Good Fathers are the Ultimate Safety Net.

This is my latest column in the Greenville News, published Father’s Day. Dads, we’re relevant at every point in our lives as fathers!  And even beyond…

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/2017/06/16/good-fathers-ultimate-safety-net/381733001/

This Father’s Day is a good time to remember that we fathers sometimes drive you kids crazy. We hover. We give unsolicited advice and undesired help. We say things like, ‘nothing good happens after midnight,’ or ‘please be careful out there!’ We view your love interests with suspicion, even if we greet them kindly.
Sometimes, we load your car with stuff you don’t want. A box of tools we think you might need or food you used to love (even if you don’t anymore). We keep your things for the sake of nostalgia, long after you have forgotten them.
We try to intervene when you’re in trouble; by calling your teacher or posting your bail. We would stand in front of you if you were being attacked by a bear or insulted by a stranger.
We are hard-wired to teach and protect you. We want you to succeed and be independent. But this desire lives in dynamic tension with our deep, aching hope that you will still need us all your lives.
For all of this and more, you should love and honor your father today. He has worried about you, hoped or prayed for you and provided for you for years. The slightest hug and kiss, the minimal ‘thank you’ note, the kind word of genuine appreciation, these are our paternal treasures.
But dear fathers, let me now reassure you that you are always relevant to your young. This is obvious when they are small, and bring you cards scribbled in crayon, clamber onto your lap for comfort in a storm, or hug you to ‘pop your head off.’ When they cling to your hand in crowds, ask you to read puzzle books for hours, or say ‘I love you big more.’
Over time it’s harder to know. The children become busy shedding their old selves, and some of their old emotional displays, so that leaving is easier. But you are always in their hearts.
You see, brothers, even when the toys are packed away, the videos taken, the photos saved, the tassels moved, the rings exchanged, the cars packed for leaving, the apartments and colleges and careers and deployments accomplished, you fathers, all of us fathers, still have things to do.
We can model love by showing them that our love for them is not contingent on their presence, their gifts, their cards; even their acknowledgment. This is love, that persists and simmers even when it is ignored, and is ever ready to rise up like a hot fire in times of need.
We can stay with their mothers. We can show them that marriage is about raising children, but also more than that. That the love that made them is the love that remains. That as long as we live, we are a unit; mom and dad, deeply in love with one another and with our progeny.
We can show them the power of purpose. That whether in work or retirement, life has meaning and joy, especially in service. That age need not be empty or dull. We can work, and volunteer, and give ourselves for the good of others so that they learn the lesson by watching, and one day emulate us.
We can give them, in our words and actions, the powers of a personal faith so that they can deal with loss, struggle, mistakes and suffering long after we exit stage left. And so they know that in a great, wide universe that there is meaning, forgiveness and redemption.
Finally, as regards our inevitable exits, we can show our children what it means to grow weak, and sick, and then to die, with grace and honor. This is the last lesson we can model for them, but one of the most vital. We can teach them, if we believe it, that there is reason for hope beyond this life, and reason to live this life well to the end. Others, who do not believe, can teach them that to look back on the good of their lives, and to know that their love and memory will live on in the lives of others they have touched.
In so doing, we not only teach them, we protect them from terror and despair when life’s final darkness passes over.
Children, love the old man and remind him of his importance. But dear old men, dear fathers, never for a second think that you no longer matter. You matter to the end and beyond.

Graduation, When we Shoot Arrows at The Enemy

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/2017/05/25/its-time-launch-our-arrows/343820001/

