Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Geek-speak, meta-tags, and more

First, and this is from my media advisers, please click the "post-to-facebook" button at the bottom of this post if you like this blog. Do this every time you read something you'd like to share with your vast hoard of connections. Seriously - if you can "LIKE" something as inconsequential as a brand of potato-chips, then you can "re-post to facebook" a thought from Derek Maul once in a while!

Okay, so here's the big news of the day. Look out world, Derek Maul is now doing twitter (@derekmaul 60 characters and counting)...!

However, and before any of you go "Chortle-chortle, what a dumb thing for him to do", let me offer this short but important disclaimer. I'm entering the world of tweets on the advice of my media-handlers.

No, this is not like a Tiger Woods tweet. No need for redemptive social networking from me, thank you very much. This is more along the lines of, "Derek, we know you're not anywhere close to being a geek... But we're geeks, and we're here to tell you that anything you do that even vaguely ups your public profile is, like, better than a pocket-protector so far as we're concerned."

Well, that's not exactly what they said, but you get the picture. Two followers on twitter will about double my public profile right there so we know what we're working with. In fact, you could be the "follower" who puts me over the top!

GeekSpeak: All in all it was an interesting session with the technology folk down at Family First and All Pro Dad. I learned concepts such as "meta-tag" and "search engine optimization." What I'm supposed to do is to load my writing with meta-tags in order to push my articles up the Google search list results.

Or, as I explained to a friend with a liberal arts mind like mine, "Imagine we're following people through the grocery store, watching what they put in their cart and also looking over their shoulder to look at their shopping list. We're then better prepared to make our product fit their search, and we can run ahead and put our stuff on the shelf before they even finish looking."

All Pro Dad alone, and this is mind boggling, is now generating around 120,000 unique hits per month. That means 120,000 different people are logging on. If you don't understand what a "unique hit" is, think church attendance. At my church, between 350 and 400 people show up every Sunday, for a total monthly attendance of around 1,500. Of that 1,500, probably 1,000 were the 250 people who showed up every single week (250 X 4 = 1,000). So, if you only count someone one time during the month - no matter how often they come, the best estimate of the number of different people who showed up at least once during any given month is probably between 500 and 600.... or, 600 unique hits.

That All Pro Dad statistic of 120,000 represents approximately a 100% increase in traffic over the past year. That's huge. So I asked my number-crunching friends how they accounted for the growth. They said they have identified probably eight factors that have helped, but that the "10-Ways" billboard lists are always number one on their list.

That makes me feel very good. Because over 50% of the "10-Ways" lists were penned by yours truly. Click on the one below my sign off, it'll give you a good idea of what I'm up to, and why I'm excited and motivated about my work more than ever before.

Grace and Peace - DEREK

Monday, November 29, 2010

Total rambling that might entertain some of you...

I'm writing late Monday evening. Rebekah and I just returned from date-night and we're listening to "A Charlie Brown Christmas" on the Bose, fine-tuning the Christmas trees and drinking hot tea.

It was a beautiful evening, so we decided to park the car in Hyde Park and walk the shopping district. We'd read something about a tree-lighting ceremony and imagined busy shops, sidewalk coffee and possibly some live music in the square.

Boy were we ever wrong! Apart from a couple of the anchor
stores, the place is a dead-zone, barely on life-support. We checked out Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware (more about that in a moment), found a coffee bar, then strolled back to the car. As we were walking, alongside empty store after empty store, we noticed loud Muzak coming from speakers overhead.

It was surreal. As if we were walking through a city just a short while after some kind of an apocalyptic event had wiped out the population.... Who knows, maybe the Left Behind books got it right and we missed the Second Coming (don't get me started!). The street was all papered over windows, hollow interiors, empty store fronts. The street lights were burning but there was hardly a soul to be seen. All gone, but - disturbingly - somebody had forgotten to turn off the Muzak!

Alice in Wonderland:
Maybe Alice in Wonderland is a better image. In Restoration Hardware everything was out of scale. I sat on armchairs with my legs hanging off the ends like a small child in grandpa's chair. It was all king-sized and up. Over-scaled furniture, huge fe-fi-fo-fum home accents, sofas the size of small aircraft carriers. Everything in shades of chocolate, grey, camel and variations on muted beige.

The effect was not just ultra-masculine but opulent, pretentious, self-aggrandizing masculine, built for people with really big butts. There was enough room in one leather club chair for both Morgan and Morgan. If you catch my drift....

So we looked, examined bizarrely inflated price-tags, and made our way back to the street. On the way out, Rebekah said to the sales-person, "This place has changed a lot in the past year..." "Yes, she replied.... But in our hearts we still think of ourselves as a simple hardware store...."

Right. Okay. We're tracking with that. Back to Brandon I guess and cheap furniture for average sized rear-ends....


Launching Christmas 2010

Here we are, a few days past Thanksgiving and into the season known as "Advent". Here at Maul Hall we observe several important traditions to get the Christmas season off on the right trajectory.

First - we celebrate Advent. That means we follow the church calendar, and we use the idea of what I like to call "Sacred Rhythms" to shape our emphasis and to line ourselves up in the right direction, so we don't rush headlong into December via the commercial gods and miss the coming of Jesus by a mile.

Second (and more properly understood as a sub-point to the whole "Advent" celebration) we begin - prayerfully and carefully - to decorate our home with accents that point to the coming of the King.

