Saturday, January 29, 2011

Epcot. What an Amazing World!

Well that was fun! Yesterday, for the first time in a little over 14 years, Rebekah and I spent the day at Disney. We parked Scout at a friend's farm, cruised on over to Orlando, and enjoyed cool, clear walking weather with absolutely nothing on our minds other than a day full of relaxation and holding hands.

As you can see from the photos, we chose Epcot. Our friends did the research when they heard we were going and told us that the attendance Friday was predicted to be a "3" on the "1-10 Crowd Scale." (I guess you have to be some kind of a "go to Disney" pro to even know that info is available!) Consequently, there were enough people to animate the park with extra life, but not so many that they got in our way or annoyed us!

The longest we waited to do anything was 10 minutes, but mostly we sauntered around and enjoyed the "World Showcase". We started out in Canada which was, to be honest, a bit of a disappointment. Our friends beyond the 49th parallel are well-known for understatement, but 15 minutes of it, filmed in 360-degree-surround, begins to verge on the criminal.

So we headed over to the UK for lunch in the pub, where I had the most expensive fish & chips ever while Rebekah polished off a plate of "Sunday Roast". The beer was good, the tea was decent, and the Beatles fake band on stage next door sounded tolerable.

Next was a stroll to Italy for an after-lunch cappuccino. Rebekah had promised Andrew she'd meet him there (virtually at least). They've done a good job creating a hybrid "Italy on an acre", with echos of Pisa in the piazza, Milan in the markets, Florence in the fountains, Capri in the cafe and Sienna in the siesta (OK, I was reaching with those, but it was worth the try!). The cappuccino was creditable, but once you've had the real thing in the real place in the shadow of a real Duomo... well...

The Japanese drummers were spectacular, then we walked past the USA - where a line of 1776 era soldiers were fife & drumming their way through "Yankee-Doodle" - and paused to view Mexico before stopping in for a serious visit with China, where we were overwhelmed at the natural wonder and intrigued by the rich cultural history. China def gets "two-thumbs-up."

Next was - in my mind - the highlight of the day. "Soarin" is a virtual ride that completely fools the senses. What made it better was I had no idea what we were doing. I stood in line not knowing if this was going to be a "ride", or a movie, or an exhibit. All I knew was what the man next to me in line told his eight-year-old: "We're going to California!" So when the lights went out and the machine lifted my feet off the ground I immediately had the sensation of hang-gliding and I never lost the effect.

Then it was a walk over to Morocco, where we made reservations for dinner at the Marrakesh, followed by a jog back to our car for Rebekah's jacket, and then a nice visit to France. I've got to tell you, I thought the "Impressions of France" audio-visual presentation was awesome! Now it was annoyingly French, inasmuch as it didn't bother giving the viewer much specific information and had an overlay of arrogance that was hard to miss. But it was a rich, gorgeous overview of a simply beautiful and often under-appreciated country.

We completed our tour with first-class dinner in Morocco. The cuisine is very much Mediterranean, but with a distinct North African twist we really enjoyed. Salad, appetizer, lamb, chicken, seven vegetables, couscous, three kinds of baklava and Moroccan coffee.

The day was relaxing, as planned, and something wonderful to enjoy together. But I also couldn't help but come away with a sense of how amazing this world is, and full with wonder. Each country is beautiful and diverse. There is so much to see, so much to enjoy, and so much to learn from one another.  Yet people want to dominate, conquer, control and restrict...?

... I am completely frustrated at the needlessness of hostility and conflict, when we live in a world so full with riches and beauty and wonder. There is enough that we all could enjoy one another. To think that so much of this amazing planet is destroyed on a daily basis, and to hear continual reports of murder, torture, rape and armed conflict in the face of so much potential for celebration and joy...!

It's no wonder that Paul writes the following in Romans 8: For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God...

This is our world. Mine and yours! Its people are our brothers and our sisters. Surely we can live in peace?

Friday, January 28, 2011

In Memorial

BOGNOR - UK: This morning, at 9:00 EST (that's 2:00 PM on the south coast of England) my cousin's church is holding a memorial service for my Auntie Mary. She passed away last weekend.

Our family was unable to make the trip across the Atlantic but my mum, Grace Maul, wrote these words about her sister that will be shared during the service.

So my post this morning is in honor of that, and all, special relationships of love.

Peace - DEREK

  Thanksgiving for the life of my only sister

                                                                MARY WATTS CLIPSHAM

I live in Florida, and am unable to be with you today, but want to join in this Thanksgiving Service.
Mary has been a wonderful sister to me for 79 years!   She was seven when I was born and has always been so very kind to me.   Making dolls clothes when I was small, and helping me in every possible way when our sons were tiny - (before Christine was born).

She was an ideal Pastor's Wife - always showing love and care to others.   She was one of the most generous persons you could ever meet.   Always thinking of others above herself.   Mary was very talented, in cooking, crafts and needlework, and especially gifted in caring for children!!   During the Second World War she worked in a day care nursery, whilst mothers worked in factories, and she really loved those children.   Then of course in more recent years she has adored her Grandchildren.

Her heart was broken when her husband, Ernie, died 9 years ago, BUT she has tried to remain cheerful in front of others, always singing the chorus "Yes, Jesus loves me" to everyone.

She is now with the Lord she has loved and served since her earliest days, and I know the angels are rejoicing with her as she is joining others she has "loved, and lost awhile".

I look forward to meeting her again and meanwhile pray God's blessing on Christine, Graham, Emma, Laura, Sarah and Joel.

