my new photography gig, and words of encouragement regarding the PC(USA)

DSC_0193So vacation is over. Sigh. Rebekah and I enjoyed a couple of good weeks of redirection, and relaxation, and refreshment (I’ll share more from this past weekend’s Richmond trip in the coming days).

But for today I want to post a few reflections from my first meeting as the official photographer-in-residence for the Presbytery of New Hope. It’s the first time I’ve been given license carte blanche as a paparazzi, and – apart from being a lot of hard work – it changed the way I experienced the gathering.

My purpose – from 8:20 in the morning through around 3:00 in the afternoon – was simply to observe. I was not hired as a writer, but as a “looker.” We have talked before in this space about how telling a story changes the way we take photographs, and this became especially true as I knew ahead of time that my images are going to become a slide show… but without the benefit of my commentary.

On the Presbytery of New Hope web-site (a major redesign is going to be rolled out later this week and – hopefully – feature some of my images), I’m going to tell the story of yesterday’s meeting with pictures alone. At my blog – right here – I’m limiting myself to three of four pictures, but you do get to read my words.

WORSHIPPING COMMUNITY: Yesterday, on the campus of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Durham, I experienced the deep blessing of being part of a community of believers, preachers and elders who are committed to the ministry of reconciliation as outlined in 2 Corinthians.

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliationSo we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” – 2 Corinthians 5:17-20

DSC_0229The day began – as everything we do as the body of Christ must – in the context of worship. 280 preachers and elders gathered to celebrate God, to confess Jesus, and to renew their commitment to sharing “this wonderful message of reconciliation” with the world we have been called to reach with the gospel.

That’s it, right there. Take a good look. This is the Presbyterian Church. This is the denomination that has been much maligned in recent years by people who want to steer the conversation away from the ministry of reconciliation and toward the politics of cultural differences.

So for me, a professional observer, yesterday’s joyous, exuberant celebration of ministry together was a beautiful and encouraging experience of unity and love.

DSC_0197I am so thankful to be a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and to be trusted with the opportunity to use my gifts to advance God’s message of reconciling love via the ministries of this dynamic, God-saturated, Christ-centered, Spirit-filled church.

And all God’s people said…. “Amen.” – DEREK

battlefield photographs from Grant’s siege of Petersburg

DSC_0012Saturday Rebekah and I toured the Petersburg National Battlefield, just south of Richmond. It’s a tough stop to do justice to. Ten months of siege; more than 70 miles of earthworks; dozens of major engagements.

The first action came on the heals of the devastation of Cold Harbor, and – but for poor communications – the initial breakthrough would have been a major Federal victory after the first few hours. Then both sides shored up their defenses an Continue reading

unheralded Civil War site an inspiration

“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven.” – Jesus, Matthew 5

IMG_1565Today I want to share a story about hope, friendship, and the promise of peace.

Rebekah and I have been visiting American Civil War battlefields, museums, and “points of interest.” Earlier this week we toured Antietam, and – in the past – we’ve traveled to Gettysburg, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Harpers Ferry, Bull Run, Cold Harbor, Murfreesboro, Nashville, Atlanta, Chattanooga, Olustee, Fort Pickens, Appomattox… and many other locations visited by the tragedy of 1861-1865.

Then, Friday morning, we visited an important and historic site that is pretty-much off the radar for most people. It’s a place where, instead of one more hopeless battle, peace was finally given a chance. We took a guided tour of Bennett Place in Durham, North Carolina, where, between April 18 and 26, 1865, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston and Union General William T. Sherman had a series of critical meetings under a flag of truce. The men met three times, forging a surrender agreement that effectively ended the American Civil War.

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Bennett Place

THE END: Most people think of Appomattox as the end of the war – I know I certainly did. But what Lee did on April 9 was to surrender his Army of Northern Virginia – around 30,000 soldiers – to Grant. At Bennett Place, however, Johnston not only surrendered 89,000 troops to Sherman, the two men hammered out terms that presented the divided nation with the opportunity for lasting peace.

But both Johnston and Grant had to stick their necks out to make peace a possibility. Confederate States President Jefferson Davis had expressly forbidden Johnston to surrender. Then, many in Washington thought Sherman was far too reasonable. But it was time, it was past time, and neither Johnston nor Sherman wanted to see any more bloodshed – on either side.

