Saturday, July 31, 2010

Community enhances everything...

Question: What do you do when it's too hot to do anything that requires movement, and when the A/C in your house can't keep up? Answer: Go play golf outside in the full sun for five hours!

But it was a scramble - always much fun, and it was a fund-raiser for a good cause (Family Promise, a new homeless ministry here in Brandon) - so the golf was essentially guilt free.

You can see my friends Gerard and Gary with me after we complete the last hole (the fourth, Jack, was taking the picture for me). The beautiful thing about "best-ball" is it enables even a group of fairly average golfers to turn in a decent score - in our case a 69. We only bogied one hole and came close to going really low.

It's essentially a small-group experience. Everyone brings what they have to the table; you learn the truth about the other guy's game (because it's not about what you say anymore it's about what actually happens); you play off one-another's strengths, and when things go south for one person the rest of the team has more than enough ammunition to bring them along regardless.

I've said this before and it will come out time and again in my writing and speaking - "Christianity is, at best, a team sport." We weren't designed to live alone and our creation didn't come with the idea that we should isolate ourselves in any way. Community simply makes meaningful life more possible.

I talked with a young(ish) man this week who is going through some real struggles in his home. I asked him what kind of support system he and his wife had. He said they were on their own. We've invited him to church, we've invited him before, and we'll continue to whenever we see him. He and his wife need the community of faith, simple as that.

Interestingly, everyone on my golf-scramble team contributed. I'll bet that if we counted it up we'd find out we used at lest 15 shots from each member. It's not that we all had the same ability... the truth is more along the lines of "There's a different dynamic at play when we do anything in community."

Notice I didn't say "committee". I said "community." Huge difference.

Grace and peace - DEREK

Friday, July 30, 2010

Excess - and why more doesn't add up to better

I started off in the yard early this morning - intending to beat the heat. The strategy didn't really work, but I do have a nicely mowed, edged and (partially) weeded garden for my trouble.

It's hard to follow yesterday's blog post - especially in terms of the photograph - so today I'm posting a couple of our recent cooking adventures.

What's been best about this has been the all out flavor-fest! It's much easier to deal with smaller portions when the taste is so good.

Take yesterday's evening meal, for example (not pictured). I tossed a salad of mixed baby greens, garbanzo beans, chopped red onion, chopped tomato, sliced (fresh) mango, and Italian dressing... with a little salt and pepper and a touch of diced garlic. Then I grilled a dozen fresh large shrimp. I served the salad with the shrimp on top and a slice of whole-wheat flat bread on the side.

The flavor combinations were spectacular! We were more than satisfied.

But isn't more always better?
This cooking process is making me think - and re-think - about the idea of excess. Here in the West, and in North American in particular, we go in for a lot of conspicuous over-consumption. We do it because we can, because "This is America, gosh darn-it; it's our God-given right", and because there's this cultural overlay that declares, "More is always better."

Here's how it works. If a four-ounce steak is good... then an eight ounce fillet is better, right? Simple math then concludes the full one-pound tenderloin would be best of all. Or, if my family is happy in a 2,000 square foot home... then we'll be even happier in a 3,000 square footer, right? And if a $50,000 income leaves me satisfied, then earning $250,000 is going to make me more satisfied still. It stands to reason!

But isn't it possible to be satisfied and fulfilled (and a free American) without overindulgence? Apart from avoiding the heartburn, and the weight gain, and the cardio-vascular problems, and looking bloated, and being generally unhealthy... could it be true that we can actually experience more pleasure when we accent flavor, and creativity, and invention, and balance over the mantra of "more = better"...?

The parallels for life in general are self-evident. Focusing on the quality of the experience, and enjoying the benefits that go along with balance and flavor.

I'd like to think we're living that way: within our means, always bringing the most flavor out of the moment, balancing the spiritual with the physical, enjoying what we have rather than looking for the next big bite.

Maybe that's it. When it's always about more then there's no enjoying the moment - there's simply getting in line for the next slice... while stuffing your mouth with the perfectly adequate portion on your plate without even enjoying what you have....

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life" (Matthew 6).

Thursday, July 29, 2010

lessons from the dog (well, she is cute...)

Gotta love the attitude of the average family dog! I noticed this morning how consummately accommodating Scout is - enthusiastically so.

It started when I got out of bed. As I walked past her in the dark I could hear her tail thumping on the floor: "Oh Boy! Daddy's up! If I'm lucky he'll walk into the kitchen!"

I eventually do. And there she is, already waiting for me, lying on her side on the tile floor pretending to be asleep. But I see her eyes follow me all the way to the sink, and she can't help but thump the floor with her tail once again.

So I down a glass of orange juice and get the coffee started. She knows what's coming and just can't contain the excitement: "Daddy's going to go for my leash, I just know it. Walk time. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy...!"

And off we go. Walk on the grass? "Oh boy!" Cross the road? "Oh boy, oh boy!!" Turn down this street... or that one? "Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!!!"

Eventually we make it back home and she's just as excited. Can't wait to get into the house. Can't wait to check her water bowl. Can't wait to eat her breakfast. Can't wait to take mama her coffee: "This is great! This is the best! This is the most wonderful morning I've had since - well - yesterday morning!"

But it's more than simply "Oh boy!" It's a huge dose of grateful along with the enthusiasm. She looks at me as if to say, "Thank you. Thank you so much for this life. I love you, I love you, I love you. There's a reason my tail won't stop wagging, you know..."

PSALM 100 -
Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.

Worship the LORD with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.

Know that the LORD is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.

For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.

AMEN! (Oh boy, oh boy!!)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

New Every Morning!

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. "The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him."

I have to be honest here, I'm getting a lot of my morning Bible selections from the Upper Room Daily Devotional Guide. It makes sense, as it is the magazine that gave me my first credit as a published author and - consequently - the confidence to push on and continue trying to break in to a difficult freelance market.

