Friday, December 31, 2010

To Infinity and Beyond...

Jesus – “I am the gate. Everyone who enters through me will find that they can truly live. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.” (John 10)

If you haven't read "Derek & Rebekah's Official Christmas letter", you can find it listed under "popular posts" to the right. But 2010 is receding into history, what’s on my mind today is the wide-open window of possibility that is 2011. This New Year is waiting for me to understand the realm of what can be, to engage a vision, and then to live beyond my dreams.

I’m not talking about resolutions, so much as promise, possibilities, belief and intention. I’m talking about being deliberate in terms of moving forward. If I really am a Jesus-follower, then I have to leave myself open to a range of outcomes in 2011 that is much more extensive than the limit of my dreams, a quality of experience that falls well outside of my own safe and manageable repertoire of what-ifs.

First, I’m stepping into 2011 with the belief that this could be a breakthrough year for me professionally: 
  • I have my first opportunity to keynote a national conference
  • I have another new book coming out
  • I have a new project percolating that has the potential to be huge
  • and I’ve sketched out an outline for another manuscript.
I believe that I really am moving forward, but at the same time I wonder about where my own lack of faith and my spiritual poverty is putting the breaks on the plans the Creator has for me.

So I plan to begin 2011 by meditating, by listening and by taking the time to clarify my vision.

Rebekah gave me a tripod for Christmas, so I can use my camera to peer more intently when there’s not a lot of obvious light. I plan on using a spiritual tripod too, so that I can apprehend the light that is hidden beneath what is superficial. I know that such a task will require patience, and listening, and waiting; like a camera on a tripod; being still.

If there’s one place I want to go in this New Year it is beyond what is superficial. And I know of only one way to get there. Jesus said, “I am the gate.”

I like the way the CEV translates Psalm 46:
God says, "Be still, and know that I am God. I will be honored among the nations. I will be honored in the earth." The Lord who rules over all is with us. The God of Jacob is like a fort to us.
  • I’m going to be still
  • I'm going to use my spiritual tripod
  • I'm going to enter in by the gate and find pasture
  • I'm going to trust God to open up the New Year
  • and I'll be praying that, “The God of Jacob will be like a fort to me”.
 Peace - and a very happy and blessed New Year - DEREK

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Count your blessings name them one by one...

Today's story is very simple. I am blessed in many ways, but - walking Rebekah out to the car this morning as she headed in to work - I couldn't help but notice how beautiful she is. I said "Stop! I want to take your photograph. You are so lovely this morning I want to capture the moment."

So I pulled out my BlackBerry and clicked.

Now I may well be biased to some extent. But, regardless, I'd be willing to bet that my estimation of Rebekah would stand any level of scrutiny, by any group of observers, in any place of time, impartial or otherwise.

I do a lot of writing for the Tony Dungy website at All Pro Dad. I constantly prepare lists of approaches to life that might benefit men, most especially in terms of the context of "dad" and "husband". We tend to craft these "10-Ways" lists in response to need. Well, if there's one thing men get wrong more than anything else (and, believe me, it's not "one" thing!) it's a general sense of awareness vis-à-vis how fundamentally blessed their lives are. It seems that we have to hit this subject again and again and again.
  • Do you have any idea of how good you have it?
  • If so, then why don't you show it?
  • Would it hurt you to stop and smell the roses now and then?
  • How long has it been since you grabbed your wife by the arm, stopped her dead in her tracks, and said, "Oh my goodness you are beautiful! I have to tell you how amazed and overwhelmed I am by the blessing of waking up every morning and realizing, once again, that you chose me. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Thank you for simply being..."?
  • Does your family know how much you love them?
  • If you had to count, would terms of endearment come ahead of complaints and criticisms? Or do you more often forget to point out how deeply blessed you are?
We are winding down a year - 2010 - that has been as challenging as any I can remember. However, when I take the time to count my blessings, it's very difficult to think about anything other than the beauty, and the wonder, and the love, and the adventure, and the joy, and the fun, and the peace... - and that's just the being married to Rebekah part!

If you want to experience God's blessing today, then take the time to count the ones you already have. Think about it... count your blessings... name them one-by-one.... it really will surprise you.... Believe me, you're going to be amazed and thankful.

Today is the 5th day of Christmas - DEREK

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Wisest of the Magi

Note: Check the facebook "Like" at the end of this post to share with your friends. Thanks - DEREK
This weekend I drove by a church sign that advertised the following theological lapse: "No church this Sunday due to Christmas." It was December 26. How deliciously ironical! Christmas is exactly the reason we get to do church in the first place. But it was evidently too inconvenient for this group, seeing as some of their members had doubtless already showed up Friday evening for Christmas Eve. I mean, really.

Church at fpcBrandon was awesome! We offered a combined service at 10:00 and the place was full. Don Zegal put together an amazing low-brass choir and we did a blended mix of music, Praise Band playing alongside the organ.

From the mouths of babes: Karen Weber shared a version of the following story for the children. "I have a young friend," she said, "who is very special. Frankie isn't able to do some of the things other children do, and sometimes that makes it difficult for him to fit in. Even though everybody loves him, sometimes he gets left out." 

She went on to explain that being left out wasn't the case when it was time to put on the Christmas pageant. Frankie wanted a part and they found just the right role for him to play. He got to be the Inn-keeper, and he had just the one line to remember. When Mary and Joseph knocked on his door he was going to say, "No! We don't have any room at the Inn!" Then, after Joseph explained their situation, he would say the same thing again, "No! We don't have any room."

So time came for the Christmas play. Everyone was doing a great job. Eventually, Joseph and Mary made their way to the door on one side of the stage and knocked. Frankie was ready: "No!" he said, with conviction. "We don't have any room at the Inn."

