. Learning to build my relationship with God on fresh experiences rather than borrowed, pre-packaged, flash-frozen or canned ingredients. Learning that there is so much more to being a Follower of The Way than 'Okay,' 'Good enough', 'Adequate' and 'This'll do'..."

This morning's post is a slight deviation from the content I promised yesterday. Mid afternoon I got caught up in another adventure for the "Gourmet Initiative" files, and a few things from the experience have charged my thoughts for today.

But, yes, there is a tie-in to the fact that we're in Holy Week! I've always been a decent cook, and I've never been afraid to tinker with my recipes from meal to meal. As a result, and over the years, a lot of the distinctions between my menu items started to blur, and a kind of "generic Derek" style emerged (Yes, I noticed that generic Derek kind of rhymes!).

Consequently, I've been a stickler for following directions since I made the "one brand-new recipe from the cookbooks each week" commitment for 2010. Essentially, I want to learn new "fundamentals", to make the specific sauces that are called for, practice various techniques, take the time to use the exact herbs and spices rather than just the ones I like - that kind of thing.

Rebekah's favorite dish in the world is lasagna. So this week I tried a recipe for lasagna from scratch. I even did stuff like crush and chop fresh sweet basil leaves rather than using the dried basil from my spice rack. The entire process, from heading out to the store for ingredients to serving, took four hours. But the result was awesome!

It turns out that fresh ingredients really do make a huge difference; that using an exact amount of oregano and a precise measurement of thyme is better than my "mixed Italian spices" standby; that the correct balance of mozzarella cheese, ricotta cheese, cottage cheese and Parmesan cheese yields amazing results; that sautéing the mushrooms first will pay dividends when the dish is served....

That's been my "Lent 2010" in a nutshell. Faith is something I've developed over the years. I'm "pretty good" at doing this Christian thing and God has been a key element of my daily life for decades. But I seem to have been doing most of it "on the fly", using generic ingredients, happy to have enough skill to make it work but never coming close to being a threat in terms of greatness.

So I'm learning to be open to growth. Learning to build my relationship with God on fresh experiences rather than borrowed, pre-packaged, flash-frozen or canned ingredients. Learning that there is so much more to being a Follower of The Way than "Okay," "Good enough", "Adequate" and "This'll do."

The promise of Holy Week is the ending of half-measures. The momentum of Palm Sunday may have lost some steam in the disciples by the middle of the week. But Jesus was not fueled by other people's applause; Jesus was propelled into Easter by his decision to be all that God's will for his life imagined. Likewise, we can make the daily decision to listen to the urgings of the Spirit rather than falling back on the comfortable habits of the past.

All the best ingredients, coming together in response to our simple decision to follow Jesus.

"Bon Appétit"!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Holy Week and Taxation of the Spirit

Some of us have been preparing for this week ever since Ash Wednesday. For others, yesterday's Palm Sunday observances served as a reminder "That's right - Easter must be next week!"

Whatever our route to this particular Monday morning, some of the momentum from the celebration-charged energy of Triumphal Entry probably still remains - at least enough to make some kind of a difference this morning. But is it enough to get us through the week?

Even those fortunate enough to have been physically present (in Jerusalem, the day Jesus rode a donkey into town) ran into a stone cold wall of reality before the "Hosanna's" ringing in their ears ever died down. It wasn't too long before they caved in to the status quo that seems to exact its levy with ease, facing only token resistance much of the time. It's a kind of taxation of the spirit.

Jesus calls us away from "The Way Things Are":
There's a great story I heard from my friend Trevor Hudson a while back: Passover, as we know, was a huge deal in ancient Jerusalem. Jews from all over the known world converged for the celebration, literally crowding the streets with people. The Romans knew this, too, and took steps to assert their ascendancy and reinforce the visibility of a military presence in the city.

Typically, there were a limited number of soldiers posted in Jerusalem. But at Passover, the Roman governor would bring in a show of force (from the garrison at Caesarea) and enter Jerusalem, parade style, to remind everyone who was in charge, who was "Lord", and who would step on their throats at the slightest sign of insurrection.

Hudson pointed out the irony of Palm Sunday, suggesting that Christ entered Jerusalem from the East, riding a donkey, waving palm branches, offering "Peace, not as the world gives..." and that he came in full knowledge that the Romans had their own parade going on, entering from the West, riding war-horses, carrying weapons, offering oppression.

It must have been glorious, loaded with anticipation and excitement and a realization of the freedom they were missing... But then soon enough, probably later that same day, these same people got a good look at the Romans again and they realized how their religion was pretty-much hand-in-glove with the occupying forces... and that the powers-that-be were on the same page with the Romans and the status quo... and that the power-&-value system their lives operated in was - essentially - life and breath to them and their families. And they thought about what all that cumulative weight of soldier + religion + commerce really stood for, and they thought about what they had always been told was important... and what mattered... and what life was all about... and they just lost the glory if it all.

They just lost the glory of it all.

