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The Gifts

This is the second chapter of my book, “Our Darkness, His Light: Ordinary People in the Extraordinary Story of Christ.” Josiah is a character who “bookends” the story that starts at the manger and ends at the empty tomb.

In my fictional account of the nativity, Josiah is the owner of the manger where Jesus was born. He now lives with his own son in Bethlehem and Joseph and Mary have moved into a house down the street.


After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 

Matthew 2:1-2 (NIV) 

“Where are you going?” Rachel asked.

I shrugged into my outer cloak and grabbed the walking stick. “I promised Joseph I would help him finish something in his workshop.” I couldn’t tell her it was a chair I was making especially for her. 

My son, Joseph, burbled and cooed in his mother’s arms. “But, it’s after sunset.” 

“Yes, and much cooler. Joseph’s workshop on his roof will be much more tolerable now.” I kissed my son’s forehead. His dark, unruly hair smelled of scented oil. “You know, it’s been two years.” I tousled Joseph’s hair and he grabbed my finger with his strong grip. 

“Since the birth of Yeshua. Yes, I remember, Josiah. Also, that was the night we had our, uh, disagreement.” 

I reached past Joseph and patted Rachel’s stomach. “And, this child will be our daughter, Rachel. Yahweh has told me as much.” 

Rachel’s smile was brighter than the star I had seen that night. “Well, I will be putting our Joseph down for the night so be careful on your journey to Joseph’s house.” She leaned forward and kissed me on the cheek.

I stepped out of our house into the cool night air. The sky was clear and filled with blazing stars. One star in particular seemed to lie low on the horizon. For two years now, the star had filled the night sky visible even with a full moon! Now, it seemed brighter and closer than ever! As I turned toward Joseph’s house, I noticed the star seemed to hover over the street where he lived! How was this possible? Surely just an illusion. 

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Holiday Update

As we move into the holiday season I want to remind everyone of a book that would make one of the best holiday presents. “The Homecoming Tree” is set in Shreveport, Louisiana at the beginning of World War II and features a powerful and moving story of a young boy coming of age and a man who has lost touch with his morality. Filled with historical references of northwest Louisiana’s involvement with the war effort, this story will not only educate readers but will entertain readers. Let me just say if you like “It’s A Wonderful Life”, the movie, you will like “The Homecoming Tree”.

So, check out the “Books” tab on how to get your hands on the ebook or the printed book. And, stay in touch as Mark Sutton and I are planning a book signing before the end of the year when he releases his new fiction book, “Pitfall, Book One: Angel Wars”. More on that soon!

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The Lesson of the Gumdrop Tree

gumdroptreeWhen I was six years old, my mother presented me with the gumdrop tree. It was a shiny, clear plastic tree with sharp points on the tips of its branches. My job, my mother told me, was to put a gum drop on every bare branch. And, I couldn’t eat any gumdrops until I was done!

For a six year old, this was a grave temptation. I placed the gum drops one by one one each tiny plastic tipped branch until they were all covered. My mother was so proud of me, she allowed me to have a few spare gumdrops. Now, she told me, I could eat two gumdrops a day until Christmas.

Every year, we took out that gumdrop tree. Somewhere in the misty memories of my childhood, there is a buried memory of the first Christmas we did not pull out the gumdrop tree. By then, it was probably broken and, no doubt, my mother couldn’t find another one like it.

This is my first Christmas without either of my parents. My father passed away in October and it has fallen to me to become the “leader” of my family. I am the youngest, and yet my two sisters feel I should take the lead. You see, my entire family gets together on Christmas Eve, all 65 or so of us. My parents’ children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, great grandchildren, and great great grandchildren! So, this year, I decided to bring back one of my mother’s traditions. I went online and found the gumdrop tree! I ordered it and it arrived this past Thursday. When I took it out of the box, I was stunned at how little it was. I remembered it being much larger!

I sat at my dining room table while my son and daughter, now both grown, watched me put gumdrops on the tree. I told them the story of the gumdrop tree. And, this afternoon, my family had a Christmas Adam party. What is a Christmas Adam party? Adam came before Eve, so today is Christmas Adam . . . (crickets chirping).

Tonight, I placed the gumdrop tree on the table next to all of the candy and goodies we always bring at this time of year. As the young kids came running it, they were drawn to the gumdrop tree. They were fascinated by the candy hanging from the clear branches. I watched in utter amazement as they devoured many of the gumdrops. I was ecstatic! The gumdrop tree was a hit.

At the appropriate time, I asked everyone to pay attention. I told them that from now on our family would be meeting on the Sunday before Christmas so that each individual family could develop their own Christmas Eve traditions. Then, I told them this:

My mother and father loved everyone they met. No matter how unlovable or unlikeable, they accepted every person unconditionally. It was amazing to watch them. They forgave the unforgivable; they hugged the unembraceable; they welcomed the outcasts. I told them of my mother’s tradition of the gumdrop tree. I held up a gumdrop. It is hard and crusty on the outside but soft and gooey on the inside. My mother and father looked at a person, and no matter how hard and crusty they were on the outside, they saw the goodness within. It was because of their love for Jesus. The love of Jesus poured forth from them continually. I asked each person as they left that day to eat a gumdrop and remember the unconditional love my mother and father showed everyone. Let’s just say the gumdrop was a hit. I hope that the idea that Jesus’ love can transform your life was a hit also!

