December 3, 2014

In times gone by to be diagnosed as a leper was a curse almost worse than death, for you were immediately expelled from the human race. And nobody—but nobody—was ever cured from it.

That’s why it was such a monumental event when Christ cured—not one—but ten lepers at once! St. Luke, the physician, noted such miracles in his Gospel. In the 17th book, he notes not just the ten-fold miracle, but also noted something else: Only one came back to thank his Lord. That Christ was not above noticing such things as gratitude or the lack of it is born out by his sadly asking the rhetorical question: “Where are the other nine?”

With all his multitudinous faults, David was an exception to the rule. Jeremy Taylor put it this way: “From David learn to give thanks for everything—every furrow in the Book of Psalms is sown with the seeds of Thanksgiving.”

I wish I could say I’ve personally experienced a considerably higher ratio in terms of my own giving, but I can’t: At best, one out of ten will thank me. And I’m lucky if I get that many. I’m convinced, however, that, generally speaking, gratitude has to be taught at home. Rarely does it flower spontaneously.

For most of twenty years now, I’ve gifted a significant number of Christmas in My Heart® books to the leadership of large Christian organizations. As certain as night follows day, I can be absolutely certain that the same people will thank me every last time; and the same people will not.

* * * * *

We have all once again celebrated the sacred holiday of Thanksgiving. How many of us, I wonder, really took time to thank God for our many blessings—the gifts of life, health, family, friendship, and so much more?

But what about this week, now that Thanksgiving is over for another year? Does our thankfulness end Thanksgiving night?

For many years now—but not nearly enough—, I have made the expression of gratitude into a great adventure. Are these unexpected expressions of gratitude received in ho hum fashion? Not on your life! It’s more like cold water to travelers dying of thirst.

About a month ago, at Lauderdale by the Sea in Florida, I couldn’t help but notice how extra delicious the vegetarian omelet was. I asked our waiter to relay my appreciation to the chef. He turned me down, saying: “Sir, I think it would mean more if you took time to thank him personally.” I followed his suggestion and finally found the chef in a hot windowless room; dark, cheerless, and dank. You should have seen the sunrise of joy on his face as he effusively thanked me again and again for taking the trouble to track him down and thank him personally!

I’ve made it a habit, whenever I discover someone who is going the proverbial “second mile” in any aspect of service to others, to take time to say “thank you”—not just generally but specifically, which means much more to the recipient.

Oh there are ever so many opportunities, each day of our lives, to say thank you. Often we completely forget to regularly thank those who are nearest and dearest to us.

Emerson maintained that “the gift without the giver is bare,” which reminds me of expensive Christmas cards some people mail us, that arrive with their names printed on it. And nothing else. Am I impressed? Not on your life! They could have said something! Or what about tipping in hotels and motels. It’s all too easy to just drop some dollar bills on a table, and leave it at that. But ah the day-brightening-difference to hospitality workers when I also write “Many thanks!” or “You keep our room beautiful!”

It is an industry axiom that for every person who sends us an unsolicited note of thanks, there are at least a hundred people who feel the same way but will never take the time to express that gratitude. That’s why I consider unsolicited thank you notes as pure gold!

* * * * *

So how about you? How many of our readers would like to join me in this great Gratitude Adventure?


Greed Attacks Thanksgiving


November 19, 2014

In case you haven’t noticed, the forces of Greed and Secularism appear determined to obliterate all remnants of the spiritual dimensions of America’s holidays: they’ve been all too successful with Easter, and even more successful with Halloween. For several generations now they’ve been attacking Christmas from every possible direction.

Now, they appear determined to bulldoze Thanksgiving (morphing Thanksgiving into Black Thursday) off the calendar. Abraham Lincoln founded Thanksgiving as a profoundly spiritual day. It remained so for over a hundred years. But not so today.

If you haven’t read it yet, I strongly urge you to track down Drew Harwell’s Nov. 17 Washington Post article, “Thanksgiving Day Shopping: Retailers vs. Black Thursday.”

Harwell quotes Peter Foley of Bloomberg News: “Shoppers rush through the doors at a Macy’s store in New York on Thanksgiving. Not long ago, the practice of a store staying closed on the holiday was simply a given, but now a core of retailers is pushing back, vowing to stay closed.”

Harwell’s lead paragraph is in the same vein: “Not so long ago, the practice of a store staying closed on Thanksgiving was simply a given; one more holiday in which workers assumed they’d get some time off. Then, amid the corporate tug-of-war over Black Friday crowds, retailers began eying the juicy hours of Turkey Day as the best time to kick off their crucial holiday shopping seasons. The move drew both sales and backlash from shoppers, who worried the sacred day was being plowed beneath the tough work schedules of Black Friday creep.”

What far too few of us appear to realize is this: every time Christians cave in to secular forces determined to destroy all Christian institutions and holidays, they simultaneously erode the remaining few opportunities families have of maintaining ties with each other. Requiring workers to work on religious days and holidays results in the attendant dismantling of the family structure and Judeo-Christian values.