So I have to 'fess up that I'm worried this morning that we will lose the glory of it all in short order and that - just like the people in Jerusalem - we will sell out Jesus in a heartbeat because we're just so used to the possessions and values and priorities that have come to define our lives...
...And that we too would crucify him come Friday if he said one more thing to tip the balance of stability away from the materialism and the power and the politics that protect the real stuff that has our allegiance and that we worship...

Think about it today. Tomorrow we'll take another look at the message that got Jesus killed.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Blue Men and Reality!

Short "Weekend Post" today - because I've spent most of my Saturday doing our taxes. Grrrrrr.
(The pictures are all from my phone, so please excuse the quality)

Anyway, Rebekah took me to Orlando for my birthday yesterday and we had much fun attending a performance by "The Blue Man Group." Imagine, if you will, a combination act that blends the attributes of a group of mimes, a troupe of clowns, the comedian Gallagher (food humor!), and a tribe of Smurfs.

It was silly, plain and simple. But definitely lots of fun in a wacky sort of way. By the end of the show the entire audience was involved, on its feet, throwing huge rolls of paper around the auditorium, yelling at the tops of our voices. The whole experience moved to the primal beat of drums. All in all, a very interesting social dynamic.

After the show we walked over to Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville and ate on the porch. It was a perfectly beautiful, balmy, Florida Spring night. I, of course, ordered the "Cheeseburger in Paradise". Rebekah persuaded me not to sing my order... "I like mine with lettuce and tomato - Heinz 57 and french fried potatoes. Big kosher pickle and a cold draft beer....." I behaved!

We talked about birthdays past. Rebekah first owned up to loving me on my 21st, 33 years ago! She also took me to Orlando that night. But Universal wasn't built and the Blue Men didn't exist (they were just a twinkle in Papa Smurf's eye). Back in 1977 we went to "The Holiday House" restaurant and watched the original Rocky - it was a good night all around.

There is a kind of suspended reality present in the Orlando theme-park culture. Everything is perfect, maintained just so, and the scale is a little under-sized. It all works together so that the visitors feel larger-than-life. It's fun, for an evening, especially the perfect Florida evening, with the perfect woman, celebrating the year I hit my sweet spot (Yesterday's post!).

But as a rule I prefer reality. Reality tomorrow is Palm Sunday, where my faith community will celebrate the present and life-charged reality of God-with-us in the context of an excitement-filled beginning to Holy Week.

And this is the Holy Week we have been preparing for all along, as we've journeyed these "40-days" of Lent. I hope you've been traveling with me. If not, take some time tomorrow to seek out a place of worship, and be deliberate about framing this Easter week with worship, with the encouragement and support of a faith-community that is serious about following Jesus.

This may seem a strange message alongside a poster of a "Blue Man"... But it's not. The whole point has been and will continue to be that God is with us and is animating us in every moment of every day - birthdays and fun-times not the least excluded....

See you in church - DEREK

Friday, March 26, 2010

Hitting My Sweet Spot

Ever since I turned forty I've resisted the term "middle-aged". You see I have this theory that middle age only begins when you're half gone.

Well, it's official. I looked at the numbers this morning. I realize now I can probably slip into neutral and coast, downhill, from here on out. 108 is not looking nearly so promising as 106 did this time last year!

But this is GOOD NEWS in a big way! Because I've also discovered - and this understanding has been building over the past few years - that the fifties are my sweet spot!

So, this morning, I'm 54 years old and I've hit my sweet spot. How cool is that?

Potential - Possibility - Portent - Prodigious - Phenomenon:
Okay, so that's a lot of "P" words. I started thinking about potential and then pushed from there. You see, one of the great things about hitting the sweet spot is what becomes possible, what is released in terms of possibility once we engage - in full bloom - all that this adventure of Living Out Loud brings into play.

This is something I tend to talk about a lot. In "The Unmaking of a Part-Time Christian" I use the concept "Living as if we mean it - because God most certainly does!" I follow a most prodigious Savior!

The word "portent" suggests looking forward, a "sign" or harbinger of what is to come. Today, then, portends prodigious and phenomenal possibility!

How do I know this? Well, I know this in terms of what I am already experiencing as my sweet spot, multiplied by a factor of promise. PROMISE is possibly the primo "P-word" of the day. I'm having a party with promise. Promise is a spiritual principle, and it's ringing true in the context of my birthday.

For me, hitting my sweet spot in the middle of my fifties, Christ's most poignant promise is that of peace (more "P-words"). So much of this world is ridden with angst; the promise of Jesus is an invitation to know peace.

"Peace I leave with you," Jesus told his friends around the supper table, "my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid."

I can't wait to see what's coming!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Shut Up! and LISTEN!!

This morning I've owned a strong awareness of how much I enjoy my life; I was finishing up my morning hike, feeling the fresh March air, anticipating the day. During the walk I'd been purposefully practicing a meditative frame of spirit, trying to simply listen - listen without adding my own noise - and allow God to speak truth into my being.

I wanted to "hear", yet I am trying not to be dependent on limiting God to the traditional parameters of "speaking." I am learning that I can apprehend something of God when both of us are quiet... if, that is, I am willing to understand "quiet" as something more loaded, more redolent than the vacuum our western consciousness tends to imagine in the absence of noise. If, that is, I am open to understanding God as more personal, more multi-dimensional (or, better yet, not dimensional at all...), more complete....

