Monday, May 18, 2015

The Bull's Eye

As I was preparing my sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, I decided to focus my words on one verse from the appointed epistle: 1 John 5:12——“Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” Amidst all the other lessons and teaching and exhortation that can be done, these words hit the very center of the target. How to put them into a sermon was not, however, obvious.

As I lay on the couch my eyes wandered to a wall full of books and eventually settled on my collection of books by Albert Capwell Wyckoff. As I did so, gradually the sermon came into place.
Capwell Wyckoff, Autumn 1949
Wyckoff is one of my favorite authors. He was born in 1903. In 1926 the first of his novels was published. Over a ten year period he produced 21 excellent adventure and mystery stories aimed at boys. More than any other popular author I’ve read from that time period, he presented the era in which he wrote with an almost painful attractiveness. Boarding houses, automobiles, chickens in their coop, autumn weather, winter snowfalls, lonely streets at night, homespun meals, drives in the country, … they are all presented with a simplicity and charm that can make the reader ache for the time.

Even the titles of his books draw one in, such as The Sea Runners’ Cache, The Mercer Boys and the Indian Gold, The Secret of the Armor Room. In 1936, his last boys’ book appeared: Search for the City of Gold. He apparently stopped writing, except for an occasional short story in Boys’ Life magazine or other periodical.

During the 1930s, the time of the Great Depression, Wyckoff was a missionary in the Ozarks. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he devoted those years to living among and ministering to people who were impoverished, poorly educated, and whom much of society had passed by. He wrote a short book about those days called Challenge of the Hills.

In the 1940s he became pastor of the Presbyterian church in Columbia, Kentucky where he spent his last days. And at that time, he began to write and publish more books. Rather than adventure and mystery stories for boys, however, these books were Christian novels set in the post-war era. There are eight of them. (A ninth was not published until it came out in a limited edition of twenty copies in 2001, and a tenth exists only in typescript form.) These have titles such as Victory at Daybreak, The Bells are Ringing, and The Winning of Kay Slade. Like his boys’ stories, these also breathe the air of the time in which they were written, presenting the late 1940s with a beauty all their own.

When I first read these books, I enjoyed them very much but concluded that their theology was rather simple. They are mostly about people who lack faith, but are eventually brought to it by the example, encouragement, and prayers of others. And then I thought later that, simple as the message was, it was right in the center of the target. They never intended to be the “whole target”, but only the center. In that, they succeed.

It is easy for church members and leaders, especially in liturgical and historic churches such as my own, to be get caught up in externals of worship, classes, social projects, Bible studies, and the like. These are important, and some are even essential. But as I reflected on the passage from 1 John 5:12—“Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life,” I once again noted that, in words of just about one syllable, that’s the heart of the Christian message: the bull’s eye. And that is what Capwell Wyckoff was writing about in his Christian novels.
The inscription on his New Testament
Albert Capwell Wyckoff died prematurely, just before his fiftieth birthday in 1953. I am privileged to own his personal New Testament that he kept in the glove compartment of his car, given to me by his daughter. After writing my sermon, I took that small leather-bound volume out of its box where I keep it, and noticed that he had carefully outlined important passages for Christian life and profession. He had used a pink colored pencil and a ruler to make his lines clear and square. Almost certain of what I would find, I turned to 1 John and looked up the passage I had read in my own Bible. As I expected, I noted that he had outlined the same passage:

I am blessed and grateful for Capwell Wyckoff and his teaching. I own all his books and, to the best of my knowledge, every short story that he wrote, either in published, manuscript, or typescript form. He was a fine man, and he knew where the bull’s eye is.