Result: this year, 45% of Americans plan to shop on Thanksgiving, up from 38% last Thanksgiving.

Walmart, the nation’s biggest private employer, plans to be open all day. J.C. Penney, Best Buy, and Toys R Us will munificently wait until 5:00 p.m.; Kohl’s, Macy’s Sears, and Target, tiptoe in an hour later.

But we all know what that means: their employees will be forced to leave the Thanksgiving dinner table early, or miss it entirely, in order to get to the store in time to get ready for the crowds. Some of the stores will stay open all night and marathon into Black Friday.

A big question well worth serious thought is this: Every time Christians or strong believers in family values and togetherness votes with their feet by shopping on Thanksgiving, they are betraying their own core values.

Not all is lost, however. Harwell notes that “The stores refusing to open on the holiday, however, may feel the moral capital they gain from looking like the good guys could mean more for their brand in the long run. A study last month by retail site RichRelevance found more than 60% of Americans said they disliked that stories opened on Thanksgiving, and only 12% said they liked the trend. The movement is gaining steam: A ‘Boycott Black Thursday’ Facebook page has more than 79,000 likes.

It is indeed time for each of us to stand up and be counted on this issue. Next time you shop in stores that remain closed on Thanksgiving, take the time to speak to the managers personally and thank them. Do more: in gratitude for their stand—patronize them. Among those who this year put families and those who work them first, valuing them more than profits, are the likes of American Girl, Barnes & Noble, Bed Bath & Beyond, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Burlington Coat Factory, Costco [Costco is renowned for putting its employees first], Crate and Barrel, Dillard’s, DSW, GameStop, Hobby Lobby, HomeGoods, Home Depot, Jo Ann Fabrics, Lowe’s, Mardel’s, Marshall’s, Nordstrom, Patagonia, Petco, Pier 1, Publix, and REI.

What a statement it would make to all these purveyors of greed if Americans would unitedly rise in support of the “Good Guys,” and put teeth in this act by boycotting the “Bad Guys!”

Well, might it be possible….if we all get angry at once and say, Enough is Enough!



November 12, 2014

She would not have been unusual during my growing-up-years—but she is now. She was reading the Scripture text at church: clearly, each word perfectly enunciated, with deep feeling. And her eyes—they lit up the entire church. I literally could not take my eyes off of her.

After church, I spoke with her. I learned quite a bit about her upbringing, but learned little I had not already surmised. I complimented her on the sense of wonder radiating from her eyes—but really it was the parents who deserved the fuller credit for them. For it was they who have so far protected her from losing that God-given sense of wonder all babies are born with, but oh so few retain more than months.

So why, if her eyes are wonder-filled, do I label her “The Girl with Dancing Eyes”? This is why: When she was in church, her eyes were wonder-filled reverent eyes; but, one-on-one, outside of church—I was not a stranger to her (her family reads from my books)—, though the wonder remained in her eyes, there was a joyousness, tied to an entrancing addition of impishness, that was absolutely irresistible: the only word that adequately capsulizes the totality is “Dancing.”

But why is she not the norm among children her age? Reason being that many forces are at work that contribute to stripping that sense of wonder from the eyes of babies and children. Parents do it the very first time they permit the baby to be in the room when the television set is on. Studies have shown that babies are anything but unaware, picking up 60-70 percent of what is said and depicted on the screen. Parents all too often fail to realize how little it takes to quench that spark of vibrant life that brings the glow into the eyes. Parents—and how few parents are not guilty of this!—apparently don’t realize what they are doing when they say, “For goodness sake, stop bothering me with your questions—go watch TV!”

And precious little that appears on the television screen elevates the soul of those who watch it. And even if a program is values-worth-living-by-affirming, all too few of the million-plus commercials each of our children is exposed to during their growing-up years, are likely to increase the candle-power of those pure eyes they were born with.

But parents cannot take that sense of wonder for granted. It must be continually reinforced in the family story hour. For children do not internalize abstractions, but rather they internalize whatever values (uplifting or debasing) they hear or see in stories. Since few of the stories they experience on the media are compatible with the sense of wonder they were born with, wise parents realize that it doesn’t take more than seconds or minutes to blight—or even destroy completely—that glow. But if they are introduced to the right kind of stories (the ones they’ll ask for again and again), they will internalize those values. This is the reason Christ never spoke without stories: He created us to internalize them; to grow into them.

One danger, however, must be pointed out: It is all too easy for concerned parents to over-react. To be so over-protective and restrictive that their children either rebel or grow up to be narrow-minded, naive, and incapable of dealing with the complexities of adult life.

It is an awesome responsibility to raise a child.

Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club #33 – Lois Lowry’s “The Giver”

August 27, 2014


In the case of this book, I put the cart before the horse. Connie and I were invited to see an exclusive advanced screening of the upcoming movie, The Giver at the Carefree Cinema in Colorado Springs on the evening of July 31, 2014.