Joseph pointed to Mary. "We're tired and hungry," he said. "Mary is going to have a baby. Don't you have anywhere we can stay."

In that God-saturated moment, Frankie forgot everything... Frankie looked from Mary to Joseph and back again, and he spoke directly from his huge, love-filled heart. "It's Okay - you can have my room," he said clearly.

By the time Karen got to that part of the children's story we all knew what was coming. But it didn't make the truth of it any less powerful.

Frankie got it. Frankie understood the heart of the message. Frankie is the wisest of the Magi.

I wonder what my answer would have been?
Peace, Love, Hope & Joy - DEREK

Monday, December 27, 2010

Love The Church Staff!

Christmas Brunch with The Black family - foreground - and my parents...   Last night I was in conversation with some old friends who have been active in church all their lives. They live in another city, and currently attend a "non-denominational" fellowship.

They seemed amazed when we shared the story of our associate pastor's big Christmas surprise.

"He was at your house Christmas morning?" they questioned. I'm not sure, but I think their mouths were hanging open just a little.

"Tim and Kelly always come over for Christmas brunch," Rebekah said. "They bring their boys, we exchange presents...."

She stopped, realizing how often churches experience conflict in their pastoral staff: Preachers who can't work together, petty jealousies, personality conflicts, sabotage, territorial disputes, heavy-handed supervision, taking sides, church splits....

"We just love each other," Rebekah said. "Tim's like a brother."

Love is all we need:
Six and a half years ago, when our church was searching for an addition to the pastoral staff, I was just as interested in the potential spouse. I lobbied hard for calling a pastor who's husband - or wife - loved Jesus, loved the preacher, and loved the church.

Because it's bunk when they say, "A candidate's husband or wife should not be a factor when calling a minister...." Like it or not, it matters hugely! Churches need pastors with committed family support and they need a spouse who feels called 100%. That doesn't mean "two for the price of one", so much as it means "one with the heart of two."

Consequently, while it's awesome that Rebekah loves Tim, it's a wonderful gift from God that I love Kelly too.

Advent Conspiracy:
That's why this year's Advent Conspiracy worked out so well. Kelly had been thinking about getting Tim a new guitar pretty much all year long; she stuffed the occasional $5 bill in an envelope just to see what might happen. It's tough to pull surprises when your husband pays the bills.

By the fall she had enough to think about shopping. That's where I came in. We started looking, pulled in a few more contributing gifters, and the plot moved into high gear. One day Kelly and I managed to sneak off while Tim was stuck at a multi-hour beach wedding and we got the job done.

That was before Thanksgiving, so the guitar (and hard shell case) remained in my care until Tim and Kelly (Micah and Liam in tow) showed up for Christmas brunch.

We pulled it off! Tim was in shock. Score for us!

  • God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (1 John 4:16-21)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Derek & Rebekah - Official 2010 Newsletter

Confession time... Rebekah and I haven't prepared an official "Christmas Newsletter" for several years now. If you're one of those people (and we know several) who are traditionalists and think, "What's wrong with putting a real card in the mail?", then we apologize... To the United States Postal Service - we apologize for contributing to your demise... And, to the folk at Snapfish and Kodak who wanted us to make all those nifty photo-cards - we hope you're still in business next year.

So here goes: "The News from Maul Hall, Christmas 2010"

There has been, and is, a huge amount of activity going on around the Maul household. Most of it has surfaced on my blog in some form or another, but I'm going to hit the highlights one more time. 2010 has been full, rich, exhausting, wonderful, difficult, inspirational, overwhelming, hopeful, challenging, disappointing, affirming, joyful and full with promise.

"Uh, that sounds all over the map, Derek?" Duh...! The truth is, 2010 was the kind of year that was loaded with every kind of emotion. No exaggeration. Sometimes 2010 felt like "Mr Toad's Wild Ride", except that - instead of riding in the driver's seat - we were tied to the roof just trying to hang on!

TRAVEL: Other than speaking in several states, Derek travelled to the U.K. for Linda Andrews' funeral. It was so sad to say goodbye to my cousin, but it was also a time of strengthening many vital family connections. Together, Derek and Rebekah enjoyed two epic road trips. First to the Georgia/North Carolina, and later to New England. It's always great fun to travel together.

REBEKAH (pictured being recognized at Presbytery): October marked 14 years as Senior Pastor here at First Brandon. The church has engaged this fragile economy by making the commitment to build a new Discipleship Center. Groundbreaking is January 2nd! The journey to get to this point has been, well, a trip to say the least. Rebekah also served as moderator for Tampa Bay Presbytery, and she steered the organization through the most radical reinvention in its history. Her staff at church have been wonderful, and we're so grateful that Tim Black has been on the pastoral team now for six years. It has been a "re" year in so many ways, featuring re-commitment, re-newal, re-organization, re-warding growth, re-markable faith, re-evaluation, re-invention, re-modeling and (more than enough) re-ality!

DEREK: Derek's newest book, The Unmaking of a Part-Time Christian, failed to make any noticeable impact in the Christian book market! However, he still believes it's the best book he's published to date. But the next book (Oct, 2011) is complete and in production. 2010 saw a lot of travel to speak at various churches, conferences and retreats, as well as several new writing opportunities. He is now a regular contributor for, The Tampa Tribune, The United Methodist News Service, FOCUS Magazine and The United Methodist Reporter. His work also appears in The Presbyterian Outlook, Presbyterians Today, These Days and The Upper Room. Two of his stories were featured in the Guideposts Christmas "coffee-table" book for 2010. He also teaches at Looking ahead, Derek has been booked as the keynote speaker for the National Presbyterian Men's Conference (2011) and the National Men's Gathering for the Disciples of Christ Church (2012). One more item: Derek's new blog, The Preacher's Husband, is already gaining traction. Check it out and pass it along!