Third, and just for fun, we give Kelly and Tim Black (primarily, Kelly) our traditional "hideous Christmas-tree ornament". (That's the picture, with Micah).

This special ritual started way back, with an accidental "gaudy ornament" Tim bought home from a gift exchange (see In My Heart I Carry A Star for details). Ever since - and I believe it's six Christmases and counting - Rebekah and I have searched high and low for just the wrong ornament. We have certain well thought out standards, and we'd like to think that - one day - Kelly will have the best and most complete set of gaudy, hideous, tasteless ornaments in the known world. It's our way of saying "We love you"!

So it's Advent 210, and we're off and running. This week's emphasis is "Hope". Hope is a good word, but it can be fairly empty without the substance of an ongoing relationship with God to back it up.
  • Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. (Hebrews 11:1-3)
May you know that kind of hope, and most especially when it's not so easily visible - DEREK

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Pure Chords & Sweet Harmony

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. (Colossians 3)

Hmmm... how to make a post that accurately says enough to cover the past two days of Thanksgiving? Now there is a challenge.

I guess that, if there had to be a moment that speaks most clearly to the meaning of Thanksgiving, it would have to be around 4:30 Friday afternoon, standing in the kitchen with Rebekah, and looking across the bounteous spread at 27 wonderful people. And - with no small degree of difficulty - taking a moment to give thanks.

To be honest, it's a moment that is always overwhelming. I don't appear to have the emotional capacity to handle - or, should I say, contain - the raw volume of love. I can't nearly get my arms around it all, and so it spills out via a hesitancy in speech, a lump in my throat, and a mistiness in the eyes.

So Rebekah had to finish the prayer for me, and it became - as always - a shared blessing offered from hearts overflowing with gratitude for the privilege of participating in such a rich life.

Not many people have the honor of hosting such a rich and plentiful gathering of family of friends. Rebekah and I are, once again, most fortunate most favored and most exhausted.

In addition to the usual crowd (Joe's family, Jesse's family, Myrt, the Tim Black crew, my mum and dad, Lacey and Matt), my brother Geoff was able to be here this year, along with his daughter (my niece) Hannah, her husband Andrew and their children, Haley and Hudson. It was so good to have them. Faith, who is living with us, was another welcome addition, as well as our new(ish) neighbors, Bill and Carol - and then Andrew made the trip home all the way from Italy!

Then, as is our tradition, the Jesse Alexander Jacksonville family stayed overnight, children sleeping literally all over the floor. Scout was in heaven, just happy to have young people in her house.

In the evening, after the kitchen was fairly clear and before the Orlando Alexanders headed home, I asked if anyone wanted a cup of tea. Most of the 16 remaining said "Me!", and I made pot after pot, serving hot tea - English style - for a solid 30 minutes.

There's something profoundly peaceful about making and serving a cup of hot tea, and I repeated the ritual for Heather, Rebekah, Jesse, Lacey, Faith, Jordan, Andrew, Matt, Sarah, Jared... and then me. And I sat down on a soft chair to listen to the chatter, the laughter, the poetry, and the love, echo around the space.

And later, as Rebekah read bedtime stories to nieces and nephews too old for bedtime stories, Jesse and I pulled out guitars and played Amazing Grace, and I heard still more echos of Thanksgiving in pure chords and sweet harmony.

Pure chords and sweet harmony. Grateful hearts. The perfect prelude for Advent....

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Only the dead have seen the end of war" - Plato

It would be tempting to go with the traditional "This is why I'm grateful" post this evening. But this Thanksgiving Day something else is on my mind.

I spent most of yesterday writing a story for the Florida Methodist News Service about the Military Support ministry sponsored by a church in Oviedo, near Orlando. It was a good story, full with interesting detail and featuring the usual cadre of dedicated Christians working their hearts out to serve others in the name of Jesus.

Something one of the women said touched me, so I repeated the line to Rebekah while we were in the kitchen together, working on dinner. Suddenly my eyes filled up with tears. I felt it coming, I tried my hardest to tell the story objectively - but I couldn't help it, I flat out cried.

It was just a simple vignette, but somehow the story I was sharing overwhelmed me. I was telling Rebekah about Liz Whitley, the support group's organizer and prime mover. She has visited a rehab facility that works with service men and women who have lost one or more of their limbs. She was profoundly moved by the what she saw there and told me about one of the young men she was privileged to visit:
  • “That’s where we met Matt from Kansas,” Whitley said. “He has lost one arm and both legs; his wife and children now live in an apartment nearby. He’s receiving phenomenal care. But it was his enthusiasm – he came flying around the corner in his chair, his walking legs under one arm…. What a spirit these young soldiers have! The only people we saw with heads down were the fathers, pushing their sons in wheelchairs.”
It was as I tried to share with Rebekah that one line - "The only people we saw with heads down were the fathers, pushing their sons in wheelchairs" - that I felt my eyes fill with tears. I could feel it, the pain of seeing your own child come home with missing limbs; saying the words out loud was simply more than I could do.

So I am thankful, most certainly, for the spirit of the young people who willingly put everything on the line to serve their country. But at the same time I'm angry, and so very sad, heart-broken that we are sending these young people miles away from home to prop up forms of government I'm not so sure the people of Afghanistan and Iraq really want themselves.

There's a quotation that I hadn't seen before, it was tacked on the end of an email I read from a soldier currently serving in the Middle East. It also touched me, and it made me sad.

