Postscript to a Beautiful and Courageous Life

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Sandee Hagen

A short while ago, and after an escalating illness, one of the brightest lights in the constellation of our friends faltered, flickered, and then passed into eternity.

The news tore a hole in our hearts. It’s a huge blow for those of us who love her, and a sad loss for our world. But Sandee was one hundred percent confident that this life is just the beginning of the journey, and so am I, so in that sense she’s been freed up to shine more than ever before.

Sandee Hagen was one of the most courageous people I have ever known. We became friends back in the early 1980’s, when Rebekah and I launched a ministry for young families at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Pensacola. Sandee, her husband (Bruce), and their son (Nicholas), were a key part of the beginnings of what became an epic crowd of great friends.

Then, in an unimaginable tragedy, both Bruce – forty-one, and Nicholas – a vivacious six-year-old, died in a terrible car accident. Something like that leaves a wound that will always remain open, but Sandee made the choice – every day – to live. Not just to live but to live graciously, and creatively, and generously, and lovingly, and faithfully.

That’s what I mean when I say Sandee lived courageously; it takes not only great faith, but great courage, and honesty, and persistence, to continue to shine in the way that she did; and this world is a brighter place today because of her constant, insistent, faith-charged, luminosity.

That’s what I mean when I say Sandee lived courageously; it takes not only great faith, but great courage, and honesty, and persistence, to continue to shine in the way that she did; and this world is a brighter place today because of her constant, insistent, faith-charged, luminosity.

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Naomi, Rebekah, Sandee

Where many people would have built a wall to protect themselves from the danger of more pain, Sandee allowed us to love her, and she loved us back; she became a very real part of our family. She loved our children, and she allowed them to love her; she served countless others through her counseling practice; she became a Stephen Ministry leader at our church; she cared for people with a sensitivity and a depth born out of her own pain.

Sure she was hurt, and sometimes angry, and confused at such outrageous and impossible loss – but she trusted her Creator enough to work through the hard times without letting go of God’s hand.

  • Sandee convinced me of the truth of Psalm 23“Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.”
  • And she demonstrated the reliability of those first few Beatitudes in Matthew 5“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs. God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted. God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth.”
  • And she illustrated the authenticity of Paul’s words to his friends in Philippians 1: “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.”

In many ways, Sandee’s work (here) is complete, and those of us who love her feel privileged and grateful to have been witness to her eloquent testimony to grace, and faithfulness, and God’s unfailing love. But God’s work through the rest of us remains ongoing – an invitation, really.

Each one of us is a work-in-progress in our own way (me especially), and it is my prayer that we will be encouraged and inspired to live this gospel truth out loud, to the very end of our own days here on this Good Earth.

So I’ll wrap up these thoughts by continuing in Philippians 2:14-16

“Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.”

Our imperative is to shine – and then shine some more – as we hold firmly to the word of life.

Thanks, Sandee, for everything. In Love, and because of love – DEREK

what if we made a habit of the First Corinthians 13 quality of love?

“Love Never Fails!” – Paul

dsc_0254-1To be honest, Valentine’s Day does not make my “top five” list for favorite occasions. Now I most certainly am a huge fan of love, and I’m very much in favor of making a big deal about romance – I guess I’ve just never appreciated the way it’s all packaged February 14.

I mean, if treating the person you love with kindness, and showering them with affection is a great idea Valentine’s Day, then why not do it every day? And if finding creative ways to say “I love you!” works February 14, how about using your imagination at least a couple of times a week? How about demonstrating your passion as an ongoing undercurrent of romantic enthusiasm?

What if we made a habit of the First Corinthians 13 quality of love? Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

img_7836Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote about how amazing and life changing it was to fall in love with Rebekah forty years ago – “Celebrating 40 Years of Dating“. So today I will simply say that I still continue to fall for her a little more each day.

Our love, in the language of The Church, is a Reformation kind of love. By that I mean that falling in love not only challenged and changed us, but it continues to challenge us and change us.

Our love, in the language of The Church, is a Reformation kind of love. By that I mean that falling in love not only challenged and changed us, but it continues to challenge us and change us.

To be “Reformed” theologically is to be continually reforming in response to our decision to follow Jesus, our relationship to God, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, our encounters with God’s word, and our life together as a body of believers.