ANDREW (28): Andrew completed his year in Bahrain and was excited to receive a great job offer back in Italy. The new Casa di Drew is located in a tiny Tuscan village. His travels have been too numerous to enumerate, but included most of the Mid-East, much of Europe and even North Africa. Andrew made his way to the USA twice, including a memorable Thanksgiving at home. Along the way he has worked with youth retreats and mission trips, learned the guitar, been trapped in exotic locations due to Iceland's volcanic eruption, established a growing reputation in his industry, been offered positions in Korea and Hawaii, and grown in stature as a fine Christian man of noble character. As a consequence of all this travel, he received a coveted "Gold Travel" status card that he flashes to great effect when checking in at airports worldwide.

NAOMI (26) & CRAIG have been living in Moodus, Connecticut, for almost three years now. Naomi has added a banking job to her Pier One work and is still a creative artist, while Craig continues to move forward in retail management at Stop & Shop grocery. The Campbells enjoy their rural Connecticut life together, attend a nearby UCC Church, play with their pets, and are looking forward to whatever the future may bring. Every time we visit them we are thankful for their commitment, their love, their obvious joy and their happy home.

EXTENDED FAMILY: We see Rebekah's siblings whenever we can and they're all doing well in Orlando, Jacksonville, Virginia Beach and Winston-Salem. Her step-mother, Myrt, celebrated her 80th birthday in Apopka. Our niece, Faith, lived here at Maul Hall from June through Christmas and we enjoyed her tremendously. Derek's parents, Grace and David, are enjoying good health in Sarasota. Derek's brother, Geoff (also in Sarasota), has had to take disability to fight liver cancer, so we would value your prayers for the year ahead.

CONCLUSION: Rebekah and I are blessed with a loving family, an awesome church, stimulating work, and a remarkable marriage now at 31 years and counting. We're both 54 now, and we look toward the future with hope, belief, motivation and abiding faith. Living with grace and purpose can be a demanding and challenging journey, but it's a journey brimming with abundant life... and love... and promise.

God bless you and fill you with joy!
  • Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from [people of faith] —put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Even "Merry Christmas" doesn't do it justice

You can say "Merry Christmas". You can insist on "Happy Holidays". But if you argue about it you're missing the point. 

How about this: "Joy-infused, blessed celebration of Jesus to all! May peace, love, hope and grace abound!"

Now there's a seasonal greeting for you! If you're going to insist on making your point, then why settle for anything less than the whole ball of wax? Christ's birth is a celebration worth going over the top for!

So, anyway - two parties in two days doesn't sound like much - unless they're both at your house! Sunday evening was our POGs (Parents of Grads) small-group Christmas fling. You can read about that and see an awesome group photograph as my "The Preacher's Husband" blog.

Then, last night, Rebekah and I hosted the FPCBrandon church staff (plus their significant others). That's 25 people and we were missing our awesome music director, Mark, who has a bad cold, along with his wife, Margie.

And it was another great party! The gift exchange went well because there were several "must have" gifts that got stolen repeatedly. Not mine. I pulled a low number and ended up with some over-perfumed smelly Yankee Candle. I gave away the candle and kept the box - I really like the box!

There were two big winners. The first was this awesome hat (modeled by our executive secretary's husband, Wayne). Then the clear # 1 was a "Precious Moments" nativity scene that changed hands almost every turn. I find it ironic that the Holy Family spent the evening in a cardboard box. Think about it: Displaced... nowhere to stay... cold... probably hungry. Everyone says Christmas is all about Jesus, but there he is again, living in a cardboard box.

This week's Advent emphasis - at least in my reference book of choice - is the Gift of Joy. Personally, I don't think joy comes packaged any more convincingly than in the people we love. For Rebekah and for me - the Preacher's Husband, it's a blessing and a bonus that she has such a team of folk on staff at the church.

So, and I hope I get this list right, I'm saying thanks to our super-cool church staff. Tim, Mark, Joyce, Lynn, Andy, Susan, Don, Steve, Kathy, Dylan...

"Merry Christmas" doesn't do it justice. So let me paraphrase:
  • "Joy-infused, blessed celebration of Jesus to all. May peace, love, hope and grace abound."

Friday, December 17, 2010

An $11 million symbol of Christmas????

photo from the AP
ABU DHABI - This Christmas tree, parked in the lobby at the Emirates Palace Hotel, was describe this morning by the Associated Press as, an "$11 million symbol of the season."

"The Christmas spirit is not rare in the UAE," the story elaborated... "Malls are full of carolers, Santas and piped-in yuletide songs."

"But not everyone's jolly," the report went on to say. "Some Emirati officials worry about threats to Gulf traditions from the wave of Western Culture..."

Okay, time out here. An $11 million tree sporting solid gold ornaments and precious gem-studded bows is not a "Christmas spirit" event. And, as for such a display being emblematic of Western Culture, I'd say it fits more closely to the values of an oil-rich oligarchy.  Hotels featuring "vending machines that pop out small gold bars" are not built for American families taking a break from their usual vacation at the Days Inn on Panama City Beach.

And, please oh please stop using the word "Christmas" as a buzz-word for opulence and the indecency of conspicuous excess! I'm this close (for a visual, I'm holding my thumb and index finger exactly one 16th of an inch apart while grimacing loudly at the computer screen. And, yes, it is possible to grimace loudly)... this close to lobbying for a new name for the December festivities, and suggesting we move the celebration of Christ's birth to, say, late January.

I know I'm a huge proponent of celebration. "The idea of Christ's birth is a celebration worth going over the top for!"  I say time and again. But then I wonder - today at least - if we're out-and-out losing the battle and, in doing so, effectively distancing an entire culture from the possibility of knowing the truth?

