Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Appealing to Government Officials In Behalf of Persecuted Christians

At Vital Signs Ministries’ latest letter-writing party, 11 of us wrote 100 letters and cards dealing with religious freedom as well as pro-life and pro-family issues. (You can find out a few details in this previous Vital Signs Blog post.)

Among our letters and cards were ones sent directly to persecuted Christians who have been put in prison because of their faith. We also sent 20 letters (signed by the members of Vital Signs’ Freedom of Conscience Committee) to various government officials in some of those nations where these prisoners are being unjustly held. Those nations included China, Uzbekistan, Eritrea, Pakistan, Vietnam, Iran, Egypt, and Kazakhstan.

Below is the basic outline of those letters.

We, the undersigned, urge you to please demonstrate fresh justice and compassion in regards to the sad plight of prisoners in your country who are experiencing unfair and harsh imprisonment because of their Christian faith. We specifically intercede today for _____________________.

Please recognize that sincere Christians represent a blessing to your nation as they are morally upright, diligent workers, respectful, kindhearted, and generous. They do not seek to undermine the State but rather to enhance its strength and culture through prayers, devotion to family life, and peaceful service.

To mistreat persons merely because of religious differences (or other acts of conscience) is a tragic mistake, one that frustrates, angers, and saddens people of tolerance and goodwill throughout the world. Please act quickly to open the jail cells of those enduring undeserved punishment for their religious faith. 

“Religious freedom, an essential requirement of the dignity of every person, is a cornerstone of the structure of human rights, and for this reason, an irreplaceable factor in the good of individuals and of the whole of society as well as of the personal fulfillment of each individual.” (John Paul II)

Thank you for your consideration of this crucial human rights matter.


If you would like to join forces and write to (and in behalf of) persecuted Christians, I urge you to check in with the Prisoner Alert section of Voice of the Martyrs website very soon.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Latest in Letter-Writing

“The proper definition of a man is an animal that writes letters.”  (Lewis Carroll)

Well, that may be going a bit far. But moderns do make a serious mistake in underestimating the significance of letter-writing to communication, fellowship, romance, advocacy, and more. Indeed, with the explosion of quick, effortless, and unfocused technologies like email and texts, I believe that the handwritten letter is more of an effective force than ever for it underscores the personal investment...both in the subjects raised in the letter and in the recipient.

We at Vital Signs Ministries have always believed in the power of the personal letter. Indeed, we have hosted letter-writing parties since the very founding of our ministry back in 1982. We write letters in order to inform, to advocate change, to courteously protest, to give thanks and encouragement, and in other ways to represent the causes of the sanctity of life, religious freedom, justice, decency, biblical marriage, and the power of Christ's gospel.

And we urge others to join in. For instance, this blog post ("Tips on Letter Writing") is a great primer on how to get started and how to write effective letters of advocacy. You might even consider hosting a letter-writing party for your friends, church, Sunday school class, or pro-life group. We have helped many do that over the years and you can always contact us to get some ideas on structure and method. And here on Vital Signs Blog, I sometimes share a bit about our latest letter-writing activities, including targets, topics, and even sample letters: 1, 2, 3, 4.

By the way, we hosted our latest letter-writing gathering just this past week. There were 11 of us who sat around our dining room table to write cards and letters...with a little time also to talk, drink coffee, eat chocolate cake, and pray together. But the emphasis for 90 minutes is to write and write we did. By the end of our evening, we had exactly 100 cards and letters finished.

We don't mess around.

Among our letter targets? Using the marvelous means given by the Voice of the Martyrs website, we wrote cards (using their own language!) to 15 Christians who are in prison for their faith. We also wrote in their behalf to diplomats and other government officials.  We wrote in behalf of Sgt. Charles Martland; we wrote in protest to TV networks for the anti-Christian schlock they're delivering; we wrote thank you cards to a couple of pro-life heroes serving in the Nebraska legislature; we wrote thank you letters to Scheel's and Hobby Lobby; we urged Senators to forestall a vote on Supreme Court nominations until the election; we again urged Senators and Congresspersons to override President Obama's veto of Planned Parenthood's defunding; and a few other items.