When Mary was sick, as a toddler, she would sit on our Grandma's lap and ask her to sing "Ever Near".   The words were a comfort then and I leave them to comfort you now -

                                                Ever near to bless and cheer,
                                                In the darkest hour when I'm tempted
                                                I can feel his power.
                                                At His side I'll abide
                                                Never more to roam.
                                                Till at last Jordan passed,
                                                He will take me home.

Mary did stay close to Jesus and her song is answered.   She is Safely Home. 

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Gourmet Update

OK, so here we are, 26 days into 2011. How's the new year working for you so far? This time a year ago I was all excited about the "Gourmet Initiative" Rebekah and I adopted for 2010. I thought now would be a great time for a review.

Our plan, in case you missed it the first time, went like this.
  1. I had given Rebekah three new cookbooks for Christmas.
  2. I promised to cook one new recipe per week during 2010.
  3. All she had to do was thumb through and find something special that she wanted to eat.
The idea was to challenge the boundaries of my skill set as a chef. I was a decent cook in general, but over the years my imagination waned, and I had to admit I repeated my "standards" every couple of weeks, so that everything I prepared was beginning to taste the same...

For 2010, following new recipes (to the "t"), I wanted to learn new techniques, tap fresh resources, force myself to research new ingredients, and expand my repertoire in the kitchen (see exhibit A - above right, shrimp parmigiana with my home-made marinara sauce...).

Rebekah and I had completely rebuilt our kitchen that summer, we stocked it with matching, professional cookware for Christmas, and I wanted to give Rebekah an exceptional gift - something that would last all year long.

The results are in:
The idea was an unqualified success. Too good. I enjoyed the gourmet challenge so much that Rebekah found herself on the receiving end of kitchen heroics more than one day a week. In fact, by the middle of March we both added a few too many pounds! So this time she bought me a cook-book for my birthday. The title "Cooking yourself Thin", was exactly what we needed.

Well, we tweaked the calories, added an amazing cookbook called "The Three-Hour Diet", and pretty much revolutionized our entire approach to food during the course of the year.

All told, by December 31, the promised 52 gourmet experiences stood closer to 152. Both of us lost some weight. But, most importantly, we established a shift in culture that has impacted my life across the board.

Gourmet Living:
By and large (pun intended), I believe most Americans eat too much because they are, simply put, unsatisfied. Junk food - and junk living - cannot satisfy. However, because it's all that we know, we gorge ourselves in the baseless hope that it will.

If the accumulation of wealth, for example, is your standard for "the good life", then of course you are going to pursue the goal even when it leaves you feeling empty... because the answer is always "More! Then I'll be satisfied." It's the same thing with power, with illicit relationships, with substance abuse, etc....

The principle follows when it comes to junk food. It simply doesn't satisfy, so we feel like we have to eat more and more to fill the emptiness. But it never will satisfy - that's the point! We end up overweight and disappointed.

Good quality food with great flavor is satisfying. There's no need to gorge.

Gourmet life is no different. If we pursue the truth, if we address a relationship with our Creator that guides our life, then balanced living, addressing the spiritual reality as well as the physical, will also be a rewarding life.

As for me, I'm interested to see where my commitment to gourmet living is going to take me during 2011. A well-seasoned 2011. Life is good... God is good.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Life-Charged Words

Every year, at about this time, I receive an invitation to stand behind the podium at the Men's Interdenominational Prayer Breakfast in Zephyrhills and share what's on my heart. The experience is always a blessing because, while the good folk of Zephyrhills may well be the most senior group I speak to, they also happen to be among the most enthusiastic, the most responsive, and the most faithful.

My rough cell-phone picture (below) is just a slice of the room. The organizers counted heads and reported a record attendance. Fifty-eight Zephyrhillians (if that's a word), came together for fellowship, encouragement, prayer and - hopefully - a good word from yours truly.

Early on in my speaking career, when I looked at my upcoming commitments, I used to worry that I might repeat a story or an illustration I'd used before. Then I realized two truths:
  • First - and more likely with some audiences than others - odds are no-one would remember what I said last time anyway!
  • Then - and this is an exciting realization - God is working in my life constantly, graciously willing to teach me new things every day ("New every morning is his love..."). If I'm paying attention, if I'm growing in my faith, and if I spend enough time on my knees, then there's always going to be a fresh testimony to share.
The point - of course - is to pay attention.

What I did this morning was to begin to build my emphasis for 2011. I've been thinking specifically about my work in encouraging men's ministry, and I'm starting to hone a new message, something that will in all probability become the skeletal outline for a new book.

I offered my Zephyrhills friends the first five of what I'm calling "Ten Life-Charged Words". Ideas like "passion", "capacity", "clear vision" and "Jesus." I'll be sharing some selected glimpses into this project over the next few months.

Stay tuned. There's going to be a lot to talk about!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Stewards of the message

I just got off the phone with a good friend in Jacksonville. At the end of last year we made the commitment to engage an ongoing conversation about faith. Keeping in touch and sharing our stories; slice of life with prayer and a little accountability thrown in.

The timing of our conversation was interesting, because I had just posted my Monday morning "Preacher's Husband" blog update. I really can't think of anything more appropriate to post here. We are - most certainly - stewards of the message. The question is, are we sharing authentic Good News, and offering the world hope that counts for something eternal - or.....?

Check it out, and let me hear your response....
Go to

Peace - DEREK

Friday, January 21, 2011

Out of the Ashes

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4: 18-19)

One of the great privileges of my life is writing stories about good people doing significant things in the world. Yesterday afternoon I drove a long way (105 miles round -trip) to talk with a Methodist pastor who worked with a dying Church that finally bit the bullet and voted itself out of existence.

So I can hear what you're thinking. You're thinking, "That does not sound like a feel-good story about faithfulness and significance! It actually sounds more along the lines of a royal flop!"