I'm not discouraged so much as convicted today, and cautious. Our church just reached the $15,000 mark for our Heifer Living Gift Market, and I'm so grateful to be a part of such generosity of heart. The Christmas spirit will only be evident in Abu Dhabi - as advertised - if they at the very least tithe the $11 million tree.

"What can I give him,
...poor as I am?
If I were a Shepherd,
...I would bring a lamb.
If I were a Wise Man,
...I would do my part.
Yet what can I give him: .
...give my heart..."
(In the Bleak Midwinter)

This picture, above right, is from our tree at home. The nativity is from Peru, carved from a piece of wood and purchased at a "World Village" mission market. The story it tells is one of simplicity, faith, hard work, belief and abundant life through a restored relationship with the Creator.

That's the story of Christmas. It's the only story we should be telling.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Silence, an Angel & Listening

One of the most difficult spiritual practices in 21st Century North America - or, for that matter, anywhere in the "Western World" - is silence. It makes us uncomfortable. It forces us to pay attention to the noise inside our own heads/hearts/minds. Silence is intrusive.

However, and as a way to enter into the spirit of today's posting, why don't you (we) practice a moment of silence right now. How about one minute?

Insert one minute of silence here: __________________________________

How did that feel? Was it difficult? To be honest I was only able to pull off around 45 seconds myself before caving in and writing this sentence!

There's a story in the first chapter of Luke that I'd never really considered before Rebekah bought it up in a sermon the Sunday before last. It was the Advent Sunday of Peace.

So here's how it happened: Zechariah, John the Baptizer's father, was serving in the Temple in Jerusalem. He got a visit from an angel named Gabriel. Gabriel told Zech that he and his wife would be having a baby boy, and that their son was going to pave the way for the Messiah.

So far so good. But both Zech and his wife were elderly. They'd never had children and the very idea - at their age - was preposterous. He pointed this out to Gabriel. The angle - very important angel - was, to say the least, ticked off. Here's what went down next:
  • I am Gabriel! I stand in the presence of God! And I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time. (Luke 1:19-20 - NIV)
Typically, I get a good laugh from this story of an indignant angel and then move on. But Rebekah pointed something out. She said that several months of silence allowed the message, the sense of expectation, and the "so what" of it all to settle into Zechariah's consciousness and work its way into how he followed God.

Do we ever allow God's Word to settle on us in that way? Do we take the time to honor the gravity of Christ's coming with silent reflection? Do we take the message seriously enough to simply let it work its way into our hearts and souls?

Advent is a good time to do this. Today is a good time.
Peace... Hope... Love & Joy - DEREK

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Are you worth $120 million?

Sometimes I drink in the Universe, God, a wonder crafted by your hands. I try to take in the moon, and I reach deep to comprehend the scope of your work in the bright splash of stars. So I ask myself, how is it possible to account for the fact of your interest in human life, and your care for people? Nevertheless, you have placed us in a position that is close to divinity, and you have made a crown that is crafted from glory and placed on our heads with signal honor. (Psalm 8:3-5, Maul paraphrase)

One news item that's been beaten to death in the media this morning focused on a new contract hammered out for a star baseball player. The big question, apparently, was "Why did he leave $30 million on the table?"

Evidently the pitcher likes Philadelphia more than New York. Not only that but the Yankee fans had been rude to his wife. Then - and this was a little absurd - "Housing isn't so expensive around Philly."

But my favorite observation was this. "It all goes to show that it's not  really about the money."

Now, just for clarification, you need to understand that this guy didn't accept $1 million instead of $31 million. He also didn't turn down $40 million and go with a paltry $10 million. No, what happened was he said, "No thank you" to a $150 million offer and went with the $120 M and the cheap housing.

I don't know about you, but I'm thinking the availability of more affordable properties is not going to be a serious issue when you have a guaranteed $120,000,000 in your contract. And, by the way, that word guaranteed means that he will - if he pitches at all well - in actuality earn considerably more. Plus endorsements. Plus book deals.... etc. etc.

Today's reading from my Christmas book, In My Heart I Carry A Star: stories for Advent, addresses the idea of "What Am I Worth?" I write about how amazingly significant we are - each one of us - without regard to any fact other than the truth that God loves us.

We are affirmed so completely because we are chosen so specifically. The Creator of this vast, glorious universe chooses to reveal love for people as individual human beings. We are God's personal children. We surely are significant, and we certainly are loved.

It's not all about us! But we still try to craft this world where people depend on the illusion of control. There is, however, a significant fly in our ointment: we are not alone in this Universe. We are utterly significant, certainly, but it's not because of us; it's because of Great Love. The amazing God of creation loves us.

In my book (ha ha, get it?), the fact of God's unremitting love is worth a whole lot more than $120 million....

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Don't tell me you can't find a blog by a preacher's husband...

This morning I read, with dismay, the following statement in an article about blogging featured in the Presbyterians Today Magazine. "Although there are a lot of women pastors in the mainline denominations today, I was not able to find an active blog written by a pastor’s husband. However, clergy husbands will find some of the issues addressed in these blogs resonate with their experiences." (Jody Harrington)

The primary problem with the above paragraph has do do with the fact that, knowing this article was planned, I sent the magazine an active link to this blog.

It's a shame, because the role of "Minister's Husband" has become a definitive part of my core modus operandi.
  • It's a role that defies stereotype.
  • It's both frustrating and liberating to be excluded from most conversation about and between "pastor's wives".
  • It's a lot of fun.
  • It's a huge element of who I am.
  • It's an unprecedented opportunity to serve God in creative ways.
However, and this is always the case for me, I have taken the error as a learning opportunity. Maybe, just as I concluded via the Elizabeth Edwards post last week, I need to be more deliberate about how I approach this on-line writing venue.

Tens of thousands of men read my posts on All Pro Dad! Why? Not just because the writing is good, but mostly because the content is specific for the expressed mission of the organization... So, why not approach my blogging the same way?