Neither of us had read the book. All we knew was that the book was first published in 1993, and became a Newberry Award winner in 1994. The book has been required reading in a host of schools–especially middle schools–across the country for many years now. Colleges too.

We went into the movie blind since it had not yet been released; not even movie reviews were available yet. We did know, however, that the movie had a stellar cast, including Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Taylor Swift, Katie Holmes, Brenton Thwaites, Odeya Rush, and Alexander Skarsgard.

We did know it would be a futuristic movie.

Our hostess was the genial Jane Terry, who explained why each of us had been forbidden to bring any recording devices into the theater. Nor were we to divulge the contents of the film to anyone prior to the movie’s release, or review it before the release date.

Then, the movie rolled. In somber black and white. It took us some time to understand just what it was that we were watching. And what might be significant about the upcoming twelfth birthdays of a group of good friends. At which time, each would be assigned a life profession, hopefully compatible with each individual’s primary interests.

The first jar had to do with the age: they most certainly didn’t look like twelve-year-olds, but rather eighteen-year-old high school graduates! What gives here? But the story-line was so mesmerizing that most of us did willing-suspension-of-disbelief and watched the story-line unroll.

It didn’t take me long to discover we were watching a dystopia, a subject area I was already very familiar with, having written my masters in English thesis at Sacramento State University on utopian and dystopian books. My wife, not having been herself immersed in the genre earlier on, was forced to fly blind into the movie.

Nor did it take me long to realize how eerily prophetic the story line was: too much appeared to either be already reality in contemporary society or be approaching it. Then the story grew darker. But it was still a long time before either the young protagonists or the audience were aware that something awful was happening.

In the movie discussion afterwards, it was noted that the author, back in 1993, had predicted it might become reality in fifty years from then. I declared that it might very well become reality in twenty from now.

But later, I purchased a copy of the book and read it through. I was fascinated. When the movie was released I eagerly read the reviews to see what their take on the movie might be.


Raymond Flynn (August 15 Wall Street Journal) titled his review “‘The Giver’ and the ‘Totalitarian Instinct.’” Included in his insightful commentary are passages such as this: “As the lights came up after the screening…, my thoughts were on Poland and communism, but soon turned to the broader subject of totalitarian regimes robbing individuals of their God-given rights. So often, one of the first jobs of the totalitarian is to declare that God is dead and that government is the final authority on truth and justice–we see it now in North Korea…. In the movie, we are in a world where all human misery has been eliminated. There is no rage, no war, no wealth and no poverty. But at a cost. There is also no music, no art, no literature, no beauty. And no memory. Just to be safe, all memories are the possession of a lone individual.”

In the August 16-17 Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Wolfe’s review of Jeff Bridges’ role quotes Bridges as saying, “I think it’s an impulse for human beings to want to suffer less, and we’re kind of addicted to comfort at all costs–at least I am. And of course comfort has a price. So the film is asking…what’s the true cost of our comfort, and what are we willing to pay?”

Lisa Kennedy, in the August 15 Denver Post labels the film “a gentle, chilling dystopian primer,” and notes that both recent films Divergent and The Hunger Games owe much to Lois Lowry’s earlier book. The movie “is a class act, the kind of respectable rendering of a literary source we’ve come to expect from Philip Anschutz’s Walden Media, the indie force behind ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ ‘Holes,’ and other engaging family fare.”


My mind is still at sea with Lois Lowry’s unique approach to the utopian and dystopian genres. George Orwell paints his Stalinist world in bleak gray. Both Freedom and Family are dirty words. Love is an obscenity. Aldous Huxley’s world is closer to ours: Give the world all the sex, sensations, and pleasure it wants–and few will even care that World Controllers make all the really significant decisions, what’s left is meaningless, which is whatever sensation, pleasure, high, or pill one wishes to turn to. Free sex is so ubiquitous it no longer has any meaning, nor do any of the standard building blocks to a great society: God, Love, Marriage, Fidelity, Commitment, Honor, Patriotism, Empathy, Faith, Integrity, Courage, Dependability, Longing, etc.

Lowry’s world is also gray, and is just as totalitarian as Orwell’s and Huxley’s, even though it appears to be benign. All the highs and lows of life have been eliminated. Sex does not even exist, no small thanks to injections and pills. The power of making individual choices is not even an option, not even in careers. Marriage is a travesty, as is “family,” but is instead a mockery of the real thing: catbird egg children (not your own), and celibate “parents” who are not permitted to really love anyone. Puberty is not even permitted to happen. Children happen somewhere off-stage via women who somehow churn out babies from no one is permitted to know where or how. The only learning is standardized meaningless pap. Big Brother–or in Meryl Streep’s case, Big Sister, is omnipresent. Even thought-crime is punishable by death. Unwanted babies disappear. Same with unwanted retirees. All is placid–yet terrifying. All human knowledge is housed in one room, guarded by one person only. No one else must have any access to it–ever.

