My Grandfather’s Letter

I never knew my father’s father, Theodore L. Barry. He died 5 years before I was born. But a few years back, a distant relative sent me a letter my grandfather penned in 1948. In it, Grandpa Theodore summarized much of his life for a niece. In this letter, I finally “met” my grandfather. I also learned that he nearly committed an act that would’ve prevented me from being born. 

As a young man in southern Indiana, Theodore met and fell in love with a young lady. He writes, “I was in love with Viola [—-], one of the sweetest girls in 100 miles of New Salisbury. I was sure in love with her. Finally we were married. We had two boys, Russell Barry and Ralph D. Barry and Jessie B. and Marie B. I was in love with my children and my wife. She was a dream.”

However, the dream shattered. While Theodore was working on a streetcar in Louisville, his wife was evidently seeing another man. “Then before I knew anything of what was going on, my wife took my 4 children to her folks and she went back in town.” The next time he saw her, she was with her new guy, a large man with a “sandy” complexion. She wouldn’t let Theodore see his own children. 

Theodore felt betrayed, stabbed in the back and kicked to the wayside. When at last his anger and bitterness overflowed, he decided to take revenge: “I stepped on the streetcar and my intention was to kill both.”

However, before he reached his destination, Theodore changed his mind. Regardless of how justified his anger at the other man and his heartbreak over his wife’s betrayal, he couldn’t do it. Perhaps his love for Viola stayed his hand. He simply couldn’t commit such an act. 

“I was heartbroken. I mourned for my children, but I kept my job and stayed in Louisville for quite a while.”

Yet, Louisville held too many painful reminders of the life he’d lost. So, Theodore received a letter of recommendation from Louisville Railway (the streetcar line) and relocated to Detroit, where he began a new life once again working on a streetcar. In time, Theodore met a woman name Violet Lechner, who worked in a store at the turnaround for the streetcar. Friendship grew into love, and Theodore and Violet married. He and his second wife had 6 children, and my father was the youngest of them. (I’m the youngest son of a youngest son of a youngest son.) Theodore eventually launched into successful business ventures, and he and Violet enjoyed many happy years together in Michigan.

Theodore L. Barry in his real estate office in Detroit.

But what if Theodore had acted on his furious impulse to end two lives? He wrote, “Had I shot both of them, I would not have been a free man today, so thank God.” Thank God, indeed. Venting his anger in gunshots would’ve destroyed others, plus the rest of his own life. But by letting go of his anger, by refusing to hate and moving on, he eventually regained peace and enjoyed many happy years as a successful businessman and family man. 

Eventually word reached grandpa that his first wife in southern Indiana had died, so he was at last able to reconnect with his first 4 children. He visited them in Indiana, and they visited him in Michigan. 

Of course, I’m personally glad my grandfather managed to release his anger and start over. If he’d gone to prison, my dad never would’ve been born. Me neither. 

Theodore Barry visiting southern Indiana on his 1909 Indian Motorcycle. (Note the Detroit banner.)

Anger, hatred, and rage are dangerous. If we allow them to sweep us up and we lash out with words or weapons, sure, we can hurt our targets—but we can also hurt ourselves and prevent many future blessings from happening. It’s a truth worth reflection.

A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.” Proverbs 29:11

“A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.” Proverbs 15:18

“But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.” Colossians 3:8

Theodore and Violet Barry with Grace, the first of their 6 children.

The Value of Friends

If you could throw your suitcase into the car and take a whirlwind, 5-day vacation, where would you go? 

I recently had that opportunity. First, I considered driving south to the Gulf of Mexico, where I could get relax in a Bed & Breakfast and spend time writing beside the ocean. Instead, I headed north to Indianapolis, where I stayed in one of the apartments maintained by the Christian mission where I worked for years. There, I performed some volunteer labor for the mission and visited local friends, including a Ukrainian couple who, in God’s timing, were visiting the U.S. on behalf of the ministry. 