What I'm thinking about is dedicating Mondays to the "Preacher's Husband" theme. Kind of a "You didn't ask but I'm going to tell anyway" approach. Hmm, I kind of like that! In fact, I think I should launch a new blog specifically for my "preacher husband musings". I'll post just one day a week, probably Mondays, and we'll see what happens.

I'm going to try to make this new blog more in the style of my newspaper writing - "tight and bright" one of my editors would say.

Maybe this time I'll actually generate some interest beyond the few hundred of you who are faithful readers here. I'll keep you all posted. Then, once it's launched, maybe I can count on some of you to give me a boost, publicity, passing it around?

So, here it is, already rolled out and on the web. Check it out and let me know what you think.... 
- DEREK .......   Preacher's Husband  

Monday, December 13, 2010

Opposing Views can be Good for Clear Thinking

It may be a cold, blustery day here in Central Florida, but as someone who's still trying to recover from summer, I'm thankful and enjoying the fresh air. So far as I'm concerned, it's a great way to launch this new week.

What's most on my mind today is actually residual from last week's "God Loves Elizabeth Edwards" post. I'm always startled by both the quantity and the quality of reaction I tend to get when I write about subjects that are in the news. It makes me wish I still had my weekly "commentary" column in the Tampa Tribune.

The post garnered a huge number of hits. Additionally, a lot of people read the piece as a "note" on facebook. The most interesting discussion has evolved in response to my friend Marvin's dismissive "nonsense" comment (Marvin is what I would term an "evangelical atheist") in response to my declaration that "God loves Elizabeth Edwards".

In one exchange - Marvin and I don't argue, we simply ask each other hard questions; we tend to respect one another's attempts at answers - my friend wrote the following:
  • As expected, you don't side with the extreme religious nutcakes. I'm glad. One comment: the world is not becoming anti-christian. It is becoming more pro-reason, at least, I hope so, for the sake of every living thing on earth. You use reason in your arguments, but it is to promote an unreasonable position, which is religion. Religion is based on assumptions and imagination.
So I responded with this:
  • I wish the world was evolving toward reason. But I'm not seeing much of that! But if you read me carefully you'll see I don't promote religion so much as an openness to living beyond the confines of such constructs . You and I are closer than you/we realise - you simply draw your line where you can see it more easily! (tough to write while walking dog. Cold night) . Peace.
I've said this before: I'm always grateful to people like Marvin for provoking my thought processes. It's good for me to look at ideas and issues from other perspectives. It sharpens my thinking.

I couldn't help but notice how Marvin failed to read my original post for content, but - rather - reacted against his preconception, independent of my writing (this seems to be typical of people with oppositional viewpoints). He accused me of promoting religion! In the parent post, the one everyone was supposedly talking about, I had carefully laid out the problem with confusing God with religion. I am clearly promoting Jesus, not religion.

I made it very clear that too many "Christians" create a structure they can live with and then manufacture a god to preside over it. This god looks and thinks just like they do!

I've been thinking about my comment that Marvin and I are closer than he realizes. We're both against empty thinking; we both have a hard time with people who try to impose their views on others; we are like-minded when it comes to saying we value free-thinking.

But his definition of free-thinking is not all that free. It's like he's a prisoner to reason - or at least to the extent of his understanding. He likes to draw his line where he can see it and easily understand it. I like to draw mine beyond my view.

When I draw my line beyond my view, is it faith? Is it religion? Does it promote intellectual growth? Does it promote thinking beyond the limits of reason? What is it???

Think about that for a while. Maybe we can come back to the discussion tomorrow.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

New Bible "Translation"

Today I have the honor of participating in our choir's annual "Message in Music" for the third Sunday in Advent. First, Tim and I get to share an original song, and then I'm back at the podium for a couple of the scripture readings.

Yesterday, at rehearsal (photo at left), Tim was talking with Peggie and said, "It sounds like you and Derek are using some contemporary translations."

Well, yes. What he didn't realize is just how contemporary. Mine was actually less than two hours old when he heard it. That's right, I ventured into a new realm this weekend - Scripture paraphrase. Not to be confused with Scripture translation; I don't have the academic cred for that.

But I do have the spirit for paraphrase. I have passion for scripture, a deep love of God, an appreciation for the story, and this ongoing relationship to the original author that - I believe - infuses my re-wording with both authenticity and light.

My first reading was Mark 1:1-8. I think you'll enjoy the way it reads - the new words certainly made an impact on me.

Listen up, people; I’m excited about this opportunity to share some good news with all of you. Here it is:

Everything started according to God’s words from a long time ago… This is what the prophet Isaiah said:

“Get ready! I’m sending a messenger out into the wilderness to stir things up. This guy’s going to be making a lot of noise: ‘Shovel away all the mess’, he’ll say, ‘Open up a clear way for the Lord! Make sure there’s nothing blocking the path!’”

Sure enough, John the Baptizer showed up, he was preaching in the desert. And he wasn’t subtle at all!

“Repent!” he shouted. “Turn around. Do a one-eighty; it’s the only chance you have for forgiveness!”

Well, people showed up from all over. Crowds of them. They listened, and they apologized for their sin. So John baptized them in the Jordan River.

But it wasn’t pretty. John wore the rough clothes of an ascetic. He held things together with a frayed leather strap. He ate grasshoppers, and then he washed them down with wild honey.

But he also said this: “The Almighty has so much more in store for you! What God has in mind is coming in the form of someone so glorious that I’m not even qualified to kneel down and unbuckle his sandals! My baptism is symbolic. Water does tell a great story; but, The One Who is to Come is going to baptize you with the real thing, I’m talking about the Holy Spirit of God!