Ah, but - as The Count says in one of his Sesame Street songs - "But wait, there's more..." You see, sometimes something has to die to live. Must be buried in order to be raised. Must come to a complete stop before it can be started. Must be demolished before there's even a prayer that it can be restored.

Long story short, this church failed to adapt its mission to the changing demographics of the community where it had been planted. The congregation tried to protect a way of life that no longer existed; they wanted a church where they could remain comfortable; they tried - essentially - to un-bury their dead. They tried to hang on for dear life when - instead of survive - what God always wants is for us to thrive.

So there the church sat, with tens of thousands of children living within just a couple of miles, and they continued to do ministry with and for a rapidly shrinking constituency of well-heeled retirees. Over a couple of decades, attendance dropped from over 1,000 to a small cadre of members unable even to cover expenses any more.

So along came a pastor with a vision. His vision was, rather than worry about the community supporting his church, a vision to transform the congregation's ministry and to flip-flop their priorities. Now, instead of looking for the community to support the church, the new mission is 100% in business to support the community.

So kudos to pastor Dan Campbell for re-imagining church, along with mission director Nancy Dougherty (pictured above). Today, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes of its own funeral pyre, the small community of believers at a former United Methodist Church has morphed into Joining Hands Community Mission, Inc. They signed their own death-warrant, they declined a blindfold, and then they pulled the trigger.

Joining Hands is supported - both financially and through volunteers - by 30-plus churches and 90 other organizations. Scores of volunteers work tirelessly to feed and clothe the homeless, help indigent families, keep the working poor from joining the ranks of the homeless, and perform countless other tasks of compassion and encouragement.

This mission is - in an irony not to be missed by anyone with an understanding of church history - closer to the spirit, the heart and the actuality of an early John Wesley Mission than at anytime in the location's prosperous, inwardly focused heyday as a bustling UMC Congregation.

Put a homeless person or two on the sidewalk in front of the majority of churches and this would be the response from most of us, peering from behind a curtain inside...
"Oh My God, I hope to goodness they don't come in here."
Watch a homeless person, or a family down on its luck, traverse the sidewalk on Hwy 19 in front of the transformed Methodists of Holiday, and this is what will happen... The doors will be flung wide, trained greeters will go out to the highway, and those who we are so prone to despise and reject are going to be invited in to share in the banquet.

"Enter into the Joy of your Lord."

Peace and Joy! - DEREK

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Truth - It's a Recurring Theme

I believe great writing always tells the truth. Not facts, necessarily, but always truth...

...This is a concept that I've been talking about and writing about a lot, lately. I'm fascinated with the idea. And also, increasingly, I'm convinced that truth is not routinely afforded appropriate respect in this culture.

I read so many articles in news outlets - both print and on line - that present facts by the boatload yet without a grain of truth. And, as I interview so many people for my own newspaper articles, having to reduce their lives to 700 words or less, I realize that trotting out a few facts simply won't begin to tell their story. There has to be more.

I usually get to the truth via listening, and by asking good questions, and by opening myself up for relationship. One day, during an interview in Tampa, my subject's eyes filled with tears and she protested, "I didn't think the content would go this deep!" "This may be the only conversation we ever have," I responded, "why waste the moment on trivial details?"

Here's a fact for you: 75% of the facts I learn in my "Community Profile" interviews never make it into the newspaper story. But my goal is to always include 100% of the truth.

Interestingly, made-up stories can be huge, wide-open windows into truth. That's why the categories of "fiction" and "non-fiction" can be so misleading. I think about my favorite novels, work such as: 
  • "The Power and the Glory" by Graham Greene 
  • "A Tale of Two Cities" by Dickens
  • "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson
  • "The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak
Fiction? Yes. Truth? You bet, from cover to cover!

My old college dictionary (a real hardcover book that sits within reach; yes, I do still use those) defines "fact" as "The quality of being actual", and "A piece of information presented as having objective reality."

"Truth" comes up, first, as "fidelity" and "constancy". I like that. Then, less eloquently, "The state of being the case."

I don't believe those definitions go far enough. Here are some examples.
  • Fact: Naomi and Craig were married in 2007. Truth: An ever-widening shaft of light broke into Naomi's world until, gradually, there was room for more and more healing love. Craig walked into that space, adding his hopes, dreams and experiences to the journey. Before long their paths became one, and the wedding served as one more gate to walk through into a future full with possibilities never before imagined. Theirs is a story that is still unfolding.
  • Fact: My trail boots are worn. Truth: I purchased the hiking shoes specifically for our trip to visit Andrew, in Italy. Mile by mile - walking the streets of Florence, hiking the trails along the Mediterranean, scaling medieval towers, combing the ruins in Rome - layers of rubber sole have been replaced by the dust and the wear of a thousand poignant memories.
  • Fact: Derek cooked dinner yesterday evening. Truth: Believe me, we don't even have time to begin to go there....!
Some stories can never be adequately told, they simply have to be experienced! May this day be full with truth... and overflowing with grace. "The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ..." (John 1:17)


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Physical Space

LORD, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. I will praise the LORD, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me. I keep my eyes always on the LORD. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken. (Psalm 16:5-8)

Physical space has become an important element of the way that I work. It's not that I can't write anywhere, any time - it's more that my writing so often pours out of my spirit... and my spirit is profoundly affected by my surroundings.

This fact raises some interesting questions as to where we live. By "we" I mean the sense of self that is identified as "Derek" or "Rebekah" or "Andrew" or "Naomi"....  We often tend to spiritualize - or intellectualize - the idea of self to the point that it becomes regarded as "other". We make such a marked distinction between "self" and "body" as if the physical realm were a throw-away concept unrelated to who we actually are.

