Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Messy - Impractical - Loved

Okay, straight up - I'm not big on "arts and crafts".

Oh, I get it alright, I just don't enjoy the process. But I do:
  • Love the way Rebekah always does a hands-on family "project" with all the nieces and nephews and hangers-on every Thanksgiving after The Big Eat.
  • Believe that scrap-booking is modern folk-art at its best.
  • Think that our annual "Advent Adventures" crafty-afternoon at church is always the most fun; I show up, I work the room, I watch people unwittingly glue themselves to small children... it's all good.
I'm a craft-watcher more than a craft-doer as a rule. But this morning I got sucked in, and the consequence was both interesting and informative. You can see the result in the above photograph, and there would be extra pictures but my lap-top is giving me trouble and I can't paste in more than one image till I'm back at my mac on my desk.

It was my "clergy-spouse class" at the Montreat Conference. And the exercise was designed to illustrate the complexities of inter-related (but not necessarily correlated) people and priorities and personalities and agendas and axes-to-grind that make up the typical church group-dynamic.

I immediately got the conversation somewhat off track when I said, "Wow, that's really pretty!" It wasn't supposed to be pretty, it was supposed to look complex, jumbled, disorganized and hard to unravel. It was certainly all of that, but at the same time it was an awesome representation of how beautiful such complexities can be.

So I thought about the people back home in First Presbyterian Church of Brandon. You know, the young families, the retirees, the middle aged, the young adults; the conservative, the liberal, the reactionary, the moderate; the socially active, the reclusive, the advocates for social justice, the tea-party inclined; the poor, the comfortable, the backs-to-the-wallers; the fighters, the peace-makers; the fearful; the generous, the healthy, the sick, the at-risk, the needy; the people of all colors, the people who see no color; the seekers, those who feel at home, those who doubt, those who ask questions, those who know no answers; the PhD, the grade-school drop-out; the laborer, the business owner; the bankrupt; the disillusioned; the confident; the secure, the angry, the hurt, the grieving, the insensitive, the...

Every one of them a sinner like me. All standing in need of redemption. All standing in the presence of redemption. All coming together on a Sunday morning to worship in spirit and in truth.

And I felt so thankful for each one of them. Even old so-and-so... Sir Full-of-himself... Mr. Pontificate... Mrs. Think-like-me... and even Ms. Whine-a-lot.

They are - we are - the intricacy and the often anxious mess that speaks of the Kingdom of God, or at least our incarnation of the work in progress. They're not easy, and sometimes they make life more difficult than beautiful, and sometimes they will move on to another community because we simply don't/can't/won't measure up. But that's alright, I guess.

It's alright because that is exactly why we are here; why we have been called into leadership. Not to make everyone feel comfortable or - God forbid - right. But to make us all aware that we do have a place; that we do have the confidence to stand in the presence of God together. To be a community of faith.

Messy. Impractical. Loved.

In love - DEREK

Monday, August 30, 2010

When Structure becomes Stricture: God save us from shutting off the flow of The River

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. (Revelation 22)

Rebekah and I are well into this week's conference at Montreat. She is busy busy all day long. I am attending the "spouse track" portion of the event, and taking off during the afternoons to get caught up on my work.

Phenomenal Theology:
This morning my group viewed a remarkable short documentary about creativity. It was as if the narrator had read most of what I have to say on "Living like we mean it", and "Engaging our faith with creative passion", plus my preface from "GET REAL", and then constructed the film to illustrate the most essential points!

Our discussion dovetailed nicely with the earlier segment on "paradigms". For me, synthesizing all the content, it is very clear that so much of our problem as the "mainline" church in a new millennium is related to our institutional tendency to filter everything new and interesting that comes along through a particular prism. It's a view best defined as - "our structure is more important to us than the life it contains." Or, in too many cases, the life it used to contain...

Interestingly, when I wrote the previous sentence, I Freudian-slip typed the word structure as "stricture". Now is that telling, or what!

We develop ways of looking at the world (paradigms) as ways to help us understand and organize information, as well as to problem-solve within the framework. Unfortunately, when the paradigm becomes the message (rather than a lens through which to view and understand the truth), content that doesn't fit that particular framework is not only discarded... it is often not even perceived.

"Stricture", in case you're wondering, is defined as an abnormal narrowing, restraint, limit or restriction.

Here's what is apparent to me (especially as I think about the ministry-related situations Rebekah and I have come across recently where God's spirit of imagination and life has been perceived as threatening to some structure-friendly - read "stricture-friendly" - status quo). The church I want to be identified with must be defined by new life in Christ more than it is defined by the protocols of mid-late-20th Century American-Christian subculture!

The leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations. I want the ministry Rebekah and I are involved with to be - always - an important part of God's ongoing initiative when it comes to the healing of the nations.

Are we leaves on the Tree of Life? Are we accomplishing any healing?

Jesus is The River and he is the Water of Life. Is ours an invitation for the thirsty to drink? Or are we so tied up with our own politics and defending the framework we have built (and hope to control) that we are operating out of a stricture rather than a structure?

I love our church. God save us from shutting off the flow of The River....

Friday, August 27, 2010

The path is narrow...

The scriptures are full with stories about journeys, paths, gates and such. There's the broad path that leads to destruction, the camel who can't pass through the eye of the needle, the paths of righteousness, Christ's "I am the gate", the man who's donkey saw the angel blocking the road, wise guys following a star... and countless other references.

I'm a huge proponent of grace, and I shy away from the language of condemnation at every opportunity. I'm sick and tired of hearing people tear one another down. I long for people to know and understand peace. It breaks my heart when I hear people of faith castigate other believers, simply because their journey isn't a carbon-copy of that advocated by their particular church.

But at the same time, and as I look at this picture I took on the Appalachian Trail the other day, I'm genuinely worried that a vast multitude of self-proclaimed Christians may have lost their way. I think they may be beating a trail that's a broad, paved-over highway and they're running in a massive herd, barging through wide gates, and missing the path by a mile at every turn.

