Monday, December 28, 2020

Say What? (The Latest Vital Signs Blog Compilation)

* "'Blueprint for Positive Change' Exposes the Left’s Plans for Conservatives" (Rep. Brian Babin, Daily Signal)

* "The link between sex trafficking, abortion, and Planned Parenthood" (Nancy Flanders, Live Action)

* "Did Americans Come to Love Big Brother?" (Victor Davis Hanson, American Greatness)

* "The year Big Tech became the Ministry of Truth" (Fraser Myers, Spiked)

* "Exiled archbishop appeals for forgiveness after emotional return to Belarus" (Elise Ann Allen, Crux)

* "Rand Paul's 'Festivus Report' Details the Insane Ways Government Wasted $54 Billion in 2020" (Leah Barkoukis, Town Hall)

* "The Perversion of Science" (Ben Shapiro, Daily Signal)

A Whole Season of Christmas

(The following is reposted, with a couple of edits, from 15 years ago!)

Contrary to popular belief, the season of Christmas is not the period from Thanksgiving through December 25th. That idea comes more from modern advertisers and merchandise salesman – the “only so many shopping days ’til Christmas” folks. But the true season of Christmas is not the period leading up to Christmas Day but rather the one leading from it! The Twelve Days of Christmas is much more than the title of a terribly redundant song; it suggests a way that the Advent of our Lord could be better celebrated.

Claire and I believe that Christmas is just too big and beautiful to be contained in one day. We love December and its various anticipations of Christmas, but our real celebration starts rather than ends on December 25th. While so many are weighed down by the post-holiday blues, we're just getting underway! Interested in stretching your Christmas out to its fullest? Here are a few suggestions.

1) The enjoyment of Christmas movies, reading, music, and parties go on apace for Claire and me even after the 25th. This is an extremely helpful exercise for all those people who complain about how fast Christmas comes and goes. Take it easy! When you utilize the whole season (all of December and then the 12 Days of Christmas proper), you'll see you'll have more time for Christmas priorities as well as its most pleasant diversions. Many who adopt this approach find that as they de-emphasize the one day celebration (with its hectic stress on big dollar presents and big dinner preparations), they are much more able to enjoy family, contemplation, and the other more spiritual elements of Christmas.

2) The nobility of celebrating the entire season of Christmas is that it emphasizes extending over spending. Our gift-giving goes a long way beyond Christmas Morning because we open presents each of the Twelve Days. Imagine how much fun that is! And yet the costs of gift giving actually went down with this practice, not up. For even though we are giving each other more gifts than ever, we have become more creative and personal in our selection. We might still buy each other a couple of “pricey” gifts but, with a whole 12 Days to cover, we were forced to come up with other ideas. And those other ideas have proven to be delightful ways of coming together in the spirit of Christmas.

For example, now our Christmas gifts include more personal favors and time spent together. For instance, Claire opens an envelope on the Seventh Day of Christmas which contains a new recipe along with a note declaring that I'm fixing that particular dish for supper tonight. Or it might be a day off from housework, the addresses of three newly discovered websites I know she'll enjoy checking out, or just a promise of a leisurely car ride out in the country. As for my pleasure in gifts, it is centered on inexpensive things anyway like used books, used records, and...let's see; did I mention used books and records already? Anyhow, the point is that whether you use twelve days or one day to celebrate Christmas, the gifts that matter most are ones that underscore things like time, creativity, and personal attention more than mere “stuff.” For us, the extended approach was very helpful in pursuing the better things.

3) Even within the Twelve Days of Christmas, Claire and I have a few special observances, especially St. Stephen's Day (December 26th) and the Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28th). Activities for observing the former should certainly include reading the Acts passages relating to Stephen's selection as deacon, his sermon before the Council, and his martyrdom. It could also involve writing a letter or two to missionaries, witnessing to your Faith, or visiting a widow or someone else in need of encouragement. And Holy Innocents Day, of course, has an obvious significance for pro-life activists like us. It is an excellent time for spiritual exercises and public actions that promote the sanctity of life.

4) Another important element of our Christmas season is taking time to consider, pray about, and discuss our New Year's resolutions. Now, I know some Christians are critical of those who make New Year's resolutions. That's unfortunate. I assume it's because these critics believe making resolutions suggests a dependence upon one's own strength rather than God's grace. Wrong. Making resolutions is most definitely a biblical practice. Think for a moment about the Scripture's use of exhortational verbs like reckon, count, establish, consider, dedicate, consecrate, remember, put aside, purpose, gird your mind, and many more. All refer to the prayerful making (and keeping) of resolutions to live godly. An evaluation of one's life is always in order as is a careful plan of action to be more effective as a “doer of the Word.” After all, this is a key purpose of the Sabbath rest God instituted. So, why not use the Twelve Days to go deeper than usual in your spiritual analysis so that you can better serve the Savior in the year to come?

5) And finally, all things come to their completion. The Christmas season is over for us when Twelfth Night comes around but there's one more important Christmas event. That is our celebration of Epiphany on January 6th. Epiphany is the holiday when the manifestation of Jesus is celebrated in much of the world, the day when we remember the visit of the magi as well as the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. It is also the gift-giving Christmas for much of the eastern world. Claire and I use Epiphany as a way to close our Christmas season and we do so with a final Christmas party. Most significantly, we take time with our friends to wrap up the figures from our main nativity set, each person sharing a testimony or a prayer relating to each nativity figure. It is always a very moving time of fellowship.

So, there you go -- a few ideas from our house to yours about how Christmas can be extended in time and, we believe, elevated in spirit.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

He Was Born to Die (Harold Berry)

For many years now, Claire and I have been among the many who are honored to have Harold Berry as a friend and mentor. Whether our conversations over coffee have taken place at the Grace Bible College snack shop, or the Burger King on South 13th Street, or the senior facility in Lincoln where he now lives, I have always found Harold to be a source of wisdom, kindness, good humor, and a steadfast love for the Savior. And so we are very pleased that his friendship continues to challenge and encourage us.

Case in point? The brief speech below was written and delivered by Harold for a Toastmasters group that he has recently joined. It is just one example of the many ways he continues to serve the Lord Jesus: writing for Back to the Bible, intercession, counsel to friends, evangelism, leading Bible studies and hymn sings, learning, and looking eagerly for the Lord's return. Here is his latest Toastmasters talk.

Born to Die

It’s hard to believe than anyone is born to die. You were obviously born to live. When your mother looked into your newborn eyes her last thought was how long you would live. You didn’t come to die; you came to live. Advertisers know this and spend millions of dollars hawking anything that might extend your life a little longer. 

Not so with Jesus. 

He came for the sole purpose of dying for you and me. He was and is God but had to take on human flesh in order to die for mankind. He was fully God and fully Man. Why did He do this? The Bible makes it clear it was because of His love for us. First John 4:10 says, “This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.

As the Creator of the universe and King of kings, one would think Jesus would have a birth reflecting royalty. Not so.

