Don’s Study

A Return to Normalcy

When I was in college, I took a course called “Abnormal Psychology.” The movie Young Frankenstein has a great scene where Igor admits that the brain he brought the scientist was from someone named “Abby Normal.” There are those who resist using the label ‘abnormal’ because it connotes deviance and elevates ‘normal’ to a prized value.

But while the word ‘normal’ has made a comeback as weariness of the changes wrought by COVID-19 builds, it has also been the subject of controversy: “if by ‘normal’ you mean a return to systems of racism and oppression, I don’t want to return to ‘normal’.” And in other contexts, “normal” is disdained — even though 90% of the population are heterosexual, “heteronormative” thinking is to be avoided due to the negative impact on the remaining 10%.

So let me define my terms.

  • A “norm” is is a commonly agreed value or behavior that becomes standard and followed. Norms generally fall within a range to be considered as such.
  • Something is “normal” if it lies within the range of accepted norms or practices.

For example, it is a norm that adults be clothed in public. The range of acceptable clothing has widened considerably since my mother first dared to wear anything but a dress in public — even when hanging clothes on the line in the back yard. And while the range has widened, there are points on the extremes (visible underwear, e.g.) that cause some to say, “That’s not normal.”

Here are some things that by the terms I’ve defined above are now normal: wearing a mask in public, athletes kneeling during the national anthem, rancor in politics, bias in news media, etc. And yet there is no common agreement that these situations should continue as normal.

I suggest that one of the crises our country is facing is absence of consensus around what should be “normal” because we are struggling to define our shared values.

  • What do we value most in our public interactions? Safety, courtesy, friendliness? (BTW, I value mask-wearing right now because I value all the above.)
  • How do we best honor our country while still advocating for her shortcomings to be addressed?
  • Do politicians value the well-being of their constituents more than that of their party and/or their own electoral prospects? Do we/they still value civility? (Politicians have their own definition of “truth” – they all say they value it.)
  • As to the news media, do we prefer factual information or a well-crafted narrative that reinforces our own biases?

I long for a return to shared values. That is the normalcy I desire.

I began this blog as an encouraging word to colleagues on the front lines of ministry. This post has not been of that ilk, but it introduces what I shall be sharing in coming weeks. As we react to the current situation, I think it is as important as ever for us to have clarity around the values that drive our decisions. My next few posts will be about the values I hold dear.

As always, I am praying for y’all.

I choose joy

It may be a function of age but it seems that I am more and more intrigued by how the choices we make affect our lives. Even seemingly small choices can make a big difference. For example: in cleaning out a closet, someone came across an old picture that looked like a Picasso and asked my wife about it. Arvilla figured it had to be a knock-off (what would a Picasso be doing in a Salvation Army closet?). But just to be sure she had it evaluated and while Sotheby’s could not determine for sure, they said that the picture could be worth thousands. What would have happened if she had simply just thrown it away? Nothing — except The Army would have lost the income from its sale.

The reality is that no matter what the situation, one always has a choice and the choice almost always makes a difference, whether we see it or understand it. For example, to a simple “”how are you today?” greeting from me, the THQ receptionist paused for a moment and then replied, “I choose joy!!” Her choice brightened my day.

In the film “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” Richard Dreyfuss played the part of a young artist who was paralyzed from the neck down in an automobile accident. The doctors told him he would never paint or sculpt again. He would never leave his bed under his own power. With that future before him, the young man decided he no longer wanted to live. Death seemed to him to be the best option. The rest of the film detailed his fight to force the doctors to let him die.

Now contrast that fictional situation with the true story of Joni Erickson Tada. At 17 she was paralyzed from the neck down in a diving accident and faced a helpless existence as a quadriplegic. She was told she would never feed herself, never drive a car, and most likely never marry. She too wanted to die and would have committed suicide if she had been able. When confronted with the Gospel, Joni chose to follow Christ and to let God bring joy and healing to her life. Although God never “healed” Joni in the traditional sense of the word, her choice unlocked a vast ministry – she paints by holding a brush in her teeth, speaks to audiences across the country, drives a specially equipped van, and is married. What could have been the end of her life was only a new beginning

Granted, we are seldom called upon to make drastic choices such as this. But we do make choices daily that affect our lives in a multitude of ways.

  • If someone is rude to you–are you rude back?
  • If someone hurts you–do you try to get even?
  • Are you quick to judge?
  • When faced with a problem, do you look for quick easy answers?
  • How faithful are you in fulfilling responsibilities?
  • What about your daily time alone with the Lord, reading His Word and praying?

