Saturday, February 26, 2011

Golf, Skype & the Westminster Shorter Catechism....

You know its a good day in Florida when the temperature is in the 70's and your golf score is in the 80's! Yesterday was relaxing from beginning to end, starting out with a long walk, moving on to stress-free golf at Walden Lake with good friends, then the evening with Rebekah, dinner and a movie.

What I enjoy about golf is the opportunity it provides to re-imagine the future at every new shot. Each moment is self-contained; every shot can be approached as a solitary experience, measured only against itself and by what is possible. The game is a rewarding challenge regardless of the total score, because the only shot that ever really counts is the one you're standing over.

"What a bunch of baloney!"
Who said that? Okay, I'll acknowledge that what I just wrote makes little if any sense to a lot of people who play golf. For someone who lost three balls over the past two holes, visited every known sand-trap on the front nine, or dribbled a ball 15 feet off the tee, barely reaching the cart path, the idea of salvaging a game that's going down the tubes fast sounds like pure fantasy.

But that doesn't have to be the case. Too many people approach golf the same way that they do life. They play "results focused" when the real joy is found in the process.

Think about it. I'm sure you know people who are more into accumulating wealth... toys... accolades... promotions... trophies... than enjoying the experience of actually living? They're missing out on life, consistently, and they're never satisfied. Really, what does it take to live well?

Force 5 Hurricane
Back when we lived in Pensacola, Hurricane Opal formed in the Gulf of Mexico and started wandering north. We weren't that concerned. We listened to the news one night and it was a Force 2, weakening, and wandering far to the west. The next morning it was a strong 4, aimed directly at Pensacola, and projected to be a 5 by landfall.

It was the only time we ever evacuated.

Long story short, Opal veered right at the last moment, lost strength, and hit Navarre Beach as a 3. The storm cut the island in half but Pensacola was sparred. But, in the process, we packed the mini-van in a hurry and gave each family member a medium-sized box to pack with stuff they felt they couldn't live without....

Other than the photo albums it really didn't amount to all that much.

Happiness is Skype and children you love:
When I got home from golf we Skyped Andrew in Italy (That's Rebekah talking with him as he shows her around "Casa di Drew" in the Chianti Region of Tuscany). He had some interior design quandary he wanted his Martha-Stewart-esque mother to help figure out. "The real goal of parenting," I wrote in one photo album, "is to raise our children to be self-sufficient and then move somewhere that's cool to visit."

Rather than accumulating "stuff", Andrew is loading up on experiences. Yes, we're a little concerned that he's heading to North Africa again on Monday - but we're thrilled beyond measure that he understands what it takes to live. Each moment is self-contained; and every day can be approached as a solitary experience, measured only against itself and by what is possible.

The point of living, the Westminster Shorter Catechism suggests, is "To know God and to enjoy God forever..." Enjoying God necessarily involves taking hold of life - moment by moment. And I believe that God measures us not against one-another, but by what is possible....


Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Story Crying Out for the Presence of God

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. (Hebrews 12)
One of the great things about freelancing is the amount of flexibility built into my work. Another way to phrase the idea is "the amount of availability." That fact is both good and problematic.

The good part is that I can schedule things that someone who's trapped in the office or tied to a work location could never possibly arrange. The problematic part is that - more often than not - the things I schedule keep me away from my work.

Or do they? (said he, thinking out loud, while writing).... I mean, isn't 100% of everything I'm involved with always relevant to my writing?
Take this morning, for example. I was able to help out a little with parking for a big Presbytery meeting out at Camp CedarKirk. I had to be out there by 7:30 and I got to wave my little sign and tell people where to go.

It was a beautiful morning. I got to chat with my friend David on the way there, visit with Peter (who monitored an adjacent parking station), and say good morning to a bunch of people I've never met before. I even had one parking "incident." Here's the conversation:

Slightly overweight preacher-dude pulls his SUV up to the fork in the road I controlled.
  • Me: "Good morning! General parking or handicapped?"
  • Impatient Preacher: "I want to park as close as I can." (moves slightly forward and aims his vehicle to the left).
  • Me: "This is the handicapped parking area; we only have a limited number of spaces. General parking is straight ahead." 
  • Preacher-dude: "I don't think I should have to walk that far..."
  • Me: "You decide. I'll leave it to your discretion."
  • Preacher: "Mutter-mutter." Scowls. Jerks steering wheel hard to the right. Mutters under his breath. Heads for general parking.
I was home by a little after 10:00, and I'm now free to do even more activities that are not directly work relevant. Or are they? 

Because my writing - even when I'm in the process of putting together a new book - involves a huge percentage of journaling. I experience my life; I reflect on my life; I write about my life; I learn so much via every moment of each and every day. Capturing experience is the lifeblood of my work, and consequently there is no experience that does not - in some way - add substance and meaning and clarity to my work. These experiences are the ingredients of my story.

Yesterday my men's group enjoyed a great conversation about what it means to bring our "outer person" and "inner person" together. We can't seem to get God involved in our "outer selves". So much of our day-to-day lives are caught up in activities and work responsibilities and casual conversations, and we tend to believe these elements/ingredients have nothing to do with the inner self that we - sometimes - invite God to be involved with.