These folk have allowed their (genuine) love for America, their fear-based reactionary politics, their nostalgia for "the good old days", their appreciation for the service of our military personal, their attraction to "frontier justice" and their love for God... to blend together into a kind of religious nationalism that is so far removed from following Jesus as to be unrecognizable.

Less than thirty seconds ago I received an email from a "Christian" that started with the statement, "I believe the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim..." That is a perfect example of what I'm talking about.

The following list of examples is off the cuff, neither complete nor in any particular order:
  • I honestly don't know how someone who seeks to follow Jesus - and incorporate his teaching into their daily life - could applaud (as in a recent email) someone pumping six bullets into the back of a purse-snatcher - "Now that's gun control!"...
  • Or laud the actions of the Polk County Sheriff's office when they emptied scores of rounds into a suspected cop-killer...
  • Or advocate the killing of Muslims...
  • Or go on and on about the 1950's being "the good old days". Are you telling me you like segregation? Jim Crow? Discrimination against women in the workplace? Polio? Locking away the mentally challenged and the handicapped? I guess it was good if you were white, "Christian", healthy and male...
  • Or support (without at least asking serious questions) the prosecution of a war that is killing and maiming some of our finest young people when there is scant evidence to suggest that what we are doing is making the world more secure or the lives of Afghans any better...
  • Or routinely condemn those working as advocates for equitable and available health-care for all people regardless of personal means...
  • Or react with anger (at the conversation) rather than compassion (for the victims) when the plight of systematically abused migrant farm workers is discussed...
  • Or dismiss ideas such as social justice as communistic...
  • Etc. etc.
So I guess I've gone and said it. I think that the number of people who call themselves "Christian" is far, far larger than the number of people who actively commit themselves to a pathway of following Jesus.

I'm not talking about anyone's "salvation". But then that's a concept that is hugely misunderstood to begin with - and another post. What I am talking about is the way that following Jesus potentially affects every detail of life.

I'm inviting, I'm challenging, absolutely everyone to let go of their pre-conclusions, their personal prejudices, and their political agendas... and to simply follow Jesus.

I dare you.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Study Leave reDefined

The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest." So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. (Mark 6)

The essential and official idea of a "personal study retreat" is to hole up in some remote location to read, pray, write, meditate, outline future projects and generally be all hermit-ish to the extent that - in due time - some quality product roles off the line.

And then there is reality.

Reality, it turns out, is much better. Reality involves spiritual reconstruction as the primary achievement. Study naturally works better when the spirit is relaxed and engaged. Consequently, the first two days in Appalachia were meditative, with only brief forays into academia. The waterfall and the trail accomplished their work, first. It's no surprise then that by lunchtime today, Rebekah had already consumed almost an entire book

There are two reasons for this week's portion of Rebekah's study leave. One: to achieve some of the above. Two: to prepare her heart and spirit for the preacher conference she's attending next week. Most conference participants waste the first few days "decompressing" from work. Rebekah will be ready.

I'm especially grateful that we can take these two weeks together. I'm missing a couple of deadlines for newspaper work, and it will cost me a few hundred dollars, but that's a small price to pay for the opportunity to share in this aspect of ministry with Rebekah.

And this is a vital part of ministry. The shepherd needs to be nourished (fed, watered, built up, encouraged, taken care of...). And the only way foundational reconstruction has any chance of working - with any sticking power - is to get out of town.

This location is ideal. I don't know if you're reading any of this, Bill and Julie, but your "little cabin in the woods" may be as good as it gets when it comes to study leave! And having me along is not really a distraction (not one that hurts, anyway!). Rebekah has her own personal chef, listening post, coffee brewer and tea maker - plus a chauffeur if she needs to hit the trail and a valet for any supplies.

But it's not just Rebekah - I'm getting some good work done too. I'm preparing a series of lectures for three speaking dates I have in September, and I'm catching up a backlog of writing for All Pro Dad.

All told, and it's only Thursday of the first week, this study retreat is well on the way to awesome. God is here in the foothills of the Appalachians, profoundly, and we are blessed.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bucket List Moment!

I don't have an extensive "Bucket List". But there are a few things I've always had in the back of my mind as "Gotta do that some time between now and when I check out" items.

"Publishing a book" was close to the top of that list. "Win an Amy" for faith-based journalism was up there too. "See my children grown and happy" has absolutely been as good as it gets. Ding! Ding! Ding! The list is certainly a lot shorter than it was a few years ago.

There are other items too. But the list is not organized, written down, or posted anywhere other than the back of my mind. It hasn't been seriously developed at all. But, if I had to give some kind of an accounting there are a few things I'd have to share:
  • I want to publish a young adult novel, the kind that wins a Newbery Award. I know the plot exactly, and I've already sketched out the book in rough prose.
  • I'm itching to speak to a huge crowd at a big event; to be invited to talk about my work internationally; to guest on Oprah's book club. I want to be on the New York Times bestseller list.
  • Another item on my list is to cruise the Mediterranean on an educational study tour. We'd board in Spain, stop at every port in Italy, take in Greece slowly, start Turkey in Istanbul and work our way round like Paul on a mission, tour Israel and Egypt, hug the coast of North Africa and finish up in Morocco. All told, six weeks.
  • I'd like to climb Kilimanjaro before the snow melts, see Victoria Falls, walk the Great Wall of China, spend one more full calendar year in England.
But today - that's Wednesday, August 25, 2010 - I checked off one small item that's been sitting on my list for the best part of 34 years. I walked up Springer Mountain in North Georgia, photographed myself at the Southern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail, and hiked a couple of miles of the AT with Rebekah, like we were heading off on the 2,179 mile trek to the far reaches of Maine.

I fell in love with the Appalachian Trail back in 1976, when I hiked the length of Virginia with a small group of friends. We were "out" for two full months. We climbed up into West Virginia at Harpers Ferry, cut through a small portion of Maryland, and ended up a few days into Pennsylvania.