Handwritten letters and cards make a difference. The evidence from political figures and business leaders confirm that again and again...as do the testimonies from regular folks who are thrilled and moved to action more than ever when they receive such a thoughtful personal communication.

Light-bearing letter-writers -- we need a lot more on the job.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Dogs, Kids, and a Superstar Ministry

For many years now I have encouraged ordinary people to consider the extraordinary value of ministry to senior citizens, especially those who deal with illness, loneliness, boredom, and fear. I also explain that it is a very do-able ministry -- no outstanding skills or training is needed to serve people in very effective ways. Indeed, I tell them, "Everyone can be a star in nursing home ministry. Just show up. And, if you bring along a kid or a dog, you can be a superstar!"

Yesterday Claire and I were honored to see, in a rather unusual setting for us, how true the above statements are. We were at Brookestone Village yesterday, a nursing home and rehabilitation center on south 144th Street. Now that's not what's unusual because we are actually there once a month. It's one of our 11 regular facilities where we present our "When Swing Was King" program. No, what was different was that we were there for a Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon, one of the events that we're often invited to by the senior care facilities where we serve, but to which we almost never can fit in to our schedule. Even yesterday we had to leave early because we had a "When Swing Was King" show at another place.

But what was so cool yesterday was to see just some of the various ways people minister to seniors at that facility. There were, for instance, several who help out with providing religious services and Bible studies. (Sad to relate, however, there was only one fellow among these folks who represented an evangelical church.) There was a teacher of cosmetology who told how she brings in students to paint nails and style hair. There are volunteers who help with bingo, with organizing the jigsaw puzzles, with various kinds of crafts. There was a man who brings in his puppy to visit with residents. And there were several residents themselves on hand for the luncheon who help out with in-house services and such projects as making mats for the Open Door Mission.

And there are so many other things that one can do. Visiting. Transporting wheelchair-bound residents to events. Providing company while the resident goes through therapy. Helping with parties, meals, bingo games, playing cards, worship services, special holiday events, crafts, shopping excursions, etc.

How about providing musical entertainment, maybe a bit of magic? Of course. Helping with sing-along events. Bringing in photos of old cars. Dancing. Short skits. Reading aloud. Sharing hobbies. Bringing your kids in costume for trick or treat. Coming along with us to visit when we present "When Swing Was King" shows. And, as I mentioned at the start, bringing along Muffin or Rover for a little visit too.

Really, the possibilities are endless.

But, of course, you've got to take the steps to get involved. Again, no special education or talents are needed to do nursing home ministry. But you do need eyes that are perceptive enough to see the needs there...a heart willing to sacrifice a bit of time...and hands that can bring the touch of Christlike compassion to lonely, hurting people.

So, what do you say? Might there not be a superstar role waiting for you to play in ministry to seniors?

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

"When Swing Was King" Down South: The Second Chapter

(Note: The first leg of our "When Swing Was King" road trip to San Antonio and then Oklahoma City is described in this Vital Signs Blog post.)

...Leaving Bryan and Janet was tough. We had such a good time with them and we so enjoyed ministering alongside them once again.  It was like the old days...except better. Also, God answered our prayer that the time together would not merely rekindle our friendship, but even extend and intensify it.  Thank You, Lord.

As we prepared to leave San Antonio, we were a little concerned about a low front tire, but Bryan topped it off with his own air compressor and we headed out.  To make sure it was doing okay, we stopped in Blanco (about an hour north on 281) and had a fellow check it out.  He could find no leaks and the pressure had stayed up, so we resumed our trip towards Oklahoma City. He didn't even charge us. More Texas hospitality.  It was a very pleasant trip -- a beautifully sunny day with interesting scenery and towns like Marble Falls, Mineral Wells, and Wichita Falls. We talked, prayed, and listened to tapes of The Shadow radio programs we had got from our local library.  We stopped once for gas, once for souvenirs and to write postcards, and ended up at John and Janine Lehman’s lovely house a bit before 7.