But it's an artificial duality. Just as I believe everything that happens is an important part of my personal story - including grumpy preachers who really should be thanking me for the extra exercise, including the hand-made pizza I'm putting together for lunch today, including the phone conversations I have with my kids - then there is nothing in the range of moments in a given day that fails to own the potential for practicing the presence of God.

These elements - conversations, service, worship,  work, cooking, reading, study, prayer, relationships - are all the raw materials of my relationship with God. I can't any more discard them - and say they're not relevant any more - than I can say they have nothing to do with my work as a writer. 

God inhabits the details. God wants to join us right there in the nitty-gritty, and in every aspect of what it means to be alive. These details are my story. It's a story that's crying out for the presence of God.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The King and the Mountain

This morning I'm in the mood for serenity. But reading today's newspaper over coffee certainly didn't help! 

This world really is a mess. Rebekah and I had a long date yesterday evening and consequently hadn't seen any evening news reports. So the front page stories of yet another police officer murdered in St. Pete and the brutal killing of four Americans by Somali pirates came as a surprise. If, of course, stuff like that surprises us anymore....

I'm thankful that I'd already taken a long misty morning hike with Scout, spent some deliberate time in meditation and carefully opened my spirit to the new day.

Because there really is no effective way to interface with this broken world outside of the context of daily spiritual renewal.

The picture (above) - taken by Andrew a couple of weeks ago on a hike in Italy - speaks to me of towering strength shrouded in difficult-to-grasp mystery. Faith is like that for me, a rock of certainty in the middle of clouds and fog and darkness. It's not a vague idea, searching for focus, but the very ground I stand on.

Date tie-in: Other than amazing Italian food and great conversation, the highlight of our date yesterday evening was watching THE KING'S SPEECH at the movie theater. It is possibly the best film Rebekah and I have seen in several years, mostly because it was driven by great story and was superbly acted. Colin Firth was brilliant, by the way, as was Geoffery Rush.

The central idea of the movie was all about belief; belief that Firth's character, "Bertie" (King George VI), actually could pull off the big moment when he stood up to talk to millions of people who wanted - in fact needed desperately - to believe in their King. And, then, it was about having the courage to actually step into that belief.

Simply put, Bertie didn't believe he could speak in public; Lionel (his speech therapist) did.

I started today's post by saying that today I'm in the mood for serenity. The real question is if - in the middle of a world that has lost it's way - I honestly believe that serenity is an option?

Believe me, I do.

I have told you these things while I am still with you. But the Holy Spirit will come and help you, because the Father will send the Spirit to take my place. The Spirit will teach you everything and will remind you of what I said while I was with you. I give you peace, the kind of peace that only I can give. It isn't like the peace that this world can give. So don't be worried or afraid. John 14:25-27

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Pilgrim in Progress

This morning, walking Scout Labradoodle, I found myself thinking about a narrow window of time in my life from 36 years ago! Funny how that happens. Something must have triggered the memory - something in my peripheral vision, a sound, a smell, maybe something I read; I really don't know.

What came to my mind was the few months right after the end of high school, back in 1974. I was living in my hometown of Folkestone, England (picture, above right), and I found myself at a loose end. University wasn't an option because I didn't pass anything to speak of, and going into my dad's business didn't make sense because I wouldn't have done FWM Plastics any good unless I was motivated, and unless I had something useful to contribute other than a resume that read:
  1. Failed high school
  2. Couldn't get into college
  3. Good at games
  4. Has no ambition
So I moved to my grandparents' town of Hove (near Brighton), rented a room from a family at their church, and found an absolutely terrible job working a milling machine at a manufacturing plant. 

I made £18 a week (in 1974 that was around $40). Ten pounds went to lodging, around four pounds went to taxes, and two-three pounds disappeared for personal expenses (gum, the occasional coke, snacks at work, offering at church). If I was lucky I had 50-pence to a pound left over.

I rode a rusty - borrowed - bicycle all over the town, hooked up with an amateur soccer team, played a lot of Scrabble with my grandfather, attended a very conservative church, and became so homesick I could think of nothing else.

Moving back home in the fall was - in effect - admitting a kind of defeat. I really wondered if I was destined to live at home (a very tempting option), work at meaningless jobs and play sports on the weekends for the rest of my life. If I was honest with myself I knew that I had more to offer, but I couldn't for the life of me imagine what that was.

However - and this is a point I picked up in my book, "The Unmaking of a part-Time Christian" - I knew that I wanted to follow Jesus. At the time I wasn't motivated academically, I had no great ambition to change the world and I wasn't even interested in playing professional sports. But, at the core of my identity, I did identify myself as a Follower of The Way. I was a pilgrim - even if I wasn't making any progress.

So I decided that my next step - whatever direction that happened to be or how uncomfortable it might make me, or even if it threatened to disrupt my comfortable status-quo - was going to have to fit into the framework of "pilgrim."

Maybe that's what was going on when God prompted that particular memory in my mind early this morning. Maybe God was saying - is saying, "Sometimes we don't have to figure out the big picture. Sometimes the very best that any of us can do is to ask one simple question: 'What does it mean for me to be a disciple today, in this place, at this time?'"

Then, when we look back later - sometimes 36 years later - it can be amazing to see where that pilgrim pathway has taken us. It turns out that what really counts is to live as a faithful pilgrim today.