Today, almost 38 years into the commitment of our marriage, we are constantly changing, growing, recalibrating, recommitting, and moving forward in the relationship. The imperative of faith is to be reconciled to God and to one another (2 Corinthians 5:11-21); the imperative of a great marriage is exactly the same thing.

This is what Rebekah and I are celebrating today. It’s what we celebrate every day – DEREK

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the best of people plus the best of food adds up to the best of times…

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dinner at Maul-Hall

Here’s a simple question: How do you throw a successful dinner party? Well, the answer is fairly straightforward: Have amazing friends.

After that, the rest is easy. Good food helps, of course. Great food is even better. The key ingredient, however, is people, and around here we have the absolute best.

The logistics of how Koinonia dinners work here at WFPC is different for each group. Groupings get reshuffled two or three times a year, then it’s up to each set of people to work out the details.

So this time around Rebekah and I took our turn to host. I chose to cook lasagna (from scratch, including the pasta), and serve it with garlic bread. “I’d like to keep the Mediterranean theme throughout,” I told everyone. Our friends hit the jackpot.

img_7779Antipasto: Paul and Sandie prepared the appetizers: Bruschetta – with tomato and basil – along with some amazing clams on the half shell. We’re all glad our friends are such foodie overachievers.

Insalata: Mitchie and Bob showed up with the absolute best Caesar salad I’ve ever tasted (and a bottle of great wine). It complemented the lasagna superbly.

Lasagna: I’ve detailed this recipe before (click here). All I can say is that I was very pleased with the results.

Dolce: Ruth and Rob made a kind of chocolate trifle, served with fruit. The key word here is chocolate. Nicely done. Served, of course, with coffee.

Conversazione: The conversation is what sets a great dinner party apart from the run-of-the-mill. Fill the table with people who love life, who love God, who love one another, and who appreciate the shared ministry we experience through the church, and the result is always going to be great fun.

img_7783People arrived at 6:30, I served dinner at 7:15, and we reluctantly broke up the party at 10:30, already looking forward to the next gathering.

In the best of Italian tradition, dinner is the evening’s entertainment. Italian cooking is uncomplicated, very much farm to table, focusing on quality local ingredients, simple recipes, and careful preparation. Like the best of Italian cooking, our dinner parties focus on what is essential.

What is essential, of course, is the relationships. The best of people; sharing our stories, sharing ourselves.

– So blessed, so grateful, so privileged – DEREK

celebrating 40 years of dating – grateful for the journey

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You have captured my heart,
    my treasure, my bride.
You hold it hostage with one glance of your eyes,
    with a single jewel of your necklace.
 Your love delights me,
    my treasure, my bride.
Your love is better than wine,
    your perfume more fragrant than spices. – Song of Solomon 4:9-10

Those of you who read this space often already know I consider each new day a blessing worthy of celebration. Life is an awesome privilege, and my best word to anyone on any day is this: “Live like you mean it!”

But today – February 4 – holds extra special meaning. Because it was on this day back in 1977, forty years ago today, that Rebekah and I met up on the steps on front of her dorm at Stetson University, smiled a little self-consciously at one another, and headed out on our first date!

We were both just twenty years old. Oh, my, goodness. And twenty is – as you can tell from the pictures – very, very young. I had actual hair! Rebekah looks much the same.

img_7661Rebekah Alexander – a junior – was a serious scholar engaged in a broad classical humanities curriculum. She already knew that God was calling her into full time ministry. I, on the other hand, had essentially squandered my high school education before traveling the world for two years. I was a freshman, learning how to be a student for the first time, and taking psychology classes because I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

Meeting Rebekah did a number of amazing things for me. First, I was suddenly dating the most beautiful woman on campus. Then, I began to see just how rich, and deep, and satisfying, and meaningful, life could be. Rebekah helped me begin to plot a trajectory that led me to an increasingly more complete experience of, and appreciation for, both my life and my faith. In fact, she helped me understand that a full life and a deep faith are one and the same thing.

Rebekah helped me begin to plot a trajectory that led me to an increasingly more complete experience of, and appreciation for, both my life and my faith. In fact, she helped me understand that a full life and a deep faith are one and the same thing.