"Only the dead have seen the end of war." - Plato

It's not right. It's not right at all. And I'm not sure any more that what we're doing is helping at all.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Wrapping My Consciousness Around The Word

Once in a while (to be honest, it happens pretty-much every day) I run into a passage of scripture that just about climbs out of the page, wrestles its way into my mind, and settles itself into my consciousness where it pours a cup of tea, puts its feet up, and makes itself at home.

Listen to this - or read it if you're out of earshot! - For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-21)

Now, open your mind and your heart, wrap your consciousness around the words and their meaning, and invite the scripture to settle in. This is what I was talking about yesterday when I wrote the following: I want to put in a word, this morning, for the word. For The Word. Logos.

One day, interviewing a minister for The Tampa Tribune, I asked him to share a scripture that was speaking to his life. The answer started out like this - it was all too familiar. "Well, God gave me my life verse twenty-eight years ago..."

"Just hold on a moment," I said in a moment of clarity I probably should have kept to myself. "You're talking about 1982! I want to know what's going on in your heart today, this week, or at the very least something from the past month. If your 'go-to' scripture doesn't change sometime during the a week then you're not getting into the Bible enough!"

Let me recommend the passage I quoted this morning. Or find a daily guide such as The Upper Room, or These Days - and dive into some scripture.

Then let God's Word climb out of the page, wrestle its way into your mind, and settle itself into your consciousness where it can pour itself a cup of tea, put its feet up, and make itself at home.

Love and blessings - DEREK

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Kindle-ing Logos

I want to put in a word, this morning, for the word. For The Word. Logos.

The ancient Greeks used "logos" for speech, order, reason and discourse. Aristotle put several key ideas together and used logos to cover the general discipline of reasoned conversation and intelligent dialogue. The Christian writer John finessed the concept to that of God speaking all things into being, and went on to describe Jesus as the physical embodiment or "incarnation" of logos - Christ The Living Word.

The Word, LOGOS, for Jesus followers in the 21st Century, and for me in particular, means "the animating truth" - it means the fact of God speaking life into all of Creation.
  • In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. 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 all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Jesus is light. The Word brings light and life. And, while God is certainly not limited to the kind of truth which can be comprehended via spoken or written language, so much of the truth that penetrates all the way into my soul tends to come at me via text.

So this is one reason why I'm so excited about my new toy! Rebekah and Andrew (along with help from Naomi and Craig, long-distance) took me out to dinner last night and presented me with a "Kindle" book-reader.

They had preloaded it, thoughtfully, with a couple of my titles. And I must admit it still gives me a tingle of excitement to see my work available in any new format.

Then, in the mail, I received my copies of the Guideposts annual Christmas book "The Heart of Christmas". I have a couple of stories in the 2010 edition.

And so today I'm recommending that we soak ourselves in Logos. I'm suggesting some extra time spent in communion with truth via the written word. Get into some Bible! Swim in the life-charged wonder of "it is written."

... I want to put in a word, this morning, for the word. For The Word. Logos.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Moving Forward in Affirmation and Joy!

Lots on my mind this AM. Not only is it a beautiful morning, but it was an amazing weekend. Saturday evening we met Andrew at the airport - flying in from Italy - and things only got better from there!

Sunday started out with the largest crowd we've ever counted at the Praise Service. There was a lot of noise, much excitement, and a great sense of anticipation moving in to the big congregational meeting between services. We were voting to answer the following question: "Do we move into the financing phase of this new building, pull out the shovels and get going with it - or do we continue to stall...?"

The answer was a resounding, overwhelming, 98.8% YES!!!!

WOW! What a buzz of excitement! We have several hundred thousands of dollars on hand... we have several hundred thousands of dollars pledged, and the congregation have now approved a construction loan to help get things rolling. We break ground in January!

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone..." (1 Peter 2)

So why the opening photograph of Rebekah and Andrew, chomping down on steak? That's easy: We wanted to celebrate, and what could be better than cooking awesome Angus rib-eyes?

Essentially, I have come to believe that life is a feast, an ongoing celebration of love and joy and purpose. Every breath is an affirmation and a renewed commitment!

I can't wait to see what's next, and where this party will take us! Peace, Joy and Thanksgiving - DEREK

Saturday, November 20, 2010

In the name of the Father...

Well, as you can see by the picture, our lovely niece, Faith, prevailed on me to write a blog about her... Or at least to use one of the images I took this afternoon as she headed off for some second cousin's wedding (on her dad's side) in St. Petersburg.

Faith has been living with us, here at Maul Hall, since June. We've called it, variously, "Camp Aunt", or "The Maul Retreat Center." I was personally hoping for something along the lines of "Cool Uncle Institute for Advanced Living" - but for some reason it didn't take.

Faith has been great company. We got off to a good start back in 1986, when Rebekah baptized her at the Providence Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach. Whatever journey Faith has taken since getting wetter than most Presbyterian babies (Rebekah likes to involve a considerable amount of water, whatever the age), there's always been something special about knowing her aunt put water on her head and said those wonderful words. "Faith McMahan, child of the covenant, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."

Covenant Baptism is a powerful concept. It comes directly out of the idea of New Covenant that Jesus introduced - a membership in the household of God. Covenant Baptism says that we understand that the promises of God belong to all of us, as believers, and that they belong to our children, too. Of course our children, one day, have to claim them as their own... but that is a part of the rest of the story.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Intentional Community via Club Chairs...

