Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The stories could happen to anyone: A new adoptive father is repeatedly rebuffed by his little girl, even though she immediately embraces her new mom.

A mother wrestles with anger and despair when her “perfect” baby is found to have a serious, permanent illness. A prison chaplain is startled when he comes face to face with the man — now an inmate in his care — who shot him point-blank eight years earlier.

A divorced father heading to work sees an elderly couple sitting in a stalled car on some train tracks — and then hears the chilling whistle of the approaching locomotive.

For more than 70 years, the far-reaching ministry known as Guideposts has been capturing these kinds of stories of faith and prayer in real life, and shared them with untold millions of readers.

“Human beings can connect through stories,” said Rev. Dr. Pablo R. Diaz, Guideposts’ vice president of ministries and outreach, who travels frequently to military bases and Veterans Administration hospitals to share inspirational materials.

“We endeavor to meet people at those junctures in life when they really need us,” said Edward Grinnan, editor-in-chief and vice president of Guideposts Publications. “That’s why we’re in doctor’s offices and hospitals and rehabs, and even prisons.”

Founded in 1945 by “The Power of Positive Thinking” author Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and his wife, Ruth Stafford Peale, the Guideposts ministry has grown to five magazines, two annual devotionals, an online store with Christian fiction and hundreds of other titles, specialized booklets, ebooks, newsletters, a very active Web site, and a prayer ministry that receives 5 million prayer requests a year — which are then prayed for by thousands of volunteers.

“We certainly apply all the best business practices, but ultimately our success comes from another source,” John F. Temple, Guideposts’ longtime president and CEO, wrote to readers in March.

“Our goal is to make an impact for good in this world, to deliver hope to millions and millions of people,” and it is done “with your help,” Mr. Temple wrote.

Prayer in real life

Its flagship publication, Guideposts magazine, has nearly 2 million subscribers and an estimated 5 million readers each year.

It sprang to life in 1945, after people began writing letters to Dr. Peale, then a famous preacher and radio host, about their real-life stories of faith.

“He would walk around with these letters, and say, ‘These are great stories,’” said Mr. Grinnan. But “all his buddies in the publishing business looked at him and said, ‘Well, you can’t have normal people telling stories about how they solved a problem in their life. That doesn’t work. You’re supposed to have these experts, these graybeards, spewing out wisdom to people.’”

Dr. Peale ignored the nay-sayers, and published the hand-written stories in a magazine — making Guideposts an original — if not the original — vehicle for user-generated content.

Today, stories still pour in.

Those selected for publication are fact-checked and verified as much as possible: “We can’t check to see if God did indeed talk to you, but we can certainly check to see if the flood happened in Minnesota that day,” said Rick Hamlin, executive editor of Guideposts magazine and a staff member for more than 30 years.

Famous people often share their stories — Dr. Peale “knew a lot of famous people, and he knew that if you put a famous face on the cover of a magazine, people who aren’t inclined necessarily to pick up a magazine named ‘Guideposts’ will pick it up,” said Mr. Grinnan.

Most narratives, however, come from people who live in everyday circumstances, but who had an extraordinary experience.

Take the issue of forgiveness, said Mr. Hamlin. Some stories are big and newsworthy — like the person who forgave the person who murdered their loved one.

But Guideposts stories are just as likely to show the power of forgiveness in an intensely personal way — like “forgiving my sister who took Mom’s tea service right out of Mom’s house after she died when it was meant for me,” said Mr. Hamlin.

“That’s a real forgiveness story, and it’s not something that you are going to see in a newspaper,” he said. “People don’t realize what a valuable story that is,” he added, until they remember how there’s a family member no one has spoken to for years, and it’s been so long “people don’t even remember what the argument was about.”

Other magazines — “Angels on Earth,” “Mysterious Ways,” “Plus — The Power of Faith,” and the new “Mornings with Jesus” — have also attracted hundreds of thousands of readers.

Military outreach

Guideposts’ outreach into the military, which started in 1950 with the Korean war, now results in 2 million pieces of inspirational materials distributed each year to active military personnel and their families, and in Veterans Administration hospitals and rehabilitation centers.

“We have a long history of engagement and supporting military chaplains,” said Rev. Diaz, who recently traveled with Colonel (Ret.) Kenneth Sampson, a retired Army chaplain, to visit military bases in New Mexico and Texas.

Guideposts magazines are welcomed by chaplains because “it’s really first-person faith stories, so anyone seeking faith can open it, anyone of faith can engage with it, and someone of no faith can read it for practical, inspirational purposes,” said Rev. Diaz, an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church USA.

Other favorite products are the 365-day “Daily Guideposts” books (created in pocket-size and with a camouflage cover), and booklets with specific themes, such as “resiliency” or being “mission-ready,” that were designed with the help of military chaplains.

The vast majority of these materials are provided at no charge to military personnel, thanks to donations to the Danbury, Conn.-based organization’s military outreach program and gift subscriptions.

“We are trying to meet people where they’re at,” said Rev. Diaz. Whether military personnel are stationed at home or deployed to foreign countries or battlefields, Guideposts’ stories can touch their hearts and remind them “that they, too, will get through their own personal issues and crises.”

“It’s a bridge that links people,” he said.

After all, millions of Guideposts readers would have read how:

• The adoptive father — a handsome but very tall man — learned to say, “In your time, Lord, not mine,” as he waited for his once-traumatized daughter to happily jump into his arms, as she finally did one day.

• The mother of the now-7-year-old-son has risen past his severe disabilities, and sees “the unabashed, straightforward love that pours out of him” for everyone in his life.

• The prison chaplain — who spoke inspired words of gratitude to his would-be killer in the cell — found that the “cell doors” of his own heart were opened, and for 23 years, he could bring sincere compassion and hope to hundreds of prisoners.

• The man who heard the train whistle raced to the elderly couple’s car to push it across the tracks — but it wouldn’t move, and, paralyzed by fear, neither would they.

“All at once, something happened. Something strange,” Chris Ihle of Ames, Iowa, said in his narrative called, “The Crossing,” in the July 2015 Guideposts.

“It was as though a force lifted me up from the crossing into the air and set me down on a lamppost. I could see everything from 20 feet above at the same time as I was experiencing it.”

“Is this what happens when you die?” Mr. Ihle recalled thinking to himself. “You watch an instant replay of your final moments?”

Instead, Mr. Ihle saw from his extraordinary vantage point that it was possible to push the car backwards, off the track.

He then watched himself race to the front of the car and, with every ounce of strength, push it off the tracks. This meant the car was safe, but he was still fully exposed to the oncoming train.

“If it clips my boot heels, I’m gone,” the father of three told himself, as he pressed himself into the front of the car.

“The train roared by, just inches from my boots … Then I was completely back in my body again, returned to earth as suddenly as I had been taken up,” Mr. Ihle wrote.

Co-workers later told him they had watched in horror from their windows, fearing that everyone would be lost in a terrible tragedy.

Mr. Ihle ended his story by noting that although he’s “not really a spiritual guy,” he clearly had a spiritual experience.

That incident gave him confidence to take a different kind of risk — make a career change — which benefited him and his children, and allowed him to “make the most of the life I’ve been given.”

Cheryl Wetzstein, formerly national news reporter at The Washington Times, is Special Sections Manager for TWT Media Group.

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