But my "Bucket List" is not what drives me - it's just a fun way to think about some of my dreams. What drives me is my commitment to live the kind of life that honors the intention of my Creator. It's my calling is to live, to live as if I really mean it. No half-measures. No mediocrity.

I have a friend who died recently after a long struggle with a debilitating illness. He was in a wheelchair, faced constant pain, and was always having to deal with challenges that appeared overwhelming. But the strong testimony of his life was that - through long years of all this... crap - he simply lived.

He lived like he meant it. He didn't "get by", he didn't fuss, and he wasn't bitter about the mountains he couldn't climb or the places he couldn't get to. He lived at 100% of capacity.

My faith, and living with that level of abundance, is really the only thing on my list that counts at all.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tumbling Waters!

Yesterday's long drive landed us in the North Georgia Mountains. We arrived at our friends' cabin (Serenity Pines) around 9:00 and just a little after dark. The location - high in the Chattahoochee National Forest north of Elligay - was a little too much for our GPS so we had to rely on a hand-drawn map for navigation (It was almost a little too much for the hand drawn map!).

But we made it safely, and woke up this morning to 60-degree mountain air. Joy, joy, joy!

Our day proceeded as follows:
  • Coffee on the wide deck, overlooking a spectacular mountain vista
  • Devotional time with Rebekah, also on the back porch
  • Breakfast at the Mainstreet Grill in historic downtown Elligay
  • Hiking in the Amicalola (Tumbling Waters) State Park, including a decent climb to the spectacular falls (729 ft)
  • Lunch at the park lodge with breath-taking views
  • An afternoon of serious work because this is, after all, officially "study leave"
We could have stood by Rebekah's SUV in the parking lot, looked up through the gap in the trees, and said something like, "Look, a cool water fall". But we didn't. We put in a couple of miles of steep hiking so we could get up to the awesome part.

Cue set up here for the following quote: "There are views, I have discovered, reserved only for serious hikers willing to strap a heavy pack and maybe a tent on their backs. Because driving is one thing; walking is something else... [I am] a pilgrim of sorts - making progress unimaginable to anyone not willing to tie their shoelaces, set aside the time, pull out the Band-Aids, grit their teeth, and pay the price...." (The Unmaking of a Part-Time Christian", page 61)

The awesome part does, typically, require the extra effort. Today I am reminded of how spectacular that can often be.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Monday replete with Glory and Light

This is not the best example of photography I've ever produced - but often the picture that supports a story is better than one that's, well, just a pretty picture. Besides, I don't walk the dog with my Nikon hanging around my neck - so the cell phone camera has to make do.

But God provided an awesome light show this morning. I got up before the sun, and Scout and I had made it to an adjacent neighborhood by the time the first rays crept over the top of the trees to the east. At that precise moment, I felt a light rain and also a faint glow, as if I was inside something translucent. So I looked around and there, in the southwest, a beautiful rainbow appeared as if to say, "Good morning, this is going to be a day full with glory and light."

Of course, every day has that illuminating potential, but the idea certainly gains a little more traction when it is spoken by a rainbow.

Look at the picture, and you can see that it is still very dark in the west. But - and this is a theological truth too - it's always light somewhere, and the first trickle of it spilled over the curve of the earth to simply dance with the early morning rain.

This morning it's easy to imagine being a rainbow. When I allow the penetrating light of the eternal to penetrate my spirit, then there's always the possibility that I may present like a rainbow.

The original promise of the rainbow, spoken by God after Noah and his Ark finally made it back to dry land, was a promise to NOT DO something.

The promise of the rainbow I witnessed this morning, spoken into my life with great clarity, is God's promise to be proactive, to actually DO something beautiful through me. I have been called to live as if what I prayed and sung and taught in church yesterday is actually true. I have been called to shimmer, as that light passes through me. I have been called to live.

Love and blessings, always - DEREK

Friday, August 20, 2010

Kudos to Coach Dominguez

Yesterday afternoon, exchanging some emails with an old friend from Stetson University, I was hit with a sudden - refreshing - blast from the past. Chuck Flournoy, who must have a much better organized pile of memorabilia than most of us, managed to dig out a few photographs from the 1979 Soccer program.

That's me - I'm sure you can guess - on the cover. Then there's a team photo and a "players to watch for" vignette that's quite complimentary.

The reason Chuck was digging for pictures is an upcoming ceremony designed to honor our coach from that year, Gil Dominguez, for his contributions to Hatter Soccer over several years.

I'm disappointed that I can't be there, but I will be sending some words. Coach Dominguez was a great coach because he never lost sight of the sheer fun of playing soccer. Check out the team photo (farther down), and you can see a collection of severe expressions (that wouldn't include me, by the way!).

I understand that the whole "glare at the camera" posture is a key element in the way a lot of guys attempt to appear manly (no, I've never understood that!). And I'm certainly not suggesting that everyone in the photo was dysfunctionally uptight. But, we did have a few characters who took both the game and themselves way too seriously; buying in, sadly, to the whole "Winning is more important that having fun" thing.

We certainly weren't a winning team! Every year I played at Stetson we lost far more games than we won! But coach Dominguez was well balanced, and he did his best to make sure that we (most of us) enjoyed ourselves regardless. He was extremely encouraging and supportive, and I always knew that he was glad that I enjoyed myself so much.

Those of you who read this space on a regular basis know where I'm coming from. You're aware of my commitment to abundant life and my intention to "Live like I mean it - because God most certainly does."

Bottom line was this: win or lose, soccer was a blast. Or, as the Rowdies would say, "A kick in the grass." Gil Dominguez coached my senior year. Because of him, because of his rock-solid values and his confident approach to a life (and a beautiful family) he obviously enjoyed, I was able to have fun and play fairly well at the same time.

