Monday, January 31, 2011

Fielding the Hard Questions...

Today is a stunningly beautiful day here in Florida. It's going to be 75 and sunny again, with a light breeze. I just returned from walking the dog and neither one of us really wanted to come back inside - it's that nice out there.

I'm not sharing this weather info in order to make non-Florida-dwellers jealous, but rather as a backdrop to the sense of heaviness that is on our hearts here around Tampa today, something even a beautiful day cannot erase. It was the topic of conversation in my Sunday morning study-group, and it will doubtless take a lot of our time at my small group this evening.

What I'm talking about is the unthinkable murder of two teenage children in Tampa Palms this weekend. They were killed by their own mother, 50-year-old Julie Schenecker (Her husband works out of the same CentCom office as one of my friends). First, on the way home from soccer practice, she shot her 13-year-old son, Beau, in the head. Then, after parking the SUV in the garage, she went upstairs and killed her 16-year-old daughter, Calyx. She shot both children twice, once in the back of the head and then once in the face.

Conversation this morning ranged around the question, as one woman put it, eyes ablaze with anger and tears streaming down her face, "How can you all possibly sit around this table and say you believe in a God who would let something like this happen? If God is really here to love and protect his children then somebody please explain this to me?"

She was angry. Fighting mad. Heartbroken. She felt as if something foundational to her own sense of right and wrong, faith, and justice had been deeply violated. And it had.

I'm not going to attempt to answer "why" God chooses not to break in to time and space in situations such as this, why God does not temporarily eliminate free-will, why the fundamental laws which govern the universe are not suspended, why God does not intervene to stop such brutal acts.

I'm especially not going to offer some trite explanation when it's an undeniable fact that I petition God to do the miraculous on a regular basis, and I really do believe that God does intervene in countless circumstances... So why not this time?

But I will say this. When my friend talked about God failing to protect his children, I immediately interrupted, "No, that's our job..." 

Jesus came to show us the way. In fact the early Christians were know as "Followers of The Way." Following Jesus, living as a disciple, claiming our role as "pilgrims in progress", means interacting with and acting on a desperately broken world, and doing it in the name of Jesus.

So I think a more useful question is going to be this:

  • "How is God calling me to be a follower of The Way today, in my life, with my family, at my job.
  • How is God calling me to be a Jesus follower and to work for justice, for peace, or as an advocate for children? 
  • What does my discipleship look like in this hurting and broken world?

I often quote the Romans 8 passage that suggest the entire creation is waiting for those of us who claim to follow God to "get it". It really is a good question. I honestly can't think of a better investment of out talents and our resources than to be more deliberate "Followers of The Jesus Way".


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pain in Childbirth; Cursed Ground; and Blessed Redemption

This is a good moment to add in my "disclaimer" note: 
       All stories told in this blog are 100% true. Sometimes names are changed to protect the guilty. I always say the following regarding my writing: "Why make stuff up when what actually happens is typically ten times as interesting, far more controversial, and exponentially funnier? Stuff happens. My gift is paying attention, not making things up." 

That said, there's a great anecdote my wife (the preacher) shared in church a couple of Sundays ago. It's a better story now than it was when it happened, because the category of "Dumb stuff said by stupid (and/or) ignorant people" tends to become easier to tolerate in retrospect than it is at the time.

Back at Columbia Seminary, when Rebekah was working on her MDiv, providence took over our carefully thought-out parenting plan and we ended up expecting our first child her senior year. This made everything more interesting, including the interview process for that critical "first call."

Our wonderful new arrival (Andrew) was due on graduation day, so Rebekah's final few months were "great with child." This led to some interesting moments.
  • The seminary president asking her not to look for a call - "You'll never get hired and you would embarrass the institution."
  • The search committee (PNC) who wanted to know if she was married.
  • The PNC who asked "What are you going to do with that baby?" (The answer, "What is any preacher going to do with his or her baby?")
  • Asking to be excused half-way through one of the ordination exams because she went into labor (the proctor had to call denominational headquarters because - so far as anyone knew - this situation had never come up before).
The signature story for today's post is a conversation my wife had with another student. They were talking about Greek, or theology, or some church history class - something or other - when he suddenly blurted out, "You're going to have this baby 'Natural Childbirth', right?"

