Monday, December 21, 2009
It's a Wonderful Life
By Brenda Black
On one day, two men entered my life and I was singularly changed by their impact. The first appeared to be impoverished. He wore a ragged wool coat and a soiled grey shirt and tattered jeans. Thick, scratched and smudged glasses hugged his weathered cheeks as if they feared falling from his face. The second stranger approached me with a quick step that matched his snappy dress. He was as clever and articulate as the former was fumbling and repetitive. I met two men, I heard one message from God.
Thousands of people passed by the promotional booth I manned. Hundreds stopped to purchase a product or ask me questions. I saw rich, plain, tan and toned, flabby, friendly, grumpy and fancy folks. But those two – well, I remember their faces.
With stammering speech he shared his dream with me, the first stranger. He pulled from his coat pocket a roll of cherished papers. After he perused the clean white pages of my brand new book, he unfurled his faded and stained manuscript and told me he was a writer as well. I read some of his poems carefully crafted by a manual typewriter; I couldn't tell how many years prior. He relished my genuine interest. He shared his hopes for publishing them one day and tapped his rough, dirty finger against the page, while he emphasized what God had taught when he first praised the Lord with his clever prose.
I couldn't tell whether his plans were reality or a dream never conceived. Some of his claims seemed far-fetched. He told me one of his poems hangs in the nation's capitol and no president dares take it off the wall. I doubted that he had the means to complete his apparently long-awaited pursuit. But he never knew my reservations. I patiently listened while he shared his creative process. I grasped his hand and shook it heartily, telling him it was my pleasure to visit with him and meet such an accomplished author. I meant it. He smiled widely, revealing tarnished teeth. With a tear in his eye, he thanked me profusely for talking to him like I had done some remarkable feat.
I nearly cried, thinking after he departed, that maybe no one acknowledges him on any given day. He might feel invisible to the masses that never make eye contact with him or read his works, if indeed they are his. But for a moment, I had the pleasure of being my Lord's hands and heart and I saw this man as he wanted to be known, as a fellow writer full of promise and talent.
In a far briefer moment, the small, neatly attired second stranger popped into my booth like a prairie dog pops from his den. In a matter of seconds, he was gone. Then back again. We had only spoken a smattering of words, but I have no idea how long he had been watching me handle the hoards of people that ebbed and flowed in and out of my zone. I was stunned when he spun and returned with outstretched hand and said, “You have a delightful personality and your smile is engaging. You are perfect for this and I pray God blesses your work.” I was overwhelmed and felt like I was in the presence of Second Class Angel, Clarence, from “It's a Wonderful Life.” I hugged him and thanked him for his kindness. As quickly as he came, he vanished into the throng of people. His warmth and generosity toward me lingered like a special-delivery blessing straight from heaven.
What a contrast of circumstances and characters. What a wake-up call for my soul to remember that it always matters how you treat people because all people matter to God.
At some point during the Christmas season, I will watch again the Christmas classic “It's a Wonderful Life” and think back over my own years of existence. I'll wonder at the ever overlapping circles of events that sweetly complicate my world with thousands of acquaintances. I'll recall the times and places where God's hand altered events or surprised me with strangers and I'll be thankful to have participated. It truly is a wonderful life when you stop to count your blessings and when you take the time to be a blessing.
As Clarence says to George Bailey: “Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?”
As George realized he impacted others for good, he welcomed a life filled with treasures as well as troubles and said, “I want to live again. I want to live again. Please, God, let me live again.”
No matter your circumstances, whether impoverished or wealthy, whether hungry for attention or eager to give attention; God has a plan and a purpose for you each day of your wonderful life. Be his hands and feet and the bearer of peace at Christmas and always. You never know who needs your encouragement or who is watching.
**Touched by this story? Read more from Brenda in her new book “Were You Born in a Barn?” available online at www.thewordsout-brendablack.com -- order yours today.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Shepherding the Sheep
By Brenda Black
"And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.'
"Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.'
"When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, 'Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.'
"So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told." (Luke 2:8-20)
While Mary pondered all the miracles surrounding the birth of the Christ child, I wonder if she mulled over in her mind why shepherds were the first to come calling. They lived in a culture fanatical about cleanliness and shepherds were never clean. They constantly walked about in excrement and touched dead things which left them in a state of ritual impurity. Because of their defiled conditions, shepherds were not allowed to go to the temple to offer sacrifices or to go to the synagogues with other worshipers. Even the most pious shepherd was labeled as unclean and could not come into the presence of God. Then why were these outcasts invited first to view the newborn King?