I am amazed at where my life has taken me over the past few decades. I feel very confident that I'm not wasting any of it, that I'm contributing at a very high level, and that I am using the particular gifts I've been given to share with the world....

But one thing hasn't changed at all: It's still true that - even though I feel so fulfilled and focused - the exact same question needs to be front and center in my heart and mind - always and without exception... "What does it mean for me to be a disciple today, in this place and at this time?"

It really is a great question

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Blog. Post. Click. Search. Stats. Reach. Reach people.

Put God's kingdom first. Do what he wants you to do. Then all of those things will also be given to you. So don't worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough challenges of its own. (Matthew 6:33-34)
Numbers by themselves don't necessarily mean much. Fact is, statistics can be manipulated to make them say just about anything - especially when it comes to politics and sales.

The numbers that have interested me over the past few months have to do with exposure, about the potential reach of my core message. I wonder - sometimes - if any people actually read anything that I write! It's a legitimate question, seeing as writing is the focus of my professional life.

Book sales are fairly easy to measure. I know that around 22,000 copies have sold through 2009, and possibly another 3,000 in 2010. Circulation #s for the newspapers and magazines I write for vary, and who knows if and when readers actually look at my articles? On the web, All Pro Dad document around 100,000 unique hits every month, and I know a lot of those folk read my 10-Ways lists.

Then there is my blog. I post probably 5 times a week. Some people check in infrequently then read more than one entry; some take a look daily; some only visit when I send out an email prompt; some read via the RSS feed to facebook (those #s don't register on my counter).

So I thought I'd share a few of the more interesting things that I do know:
  • Last month I had 4,320 visits (up from 2,500 last summer)
  • My primary audience is - not surprisingly - from the USA. But, and this is surprising, the UK doesn't come up until #4, behind the Netherlands and South Korea. Canada rounds out the top 5.
  • Over time and on average (and it holds true for visitors over any time period) close to 70% of hits are classified "returning visitors" and 30% are "new" visitors.
  • The average length of a visit comes in at around seven minutes, so evidently a couple of people other than my mother are reading.
But even then, it's tough to know what - if anything  - has actually gotten through. It's entirely different when I'm speaking to a live audience. My wife Rebekah preaches to - on average - between 350 and 400 people every Sunday. Probably 600 different people are in church over the span of the average month. Most of them appear to keep their eyes open, and she knows immediately if she's connecting in a meaningful way.

Blogging is kind of like the "If a tree falls in a forest and no-one is there to hear it, does it make any sound?" question.

And that is why - primarily - this page is more of a personal devotional exercise than a measure of my relevance in the world of emerging Christian thought.

One day - I'm sure of it - a miracle is going to happen and something I have written (a blog post, a newspaper commentary, a book) is going to "go viral" and then everything will change.

Until then, I have one word for my readers - both of you!
  • Put God's kingdom first. Do what he wants you to do. Then all of those things will also be given to you. So don't worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough challenges of its own. (Matthew 6:33-34)


Thursday, February 17, 2011

"Our" Interests? What about the Interests of the World?

MANAMA, Bahrain – Troops and tanks locked down the capital of this tiny Gulf kingdom after riot police swinging clubs and firing tear gas smashed into demonstrators, many of them sleeping, in a pre-dawn assault Thursday that uprooted their protest camp demanding political change... (AP)

Here it is the end of the morning and I'm just sitting down to write. Fortunately I only have four HUGE projects to complete today so there's no pressure!

If you've been watching the protests in the Middle East then you will have seen the exact location where our son, Andrew, lived until he left Bahrain a few short months ago. The protests have centered in and around the traffic circle overlooked by the tower condo where he lived.

Of course we're glad that Andrew is back in Tuscany, and that he is safe. And now it's tempting to simply dismiss the repression and suffering, because the moment we're not in the direct line of fire we're just not all that interested any more. 

But it's imperative that we don't dismiss anything that lightly. We are - first and foremost - all children of God, and citizens together of a huge and complex world, a world instantly connected via rapid travel, constant media attention and advanced social networking.

The time when we could say, "We're American, we're rich and comfortable, and we don't care what goes on in the rest of the world" is long gone. And well it should be. It's not just a global economy now, it's a global conversation - and we need to be prepared to enter into a worldwide dialog about what it means to be human beings living together on this amazing planet.

The worst we can do would be to consider our own interests in isolation. Listen to these words from Paul's letter to the church in Philippi: 

"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others..." (Phil 2:3-4)

OKay, I know exactly where some people will take this. "But Mr. Paul was writing to Christians," they say. "You can't talk about social or political ramifications when the letter was simply words of advice directed at a bunch of believers!"

Oh can't I? It's interesting that the point comes up, because Paul goes on to reference Jesus, who applied his principles and values to anyone he met, Jew or Samaritan or Gentile, believer or otherwise. 

So let's read on....  "In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself..." (Phil 2:5-8)

That's what I'm talking about! I am a citizen of the world. And so are you. You don't have to be Christian, or American, or White, or middle-class to be my brother or my sister. You have to be human, and at last glance I noted somewhere between six and seven billion of us milling around on this planet!

