“His Word My Hope Secures”

Do you have a favorite hymn? Hymns may not be as popular as they once were – there’s been some wonderful new worship music written in the last 25 years or so – but the old familiar standards are still very popular. “How Great Thou Art,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “It is Well,” “Blessed Assurance,” and other old favorites are always in the “Top Ten” of the most loved church songs.

And, of course, “Amazing Grace.” How that hymn came into being and who wrote it, as well as how it has been transmitted down to us, make for a fascinating story.

The song was written by the former captain of a slave ship, John Newton. He was born in London on July 24, 1725, the son of a ship’s captain and a Puritan mother. Unfortunately, his mother died when John was only seven years old. His father, who was gone much of the time, remarried, and left John in the care of a stepmother who pretty much let him do whatever he wanted to do. When he was eleven, he went to sea with his father. Later, he was pressed into duty aboard a British warship as a junior midshipman. He deserted, was captured, publicly flogged, and demoted from officer to a common seaman.

John Newton (1725-1807) was a former slave ship captain, and later, a minister in the Church of England and a prolific songwriter of many hymns, including “Amazing Grace.”

Later he became a servant to the captain of a slave ship and was engaged in the “Triangular Trade.” This was the common practice of cargo ships that would sail from England to West Africa, carrying manufactured goods. They would offload those items and take aboard freshly captured slaves, then sail to America. There, they would sell the slaves and load up with sugar, rum, and spices, for the trip back to England, where the whole process would start over. By his own admission, John was a very rough customer – his language was known to be so vulgar and coarse that even the other sailors were embarrassed. Eventually he became captain of his own vessel.

He became a Christian in 1748, after one particularly violent storm in the North Atlantic when it looked as if the ship would be lost with all hands. They managed to survive, and John became a believer. He continued in the slave trade for a while, but later, he became convinced that it was evil and morally reprehensible; how could he, as a believer in God and a follower of Jesus, be part of a system that treated others, also created in the Image of God, in such a brutal and inhuman fashion? He was ordained as a minister in the Church of England, and eventually became good friends with a young Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce. The two men began working together to abolish the slave trade.

Newton had always been a prolific writer, so with the help of a friend, William Cowper, they began writing new hymns for use in their congregation. They averaged writing a song every week, and so it was, for the first service of the new year 1773, 250 years ago this month, Newton published these words:

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.

‘Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear,
And Grace, my fears relieved!
How precious did that Grace appear,
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come.
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far,
And Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.

Originally there was no specific tune for the song. That was not unusual; in those days, it was common for lyrics to be written to a particular meter, and any one of several different tunes that fit that meter could be used. But a generation later, the words came to this country and became popular in Virginia, Georgia, and elsewhere in the South. No one is completely sure when, but it is believed that churches began using a popular melody that had originally been from a song sung by slaves. This is the tune that we still sing today. Also in the early 1800s, the song picked up several new verses, including these familiar lines:

When we've been there ten thousand years,
   Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise,
   Than when we'd first begun.

Newton lived long enough to see his friend Wilberforce get a bill passed in Parliament on May 1, 1807, that was the first step towards outlawing the slave trade in England. John Newton died just a few months later. If the familiar melody that we know was indeed originally from a tune used by slaves, it is truly a demonstration of God’s grace, that the words written by a former slave trader should be combined with a melody from enslaved people, to become the hymn that we still know and love.

Today, John Newton is recognized for the enduring hymn that he gave us, and for one other piece of wisdom. Very late in his life, he remarked, “My memory is fading, but two things I remember very clearly: I was a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.”

Rediscovering an Old Friend

As far back as I can remember, music has been a big part of my life. In our home, when I was growing up, my mom always had either the radio or the record player going, and we listened to a lot of music of all kinds. Gospel (especially Southern Gospel), Country, Big Band, Western Swing – Jim Reeves, Ray Price, The Florida Boys, The Blackwood Brothers, the Happy Goodman Family, The Glenn Miller Band, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Mom had been a trumpet player and high school drum major in her younger days, and she developed a love of many different kinds of music that she maintained her whole life. In addition, she had a strong alto voice and for many years sang in a ladies’ quartet at church. I can still remember sitting next to her in church and hearing her as she sang the harmony on hymns and the old-time camp meeting songs.