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Sherman and Johnston meet at the Bennett place

GREAT STORY: One of several stories that captured my interest was the fact that this face-to-face, in the Bennett family farmhouse, was the first time the two generals had ever met. The men became firm friends. When Sherman died – in February of 1891 – Johnston traveled to be a pallbearer at his funeral. The former Confederate general stood bareheaded, in the cold, driving rain, ignoring the advice of friends who urged him to put his hat back on. Two weeks later, Johnston succumbed to pneumonia.

The surprising friendship reminds me of how critically important it is that we sit down and talk with people we are at odds with, people who may even consider themselves our enemies. When we listen to one-another – committed to understanding rather than proving our own point, or correcting, or browbeating, or putting the other down – we suddenly have to deal with the possibility of relationship, of friendship, and of actually learning something.

FIGHT! Outside the farmhouse, during the first – brave – meeting, two senior Cavalry officers from the Union and Confederate forces got into a fist fight. Johnston and Sherman had to break off their conversation to pull them apart. Really? What a sad commentary on the knee-jerk responses so many of us find ourselves falling into when we disagree.

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the “Unity” monument

I’m going to have to read more about General Sherman, and General Johnston. I hate war with a passion, but I find myself liking these men. They managed to make a way forward out of the miserable morass of war. They give me hope.

– DEREK

It’s not a parent’s responsibility to make kids happy

Our kids, and our grandkids

Our kids, and our grandkids “Oh joy!”

Recently, listening to a radio conversation about childhood, I heard one of the presenters point out how unrealistic it is for parents to take on responsibility for a child’s happiness. Parents want so much for their children to be happy (fact is, it could well be the most frequently misapplied self-evaluation measure used when raising children) – but it is possibly the most unreasonable of expectations for any parent to place on themselves.

At the same time, it is perfectly appropriate to take on the burden of providing for children’s physical needs, to work to maintain a safe environment, to love them tenderly and obviously, to shower them with affection, to make sure our kids have a great education, to expose them to art, travel, and music, to keep them clean, well-nourished, and cared for. We should pray for them every day, play with them, teach them social skills, and cultivate a positive family life…

IMG_1551But we can’t possibly take on responsibility for a child’s happiness.

As a parent, my heart was broken most often and most completely when our children were struggling, and when they were unhappy. I could understand, intellectually, that Rebekah and I were doing everything right (everything that was in our power to do…); but happiness isn’t something any parent has the authority to gift, or to guarantee, or to compel. All we can do is to provide the kind of environment where children can grow, where they can learn, where they can become productive, and where they can discover meaning.

THEY ARE BOTH SO HAPPY! This is one reason I am such a contented, exuberant, overflowing with joy empty-nester today. Our children are both so very happy, they have amazingly loving spouses, and their lives are full and productive – loaded with meaning.

I may not hold myself responsible for this happy turn of events, but I most certainly find myself delighted!

11017825_10100537194270672_4771093634289880545_nBest of all – and it’s all good – is to watch Naomi and Craig raise our grandchildren. This is a challenging era for kids to grow up with a balanced perspective, and I see so much “out there” in the way of parenting that disappoints me. Yet Naomi and Craig are doing so much that is right, providing the quality of environment where David and Beks are encouraged to learn, to be productive, and to discover meaning.

You see, trying to make kids “happy” as a parenting goal is ineffectual and counterproductive. If our focus is simply on happiness, we will almost certainly fail. But if our goal is meaning, we will likely achieve both meaning and – eventually – happiness. Because happiness is not an end in itself, but rather a byproduct of productivity, and applied love, and meaning.

11218457_10100544993480992_7556715654817602741_nSo I look at these photographs of David and Beks, hanging out with their mom and their uncle Andrew, visiting the firehouse with their dad, having fun with Andrew and Alicia, and helping to take the family gear to the beach… I see the emphasis on meaning, and on the practice of love, and on being a family.

When all those elements are in place, I really don’t worry too much about if they’re going to be happy.

Peace – DEREK

“War, What is it good for? Absolutely nothing…”

Antietam

Just outside the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, there is a beautiful tract of land. Rolling fields cascade down a series of inclines from The Cornfield at the northwest, and from the Dunkers Church at the west, toward the Antietam Creek that runs north to south on the east side of 4-5 square miles of farmland. In the middle of the site, running perpendicular to the creek, lies a picturesque sunken farm road.