Nevertheless, I personally predict that society is drifting into Lowry’s orbit: In America, spiritual faith–unless it is of the East or mystical–is routinely ridiculed and disparaged. Marriage (commitment for life) is being reduced to live-in relationships, one-night stands, and meaningless “hook-ups.” Children all too often are merely frisbees tossed between one household to another, with no real home to call their own. Porn of all kind (a la Huxley) is so addictive that real marital commitment cannot even compete. Virtual reality is replacing real reality. The very concept of faithfulness is mocked. The gay lifestyle is all too often replacing the heterosexual; result: androgynous individuals without clearly defined sexual differences. Why spend years studying and learning when you can escape into substance abuse and virtual reality? Boys especially, lacking traditional fatherhood role-models, are bailing out of education at an ever earlier age. College and university degrees are becoming worthless: substituting amorphous masses of meaningless observations for the traditional building blocks of western culture: history, biography, geography; great art, great music, great literature. More and more, one can earn doctorates in areas such as history without taking any history classes. Patriotism is continually ridiculed and downgraded, and is no longer taught in most of our schools. Our democratic way of life is being rapidly subverted by corporations and big money determining election results rather than people-driven elections. Since people are discouraged from reading, elections are now being decided by vicious below-the-belt attack ads that result in more and more cynicism, most terrifying–even in children and teenagers. Big Government is taking over more and more of the decisions parents used to make. Big Governments the world over are discouraging all rural life in favor of megacities that can be more easily manipulated and coerced.

When you add all this up, who is to stop totalitarian systems such as Lowry’s from obliterating what is left of freedom in our world?

That is why everyone–young or old–ought to read Lowry’s book and see the movie…so that course-corrections can be implemented before it is too late. Especially should tweens and teens read the book and see the movie.

The book can be found everywhere. The movie version was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2014; the original (1993) was published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. Find a copy and read it.


April 23, 2014

Much of the Southwest is in drought mode. Even California, the breadbasket of the nation.

Snow and rain. Human life could not live without moisture, consequently millions of people are concerned about climate change. Each year, here in the Colorado Rockies, many worry that this year we won’t have enough moisture for our crops, this year the rivers won’t bring life to counties or states fed by rivers born in the Rockies, this year lack of snow may cut the ski season short, this year our wells may run dry, this year wind and fire may combine to burn up everything we own. The list could go on and on.

But one thing is for sure: we do not take weather for granted. Mankind never has.

In a service club I’m a part of, every week we collect what we call “happy dollars” (which we then donate to our annual literacy campaign). As each of us weighs in on what we are happiest about, almost always weather comes up: if we’ve had a good snowfall or a good rain, invariably at least one member calls attention to it; in the opening invocation, God is usually thanked for whatever moisture comes our way. And when moisture does not come, God is reminded in the invocation that we’d sure appreciate more snow, or more rain.

At the elevation where we live (9,700′), we get lots of snow. In fact, a neighbor and I keep track year by year. Over an eighteen-year period, we have averaged 200-230 inches of snow a year. We’re under normal for this year, but we keep hoping more snow will fall–and if it doesn’t, we’ll hope and pray that God will grant us a long summer monsoon season of rain.

How good God is.

Published in: on April 23, 2014 at 5:00 am  Comments (2)  
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April 9, 2014

Next to me in an office supply store line was a young woman in her mid to late 30s. She was working so hard to get just right a lamination of a long sheet of quotations that everyone in the waiting line got interested in her. Turns out that it wasn’t even for her, but for a dear friend. When I mentioned to her that her friend was lucky to have such a caring friend, she remarked in a very soft voice to me that creating this gift for her friend took her mind off her own troubles.

Conversationally, almost as an aside, I said, “Hopefully, your troubles aren’t too bad.”

When she puddled up, I realized I was in too deep to back out without further dialogue, and, well, one question led to another and before I knew it we’d moved away from the counter so she could speak confidentially. It helped that she’d purchased some of my books in recent years and trusted me.

It was far far worse than I had imagined: her husband had recently died from cancer. . . . Her teenage son had got in with the wrong crowd, overdosed on drugs, and died. . . . Without her husband’s income, she’d lost their home. . . . And the final straw: she’d lost her job too. She was homeless and destitute and didn’t know where in the world to turn.

She summed it all up with these poignant words: “God is my last resort, and I struggle to make sense of it all one day at a time.”

“One day at a time.”

* * * * *

Which reminds me of another encounter I had in a hospital break room a few years ago. I incorporated it into my story, “The Clock of Life.” in Christmas in My Heart 18 almost five years ago.

I’d been operated on for an obstruction in my bile duct that had resulted in my skin turning yellow with jaundice. My hospitalist had told me that if I made it to dawn without the most excruciating pain I’d ever experienced, that would mean I’d escaped pancreatitis. So I walked the hospital corridors hour after hour, stopping once in a while in the break room. Once, there was a woman sitting there who was the spouse of another patient in the ward. Turned out that her husband had a rare virulent form of leukemia. When I asked how severe it was, she answered almost matter of factly, “He can’t even turn over without my help.”