The Upper Room isn't my only source for Bible and meditations. But, often as not, it's the morning selection that opens the door for me, that gets the ball rolling and points me in the right direction.

That's why - for me - my devotional exercise isn't complete until I encounter God's word for myself. That's where this daily posting comes in. Writing forces me to invite God into my own experience, rather than limiting the discipline to reading about someone else's faith. Don't misunderstand, reading about other people's journey is an inspiration and an encouragement - but at some point in the day I simply have to stop, meditate, read, pray, and invite the Holy Spirit to be my personal guide.

It's a journey that we're all more than capable of taking, one small step at a time.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Daily Gourmet - a step more

You give your guests a feast in your house, and you serve a tasty drink that flows like a river. Psalm 36:8

It appears I have managed to generate some interest - in my vast network of readers (tongue firmly planted in cheek) - regarding the details of this new approach to cooking here in the state-of-the-art kitchens at Maul Hall. So I'll indulge you today and offer some highlights.
  1. The food is awesome
  2. As of this morning, my beginning of the day weight has dropped from 180.5 (last Thursday) to 176.5
  3. This is not so much about losing weight as continuing my ongoing "Gourmet Initiative", but with more careful attention to balance than Epicureanism. A return to my ideal weight of 170--172 will possibly be a side benefit
  4. The plan is to follow the daily regimen for five days each week, understanding the impracticality of expecting a 100% performance
  5. The book we're using (and I only purchased it because I liked the look of some of the individual recipes) is called "The 3-Hour Diet" by Jorge Cruise. The endorsement from Emeril Lagasse - "Where great food meets great flavor" - is right on
  6. The idea of "3-Hour" means that we're supposed to eat something every three hours. The meals are pretty-much 400 calories, and the snacks are around 100 calories. That means somewhere around 1500 calories a day. I'm probably eating more like 1800, but that's still (best guess) only 60-75% of my normal intake
  7. I'm improving the book (and probably increasing some of the calories) by cooking from scratch where possible. For example, instead of frozen pancakes for the ricotta cheese/cottage cheese/peach pancakes, I use my Joy of Cooking pancake recipe. Instead of frozen spinach, I prepare fresh. Instead of canned marinara sauce, there's a great recipe from another cookbook to prepare my own.
The bottom line, especially in terms of this ongoing "A Life Examined" - "Live as if we mean it" - commitment I have going on, there's absolutely no reason not to enjoy a healthy diet that is at the same time bursting with flavor and bordering on "The Daily Gourmet".

Stay with me on this. I'll be reporting back - maybe even bragging a little as I hone in on 170 pounds. Peace, always - DEREK

Monday, July 26, 2010

Rambling, so you can listen in - DEREK

Today the house is quiet and - hopefully - productive. Rebekah is usually home Monday mornings, but this is the first day of Vacation Bible School at First Presbyterian and she plans on being part of the excitement. So she headed in at 8:30, along with our VBS volunteer niece, Faith.

Faith is at Maul Hall for an extended visit. We have been dubbed either, "The Maul Retreat Center" or "Camp Aunt". She's been with us the best part of two months now, is working at Outback as a primo table-server, and has become BFF with both Scout and Darth. Additionally -and don't tell her mother this because she'll never believe it - she's been eating things like squash, carrots and other healthy food she disdained in a previous life.

The whole food thing has been and continues to be an interesting journey, and Faith has been an encouraging participant. As of last week, the "Gourmet Initiative" has shifted from my once-a-week commitment to pretty much every day!

What happened is I purchased one more cool cook-book for Rebekah's birthday and, instead of my promised "Pick one new menu item each week and I'll do it", she wanted to go all in and actually build our diet around the systematic approach.

Consequently, we menu-planned, are re-thinking the way we structure our food day, and made a $350 trip to Publix to invest in some of the new basics. It's all translated into some amazing meals.

The difference now is that the emphasis is more in flavor than calories, and we're looking at a radically healthier diet. I've lost two pounds in four days (modest beginning, but hopeful) and Rebekah is finding it's easier to maintain more consistent blood-sugar control.

It's a lot of work - but change always is. The point is to actually make an investment in change rather than simply talk about it. I'm a little bit tired - to say the least - of so much talk about change (in faith, in politics, in personal behavior, in health...) in this country; talk that is then followed up by fear and backtracking and the digging in of heels...

... Like we're going to ever move forward without some costly investments along the way? Now really, be honest, what exactly do you want?

It's always a good question.
Rambling, so you can listen in. It's a public service I try to provide every day - DEREK

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Keeping our feet on the ground

Today Rebekah and I drove over to St Pete for a 50th anniversary party. We all met on the top floor of a waterfront condominium and the views were spectacular. I could easily imagine spending my days writing, with panoramic views as an inspirational backdrop.

Then Rebekah and I sat down across from some of our friends and chatted about life, our children, struggles with work, and the amazing impact of God's word on the details of our every day. Heck, we even talked about theology!

What I realized - as if I didn't already know! - was that my writing is unlikely to hold much depth if it all emerges from a distant view of the world from the 30th floor of a tall building. Maybe I could generate some fiction from up there... but I write about real life, about where
God intersects with personal experience, and about where redemption shares the same space as struggle and disappointment and the brokenness of the everyday.

So Rebekah and I walked around the balcony, looking north towards Tampa, east across the water, west to Tropicana Field, and south down toward the Sunshine Skyway. It was a glorious place, and it really was wonderful to experience the views.

But at the moment, for the foreseeable future at least, our place is down on the ground floor, with a congregation full of people we love and in the middle of a community that needs to hear the good news.

