Category Archives: Faith

Know Thyself

“Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

British statesman Lord Acton was wise in that observation.

So were our founding fathers.

The reason this democratic republic has endured so many crises that have crippled other nations throughout history is because the men who set up our government began with a right understanding of human nature. This was their wisest insight and greatest and most enduring legacy.

It was their central guiding principle.

In Federalist 51, arguing for adoption of the new Constitution, James Madison points out that “human nature” required “devices” such as checks and balances.

Madison explained:

“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary…In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Our whole system is grounded and rooted in a delicate and insightfully designed structure of countervailing limitations.

American governance was carefully crafted with mortal man in mind.

This system – the process of institutionalized give and take – has worked well and helped America weather many a political, military and social storm.

Our form of government has been tested in war, forged in cultural conflict, endured through scandal, been strengthened in depression and triumphed over the occasional and once popular demagogue.

It hasn’t always been easy. It’s never been simple. The American system is not for the impatient, the extremist or the anarchist.

It’s not for those who would abuse power and insist on their own way.

This is a conservative system of government, not a radical one. This is its greatest strength and finest hope.

Our revolution succeeded, the revolution in France descended into a bloody mess, because of the correct – and, with France, misguided – understanding of human nature.

The founders knew what would happen if power was concentrated without accountability.

It seems James Madison was a lot wiser and more circumspect than Pastor Bill Hybels and the leadership of his Willow Creek Church.

What a tragedy.

While preaching and teaching leadership and Christian ethics for years, Hybels was abusing, weakening and corrupting leadership in his own life and in the life of the church he founded and loved.

Hybels took advantage of his prominent position to exploit what should have been chaste and professional relationships with women in his church. This admired evangelical leader acted despicably as a sexual predator and a lecher.

This happened because Hybels and the elders of his church did not have a system of checks and balances, neglected accountability, ignored the natural propensity to sin, naively trusted individual judgment and worshipped a man.

In their founding pastor, Willow Creek either didn’t recognize the human condition or overlooked it.

It has resulted in a public and private grief that has damaged Christianity, hurt women, disillusioned faith and given at least a temporary victory to Satan.

Temporary, because the devil’s delight shall be short-lived.

The gates of hell shall not ultimately prevail against Willow Creek. God will restore and strengthen the church and Willow Creek will emerge from this present crisis hopefully a wiser, stronger, more mature and deeper congregation.

God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness – his awesome power to cleanse and renew – will give Willow Creek a second chance. Let us rejoice in that. And let us be reminded of what we face within.

But for the grace of God, any one of us could be Bill Hybels. Without the check and balance of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and in our conscience, we would fall.

We share that ever-present and inexplicable nature to sin.

The brilliant men who gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 may not all have been born again Christians but they had a deep reverence for the truth of the Bible, especially when it came to morality and the fallen human predisposition.

“The heart is deceitful above all things,” we read in Jeremiah 17:9, “and desperately wicked. Who can know it?”

And who can trust it, the founders would add.

Throughout the scriptures, we read the fascinating stories of the rise and fall of men and women. We see recorded the examples of power and pride. The Bible doesn’t whitewash or sanitize man’s inner struggles with his own passions and selfish will. It reveals them, that we may be wise.

In these stories we see ourselves. In God’s redemption, we find our hope.

Bill Hybels is another cautionary tale now written in the lesson book of life. He’s got plenty of company in the Old and New Testaments. Like King David, may he find the restoration of the joy of his salvation and the creation of a clean heart.

Satan promised Jesus the kingdoms of this world – the power and the glory of great position – if he’d only bow and worship the prince of this world.

Jesus resisted that temptation.

The devil never stopped.

When the people would make him an earthly king at the apex of his popularity, Jesus withdrew to a quiet place. He would not be beguiled or deceived or misled.

Jesus didn’t trust the raves of the crowds. John says Jesus “knew human nature. No one needed to tell him what mankind is really like” (John 2:24-25).

To know ourselves as we truly are is one of the wisest lessons you and I can ever learn.

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Ramona’s Reason

She feared for her life.

He stared at her with a terrifying rage. His temples pulsated.

Her heart pounded.

She was trapped – physically, for he had cornered her in the bathroom. All 6’2”, 250 pounds of him. What would he do? How far would he go?

Would she die? Or just go to the hospital?

She was also trapped emotionally and mentally.

This man about to violently assault her – again – was the same man she’d glowingly walked down the aisle with nearly 20 years before. He had been the handsome, charming hunk who any girl would swoon over.

What a catch! And a devoted Christian too. He helped lead her to the Lord, talking to her about Jesus.

Impressive. He had it all.

She was married to someone the outside world knew only as one kind of man – and she knew as quite another. Would anyone believe her? Jekyll was so persuasive, polite and amiable that Hyde was inconceivable.

She had fallen in love with an attractive monster.

His emotions could go from 0-100 faster than a Maserati.

Hers were always on a high wire – taut, precarious, nerve-wracking, only moments from danger.

This particular evening, they were preparing to attend a business meeting and he wasn’t getting ready. He was laying on their bed. She urged him, he did not respond.

They began to argue.