My dad’s musical tastes were somewhat simpler. As far as he was concerned, there were only two kinds of music – country, and western. George Jones was one of his favorites – the “Possum” was a native of our corner of SE Texas – but dad also loved Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Johnny Cash, Roy Clark, Jimmy Dean. Dad had picked a guitar in his younger days, and always greatly enjoyed times when my brothers would get out their acoustic guitars and other instruments and lead out in a jam session around the living room, or around a campfire.

Like mom, I also listened to a lot of various kinds of music. When I was riding with friends in their cars, we would listen to the Beatles and other famous bands. I had one friend who was really into this Blues-Rock garage band from the Houston area that was just getting started – their first paying gig was the Junior-Senior Prom at a neighboring high school. A little group known as “Z.Z. Top.” But I listened to a lot of Chicago and the Doobie Brothers. Also like mom, I also liked classical music, and listened to a lot of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. And like dad, I enjoyed several different country artists, especially Glen Campbell. But one of my favorites was Tom T. Hall.

Tom T. Hall (1936-2021) was a Hall of Fame Country music singer, songwriter, guitar player. He was known as “The Storyteller.”

Tom T. Hall was born in 1936 in a place called Tick Ridge, Kentucky, and grew up playing “hillbilly” music (as it was then known). He was worked as a part-time musician, served a tour in the Army in the late 50s and worked as a DJ and radio announcer before moving to Nashville in 1964, with a job as a songwriter. He wrote songs for many other artists before having a monster hit in 1968, with the song “Harper Valley PTA,” released by Jeannie C. Riley. Somewhere along the way, he picked up the nickname of “The Storyteller.”

My introduction to his music came through my Uncle Rusty, who sang Hall’s song, “The Ballad of Forty Dollars.” I thought it was a pretty good story, and I started paying more attention to Hall’s music when it would come on the radio. Another favorite from those days was “The Monkey Who Became President.” The coach who was my driver’s ed instructor was a country music fan, and I remember listening to that song when it was my turn behind the wheel.

Another favorite was the classic, “Old Dogs and Children and Watermelon Wine.” It’s a true story about an actual conversation he had with a man in a hotel bar one night in Miami – honest storytelling at its best. His songs ranged from the funny (“Faster Horses”) to the sweet (“I Love”) to the bittersweet (“Homecoming”), with everything in between.

I stopped listening to his music at some point – I don’t know why. I was probably in college at the time and decided I was too “cool” to listen to country anymore, or something stupid like that. By that point in my life, I was really into The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt, and a picker from Kentucky who sang simple ballads just didn’t seem to fit. But then, as sometimes happens in our lives, something occurs that will re-expose us to things we used to enjoy, and we may find that we still like them.

Recently, I was watching the HBO series, The Newsroom by Aaron Sorkin, with Kathy and our friend, Loren, and one of the characters was listening to Hall’s song, “That’s How I Got to Memphis.” Honestly, I didn’t know the song, so I went on iTunes (something we didn’t have back in my younger days!) and found it. While I was there, I rediscovered and downloaded a bunch of his stuff, which I have been listening ever since. It’s still good, and I’ll give him the last word:

That night I dreamed in peaceful sleep of shady summertime,
  Of old dogs and children and watermelon wine.

Remembering Dr. King

Next Monday, we will observe the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Personally, I have long been an admirer of Dr. King – he consistently stood for justice, for peace, and for non-violence. He believed in the Kingdom of God, and he believed that Christians, regardless of color, ought to do all they can to create outposts and colonies of God’s Kingdom here on earth – to create what he called “beloved community.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When I was in graduate school, I did a project on Dr. King’s rhetorical skills, looking at the way he was able to take traditional black preaching styles – with the use of Biblical storytelling, rhythmic phrasing, and uplifting hopefulness – and combine that with the best of white preaching styles, with its rhetorical structure and its use of logic and Aristotelian reasoning. The result was preaching which communicated to both white and black audiences. In the process, I read just about everything that Dr. King ever said or wrote. Here are a few of my favorite quotes from him.