Later, when I was playing for a soccer club in Pensacola, a rival team (from Costa Rica) gave me the nickname "Brazil". It wasn't just because I played well, they said, it was because I played as if I loved the game; they said I played soccer with joy....

I think both England and team USA could have used someone like coach Dominguez at the World Cup earlier this summer. I really didn't get the impression those guys were having a lot of fun!

I certainly did when I played for coach Dominguez. And I'll always be grateful to him for that.

At our banquet that year, when I received the MVP award, coach Dominguez pointed to his young son and said this, "I'd like nothing more than for him to grow up to be just like Derek Maul."

You don't forget something like that. And you don't forget someone like coach Gil Dominguez.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Key to a Peaceful Garden is Life

I'm not sure why, but this image has settled in my mind for the past couple of days. I took the photograph Wednesday afternoon, while sitting on the back porch during a light rain.

It's been a busy week, so I guess the tranquil scene helps put things in their proper perspective. It's a view that reveals our general approach to the garden - fairly free-form but within the context of carefully defined parameters. Out intention is to have a space that we can enjoy, that's fairly easy to manage, and that comprises mostly natural elements.

Rebekah's mother gave us the Cyprus tree when we moved in (October of 1996). It was literally the length and thickness of a pencil. As you can tell, it's done rather well over the years.

Neither one of like "fussy" gardens. They can be fun to look at in a magazine but I don't think they translate well to real life. You know the kind: manicured to the nth degree, sprayed with herbicide and pesticide, trimmed and mulched and weeded, watered three times a week even during the rainy season, missing grass replaced before even the home-owners association yard-nazis notice....

Sometimes I think our garden is a metaphor for our lives (I almost said, "spiritual lives", but I really can't make the distinction anymore between life and spiritual life).
  • We're interested in growth - but not so much concerned about how tidy it is.
  • We want to participate in life, but we're not going to dictate to life exactly how it's supposed to manifest.
  • We want to glorify God - but we've gotten over our need to tell God exactly what that looks like, and how it's supposed to go down.
  • We value order, respect and decorum - but we're fine with jeans in church, piercings, spiked hair, raised hands, occasional applause and raucous laughter.
  • We're motivated to communicate to the world how wonderful this spiritual journey is - but we're not so much interested in browbeating the world into making their journey look exactly like ours.
The key to a peaceful garden is life, life that we can participate in and enjoy. The answer to the world's great need is the Jesus, the peace he brings and the life that he offers. We plant, we water, we lay the groundwork - but it is God who creates, God who grants the increase, and God who animates with life beyond our imaginations.

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it (John 1:3-5).


This weekend my son, Andrew, is visiting Istanbul (photograph borrowed from the Internet). If you've never been, it's one of those transcendent places that should be on everyone's bucket list.

I last visited "Constantinople" in 1975, part of a month-long tour of Turkey. As we crossed the Bosphorus, spanning Europe and Asia, the ancient city made an indelible impression that I've never forgotten. The experience may have been 35 years ago, but I remember the moment vividly

I was on a decrepit bus with 37 others. We toured Europe, Turkey and Israel over three months, including a few weeks behind the iron curtain (Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia and the U.S.S.R). It was the "field trip" portion of a Bible-school I attended in the U.K. (At right, Andrew).

We had participants from England, Ireland, the USA, Scandinavia, South Africa and India. There were some curious dynamics at play that made for some bizarre circumstances, including leadership that verged on the dictatorial and some religious extremism. But the experience helped me to clarify my own faith, and I made some lasting friendships that literally changed the course of my life...

... And the places we saw! How I wish that I'd been a photographer back then.

The history in Istanbul is amazing, with distinctive architecture and stories from centuries of cultural upheaval. Early Christianity, Constantine, "Christian" empire, Crusades, Islam, Ottomans, Turks.... Istanbul is not just a city where "East meets West", it's the historical fault line where religious and cultural tectonic plates grate incessantly, causing seismic upheaval and tremors felt throughout the globe.

So what?
So here's my point, and it's especially directed to my North American readers. Know your world; understand its history; think things through; don't fall into the trap of isolationism or fail to understand the currents that run deep through history.

You don't contain a volcano by plugging up the hole where an eruption is either pending or spent. There's a vast ocean of highly pressurized magma down there, and it simply won't go away.

Likewise, you don't build a new city on top of a caldera and then dare the earth to move.

Enjoy Istanbul, Andrew. And, friends, let's open ourselves out to learn more about this amazing world and the people who share it with us. I don't know about you, but I still have much to learn.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

31 Years - No easy Answers: Commitment is a choice, faithfulness is a life-style, and following Jesus is a steady pathway

Today, as you may have guessed, is our wedding anniversary. Thirty-one. No big adventure planned, like last year's celebration trip to Italy, but we did begin the day exchanging cards and flowers and gifts. Then, tonight, it will be out to BoneFish Grill.

The big adventure, of course, has been the thirty-one years! "Successfully married" people are often asked things such as, "If you had known then what you know now, and if you had been told about what would happen over the next few decades, would you have still chosen to get married...?"

The short - and always anticipated - answer is, "YES!" But the truth is a lot more complex.

I mean, look at us! We were twenty-three years old good grief! Such knowledge would have been beyond our capacity to process. Marriage is always one step at a time. It's neither the ability to see into the future nor blessed ignorance that holds things together... it's the decision to live in the context of promise, faithfulness and commitment.