How we choose to respond in any given situation reflects on the outside what is happening on the inside. Just like the THQ receptionist, I choose joy! How about you?


Aretha Franklin’s soulful plea more than 50 years ago came to mind recently. I am now an old codger who remembers when showing respect was a matter of common courtesy: words like “please” and “thank you”, “sir” and “ma’am” were expected parts of social interactions. Men removed their hats in the presence of a lady, when at a meal table, or when the national anthem was played. My brothers and I were taught to open doors for ladies, and how to escort them on the streets or on the stairs. And behavior towards one’s elders must always be respectful — Mr. and Mrs. were required; first names only if expressly requested.

We were also taught to be respectful of positions like pastor, policeman, teacher, clerk, etc. Among the soldiers of the Old Orchard Beach Corps was the retired Territorial Commander who commissioned me as an officer, Commissioner Bramwell Tripp. During the four years I was his Corps Officer, he never addressed me by first name even when visiting him in his home; I was always “Captain” – even though he and his wife insisted that my wife and I call them by their first names as we did other soldiers of the Corps. He respected the office of the Corps Officer and symbolized that with his term of address.

I fear that our current national trauma includes an absence of respect. As we critique the institutions of our society and hold them accountable for their faults, we seem too eager to dismiss the positives and deny respect for the institution as a whole because of the shortcomings. There are those who seem to have no respect for our country, her history, or her enduring institutions. And our political leaders speak and act in ways that would have brought a sharp rebuke from my parents.

I believe respect to be a Biblical value. Jesus was respectful, even of those whose behavior and principles he condemned. We believe that the image of God (the imago dei) exists in every person, calling for us to treat even the most sin-marred personality with respect and dignity as one for whom Christ died.

Many were the times that I had this value tested as a Corps Officer by those who accused me falsely, or betrayed my trust, or acted disdainfully toward those who were providing assistance to them. But I tried my best never to let the behavior of another dictate my own.

I applaud today’s front-line servants who manage to show respect to those they serve amid an increasingly disrespectful society. Thank you for your show of respect!

S & H Green Stamps

S & H Green Stamps were a thing when I was growing up. Mom and Dad collected them at the grocery store and the gas station, pasted them into books, then took the books to a “redemption center” to “redeem” them for merchandise like pots & pans, dishes, small appliances, etc. I have been thinking about redemption a lot in recent days.

Amid the storm und drang of debates about renaming military bases, schools, athletic teams, et al, I have wondered about the role of redemption in our assessment of historical figures. It has also been brought to mind by the so-called ‘cancel culture’ where a person’s life is evaluated on the basis of a single irresponsible comment, often made decades ago, that is considered to overwhelm all the subsequent good he/she may have done.

Consider one John Newton. He was the captain of slave ships and invested in the slave trade after leaving seafaring. But he had a conversion experience and eventually became an Anglican priest, as well as a hymn writer. His hymn “Amazing Grace” is arguably the most frequently sung English language hymn. Newton also worked with William Wilberforce to get Parliament to outlaw the slave trade.

The arguments being made by some would have us give greater credence to the horrific truth of Newton’s slave trading than to his subsequent redemption and his advocacy to eliminate slavery. I have wondered if some would argue for removing “Amazing Grace” from hymnals because of his sordid past. [I admit this may be reductio ad absurdum.] But I also wonder if there are similar stories of redemption that we are missing in our haste to condemn those who have done evil.

The Salvation Army operates “redemption centers” around the world, places where men and women experience the power of God to redeem them and make new creations of them. We revel in the witness of those who say with John Newton, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind, but now I see.”

Praise God for those who keep these “redemption centers” in operation!

Change for the sake of change?

How is our current turmoil different from what the country dealt with in 1968? That year there were high-profile deaths, rioting in the streets, political upheaval, etc. Chicago police were under scrutiny for abuse of protesters at the Democratic National Convention. There were a lot of events taking place similar to what is happening in 2020.

I may be missing something, but it seems to me that here’s the big difference: in 1968, protesters wanted to see changes take place in systems of government – elect new leadership, pass new laws, get us out of Viet Nam, fulfill the promise articulated by Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, etc. But today I am hearing protesters say that changes in the system are not sufficient; systems need to be dismantled and replaced – they are inherently oppressive.

My innate skepticism leads me to worry that systemic replacement will not guarantee improvement, but rather create opportunity for havoc to reign. Substantive systemic change is arduous, requires broad support, and if it is to be effective must have common agreement to the goals of the change. In other words, change for change’s sake is dangerous.