He was born in a stable and placed in a crude manger that slobbering animals ate out of. His birth was first announced to lowly shepherds. The mother of Jesus considered Him as her Savior. Luke 1:47 records she said, “My Spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.”

Luke 2:24 reveals the sacrifice they made when Jesus was eight days old was due to their poverty-- “either a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” Even the brothers of Jesus did not believe He was the Messiah; that is, the Christ. Some do not believe that Mary and Joseph had children after the virgin birth of Jesus, but Luke referred to Jesus as her “firstborn” (Luke 2:7).

If you have only one child you would likely not call the child your “firstborn.” (See also Matthew 13:54-56.) Also, in this regard some translations in John 3:16 refer to Jesus as God’s “only begotten” Son. The words “only begotten” do not refer to His birth. In the book of Hebrews, Isaac is referred to as Abraham’s “only begotten” son (see Hebrews 11:17). Isaac was not Abraham’s only son nor even his oldest. The expression refers to a special relationship, not to birth.

Jesus predicted His death and even His resurrection from the dead on the third day, but His disciples did not understand and were not believers until after His resurrection. Even the half-brothers born to Mary and Joseph after His virgin birth did not believe in Him (see John 7:5). No wonder, can you imagine growing up with a perfect brother!

At Christmastime we remember the One who was born to die. How does one know, of all the world religions, what to believe about how to get right with God and be ready for eternity? As you think of Jesus, I remind you, No one else has died to pay for your sins and mine. In John 14:6, Jesus is recorded as saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” In Acts 4:12, the apostle Peter wrote, “There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.” As you think of other religious leaders, remember, only the grave of the Lord Jesus Christ is empty. 

The heart of my Christmas message is: What will you do with the One who was born to die for you?

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

A Bit More Christmas Poetry

We have sent over to our "When Swing Was King" senior living facilities the latest in our poetry reading experiment. And, like the previous 3 editions, we are also posting this on Vital Signs Ministries' You Tube channel. That way the activity directors can use that method for small group showings or, in the case of independent living residents, just simply provide the link so they can go there on their own. It's the same principle as posting our ongoing activity pages on the Vital Signs Ministries website. Thus, whoever wants to participate in our services can...even if they're clear across the country. 

 Anyhow, here's the latest...about 22 minutes of Christmas poetry.

Another Catching Up on AMI (Articles of Major Importance)

* "They Don’t Have Trump to Kick Around Anymore" (Conrad Black, American Greatness)

* "The Biggest Political Blunder in American History" (Steve McCann, American Thinker)

* "Thousands of pastors go into hiding amid China’s rising persecution, attempts to eradicate Christianity" (Jackson Elliott, Christian Post)

* "The Future of Christian Marriage" (John Stonestreet & Shane Morris, BreakPoint)

* "China Is Not Rising, It’s Faltering" (Andrew Latham, Federalist)

Thursday, December 17, 2020

"A Christmas Reflection"

Moved by a conversation with friends this morning, Claire and I decided to post a short story (a very short story) that I wrote as part of Vital Signs Ministries’ Christmas letter of 3 years ago.  We offer it again as a Christmas meditation on truths that are as crucial to celebrate as ever.  And though it is a fictional tale, it is certainly illustrative of the hundreds of testimonies of its kind that we've heard in these last 40 years of pro-life work. We also present it as a fresh thank you for all the prayers, encouragement, and financial support people have given to Vital Signs Ministries to pursue its mission over these many years to cherish, defend, and promote the sanctity of human life. So, here is “A Christmas Reflection.”

Darren tightened the last nut on the kickstand with a mild sigh of satisfaction. He then positioned the bike right in front of the Christmas tree so that Jill would see it as soon as she came down the stairs and turned into the living room. He smiled broadly at the thought. Jill will be so excited and happy. And, because the snow wasn’t slated to start until later on Christmas Day, he knew she would ask him to let her ride it as soon as it was light outside. And, of course, he would say yes, for he was looking forward to that thrill as much as she would.

He turned off the lamp, leaving the only illumination in the room to the colorful brilliance of the Christmas tree. As always, Janey had done a beautiful job decorating the tree, but the effect of those Christmas lights now reflecting off both the ornaments and the chrome of the bicycle’s fenders was particularly dazzling. Profoundly moving too. In fact, Darren had to wipe away a couple of tears as he imagined the joy and gratitude his daughter would feel tomorrow morning when she entered into Christmas.

He loved her so. And because Jill was his only daughter and the child who had come so far after the three boys – 13 years after Joe – she had won a very special place in his heart. And now, with Gary living with his young family in Texas, Harris in grad school in Oklahoma, and Joe serving on the USS Ronald Reagan currently in the south Atlantic, Jill was all they had close to them.

Darren sat down on the couch to relish the moment and to enjoy for a few more minutes the beauty of this Christmas scene. He let his mind sweep back through these last 9 years. Oh, he had loved raising the boys – well, it wasn’t always a fun job – but Jill had brought to Janey and him such different, such intense blessings. Like hearing her recite her poem during the Christmas program at school last week. And helping her with her report on Squanto and the Pilgrims last month. And seeing how bravely she dared (and conquered) the waves coming onto the beaches of Galveston last summer at the family reunion.

His coffee had gone cold but Darren sipped it anyway, caught up more in the past than the present. His mind flipped through a lively variety of images depicting life with their precious daughter. Was it only last year that she made the local paper for the Easter poems she wrote for residents of the nursing home? And the bravery she showed when she broke her arm. What a trooper she had been. And there were the endless hours spent with her dolls in the playhouse he had built in the back yard, the way she loved to dress up for the special teas with her grandma and aunts, and her passion for being read to before bed. What a lovely and loving child she was – tender and curious and engaging. How grateful to God he was that….

Darren’s breath stopped and he swallowed hard as another memory suddenly thrust its way into this sweet Christmas moment. And with this remembrance, the tears started to flow freely. For Darren was now recalling that July morning long ago when he and Janey had driven up to the Planned Parenthood. They had finally made the difficult decision to terminate the pregnancy. No, that’s not exactly correct. Darren fought back a convulsive sob as he admitted to himself the truth. They had decided to terminate Jill’s life. He buried his face in his hands and wept.

Had anyone asked them before Janey’s pregnancy test came back positive, they would probably have said they were against abortion. It certainly seemed, on the face of it, to be a cruel and unnatural act – an evil one even. But when they had worried over Janey’s age, their family situation, the fluidity of his position with the company right then, and the move they had been working on to a larger home on a nice acreage somewhere…well, everything was against having a baby at this stage of their life. They hadn’t felt very good about it, of course, but they figured an abortion was simply making the best of a bad situation.

