For children on your gift list I suggest a book by an authentic cowboy who spins yarns about the Head of Ranch Security, “Hank the Cowdog.”   If they like it, they can choose from about 70 other tales in print and audio formats.

For full disclosure I have not read these children’s books, but I have read about the author, John Erickson. It’s his story of perseverance that commends his writing.

Except for the few years he spent pursuing his education, Peterson worked all of his life on a ranch, and today he owns a 9-square-mile spread. He has endured brutal cold and searing heat, long days and grueling work making a living with horses, cows, and dogs.  Such a profession demands perseverance.

So does writing. For a while Peterson fancied himself the next Hemingway, but he finally realized, “It might be important for somebody who wants to write about the human experience to know a little bit about it” (as told to Marvin Olasky of World News Group).  So after his studies at Harvard Divinity School in the 1960’s, he became a cowboy again.

But publishers did not want his stories, no matter how authentic. In his cowboy vernacular, “It was like being in a dogfight every day or getting bucked off a horse every morning.”  But he persevered.  With borrowed money he established Maverick Books, and in 1983 he began publishing “Hank the Cowdog.”  He has sold over 9 million books.

Peterson’s mother was the first storyteller he ever knew. She told stories of her West Texas ancestors and read him Bible stories.  “Years later, when I was getting hundreds of rejection slips from publishers, what kept me going was nothing I had learned in a college classroom, but rather those two simple sentences spoken by my mother:  ‘John, God has given you a talent.  You must guard it and use it wisely.’ ”

In March 2017, Peterson lost his home and studio in a prairie fire. His response was that of Job.  “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there.  The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21).  The fire did not end Hank’s adventures.

Perseverance can be your story in Christ. “In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:12-13).

If you give one of Erickson’s books, you’ll add a new adventure story to the life of a child. But this story is about you, faith, and perseverance.  Draw from that deep well of hope and strength to live well and finish strong.

Profound Words

In his 90’s and with a weak heart, he was not long for this world.  His carefully chosen words reflected a thoughtful life well-lived.  I enjoyed regular chats with him, especially the simplicity and wisdom of his words one particular afternoon.

He was college-educated in the 1930’s, and had served his community as a land surveyor and an educator.  He was a church leader and teacher, a family man, a man of God.  My visits began as pastoral care, but I soon realized the benefit to me of probing his wisdom with questions about life.  One day, he preempted my questions with one of his own.

“Do you know the most profound words a person can utter?”  I didn’t waste time with a guess.  He raised an unsteady index finger and pointed somewhere between my face and the sky.  He paused for effect.  “Thank you, Lord!”

“Why do you say that?” I queried, anxious for him to proceed.  His explanation was just as simple.  “Because at once, you acknowledge your need and God’s provision.”

At the risk of detracting from the simplicity of the thought, let’s unpack it.  It is common to thank God for the basics of life.  Faith, family and friends top the list along with sustenance, strength, and shelter.  The Christian worldview though, has capacity for gratitude far beyond the basic needs and good things in life.

Everyone born into this world can expect things to go sideways.  Life in a fallen world is like that.  Yet we are challenged, “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thes. 5:18).  This is not some Pollyannish formula to pretend things aren’t bad.  When they are, we are tempted to respond with fear, anger, or anxiety.  In those times, we are most aware of our need.

But the world is not as chaotic as you might think.  God’s will for you is to prevent discomfort and suffering from having the final word, as He provides for your good “in all things” (Rom. 8:28).  When you acknowledge the perspective of the Eternal that you are loved and destined for eternity, giving thanks to Him in everything makes sense.  You are not subject to the chaos of a disordered world, but to God who brings order to chaos.

So be thankful and embrace the peace that replaces anxiety!  “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).

Whatever is happening in your life, Thanksgiving is an opportunity served on a platter for you, together with your family, to utter these most profound words, “Thank you, Lord.”

Go Away

The words “Go away!” are not exactly welcoming.  Is it fair to say that to someone that loves you and wants the best for you?  What if that someone is God?