Home design and renovation is - and always will be - an ongoing adventure at Maul Hall. Sometimes I think we're like the proverbial Brooklyn Bridge painting project: just about the time you finish the whole thing it's past time to start over on the other end.

It's been an intense couple of years, what with the kitchen, the roof, both porches, the bathrooms, the laundry room, the soffits and a series of other smaller details. But yesterday we just about put the wrap on our interior work when we finally picked out the new chairs necessary to make the old dining area the new "tea and conversation" room we've been imagining.

Three simple, black leather, club armchairs in an intimate conversational arrangement. Our modus operandi for design is very much "Lifestyle", and we've noticed how important - for us - it is to have the opportunity for people to sit down together and talk.

That's why we have the comfy chair in the kitchen - so Rebekah can un-lax when she gets home and we can talk while I cook. It's why I have an inviting leather chair in my office. Our home is built around the idea of intentional community.

I love technology (and I see a new television in our immediate future), but our experience of life is compromised to the extent that we allow media of any kind (even "social" media) to dictate the way that we interact with one another - especially at home.

Somtimes I'm tempted to don a super-hero suit (I'm thinking "Obvious-Man") so that I can burst into homes at the dinner hour to make sure families are not watching TV while they're eating! I'd put a sledgehammer through the television screen (or at least turn it off...), confiscate the remote control, and march them all to the dining room table, where I'd bring out my book of "500 Great Small-group Questions" and then make them interact.

Making tea or coffee, serving one another, and sitting down to talk about whatever is on our hearts and minds, is one of the most profound joys Rebekah and I experience together.

I could go into the home-design business - "Family Harmony Through Better Seating Arrangements"! and advocate for spaces that are intentionally intimate and interactive...

Food for thought. Maybe y'all can talk about this together... Tonight over dinner!


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Grace, Peace and Holy Laughter!

Yesterday evening was our church Heifer Market "alternative giving" event. Each ministry team sponsored a booth featuring a different animal. The fellowship hall was a riot of farmyard festivity!

To the best of my recollection, we sold shares in bees, pigs, heifers, water-buffalo, llamas, sheep, chicks, goats and rabbits. Actual live animals will be going to villages in impoverished regions of the world, along with training in animal husbandry, follow up and accountability. It's an awesome mission.

Our market - recognized by Heifer international as one of the consistently best in the U.S.A. - also featured a "World Village" with statistics on hunger, the opportunity to purchase indigenous crafts, and a representative food-portion display color-coded to the sticker we were each given on admission.

There was also food galore, with all proceeds going to help the mission.

What always overwhelms me about this event is the unbridled enthusiasm this church brings to mission. The parking-lot was full; the fellowship hall was overflowing with people; the participants went overboard with costumes and fun and displays and fun and generosity and fun and ... did I mention "fun"?

And (three days after making pledges to the 2011 church budget and four days before voting on financing for our $1.5 million campus expansion), people defied the "recession-economy" and gave around $14,000 for the work of Heifer International. We'll most certainly be over our $15,000 goal by the time we close the books around Christmas!

There's a spirit to this place that can only be understood in the middle of a crowded fellowship hall... watching the senior pastor have a serious conversation about faith while wearing an inflatable pig-suit... while members of the youth group literally buzzzzzzz around in bee costumes.... across from the men's breakfast prayer-group hawking goats in "I'm an old goat" t-shirts... as one of our young-adults "milks" a full-sized wooden cow... amidst peals of laughter, laughter, and laughter.

It's a holy mirth. A vibrant, Jesus-following, service-oriented community of faith is a great place to be! Talk about your good times! Don't tell me Presbyterians don't (or shouldn't) have fun....

Grace, and Peace, and peals of Holy Laughter! - DEREK

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Walk Toward the Ineffable

I really enjoyed the misty half-focused light this morning. Walking Scout, I could barely see to the turn in the street. I found myself peering more intently into the middle distance, wondering if an emerging shape was really a tree... or maybe a person.

Sound, too, was muted. A minivan coming from behind sounding like a hybrid; later I turned to see who was riding what I could have sworn was an approaching bicycle - and was surprised to see a Toyota Prius.

This photograph (above) was taken this morning, looking directly into the East; but even the sunlight is muted today. Walking, peering into the mist, it felt as if the light was working its way toward me from one side... and I was working to see the light from the other.

I think that's a useful metaphor for spiritual sightedness. Divinity probing the darkness - and my response searching in turn (with varied degrees of commitment), from the human point of view. I am rooted in the mundane, yet always peering into the fog because I know that I will find God.

And then there are those glorious moments when we break through the clouds and everything is laid out clearly and the view is breathtaking. I'll take those when they come, but God is most certainly very much evident in my struggle to see.

Walk in the light. And if you're not there yet, walk regardless. Press onward, toward the ineffable.


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Every Day Is A New Story

Some days it's difficult to knuckle down to the routine tasks required to simply make ends meet and pay the bills. Today for example, I can't avoid writing an overdue newspaper story, then I need to log in some phone time to develop a couple of magazine articles, and after than I really must do the legwork necessary to secure a few more interviews before Thanksgiving...

... Whereas what I really want to do is immerse myself in my next book. I know what it's going to be about, and I know the direction I need to be taking; I just need a few uninterrupted weeks to get the ball rolling...!

Yesterday I talked about the writing process with my author friend Bruce Gamble. We try to get together and chat every couple of years or so, and this weekend he'd cruised his 46-year-old Mustang convertible to St. Petersburg for a classic car show.

