The National Game of Texas

In 1887, in the tiny North Texas town of Trappe Spring, two young boys had a problem. Twelve-year-old William Thomas and 14-year-old Walter Earl both really liked playing cards – not games of gambling, but trick-taking card games similar to Bridge, Spades, Whist, and the like. The problem was, both young men came from devout Baptist families, and playing cards was absolutely forbidden. What to do?

Playing dominoes was allowed in their homes, but the boys found regular dominoes to be, well, boring. So they set out to invent a new game, using the strategy and skill of their favorite card games, but utilizing dominoes instead of the sinful pasteboards. After a few months of trial and error, they had their game, which they taught to their families. Their families enjoyed this new game and taught it to their neighbors. They liked it, too.

When their families moved to Fannin County, they took the game with them, and taught it to their new neighbors. It caught on there, too, and gradually spread across the whole state. And thus was born “The National Game of Texas” – 42.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Texans of all backgrounds and social levels would meet to play. In rural communities and big cities, neighbors would bring covered dishes to someone’s house on Saturday nights after work and eat together. Then, after the dishes were done and while the kids played outside, the grown-ups would sit and sip their sweet iced tea (these are mostly Baptists, remember!), and play 42. The game was played in homes, at churches, on picnics, and around campfires.

When the Texas boys went off to World War II, they took the game with them. There are lots of stories about G.I.s teaching the game to their buddies from New York and California. But at its heart, it was – and is – a Texas game, officially recognized by the state legislature as the “Official Domino Game of Texas.”

And although some think of it as a game for older people, it’s actually making a comeback among younger players. In fact, every year in Halletsville, there is a state championship, to crown the best “42” player in the state.

Like many great games, 42 is easy to learn and hard to master. The game is played with four people – two teams of two people each. You draw seven dominoes, then you bid on how many “tricks” you can take for your team. There’s a total of 42 points for each round – hence, the name. Knowing how to bid well is the key to being a good player.

If you want to know more about the history and strategy of playing 42, you need to get a copy of Winning 42: Strategy & Lore of the National Game of Texas, by Dennis Roberson. There are also online versions of the game, where you can practice against computer-generated players.

The competition, skill and strategy of a well-played game is certainly enjoyable. But for many, the real pleasure of the game is the time spent with friends – the fun of getting together with neighbors to talk, to visit, and to share life together.

We played “regular” dominoes in my family when I was growing up, not 42, but a few years ago, I got to play a few hands when I was visiting a friend at her nursing home. I discovered how much I enjoyed the strategy of the game, along with enjoying the fellowship of visiting with friends, old and new. I’m still not very good at it, but I do like the game.

During the past year, we’ve all been forced to spend too much time apart from others, but as we go forward from here, maybe we need to re-discover the simple pleasures of good friends spending time together, enjoying conversation and a good game.

William and Walter would be proud

A Very Special Trip

In February 2009, I was blessed to be part of a group from Beltway Park in Abilene that went to the Holy Land. A bus ride to DFW, a flight to Atlanta, a flight to Tel Aviv and there we were, in Israel!

Our first stop was Akko, on the Mediterranean coast in the far northwest corner of the country. Akko is a very ancient city, referenced in the Hebrew text of Job 38:11. In NT times, it was known by the name of Ptolemais – Paul went through it towards the end of his 3rd missionary journey, heading towards Jerusalem – Acts 21:7. The city was a major port for the Crusaders, conquered by the English King Richard the Lionheart, retaken by the Muslims, and later the site of one of the few defeats ever suffered by Napoleon.

All that to say, it’s kinda historic.

We went down the coast to Caesarea, the man-made port city constructed by Herod the Great, then on to Mt. Carmel, to the area where Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest – 1 Kings 18.  We headed east, through the Jezreel Valley to Megiddo, and on to our hotel on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (which is actually a freshwater lake).

On February 10, we visited the site where it’s believed that Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount. Then it was on to a chapel by the lake itself, to the area where it’s believed that Jesus cooked breakfast for the disciples after His resurrection – John 21. Jesus and Peter went for a walk along the rocky shore, and Jesus told Peter, “Feed my sheep.”