Saturday evening? Well, we talked about our trip this far, common friends from Omaha, church, family, their cats, and numerous Oklahoma-related topics including Route 66, tornadoes, the land rush, and the NBA Thunder.  Janine had also laid out a pretty ambitious plan for the week and we went through that in order to prepare.

Sunday morning I accompanied John to the church to make coffee and hot water to go with the donuts that are offered in the fellowship hall before the worship service.  The church building (including a school) is quite large and pretty and I was pleased to have John fill me in on a lot of the details.  John is very involved in helping out there and not only in helping with the grounds, maintenance, and special projects, but also in men’s ministries and children’s ministries.  That morning he also introduced me around to a bunch of the guys. Claire and Janine joined us later and we went into the worship service together. It was a fine sermon given by one of the associate pastors. The senior pastor was around and we talked a bit. He's actually from Omaha and I had played basketball with him a time or two back in the day. More interesting, his brother is our pastor here at Community Bible Church in Omaha.

Lunch after church included Chris and Jenny Friend and their family.  Jenny is the Lehman’s daughter who we knew from back in the Omaha days. We were always impressed with the quality of her character and ministry so it was especially moving to see what a great wife and mom she has become too.  Lunch included some delicious and inventive items that John whipped up including turkey burgers with bell peppers stuffed inside and “spiralized “ sweet potato and zucchini oiled up and baked to a nice turn.  The rest of day was taken up with conversation and laughter, my regular walk (Claire joining me for 3.5 miles of it), and our first time playing a card game called Phase 10.  Very fun.

After breakfast on Monday morning, the Lehmans took us to some of the must-see locations in Oklahoma City.  That started with a drive down Route 66 to downtown where we spent a few hours at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and museum, the grounds outside, and the statue of Jesus weeping.  It was a very sad, profound, and unforgettable visit.  Then we drove further downtown and through some old neighborhoods for a really grand tour.  The highlight?  The massive sculptures depicting the Land Rush of 1889 in old Bricktown. I could have looked at them for hours. An afternoon walk and an evening baseball game with a Lehman grandson playing right field took the rest of Monday.

Tuesday started with another interesting drive through town, breakfast at a retro diner, and a quick peek at one of Route 66's most unusual attractions, an historic and truly round barn.  We then had our first “When Swing Was King” presentation at a nursing home.  We got there super early and was able to spend a lot of time with the residents.  For instance, I talked to Norris quite a long time about the house he had built by himself in Berthoud, Colorado.  My interest and probing questions really got him going and he explained in detail how he built the kitchen island, how he impressed the inspectors, how he made a mistake with the shingles, and so on. His wife told me later how thrilled she was because he hadn’t opened up and talked like that for a long, long time.  Thank You, Lord. And while I was talking to Norris and Peggy and Erline, Claire and Janine were busy visiting with everyone else.  Also, the show went great with a lot of help from the staff.  Our audience was almost 30 people.

From that show we went right to the next one, this time an independent living group where about 30 more people were on hand.  The show was very well-received and there were good visits here too, including a talk with a dapper fellow named Jim who was delighted to meet someone he could talk to about some of the wonderful but lesser-known bands like Jan Garber and Russ Morgan. Walking, a delicious dinner, uplifting conversation, and watching the Thunder vs Nuggets game on TV took care of Tuesday.

A breakfast which included Earl Campbell sausage started Wednesday. (If you don't know who Earl Campbell is, the delight of that menu item would escape you.) I then headed to a nearby Panera restaurant to catch up on some work, mainly the Sunday school series I’m teaching back here in Omaha.  But before long, it was time for the next “When Swing Was King” presentation. When we got there, however, we learned it had been unexpectedly cancelled. Bummer. We never learned why, but it must have come from somewhere up top because the activities director was so upset and embarrassed that she was crying as she apologized to us.  We tried to encourage her and we again thanked her for the excellent help she had given us at the show the day before, but she was still pretty shook up. Poor thing. Anyway, I used the time otherwise slotted to take the girls shopping while I washed the car.  The wind was so strong that day that I got just about as “washed” as the car. But the positive thing was that it didn't take long to dry off again!