Always/Still Dating:

We’ve been dating now for 14,610 days. We’ve been married thirty-seven and a half of those forty years, but we’ve worked really hard to make sure that we never stopped dating.

img_7652That first date involved simply walking over to the Edmunds Center to watch a basketball game; tonight’s will either feature dinner at Outback, or me cooking filet mignon at home. In between we’ve picnicked on mountaintops, dressed up for five star restaurants, taken a hunk of cheese and a bottle of wine to a park in Paris, met for hurried lunches between meetings, and sipped hot tea on the White Cliffs of Dover. Some of our early favorite dates involved a shared honey bun and a pint of milk on the steps of the church, late night walks on the beach at New Smyrna, or breakfast at IHOP when I got off the graveyard security shift at 6:00 am.

But no matter how much we had in the kitty, where we were in the world, or how busy life seemed to be, we always continued dating – at least every week. We believe in it, we believe in making the effort, and we will till the day one of us passes into eternity.

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North Carolina, 40-years later

So today I am grateful that Rebekah picked up the phone, called my dorm, and asked me out on that first date. After that she never had to ask again.

And I am deeply grateful for the journey we are on, the journey that still continues. We still have some growing to do, more lessons to learn together, and many tomorrows to engage with creativity, and purpose, and passion, and promise.

Maybe we should go out on a date and talk about it….

– DEREK

(all photos from early 1977)

let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice!

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Caesar’s Head State Park

Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice!
    Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
 Let the fields and their crops burst out with joy!
    Let the trees of the forest sing for joy – Psalm 96

dsc_0273Where to begin? It turns out I had a lot more than a few great pictures on my Nikon, so my choice is to either share them just a few at a time over the next few days… or include a forty-image slide show at the end of this post?

I’m leaning toward sharing all the photographs today because – in the meanwhile – life is moving on right here in Wake Forest. The whole idea of this blog has always been for me to share day-by-day reflections based on real life – the epic Great Adventure that each and every day presents!

My daily posts won’t always include photos quite like these – but they will always comment on how amazing this journey is, and how faith and life constantly intersect.

Today’s images cover two categories: people, and place. Both, it turns out, were looking their best over the New Year.

The place where we were all staying was The Burge Nest, in what’s known as the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, and Caesar’s Head State Park, located in north-eastern South Carolina. The views you will see include the beautiful sunshine of December 31, and the magical vistas of low cloud cover in the early morning of January 2.

Family People:

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our beautiful niece, Lindsay

As for the people, you can read more about them in yesterday’s post – Alexanders Galore – and New Year’s Eve – A Time For Gathering Stones. The bottom line for Alexanders is intentionality, the idea that we have to want to be a family, and make it happen regardless.

The word “regardless” is key in my estimation. Because the idea of family may be born in blood, but it is played out in a thousand small decisions, and ultimately rests in choice.

the idea of family may be born in blood, but it is played out in a thousand small decisions, and ultimately rests in choice.

So here are the photos. Take your time and enjoy. If you want any of these photographs, shoot me an email and I’ll send you the full-sized version – these are not dense enough to work with or print.

Over the New Year, both the trees and the forests and the extended Alexander family were “singing for joy.”

Peace, love, promise, and blessings – DEREK

 

time is comprised of a series of moments…

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“Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.” – Psalm 46:10

Thursday afternoon I found myself sitting at the intersection of Durant and Capital, waiting the requisite six to eight minutes for the light to change (maybe a slight exaggeration!). I looked up and noticed the pack of cars gathered on the opposite side, waiting for their opportunity to move on up the highway. I wondered about them, about the people driving, about the passengers. I wondered where they were going.

It seems to me that we spend a lot of time going, and very little time actually being.

Both traveling and arriving are worthwhile. My faith tells me that life is all about the journey. It’s nice to be confident regarding where I’ll end up, but in the meanwhile it’s the journey that sustains me and keeps me interested.

BEING over GOING:

The Lord is my shepherd;
    I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows;
    he leads me beside peaceful streams.
    He renews my strength. – Psalm 23

Then I wonder sometimes if we get so caught up in getting somewhere quickly, efficiently, that we forget to actually enjoy the process itself. That means that even the journey necessarily involves being rather than going. Like at the light at Durant and Capital for nine to eleven minutes (I may well be exaggerating).