"Derek and I have been taking Lamaze classes," she said. Then, "But I'm not a big fan of pain! We're going for the epidural the moment it gets to be too much."

That's when he dropped his bombshell. "But that's against the Bible," he said. "Women are supposed to experience pain because of their sin. After the fall God said I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you' (Genesis 3:16). You can't go against God's Word!"

Rebekah had a couple of options. But this is where she always manages to shine; it's one of the reasons her ministry has been so effective even when there's opposition or stupidity in the air. She maintained her cool, smiled warmly, and simply turned it around.

"I'll tell you what," she laughed. "Let's see you break your back scraping a living out of the dirt, and how about giving up your air-conditioning so we can all witness the sweat of your brow (Genesis 3:17-19, full text below). Then we can talk about child-birth without medication!"

The student reeled, started to wave his hands, and opened his mouth to say something. But could only manage to chew air.

"I don't know about you," she continued, pressing her advantage (not so much her advantage as the advantage afforded by the work of GRACE), "but I am so thankful for redemption. God sent Jesus so that our relationship with God can be restored and we don't have to live in darkness any more."

I, as the Preacher's Husband, am grateful for the continued victory of light over darkness. It's a story I see repeated in some way every day. We can either live as children of the light... or we can crawl back under the rock because we are afraid of what redemption requires of us.

It's time every Christian allowed God to loose those chains. 

"Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?" Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.


The complete passage from Genesis:

Cursed is the ground because of you; 
   through painful toil you will eat food from it 
   all the days of your life. 
 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, 
   and you will eat the plants of the field. 
 By the sweat of your brow 
   you will eat your food 
until you return to the ground, 
   since from it you were taken; 
for dust you are 
   and to dust you will return

Monday, January 24, 2011

You had me at "Estes Park"

JESUS - My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me... (John 17)

This photograph was taken Saturday afternoon. I'm on the phone with my new friend James, who serves on the leadership team at a United Methodist Church in the greater Denver area. James called to chat about the details of the men's ministry retreat that his church has planned for late April, up in the Rocky Mountains at Estes Park. They want to go deeper as Jesus-followers in terms of discipleship, and they plan to use "GET REAL: a spiritual journey for men" as a catalyst for the study.

Long story short I'll be flying out to Colorado to lead the retreat. "You had me," I told him, "at Estes Park!"

Good News Cheerleader! Over the past few years I've realized how important it is to share good news. Not just good news, but "The Good News"! Sharing Good News is - essentially - the work of the Apostle - the word literally means "one who is sent forth as a messenger."

When I turned 50, and after about 25-years of great experiences in local churches, I realized that I had a lot of good news to share. That understanding has defined the trajectory of my 50's. It is imperative that we tell the story.

Nay-saying is the anti-gospel!
Apparently, my experience has been unusually positive. Rather than Good News, there's an epidemic of complaining in the church at large. Finger-pointing, condemning and "holier-than-thou"-ing. Posturing and criticizing and "I'm-right-you're-wrong"-ing. Not only is this a sad fact of denominational politics, but the condition afflicts many local congregations too.

The sheer volume of all this negativity at times overshadows the reason The Church was called together to begin with. Eventually, the noise of discord became so loud to me that I finally understood, in a kind of epiphany, that God is calling me to tell the truth about the Gospel. The positive experience Rebekah and I are enjoying should not be that unusual.... Why? Because the Gospel happens to be very, very, very good news.

Good News is why I'm going to Estes Park! I'm going because a group of men have invited me to share stories of hope and encouragement and redemption and love - and of God-moving-among-us. They sound like they belong to a positive church where Jesus-followers have taken the Master's John 17 prayer to heart.