And it is good news, such a great story! That's what was exciting our table conversation, and that's what continues to animate our lives.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Gourmet Living on Overdrive

Yesterday evening I made this delicious artichoke and goat-cheese pizza as part of my ongoing "Gourmet initiative." It was a busy day all around. Today's blog talks about some of the overload and how things tend to work together for good.

[The boy's father said to Jesus] "If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us."
"IF I can?" said Jesus. "Everything is possible for him who believes."
Immediately he cried out, "Lord, I do believe! Help me with my unbelief..."
(Matthew 9:22-24)

Yesterday was a perfect microcosm of my life right now. Full, challenging, creative, interesting... and - quite possibly - just a little too much!

I spent the morning at Hyde Park Presbyterian, working on retreat planning with their pastor; I met Rebekah for lunch; I drove down to Lithia, where I spent half the afternoon interviewing a Lutheran pastor for a Tribune article; I searched high and low for the exact ingredients and then made an amazing artichoke and goat-cheese pizza for this week's gourmet initiative; and I was the keynote speaker for the Brandon Christian Writers' Guild during the evening.

Meanwhile, during odd moments of the day and then after I returned home around 9:30, I have been (and will be for the next few hours) concentrating on a critically important writing/consulting project for an organization whose work I highly value.

To be honest, I feel a little stretched right now. But, at the same time, I am 100% confident that the focus of my life and the work I'm involved with is exactly what God wants me to be doing. So I feel strength, and purpose, and encouragement coming from the source of all creativity and the author of life itself.

I wrote yesterday that "belief is a powerful thing: and so is unbelief." So today I feel challenged to engage the truth of that statement by stepping into belief. Because belief as a purely academic - or emotional - exercise is inadequate for the task of living the kind of life that embraces all that God intends for me. Belief more often involves taking the first step, and following the word with some action.

So here it is: I believe that God will use me and my gifts today, and I'm going to approach my work with the confidence that comes from my knowledge that God is not only faithful, but generous too.

Have a great Friday!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

In Love and in Truth

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9)

Picture - me with my favorite nephew named Jared and my favorite niece named Sarah.

This morning I've been thinking about credibility in writing - and most specifically in the way stories are told via the news media.

Several years ago I made a conscious decision to adopt Philippians 4:8 as my "writing mantra". I write with the intention of "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things..." as an overarching theme.

"But what if the world and the situation you're dealing with really is an honest-to-goodness maelstrom of vile putrescence?" You may ask (And I'm sure you would use words like maelstrom and putrescence).

Well that's a fair question, but we should also consider this. Isn't there a sense in which the life we experience tends to conform to our preconceptions and our general philosophy? Aren't negative expectations and interpretations routinely met simply because that's the kind of energy we bring to the table? Isn't it true to say that our interpretation of events and of people is a form of direct leadership?

Belief is a powerful tool. As is unbelief. When the stories we tell and the stories we listen to become predominantly negative, then we have made conclusions - pre-conclusions - that contribute to the critical mass that makes a dark status quo so hard to move beyond.

Fact is, it's not so much the media that's the message as it is that the personal filter of the story-teller becomes the message. Truth is too often sacrificed in favor of "playing to the audience". Think for a minute about the way Christianity is often slanted. The dark joke is this: If you want your church to make the news you have to hope your pastor gets caught in some indiscretion!

However, for every religious leader caught in embezzlement, adultery, manipulation or child pornography, there are literally hundreds of good men and women building up families and living Christ-directed lives that rock the world for good. But who do we hear about on radio and television, or read about on-line and in the paper?

Fabrication: Then, if there's not enough negative news available, some commentators simply make stuff up! There's a huge controversy raging today over a racially charged "story" that was inaccurate and patently untrue. But the negative spin went viral because of our chronic addiction to bad news and the tendency of people to pass on anything that supports their own prejudices. Truth too readily becomes less important than the advancement of political agenda and our own prejudicial point of view.

But there's a huge cost when we go down this road. The stories we tell and then retell become the fabric of common consciousness. When we don't tell the whole truth then we're really not telling the truth at all.

That's why I have interviewed well over 300 local spiritual leaders and share their witness via the Tampa Tribune. That's why I tell stories about countless people doing good, and quietly living eloquent lives of transformational faith.

I don't do this because I want goodness to be true. I do this because I know that it is. There is so much in this world that is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise.

"Think about these things." I mean it, really... THINK about these things.

In love and in truth - DEREK

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Living the Story

Yesterday's post was a little rushed - and it's not looking much better for today! What I need is a devotional time, so that's what I'll do - you're simple invited to listen in.

I'm starting with a scripture - God's word always helps me to "center" spiritually. The following are the first few verses from Psalm 19, and this morning they seem to be reaffirming some of the connectedness I felt at the camp yesterday, on the shores of Lake Griffin, in the middle of all the enthusiasm of hundreds of teens unabashedly excited about their faith.
  • The heavens keep telling the wonders of God, and the skies declare what he has done. Each day informs the following day; each night announces to the next.They don't speak a word, and there is never the sound of a voice. Yet their message reaches all the earth, and it travels around the world...
It's not just that there are no words necessary when we allow creation to give testimony to the Creator - it's more that there are no words adequate. And I can't help but feel what story I tell when people take their eyes off "the heavens" and interact with me?

We all tell a story. We all live a story. We don't have to speak a word... yet our message travels around the world.

I read in the newspaper this morning that the homicide rate in Tampa has jumped 135% this year. That means that there is a lot of desperation out there, a lot of pain and a lot of brokenness. And I'm wondering if there's much about the way that I "Live my faith out loud" that offers anything at all in terms of hope, or answers, or healing?

This is where my devotional is going this morning; my time thinking about God, God's word, and my response to the presence of the Holy. My thoughts are not so much self-evaluative, or self-judgmental, as they are self-imaginative. I'm allowing God's truth and my imagination to work together in preparing me for this day...