Suddenly, “he lunged at me and grabbed my head in his hands, driving his thumbs into my eye sockets. I couldn’t move, couldn’t get up. I remember thinking my skull might crack. I feared my head might split open from the enormous force. The pain was excruciating.”

She survived – with bruises.

This wasn’t the first time he attacked her. But it would be the last.

The bruises weren’t just on her body – they were on her soul.

“Something broke inside me,” she wrote. “Mentally, emotionally and physically, I was totally depleted.” The future would be different. This couldn’t go on. She couldn’t go on – not like this.

Not anymore.

“On that day, with bruises still marking my face and neck, I made my first step toward healing well and living free. I chose me.”

This is Dr. Ramona Probasco.

She’s a Marriage and Family Therapist, devoted mother, loving wife and faith-filled Christian believer. This lovely, poised, well-spoken and highly intelligent woman is also a courageous survivor of violent domestic abuse.

Dr. Ramona, as she is affectionately known to clients and colleagues, is now also an author.

She has bravely chosen to tell her story in Healing Well and Living Free from an Abusive Relationship: from Victim to Survivor to Overcomer.

Ramona has made this successful transformation with the strength and grace of God, the support of a loving and loyal family – including a husband who adores and honors her – and the faithful encouragement of friends and colleagues.

The book describes Dr. Ramona’s journey in compelling prose and moving detail. It captivates from page one and never lets go.

As she writes, “This is not going to be a casual, poolside read.” She has included probing and profound questions “to ponder” at the end of each chapter, along with a Prayer of Reflection and an assortment of powerful scriptures under the heading, God’s Enduring Promises. These alone are worth the price of the book.

This is a must-read story and its timing couldn’t be better.

In the United States, one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.

How women are treated by men increasingly dominates the news. Abuse and exploitation of women has made headlines and stirred controversy in virtually every profession and institution in America.

While the Catholic Church has struggled with the abuse of altar boys by priests and its coverup, Southern Baptists recently discovered their own house is not morally in order when it comes to honoring and respecting women.

In the world’s largest Protestant denomination, male chauvinism has too often ruled a corrupt and arrogant hierarchy. Paige Patterson, SBC icon and seminary president, was fired and punished for telling a female student not to report her alleged rape to authorities and saying to a wife with blackened eyes she should return to her husband.

Power corrupts and especially so when it’s wielded by powerful men over women.

“Domestic violence has been glossed over, set aside, and quite honestly ignored for years,” says former NFL player Ray McElroy in his Foreword to Dr. Ramona’s book.

Why re-visit such a painful past? Why arouse the haunted memories and raw emotions of a former life, now joyfully made new by the grace of God?

Because others need hope. They need help.

Abused women – and men – need to know there’s a way forward and a way out of this dark and dangerous valley – this lonely midnight of the soul.

Writes McElroy:

“Dr. Ramona is a picture of courage, willing to be vulnerable and transparent through her own painful past in an effort to lift others out of their current dark realities.”

God “comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others,” Paul explains to the Corinthian believers. “When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us” (II Corinthians 1: 4).

“The great illusion of leadership,” wrote Henry Nouwen in The Wounded Healer, “is to think that man can be led out of the desert by someone who has never been there.”
Empathy – having been in that desert – more than sympathy, defines our reason to help and to serve.
For Dr. Ramona Probasco, a “wounded healer”, that’s more than reason enough.

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Mightier Than The Sword

It wasn’t easy to notice.

Not an apparent thing.

Many were surprised when they met him.

Charles Krauthammer, the brilliant essayist and Fox News commentator who gave up a promising career in medicine to enter the world of journalism and political ideas, was in a wheelchair most of his life.

When he was in his first year at Harvard Medical School, Krauthammer dove into a swimming pool and hit his head on the bottom.

It was a freak accident. While his head was uninjured, the force severed his spinal cord.

Krauthammer was in the hospital 14 months. The event changed his life forever. It did not diminish his determination to live life to its fullest.

“You can be hopeless and despairing,” he observed years later, “or you can live your life. And to me, there was basically no option.”

After graduating from Harvard near the top of his class and distinguishing himself in the field of psychiatry, young Charles decided to embark on an entirely different path. Appreciating the importance of politics and the difference it made, he chose to write about it. Beginning in the 1980s, Krauthammer wrote for The New Republic, The Washington Post and Time Magazine. He also appeared on the PBS news program Inside Washington.

In 1987, Krauthammer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

Later, he joined the Fox News nightly program Special Report with Bret Baier.

He was an instant star.

Krauthammer’s powerful intelligence was so impressive, his physical disability was an unrecognized irrelevance. Always persuasive, calm, confident, dignified, thoughtful and erudite, he made viewers forget he was in a wheelchair – if they knew at all.

Though possessed of an engaging sense of humor, he could be intimidating in his serious, finely-tuned and flowing articulation.

He was never weak, never wishy-washy. He didn’t care if you agreed with him. Life was of most supreme value when one spoke one’s mind without apology or equivocation on Things That Matter (the title of an essay collection published in 2013).

He treasured words.

They were his gift – and his gift to the world.