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.

I have a dream that my four little 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. 

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”? Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I can do no other, so help me God.”? And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? … Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. 

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

The time is always right to do right.

But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”

Goals for the New Year

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? As we embark on 2023, it’s traditional for many people that they set some goals for themselves – things that they want to work on in the coming months. Whether we call them resolutions or goals or setting a personal agenda, I think it’s a worthy thing to do, so with your kind permission, I’d like to offer some thoughts on self-improvement for the coming year.

Practice Kindness. Did you see the news story the other day out of Buffalo, New York? During that region’s terrible Christmas winter storm, a mentally disabled 64-year-old man named Joey became disoriented and wandered out into the weather. He walked for miles, lost, and was just moments away from dying from hypothermia when a lady named Sha’Kyra heard him crying outside her home. She and her family – total strangers to this man, mind you – took him in and cared for him. She used a blow dryer to thaw out his clothes, which had frozen to his body. Sha’Kyra is a nurse, and she cared for Joey as best she could. His hands were so frozen that his rescuers literally had to cut away his gloves. She bathed him, cared for him, fed him, kept him warm and safe, and let him sleep until they were able to find his family, who had been frantically looking for him in the blizzard.

But the family couldn’t drive over there, because of the storm. Ambulances couldn’t get to them, and 911 was swamped, so Nurse Sha’Kyra and the man’s sister Yvonne used social media to organize neighbors, who in turn showed up – on Christmas Day! – with snowblowers and shovels to dig out their vehicles. Then Sha’Kyra and the neighbors transported Joey to the hospital. At last report, Joey is still in the hospital, recovering from fourth-degree frostbite. He may yet lose some fingers, but he’s alive, thanks to the kindness of one woman who was willing to go out of her way to help a stranger.

Granted, this is an extreme example, but I think the truth is inescapable: each of us can make a big difference in someone else’s life through a simple act of kindness. Whatever the situation, whatever the circumstances, let us be willing to be a Sha’Kyra to someone around us.

Give Others the Benefit of the Doubt. There’s probably a certain level of suspicion that is necessary – even healthy. But it seems to me that too many of us have become cynical in the extreme, unwilling to listen to anyone with a different point of view, and even doubting their goodness and basic humanity. There was a time in this country when we might disagree with others about their ideas or public policy, but we still respected them as people. But those days seem like a distant and unreachable memory. Now, when we disagree, we often feel the need to attack opponents personally, to call them evil and question their decency.

Certainly, we need to be able to debate and discuss many policy issues, but we should start by acknowledging that both sides want what is best for the country – they just have different ideas for how to accomplish that. Republicans, Democrats, Independents: everyone needs to quit playing political “gotcha” and work together for the common good.

I saw an excellent example of that just the other day at our own county commissioners meeting, as the incoming and outgoing commissioners calmly sat together before the meeting and discussed an issue relating to their precinct. No drama, no histrionics – just two good men, who both wanted what was best for the residents of that part of the county, and both doing their best to work for that. It made me proud of our local government – and a little bit sad that others in state and national government don’t show the same kind of unselfishness and good sense.

Learn Something New. It’s easy to fall into a rut – it’s much harder to try something different. I’m suggesting that it’s worth the effort to do just that. Read a new book. Learn to cook. Explore a new hobby. Plant a garden. Take up woodworking. Go for a walk. Be willing to explore the new and try the unfamiliar. Develop curiosity and put it into practice. When we challenge ourselves like that, it keeps our minds fresh and provides us with opportunities to make new friends and discover things we never knew.

Too many of us are too willing to settle for things as they are and always have been. Remember, there was a time when everything we enjoy was new to us, untried and unfamiliar. Let’s be willing to break out of our routines. Remember, if you want something you’ve never had, you have to be willing to try something you’ve never tried.

