What do you want most for Christmas? I don’t mean a tangible thing you can hold in your hands. I mean, what do you really want deep down inside?
Freedom from bondage?
We’re drawing near to the end of 2021. This was supposed to be the good year; the year after the terrible 2020. It wasn’t the good year. It was worse in many ways. COVID is still with us and still rampaging across the world with new variants. Political unrest continues throughout the world. No peace at home. Racial tensions continue. Our leaders continue to show just how frail and human we really are. There are no superheroes in the real world to save us from the Thanos’s of the universe.
So why is it that Christmas seems to bring so much hope? What is it about Christmas that almost redeems the rest of this year?
We can try our best to focus on magical beings like Santa and his reindeers. We can romanticize our relationships on the Hallmark channel. We can lift our glasses filled with the beverages of forgetfulness and retreat for a moment from reality. We can drown ourselves in consumerism and the latest physical thing. We can even try our best to be a part of some kind of family. But there is something transcendent and metaphysical about this season.
In ancient Europe, the evergreen tree was viewed as a source of this magical feeling of life, persistence, hope. During the harsh winters, the evergreen tree branches with their green leaves stood out against the cold, harsh white wash of winter. Bringing them into the house brought a sense of hope that spring would come and this cold, deadly embrace of icy winter would one day come to an end. And, hopefully the present day struggles would also come to an end.
The evergreen tree stood for a stubbornness against the reality of cold, ending death. It was no wonder that the tradition of the evergreen wreath and branches would one day become the Christmas tree. A tree. A thing of wood and leaves and sap whose roots reached deep into the earth for sustenance and whose leaves and limbs were designed to be narrow and hard to withstand the frozen grip of winter. It wasn’t long until that tree became a reminder of another “tree” on which a very famous man was crucified and the legacy of his life to all mankind.Read the rest of this entry
I was asked to talk to an irate patient. I went to the patient’s hospital room and tried to soothe his ruffled feathers. After all, I am regarded as a very calm person under pressure; a peacemaker. The man claimed we had been experimenting on him during his recent diagnostic test in the department of radiology. I calmly explained the procedure he had undergone and thought I had succeeded in calming the man down. Then, he cut his eyes in my direction, let loose with a long string of vile curse words and called me a liar.
Something popped behind my eyes and anger took over. I wadded up his complaint sheet, threw it at his face where it bounced off of his shocked and surprised eyes and then told him I hoped he died the next day during his surgery. I was in a daze after that and found myself sitting at my desk down in radiology wondering “what just happened?”. As you can imagine, so did the administrators who had sent me to the man’s room to calm him down and answer his admittedly baseless complaints. Instead, I had told the man I hoped he died! Where did that come from? Why had I reacted in that way? How did I allow this man to push all of my buttons?
It is no mystery to anyone that we live in a very angry, frustrated culture. Road rage is at all time highs. Revenge is encouraged and there are revenge “sites” on the internet. Our entertainment glorifies blowing someone away. We’ve taken Dirty Harry’s advice to heart and we hope that someone will “Make my day!” so we can unload onto them. Rage and fury and revenge are the emotions of the day. They fuel the hate and violence in the Middle East. They have spread across the globe in wave after wave of destruction and death. Where did we go wrong?
I want to explore the simple teachings of a rather simple man, a carpenter, a philosopher, a teacher who changed the world. Put aside the trappings of deity and savior we associate with Christ for the moment. Let’s look at his words. Words spoken by a simple man to simple, struggling people. The populace of first century Palestine were not too different from today. They were under repression by a very effective, cruel Roman government. Their king was a vile man with perverted tastes in pleasure and a ready tendency to lop off the head of anyone who displeased him. Their local leaders were strict, legalistic religious leaders who were devoid of compassion, mercy, and love. They were being taxed into poverty; crucified for speaking out against the government; sold into slavery at a whim. In short, these people were ANGRY.
So, why would Jesus of Nazareth, regarded by the people of this era as a future king and conqueror, tell these angry people thirsting for vengeance that the best response to an attack on their person was to “turn the other cheek”? What? Be a coward? Bow to the repressive and abusive leaders around them? Worse, don’t fight back, even in self defense?
This teaching, more than any other by Christ, has been discussed and explored down through the centuries. In fact, it has been claimed that a follower of the teachings of Christ must be a coward if they are true to those teachings. But, I believe, this is a very poor understanding of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. I may be a simple man with no deep background in theology or Christian doctrine but I believe there is a deeper, more profound thought here than just turning tail and running.