But I digress. The point is that I arrived home in communion with the Spirit. And I mention that because I believe that there is a strong relationship between my spiritual peace and the opening statement that "This morning I've owned a strong awareness of how much I enjoy my life."

I've been thinking about the tendency of our way of life to add noise, distraction, and random activity that is often devoid of meaning. In fact, I have become suspicious that we value our distractions so much because we are uncomfortable with the idea of resting. Jesus - in a passage (from the parable of the sower) that I'm fond of quoting - said, "The cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing." Mark 4:19

It may be accurate to say that we can avoid being confronted by truth if we make sure that we're too busy to have to face it. But it is equally - and more poignantly - the case that to say that we likewise avoid healing, and wholeness, restoration and joy at the same time.

Sometimes I think that God simply wants us to SHUT UP and take the time to listen. Lent can be helpful in this regard. These next few days are a good time to be deliberately contemplative, and to become more open to "hearing" God speak truth into our being.

Peace - DEREK

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Jesus Gets the Fog Out

(Image found on the Internet)

For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” - John 18:37

Today I woke up to an early morning shrouded in fog; I could barely see across the road at the beginning of my walk. The air was so damp that Scout stopped every few minutes to shake her coat - as if we'd just come in from the rain.

Walking down Miller Road, Scout caught the scent of something interesting and did about 200 yards of her best vacuum-cleaner impersonation - snout hugging the ground and tail high in the air. "It's like seeing Sherlock Holmes and his bloodhound emerging out of the London fog!" the crossing guard at Durant Road exclaimed.

We laughed, and continued on as the soft dawn light gradually began to establish a foothold on the day. We arrived home damp and shivering, more than ready for the pot of "Equal Exchange" Ethiopian coffee that was waiting in the kitchen.

Even now, well past 8:00, visibility is limited and the light is all a muted gray.

I grew up in England, so I'm well acquainted with fog (Okay, that's a huge potential opening for jokes, but I'm not walking through that door this morning!). Sometimes the mist would lay so heavily on the crowded Straights of Dover that huge ships would run into each other, despite the persistent drone of foghorns. (Fog/boat image from Internet)

Typically, there are two things that can remove a thick layer of fog such as the one I walked in this morning. First, a breeze. A fresh movement, an inflow of of air, can carry the mist with it. It doesn't have to be much; sometimes just the hint of a breeze is enough. Then, there is sunlight. In fact, looking out my study window, the sunshine is just now chasing the last remnants of mist. My semi-opaque morning is yielding to translucence via the power of the sun.

Likewise, two particular actions of God's grace work to eradicate the dullness that creeps into my spiritual life like a pernicious vapor. The Holy Spirit, at times a gentle breeze and times a bracing gale, comes as clarity. The Son, cutting through the shadows, deals with clouds in terms of incisive light; the Way of Jesus is the way of discernment and visibility. Then, sometimes, Christ is a signpost, and walks with me as I navigate back to the light.
Regardless, Jesus is The Way.

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him. - John 18:36-38

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Love Conquers All!

Sneak-peak: the best part of today's post!

  • This morning, my mum shared the following story. Last year my old friend, Beverly, lost her husband, Danny, to cancer. One of Danny's grandchildren is close to her cousin, Haley (my brother Geoff's grand-daughter). Danny's grandchild said "I can't play with my pop-pop any more, he's in heaven now." To which Haley replied, "It's OK, you can share mine."

Today's scripture reading: Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him”. Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed. John 18:25-27

When Jesus was arrested his friends scattered. Even Peter - big, brave, brash, bodacious Peter - pretended that he did not know Jesus. Fear is an interesting phenomenon. It can make us act in ways we did not plan to; it can challenge values and convictions we thought we held dear; it can - literally - immobilize.

Later the Gospel-writer John went on to pen the following words about fear, taking what he learned directly from Jesus and defining love as its opposite. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. 1 John 4:17-19

Typically, given a puzzle or a fill-in-the-blank quiz, we would put down "hate" as the opposite of love. But the New Testament teaches that the answer is "fear". Or, to put it another way, LOVE IS THE PERFECT ANTIDOTE TO FEAR. The more I live as someone who knows with confidence that God loves me, then the less power uncertainty, confusion, danger, disappointment and fears have to make any kind of impact.

John is really picking up from Christ's prayer for his followers at the Last Supper. "As he is, so are we in this world." It's the reminder that living love out loud is part of the mandate for discipleship. Fear is incompatible with living the Christ-life.

My mum shared the following story with me today. Last year an old friend, Beverly, lost her husband, Danny, to cancer. One of Danny's grandchildren is close to her cousin, Haley (my brother Geoff's grand-daughter). Danny's grandchild said "I can't play with my pop-pop any more, he's in heaven now." To which Haley replied, "It's OK, you can share mine." (That's Haley, visiting with Rebekah)

These children, in their unguarded conversations, deal with the reality they are faced with by talking, confidently, about huge ideas such as "life that transcends death", "faith", and "sharing without reservation". There is no fear - because their sense of belief is ironclad and their experience of love is rooted in both personal experience and in their pure understanding of God.