Stay with me. I'm thinking out loud! I don't edit these blog entries to make sense; I don't go back to purge posts of non-sequiters or controversy or confused and garbled thinking. This is like my end of a conversation. Conversations evolve. I'm not really sure where I'm going with this at this point!

I do more than simply live in this body and on this planet - the physical realm is a real part of who I am. My spirit does not live independently from flesh and blood, my spirit lives interdependently. I'm not sure what life beyond death is going to look like, but I am convinced that it will be more than a disembodied, ethereal consciousness.

But I digress. Back to the beginnings of today's post. When I was a schoolteacher I worked hard to design a physical environment in my classroom that was conducive to learning. Physical space is a key element of education. I also noted that behavior (my specialty) can be impacted by and interactive with environment.

Likewise, I've discovered that my study (not my office, it's a study) influences my work. Books on the shelves, clear surfaces to work on, a Bible where I can see it, my leather chair to think in, family pictures, my guitar on a stand, a great Bose sound system...

When I need to I can play my guitar, or settle into my reading nook. It's a conducive environment for prayer, for contemplation, for Bible-study - all the elements that need to be in place before I can even begin to write.

I guess where I'm going with this today is how important it is that each one of us learn to cultivate a proactive awareness when it comes to our environment. Why place ourselves in the middle of constant television noise or video games or unsavory venues, and then complain that we're not growing, spiritually? Why have the car radio blaring on the way to work when we could be spending time in meditation? Why keep a huge television in the bedroom and wonder why we never have meaningful conversations with our spouse?

What might happen if we redesigned our homes, and our workspaces, and our preferences to reflect our need to satisfy spiritual hunger, and to address the importance of relating more openly with our family?

Good questions to think about - DEREK

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Musings of a Happy Pagan (you'll have to read this to understand!)

I always enjoy my Sunday Morning Study Group at First Brandon. We meet during the traditional "Sunday-school hour" for what is generically described as, "Christian Education". We're certainly Christian, and the experience is always educational. But it might be a stretch to lump us in with formal concepts such as "instruction", "schooling" or "lesson".

But it works! We drink coffee (hence the essentially gratuitous photograph), we search the scriptures; we read great material; we pray for God's wisdom and guidance. Each one of us brings an intelligent mind and a thirsty soul to the table. Discussion goes in all directions, and no-one is afraid to share their questions or their doubts right along with their assurance and faith.

This week we were talking about Adam and Eve, and the story of the Garden of Eden. Some take the story as a literal account of a unique incident involving two particular people. Some enjoy the rich texture of a story told to illustrate how humans have chosen to step out of fellowship with their Creator. All of us are thankful that God speaks to us through the truth of scripture... truth that is often (always, in fact) deeper and more compelling than a mere collection of data or observable, verifiable, fact.

The Point:
Anyway, that's not the point of this morning's post! In wrapping up the class on Sunday morning I said how thankful I am for Jesus. It's because of Jesus that I don't have to worry about following the exact letter of The Law, and I don't have to struggle against the constant pressure that I might not be good enough. Jesus has me covered - covered by love. Because Jesus both lived and died for me, I am free to follow The Way of love.

My co-teacher/facilitator Charles made the following observation in response to my testimony about Grace. What he said was tongue in cheek, of course, a kind of oblique commentary on the "Cheap Grace" discussion often promoted by theologians with one foot planted firmly in the Old Covenant.

"The wonderful thing about Jesus," Charles said (I'm paraphrasing, from memory), "is that he came both for Pharisees like me and for happy pagans like you!"

Pause for laughter around the table....

"Here's an idea," I responded. "Maybe I'll get more visitors for my blog posts if I renamed my site 'Musings of a Happy Pagan...'"?

Pagan? There are as many definitions of the word "Pagan" as there are dictionaries to reference. Charles was simply having fun - his usage was more along the lines of pagan/feel-good "Have my cake and eat it too" religion.

The wonderful truth, of course (and, all banter aside, Charles and I concur), is that Jesus shifts our focus away from ourselves, and the law, and the numbing treadmill of religion... and into the wondrous possibility of transformation through a restored relationship with God.

It's because of Jesus that I am free to follow The Way of Love.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The View from Saturday Morning

VALRICO - Saturday AM: Typically, Saturday is cleaning day. It's sacrosanct, burned into the psyche, non-negotiable, almost as holy as going to church.

You know how it typically goes:
  • Catching up from the week-long deluge of putting things off
  • Dirty dishes overflowing from the sink
  • Piles of clothes littering the bedrooms
  • Bathroom bacteria to the extreme
  • Stuff strewn all over, waiting to be returned to its home in some other room
  • Enough detritus in the carpet to justify a triple vacuuming
  • Dust bunnies combining with pet hair to create tumbleweed like phenomenon the size of basketballs....
Oh, wait... that was before the children left home! Nowadays we have a pretty-much perpetually clean house, courtesy of "The Empty Nest". And (check the picture above) we have actual adult living spaces!

This morning I'll run a light vacuum and that's going to be about it. I completely clean the kitchen after every meal, Scout spot-checks the floor every fifteen minutes for crumbs, and everything else is taken care of as we go along.