Once, attending a semester-long writers' workshop at the university, I was challenged by a group of women who believed my writing lacked something in terms of authentic life. "Your life is too positive," they complained. "You'll never be a real writer," they told me on more than one occasion, "until you've suffered more. That's where the truth is."

Well I've got news for The Angst Sisters. I've been through some very sticky trials in my life, and I'm sure there are more in my future... but redemption is a stronger theme than brokenness and pain. I honestly believe that the story we need to be repeating in church is the story of how God heals us and how God's love among us brings us joy.

If we want The Church to be the dynamic force for world-changing love that Jesus imagined when he prayed for his disciples at the Last Supper - then we are going to have to tell, and to live, and to re-tell that story in the very public way that we "do" church.

That's the Good News of the Gospel. And I can't keep my mouth shut!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"The Preacher's Husband" gets some press!

I know this makes two posts in three days; but if stuff happens, stuff happens! One of my freelance writing gigs is with FOCUS Magazine here in the Tampa/Plant City/Lakeland region. The latest issue has the following article about this blog. I think you'll find it interesting.

You can either read it here - and I've included the mug shot they use - or click on this link to read the article in the on-line version of the magazine. Either way, read it! (If you follow the link, you'll have to click on the text of the magazine to bring the article up to size)

Choosing Who to Follow in 2011
Two years ago I started my first blog. The eponymous site is an on-line journal, where people look over my shoulder and read what’s going on with my life.

I’ve posted over 600 entries to date, around five new items per week. The experiment has generated some interest, somewhere around 1,000 hits every month. You can check it out if you’re interested, just log in via and click on “Today’s Blog Entry.”

My blog features great photographs, plus some of my best writing – the same kind of content presented on this page. But it’s a journal, so most people don’t even bother to take the first look. The sites people go to in droves tend to feature scandal, controversy, juicy gossip, famous people or writing of more topical interest.

Well I’m not that interested in negatives. But it does make sense to write about topics that generate attention. So I scratched my head and came up with a subject I’m well qualified to address but may well raise a few eyebrows. The new blog is called, “The Preacher’s Husband;” you can find it at

Bingo! I had more hits in the first couple of days than I'd hoped for in a month." It turns out that people are interested in what it means for a guy to be married to the pastor of a church.

To tell the truth, I’d like to have known the answer to that question back when Rebekah and I started dating. But, occasional incidents of prejudicial thinking and lapses into male chauvinism aside, the overwhelming weight of my experience has been positive. I’ve been married to a preacher for close to three decades – and I have the stories to prove it!

No stereotype:
Probably the best thing about the preacher’s husband gig is the absence of stereotypical expectations. Simply put, people don’t have preconceptions regarding what I’m supposed to do: there is no well-worn path to follow.

We may be in Twenty-first Century, but I still talk with minister’s wives who say they’re expected to, “Play the piano, teach Sunday-school, run the women’s group, clean the church kitchen, organize Vacation Bible School and be their husband’s secretary.”

Not so for yours truly - because nobody knows quite what to expect from the preacher’s husband. True, I am excluded from invitations directed to “ministers and their wives”, but the beauty of not occupying a culturally pre-assigned role is the freedom it gives me to simply follow Jesus.

My mother-in-law, Nell Alexander, gave me this advice when Rebekah was called to her first church. “Derek: love the Lord, love the preacher, love the people. If you get that right, everything else should fall into place.”

The other thing she said was, “If the preacher brings home extra folk for dinner unannounced, you can always cope by cooking extra biscuits.”

My freedom has given me pause. So much of what we do in life, cradle to grave, happens under the unyielding scrutiny of social norms. Many of these standards have less to do with what is “right”, or “Christian” than they have to do with what has become de rigueur for North American culture.

That’s why neither my wife nor I complain about the challenges of our non-standard life. Everything we’ve done, from my years as stay-at-home dad to her position as senior pastor at a vibrant church, has been free from the strictures of cultural stereotype.