We met at the church for lunch and caught up on one-another's lives.

Bruce and his wife, Margaret, were part of our massive baby-boomer Sunday-school class at Trinity Presbyterian in Pensacola, back when we were all young and raising small children. He led one of our original small-group Bible-studies.

Bruce served as a Naval officer and flight navigator, until his active-duty career was cut short when he lost the use of his legs. But he re-directed his dream, and continued to immerse himself in the culture of flight. He has become a well respected historian, a renowned expert on the famed "Black Sheep Squadron", an award-winning author and an international expert in Pacific-theater WW2 forensic story-telling (Check out www.BruceGamble.com for more details on his books).

By "forensic story-telling" (my coining), I mean that my friend's exhaustive research and attention to factual detail, paired with his deep interest in the people involved, make for a compelling read that's emotionally satisfying as well as thorough. He never sacrifices fact for effect, nor does he gloss over the drama of real life in favor of sterile numbers or numbing statistics.

Bruce travels, makes appearances, lectures and does guest spots as "expert analyst". But when he writes, he pretty-much sequesters himself for weeks at a time.

As for me, even though I like to complain about my need for larger blocks of concentrated time, it's the day-to-day interaction with real people, with stories that are still unfolding, that give me so much of the material I work with. If I locked myself away to write the next book... I may well miss the most important story of all.

And that story is the story I'm suddenly more interested in than I was 20 minutes ago - it's the story of today, the story yet to be told.

I'd better get to work; I may well learn something....

Love and blessings - DEREK

Monday, November 15, 2010

Still Learning What it Means to Live as Disciples

Yesterday morning, driving to church with the roof open and the windows down, I looked up through the sun-roof. The sky was beautiful - a clear blue - and the trees caught enough of the early morning light to appear translucent - as if they held a light of their own. Then, glancing through the side windows, I noticed the development along the street - shabby buildings, concrete parking lots, ugly telephone poles and power-lines.

It occurred to me, taking it all in, how wonderful God's creation is... and how far short of the mark our efforts tend to be in comparison.

When I arrived for Praise Band rehearsal our director, Don, asked me to open in prayer. I pointed out what I had observed on the way, and prayed that everything we were involved in that morning be an obvious partnership between us and God - because it's only when we invite the Creator of the Universe to guide our hands and to inspire our voices that we can move beyond the dull and unimaginative mess and into the realm of light.

Simply put - even our best efforts need the regenerative Spirit of God.

Worship was awesome, as per usual. Later, in the evening, Rebekah and I hosted the new class of elders for dinner. We always celebrate the completion of their eight weeks of training with a party at Maul Hall. There were around 20, including spouses and pastors.

I posed one simple question for everyone to answer. "Imagine it's Thanksgiving, and you have been asked to share what you are thankful for about this church. What would you say?"

All the testimonies were wonderful. But you know what I noticed? The one thing they all had in common? Everybody talked about what we are doing in terms of an ongoing partnership with God.
  • "I'm grateful this is a church where people follow Jesus every day of the week..."
  • "I'm grateful that I've found a place where I can use my gifts to serve..."
  • "I'm grateful that my children know they have a home here..."
  • "I'm grateful for the life that animates the whole body..."
  • "I'm grateful that this is a place where everyone is still on a spiritual journey, that nobody acts like they've already arrived..."
  • "I'm grateful that it feels like this church knows where it is going... And who it's going with..."
So, on this beautiful Monday morning, I truly am grateful to be part of a faith community where we pursue a living connection to the life-force that animates the entire creation, and that it's a spiritual home where we are still - constantly - learning about what it means to live as disciples.


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Taking Care of Young Americans in Uniform....

Oops - almost a post-free weekend! Busy, busy, busy.

Yesterday morning I drove to the other side of Orlando to write a story about a Methodist church with a creative ministry designed to support soldiers deployed to Afghanistan.

The basic idea is not unique. In fact, I don't know a single church in the Brandon area that doesn't do something in the way of care-packages, letters, prayer and/or reaching out to the families left behind. At any given time, my church - First Presbyterian - has at least 3-5 members overseas (and many in a war-zone), and that doesn't count people like our son, Andrew, who works as a civilian in logistical operations.

But First United Methodist of Oviedo goes above and beyond. It started around three years ago when one of the members wanted the church to extend some support for her son in Iraq. She asked for help sending cookies and a bunch of people came through. Then - of course - her son shared them with his friends... who wanted more... and a ministry was born.

Yesterday I watched a dozen volunteers pack around 16,000 cookies into boxes and a huge pile of camouflage Christmas stockings. Additionally, the church sends games, candy, hygiene items, books, DVDs, phone cards, and - most importantly - letters of encouragement and the promise of prayer.

And they don't do any of this "Send to Any Soldier" stuff. These folk do their research, they adopt particular units, and they contact the soldiers by name. The letters are personal, and the prayers are accordingly more powerful.

But it doesn't stop there. These women and men - around 40 at the typical meeting - support the soldiers' families at home. They visit the Veterans Center on a regular basis. They travel to trauma programs and they work with injured soldiers. They - and this one is really cool - show up a day ahead of returning soldiers and make their bed, stock the refrigerator, clean the apartment, hang a welcome sign... whatever it takes.

What the Oviedo Methodists do is go out of their way to "be the presence of Christ" for the men and women who have given so much of themselves to serve those of us who don't wear a uniform.