I followed up by asking, “And how long has he had this condition?”

There was a very long pause before, in a soft but strained voice, she answered, “Twenty-five years!”“

I was so stunned, I was almost unable to speak. Finally, I said, “Twenty-five years?

She nodded. “Yes. And in all that time I’ve never left him–not even for a day.”

I could only stammer, “My dear woman, how do you do it?”

Never will I forget her response: “God gives me strength for one day at a time.”

* * * * *

I was on the phone for over an hour one night recently. On the other end of the line was a friend I’d worked with in a university some years before. His voice was so soft I hardly recognized it. He’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was so weak he couldn’t even get out of his chair without his wife’s help. He was undergoing 28-day cycles of radiation, each of which did all but kill him. The prognosis looked anything but good.

In situations like this one is almost incapable of speech. What do you say to a dear one who knows for a certainty that, unless a miracle takes place, he is living his last hours in life?

I told him I’d been praying for him. He told me that many others were praying for him too. . . and added, “It’s not too hard: we all know we’re going to die, so it’s not an “if,” only a “when.” And clearly he was getting his house in order: family and close friends visited him or phoned him often.

And he now lived “one day at a time.”

Before I signed of, he thanked me again for taking the time to call, saying, “You’re part of what means most to me: true friends who stay by me to the end.”

* * * * *

One day at a time. . . . God gives us strength for one day at a time.

Once Upon A Time 141 Years Ago

March 12, 2014


What’s so significant about 1873, 141 years ago? Let’s find out.

Lincoln had been assassinated at the end of the horrific Civil War during which virtually every family, North or South, had been bathed in blood. The terrible Reconstruction Period was bringing a new species of hell to the South. To add even more misery, the terrible bank panic of 1873 was blighting the hopes and dreams of millions of people, for there was then no FDIC to fall back on.

But in the midst of all this, something totally unforeseen took place: Roswell Smith (1829-1892), cofounder of Scribners and founder of the Century Publishing Company, woke up one never-to-be-forgotten morning with a dream; but, unlike most people, this publisher believed in constructing lasting foundations under his dreams. Since he had more than enough money, all he lacked was a young energetic visionary editor who’d help him to change the western world. He found her, a widowed Mary Mapes Dodge, whose best-selling book, Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates, eight years before, had elevated her to the pinnacle of national popularity. Once she’d signed on, the stage was set.Scan_Pic0080

On my lapboard this stunning late winter day in the Colorado Rockies, is a very old book containing two 141-year-old magazines and four 140-year-old magazines. The crystallization into reality of Smith’s and Dodge’s dream: the very first volume of a life-changing magazine, St. Nicholas.

I’ve always been attracted to visionary dreams that change the world. I can only imagine what it would have been like in that New York editorial office when Smith handed Mrs. Dodge that very first magazine. In my introduction to “A St. Nicholas Magazine Christmas” (Christmas in My Heart® 17, 2008), I took our readers back in time to what it would have been like for a child or a teen to have been handed a copy of that magazine.

The fastest speed known to man was the train; transportation in general was still dominated by the horse. The telegraph office and the newspaper in each town were their windows to the world. The center of home life was the stove, kitchen, or fireplace–here is where family reading took place in the evenings. Paper was so rare that children, both at home and at school, tended to write with chalk on slate rather than using a pencil on paper. Childhood, as we know it today, didn’t exist back then, for children were expected to work as hard as adults. Education was all too brief; maybe, if you were lucky, three or four grades in a one-room schoolhouse. Girls especially faced an unenviable future for few careers other than marriage and motherhood were open to them. They were expected to marry by the ages of 14 to 17 (boys 15 to 18); children would then arrive on an average of every two years. No small thanks to the failure of doctors and midwives to wash their hands between patients, untold millions of women died of puerperal fever or childbirth “complications” – hence men tended to go through three wives in a lifetime. Life expectancy was short.

So just imagine yourself as an 1873 child or teen, as this magazine created just for you was delivered to your door. You’d be not only hungry for knowledge, you’d be voracious: all that knowledge out there, but inaccessible to you. Now here come, in your mailbox, windows to the world: history, biography, religion, literature, art, music, mythology, biology, architecture, anthropology, philosophy, technology, folklore, popular culture, and on and on. Authors and poets such as Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, Anthony Hope, Tennyson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Longfellow, Bret Harte, Whittier, Frances Hodgson Burnett, William Cullen Bryant; and artists such as Arthur Rackham, Maxfield Parrish, Howard Pyle, Rembrandt, Rubens, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Frederic Remington, Charles Dana Gibson, Arthur Keller, etc.

Faithfully, for two-thirds of a century, three generations of young people received 1,200 pages of fascinating reading material every year. Without preaching or moralizing, the magazines helped inculcate principles of right living in its readers: character traits such as integrity, kindness, self-sacrifice, empathy, industry, courage, fortitude, self-respect, patriotism, respect for their elders, sportsmanship, etc.. – traits that bridged to the Golden Rule and service for others. Interwoven into the very fabric of the magazine was God’s leading in each of our lives. Thus, in its 66 years, St. Nicholas had a huge impact on the American people and British Commonwealth.