Krauthammer used words to make cogent and reasonable arguments, to advance his view of the world and to compel his audience – both viewers and readers – to think and sometimes to think again.

His own circuitous political journey from a liberal campaign aide for Walter Mondale (“I was young once”) to principled and fair-minded conservative helped to give his views – and his manner of expressing them – a depth and insight rare for television punditry in the age of fast-talking air-heads.

Language as art has been in steady decline for years. Social media have often reduced communication to dismissive grunts as we stare at a small lighted screen and thumb-type for entertainment.

College freshmen require remedial education in basic English they should have learned in grammar school.

In both politics and religion, public speaking has become trite, shallow, often coarse, seldom inspiring. The bar is lowered, the standard dismissed and smoke and lights have taken the place of serious and passionate exposition. Speakers need props – even if it’s a water bottle. Eloquence is disappearing and oratory is suspect. Convictions and principles seem quite beside the point.

Charles Krauthammer was a standout exception to these trends.

He understood that abbreviation of speech led to abbreviation of thought.

In a time of deep divisions, he appealed to reason. In an age of banality, he exhibited excellence. In a culture of complaint, he illustrated quiet grace in the face of physical suffering and serious limitations.

His essays could be moving. His tribute to older brother Marcel and his ode to a beloved dog that died inexplicably young were beautifully touching.

He never raised his voice on television, no matter how heated the discussion. Perhaps that would have been physically difficult for him, but I like to think he wouldn’t have anyway.

You were drawn to his arguments, not his histrionics. You listened to Charles Krauthammer. You wanted to hear what this man had to say – in part because he always said it so incredibly well.

Krauthammer, a secular Jew, did not profess an orthodox faith in God.

“I don’t believe in God, but I fear him greatly,” he was fond of saying. He marveled at the awe and mystery of the universe and wondered about the implausibility of it all. He admitted to “a complicated view of deity.”

The Bible declares that the fool has said in his heart there is no God. Krauthammer was no fool and dismissed the atheist argument as “the least plausible” of all theologies – as cold and soulless.

The idea of a divine Creator who stands behind the order of the cosmos and directs it, Krauthammer said, is a mystery that “deserves reverence and awe.”

Perhaps Charles Krauthammer’s reverence for the unknown mysteries of an almighty God would serve worshippers far better than a Sunday morning Happy Hour.

God must have appreciated CK’s reverence for the word.

In the beginning God spoke creation into being. “In the beginning”, John wrote “ was the Word”(John 1:1).

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).

When Charles Krauthammer left us too soon, after a brave battle with cancer, he left a legacy of golden words fitly-spoken that remains timeless in its enduring testimony to the power of persuasive expression.

A pen mightier than any sword.

Thank you Charles. You will be missed.

No Regrets

“I believe that the pursuit of truth and right ideas through honest debate and rigorous argument is a noble undertaking. I am grateful to have played a small role in the conversations that have helped guide this extraordinary nation’s destiny.

I leave this life with no regrets. It was a wonderful life — full and complete with the great loves and great endeavors that make it worth living. I am sad to leave, but I leave with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended.”

From Charles Krauthammer’s farewell letter, announcing that he had only weeks to live, June 8, 2018

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Great Heart

It was dark.

A small candle flickered in an open upstairs bedroom window this balmy fall evening.

The tall, well-built man, handsomely distinguished in his neatly trimmed beard and mustache, gently cradled the little boy in his arms.

He was only three.

The tiny lad was frail. He gasped for air. His father, with tears in his eyes, walked the hallways of the large home, carrying the boy in his arms, sometimes for an hour or more. He would gently whisper and sing to him until finally the boy fell asleep.

The doctors said it was acute asthma.

The boy was weak. He was timid. What would become of him?

Would he one day die in his loving father’s strong but helpless arms?

On some late nights, when his son couldn’t sleep for the torment of the coughing, the father would hitch up his horses to the carriage and take the boy on long rides around the city, hoping the cool air would help him breathe.

When the lad was five, his father would force him to smoke black cigars; the doctors insisted they had curative powers.

As the boy grew older, though still skinny and weak, he displayed a keen intelligence and insatiable curiosity about life around him, especially the fascinations of nature. With his watchful father’s encouragement, he began collecting and cataloguing all manner of insects, fauna, rocks, birds and fish.

By the age of twelve, the son was an accomplished taxidermist. Stuffed animals were found everywhere.

The father was a successful and very wealthy businessman. He was also generous with his money. He taught his family many noble things, chief among them that with great wealth and privilege came great moral responsibility.

He took the words of the Lord seriously: “To whom much is given, from him much will be required.”

He donated to dozens of charities. He generously supported the YMCA and was a commissioner of the State Board of Charities and a director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Museum of Natural History.

In his love and devotion to his family, in his courage and honesty, in his sterling reputation in the community, and in his generous concern for humankind, this father was an example who won the awe-filled admiration and respect of his children.

Including the weak one. The runt of the litter.

He gave them his time. He gave them his attention. He gave them his praise.

His two sons and two daughters gave him a love that would never end.

They adored him.

He was their hero.

When they were grown, they nick-named him Great Heart. He was the strong protector and compassionate spiritual guide in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The name fit.