Challenge question: OK, so here's the question. Do adults become increasingly cynical and consequently fearful because we are older and wiser and more experienced in "reality"? Or, do adults forget how to love without reservation because we have been taught a contrary set of values over the years?

Maybe, rather than children being brain-washed by belief-systems imposed on them by adults, what has really occurred over the years is that we have been/are being brain-washed by a culture that promotes fear over love, cynicism over belief, and materialism over Gospel.

As always, just thinking out loud. Won't you join me?


Monday, March 22, 2010

The "So What?" of Bible Study

My emphasis this Lent has involved a lot of conversation about the idea of "Being" as opposed to merely "Doing." I'm not backing off from that principle at all - but, I'm also thinking about my wife Rebekah's favorite Bible-study question: "So what?"

Eventually, after the who, what, when, where, how and why questions; and after the inspiration and the poetry and the spiritual insight; and after the learning and the history and the cultural context; and the language analysis and the word-studies and the translation difficulties and all the various filters we apply when looking at a text... after all of this is either examined or sidestepped, then it comes down to the question, "So what?"

Or, to phrase it another way: What is the practical application (of all I'm learning and experiencing) to my life, or to our life as a community, once the dust settles and we have to actually live from day to day?

Monday morning:
"So what" is a great Monday morning question. Especially in light of yesterday's amazing Sunday with my church family.

Yes, yesterday was a HUGE day at First Presbyterian Church of Brandon. Church rocked! (That's Ben Pabst, left - he's been chairing the finance part of this effort) We celebrated, we filled the sanctuary with joy and love, and we reaffirmed - in a corporate sense - our shared passion for serving God together through the ministry of our church. We shared generous gifts. It was impossible to be in that place and not sense the refreshment and renewal of the Spirit of God.

We now have over $500,000 in cash and (approximately) an additional $450,000 in pledges toward the capital campaign. It was a great beginning in terms of moving, purposefully, into the future. Everyone is excited and the ball is well and truly rolling toward financing some great plans and ideas.

But, yesterday was just one great morning of excitement, and we shared a massive joy-fest that demonstrated a ton of authentic faith and deep commitment. So what?
  • So what.. in terms of Monday morning?
  • So what, as regards our personal relationships?
  • So what, when it comes to living out our faith in the day-to-day routines of real life?
  • So what, over the next six days until another amazing Sunday morning rolls around?
It's always a good question.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Amen! Go Church! Yay-God! Awesomeness!

Today - Sunday - is a very exciting day at my church, First Presbyterian of Brandon, Florida. For the first time, since we added a second, contemporary, service over a decade ago, we're all gathering at one time for a combined worship experience (with a whole bunch of extra chairs squeezed in where we can).
  • The Praise Band will play - and the (traditional) choir will join in.
  • The organ will lead the hymn singing - and the Praise Band will crank it up a notch.
  • The pastoral prayer will be similar to the 11:00 service format - then we'll respond with the sung Lord's Prayer from the 8:30 worship team.
  • Rebekah will be preaching... and Tim will be preaching... at the same time!
It's going to be fun to teach the "sung Lord's Prayer" to the 11:00 crowd. It's going to be a treat to all worship together, at the same hour (and a half!). It will be more than awesome to stretch our building to its limits.

Then what's really cool - as regards my ongoing journey through Lent, is this outrageous "Pause for Extravagant Celebration" during the middle of what can so often be a solemn time. Today, just when we might be beginning to stumble on our journey to the cross.... BAM!!! - WHAM-O!!! - there it is. A cymbal crash of bodacious, spontaneous praise.

We're doing all of this, on this particular day, to dedicate this critical phase of our ongoing "Vision for the Future" initiative, building ministry and the physical space where ministry happens; it's been over five years in the making. This community of faith is moving forward, animated, passionate, inspired, motivated, activated, and allowing itself to be directed by our common commitment to follow Jesus.

I'm not a big "amen"-er. But I will to this post. Amen, and AMEN!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Cleaning out. Toxic Waste

Short post this morning - I may augment later in the day.

Saturdays tend to be busy with non-writing commitments. This morning, for example, I'm heading to the county hazardous waste disposal site to get rid of a bunch of stuff from the ongoing "GRP" (Garage Reclamation Project). Paint, electronics, glue, batteries, etc. Then it's yard work and more in the garage.

Over the past 14 months we've been re-working our home, one section at a time. Roof, soffits, exterior paint, poor wiring, kitchen, family room, bathrooms. Weekend before last, Rebekah rebuilt the laundry room. She enjoyed the new shelving systems so much she started on the garage!

So, best case scenario, we complete the project by Easter. The amount of stuff we've already thrown away is mind-boggling. People will pick up just about anything you leave by the street!
  • "Hey, Carl, look at that storage chest. Can't believe they're throwing it out!" (Well, we threw it out because the back is split in two, some of the paint we stored in it leaked all over the drawers, there's one drawer missing, and there's a huge hole in the side from a small parking error!)
  • "Quick, Larry, grab the lawn-mower before they change their minds!" (That mower hasn't worked since the summer of 2003. It only cost $150 to begin with back in 1996 and it has a drive mechanism with a snapped cable, a throttle mechanism with a snapped cable, no blade, and a burned out motor - who knew you should add oil every couple of years?)
So Rebekah has almost finished up installing the new shelving, and everything we haven't thrown away is on the floor waiting for the "organizational phase." Before long we'll have a car in there and we'll actually know where stuff is!