We have a quiver full of arrows in the house. Over and over again, the kids and I have used the target arrows it holds. Many of the arrows are worn and dinged, and some fletchings have come loose. (I have no idea how many rest beneath the grass or are stuck into trees in the woods.) The remaining arrows are sentimental to me, but still see use now and then as the mood strikes us.
Since yet another of my children prepares to graduate high school, I found myself thinking of Psalm 123: that says ‘like arrows in the had of a warrior are children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them.’ Jan and I are about to launch another ‘arrow.’ But not at a target. Our son Elijah is being launched into the great battle of life. And as I heard a preacher once say regarding that passage, ‘what do you do with an arrow? You shoot it at your enemy.’
I am unapologetic about the martial metaphor. We live in a time of conflict, contention and danger. And no matter what one’s political, cultural or spiritual alignments, the fact remains that our children go forth into difficult times.
There are physical dangers, of course. The cowardly murders in Manchester, England remind us that violence lurks in the world and no amount of lovely colored buildings or candlelit, hug-filled marches will impede those who find its use expedient.
Cruelty is timeless and knows no borders. Slavery is still widespread, in the world at large and even in the US in the form of sexual and financial exploitation. Women of every race and creed are treated horribly in many lands. Globally, children die of starvation, dehydration and assorted diseases that we can easily manage in even the lowliest American hospital.
War continues to raise its endless Hydra-head. Gang violence robs necessary, beloved young people of their potential and their lives. Domestic violence and child abuse are rampant; especially in SC, sadly enough. Addiction is an entire war in itself, demanding aggressive action to save lives and families.
There are also political dangers. On both sides of the political aisle, there is fear that the glorious traditions and safeguards of the Republic may be imperiled. Each thinks the other is wrong. But each is concerned about something; each side has a sense of unease.
There are many battles to fight. Some compassionately advocate for equality of groups marginalized by race, gender or sexual orientation. Others battle for preservation of freedom of conscience, for the precious right to believe and act based on faith and tradition rather than cultural trend.

There are battles for abortion and against abortion, for open borders and for more regulated immigration. Climate change pits economic interests against environmental, both making important arguments for the future. Behind each lies the war of objective truth versus the cheap manipulation of spin and emotion.
Hardly a pep-talk for graduation, is it? But that’s the lay of the land. Graduation is beautiful and thrilling and all of us try to stifle our tears and cracking voices as we applaud our young people and give them hope.
But I want to give all of them, my own incredible son included, more than pretty images and vapid platitudes about ‘following your dreams.’ I want to say this: ‘It’s tough out here; we’re ready for reinforcements so get with it. Welcome to the team. Keep your heads down.’
I find that a more useful and thrilling thing than what graduates are all too often told. I want to see them launched at the problems of the world, in the full knowledge that it isn’t safe, that it isn’t easy, that they have a purpose in all the struggles and that they are needed. We need their courage, their insight, their creativity. We need their brilliance, their success, their strong backs, their loving hearts.
We live in a culture of increasing self-interest. Young and old spend too much time reflecting on their own wounds, victimization and identity politics. These things pull us apart rather than uniting us in the fray.
Dear graduates, look up and look around! Show us how to rise above ourselves and live well, how to glory in the struggle, how to win (or lose) with compassion and love, and also with ferocity and risk when necessary.
We loose you, dear arrows at the various enemies we face.
Strike true.
And congratulations, Elijah and all.

 

A Wedding is the Portal to the Mystery of Marriage

Congratulations Meg and Tyler!

This past weekend we celebrated the wedding of our dear friends Tyler Jordan and Meg McCall.  It was an event filled with the the grace of  God, expressed in a truly perfect Spring evening, in the love of parents, friends and the blessed couple.  It was conducted in all the glorious, meticulous yet casual elegance of the South Carolina coast.  All of our children were in the wedding party (along with many other wonderful folks). I was privileged to be able to deliver this short reflection at the wedding.  Thanks to Meg and Tyler for including me!

A wedding is a beautiful thing. It is a celebration, and in life’s troubles we celebrate too little. At a wedding we smile, and cry. We laugh and dance, we eat and drink and send a new couple on their way into life. A wedding is an event where others witness and affirm our vows, in order that others may help hold us to our promises. Wedding ceremonies are much valued in our time, and we spend great amounts of time and treasure to make weddings beautiful and memorable, to make wedding dreams come true.

However, despite its beauty and wonder, the wedding is not an end in itself. It is a gateway which serves to fuse two into one. When a man and woman walk through that gateway, through that portal, they enter into a beautiful mystery.

Beyond the vows, the veil, the ring and the kiss lies previously unseen, unknown garden of their common life together. That life is a new creation waiting to be unveiled and explored, shaped and molded hour by hour, day by day, year by year over a lifetime. In so doing they are living in the spirit and tradition of Adam and Eve all over again.

St. Paul says that this is a great mystery. In Ephesians 5:31-32 he says, after a profound explanation of the relationship of husband and wife, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a profound mystery, but I am talking about Christ and the church.’ We’ll circle back to that last bit in a moment.