September 17, 1862, Robert E. Lee’s 55,000 man army and George McClellan’s 75,000 man force met here for what became known as the Battle of Antietam. In a few short hours this idyllic, bucolic valley turned into a nightmarish, horrific charnel house. Antietam was the bloodiest single-day battle in American history, with casualties approaching 23,000.

Rebekah and I listened to lectures, we walked various trails, and we drove to every key marker on the battlefield, We heard some amazing stories, and we learned a lot about the troop movements, the generals, the decisions, the motivations, the engagements, and the unprecedented brutality of the fighting.

But what stuck with us the most was the sense of absurdity, and the futility when both sides completed the day’s heinous business by withdrawing to the exact positions they held when the sun had first come up in the morning. Absolutely nothing had changed… other, that is, than the visitation of horror upon horror, inhuman acts of brutality and terror, torturous pain, and overwhelming carnage.

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So Rebekah and I really had no choice but to visit the National Cemetery, there at the end of the day, as our final experience at Antietam. We had to bow our heads in reverence and a kind of grief; and we couldn’t help but stand in disbelief, considering all we had seen, and wonder if we will ever learn anything from such atrocities?

And today, sketching out these few thoughts, I have to wonder why it is that we still try to cover the horrors of war with romance, and with stories of camaraderie, and with political justifications? when all I could possibly say about any of it is that it is completely wrong….

Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
    so that we may walk in his paths.
The law will go out from Zion,
    the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.– Isaiah 2

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Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Here are some wonderful photographs from Antietam – DEREK

a few photographs from Chadds Ford (with a little help from Andrew Wyeth)

 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. – Matt 6:27-29

Rebekah at the Brandywine Rive Museum

Rebekah at the Brandywine River Museum

Rebekah and I are huge fans of great art, and we have long admired the work of America’s most celebrated 20th Century painter, Andrew Wyeth. So visiting Chadds Ford, perusing the Brandywine River Museum of Art, and touring the Wyeth family studio was a no-brainer when we realized our Eastern Pennsylvania visit had us directly in the neighborhood.

Andrew Wyeth’s ability to paint beyond the facts of an image, and all the way into the truth of it, speaks directly into the heart of how I see the world, how I tell stories, how I write, and how I experience theology. Wyeth painted his world, putting on canvas (and paper, and Masonite) what he encountered in the two-square-mile or so radius of his Chadds Ford home, and also his summer place in Maine.

That is exactly what happens when I share my life via this space; this writing is an unfiltered window into my soul. I wish I’d had the opportunity to interview Andrew Wyeth, and to write his story. I believe we would have understood each other well.

IMG_1498Tomorrow Rebekah and I will tour another beautiful location, but we will be experiencing a completely different kind of a story. Check back in to find out where we will be, and what we learn.

But for today, enjoy these photographs from Pennsylvania.

Peace – DEREK

God’s ongoing miracles of grace (the Pennsylvania connection)

How very good and pleasant it is
    when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
    running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
    running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
    which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
    life forevermore. – Psalm 133

Rebekah, Tim, and Emily at CPC

Rebekah, Tim, and Emily at CPC

It’s Sunday afternoon, Rebekah and I are in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, and I have several really cool stories I could share – each one worthy of its own post.

For today, however, I’m simply going to give the highlights and share a few photographs. Maybe I can post more detail after our vacation.

I’ll start at Central Presbyterian Church, where Tim Black now serves as co-pastor with Emily Chudy. Tim, as regular readers already know, worked with Rebekah for more than nine years in Brandon; he was her colleague, her brother, and a rich blessing. He stayed another 15 months after we left, before being called to Central in Downingtown.

MIRACLE: But the remarkable Downingtown story – their miracle – had already been playing out over the previous few years. Central had been ripped apart by a terrible split, left reeling when the pastoral staff and a large percentage of the membership walked away and left the church to die. The Presbytery asked a young seminary graduate to preach for a few weeks during the summer of 2012, anticipating the end. However, instead of reading the church their last rites, she preached Jesus and believed, blowing gently on the faintly glowing embers until something new ignited.

So Emily hung around, continuing to be encouraged and to believe, while the church found hope and experienced renewed vitality. “We have the unusual distinction of being recently reborn,” the church website reads, “with an invigorated understanding of who we are.”