Just a few housekeeping notes before I wish everyone a Merry Christmas. If you are in the Shreveport area, I will be signing books at our local LifeWay store on Saturday, January 5th at 12 PM to 2 PM. I assured them I would get as many people as possible to come to the store that day. So, save up your gift cards and your money and come to LifeWay on Youree Drive on Saturday, January 5th. You don’t have to buy any one of my three books, but I would be very pleased if you did. Let’s support our local Christian Book Store after Christmas!

Now, to Amy, my newest best fan, here are some pictures from my book signing in Austin on the 8th. Enjoy and my family wishes you and yours the Merriest of Christmases! And, I hope to see you on January 5th!


Okay, so I'm a Dork! But, Amy isn't a Dork. She is a faithful fan. Thanks, Amy!

Okay, so I’m a Dork! But, Amy isn’t a Dork. She is a faithful fan. Thanks, Amy!

My wife keeps me centered and level headed.

My wife keeps me centered and level headed.


My son, Sean, and his wonderful wife, Jennifer. She keeps him centered and level headed, too!

I’m a Doctor, Not a Philosopher!

Doctor McCoy made this profound statement to his friend, the logical Vulcan, Mr. Spock during the original Star Trek episode. I have always had a hard time understanding philosophy. And so, this statement made me sit up and take notice:

“Christianity is not a religion. It’s a philosophy!”

I was somewhat surprised to hear Bill O’Reilly make this statement Wednesday night in his conversation with an atheist. The atheist, as expected, protested vigorously that Christianity IS a religion. Bill countered with a valid argument. Being a part of Catholicism or being a Methodist is “religion” based on the “philosophy” of Christianity.

So, which is it? Is Christianity a religion or a philosophy? Here are 5 definitions of the word “philosophy”:

Examination of basic concepts: the branch of knowledge or academic study devoted to the systematic examination of basic concepts such as truth, existence, reality, causality, and freedom.

School of thought: a particular system of thought or doctrine. 

Guiding or underlying principles: a set of basic principles or concepts underlying a particular sphere of knowledge.

Set of beliefs or aims: a precept, or set of precepts, beliefs, principles, or aims, underlying somebody’s practice or conduct.

Calm resignation: restraint, resignation, or calmness and rationality in somebody’s behavior or response to events.

Look at the fourth definition. Maybe Bill has a point. Christianity is a set of beliefs or aims underlying the practice or conduct of a person who follows the teaching of Jesus Christ. Ravi Zacharias, well known speaker and apologist makes the statements:

Religion begins with man. Theology beings with God.

Ah, here is a valid point. Religion is man’s attempt to organize the philosophy of Christianity into a system of everyday “practice”. Religion defines the “rules and regulations” of the “practice” of Christianity as an outward manifestation of its tenets and beliefs. Religion, then, is a way of living out or bringing the inward belief system of Christianity into everyday practice.

And, here is the problem. By inserting “man” into the process; by putting “man” in between the teachings of Christ and the everyday human behaviors based on those beliefs, there will be an inevitable watering down, and sometimes down right perversion of those tenets and beliefs. Man is an imperfect creature and based on our history, we can really screw up even the most perfect system of beliefs.

And, in defense of Bill’s atheist guest, complaints about “religion” can be valid. It is the ABUSE of Christianity, as well as other “philosophies” down through the ages that have led to charges that those “religions” are dangerous. The new atheists claim that all “religion” is inherently dangerous and should be outlawed. They claim that teaching children “religious” concepts is equal to child abuse. There may be some valid points here. After all, if a child is taught to hate anyone thinking differently from them and tells them it is glorious to strap a bomb to their chest and kill dozens of people, then I would whole heartily agree that “religious teachings” can be dangerous when they veer away from the underlying pure “philosophy” of that man made religion.

However, the potential danger of religion does not take away from the peaceful “philosophy” of Christianity. After all, Jesus of Nazareth never asked his disciples to kill or maim or hate or carry out revenge. He rebuked Peter when the man cut off a guard’s ear in the Garden of Gethsemane.

I would like for us to consider the possibility Christianity may be the most valid thought system and belief system in the history of humanity. I would like to explore the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Over the next few days, as we near the celebration of the birth of Jesus, I would like to look at the “philosophy” Jesus taught to his followers. Was it dangerous? Was it controversial? Is it dangerous today? Should Christianity as a philosophy be labeled as dangerous by today’s culture? Are we justified in outlawing any expression of the celebration of “Christmas” at this time of year?

Come back in the next few days as I explore the pure teachings of the man, Jesus of Nazareth. In deference to those who are atheists or agnostics I will discuss the teachings of Jesus from his strictly human point of view. I think that we will find that no matter what we may now believe about Jesus Christ in our individual “religions” that his teachings are universal and can become the foundation of the best way we as humans can conduct ourselves in this day and age of fear, anger, hate, hopelessness and coming darkness.


Christmas Movie #1 — It’s a Wonderful Life!

