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.