... It's a busy day; there's a lot to be done and written and said. And I'm wondering - aloud - what message the way I live my story will proclaim. I say it's a message of promise and of redemption. That's what I say... But what will the world hear?

PRAYER: Lord of creation, I pray that you will speak clearly through my life today, and that - in some small way - my story will "keep telling the wonders of God". Amen

Love and blessings - always - DEREK

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Time for Summer Camp!

Short blog entry today - and late too!

I had to get up early today and drive just north of Leesburg to research a story on the United Methodist Camp Warren Willis. The director, Mike Standifer, was meeting me mid-morning to chat and give me a tour of the 200 acre plus site alongside Lake Harris.

Wow! The place is beautiful. Lakefront. Live Oak hammocks all over the place. Dense Florida underbrush. Wetlands. Docks. Wide screened-in porches. Spanish moss. Literally hundreds of noisy teenagers!

We talked about why a week at camp (or a summer, if you're one of the 108 college-aged counselors) is so important, so transformational. I heard a piece on NPR recently that focused on the "camp people vs civilians" phenomenon. Essentially, the journalist said, people who go to camp in the summer become qualitatively different kinds of people - it's as if they speak another language and understand one-another on a level non-camp-people just don't get.

The NPR guy was right. But the effect at church camp is different in a still more profound way. It folds in encounters with the holy that stay around all year long and actually mold the kind of spiritual life the camper experiences.

More tomorrow..... DEREK

Monday, July 19, 2010

Another Monday dawns with anticipation

Another Monday dawns, and the Florida air is so moisture-laden that there's heavy condensation on the outside of all the windows. The garden is lush and beautiful after several weeks of good rains, and it's sunny with the promise of hot - I can almost see the grass growing.

Yesterday was a good birthday celebration for Rebekah. She says Scout Labradoodle (four years old now) is still her best birthday present ever, so of course the great galumphing over sized puppy had to be in the birthday portraits. You can see one of the shots as my blog banner photo for the time being. Scout is now four years old and just about the best dog ever.

We went out for seafood at Stingrays then The Cheesecake Factory for a shared dessert. Rebekah got to speak with Naomi in Connecticut and then Skype with Andrew in Bahrain.

We tend to evaluate our lives on birthdays and anniversaries, and we both agreed we're in a good place right now. We're 54 years old, our children are happy, our work is meaningful and we know we're making a positive difference in the world.

But at the same time we're committed to not standing still. We want to keep the ball rolling. We both feel very clearly (yet without a sense of specific urgency) that there is a tremendous amount for us still to accomplish, and we're definitely in agreement that the last thing two creative middle-aged people should do would be to ease back and say, "Well, we're certainly on top of things, we can pretty much coast from here on out...."

So it's Monday morning in Florida - humid air, growth soaked into every pore of the Earth - and with this tingling sense of anticipation in our spirits too.

Here's a good reading to go with such a day - DEREK

"Since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God." (Colossians 1:9-10)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Member or Disciple?

Today is Rebekah's birthday. I always enjoy listening to her sermons, but today I couldn't help thinking about how cool it is to have the opportunity to share what's on your heart with 350- people - especially on your birthday.

I'm putting in a link to the church sermon podcast page. If you've never heard Rebekah or Tim preach then this is a good resource and I'd HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT! Click here.

Rebekah - along with Tim - is preaching a summer series around the general idea of "Growing up in Christ." It's about maturity, about what it means to move forward in faith and to live more deliberately as Jesus-followers committed to a life of faith that is active.

Such an emphasis reveals the unspoken reality that many of us pretty-much stand still as people of faith. Neither Tim nor Rebekah are referencing my book, "The Unmaking of a Part-Time Christian", but we're all talking about the same thing when it comes down to it - we're talking about a faith that informs every aspect of our living.

I don't have the statistics on this, but I wouldn't be surprised to discover that far less than 25% of church members (across the board in the USA) even think about their Christianity as a daily, moment-by-moment walk with Jesus.

I have a couple of numbers that tend to support my gut instinct, however.
  1. Less than 10% of Christians have an active, daily, purposeful devotional life where they worship and study and pray intentionally.
  2. The average American church has less than 35% of "members" in worship on a given Sunday.
  3. The average American church has less than 20% of its membership involved in regular activities (study, mission, ministry teams, small groups) during the week, between Sundays).

My church - First Presbyterian of Brandon - has around 520 members, with attendance ranging from the summer low of 300 plus to over 400 during the school year . Average comes in at just under 400 (that's 60-80% attendance). Somewhere around 75% are involved actively beyond worship.

But everyone in leadership believes the key measurement is "are we moving forward?". Are we more faithful today than we were last year? Is my faith more of a factor in the day-to-day than it was in the past?

Am I "growing up" in Christ?

Or, to put it another way, "Am I a disciple of Jesus?"

Friday, July 16, 2010

Creative in the image of God

When I finished printing off the manuscript to my new book this week (even in the digital age my contract calls for a hard-copy for the initial reading), I was immediately excited about what's coming next. Not what's coming next in terms of the book so much as what new book is coming next.

Because the journey has become - for me - the best part of the process. I enjoy the creative discipline, the evolution of a project, as much if not more than the completed work.

There are several distinct chapters in the life of a book.
  • The idea
  • The proposal - and selling the proposal
  • Writing the book (this is the best part!)
  • Editing and production
  • Release
  • Marketing
  • Talking about the book (another best part)
This time I had what I consider a genius plan as I finished up, and am using the final chapter to launch my direction for what's coming next. So, already, I'm back at the top of the list ("The idea") for book #5.