No pair of twenty-three year olds could possibly be equipped with the capacity to process let alone comprehend all that we have experienced as a family since 1979.
  • Rebekah's career alone has been mind-boggling. She was already attending Columbia Theological Seminary when we married. But very few people had a clue as to what it might look like for a woman to lead a Presbyterian Church - and what it might mean to be a "minister's husband" was about as clear as colonizing Mars.
  • We may have only raised two children. But, we more than compensated for the relatively small number by having not just any two kids, but Andrew and Naomi. Need I say more!
  • Now add in mortgages, and medical challenges, and financial ups and downs, and moving, and my work in exceptional education, and mid-life career shifts, and the everyday realities of parents who pass away and siblings who divorce and a church full of people who need a little attention once in a while.... And children get married, and they move to far-flung ends of the USA and Europe and beyond.
  • We've owned three homes and over 20 cars; lived in four cities; earned five degrees (counting Andrew's); taken care of three dogs, two cats, and countless stray people.
  • We have travelled to more countries than we can count, hauled our children on dozens of epic family vacations, and thrown ourselves 120% into life with a continuity and consistency that hasn't let up since we were 23 years old and really didn't know any better.
Between us, Rebekah and I have been invited to half the states in the Union to speak about life and faith. And the reason (I believe) that people still want to hear our testimony and read our stories is the fact that we've always been up front about the fact that we love, we pray, we struggle, we triumph, we fall flat on our faces, we get up again and we're always willing to learn.

We know that there are no easy answers, and we're comfortable with that. But the reason we can pull it off regardless, is the fact that commitment is a choice, faithfulness is a life-style, and following Jesus is a steady pathway. God is with us on this journey, but God does not take away the opportunity we have to always choose - every single day - to love and to live and to remember that we are doing all of this in the context of promise.

Could we have moved forward in the light of all that knowledge, August 18 thirty-one years ago? To be honest I'm not sure that we could have even begun to process such a path - it would have been like trying to pour ten-gallons of steaming hot gumbo into an 8-ounce Styrofoam cup... it would have melted, overflowed, then simply disintegrated!

But here's the bottom line. This thirty-one years has been amazing, rich, layered, nuanced. It is a marriage packed with flavor and bubbling with life. It's always been, in many ways, simply too much to handle... if, that is, we were doing it alone, it were all about us and it stopped there.

But - and I love the way Paul puts this in 2 Corinthians - "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me."

And so, thirty-one years along this great adventure, I can say with confidence that it's a journey I am unreservedly glad we are taking. There is still so much to look forward to, and so much to experience together.

God has this unlimited imagination. it's our passion to engage the possibilities, and to encourage other people to do likewise.

I have no doubt that on another anniversary, say our 40th, I'll have occasion to look back at this coming decade and say, once again, "There is no way we could have imagined what was coming!"

"However, as it is written:
No eye has seen,
no ear has heard,
no mind has conceived
what God has prepared for those who love him..."

1 Corinthians 2:9

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I love to tell the story

This morning the temperature was just a tad cooler, and I managed to walk Scout without arriving home drenched in perspiration. My devotional passage was Hebrews 13:7 -"remember those who spoke the word of God to you... check out their lives.... imitate their faith". That's when I saw the sun rise over a church.

I love this picture because of what it says to me. The silhouette, the emerging light, even the telephone wires - standing sentinel to a communication mode fast falling into disuse.

This is "the communication age". And so much of life has become tied up in how we get our message across. Of course, there first has to be a message, and I'm suspicious that too many of us in the "Christian" world reveal a lack of confidence in the message. As if we fail to engage any creativity when it comes to communication because we're worried that we have nothing to share.

We're like that leaning telephone pole - or worse. It's like we're sitting by our oversized rotary phone (fixed securely to one place on the wall), at the end of a barely used and poorly maintained wire, waiting for it to ring and wondering why the world sees us as increasingly irrelevant.

After coffee with Rebekah I met my friend Gerard for breakfast. We talked about faith, how the Bible has spoken to us during the past week, what God is up to in our lives. We prayed together before we left. What a great way to begin the day!

People often wonder about how it's possible to live as people of faith, to "pray continually", or to live as if Jesus is involved in every detail... Well it sure helps to start with a devotional time at 6:30 AM, before anything else happens, and to talk with a friend over breakfast, and to pray together before we even begin work.

There's a phrase I used in one of the Upper Room video segments - "Jesus wants a seat at the table of our consciousness."

How is our message going to be irrelevant:
  • if we carry it to breakfast...
  • if we use Jesus as a filter through which we pour the content of every day...
  • if we take it with us...
  • if we move away from relegating the reach of the Gospel to incoming calls on a rotary dial phone at the end of a decaying wire...?
We can't say that the church is irrelevant without saying that we are irrelevant - because we are the church, and it's our opportunity to either pick up or ignore.

It's all about communication. It's about the story we tell. It's about actually living in the truth of what we believe - or in the consequence of what we don't....

If you were a story - and you are - would the story be fiction? Or a tragedy? Maybe a comedy? A sit-com? A melodrama? Or is your story another Gospel... the good news of God's saving Grace?


Monday, August 16, 2010

An aroma redolent with life....

Sunday was a long day. Good, but long. It started with leaving the house at 7:00 AM for Praise Band rehearsal and didn't end until we pulled in at 9:30 in the evening after a road trip to Daytona Beach.

Rebekah, Tim and I left church right at noon and jumped into the car to head over to the other coast for Jenny Sumner Carswell's ordination as a minister in the Presbyterian Church. Jenny spent the summer in Brandon as our ministry intern two years ago.

Jenny was ordained at her home church, Westminster-by-the-Sea out at Daytona Beach (Check out the "ordination shoes"; Jenny has always known how to roll style and flair into the ecclesiastical). Rebekah and I haven't been to Daytona since she was "in conversation" with First Presbyterian 14 years ago. I love the feel of the Atlantic coast, driving out over the Intra-coastal Waterway, and walking the beaches we used to spend so much time on during our college years at Stetson.

Rebekah was invited to preach the ordination sermon, and she used a surprising but wonderfully appropriate text from 2 Corinthians. The key idea was/is the tremendous responsibility that's associated with our calling (and it's a calling we all share) to re-tell the Gospel story without compromise. Here's the key passage - Rebekah used Eugene Peterson's translation from The Message:

"In the Messiah, in Christ, God leads us from place to place in one perpetual victory parade. Through us, he brings knowledge of Christ. Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance. Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God, which is recognized by those on the way of salvation—an aroma redolent with life. But those on the way to destruction treat us more like the stench from a rotting corpse.