I stood at the corner of the bedroom hallway and my heart raced with unreasonable fear. If I turned the corner and started across the living room, someone might be waiting at the front door and see me. I would have to look them in the eye. I wasn’t prepared to face anyone. The night before, my world had almost come to an end and I had fallen into the deepest, darkest depression of my life. My dreams were over. My hopes were dashed. I had run my ship aground on the reef of pride and it was sinking fast.

In 1994, I formed a company called The Foundation of Inspirational Arts. My goal was to become sort of a Christian Walt Disney. I wanted to create inspirational art through music, drama, theater, movies, and publishing. I incorporated my new company and formed the board of directors. Five of my good friends set sail with me. In less than a year, the entire thing crumbled. The reasons are too numerous to list but the dream of my life was dead and now I was facing another depressive episode even deeper than ever before. It was the first of October of the next year. By the end of November, I was involved in counseling and slowly beginning to overcome the anxiety and fear in my life.

It was a week before December when I returned to my church and faced all of my friends, especially those on the board of directors. The drama ministry I was in charge of was performing an encore performance of one of my plays, “The Attic Tree”. I came to the dinner theater petrified and anxious and hyperventilated through most of the performance. But, by the end I was calm enough to greet my friends and shake their hands. I went home and collapsed in tears and anxiety. Would I ever overcome this? Would I ever see my dreams come true? And, the next night my wife and I sat down to watch television. There was this movie I had seen in bits and pieces over the years. It was schmaltzy and predictable and I had never taken it seriously. But, on that night near Christmas 1995 I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” from beginning to end. I blubbered like a baby. My wife gripped my hand most of the time because the story playing out before us resonated so well with what I had been through; with who I was; with what God was trying to tell me.

This past Thursday, I sat in the theater at the Robinson Film Center in Shreveport, Louisiana with my wife, Sherry, my son Sean, and my daughter Casey. We were with two good friends Magdy and Denise, but I was surrounded by the family I had in 1995. Sean is married now and Casey is in college. But, here we were about to watch a big screen showing of “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Like in 1995, I cried most of the way through the movie. I laughed in wonderful places. And, my children loved the movie.

There is no doubt that this movie is my favorite movie of all time. It carries so many powerful and important messages. And, each year, I watch it reverently to see where in George Bailey’s life I am at the moment. Now, I believe I am in that golden age after the movie when George and Mary know what is important and their children have grown up and life is still chaotic and tough, but they have beaten Mr. Potter. And so, I want to share with you these messages I get from this wonderful movie.


1 — “Shall I pray for Daddy?” Throughout this movie there is a pervasive sense that we are here because God put us here on this Earth. And, He is in charge and has a purpose for our lives. Throughout this movie, when trouble arises the first thought, without reservation, is to turn to God. There was one fleeting image I had never noticed when the narrator is talking about how on VJ Day, victory over Japan, the nation cried and prayed. The image shows men and women walking into a church and on the placard out front it says, “National Prayer at 11:30 AM decreed by President Truman”. Do you think we would see such a thing today? Heavens no! And yet, here in this simple story, prayer is taken for granted. It is as much a part of the thinking of the day as was breathing. It was this attitude of prayer and reverence for an almighty God that guided this nation through World War II. We have forgotten that in our heyday of hi tech and new atheism and postmodern relativism. God is still in charge. God is still there waiting patiently for us to bow our head say, “Help me God. Won’t you please help me?”

2 — “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.” My wife is incredible. Whenever she sees someone in trouble, she finds the resources to give to that person. I am a successful physician. And yet, we always seem to struggle with our finances. Not because we are big spenders. I’ve been to Europe once in my life compared to my partners two of whom has been to every continent including Antarctica. Early on, my mother instilled in me the concept that people are the most important thing in the universe. Programs, money, fame, glory, possessions all pale in comparison to one life touched and changed in a positive way. And so, not to brag because all I own could be gone tomorrow, but this sentiment is so true for my wife and me. We can’t take anything with us. We want to share and help those around us as long as God gives us the resources.

3 — “A toast to my big brother George: The richest man in town.” and “Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends.” George Bailey is so surprised to learn that all of his sacrifices have not been in vain. He gave himself away so many times, his frustration with his life was huge. But, in giving himself away, he made so many others’ lives better. God used George Bailey to change the world around him even when George was not aware of it. In fact, if George had been aware of the impact on other’s lives, he would not have been the same man. God works that way. In our moments of shock and despair, God emerges strong and vibrant and we suddenly see His great and glorious plan; using our pain and sufferings for His greater good. And, it is only then we realize that only God can take the credit for such wondrous developments. Only God can take the credit for working in George Bailey’s life. And, the moment George realizes what a wonderful life God has allowed him to have, he finds true joy. Not happiness. Happiness is temporary and fleeting. Joy is constant and a deep well from which we can take respite from the pain and sufferings in life. Joy reminds us that God is at work in a greater and more powerful way that we cannot see at the moment. It take faith to accept that this great and powerful God who has delivered in the past will do so again. And, in those moments of great despair when we pray “God, please help me” we can know that somehow our deliverance will be for a good we cannot even begin to understand.


Joy to the World!

The Lord is come!

Let Earth receive her King!

Let every heart

Prepare Him room.

Let heaven and nature sing!