Next, I headed to Michigan, where I stayed in Dad’s house (and picked up more of my clothing to bring back to Alabama) and visited with him. On my way back south, I swung through Indiana once more, where I enjoyed breakfast with another longtime friend. In Tennessee I paused and enjoyed supper and fellowship with another Ukrainian family I hadn’t seen in years. 

Along the way, I saw plenty of scenery and listened to tons of music and interesting podcasts. But the best part of this trip? Simply spending time with friends and family. In our lives, people come and go. Many of those we call “friends” are actually only acquaintances. But genuine, longtime friends sweeten our lives. We help each other when needed, and we simply take delight in each other, staying in touch despite distance. True friends make this journey through life better, richer. 

Is there a longtime friend or relative you haven’t seen lately? If you can’t go in person, maybe it’s time to drop a card into the mail or to make a phone call. You need not say much. Even a simple, “I just wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you” is appreciated and worth the time to express it!

“I’m Never Coming Back!”

Picture Joe, a man who realizes he has some sort of problem. Despite drugstore medicines, he isn’t able to cure himself. So, he drops by the local hospital to see if they can help. But after touring the facility, Joe is appalled.

“I don’t want to stay here. Every single patient has a problem. Viruses, appendicitis, broken bones, cancer, diseases, failing kidneys… I don’t want to be like these people. I’m never coming back!”

Instead, Joe signs up for a local gym membership. Maybe exercise will help? However, on his first visit, Joe studies other gym members. He races to the check-in desk.

“I want my money back. I heard this was a good gym. Now I see it’s not.”

“What do you mean?” asks the trainer on duty.

“Just look! All of your members have serious shortcomings. That woman doing leg extensions has flabby arms. The guy on the bench press has a beer belly. And check out those people on the treadmills. Every one is huffing and puffing. From what I’d heard, I thought this gym was full of perfect specimens. I don’t want to be like these people. I’m never coming back!”

As a last resort, Joe visits the local church. Maybe a little religion will help. At first, he’s pleased with the atmosphere. Yet, as time passes, he notices… One man got defensive after a minor criticism. Pride, eh? A woman sitting behind him let slip an unkind remark about another woman. A gossip – in church? And during the service, a couple people had the gall to fall asleep. Wouldn’t they stay awake if they sincerely valued the sermon? 

“I expected these church people to be perfect. But they’re not. I’m never coming back!” 

Dear friend, no reasonable person would imitate the fictional Joe’s reactions to a hospital or a gym. But some people do copy his reaction to church. The truth is, no matter which people you scrutinize, you’ll find flaws. Yep, even in church. But, thank God, He doesn’t require people to become perfect before they worship in His house. In fact, the Bible reveals that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). God is perfect. People definitely aren’t. (By the way, not everyone who attends church is actually a born-again child of God. We know they’re among us, and we pray for God to open their eyes to their spiritual need.) 

But the cool truth is that Jesus Christ died to take the punishment for the sins of all people. Placing your faith in Christ won’t suddenly make you faultless. But trusting Christ brings God’s forgiveness of sins and a new relationship with Him. He adopts us into His family. Then, as we worship God and learn more of Him, bit by bit He irons the wrinkles from our lives and makes us more like Himself. Some learn faster than others, but no Christian is 100% flawless. 

So, if you step into church and find a bunch of imperfect people—stick around! There’s room for one more. After all, we gather to worship HIM, not other people.

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).

“But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen” (2 Peter 3:18).

Delicious Poisons

Years ago, before cell phones (yes, ancient history), I joined a church group on a two-week camping & mountain-climbing trip in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado. After days of hiking, one teen guy discovered some mushrooms. He collected them, fried them, and he and his girlfriend ate them.

When our outdoorsman guide found out, he was appalled. Many mushrooms in Colorado aren’t edible, he reminded. 

“But they tasted good,” objected the boy.

The guide looked him in the eye. “Some of the most poisonous mushrooms in the world taste delicious.” Then, to the rest of us he said, “Please, don’t anybody eat anything you find without checking with me.”