And yet, miraculously, defying all the odds, here is this refugee from another time, this 1873-74 artifact, on my lapboard! Thoughts and reactions almost overwhelm me. What will be the thoughts of people in 2155, 141 years from now, when they look back in time? Will there be any paper books left outside of mega library vaults? Will the average person be able to experience the thrill of touching and reading actual paper pages from times past? Or will the closest thing be digital? Digital recreations that lack any real connections to the real artifact itself. In that probable age of Orwellian Big Brother will they be forced to enter the Ray Bradbury world of Fahrenheit 451 and seek out those who memorized seminal books from the past (reason being totalitarian rulers have now erased all printed records that such books ever existed)? Even more terrifying, will there yet exist civilizations based on the Judeo-Christian belief system generations of children once grew up internalizing?

In a way, thousands of homeschooling parents are already circling their wagons around their children, earnestly seeking to preserve values worth living by for their children. Searching out real books, with the known potential to change lives for the better if their values are internalized. In a world that increasingly devalues real books, a revolution has already begun, a revolution every bit as significant as the one begun back in 1873-74 with this priceless book resting on my lapboard today.


February 5, 2014

If you, like me, spend much time in bookstores, and watch where people go, once they’ve come in, you’ll discover that many are there for one reason only: they are searching for wisdom. Browsers search through quotation books, philosophy books, religion books, writing books, advice books, self-help books–the list could go on and on. Each of these browsers seeking answers, solutions, or guidance.

Yet it’s strange,, isn’t it? That we who are all but buried in torrents of information–more so than any previous generation in history–find it increasingly difficult to separate the wise from the foolish, the gold from the mica, the original from a copy or cloning.

Untold thousands of these seekers who buy book after book turn up empty. Eventually, a disproportionate number of them give up on finding solutions for their problems and settle for a guru. A guru who’ll say to them, in essence: You fools! You’ll never find answers on your own. Only sages like me, who have sifted through all the stratas of information and have discovered the mother lode of wisdom, can be trusted to answer your questions and bring you peace. All you have to do is listen to me talk and read my books. Never again will you have to wonder about what is important or not. In the future, you need search no further for I have all the answers.

Sound familiar? It ought to for our contemporary society is overrun by self-annointed gurus and prophets who have set themselves up as demigods, both religious and secular.

I too have long searched for wisdom. All writers do. How well I remember a key epiphany in my life’s journey. I stumbled on a book that appeared to contain all the answers I’d ever need in my search to be a successful writer. In fact, the dust-jacket trumpeted the gladsome news that wanabe writers need search no further than this one book, for in it an impressive group of successful writers each divulge the secrets to their writing success. It was not a cheap book, but I rose to the bait and bought it.

Never in my life have I been more disappointed/disillusioned by a book! It was hollow. Not one of all those famous authors offered solutions or guidance! Instead, each one revealed how insecure s/he was; how terrified each one of writer’s block: of coming up empty idea-wise, wisdom-wise.

Not one of them accessed a Higher Power in this near frantic search for wisdom. At this time in my journey, my books were selling well and letters were streaming in. A number of them praised me for my wisdom, acknowledging their debt to me as a source of wisdom they could depend on. This concerned me no little for I knew it was not true, for I was searching for wisdom myself. For an author, such letters are insidious, for the temptation is to believe them, and write back, acknowledging the truth of their assumptions, and inwardly adding another name to the tribe of devotees who can be counted on to buy his/her books.

Finally, God gave me a totally different epiphany: one that has, over time, revolutionized my life. The catalyst: Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived. If the story is hazy to you, here it is:

That night the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream, and God said, ‘What do you want, and I will give it to you!’

[And Solomon answered] ‘O LORD my God, now you have made me king instead of my father, David, but I am like a little child who doesn’t know his way around. And here I am among your own chosen people, a nation so great they are too numerous to count! Give me an understanding mind so that I can govern your people well and know the difference between right and wrong. For who by himself is able to govern this great nation of yours?’

The LORD was pleased with Solomon’s reply and was glad that he had asked for wisdom. So God replied, ‘Because you have asked for wisdom in governing my people and have not asked for a long life or riches for yourself or the death of your enemies–I will give you what you asked for! I will give you a wise and understanding mind such as no one has ever had or ever will have! And I will also give you what you did not ask for–riches and honor! No other king in all the world will be compared to you for the rest of your life!’
(1 Kings 3:7-12 NLT)

Though I had read this passage before, never before had I thought of it as having any possible association with myself. But now the thought came to me: Nowhere in Scripture is it said that God would not grant wisdom to someone other than Solomon! What if I asked for it? I could but ask. I couldn’t possibly be more at sea wisdom-wise than I am now!

