A New Page

This new year of 2022 is a gift God has given to each of us. Like a fresh, white piece of paper, God has provided us with 365 new opportunities to serve Him, to love each other, to hone the gifts and talents He has given us, to make this world a kinder, gentler place. I hope you are as excited as I am to see what God will provide in this new season.

Please accept my gratitude to those of you who have been following this blog post throughout 2021, as I shared the story of the writing of Mildred Schindler Janzen’s World War II memoir, Surviving Hitler, Evading Stalin: One Woman’s Remarkable Escape from Nazi Germany. Those entries appeared weekly and centered on twelve themes that wove their way throughout Mildred’s story.

This year’s writings will focus on centering our hearts and minds on the Lord. Now, more than ever, God’s people need to equip themselves with His armor, hide His Word in their hearts, step out boldly, and complete tasks He has called them to perform, ones that will not be accomplished otherwise, unless they do. These posts in 2022 will appear on the first Monday of each month, not weekly as those did in 2021.

What is it that God is calling you to do this year? It may be audacious and daring, or it may be something that only God Himself will see, perhaps a work He wants to accomplish within your heart and soul. Come to Him and sit with Him. He will tell you what that something is. 

Isaiah 43:18-19 is one of my favorite portions of Scripture:

“But the Lord says,

‘Do not cling to events of the past

 or dwell on what happened long ago.

 Watch for the new thing I am going to do.

 It is happening already—you can see it now!

 I will make a road through the wilderness

 and give you streams of water there.’”

Keep your heart and your mind open to the Lord. There are so many stories He wants to tell to this world through the pages of the lives of His children. Unlike our meager resources, the pen of His love never runs dry. I pray that God will write a beautiful story on this new page of your life and mine.  

The Power of Choice: Joyful in All Things

Throughout the past year, it has been my great pleasure to share insights about the marvelous opportunity brought to me over two years ago—to meet, get to know, and help World War II survivor Mildred Schindler Janzen write her memoir. Surviving Hitler, Evading Stalin: One Woman’s Remarkable Escape from Nazi Germany is the fruit borne of that providential connection.

If you’ve been following this story, you know I’ve chosen to center each month’s blog posts around twelve themes that run throughout Mildred’s fantastic account of resourcefulness and resilience: love, suffering, courage, respect, kindness, patience, hope, forgiveness, determination, faith, gratitude, and joy. This closing essay will wrap up my entries for 2021.

When I first met Mildred, her experience brought me face to face with a new slant on the war, a fresh perspective I had never before encountered, although long a student of and a teacher of World War II history. Nearing her sixteenth birthday, when Russian soldiers’ invasion of her family’s farm turned their lives upside down, Mildred encountered more heartache and challenge in the next seven years of her life than most people face in a lifetime. When I met Mildred, well into her ninetieth year, I was immediately struck by the joy that rang out, not only through her words but also that was evident in the confident tone in her voice. I was in the presence of someone who, long ago, had made a deliberate decision of her will to be joyful in all things.

One of my heroes of the faith is Oswald Chambers, the Scottish preacher whose life straddled the cusp of two great centuries—the nineteenth and twentieth. His words about joy help me better understand what God’s joy truly is. “Joy is the great note all through the Bible. We have the notion of joy that arises from good spirits or good health, but the miracle of joy of God has nothing to do with a man’s life or his circumstances or the condition he is in. Jesus Christ does not come to a man and say, ‘Cheer up.’ He plants within a man the miracle of the joy of God’s own nature.” 

Another of the great thinkers of the faith, whose thoughts and writings have significantly shaped my thinking and strengthened my faith in Christ, is Holocaust survivor Corrie Ten Boom. Already in her thirty-seventh year when Mildred was born, this fellow Gentile made a choice, as Mildred did, to see God’s hand at work even amid the most diabolical circumstances. What follows is Corrie’s explanation of how joy works in the lives of believers, “Jesus did promise to change the circumstances around us. He promised great peace and pure joy to those who would learn to believe that God actually controls all things.”

Truths about joy:

Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. (Galatians 5:22)

God’s joy is to be our strength. (Nehemiah 8:10)

Joy is found in God’s presence. (Psalm 16:11)

The human heart can be taught to “hear” joy. (Psalm 51:8)

Joy, when depleted, can be replenished. (Psalm 51:12)

Joy gives us strength for hard times. The joy of making the sacrifice to save all mankind was a tremendous motivation for Jesus. (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Joy is a gift God brings us. (Zephaniah 3:17)

Even Creation sings with joy to God. (Psalm 65:8)

God’s words bring joy, when treasured and hidden in our hearts,. (Psalm 119:111)

As this strange and perplexing year of 2021 draws to a close, I pray we will make time for moments of reflection to ponder what great blessings God has brought into each of our lives. If truth be told, we do not deserve any of the Lord’s kindness or favor, and yet, He lavishes it upon us. The most significant expression of that extravagant love was God’s only Son, Jesus Christ, wrapped in the humblest of packages—that of a tiny baby born in a smelly stable. This Holy Child then grew up into a man whose was crucifixion, death, and resurrection severed the chains of sin and death on our behalf. What a marvelous gift of love!

On a personal note, thank you so much for coming along with me as I’ve reminisced about the tremendously meaningful experience of writing Mildred’s story. It’s been a real treat to share this leg of my writing journey with you. The tremendous gift God has given to me through Mildred’s friendship and that of her family has blessed my life beyond measure. I pray that Mildred’s story, Surviving Hitler, Evading Stalin, has encouraged you and given you hope.