We went to Jesus’ adopted hometown of Capernaum next. Words cannot really describe how special this part of the trip was for me. We know about more miracles per square foot that took place there, than any other place In Israel. The synagogue leader’s daughter, and the woman with the issue of blood. The centurion’s servant, and the paralyzed man whose friends lowered him down through the roof. Peter’s mother-in-law, and a miraculous catch of fish. And on, and on, and on – yet most of the people there did not believe. 

Something very special and personal happened to me while we were there. I began to think about all that Jesus did there, and all the stories from the Gospels – inviting Peter and the others to become “fishers of men,” visiting Matthew’s tax collecting booth, teaching in the synagogue, and more. Capernaum is not a very big place – the entire village would probably fit between the Haskell square and the high school – and all the spots where these things happened were just yards from where I was standing. Here’s the weird part: it was almost as if I could see the faces of all the Sunday School teachers that I had when I was a kid, and I could almost hear them telling me those stories again. And here I was, standing in the middle of where all those things happened.

I had never felt the Spirit of Jesus more keenly than I did in that moment.

We were in Israel for almost two weeks. We visited the Jewish fortress of Masada, the oasis at En Gedi (one of King David’s favorite places!), and the Dead Sea. Of course, we toured Jerusalem, went to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, and walked the Via Dolorosa. We saw the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Gordon’s Calvary, and shared communion outside the Garden Tomb.

Here I am on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem and the site of the ancient temple.

It was a great trip, and I’m ready to go back. There are some places I want to see again, and lots more places that I want to visit. For those who say, “Oh, I’d never go – it’s much too dangerous” – not so. The most dangerous part of the trip was the bus ride on I-20! Stay with your tour group, and you’ll be fine.

I believe every Christian should go to Israel at least once, if possible. It will make the Bible come alive in ways you never imagined. And maybe it will renew your faith to a deeper level than you ever thought possible.

Movies x5, The Sequel

Regular readers of these columns may remember that back in October, I did an article entitled, “The Movies Times Five.” It’s a little game I play with friends of mine who are movie fans, where someone throws out a category, and you have to come up with five good movies in that category. We’ve looked at favorite John Wayne, good war pictures, best Christmas movies, etc.

Are you a movie fan? And especially, are you a fan of the classics? You can play along. And by the way, I heard the other day that with Abilene’s COVID hospitalization rate coming down, the Paramount Theatre was planning to re-open; their first showing is scheduled for this weekend, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (Not one of my favorites, but hey, to each his or her own!)

FAVORITE COURTROOM DRAMAS – Courtroom movies deal with life-and-death issues, and always, the search for truth. No wonder they remain such a vehicle for great storytelling! Two other favorites: Inherit the Wind and A Few Good Men.

  • 5. Anatomy of a Murder. Jimmy Stewart and George C. Scott face off in a murder trial of an Army officer. Lee Remick somehow manages to be both gorgeous and innocent at the same time.
  • 4. The Caine Mutiny. There has never been a mutiny on board a US Navy vessel. This movie plays, “What if?” Humphrey Bogart, José Ferrer, and Van Johnson sta
  • 3.  To Kill a Mockingbird. All aspiring actors (and trial lawyers, for that matter) should have to watch Gregory Peck’s closing argument to the jury.  This is how it’s done.
  • 2. Twelve Angry Men. Oh my, what a cast.  A tense, real-time drama of a jury that votes 11-1 for a conviction.  Then Henry Fonda starts asking questions.
  • 1. The Verdict. Paul Newman’s greatest performance, ever. A washed-up, alcoholic, ambulance-chaser has one final chance to do the right thing. James Mason and Jack Warden co-star.

FAVORITE ROBERT REDFORD MOVIES – My wife has had a thing for Redford since before I ever knew her. I really wanted to NOT like the guy, just out of spite, but I have to confess, I’m a fan. Honorable Mentions: The Natural and The Great Waldo Pepper.