However, Darren’s unease about the act (so invasive, so violent, so final) had only increased during the drive to the abortion clinic that day. For starters, they had left the house in the dark hours of early morning because they were driving to another city. There was an abortion clinic in their own city but Janey refused to even consider going there. She didn’t want to chance being recognized. That suggested to Darren that she wasn’t anywhere near the guilt-free attitude she had tried to portray. And then there was the troubling quiet of the drive. He had attempted some small talk at first but when he received stiff one-word answers or, more frequently, complete silence, he began to realize that this abortion wasn’t going to be the simple solution they had hoped.

And then finally they approached the neighborhood where the GPS was directing them to the Planned Parenthood. But as they drove down the street, two striking scenes arrested their consciences. On their left was a day care business and though there were no children present in the yard, Darren’s eyes viewed with stunning sorrow the swing sets, jungle gym, and small basketball hoops. He couldn’t help but imagine his boys climbing, running, and playing in such a place. His boys who had enjoyed such an active, happy childhood. His boys who had been allowed (no, make that welcomed) into his and Janey’s world. He knew that Janey was probably seeing and thinking the same things.

But then a bit further down the street and just as the GPS voice announced, “Your destination is on your right,” they saw a small group of pro-life people on the sidewalk. There were only 6 or 7 of them but they certainly made for a winsome sight, a strong contrast to the dark mood that had filled his and Janey’s hearts for the last month. Some of the pro-lifers held large pictures of infants emblazoned with phrases like “Please Let Me Live” and “Life: It’s a Beautiful Choice” and “We Can Help You & Your Baby.” A couple of the men in the group held colorful banners with similar messages. Darren slowed the car and pushed up his turn signal. But he didn’t turn in. Indeed, though stopped right in the middle of the street, he didn’t move the car at all. Instead, he looked through unbidden tears at the photos of the babies and then to the appealing smiles of the pro-lifers. He felt Janey’s tenseness beside him and figured she was feeling the same sense of dread and conviction.

Darren turned to his wife and reached for her hand. “Honey, we shouldn’t be here, should we? These people are right. Life is a beautiful choice. It was for Gary, Harris, and Joe. And it is for this little one too.

Beside him Janey dissolved in tears but she squeezed his hand and vigorously nodded her head. “Oh, thank you, Darren. Thank you so much. Ever since we got into the car, I’ve been praying for God to somehow stop us. I guess I’ve known all along this was terribly wrong. But it was like we had got on a slide and couldn’t find the strength to stop ourselves. But those people…well, they were the answer to my prayer, weren’t they? Thank you so much, Darren, for not turning in.”

Darren smiled. It was the first sincere smile he had enjoyed for weeks. “Let’s go home, okay?”

Janey wiped tears away and smiled back at him. Her whole countenance had changed. He saw relief and gratitude but also happiness and resolve. “Yes, of course. Let’s go home. But two things before we do, okay? I’d like to get some breakfast. You know, I haven’t eaten hardly anything for two days and I’m really hungry. But first, could we thank these people for being here?”

Darren had thought of doing that too and so he started moving the car slowly towards the curb. He pushed the button which lowered the window on Janey’s side of the car as two women came over. There was a brief but joyous conversation. And when Darren and Janey pulled away a few minutes later, heading toward the Panera restaurant they had passed on the highway, they had a lot of information the pro-lifers had given them including contacts for a pregnancy care center in their town and a pastor they could contact for ongoing help.

It ended up that Darren and Janey gratefully used those contacts in the following weeks. The pastoral contact had led them to switching churches and, through the pregnancy center, Janey had found another doctor as well as new friends who had been a great help in awakening their desire to know and serve God. And, of course, most important of all, that momentous meeting with the pro-lifers on the sidewalk had protected Jill from the barbaric destruction that Planned Parenthood had been so eager to commit. “Dear God,” Darren whispered, “thank You so much for delivering Jill…for delivering all of us!”

The cold coffee was gone. And Darren’s tears had dried. It was way past time for him to get to bed. He would, after all, need all the energy he could get to handle Jill on that bike tomorrow morning. But he couldn’t pull himself away just yet from the pensive beauty of the Christmas tree and its lights reflecting off the chrome fenders of that beautiful bike.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Poetry, Anyone?

As long as the senior living facilities remain closed to our doing live "When Swing Was King" shows, we will continue to create for our friends there our weekly 9-page activity packet of trivia questions, photos, song lyrics, quotations, and a personal letter. (You can find all 42 of them on the Vital Signs Ministries website.) But we have recently started another project for them -- poetry reading. We send this to the facilities on a DVD copy but also post them on the Vital Signs Ministries YouTube channel. 

We have done three of these so far, each about 20 minutes. And I'm posting the latest one, a Christmas-themed edition, right here just in case you have friends or family members that might find poetry of some interest, comfort, or inspiration. 

Who knows? You might even like it.

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Our Activity Packets Are Celebrating Christmas!

As most of you know, with the severe quarantines in senior living facilities, all 12 of our monthly “When Swing Was King” shows have been cancelled -- since last March! What a tragic situation this is for people already facing isolation, loneliness, depression, and acute boredom. Well, one of the things we have done to provide at least a bit of relief to our friends there was to begin creating activity pages that offer entertaining quizzes, points to ponder, song lyrics to finish, photos that take them back, and personal notes from Claire and me in each 9-page packet. We are getting ready to send out our latest...Number 41 in the series. Wow.

You can utilize these packets in your own ministry to seniors, baby boomers, and
anybody else who you think might be dealing with boredom and/or the frustration of being marginalized right off the page. Just go to this page of the Vital Signs Ministries website and you can print off any (or all) of them there. Indeed, by downloading the packets, you could even send them via email to friends and family members wherever they might be.

Here's the link to that VSM website page.

And, yes, these two photo collages are part of the quizzes found in one of our activity packets...#40, to be precise.

Saturday, December 05, 2020

Will Yours Be a Car Wash Christmas?

While leaving a speaking engagement in a nearby town the other night, I drove by a car wash that had this posted on a big sign, “Need a Christmas gift idea? Give free tokens!”

I smiled at what I figured was a quirky kind of joke. But, after a few minutes, I thought again. Maybe it wasn't a joke at all. With the modern Yuletide so awash in remarkably garish, gratuitous and expensive gifts, maybe these guys have gone in a completely different direction -- opting instead for something as mundane and impersonal as car wash tokens.

Is this what Christmas has come to?

In the “happy golden days of yore,” giving presents required some personal investment. Dad made you a little wagon; Momma knitted you a scarf; Grandma baked you a pie. Even after Christmas began to be commercialized, shopping for family and friends was a time-consuming activity -- not because there was so much to buy but because you were searching for just the right gift, something you knew the recipient needed or wanted.

That kind of Christmas shopping is almost nonexistent nowadays. It no longer involves thinking carefully about what to buy. And making something by hand? Good grief -- forget about it. We've lost the time. We've lost the talents. We've even lost the desire itself to expend our own efforts in the creation of a Christmas present. No, just give ‘em a gift card to a department store or to an online company.

