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
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.Read the rest of this entry
Don’t forget my book “The Homecoming Tree” about a family surviving the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas 1941 when the father, Frank Collinsworth, was at the attack on Pearl Harbor. Will he come home for Christmas? This story makes for a moving and inspirational Christmas gift.
Also, my latest Jonathan Steel book is out, “The 8th Demon: A Wicked Numinosity”. Go to the Books Tab to order.
And now, I want announce my latest book, “Our Darkness, His Light”.
Who made room in the inn for a pregnant girl? Who asked Jesus about taxes? Who carved the bowl Jesus used to wash his disciples’ feet? Who owned the rooster that signaled to Peter his greatest failure?
“Our Darkness, His Light” is my latest book. The book tells the stories of the “ordinary” people who were suddenly and surprisingly thrust into the limelight as they played a part in the greatest Story ever told. These seemingly insignificant people swirled around the events of the life of the Prince of Peace from the crowded streets of Bethlehem to the empty tomb. Each person was an intended part of the Story – in their pain, their weakness, their failings, their flaws, their darkness. These ordinary people were a part of the Story God was unfolding, the nexus of redemption, the center of all of time and space coming into focus on the cross. Their darkness allowed the Light of Life to shine into the world — Jesus Christ.Read the rest of this entry
“You saved my life.”
I’ve heard these words before. Usually, they come from a total stranger through an email or a letter; someone who has picked up “Hope Again” and the LifeFilters and found them an answer to a desperate prayer for help. Let me be honest. I NEVER take such a statement lightly. Every time someone expresses this to me or to Mark Sutton, I am equally shocked and humbled.
This past Sunday, I shared a story with my family at our annual Hennigan Family Christmas Party. I won’t detail the story. Just know that the point of that story was to share with my family how a seemingly painful and potentially fatal encounter in my childhood served as the source for something I did later in life that had a profound influence on the lives of others. In this case, four veterans of World War II and an elderly woman who had lived in bitterness for years because of anger over losing her brother in the attack on Pearl Harbor. In both cases, a simple scene in one of my plays echoing that event in my childhood had the unexpected consequence of bringing these people profound peace and reconciliation.
When 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!
My thanks to Micah, my Hutchmoot Secret Santa for an awesome book. “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame” really took me back to my teenage years. Many of the stories I recall reading way back then in other anthologies as “classic science fiction”. It was a real treasure to read some of them again. My favorite so far, “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes. This story of a mentally challenged man who is given an operation that triples his I.Q. only to lose it again was one of the most moving and touching stories I ever read. I just read it again and it is as moving and timeless today as when it was published in 1959.
Charlie’s struggle with growing awareness of the world around him as his intelligence grew reminded me of my own growing awareness of the brokenness of the world around me as I aged. It is a story of the loss of innocence. Like Charlie, I cherished the laughter from other kids over my lack of co-ordination growing up. I even played to that clumsiness, capitalizing on it to gain recognition. When I was a junior in high school, I transformed this slapstick schtick into a dramatic role in a play. Because of the popularity of that role, I won the election for student council president for my senior year.
After I felt a call to be a doctor, I was alarmed when my own mother began telling others that she didn’t think I could be a doctor because I might “drop somebody’s brain during surgery. He trips over his own feet.” I realized, I had become what others saw in me. I had fulfilled my own worst nightmare. We become what people see in us. How many times have we said “I will never be like that!” when seeing traits in our parents that are undesirable only to find ourselves shaking an angry finger at our own children and wondering “How did I get my father’s finger?”
Charlie, in “Flowers of Algernon” has a moment when he sees a mentally challenged boy break dishes at a cafe. He watches in horror as people laugh and make fun of the boy and the boy smiles right back, unaware he is being ridiculed. For Charlie, the horror of that moment comes when he realizes he laughed, too!
In this time of year when we celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth we see both good and bad discussions of the Nativity. The “war on Christmas” always arises and the arguments are strident and shrill. The inevitable atheist attacks on Christianity reach their highest point such as the billboard in Times Square that says “Dump the Myth” with a picture of the crucified Jesus. And yet, they say there is “no agenda”.
Every human being is born with an innate knowledge of God. Even science has discovered that the human brain is “hard wired” to believe in God. We have to teach our children to be atheists. Richard Dawkins has written an book in the last year aimed at children to tell them that belief in God is wrong and that believing in science and evolution is the elegant and beautiful thing to do. If there is no God, then why hasn’t He disappeared from our collective consciousness over the past two thousand years? We have tried and tried to remove God from our thinking; from our culture; from our world. And yet, God keeps resurfacing; showing up over and over in spite of our efforts to move to a more civilized, non superstitious, evolved level.
Could it be that like the mentally challenged Charlie, we are unaware of the effect God has on our lives until we see Him clearly? Like the boy breaking the dishes, we keep having these moments of clarity and paradigm shifting when we see through our human veil the divine. In that moment, instead of laughing, some of us are horrified; alarmed; afraid of the existence of God. What does that mean for our lives? What will we become if we accept that there is a God? We will no longer be free to be our own god; to form our own morality; to answer only to our own needs. Science answers the “how” but cannot answer the “why”. Science gave Charlie a huge increase in his intelligence but at the price of his innocence. Science might have made Charlie smart, but it was his experience with others that made Charlie wise. Ah, there is the rub. Science makes us smart. God makes us wise.
Charlie was not bitter when his mind returned once again to the state of shattered innocence. The one thing he recalled was true meaning of friendship and the significance of love. In order to spare his friends the pain of seeing him in his fallen state, his love for them drove him to leave his work and his friends and find a new life.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
We are not blessed if we are simple minded like Charlie before his operation. We are blessed because we have seen God; we have come to know our fallen state. God’s presence in our lives has shown us the emptiness of selfishness; of arrogance; of pride. I have been God and I did not like it at all. My mother’s words about my incoordination were a cold wash of shame, but they served to remind me I am not perfect. And, only God can be perfect. I must look outside myself for God’s standard and His love to find meaning for my life. As long as I go along within my own strength, being my own god, I will stumble and fall and fail and laugh and be laughed at. But humility, meekness, mercy, peace are the gifts of living against the standard of God and not in its place.
This holiday season, see those around you. Do not laugh; do not ridicule; do not be arrogant and prideful and godlike. Rather, see your own weaknesses and revel in them; rely on God to supplant those weaknesses with new strengths that will give you an eternal perspective on the world around you.
And, then, put away the things of the past and place some flowers on the grave of Algernon. Move on in God’s strength and make the coming years and all the years after that truly Blessed!
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.
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.
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?”
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!
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!