The apostle Paul put it this way: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations?” (Colossians 2:20).

It’s a good question for this New Year.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

When the core value of church is LOVE

Sometimes, the best way to blog is to put up a great photograph and then respond to it via text. This pic is a fine example. (Photo courtesy of Julie Hellman)

These folk comprise 6 of the 8 members of the First Presbyterian (Brandon) "Visioning Team". Left to right it's Kelly, Ben, Tim, Rebekah, Mary-Ann, and Bill. Not pictured are Bill - that's another Bill, we have a lot of those - and then John.

The occasion was a dinner to celebrate five-plus years of creative, focused, spirit-directed work together. Someone brought a fruit sculpture to the party and - are we at all surprised? - frivolity ensued.

Bottom line, and I'm sure you can tell, these people love one-another.

You see, a huge rule on my heart when it comes to being The Preacher's Husband is this: Pray hard that love becomes the defining characteristic of the church where you serve.

Love. Not sound doctrine, not great programing, not mission and outreach, not an awesome youth group, not a state of the art children's ministry, not evangelism, not the best music program in town... not even (see my previous post) a cutting-edge men's ministry.

All of these things are great. But the best of the best of the best ("with honors!") is when the definitive value of the particular body of believers where your spouse works is LOVE.

Jesus, of course, said it best, in Matthew 22:
  • Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” 
When love is primary, then everything else is more likely to fall in place:
      The law? Done; we've got that taken care of, thank you very much.
      The teachings of the prophets? Followed to a "t".
      Anything else of value on the "must do" list? Covered, as it were, by love.

That Jesus certainly knew what he was talking about. In fact, Jesus must have been thinking along the same lines as David, one of our elders, who shared words to this effect with the congregation this morning:

"I served as an elder once before, at another church", he said. "And I swore I'd never do it again. You see, Jesus was always secondary to personal agendas, infighting and power plays. However, when I was asked to serve here, I realized I would be serving a congregation defined by love."

Other outgoing elders had similar testimonies to share. It seems that many people have a negative experience when they serve on the governing board of a church. Rather than being part of a Christ-centered ministry-team, their tenure is a miserable conglomeration of politics and committee work and turf wars - and they swear they'll never to do it again. That doesn't happen in a congregation where the core value is love.

- So, do we ever have problems here at First Presbyterian (Brandon)? Most certainly.
- Is everyone happy, and are all our church members perfect? Not on your life!
- Do we still need to experience redemption, forgiveness, healing and (always) more spiritual growth? You'd better believe it!

But, this is a culture grounded in the truth of Matthew 22. Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself; love to the very core of who you are. Then, everything else of any value at all will fall into place.

"Word!".... DEREK

Friday, January 14, 2011

Healthy men's ministry = healthy church

Rules for churches to live by:
  1. NEVER assume that the pastor's spouse is a full-time unpaid employee of the congregation.
  2. PRAY to God that the spouse who comes along with the preacher you hired is a passionate Jesus-follower who loves God and is called according to God's purposes.
  3. Note: #2 is far and away better than # 1.
The beauty of being the pastor's husband is - as I've mentioned before - the absence of stereotypical expectation. Bottom line, the church is thankful that A) I'm a faithful husband who loves their pastor, and B) That I'm actually there.

I've found a lot of niches in the church, places where - just like any other church member - God uses my particular gifts. But, and I sense that this is a calling every pastor's husband should seriously consider, I feel a particular inclination to encourage the "men of the church."

There's a lot of talk in every church about reaching young-adults, much concern over children's ministries, constant emphasis on programs for youth, exciting initiatives to reach retirees, and ongoing reevaluation when it comes to the effectiveness of outreach to minorities.

All of the above are most certainly important...

BUT, if there is one demographic that's both seriously undernourished and chronically under resourced in the average "mainline" Christian church, then it would have to be that of men, aged 30-60. 