Happy New Year! Here’s to a blessed and safe 2023 for us all.

My Favorite Christmas Character

Who’s your favorite character from the Biblical Christmas story? Obviously, we are most focused on the Baby Jesus – after all, it’s His birthday, and He truly IS the “reason for the season.” But beyond Him, which person from the narrative really stands out to you?

Some people will probably choose Mary, and I could easily agree. A teenage girl with enough faith to accept the angel’s announcement, then go through the gossip and public shaming she would have endured – it really says a lot about her character. Her betrothed, Joseph, too, was a man of Godly integrity and faithfulness, shown by his willingness to obey God.

There are many other characters in the familiar story. From the priest Zechariah, who is visited by the angel in Luke 1 and learns that he is going to be the father of a baby who will become John the Baptist, to his wife Elizabeth, who greets her cousin Mary; from the shepherds on the hills above Bethlehem, to the Wise Men bringing their gifts – there are quite a few interesting folks involved. But I want to tell you about my favorite: an old man named Simeon.

According to Luke 2:25-35, Simeon was “righteous and devout,” and he was waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises of the “consolation of Israel.” He was also apparently an elderly man, and he knew that he did not have many days left. He was ready to go, except for one thing: Luke also tells us that the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die before he had seen, with his own eyes, the Messiah coming from God.

It’s hard for us to imagine how momentous this really was. The fact is, our culture is terrible at waiting. We grow up longing for Christmas morning, then by the middle of morning, the kids are playing with the boxes instead of the toys that had been inside. We barely finish counting the results of one election before the media is speculating about who’s going to run next time. We hurry and rush and frantically move from one thing to the next, but rarely do we slow down long enough to really think about what this story is really telling us.

For thousands of years, God’s chosen people had been waiting for the “Anointed One,” known in their language as “The Messiah.” He would bring justice to a world of unfairness. He would bring righteousness to a world filled with so much evil. He would bring peace to a world torn by violence. Kindness. Compassion. Goodness. Simple decency towards one another, and genuine, heartfelt worship to God. This is what Messiah would bring as part of the Kingdom of God.

And somehow, the Holy Spirit had communicated to this tired old man that he – Simeon! – would be allowed personally to see God’s promised Savior. That God’s grace would be poured out on him, to view the One that so many, for so many generations, had wanted to see but never had. So on this otherwise ordinary day, Simeon leaves his house and goes to the Temple, as he had done so many other times. But this time was different.

As Simeon works his way down the line of parents with their newborn boys, he looks from infant to infant. “Is it this one? Is he the one? No.” He keeps going until he gets to Mary and Joseph and the baby, and somehow, he knows. He somehow manages to persuade Mary to allow him to hold the precious little one, and then he prays over the infant –

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
    you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
    which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and the glory of your people Israel.”

If the birth of Jesus teaches us nothing else, it should teach us this: God is always faithful, and He always keeps His promises. It is rarely according to our timetable, and the fulfillment is often done in ways that we could never have imagined. But God is always faithful.

As we move from one holiday event to the next this year, let us hold on to this truth: God is absolutely, undeniably, and unshakably, faithful to His word, to His promises, and to us. Merry Christmas.

Legends of Christmas

Among my favorite things about Christmas are the many wonderful and inspiring legends that are incorporated into our celebrations. How many of these stories are you familiar with?

The Christmas Candy Cane

Some legends have beginnings that trace their roots back to multiple origins. One of these is the legend of the Christmas Candy Cane. The earlier dates back to 1670 when, according to the story, the choirmaster of the Cologne Cathedral in Germany would hand out sugar sticks to his young singers to keep them quiet during the extended program of a Living Nativity Scene. In keeping with the celebration, he had the candies bent with a hook at the end, to remember a shepherd’s staff.

Then in 1847, a German-Swedish immigrant, August Imgard of Woosted, Ohio, had a small tree decorated with candy canes. Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, someone added red and white stripes and peppermint flavoring to the candy. In Indiana in the early 1900s, a candymaker wanted to make a treat that would be more of a tribute to Jesus, so he developed the Christmas candy cane that we know today.