  • 5. All the President’s Men. Redford is often at his best when he is co-starring with someone good; Dustin Hoffman more than rises to the occasion. Don’t miss the late Hal Holbrook as Woodward’s secret informer, Deep Throat.
  • 4. The Sting. One of two “buddy” pictures he made with Paul Newman (see #3 on this list for the other). Two con men try to get their revenge on a gangster who murdered a friend of theirs.
  • 3. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. A very special movie for several reasons: It was the movie Kathy and I went to see on our very first date; also, I’m a big fan of Katherine Ross.
  • 2. The Electric Horseman. Gorgeous scenery of a cowboy trying to “un-screw up his life.” With Jane Fonda and co-starring Willie Nelson, who also supplies several songs for the soundtrack.
  • 1. Three Days of the Condor. He’s a book-reading analyst for the CIA. That’s all he does: read books. Then one day while he’s at lunch, someone murders all of his co-workers. He tries to figure out how to stay alive. And is there anyone he can trust? Faye Dunaway and Max von Sydow co-star.

FIVE COMEDIES – Let’s lighten up and have some fun. LOTS of honorable mentions for this category, but especially don’t miss Tootsie, Arsenic & Old Lace, and Bringing Up Baby.

  • 5.  Harvey. Jimmy Stewart and his imaginary friend. Who’s really the crazy one here?
  • 4.  Blazing Saddles. Mel Brooks makes fun of westerns, as well as everything else.
  • 3.  Some Like It Hot. Jack Lemmon & Tony Curtis witness a mob hit. Things get a little weird.
  • 2.  What’s Up, Doc? Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal in a classic farce about mixed-up luggage.
  • 1.  It Happened One Night. Clark Gable and Greta Garbo. She’s a spoiled heiress. He’s a hard-boiled newspaper man. Time for Joshua to blow his trumpet.

As a preview of coming attractions, in future columns we will look at favorite baseball movies, Bogart’s best, Film Noir, and more. And until then, as Siskel & Ebert used to say, I’ll see you at the movies.

My Coronavirus Vaccine

I got my Coronavirus vaccine the other day, and I feel fine. I’m also very thankful for it.

A little background: I’m in group “1-B.” That group is people who are 65 and older, or who are between 16 and 64 but have other health conditions that make them susceptible to having a more serious case of the virus. So even though I’m “only” 64, having Diabetes qualified me to get the vaccine.

Pharmacist Intern Bria Brooks, of The Drug Store, gives me my Coronavirus vaccine.

I’m a big believer in vaccines. To his dying day, my dad had a small, circular scar high up on his left arm, near his shoulder, where he got the smallpox vaccine when he was young. I remember in elementary school being given a sugar cube with the polio vaccine in it. I also remember almost dying when I was in the first grade from the measles; my fever was so high, I remember having hallucinations of snakes crawling up and down my bedroom wall. And I was terrified of snakes. So when our kids came along, I was very happy to get them vaccinated to protect them from measles. And mumps. And a host of other childhood diseases.

All of that to say, for me, getting a vaccine is a no-brainer. My faith tells me that all healing comes from God, but I also believe that God grants some people the gift of healing through the use of medicine, research, and yes, vaccines to help us not get sick in the first place. I get a flu shot every year because I hate getting the flu. I’ve had to be vaccinated for all sorts of diseases that we don’t even have in this country, so that I could be a part of the team for various overseas mission trips.

Coronavirus is serious stuff. It is NOT a hoax, NOT something that only happens on TV or in big cities, and it is NOT something you can ignore if you’re young and healthy. I have lost several friends to it locally, including my good friend and former boss, Ken Lane, along with a dear former pastor of mine in East Texas, Robley Soileau. (Yes, he was a Cajun.) My son Drew had two friends – both healthy young men in their 20s – who died from it in Dallas. My brother in Houston is in the hospital right now with complications from it. I have another friend in Abilene, a health care worker, who nearly died from it right after Thanksgiving; he was hospitalized for weeks and has still not fully recovered.

So I registered for my turn, and I was delighted the other day when I received a call from The Drug Store, telling me that I could come to the Haskell Civic Center and receive my shot. They asked me a few questions to make sure I was eligible and told me when to be there and what to bring. I showed up that morning; it was a reasonably well-organized and smooth process, and I was in and out of there in well under an hour.

I received the Moderna vaccine. It was relatively painless, and I have had no reaction from it. I will have to get the follow-up shot in a few weeks, but I’ve had other two-dose vaccines like that before, and it’s not a big deal.

