In 1820 Thomas Jefferson completed his famous cut-and-paste version of the New Testament entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus Christ. In an effort to legitimize the gospel message, Jefferson meticulously removed all mentions of the Lord’s miracles and resurrection. Jefferson sought to create a record of Christ’s life devoid of “superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications” devised by the “ignorant, unlettered” gospel writers. Ahem. Jefferson vigorously rejected miracles as irrational inventions that flew in the face of his enlightened sensibility. Even as I am appalled and indignant at Jefferson’s treatment of God’s Word, I see a wee bit of his logic within myself. Just as Jefferson questioned historic miracles, I have to admit a leeriness of present day miracles. Sorry. This is a confession. Sometimes when people outline their solution to a problem in terms of “expecting a miracle.” I often respond, “Well, let’s talk about how you can actively participate in the miracle process.” Don’t get me wrong. I believe miracles happen. But I don’t believe they can be summoned like “Okay Google” on my phone. Having said that, my caution was nudged recently by a reminder of my own experience of the miraculous. And it all started with cleaning out some old files in my office….
One afternoon, as I purged dated counseling notes from a file drawer, I found an old study Bible from the early years of my Christian walk. Leafing through the dog-eared pages, I read various passages I had underlined and highlighted. The pages flipped easily to well-worn sections I frequently visited. Psalm 34 opened up as the binding gaped slightly in the middle. At the end of that psalm was a notation: March 23, 1977 and December 7, 1977. I knew immediately the meaning of those two dates.
In the spring of 1977 I was an aspiring twenty-something cattle rancher. In spite of several years of hard work and austere living, my prospects of making a living as a cattleman were not exactly rosy. I loved the lifestyle but the livestock markets and inflated interest rates of that era didn’t return the love to young guys like me. Even though I had accumulated a nice little herd of cows, I knew that it was only a matter of time till I would have to sell them. I simply couldn’t make enough money at several part time jobs to afford their feed and pasture rent. So, in March 1977 I began praying for direction about what to do with my cattle ambitions.
Spring blurred into autumn with feed prices soaring and cattle prices sagging. November brought early snow and I knew I was out of options. I chose the first week of December to take my cattle to auction. My prayers about this inevitability had been refined to a handful of specific requests: First, I asked the Lord to provide a rancher to buy my cattle. Even though that petition seems fairly obvious, it was actually recklessly explicit and a profound long-shot. In a down livestock market, cowmen cull their herds to save on feed costs going into winter. They certainly do not buy more breeding stock, which was exactly the type of cattle I owned. My cows were all young and pregnant: the least desirable livestock demographic in a sliding market. The only buyers for stock cows in final month of 1977 were meat packers and cattle traders. And that brings me to my next request: I prayed that neither of those two customers would buy my cattle.
In the 1970’s, meat packers were making a good living selling tons of hamburger to a newly booming fast food industry and cheap adult cows were their preferred burger source. Cattle traders, on the other hand, buy and sell livestock in the same way financiers trade paper stocks. The main difference is that livestock is transported long distances to various markets. Trader cattle are generally stressed and often sick and mistreated from being shipped from stock yards to stock yards. Probably one of my failings as a cattleman involved my caring about who bought my cattle. Most ranchers didn’t care who paid for their livestock . They were understandably more interested in how much money their cattle brought. I told the Lord I sincerely didn’t care how much money my cows brought, I only wanted them to return to the country and not to a butcher’s kill floor or a cattle trader’s traveling road show.
And finally, I asked that the Lord to show up in an incredible way. I reasoned that anybody can take their chances in the livestock market but since I was His son and I cared enough to ask, why wouldn’t He want to demonstrate His powerful goodness even in this obscure corner of His kingdom? I simply asked that whatever happened on December 7th, I would walk away saying, “I can’t believe it, Lord.”
On sale day morning, I checked the opening livestock markets out of Omaha, Nebraska. Predictably, cattle prices were down that day. That meant I was selling my herd on a bad day in the middle of a bad market. With that news in mind, the auctioneer advised that I sell my cows by the pound. This would ensure their sale to the only buyers willing to spend money for this type of animal: cattle traders or meat packers. I told him to try to sell them first by the head as replacement cattle but if they couldn’t bring $200 each, then he could sell them as butcher cows. He nodded and added, “You know, we could just save a step and sell them in the butcher pen to begin with. But it’s your hanging, son.”
My cattle were among the first sold that day. They were fat and shiny with my family’s brand proudly displayed on each left hip. The auctioneer started them at $200 per head but quickly dropped down to $150 before he got his first bid. Then, strangely, almost magically, the bidding took off. The numbers bounced rhythmically past $200 then past $300 then to $400 before the gavel fell. $400 per head? I was stunned. I turned to Dad and asked him what my cows sold for. He verified the unthinkable. $400 per head. The auctioneer seemed to also need a moment to take in what had just happened. He whispered something to the stock yards’ accountant, who immediately slipped away from the auctioneer’s booth. The sale resumed when the accountant returned and conveyed a message to the auctioneer. The next cattle failed to bring $175 per head and were quickly shifted to the butcher pen. The remaining livestock sold for woefully low prices that mirrored the morning’s opening markets. Entire herds began selling on a single bid.
After I shook off my disbelief, I went to the auction offices to confirm the sale of my cattle. With the market back to normal, I feared my sale had been a cruel mistake and my cows would be resold later in the day. Instead, the cashier issued me a check and explained that my cattle were bought by a local rancher. He hadn’t been to the auction all year but showed up that day to buy replacement cattle for his herd. Mine were just what he needed: young, healthy pregnant stock cows. She volunteered that an out-of-state cow trader was the only other bidder. But after my cattle sold, the auction contacted the trader’s family to see if he should be buying cattle that day. They emphatically told the auction to not take his bids. He was in serious financial trouble and couldn’t pay for any purchases. With my rancher buyer finished for the day and the broke trader unable to bid, the markets slid back to their predicted wretched level.
As I walked out of the auction, I caught myself muttering over and over, “I can’t believe it, Lord. I can’t believe it.”
So, do miracles happen? Oh yes, they do. And when I absolutely need a miracle to bolster my sagging faith I remember that day 40 years ago. But I know my miracle was not strictly relegated to five minutes of bidding on that winter afternoon. The miracle actually started well before March 23,1977. It was precipitated by thousands of less visible long-shots that culminated in a moment in time. In the same way, the Christmas miracle of Christ’s virgin birth started in eternity past and beat the odds through thousands of years of cliff hanging experiences. Ultimately, the miracle points to the Miracle Maker. Mine is no different. Take a look at your own and you’ll see it’s true.
Have an awesome Christmas season remembering the abiding miracle that continues to reveal the heart of the One who made it happen.