And so, with my own adaptation of Solomon’s request, I began the first day of the rest of my life:

Lord, as I begin this new day, I recognize that my own wisdom wells are shallow and the water brackish–only Yours are deep, filled with living water. Would You be willing to grant me, just for today, access to Your wisdom wells so that what I say and write may be a blessing?

Incredibly and immediately, I was engulfed by breakers of wisdom rolling up the beaches of my mind!

And so began my daily partnership with God. It has radically changed my life, for I’ve never again had to worry about accessing true wisdom. I never write a word of a story, or a plot, without humbly asking God, that if it be His will [absolutely critical, for God ignores gimme prayers], He will supply the story concept, the plot, the characters. He may make me wait, but always, the story comes, and all I have to do is toddle along behind the characters as God takes them wherever it is His will that they go. Same is true for my (our) story anthologies: God chooses the stories that make it in.

Thus I take no credit for anything that bears my name, but rather I continually note God’s mind-boggling condescension in partnering with the least of His children, one who has made so many mistakes in life. If there be anything in our books that have been published since that life-changing day when I first prayed what I’ve come to call the Prayer of Solomon, it is because all is His rather than mine.

But the flip-side of the coin is this: In order to continue this partnership with God, I am not at liberty to write anything God would not approve of. I cannot compartmentalize what I write or say.

* * *

But now, let’s get back to you. You may not be a writer, so how does the Prayer of Solomon apply to you? The Prayer may be used by every individual, young or old, on earth. It is no more complex than humbly submitting your daily trajectory to the Creator of us all, who created us in His own image, and is moment by moment, accessible to each of us.

However, if you do decide to make this Prayer the foundation of the rest of your life, be prepared for seismic changes in your life. Not that you won’t continue to make mistakes, zig when you should have zagged, but the trajectory of your journey will trend upward rather than downward.

May God bless you.

Thanksgiving – Just Another Shopping Day?

November 20, 2013

I can’t remember much sadder society developments than the recent greed-based decisions of large store chain executives–such as Macy’s–, to open their doors on Thanksgiving this year. In the process, depriving their own employees of the opportunity to celebrate the sacred holiday of Thanksgiving with their families. ‘To say nothing of their blatant attempt to shatter the heretofore sacred family day for millions of other Americans.

If anything can evidence clearer than this, a nation that has lost its spiritual moorings, I can’t think of it. I can imagine what Abraham Lincoln would say–who helped to found it during the darkest days of the Civil War. Thanksgiving was then a call to the nation to make that occasion a national day of prayer.

I’ve been waiting to hear from the nation’s spiritual leaders, as well as every minister in every parish. Where is the outcry from government leaders, from the President on down? About the only thing purveyors of greed will listen to would be a national boycott because of the outrage they are perpetrating.

Nor have I heard from the other great retailers. Where is their voice in all this? It’s like when one giant airline announces a fair-hike; if the others do not follow suit, there is an ignominious retreat from the fare hike. Why is this not happening?

How about you and me? Where is our voice in all this? This year, it’s not Black Friday – it is the Blackest of Thursdays!

I’m listening.

Published in: on November 20, 2013 at 5:00 am  Comments (4)  
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Calvary Chapel – Gettysburg – Part Two

Part 2
October 23, 2013


Cyclorama Depiction

After days of heavy rain, the skies had finally cleared. At 7:35 a.m., I was picked up at the Radisson and ferried over to the block-long Calvary Chapel complex. Five apparently brand new 54-passenger tour buses were rapidly filling with growth-oriented men, men who knew each other well. Here and there were fathers and sons. Had to smile at the two sets of fathers and sons in the row just in front of me: it started out father/son, but it rapidly became clear that the boys preferred sitting together, so they were so accommodated. Thereafter both the two men and the two boys talked to each other non-stop.

Our bus, containing the leader, Pastor Trevor Steenbakkers, was designated Bus #1, and led the pack out of the parking lot and headed south. Initially, well over 400 had planned to go, but when our Government shut down, and the national parks, monuments, and battlefields closed, for a while it appeared the day at Gettysburg would be lost. However, Pastor Trevor was tenacious and the good people of Gettysburg (losing money at an alarming rate) were desperate enough to get creative. So here we were, heading to the most famous battlefield in America, wondering what we’d see.

After we cleared Philadelphia’s suburbs, our leader introduced a film few of us had ever seen: the four-hour-long documentary, Gettysburg; we’d see half of it going, and the other half returning. Since I’d been devouring a large book detailing the three-day battle for over a month, I found the historically accurate film riveting. What was almost surreal was watching the action in the screen above us and simultaneously experiencing/seeing outside the same hill and tree configurations depicted in the film. It was almost like theater in the round.

Immersed in the film as we were, we were jarred when the film was turned off: we were coming into Gettysburg. I’d been there before, but never before with a guide. We drew up at the Gettysburg Cyclorama complex, and within several minutes, our “soldier” guide came aboard. He told us that though we were not permitted to enter the 6,000 acre battlefield, we’d get mighty close. Though eight of the ten roads intersecting Gettysburg were federal, fortunately two were not. We’d thus be able to nibble at the battlefield from a number of angles, all of which our guide knew–in fact, he was descended from men who fought here. In short, he was living history! I have found that, in travel, a guide who is passionate about the subject literally makes a trip. And so it was here. Serendipitously, we got to experience in depth the town of Gettysburg, usually relegated to the sidelines by pilgrims who spend almost all their time on the battlefield itself. With such a guide, believe me, none of us felt shortchanged.