We soon joined up and headed to our next presentation.  The room was packed to overflowing and the residents (including both nursing home and memory care) absolutely loved the show. One gal in particular I had a good time with.  Her name was Joan and she was a little grumpy at first, but as I got her talking about her family, she warmed up a lot.  Then when the show got underway, she really got animated – laughing, singing, tapping her toes, swinging her arms, and pointing out details in the photographs to the people sitting beside her.  She told me afterwards that she hadn’t had so much fun in years.  She was also quite impressed that we had come all the way from Nebraska to throw this great party for them.

That evening I was scheduled to speak to a group of primary school children for the Lehman’s church.  I told them a real life story of an encounter I had many years ago with a witch doctor in Africa and then connected it to 2 Thessalonians 3:3.  The kids (and the adults too) really zeroed in on the story and the applications. Wonderful. Afterward, Claire joined Janine and I went with John to check the kids in their respective groups on their memorization of the verses from the week before.  We had some terrific conversations with the kids and with some of the adult helpers too.  In fact, I met a fellow graduate of Bear Creek High School way out in Morrison, Colorado.  But it turned out we didn't know anyone in common. No surprise; I graduated the year he was born!

Thursday morning I shifted things around by walking in the morning – 6:30 to 8:30.  That made John’s breakfast even more tantalizing.  Claire had joined me for an hour of my prayer walk and that’s always a treat.  The highlight of the morning (indeed, one of the highlights of the whole trip) was a visit to The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.  It was a stunning experience and I could easily have spent the day there.  There were a remarkable number of drawings and paintings by such masters as Frederic Remington and C. M. Russell, and an Albert Bierstadt that I'd never seen, Emigrants Crossing the Plains. There were whole sections devoted to cattle drives, Native Americans, a realistic western town, rodeo, firearms, barbed wire, TV and movie westerns, and more; a huge plaster cast of End of the Trail; large bronze sculptures of Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston…and that’s just what we managed to zip through. There was a lot more.  We made a few quick purchases at the gift shop and then took off for the next “When Swing Was King” show.

And what a time that was!  We set up in the largest room we have ever had to deal with.  But we managed well because the staff was overwhelming in their enthusiasm for the program.  For instance, they had blocked off all the windows with black curtains, including the windows that were 20 feet off the floor!  Very impressive.  Then they started bringing in residents.  We ended up with 45-50 residents – the largest audience of nursing home residents we have ever had. There were a few guests too and all four of us had a ball working the room and talking to them. John and I took down pictures so we could shoot the projector images on the wall.  And that worked perfectly. The images were sharp and really large, so large that everyone had a great spot to see and hear the show no matter where they were.  The activities director was more delighted than we were. She said they had never had so many people in that room and had it be so quiet. “They were really into your show! It was really great. Will you come back to Oklahoma City sometime soon?” It was indeed a grand finish to our road trip, one that we are still thanking God for.

But the excitement wasn’t over just yet for us, for that night Claire and I were generously treated by the Lehmans to a local production of The Fantasticks, a play I had longed to see since my days of high school drama. It was a wonderful performance of what ranks as the longest run of any musical – over 50 years. It was in a nifty little theater called the Lyric set in an old neighborhood that's trying to become upscale again. The actors were superb, the set quite fetching, and the play was everything I could have wished for -- touching, romantic, and with profound moral themes. We absolutely loved it. Thank you so much, John and Janine.

I walked again early Friday morning and saw the sun (and a hot air balloon) come up on the Oklahoma plains.  Then a last breakfast together and we were off.  We were headed to Wichita to visit my sister Sherry and her husband John.

On the way, we stopped at an Oklahoma Information Center for a few more postcards and souvenirs to use as gifts.  We even bought each other T-shirts to remind us of the good times we had in OKC.  It’s not a long drive and so with a few more episodes of The Shadow, we were in Wichita.  We visited a bit with Sherry; went to a coffee, tea, and spice shop with her; and had dinner with Sherry and John at a local steakhouse.  Claire made Paleo brownies for dessert back at the Whissen house.  In the morning, we had breakfast out with them before taking off for Omaha, arriving mid-afternoon.