The movement in the Middle East appears to be grass-roots, emerging from the common yearning we all have to live in freedom. Personally, I find a lot of hope in that! I think the days when we unquestionably support any and every dictator who promises us oil and a military base in return for looking the other way when human rights are denied.... I think those days should be over....


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cooperative Baptists - A Common Mission

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1).

I really do love my work! The coolest part by far is the opportunity I enjoy to meet with people who otherwise wouldn't have shown up on my radar. 

It's not just the in-depth interviews for newspaper articles (probably a couple of thousand good people over the last several years), it's also the folk I'm running into because they have read something I wrote, or heard me speak, and now they want to sit down and chat.

Bo Prosser serves as "Coordinator for Congregational Life" with the "Cooperative Baptist Fellowship". The CBF comprises around 2,000 Baptist congregations who find their commonality in a theological, social and political stance that is more open (than traditional Baptist churches) to ideas such as women in leadership, social justice, intellectual freedom and interfaith dialogue.

Bo has a particular interest in men's ministry, and we have been communicating via email since the fall of 2010. This week he flew into Tampa for some meetings and we agreed to get together for coffee and conversation Tuesday afternoon.

I knew he was my kind of Baptist when Bo emailed me to say "Meet me in the lobby - I'll be in the bar." Of course it turned out to be an espresso bar and he was drinking water. He was there with four regional representatives, so I got to chat briefly with several key players in the CBF, ministers from Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Georgia. 

I sensed a real burden on Bo's heart for the future of The Church. Not his association per se, not Baptists in general, not even mainline Protestantism as we understand it. What I sensed was a heart full with love for people, and a sadness that so many "Christians" miss out on the richness and the joy that becomes possible when we move beyond mere church affiliation and into active discipleship as deliberate Followers of The Way.
  • "It was a treat to talk with you," I wrote in a follow-up email. "I sense a deep yearning in your heart to see men step into all that is possible as disciples. It breaks my heart to see so many good people content with half-measures. So, we will join our prayers for Baptist, and Presbyterians... and so many others. There is hope - but there is (also) a lot for us to do!"
The Cooperative Baptists will be holding their convention here in Tampa this June. My prayer is this, "That the Holy Spirit will disturb the orderly proceedings of these good people, and that a renewed passion for the Good News will propel them into a season of growth and vitality. Because the Gospel is that compelling, God's love is that radical, and Jesus wants nothing less than - in a word - everything."


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Winter in Florida - eat your hearts out!

Trivia fact for the day: Feb 15 marks the 26th anniversary of the day I became a citizen of the USA. The program listed me as, "Derek Maul: Country of origin - Spain."

This year Rebekah and I decided to celebrate Valentine's Day differently. What we did was to rearrange our schedules so we could enjoy a relaxed day-long date. Sometimes the simplest of plans can be the best.

If you're at a loss for something "special" to do together, how about some of the following:
  • Taking time to enjoy an extra cup of coffee together - conversation in your favorite armchairs? 
  • Saying "you're more important than anything else on my schedule today, so we'll just hang out together!" 
  • Or maybe one of you could dig out an old Longhorn gift certificate from your wallet and you could go out for a leisurely lunch? 
  • Here's an idea, 60-degrees and sunshine is the perfect time to walk on the beach together - what could be more fun than a drive out to Bradenton Beach together and a three-mile hike in the sand?
Well, we did all of the above, then stopped for seafood on the way home. It turned into a 9 AM - 9 PM date. This year was the best V-Day I can remember in a long time.

Of course, it helps if you like one-another to begin with. But - and this is a key point - I honestly believe Rebekah and I are more likely to enjoy being together precisely because we're always working on the creativity element of relationship. It's a chicken-or-egg thing, and we've got it covered both ways!

This weekend one of my church friends said that there's a genuine comfort in knowing that your wife/husband is there, regardless - even if you don't feel much in the way of love, or experience much passion, or talk, or have a good time together. Well, I understand what he was saying... but there's a danger in letting that sense of maintenance-free comfort-level become a substitute for even trying any more. And that's a recipe for long-term disappointment.

Yes, the relationship will still be there - usually - even when we take one-another for granted... But, NO, that is not an ideal state of affairs. It's important to apply some imagination and some inventiveness to our marriages. To introduce some creativity and add some loving intention to the equation. Why wouldn't a guy work hard to come up with some great ideas for being together? That's what you did to get the relationship going in the first place. Marriage doesn't mean you quit dating!

Anyway, Rebekah and I had a great day yesterday. We genuinely enjoy being together and we work hard to make sure we stay connected. That's really all I wanted to share! We have fun together, we enjoy hanging out. We both understand - and celebrate - the fact that our relationship is worth the effort.

Peace - DEREK

Monday, February 14, 2011

Maybe too Deep for a Monday...

Yesterday my Sunday morning study group enjoyed a productive discussion. We talked about the tendency people have to spoil good things by attempting to gain control over them.

We do this with animals by putting them in cages. We do this to children to a certain extent when we discourage inventive thought, measure progress against rigid standardized norms, and focus so many of our educational resources on the promotion of uniformity and conformity. Instead of simply a fine-motor-skill exercise, coloring inside the lines is too often a metaphor for education.