One of the causes for this condition is that the commercialization of Christmas I mentioned earlier just got further and further out of hand. One Christmas gift wasn't enough for little Timmy. He now had to get 2 presents, then 4 presents, then 11 presents. And the Christmas lists expanded too. No longer were parents expected to give presents to just their kids (and maybe a little tip for the milkman and the paperboy) but to practically everybody they knew.

So no longer could the gifts be very personal. How could they be? Dad can only whittle so many flutes and Mamma only sew so many dresses. Furthermore, you were coerced by advertisers, storekeepers, peer pressure, and an distorted doctrine of what true affection required (one's worth was measured in quantity of dollars spent) into a whole new system of “celebrating” Christmas. The modern holiday no longer emphasized reveling with friends and family -- and sharing gifts with those closest to you something reflective of your personal devotion to them. It emphasized instead the mania of Black Friday, excessive spending, debt, stress, and resentment. The giving of gifts became one of the banes of Christmas rather than one of its blessings.

Can we go back? Can we recover some of those warmer, truer, healthier Christmas customs? Of course. It might take some courage. It might take some explanations. And it might take some sacrifice. After all, baking cookies takes longer than buying an iTunes gift card. But if we want our lives (and those of our family members and friends) to find in Christmas some genuine affection, spiritual meaning, and moral stimulation, we need to concentrate again on quality, not quantity.

Our country can't afford anymore to keep Christmas according to Madison Avenue. The consuming spirit of consumerism (pun intended) has ruined our economy and spoiled our culture. And though it has left in its wake a false sense of entitlement, irresponsible expectations, and a secularized and commercialized Christmas ethic, we can start rebuilding. Recall for a moment the intense warmth and hope you feel when watching It’s A Wonderful Life, White Christmas, or Miracle on 34th Street. Those feelings have nothing to do with Christmas presents but rather with the invaluable treasures represented by romance, family, redemption, community, and festivity.

With love, reason, and inventive effort, we can indeed recapture some of that warmth and bring it into real life. Perhaps, like me, you're unable to whittle or knit. Fine. But can you bake a pie? Decorate cookies? Throw a party? Sing a song? Tell a story? Write a personal Christmas card? Or, at the very least, spend some time trying to select a personal gift for your loved one rather than take the prosaic path of the gift card -- or the car wash tokens?

Merry Christmas!

(Note: This article was originally posted on Vital Signs Blog in 2011.)

And the Truth Telling Goes On...

Despite the location, despite the cold temperatures, and despite the increasing darkness and chaos of the surrounding culture, there was an especially triumphant spirit among the pro-life intercessors who were outside the Planned Parenthood abortion business this morning. 

And that triumphant spirit was particularly authentic and valuable because the Christians displaying it are not at all heedless of what's going on in the world. Indeed, they do not have their heads stuck in the sand. They have not surrendered to the spirit of the age. They do not seek their comfort and peace of mind through mindless entertainment nor the type of pleasant, accommodating pietism so commonplace in the Church today.

No, the triumph that we relished this morning came from our embrace of the sovereignty of Almighty God, the deliverance from the penalty of our sins offered by Christ's atoning death in our behalf, the glorious (and forever) future that is the inheritance of every born again Christian, and the ever-present power of the Holy Spirit which allows us (in whatever circumstances) to speak the truth in love to the culture. It was around these wonderful truths this morning that we prayed together, shared Scriptures, conversed, and sang Christmas carols -- all the while presenting a winsome pro-life witness to those driving by. 

And this intensely stimulating fellowship continued over coffee and tea over at John & Barb's later. That was terrific too. What a critical help in life is having friends like these. Thanks Matt, John, Barb, Bev, Isaac, Patrick, Quint, Mary, Allen, Ruth, Don, and Mark. And thanks to all of you who pray alongside with us in this important ministry. 

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

A Fantastic Flurry of Christmas Cards!

Well, it was quite a two-day run for Christmas cards around here. For instance, the annual Christmas card writing party of Vital Signs Ministries was held in the Hartford home on Tuesday night, December 1 with 16 of us packed into our living and dining rooms. Upon arrival, Claire having decorated for the holiday season the weekend before, our guests found Christmas bursting out all over. And, regarding the card party, we were all set up for action. The coffee was brewed, the cookies laid out, and the colorful Christmas cards, envelopes, pens and colored pencils, address sheets, and Christmas-themed coloring pages for the kids were all arranged on the tables. Quint opened in prayer and off we went.

Our “target list” for the party included public officials, first responders, heroes of the Faith, and, using first names given us by activity directors at some of the senior living centers where we present (or used to present!) our “When Swing Was King” shows, we sent several, different Christmas cards each to 40 quarantined seniors. We took our usual 90 minutes of concentrated letter-writing and, being the experienced, diligent, and proficient people they are, we ended our party with 170 Christmas cards! Wow.

But actually Tuesday’s Christmas card party had been preceded by another
successful one; namely, the inaugural letter-writing outreach of Grace Bible Church. In that case, 21 people gathered in the yet-to-be renovated section of Southroads Shopping Center where the church will be headquartered in the near (we hope!) future. And though we didn’t have any Christmas decorations to provide atmosphere, there was Christmas music playing, flavored coffee and Christmas tea, and delicious treats provided by Claire and Paula. Those things, added as they were to the enthusiastic spirit of the Christmas card writers – many of them rookies in the art – made up for the lack of tinsel and colored lights. We shared a few letter-writing tips, passed out the address sheets, prayed for the Lord’s help in our efforts, and got busy.

The recipient list for this church-oriented party was different than the Vital Signs activity in a couple of significant ways. Our first responder list, for instance, was centered on the police, firefighter, and rescue squads of the geographic area in which the church lies. That was also true of the 20 names we had been given by a nearby assisted living center. Also, we wrote the missionaries that Grace Bible Church supports as well as several church folks who have been absent because of virus concerns and other health challenges. And like at the Vital Signs party, there was a bit of coloring and artwork created by the kids present to help adorn our cards. 

The result?  Well, a good time was had by all. That’s important. Even more so, however, was that 124 Christmas cards were sent out, all accompanied by our goodwill and earnest prayers. And as people filed out, we were delighted to hear several ask the question, “So, when are we going to do something like this again?” Thank You, Lord.

However, this two-day run of Christmas card writing isn’t the end of the work for there remain two more parts of this ministry to make it complete. The first is my writing up an insert to go into the cards we're delivering tomorrow to all of the residents of the senior living centers.  This insert is designed to alleviate any confusion (as in “Why am I getting a Christmas card from someone I don’t know?”) and to strengthen yet further the ministry we are already engaged in with the residents of these 3 senior facilities. 