Our “When Swing Was King” road trip turned out to be a lot more ambitious an adventure than we had imagined in those first planning stages.  And so we returned home tired and feeling pretty far behind other tasks.  However, the trip also proved to be more of a blessing to us (and, we pray, through us) than we had imagined as well.  The presentations to seniors, the speaking engagements, the deepening of friendships, the sightseeing, even the long hours of driving – all served to inspire as well as stretch us.  We will be forever grateful to Bryan and Janet (and Polo and Katie and their children) and John and Janine (and Chris and Jenny and their children) for their phenomenal generosity as hosts and guides and facilitators.  And we will be forever grateful to all of you who support Vital Signs Ministries with the prayers, encouragement, and finances which make such enlivening outreaches. Thank you so much.

Friday, April 01, 2016

"When Swing Was King" in Texas

Our “When Swing Was King” road trip had a swell start – really swell.  The blessings began with a very pleasant drive to Texas, the highlights of which were a brief visit with my sister Sherry in Wichita; a night’s stay in Lawton, Oklahoma; listening to an audio tape of “Cheaper By the Dozen;” and the decision to take a lonely but very scenic route on down through Texas to San Antonio. Here we have been delightfully hosted all week by our dear friends, Bryan and Janet Lilius at their home in the Hollywood Park district.  We arrived a little after four on Saturday and started right in catching up.

The following morning (Easter) we enjoyed a very moving worship service at the nearby Southern Baptist church that Bryan and Janet attend. There was good preaching, very friendly people, and terrific music: hymns, choir, and a small orchestra with plenty of horns – a perfectly regal sound for Resurrection Day! Preceding that service I was honored to present a talk entitled “The Resurrection: What’s It Got to Do with Me?” to one of the adult Sunday school classes.

After church Claire and I were further honored to be invited to an Easter celebration/birthday party/family dinner with the family of Katie and Polo Sotelo at their home in north San Antonio.  Polo’s mother and brother from Mexico were on hand as were the 8 Sotelo kids, ranging from 3 to 23.  We had a wonderful afternoon and it was so great to see how the Lord has worked in Katie’s life since the days we knew her as a young girl.  Lord, please continue to pour out Your blessings on these dear ones.

We returned home in time for me to get one of my 7-mile walks in around Hollywood Park, Claire joining me for part of the trek.  The evening was rounded out with good conversation before heading to bed.

Monday morning was spent with breakfast, some grocery shopping, and a brief visit to the first of the senior facilities where we were to present a “When Swing Was King” show the following day.  We then took off to see San Antonio’s biggest attractions – the Alamo and the famed River Walk.  We enjoyed both very much and we used the well-developed and pretty surroundings to get in our walking for the day.  Believe me, the scenery was certainly superior to the parking lot course I use at home!  Plus, it was sunny and wonderfully warm. We came home for a barbecued steak dinner and a William Powell/Myrna Loy movie before calling it a day.

Tuesday began with breakfast and more catching-up conversation with Bryan and Janet at their home. Bryan then took me to lunch with several of his church friends and we had a nice time of conversation about the church, our ministry, and what was happening in the guys’ lives. After that, we had the first of our 5 “When Swing Was King” presentations scheduled for San Antonio.

Unfortunately, the activities director we had met the day before didn’t even show up until the program was almost over and there was no staff member to oversee the residents, something we always require at home when our audience members require nursing care. Also, there hadn’t been any promotion of the event that we could tell. However, just the fact that strangers were on the scene created interest and, because we were quick in setting up, Bryan, Claire and I had time to move several residents into the hall who otherwise had nothing to do but sit around. By the time we were ready to start, our audience had grown to 20-25 and we had a splendid time.  It was, in fact, the typical “When Swing Was King” response: tapping feet, voices singing along, great stories of memories rekindled, plenty of warm thanks, and invitations for us to come back soon. 

That evening I got in another 7-mile walk before we all went to dinner. At the restaurant Janet spied a couple of ladies from the neighborhood that she invited to the Thursday afternoon home show of “When Swing Was King” and they eagerly accepted. Cool.