At the dawn of this new year before us, my prayer for you is that you would exercise the great gift of what some call free will. Others call it choice. Choose to be joyful in all things. Oh, what a difference it can make!

Dispelling the Melancholy of Christmas

Christmas in this day and time has become a tightly scripted event. A retail extravaganza. A social competition. A secular ritual. An unlikely source of consternation and frustration. If your holiday season is anything like mine, the calendar is so stuffed that it needs a fitting at the dressmaker’s shop to accommodate more activities. There’s hardly time to put up the tree and the trimmings, much less attend all the holiday gatherings. The pocketbook squeaks like a toy mouse, as it’s been pinched so many times. Who has time to sit and contemplate the divine when the earthly consumes our every waking moment? Talk about the tyranny of the urgent. 

It’s not just the frenetic pace of the holiday that causes uneasiness within. This time of year often elicits strong negative emotional reactions within many individuals, feelings that can be both disturbing and confusing. This December celebration, for many, is a season of doubt, despair, and isolation. Contrary to pop theology, Christmas is too often anything but “the most wonderful time of the year.”

If you find yourself clothed in melancholy rather than filled with joy, you are not the first person to suffer this malaise. You are in good company. Walk with me for a moment through the pages of the Christmas story. Each of the characters present at the miracle that unfolded in the humble hamlet of Bethlehem all those centuries ago dealt with very real struggles all their own. It is my prayer that their stories will encourage you.

Central to this storyline is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Imagine how she must have felt—alone and bewildered when she learns that she is to become the mother of the Son of God? Who will ever believe her? Are you young and alone? Take heart. God is with you.

Next, we meet Joseph, the unsuspecting fiancé, to whom an angel has just given the earth-shattering revelation that his bride-to-be is pregnant with a child that is not his own and that this baby will be the Savior of the world. Life not turning out exactly as you had planned? Take heart. God is with you.

Joseph makes a leap of faith, deciding to obey God rather than give in to the mores of man, and takes Mary as his wife. In many ways, this young couple must have felt like they were stepping into outer space as no one they had ever known had come together under these circumstances. Joseph and Mary make their way to Bethlehem to be counted in the national census as good citizens that they were. Who in the world has time to think about the census bureau when you are great with child? Is God asking you to step out in blind faith? Take heart. God is with you.

Upon arrival in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph are less than thrilled to find that there is “no room for them in the inn.” The new husband must have worked hard to manage both his temper and fear as he pleaded with the innkeeper to make available to him and Mary any space in which they might seek shelter, somewhere warm and safe as she was ready to deliver. Have you ever had a time when you lost your home or didn’t know where your next meal was coming from? Take heart. God is with you.

The wise men find themselves in a dilemma all their own. They had seen “His star in the east” and traveled far in their search for the tiny baby. This expedition of the magi leads them to a private audience with the newborn king. Instead of following the orders of King Herod to report back to him about their discovery, these very wise men followed their hearts and instincts and went home a different way. Have you ever had a dark night of the soul? Have you ever been confused and searching for direction? Take heart. God is with you.

The last characters in this sacred drama are the shepherds, keepers of the night watch. They, like Joseph, receive an angelic visitation proclaiming Jesus’s birth. Aptly, the first words ever spoken by this heavenly messenger are “Fear not.” Imagine the shepherds’ terror and awe as a host of angelic beings proclaiming the birth of the Messiah fill the heavens. Are you trying to hang on in a confusing or troubling time that may well turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to you? Take heart. God is with you.

If the melancholy of this Christmas holiday is getting you down, focus on the tiny baby from Bethlehem. Remember … Baby Jesus grew up into a man of some thirty-three years, who Himself was well acquainted with sorrows. Stay out of the mall; sit down instead on a pallet of hay near the manger. Quit wrapping store-bought presents; consider instead the priceless gifts you alone can give to others—your personal treasures of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to share with this world. Drive out the darkness of doubt; instead, fill your heart and your mind with the brilliant, hope-filled light of God’s Word.

Pastor and author S.D. Gordon once wrote, “Joy is distinctly a Christian word and a Christian thing. It is the reverse of happiness. Happiness is the result of what happens of an agreeable sort. Joy has its springs deep down inside. And that spring never runs dry, no matter what happens. Only Jesus gives that joy. He had joy, singing its music within, even under the shadow of the cross.” May the Lord’s joy be your strength, especially if yours is lacking.

Has your world just been turned upside down—the recent and untimely death of a loved one, news of a job layoff, diagnosis of a deadly disease, a betrayal by someone you trusted? Turn away from the gloom that seems to envelop you and watch for His bright star. Let its brilliant radiance remind you that you are not alone and that Emmanuel, very God Himself, is present with you. 

Remember… stars are only visible in the dark. 

And also remember… Jesus, the Bright Morning Star, has the power to dispel the melancholy of Christmas.

(This devotional first appeared in the Winter 2011 edition of Our South magazine.)

Choose Joy

The holy season of Christmas is upon us, the time when Christians worldwide celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. It should be a time for celebration and rejoicing, and yet, many of us enter into these days feeling bedraggled and downtrodden, too tired from all the hullabaloo of gift shopping, tree trimming, wrapping of presents, and cooking to enjoy the reason for the season.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had about all the bad news I can stand for one year. I’m thinking of placing a flashing yellow caution light near my television to remind me to use the device cautiously and on a limited basis. Collectively, we seem to have lost our ever-living minds as a society. One can hardly open a newspaper or pick up a magazine or peruse an online social media site without avoiding news of the worst sort.