As a physician I am aware of a condition known as the “fight or flight” response. When we are threatened physically or mentally, our body goes into flight or fight mode. Adrenaline kicks in, the heart races, the lungs bring in more oxygen, blood is shunted from the skin and gut to the brain preparing us to either stand and fight, or to run away. This physical reaction is totally beyond our ability to prevent. But, it is not beyond our ability to control our “response” to this physical “reaction”.
The remarks of Jesus of Nazareth must be taken in context. Not only does he tell us to “turn the other cheek” when we are struck on the cheek, he tells us to go the extra mile, to carry the extra burden. When taken in its total context, there is a deeper meaning here. I believe what Jesus is telling us is to deny our simple, easy “reaction” to fight and to pursue a thoughtful, considered “response”. In other words, don’t fly off the handle! Stop the adrenaline surging and the purely animal instinct to fight or to flee and think. After all, we are human beings. We have considerable options in the thinking category over animals. Why not use a thoughtful response? Why not do the unexpected? Like, turn the other cheek? Or, offer to carry the soldier’s burden for another mile?
When we take this initiative, we have taken CONTROL of the situation. We are now in the driver’s seat, not the offender. This will throw the offender off his/her game. It might even stop them in their tracks and cause them to rise up out of their primal anger to the higher levels of cognitive thinking. A measured response is far better than an instinctual reaction. Now, I’m not talking about life threatening situations. I’m not talking about self defense. And, I don’t believe Jesus was talking about this either. He was talking about the day to day interaction we have with ordinary people we encounter along life’s path. A measured response gives some degree of respect and a glint of wiggle room to the offender. Often, the problem with the offender is a deep seated problem that is unrelated to the anger that person is showing you. Maybe they need someone to stop them in their tracks and make them consider another option. Maybe they need someone to stop them from reacting and encourage them to respond.
I might be wrong here but there is another verse not uttered by Jesus of Nazareth that is profoundly true,
“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Proverbs 15 verse 1. I might be wrong, but in this season of gift giving and peace to all men, why shouldn’t we heed the words of Jesus of Nazareth and turn the other cheek; go the extra mile; repay anger with a gentle word; do the unexpected.
So, what happened to my patient? His son appeared in my office about an hour after that exchange. By then, I had been interviewed by a couple of administrative reps about MY behavior. The son smiled at me and said, “Thank you for standing up to my father. He has run over everyone he meets because he is afraid that he will not wake up from his surgery tomorrow. But, he told me to tell you that he was going to survive just to prove you wrong. So, I know this sounds strange, but you actually helped him by showing him how he was acting towards others. I want to thank you.”
Who would have thought? But, as positive as this may have turned out, I was the one who suffered. I was the one who felt horrible for losing my temper. It may have worked out for the best, but this is the exception, not the rule. Anger seldom has positive outcomes (except when Jesus needed to drive the thieves out of the temple).
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Here is what I learned from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth:
RUR — Resist the Urge to React. Rather, take time to THINK and then RESPOND.
Control — By avoiding a blind reaction, you can take some measure of control of the situation (maybe not completely but at least your side of the situation).
Empathy — An expression of anger often is an indicator of a deeper problem and you might just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Looking for the pain behind the anger might help you to understand why this person is so angry.
Love Your Enemy — Here is the HARD thing to do. But, in this teaching we see the necessity of looking at the other person as an individual with a worldview and a motive that we might understand if we were in their situation. It is hard to love someone you loathe; someone who is lashing out at you. But, an attempt to at least understand their point of view and then trying to find a way to respect that person as a PERSON might help defuse the situation. In other words, sometimes we have to do the HARD thing because it is the RIGHT thing!
I was asked to write a monologue from Mary’s memories for Brookwood Baptist Church’s event, “Joy”. Now that it has been performed, I want to share it with you on this first day of December as we count down the days until we celebrate the birth of our Savior.
A Visit With Mary
No parent should ever have to bury their child. Ever. When you hold your newborn baby, you never imagine the end. You only think of the beginning. All is fresh and new and tomorrow is forever.
She puts the animal back on the table.
I heard about my new baby from an angel. Really! You don’t believe me, but that is just fine. An angel told me I was going to have a baby boy and even told me what to name him. I couldn’t tell just anybody. They would think I was crazy. After all, I was so young, so innocent and already engaged to be married. Yeah, engaged.
My husband was a good man. Hard working. Dedicated. Loved the Lord. He didn’t tell me about his angel until he was dying. Told me an angel visited him and told him to marry me no matter what. He listened to the angel and he listened to his heart. He loved me. And, I loved him. He was such a good father.
She picks up the animal again and paces as she talks.