"This is a terrific responsibility. Is anyone competent to take it on? No— but at least we don't take God's Word, water it down, and then take it to the streets to sell it cheap. We stand in Christ's presence when we speak; God looks us in the face. We get what we say straight from God and say it as honestly as we can."

To me the compelling image in this passage is that of the "exquisite fragrance". The idea that our witness to life is like fresh-baked bread, magnolia blossoms, or clear air after a heavy rain on a hot summers' day... that there is - potentially - something powerfully invitational about the way that we represent Christ in the way we live our faith out loud.

I don't know about you, but I pray every day that the story my life tells helps heal the damage done by those who - as Paul writes - "Take God's Word, water it down, and then take it to the streets to sell it cheap."

Rebekah charged Jenny, and everyone in the church, to be "an aroma redolent with life." This morning, I'm just passing that along - DEREK

Below: Jenny, Rebekah, and Jenny's husband, Brian

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The balance between what is and what might be

I don't know about you, but I sometimes struggle regarding how to live in the balance between what is and what is possible. Yesterday I wrote about radical potentiality. Today I'm thinking along the lines of abundant present.

By abundant present I mean living in the truth of what is and remembering to enjoy it... while at the same time engaging the amazing sense of potential that is loaded into both today and tomorrow.

It's an important balance, because thinking this way keeps me grounded. The reality of what is can be as exciting as the possibility of what might be. In fact, I believe that the potential for the future is largely influenced if not determined by how much we make (or are willing to make) of the present.

You see, there's a difference between merely saying, "Things are going to get better" - or "I believe that I'll find satisfaction (fulfillment, answers or my potential) on down the road"... and understanding the following truth: "Because the future is so inviting I'm going to bring some of that belief and intention into today, and live like I mean it right now!"

Living like we mean it, right now, is a declaration of faith that not only is there a tomorrow to move into, but that redemption is very much a reality today. The two work together. Now is the beginning of my future, and today is the only door I can walk through into tomorrow.

Thanking out loud - always - DEREK

Friday, August 13, 2010

An Invitation to Radical Potentiality

I've always liked gates... doors... roads that wind... pathways that meander... windows big enough to climb through. I have photographed "openings" - almost unconsciously - for years, never really thinking about why.

I was reminded of this the other day, going through some photographs with Rebekah's sister, Rachel. Last year our "Italy Adventure" had overlapped with Rachel and Tom's trip for a few hours and we'd enjoyed lunch together in Pisa. Rachel was looking at the powerpoint presentation I'd shared with some friends at church.

Two photographs grabbed my attention. The first is pasted above, at the opening to this post. The medieval town of Monteriggioni sits on a Tuscan hillside a few miles north of Sienna. Looking up, from the road, the traveler can see one of the arched entrances to the town - a pinhole view into the city.

Later, exploring the walled settlement, I took this view, looking out and across the Tuscan vista. It's the same aperture, but a radically different view.

Then, and this is my divergency for you, my inability - or maybe unwillingness - to think exclusively according to a linear model, one of my favorite scriptures about what it means to be "saved" jumped into my mind. Here it is, then I'll try to discuss why I think it's profound!

"I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." (John 10:9-10 - read the whole chapter, it's awesome!)

I love the image of Jesus as a transitional platform: "I am the gate." Jesus moves, so comfortably, beyond the role of simply drawn person and into the more abstract function of catalyst. Jesus is describing himself as a kind of portal through which people can pass - and it seems as though they can come and go at will.

I believe this is an important concept when we think about what Jesus is really getting at when he uses the word "saved." The biblical uses of the word are much deeper, richer and more multi-layered than the one-dimensional, flat invitation... threat... ticket-to-heaven... say-the-magic-words mantras chanted by so many modern-day practitioners of my-way-or-the-highway religion.

The invitation of Jesus is to step into a new world. Faith in those terms is like moving from the walled-city and into the amazing landscape of unlimited possibility - of abundance; or, as in one of my favorite translations, "The life that is really life." and "More and better life than they ever dreamed of" (The Message).

Maybe that's where this fascination for windows and doors and gates and winding paths comes from. I believe God is speaking to me, constantly reminding me that being a disciple - a pilgrim - is more than a window of possibility; that - through Jesus - faith is an invitation to radical potentiality.

It's Friday. And, as always, this is a great day to be alive!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Faithfulness to the gifts we're been given "in trust"

I can't help but share this picture from yesterday morning, taken just as Craig and Naomi were heading back to the airport and their life together in Connecticut. It was a treat to see them. Naomi's exuberance and love for Craig; Craig's steadiness and how much he so obviously adores Naomi. If there's one thing a man wants to see in a son-in-law, it's unconditional love for his daughter. I've felt confident in Craig pretty-much from day one. They are, already, a beautiful family.

Today started early with a trip to outpatient surgery for some preventative maintenance. But, no worries, it turns out I'm pristine - and in so many ways!

The checklist questionnaire I had to fill out in the waiting room was very instructive. I think there were close to 100 responses to various questions... and I checked "no" somewhere around 97 times. My only "yes" responses were the broken bone in the early sixties, the family history that set me up for the morning's explorative activities, and the fact that I pop an antacid on a regular basis.

That's not bad. Then my blood pressure was 118/56, my resting pulse was 55 and my blood oxygen level at 98%.

All told, they told me - in exchange for donating a considerable amount of money to my doctor's new, beach-front, vacation home - I'm practically perfect in every way.

Did they take my cholesterol? No! But I'm convinced that our new super-cool diet is going to bring me back toward a good number by the next time I check in again with my primary care doctor.