Here Paul uses the Greek word Musterion, which means ‘a mystery that can be revealed or discovered through God’s revelation.’

The mystery of marriage is not ineffable, because God who created it is constantly teaching us through it. It is not beyond comprehension. It does, however, require that we be committed in order that we understand its riches and metaphor. It cannot be approached tentatively, with one foot in to test the water, but all in, with all our hearts.

To comprehend the mystery of marriage we can only cross the portal, and in faith and hope and love leap headfirst into the unknown. And it is an unknown.

Dating and courting and all the time we spend together before the vows are exchanged are critical. They help us to learn who it is that we can indeed spend a lifetime loving. But something different and mystical happens when we take the plunge of matrimony. Suddenly, the world takes on a different light in the power and energy of the fusion of two into one.

Through the mystery of marriage, through the great unknown garden of life together, we learn small things. That our beloved is beautiful to us first thing in the morning and last thing at night. That our beloved is a human with frailties, failings and annoying habits, but that they are no worse than our own. We wonder, at times, why they stay with us; at others why we stay with them. And then we all laugh at the fact that we both ask the same questions.

We learn that the one we committed ourselves to is cherished and precious like nothing we ever grasped or imagined.

We learn to be humble and thankful in times of joy and gracious and hopeful in times of suffering. We learn the mystery that those words, so often spoken about richer or poor, sickness and health, take on very real meaning in the hot forging fires of life.

We learn that whatever else may fall apart, whatever else may evaporate before our eyes, whatever trials life visits upon us, if we are together we can endure.

Marriage is the first place where we perhaps truly understand what it means to love someone so much we would rather see ourselves suffer or die than have it happen to our partner.

It is hard to impress upon the young, but in a marriage properly tended, in our own small Garden of Eden, love only grows deeper and wider with every passing year, every financial struggle, every wrinkle, every illness, every success and every day, or night, spent together.

Ultimately we find that looks and wealth come and go, but as we are made more and more into one, the greatest gift is their hand in ours, their warm body sleeping next to our own. This is an ageless, timeless blessing.

This is part of the mystery. The discovery that love is not contingent. That it is not contingent on youth or beauty, success or power. That it simply grows; possibly deepest in trouble, despite how we all hate to pass through it.

Over the years and decades, we become mysteriously intertwined. We are made one by our vows, but we are transformed into one by time, by shared stories, by shared goals and struggles, by neurochemistry… for all we know by genetics as each physiology impacts the other.

If you doubt me, ask those people you know who have loved long and well. It is hard to put into words, but in marriage, in time, the things we thought valuable and desirable fade away, and we desire our beloved above nearly all.

So much so that we cannot fathom, especially in youth, the phrase ‘tell death do we part.’

But that’s where the mystery delves deeper and more wonderful. What we are learning in the mystery of marriage, as wonder after wonder reveal themselves, is that our marriage is a microcosm of the love of Christ for the church.

It teaches us to love unconditionally as he does. It teaches us to love without fail, with no term limits or expiration date. It teaches us to love when we are wounded and when we are hopeful. It teaches us to forgive and love more and more. And it teaches us that all of this is an end, THE end, in itself. We do not love for meals or laundry, for support or company. We love because in love we reach God.

And there is one more thing. This love of Christ for the church will carry us beyond. The painful mystery of separation in this life is not in our power to overcome. But it is in his power. And that is the promise.

Our love for our spouse will be interrupted one day. But it will go on for all eternity in the Kingdom of God as every tear is dried and every sorrow comforted. And in that place we will see the kind of love for all that we in our mortality took a lifetime to learn for only one.

A mystery indeed.

And today, we are witnesses as the story of wonder and mystery begins once again in these two young lives about to become one..

So let there be joy and laughter in all our hearts as we witness things far beyond our comprehension and realize that mystery is all around us today.

Mothers are People First

Mothers are People First

This was my Mother’s Day column in the Greenville News.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/2017/05/12/mothers-day/101521348/

I have been graced by a long line of mothers. I had two grandmothers who loved me dearly, and who (though they have passed from this life) remain dear to my memory. My own mother Sharon was, and remains, a wonderful woman who raised me gently and with endless help and encouragement. My mother-in-law Carma has ever been kind to me, and treats me like a son.