And yet…

Like the season of history in which we find ourselves, hard times are not a new phenomenon. While chained in the bowels of a dank, dark Roman prison, the Apostle Paul wrote a lengthy letter to Timothy, his son in the faith, somewhere between A.D. 64 and 67. If you close your eyes, you might think you’re listening to an evening news broadcast:

“Remember this: There are some terrible times coming in the last days. People will love only themselves and money. They will be proud and boast about themselves. They will abuse others with insults. They will not obey their parents. They will be ungrateful and against all that is pleasing to God. They will have no love for others and will refuse to forgive anyone. They will talk about others to hurt them and will have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. People will turn against their friends. They will do foolish things without thinking and will be so proud of themselves. Instead of loving God, they will love pleasure. They will go on pretending to be devoted to God, but they will refuse to let that ‘devotion’ change the way they live. Stay away from these people!” (2 Timothy 3:1-5 ERV) 

Long ago, I found a quote about joy by Kay Warren, which has been a great encouragement to me. “Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything will be alright, and the determined purpose to praise God in all things . . . I can cultivate joy in my heart by daily seeking God as the source of my joy, or I can kill joy in myself and others by attitudes that rob, steal, and destroy.”

“Determined purpose…” Kay points to the powerful gift of choice God gives to each of us. Like standing in front of our closet as we decide what to wear for the day, each of us has the opportunity daily to choose garments of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” You know, that famous fashion brand—Fruit of the Spirit! Most days, however, we pull on the worn, faded outfits made by Fruit of the Flesh Apparel Company: hate, despair, angst, impatience, meanness, faithlessness, bitterness, and self-absorption. 

My prayer for each of us is that we will not let the cares of this world or the ache in our hearts prevent us from experiencing the wonder of Christmas. The astounding fact that God clothed Himself in garments of flesh and blood, ones we would recognize as our own, and sent Himself to earth to a stable in Bethlehem is a miracle too wondrous to miss.

May this holy season be one in which you don’t allow anything or anyone to prevent you from drawing near to the Christ Child. This Christmas, choose joy!

Three Impossible Prayers

Christmas came early to my house last year! God delivered a wonderful present with the release of Surviving Hitler, Evading Stalin: One Woman’s Remarkable Escape from Nazi Germany. An amazing account by World War II survivor Mildred Schindler Janzen, the book was a project Mildred and I worked on for over a year together. It was especially meaningful for Mildred to see in physical form what she’d held in her heart and waited almost seventy-five years to share with the world.

When Mildred and I began the hard work of putting her story into a workable format for a book manuscript in October 2019, we had no idea where the journey might lead. We both knew it was an incredible testimony of love and resilience, the kindness of strangers, and the sovereignty of God amid incredibly complicated geopolitical circumstances. We hoped that some day, somehow, others might be encouraged by it.

I never had written a memoir before and wasn’t sure I was up to the task. Each day began at 5:00 a.m. After grabbing a cup of coffee, I’d pad back down the hallway to write. While seated at the writing desk I had set up in our son’s bedroom (as he’s married now with a family of his own), I’d bow my head and ask the Lord to give me what I needed for that day. And boy, did He deliver!

From the beginning of the writing process, I made a list of what I called my “three impossible prayers.” First, I prayed we would find a traditional publisher. With previous books I’d written, I’d knocked on the doors of traditional houses before but never had one to open. I knew in my gut that this was a really good story and hoped we’d find someone to recognize that same quality and partner with us to share it. Second, I prayed that if we did find a publisher, the book would be published in 2020, which was also the 75th anniversary year of the end of World War II. Third, I prayed the book would be released in time to be ordered for Christmas.

Every few days or so, throughout the six months I wrote the manuscript, I would talk to the Lord about these three requests. This memoir wasn’t my story; instead, it was that of a courageous lady, who had survived horrific experiences, overcome incredible odds, and waited a lifetime to tell others what she’d learned. I implored my Lord to open these doors.

The first of my impossible prayers was answered on April 18, when Susan Janzen Nickerson, Mildred’s daughter, who acted as her mother’s representative throughout the book publication journey, received a contract from Sunbury Press. We were all ecstatic! The whoops and hollers and shouts of joy were heard here in Mississippi, all the way from Nebraska, where Susan lives, and from Kansas, where Mildred lives. God was with us.

God answered the second of my impossible prayers on November 28, 2020, when Surviving Hitler, Evading Stalin, was released as a physical book onto the retail market. It wouldn’t be until a few weeks later that my copy of the book arrived. How strange and, at the same time, lovely to hold in one’s hand a book to which one committed over a year of one’s life to write. God was with us yet again.

God delivered His answer to the third of my impossible prayers through the book’s release date. Family, friends, and interested readers, especially those who knew Mildred personally and had heard firsthand from her the events of all those years ago, could now place their orders. The book was available for purchase, and many found a book copy from Santa under their Christmas tree. What a marvelous gift to receive! Emmanuel, God with us.

I don’t know where you are in your life, but God does. I don’t know the hopes and dreams of your heart, but God does. I don’t know if you are about ready to give up on some situation and yet desperately hanging on, but God does.

One of my favorite parts of the Christmas story is the account in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke when the angel of the Lord appears to Mary to tell her that she will become the mother of Jesus. What a mind-blowing thought! One of the reasons, I believe, that Mary was given this tremendous honor and blessing was because she believed God and took Him at His word. “The Lord has blessed you because you believed that he will keep his promise” (Luke 1:45 CEV).