Ask anyone who has presided over small scale system changes such as new accounting systems, new information technology, etc. Careful planning, system-wide participation in the process, and strong leadership commitment are necessary to reduce the disruption of system change and overcome resistance.

My worries about outcomes for our society lead me to pray fervently for wisdom among those who are making decisions for our country, state, and city. These are perilous times and I appeal daily to God for His providence.

I also continue to pray for those in the leadership of Salvation Army Corps. Unanticipated change has already taken place and will require exceptional wisdom in adapting to new realities created by COVID-19. Worship, service delivery, fundraising, and programming have all been affected. This is not change for its own sake; it is change that has been thrust upon us.

May God grant wisdom, patience, and persistence to all who must adapt to this incredible change.


This week marks a milestone for Arvilla and me — five years since retiring from active service as Salvation Army officers. We had one five-year appointment (New Kensington PA) so that means we are entering uncharted waters by staying in the same house for more than five years. We love it here and have no plans to move!

Milestones are often occasions to reminisce. We had the privilege on Sunday to represent DHQ by installing the incoming officers, Lts. Joshua and Amber Smith, of the Georgetown Corps; on the way home, Arvilla asked me if I miss “ministry.” The question prompted pleasant memories.

This month featured lots of reminiscences as Friends posted pictures from their wedding or commissioning decades ago. It was good to remember what we looked like as young people. It is also sobering to realize that folk we remember as “young people” are now grandparents posting pictures of their grandkids.

I’d like to share three “flashbacks” involving my own youth that encourage me to think about contemporary ministry and its effect on the future.

I was too young to join the Senior Band. On Sunday mornings, I was upstairs in the Youth Hall with the kids while the Holiness Meeting went on in the Chapel. One Sunday the Bandmaster sent a message upstairs to send down the cornet player he heard; they needed help in the band. And thus began a musical adventure that included Music Camps, travel, and leadership that has enriched my life in ways beyond measure. That Bandmaster — and other Local Officers of the Corps — encouraged youth in so many ways that grounded us in our faith and kept us connected to The Army we love.

Sometime later I was pressed into duty as a teenager to serve as the Y.P. Bandmaster in the Corps. Imagine my joy when I joined the New York Staff Band and one of my former Y.P. Bandsmen was sitting ahead of me in the cornet section! And at least four members of that Y.P. Band became Salvation Army officers.

When I was a Cadet on Summer Assignment, my Corps Officer (Major Frank Payton) pointed to a young teenager and said, “He’s going to be an officer some day.”  And he was right!  I learned that 14 year-olds, like Samuel of old, can give evidence of God’s calling — sometimes even before they are aware of it themselves.

I share these anecdotes for two reasons.  First, there is good reason to emphasize youth programming. It is not just about meeting the needs of youth in your community — it is about providing an opportunity for the next generation of Salvationists to develop leadership skills (Corps Cadets, anyone?) and be exposed to God’s calling to serve as a local officer or an officer.

Second, the development of leaders for the Corps and Candidates for officership is not a passive endeavor.  If we ask for volunteers to step forward, we may wait a terribly long time.  But if we prayerfully choose those among our number, like the apostles in Acts 6, who are “of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom,” and come alongside to train and develop them, we have enlarged our ministry.

I have heard a principle espoused that needs to be challenged:  ‘don’t start a program until you have a leader in place for it.’    This is wrong!  Some endeavors like Junior Soldiers and Corps Cadets are too important to be put off until a leader is recruited to run the program.  In my sixteen years of Corps Officership, I found that recruiting leaders for an existing program was far easier than asking someone to start something new.  And part of the recruiting pitch was the need to free me or my wife from doing that which others were fully capable of doing!

I believe the model which we employed still works: 1) Watch me as I do it; 2) I’ll watch you as you do it; 3)now you do it on your own.

Thanks to all of you on the front lines of ministry who prioritize ministry to youth. Who knows but what that young person you are nurturing may become the General some day!

Can’t we all just get along?

That’s the question Rodney King asked in May of 1992 during the riots that ensued following the acquittal of the police officers who had beaten him the previous year. That question has a renewed application at a time when we are arguing with one another over everything from public health to public safety.

I have engaged in robust conversations with Facebook friends as we seek to discern a Christian perspective on these various matters of contention. These are emotionally laden issues and Christian brothers and sisters do not always agree.

What follows is part of a sermon on Colossians 3:15-24 that I think has something to say about Rodney King’s question, when directed to the Church.

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. before the largest crowd that had ever assembled in one place in the USA.  He delivered a speech that inspired those who heard it and still inspires me today every time I watch it on videotape or hear a recording of it.  He said, “…in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.  I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’…  I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  I have a dream today.”