No, politics has nothing to do with this. Here's what I believe - and it was confirmed 100% by everyone I met yesterday when I traveled to do this story. It's quite possible to be unreservedly against the actions of the United States in places like Iraq and Afghanistan... and yet be 100% in support of the fine men and women who wear the uniform of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.

It's perfectly OK to be opposed to our foreign policy.... or to be a hawk... or to be ambivalent... and to genuinely love and appreciate our troops in every guise.

In fact - and this is pretty much where I stand - we can hate war, disagree with our Commander in Chief, understand that self-determination hinges on the word "self", own the conviction that the last thing we need to be doing as a nation is shooting or intimidating anyone in the Mid East, and even protest the way we conduct ourselves overseas... and still stand, 100%, behind the brave men and women who serve this country.

In fact, I believe the most supportive thing we can do for the young women and men in the United States military is to bring them home. I honestly don't see how sending young adults to Afghanistan, to be blown up by IEDs (when Afghanistan itself appears unwilling to be the kind of democracy we insist they should) shows them much honor. Personally, I hold the trust of their young lives with a lot more regard than that.

Peace - and I mean that with all my heart - DEREK

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Do Not Be Afraid of the Omelet!

First, a disclaimer. This is not my omelet! First off, it's far too neatly made. Then, most importantly, it's almost impossible to photograph an omelet you are cooking, serving and also involved in eating - there's simply no time!

OKay; here's the set up: Men's Bible Study, Wednesday evening; pre-class talking; exchanging stories, checking in. I'm telling a couple of the guys about the awesome omelets I cooked for dinner.

So Chris, in all seriousness, asks: "So what's the secret? How do you make a good omelet. I can never do it."

Me - in all seriousness: "Don't be afraid of the omelet!"

Chris: "What?"

Me: "What I mean is, just go for it. The moment you begin to worry about texture, evenness, technique etc., then the omelet will not/cannot work! Prepare your ingredients ahead, get the pan hot, make sure it's not going to stick, and then treat the omelet like a big scrambled egg. Once you get it going, throw in all the good stuff you have prepared ahead of time, fold it over when it's 75% done, and don't overdo the cheese."

The way to cook a good omelet, I was trying to explain, is all in the commitment. Or, as Yoda would say, "Cook the omelet or cook the omelet not. There is no try; only do or do not."

The conversation actually comments well on the scripture in Philippians 4 that we've been studying. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

The principle is to proceed, always moving forward, without allowing anxiety to take a foothold. Living a victorious life is not about God making things easy, about putting more "Ws" in the win column, or about achieving technically perfect results. The victory is in the journey, the placing of one foot in front of the other, in a belief that borders on naiveté, in serving with faithfulness and in the sure knowledge of God's love.

Don't worry! Trust in God! You make sure to take care of the fundamentals (daily devotions, constant prayer, a spirit of thanksgiving, being active in a community of faith, serving others etc...), so throw it all in the pan, keep everything moving, for goodness sake don't get stuck, and live your faith out loud already!

... And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

- AMEN to that!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"Do I Even Know You?" - Jesus

This morning turned out to be a fast start! I walked Scout, and got my devotional reading done - but had no time to post on this blog.

Fast or not the rush was enjoyable, because it involved a long drive, sun-roof open/windows down. I took the route through downtown Tampa because I like the dramatic street-scape on a clear day. The temperature - under a cloudless sky - was 66 degrees when I left Brandon and 72 when I arrived in Palm Harbor. My soundtrack for the drive? Hymns of the 49th Parallel, by K.D. Lang.

I found myself thinking about a long conversation Rebekah and I were having Monday evening about the idea of salvation (Yes, we are that couple who go out to dinner, hog our table for an extra hour or so with recurring coffee, and talk about things like faith and theology along with a shared slice of cheesecake).

"I've been going over the story Jesus told about the 'wise and foolish virgins'," I said. "You're kidding?" she replied. "That's what I'm going to be preaching on this weekend."

"No way! What's making me think is the idea that it really wasn't so much about having their ticket punched for the ball... as the fact that the bridegroom simply didn't know them. "Master, we're here. Let us in." He answered, "Do I know you? I don't think I know you..." (Matthew 25:1-13)

I'm captivated by the idea that we could go to church, get baptized, take communion, come down to the front for prayer - whatever - and still be the kind of people who the bridegroom does not recognize when he shows up!

And here's the interesting part; the ambiguity of the notion doesn't worry me one bit. You see, I'm convinced that the "Are you saved?" discussion has been way off base for a long time. Too many manipulative evangelicals have messed with the concept and tried to make it some kind of hand-stamp or bar-code. Questions such as "Are you really saved?" or, "Tell me the date and the time you were saved?" and, "If you didn't say these particular magic words then you're not saved at all." And even, "You have to have been baptized in our church and in our way... blah blah blah...."

I think - and don't confuse this with a legalistic measure - the key question turns out to be, "Will the bridegroom even know who you are/I am when it's time for the party?"

Equally relevant is, "Will I recognized the bridegroom?"

Jesus spends the remainder of Matthew 25 talking about kingdom behavior. The Master actually believed that being a Follower of The Way should make a difference as to how we live. He doesn't say anything at all about if the sheep - or the goats for that matter - knew the "Four Spiritual Laws" by heart, were baptized by immersion, or ever said "The Sinners Prayer."

But he knew them all.

"Do I know you? I don't think I know you..."