My wife Jan is an incredible mother, who has dedicated her life to our children, going so far as to homeschool them for many years. She is indulgent and patient with them and they are always in her thoughts and fervent prayers. She is a Godly mother like all of the mothers in my life.
Having praised these women, let me say something shocking that we forget all too often on Mother’s Day. Although we seem to have a ‘cult of mama’ here in the South, mothers are just people like all the rest of us. They are capable of love and hatred, they can be supportive and destructive. They may lift their children up or tear them down. (Both the stuff of various books and movies.) They have good and bad days, and decades. Mothers were once mere girls, then they were lovers or wives. Along the way they accumulated hopes, dreams, stories, successes, failures and wounds of their own.
Because they were not born mothers, but become mothers, they bring all of these things with them when they bear, or adopt, children. So into the wonder and chaos of motherhood they bring their humanity. And humans, mother or other, are imperfect.
These imperfect people we call mothers are often subject to some nasty treatment. Sometimes, we confine them to their maternal roles. As if all they are capable of is producing and raising kids for the future. Jobs? Degrees? Achievements? Passions? Irrelevant, as some women are subordinated to motherhood by their families, and are not encouraged to attain the full glory of the various reasons for which God put them on the earth.
On the other hand, modern society often says to moms, ‘sure, you can choose to be a full-time mother, but what a disappointment you’ll be to all of the women of the world! Career and education are so much more useful and interesting than caring for mere children! What a waste of your potential!’ As if raising human beings, loving and caring for them, were no more exciting or important than having fish in an aquarium. While ‘choice’ is a powerful mantra, the choice some women make to focus on motherhood is sometimes unfairly viewed as failure.
The third option is perhaps cruelest of all. It tells mothers to be everything. Raise perfect children, and feed them lovely, healthy meals, engage them in all activities and make them super students. Simultaneously, rise meteoric through the corporate world! Never say no to a new project, a new goal, a better job! Stay thin and beautiful and do all things as they appear in glossy magazines. ‘Bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan,’ or else be a pathetic loser.
Mothers, meanwhile, struggle with just being people. Like everyone else they have fears and anxieties, sorrows and addictions, illnesses mental and physical. Some mothers are close to ideal, others will wound the ones they bore. Some, overwhelmed by their own troubles, simply cannot raise children, while others make it look effortless. There are those mothers who are stars in business, government, professions, athletics or other fields. And yet, all too many never have good jobs or educations. Some mothers land in jail.
The thing is, mothers are are neither gods nor angels. And it is cruel of us to expect them to be either. They will not always accomplish everything they dream of and sometimes their children will be less than they had hoped despite their best efforts. Sometimes children will be disappointed with their mothers, fairly or not. This is reality. This is life in a fallen world.
In the end, we should celebrate the many gifts and sacrifices of all mothers. Simultaneously we must remember that mothers deserve, as do their children, to be loved for who they are. And given grace despite who they are.
So love your mom this Mother’s Day! But along with dinner, flowers or the assorted gift offerings you bring, give her the freedom to be perfectly imperfect. Just like you and just like me.
Happy Mother’s Day moms!

Back Pain, a Prisoner and a Lenten Reminder of Mercy

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She was large, and heavily tattooed.  She was in a striped uniform with handcuffs, her feet shackled. She sobbed because of her back pain.  Her life a long history of mistakes and bad choices; alcohol, drugs, criminality.  Her family, husband and children, a victim of her lifestyle, her addictions, her misdeeds.

They can’t have narcotics in jail, and in fact, narcotics don’t have much role in back pain, we’re finding.  But in jail, she lay on a thin mattress on a concrete pad.  Getting up and lying down were, she said, agonizing.

Was she lying?  Her drug screen positive for amphetamine, it was possible.  The officer with her said, ‘I’ve known her for 15 years.  This is her. Crying and moaning. But what if she really has pain?  It’s tough doc.’

It’s tough for sure.  Knowing as I did that if she went back to jail, she might really be suffering. Knowing, also, that she had a reported history of heart disease even though she was only  in her 30s.  Knowing that she would surely come back with chest pain or back pain, legitimate or illegitimate, if nothing were done.

Ultimately, after two visits, she seemed worse.  She seemed to have difficulty standing.  Her sobs continued.  Her officer and I sympathetic but worried about being tricked.  She was given pain meds and transferred for an MRI.  Maybe there was something going on in her spinal cord. Maybe a hematoma, maybe an abscess.  Who knew?