The white represents the virgin birth and the sinless nature of Jesus, and the red stands of His blood, which saves us from sin. Many versions have three red stripes to remind us of the scourging which He received. The shape of the candy reminds both of a shepherd’s staff – He is our “Good Shepherd” – as well as the letter “J” to remind us of His name. The hard candy teaches that He is the Rock of Salvation, and when the candy is broken, it reminds us that when He was crucified, His body was broken for us.

That’s a lot of meaning in a simple piece of candy.

The Legend of the Poinsettia

The story is told of a young orphan girl in Mexico named Pepita. On Christmas Eve one year, she was walking by herself to the village church, and thinking about all the beautiful gifts that would be presented at the manger. She began to cry, because she was too poor to have a gift to bring. As she wept, suddenly an angel appeared, and told her to gather a group of weeds from the side of the road and to give them to the Christ Child.

Pepita did as she was instructed and went on to the cathedral. She ignored the angry looks from other churchgoers, who could not believe this poor child would bring a handful of weeds. As she knelt in front of the manger, suddenly the leaves burst into beautiful, brilliant red leaves! And so the villagers renamed this gorgeous crimson plant with the yellow-gold buds at the center Flores de Noche Beuna – Flower of the Holy Night.

A Christmas Prayer

Finally, we close with a poem that was legendarily written by famous author Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson was born in Scotland in 1850. As a young man, he rejected religion and the organized church but later in life, he is said to have developed a very personal faith and a journal of his prayers was published after his death from a stroke in 1894. We’ll give him the final word today in this poem, “A Christmas Prayer.”

Loving Father, 
Help us remember the birth of Jesus,
that we may share in the song of the angels,
the gladness of the shepherds,
and worship of the wise men.

Close the door of hate
and open the door of love all over the world.
Let kindness come with every gift
and good desires with every greeting.
Deliver us from evil by the blessing 
which Christ brings,
and teach us to be merry with clear hearts.

May the Christmas morning 
make us happy to be thy children,
and Christmas evening bring us to our beds
with grateful thoughts,
forgiving and forgiven, 
for Jesus’ sake.

Amen.

“Chains Shall He Break…”

I have been reading recently about a controversy involving a well-loved Christmas carol and the mistaken claims that some of its lyrics, and especially the third verse, are a recent invention. Let me tell you the story behind this great hymn. (Parts of this material were adapted from Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins, Copyright © 2001, Andrew Collins, published by Zondervan.)

The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had a reputation as a poet. Although he was not a regular churchgoer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed, and soon completed the poem entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.

Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a melody for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France.

But a few years later, Cappeau walked away from the church; meanwhile, French church officials discovered that the music had been written by an unbelieving Jew. They denounced the song as being unfit for worship services, without musical taste, and completely lacking in “the spirit of religion.”

That might have been the end of “Cantique,” except the song found its way to America a few years later, and was given new life by a staunch abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight. You probably never heard of him – frankly, neither had I – but he prepared and published a new translation of Cappeau’s poem into English. Dwight was especially moved by the third verse of “Cantique” –

Truly He taught us to love one another,
 His law is love, and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,
 And in His Name, all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy, in grateful chorus raise we,
 Let all within us, praise His holy Name:
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!
 His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

There is a legend that says during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, a French soldier on Christmas Eve stood up, exposing himself to enemy fire, and began to sing “Cantique de Noel.” The Germans held their fire, and when he was finished, a German soldier began to sing “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” a Christmas hymn by Martin Luther. Troops on both sides observed an unofficial Christmas truce.

“O Holy Night” became involved in another Christmas miracle of sorts a few years later, in 1906. Reginald Fessenden was a 33-year-old university professor and former assistant to Thomas Edison. On Christmas Eve of that year, using a new type of generator, Fessenden began to speak into a microphone: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…”

Across the country, and far out at sea, wireless operators who were used to hearing only coded dots and dashes over their equipment heard a man’s voice, reading them the Christmas story! It was the first known radio broadcast. When he finished reading the story, Professor Fessenden did something even more remarkable. He picked up his violin and began to play a Christmas hymn – “O Holy Night.” And so it became the first song ever heard on the radio.