Let heaven and nature sing!

Let heaven and nature sing!

I wonder if the disciples huddled in their dark, frightened homes wondered if Jesus’ life had been a waste. I wonder if their hopes that Christ would usher in a new kingdom on Earth, a new and more wonderful life were dashed by the death of their teacher on a cruel cross. I wonder if they stood alone as George Bailey did on the edge of that bridge and decided it was better to die than to go on living. One thing we now know beyond a shadow of a doubt. Their hope was not dashed. Their hope was renewed by the presence of the resurrected Christ! They saw their lives reshaped and recast in eternal perspective in the resurrection. They realized, after the fact even as George Bailey did that it had been a wonderful life lived by Christ. But, the most wonderful life was yet to come when one day they, as well as those of us today, will walk the streets of eternity with the one who gave His wonderful life for us.

I hope you have a wonderful, peaceful, fulfilling Christmas. I hope you find time to pause and reflect on the lives you can touch in the name of the child born in a manger.

Merry Christmas you old Building and Loan!!!

Movies of Christmas #2 — White Christmas

My second favorite movie at Christmas is “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. Unlike “Miracle on 34th Street” this movie has nothing to do with commercialism and the abuse of Christmas. It is a heart felt movie about love, sacrifice, and, well, misunderstanding.

Two soldiers on Christmas Eve 1944, Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Kaye) are putting on a Christmas show for the troops when their retiring General Waverly (Dean Jagger) comes to bid them farewell. Wallace saves Davis from a collapsing wall and Davis uses this to convince Wallace to form a Broadway show featuring both of them. Wallace reluctantly agrees although he has always been a solo act.

Ten  years later, Wallace and Davis inadvertently end up on a train to Vermont with two sisters, Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera Ellen) after seeing their act. The sisters are to sing at the Columbia Inn. When they arrive, there is no snow and the inn is about to go under. The men soon find out the inn is owned by General Waverly and his granddaughter. Through a series of twists and turns, Wallace and Davis agree to host a show that will feature the sisters and will bring in a huge audience on Christmas Eve. They surprise the General by bringing back most of the troops who served under him and, of course, at the end of the movie it finally snows!

Three concepts about this movie always impress me:

1 –SNOW! I live in Louisiana. We get snow rarely, if ever at all. If we do get snow, it is in early November or late January. We NEVER have a white Christmas. As a child, I would pray every night in December for a white Christmas and it would never happen. I remember one night when I was 8 standing in the cold outside my back door looking up at a porch light high in the air wishing I would see just one swirling flake of snow!

The train ride to Vermont in the movie features one of my favorite songs: Snow. I love the line “I want to take a bath in snow.” Years later, after I got married my wife and I began snow skiing and one February I skied over the edge of a mountain into a huge drift of snow and I got my snow bath!

This year, I’m not wishing for a white Christmas. Here in Louisiana and next door Texas we have had maybe four rain showers since January. The ground is so dry and the rivers and lakes have dried up. This year, I am praying for a Wet Christmas. Right now, it is raining outside my window and the temperature is about 45. I sat on my front porch with a hot cup of coffee and I watched it rain!

2 — COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS. This is the time of year when depression hits me very hard. I suffer from depression thanks to some errant gene my father inherited from his father. All of the Hennigan men seem to suffer from this kind of melancholy. It was so bad years ago, I went through two years of treatment and ended up writing a book about depression. You can check out my previous post here and my book, “Conquering Depression” here.

My wife, on the other hand, is always practical, cheery, and optimistic. She just doesn’t understand why I don’t just “get over it”. I wish it were that simple. The song, “Count Your Blessings” always warms me inside when I watch this movie. Of all the counseling advice I have received, the best came from my wife. Depression hits most hard for me when I go to bed at night and so, my wife urges me to count my blessings and I will go to sleep. Guess what? It works.

3 — WE’LL FOLLOW THE OLD MAN. This song that bookends the movie is one of the most tear inducing moments I have ever experienced in a movie. Most women wouldn’t understand it. It is because the kind of relationship women have with their friends is the kind of relationship men only dream of. We are stoic and macho and manly men and to show affection toward one another is looked down upon. Or more recently, painted with the wash of some kind of possible sexual or romantic attraction. It is difficult for men to just be friends anymore.

I have several “best” friends and when we see each other now, I give them a hug without hesitation. I really don’t care what the world thinks. These guys are like my brothers. That is why I love this song in the movie. It evokes a time when men cared for each other with brotherly love, philia. It was a time when men would do anything for a pal, a comrade, a buddy. It was a time when men would die for each other. Those days are lost to us now, wandering off in some kind of hazy fog of nostalgia. But, this song, at the end of the movie brings it all back again and makes me appreciate my friends more than ever. Here are the lyrics and snippet of the movie: 


We’ll follow the old man wherever he wants to go
Long as he wants to go opposite to the foe

We’ll stay with the old man wherever he wants to stay
Long as he stays away from the battle’s fray

Because we love him, we love him
Especially when he keeps us on the ball

And we’ll tell the kiddies we answered duty’s call
With the grandest son of a soldier of them all


Go and watch “White Christmas”. Bring a hanky or two and have your significant other snuggle up beside you. And this season, think about the baby in a manger who grew up to be a man. Will you follow this man wherever He wants to go? I hope so!