Joys of the Empty Nest!
Standing in line at the grocery store the other day, I fell into conversation with a woman buying a week's supply of food for her school-aged family - she had two carts. I smiled at the three gallons of milk, multiple packages of hot-dogs and boatload of pop-tarts. She made some observation about my scallops, artichokes, pine-nuts and wild rice.
"Our kids are in their 20's," I said. "They live in Connecticut and Italy." 
"Wow....," she replied. "I'll bet your grocery bill has gone way down since they left home." 
"Not at all," I smiled. "But the quality of food has certainly gone way up."
The conversation made me think about some of the joys of having young-adult children who live independent lives.
  • Two extra rooms, dedicated "craft space" for Rebekah and - for the first time in over two decades - actual decor in the living spaces.
  • Andrew treated us to dinner out the last time he was home.
  • My car-keys - and my car - will always be exactly where I left them.
  • When I turn my car on in the morning, there will still be gas in the tank.
  • We don't have to call in the EPA to Haz-Mat the guest bathroom before company comes over.
  • Breakfast cereal without milk (because there are two EMPTY gallon jugs in the refrigerator) is now a distant memory.
  • The best Christmas presents under the tree are from them to us.
  • Dinner selections featuring hamburgers, fries, lettuce, tomato and a glass of milk have morphed into Fillet Mignon with asparagus, Greek salad and a nice glass of Chianti.
We miss Andrew and Naomi, of course. We visit their homes whenever we can and we celebrate like crazy when they're in town. But life moves on, and I have to admit that - so far - our ongoing adventure into the "Fabulous Fifties" has been a study in mid-life merrymaking. 

Bottom line, life is good... and a clean house certainly doesn't hurt!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Contentment is always a choice

Looks like I've fallen short on my posts today (it's now late, Thursday evening). 
1. Overslept
2. Overdue article for the Tampa Tribune
3. Interview at 10:00
4. Lunch with my parents in Sarasota
5. Catch up on other important stuff...
Bottom line = Derek simply ran out of time (once in a while I need to attend to work I actually get paid for!).

The good news is I have this very cool photograph from Naomi's facebook update yesterday. That's right, Naomi and Craig's little village of Moodus, Connecticut, had around 30 inches of snow in around 18 hours. I grew up in the UK, so I've had some experience with a mild form of winter, but I'm not sure I could handle 30 inches of the white, cold stuff with as much grace as my daughter. Florida has grown on me over the years, and while I may complain about the heat I'm thinking maybe it's not so bad after all.

And this is the point of today's blog. Someone said the following to me today: "It sure is lucky that Naomi likes the snow so much..." To which I replied, "That's not it. Naomi may or may not like snow that much.... But I can tell you this, Naomi most certainly loves life!"

Born and raised in Florida, my flip-flops daughter - who love, love, loves the beach - is a sunshine girl through and through. Then, almost three years ago, she moved up to Connecticut with her husband, Craig, and they have experienced a succession of the harshest winters in memory. But you know what? I've never heard her complain once.

It reminds me of this quote from Paul's letter to his friends at the church in Philippi: "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength."

There is a choice that each one of us has, every day. We can choose to live, or we can choose to mire ourselves in the alternative. Here's what I think: 
  • Complaining...
  • Whining...
  • Saying we'd be happy if only things were different...
  • Comparing ourselves to others...
  • Feeling sorry for ourselves... these are all a kind of death.
One of the smartest things we ever drilled into our children when they were growing up was the following principle. "The best gift you can give to a town/community/city, is to love it." And that, friends, is 100% choice.

Really... consider the alternative. By the way, if you're wondering, that's Naomi's little Mazda 3 under a few inches of Connecticut snow. Apparently, it snowed a lot more after the picture was taken!

I'm so proud of my children. I'm so thankful that Naomi gets it. She's living like she really means it. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Truth Worth Telling (vis-à-vis Westboro Baptist Church)

LORD, I have heard of your fame;
   I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD.
Repeat them in our day,
   in our time make them known. (Habakkuk 3:2)

"LORD, I have heard of your fame..." - I've been wondering about that. I've been wondering about how people hear of God's fame today. I've been wondering about where I fit in; where we all fit in. Because women and men the world over have to base their perception of God on something. 

There's "natural theology", of course - the Creator's handiwork will have its say and it's a message that becomes increasingly powerful as science uncovers more wonder.

But then there's the message I communicate regarding what it means to follow Jesus in the day-to-day of real life. Do people stand in awe of God because of my witness, and yours? Does the world understand the truth about the Good News any more clearly when they run across communities of Christ-followers like ours? Do we live convincingly "gospeled" lives?

So - and because more and more outrageous lies against truth have been repeated all over the media this week - I'm going to repeat a few excerpts from one of the most widely circulated blog posts I've ever written.

This time it was a 9-year-old girl who bore the brunt of the pathetic Westboro Baptist hate-monger tirades. She deserved to die a violent death, "Rev" Phelps said, because she’s Catholic.

The group cancelled plans to picket the child's funeral when they were offered radio time instead. "It's always a question of where can you put the words in the most ears," the church spokesnazi said.

So that's the setup - here's the post in question (edited for this week):
Okay, I'll bite... Game on. Let's go head-to-head on this. In actuality, and despite your petty prejudices, God loves this little girl deeply. Additionally, and this is one of many reasons it's a very good thing that I'm not God, God also loves “pastor” Fred Phelps.

Which leads me to say the following:
       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 one word that this sick "church" says.

The folk at 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, 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 the precious little girl who was murdered in Tucson - and  Derek Maul... and  Fred Phelps... and you - is not on the radar of people who base their religion on fear and exclusion and hate.

"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 - DEREK

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Witness to the Light (Girl on a Roof)

[John] came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light (John 1:7-8).

I like the form of this photograph. Girl on a roof. I don't always have my Nikon with me, but typically there's a cellphone in my back pocket. So when I looked up and saw Rebekah silhouetted against the darkening afternoon sky, I thought it might make an image worth preserving.