If I am being creative, then I am truly living in a way that honors my designation as "Made in the image of God." God is - by definition - constantly creating and re-creating. I believe we are all at our best when we embrace what it means to live into that image.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

I've looked at clouds from both sides now...

(photo from a recent flight to Texas) This morning the air was delicious. Lots of rain yesterday evening - it was a bona fide deluge - and it left the air fresh for the morning walk.

Then, and it always amazes me how unique every day is, the sunrise was spectacular. Looking west, where huge cumulus clouds were already billowing, the early light caught the underside and it was glorious. Bright whites, deep blues, dense blacks and a soft grey advertised the coming day as most likely a mixture of storms and showers and sunshine. I always say I don't like too much humidity, but this moisture-laden Central Florida air today makes for a dramatic color palette as God paints the sky.

And I thought about how the sky tells such a rich story about creation, and how it achieves its witness simply by being its most splendid self.

The best apologetic is to live well. To live as if the Creator actually is working in us. To live as if we believe.

Yesterday evening a couple of friends came over to the house for coffee and conversation. We talked about why we're interested in a deeper, more complete, more extensive spiritual life. The bottom line was that life is simply better when we're connected to God.

Rather than telling others they're wrong, or that they're going to hell if they don't believe like us, it really makes more sense to live in the truth of a salvation that is all about "participating in the work of God."

And the work of God is expressed in so many creative ways on this good Earth. The amazing clouds, the ocean, spectacular mountains, the cardinals in our oak trees, flowers in full bloom... and in lives lived well. Lives lived in the truth of God's unconditional and uncompromising love.

Grace and peace - DEREK

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

This Grace of Giving...

But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us —see that you also excel in this grace of giving. (2 Corinthians 8:7)

Yesterday I interviewed a 90-year-old man for my community column in the Tampa Tribune. Typically, such conversations provide enough information in 30-40 minutes, but we must have chatted for a couple of hours.

The reason I'm doing the story is the unique gift he's willing to share with needy children; something I don't think I've ever run across, especially in men from his generation: Ed is a whiz at sewing, and he makes children's clothes.

"So if you're not a seamstress," I observed, "then you must be a seamster!"

Like any real-life person, a little probing beneath the surface revealed a fascinating story. The explanation as to why, retired from a career in manufacturing in Michigan, my new friend spends several hours each day designing, cutting patterns, and sewing children's clothing, is a slice of history that runs into three centuries.

If you want to know why Ed makes children's clothing, the story begins back in the 1890's, when his father was an infant - his grandmother fell and hit her head while climbing a fence. She died and her husband left his children - several - to be raised by relatives. Ed's father learned to fend for himself and went on to raise his own children - during the Great Depression - to do the same.

"My sisters were all required to to 'boy stuff'," Ed said. "They had to hammer, build fences, feed the animals, fix the roof. And then I was taught the 'girl-stuff' too. I learned to cook, clean, take care of the laundry... and make my own clothes."

The context of history and of story makes all the difference. You can't watch Ed's steady hand on the electric sewing machine (his fourth), without thinking about the day in WW2 when he lost thirty-two close friends after someone ordered their landing craft to the wrong beach.

The neat pile of summer shorts ready for shipping to the Child Abuse Council take on more definition when you know that the guy who made them stood up a new manufacturing plant in Michigan, where he spent a quarter century producing steel drums and fiber containers for Dow Chemical.

Ed was keeping books for a single Firestone store in Indiana when an acquaintance introduced him to a waitress who had a friend, Dorothy. "Dot" and Ed fell in love the instant they met. When they were dating, Dot's father ran into an old friend... who made an introduction... who placed another phone call... And next thing Ed knew, he wasn't a Firestone book-keeper anymore but aC.E.O getting a new factory off the ground in another state.

But Ed wasn't just some faceless industrialist. He was a man who's father's early experiences, and his own depression childhood, and the great burden he carried from WW2, and his sense of destiny, shaped his approach to life. So when Dot had trouble finding comfortable clothes for her petite frame, Ed's great love for his wife merged with his great resourcefulness and he decided to make them himself. He found he had a gift he could share.

Later, retired to Florida and a members of a church that worked with abused children, Ed and Dot found another outlet for his passion and he started making children's clothing, turning out shirts or shorts as needed, customized to size and gender.

Today Ed is ninety years old. He lost his beloved Dot in 2003 and their home was destroyed by a storm in 2004. But he continues to sew, often working until one-thirty in the morning, because he knows he has a gift - and gifts are only given to us so that we can then give them away.
  • Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:7-8)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Word to fellow-travelers

I'm feeling the need to spend a few days - or better yet a couple of weeks - dedicated simply to smelling the roses (yes, I know that flower's not a rose, but it was sitting in our garden looking pretty so - for me - it fits!). I love my work, but there have been several huge projects over the past couple of months that have pretty-much stretched my capacity and left me feeling spent.

Consequently, I feel like I've dried up, creatively. It's like I poured everything I have into the new book (I'm running off the final few chapters today and getting it in the mail tomorrow) and now I'm running on empty.

My solution? I'm going to read! I've just launched into Ken Follet's epic "World Without End" (it's an 1,100 page novel set in the mid 1300s, and makes a nice, light, follow-up to "A Distant Mirror", the more scholarly approach to the 14th Century we recently finished), and I'm reading a fascinating book called "Blink", by the author of "the Tipping Point".

Also, and every day, I'll be exposing myself to a fair amount of Bible. I plan to let it all soak in while I do my more standard reporting and general "content" writing for various newspapers and web sites.

Consequently, I anticipate a fairly run-of-the-mill week of blogging. But, hang in there - you never knew what might pop up in this space.