I have seen in my own life “the goodness of God in the land of the living.” I have experienced God’s faithfulness to supply what I did not possess on my own. I have witnessed God’s lovingkindness and great blessing in the life of Mildred Schindler Janzen and her family and mine.

May the joy of the Lord be your strength in this holy Advent season. You may have some impossible prayer in your heart. Don’t give up. May God fill your heart with the courage to put feet to your faith, no matter how timid or small. I’ve seen Him answer impossible prayers in my life. I know He can do the same for you! 

Favorites from My Bookshelf: All the Gallant Men

Throughout this year, as I have unpacked the writing of the story of World War II survivor Mildred Schindler Janzen, I’ve also shared with you some of my favorites from my collection of books about the war. Many times, as a former American History teacher, I’ve taught an abbreviated overview of World War II. The facts of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s subsequent entry into the war were very familiar to me. What I had never been privy to, however, was a personal account written by someone who was there that fateful Sunday morning and hearing first-hand how terrifying was Japan’s surprise attack on the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet.

One such book that has made a tremendous impact on my life is Donald Stratton’s memoir, All the Gallant Men: The First Memoir by a USS Arizona Survivor. Co-written by New York Times Bestselling author Ken Gire, the story is the riveting account of one of the four survivors of the USS Arizona during the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7, 1941. 

Mr. Stratton was only nineteen years old that fateful December morning. A Seaman First Class, he was a gunner of several 5-inch “antiaircraft guns” on Arizona’s port side. Before 8:00 a.m., a full-scale sneak attack perpetrated by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service involved the entire port of Pearl Harbor. Mr. Stratton and fellow gunners did their best to shoot down attackers whizzing past their ship.

A bomb dropped from a Japanese plane exploded the Arizona’s magazine. As a result, Mr. Stratton suffered severe burns over sixty-five percent of his body. Five other shipmates received similar injuries. They were able to escape the ship due to the quick-thinking efforts of Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Joseph Leon George, who was aboard the USS Vestal, a repair ship anchored next to Arizona. Joe threw a line from his smaller boat to Arizona’s railing. Mr. Stratton and the five others with him fought through pain and fear, climbing hand over foot to escape their burning ship and make their way to the Vestal. Of these six critically injured men, only four survived.

After months of lengthy recuperation, including excruciating medical treatments, Mr. Stratton received a medical discharge from the Navy in September 1942. After some time back in his hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska, Mr. Stratton reenlisted in the Navy, went through boot camp a second time, and was reassigned to the USS Stack, a Naval destroyer. This brave American would serve out the remainder of his wartime service in the Pacific theater, seeing action in some of the war’s last battles.

Mr. Stratton would also go on to make sure the heroic actions of Joe George were recognized by a grateful nation, successfully petitioning Congress to posthumously award George “the Bronze Star with a ‘V’ device” for valor. This honor is “awarded to any person who distinguished himself or herself by heroism against an armed enemy not involving participation in aerial flight.” 

Toward the end of All the Gallant Men, Ken Gire records Mr. Stratton’s struggle to make sense of his survival of such a horrific event: “I know the Lord is good. Why I was saved from the fire, I will never fully understand. I no longer try to do the math. I wore out too many pencils a long time ago.” 

Library Journal says of Mr. Stratton’s story, “All the Gallant Men is a book for the ages, one of the most remarkable—and remarkably inspiring—memoirs of any kind to appear in recent years.


Gratitude is the theme for November’s entries about Mildred Schindler Janzen’s story, Surviving Hitler, Evading Stalin: One Woman’s Remarkable Escape from Nazi Germany. I am incredibly grateful to Ken Gire for his kindness to me and the tremendous gift he gave to both Mildred and me.

I was first introduced to the writing of Ken Gire by my dear friend, Martha Stockstill, who gave me his book, Windows of the Soul: Experiencing God in New Ways, for Christmas in 2004. Her inscription reads, “For my precious friend and writing buddy. Blessed Christmas, 2004.” Ken’s book detailed his spiritual journey as a writer who is also a Christian. At the time, I was plunking away on my first attempt at a novel, and Ken’s words, especially his brute honesty about how hard and lonely the writing experience can be, were inspiring. His account also reminded me that God might be the One who was leading me down this literary path.

In the summer of 2016, I worked on the manuscript for a collection of devotions I hoped to publish, Tending the Garden of My Heart: Reflections on Cultivating a Life of Faith. These short pieces were initially written over a period of years and appeared in several magazines for which I wrote in my home state of Mississippi. While completing the final edit, I reached out to Ken, who at the time was a stranger to me. I wanted to include a quote of his in my book but did not know from which book of his it had come. Ken’s response was immediate, gracious, and welcoming. He gladly supplied the book’s title for attribution. It would be another three years before I discovered Ken’s inspiring chronicle of Don Stratton’s Pearl Harbor experiences.

I was contacted in August 2019 by Mildred’s family, who was looking for a writer to help their mother publish her account of her World War II experiences. One of the first things I did was to search for personal narratives written by other survivors of this conflict, as I had never written a memoir before. How delighted I was to discover Ken’s book, All the Gallant Men. Once it arrived in the mail, I opened the book to begin reading the unique, first-hand account and couldn’t put it down. As the story unfolded, I felt as if I was peering over Mr. Stratton’s shoulder as he stood on the deck of the Arizona. Ken wrote the account masterfully in Mr. Stratton’s voice. Gripping, soul-stirring words filled each page as Ken combined details of Mr. Stratton’s experience with historical information, giving the story a rich texture and greater depth.