Here is the conundrum of compassion, as it were.  The compassionate will be cheated, fooled, and lied to.  This is life in the ER. This is life on earth.  The right thing is often, in the rear-view-mirror, exactly the wrong thing, as those who fool us laugh and drive away.

But we have the last laugh.  Because the right thing is just that.  The right thing.  And it’s a great lesson here in the Lenten season.  To show kindness, to give mercy, to expect to be the butt of the joke, the patsy, these are all the ‘price of doing business,’ when our business is being like Jesus.

I believe she had pain, but even if she lied to me, even if she gamed me, it’s OK.   I’m not offended.  She was vulnerable. She was wounded. She was broken.  She was a prisoner. And here’s what Isaiah, God’s prophet, said about captives and prisoners.  And notice, no mention of guilt, or of punishment deserved or earned.  Isaiah 61: 1-3

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,a
2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

Jesus said the same thing at the beginning of his ministry.  Luke 4: 16-21.

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[f]
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

In this passage is healing and liberty.  And nobody is a ‘jailbird’ or ‘scumbag’ or ‘crook’ or ‘junkie.’  Jesus wants to offer this to all.

This Lenten season, can I do any less?  I, a captive of sin as all of us are, delivered and healed? I with blind eyes, seeing clearly thanks to my redemption?  God knows if I lie to him, if I try to trick him. And loves me anyway.

And if it takes showing mercy to the meth-using prisoner with back pain to honor the mercy I received, well it’s a small price to pay.

Edwin

What Jesus would do, and say, today…

My most recent Greenville News column.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2017/02/10/commentary-some-thoughts-what-jesus-would-do/97743538/

Some thoughts on what Jesus would do today 

(As we all grow more and more divided and arrogant in our views.)
Given the current political climate, a lot of our citizens are reasonably sure they know exactly what Jesus would do if he were here now. I happen to have a few thoughts on that topic myself.
It seems to me that first and foremost he’d disappoint us all by not debating the way we do. He’d actually love the people he was talking with, and want the best for everyone. Screaming matches and endless point-counterpoint were never his thing, or so it appears in the scriptures.
I think that while everyone was trying to convince everyone else about their opinion (and not changing anybody’s mind), he’d be on some street-corner healing sick people. And he’d be doing it in a way that was so dramatic people would think he was a charlatan. ‘There’s no way that paralyzed kid can walk now! It’s just a trick to convince simple-minded, unscientific people!’ That’s what some would say. And Jesus would keep right on healing cancer, HIV, gunshot wounds, schizophrenia and other awful problems.
And those people who were so full of inner pain that they wanted to die, and kept thinking that they had no worth? He’d heal their pain, and cast out demons from them. That’s what the Bible says he did, anyway. He said he was God and he taught about things like demons. People probably wouldn’t like that much; neither atheist skeptics or solid, staid, educated Christians. But the people he healed would love it.
Of course, he’d talk to people at the marches, the rallies, in the halls of legislatures and in the churches. Unlike our milquetoast, pale-faced images of gentle Jesus from Bible story-books, he would sometimes look (and be) angry. Angry about injustice and cruelty, angry about the neglect of the needy. He would also be angry about false teachers and others who robbed men and women of faith in God and left them nothing to comfort them. As before he would be angry at anyone who led others to sin. Occasionally, he would be sarcastic and insulting. He’d have harsh words for lots of pastors and sanctimonious believers. Read the Bible; it’s how he was.
Our many-flavored hatreds would give him plenty of fuel for parables, in order to guide us to the truth. But he would also be unhappy about the division and ideas heaped on people that leave them feeling worthless. Like the idea that humans are a scourge, a virus on earth. Or the obsession with hungry, sick animals while children face the same. And the way men and women are weighed down with one of two burdens, endless victimhood and its chiral image, the belief that some people’s ‘privilege’ causes all the world’s problems. He came to liberate everyone from beliefs that imprisoned them. He condemned religious leaders in his day for giving people burdens but not helping carry them; he would do the same for modern politicians and educators, ministers and mullahs who create anger, tension and violence in order to control and manipulate others.
Obviously, would talk about ‘sin,’ from greed to sexual immorality to idolatry and all the rest. He talked about those things a lot. He’d preach about the coming Kingdom of God and eternal life and redemption and judgment. He was serious about sin, but kind to all sinners, right, left and moderate. Conquering sin and death was his main mission, after all.
That would be just about enough for lots of folks. Because they didn’t come to be pressured about morals or lectured about their personal lives or told stupid fairy tales; they came for justice! For revolution! And they’d ask him to leave. Or maybe scream at him, because it’s what we do when we’re angry and sure we are right.
Ever the gentleman he would leave if asked. But before Jesus left, he might remind all of the passionate, angry people of what he said before:
“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, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.’
It seems to me that in his absence he remains present, and his teachings still condemn our hatred 2000 years down the road. If only we’ll listen.