Peace and blessings - DEREK

Monday, July 12, 2010

My anchor and my life-raft

Church on Sunday has always served as an anchor for my life. I'm not sure if it's the fact that attending church has been a constant routine since I was an infant, or maybe the sense of assurance I receive from being part of a loving and encouraging faith community, or simply an authentic spiritual experience that's fed by the fact of God's blessing in response to the practice of corporate worship..?

Here at my computer, ruminating on a Monday morning, I suspect it's a complex interrelationship between all three. I can't deny the comfort level of predictable routine, and a social milieu defined by friendliness and nurture is a proven vehicle for stability and affirmation. But, at the same time, the spiritual value that is unique to Church provides an element of groundedness and redemptive truth that is - in my experience - only available in the context of Christian Community.

That's nice, and it's certainly a positive testimony regarding the life-affirming reality of my experience at First Presbyterian Church of Brandon, but it also begs the question (one of Rebekah's favorites), "So what?"

Because the real truth about Sunday morning (and evening, with my small group) is told on Monday-Saturday when we're not gathered in a big blob on the north-east corner of Hwy 60 and Parsons.

We talked about this - indirectly - in my Sunday morning study group. We were discussing the idea of living in the constant awareness of our spirituality. One of the group made the observation that he can go hours without thinking about God, or considering the spiritual nature of any given moment or activity.

So I shared a quote from an interesting story by a writer for the United Methodist Reporter (a Dallas-based news magazine). The column, which ran late last week, was about me and my book, "The Unmaking of a part-Time Christian". Here's her question and my answer:

Many readers might say, “I’m a full-time mom” or “I have a full-time job” and therefore “I can’t be a full-time Christian too.” Your response?
It’s not mutually exclusive. There’s this idea that we can’t be spiritual giants, we have to leave that to the professionals. But we can be involved in all these other things and still have a sense of full-time faith. We can be the presence of Christ in this world. Christ said that we were going to continue his work; literally, he wanted us to be his presence. It’s not as if we have to drop out and become monastic; it’s the opposite. Jesus wants to be invited into the everyday world. God wants a permanent seat at the table of our consciousness. We can think of Jesus as a filter through which we can pour the contents of every single day.

My life is, I firmly believe, qualitatively different Monday-Saturday because of worship on Sunday. Being part of a church is, or course, so much more than the "worship hour" on Sunday morning. Jesus is, as I said, "a filter through which we can pour the contents of every single day". But that time in worship, shared with the 300-400 people in attendance on a given weekend, is not only an anchor for my life, it's a life-raft too.

If you don't attend a church, or do so only sporadically, I'd like to encourage you to make the commitment to be a faithful Jesus-follower in the context of a faith-community where you are loved, nurtured, instructed and encouraged to "live like you mean it"... Because God most certainly does.

Grace and Peace - DEREK

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Rays baseball. Big loss, huge amounts of fun!

Well, that was an education!

Rebekah and I attended our first Rays baseball game in a long long time, and showed up on a night when they really didn't play baseball! Fortunately, we were with a bunch of great friends from church, so we enjoyed the evening regardless.

But, really, we have the team with the second best record in baseball - pretty much neck and neck with the Yankees right now, it's a Friday night, and there's still just a handful over 20,000 people watching the game - that's not much more than half full - if that.

So for me, that's pretty much an affirmation that St. Petersburg essentially doesn't want a baseball team in their city, and they really have no room to complain if the new ballpark gets built on the Tampa side of the Howard Franklin.

We car-pooled over with Peggie, Gerard, Karin and David, and arrived in time to spend $30 on a hamburger and fries before the game got under way.

It was good to be there, out with friends, nothing to do but laugh, hold hands with Rebekah, and watch baseball. So I'll leave it at that, and post a few pictures to go with the story.

One thing I must share. This picture to the left is "The whiff that cost 20,000 pizzas"! It was the tenth strike out for the Rays pitchers. So, even though we lost big time, there was a tremendous cheer for K # 10. It was, by the late innings, the only thing left to root for!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Book Retreat is Complete!

I think I can safely say that my new book is done! Just a few small detail edits over the next few days as I run it off, a chapter at a time, before shipping to my publisher Tuesday. It's always a bitter-sweet moment to type in a final sentence, hit "save" and realize that a nine-month project has been completed. It's both exciting and sad.

I felt so good about the conclusion that I actually broke out into spontaneous applause when I struck the period at the end of the final sentence!

Having the "writer's retreat" (at the Grace and David Maul Retreat Center, above left) to finish up gave me the necessary opportunity to concentrate, and put all the pieces together with a sense of continuity. That was the plus side. The down side was being away from home for a few days.

The experience reminded me of why my dream is still to generate enough income from book sales and speaking engagements that I can set aside my "reporting" work, and concentrate on these more creative, long-term opportunities.

So here's my goal - and it's still fairly modest. I'd like to see annual sales increase by at least 50%, and I'd like to have two solid speaking engagements each month.

Meanwhile, I'll be getting my new manuscript in the mail. It's going to be edited over the next few months, go to the page design and cover concept people, final decisions will be made as to the title, and the good folk in marketing will just be drooling over the huge sales and exposure possibilities :-)

And one final note - I had to include this photo. See the speed limit "18 mph". You have to know that in the face of such specific legalism I always do my best to hit 19 on the straightaway!

All this and more!
I'm getting kind of excited about it - DEREK

Thursday, July 8, 2010

To post or not to post...

Yesterday I didn’t post a blog. I was writing all day, but none of it seemed able to translate from book stuff to something that fit in this – daily – format.

Initially that concerned me, because I don’t want to do any writing that doesn’t have the potential to tie in with what’s going on in my life, and yours, on any given day. If I don’t write with a sense of immediacy, then what’s the point?

But then I realized that I had completely crawled inside my book world yesterday. It’s almost like working on a 50-story building: I was two-thirds through and immersed to the point that everything I was thinking and writing was tied in to the Big Picture of the entire project. I simply couldn’t leave for a few minutes to blog (back down on the sidewalk) and then try to climb back up to the 36th floor and pick up where I’d left off.