Then, as the final reading, I'm presenting this selection from Psalm 103:108:

Praise God! Praise God with every molecule of my being! Everything that I am is resonating with the astounding fact that God simply is!

I acclaim God’s name with my entire heart. I worship because I never lose sight of how remarkably kind God has always been.

Here’s what’s remarkable: The Lord knows my shortcomings, and he loves me anyway. It’s a forgiveness that wipes the slate clean.

God heals us when we’re broken; God provides the solution that makes death a non-issue. God’s kindness and love sit on our heads like a crown of glory.

In fact, God addresses our most penetrating needs in creative ways, each and every day, granting strength that could be compared to that of a young eagle.

The Lord is all about justice for people who fall through the cracks of society, people who are treated unfairly.

The Lord God laid the law out, in detail, to Moses, and then demonstrated to all of Israel exactly how far and how deep the actions of such a God could break through into this world.

But, along with all this mind-boggling power, the Lord is also defined by acts of mercy.

It’s a mercy that is wedded with kindheartedness, with benevolence, with patience and with grace.

It’s a love that never, ever fails.

I've got to tell you, writing these scripture selections in my own words was a powerful experience. I recommend it for a personal devotional exercise. I'd like to do more.

This is the third week of Advent, the week identified (in my book at least) as LOVE. Live, therefore, as if the love Jesus came to gift us is real and present and active in your life as a faithful disciple.

Love and blessings - DEREK

Friday, December 10, 2010

Best Christmas Pageant Ever (to date)

One of the great privileges of being married to the preacher is being able to tag along when she does anything official... Like opening the pre-school Christmas pageant with prayer Thursday evening.

Wow, what a hoot (I'm talking about the program, not the prayer!). We have a collection of the most adorable children you could ever hope to run into at a church pre-school event.

I think the experience was especially poignant in light of yesterday's (widely read) post about hate-based religion. These pre-schoolers were/are all about Jesus. When Jesus infiltrates even the hokey-pokey (see below) then you know you're in the presence of holiness. And by "holiness" I mean beings directly connected to the mind and the love and the intention of God.

The highlight of the evening was their enthusiastic interpretation of The Hokey-Pokey. "You give yourself to Jesus and you turn your heart around; that's what it's all about. Give... your heart to Jesus. Give... your heart to Jesus. Give... your heart to Jesus. That's what it's all about!"

That really is what it's all about! The idea of connecting ourselves to the mind and love and the intention of God is all about turning our hearts around. That's what the word repent means. A one hundred eighty degree turn. About face. New direction.

These kids get it on a heart level. They may not be old enough to deal with abstract theological concepts and to swallow doctrinal mumbo-jumbo. But they're astute enough to understand that God loves them.

Sometimes I worry that we, as grown-ups, keep our distance from God because we're afraid that we'll do the hokey-pokey and God will turn our hearts around. We're scared of the raw emotional truth of redemption. We're not about to give up any of the control we worked so hard to achieve for so long - and at such great cost.

So how's that working for you? You know, the control thing? Why not risk God?

Ask the kids. They know. Ask Rebekah - look at the picture - she talks with the two's, three's and four's about it all the time.

Christmas Joy - DEREK

Thursday, December 9, 2010

God loves Elizabeth Edwards...

Elizabeth Edwards:
I had no plans today to write about Elizabeth Edwards, the courageous - late - wife of perennial presidential candidate and serial philanderer John Edwards. But my wonderful daughter, Naomi, who has a big heart and a deep faith, is upset about the "church" that plans to picket Edwards' funeral, and she asked me to post a few words in this space.

To be honest, I didn't want to do anything that might garner any additional attention for the pathetic lemmings who populate the Kansas-based "Westboro Baptist" cult. However, and in a similar vein as my controversial comments about the fruitcake from Gainesville who planned to burn the Koran, the spotlight is already blazing, honed in on the "protest", and broadcasting to the world.

So I can't help myself (especially in an increasingly anti-Christian cultural climate); I feel compelled to tell the truth about the amazing, redemptive, generous love that The Creator of all life has for absolutely all of humankind.

So Sad:
"It's so sad," Naomi said, when she read that the Westboro press-release declared that God hates Elizabeth Edwards.

Okay, "Rev" Fred Phelps, I'll bite. Game on. Let's go head-to-head on this. In actuality, and despite your petty prejudices, God loves Elizabeth Edwards. Additionally, and this is one of many reasons it's a very good thing that I'm not God, God also loves Fred Phelps.

Which leads me to say the following - and I know I'll hear about this from a couple of people:
  • I don't believe for one moment that the folk at Westrboro Baptist Church worship the God of the Bible (both the Old and the New Testaments).
  • I don't believe Fred Phelps is remotely connected with Jesus Christ.
  • I don't believe that anything about being a "Follower of The Way" has spilled over into the message preached by people like Fred Phelps.
  • And I don't think that the Gospel is in even a word that he says.
God loves Elizabeth Edwards.

You see - and this is a critically important point - the Westboro Baptist Church have confused religion with God. They have crafted a brutally narrow rules-based religious system, fine-tuned the restrictions and exclusions to fit their own personal prejudices, and then created a more manageable god to preside over the cultish result.

What's sadder still is the fact that many, many "Christian" groups do exactly the same thing, with their own nuances and variations. And the God who put everything on the line to offer the possibility of relationship to the likes of you and me becomes lost amidst the thick entanglements of obligation, fear, manipulation etc...

Understand this: The God who loves Elizabeth Edwards, and Derek Maul, and Fred Phelps is not on the radar of people who base their religion on fear and exclusion and hate.

Naomi is right. What we're hearing on the news is very, very sad. "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." (John 3:17)

In love - in God's kind of love - DEREK

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

It's Cold in Florida!

"It's cold in Florida". "Record cold in Florida".