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Dancing in the Minefields

Yesterday, as part of my work for "All Pro Dad", I wrote a new "10-Ways" list to go along with the music video for a wonderful song, Dancing in the Minefields. The question addressed was, "is your marriage dancing in the minefields?"

I'm not going to post the entire article here (I may when it's published), but I would like you to see the short statement about marriage I wrote to launch the discussion.

  • Being married is - at best - an arrangement where two people look forward at the great adventure before them, recognize the eternal truth that life was designed to be experienced in community, and commit themselves to one-another in the context of faithful love, boundless belief, and uncompromised trust.

I really like that! I like being reminded that life is - always - a great adventure. I like that it's an adventure we can share and that much of the adventure still waits for us in our future. And I believe it's critically important that we take note of the fact that we were designed/created/fashioned/imagined with the idea of covenant community in mind.

And then there are these three reminders, principles of married life, that set the adventure into its proper context.

  1. Faithful Love...
  2. Boundless Belief...
  3. Uncompromised Trust...

I imagine that's quite enough for today! Happy Tuesday - DEREK

Love is kind and patient, never jealous, boastful, proud, or rude.

Love isn't selfish or quick tempered.

It doesn't keep a record of wrongs that others do.

Love rejoices in the truth, but not in evil.

Love is always supportive, loyal, hopeful, and trusting.

Love never fails!

(i Corinthians 13:4-8 - CEV)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Faith, Photography - and New Eyes

Photo - below left - is renowned photographer Dewitt Jones. One of my heroes!

Here we go. Blogging at the car shop waiting for my dead vehicle to be revived. Third time in as many weeks. I should be used to this!

What's on my mind this morning is church yesterday. Powerful Sunday, as per usual, but this time with a couple of twists. 5:30 a couple of hundred of us got together for First Presbyterian's annual "Stewardship Dinner". The occasion - organized by our most excellent elder and friend David Dale - was not so much a fundraiser as a consciousness raiser and a celebration of what the church is up to. Two particular elements made my spirit hum.

First, and this isn't the first time I've seen this amazing video, Rebekah showed a short documentary on creativity produced by National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones.

I've seen Jones' work before, and his message captures nicely some of my foundational ideas. Creativity - I am convinced - is all about engaging the spirit of our Creator, and about moving beyond the restrictive parameters we impose on ourselves and those around us because of our unbelief.

Unbelief translates into constriction, proscription, pre-conclusion... We immobilize ourselves, or simply go around in circles, or at best tread water...

Rebekah followed up the video with a short talk that flowed seamlessly from Jones' central thesis. She called it "Bumblebee Generosity." However, rather than regurgitate the inaccurate - hackneyed - idea that "The Bumblebee is scientifically proven to be unable to fly... yet the Bumblebee goes ahead and flies anyway", she did some actual research (imagine that!), and gave a more compelling message.

The Bumblebee may not be aerodynamic as a "static" body. (A bird-shaped model is aerodynamic, and would glide if dropped of a cliff - whereas a Bumblebee model would tumble and crash). In motion, however, and with the frenetic beating of the wings (130-240 beats per second), the Bumblebee controls the airflow around it and manages to fly with surprising elegance.

Same principle with a bicycle, Rebekah pointed out. Standing still, the two-wheeler falls right over. In motion, however, the bike is very stable.

Likewise the spiritual life. We are - and most especially as a church body - always going to tumble and crash - or simply fall over - if we stand still, inactive. But, when we respond to the urgings of the Spirit and we're willing to move forward into the life-charged future God has for us, well, that's when we have the opportunity to soar.

It may be a Monday. Let's soar anyway!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Difference between a "Jump" and an Actual Charge

Well, my car died again. Not too serious, just an empty battery. But that's twice in a week so I've just about decided on a new one (battery) to avoid a major inconvenience.

Anyway, jump-starting myself from Rebekah's Santa Fe made me remember a funny story from my days as a security guard in college. Yes, you heard that right; I worked night shifts on campus security to pay my way through school.

One early shift, around 9:00 PM on a stormy night, I got a call to help a co-ed with a dead car. I took along the jumper cables and braved the driving rain to hook things up under the hood. Her battery was completely drained, and it took several attempts and a few minutes of waiting before her car finally cranked.

Soaked to the skin, I carefully unhooked the cables from her end and put them in the trunk of the security vehicle. I couldn't believe my eyes when she immediately turned off the ignition, jumped out of the car, and ran back to her dorm.

"Wait!" I called out, hurrying after her. She stopped in the shelter of the front porch. "What are you doing?" I asked. "Why did you turn off the car."

"Silly," she smiled at me as if I was a small child who needed things spelled out. "It's only 9:30 and I don't have to be at the party until 10:00!" And with that she waltzed into the lobby... and I determined I'd be sure to be checking a building way the other side of campus when she called back for another jump....

And I found myself (today, back with my uncooperative Saturn Aura) thinking about church tomorrow morning. So many of us try to flag God down for "a little help over here", hook up for a quick jolt, then waltz back off into the pressing business of our lives without even the minimum residual charge remaining, resident in our spirits - and we're shocked when we can't even begin to get our spiritual life cranked.

"Why does that always happen?" we ask. "It's dead again, and I haven't even been anywhere."

Which is the point, of course. We've got to go somewhere to set the charge. And we've got to remain in the life-charged presence of the Master.