So today I’m making this short post at the front end of the day, then I’m climbing back into the book and I’m not coming out till it’s done.

Everything today hinges on the final chapter. I’m almost afraid to give anything away but I’ll just say this – it’s the “So What” of the Easter story:
- Jesus died… well so what?
- They say he defeated the grave… well, so what?
- You say/I say/we say everything about our faith hinges on Easter… Well, so what!?... It’s Monday, and it’s the day after Easter. How is my life any different? or do I even want it to be? So What.

All righty then, it looks like I started work in the book – time to change hats for the remainder or the day…
Peace - DEREK

Monday, July 5, 2010

Working on a new manuscript...

This morning I'm going to explain the new banner/heading. I took the photograph in my study, specifically for the blog this week (you can probably pick out one of my books if you look carefully). This is "book-writing week", and I'm on a writing retreat for several days in order to put the finishing touches on my latest project for Upper Room Books.

The manuscript is due on my editor's desk July 15. The purpose of these next few days is to put all the pieces together.

It's kind of like a quilt at this point. Imagine a hundred or so elements, all fairly complete, scattered all over a huge work table. My job over the next few days is to sew them all together so they make sense and work as a whole. Then, once that's done, I need to write the introduction and the last chapter. It's a short book, around 40,000 words or 160 pages, but it's very dense in terms of content.

It's a book about Easter, and I'm really enjoying the process. I don't feel pressure so much as opportunity - and responsibility. "What can I say," I'm praying every day, "that will contribute to renewal and spiritual growth for the people - believers and seekers alike - who find their way to its pages?"

My approach is similar to my recent Advent book (In My Heart I Carry A Star, 2008). There's a short chapter for each day of Lent, starting with Ash Wednesday and finishing on Easter Sunday. There's a surprise at the end, an extra few pages that serve as an epilogue of sorts, that I pray will "knock people's socks off"!

I'm inviting people to take a journey to Easter, through the time known as "Lent", so we don't arrive at Holy Week unprepared for the enormity of Christ's Passion. It's too common an experience for us to jump in for the excitement and celebration of Palm Sunday, return to life as usual, pay scant attention to Maundy Thursday, listen to a few arguments about "should kids have to go to school today?" on Good Friday and then wake up Easter morning with the vague understanding that we should be wearing something extra nice to church today....

My invitation is to enter the sacred rhythm of deliberate observance. I aim to inspire, to provoke thought, to encourage the spiritual walk, to put life-changing scripture in the every-day, to blur any lines of distinction between the sacred and the secular, and to provide a sure pathway that will lead participants into the most profound, meaningful and challenging Easter celebration they have ever known.

That's what I'm up to this week! I feel enormously blessed to have this opportunity to lead others into the presence of the Master - DEREK

Even the best ideas need a little leg-work to get going....

Playing some backyard soccer with my nephew, Jared, was good for me in many ways. First, I need the exercise; next, it reconnected me with the pure fun of playing (it's been 14 years!); and finally it reminded me that vision and imagination often exist independent of the means to implement them.

Okay, that last one was complex. "Vision and imagination often exist independent of the means to implement them." let's unpack the idea, because I believe it's a concept worth thinking about on a Monday morning at the beginning of another week.

Playing soccer with my nephew, one danger of the disconnect between vision and means was that I would seriously hurt myself!

As you can see from the photograph, I can still control a ball like it's attached with a piece of string. Jared was amazed that I could run through a series of cones (actually, flower pots), cutting back and forth at speed, with the ball never more than a few inches away from my feet. I can still juggle; I can trap an incoming ball at any height or speed like I had a catcher's mitt on my feet. And I can pass and shoot with pinpoint accuracy...

So why don't I get out there and play on a team? Because there's a world of difference between demonstrating skills in isolation (and I still had to be careful), and responding in real time and making split-second decisions without consulting certain body-parts.

The moment I find myself back in a live-action game situation, it's all going to fit together and my imagination and creativity are going to trump limited flexibility, diminished speed and compromised reflexes. That's when something will snap, I'll fall over, I'll run out of gas before I get going, I'll crumple, or something.... and that will be the end of the game for me.

Simply put, I don't have what it takes any more to play competitive soccer.

Fine. So what's that got to do with anything?
Well, I'm concerned that we often have great ideas about stuff (big and small): The future, family, spiritual life, career, projects, fitness, goals, relationships.... But we fail to do the leg-work required to make it happen. So we get discouraged at the first obstacle, set-back, cramp, road-block etc., and we don't go any further because we believe we can't implement the vision so why try?

Marriages fail, careers stall, relationships get stuck - not for lack of vision but for lack of fundamentals. Practice, training, commitment, discipline, strength, flexibility - all the things that we have to work at, diligently, if we really want to move forward.

There's more to say about this idea, but I don't have time this morning! But tune in soon for more, and I'll develop the idea.

Have a great Monday - DEREK

Saturday, July 3, 2010

LIBERTY is nothing unless we're prepared to live in the truth of it...

There is so much I could write about this weekend. The nieces and nephews, the World Cup, "taco night" at Maul Hall, why I enjoy the heck out of mowing and edging, July 4th...

But I guess it's all about July 4, really. This is something I've been getting more and more sure about since my first official "fourth" celebration (that happened to be in Philadelphia) in 1976. Today, more than 34 years into my American journey, I can say "Happy 234th, USA", and actually know a little bit about the subject.

That's why I included a picture of me with my niece Sarah and my nephew Jared (and their dog, Duncan), taken earlier today. Because July fourth is - really - all about what we've been up to this week.