God always has a purpose. The Nativity account in Luke devotes only 253 words to the unnamed night watchers and their reaction to the announcement of Jesus' birth, but God's choice of sheep-keepers was a major foresight of the ministry that Jesus would demonstrate as he walked on earth. Christ the Good Shepherd started as a sleeping child in a stable. Christ the Good Shepherd lived for his flock by loving, feeding and serving them. Christ the Good Shepherd died as a spotless lamb unto slaughter and rose as a the Good Shepherd who will lead the flock home to safety. The Christmas baby was born a shepherd. Who would understand better the necessity for mankind to be shepherded than those who dealt with sheep on a daily basis.
The believers of Christ are called sheep in John 10:15. Before you feel flattered by the moniker, talk to a shepherd. They'll tell you sheep are docile in nature, but timid and terribly nervous. The news of the Messiah was certain to bring anxiety along with delight. Shepherds would know how to settle the nerves with the comforting words of an angel who told them personally "Do not be afraid..."
Sheep exhibit strong flocking behavior and only a shepherd knows how to take them the right direction. The quicker the shepherds got the news to the masses, the better. Good news of a Good Shepherd would give comfort and hope, and deliver the long-awaited announcement of the Messiah's arrival. Those rugged shepherds knew if they got one lamb to listen, the rest would surely follow.
Flock mentality can be good or it can be fatal. Shepherds are keenly aware that they must do everything in their power to protect those in their care. God's people are susceptible to wickedness and danger. Just as sheep are generally less aggressive than goats, so it is in the spiritual realm where saints strive for peace, while demons push for power. Left together in the same enclosure, goats will harass the sheep. Left without a shepherd, believers are prey to evil doers. Thankfully, God inhabits the praise of His people. The shepherds "returned, glorifying and praising God." Their rejoicing rendered satan powerless. No doubt, demons fled the heralding.
Remember this Christmas that Christ is the King of Kings. But first, he was a Shepherd. Those most willing to calm fears, lead with assuring voices and lay down their lives for the flock, are most blessed indeed. When we shepherd, we look like Christ to others.
**For more animal parables, check out Brenda's new book "Were You Born in a Barn?" at www.thewordsout-brendablack.com
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Yes, Virginia, There is a Savior
By Brenda Black
What would Christmas look like if The New York Sun editor, Francis P. Church, on September 21, 1897, had been asked whether Jesus Christ were real rather than Santa Clause? And how would thousands of childlike hearts have been changed had he told Virginia the whole truth – Yes, Virginia, there is a Savior.
Only the letters in brackets have been changed from the original text to help us grasp the significance that the son of a Baptist preacher could have had on generations if Jesus were the topic instead of St. Nick.
"Dear Editor--I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no [Savior]. Papa says, 'If you see it in The Sun, it's so.' Please tell me the truth, is there a [Savior]?” -- Virginia O'Hanlon, 115 West Ninety-fifth Street.
“Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge. Yes, Virginia, there is a [Savior]. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no [Savior]! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no child-like faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished. Not believe in a [Savior]! You might as well not believe in [angels]! You might get your papa to hire men to watch ... on Christmas eve to [hear the angels singing], but even if you did not see [the Savior born or hear the proclamation], what would that prove? Nobody sees [Jesus], but that is no sign that there is no [Christ]. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see [angels] dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world. You tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding. No [Savior]! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood. Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.”
The response to the editorial was sensational! It became one of the most famous opinion columns ever written and was reprinted annually in The New York Sun until the paper went out of business. Oh, that the information would have been truly Good News and not fanciful legend mixed with theology. Then Virginia and her little friends and every man, woman and child that read Church's exposition would be able to experience genuine Christmas cheer and learn of God's favor.
“But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.
“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.' (Luke 2:10-14)
Of course, there is room for fantasy and frivolity in the life of a child. Imagination is a gift not to be pilfered from the minds of young and young-at-heart. But, when the real story is better than fiction and has eternal rewards that outlast seasonal presents and traditions, aren't we giving them the very best Christmas when we keep Christ as the focus.