It was the last of Christmas. Holdout strands of rooftop lights, starting to look untidy; small branches caught in the wires; random sections unmoored, hanging uneasily from the gutters. They weren't being lit any more so they needed to go.

Light is an interesting phenomenon. Without it this photograph would reveal nothing. Too much and the effect would be the same. There's a shading here that allows form to speak in a way that is often lost in the complexities of color.

The storm clouds - subtly present in the background - were rolling in and the wind was picking up. Rain threatened. A pointed freshness in the air invited pause, at least enough of a pause to drink in the simple beauty of a Florida winter's day.

There is beauty in everything - such a simple statement, but loaded with the kind of truth I need to apprehend on a deeper level if I am going to make any sense out of this complex, conflicted world.

In a recent interview, Journalist Diane Sawyer said, "I so believe in the fact that we are somehow born to love the truth." I suspect that she's one hundred percent right, and it's certainly an understanding that drives my interface with the world.

However, I also believe many people are confused when it comes to how they go about putting themselves in the proximity of truth, and they end up being satisfied with "answers" instead. But answers don't necessarily have that much in common with truth and they are deceived.

The truth of this photograph is the beauty it reveals on a grey winter's day. Heaven touching Earth. A human being visible only against the backdrop of light. Not light illuminating humanity so much as humanity defined because of light.

"[John] came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light" (John 1:7-8).

Monday, January 10, 2011

Peace is about "Other" not "Self"

Have you been reading the news over the past few days? It seems as if this world is overrun by anger and rage. Public discourse has descended into diatribe, and rhetoric has developed an unsettling edge. At the same time, our tastes in entertainment reveal an almost obsessive interest in disturbing levels of violence.

Additionally - and I believe this observation is not unrelated to the anger and the violence - it's hard to miss this culture's crippling focus on self.

Well, thanks a lot, Derek; isn't that a lovely way to launch your Monday morning post! What's next, a list of the top-ten reasons to give up all hope and go live on an island?

First, I really like the island idea! But, seriously, I wouldn't write stuff like this if I didn't also have something positive to offer. It's critical that we understand exactly what we're dealing with and that we articulate the extent of the danger humanity faces.

I'd like to begin our discussion in the bookstore. As a writer, I'm constantly amazed at how well stupid stuff sells, and how quickly millions of people will return to the store and buy exactly the same content a second and a third time, once it has been repackaged and re-hyped.

I'm talking about the "Self-Help" section. And I believe we have to include all the shady diet books under the same heading. Self-help as a genre does not work; it never has and it never will. Interestingly, while diet and exercise books sell off the shelves, obesity levels in America continue to increase at an alarming rate.

The problem with all the above material is the word it all begins with. SELF.

It's been building: Just as a quick aside about where this is coming from. Starting around 200 years ago, the Age of Reason emerged. Transcendentalism and the Rationalist ideal insisted that humanity was evolving to the level that we could (and would) solve our problems, live in peace, heal our diseases, transcend the passion and the irrationality of ideas such as the God of religion, and eventually achieve a kind of apotheosis where the human race grows beyond the need for any kind of deity other than ourselves.

Well, the 19th Century led to the 20th Century and the bloodiest conflicts in human history. When self is the beginning and the end of the discussion then we're in trouble. It's been that way since the Garden of Eden.

Human beings were designed and created for the experience of relationship. When we understand this, the first word in any plan of action or list of priorities must be "other", not "self."

When the focus of our life becomes the needs and the actualization of "the other", then our experience is one of community. Love and meaning are found in giving, not taking.

SO WHAT? Here's the question: exactly what are we doing to promote peace in this world today? Can you/I/we live this day in such a way that there is no doubt that the cause of peace is advanced because of us?

The answer is found in serving the "other" wherever we find ourselves.
  • If you are a man, what will you do to serve your wife today? 
  • If you are a friend, how do you plan to show selfless love? 
  • As a boss, how do you intend to care and respect your employees? 
  • As an employee, what can do to improve the work environment for your colleagues?
  • If you are a church member, ask God to use you to promote unity and self-giving love.
  • Hold the door, let traffic merge, fight hatred with love, offer kindness when people are mean, offer respect in the face of disrespect, counter evil with good.
Rebekah said something like this on Christmas Eve. "Don't just tell me you have hope for the hungry - get out there and feed someone. Don't say you want justice for the marginalized unless you're prepared to work for it. Don't profess that you believe in Christmas but live as if Jesus did live, and die, so that you can participate in his Kingdom now..."

Do I believe in peace in our time? You'd better believe it. But it's going to cost something - it has to.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Who's Up To Teaching The World How To Love?

The reason people kill one-another is sin. Sin feeds on hate, violence, fear, retribution, anger, hostility, bitterness, and unforgiveness...

Much has already been written about the shocking violence in Arizona this weekend. By Monday there will have been discussions in church, pointed sermons, on-line rants, AM radio finger-pointing, and cable talk-show analysis ad-nauseam.

Everybody wants to weigh in when there's tragedy of this scale in the news. Many people talk even when they have nothing helpful to contribute. As Christians, we're supposed to have something useful to offer; something in the realm of hope.

I couldn't help but notice the fact that - in an act of measured brutality so horrific it defies description  - over 20 people were murdered in Mexico at around the same time.

Here's what I think... I don't believe we can talk about the Arizona killings without talking about what's happening in Mexico (and the rest of the planet) in the same breath. It's are all the same thing. Bloodshed in the Middle East, assassinations, "honor" killings, terrorism, even capital punishment. There's too much of death in this deeply broken world.

I'm concerned that we have lost our imagination when it comes to dealing with violence. It seems to me that we're becoming more and more inclined to "fight fire with fire"as a knee-jerk response. I just don't like the track record of that kind of intervention.