There was that time we lost my son. We were traveling and you know how you always have this fear that your child will wander away and get lost. I mean he was 12! And granted a 12 year old should be responsible but for days we thought he was playing with the other guys only to discover we had left him behind in the city! I should have known he would be different. What kind of child comes with the birth announcement of an angel? He wasn’t hanging out with the other guys or hitting on the girls. He was in the church talking to the heavy thinkers; you know, the philosophers, the historians, the theologians and here I’m going to have to be a little proud and not so angry when I tell you that he was more than carrying his own weight. Some of these very intelligent men were astonished at what my son knew.
Mary goes back to the stool and sits down. She places the animal on the table and becomes very thoughtful.
Of course, his brothers and sisters never really liked him that well. They all knew he was different. That’s why that time at the feast I tried to stop them. They thought he was crazy. I tried to explain that their brother was not crazy; he was not delusional; he was special. God had His hand on my son but they insisted on going and the words they spoke about their brother! I can’t tell you how many times since then they wished they could take those words back. When you’ve said something so hurtful to someone you love and then they die . . . well, you can never find peace again.
Mary suddenly grows very proud of her son and motions to the table.
I have this table, right here, see? It is small and not exactly perfect but my son built this for me right after he turned thirteen. And, this stool I’m sitting on he made when he turned twenty. But, all of his glorious skill with working with wood ended when he turned thirty. He stopped shaping the hearts of trees and began to shape the hearts of men.
My husband once told me that a man should be happy if he has raised someone smarter than himself or more successful than himself. He never had the opportunity to here our son speak. Such words! I once watched him carving a limb — an old, gnarled piece of driftwood from the sea of Galilee.
He started out just looking at it and studying it. And then, he began to cut away the dead twigs and strip away the rotten flesh. And, then he exposed the beautiful swirling pattern of the heart of the wood. He polished it and sanded it and coated it with oil and wax until the limb became a beautiful walking stick for my father. How did he see what was inside that broken, gnarled and discarded piece of wood? Only the Lord could show him the potential of what lay inside. He is that way with words. He sees into the hearts and minds of men and women and the words that cut to the quick; that expose the hurt; that sooth the pain; that heal the wound; or that prick the recalcitrant heart and those words are sharper than a two edged sword. He is the word. Yes, the very word of God.
And, yes, it would be His words that brought about his downfall. The wrong words were spoken by his brothers and they hurt him. But, the right words were spoken by my son and they killed him.
Mary looks up as if looking at Christ on the cross and hugs herself in pain.
I was there when he hung on the tree — irony of ironies he should die on the very wood he spent his life shaping. My heart was broken and I remembered the first night I held him; cold, wet; crying and hungry as angels filled the night and shepherds bowed at our feet and the skies sang with a thousand hosannas.
She unfolds her arms and gestures to the “cross”.
But, where were they now? Where were the angels as he bled on the cross? Where were the lowly shepherds who fell at his feet? Where were the songs of praise and triumph?
They were gone. The angels, like his heavenly Father, turned their backs to him in his hour of greatest need. The shepherds did not bow at his feet but hurled insults and bitter hatred and cried “Crucify Him.” And the songs of praise were replaced with a silence so profound, so deep it covered the earth with its sorrow.
Mary stumbles back in pain and sorrow and sits roughly on the stool. She mimes the action of them placing Chris in her lap. As she talks, she touches the wounds on his head, touches the wound in his side, touches the wounds on his hands.
I held him in my lap just as I had as a baby. He was cold; wet; but he no longer cried and he no longer hungered. His lifeless body sucked the very life out of the universe; the creator born of my womb; drinking from my body now limp and helpless in my arms. God had been born. God had died. And, I had been the bookends of His life.
Mary relaxes and turns back to the table. She picks up the carved animal again.
I am waiting now. Waiting for a great and glorious reunion. I was at the empty tomb! I saw my Son reborn; in new flesh still marred with the scars of his atonement. He walked among us for days and then bid us goodbye to become one with his Father. I miss him greatly whenever I touch this table or hear this stool scrape across the stones.
She closes her eyes, holds the toy animal to her face and inhales as if remembering. She opens her eyes and begins to talk.
Every now and then, I catch a glimpse of Him out of the corner of my eye or smell his fragrance on a chance breeze for His is the breath of life; His is the everlasting water; His is the Life eternal to give to us all. I have had a good life. I have had a life no mother could ever have imagined. It all started with an angel visit and it will end with my Son coming for me. He will welcome me into His arms only I will not embrace Him.
Mary falls to her knees and kneels as if at the feet of Christ, looking up in wonder.
No, I will fall at His feet in worship and praise for my son who was born to die, died so that we might liver forever!