Let me say this as directly as I can: Get the shot. Get it as soon as you can. We have buried enough people, lost enough time and money, cast enough blame, and made more than enough excuses about why we can’t / shouldn’t / won’t comply. Don’t believe the conspiracy theories – this vaccine is not going to implant a microchip in you or wire you into the 5G network. It doesn’t alter your DNA, it won’t give Bill Gates control over your mind, and ladies, it will not cause infertility.

Those theories are on the same level as wearing hats made out of aluminum foil, to prevent the government from doing secret radio experiments on your brain.

And for a while longer, until we have a majority of folks vaccinated, let us keep on wearing masks, washing our hands, avoiding big crowds, and observing all the proper protocols. Please.

I know we’re all tired of it. But too many loved ones have already died.

Seeking Shalom

One of the most fascinating Hebrew words in that language’s vocabulary is their word for “peace:” shalom. It can be used as a greeting at a meeting of friends, as well as leaving; when someone wants to ask, “How are you?”, the question is literally phrased, “How is your peace?” And a typical blessing would be, “Shalom aleikhem” – “Peace be unto you.”

Far more than just the absence of conflict, “shalom” can mean wholeness, health, or even prosperity, depending on its context. It refers to a sense of completeness and well-being in every phase of one’s life, but especially in terms of one’s relationships with others.

That’s why it’s so interesting to me that when God was warning the Israelites about the impending Babylonian captivity, God told them, “Seek the peace (shalom) of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7). In other words, God is telling them not to act like a bunch of strangers, but to settle down, live their lives, know their neighbors, get involved and make a difference in the city there.

It seems to me that’s a message we need to hear today.

So many times people seem to not care about what’s happening in the lives of those around them. Their attitude seems to be that they will go to work, go to church, care for their families, mow their yards, and they go about their business with a sort of, “You leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone” attitude. Unfortunately, that’s not what God asked of them, or of any of us.

Even many Christians seem to approach life by saying, “This world stinks, life is not fair, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Heaven will be better, so let’s not worry about doing anything now, and God will make everything right in the sweet, by and by.” But when Jesus commanded His followers to pray to God, “Thy Kingdom come,” He meant NOW, not someday.

What things are going on around me that don’t look like the Kingdom of God? Is there any injustice? How can I speak up against it? Are there businesses that take advantage of people? Am I willing to take my business somewhere else, in order to work for justice?

There is certainly no lying, no un-truths in heaven. So, am I seeking truthfulness in every aspect of my own life? And am I careful to speak the truth?

What about loneliness? There will be no loneliness in the Kingdom of God. So, who do I know that is lonely, and how can I be a better friend?

There are other examples, but you get the picture.

Of course, I certainly understand from the Christian point of view, that the Kingdom of God will not come in its full glory and power until Jesus returns. But that doesn’t let me off the hook for doing what I can, in the here and now, to work to bring it about, wherever and however I can.

The word “seek” implies action, activity and effort. Diligence and persistence. When you’re seeking something, you’re not going to be easily distracted or discouraged, and you don’t plan to give up until you get it. So if God tells us to seek shalom – peace – then that means we keep working, we keep striving, we keep dreaming, of a society where we enjoy peace and wholeness, health and well-being, in every phase of our lives.

The Bible calls Jesus the “Prince of Peace (Shalom),” and He has called His followers to be “peacemakers.” God promised that it was in seeking the peace and well-being of the city around us, that we would find peace and well-being in our own lives.

Shalom.

Remembering MLK

Earlier this week, we observed the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Personally, I have long been an admirer of Dr. King – he consistently stood for justice, for peace, and for non-violence. He believed in the Kingdom of God, and he believed that Christians, regardless of color, ought to do all they can to create outposts and colonies of God’s Kingdom here on earth – to create what he called “beloved community.”

When I was in graduate school, I did a project on Dr. King’s rhetorical skills, looking at the way he was able to take traditional black preaching styles – with the use of Biblical storytelling, rhythmic phrasing, and uplifting hopefulness – and combine that with the best of white preaching styles, with its rhetorical structure and its use of logic and Aristotelian reasoning.  (And thanks to my lifetime friend from college, Kurt Stallings, for giving me the idea!) The result for King was preaching which communicated to both white and black audiences.