Okay, here's the hook. It's Lent for our garage. Cleaning out, refocusing, getting mission in line with day-to-day reality. Making room for purposeful change.

I'm out of here - got some hazardous waste to deal with - DEREK

Friday, March 19, 2010

Love defined by what we're FOR, not AGAINST!

Most of you know that I write a regular community column for the Tampa Tribune. I interview a broad variety of people, but at least every other week or so I'll sit down and chat with a preacher.

This week I interviewed the head of staff at a healthy, busy church with it's roots in the late 19th Century "Restoration Movement". If you're interested in history, the Restoration Movement spawned The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Church of Christ.

I asked the preacher what fundamental idea was central to his ministry, and tears came to his eyes. He shared a story with me from his previous congregation back in Kentucky. He had hired a young man to lead worship...

...Things were humming along nicely until the Sunday the new worship leader invited a friend to accompany a solo on guitar. The guitar player had been badly burned by "religiosity" in the past, this was his first visit to a church in years, and the worship leader was excited to share the life and the message of his new faith community. (No, it wasn't the late great Larry Norman, but his picture is a good representation of the point!)

Sunday evening, several church leaders called an emergency meeting. Two prominent families were threatening to leave the congregation. Why? Well, the visiting guitar player upset them. Apparently it was his jeans and his flannel shirt; not only that, but the young man had long hair. The ultimatum was laid down - either the worship leader had to be fired immediately, or they would leave the church.

"I'll miss them," the pastor said, wisely.

"But these families are big givers," the church leaders countered. And the decision was made.

The situation broke the young preacher's heart, and he almost left the ministry. Instead, after several weeks of heart-searching prayer, he heard God's distinct calling to be a part of the solution, and to do a better job of presenting a Gospel that loves out loud.

Or, as Jesus put it in today's scripture -"Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17: 25-26)

How is the world EVER going to know God if we do not love with the love Jesus represented? Too much of the religious world is still defined by what (and who) it is against. The love that led Jesus to the cross is all about invitation - not rejection.

With love - the Jesus kind of love - DEREK

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Who Are You Looking For? The Message of the Rose

Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I am he.” - John 18:4-5

Yesterday, late afternoon, Rebekah went out into the garden for a stroll while I got busy in the kitchen with some fresh vegetables and a few slices of pork loin.

It was a beautiful afternoon, sunny and clear at around 65 degrees. Our garden is a serious mess right now - it needs a couple of full days of hard work - but that's not stopping the early roses from blooming. They push their way out, regardless, full with the promise of summer and bursting with hope.

So Rebekah snipped one and brought it inside to sit on the counter top. This morning the rose opened all the way, caught in the first rays of sunlight as I ground the coffee beans.

One of the themes of Lent is wilderness. People often read Bible passages relating to the forty-days (a long time) that Jesus spent in the desert, wrestling with his purpose and preparing for public ministry. There's often a run at self denial in Lent. People try to enhance spirituality by moving away from pleasure or distraction. I understand what they're doing, but I believe it's a uncreative to routinely mistake grey-tones and solemnity for God.

I can imagine the irony Jesus must have noted when the Temple guards came bursting through the night in Gethsemane, looking for someone in fear, panicked, and running away. Instead they came across Jesus, calm as you like, not going anywhere.

So Jesus asks these people who it is that they are looking for. And they answer, "Jesus of Nazareth."

Jesus stands in the dark place like the rose Rebekah discovered in our garden, blooming his heart out. It's thought-provoking to consider the fact that these people - like millions throughout history - were "looking for Jesus"!

I've never really thought about it before, but the tragically confused, and the angry, and the criminal, and the hateful, and the misfits, and the lost, and the resentful - they are all looking for Jesus. Jesus recognized this, and he was willing to meet them where they were; the master always is.

Christ blooms with beauty in the middle of the desert - the run-down garden - the oppressive workplace - the broken relationship - the lost life - the abandoned faith - Gethsemane... Jesus blooms there because he understands the searching heart.
Even when we're at odds with everything - maybe especially then - he does not leave us... because he is always ready to be found by his children.

I love the way this is expressed in Jeremiah 29. Right at the end, the idea is summed up in terms of bringing us back from the place of exile. That's what Christ's point is. That's the message of the rose. Back from exile.

  • For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. – Jeremiah 29

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Faithful By Design

This regular morning post serves as a deliberate, personal, devotional exercise. I'm happy to have other people look over my shoulder, as it were, and see what is on my heart and mind at the beginnings of each day.

I'm honestly not sure how many of you "tune in". During 2009 I had a "hit counter" running, and it registered somewhere over 20,000 visits. That number did not include people who read the RSS feed on facebook, or views via the feed that goes directly to my "author page."