My Grown Up Christmas “Wish” List

To say my wishes came true in 2011 is a gross understatement. After struggling for 12 years to see my book “The 13th Demon: Altar of the Spiral Eye” get published, Realms released that book on October 4, 2011 and I am SO grateful for a publisher willing to take risks; to think outside the box; to give me an opportunity to tell the story of my Savior and the spiritual warfare in which we are in the midst of.

One song I always hear this time of year is “My Grown Up Christmas Wish”. I decided to make out a “grown up Christmas wish” list. After all, the best Christmas present for 2011 was seeing my book in print; seeing my wish come true. So, why not put some wishes to paper and, who knows, they might come true for 2012. My original post was on the Charisma blog.


I wish dating was about romance and respect for the other person and not about lust and sexual fulfillment.

I wish marriage was an institution worth fighting for; worth dying for; worth working for.

I wish being in love was less about “me” and more about “you”.

I wish people were recognized as unique, special individuals worthy of respect, consideration, and love.

I wish we would stop saying “it is what it is”. No! It is what what we make of it. One person can change the world!

I wish churches would get out of politics. Jesus said to “render unto Caesar that which is to Caesar and unto God that which is God”. Politics should involve the individual, not the corporate body of believers. We don’t choose our Leader. He chose us!

I wish we were rewarded for hard work, perseverance, and cleverness.

I wish I could still pick up a hitchhiker and not fear for my life.

I wish “they” would let Christmas be about Christmas. Stop trying to shoehorn other holidays into the season. It belongs to those who celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ! That is why it is called CHRISTmas!

I wish Superman still stood for “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”. Heck, I wish the American “Way” still included Truth and Justice!

I wish it was still okay to be patriotic.

I wish there was still room in our inns for the baby in a manger.

I wish that what is true for me was true for everyone.

I wish God was/is God and not the guy looking back at me from the mirror.

I wish people knew what manners were.

I wish young people were encouraged to have ambition and not just pass standardized tests.

I wish we really cared about making the world a better place and not a bitter place.

I wish we worshipped a transcendent God and not our children.

I wish Tom Hanks were funny again.

I wish Jimmy Stewart was still alive.

I wish naiveté was the law of the land.

I wish entertainment and fun were real and not virtual.

I wish I could climb a tree, not have to save it.

I wish children could still have a childhood.

I wish doctors could make decisions about how to take care of patients.

I wish insurance companies really insured our safety and not the size of their bank accounts.

I wish protesters really had something worth protesting.

I wish friendships were real and not virtual.

I wish people would look me in the eye when they talk to me.

I wish science was my friend, not my enemy.

I wish Indiana Jones would find something worth looking for.

I wish I had a Hobbit hole.

I wish customer service meant serving the needs of the customer.

I wish a cup of coffee was cheaper than a drive through meal.

I wish networks wouldn’t create a series, end with a cliffhanger, and then cancel the series.

I wish I was LOST again!

I wish someone in Washington, D. C. would care enough to listen to me.

I wish flying was fun again.

I wish we had a space program.

I wish it was okay to be a man.

I wish it was okay to be a woman.

I wish pajamas were worn only at home.

I wish singers stayed on key.

I wish art made sense and didn’t involve body fluids.

I wish there were happy endings. Just a few. Every now and then. Especially when I pay for them.

I wish “tolerant” people were more tolerant of “intolerant” Christians.

I wish Disney still made animated classics.

I wish it was still okay to unleash your imagination.

I wish people searching for truth realized He has already been here and can still be found.

I wish fresh vegetables and fruits didn’t harbor disease.

I wish, just once, that someone wouldn’t be afraid to say “I was wrong” or “It’s my fault” or “I’m really sorry”.

I wish “time outs” would get timed out.

I wish parents wouldn’t bring their crying six month olds to a movie.

I wish popcorn, a soda, and a movie didn’t cost the equivalent of one day’s wage.

I wish food was real food and not 90% additives.

I wish there was no such thing as chicken puree.

I wish people would accept the consequences of their choices and stop blaming someone else.

I wish the buck stopped somewhere.

I wish people would stop talking to themselves in public.

I wish “smart” phones were only used by “smart” people.

I wish, just once, someone would keep a promise.

Christmas Movie #1: Miracle on 34th Street

And now, for some fun. Over the next few days, I am going to talk about three of my favorite Christmas movies. Movie #1: The 1947 classic, “Miracle on 34th Street”. I’m not talking about the later version shot in the 1990’s but the original starring a very young Natalie Wood and Maureen O’Hara.

 Here’s the premise. It’s Thanksgiving Day and Doris Walker is the organizer for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade when she discovers the Santa hired for the parade is drunk. Out of nowhere, a man resembling Santa arrives to tell her of this tragedy and she asks him to take the place of the drunk Santa. This man proves so convincing, she hires him as Macy’s official Santa for the store. The man, calling himself Kris Kringle, delights children and surprises a mother when he tells her she can find a fire engine at a rival store. The mother tells Doris’ boss, Mr. Shellhammer of what a wonderful “gimmick” to let Santa steer mothers to wherever they can find the best bargain. Mr. Macy sees it as a fantastic development and wants Kris to continue to be the store’s Santa, only Mrs. Walker has fired him when she realizes he claims to be the real Santa Claus.