For the rest of that afternoon, we waited to see if that teen guy and girl got sick. (Even if they had, there was no way to summon help so deep in the mountains.) Fortunately, nothing happened. On this occasion, ignorance didn’t prove fatal.

But that guide’s words stick with me. Even things that are tasty can poison us. Recognizing the danger in advance should help us avoid swallowing questionable foods. But do we exercise the same caution concerning things that we allow into our eyes and ears?

Whenever anyone starts gossiping or criticizing someone else, one pastor I know interrupts to ask, “Is this a prayer request?” He will not stomach gossip and trash talk. With a simple question, he shuts it down.

What about the books and magazines we read, the TV shows and movies we watch, or the Internet sites we click to visit? Do we refuse to allow unwholesome sights and sounds into our brain? There’s a battle raging for your mind. Even a spell-binding story can dress up evil as good, can deliver carefully crafted immorality in a way that makes it look enticing, tantalizing…

The Bible agrees there is pleasure in sin—but only “for a season” (Hebrews 11:25). Satan knows how to make sin look slick and enjoyable. But he doesn’t show you the flip side—the damaged relationships, the broken homes, the emotional baggage, venereal diseases… The list goes on.

“I know it’s wrong, but it feels so right,” some object.

Sure, it does. Just like the tastiest mushrooms can be deadly.

“Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.” Psalm 19:14

“I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes: I hate the work of them that turn aside; it shall not cleave to me.” Psalm 101:3

“Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word. With my whole heart have I sought thee: O let me not wander from thy commandments.” Psalm 119:9-10

The Conversations that Count Most

Warning: When you and a friend chat in a restaurant, a writer might be listening. It’s not that writers are nosey. The problem is that writers of fiction must constantly come up with fresh tidbits to sprinkle into their pages. When we find ourselves in public places, our antennae are up. Interesting snippets might get jotted down for later consideration.

But have you ever noticed that most conversations are less than gripping? While writing in coffee shops, I’ve often paused to listen to chatty neighbors. People discuss their pets, their pet peeves, their jobs, Aunt Mildred’s gall bladder, their classes… Few conversations touch truly vital topics. Yet, we as human beings are social creatures. We long to share thoughts with others. Short of capital punishment, one of the worst penalties is solitary confinement—isolation from fellow humans.

No wonder we long to connect. God Himself placed that quality inside humans. The Bible tells reveals that God created humans in His own image. He used to talk with Adam and Eve in the garden. As Alex and Stephen Kendrick point out in their Defined Bible study, “All human beings from Adam and Eve onward are created to know and relate to God.”* That was our meaning for existence, to know and enjoy a relationship with God. But the first couple rebelled against God’s one taboo and became sinners. They broke that close fellowship with the Creator. 

We could not restore the fellowship on our own. The barrier of sin in each life is too tall and thick for us to remove. So, God manifested Jesus Christ in the womb of a virgin, to live a sinless life and to voluntarily die, taking upon Himself the penalty for the sins of all who will accept His ultimate sacrifice. Faith in Christ provides forgiveness of sin and restoration to fellowship with Him. Accepting Christ actually transfers us into the family of God! 

As the apostle Paul described it in Galatians 4:4-5, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Wow. Adopted by GOD into His family.

What a privilege believers have, but too often take for granted—the ability to fellowship with our Creator, our Heavenly Father, in prayer. He, too, doesn’t require us to bring earth-shaking topics to the table. But He enjoys hearing from us, His children, with whatever is on our hearts.

As Jesus said, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:5-6

Do you know God? Have you talked with Him today? If the answer to either question is No, He’d love to hear from you!

*Defined. Nashville: Lifeway Press, 2019, p. 17.

God Isn’t Finished with You

Not long ago, I received a valuable shock. I’d completed a novel manuscript and received enthusiastic reactions from beta readers (volunteer test readers). Excited, I considered this manuscript nearly ready for publication. However, as a final precaution, I hired experienced novelist and editor Sharon Hinck to read my story to look for mistakes and offer suggestions. I’m glad I did!