So did the psalm:

“I will be careful to live a blameless life … I will lead a life of integrity in my own home”(Psalm 101:2).

The influence and example; the wisdom and encouragement; the love and support of a righteous dad is incalculable and lasts a lifetime.

The sickly child had promise. The wise father knew that. He would help him.

He built a gymnasium in an upstairs room and encouraged his son to exercise.

The boy did.

The father hired a personal trainer. The son lifted weights and learned to box. His dad told his friends and took a joyful pride in the emerging transformation.

He watched over his son. He hoped for him, exhorted him and prayed for him.

The young man didn’t die. He grew stronger – and more confident.

While the son was away at college, it was the father who became ill and passed away. He was only 46 years old. His son grieved inconsolably over the loss of the most important person in his life.

He could never be replaced. Nor would he ever be forgotten.

The young man went on to live an extraordinary life. The father who loved him, held him, nurtured him and urged him on would be forever with him, a constant reminder of what it meant to be “an ideal man.”

Years later, after his own success far eclipsed his dad’s, the son placed his father’s portrait over his desk.

If only he could see him now. He wouldn’t have been too old.

“My father was the greatest man I ever knew,” the son wrote. “He combined strength and courage with gentleness, tenderness, and great unselfishness.”

To him he owed so much.

“My father got me breath, he got me lungs, strength, life. I could breathe, I could sleep when he had me in his arms.”

His father had also taught him action, courage and standing for what’s right. He taught him to care about the less fortunate, those left out and left behind.

He taught him both strength and compassion.

This son would never forget the lessons and example of the great and noble man whose name he proudly bore.

His father.

Theodore Roosevelt.

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109,000 and Counting

Shhh!

Nobody knows!

This may be the best-kept secret in American Christendom.

After nearly half a century, most Christians in this country have never heard of Haggai International.

It’s arguably the most exciting and inspiring ministry in the world.

It’s unquestionably unique.

In 1969, American evangelist and pastor Dr. John Edmund Haggai (graduate of Moody Bible Institute and preacher par excellence) had a vision for a new approach to global evangelism. While his own father’s Syrian family had been led to embrace Christianity through the work of western missionaries, Dr. Haggai discovered what he believed was a better idea.

Why not identify and equip gifted and courageous Christian leaders in other nations to reach their own people with the Gospel?

No visas required. No language training. No preparation in cultural sensitivity needed.

Instead, ready on Day One to make a powerful difference.

John Haggai based his new vision for world evangelism on two premises.

First, start at the top.

Start with gifted, respected and high-placed leaders. Seventy-five percent of all Haggai leaders are in the marketplace, not professional ministers. They are CEOs, doctors, lawyers, diplomats, judges and government officials.

Dr Haggai believed that men and women already known and respected in their own nations would have the best opportunity to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with a greater number of people. Because they already had influence their influence could be leveraged more quickly and effectively for Christ.

Secondly, it takes one to know one.

By preparing leaders in evangelism who are indigenous to the culture, it would be easier and more effective to share the Gospel in ways that are culturally sensitive and would make more sense to the unsaved people being reached.

Trust could be more easily and firmly established through the shared bonds of a common heritage. A mutual understanding, born of similar experience and background.

The first reaction on the part of many Christian leaders in the U.S. was negative.

Foreign followers of Christ couldn’t be counted on to present the Gospel – and do it right. This was the classic American superiority – nobody can do anything as well as Americans can.

When the president of the National Association of Evangelicals accused Haggai of “setting back missions 50 years” with his new model for fulfilling the Great Commission, he answered this would hardly be ambitious enough.

“I was trying to set back the cause of missions 2,000 years!”

Sure enough, a careful study of the New Testament and the early church showed that Christianity was spread by those who knew the culture and the language because many of them came from that same language and culture.

After Jesus cured the demoniac in the Gadarenes, the grateful man asked to travel with Jesus and his disciples.

Jesus declined.

“No, go home to your family, and tell them everything the Lord has done for you and how merciful he has been” (Mark 5:19).

Mark says that this once tormented and now joy-filled man traveled extensively throughout the Greek-speaking Decapolis sharing the news about Jesus.

Our Lord knew this radically transformed man would be more effective in winning Greek converts than a Jewish rabbi would.

The woman at the well converted many in her own community. She was a Samaritan.

The eunuch led to faith in Christ by Phillip returned to his influential leadership as the queen’s treasurer. He was an Ethiopian and went back to his own land and his own culture. The Bible says he returned rejoicing – just as Haggai leaders do.

How the treasurer shared his new found faith is a mystery but it’s almost certain he did.

Since Haggai International’s first training in the fall of 1969, this amazing ministry has prepared for evangelism more than 109,000 leaders in 188 nations. Each one of these extraordinary leaders has equipped at least 100 more in his or her own land.

The multiplication can be fully recorded only in Heaven.

Once concerned about the adverse impact of publicity on the safety of its leaders in threatening places, Haggai today, given the transformation of social media, is intent on getting as well-known as possible. The ministry has recently launched a legacy campaign in preparation for its 50th anniversary next year.