“Whatever else be lost among the years, Let us keep Christmas still a shining thing: Whatever doubts assail us, or what fears, Let us hold close one day, remembering its poignant meaning for the hearts of men. Let us get back our childlike faith again.” – Grace Noll Crowell
Now, more than ever the “skepticism of a skeptical age” threatens the reason for this season – Christ the Lord. Keep Christ in Christmas, build faith in the next generation and tell them honestly, yes, my child, there is a Savior.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
You've heard it said - they go together like salt and pepper or peanut butter and jelly; chips and dip or Bert and Ernie. Combining opposites or compatibles is often considered an art form in culinary circles and interior design. It is a publicists dream to market a famous team like Dean and Martin or create a dynamic duo like Batman and Robin. But some things, I contend, are still better left as one. Too much crossing can lead to strange outcroppings that will make one wish they had left well enough alone. For example, consider the craze over hybrid dogs or designer dogs as some call them. They are becoming quite popular, but I wonder if we haven't taken the freedom to intermingle a little too far. It looks to me like we've reinvented the mutt.
The word “Hybrid,” when referring to genetics, is the offspring of genetically dissimilar parents or stock, especially the offspring produced by breeding plants or animals of different varieties, species, or races. In general the word means “something of mixed origin or composition.”
Try these newfangled creations on for size and decide for yourself whether it's a mistake or genius. American Bullweiler – this is a cross between an American Bulldog and the Rottweiler. Envision being attacked and killed with slobber. How about the American Eagle Dog. Take an American Eskimo and breed it to a Beagle. Voila' – you get a cold season tracker who can pull the sled down every rabbit trail he whiffs, knocking you off with low-lying branches as you traverse the Great Divide.
If you want to keep the cattle or sheep rounded up in the snow, an Ausky is your breed. The cross of an Australian Cattle Dog and the Siberian Husky will make livestock driving far more lively if the dog pulls you on skies!
In short, a Bascottie is not an English biscuit. It is a Basset Hound and a Scottish Terrier. Here is the plan: Take a sturdy little dog with short legs, a long head and pointy ears and breed her to a short, heavy dog with a large, round head and droopy ears. Since the front feet of the Terrier are larger than her back feet, put some pounds on her rear quarters with a Basset behind. Not only will their pup's ears hang low and its rump be heavy in tow, he'll also have bushy eyebrows and a beard to drag the ground.
Don't be fooled, a Chiweenie is not something on a Taco Bell menu, but it does sort of look like a burrito with tortillas for ears. If this little hybrid can't win by a nose in a dog race, maybe it could fly across the finish line. Asta la vista, puppy!
I discovered countless crosses with Poodles and Beagles and Labs, Oh my! Borders and Shih Tzu and Pinchers and Poms dotted the hybrid hodgepodge. And there seems to be a penchant for turning upland game dogs or waterfowl retrievers into useless doormats by breeding the sport right out of them.
So it goes – different strokes for different folks. But I wonder what the dogs think about the erratic match making. Is a Labradoodle afraid to get its hair wet? Will a China Jack mess up its crest when it chases a rat? Does a Rat-A-Pap feel naked or a Schnekingese miss its schnoz? Does a Sheprador herd the cattle on dry land or drag them by the nape just as they cross the creek? Is a Petite Goldendoodle really ever certain whether to bark in English, Spanish or French?
While poking fun at dog designers, it is no laughing matter when Christianity is viewed similarly. Faith designers try to redefine truth with hybrid formulas comprised of opposing beliefs and “mixed origin.” The outcome is a worldly, man-made, mutt religion. No real accountability exists if my faith system is based on relative morality. I don't need to worry about my eternal destiny because everyone goes to heaven as a hybrid. You see, without a registry, I can be whatever I want to be and call it Christianity.
The Word of God clearly distinguishes true believers from composite Christians and clarifies the purpose and destiny of each. “There is one body and one Spirit – just as 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 4:4-6)
Our registry is written in the book of life by the blood of Christ. If we are not covered by His blood and if we do not bear His Name, we are without identity and destined for destruction. “If anyone's name [is] not found written in the book of life, he [will be] thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:15)
Each breed of dog has historically been developed to be an expert at something – Great Danes hunt lions. Border Collies herd sheep. Blue Tick hounds track raccoon. I detect in many of the new hybrids there is no clear purpose for the combination; many look like obvious mistakes or the product of human amusement. Christians take note - there are consequences for watering down true faith with man-made ideas. The result may actually hinder a genuine believer from utilizing his God-given gifts.
“But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it...It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ...From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (Eph. 4:7,11-13,16)
Heinz 57 no longer means a mixed bag of canine wonder; it factors into mega bucks for the kennel crowds who develop novel and profitable products. Melting pot religions are just as trendy, but they are ultimately worthless and costly. As for me, I think I still prefer the original version in dog breeds as well as Christianity. At least I can pronounce my pet's breed and not sound like I'm sneezing. And I know what my purpose is – to be obedient to the one true Master who loves me, cares for me and bids me sit at His feet.