Once again, I reached out to Ken, this time for memoir-writing advice. Just as before, he could not have been more gracious. The sage advice and wise counsel he offered served as my guide during the writing of the manuscript for Mildred’s story. After visiting with Ken, I once again poured over my copy of All the Gallant Men. I carefully studied the construction of each chapter, the book’s layout, and how Ken wove actual historical documents and occurrences in and out of the story. The margins of my dog-eared copy of Mr. Stratton’s account are crammed with various notes I scribbled to myself. 

Perhaps the most important word of wisdom Ken offered was not to get my hopes up about securing a publisher for the story. Mildred was an unknown, as was I, and he wasn’t sure there’d be a market for the book. He could tell how much the project meant to me (before I ever wrote a word), and he didn’t want me to be disappointed. Ken encouraged me to give my best effort—110%—to produce a written legacy of God’s faithfulness for Mildred and her family. 

Once I hung up from our last phone call, I thought to myself, I hear what you’re saying, Ken, and I respect your opinion, but this is a really good story. The thought that there might be a publisher out there who would feel the same way served as my candle of hope, especially on days when I wasn’t sure I was up to the task of completing what I’d given Mildred my word I would do. Six months—seven-hundred-thirty-two hours and forty-three minutes—later, I completed the manuscript for Surviving Hitler, Evading Stalin.

Mildred’s daughter, Susan Janzen Nickerson, who has acted as her mother’s legal representative throughout the completion of this project, submitted the book proposal to three publishers in early April 2020. Nine days later, she received an email from Sunbury Press asking to see the manuscript. Six days after, the completed manuscript was sent. The next evening, a contract to publish the book arrived in Susan’s inbox. Mildred signed the contract with the company in late April 2020. 

Soon after Mildred signed on the dotted line, I again reached out to Ken. Taking a leap of faith, I shared with him the terrific news that we had indeed secured a publisher and asked him to consider reading through the manuscript and, if so moved, to write the Foreword to the book. As in every other communication I had received from him, his response was immediate, gracious, and affirmative. Ken’s beautifully crafted introduction served as the book’s pièce de résistance.

As I’ve worked to complete this blog post, it has been interesting to discover the similarities between the lives of Don Stratton and Mildred Schindler Janzen, ones which I had never noticed before. Both are children of the Midwest—he was born in Nebraska; she was born in Kansas. Both were at a similar age when they decided to tell their story to the wider world—he was ninety-three; she was ninety-and-a-half. Both were born a year apart—he in 1922; she in 1929. Both are followers of Jesus Christ. Both are ardent patriots. He served his country through his service in the U.S. Navy during a world war threatening the very existence of freedom; she, as a civilian, survived that same war while half a world away and returned to the country of her birth to extoll freedom’s virtues. The life stories of both Don Stratton and Mildred Schindler Janzen were released in years critical to World War II history—his in 2016 near the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor; hers in 2020 near the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Both Mr. Stratton and Mildred were committed to leaving a testimony for future generations. 

How grateful to God I am that Ken Gire’s life intersected with mine. Ken, your honesty, integrity, encouragement, and godly example have ministered tremendously to Mildred, her family, and me. Thank you, most of all, for being authentic and genuine, which is the example Jesus set. May God continue to bless you beyond all measure as you use your gifts and talents for His glory.

To recommend All the Gallant Men to you, dear reader, would be a privilege enough. However, sharing this backstory with you has been a greater joy due to Ken Gire’s pivotal role in my life.

Happy reading!

Honoring a Grateful American

The memories of Sunday, September 26, 2021, are forever etched in my heart. My husband, Mark, and I were at Ellsworth, Kansas, to attend a special ceremony honoring our dear friend, Mildred Schindler Janzen. Earlier this year, Ellsworth’s Smoky Hill Chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (NSDAR) nominated Mildred for the national organization’s Medal of Honor. The award is the highest given by the NSDAR to a U.S. citizen who has upheld the ideals of outstanding service, leadership, trustworthiness, and patriotism. Only twenty-seven Kansans have received this award. The NSDAR notified Mildred and her family in early August that she had been selected for the honor.

Our day began in Mildred’s home as we enjoyed the delicious German coffee cake she baked for us. Between bites of the warm pastry and sips of coffee and orange juice, we shared sweet fellowship around the kitchen table with Mildred and her two daughters, Karen and Susan. After attending church with Mildred and her family at First Baptist Church Lorraine, we enjoyed a delicious lunch hosted by Mildred’s cousin, Jean Behnke, in nearby Wilson at the Made from Scratch restaurant. Next, our group traveled back to Ellsworth for the ceremony, which would celebrate the lifetime achievement of this amazing lady.

What a privilege it has been to help Mildred share her story with the world—Surviving Hitler, Evading Stalin: One Woman’s Remarkable Escape from Nazi Germany. Now ninety-two years young, Mildred’s bright, blue eyes and magnetic smile bear witness to the joyful and persevering spirit she possesses. One of the hallmarks of Mildred’s life is that she is incredibly grateful for the many privileges afforded her as a daughter of these United States. 