But routine maintenance is a critical part of a life that seeks to maximize the opportunity we have to live out our allotted time in productive and fulfilling ways.
  • Did God give me a brain? Well, am I using it to it's potential?
  • Do I have a "middle-aged" body? So what am I doing to make sure that I can stay "in the game" longer and serve God to the best of my ability?
  • Have I been given the gift of faith? If so, then how am I engaging the world vis-a-vis my responsibility to be an active, full-time follower of Jesus...?
The list could go on. But I think you get the gist of the idea.

"Take a good look at yourself, Derek," I hear God saying. "You have so much! I've given you these awesome tools with which to engage this world. So what are you doing to make sure you honor the fact that I believe in you?"

So today's word is about faithfulness. Faithfulness to the good gifts we have been given.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

"One in spirit and purpose" - Words for an octogenarian..

OKay, you're wondering... so why did Derek fail to post on his blog yesterday...? The answer is that even the most disciplined blogger can be unwilling to get up an extra hour early on a busy day to post.

I was up dog-walking by 6:15 as per usual, then I was off to the golf course with my favorite son-in-law to cash in my "closest -to-the-pin" pair of free rounds, then off to Orlando (Apopka) for an 80th b/day party. All this - while enjoying the company of house-guests - threw me off rhythm just enough to shut down the writing.

The reason for extra house-guests was the Apopka party. Myrt Hubbard Alexander turned 80 and she was doing it in grand style (Myrt -a life-long English teacher and the unofficial queen of Apopka) was married to Rebekah's dad, Bob Alexander, the last few years of his life). It's really quite a testimony to her life that so many people came from as far away as Connecticut, New York and California simply to be there, and to honor her by eating good food and enjoying one-another's company.

As I often do, I had a few words stuck in my back-pocket "just in case". I planned on keeping them there, just handing the page to Myrt later, but - apart from excellent toasts by her two sons and a state-of-the-art blessing/invocation by Rebekah- no-one was forthcoming.

So I stepped up, tapped my fork on a glass - I LOVE tapping glasses and hearing 50 people instantly put on their listening ears - and offered my two-cents worth.

Here's what I said:

Today we are here to celebrate – not so much an 80th birthday as the wonderful person who happens to be entering into the blessed state of octogenarian-ism.

We love Myrt for many reasons

  • We loved her first because she made granddaddy Bob happy
  • We loved her because she then chose to love the balance of the Alexander family
  • We love her because she has loved us all so eloquently, so graciously, and so generously
  • We love her because she is such an outstanding Presbyterian!
  • We love her for her courageous efforts to keep a significant section of Central Florida grammatically correct
  • We love her because she forgives us our own grammatical ineptitude
  • We love her because she has such a hospitable spirit and such an open heart for people…

When Myrt first came into our family we wondered what it would be like to have a new stepmother and step-grandmother… It’s a path we really hadn’t considered before…

But it didn’t take long to realize that Myrt wasn’t a step-anything at all – she was – and is - a family member in her own right.

Which is why it hasn’t been at all difficult to maintain our family ties since Bob passed away in June of 2007. Myrt simply belongs at Maul Hall on Thanksgiving with the hoards and masses – and in Orlando July 4th and New Years Eve, to watch uncle Joe attempt to blow up the neighborhood, and the nieces and nephews.

And we belong here, to help celebrate 80 years (and counting) of faithfulness and commitment. Myrt is living her faith out loud. There’s a phrase I like to use that sums up how I feel about this gift of life. “We all should live like we mean it – because God most certainly does.” Well… it’s obvious that Myrt certainly does too, and she does it with elegance, she does it with √©lan, she does it with flair, she does it with style, and she does it with class.

There’s a scripture from Philippians chapter 2 that comes to mind when I think, “Myrt got us together for this party – so where should we go from here?”

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Thinking out loud about an epistle...

Yesterday my Sunday morning class started a short five-week look at the book of Philippians. I used the word "look" rather than "study" because there's no way we'll have time to get in very deep. But this way, reading and discussing one chapter per week, is going to be a refreshing exercise, getting Paul's encouraging ideas in big chunks rather than isolating a verse at a time.

I got to wondering what kind of a letter someone like Paul might write to the church I attend. But then I realized we get a pretty good look at that from the pastors' letters, twice a month in the church newsletter. Both Tim and Rebekah do a great job of engaging members and friends alike, keeping the conversation about faith and church life active and personal.

So I'm thinking instead about how I might write specifically to my constituency - the people who I have a stake in as regards an ongoing spiritual life. This daily blog is more free-form; it's "A Life Examined" and tends to play out somewhat introspectively. I'm supposed to be taking a look at my life, writing about what emerges. Then those of you who read simply look over my shoulder as it were, watching my personal devotions play out in cyber-space.

But what if I were writing in a different way? My newspaper Op-Ed column was more like that - but unfortunately the Tribune dropped that part of my work 18 months ago...

Now it's essentially the same idea when I write for FOCUS Magazine, and the Presbyterian Outlook. But those are different audiences. FOCUS is local, and not limited to Christians. Then the Outlook is national; read mostly by church leaders.

If I were to write any kind of regular "epistle" then, it would have to target three particular constituencies.
  • The first would be the small-groups I lead at church; that's my Men's Room, my Sunday Morning class, and POGs (the Sunday-evening small group with young-adult children). All told around 50 people.
  • Then the second constituency would have to be people who read my books and people who have listened to me speak. This is difficult to pin down. Best guess (as of this summer) is around 20,000 copies sold - but no telling how many have been passed on and re-read by others? I know I've spoken, all told, to several thousand people in ten states... but did any of them listen? And have more than a handful read any of my books?
  • The third designation is more slippery still! I'm talking about The Internet. I know tens of thousands of subscribers read my contributions to AllProDad's "Play of the Day." I have work that pops up once in a while on the "Guideposts" website. Who knows how many people log on to my Chicken-Soup for the Soul contributions? Do only Methodists read my columns on e-review?
Bottom line here is that I'm feeling the call to write a regular letter "to" all these people. But I'm not sure about the venue. I don't want to disrupt what I have going on here (it's too useful for me, if nothing else...) but I could possibly park such a project on another blog...?