I don't often get the chance - unless I'm at the top of Mt. Washington on vacation - to talk about "freezing" in my daily blog. So this morning I'm taking Valrico's 29F and running with it. Yes, it was that cold.

Of course, chatting on the phone from Connecticut, our daughter Naomi has to come up with "Well, that was our high today!" But she's so sun-shiny about it that New England sounds cozy regardless.

The good news is I could break out some of my serious cold-weather gear that languishes deep in the closet most of the year. My tweed hat from England, a thick sweater, lined leather gloves, a toasty wool scarf. The tweed hat, I noted, makes me look at least an additional ten years older; "older but distinguished", I might add (that's "distinguished", by the way, not "extinguished").

I have to admit I really enjoy a good, brisk, walk in the cold. I like veering into the grass to leave footprints in the frost. I like bundling up in warm clothing. I even like being slightly uncomfortably chilly at the outset, and feeling myself warm up in response to the exercise. I like having to unbutton my jacket after a couple of miles to cool down. And I like hot coffee, freshly ground, shared with Rebekah when I arrive home forty-five minutes later.

I simply like life. I like this life that we're enjoying in this place and time. And I'm grateful, so grateful for the gift of... everything.
  • Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. (Colossians 3:15)
Peace, Hope, Joy & Love - DEREK

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Faith and Culture

One of my foremost concerns about Christmas is the way we so easily allow our faith-based celebration of Christ's birth become interchangeable with the cultural observations that share so many of the same symbols.

Christmas marketing - aimed at hawking seasonal goods and services - has not only co-opted the Holy Family, but shanghaied Angels, shepherds and Wise Men too. Human Resources has done everything short of issuing the biblical characters with W-2 forms (or 1099s if they're independent contractors). Mary and Joseph, et al may be good for business... but is business good for Christmas?

Please don't misunderstand me! Yes, I'm a committed Jesus-follower; but I'm also seriously hooked on the festivity and fun of Christmas as a North-American social-cultural phenomenon.

I honestly don't believe there's any kind of a problem with faithful Christians jumping in the Christmas mosh pit (so to speak) and dancing ourselves silly with Santa and the elves. It's all good fun, and the amount of genuine goodwill generated by the show is an awesome commentary on the inherent goodness of people of all faiths and belief-systems.

But I am asking that we keep clear in our own hearts and minds exactly what we're celebrating. It's too easy to play the same games the people over at marketing have perfected, and - in turn - blur the line between faith and fiction on the church side of the equation.

So, here are a handful of gut-check observations:
  • If your god is looking a little too much like Santa, then there's a problem brewing that you might want to address...
  • If conversation about Jesus cramps your Christmas style, then get on your knees and start over...
  • If your prayer-life could be downloaded as a PDF file from the wish list, then it's time to re-explore the relationship aspect of faith...
  • If we plan this year to spend more $$ on stimulating the economy than furthering God's Kingdom, it may be time to re-think the idea of stewardship...
  • If your Christmas morning happily gorges on presents from the North Pole, yet neglects to open the scripture and acknowledge the coming of the King, then something is seriously amiss....
Be encouraged! It's still early in December. Read the following list of suggestions and pick one or more ideas to help get this amazing season of light and hope and joy and peace into proper perspective.
  • Start each day with a (short) devotional reading from The Upper Room
  • Get a copy of my Christmas book, read the stories every day, and make sure you don't miss Christmas by a mile!
  • Attend the church of your choice every Sunday this month (I attend First Presbyterian Brandon). Pick up an Advent devotional guide to read, and invite the Spirit to be your guide.
  • Choose this moment (right now) to ask Jesus to be a part of your Christmas 2010. Try a simple prayer such as this: "Jesus, I'm inviting you into my life. I'm serious about this. I accept your love, I accept everything you've done for me, and I want you to be the most important part of Christmas, and of every day to come. Amen."
God's rich blessings - DEREK

"The rising sun will come to us from heaven," John the Baptist's father said, "to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace" (Luke 1:78-79). The path of Advent peace doesn't interface well with instant, prepackaged, super-convenient, or freeze-dried. The path of peace goes directly through Bethlehem... and then it continues - without hesitation - to Jerusalem and the Cross. (In My Heart I Carry A Star, page 58)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Peace the Illusive Dream

Ah, peace, that illusive dream of beauty contest participants, "My goal is world peace"; of parents preparing dinner after a hectic day, "Is it too much to ask for a little peace and quiet around here?"; of anti-war protesters, "All I am saying, is give peace a chance"; of generals, "I pray for peace every day"; and of preachers, "May the peace of God, which passes all understanding"....

This is the "Second Week of Advent", and in most church calendars the emphasis is peace.

I found mine yesterday evening, at church, and I wasn't really looking for it. I always enjoy the Christmas fellowship dinner, but this time I didn't have that much of an appetite and my broken rib was really working hard on my last raw nerve. So I abandoned my plate, skipped the dessert table, and went on into the sanctuary early to tune my guitar.

My friend Tim was already there, and after we got ourselves vaguely tuned up I laid down a simple rock riff in E and it was game on. Tim hit his groove quickly and - instead of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" or some other Christmassy melody, we rocked out for a few minutes while the room filled up.

Later, standing back behind the piano, playing guitar while a couple of hundred people sang Angels from the Realms of Glory at the tops of their voices, I took a freeze-frame picture in my mind's eye and I can see it clearly this morning.
  • The enthusiastic section of Korean Presbyterians, worried about the possibility of war in their homeland, yet singing their hearts out, faces radiant with God's kind of Peace.
  • The faces of people I love, too many to list, caught in the eddy of grace that swept through the church, illuminated by an inner light that - for those few minutes - put their lives back into the redemptive perspective of living faith.
  • The smile that never left Tim's face as he let his guitar do his singing for him.
  • The families, all sizes and all ages, standing together to give thanks for the gift of Jesus.
  • The spirit of unity; so many unique people, with such a variety of background and opinion and politics and experience, standing in the common humility of grace, and love, and redemption.
So many aspects to peace.
Such a transformational gift from the Creator who did not place us here on this earth and in this time and place for nothing.. but for so much.
Such an opportunity to live.