Central Presbyterian Church soon realized that the way forward would be well suited to a team ministry, and they were fortunate enough to find Tim. They invited Tim to become co-pastor at CPC, to help the church articulate the vision and to move into the future God has in store. For Rebekah and me, a trip to Downingtown – to bear witness to what God is up to in this vibrant, believing community – has always been our first priority for this summer’s vacation.

Patrick, Rebekah, Tim

Patrick, Rebekah, Tim

BLAST FROM THE PAST (and the present): This next story is completely related, yet 100% distinct. Here’s the (very) brief version:

Over ten years ago, while attending a preacher conference, Rebekah heard that she had – unknowingly – played a key role in a young man’s decision to enter gospel ministry. She told the story in church the following Sunday. Pastor Tim Black had his listening ears on that morning, and – that very evening – was amazed to recognize the same name on a name-tag at Columbia Seminary in Atlanta.

“Patrick Marshall!” Tim said; “I heard a story about you in Brandon this morning…” They became instant friends.

Patrick enjoyed a positive ministry in Nebraska before moving to the Philadelphia area two years ago; his church is just a short distance from Downingtown, and a sister congregation in Tim’s new Presbytery.

Saturday evening, when we arrived at Tim and Kelly’s Downingtown home in time for dinner, Patrick and his family were there to greet us! It’s probably been more than 20 years since we last saw Patrick (in Pensacola), but the experience of reconnection was instant and beautiful.

Tim preaching at CPC

Tim preaching at CPC

SO WHAT? The point of this story is how God’s goodness, and mercy, and grace achieve such positive outcomes when we live into the promise of our ongoing commitment to follow Jesus.

I’ll talk about – and link – Tim’s wonderful sermon at a later date. For now, just enjoy a few pictures from the weekend.

Peace – DEREK

whatever you do, work at it with all your heart… (Colossians 3)

“Whatever you do work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord, not for people.” (Colossians 3:23)

IMG_1419Today we’re celebrating Rebekah’s birthday. The official day is Saturday, but we will be driving all day so I proposed a quiet celebration at home, with absolutely-whatever-in-the-world-Rebekah-wants-me-to-cook on the menu for dinner.

So we found two amazing recipes in “Cooking New American,” bringing the Maul-Hall culinary focus back across the Atlantic after the lengthy but satisfying European sojourn. I’ll be serving Linguine with Asparagus, Gourmet Mushrooms & Cream, along with Grilled Coffee-Brined Chicken Breasts, and buttermilk drop-biscuits. Everything will be from scratch, with fresh ingredients.

IMG_1388WHY GO TO THE TROUBLE? I’ve been asked the question several times before, and the paragraph about tonight’s dinner has likely set it up again: “Why go to all that trouble, composing complex meals, making your own pasta, investing all that time?”

Well, this is Rebekah’s birthday, and I intend to do anything and everything I can to put love into action, to create something special that is genuine a gift of my very best. Also, preparing amazing food is an act of service; it is one of the ways I live into my understanding of what it means to be a husband.

Additionally, the Colossians scripture offers a compelling commentary on what it means to live faith out loud. Listen: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord, not for people” (Colossians 3:23). In a sense, then, the way I love Rebekah reflects on how I love God; likewise, the way I prepare food for my family is an act of worship inasmuch as I do it “with all my heart as working for the Lord.”

IMG_1389BIRTHDAY! The Colossians passage is also a timely reference when talking about Rebekah and this joyful celebration of the day she was born. Since that blessed moment in rural Georgia, when her parents gratefully dedicated their third child to God, Rebekah’s life has been an exercise in – and a demonstration of – “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord.

Rebekah has been pretty-much unstoppable ever since! And – at a time when many people begin to slip into a lower gear, or even neutral, to coast toward retirement – she has kicked it up a notch to engage this amazing Wake Forest Presbyterian Church community with her whole heart, with “all her heart as working for the Lord.”

IMG_1398So for me, giving everything I have to make our celebration the best is more than a one-off gift for Rebekah’s birthday, it’s a commitment of spirit, and a testimony to the spiritual principle of “first fruits.”

He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruitsof all he created. – James 1:18

So, you want the good foodie pictures to go with today’s story? Well, I have to cook first! I’ll either delay posting, or try to add some slides later tonight.

