Memory takes me back to a July afternoon twenty years ago at a church camp near Charlevoix, Michigan. A quick check of the Internet shows that Charlevoix Family Camp is still hosting evangelistic services and youth camping programs this summer. (I hope they continue.) But my memory is of a long-past meeting in that place, when my wife Judy led singing and Oral Withrow was the evangelist. Though both have now died, I still picture them vividly in my mind.

Judy was a vivacious woman with gleaming blue eyes who loved to lead congregational singing. Oral was a balding fellow with a cherubic smile and ready wit, whose sermons captivated our attention with their down-to-earth practicality. As I recall, they led two worship services each day in the campground auditorium, where dozens of campers and commuters from northern Michigan gathered to sing and pray.

What I remember most poignantly was the spirit of the little community that gathered on the grounds that week. Walking along the sandy road past clapboard cottages and billowing nylon tents, I struck up conversations with an amazing variety of church people. We talked about books we were reading. (I lent a copy of The Spiritual Life, by Evelyn Underhill, to Oral’s wife, Laura.) We talked about the natural beauty of the place. (A couple took Judy boating on Lake Michigan to search for Petoskey stones.) And we dreamed of the future.

It was a community so united by a common faith that we laid aside our differences (political and otherwise) for a weekend of renewal.

This was before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Before the nuclear accident at Fukushima. Before so many things that shape our identity today. It was exhilarating to dream of the future then, and now it is comforting to remember when we allowed ourselves to come together.

 

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Words may fall into obscurity for lack of use, even though they refer to realities that still figure prominently in our daily lives. Here’s one that has been little used since the days of the McCarthy hearings: propaganda. We need to blow dust off that word and reacquaint ourselves with what it means, because we are now immersed in it.

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines propaganda as “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” It comes from the name of the Vatican’s Congregatio de propaganda fide (“Congregation for propagating the faith”), established in 1622 to promote Catholic missionary activity. Eventually, propaganda referred to any large-scale effort to inform the public.

However, the term gained a negative connotation in the late 19th century as European political leaders rallied their people by spreading messages of German national pride, English national pride, Russian national pride, etc. As they ratcheted up their rhetoric, they made ever more outlandish claims that depicted themselves as heroes and their neighbors as villains–even more so when war broke out. California Senator Hiram W. Johnson said at the time, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.”

We find ourselves in a similar situation. Around the globe, national leaders extol their moral superiority to recruit fanatics who will trample upon their neighbors’ basic rights. They use emotionally charged words to promote their causes and dismiss the claims of others.

As a writer, I’m keenly aware of the power of words. They can rescue, counsel, and encourage. They can also incite bigotry, suspicion of foreigners, and insurrection against the state. Simply because a leader says something emphatically and repeatedly, I cannot assume it is “a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance” (see 1 Tim. 4:9). Like the people of Berea when they first heard the astonishing news of Jesus Christ, I need to check today’s propaganda against Scripture to see whether it’s true (see Acts 17:11).

 

I am not a political activist but a human being, so I share humanity’s responsibility for the world in which we live. I will not pollute the air that all humanity breathes, poison the water that all humanity drinks, or subvert the land that is the source of all humanity’s food and clothing.

I am not a political activist but a citizen, so I pay careful attention to what is happening in the civic arena. I support or oppose political decisions that affect our civic freedoms. I resist any oppression of my fellow citizens, even when it is perpetrated in the name of patriotism.

I am not a political activist but a Christian, so I intend to be a clear voice of truth and an unmistakable example of compassion like my Lord Jesus Christ. I will not put myself or my nation’s priorities first, but my suffering neighbor first, as Jesus teaches me.

If you merely observe what I say and do, you might suppose I am a foot soldier for some political movement; but if you ask why I say and do these things, you will learn my true identity. I am not a political activist but a human being, a citizen, and a Christian. I do not seek to advance any political party or national cause, but the well-being of all God’s creatures.

When you have a disheartening experience, don’t write it off as a failure; consider it a life experiment. An experiment never fails. It always teaches you something.

Dr. Malcolm Rigel, who taught counseling at Warner University in Lake Wales, Florida, gave me an interesting insight on this. We were returning from lunch one day when I said, “Mac, I appreciate the way you help people deal with their failures. When you bring up the subject in your spiritual retreats, you seem to have a much more positive attitude about it than I have.”

He grinned. “Joe, the compost pile is the richest part of my garden. That’s where I throw my kitchen scraps, lawn clippings, and all the manure I can find. It’s a smelly, repulsive-looking thing. But the compost pile decays into rich humus that will feed my garden next spring. My failures and disappointments are like that. They trouble me. I would like to ignore them. But I’ve learned that failures can provide rich compost for my life if I apply what I learn from them.”

What have you learned from your life experiments? How have you used the compost of your life?

From Setting Goals That Count: A Christian Perspective, p. 49.
Copyright © Joseph D. Allison

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My wife Judy died a year ago this month–December 13, to be exact. Ever the detail person, she planned her funeral service and designed her grave marker well in advance. When the marker was set in place, she asked to see it. Despite the icy winter wind that whipped around her wheelchair that day, she flashed her smile of approval.