On Wednesday we had a morning “When Swing Was King” show at another senior care facility and it went extremely well. Great setup, friendly and helpful staff members, and 22 people who were more than ready for a sentimental journey back to the big band era. We had some particularly memorable conversations with residents afterward. For instance, I asked Vern about the Bible he was carrying and that led to a discussion about the enduring joy of knowing you are born again.  Claire and Bryan spoke with Alise, a Parisian who had married an American G.I. during World War II. Her husband had passed away just two months ago and she was struggling with not only that loss but some other issues. She confessed she hardly ever smiles anymore. However, she enjoyed the music and the pictures a lot and, after telling me the story of falling in love with her husband at a dance, her broad and bright smile was on full display. I told Alise how beautiful she looked when she smiled and how much I appreciated it. And, while one of the aides stood alongside, I told her how much pleasure her caregivers would receive if she smiled more. And as the aide agreed and gave her a little hug, Alise, smiling as much as before, promised she would. Thank you, Lord.

On Wednesday afternoon Bryan and Janet’s youngest daughter Katie came by with four of her daughters to visit. We had planned to go to the River Walk again but it was raining. So we ended up doing something even better – Claire enlisted the girls’ help to make chocolate chip cookies (Claire’s traditional recipe…very non-Paleo) and almond flour chocolate brownies. Amid the bustle, there was plenty of conversation and laughter, stories featuring Katie when she was a girl, eating the cookie dough, and Janet sewing a cape for Ellie’s super-powered sheep, (Don't ask.) It was a fun afternoon with Claire and Janet doing a great job overseeing the activity. 

That evening was a quiet one. Bryan and Janet went to a church dinner and Bible study. Claire and I did some grocery shopping, fixed dinner, did some reading, and turned in early.

I decided to take my walk early on Thursday (6:30) and so was done, showered, and ready for breakfast by 9. That was good because we needed to take off for our next “When Swing Was King” at 10. We had extra help getting the residents in and we eventually had a large gathering. The show was well received even though we had a technical glitch about 2/3 of the way through. But we managed to get through it okay and the show ended strong. After the show, we were pressed for time as the staff members needed to set up for lunch. Still, we were able to get in some good conversations with a couple of brothers from Israel, a former pastor who so appreciated the program, and a dear lady from the Lilius’ church who is 106.

The next item on the agenda (still on Thursday) was an in-home “When Swing Was King” presentation because Janet’s current health condition had prevented her from attending the others.  So she invited 9 special friends to her home and prepared a wide array of delicious treats for them to enjoy during the show. Two neighbors had to cancel at the last moment but all the rest came with great interest in the outreach. With this group we were also able to talk about the origins of the ministry, its philosophy, stories from the past few years, and so on. It was a terrific afternoon but the pace of the day must have tired us all out because right after dinner (at a local burger place named Chester’s) we headed for bed.

We were scheduled to join Katie and her daughters for a return downtown on Friday morning to ride one of the tourist boats that work the San Antonio River. But the weather forecast included more of the rain and high winds that the area had experienced the previous night. I had managed to get my walk in before breakfast (Claire joining me for a couple of miles) but the sky still looked a bit iffy. But we decided to try it and we were really glad we did. The girl running our boat was very informative and personable; the River Walk was lovely; and spending time with Katie’s family was a lot of fun. However, there was still a bit of rain and the winds were quite strong, strong enough to bring a fairly large tree limb crashing into the river right in front of our boat. By the time we finished and tied up to the side, the powers that be decided it was too dangerous and shut the boats down until the winds died down. We bought some postcards and then left to meet Janet at Chik-fil-A for lunch.

Our afternoon “When Swing Was King” was at a facility specializing in memory care. There a few family and friends joined with about a dozen residents for our 5th and final program of the week. It went great. The activities director was the most involved we had met so far and the responses from the residents were among the most moving. We were so glad Bryan and Janet set this one up for us and it was a great way to close out the San Antonio leg of this “When Swing Was King” road trip.

Tonight we will have dinner, pack up for Oklahoma City, and spend some time praying together with our dear friends before having to take our leave from them early tomorrow morning.