So what I'm considering is this - a once a week (or so) letter on the "Part-Time-Christian" blog, the blog that was built to support "The Unmaking of a Part-Time Christian".

Anyway, just thinking out loud. Sorry if I bored anyone!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

He who began a good work in you...

Sometimes you take a photograph that's obviously going to be better than the story the picture is supposed to go with. Today was one of those times. I'm sure I'll write a great story about this family, but the picture says everything I plan on saying (especially with the help of the littlest child) and with such conviction!

I drove up to Seffner to interview the pastor of the Israel Bethel Primitive Baptist Church. Pastor Pat has been on board for a little over a year, and the ministry is still taking shape. What seems to be in perfect shape, however, is his beautiful family.

The Woodforks moved here from the small Arkansas community that's been home since the day pastor Pat was born. But Pat - along with is wife, Lakisha - is 100% confident that this is exactly where God wants them to be.

So I'm going to write my story with confidence too, because I simply can't look at this photograph without thinking about the following words from my favorite book, the Letter to the Philippians. I can't help but just flat-out like some of the folk I have the honor of talking with when I write my stories for the Tampa Tribune.

"Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus."

Friday, August 6, 2010

Grace Upon Grace

Today I'll be thinking about Christmas - I already am. My task - and I really need to complete the project this weekend - is to write a study-guide for my 2008 book "In My Heart I Carry A Star: stories for Advent."

The book is designed to be read, one day at a time, over the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. The read works well as an individual devotional journey. However, and this is an exciting development, last year a number of churches adopted "In My Heart..." as a congregation-wide study and a lot of small-groups and Sunday-school classes studied the text together, as a group.

So, with people already beginning to make advance curriculum and purchasing decisions, my publisher has asked me to write a study guide that will be made available (free of charge) on the bookstore website.

I think it's a great idea. Christmas, for me, is all about the breaking in of light into a dark world. It's about hope, peace, love and joy. And Advent is simply the careful, prayerful, purposeful spiritual journey to Bethlehem.

So today I'm thinking, prayerfully and meditatively, about light breaking in to Friday, August 6, and about a weekend full with grace.

"For of his fullness have we all received, and grace upon grace" (John 1:16)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Gift of Wonder

I may whine and complain about the west-central Florida heat (and the mercury has been pushing 95-98 here in Brandon pretty much every afternoon for the best part of 10-weeks!)... but the unique climate in this part of the world undoubtedly produces some of the most spectacular skies you'll ever see.

This photograph (above) was taken from the K-Mart parking lot on Hwy 60 around 5:00 Wednesday afternoon. I didn't have my camera so it's just a cell-phone shot. There's even a sense in which the urban landscape contributes to the view, with the huge ungainly light poles stuck in the middle of a parking lot that's at least three times bigger than it would need to be on even the busiest shopping day of the year.

I guess I could rail against the idiocy of a planning process that allows pavement to run a good hundred yards from the street to the storefront, when there is more than ample room for grass and trees - but I'd be wasting my breath in this particular neck of the woods.

So instead I'll pause in wonder at the handiwork of creation, where even concrete and steel can look good against a tropical sky.

WONDER: Wonder seems to be my theme this week. I hadn't really thought about it until talking with some friends yesterday about what exactly God is teaching us. It's a great question - what is God impressing on us, at this time, in this context of our lives...?

For one of my friends the answer was "trust"; another said that God wants him to learn to "surrender"; and the third pointed to "grace." For me the answer was this. "God is teaching me wonder," I said. "I've been struck this week at how easy it is to take things for granted. Love; beauty; prayer; worship; celebration. I'm learning - just a little - to allow the wonder of it all to wash over me, to open my arms wider, and to take it all in."

Allow the wonder of it all to wash over us... Open our arms wider... Take it all in....

Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand. In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: " 'You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving. For this people's heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them (Matthew 13:13-15)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Song of the Shepherd

(photo: Tuscan hillside - I believe I got this from Andrew)

My Men's small-group has the summer off. But I still get together with a few of my friends occasionally just to talk and pray. Sometimes one or two guys, sometimes as many as three or four.

Last time we met we talked about Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd....). It's one of those readings that is so well-know it's become almost cliche. Then, because it's become so cliche, many people don't even know the Psalm any more. It's often parked on the sidelines because "That's overdone" - but for so many who are fairly new to faith it's not overdone at all... in fact it's overlooked.

So, those of us who have been kicking around the faith world for a long long time seem to be neglecting the 23rd Psalm... and those who are brand-new to Christianity haven't even talked about it in any depth for the first time!

Consequently, and because the content of the Psalm spoke directly to a circumstance we were discussing, my friends and I read it again. Then we agreed to re-read the scripture every day for a week, and to read it out loud. I used the C.E.V. translation, I like the nuances it reveals:

The Good Shepherd
You, LORD, are my shepherd. I will never be in need. You let me rest in fields of green grass. You lead me to streams of peaceful water, and you refresh my life.

You are true to your name, and you lead me along the right paths. I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won't be afraid. You are with me, and your shepherd's rod makes me feel safe.

You treat me to a feast, while my enemies watch. You honor me as your guest, and you fill my cup until it overflows. Your kindness and love will always be with me each day of my life, and I will live forever in your house, LORD.

Reading the Bible out loud is a moving exercise. There's a sense in which the words of scripture are loaded with a spiritual presence that transcends the value of the words as mere language. This is heightened - in my experience - when the words are read aloud.

So I tend to meet God in a fresh way whenever I read God's word. It's a simple truth that I echo time and again in this space. But it's a story worth repeating.

Won't you accept this challenge? Take Psalm 23 and read it out loud - right now. Then repeat the exercise, daily, for one week. Add a few minutes of quiet prayer to the experience. But, most of all, simply meet up with God.

Grace and Peace - DEREK