I remember an incident when I was a school teacher, working with behavior-disordered children. One week "Kevin" was at odds with everyone, and he made poor choices across the board several days in a row. Friday, unwilling to let the week finish without following through as promised, I invited his parents in for a conference.

"Kevin started two fights yesterday," I said. "He kicked a smaller child in the stomach, he turned over his desk, and he cursed at me repeatedly."

Kevin's dad took a quick step toward his son, let loose a torrent of ripe invective, and smacked Kevin in the side of the face.

Sometimes I think that's as far as we're willing to go anymore. "Don't act that way or we'll beat you up." "Hey, you blow us up and we'll blow you up more!" "You think you're bad? Wait till you see our new weapon..."

Violence is not the solution if we want to end bloodshed. Retaliation always leads to escalation. Tit for tat inevitably leads to more of the same.

"So are you going to let them walk all over you?' is neither an intelligent observation nor does it contribute anything to the long-term resolution of what in the world is behind violence on this planet.

The reason people kill one-another is sin. Sin feeds on hate, violence, fear, retribution, anger, hostility, bitterness, and unforgiveness.

Listen, if Jesus had pulled out a sword and killed the High Priests and the others trying to put him to death, then evil would have prevailed, period.

The Gospel has something constructive to say here and it needs to be shouted from the rooftops. I've quoted this before, quite recently I think, but the concept bears repeating. "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." (John 4)

If we can't/won't teach the world how to love, then what are we doing? Seriously, it's a good question. We need to take a leadership role vis-à-vis what it means to love out loud. Gospel quality love.
  • Blood spilled over a sidewalk in Tucson, Arizona. 
  • Body parts dumped in public places in Mexico. 
  • Love is the only antidote to fear. 
  • God is love. 
  • Love came down at Christmas and stayed around long enough to face down death and fear.
We need to learn to live love more eloquently; more convincingly; more effectively. We need to love more like Jesus.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

(from "The Preacher's Husband" blog) The Preacher Makes Me Laugh

"This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10) 

My wife - Rev Rebekah Maul - can be hilarious in the pulpit. The best of it is, she doesn't do it on purpose.
  • She doesn't tell jokes
  • She never says, "Hey, Derek, this one's going to crack them up..."
  • She hasn't taken classes to cultivate comic timing
  • She never scans old editions of Readers Digest for funny stories
  • She's not a subscriber to (don't try to find it on line - I made that up!) 
She simply searches the scriptures, asks God to guide her, puts in hours of research, lets what's on her heart spill out, shares stories that help to illustrate the meaning of her message, and passes on what God has graciously taught her during the process of preparation.

But - almost without fail - you're not going to attend church at First Presbyterian in Brandon without running into some level of hilarity, and that includes the 20 minutes or so when Rebekah preaches.

(It doesn't hurt that Rebekah and Tim - our other pastor - have developed a natural love-and-respect-based Sunday-morning banter that couldn't begin to be rehearsed, but that's another post!)

I honestly believe that most of the laughter has everything to do with joy, and probably honesty too... and I believe humility has a role to play now that I come to think about it.

JOY: We've all heard of "Holy Laughter". Some "charismatic" churches encourage a corporate laughter that's advertised as a "gift of the Spirit", not unlike tongues, and it's often associated with healing. I think there's some truth to that, but I don't believe the experience needs to be rote or affected or manipulative. "Charismatic" means "Grace Gifted". First Brandon is very much a grace-gifted body of believers, we're most certainly Spirit-filled, and laughter at our church has always been associated with healing.

Story: When we first arrived - in 1996 - several people told us that the experience of coming to First Presbyterian in Brandon felt like attending a funeral. There had been several years of grief and heartache. People didn't smile in church, let alone laugh. Well, a couple of weeks after Rebekah's installation there was a vote to install a new slate of elders.

"It's unanimous," Rebekah said, "one hundred percent." Then, she quipped (because she can't help herself), "I understand it definitely wasn't unanimous when you called me...!"

There was a long, uneasy, silence...

... Until Ralph, sitting on the front row and gradually turning red as a beet as he tried - unsuccessfully - to hold it all in, suddenly let out a loud guffaw and started to laugh! Seconds later the sanctuary erupted into an extended cacophony of hilarity. The uproar lasted a staggering three minutes.

What Rebekah said wasn't that funny. But the laughter was due to three years of grief and pain finally beginning to be dealt with. It was people split open, ready for healing, and receiving the salve of the Holy Spirit. Holy laughter.

We've been laughing ever since.

I guess I didn't get around to discussing the honesty and the humility part of this topic. I'll pick up the discussion next time.

Full with JOY - DEREK

Friday, January 7, 2011

Smart Phone... Smart Faith

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Let me introduce you to my new friend. Yes, just when I had finally figured out how to use my BlackBerry, along comes the Android LG.

It helps, of course, that my long-suffering "pearl" had been bounced off the concrete any number of times, and that Verizon has sent me five "upgrade for free" notices in the mail over the past six months ago. The real problem was time, but yesterday I bit the bullet and was pleasantly surprised to get out of the phone store in less than 30 minutes.

I'm already sold on the new smartphone. Everything is much simpler than my old phone - other than the stuff I don't even begin to understand (and that amounts to around 90% of the device's capabilities). But the screen is big, the colors bright, the lettering bold, the optics crisp and the interface very stable. It pretty-well matches my fifty-something vision challenges. To be honest, my LG kind of reminds me of that ridiculous "JITTERBUG" cellphone with big numbers and simple function keys that they used to market to old folk!