Here's what this Preacher's Husband believes:
  • Men and women are not the same (I love that!).
  • Women are more highly-evolved - relationally - than men. And, consequently, women share with one-another, encourage one-another and pray for one-another more naturally.
  • Men also need one another to grow spiritually. Men need close-knit community, but they don't know how to go about it.
  • Men need to be more deliberate when it comes to creating Christian community.
  • Traditional men's ministry fails to go nearly far enough in terms of spiritual nurture.
  • When men encourage one-another in the context of a "Band of Brothers" their sense of discipleship takes off exponentially. I'm talking about support, encouragement and accountability. I'm talking about "Provoking one-another" as brothers in Christ.
  • Once men move beyond a Part-Time Christianity to dynamic discipleship, it doesn't take more than a handful of disciples to make a huge difference in the mission and ministry of a previously uninspired congregation.
  • I'll take that a step further: A dynamic men's ministry will literally transform your church.
I believe, with all my heart, that the role of encourager-amongst-the-men is a calling that every preacher's husband should seriously consider.

In the mainline church culture, there's a lot of room for progress when it comes to what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. That may be where we are, but God has charged us with a critical mission, and that is to be agents of positive change. Listen to this scripture from the letter to the Colossians: 

"Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules?" 

The rules that dictate church has to be boring, and that men's ministry is either non-existent or uninspiring, are rules that need to be challenged. We have been renewed and restored with Christ! 

That, my friends, is what I am talking about!

Saturday, January 8, 2011

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

Monday, January 3, 2011

This church is alive (a riot of freestyle digging)!

Dateline: BRANDON, FL - What a great way way to start the celebration of 1st Presbyterian's - - 50th anniversary! The first Sunday of 2011... the sanctuary full for worship... enthusiasm out the wazoo (can you say that about church?)... a festive atmosphere... our brass players leading the parade through the front doors and into the parking lot... scores of brightly decorated shovels... a few solemn moments... and then the en-masse turning of dirt as the entire congregation broke ground in a riot of freestyle digging.

The Vision Team co-chairs read the following verses from Jeremiah 29: "I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD.

Plans to give you hope and a future. As the Preacher's Husband, I like to step back at times like this and blend into the crowd. I'd rather soak up the experience from my perspective as church member than stand up front having my picture taken with the church leaders. I like to walk around the periphery, sometimes with my camera, and let the joy of a happy, healthy congregation wash over me.

And there was so much joy yesterday. And tears too. The tears were "I can't believe we've made it to this point after so much prayer and hard work" tears. The joy is "We are a part of God's awesome work in this world" joy.

Seven years ago First Brandon said "no" to an ambitious building project. It was the right decision. The congregation was growing, but at that time we were still carrying several hundred thousands dollars in debt from work completed well before Rebekah and I even moved to Brandon, plus we didn't have an associate pastor, plus the church sat on a small parcel of land with zero visibility.

Since that day we have retired the debt, acquired enough adjacent property to almost double the size of our campus, called the world's best associate pastor (Tim Black), and completed some extensive remodeling. In the past six years we have raised around $2,000,000 for capital improvements; we've spent approximately $1.5 million on land, site development and renovations; we have another $1/2 million in pledges; and the visioning team have negotiated amazingly favorable terms for a construction loan we can comfortably manage.

The project, which Rebekah refers to as "OUR NEW DISCIPLESHIP CENTER" is designed to accommodate and facilitate a focus in ministry that has been the heart of our vision for "being the church" since the day we first rolled into town.

Our mission statement at First Presbyterian of Brandon is this: To share the love of God by serving within our church, community and beyond; and to develop and empower passionate followers of Jesus Christ.

That's the point of being a church - wherever in the world we may be. As The Preacher's Husband, I'm so excited that we are putting our money where our mission statement is. I'm thrilled that we are constantly working to be a campus where people are both introduced to Jesus and trained as disciples.

Wow! What a great start to 2011!