And we do it all the time with faith:

  • We reduce, codify, systematize, summarize and bullet point the historical scope of God's witness into manageable sound-bites. 
  • The great arc of the story of Grace is traded in for some formulaic religious pseudo-certainty.  
  • "Do you know the Four Spiritual Laws?" becomes a more important question than "Are you engaged in an ongoing exploration of what it means to know and love and serve God?"

So our conversation drifted into the idea of relationship.

My friend Bill reported a study where medical doctors visited patients for exactly three minutes. Some were instructed to sit by the bed while others were told to stand at the end. Everything else about the interactions was identical. When patients were asked how long each doctor stayed, the one at the end of the bed typically scored less than two minutes, whereas the doctor who sat down at the side was perceived to have interacted for more than twice as long.

So here's my thought: Maybe the doctors who stayed longer did more than give the perception of a longer visit - maybe they actually did spend more time with the patient. Maybe there is a shift in the space-time continuum when relationship enters the equation? Maybe time - as we understand it and experience it - is not so immutable as we would like to believe. Maybe the idea of immutability is more of a need for us to believe than it is an actual property of time...?

I'm actually serious. 21st Century America has effectively reduced reality to that which we can measure, quantify, replicate in a laboratory and observe with the five senses we're most familiar with. The faith community often buys in to this limited viewpoint by attempting to gain credibility via offering scientific "proofs" when possible. As if God needs the sanction of humanity to verify truth that is not contained within the parameters of human understanding.

When relationship with God enters the equation, we're dealing with something that defies our need to control and to limit and to package...

.... And yet we stand on street corners handing out tracts that purport to offer salvation in five easy steps....!

All I can say is "Good Grief!"

I belief that's enough for a Monday!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Jesus Shifts our Focus from Failure to New Life

Here’s an interesting news vignette from the Kentucky Post:

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Catholic church has given its stamp of approval to an app helping the faithful confess their sins.

The application, created by Catholic priests, for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch isn't intended to replace the confessional. Instead, its designers hope it helps people keep track of what they need to atone for.

The app takes information from the user like age, gender and time elapsed since their last confession to create a personalised "examination of conscience". There is also a place for you to check which areas you have sinned using the 10 commandments as a guide.

Some church leaders see the app is also seen as a way of getting younger generations interested in church again.

This is a classic illustration of what is wrong with what I like to refer to as “Religious Christianity”, and why – in my opinion – The Church Traditional continues to fail miserably when it comes to this idea – it crops up in every era - of, “Getting younger generations interested…”

Believe me, Jesus is interesting enough. The problem is how we tend to build religion around Jesus, structures that effectively shield us - and the people Jesus charged us with the responsibility of reaching - from what is the most interesting. And what's most interesting is the Master's bold, challenging invitation to live.

The confession application’s designers, according to the report, developed their nifty gizmo in order to help more people - defined as sinners - “keep track of what they need to atone for…”

Hello! Hasn’t this approach to a meaningful relationship with the Almighty been tried a few times before? In Christianity we understand this proven bad idea as “The Old Testament,” "The Law", "Legalism" and "Salvation by works."

My best understanding of Jesus tells me he ushered in a New Covenant. Or, as the writer of Hebrews put it, “A new and living way.”

Here’s my word for the day: “LIVE”. By that I mean take a clue from Jesus and be proactive in terms of love. Or, as I stressed constantly when I worked in exceptional education, practice positive behaviors that are incompatible with negative behaviors. If the focus is on doing what is right, then it becomes unnecessary to worry all the time about doing what is wrong.

JESUS shifts our focus from failure to new life.

Pursue God, follow Jesus, allow our very substance to be infused with the Holy Spirit. We don’t need an iPhone app to point out where we’re falling short… what the world needs is a NEW AND LIVING WAY.

Out of his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:16-17)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Join me and vote for some Good News!

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. (Philippians 4:8)
Most of you know I’m a freelance writer by profession (The above quotation from Philippians is my reference point for content). The inspirational book market spits out royalties just once a year, so I cultivate regular work with a handful of newspapers, news agencies, magazines and web sites. Additionally, I pick up “one-off” assignments where I can.
For years, my favorite job was the weekly “opinion” column I wrote for The Brandon News. Some weeks it ran in several local papers, and pretty much always Brandon, Plant City, South Shore and Sun City. The feature was dropped, unfortunately, as part of the Tribune’s widespread content cuts two-three years ago.
FOCUS Magazine picked me up. I'm grateful for the opportunity, but FOCUS is a monthly periodical with a limited circulation. I still grieve my regular column, and very much miss the sense of community that was fostered via my ongoing conversation with – often – more than 100,000 people.
But I had to chuckle this week when I received two separate emails from local residents who both wanted to know, “Why have you stopped putting your wonderful column in the paper?”
“I’d love to,” I replied, “but that’s not my call. It's up to the editors and the publisher. But, let me ask you, have you written a letter to the newspaper asking for my column to be reinstated?”
Reality is, it simply doesn’t happen. Interestingly, I talk with literally hundreds of people who complain to me about, “The Godless liberal media…” They go on to tell me how much they enjoy my writing and my values - which happen to appear in the "Godless" media. But few take the trouble to follow through and support what they say they value! So many people will take the time to copy and circulate inaccurate information (poorly written at that), urban legends, made-up propaganda and  gossip... but then largely ignore what’s good, true, noble, right, and pure! Go figure.
So I’ve come up with a partial solution - that is until the editors and the readers come to their senses! I’m going to set aside one day a week of this blog to the column I would write for the Tampa Tribune if they started running it again. The column will run Wednesdays, because that’s when it used to appear.
  • Look for the new feature, starting next Wednesday. “Derek Maul: reading between the lines.”