Although Sharon called my young adult story “terrific,” she also found mistakes and a great many passages that could benefit from fine-tuning and additional polish. So, although I had considered this tale ready for publication, the reality was that I needed to squelch my impatience, roll up my sleeves, and get back to work, revising and polishing my story. 

This experience caused me to reflect on the Christian life. After years of following Christ, we might consider ourselves pretty good. We might even be tempted to relax, to set aside our armor and be satisfied with the plateau we’ve reached in the Christian life. But that’s a mistake. 

Even though each of us can probably look back and receive encouragement by seeing how we’ve outgrown past foolish thinking, the truth is that the Christian life is a continual process of maturing spiritually. Of growing closer to God and allowing Him to continue shaping and molding us. Along the way, He might cut unnecessary and distracting things from our life (which can be painful). On the other hand, He sometimes gives us fresh subplots, new character qualities, and improvements we ourselves would never have managed without His editing hand. 

Whether you consider yourself “pretty good,” or whether you realize your flaws and feel discouraged, keep this in mind—God isn’t finished with you. Yield to His shaping hand!

“Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)

Why Shepherds?

After Jesus was born in a stable, Mary wrapped Him up and laid Him to rest in the soft hay of a manger (a feeding trough). Then God once again did something unexpected. He sent an angel to announce Jesus’ birth to an unlikely audience – a huddle of shepherds watching their flocks in the darkness of a field:

“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”*

Looking back, the story is so familiar that we hardly consider it, but a question remains: Why shepherds? After all, God had just performed something stupendous – He had manifested part of Himself in the womb of a virgin, who gave birth to a unique baby, a child who was actually God in human flesh. Emmanuel – “God with us.” Didn’t such a monumental event rate a bigger, more important audience than poor shepherds?

King Herod lived only 7 miles away, but God knew that ruler was unworthy of the angelic announcement. (Later, when news of a newborn king finally reached Herod, his instinctive reaction was an attempt to kill the child.)

Of course, there were plenty of influential people in Israel: religious leaders, scholars, craftsmen, merchants, Roman occupation troops… But God bypassed them all in favor of ordinary shepherds. Why? Perhaps part of the reason is found in the angel’s own words. These tidings of great joy were “to all people.” If the angel had made the announcement only to this world’s “elite,” then perhaps ordinary believers would feel like second-class citizens. But God worked in a way that shows He isn’t impressed by earthly wealth, fame, education, or celebrity status. 

Perhaps another reason God revealed His working to shepherds lies in another fact. When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he declared, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” The symbolism of God announcing the Lamb to shepherds is fitting.

Jesus willingly became the sacrificial Lamb, the sinless One who allowed Himself to be killed on a cross to take on Himself the punishment for people’s sins. 

Have you accepted His sacrifice? Have you placed your faith in Christ, the “Lamb of God”? If not, it isn’t yet too late. Join the shepherds and millions of others who have come to Christ!

*Luke 2:10-11

The “Wrong” Place Can Be the Right Place

Ever get perturbed when your carefully laid plans don’t go the way you wanted? In World War II, that happened to Captain Alvin Carlson in a dramatic way. Carlson served as chaplain to the 134th Infantry Regiment of the 35th Division in Europe. He wrote…

“One Sunday evening about sundown I had gathered with a large group of replacements (later called reinforcements) in our marshaling area, which was approximately six miles from the front lines. We had assembled in an orchard well protected by apple trees and other foliage. The service of worship was in progress when, without warning, ‘Bed-check Charlie’ started to strafe and hurl bombs at us. One of the men, detecting the first plane, shouted, ‘Enemy planes!’ and we ran for the foxholes. A short time before this I had dug a special foxhole which I could use when I remained in the area overnight, but I could not reach it. I jumped into another hole which was near. Suddenly someone shouted, ‘They got the chaplain.’ I rushed out of my foxhole and shouted, ‘No, here I am!’ A bomb had fallen in my hole – but no one was in it.” 