The Christmas Gift we All Desire

My Christmas column from Christmas Day, 2016

Merry Belated Christmas!

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2016/12/25/commentary-christmas-gift-we-all-desire/95788966/

The Christmas Gift We All Desire
It’s here at last! What seemed to take forever for children arrives and passes like a shooting star for adults. But joy of joys, it’s Christmas morning! And a special morning since it’s Sunday. Families who attend worship services will, based on personal experience with small children, be up at zero dark thirty, as kids rush to the presents and the chaos begins.
Photos will be staged. (My parents made us stay in the hallway while they prepared the camera…Jan and I have since done the same, forcing children to stay on the stairs while we took our time tormenting them, they like horses headed to the barn for oats.) Families will have systems, as gifts are handed out in a manner devised to avoid wholesale riots.
Food will be prepared; in our home Christmas breakfast is bacon and cinnamon rolls. Cats will be watched carefully to avoid the climbing, and tipping, of trees. Mostly they will busy themselves with wrapping paper,licking and pretending not to be as excited as the kids. The dogs (at least our dogs) will look in through the glass of the door in puzzlement, and wait for partially eaten anything (and any chance at cat food).
Gifts will be opened, as parents and partners hope that they have given joy to those they love with this gift or that. There will be joy and squeals, hugs and kisses. Hours will be spent enjoying new items or searching through wrapping paper for batteries or lost instructions.
Those off to church will have to pry the kids away from their recently obtained treasures, or take some along. Older children will wear new clothes. Parents will fall asleep in chairs, as they were up until the wee hours wrapping, assembling items or simply enjoying the sweet wonder, the special silence of Christmas Eve. That stillness, in a dark house with tree lights, is every drop as precious as the big day itself. Personally I find a much greater connection to the whole nativity story on Christmas Eve, as if I were watching the tale unfold in a starlit lens to antiquity.
And yet. There are those families where the above is as fantastical as Santa and his reindeer. For some, for those in poverty, those with family members separated by prison sentences, those whose homes are the slave-quarters for addiction, Christmas will not look this way. Nor for those with loved ones far away in school, in work, in war. For many the separation from loved ones is the great gulf of death, and even sweet memories are painful reminders of what is no more. Still others find the day hard because of recent illness, injury, surgery, diagnosis of cancer. Our family walked through some of that too. However beautiful the wrapping paper and lights, however delightful the gifts, a pall hangs in the air and the thoughts turn to what was, or what might be, ‘if only.’
But that is, ultimately, the purpose of this day. It is not, it turns out, a day especially made for the joy of the now, nor for pets to get new sweaters, or adolescents to stock up on electronics. The joys and wonders of Christmas, from Santa to gifts, from feasts to surprise visits, are magnificent side-effects of the joy and purpose of the day. The day we remember the one born to set all things right.
The passage that I have come to most associate with Christmas (having lived life a bit) is not found in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ nativity. It is found, oddly enough, at the end of the Bible, in Revelations, chapter 21. Dear old St. John reports:
‘And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain, for the former things have passed away.” And the One seated on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”’
That’s Jesus telling us that one day, things will be more grand than we can ever imagine; even better than our best dream of Christmas. He will meet our deepest needs and desires and banish suffering. Forever.
Now that’s a Christmas gift I can’t wait to open. Merry Christmas!

The Nativity in the Emergency Department; my December EM News column

Merry Christmas!  This is my December column in EM News.  The Nativity in the Emergency Department.