And the second part of the Christmas card party that is yet to be finished? Why, that’s your part! For even if you were not present at either party, it’s not too late to get into the Christmas action by writing a few cards on your own. Write friends and family. Write thank yous to those who have ministered to you. Write letters of advocacy and challenge to public officials, business leaders, and media. And, of course, if it would be helpful to you, please feel free to refer to the address list used at the Vital Signs Ministries letter-writing party. It can easily be found on our website. Just look for “The Latest Address List” under the Taking Action section. And for members of Grace Bible Church, we suggest you use the church directory for appropriate addresses.

Writing Christmas cards? Come on; it’s a splendid way to shine the light of Christ in this holy and joyful season.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Living in the Big Tech World

Oh my; the curtains have been pulled aside completely and the world is seeing just how sneaky and sinister are Facebook's designs on the culture.  Just take your pick of evils.  For instance, there’s Facebook’s attempt to control the flow of thought with its highly sophisticated but increasingly transparent totalitarian vision.  Freedom and fair play? They don't even try and hide their disdain for those virtues anymore.

Then there is their ham-handed censorship of those political, religious, and social views that are contrary to those pushed by Big Brother. Facebook frequently limits the spread of posts that present contrary views and sometimes "lose" them altogether. Even when such posts are allowed, Facebook is increasingly requiring that they are linked to their own ideas of "corrective" explanations.

And, of course, they are plugged into all the other leftist tech giants (Twitter, Google, YouTube, Wikipedia) in tracking, restraining, exploiting, and manipulating you.

So, what to do about it?

Well, here's the 4-part approach we're taking.  

1) Though we know Vital Signs Ministries' Facebook and You Tube posts are at the mercy of Big Tech's prejudices and powers, we will, for now, continue on those platforms with hopes (and no small amount of prayers) that some of them will break through and still connect with people. We will also do so with some of our personal posts.

2) However, like several of our friends have already done, we are going to experiment with other platforms like Parler. 

3) We will be urging our friends to start bypassing the social networks and instead go directly to Vital Signs Ministries through our website and blogs...and do the same with other terrific sources of news and commentary. 

In this regard I recently answered a question posed by several friends who were bothered about the flood of fake news (from both old guard media and the Big Tech information platforms). They asked me how I keep up with cultural happenings without being overwhelmed by conflicting claims. My answer began with the need to keep one's priorities in place; namely, to live a life for God that centers on knowing the Word, walking in holiness, exercising spiritual disciplines, serving others, and always yearning for the upward call. However, in the specific matter of dealing with the day's news and views, I listed for them the internet sites I most frequent. Here is that part of my note to them.

* The first thing I look at in the morning is the email devotional we get from Joni Eareckson Tada. It's terrific. You can check out samples of that and even sign up for it right here.

The other sites I check in with almost daily?

Power Line

The Federalist

The Stream

Decision Magazine

Others that I frequently find enlightening and helpful are those that send me email updates. No, I don't always open them up. Like you, I've got a lot to do and many days there just isn't time to pursue them. But are they valued sources? Most certainly.  And I recommend them all highly. Those would include Daybreak Insider; Daily Signal (from Heritage Foundation); Live Action; Family Research Council; Bright (which comes through the Federalist); Town Hall;; and a few others.

In fact, you will occasionally find compilation posts over on Vital Signs Blog that utilize these sources and more. Here's a couple of examples of such posts:

Did You Catch These?

This Weekend's "Top of the List" Reads

But please do not overlook this next important part of our living in this "brave new world." It is this. 4) Going really old school by replacing time spent in "social media" for genuine social interaction. And what does that mean? Letters and cards. Phone calls. In person visits. Coffee or tea conversations. Meals together. Bible study and prayer meetings. Doing physical activities together. Even utilizing newer technologies like Zoom for real conversations.

Actually connecting with people? Who knows? It might just catch on!

Yes, Virginia. Despite Big Brother's best efforts to herd you into the corral, you can live life informed, engaged, purposeful, and free. But it will take a little effort.

Did You Catch These?

Looking for some of the best, most relevant articles from the alternative media dealing with the culture wars? Here's a few of my suggestions from recent days.

"Biden climate envoy John Kerry is a lifelong joke" (Editors, New York Post)

"If Americans Can No Longer Trust Our Elections, We’re In Big Trouble" (Willis L. Krumholz, Federalist)

"The approaching storm in US-Israel relations" (Caroline Glick, Jewish News Syndicate)

"Does Supporting President Trump Hurt the Gospel? Andy Stanley Says Yes. Here Is Why I Disagree" (Shane Idleman, The Stream)

"The Atlantic stuns with feature accused of ‘cheering eugenics,’ promoting ‘murder' of Down syndrome babies" (Brian Flood, Fox News)

* "Biden-Harris aim to cripple cops nationwide in name of Black Lives Matter" (Heather Mac Donald, New York Post)

* "5 Reasons Conservatives Should Have Hope For The Future" (Peter Burfeind, Federalist)

Friday, November 13, 2020

Should You Strive for a Balanced Christianity?

It seems that the number of books, articles, sermons and devotionals which extol the “balanced” Christian life are endless.  That’s too bad for, despite their good intentions, they are based upon a false premise, a premise whose source is actually Greek philosophy and not the Holy Scriptures at all.  Indeed, balance is the stuff of Galen, Aristotle and, in a more mystical sense, Plato.  But the Bible presents a much different ideal; namely, spiritual wholeness.  And a grateful, joyful embrace of this truth is a critically important corrective to the confusion, frustration and erroneous division that the pursuit of "balance" inevitably creates.

Let me illustrate the point with an excerpt from one of the sermons I preached at Faith Bible Church several years ago. The sermon was part of a 7-part series I was presenting on  “The Heroic Homemaker,” expository sermons dealing with the poem of Proverbs 31:10-31.  And as I came to verse 26 I took a few moments to show how the heroic homemaker’s life revealed not a balance of divergent (even competing) values but rather a unified, complete and thorough integration of godly virtues.  Here’s the sermon excerpt:

Verse 26 “She opens her mouth in wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” (NASB)

This verse is connected to the previous one in which the poet described the excellent wife’s adornment as her spiritual strength and dignity.  In other words, it was her godly character that shone through everything she did. Now he continues the same theme, letting us know that when the excellent wife spoke, it too was a reflection of her inner spirituality.  Her true heart for God, her inner beauty and integrity were revealed in the way she lived…including the way she spoke.

Wisdom and kindness are mixed together in her.  That’s true spirituality.  That’s evidence that the Holy Spirit is empowering someone, that their lives are marked by the combination of godly virtues: wisdom and kindness, grace and truth, mercy and justice.  Indeed, these virtues, these characteristics of God must all be present or none of them are!

Christians often suggest that these various characteristics are like counter-weights that need to be finely balanced against one another if you want to live right. In other words, you take wisdom and put it on this side of the scales and then you counter it with the weight of kindness on the other side so that you come up with a spiritual balance. They do the same with grace and truth, mercy and justice, love and holiness, and so on.

But that’s wrong…sadly and critically wrong.  True spirituality does not consist in balancing these virtues.  For crying out loud, they are not in opposition to one another!  Grace isn’t the opposite of truth.  Kindness is not a contradiction of holiness.  The law of God is not an inversion of the love of God.