Nineteen hundred years earlier, the Apostle Paul wrote to a new church in a town in Asia Minor named Colosse.  What Paul says is that God has a “dream.” God says to us, as His church, His special creation, “I have a dream that you will live up to the expectations of brotherhood that I had in mind when I first created you.  I have a dream that the barriers that you —not I —created will be brought down as you let my grace overwhelm your prejudices.”

The Word says, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit– just as you were called to one hope when you were called–one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:3-6)  We need to be wary of the danger of seeing others from our own human perspective, rather than through the eyes of God: “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.” (II Corinthians 5:16)

There is wonderful diversity in the Church. Yet as we celebrate our diversity, we need to take care to rejoice in the richness of God’s creation, embracing differences as if they were different color threads that when woven together form a beautiful tapestry. We ought not turn our attentions to the ways in which we are different without celebrating the many more ways in which we are the same.

In fact, the point of what Paul wrote to the Colossians is that in Christ the differences disappear.  In Christ we are one —one body, with different members, but all working together for God’s Kingdom.

It is as if Paul were quoting God as saying, “I have a dream that in my Kingdom all of the differences that occupy man’s attention will become totally invisible. I have a dream that the barriers that men use to divide themselves from one another will become meaningless as they embrace their oneness in Christ.  I have a dream that, as people leave the old self of sin behind, the new self of righteousness that they put on will demolish the labels that separate them from one another.”

Look at the barriers that are eliminated in Christ:

I. Race and nation—“neither Greek nor Jew…barbarian, Scythian…”“Different nations, who either despised or hated each other, were all drawn into the one family of the Christian Church.  Nations which would have leaped at each other’s throats in battle sat in peace beside each other at the Table of the Lord.” (Wm. Barclay)

II. Ceremony and ritual—“neither…circumcision nor uncircumcision” We must not allow differences of practice to separate us from others who bow the knee before Jesus.

III. Culture and class—“barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free man.” “The Scythian was the ignorant barbarian of the ancient world; the Greek was the aristocrat of learning.  The uncultured and the cultured came together in the Christian Church.  The greatest scholar in the world and the simplest son of toil in the world can sit in perfect fellowship in the Church of Christ… (Wm. Barclay)

So let’s show the world what God’s special people are like and make God’s dream become a reality:

  •  Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
  • Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
  • And … put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

I am praying that my brothers and sisters who serve on the front lines of ministry are experiencing this kind of unity as you serve in the strength of the Lord.


DO something!

You’ve heard the story: Bramwell Booth went to his father with the alarming realization that homeless men were living under London Bridge. And in response to this description of the sad lot of these forlorn souls, the Founder told Bramwell:

“Prepare a proposal for Mission Alignment Council.  You need to complete a program opening form, complete with Advisory Board and Corps Council Minutes.  You’ll need a Program Study that details the demographic makeup of the target population.  And be sure to include needs assessment surveys conducted by the local social services council.  You’ll need a pro forma operating budget, including letters of support from potential funders.  Don’t forget to have any grant applications pre-approved by Legal, as well as any Memoranda of Understanding you want with other service providers.  We’ll do our best to process everything expeditiously.”

Of course, that’s not what the Founder told Bramwell.  He said, “Do something!”  And that compulsion remains part of our Salvationist DNA, even though the Army has become a large organization working in an increasing complex society.  Lawsuits, insurance premiums, government regulations, etc., etc., etc. have added a level of complexity that sometimes seems daunting.  And it has become the task of DHQ and THQ to attend to these necessary processes of doing business in the modern age while still encouraging the initiative to “do something” to address the needs of our communities.

Truth be told, there are lots of things that any Corps can do — in fact, should do — that don’t require prior HQ approval.  And when approval is needed — for a new community service program, e.g. — DHQ is usually eager to make the process as painless as possible.  Never hesitate to ask your leaders and their staff for assistance; they are there to encourage “doing the most good” where you serve.

In these uncertain times, The Army’s value on active ministry should encourage us to DO whatever we can to fulfill our mission.

And remember, there are lots of us praying for you and encouraging your efforts.

Was William Booth a Socialist?

Remember the WWJD fad? Lots of folks were wearing bracelets and apparel with those four letters: WWJD. “What would Jesus Do?” was a question posed by Charles Sheldon in his short novel “In His Steps.” 