I love this carol, and it often moves me to tears, in part because of its soaring melody, but also in part because it answers the “So What?” question of Christmas. Jesus came to Earth – so what? He taught us about the love of God – so what? This song reminds us that we must live out the meaning of Christmas in the way that we treat others, to love God by loving our neighbors, and to join the work of Jesus in breaking the chains of sin and injustice. And not just on December 25, but throughout the year.

That really is the best way of “keeping Christ in Christmas.”

Forgotten Christmas Movies x5

I love classic movies. So now that it’s Christmastime, I’d like to talk about some favorite classic Christmas movies. And by classic, I mean movies made before 1990.

I’m a sucker for a good Christmas movie, and there have been some really good ones produced in the last few years. The Polar Express is a favorite, along with Home Alone, The Grinch, Elf, and A Christmas Story. And there have been many, MANY, adaptations of Dicken’s classic A Christmas Carol, starring everyone from the Muppets to George C. Scott, and others featuring Alastair Sim, Donald Duck, Bill Murray, Patrick Stewart, and many more. Take your pick.

For this list, I’m going to stay away from better known Christmas classics – so, no White Christmas, no It’s a Wonderful Life, and no Miracle on 34th Street. Those are all great films that are among my favorites, but I want to focus on some that are not as familiar. All of these listed here are family-friendly and very watchable Christmas films.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

This movie has been remade a couple of times, most recently as 1998’s You’ve Got Mail starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, but the original is still the best. Jimmie Stewart and Margaret Sullavan star as co-workers at a luggage shop who can’t stand each other in person but who have unknowingly fallen in love with each other as anonymous pen pals. Don’t miss Frank Morgan as their boss – as an actor, he’s better known as the title character in The Wizard of Oz (1939). I just love this little movie, though. It’s really wonderful.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Barbara Stanwyck gives a fine performance as a Martha Stewart-type homemaker and magazine writer who is an awesome cook, a loving wife, and a devoted mother, living on her family’s farm in Connecticut. Except she’s really a terrible cook, never married, not a mom, and lives in a high-rise New York apartment. But then her boss at the magazine (Sydney Greenstreet), who doesn’t know that she’s been making up the whole thing, has the idea to have a war hero spend Christmas with the writer and her family at the farm, and she has to scramble to keep everything going. Also with S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as her friend, Chef Felix.

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)

Every year, the world’s second richest man (Charles Ruggles) leaves his mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York and heads south to warmer weather, and every year, as soon as he is gone, a homeless guy (Victor Moore) moves into the vacated manor for the winter. He meets an Army veteran (Don DeFore), just out of the service, who has lost his apartment, and invites him to stay with him in the absent guy’s mansion. Soon, there are more homeless vets, a displaced heiress, and even the homeowner and his estranged wife all living there and trying to hide their true identities and motives. It’s a terrific farce comedy that also takes a serious look at some of the problems returning GIs faced in trying to find their place in post-war America.

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

A very cool angel (Cary Grant) comes to Earth to help an Episcopalian priest (David Niven), who is so obsessed with raising money to build a new cathedral that he neglects not only his family and wife (Loretta Young), but also his true calling as a minister. Grant and Niven were originally cast to play each other’s roles in the film, but when the original director was fired, the producer, Samuel Goldwyn, made them swap roles to create this wonderful film.

Holiday Affair (1949)

Robert Mitchum and a very young Janet Leigh (only 22 at the time) star: she is a war widow with a young son, he is a department store clerk. Through a series of interactions, she causes him to lose his job. Even though she is already engaged to one man, when she meets Mitchum, she can’t deny the attraction she feels. He is sensational in a break from his usual tough guy roles. It’s a terrific story with a strong supporting cast; look for a young Harry Morgan (Col. Potter on M*A*S*H) as an exasperated police lieutenant trying to sort things out at one point.