Cyclorama Depiction

Afterwards, it was back to the Cyclorama complex, with its food court, large gift/book store, and the dramatic Cyclorama. During the 1880’s, the French artist Paul Philippoteaux researched, and painted what is now the largest painting in America. It took him, with his team of assistants, over a year to create the 42-foot-high and 377 feet in circumference painting. Pickett’s Charge dominates. As you walk around you can check out each portion of the battlefield. A sound and light show dramatizes it.

While half the group experienced it, I had the opportunity to answer the other half’s questions about Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and Gettysburg. Then I took them deeper into the significance of Gettysburg, the pivotal high-tide of the Confederacy. I discussed with them Lincoln’s epiphany when he wrote what his secretary, John Hay, called “The Meditation of the Divine Will.” In it [Hay had found it on Lincoln’s desk and secretly copied it.], Lincoln rhetorically asked why God refused to bless the armies of the North: for two long years, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson had time after time defeated Union armies two or three times larger than they. Why? asked Lincoln. Didn’t the North have the high moral ground in God’s eyes? Finally [and I tell the fuller story in my Lincoln biography, Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage], Lincoln was convicted that God withheld His blessing from the North because it had refused to address the almost quarter of a millennium cancer of slavery. After much prayer, Lincoln made a vow to God that if Lee retreated from Antietam across the Potomac, he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves. Lincoln did so on January 1, 1863.

What further muddied the waters for Lincoln was his realization that both North and South prayed to the same God, asking each day for battlefield success. As if that didn’t muddy it enough, many of the slaves in the South were actually owned by absentee planters in the North. So the North came into the Civil War with anything but clean hands, where slavery was concerned.

Lee came to Gettysburg serenely confident that he would, once again, easily dispose of Union forces, led as they were by inept northern generals. After his victory, since Gettysburg was only a few miles from Washington, there would be little to prevent his victorious troops from marching on the capital. When it fell, the war would be over.

But if Lincoln was right, and his freeing the slaves six months before would be accepted by God as a clear indication that the North was at last seeking higher moral ground, then God ought to recognize that fact on the battlefield confrontations.

But, for Lee, though time after time it looked like he had the Federals on the run, now each time they miraculously regrouped. I pointed out to our Gettysburg armchair historians that:

1. Meade had only been in command of the Army of the Potomac for three days when Gettysburg cannonading began, yet he refused to buckle as had his predecessors. Nor did Hancock, his strong second in command.

2. First and foremost, Lee was missing the one indispensable person, other than himself, in the war: Stonewall Jackson, the commander the Feds feared most, for he out-thought and out-fought their generals every time. At Chancellorsville, when Jackson was killed by “friendly fire” from his own men, Lee declared he’d rather have lost his right arm. That loss contributed mightily to the results at Gettysburg.

3. Always before, the great cavalry commander, Jeb Stuart, could be counted on as Lee’s eyes and ears so that Lee would know everything about the enemy and its placements before the first shot was fired. This time, for some unexplainable reason, he was AWOL, rampaging through the Pennsylvania countryside, wreaking havoc–he wouldn’t show up until late on Day 2.

4. Without Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s second in command, Longstreet, was sulky, dragging his feet at Lee’s commands.

5. Pickett, too, was a no-show until late on Day 2.

6. And why did Lee, that military master who always knew when not to push it too far, now pushed it too far, overriding Longstreet’s strong reservations, and order Pickett’s ill-fated almost suicidal charge?

The result: Lee was forced to retreat. Had Meade and Hancock corralled the Confederate armies on the banks of the swollen Potomac River, all could have been over–but they did not, thus the war lasted two more bloody years.

Nevertheless, Gettysburg clearly represents the high tide of the Confederacy. Never again did Lee cross the Potomac. Every day thereafter, the North grew stronger and the South weaker.

It does appear that God took sides, albeit in a limited way, after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. In Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, it is clear that Lincoln was convicted that God’s slowness in ending the bloodbath was because both North and South had near a quarter millennium’s worth of slave-related blood on their hands, thus both sides were denied an easy solution.

And Lincoln’s assassination would prolong the anguish (in the South) for yet ten more years of what was euphemistically called “Reconstruction.”

All through our time together, our reference sources were primarily my two Howard/Simon & Schuster books: Abraham Lincoln: A Man of Faith and Courage (2008); and Abraham Lincoln Civil War Stories [it includes four powerful Gettysburg stories] (2013).

All these things and more, we discussed at Gettysburg.

Afterwards, we boarded the bus and headed back to Philadelphia.

Next week, we will conclude this Calvary Chapel series.