One time, some fishermen plied their trade all night, to no avail.  Morning found them stowing their gear near the lake, but based on a tip they decided to try again.  This time they netted so many fish that their two boats began to sink.  The fishermen were Peter, James and John.  The tipster was Jesus.

You might think they would jump for joy, and thank Jesus for a true fishing tale!  But Peter’s response was, “Go away from me Lord.”  Humility seized him such that he added, “for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5).  He was in the presence of the One that knew his heart.  Isaiah had the same reaction when he had a vision of the Lord sitting on a throne.  “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5).  He had seen the King and became self-conscious.

Popular culture encourages distance from God, but not because of humility.  Pop singer Gloria Estefan’s song “Go Away” says, “Thoughts of you won’t ever cross my mind.  It’s the truth, don’t mean to be unkind.  ‘Cause people have the right to party and you won’t let them have their fun.”  God is a pleasure-snatcher, so let’s put Him out of our minds.

Modern entertainment cheapens the idea of fun and pleasure to the point of being double-minded.  Look no farther than playboy Hugh Hefner, hailed as an American icon in his passing, yet Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein is a pariah when he acts on the values Hefner portrayed.  They would have you face the final curtain and declare with Sinatra, “I did it my way.”

To draw near to God is to find deep and abiding joy.   He wants you to be adopted into His family through Jesus, to hope in Christ, and to receive an eternal inheritance, “to the praise of his glory!” (Eph. 1:6,12,14).  God is good, and is good to you.  But if your life is a pursuit of what feels good, you’ll miss that.  Only God can weave the tapestry of your life and the lives of people around you into eternal good, even if the process doesn’t feel fun in the moment.  Considering that, why live as though you want Him to go away?  Be careful what you ask for.

Jesus didn’t go away when Peter asked.  But later, Peter did not repeat the request when he witnessed the majesty, honor, and glory of Jesus (2 Pet. 1:16-17).  By faith, Peter drew near to God.  Peter is smart.  Be like Peter.

Jack Barsky

To me, his weathered countenance seemed beyond his 68 years, and his American accent was hard to place. There are reasons.  Jack Barsky was a KGB undercover spy in the United States.  But though his life was fake, he found something more real than he ever had behind the Iron Curtain.

A “60 Minutes” piece in 2015 and his recently released biography “Deep Undercover,” tell the riveting story. It seems unbelievable that he could become so successful and visible in his assumed American identity beginning in 1978.  Even more amazing, he escaped the tentacles of the KGB in 1988.  But the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union within the next few years did not change his past.  The FBI caught up with him in 1997.

As a child Barsky rarely sensed love or even tenderness from his parents even though he tried to earn it through academics. He learned to stuff his emotions and internalize pain, qualities needed for a hard-nosed spy.  As a young man, he fathered children but could not love them.

Something changed in 1987. His American wife gave birth to a daughter, Chelsea.  The child’s unquestioning love astounded Barsky, and made him see the world with new eyes.  So, when the KGB warned him to return, he could not.  His unconditional love for his daughter remained, but his marriage ended.  Chelsea’s departure for college unleashed the pent up emotions of his life, and he fell into intense loneliness.

God spoke to him through that pain. His new assistant at work, Shawna, had an inner peace that attracted him.  She explained, “I get my strength from Jesus.”  She gave him a Bible to read, and followed up with discussions about it.  He accepted an invitation to accompany her to church.  The pastor pointed him to “The Case for Christ” by Lee Strobel.  He listened to the radio program “Let My People Think” by Ravi Zacharias.

Barsky was convinced by C. S. Lewis’s claim in “Mere Christianity” that Jesus is not just a great teacher, because what He taught means He is either a liar, lunatic, or Lord. What made sense in Barsky’s mind became real to his heart in a startling moment.  On a golf course, he was looking up at clouds “as a profound and otherworldly awareness began to grow in me.  He is!”  In embracing Jesus Christ, his faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).

As we chatted, Barsky said, “America has stopped thinking. It’s all about feeling now.  Young people need to be de-programmed and taught how to think critically.”  His quick smile and warm manner hint that he’s been de-programmed from lies and loneliness.   Love and faith can do that to a man.