Then, if anyone follows through and actually takes the trouble to lobby the newspaper, the column will already be up and running.
Same verse as before – but this time the translation is “The Message" - Summing it all up, friends, I'd say you'll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.
Do you believe Paul was right as to his advice? If so, consider making an investment in what is true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling and gracious. The best - not the worst. 
Let's put some good news on the best-seller lists for a change!
Click here for my Amazon Author Page - DEREK

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

America Needs to Talk About This!

  • Fact: Diet books have topped the best-seller lists for 20 years or more.
  • Fact: Unrealistically skinny and buff body images have been presented as "ideal" for four decades.
  • Fact: While Americans increasingly consume diet books and purchase gym memberships, the average BMI has been climbing steadily. Obesity rates continue to increase dramatically. 
BRANDON - Yesterday, researching a story for the Tampa Tribune, I enjoyed an illuminating conversation with a woman who has reclaimed her life after several decades of out of control eating. She came to a point where she realized she was quite literally killing herself, and she made the decision to reject obesity. She sought help, lost over 50% of her body weight, and turned her life around a full 180.

Brandon Regional Hospital's Bariatric Program coordinator joined us for the conversation (Bariatrics is the branch of medicine that deals with the causes, prevention and treatment of obesity).

Typically, I don't blog these interviews. But I'm doing so today for a couple of reasons.
  • First, I'm going to say some things in this venue I shouldn't/won't say in the newspaper. My regular Tribune feature is not an "opinion" column - my blog gives me more freedom to draw unsettling conclusions.
  • Then, there are some obvious tie-ins to my general philosophy that I'm anxious to point out. Again, my "Community Profile" piece in the paper isn't the venue for that.
You may have noted - in the opening paragraph - that I wrote "decision to reject obesity." But haven't we all heard the following ideas expressed in various ways?
  • "Being overweight is not a choice - it's who I am."
  • "Many people have a metabolism that's responsible for weight gain." 
  • "He has glandular issues." 
  • "She's big-boned." 
  • "It's genetics - the whole family are severely overweight and they simply can't help it." 
  • And  my personal favorite - "Skinny people shouldn't tell other people how they should live...."
I asked my new friends to comment. This - in a nutshell - is what they told me: There is no reasonable explanation for obesity outside of lifestyle. Yes, it's harder for some people than others. Yes, there are medical triggers that stack the deck against maintaining a healthy weight. Yes, genetics, and body type, and illness, and family history, and injuries etc. all play a role in determining how simple or how complex it is to eat well and exercise appropriately.

But - and this is a huge caveat - we can say that obesity in America is predominantly a lifestyle disease. Being overweight is almost 100% unnecessary, and it is - this is the good news - almost always correctable given the correct motivation, support and resources to follow through.

Listen - and this is important - we're not discussing aesthetics here. No-one has the right to make judgements according to social preferences that are based on appearance, weight or any other arbitrary guideline. That is shallow to the extreme and we should all reject it.

Instead, this is actually a conversation about health. The "BMI" (Body Mass Index) is a very useful predictor of a wide-range of medical complications. For the morbidly obese, these are know as "co-morbidities". These include the following: Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, repository disease, joint pain, orthopedic issues, dermatological problems, gastric ailments.... Then there are issues such as length of hospitalization, recovery from surgery, complications during surgery, mobility, rehab challenges etc....

The above paragraph is just a starting point. I have interviewed doctors, therapists, hospital administrators, recovering patients, bariatric program professionals, surgeons, exercise gurus, nutritionists, pharmacists and others. Without exception all of these folk testify that the "Health-Care Crisis" as we know it today would virtually disappear if obesity in America was eliminated.

How about this? If we all took a few rudimentary steps and made the decision to live healthy lifestyles with a real emphasis on keeping our BMI in the 19-26 range, then America would suddenly find itself with both the professional resources and the funding to provide free and appropriate health care to all who live within our borders.

The bottom line: Simply put, this is not a conversation about my right to live how I choose, or your right to feed your kids a steady diet of donuts, coke and pizza. No, this is a conversation about public health, about living in a manner that honors our creation and our Creator, and about the unreasonable cost - to everyone - of chronic obesity in America.

OK - so I've run out of space for today. I'll pick this up again tomorrow....

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Grief and Blessing - Anchored in the Eternal

- Peter, to Jesus: Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life!

Sarasota, Saturday afternoon:
This was a hard one. I can still see it clearly, standing in a quiet graveyard in the rain, holding an umbrella over Rebekah as she speaks to the small crowd of family and friends gathered around the tiny grave.

Audrey Rose - my niece Hannah's baby - had been doing very well for a little over six months, growing steadily in her mother's womb and waiting for the day she would make her official entry into the family. She was already deeply loved, prayed for, cared for, celebrated and widely anticipated. But then, one sad day this week, a blood clot formed in the umbilical cord and Audrey Rose died.