I read a great thought once by author Paul Knitter. I’m paraphrasing because I can’t find it, but the essence goes like this: “The western mindset says, ‘don’t just sit there, do something!’ But the Buddhist would say, ‘don’t just do something, sit there!'”

Point being we can be so consumed by frenetic doing that, too often, we miss the beauty of the journey itself. And sometimes the best parts of the journey involve just sitting there.

Well I’m not so sure that the best part of my journey Thursday afternoon was just sitting there at Durant and Capital for the best part of twelve to fifteen minutes (I may well be exaggerating); but I did just sit there for a good hour and a half over lunch with my friend Grady. And that’s unusual because even our relationships tend to become leveraged into our irrational compulsion to be at the next thing, or on our way there, right now.

And the just sitting there was good. It may be true that in aging we literally see time moving more speedily before our very eyes… but if we are wise we also learn that time is comprised of a collection of moments, and it is in the moments that we actually live.

Hmm, I like that: Time is comprised of a collection of moments, and it is in the moments that we actually live.

Even if it’s stuck at the light at the intersection of Durant and Capital for a good fifteen to twenty minutes (of course, I may be exaggerating just a little).

Peace. And deep breaths. And more moments – DEREK

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the outer banks, hole-in-the-wall crab shacks, and all that is good…

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“And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” – Genesis 1:31

IMG_4660I’m not sure that wedding anniversaries can find a better venue than a beach house on the Emerald Isle. Add to that dinner at a classic hole-in-the-wall Crab Shack restaurant, and we’re playing all the best notes of our favorite tune.

It’s the sort of place where asking for craft beer brings out a Corona or a Heineken, and where they offer seven versions of potato but one choice of vegetable.

But the shrimp and the crabs were delicious. And Rebekah and I couldn’t help but think of our early dates at New Smyrna Beach, where you could go into our favorite seafood place in wet bathing suits – because the floors were concrete, the atmosphere was “camp,” and all that mattered was the shrimp, the cheese-grits, the key-lime pie, the iced-tea, and the two of us.

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anniversary portrait

That was all more than thirty-seven years ago now. Today we have children, children-in-law, grandchildren, careers that engage our passion and our imagination, and an amazing church family. A lot more matters than just the two of us. But, for these few days of vacation, this opportunity for rest and reinvention, everything else is on the back burner and it’s Rebekah and Derek at the beach again, grabbing some seafood at the Crab Shack, feasting on soul food from these thirty-seven (and one day) good years together.

And it is good. It is so good.

In love, and because of love – DEREK

(photos from a stormy afternoon at the beach)

grounded in the middle of all the craziness!

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downtown Wake Forest, NC

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought nearby the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace. – Ephesians 2:13-14

Sometimes, especially when all of the headline news is so mind-bogglingly preposterous, it’s nice to take a stroll through Wake Forest, soak in the small-town charm, meet with a friend over coffee, and just rest in the moment.

Sunday I wrote about the benefit of community worship (“Why Church is the right place to be, even if you can’t imagine being a believer”), and my column generated some interesting conversation; now today I’m reminded of how important community is all week long. In my experience, community grounds me and helps prepare me to navigate the craziness that so easily consumes us.

IMG_4312I don’t just explore these relationships on Sundays. I also meet with a group of five or so guys every Saturday morning, a gathering of eight to twelve men Wednesday evenings, and one-on-one sessions for coffee or lunch during the week. Then there’s the monthly group of men’s ministry leaders I chat with by phone, as well as other out-of-state heart-level relationships I’m invested in.

Simply put, we need one another; we need solid, authentic, relationships; we need places where we can be our authentic selves and safely wrestle with ideas; we need the perspective and we need the grounding.

I think that’s why I like this town so much. In many ways Wake Forest is a long, deep breath; a good cup of coffee with a real friend. I’m developing a long-term heart-level relationship with this place and it reminds me of the deliberate pause – stop, breathe, look around, drink in the simple goodness of this life – that is necessary for each one of us if we are to successfully navigate all the absurdity that is the out of control world around us.

We all need people, and places, where we feel safe and where we feel in some way held accountable. These places and these people are a large part of what makes my life so rich and so good.