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2012/12000/Second_Opinion__The_Nativity_in_the_Emergency.9.aspx

I once wrote a story for Christmas in which the nativity happened in an old, beat-up hunting trailer behind a man’s store, somewhere in the South on a cold winter night. From everywhere and all around, rough people and businessmen and politicians found their way to it, situated as it was in a cluttered backyard of a poor but compassionate store owner. Mary and Joseph had a car that broke down, you see, and they were stuck. I doubt if it’s that original. I suspect Hallmark or someone has done this story over and over.

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Yet it still resonates; it still bounces around inside my mind. I envision that cold night, and the star, and the people in my neighborhood, camo-wearing hunters and bearded bikers, the guy with the meth lab that blew up (no kidding), the men in the garage across the highway. I suppose it’s because the story fits everywhere.

As you might expect, I have this image of the manger scene set in an ED. I think back over my patients, and it makes perfectly good sense to me. I can’t decide if it’s a busy night or a slow one. But there are Mary and Joseph, maybe homeless. We do see the homeless, don’t we? And certainly the poor. “Doctor, we don’t have any money or anywhere to go. Can we stay here tonight?” We might try social work, but face it, they probably went home already. The poor are always among us.

If it’s a slow night, the nurses are stricken with a kind of magic. They fluff Mary’s pillow, and one of them (who used to do OB) notices the way Mary is breathing and holding her belly. “She’s going to deliver!” (For the purpose of the story, Labor and Delivery is full to capacity.) All of the nurses are hovering, getting ice for Mary and coffee for Joseph, who has not so much as the change to buy one.

If it’s a busy night, everyone is frantic, and when Mary says, “I think the baby is coming!” the staff roll their eyes, as if they needed one more thing between the overdoses and the chest pains, the weaknesses and the demanding daughter in the hallway insisting on endless attention for her aging mother.

But they do the right thing, don’t they? They almost always do. We almost always do. Before you can sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the baby is there. He’s crying because they do that. And Mary nurses him immediately after the nurses clean him off. But the nurses, and the doctor who caught him (fumbling, frightened … he hates delivering babies), all of them are somehow breathless. The hair on their necks and arms rises up, chills run along their spines. It’s not fear; it’s wonder. Inexplicable. Another poor baby. So what? Everyone is crying. Nobody knows why. Mary just takes it all in as Joseph wraps his arms around both of them, still in the same dirty sweater, still disheveled.

Of course, there are no animals. And yet. If it’s slow, the sleeping drunk in the next room wakes and stumbles in to see. Looking down, he cries, too. He understands something so deep he can’t express it. Something he forgot about hope and love and parents and forgiveness. He reaches into his pocket, pushes $100 into Joseph’s hand, and goes to lie down again. He sleeps in lovely dreams.

If it’s busy, things suddenly move slowly. Things happen. The mumbling, confused lady with dementia (whose daughter is so demanding) speaks for a few minutes with utter clarity, and finds her way to the door of the baby’s room. She holds her daughter’s hand and laughs, and recalls the details of her own maternity. The meth addict, tweaking and rocking back and forth, sits on the floor and just watches. He is calm. He does not scratch or scream. He is transfixed by the inexorable wonder he always hoped to find in drugs, and by the possibility that he might be whole again, that he might have his own wife, child, and delight. The man dying of lymphoma, passing the room as he is wheeled up for admission, asks the nurse to stop so he can look, and the child fixes its tiny eyes on him. He still dies, but he does it in peace.

The cardiac patient’s chest pain resolves, and the febrile infant in the hall-bed (the one who looked so sick) begins to laugh, cackling, breathless laughter. His fever is gone. Only the babies can see the angels swooping round, touching, healing, encouraging.

I can imagine all sorts of things. An angry mayor, searching for the child. Or professors and priests and ambassadors looking for him later, giving him gifts.

But all I see now is the dawn. Mary is strong. She has no time to be admitted. Joseph says they have to go. They are loaded with formula and money, with snacks and blankets (and diapers). They are hugged and kissed by strangers, and everyone waves goodbye.

The next shift asks, “What was that all about?”

“Don’t know,” is the answer, “but I’m glad I didn’t miss it.”

And the chaos descends again, tempered by inexpressible hope, washed in love.

The Questions we Cannot Answer

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My column in the December issue of Emergency Medicine News.  Merry Christmas to all and to all a good shift!