During the first couple of months of 2010 the counter lit up like North America from space on a clear night! By the beginning of March it was up to 60,000; I didn't trust its behavior, so I removed the application.

It could be that my mother looked at my blog 20,000 times last year, or that a few hundred of you check in once in a while. My best guess is that there is a mixture of regular readers and "drive-bys". Regardless, the process is good for my spirit and it gets my writing juices flowing every day.

Today I'm thinking about the potential ripple effect positive lives of faith can have on the world we impact. I use the word "impact" with care. We may make a difference (positive, negative or a little of each) in the lives of a half dozen people or so, or it's possible that hundreds of thousands of people, across the globe, experience potential change in their lives because of what you do, or say.

That's why I'm excited every time I get involved in something new that allows me to dialogue with a few extra people, and I wanted to use this morning's post to share such an opportunity.

I love the Presbyterian Church, and I've been able to place a few articles with various church-related publications over the years. I write devotions for These Days, I've contributed articles to Presbyterians Today (the glossy magazine), I've filed stories with the Presbyterian News Service, and I've had a few commentaries in The Presbyterian outlook (the bi-weekly news magazine).

The Presbyterian Outlook has recently undergone a serious overhaul. When the dust settled and the new format unveiled (it's super-cool) it turned out I have a regular slot and a permanent name for my column.

I'm extremely pleased with this development. The column name - and we kicked around several ideas before settling - is "Faithful By Design". It neatly sums up the direction of my content, which is the imperative to be faithful to our calling in the context of God's design - a very Presbyterian slant and theological undercurrent.

What really floats my boat about this new column is the opportunity I now have to get inside the heads of Presbyterian leaders throughout the United States. The magazine is read, primarily, by pastors and elders. My books have (so far) made an impact in the United Methodist Church; now, maybe, I can send a few ripples out that will rock a Presbyterian boat, or two.
  • (If you're interested, I've pasted this issue's column at the bottom of today's blog)
This leads directly back to today's Bible verse. Jesus is still praying (yes, he was a "long pray-er"!). He's dealing with just this issue; the issue of ripples:

"I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (John 17:20-23)

Here's something we can do that will determine the kind of ripples we send out; the quality of the impact we bring. Spend deliberate time today in the presence of Jesus.

Spend deliberate time today in the presence of Jesus.

Love and blessings - DEREK

"Faithful by Design"

Who Needs the Presbyterian Church?


Recently, I sat in a pastor’s office and asked the following question: “Why is it important to have a Presbyterian Church in this community?”

The church is celebrating its 75th birthday, and I was writing an article on the festivities for their local newspaper.

“Wow!” she said. “That’s a great question.”

Yes, it was a great question. I have, over the past decade, published interviews with over 300 active clergy who live and minister around Tampa. I have my finger on the spiritual pulse of the region. There is much to be excited about, in literally dozens of denominations, but there is a numbing sameness to the vast majority of the work, and a huge percentage of the population has yet to find a spiritual home.

Consequently, and while I have a deep appreciation for the commitment of almost every pastor I’ve met, it’s profoundly evident that there remains a crying need for a dynamic, passionate, creative Reformed witness - and it’s only being addressed by a handful of churches.

The majority of Presbyterian congregations in this region are losing ground. Why? It’s not because people already go to church somewhere else; and it’s not because (and I’ve heard this) “Presbyterians only appeal to a select group of people.”

First, less than 40% of the population attend church anywhere. Second, when “select” become mostly interchangeable with “dead”, we’re looking at the wrong demographic.

My interviewee, Rev. Loli Ros Reiter, offered an answer to my question that rang true; she’s irrepressibly enthusiastic about the value of a Presbyterian presence in any community.

“Presbyterians take God’s word very seriously,” she said. “We study it, and our history has been to look at the world around, and to see how we can fit God’s Word to the needs of the world today. That is an important witness, and we’re faithful.”

There’s a story about a well-known 19th Century atheist seen hurrying along a London street on his way to church.

“I did not know you believed this message?” He was challenged.

“I don’t,” he replied. “But the man who is talking believes with such passion that I am compelled to listen.”

Presbyterians have a message worth both the passion and the presence.
Love and blessings – DEREK MAUL

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Lent: the math, the master and the meaning

I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. Jesus - John 17:14-19

Note on the ecclesiastical calendar:

Is today really the 28th day in Lent? The answer is both yes and no. If you do the math, you've probably figured out by now that we're going to be well beyond "40-Days" by the time Easter pops up on the calendar.

How can that be? Well, the "40-days" does not count Sundays. The first day of Lent is Ash Wednesday; then Thursday, Friday and Saturday make the first four. Sundays, however, don't count. They're "The First Sunday in Lent", "The Second Sunday in Lent", etc. That makes the first Monday day five - and so the method of counting continues. Therefore, the six and a half weeks of Lent comprise (6X6=36) plus the last four days (Wed,Th,Fr,Sat) = 40 days

We don't belong to the world:

In today's scripture, Jesus is praying for his followers. He uses the phrase "They do not belong to the world" more than once. Christ's thinking on this is a key concept for this particular part of our journey.