IMG_1364I’ve got to tell you, this life we have together is one celebration after another!

– DEREK

cranking up some tunes for the road!

Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
 My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. – Psalm 73:25-26

IMG_1335It’s another hot, sultry summer day in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Officially, Rebekah and I are on vacation, so I can’t guarantee more than the occasional post over the next little while.

Whether it’s a long road trip – like the 8,800 miles we drove one summer from Tampa, to Alabama, to Texas, to New Mexico, to Arizona, to Utah, to Colorado, and back – or simply a series of day-trips and weekends, vacation typically means time on the road.

That’s why Rebekah and I agree it’s such a good thing that we like each other so much! We enjoy talking; then we love to hold hands and just watch the world go by; sometimes Rebekah will read out loud – an article or a whole book; then there is “road-trip music” – I’m sure everyone has their own play list.

ROCK-‘N-ROLL: Our music selections run the gamut, from classic rock to hard-core classical to sing-along inspirational. But if we had to choose, our “best-of” road-trip play list would have to start off with the following:

  • “Queen’s Greatest Hits” (Bohemian Rhapsody, We Will Rock You, We are the Champions, Save Me, Somebody to Love, Don’t Stop Me Now, Bicycle race…);
  • Robert Palmer’s raw, visceral, “Drive”;
  • “Mercury Rising,” by Sting:
  • “Hell Freezes Over,” from the Eagles;
  • then we’d have to include “James Taylor’s Greatest Hits,” “Rod Stewart Unplugged,”  Eric Clapton’s “Unplugged,” and a whole lot more.
not going quite this far this year!

not going quite this far this year!

It’s great fun to crank the sound up high, rock the roof off the car, hold hands, and watch the miles go by.

So I’m not sure how often I’ll be posting, or quite how we will be resting our bodies and renewing our spirits, but I do know this – the next week-and-a-half will likely have an epic soundtrack!

– DEREK

new stuff, and our fear of God’s initiatives of grace…

IMG_9416This morning I’d like to pick up on a question that emerged during a discussion about my Monday post, “A New Lord’s Prayer for Today.” A lot of people read the post, and a few even listened to my song (if you didn’t listen, I believe it’s worth taking another look).

At some point in one of the ongoing conversations somebody – a “friend of a friend” – wrote the following (my response follows):

  • Reader: “I’m afraid I prefer the old version. We don’t always have to change everything, do we?”
  • Derek: “Who’s changing anything? I don’t think you have to choose one over another – just enjoy the beauty of creativity and God’s Spirit – God is always making things new, giving us new insight, and teaching us new things! BTW, which of the old versions is your favorite? I think I love almost all of them…”

REFORMATION: The question, “We don’t always have to change everything, do we?” serves as a timely commentary on reformation, and one of the root misunderstandings when it comes to God’s ongoing initiatives in this world.

People become fearful when presented with the idea that what is comfortable to them isn’t the beginning and the end of all the truth about God. But the entire movement of reformation has always been about allowing the Holy Spirit to continue God’s delight at creation, new creation, recreation, and fresh expressions of the unchangeable fact of God’s love.

New expressions of God do not change the fact of God’s power, and love, and grace, and mercy, and God’s signal act of redemption through Jesus! Reformation simply – and continually – serves to reshape our understanding of how God’s truth is expressed; reformation extends our awareness of the reach of God’s ongoing work of salvation!

image found at www.bhshealth.org

image found at bhshealth.org

THE LORD’S PRAYER: My new song, for example, was not intended to replace any of the many amazing interpretations of the Lord’s Prayer. However, the Spirit of God worked newness in my heart, through my guitar strings, and out to our congregation via the message of my song, and now there is one more rich color in the stained-glass mosaic that brings truth and healing to people when the light of Christ shines through it.

“We don’t have to change everything, do we?” is the cry of a soul that loves the beauty of tradition, and enjoys the comfort of meeting God in the familiar. My invitation to that soul is not to change any of that faith and assurance… but, instead, to dare to make more room – room for God’s creative, sometimes uncomfortable, always beautiful, constantly surprising, initiatives of new life.

God is always making things new, giving us new insight, and teaching us new things! Dare to make more room!

IMG_2957In love, and because of love – DEREK