She was perfect. So very tiny, and weighing in at less than a couple of pounds, Audrey was beautifully formed in every way. There's no need for academic or politically loaded arguments about "the exact moment life begins" if you see a picture of little Audrey Rose. Life, God-breathed, not just latent but loaded, a spirited child, both of Spirit and with spirit.

And so we gathered in the rain around a small grave and in the face of unfathomable love. We came to consider life and to grieve loss and to receive encouragement; we came to affirm the gift that life is, to minister to one another in the name of life, and to ask God hard questions - questions we didn't really require to be answered but that we needed to voice all the same.

Rebekah spoke. She read scripture. She prayed. She committed Audrey's tiny body to the earth. And she shared good words of life; words of eternal life. Our lives cannot be measured or evaluated in the limited language of chronological time. "Living (on earth) alone is not enough of an explanation for LIFE..."

Rebekah said that everyone - irrespective of their religious persuasion, or their interest in Christianity, or their inclination toward the particular practice of faith that we understand -  everyone feels some intuitive response or sense of angst or aching need for some story of truth to fill a nagging void at times like this...

Each one of us has a unique story that can only be fathomed when understood in the context of the Greatest Story Ever Told. Audrey Rose not only is a story, but she has a story too.

Our spirits, mine and yours, are anchored in the eternal. Audrey is now experiencing such completeness of love and she is being nourished in the presence of Jesus.

But to witness such pain in people we care about so deeply! My niece Hannah knelt in the dirt - unconscious of the rain and the mud - to place the tiny coffin in the ground. And she cried with her husband, Andrew - along with little Haley and Hudson - as they tenderly took their leave of this particular hope and promise. And they placed rose petals where the body lay. And the immediate family released pink balloons that floated out over the live oak hammock and into the brooding sky....

I always feel especially close to God at times like this. I believe that moments of birth and of parting - and this was, in a sense, both an introduction and a farewell - are moments when it is unusually simple to reach out and touch divinity.

The point of God in the face of grief is the reality of God's presence more than a corrective intervention designed to make our lives easier or more to our liking. God with us is God for us. God was certainly for the extended Roberts-Maul family today.


Friday, February 4, 2011

Celebrating 34 Years of Dating!

Today's post is located at my The Preacher's Husband blog. Rebekah and I are celebrating the 34th anniversary of our first date.

You can read it here. "These Are the Good Old Days"

Peace - DEREK

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Seven Reasons You Should Move to Tampa

On a lighter not today, I thought I'd share one of those "top 10" lists everyone has so much fun with.

This one is "Seven Reasons you Really Should Move to Tampa Bay" (picture found on the web - not my work)
  1. Duh... have you been outside lately? If you live anywhere in the U.S. other than Florida (and that would have to be south of the Panhandle (no offense, Pensacola, Tallahassee and Jacksonville) you might as well rent a truck and pack up your things now. See my Tuesday blog for pictorial evidence.
  2. Cuban coffee: Seattle may have Starbucks and Seattle's Best; San Francisco may have Peet's; but those guys ship everywhere. What you can't get in the mail - or on the West Coast - is a perfect CafĂ© con leche. Eat your heart out, America.
  3. First Presbyterian of Brandon: Seriously, folks, alone is 100% enough reason to move here. This church is exactly why Rebekah and I moved almost 500 miles. And that was back when the church wasn't half so cool as it is now. Case closed.
  4. The Crosstown Expressway: I used to hate driving into Tampa. Then they built a new, elevated, expressway right on top of the old one - just for Brandon. I love running into people from New Tampa, Carrollwood, or Temple Terrace and telling them, "Thanks!" Their tax dollars at work; our expressway. Sweet!
  5. The performing arts: But you may have to hurry for this one. Tampa Bay is home to The Florida Orchestra, one of the premier symphonic ensembles in the Southeast. But very few people seem to realize what a gem we have. Every year our world-class musicians get paid less and the organization shrinks a little bit more.
  6. Diversity: Here's a little known fact. In its early days (late 19th/early 20th Century) Tampa was heavily influenced by Cuban immigration. Consequently, Tampa emerged as a rich combination of Latin, Mediterranean, Island, Caucasian, Black, Central American and Hybrid peoples. Institutional racism had to be imported. When the first county school system was organized, officials looked at the integrated schools and said, "We can't have that!" Today, a half century after Brown vs Board of Education, Tampa is once again probably the most ethnically integrated city in North America. We have the food to prove it.
  7. Professional sports: True, we the people built the Buccaneers new stadium and the Glazers (owners) won't let us watch on television. And, true, the Rays play in the worst baseball park in North America. And, true, the only way the Lightening were able to hold onto the Stanley Cup was via a strike the next season. And, true, our soccer team can never be as cool as the Rowdies were when soccer was "A kick in the grass..." But we really do have more than our fair share of competitive action around here.
Well, I know there's more, but that's enough for today. I'll happily take suggestions (serious and otherwise) for the next edition of this list....

Peace - and I really mean that - DEREK

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

One Month In - Taking a Pulse

We're one month into 2011 and - in an effort to include a little more self-assessment along the way - I've been crunching some numbers. Some of the numbers are good, some could use a little improvement.