It's not that this world is not our home; it is. In fact, we were created specifically for this place. But, this world is not the beginning nor the end of our identity. The values and the priorities that define a way of life that routinely excludes God often stand at odds with what it means to be a Jesus-follower.

Jesus calls us to a counter-cultural way of being. Because of this, Jesus concludes, his friends are often going to be misunderstood, resented, and reviled.

Obviously, Jesus was talking about the Roman occupying force and the local religious status-quo. However, Jesus was praying specifically for us, too, and in today's post-Christian culture, living as Christ-followers often means living outside of the mainstream. Our call is to be counter-cultural; not for the sake of being different, but because following Jesus is seldom interchangeable with blending in with the crowd.

But I don't want us to confuse following Jesus with a kind of souped-up religiosity. Christ's call is the call to live without reservation. I believe the practice of following Jesus leads to more fun, more joy, more peace, more kindness, more goodness etc. etc. People should be able to tell who Followers of The Way are by our enthusiasm for life, not our judgement or our severity or our lack of passion.

So this week, when I was picking up supplies for the latest installment of my ongoing "Gourmet Initiative", I smiled at the fun of applying spiritual principles to my shopping; while I was cooking I experienced the savory aromas as a kind of incense, a call to worship; and when Rebekah and I enjoyed the fruits of my ongoing gift, we were sharing communion together, the Lord himself as much a part of the table and the conversation as the two of us.

Christ, "The silent/unseen guest"? Not this time; not in this house; certainly not on day 28 (24, plus four Sundays!) of Lent 2010.

Love and blessings - DEREK

Monday, March 15, 2010

Don't just do something - sit there!

(Photograph taken from as we were landing in Detroit last week)...

From Psalm 46: There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge ... “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”

Saturday's post (the one about uncluttered space, and the potential of meaningful spiritual growth via an uncluttered heart) has prompted me think about serenity. And serenity is not a bad place to be on a Monday morning.

But not just serenity for its own sake, so much as serenity that anchors meaningful life.

The idea expanded somewhat for me in terms of an ongoing discussion we've been engaging in my adult Sunday-morning class at First Presbyterian Church. We're reading a thought-provoking book by a Catholic scholar who is unusually open to learning from the wisdom and insight found within Buddhist thinking. Essentially (and and at the risk of over-simplifying a deeply complex book), the author suggests that our "Westernization" of Christianity can become (and largely has been) a barrier to experiencing God in terms of spiritual practice.

One of the sub-headings in this week's chapter resonated with me in terms of my commitment to experiencing Lent as a profound, connective, spiritual journey. "Don't just do something, sit there".

It's a clever phrase, yes, but it's also a concept that points to the heart of what I was getting at in terms of talking about uncluttered space. Or, as Jesus said in my rough paraphrase of yesterday's scripture, "Some people hear God's message; but then other - more pressing -priorities crowd their lives and get in the way. Eventually the message is pretty much lost to them. God's word is choked out, and people receive no benefit from the transformational life it offers."

So I'm interested in a Lenten experience that puts "being" ahead of "doing", at least for a little while. Many of us frenetically "do" faith, showing up for every event at church, throwing ourselves into service and mission, tuning in to Christian radio in our cars - living the practical expression of a "holy" life.

That's fine. But what are we doing about "being" holy? Is our experience grounded in the serenity of a spiritual practice that allows us to "don't just do something - sit there"?

Or, to use a phrase that my wife, Rebekah, ofter employs - "Everything we do at this church comes out of worship." Is a sense of "Be still and understand the presence of God" the impetus for the "doing" part of our faith journey?

Such being propels us into action, yet with a more vital connection to "the source of all being". God, in my experience, is interested in occupying every element of our experience. He doesn't just give us marching orders at church and check off what we're up to - God wants to inhabit our being and transform the experience.

Lent - Day 27...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Enough - When stuff gets in the way

If you walked into my house today, especially if you hadn't seen it in - maybe - four or five years, several things would likely stand out. You'd probably notice the new kitchen, the new dining room location, the guest bathroom remodel, the new roof, and the way we use the bedrooms now that Andrew and Naomi have moved away.

But one of the most significant changes - an intervention that impacts possibly every space in the house - is a systemic shift in the way that we do business as a household. You'd most certainly notice a huge change... but you might not be able to put your finger on exactly what is different.

What's different is the amount of "stuff" in our house. Less furniture, fewer home accents, reduced amounts of things we don't ever use, paired down closets; increased counter space, room on the shelves, very little in permanent storage, etc, etc....

What I'm talking about is a good look at the word, "enough". Another way to talk about this is "too much". Or, how much is enough and when is there too much.?

Enough can be a helpful financial stewardship question. It's also a commentary on the idea of "simplicity". And enough can be applied to environmental concerns as regards waste, sustainability, and more radical notions such as "fair share."

All of these thoughts are beneficial, but today I'm specifically thinking in terms of clutter and distractibility; I'm thinking about the state of our home in relation to the spiritual discipline of Lent.