The big Question, of course, is the same one I started asking myself a few years ago when I finally realized the extent of what God has entrusted me with in terms of my gifts and opportunities. Here it is: "So what am I going to do with my LG?" I really wasn't kidding when I said I only understand 10% of the functions.

So here's my plan. I'm going to add one level of functionality each week. Not stupid stuff, like playing Tetris instead of writing my new book. But applications that enhance the quality of my life and the effectiveness of my professional reach in the virtual world. Today I'm going to get my Google Calendar up and running - no more Outlook Express.

My functional faith insight in all of this is a renewed awareness of the amazing resources the Creator has placed at my disposal. I'm thinking about powerful principles such as Christ's promise to be with me, always, and the idea that the Spirit of truth will lead me into all truth....

It occurs to me that if I make the commitment to add one level of spiritual functionality each week then 2011 is going to be one amazing year!
  • But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come (John 16:13)
Something to think about for all of us - DEREK

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Meaning of Christmas (One last time)

(Picture: Members of First Presbyterian Church of Brandon, leaving worship, prepared to "plug the world back into normal")

- Let's not put Christmas behind us just yet. Today is The Twelfth Day of Christmas; here's something to think about before we put the last of the decorations away:

BRANDON, FL - Very often, starting around the last few days and counting before Christmas, otherwise downcast people begin to light up from the inside. Something changes - something fundamental - and even confirmed Scrooges are seen to smile, wave, and hold the door for strangers.

  • "He's caught the Christmas Spirit," people will say, 
  • Or, "Too bad she's not really this nice." 
  • And, "Enjoy it while it lasts; in a couple of days he'll be back to normal."

But here's what I think: the goodwill, the pleasantry, and the gentle light shining from deep inside these folks is nothing short of 100 percent natural. What's abnormal is the dysfunction; what's wide of God's mark are the other 360-plus days; what's uncalled for is this broken world's unrelenting pain.

As Christ followers we have this power to turn things around; we have this extraordinary opportunity to plug people back into normal.

We can be the people who have the courage to truly unpack Christmas...
(In My Heart I Carry A Star: stories for Advent, page 144)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

"Eleven Pipers Piping" Christmas truth for today

First off - If you missed the pictures and story about our groundbreaking at First Presbyterian, then check yesterday's post at The Preachers husband. Much excitement and great photos.

Today is the 11th Day of Christmas. If you know the song, then that means today is the "Eleven Pipers Piping" (photo - at left - found on the Internet).

Unfortunately, too many of us are pretty much done with Christmas by around noon on December 25 and we miss the Twelve Days. That's a shame for many reasons, but mostly because it means we've been getting is wrong - off course by a mile - since the Holiday Season came out of the gate so fast the day after Thanksgiving. It's as if we've been pre-programmed to head off in the wrong direction, literally bamboozled by secular values that we have  married to a weak form of Christianity in an effort to stay afloat.

That's exactly why I wrote my book, In My Heart I Carry A Star: stories for Advent. It's not just a collection of great stories, it's a guide to a December that actually works! To be honest, it frustrates me no end to hear people trot out the same tired complaints about the Holiday Season every year, arrive at Christmas day tired and disappointed and then declare that "Next year we'll do things right".... while all the time there's a perfectly good book just waiting to show them the way!

Christmas didn't start until December 25! Before that it was Advent... preparation... getting ready. When you're ready, then the thing itself makes more sense

At my house, we're slowly dismantling the amazing Christmas Feng Shui Rebekah always achieves throughout Mall Hall. But the lights, and the trees - and the celebration - will remain through "Twelfth Night".

This morning, thinking about the Eleven Pipers - and pipers traditionally herald something exciting - I thought I'd share 11 Christmas Truths for the New Year. Truth worth blowing some pipes over.

  1. Love Came Down at Christmas: The idea of love was expanded when Christ was born; it's a concept that was waiting for deeper meaning. When Jesus was wrapped in bands of cloth again, 33 years later, love was not redefined so much as completed.
  2. Christmas is a "Thin Place": The barrier between the mundane and the sacred is much easier to penetrate this time of the year. It's as if the eternal and the temporary are fused. Christmas demonstrates what becomes possible through Jesus.
  3. Wonder is at our fingertips: God is not beyond our reach - Christmas proves this to everyone.
  4. Faith transcends culture: It's curious, but the very time of the year most exploited by commerce always managed to turn the tables. Self indulgence never satisfies; self-giving love always does. Go figure.
  5. Light is stronger than darkness: Sometimes our faith is just a candle, standing against a great darkness. But it stands.
  6. Giving makes us smile more than receiving: Why limit this joy to late December? Use your imagination.
  7. Celebration adds strength: Did you ever notice how invigorating it is to sing "Joy to the World" with other people? Try the discipline this morning. How about every morning? Why not tap into this biblical truth - "The Joy of the Lord is my strength!"
  8. Christmas is an ongoing invitation: Jesus was born then so that he could be reborn in me today. "Let Christ be born in me anew every day!" Jesus is as alive today as he was in the manger.
  9. Nothing has the power to separate us from God! Christmas is more than a birthday party; Christmas is God's answer to humanity's great need. Not "was" God's answer, but "is" God's answer.
  10. Christmas is God's statement of faith in humanity: Christmas was not a last-gasp attempt, a Hail Mary final play pass, or a desperate lunge when all else has failed. Christmas is God's plan for people because God believes in people.
  11. My Eleven Pipers are piping a song of joy because Christmas is Good News! January doldrums don't have a prayer when faced with the truth of Christmas. The light has come; the light is come. There is no dark day or desperate night or troubling circumstance that cannot - will not - be penetrated by the light.
After today, there's one more day of Christmas. Don't forget to keep celebrating tomorrow!