There’s a great book that I would highly recommend for any classic movie fan on your Christmas gift list: Christmas in the Movies – 30 Classics to Celebrate the Season, by Jeremy Arnold, published by Turner Classic Movies. It’s a great look at some terrific holiday films.

Merry Christmas! And please save me some popcorn.

A Dog Named Paisley

I’ll tell you straight up: this is a sad, bittersweet story. And it may seem strange to talk about the week of Thanksgiving, but please bear with me.

On July 16, 2013, our family adopted a little black Schnauzer from the Abilene Animal Shelter. Our daughter Erin gave her the name “Paisley.” She was supposed to be Erin’s pet, but just a few days after we brought the dog home, Erin went off to church camp for a week, so the animal adopted Kathy as her favorite human.

Because she was a rescue dog, the folks at the shelter couldn’t tell us exactly how old she was, but they guess-timated that she was probably about three. They gave us a certificate to have her spayed. Then we learned that, oh by the way, she has heartworms. So we had to have her treated for that before we could get her “fixed.”

This was a strange little critter. For one thing, she didn’t really like to be petted, and would sometimes snap at you if you tried. She didn’t enjoy playing fetch, and she didn’t “work and play well with others.” The few times we took her on a leash to the Abilene dog park, she mostly kept to herself. It absolutely freaked her out to see anyone running – dog, squirrel, cat, person. Didn’t matter; she would bark loud and long just at the sight of someone running or jogging. So, we mostly stuck with going on walks around the neighborhood, to explore the territory and sniff out the interesting smells, and for her to do her business. And yes, we always carried doggy poop bags, to clean up after her.

Here’s Paisley on Christmas morning a few years ago, wearing her special holiday sweater.

And on spring nights when a thunderstorm rolled through, she would bark furiously at the thunder. She didn’t seem to be afraid of the storm; she just wanted to make some noise of her own. But if I would get up and take her outside and sit on the porch with her in my lap, well, she was content to just listen to the rain and watch the lightning and be quiet. Sometimes I called her, “Paisley, the Weather Dog.”

A few years ago, she got to where she couldn’t control her bladder. It was very embarrassing whenever we would be hosting a home Bible study. Then we learned that she had developed bladder stones, and it wasn’t her fault – she truly couldn’t hold it. The vet surgeon removed a half dozen stones, some as big as ping pong balls, and solved that problem.

Unfortunately, in the last few years, she had developed a heart murmur. The vet said the heartworms had probably damaged her heart and left it in a weakened condition. She got to where she would sometimes wheeze and have a hard time catching her breath. But she still slept with us every night. Some nights, she would jump up on to the bed under her own power, but usually, we had to pick her up and put her up there. Then she would scratch and paw at the covers until she had turned down the bedspread.

Then early last Saturday morning, she jumped down off the bed, and almost immediately, began wheezing badly and coughing. She acted like she wanted to go outside, and she went out and immediately threw up and had diarrhea. She continued to have serious wheezing. I had to go out of town for a memorial service, but Kathy stayed here and took Paisley to the vet. Dr. Kameron listened to her breathe for a long time, and said her heart sounded like “a washing machine.” She speculated that it was probably due to a blood clot, and that we had two options – we could treat it medically, but it might not work, would be very expensive, and would need to be continued from now on.

Option two was – well, you can imagine.

Kathy and I had already discussed this before I left, and we agreed that, while we obviously did not want it to come to that, putting her down would probably be the most humane thing to do. And so that’s what happened. (Special thanks to Dr. Kameron for getting up early Saturday morning and providing compassionate care for our fur baby.)

Paisley was with us for over nine years. She should have died from the heartworms a long time ago. Even if that didn’t kill her, if we hadn’t adopted her, the shelter probably would have euthanized her within a few weeks. Instead, she had a good long life as a member of our family. Like all of us, she had her good points and her bad ones. She was a grouch and a curmudgeon, but then again, sometimes, so am I. At least she was honest about things.