Wrapped into this story is Doris’ young daughter, Susan. Doris has told Susan all of her life there are no fairy tales and she has to believe in the harshness of reality. This comes out of Doris’ disappointing marriage to Susan’s father that ended in divorce. A next door neighbor, Fred Gailey warms up to Susan and takes her to see the new Santa. Susan is skeptical, of course but is shocked when Kris speaks to a Dutch orphan who cannot speak English and ends up singing a Christmas song with her in her native tongue.

But, there is a negative development, of course. For Kris to stay on, he has to be evaluated by the store’s neurotic psychologist, Mr. Sawyer. Mr. Sawyer thinks Kris is dangerous and after he fires a young man who works as a janitor because he dresses as Santa Claus for an orphanage, Kris is outraged and pops Sawyer on the head with his cane. Sawyer has him arrested and committed and now, there is no Santa for Christmas. Mr. Gailey, the attorney, takes on Kris’ case and because of this, gets fired from his firm. I won’t tell you how he manages to get Kris off or how Kris proves to Susan he is very, very real.

This movie is a delight and explores so many themes that resonate with our society today. Here they are:

1 — Christmas has been hijacked by commercialism. If it were not for the power of the almighty buck, I believe our government would have already passed laws to make it illegal to use the word “Christmas” in public since it carries a heavy religious meaning. In many ways, Christians should be thankful we are such a greedy society. Stores that used to put up “Happy Holidays” are now threatened with boycotts and have returned to using “Merry Christmas”. The only reason? Money! Here is what Alfred, the young janitor had to say about this:

 “There’s a lot of bad ‘isms’ floating around but commercialism is the worst. Make a buck. Make a buck. That’s all they say.”

2 — Imagination is essential to the minds of children and adults. The recent death of the atheist Christopher Hitchens points out the great progress the “new atheists” have made in eroding the power of imaginative thinking. By depicting belief in God as a delusion, the new atheists have unwittingly destroyed the very thing that has allowed us to come up with art, music, and inventions that have sparked human progress: imagination. If we do away with any supernatural thinking, we do away with imagination! And without imagination, we are no better than animals, which is what these new atheists claim we are anyway. What this movie so eloquently shows is the struggle between harsh reality and playful fantasy. There is room in our minds for imagination and imagination is what separates us from the animal. Here is what Doris Walker had to say about how she wants her daughter to be raised:

 “By filling their heads with fairy tales they grow up considering life a fantasy instead of reality.”

3 — Maybe our politicians are not so sane after all. I won’t comment on this very much but there is one brilliant quote from Mr. Shellhammer in talking about how “crazy” Kris Kringle is:

 “Maybe he’s just a little crazy, like painters or composers or some of those men in Washington.”

4 — Christmas is more about the birth of the Savior in the manger than it is about shopping and partying and gift giving. But, somehow, Jesus gets lost in the shuffle. Here is what Kris Kringle had to say:

 “Christmas and I are getting lost in the shuffle. Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind and that’s what has been changing.”

More truer words were never spoken. But there is hope. As Doris finally realizes:

“Faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to.”

Watch “Miracle on 34th Street” and think on these things. Let it fill you with a sense of the divine; an appreciation for love and concern this time of year. Let it remind you and me that Christmas is about the Christ child who came for all of us; to bring us peace and love and mercy.

The Night I Killed Santa!

They found him in an abandoned warehouse just two weeks before Christmas. He was alone, dressed in a Santa costume. He was in a coma. He had no identification on him. I first saw “Santa” in the emergency room shortly after he had been admitted to my internal medicine team. His blood glucose was 32. Normal is anything above 90 and less than 120. When you get below 50, you’re approaching a comatose state. We had no idea how long he had been like this. I chose to admit him to the intensive care unit until we could get him stabilized. Shortly after bringing him to the ICU from the ER, he coded — medical jargon for cardiorespiratory arrest. In other words, his heart stopped and he died. We worked on him for a good hour and managed to get his heart beating again but he had trouble keeping his blood oxygen level up so I decided to put him on a ventilator. It was the last free ventilator in the hospital.

That was when the fun began. Let me elaborate.

Bed 1 contained a man weighing 780 pounds. We tied two hospital beds together to hold him. He had been admitted to surgery for removal of a hernia so large, he had carried it in a wheelbarrow. But, the surgeons had no idea how to maintain the fluid balance of a 780 pound man so he developed fluid on his lungs. He coded at this moment and my team of medical students and the other intern starting working on him. I remember one of the medical students literally perched on the huge man’s chest pumping on his heart with her knees!

Bed 2 contained a man with delirium tremens. As soon as Bed 1 turned south, the man decided to pull out his Foley catheter without deflating the balloon. He was whirling the catheter with its balloon the size of a grapefruit around his head like a lasso while chasing one of the nurses. He was spewing bright red blood from his, uh, privates all over the floor.