God is not divided in Himself.  He is not “well-balanced.” Indeed, God is complete.  He is love and truth and righteousness and kindness and grace and holiness and…you get the idea.

These characteristics of God are all together. 100%.  Continual.  Co-existing.  And as the Christian lives by the power of the Holy Spirit, all of these virtues are alive in him. 100%.  Continual.  Co-existing. 

We do not balance one against the other.  We do not encounter situations in which we need to focus on kindness instead of holiness or where we need to tender justice with mercy or where we divide the church up into teams where the "truth guys" go out to do certain jobs while the "love guys" go out to do others.

Verse 26 isn’t implying that the heroic homemaker sometimes spoke wisely whereas, in other situations, she spoke kindly.  No, her speech was wise and kind.  Like the rest of her life, it was a whole thing.  Spiritual.  Infused with the complimentary characteristics of who God is.

Walking in the Spirit is a unified walk.  It integrates fully the fruit of the Spirit – all of them.  And all at the same time. It's not from 9 – 10:30, peace emphasis; 10:30 – noon, concentrate on love; noon – 2, let patience be foremost; 2 – 3:30, go for goodness; and so on.

Remember how we’ve emphasized that the New Testament teaches that the fruit of the Holy Spirit is all these things.  Fruit – singular.  Not fruits.  The single fruit of the Spirit is all of those wonderful things. Once again, let me repeat it. True spirituality is all of the virtues operating. 100%.  Continual.  Co-existing. 

So get away from thinking of spirituality as something that can be measured with scales.  The fruit of the Spirit does not consist of isolated virtues that serve in counter-weights to other virtues.  Remember, that whole balance thing comes from Greek philosophy, not Christianity.

True spirituality is a wholistic thing.  It is walking in the Spirit, empowered by all of His graces  and demonstrating all of His blessings.  We are complete in Christ – not divided, not full of competing values.  When we operate in Christ, we act in wisdom and kindness (both, at the same time) and we reveal love, joy, peace, patience, longsuffering and so on (all of them, all at the same time).

This isn’t merely a matter of semantics.  This is a very important matter.  And many Christians have a lot of problems in their lives and ministries because of misunderstandings in this area.  They are forever living in the tension of competing forces: “How much should love be involved here as compared to righteousness?” “When should I act according to truth and when should I act in mercy?”

No.  God is not divided – ever.  Nor is the person who walks according to His Word, dependent on the Holy Spirit.  We are complete in Christ; liberated to live with all of the fruit of the Spirit enriching our life and blessing the lives of others. So leave the balance business to gymnasts, engineers and accountants. You commit to walk in the Spirit and experience the integration of His virtues in you. 100%. Continual. Co-existing."

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

A Marine Prayer (To Commemorate the 245th Birthday of the Corps)

Happy birthday to the U.S. Marine Corps which is 245 years old today!

“The U.S. Marine Corps Birthday celebrates the history, memory of those who served before and rekindles the bond that unites all generations of Marines. It is a celebration of the profound respect for the Marine Corps traditions and reverence of the heritage that distinguishes the Corps of Marines…The birthday itself was formally recognized in 1921 at the behest of Major General John Lejeune, who ordered November 10, 1775 to be officially recognized service-wide as the Marine Corps birthday.” (Courtesy Military Benefits Info)

My friend and pro-life colleague Dick Wilson (the photo above shows him back in the day) proudly served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1956 through 1962 and has been a firm and enthusiastic supporter of the Corps ever since. One of the ways he has done this over the years was by volunteering with the Omaha detachment of the Marine Corps League. This service has long included color guard duty at the funerals of fellow Marines.

A few years ago, while bemoaning yet again the vapid verses that so often adorn the funeral program (greeting card poems that lacked both theological backbone and a manly respect for the unique character of the Marine's service to his country), Dick decided to write something more relevant and meaningful.

I think you'll agree with me that he succeeded. Feel free to pass it around.

A Marine Prayer

Almighty God, Father of the fatherless, now take me home.

I was what others could not be.

I went where others feared to go and did what others failed to do.

I asked nothing from those who gave nothing, but gave hope, security and freedom to all.

I have seen the face of terror; felt the stinging cold of fear and experienced the warm comfort of Your love and protection through it all.

I have enjoyed the sweet taste of life, comrades, love of country, Your guiding hand and word.

I have cried, failed, pained, loved and hoped. I have lived times others would say were best forgotten. But, what we are in life echoes into eternity.

I humbly offer that with Your guidance I have done my duty and lived with the grateful pride of what I am…a United States Marine.

Deep sea and sod for now hold our bodies, but You, O Lord, guard our souls until that final day when all stand before You guilty, and for those who believe, receive the gift of forgiveness and Eternal Life.

Almighty God, Father of Love, through the precious blood of Your Son, Jesus Christ, I pray You now take me home. For You have proven to be “Always Faithful.”

Semper Fidelis

Friday, October 30, 2020

Sharing the Power of Words

Claire and I have proposed a new ministry to the senior care centers we serve and we’re pleased to say we have already received enthusiastic endorsements of our proposal from activity directors. 

The new service?  Claire and I (and perhaps others will join us) are going to do readings of poetry, Scripture, and other short literary passages on camera that we will then offer to seniors via DVD, Zoom, and/or YouTube.  

We will keep you informed as to how this outreach develops.  

In the meantime, we continue to create our “Anti-Boredom” Packets for seniors even as we continue our prayers that we will someday (real soon) be able to return to the senior living facilities with live presentations of “When Swing Was King.”  And so, for those of you who enjoy the packets yourself as well as passing them along to seniors and baby boomer friends, #34 and #35 have now joined all the others on the Vital Signs Ministries web site.  Check ‘em all out at this link.  

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Cool Cowboy Counsel (From One of the "Coolest" Cowboys of All)

Here’s a reminder that “once upon a time,” there were superstars in American entertainment whose desire was to actually help parents (instead of impede them) in their hopes of raising good kids, kids who embraced such virtues as idealism and hope, justice and courage, humility and selflessness. 

Pass 'em along. And thanks, Hoppy! 

 “Ten Guidelines for Life”
from Hopalong Cassidy 

1) The highest badge of honor a person can wear is honesty. Be truthful at all times. 

2) Your parents are the best friends you have. Listen to them and obey their instructions. 

3) If you want to be respected, you must respect others. Show good manners in every way. 

4) Only through hard work and study can you succeed. Don't be lazy. 

5) Your good deeds always come to light. So don't boast or be a show-off. 

6) If you waste time or money today, you will regret it tomorrow. Practice thrift in all ways. 

7) Many animals are good and loyal companions. Be friendly and kind to them. 

8) A strong, healthy body is a precious gift. Be neat and clean. 

9) Our country's laws are made for your protection. Observe them carefully. 