Below is a portion of my remarks from Mildred’s Medal of Honor ceremony:

“Mildred’s life and mine intersected eleven years ago, although, at the time, neither of us knew it. Her husband’s cousin, Jean Behnke, and I met in 2010 while on a travel tour of southern Germany and Austria. Several common bonds formed the solid foundation of our friendship: a great love of our country as fellow American History teachers, a passion for reading, our shared faith in Christ, and an appreciation of the power of the written word to move the hearts and minds of others. In the years since, Jean and I have stayed in close contact. Occasionally, I would send her books or articles I had written. In the late spring of 2019, when Mildred’s daughters shared with Jean their desire to work to preserve their mother’s story in a more permanent format, Jean shared my name with the family as a possible writer for the project. 

Mildred’s younger daughter, Susan, contacted me a few months later, in early August. Immediately, I was intrigued by her mother’s story. Soon after our first visit by phone, a packet arrived in the mail from Susan containing copies of newspaper articles written over an almost sixty-year period that chronicled her mother’s incredible story. Like puzzle pieces waiting to be fit together, I realized the details of Mildred’s wartime ordeal were too extraordinary to be ignored. 

The first article I read about Mildred, published in her denominational newspaper, The Baptist Herald, contained the following quote from her: ‘Do you who live in America really appreciate your freedom? You are the most blessed and fortunate people on earth. You may not realize that, but I do, since only a short time ago I still lived in Europe. My coming to America was like an awakening out of a terrible nightmare.’

Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison constructed the verbal architecture that enumerates the rights and privileges enjoyed by American citizens. Collectively, these sacred documents are known as the Charters of Freedom—the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Historians consider Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

Jefferson’s stirring words in the opening paragraphs of the Declaration define the essence of what sets apart these great United States from any other nation on the face of the world: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’

Madison describes in the Preamble to the Constitution several functions of the document, one of which is to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” The term posterity that Madison used in 1787 referred to future generations. Mildred Schindler Janzen is one of the descendants of this first generation of Americans, and her story is certainly one of those blessings of liberty secured. 

Mildred Schindler Janzen loves the United States of America. Although the events of her life followed a circuitous route and took her far from the country of her birth, Mildred has been tireless in sharing her love of her country, and her gratefulness for the many privileges afforded her as a daughter of this great nation. She has been a popular speaker at area schools throughout the years, sharing her love of and devotion to the United States and her gratefulness for how her citizenship saved her from life under Communist domination.  

As incredibly difficult as it must have been for Mildred to travel down memory lane and revisit some very painful times in her past, she never once backed down from the hard work of accurately conveying the vital details of her World War II experiences during the six months when the manuscript was being written. Through the writing of Surviving Hitler, Evading Stalin, Mildred has left a permanent record to guide and instruct future generations about the incredible freedoms enjoyed by citizens of these United States.”

Mildred’s words from Surviving Hitler, Evading Stalin capture her purpose for sharing her story:

“I… wish to leave a testimony for the younger American generation that is coming of age at this present time. Do not ever take the legacy of your birthright for granted. Oppose evil at every opportunity. Speak out against injustice. Most importantly, pay attention in your history class. History can repeat itself; many of my generation bear witness to that fact.”

The United States of America is the greatest country on earth, although she is not perfect. In a day and age when many raise their voices to the contrary, it is refreshing to hear appreciation and gratitude from one of her citizens. Author and former missionary Elisabeth Elliot once wrote, “It is always possible to be thankful for what is given rather than to complain about what is not given. One or the other becomes a habit of life.” Mildred made a choice many years ago to look up and not down, to believe the best and not the worst, and to offer her thanks and not her complaints. What a tremendous difference that one simple choice has made in her life!

The words of 1 Thessalonians 5:18 are exemplified by Mildred’s example, “in every situation [no matter what the circumstances] be thankful and continually give thanks to God….” God, the Gardener of Mildred’s heart, has honored the choice she made to be thankful as a young girl no matter what and has continued to produce beautiful, fragrant blooms of gratitude from those earliest seeds of thankfulness sown within her heart.

Mildred, how courageous you have been to confront the haunting memories of those wartime years and tell your story. How easy it would have been to bottle up all this heartache deep inside. You have refused to fall prey to self-pity and bitterness but instead have chosen to live a life marked with gratitude and joy. You have proved that one person can make a difference, regardless of age or circumstance. You are a shining example to the world that it is never too late—to tell one’s story, to reach for a dream, to make a difference. 

Congratulations again for your selection as the recipient of the 2021 NSDAR Medal of Honor. May God continue to bless you beyond all measure.

Sisters of the Heart

The World War II memoir, Surviving Hitler, Evading Stalin: One Woman’s Remarkable Escape from Nazi Germany, is a testimony of the gratitude Mildred Schindler Janzen has for God’s deliverance in the most trying season of her life and that of her family. The Schindler family stepped into a stream of humanity in February 1945, forced from their home in Radach, Germany, at the point of guns jammed in their backs by Red Army soldiers. Historians estimate that between ten and twelve million German citizens were displaced at the war’s end.

Numerous individuals—some named but most anonymous—displayed random acts of kindness toward Mildred, her mother, Mutti, and her brother, Horst. Margaret Herb Wilkens was one such individual. Margaret is Mildred’s first cousin, the daughter of Mildred’s paternal aunt, Anna Schindler Herb, and her husband, Charlie. At the time the two girls met, however, they were strangers. When Mildred arrived in Great Bend, Kansas, in early February 1947, she had no idea how these members of her extended family would receive her.

As He always does, God had already laid the groundwork on which these two young women would establish a solid friendship. Mildred’s mother—also named Anna but nicknamed Mutti—had sent countless letters and photographs to her husband’s sister living in Kansas detailing life on the farm in Radach and capturing moments in time in the lives of Mildred and her little brother, Horst. When Mildred stepped onto the Great Bend train station platform, the Herbs knew precisely for whom they were looking. Margaret must have undoubtedly been excited to meet her dear cousin at last.