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2016/12000/Life_in_Emergistan__The_Questions_We_Can_t_Answer.13.aspx

I remember the early trials of thrombolytics; not for stroke but for MI. During my residency we were still comparing tPA with Streptokinase. It was pretty incredible stuff. Now we’ve moved beyond that positively ‘medieval’ method of treating heart attacks and have advanced to incredible interventions in coronary and cerebrovascular disease. Furthermore, we are able to rescue more and more people from the brink of death with advanced medications and with techniques, like ECMO, that our medical forebears couldn’t even imagine. These days, people can say things like: ‘I had severe sepsis last year, but I recovered,’ or ‘A few years ago I nearly died of Stage 4 cancer, but here I am!’ Fifty years ago, twenty years ago, their families would have told their stories with sadness.

What we do is amazing. The science behind our saves, coupled with our training and passion, make medicine all but miraculous. I am proud of what I know, proud of what I do. I am so impressed with my colleagues. And I am often awestruck by the scientists and engineers, without whom we would be apes poking bodies with sticks (good-looking apes in scrubs, mind you).
If we could, at the end of our lives, look back at the gifts we gave to the sick and injured, we would see that they far outweigh our errors and mistakes, our losses and failures. And yet, for all our modern innovations, we have limits. We can ask and answer a constellation of questions, and we can fix untold numbers of problems. But there are questions that defy us, and problems that leave us shaking our heads.
In spite of our pride in science, and our common dismissal of all that is ‘unscientific,’ suffering remains, and we can’t answer why. Who knows this better than those of us who have dedicated ourselves to emergency care?
For all of our miraculous saves, men and women, boys and girls, still suffer horrible injuries and have cardiac arrests, fatal pulmonary emboli. They still die at the scene of car crashes. They still develop mental illness and kill themselves. Addiction still separates families and leaves parents weeping for children, lost from life or lost in the jungle of drugs and desperate lives.
Despite the extension of life we offer so many, even the healthiest men and women will, at some point, leave one another and pass away from this life. And, knowing this fact does nothing to ease the pain of the loss. The most ancient husband or wife still shudders and weeps with the loss of a spouse the way a newlywed would; perhaps more bitterly, knowing love more deeply at 85 than ever they did at 25. And yet, for all our scientific wonders, we can’t say what lies beyond this life.
What I’m saying is that for all our medical wonders, there are just questions we can’t answer, and things we can’t fix. And it is likely that our science, however wondrous, never will have that capacity.
We know it. It’s why we cry after failed resuscitations, and why we call our children when they travel, frantic to know they have arrived. It’s why every EMS tone terrifies the parents of teens and every scan of a loved one is terrifying to those of us in medicine. We can’t control the troubles of this life nearly as much as we think.
Mankind has always known this. Ancient physicians, as limited as they were, did their best and wanted more. They saw the dangers of this life, and their own incapacity, with what was likely more immediacy than we. And sick, injured humans have always known the fear of loss, the questions of suffering, the pain of death.
Into this ‘vail of tears’ we proceed every shift. This is why I often tell young physicians that they should read and understand more than medicine. I favor religious faith, natural to mankind as it is. But if they decline religion, they must have a philosophy. Or they should read great novels, stories, poetry; or reach into the depth of music for some kind of solace in this mess of the unknown.
But let me say this, now that December is here: Christmas comes to offer hope to the hopeless and answers to the hardest of questions. There are those of us who believe its message with all our broken hearts. But even those who find it a charming myth can surely see beauty in the story of God (however you perceive God to be) become man. God suffering with men and women and rescuing them. God come to give a hope of forever to humans trapped in mortality. This is especially poignant to those whose lives have been a succession of one devastating loss after another. It is comfort beyond medicine for them to believe in a God, come to forgive their wandering ways, answering them in the midst of their cutting, suicidal, self medicating cries for rescue. No pill is as good as God come to make every loss whole, and heal every pain in eternity. No resuscitation comparable to God come to die and defeat death.
The pain of this life is enormous. We try so hard, but we can do only so much. The manger in Bethlehem is, if nothing else, a beautiful story to remind us that just maybe, there is healing for the wounds that lie beyond our science. Perhaps the very dream that there is meaning, that there is hope, is a suggestion that there is more there, more here, than meets the eye.
And maybe, the manger is even more than a distant dream, more than a quaint bedtime story, glowing as it does in the chaotic night of human suffering that darkens our ER’s and trauma centers.
Merry Christmas!