And I am grateful – DEREK

(enjoy these photos of downtown Wake Forest, and my neighborhood)

 

 

life – as good as it gets!

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Tell those who are rich to do good—to be rich in good works. And tell them they should be happy to give and ready to share. By doing this, they will be saving up a treasure for themselves. And that treasure will be a strong foundation on which their future life will be built. They will be able to have the life that is true life. – 1 Timothy 6:18-19

Yesterday was my wife Rebekah’s birthday, and we enjoyed our usual low-key celebration. Generally, we’re a “celebrate every day” kind of a family – because life rocks! But this time around her birthday had a zero on the end, so the day also marked a transition into a new decade and – of course – that gives me an excuse to be more reflective.

Naomi and the grands came down from Richmond, so that effectively took the “low-key” out of the day. However, having David and Beks climbing all over her is Rebekah’s idea of a treat so it was win-win. The children were delighted to be with “Grandmama” and Rebekah enjoyed every moment.

DSC_0885ADVENTURE: I was – I am -reflecting on the phenomenal depth and richness that is the intersection of my life with Rebekah’s. We started dating February of 1977, will have been married 37 years this time next month, and have learned to understand that this life we live together is a moment-by-moment safari-like nothing-held-back adventure… despite our best efforts sometimes to make it a Holland America cruise with the early seating for dinner. This life together is – in the vernacular of 1970’s Disney – an E-ticket ride!

Our life together is – in the vernacular of 1970’s Disney – an E-ticket ride!

I admit I may well have paparazzi tendencies, but Rebekah’s 60th birthday is a good excuse to mark the passing of time by capturing some key images. So I photographed Rebekah with the grandchildren, I took pictures of the children themselves, and then I set up the classic “Birthday portrait with Scout Labradoodle.” Scout was Rebekah’s 50th birthday gift, and I’m going to have to find the original photo somewhere to do a side-by-side.

All told, it was a better-than-good day. More than anything, our celebration reminded me of how precious relationships are, and how critically important it is that we constantly take the time to nurture what turns out to be the heart of the human experience.

DSC_0944We were created for relationship. Relationship with God, and also relationship with one another. There is nothing that comes close to being this important. There is nothing that comes close to being this good.

Peace – and real love – DEREK

 

 

dating for married people and beginners…

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The Celtic Tenors

 

Friday evening Rebekah and I had tickets for the “Celtic Tenors” concert over at the Louisburg College Performing Arts Center. So we decided to make a “date night” of it, stopping for dinner at a Louisburg eatery on our way in. We may be married people but we haven’t forgotten how to date.

There are three things you need to know about the evening:

  • One, and this is the most important: Rebekah and I absolutely loved being out together – we had a great time.
  • Two: the Celtic Tenors are a class act, very entertaining and well worth taking the time to see.
  • Three: I’m a huge fan of eating, but there is absolutely nothing that could induce either one of us to eat at that restaurant ever again; “inedible” is a term I have seldom used, but it’s the only word that comes close (I’m not going to splash the restaurant’s name all over this page, so message me if you plan on eating in Louisburg, and I’ll tell you where to avoid).
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Louisburg College

The point of this post is that it was a great evening. I simply enjoy being with Rebekah, setting time aside for a date night, and being intentional about our relationship.

We may have been married almost 37 years, but we are very much committed to not taking our life together for granted. I write long hours sometimes, and it’s easy to become caught up in my work to the extent that I’m a little isolated. Rebekah works all the time, even when she’s not in the office (often more when she’s not in the office), and it’s easy for her to be completely immersed in the life of the church.

IMG_0891Now it helps that I love the church, and it’s wonderful how much Rebekah appreciates my work; but we won’t be any good for anyone else if we fail to take good care of our marriage, so we very much still need to be deliberate about us.

NURTURE: Right now Rebekah is outside, nurturing some of the plants in our garden; in a few minutes I’ll be doing some maintenance on the house. The things we care about demand constant attention, repair, cultivation, and preventative service. How much more must our primary relationships benefit from that kind of ongoing consideration?

IMG_0882By the way, that wasn’t a completely rhetorical question. I really would like you to answer it for yourself; so think about it, and then make a plan accordingly.

Because nothing is more important than our relationships….

– DEREK