Here are Mildred’s words of that first meeting with Margaret: “Standing slightly behind my aunt and uncle was a tall, slender girl who waited patiently, gazing quietly at me with soft, blue eyes. Dark, brown hair framed her pretty face. She was my cousin, Margaret. Charlie and Anna’s only child smiled shyly and extended her hand. I placed my hand in hers. Her grip was firm and warm.” Mildred goes on to say, “… I immediately knew I had just made a new friend.”

Like Mildred’s, Margaret’s parents were German immigrants to the United States. As a result, she knew a little German, which would prove to be a saving grace for Mildred. Excited to have a new roommate, Margaret had emptied drawers in her dresser and made room in her closet in anticipation of Mildred’s arrival. Shared smiles and bits of German they could both recognize became the timbers with which the two girls built a lasting bridge of friendship.

Here is Mildred’s recollection of that first night spent in the Herb home, “The bright moonlight streamed through the lacy curtains at Margaret’s bedroom window… I was safe and once with people who loved me, although I did not know them very well. Safety and love would provide a good start. The four of us had the rest of our lives to get to know one another. I turned over and drifted off to peaceful sleep.”

Although over two years younger, Margaret was a junior in high school in the spring of 1947. (Mildred would begin high school in September of that same year at eighteen.) Margaret would marry Donny Wilkens, one of Leon Janzen’s best friends, Mildred’s future husband, four years later. The couple would have three children— “a son and two daughters.” 

Gratitude is one of the hallmarks of the life of Mildred Schindler Janzen. She is incredibly grateful for every gift God has given to her and her family, but especially for the sweet and lasting friendship she shares with her first cousin, Margaret. The following quote aptly describes the unbreakable bonds of their relationship, “Cousins by blood, sisters by heart, friends by choice.”

The book of Proverbs contains an apt description of the extraordinary friendship Mildred and Margaret share, “Some friendships don’t last for long, but there is one loving friend who is joined to your heart closer than any other” (Proverbs 18:24).

Margaret Herb Wilkens has just celebrated her ninetieth birthday; Mildred Schindler Janzen is ninety-two and a half. From her memoir, Mildred’s words explain the deep affection the cousins share for each other, “Margaret was and is the closest thing I have to a sister.”

Happy Birthday, Margaret! How thankful I am for the gift of friendship you have shared with Mildred. Your examples of kindness, generosity of spirit, and unconditional love are lessons for us all. May God continue to bless you beyond all measure.

A Thankful Heart: A God-Honoring Sacrifice

“The sacrifice that honors me is a thankful heart.

Obey me, and I, your God, will show my power to save.”

Psalm 50:23 CEV

The season of Thanksgiving is when many reflect on blessings that have come into their lives, both in the recent past and throughout a lifetime. It is a time in which I take stock, a spiritual inventory of sorts, of where I am and where I’d like to be. As always, the gap between the two is deep and wide. A grateful heart, however, will often determine how I assess the difference. Sometimes being thankful comes quickly, other times not so. 

I have found there are days when I don’t want to be thankful, times when it’s easier to look at all that’s wrong with a situation rather than what’s right. Maybe it’s because I’ve had a long day at work, and my brain is fried. It’s much easier to whine and complain than to be thankful. Other times, the habit of grumbling has developed within my spirit without my awareness, like some insidious virus that has wormed its way into my computer. Do you have days like this? 

The concept of sacrifice appears throughout the Bible. Author Joseph Thayer explains that the Greek word for thanksgiving found in the New Testament is eucharisteo, which means “to be grateful” or “give thanks.” The root word of eucharisteo is charis, from which comes our word “grace.” How interesting that our gratitude and God’s grace are bound together, like two sides of the same coin. 

One definition of sacrifice, found in dictionary.com, is “the surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim.” 

In this case, the “something prized or desirable” is my will, my pride, and my control over my own life. The “higher or more pressing claim” is God’s authority over my life, which I gave to Him some forty-eight years ago. Even so, I still have to sacrifice my will to His daily. I must bend the knee of my spirit every day. 

What happens when I am not thankful? I can miss out on God’s “best” for my life because I would all too often rather keep the “better” grasped tightly in my hand, like a child clutching a favorite toy. As St. Augustine aptly put it, “God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full—there’s nowhere for Him to put it.” 

A lack of gratitude in my spirit can lead to pride establishing even more of a foothold than it already has in my heart. How easy to think that all the good things in my life, even the seeming escape from some of the troubles of this world, are due to my talents and abilities. How spiritually immature I should fail to remember that it has everything to do with God’s grace and mercy. 

Further, this lack of appreciation causes me to miss out on the blessing of seeing life through the lens of gratitude, the view that my glass is half-full rather than almost empty. 

God’s tender voice whispers gently to me from the pages of His word, “What I want from you is your true thanks; I want your promises fulfilled. I want you to trust Me in your times of trouble, so I can rescue you and you can give me glory” (Psalm 50:14-15, TLB). 

What happens when I am thankful? This sacrificial offering of my mind, spirit, and will creates a space of habitation for God within my soul. 

When I thank God for all that is in my life, not just some, I am establishing a habit. I am laying down a groove, as it were, on the surface of my soul, where the needle of the discipline of thankfulness will play again and again a tune that is pleasing to my Father’s ear. We often think of spiritual discipline as a practice such as fasting, praying, serving others, spending time in God’s Word, and tithing. We must never fail to build within our hearts this holy discipline of being thankful. 