It’s also announced a new motto and goal for all its faithful efforts and incredible results:

Ending Gospel Poverty.

Nothing matters more in our troubled world.

Nothing was more important to Jesus Christ who gave us his final command – go and make disciples of all the nations.

Haggai International is the Green Beret of global evangelism. Its leaders are gifted, highly trained, dedicated, prepared, precise in their objectives, and wise in their tactics.

They’re going places no one else can go. Reaching lost souls no one else can reach.

The Haggai model is unique.

Dr. Haggai, our Founder, is still going strong at 94. Though he no longer leads the ministry, his passion for the Gospel is undiminished, his vision, like Moses’, undimmed.

“There is only one answer,” he insists, “reconciliation to God and to each other through Jesus Christ. Governments cannot bring peace. Education cannot bring salvation. Business and industry cannot bring healing. Psychology and sociology cannot bring joy.

Only Christ can bring reconciliation to the world.”

That’s worth remembering in this deeply troubled and divided time.

More than 109,000 brave and gifted leaders from around the world – joyful men and women who love Christ and are determined to share his love with their own people – would say “Amen!”

“Every nation redeemed and transformed through the Gospel of Jesus Christ”

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A Letter to Sarah

He’d come a long way in a short time – this son of New England.

Born in Smithfield, Rhode Island and educated at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, he had committed his life to public service. He attended Brown University in Providence and the National Law School in Ballston, New York.

He was admitted to the Rhode Island Bar in 1853 and elected to the state legislature. The next year was elected clerk of the state House of Representatives. Soon he was chosen its speaker.

A teacher of rhetoric and oratory, Sullivan Ballou was a bright and gifted leader with a promising future.

He married Sarah Hart Shumway in 1855. They had two sons, Edgar and William.

Then the war came.

A strong opponent of slavery, Ballou immediately volunteered to fight for the Union cause. His friendship with Rhode Island’s governor got him commissioned as a major in the 2nd Rhode Island Infantry and judge advocate of the state militia.

The Rhode Island 2nd was soon moved to Washington and joined up with the Union Army of Northeastern Virginia.

Surrounded by the hectic preparations for imminent battle, Major Ballou somehow found time to write his wife a letter. Whether driven by a premonition or simply an acute awareness of the uncertainty of his situation, Ballou penned his true heart to the woman he loved.

Filled with heartbreaking pathos and uncommon eloquence, this young soldier’s words elegantly express the shared feelings of devotion, fear, sacrifice, courage, loyalty and love that have been felt by every man and every woman who has ever gone to war for his or her country.

Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife Sarah has entered the pantheon of American history and literature as arguably the most famous and certainly the most beautiful letter ever written home by a soldier.

Major Ballou begins with direct candor:

“July 14, 1861
Camp Clark, Washington

My very dear Sarah,

The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days – perhaps tomorrow. Lest I should not be able to write again, I feel impelled to write a few lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more …”

The gallant major shares his devotion to his country and places it in the larger context of America’s unique history.

“I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution.

And I am willing – perfectly willing – to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt …”

Then comes the angst of every soldier who faces battle – the competing love of family and country. The inner struggle of heart and soul; of gain and loss.

“Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.”

Ballou writes to Sarah of “the memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you … and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them for so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when, God willing, we might still have lived and loved together, and seen our sons grown up to honorable manhood, around us.”

Like any soldier, Major Ballou hopes and prays he’ll make it home alive – knowing, as anyone ever in a fox hole has known, that his survival is in God’s hands.

“I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me – perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed.”

The major concludes his extraordinarily beautiful letter with a poignant affirmation of his endless love – and an appeal to the comforting wonder and mystery of an unseen eternity.

“If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

Forgive my many faults and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness …

But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights … always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again …”

Major Sullivan Ballou was killed a week later at the First Battle of Bull Run, on July 21, 1861.

He was 32 years old.

Sarah was 24.

Sarah lived on until 1917 and died at the age of 80.

She never remarried.

Sullivan and Sarah are buried side by side at the Swan Point Cemetery in Providence.

“ Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
John 15:13

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The Way

It nearly cost Edward Rosenthal his life.

Rosenthal, 64, was hiking in Joshua National Park in southeastern California when he simply took the wrong turn.

It’s easy enough to do. Who among us hasn’t done it?

We all get lost sometimes.

In Mr. Rosenthal’s case, it was a near-fatal mistake. He hiked 13 miles in the wrong direction. When he finally stopped and realized his error, Rosenthal was alone and lost, with no way out and no one to hear his cries for help.

After six hopeless days, he was finally found by rescue workers, weak and dehydrated.

When Edward Rosenthal made that fateful wrong turn along the hiking trail, he was probably pretty confident it would lead him out to the right place. It seemed the right way to go at the time.

No one intentionally tries to get lost, especially if they’re in the wilderness hiking.

Getting lost is an accident.

Despite our best intuition and judgment – our best logic and reasoning – we still can make the wrong choice and we can go in the wrong direction. For Mr. Rosenthal, as in some of life’s critical decisions, the stakes were high.

There are plenty of times in our lives – especially at those crucial junctures – when simply relying on our own intuition isn’t good enough.