I love God's Word. In fact, the opportunity to spend extra time delving into scripture is one of the most amazing side-benefits of being a writer. God's word feeds me, inspires me, sustains me, and informs my work. So this morning it is no surprise that an appropriate selection came to mind in terms of today's blog posting. Here it is, Jesus telling the story of someone sowing grain:

"...And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing."

The desire for other things chokes the word and the yield is reduced to nothing.

Today our house is pretty-much clutter free. I recently visited the home of someone who literally had to step over and around dangerous piles of clutter in order to simply turn a switch on the radio. The house is actually lost behind the mountains of irrelevant and unused minutia.

Sometimes it's good to open the windows, put everything we own in the middle of the lawn, throw out what gets in the way of enjoying life, air out the house to it's very bones, and live forward - from that moment.

Am I talking about the house or our soul? Yes.

I believe we're talking about good Lenten practice. To impose a certain ascetic purging on our spiritual life, simply to air out the Temple of the Holy Spirit and to get rid of those distractions that serve to stunt our spiritual growth.

That's the picture I'm seeing this morning. It's Lent, Day 25. What's getting in the way of your spiritual life?

(Look, a counter top! If you've forgotten what they look like then this post is for you!)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Wrapping up Quiet Strength

This Wednesday my men's group finished up our eight-week look at Tony Dungy's book, Quiet Strength (Here's a photo of a few of the 15 guys who participated in the study). We enjoyed a strong commitment level, with a constant undercurrent of "If a high profile, Superbowl-winning, NFL coach can talk about this stuff, then it must be OK...."

We closed by having dinner together. We started out with a devotion, ate mass quantities of high-calorie, cholesterol-heavy foods, then talked about some of the key ideas we had learned during the two months.

Once we sifted through all the classic football-esque "It was third-down and our backs were against the wall" anecdotes, the detailed "inside scoop" on the complex lucrative industry that's supported by sixteen 60-minute games a year, and the constant name-dropping of professional sports icons, the thrust of the study was simple: The most important thing in life is not what we achieve, but who we follow.

Dungy is crystal-clear regarding his priorities as a man. So we talked about how we can implement such a perspective when our own, less famous, lives are defined by distractions such as:
  • office politics
  • dysfunctional school environments
  • angry spouses
  • political angst
  • broken relationships
  • rebellious children
  • financial pressures
  • chronic health issues
  • crises of faith etc. etc....
The answer is simple, really. Jesus laid out the basic principle during his "Sermon on the Mount", Matthew 5-7. ""Seek first God's Kingdom," he said; "and everything else will fall into place."

Christ wasn't talking about problems being magically solved; but he was reminding his listeners that there is a necessary order in terms of prioritization - where the world not only begins to make sense, but the world also tends to work more effectively; because seeking, first, God's Kingdom is fundamental to the way we were all created. It's engaging our core purpose; it's redemption from the ground up.

Jesus said the following, during his long conversation with his friends at The Last Supper: "I am not alone because the Father is with me. I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face trouble/hardship/difficulty/persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” - John 16: 33

Dungy's Quiet Strength comes from understanding that Jesus has conquered the world, and it's the kind of victory we can participate in, every day. When we live in the confidence of that realization, then nothing at all has the power to defeat us.

!!!! - DEREK

(picture from a blustery English hillside, last week)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Family - faith, strength, struggle...

When I returned from England, Rebekah and I got to enjoy some quality time with Naomi and Craig, who took a few days of vacation from Connecticut to check in with Florida family and friends. It still does my heart good just to see how happy Naomi is.

I get a boost every time I catch her singing silly songs to herself, getting excited about a fountain soda, or working overtime to make Craig laugh. Life is for living, with enthusiasm and gusto; Naomi never wastes a moment.

My brother Geoff and I both have birthdays later in March, so the family got together for a shared celebration at my niece's home in Bradenton. It was a beautiful Florida day and we all hung out on the wide front porch, eating sandwiches, drinking tea, and sharing our lives.

Over the years we've grown into the habit of sharing, in turn around the circle, what we're thankful for, and concerns for prayer and support. There's always a lot to talk about and this time was no exception.

There is a lot of joy, news to celebrate, plans to catch up on, blessing and peace. But there is also heartache, challenge, and uncertainty.
My brother, Geoff, is dealing with a new cancer diagnosis (that's him to the left), and the overwhelming weight of it was on everyone's hearts and minds.

The scripture I'm reading today for Lent brings the difficulty and the faith of it all into clear focus:

Jesus is speaking to his friends around the dinner table: "I came from the Father and have come into the world," he said: "again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.”

His disciples said, “Yes, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure of speech! Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.”

Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe?"

Christ's friends are eager to sound as if they're on board with his teaching: "Yes, we get it; now you're speaking plainly...." But the Lord can read their hesitancy: "Do you now believe?"

In our family time on the porch (that's my dad, above, and my mum, at left) we did a little better than the disciples. We weren't trying to pretend that everything is Okay, or that we're tight with God's Big Picture plans. No, we're a little scared and confused and that's alright.

It's alright because our faith is bigger than our questions and doubts. They can occupy the same space. And we are 100% sure that God is with us, regardless.

Have a grace-filled day. It's always an option - DEREK

Below: Hannah, Rebekah, Naomi, Grace