God told his friends in Israel exactly how they needed to be deliberate about maintaining the connection.
  • Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
Believe me, it's a good word.


Friday, November 5, 2010

So Good to Be Alive!

Picture taken in the White Mountains, mid October....

Readers from the higher latitudes are going to laugh, but this morning it felt absolutely wonderful to - finally - shiver a little when I stepped outside to walk Scout. It was 55 degrees at 7:00, and the air felt soooo good!

I was wearing shorts, sandals, a t-shirt and then a light jacket. I was far too cold for the first half mile, and I guess I could have gone home to put on long pants, but I honestly enjoyed the nip in the air, keeping my hands shoved deep into my pockets, and picking up the pace to keep warm.

Even Scout could feel it. She walked with an extra spring in her step, tail held high, lifting her head occasionally to sniff the air. When we were done she was all, "That was fun, let's go round again!"

Maybe this answers the perennial Thanksgiving question - "This year, will we be able to eat on the porch." Not - "Is it going to be warm enough?" but - "Is it going to be cool enough?"

And so begins the five-six months why it's so great to live in Florida. Sure, we'll have some air-conditioned days to contend with; but at our house it's mostly going to be, "Windows open, fresh air, extra walks, and live outdoors..."

I just feel so refreshed! One more reason to celebrate. Isn't it good to be alive?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

"These Words Are Trustworthy and True"

The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true..." (Rev 22:6)

Today I'm officially beginning my new book. If you're confused, here's the distinction. As of this morning I now have: a "latest book", a "next book" and a "new book".

The general perception "out there" seems to be that, "Everyone writes a book nowadays". However, an informal poll of the people you know will probably reveal a different answer. So, if you happen to be one of those people who don't write books, you might be interested in the process.
  • First, the volume I still refer to as "my latest book" has been out for a year now. "The Unmaking of a Part-Time Christian" has been slow getting out of the gate, but the feedback from the few people have have read it continues to be extremely positive. There's a lot of my personal spiritual journey wrapped up in that book.
  • My "next book" is already finished. Right now it's in Nashville going through the editing process prior to production work. Production work will include title, page design, cover design, blurb, marketing plans etc. The 49-chapter book, a series of devotional readings for Lent, leading up to Easter, will be ready for purchase in the fall of 2011, and is targeted to make its big impact in early 2012.
  • So "My new book", the one I'm officially starting today, will likely not be available until 2012 or 2013. I have the idea, I've almost completed the outline, and I'll be writing the first few chapters between now and the end of the year. When that's done, I'll package a formal proposal and send it to my (or several) acquisitions editor/s. Then we'll have to see if anyone is interested before taking it to the next level. Ideally, I'll have a contract sometime in the Spring.
Short story, it's going to be a book targeted for men. But it will also - like GET REAL - be readable and useful for both men and women. I'm reluctant to divulge any more details as of now, except to say that it's going to be built around the keynote address I'll be bringing to national conventions for both Presbyterian Men (2011) and the Disciples of Christ Men (2012).

Between now and then, I'm simply asking for prayer... and maybe an invitation to come and talk at your church.

The bottom line on huge writing projects is this: It's impossible to set aside the resources necessary to write a new book unless I'm getting paid by somebody to go out and talk about the last one!

Grace and Peace - DEREK

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

How About Some Personal "Checks & Balances" When We Vote?

Whatever our political leaning, I think we all need to be concerned about how unrealistic, "me first", "stuck in the now" and narrow-minded so many of us tend to be when it comes to elections.

Fact is, social change, substantive economic progress, foreign policy or anything at all that makes a long-term impact is - by definition - subject to the test of time. Partizan politics, however, has become stuck in the attention span of the average consumer, last month's unemployment numbers, and the frenetic ups and downs of the 24-hour news cycle.

We can't realistically demand long-term solutions of our leaders and then vote them out of office when we don't get what we want a month or two down the road.

America either needs a prescription of Ritalin to help our attention span; or (and I like this) a personal "reality-check fairy" for every consumer, charged with the sole responsibility of sitting on our shoulders at all times, at the ready to slap us on the wrists and say "No! You can't have that!"

We insist on - and are proud of - the checks and balances built into our form of government. The overlapping and interdependent terms and time-lines of legislative, executive and judicial branches are pure genius. Yet too many of us allow our personal political psyche to go off half-cocked at a moment's notice and without any sense of balance whatsoever.

So I recommend a subdivision of our individual electoral consciousness - mine, and yours - that functions in a similar way:
  • A well-honed value system that undergirds everything and that is, essentially, a life-time appointment. I base mine on my ongoing relationship with God and my personal walk with Jesus....
  • An executive decision-oriented process that takes into account shifting political allegiance, priorities that may or may not refocus over extended periods of time, well thought-out arguments and philosophies that can change over the years, changes in life and circumstance that are years in the making, and my willingness to rethink certain assumptions based on experience and growth....
  • A cultured responsiveness to the realities of the world around us. We may have "work-ethic" roots, but those homeless folk aren't on the street because they're lazy; we might embrace Christ's admonition to heal the sick, but should we have to pay for the doctor's inflated malpractice insurance? I may be a fiscal conservative, but I'm certainly not willing to vote for someone determined to dismember important social programs....
I'm talking about a balance of power, a personal political psyche that builds a decision-making process around both the timeless and the timely, an electoral ethic that references the big picture rather than simply what we heard on talk-radio last week.

That's my challenge to you, America. It's also our responsibility....