“There is a way that seems right to a man,” the Bible tells us, “but it ends in death.” (Proverbs 14:12, emphasis added).

The prophet Jeremiah prayed “I know, Lord, that our lives are not our own. We are not able to plan our own course.” (Jeremiah 10:23).

When we try we find it is not within our power.

“I claim not to have controlled events,” Lincoln confided to a friend in the dark days of the Civil War, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” One of the president’s favorite quotes was from Shakespeare:

“There is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.”

That “divinity” is our Sovereign God.

The Book of Proverbs offers wise counsel when it comes to finding our way and choosing the right road.

“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart,” we’re told, “and lean not unto thine own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).

Godly decision-making starts with godly trust. It begins with a confidence that God loves us and will lead us. This is what he has promised to do. It is up to us to believe it. We’re not to be indecisive on this matter or half-hearted. We must trust God with all our heart – fully and without reservation.

No matter what the circumstances or our own feelings.

No matter where we are or what we’re facing.

If we won’t trust God with our lives, we don’t trust him at all.

Faith begins with everything.

If we fully trust him we shall find him fully true. “In all thy ways acknowledge him” – not in some things – God rules out compartmentalization – but in everything. Here is the promise:

“and he shall direct thy paths” (Proverbs 3:6).

It doesn’t say God could or that he might; it says God shall direct us.

The writer goes on and warns us:

“Be not wise in thine own eyes” (Proverbs 3:7). This is the ultimate conceit and life’s greatest self-deception. The “best and brightest”, independent of divine guidance, stumble into ruin. The greatest tragedy of the human race has been man’s rebellion against God’s way.

God never ceases to be merciful.

Even if we take the wrong turn, when we come to that realization, God will still show us the way back. Did not the Good Shepherd leave the 99 sheep safely in the fold so that he might seek that one lost sheep that had wandered away? He didn’t stop looking until he found it.

God does the same with us. Because he loves us, he seeks us. Because he cares, he leads us back.

Isaiah promised the people of Israel that “The Lord is a faithful God…He will be gracious if you ask for help. He will surely respond to the sound of your cries…he will still be with you to teach you.” (Isaiah 30: 18 -20)

God will guide us. We must ask for his help.

“Your own ears will hear him. Right behind you a voice will say, ‘This is the way you should go,’ whether to the right or the left.” (Isaiah 30: 21).

God is not some remote-control cosmic “watchmaker” who started the world and left us on our own. He’s right beside each of us.

This world is not the easiest place in which to make our way. It’s filled with some surprising and often intimidating twists and turns – and critical intersections. Our lives are confronted daily with temptations, sincere advice, and popular appeals that “seem right”.

It can be confusing at times.

If you and I will place our trust in God and in his love for us; if we will seek his direction in prayer and through his Word, he has promised never to leave us.

He will show us the right turn to take.

Even when we make a wrong turn, he will rescue us and show us the road back.

He loves us that much.

“For this God is our God forever and ever: he will be our guide even unto death” (Psalm 48:14).

He’s there – always.

He will show us the way.

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Much More Than This

The clouds of war gathered.

The king was ready for battle.

He had organized his troops, assembled his military staff, appointed generals and captains.

The army was well-trained – 300,000 soldiers who knew how to fight.

He also paid 100,000 more experienced troops from Israel.

King Amaziah (Ama-zi-ah) is not a well-known figure in the Bible. We read very little about him. What we do read is a decidedly mixed verdict on his character.

The chronicler of the Old Testament kings writes that Amaziah obeyed God, “but not with a perfect heart” (II Chronicles 25:2).

Amaziah wanted to do what was right. He wanted to honor God. He wanted to please him.

He wasn’t too principled about this however.

He had a serious blind spot.

Amaziah was an ethical corner-cutter. He was a rationalizer. He was a justifier of his moral accommodations.

This king found an excuse when he thought he needed one.

Victory over his enemies – the Edomites – was the paramount thing.

When he employed various questionable campaign tactics against his opponents, a young Richard Nixon told friends, “the important thing is to win.”

Amaziah figured the same.

When “a man of God” challenged his reasoning, Amaziah got defensive.

These nameless “men of God” show up at the most interesting times in the Old Testament. Because they’re prophets, they nearly always pose some uncomfortable yet unavoidable truth, as prophets invariably do.

Their righteousness could be annoying.

In this case, the man of God tells Amaziah he should not have paid soldiers from Israel to join him in battle.

This is wrong.

Why?

“The Lord is not with Israel” (II Chronicles 25:7).

Israel was a spiritually compromised nation at this time in its history. God would not bless it until it repented. Nor would God bless any nation that went into alliance with apostate Israel.

That included Judah.

Send them back, the man told the king. If Amaziah didn’t, he and his army would be defeated, no matter how well-organized and determined and hard-fighting they were. No matter how righteous their cause or how evil the enemy.

This was a bridge too far.

“But…”

The king was a practical man.

“But what about all that silver I paid to hire the army of Israel?” (verse 9).

Amaziah had made a strategic decision and it cost him to do it. He had invested his resources. He felt this was the right thing to do. He was convinced the paid alliance would bring him victory – and this, after all, is what mattered.