Bed 3 contained a prisoner from the local jail. He had “overdosed” and was now in a “coma”. He had been in a “coma” most of the day although we suspected he was faking it just to stay out of jail. He had overheard me talking to the psychiatrist earlier saying as soon as he woke up, instead of admitting him to the psychiatric ward for treatment of his “depression” we would send him immediately back to jail. In the developing chaos, he woke up, opened the window and climbed out on the seventh floor ledge to kill himself. He was going to prove he was suicidal.

Bed 4 contained a medical student in her mid twenties. She had “converted” her PPD, meaning that sometime since starting medical school she had been exposed to tuberculosis and her skin test proved it. She had been placed on prophylactic medication which had proceeded to destroy her liver. She was currently in “hepatic encephalopathy” meaning she was delirious from all the ammonia building up in her bloodstream from her failing liver. She started screaming at the top of her lungs and trying to tear out of her restraints.

Bed 5 contained an elderly woman dying from ovarian cancer with fluid buildup in her lungs and her abdomen. Her protein was so low in her blood, we had to keep her in ICU to build her protein back up. She was on a ventilator.

Bed 6 contained a man  recovering from a massive heart attack. As our CCU, or cardiac care unit, was full, he had been moved to the ICU and was also on a ventilator. He was only 38 and currently sedated so he wouldn’t fight the breathing mechanism of the ventilator.

Bed 7 was currently empty.

Bed 8 contained Santa.

The next two hours were the most chaotic I have ever experienced in my many years of medicine. The 780 pound man died. The fellow in DT’s slipped on his own blood, fell and was taken to surgery for a subdural hematoma, a blood clot on the brain. The medical student began vomiting blood and we had to call in the gastroenterologist to try and scope her and find the source of bleeding. The psychiatry resident closed the window on the prisoner after telling him if he was still on the ledge in the morning, we would send him back to prison assuming he didn’t freeze to death. Otherwise, he could climb back inside and get sent back to prison without frostbite.

It was now 3 in the morning and I went to check on Santa. His status had not changed. He had not awakened. We still had no idea as to his identity. It was then the next admit rolled into ICU, a young woman in diabetic ketoacidosis. This is a state where the blood sugar is so high the patient becomes delirious and is in serious danger of dying. To top it off, the young woman had developed a rare complication, ARDS. This affected her lungs which were filling up with a proteinaceous material. If we didn’t get her on a ventilator soon, she would die.

But, there were no ventilators left in the hospital. That meant I had to make a decision.

In that day’s medical environment, most people don’t realize the loneliness of being the doctor on the spot. We are trained to make these kinds of decisions; to weigh life and death scenarios in a split second. Our current medical environment has taken that choice away from doctors and placed it in the hands of administrative individuals whether in the government or with an insurance company. These faceless, sterile, uncaring individuals sit behind a computer screen scrolling through a “cookbook” of these scenarios and deciding whether or not the doctor can make the appropriate decision only the doctor is trained to make. But, back then, the doctor was the final decision maker. The doctor, whether he liked it or not, was God.

I stood there faced with the inevitable prospects of taking a ventilator away from one of my patients. Who would it be? And, I had to make the decision quickly. For the young woman to survive, someone would have to die. Who then?

I stepped into Santa’s cubicle. He was still wearing the red pants and his bare chest rose and fell with the ventilator. I shooed the nurses and medical students out of the room. This would be my decision and mine alone.

“Sir,” I said. “I do not know your name. I know nothing about your past. I have no idea why you were in that empty building dressed as Santa. The only thing I know is that I have to make a decision and, I’m sorry, but it is time for you to die. I know that God knows your mind and your heart and I only hope He ushers you into heaven with open arms. The only thing I can offer to you is that although you may have spent your last waking moments totally alone, you will not die alone. I will be here with you.”

I turned off the heart monitor and slowly removed all the wires and EKG patches. I pulled his red Santa coat up and buttoned it over his chest. I removed the IV lines from his arms and straightened his long, white beard down over his chest. He had been wearing a tiny set of reading glasses in the warehouse, and I put those gold hued glassed back on his nose. For all the world, he looked like a sleeping Santa Claus save for the tube coming out of his mouth. I reached over and turned off the ventilator and slid the tube out of his throat. The respiratory technologist whisked the ventilator away and I reached down and took the man’s hand in mine. I felt for his steady pulse and waited as it slowed until it vanished.

I will never know who this man was this side of heaven. I will never forget the pain of making that decision even now 31 years later. I will never forsake another human being in the moment of death. We come into this world alone and are instantly embraced by family. But, death is a lonely experience. Even surrounded by loved ones, only we can experience the ultimate journey. But, we are not alone. God sends his angels to usher us into heaven. I have heard so many stories of men and women seeing the divine at the moment of death. There is that comfort.

Two people died recently whose deaths are significant to me. One was Christopher Hitchens, a radical, outspoken atheist who wrote the bestseller “God is Not Great”. He now knows the ultimate truth. And the other was Steve Jobs. Steve Job’s sister tells of his final moment of life when he sat up in bed, looked over her shoulder and said, “Wow, wow, wow.” Did Christopher Hitchens say something similar? I do not know.

I only know this. The night I allowed “Santa” to die so that a young woman could live, I learned the most powerful lesson in the world. It is the lesson of Christmas. It is the heart of the Nativity story. It is the fulfillment of man’s journey through darkness and evil. It is this. Someone had to die so that we could live. Jesus was born to die. The babe in the manger was overshadowed by the cross from the moment he drew his first breath.