During that time, I seem to recall someone writing a piece asking, “What would William Booth do?” We sometimes love to opine about whether our esteemed founder would be “rolling over in his grave” over things happening in our Army today, or instead celebrating the great accomplishments of an international movement he started in the East End of London.We have Booth’s writings, his actions, and some records of his sermons on which to base our opinion. We are fond of citing quotes like “Go for souls and go for the worst!” or “Do something!” or “My ambition is the souls of men.” But perhaps his most famous quote is one that some historians claim he did not actually use in his Farewell Address at Royal Albert Hall in 1912:

While women weep, as they do now, I’ll fight!

While little children go hungry, as they do now,  I’ll fight!

While men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I’ll fight!

While there is a drunkard left, While there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, While there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight!

I’ll fight to the very end!” 

This is a call to social action! Consider the actions he took: he mobilized public support with newspaper publisher W.T. Stead to get Parliament to outlaw child prostitution by raising the age of consent. He opened a match factory to contest the occupational hazard of “phossy jaw.” He wrote the book “In Darkest England and the Way Out” setting forth a blueprint for social reclamation that influences Salvation Army ethos to this day.

 But, other than petitioning Parliament to change the law on child prostitution, Booth’s activism was directed toward taking direct action to address problems, rather than lobbying the government to do so. Times have changed, though. Government now provides the services – from education to health care, from feeding to sheltering – that Booth and his fellow activists provided in the 19thcentury.

So what would William do? Would he engage in “hashtag” advocacy? Would he march with Black Lives Matter protesters? Would he create a Facebook page? I’ll leave that for you to discuss among yourselves! What I DO know is that he was an activist – and that each of the conditions he lamented still exists. He would fight!

Booth was not a socialist, but he was definitely a social activist. He was an evangelist who recognized that salvation involved more than just getting someone to say the “sinner’s prayer.” All of his endeavors were focused on saving the lost, spiritually and socially. That’s why we are The Salvation Army.

We know well the Great Commission, the Greatest Commandments, but Booth would not want us to forget Jesus’ Great Compulsion, which should be ours as well:

The Spirit of the LORD is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.

Luke 4:18-19 NIV

Once again, a hearty “thank-you” to all who serve on the front lines of “the salvation war” as you diligently seek the salvation of the lost, including salvation from the social sins that afflict them.

Holiness redux

Every now and then, one of my retired officer colleagues will engage me in a dialogue about the state of holiness preaching in the Army today.  I am not one of those who decry the loss of holiness preaching and teaching in the Army because I do not believe we have abandoned it.  Rather, I think we have expanded our vocabulary — we teach or preach the concepts of holiness whether we use the word or not. To say it another way, it seems to me that relentless faithfulness to the Word will of necessity issue in teaching holiness because it is intrinsic to a Biblical understanding of who we are in Christ.

For example, while reading Henri Nouwen on spiritual formation in my devotions, I was reminded of what the Handbook of Doctrine says about holiness. Nouwen suggests that we view holiness (admittedly, he didn’t use the word) as a journey rather than a series of steps or plateaus.  Because of the emphasis in our culture on personal achievement and human development, we can be tempted, says Nouwen, to try to measure our spiritual development in quantifiable terms rather than as walking in step with the Spirit.  The Handbook of Doctrine agrees, stating holiness is “a journey which should be characterized by growth and development.”  (p. 191)

“Salvation Story” puts it this way in the chapter on holiness:  “Our conversion inaugurates a journey during which we are being transformed into Christ’s likeness.  Thus salvation …is the beginning of a pilgrimage with Christ. …Our Christian pilgrimage is a faith-journey inviting us to a life of discipleship. “(p. 86)

Similarly, fill in the blank of this quote:  “_______________ takes place by the direct work of the Holy Spirit, regenerating and conforming us to the image of Jesus Christ as the Spirit indwells, fills, guides, gifts and empowers people for life in the community of faith and in the world.”  (The Kingdom Life, Alan Andrews, p.23)  The author used the words “spiritual formation” but it means the same if “holiness” is the word.

During my tenure as Corps Officer of the Old Orchard Beach Corps, I was preaching a four-part series on the book of Jonah on Sunday mornings. While waiting for other bandsmen to join us for open-air on Sunday evening, Commissioner Bramwell Tripp made reference to my sermons. I commented, “Well, I know that they are not holiness sermons, per se …” Commissioner’s response stunned me: “Oh, but they are, Captain. They are!”

Whether you call it discipleship, spiritual formation, holiness, or sanctification, I think there is more good teaching going on than we sometimes give ourselves credit for. To paraphrase St. Francis’ words to his acolyte, “Preach holiness every week. When necessary, use the word.”

Thank you to all who preach each week for your relentless faithfulness to the Word. We rely upon that faithfulness for our own growth in holiness.