Why does God get in our way and frustrate our best-laid plans with all this confusing and inconvenient morality?

Wouldn’t it be better to keep it simple?

We’re right. They’re wrong.

We must defeat them for the sake of all that is good and noble and just.

Whatever this takes, let’s do it. The stakes are way too high not to. After all, if we don’t we’ll lose. And losing is the greatest sin.

The man of God answered King Amaziah.

Emphatic in his pronouncement, clear in his judgment, certain of this truth and profound in his meaning, the prophet told the king:

“The Lord is able to give thee much more than this” (verse 9).

More than this? More than victory? What could be more than winning?

Honesty.

A clear conscience.

Decency.

Integrity.

Morality.

An unblemished character, perseverance in what’s good and right, principles strong and intact – even if we lose in this world.

Pleasing God, not with half a heart but a whole one.

A Christian witness to the faith we claim to believe.

What is mere silver to God? What is mere military – or political – victory?

Compared to obeying God and doing the right thing?

Are not these divine compensations of far greater worth?

Sometimes we must compromise in order to achieve some greater good; sometimes we must give in and give up so as to attain a certain positive and worthwhile result – a transcending goal.

There are times when the choice before us is not what we’d ever want or expect. Still we must choose.

There are questions:

How much do we compromise? How much do we surrender? How much do we accommodate? How much do we excuse and ignore, or rationalize?

How far do we go before we’ve gone too far? Where do we draw the line before it’s rubbed out of recognition by our greed and ambition; made faint and finally indistinguishable by our pride and self-righteousness?

The ends – just, good and at any cost – render the means irrelevant.

We employ carnal, sub-Christian weapons and don’t even know it. Soon we’re accepting levels of immorality that violate nearly every divine commandment we claim to revere and embrace.

The irony is tragic.

Jesus poses his own rhetorical question: what have you and I truly won if we’ve gained the whole world but in the process lost our soul? (Mark 8:36).

What is the value of that? What is the exchange?

King Amaziah heeded the prophet’s warning. They were angry with his decision, but he sent the soldiers home.

He went on to win.

Amaziah was a very modern kind of guy – more practical than principled. We may profit from his cautionary example.

Let us resist the temptation to sell our spiritual birthright for a bowl of unsavory worldly stew.

It’s not worth it.

The Almighty God who reigns supreme over men and nations is able to give us much more than this.

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Just Passing Through

This is going to take some time.

Not all of it will be easy.

I’ll have to adjust, accommodate, understand, and be patient.

I made the choice. It was a big one.

This is going to change my life – for a season.

Beth and I have left our home. We’ve moved down the street to live with Beth’s parents. We’re having some work done on our house and can’t live in it until the work is completed.

We’re not sure exactly how long that’s going to be. We told the contractor to take whatever time he needed. He’s nice, seems highly skilled and we trust him.

Living with Beth’s folks is different. We’ve never done it before. At least I haven’t – and Beth hasn’t in quite a while. They are two of the sweetest, kindest, most loving people I know. They are excited and happy we’ve moved in.

We help them around the house. They are 86. They love Jesus.

They have a lovely home and we’re grateful for their kind generosity in sharing it with us.

Living with Dale and Gaye is an adventure. Something different. We like it. We love them.

They’ve taught me to play Hand and Foot – a very interesting and fun card game. I even won – once.

This is all nice.

It’s not home.

We will be back home – in time.

For now, we enjoy our life with the Kellys – and it’s good.

Today I live in hope of a better future. That’s not ingratitude for my present accommodations. It’s glad anticipation of moving back to my real home – when it’s finished and ready for me.

It would be silly for me to stay where I am after the work on my house is finished. I’ll always be grateful to my in-laws for the time I’ve spent living with them but I look forward to going home.

Home is a special place.

The truth is, of course, that no Christian in this world is home yet. The eternity God put in our hearts is the innate natural longing for a better place. Our real home.

Heaven.

No matter how great life is here – no matter how wonderful the people we share it with – we long for there. The older I get, the closer I get. The closer I get, the more my heart yearns.

I haven’t stopped caring about this world, its problems or its people. I care deeply.

I enjoy my life here. It’s just that sometimes I get homesick.

Think of it? Don’t you long for Heaven?

This isn’t pie in the sky.

It’s a practical longing. It’s a realistic hope.

When Jesus was preparing his disciples for the difficult days ahead – to strengthen them for the mighty work of launching and building his church, enlarging his kingdom and fulfilling his Great Commission throughout the whole earth.

When he was steadying their courage and giving them hope to face an uncertain future in this world and this life, what did Jesus talk about?

Heaven.

He told them that in his Father’s house there were “many mansions.”

“I go to prepare a place for you.”

“To prepare.”

It’s not finished yet. Jesus is working on it. He’s a trusted contractor. God created this world – with all its beauty and splendor – in six days. Jesus has been working on our home in Heaven for more than 2,000 years.

As lovely and nice as it is, why would you stay here when it’s time for you to go there? To your real home? To a home the Almighty God of the universe has prepared for you?