Friend, you may lay your plans, and God might allow those plans to work as you hope, and He might not. But for those who love the Lord, even the “wrong” place – the unplanned place – can be the right place to be when God is working behind the scenes.

Source: He Is Able, by Chaplain Alvin O. Carlson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1945), pp. 35-36.

Schools of Life

Photo by Nils Stahl

Students rejoice when – at last! – they graduate and leave school days behind. But even if we don’t attend college, trade school, or a military academy, life has a way of forcing us through other schools.

These other schools aren’t made of brick and mortar. They’re seasons of life that teach us lessons we don’t learn in a classroom. 

For instance, years ago I knew a particular man. Truth be told, I sometimes avoided him. Not because he was bad, but because he held opinions that struck me as nutty, and he enjoyed sharing those opinions whether you wanted to listen or not. We were friends, but I didn’t highly value the friendship. Then came a summer when I needed to reroof the house. To save money, I put out a call for friends to lend a hand on Saturday. Many came! We didn’t bang out the whole job, but we made good progress. However, because I had to leave the country on Monday for a ministry trip, I needed to finish the roof on Sunday afternoon. Out of all my friends, guess which man showed up to help that second day—the one I had appreciated the least. The experience humbled me. God taught me that even people I hadn’t highly valued could be the very ones He sends to bless. 

For several years I’ve been in another season of life—caregiver to aging parents. This “school” has taught me about Medicare, Power of Attorney, etc. Just as important, I’ve had to learn lessons in patience, self-sacrifice and understanding. Caregiving even teaches that you don’t need to correct a person who firmly believes something that’s not true. (Just try to convince someone with dementia that a dream never actually happened!) 

This season of schooling has stretched me in ways I didn’t want to be stretched. Yet, through it all, God is there. He knows my situation. He knows where I’d rather be. But, as someone once noted, we usually pray for God to change our situation when God is wanting to change us. I guess my progress shows, since a family member says I’ve become kinder and gentler.

This year, a good friend shared this fact: “Happiness is a choice.” It’s true. Life might not turn out the way we want. We can find ourselves in seasons we’d rather skip. But rather than blame God or let circumstances rob our joy, we can rise above circumstances, focus on blessings, and choose to be happy anyway. 

That’s a lesson from life worth learning.

The Most Vital Kind of Love

As an author, I find the topics of love and relationships fascinating. Countless writers have penned love stories. Movies constantly depict love in personal relationships. These never-ending topics are intertwined with human experience.

No wonder. The Bible declares that God created people in His own image. Because God is love (1 John 4:16), it’s only natural that—despite our flaws and shortcomings—each of us contains that inner flicker, a wish to love and to be loved.

But that valuable word love has become so commonplace. People declare their love for Oreo Blizzards, hairstyles, and stylish cars. It seems there are many varieties of love. Which is most important?

A lawyer once asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22) Jesus didn’t miss a beat: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.”

Boom. Jesus stated pointblank that giving our Creator our highest measure of devotion and faithfulness is more vital than the 10 Commandments and every other rule in the Bible.

But do we live that way? Even for those who have read the Bible and believe it, there are constant temptations.
Temptations to embrace sins God hates. Temptations to elevate our personal desires over His (idolatry). Temptations to step outside of His will and to pursue goals of our own choosing. (Is there anyone among us who has never done this?)

God loves us. He invites us, His creation, to embrace Him in a mutual loving relationship. But I’m afraid God understands perfectly the heartbreak of a husband or wife with an adulterous mate. He continues to bless with sunshine, rain, and provisions, even while so many ignore Him and run around with the Devil.

Yet, God waits. Like the father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, He knows what we’re doing—but still loves and waits for our return. If your love for the Lord has faltered, He doesn’t want you to wallow in guilt. God lovingly waits for you. He’s only one prayer away!