  • First off, I'm doing great in the walking department. My goal of five-million steps in 2011 (approximately 2,500 miles) calls for 416,667 steps per month. During January I documented 467,000. That means I walked 233.5 miles.
  • I've pulled my weight back to 175 pounds. Not too shabby.
  • My annual check-up comes up in March, so at the moment I'm all "no comment" on the cholesterol situation!
  • I took the "Real Age" test this morning and am disappointed with the "48" I scored. I think this is a good time to blame my family!
  1. January I wrote seven columns for All Pro Dad, one Methodist e-review article, three Tampa Tribune profiles, one FOCUS Magazine column, and one Upper Room meditation. 
  2. I had only one (paid) speaking engagement.
  3. I put in a lot of work for an on-line class I'll be teaching in March, I'm also outlining a new book, plus I started prep work for some upcoming conferences.
  4. I launched my new "The Preacher's Husband" blog. Getting great reviews.
  1. "On-line presence" is becoming an increasingly key element of what it means to be a freelance writer/speaker. My goal is to devote at least two hours per day to what is - essentially - self marketing. This is an area I'm not attending to properly and I really believe it's the "make or break" part of the equation concerning my future.
  2. If you want to help, please "share" my blog(s) with your friends on facebook and via email. Additionally, you can use this link to my "author page" at ---- DEREK MAUL's BOOKS ----
  1. The IRS will be glad to know that I am actually making a profit as a freelance writer... However, I'm sorry to say that it's not going to do much for the deficit!
  2. Let's put it this way. The good news is I worked more than 40 hours each week in January. The bad news is I made more $$ "per hour" as a work-study security guard at Stetson University back in 1976!
  1. I'm doing my dream job! I love to write, and I know for a fact that I make an impact on the lives of hundreds of people throughout the world - possibly thousands. I'm also privileged to have the opportunity to travel sometimes, to get up in front of a crowd and to share words of inspiration and encouragement. That rocks!
  2. At some point this year I'm going to have to write a book that will actually sell! (stay tuned on that score, I really do have a couple of good ideas!)
PRAYER: Here's a prayer I wrote on behalf of a friend yesterday:
  • Lord God, architect of our hope and guide along the way, grant your struggling children an extra measure of your peace this week. Heal broken hearts; renew hope; restore joy; affirm love. Give us the wisdom to be the presence of Christ wherever we find ourselves. Give us the courage to be the presence of Christ. Give us the will to follow Jesus. Amen....

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Relationships: What really counts for success

Question: What do you do on a Monday morning when you're behind in your work, backed up with deadlines, anxious to submit assignments that are only halfway completed, and committed to extra projects "up to the eyeballs"?

Answer: Go play golf.
  • There's a huge blizzard blowing in the Mid-West and a bigger one brewing. 
  • In Connecticut our daughter's backyard has 30 inches of snow and they're expecting least another foot this week. 
  • Here in Brandon the temperature just happened to be high 60's to the low 70's. With the sun shining brightly it just seemed wrong not to play a relaxed 18 with friends.
So we teed off at 10:00. I was joined by Tim Black - one of the pastors at our church, Doug Scharf - the local Episcopalian priest, and Don - one of Doug's parishioners (there they are, l-r, - Tim, Don, Doug - above). None of us played that well, but we had the best time. Sure, there were flashes of actual golf as we all got lucky once in a while, but it honestly didn't matter. What mattered was enjoying God's good Earth in the company of good people.

Study after study in recent years has concluded that satisfaction in life increases to the extent that people are involved in meaningful relationships. Men, by and large, are more likely to be "at risk" in this regard because they tend not to have a well developed network of friendships that go beyond the superficial.

It turns out that the majority of men do not sustain the kind of relationships where, in the face of some crisis... or concern... or joy... or challenge... or opportunity... or need... or celebration... they could readily pick up the phone and simply talk about it.

Think about it. How many people do you know who you could call today and say something like, "I'm worried about my job, would you please pray for me?" or, "I'm not sure that I'm doing that well in my marriage. Let's get together and chat." or "My daughter just called... they're having a baby! I just had to tell someone." or "You've been on my mind today, I just wanted you to know. Is everything alright?"

I concede this is a generalization... but, chances are, if you said "Yes!" to one or more of the above, then you are a woman! Women are - typically - more intuitive relationally then guys. But that does not mean that men don't need deep, meaningful relationships... it simply means that we have a lot of work to do in that area of our lives.

That's one reason I started my "The Men's Room" Wednesday evening group at our church. It was also the impetus behind my first book, "GET REAL: a spiritual journey for men". And it's what I'm asked to address 75% of the time I'm asked to lead a retreat or speak at a conference.

What really counts, if we want to say that we have "successful" lives, is the quality of our relationships. I for one am so grateful that I have a partner in life - Rebekah - who is also my best friend, that I have a network of men who I am not ashamed to say that I love, and that I belong to a faith community where we are not afraid to be honest with one another, to confess our shortcomings and share our joys, and where the healing love of God penetrates to the deepest reaches of who I am because the people know me... and love me anyway.

Listen to the words of David, a man who struggled deeply in his life and realized - too late sometimes - how important it is to be honest and authentic in relationships: "How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the LORD bestows his blessing, even life forevermore" (Psalm 133).

Grace and Peace - because we live in a world that needs both.