This Christmas season, pause and look around you. Notice the unnoticed. Feed the unfed. Bless the unblessed. Love the unloved. Find the babe in a manger that cries in hunger. And, ultimately, share a love that is so profound, so deep, so unfathomable that because of that love He drew a cold breath in a manger only to breath His last breath on a cross for all of us.

Is Santa Dead?

The little boy could not have been over 4, maybe 5 years old. He was wearing a sweatshirt meant for a kid around 7 and it swallowed him. He sat on the examining table playing with a straw, bending and flexing the jointed part of the straw. His mother sat in a chair, silent, sullen and withdrawn. I had already decided I was not going to become a pediatrician, but that didn’t keep me from seeing children in the Comprehensive Care Clinic. I was halfway through my senior year in medical school and proudly called myself “Student Doctor Hennigan”. As student doctors, we began to see our own patients in the CCC beginning our junior year. The care of these patients was overseen by family practice physicians with years of training. Any decision we made as students was directed by our “attending” physicians.

I had on my short white coat longing for the day I could move into the long, white coat — the “uniform” of a real doctor. On my breast pocket, I had pinned a flashing Santa Claus face that winked and blinked. I pointed to the pin. “What is Santa bringing you this year?”

The little boy flipped the straw and shrugged. “Santa Claus is dead.”

My mouth fell open and I glanced at the mother. A fiery defiance filled her eyes and she raised an eyebrow. “That’s right. Santa’s dead. In fact, you pronounced him dead, didn’t you Doctor?”

I stuttered. I opened and closed my mouth and she stood up and stepped very close. Her gazed bored into mine. “Now, you listen here. You brought up Santa to my son and I done told him Santa ain’t coming. I had to tell him Santa died cause I ain’t got no money this year for Christmas. You understand? And, unless you gonna cough up some dough, I suggest you tell my son that Santa is dead as a door knob and you personally pushed his body down to the morgue.”

I turned quickly and left the room, slamming the door behind me and stood there in the hall gasping for breath. This is not what I was prepared for in medical school. Santa was dead and I had pronounced him? Tears stung my eyes and I leaned against the wall with the sudden realization that as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t help everyone anymore than I could heal everyone. I had no money myself. I lived off of borrowed student loans or I would march back in and press a wad of twenties into that mother’s hands so that kid could have Christmas that year. But, instead, I limped away to my attending and begged for direction. He just laughed and told me to go back in and take care of the child’s physical needs.

“It’s not our place to promote magical thinking.” He sneered at me. “Go back and examine that child and don’t you say another word about Santa. And, take that stupid pin off your coat.”

I avoided the mother’s gaze while I took care of the child. I never mentioned Santa or Christmas again. I gave her a prescription for antibiotics and stiffly walked out of the room. I had no prescription for her bitterness.

Two thoughts come to mind when I recall this incident.

1 — Our culture wants to kill Santa and any and all “magical” thinking. Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist, has published a book telling children they should appreciate the universe for what it is and to encourage parents to avoid discussions of God as “magical” thinking. No matter where you stand on the issue of the existence of God, such thinking robs our children of the most important tool their minds possess — imagination. It is imagination that led to the discovery of every great scientific development through the history of mankind. It is imagination that has given us music, art, the spoken word, film, the written word, and, yes, Santa Claus. If we discourage our children to think outside the box, we condemn the future of mankind to a cold, sterile death. We indeed kill Santa Claus and every positive thought; every positive development that is to come. We become automatons; biological robots slave to our DNA. This is the ultimate end results of naturalism, the philosophy based on evolution. Just take a look at the one society in the last century that perfected a culture based on naturalism — survival of the fittest — Nazi Germany. I personally don’t want to go there as a society. So, we need to endure the results of magical, imaginative thinking — in fact, encourage it. For, there is truth here. Santa Claus came from the story of a real man; a real human being who saw the suffering of children and reached out to them in secret and that man’s legacy lives on in Santa Claus. If we kill Santa Clause, we kill kindness and mercy and generosity. As a society we can ill afford that right now!




2 — This is the season of light; the season of giving; the season of sacrifice. No matter where you stand on the issue of Christ’s birth, there is no denial that Jesus was born in extreme poverty. His birth was quiet and unnoticed save for the angels’ announcement to the lowest of workers — shepherds. And yet, the proclamation of joy and hope by the angels was undeniable. And, in time, the Christ child would be visited by the highest of the high, three kings; three magi — wise men bearing gifts of great worth. This season as you travel about in the hustle and bustle of buying gifts and going to parties and cooking and enjoying the closeness of friends and family, pause to remember a tiny boy seated on a cold examining table playing with a straw under the impression that the spirit of giving has died. Reach out and give to those who do not have. Spread joy and happiness to those who are living in perpetual sadness. Be a Santa to those who are in need and you will prove that Santa is not dead and neither is the spirit of giving so fittingly exemplified by God’s Gift to mankind — His only Son.

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:25-29

In the coming days, I will share with you how one day, not long after the events in this story, I actually KILLED Santa Claus!

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