Peace - and I really do mean that - DEREK

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid (John 14)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

"Over the Top" - Our theme for Christmas

A lot of people decorate for Christmas according to a theme. Kind of like a Martha Stewart special. "This year we're doing silver and white..." "Our home is toy-themed this year..." or, "We're doing green in the living room, red in the family room, and gold in the entry..."

Well, at least that's what they say on H&GTV.

So anyway, Rebekah and I were dragging out the boxes of Christmas paraphernalia this week and our niece, Faith, asked what our theme was going to be.

Well that was easy. I knew right away where this Christmas was going. I could see the sparkle in Rebekah's eyes.

"Our them for 2010 is 'Over The Top'," I said in all seriousness. Of course what I really meant was "Our theme is Jesus." I mean, what other emphasis could there possibly be or what would be the point?

But "Over The Top" pretty much sums up how we're going about the celebration over here at Maul Hall. Really, what other option is there? Isn't the arrival of Jesus into this world worth going over the top for....?

Generally, Rebekah and I are fairly low-key when it comes to home decor. We use a muted palette of colors, we tend to ere on the side of comfort, and we have always made sure we have a very livable space.

But Christmas is fun! We can go over the top and still stay true to the story. We're happy to jazz it up a little because we want to illustrate what a radical difference the Prince of Peace makes in our lives, in our home, in the world. We want our home to say something fairly loud about Jesus, a message that is echoed in the way we live our lives and how we present our faith.
  • "What on earth is that scrawny ugly angel doing on top of an otherwise lovely tree?" Well, sit down for a moment and let us tell you her story...
  • "You have how many manger scenes scattered around the house?" That would be 12; but there's a reason for that...
  • "Bumble bees? On a Christmas tree? What?" Now that's a great story....
Here's an idea. I'll take some pictures over the next three weeks and share some of the stories that go with them. Stay tuned.

In the mean time, today rounds out the Advent week of HOPE. Are you feeling it yet?

"But when the fullness of time had come," Paul wrote to his friends at the church in Galatia, "God sent his Son" (Gal 4:4). Now there's some hope....


Friday, December 3, 2010

Christmas Trees and Cracked Ribs

It's not often I blog subjects "on request." But my "Getting X-Rays for Christmas-tree accident" status update on facebook generated a little interest so I'll spill the beans.

Essentially, it was a case of sweet revenge by the tree. Every year, countless Americans go out to the woods, cut a tree off at the knees, haul it home like a bagged deer, strap it to the wall, cover it with bizarre decorations, string lights all over it, plug it in and electrocute the poor thing.

So earlier this week, when I climbed into our attic to pull down a couple of artificial trees, the larger of the two was, like, "I may not be real, but I'm well designed, lit to the hilt and fairly heavy. I can stick it to the man on behalf of my peeps on the Happy Christmas Tree Farm: this one's for you, Doug Fir...."

Of course it all played out more subtly in real life. I was sitting on a plank of wood lodged between two struts, arms extended, as I pulled to dislodge tree #2 from its perch. The board slipped out from under me, I dropped a good 8 inches, and the lower ribs on my left side jammed into a four by four that wasn't going anywhere.

Ouch. I tried to pass it off as a bruise but the pain escalated and I went in today for X-Rays. Sure enough, broken rib and - as the doctor said - more than enough justification for excruciating pain.

The good news is I didn't fall out of the attic. The bad news is it hurts! So eat your heart out, Griswalds; it's game 0n. So far it's "Derek & Rebekah 2 - Tree 1". Give us a few more days and we'll run up the score.

It's not even going to be close.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

"I Want to Ride My Bicycle..."

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I just spent the morning at a meeting of the Tampa Bay Presbytery. I made the trip because Rebekah handed over the gavel as moderator today, but first she had the opportunity to preach at the opening worship service.

She used the (super-cool) bumble bee story I referenced a few weeks ago, along with the companion bicycle illustration. The point being that the church was not built by Jesus to be static, but dynamic, and that we need to constantly stay on the move if we don't want to fall flat on our faces. This is a time of transition for the church in Tampa, and the last thing we should do is nothing...

... But of course that's (doing nothing) always the temptation. Not only the temptation but the practice. We're very good - in institutions especially - at pontificating, posturing, arguing, analyzing and completely getting in the way of the Gospel.

The message we have been charged with communicating in this world is simple. Jesus is offering an invitation to live in the way that God intended from the foundations of the world. This "New and Living Way" is awesome, exciting, gratifying, fulfilling, rewarding.... in other words, worth sharing with everyone.

"But what message are we communicating," Rebekah asked rhetorically, "when the only evidence of Christ-life that we offer is all about politics and agendas and fuss and undermining and sabotage. And when we demonstrate so little in the way of peace, even less in terms of love, mere fragments of grace, and no measurable joy whatsoever...?" (My paraphrasing)

So she smiled, she had the joy of salvation all over her face, she wore her passion not as an accessory but as definitive molecular-level DNA, and she challenged the Tampa Bay Presbyterians to move forward in the power of the Holy Spirit for the purpose of living Gospel out loud - like we mean it!

Her last paragraph - which she sung - was the classic rock anthem by Queen: "I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike. I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride it where I like...."

And then she pulled out the bicycle ringer-dinger I had purchased at K-Mart just a half hour before. "Ring-ring, ring-ring - riiiiiinnnnngggg."

And then, after all that, she was ready to hand over the gavel.