Lastly, when I am thankful, I make God smile. Just as I adore to please my earthly father, so should I long to do so for my Heavenly Father. Hebrews 13:16 reminds me that my sacrifices of thankfulness please my God immensely. 

My dear friend, Mildred Schindler Janzen, with whom I had the privilege to help her share her story, has one of the most thankful hearts I’ve known. Her memoir, Surviving Hitler, Evading Stalin: One Woman’s Remarkable Escape from Nazi Germany, is an account of horrific ordeals she and her family experienced in the waning months of World War II. Almost more than anyone I know, Mildred has every right to be bitter and hard-hearted concerning the loss and extreme tragedy her parents, her brother, and she suffered at the hands of three occupying forces—the Nazis, Russia’s Red Army, and the Polish Army. 

And yet, by some miracle, Mildred allowed God access to her heart and her attitude, and in return, He supplied her with the will to choose thankfulness over bitterness. Here are her words, “… my story is a declaration that choosing joy and thankfulness over bitterness and anger, even amid difficult circumstances, leads to a happy, healthier life.”

Some of Mildred’s favorite Bible verses are sprinkled throughout the book. One of them is Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.” She decided at a very early age what to do when faced with overwhelming life circumstances. Mildred has taught me that the road to rejoicing and joy will be a rather arduous one unless one has already crossed the bridge of thankfulness.

Thanksgiving is just around the corner. Family and friends will gather to celebrate. Let the tastiest treat you sample this holiday season be one that was prepared on the hearth of your own heart: a sacrifice of a thankful heart. 

(Portions of this blog originally appeared as a devotional article, “The Sacrifice of a Thankful Heart,” in a 2014 issue of Mississippi Christian Living magazine.)

Giving Thanks in Everything

This new month of November marks a milestone. The World War II memoir of Mildred Schindler Janzen, Surviving Hitler, Evading Stalin: One Woman’s Remarkable Escape from Nazi Germany, will celebrate its first birthday on November 28, 2021. The book was released on this same date in 2020. Mildred, her family, and I have been so overwhelmed by the incredibly positive response her story has received. We are also extremely indebted to our publisher, Sunbury Press, for allowing us this opportunity to share this story with the broader world.

The book is divided into five parts, each devoted to a different segment of Mildred’s life journey. The section page for Part V contains the stanzas of the hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God,” written by seventeenth-century theologian and musician Martin Rinkart (also spelled Rinckart in some sources). As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, this year has provided me the luxury of time in which to unpack many of the thoughts and emotions tucked away in my heart while writing Mildred’s story. 

Last year, while finalizing the book’s manuscript, I chose this hymn mainly because it is one of my favorites. Its lyrics also captured the theme of this final portion of Mildred’s life story. While preparing the text for this day’s edition, I was amazed to discover many similarities between Martin’s life and Mildred’s. 

Martin was German; Mildred is an American of German heritage. Martin was a Lutheran. While growing up in Radach, Germany, Mildred and her family were members of the Evangelical Lutheran church. Martin’s moral fiber was forged in a time of war—The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Events of World War II (1939-1945) shaped Mildred’s character. Martin’s love and commitment to Jesus Christ continue to encourage the faith of believers in this age through his beautiful hymns. Mildred’s fearless faith in Jesus Christ has likewise touched the lives of countless individuals through her testimony of God’s faithfulness amid faithless circumstances.

One of the main impressions which struck me upon meeting Mildred in October 2019 and the days following that first visit was that she was an incredibly grateful individual. The phrase “how grateful I am to God for _____” appeared over and over in our conversations. Mildred would invariably fill in the blank with assorted examples of God’s goodness to her and her family during the horrifying experiences they endured in the waning months of the war and the years since. Now friends for over two years, I have found that this spirit of gratefulness permeates every aspect of Mildred’s life.

One of my goals for readers of Mildred’s memoir is that they would recognize various attitudes that marked the life of this amazing lady—joy and gratitude chief among them. The pages of Surviving Hitler, Evading Stalin are filled with example after example of how the spirit of gratitude marked each decade of Mildred’s life. 

Mildred’s words in the last chapter of the book sum up her life philosophy, “… my story is a declaration that choosing joy and thankfulness over bitterness and anger, even amid difficult circumstances, leads to a happy, healthier life. Perhaps the question I am asked most frequently when people hear my story is, ‘How have you remained so positive throughout all these years?’ My answer is simple: God. He has supplied me with courage and fortitude to endure life’s difficult circumstances. His greatest gift to me, however, is the joy He has placed in my heart. That is not a quality I possess, but rather one which He has graciously supplied.”

The first stanza to the hymn written initially as “Nun danket all Gott,” mirrors that attitude of both Martin’s and Mildred’s hearts:

“Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,

Who wondrous things has done, in whom his world rejoices;

Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way

With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”

This quote from Christian author and Bible teacher Kay Arthur perfectly sums up why, through faith in Christ, we can give thanks in all things. “God is in control, and therefore in EVERYTHING I can give thanks—not because of the situation but because of the One who directs and rules over it.”

The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the believers in Thessalonica, encourages the believers in this Greek city always to employ an attitude of gratitude:

“…thank God no matter what happens.

This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.”

1st Thessalonians 5:18 The Message

Giving thanks in everything is a way to honor the God who created you and gives you your life. My prayer is that you, like Mildred Schindler Janzen, will be able to thank Him no matter what