The fourth is not about war, or military, or politics, or religion. Granted, we wouldn't have this freedom if it wasn't for a war of independence... and brave soldiers... and people with the political will to build a government of the people, by the people, for the people... and a God who sent his son to live and die with us so that all people could be free.

But this weekend is a celebration of the ideal of LIBERTY - and the groundbreaking step forward of making a public statement to the effect that we, as a people, claim God's authority to back up our understanding that we have a license - without caveats - to pursue such a principle. The genius of Jefferson was to put into a few simple words the fundamental value resident in every human being on the face of this good Earth.
  • We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
This weekend is about how grateful we all are to live in a place where that ideal is not only yearned for, and respected, but actively celebrated...

... But LIBERTY is nothing unless we're prepared to live in the truth of it.

Too many of us give it away in exchange for temporary pleasures that will not cannot do not satisfy. We voluntarily place ourselves in bondage to those we owe money, to those who control the things we crave, and to those who hold sway over our hearts and minds.

We walk away from our freedom when we let other people do our thinking for us, or when we allow ourselves to be manipulated by louder voices. It's then we can unwittingly trade our genuine passion for prejudice, and our love of America for protectionism; we adopt a desperate defense of "I've got mine!", and too easily get nationalism confused with patriotism.

Jesus said that love is the only thing with the power to cast out fear. But too often we allow our fears to drive us to hate, or exclude, or judge harshly... when instead we should turn to God, who teaches us to love, and who helps us understand that this freedom we say we value so highly is compromised the moment we hold on too tightly, making fists instead of open hands...

So I plan to celebrate the fourth with the image of family around me, enjoying this great land, and doing everything I can to honor the ideal of Jefferson, who knew that he was tapping in to a truth that has the potential to set the entire world free... if only we remember to be generous and to never let go of love.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Are You Well Groomed?

This morning, Scout Labradoodle was scheduled for her day at the spa. Shampoo, grooming, nails, the works. Who knows, maybe they throw in a massage while they're at it. So Rebekah, not wanting to send the puppy in looking too unkempt (even thought that's exactly why Scout was headed for the beauty parlor), started to pull some "beggars lice" from Scout's beard, comb out some matted fur, and snip a little straggly hair from around her eyes.

Then she got into her ears.

Then she pulled out the brush.

Two hours later - I kid you not - Scout looked like this. I hardly recognized her anymore. The "pulled through a hedge backwards" look she's been working on for the past few weeks was history.

Needless to say, I cancelled Scout's visit to A Handsome Hound this morning. But it reminded me of people who spend all day cleaning their house before the maid service comes in - because they don't want the house to look so bad.

It also reminded me of something about church. Some people are concerned that "The right kind of people" show up on Sunday mornings. They get uncomfortable around visitors who don't fit into their narrowly defined social milieu. The thought is "They should get cleaned up before they come to church."

I really like something I heard from a friend recently. "You don't need to take a bath before you come to church... You come to church for the bath."

The idea has to do with the fact that we're all broken and imperfect in many ways. But if we stay away from church until we believe we're finally "good enough" to be there we miss out. Church is exactly where we need to be in order to deal with our brokenness and pain and need for grace and forgiveness.

Well, that's always been my experience.

"If you are tired from carrying heavy burdens, come to me and I will give you rest. - Jesus

Thursday, July 1, 2010

It's not just BP - we're all to blame...

One of the good things about nieces and nephews is the disruption to routine (It's also one of the bad things if you have tons of work to do!). Simply put, my need to work got trumped by their need to not be bored. So yesterday, around about mid-morning, we headed out to Alderman's Ford State Park where natural Florida is all over the place and most of the hiking is in the shade.

Scout came along for the fun and her nose worked overtime. The Florida swamp aromas just about overwhelmed her size 14 honker, and if it weren't for the leash I believed she'd have followed it into the jungle and still be there this morning.

The Real Florida:
It's easy to miss Florida's unique signature when your days are confined to paved roads, air conditioned homes, billboard dominated cityscapes and cookie-cutter theme parks.

When Rebekah and I were first dating we swam in Blue Springs, hiked around Hontoon Island, paddled canoes on the St. John's River and camped in the Ocala National Forest. I learned to love the unique combination of swamp, jungle, dense vegetation and exotic foliage: heavy with humidity; teeming with life; potent; redolent; brimming; loaded; almost nascent, primordial, rich.

We could feel the presence of thousands of lifeforms, barely below the surface and - coming from England - it felt just a tad dangerous. Snakes dropping into the canoe (it's a long story!). Alligator eyes just above the surface. I always felt that there was more happening within a few feet of me than I wanted to know, both in the water and in the jungle - and I was probably right.

State Park:
So just a brief trek into the real Florida, pointing things out to Sarah and Jared, feeling Scout strain at her leash, was enough to put things back into perspective, and to remind me of how critically important it is that we take good care of this amazing resource.

And we're not doing so well. We allow economic pressures to dictate environmental policy and we shoot ourselves in the foot time and again. If we lose Florida then what would be the point of all the shortcuts and the compromises we made so the road to destruction would be easier to build?

"Well BP didn't blow that well on purpose..." No, of course not... but a policy of greed made it a great likelihood.

"And we didn't pave over the entire state of Florida because we hated nature..." Well, no, but what we are doing is demonstrating a priority that values short term profit over long term integrity.
  • If you build an access road far enough into a jungle then one day the jungle is gone...
  • If you build enough stuff on a barrier island then it's no longer a barrier island...
  • If you build too many houses on beachfront property, then one day you wake up and there's no beach.
And so it goes.
  • If we insist on making it too easy to build new homes and businesses in Florida, and with scant regard for what makes Florida unique, then one day we're going to find that all we have anymore is businesses and homes... and that Florida has simply gone away.
It's not just BP. We're all to blame.