10) Children in many foreign lands are less fortunate than you. Be glad and proud you are an American.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Improving Your Prayer Life -- Part 1 of 4

Prayer is a critically important part of a thorough, consistent Christianity. Almost all of us would acknowledge that. Nevertheless, knowing that truth doesn’t mean that it is easy to apply. For even as we admit the extreme value of prayer, in our honest moments before God, we must also confess that prayer is a very difficult thing to get right. So, unlike the heartfelt, wise, relevant prayers we read in the Scriptures, our prayers seem so often to be awkward, anemic, and therefore, infrequent. Many Christians end up making peace with mediocrity or even surrender altogether.

Well, dare I say that there is yet hope (and practical help) for Christians who desire a better prayer life? Yes, I say exactly that. For I am one such believer who has experienced substantial improvement in my prayers. I certainly haven't arrived at the goal that God has set before me, but recent years have seen remarkable progress in both my and my wife's prayers of thanksgiving, worship, and intercession. And if God's grace is abundant enough to forgive us for past failings and to grant repeated fresh starts to build better prayer habits, He certainly will do that for others.      

It's a really exciting opportunity the Lord sets before us. And it is no doubt a perfect time in history to get our prayer life in better order. For yes, we can increase our understanding of prayer; we can experience a greater (and more natural) motivation to pray; we can improve our methods of prayer; and we can build our confidence to confidently, joyfully converse with the Lord Who so loves us.

In a 4-part series I'll be posting here on Vital Signs Blog, I’m going to address the subject of prayer designed to help us make practical improvements in our prayer disciplines. I'll begin with some wonderfully encouraging points related to what many refer to as "The Lord's Prayer," and then in subsequent posts deal with prayer as an natural outgrowth of authentic spirituality, suggest an eminently do-able evening prayer model that Claire and I love, and finish up with a presentation about the problems we encounter with prayers made in public.

I hope you'll come along on this adventure...and we will start with the article I link to below. It originally appeared as the July 2020 letter for Vital Signs Ministries and is entitled, "Some Thoughts on 'The Disciples' Prayer.'"

Thursday, October 15, 2020

What? Me Worry?

While in Branson during our 2 weeks of working vacation, I have read several fine books. One, however, was particularly helpful and so I recommend it most heartily to any Christian who deals with anxiety, depression, defeat, distraction, and/or lack of focus and overcoming power over temptation. In other words, I recommend it most sincerely to all Christians! 

The book is Worry Less, Live More by Robert J. Morgan and we came by it in a most providential way; namely, it came completely unrequested in the mail one morning. I had never heard of the book or its author and, to be quite honest, it didn’t seem like the kind of book I usually go for. But when we figured out that it came from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association as a token of appreciation for our support of that ministry, I decided to give it a try. I’m really glad I did. 

Worry Less, Live More is a pretty basic Bible study of one of the most popular texts of the entire Bible, Philippians 4:4-8, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” 

 But the popularity of this text doesn’t necessarily equate with a proper understanding, let along an effective application, of it. And so I found Morgan’s book stimulating, challenging, and comforting. I think you may too.

Monday, October 05, 2020

And What Might We Learn From This Country Church?

My, my, my. Did we ever have church yesterday morning!  Claire and I are in Branson and we re-visited Friendly Baptist Church, a church we have attended a few times since meeting many of their members when we joined them two years ago for the Life Chain.  In fact, we assembled with them again yesterday afternoon for that same pro-life witness.

But let me get back to the church service.  Before I go into a description of this church, however, let me warn you that you just might find my remarks a little unsettling. Why? Because they may suggest some important things that your church should be doing too…but are not.  If that’s the case, be aware you are far from being alone.  Indeed, the reasons that I’m talking about them is both to encourage you by the fact that there are still churches in America like this…and to illustrate a few “targets of opportunity” for all of us to work towards in those of our churches that need revival and reform.

First of all, let me say that the sermon was a fine, biblically-centered one.  Excellent content.  Well-crafted and delivered, though with humility and compassion.  Relevant.  Bold. Furthermore, it was a sermon which presented illustrations of a “grown-up sort” instead of Hollywood film clips, pop music lyrics, video game parallels, GIFS and memes, corny jokes, quotes from modern celebrities, and so on.  I really appreciated that.  Instead, the preacher used several other Scriptures to illustrate and expand the morning’s text (James 1:26-27) as well as insightful references to Charles Dickens, Martin Luther, Alexander Hamilton, the opportunity of a new Supreme Court Justice who would oppose Roe v Wade, the terribly poor record of the food stamp policy to alleviate poverty, the U.S. Constitution, the counter-productive rhetoric and actions of Black Lives Matter, a kind but firm presentation of biblical truth to someone caught up in sexual perversion, and more.  The sermon was challenging, persuasive, and presented important and immediate applications for the hearers.

But though the text of the Bible should always be the star of a Sunday morning church service, there are other elements. In this case, there were times of prayer, Bible reading, and music. (And, I mean, a lot of music -- but I’ll get to that in a moment.)  Let me begin with a review of the prayers. There were prayers lifted to God for the effect of that afternoon’s Life Chain, for the health of the President and First Lady (and other members of the administration who had tested positive for the Covid virus), and the health of several members of the church congregation who were undergoing trials.  Also, there were prayers for Amy Coney Barratt and the Supreme Court; for persecuted Christians around the world, for an overcoming end to the lies, chaos and destruction fomented by the devil; for the pastor and his hearers; for police and firefighters; for the election; and for all of us to hear carefully and heed consistently the message God had for us through His Word. These were critically important matters for believers in our time that were brought before the throne and Claire and I really appreciated that often-neglected ministry.

The Bible reading included a lengthy reading of Proverbs 14 by one of the congregation’s lay leaders who gave an excellent introduction to the text before asking those who could to stand while he read the Bible text itself.  Later, the pastor began his sermon with reading from Chapter 1 of James and the congregation stood for that as well. 

And then there was that wonderful music. We purposefully arrived at Friendly Baptist Church early because we knew that 8-12 musicians show up long before the service begins. They come to play beloved hymns about a half hour before with dozens of the saints coming in to enjoy the worshipful concert. These musicians (mostly older) play guitars, keyboards, fiddles, saxophone, steel guitar, harmonica, and more.  It is a really superb ministry with the people listening to great old hymns (instrumentals only) as they sing along, pray, enjoy memories, and prepare their hearts for the teaching of the Word.  But when the service starts, there are plenty more hymns to sing as well as 2-3 special music presentations. It was, as we have experienced before at this church, charming and inspiring and something which well contributes to a wholesome body life for the congregation.