So thanks, Paisley, for loving us, and letting us love you. We’ll miss the way you loved to chase squirrels in the back yard, and the way you tolerated the cat. We’ll miss the sound of your nails clicking on the wooden floor, and the ferocious greeting you would give us whenever we got home in the afternoon. And we’ll miss how excited you would get when we said, “Let’s go for a walk,” or that it was time for bed. We will always cherish our memories of you, and among the blessings that we will celebrate at Thanksgiving this week will be your friendship and companionship. You weren’t perfect, but you were ours.

So long, Puppy.

A Test of Character

In the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, there’s a scene where a lieutenant is talking to Admiral James T. Kirk, after the young officer had just had a disastrous outcome on a simulated mission known as “The Kobayashi Maru.” When she asks the admiral about the right way to solve the problem, he says, “It’s a no-win scenario – there is no ‘right’ solution. It’s a test of character.”

I like that answer.

The idea of good character – what it means, how it reveals itself – is something that I’ve thought about a lot. Someone has said, “Character is who you are when no one is watching.” Character, or the lack thereof, is demonstrated by how we behave in our unguarded moments. It rises to the top during times of crisis and shows itself in ways large and small in our everyday actions.

And it has nothing to do with politics or religion. I’m sorry to say that many of our national leaders – as well as a lot of ministers that I have known personally over the years – show themselves to be sniveling cowards who will absolutely collapse like a house of cards during difficult times and sell their souls for the sake of trying to gain power or hold on to popularity. And others rise above the chaos and tumult to show unbreakable, unshakeable, strong character – “tested and approved,” as the scriptures say. Telling the truth, doing the right thing, standing up and speaking out on behalf of the marginalized, the downtrodden, the forgotten. Where are the people who will speak up for them?

I was doing some reading about this the other day, and I ran across an interesting column online somewhere; unfortunately, I did not write down the author’s name, and I haven’t been able to find it again. But I think this writer really catches the essence of what it means to be a person of good character through some unusual questions, and I wanted to pass it along to you. Now, as I say, this self-test is a little different, but if you ask yourself these questions and are honest about your answers, it may reveal something about your character.

1. How do you treat wait staff in restaurants and others who work in the hospitality industry?

Three of our four kids have or still are working in coffee shops, restaurants, bars, etc. The horror stories they tell about how they have been treated are absolutely shameful. And the worst perpetrators always seem to be the good, church-going folk with all the “I love Jesus” and “Follow me to church” bumper stickers on their cars, but who curse at the drive-through staff and are so unbelievably abusive and rude. A restaurant manager once told my son that it was almost impossible to staff the Sunday lunch schedule, because nobody wanted to work the after-church shift. They were rude and demanding, and absolutely terrible tippers. But they were perfectly happy to leave a tract about grace on the table, instead of an actual tip. Character is seen in how we treat the people who are serving us.

2. How do you relate to children?

Jesus told his followers, “Allow the little children to come to me and don’t forbid them, because the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them.” This shocked to the disciples, because children are powerless. They can’t feed themselves. They can’t take care of themselves. They are dependent on their parents for everything. Kind of like us and God, actually. People of good character are those who will put an arm around a little shoulder and tell a kid, “You matter to me. You can do this. I believe in you.”

3. How do you relate to animals?

Proverbs 12:10 says, “Good people take care of their animals but the wicked are cruel to theirs.” How we care for critters reveals a lot about our relative levels of selfishness versus character. That’s especially true for animals that we don’t own and don’t plan to have for lunch. It’s true that God feeds the sparrows. But sometimes, we get to help.

4. How do you deal with shopping carts?

Okay, I grant you, this is a very strange question, but think about it – how do you handle shopping carts in the parking lot? I mean, there’s no penalty for not bringing the cart back to the door or not putting it in the cart corral, and there’s no bonus for returning the cart. The only reason for doing it, is because you care about someone else. You don’t want the cart that you just used to be in someone else’s way while they’re trying to park, or you don’t want the kid who’s gathering up all the abandoned carts to have to walk an extra mile to retrieve them. What we do with our shopping carts after we’re done with them is a real gauge of how concerned we are for and about other people.

And that’s a proper test of character.