It's the season of preparation, especially in Minnesota with our unpredictable weather. My wife was anxious to get our church's Nativity scene on the front lawn before the ground was too hard, even though it was still weeks before Thanksgiving. Putting out Christmas displays in mid-November seemed a bit much to me, but my body was already warning my brain about the many stakes that would have to be driven into the ground. We had received rain earlier in the week and the soil would never be softer.
The next morning was still in the 60s as we wrestled the angel, shepherds, wise men, sheep and Holy Family down from storage. I managed to get the manger, Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus in place and secured before noon.
After lunch dropping temperatures forced me into a coat. I brought along our dog, Sadie, ostensibly to give her some "people" time, since she had been home alone for the morning. But in truth it was just to give me some company while suffering with the wind and cold.
I made good progress, although my shoulder was starting to feel the burn of the repetitive pounding with the rubber mallet. By that time, Sadie had exhausted her search for nonexistent rabbits and was lying on the ground moping like a toddler, asking me with her eyes: "When are we going to do something fun?"
"Not much longer," I said. Suddenly, her head popped up. I followed her eyes and noticed a young girl walking on the sidewalk. She stopped to look at us and I knew what was coming next — those five magic words.
"Can I pet your dog?"
Sadie answered yes first with her face and tail. I said, "Sure you can, thanks for asking."
The girl made her way up the lawn and I brought Sadie over, careful to keep her on leash, since she still wants to treat kids like playmates and not little humans.
After getting the usual dog-meeting pleasantries out of the way ("Is it a boy or girl?" "What's her name?" "How old is she?") I thought that would be the end of our little meeting. Nope.
"What are you doing?"
I patiently explained the task at hand. She looked at the figures on the ground. Then, "Can I help? I help my dad all the time and I've only cut myself once!"
I thought that over. Well, I concluded, we aren't using any power tools, saws or electrical equipment, so we should be OK.
"Sure, you can help. I have a camel and one of the wise men left, so you could hold them steady and then use the zip ties to secure them to the posts."
It didn't take too long, and I noticed she didn't need any help in how to use the ties.
"Thank you." (I was secretly ashamed that, at 9, she had already learned to graciously accept a compliment, something it took me long into adulthood to do.)
As we completed our work she continued on about school, her dog, helping her dad. Suddenly she stopped and I could tell something was on her mind.
"I know about stranger danger, but I think it's good to help people, right?"
That stopped me for a moment. At the end of a long, often cynical and contentious political season, that sentence hit hard. There wasn't much I could say in answer except that, yes, it's always good to help people, and it's OK to reach out to strangers if you're a little bit careful of the circumstances.
I took a picture of the finished scene and said I would send one to her school so she could show her parents.
She gave Sadie one last pat goodbye and walked home, leaving me to ponder. I thought not about the wisdom of three kings who offered priceless treasures to a baby in a stable 2,000 years ago, but about the wisdom of children, who know that the simplest gifts are the best gifts of all.
Brian Johnson lives in Austin, Minn.