When Jesus has put the finishing touches on his masterpiece of construction; when every detail is completed according to his perfect and glorious specifications, you will go. So will I.

Eye has not seen – the mind cannot imagine – what glory awaits all those who have put their trust in him.

To a friend fearing death, CS Lewis wrote:

“Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

The author of the letter to the Hebrews wrote:

“For here” – in this present time, now, in this world, in this place; under these present circumstances, in this culture, in the current age –

“we do not have a city” – a lasting home, a dwelling place; a resting place, a place we can truly call home –

“but we are seeking” – we long for, we wait for, we pray for, and hope for; we are pursuing, confident of, and joyfully anticipate –

“the city which is to come” – Heaven, Beulah Land, the Celestial City, our eternal home (Hebrews 13:14).

Why stay when it comes our time to go? This isn’t home. That’s home. The “Land of Corn and Wine.”

An old rabbi lived a very spartan life, in a small hut with minimal furnishings. When an American tourist visited him, he remarked on his limited possessions.

“I see you don’t have much with you,” replied the rabbi.

“That’s because I’m just passing through,” answered the tourist.

“So am I,” smiled the rabbi.

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The Truth of Imagination

I Can Only Imagine.

The hit song is now a surprisingly successful motion picture.

Surprising by Hollywood’s jaundiced expectations – the industry doesn’t put much faith in Christian films.

If you haven’t seen it, you should.

You will be moved by the story, the acting and the gritty truth about Bart Millard, author of this beautiful song. Its amazing popularity helped Millard launch his Christian band, Mercy Me, which has also been incredibly successful.

I Can Only Imagine, certified 3x platinum, is the best-selling Christian song of all time.

Millard was inspired to write the lyrics – in about ten minutes – shortly after the death of his father. He tried to imagine what it might have been like for his dad when he first entered Heaven.

And saw Jesus.

Would he dance, would he sing – or would he stand in awe-filled silence before the Savior?

We can only imagine.

What is it in this contemporary musical speculation about the Christian’s afterlife that has inspired and comforted millions around the world? Across continents, races, denominations and cultures?

What is it that unites the followers of Jesus Christ of every age? What gives Christians hope in the face of life’s sometimes harsh and sad realities? In a world reeling in turmoil, injustice, violence and corruption, what gives believers strength to believe?

It’s not a song.

I Can Only Imagine is an expression – albeit a unique and powerful one – of a much more profound reality for every disciple of Jesus Christ. For the Christian, this reality is the difference between hopeless despair and unquenchable hope. It is the way Christians see the world, the future, their death and their destiny.

It is a supreme reality that determines how each of us – who have trusted Christ – live our lives. The choices we make, the values we embrace, the service we offer, the love we show and the faith we share.

The Apostle Paul lays out this reality – this undeniable yet incredible truth – in his second letter to his fellow Christians in Corinth.

The truth is this, says Paul:

“Christ has been raised from the dead” (II Corinthians 15:20).

The resurrection, the apostle argues, is the centerpiece of the Christian’s faith, the cornerstone of Christian theology and the only hope worth having.

Without the resurrection, Paul reasons, our faith is in vain, our hope is fantasy, our sins remain, we are lost, and all is lost.

If this is our “Best Life Now”, we are, Paul laments, the most hopeless and miserable people on earth (I Corinthians 15:19).

The great apostle insists to the contrary.

On the cross, Jesus won the battle against sin, death and the devil; he secured our eternal redemption, paid the price for our sins and made us right before God.

It was three days later, when he rolled the stone away, that his triumph was signed, sealed and delivered forever. The eternity God placed in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11) would now be a guarantee for every man, woman and child who said yes to the Risen Lord.

Death is “swallowed up” in the victory of the empty tomb.

Death still makes us sad when we must say goodbye to our dearest and best, but we enter the cemetery and stand by the grave not in defeat but in victory, not in futility but in faith, not in fear but in confidence.

Death barks, but it cannot bite.

For the Christian, there is no final goodbye, only “au revoir” – until we meet again.

Before Jesus tested the apostle John’s own imagination with a spectacular panoramic vision of the future, he told him not to be afraid.

Why?

“I am he that liveth, and was dead; and behold, I am alive forevermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death” (Revelation 1:17-18).

All hail the living Conqueror of the Last Enemy!

All the power of death is dead. Life – grander, more beautiful, more glorious than anything we can imagine – awaits all who die in Christ.

Fanny Crosby was separated from Bart Millard by more than a century. But she shared his vibrant imagination, his joy and his hope of the future. She also wrote a song:

“Someday the silver chord will break, and I no more as now shall sing; but O the joy when I shall wake within the palace of the King. And I shall see Him face to face and tell the story – saved by grace.”

Our imaginations soar in joyful anticipation of what awaits beyond our final breath. Those speculations are sanctified by the power of the resurrection.

Those imaginations are rooted and grounded in the certain hope – the eternal truth – that the chains of death could not hold our Savior. Nor can they hold us.

We shall stand saved before him.

We shall be happy enough to sing.

Excited enough to dance.

In awe enough to be silent.

Seeing Jesus Christ face to face.

In Heaven forever.

Can you imagine?

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