But I’m not done yet.  Let me finish by telling you a bit about the announcements, the church bulletin, and what’s going on throughout the week at this church because they reveal how much further the ministry of the church goes beyond the Sunday morning program. In this too, I must say, the church is unfortunately unusual among evangelical churches of our day.  For instance, the announcements included a heartwarming pitch for the Life Chain outreach given by the pastor.  He spoke eloquently about the need for such public witnesses for the sanctity of life, warmly thanked the congregation for their faithfulness in this outreach in the past, and then gave a personal charge to everyone to join him in the afternoon’s event. Perhaps it’s needless to say, but that also impressed Claire and I a great deal.  Later, one of the members of the missionary committee explained how a final push for Operation Christmas Child would let them beat the record for the number of shoeboxes they had set in previous years. Yes, there were a couple of announcements that dealt with programs centered around the church building but how refreshing it was to see how this church sees it’s “holy business” as being outside the walls of the building too.

This visionary perspective was even seen in the church bulletin for there we saw another pitch for Samaritan’s Purse Christmas Child outreach, more information about the Life Chain, information about two other missionary endeavors, and finally, the weekly prayer calendar suggested by the Voice of the Martyrs, Wow. And the building is used beyond that Sunday morning too. For although, Covid has caused them to suspend Sunday evening services for awhile longer, there’s still Sunday School classes, a Monday night Bible study, a sewing circle, Wednesday night prayer service, and who knows what else? 

Like I said, we really experienced church yesterday morning. And how we pray that other American churches would rediscover (and quickly too) the need to speak to truth to the culture, to challenge pew-sitters to stop being molded by the world, to heartily seek to equip and  mobilize the church in counter-culture outreach, to get seriously involved in pro-life ministries, to find new respect for the beauty and power of traditional hymns which have been so beloved by generations, and more. Thank you, Lord, for allowing Claire and I the blessing, the inspiration, and the serious challenge that came our way yesterday through the brethren at Friendly Baptist Church.

Friday, October 02, 2020

Denny Reflects on The Mitford Novels

I’m sitting here in the pre-dawn quiet enjoying a cup of coffee and thinking about the beauty, relevance, and rich significance of what I’ve taken recently 
to calling “Mitford ministry”; that is,actions of Christian service that emphasize the values (and even the methods) that one sees portrayed so winsomely in the ministries of Fr. Tim Kavanaugh in Jan Karon’s heartwarming series of Mitford novels. 

Yes, I’m aware that some of Karon’s following relish the Mitford books as “escapist fiction,” enjoying them because the small town charms and eccentric characters present a welcome relief from lives that some readers might feel are either too hectic or too humdrum. I understand the sentiments of such readers because I too love the sheer pleasantness of the novels. However, from my first Mitford book (which I must confess was postponed for way too many years after Claire first started encouraging me to read them), I have found a wealth of spiritual conviction and challenge amid all the charm. Karon is a superb writer and storyteller but her talents are used not merely to entertain – as wonderful a purpose as that is – they also guide, equip, and encourage. For in and among her vivid place descriptions, fascinating characters, humor, literary references, and “page-turning readability,” Karon presents life lessons for the Christian that are winsome, memorable, and remarkably persuasive. 

 Let me mention another angle I take on the Mitford novels that might surprise those of you who know my longstanding appreciation of G.K. Chesterton. That angle is simply this – I believe Jan Karon’s Mitford novels are among the most Chestertonian literature around, celebrating as they so effectively do such blessings as home, family, friendship, courage, forgiveness, compassion, humility, sacrifice, food, what might be described as “local patriotism,” and an orthodox Christianity that is revealed in both precept and practice. A stretch? Not really. For beyond the abundant novelties and paradoxes which one relishes in Chesterton, the core values he celebrates in Manalive, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, The Flying Inn, and so many of his other novels, essays, and poetry are the very values I’ve mentioned above. 

 But it is not only the values of G.K. Chesterton I encounter when I’m in Mitford, it is also those ordinary, day by day acts of Christian love which Frances and Edith Schaeffer underscored were the stuff of “true spirituality.” Indeed, the early years of L’Abri reveal how devotedly the Schaeffer family sought to live out the same Chestertonian (and yes,“Mitfordian”) virtues I listed above. The Schaeffers argued the necessity of a solid intellectual understanding of Christianity while also insisting that the disciple’s lifestyle be marked by personal holiness, humble prayer, an appreciation of God’s handiwork, and an intense desire to serve the Lord through practical love towards others. 

 Did Jan Karon find inspiration for her novels from these saints? Maybe a bit. Maybe not at all. But that’s not the important point. Rather it is that Jan Karon, G.K. Chesterton, and the Schaeffers were all moved by the Holy Spirit to use their art (and/or their preaching, journalism, and personal walk of sanctification) to stimulate love and good deeds among their fellow believers…and to present a winsome apologetic for the gospel to unbelievers. But before I conclude “my musings on things Mitford,” let me reiterate the most important life lessons with which Fr. Tim Kavanaugh (and other characters and plot situations in the Jan Karon novels) refresh and challenge me. 

 1) The overarching value of personal spirituality. Over and again, Karon illustrates the beauty of the fruits of the Spirit in one’s life. And this means patience and forgiveness in dealing with “very draining persons;” spending time in both personal and corporate prayer; commitment to spiritual disciplines; personal development, including reading the Bible and other quality literature; and seeing divinely-inspired duty in such practical things as washing dishes, walking the dog, and preparing meals. 

 2) Devotion to marriage, family, and community. This includes such practical things as writing letters to one’s spouse; care in selecting gifts; hospitality of a variety of forms, including letters, calls, entertaining, and visits; ministry to children, the aged, and the sick; “home loyalties,” including support for one’s church and local businesses; and engaging joyfully in the dominion mandate in projects both big (building a new wing of a hospital or adopting a child) and small (gardening or restoring a nativity set). 

 3) Evangelism and discipleship that’s willing to be “in for the long haul.” 

 4) The “attitude of gratitude” for God’s creation, His Word, His will, and His plan of salvation through the gracious and substitutionary work of Jesus Christ. I would add that Karon also stresses thankfulness for the simple, beautiful things of life. For instance, Fr. Tim and Cynthia aren’t chasing the latest technologies or methods; they find happiness and contentment in warm blankets, a snuggling pet, a complement, a snowfall, a handwritten letter, a lunch at the diner with friends, an old book, a restored piece of furniture, a poem, a cup of tea, the moonrise, and so much more. They even seek to live with an “attitude of gratitude” when God brings challenges, disappointments, and trials their way. 

 Like millions of other readers, I would probably have thoroughly enjoyed Jan Karon’s novels and found a wealth of spiritual stimulation in them even if, for decades earlier, I hadn’t sought to live out the virtues taught me by Chesterton and the Schaeffers. But having done so has made the Mitford novels a very special treasure for me. Thank you, Jan Karon. 

 So, for art that doesn’t merely seek to imitate life but rather to enrich and deepen it with examples of lives well-invested for the Lord…lives reflecting personal sanctity, gratitude, joy, endurance, hope, and extremely practical “small dose” ministry which beautifies and blesses, Jan Karon’s Mitford novels receive my highest recommendations.