Ancient Jews had a custom of setting up a large stone or a pile of stones to memorialize important sites in their history–not just burial sites, but battle sites, worship sites, and the point where they crossed River Jordan to enter the Promised Land. These stones served as witnesses to what happened there, not only for themselves but for their future descendants.

So Judy had hers. I walk past it several times a month and remember the chilly day Judy sat there, anticipating her own crossing into the Promised Land. Someday I’ll join her and my date will be etched in the stone. (See? I’ll get the last word after all!)

Eventually, our descendants will forget where the stone is. Wind and rain will erase what we’ve written on it. Granite will dissolve into the earth to join our ashes beneath. Then who will remember us?

The One who made the stone. The One who also made us and the earth from which He formed us. The One who needs no landmark to prompt remembrance of us, for we always will be with Him.

 

I lost my bi-focals this morning, which prompted a half-hour search of the house. (Good thing I could find my old glasses, or I would’ve been hard-put to find the new ones!)

Along the way, I reflected on the fact that I seem to lose things frequently. Does this mean I’m becoming more forgetful, or just that retirement gives me fewer distractions from my forgetfulness? Probably the latter, because I admit that I spent many frustrating hours looking for misplaced necessities when I was a younger fellow. That’s cold comfort: I may not be losing my mind, but everything else is at risk!

I wondered as I rummaged through the heap of receipts and old keys on top of my bureau whether I should list my bi-focals among the valuables on my homeowner’s insurance policy. I bought them just a few weeks ago, so I know how costly they would be to replace. Suppose the insurance company would let me do that? And if they did, what else should I put on my list of declared vulnerables…I mean, valuables?

Computer equipment and software, of course. DVD’s and CD’s of home movies and conversations with Mom and Dad. Heirlooms? No, my heirlooms are so bulky and obtrusive that I couldn’t lose track of them. (How could I possibly lose track of an upright piano?) But cooking utensils are another story. They’re not large or expensive, but incredibly valuable when I lose them at a critical point in preparing a meal. This part of my valuables list could be quite long.

I concluded that trying to insure against all losses would be a hopeless cause, since I am the loser. So I began wondering (on my third paw-over of the desk) whether searching for lost necessities has any unexpected benefits.

I sometimes find other things that have gone missing. While digging through a garage storage cupboard for something last spring, I found a cable TV box that Comcast insisted I still had—and that I had just as adamantly insisted I never had. There it was in its original box, unopened. I probably saved a couple of hundred dollars by turning it in. (No, I don’t remember what I was looking for that day. Probably something far less valuable.)

Also, searching for lost things can make me aware of long-neglected cleaning and straightening chores, like that mound of stuff on top of my dresser. I’ve learned to promptly consign such housekeeping tasks to a neatly prioritized to-do list. And just as promptly, I lose it.

I guess I’m just a loser. My siblings and closest friends already know this, of course. But confession is good for the soul, and I certainly don’t want to lose that!

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My first paying job was at a county-seat weekly newspaper called the Herald & Tribune in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Founded in 1869, the H&T had survived many competitors across the years and dared to test its survival again by hiring a farm boy like me. After working part-time as cub reporter and delivery boy during my high-school years, I presented myself to the owner right after graduation and asked if he could use me full-time before I went off to college in Indiana that fall.

Bill Breeden exhaled a cloud of blue cigarette smoke and asked what I wanted to do. With dreams of journalistic fame percolating in my brain, I said, “Anything! I want to learn this business from the ground up!”

He led me downstairs to the employees’ rest room, where he pointed to the porcelain sink and commode, stained black by many years of printer’s ink. Bill took another long drag on his cigarette and said, “Make ’em gleam.”

After three days of back-breaking work and several cans of Comet cleanser, I made ’em gleam, so Bill hired me as their full-time printer’s devil. “Printer’s devil” is a term of art meaning the lowest, most servile employee of the press room–a minion who could be summoned to do any grimy, slimy job that no one else wanted to do.

The term “devil” seemed fitting in an old-time printing establishment, where electric pots of lead alloy simmered 24/7 on the Linotype machines and delivery doors swung open so frequently that no one bothered to install air conditioning. It was a purgatory of a place to learn the newspaper business.

Our pressman resigned after a particularly heated exchange with the foreman, so the task of running the newspaper press fell to me. Our press was a 50-year-old Goss Suburban flatbed that printed 8 pages at a time from a continuous stream (“web”) of paper. After putting new pages on press, it inevitably needed some coaxing and fine-tuning to print them with proper margins and cut-offs, so I was fiddling with that when the pressman stuck his head in the door to see how I was doing. “You need to tighten the tension on the web,” he yelled over the press. “Turn that handle clockwise.”

I gasped the control he indicated and gave it a full twist. The press seized up. A heavy steel idler bar flew out the back and slammed into the cinder-block wall. Paper spewed everywhere while I waited for the press to coast to a stop. The pressman grinned, shook his head, and disappeared.

The Herald & Tribune survived more than a century of devils like me, which is quite a tribute to the perseverance of its owners. It’s still there.