In the process, I read just about everything that Dr. King ever said or wrote. Here are a dozen of my favorite quotes from him.

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”…was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand I can do no other, so help me God.”….And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? … Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

The moral arc of the universe is long, but it tends towards justice.

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.

I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

The time is always right to do right.

But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.

Everyday Heroes

They are all around us, and we see them every day, even if we don’t always recognize them for who they are.

Everyday Heroes.

Surely you have seen these people. You might even be one yourself. If so, thank you. Who are they?

They are the firefighters who run INTO burning buildings, when everyone else is running out. They are the police officers who run TOWARDS the sound of gunfire. They are the nurses who help patients with unpleasant symptoms, especially when those patients can’t help themselves.

They are the teachers who buy school supplies out of their own pockets and offer encouraging words to struggling students. They are the pastors who quietly sit with families that have gotten bad news. They are the linemen who climb utility poles in the cold and wet, so the rest of us can stay warm and dry.

They often go unsung, unnoticed and unappreciated. They watch as our society cheers athletes, rock stars, actors – people most of us will never interact with or personally know. But our everyday heroes hear no cheering crowds, and nobody is paying them much attention. And yet, every day, day after day, they quietly go about their business of helping other people, being a friend, making a difference.

They are Mr. Holland. They are George Bailey.

Surely you have known such people. A Sunday School teacher. A little league coach. A Scout leader. They are the folks who get involved in other people’s lives in a positive way and make a difference. They’re not flashy, and they’re not celebrated. But they’re remembered as the people who care.

And here’s the good news: we can all be in that category, if we’re willing to take a moment, to offer a kind word or a shoulder, or a sympathetic ear. I was a pastor for a long time, and I’m convinced that when tragedy strikes, people don’t remember very many of the things that other people say. But they remember who was there.

You can be a hero today. Somewhere around you right now, a kid needs a mentor. A neighbor needs a friend. A co-worker needs someone to talk to. The Experienced Citizens Center could use some more drivers to deliver meals. You can do that. We all can – the question is, will we? Jesus said that if all we do is offer a cup of cold water in His name, we would certainly be rewarded in His Kingdom.

It’s not too late to put this on your list of things to do for 2021. Be a more caring person. Give a damn. Get involved. Make a difference.

Now, more than ever, we need all the heroes we can get.

A Little Change in Your Future

When I was in the third grade (yes, a LONG time ago!), I was in Cub Scouts. One of the badges I was working on required me to start and organize some kind of collection. Now it so happened that my dad owned a gas station in those days, and my mom would go to the bank for him a couple of times a week, to make deposits and get change for the station, including some coins. She was opening one of these newly-acquired rolls of nickels one day, when to her great surprise, she discovered that the entire roll was made up of Buffalo Nickels – forty of them, to be exact. She gave me that roll to use for my project, and we got one of those little blue coin folders.

And that was how my interest in coins and coin collecting began.

I tell you that story because I went to the grocery store the other day and got a little change back from my purchase. I didn’t notice it at the time, but that evening, when I was emptying my pockets, I discovered that I had received a Buffalo Nickel back as part of my change. It’s thoroughly worn down, and the date is pretty much unreadable – I think it’s 1930, but I can’t be sure – but that famous Native American profile still stares stoically on the front, and that beautiful, shaggy, American Bison still stands proudly on the back of the coin.

Buffalo Nickels were minted from 1913 to 1938. The design actually began in 1911, as part of the Taft Administration’s efforts to beautify American coinage. Sculptor James E. Fraser received the commission to design the coin, and in spite of some objections, it went into production two years later. Unfortunately, although it was a beautiful design, the coin was subject to premature wear and degradation. After the minimum 25-year circulation period, it was replaced by the Jefferson nickel, which we still use today. However, Fraser’s design is still popular, and it has been used on various commemorative coins and some American gold pieces designed for collectors.

A 1937 “Buffalo Nickel.” The “F” under the date is for the designer, James Fraser, and the “D” under “Five Cents” indicates that it was minted in Denver.

So, who was the Native American whose portrait adorns this coin? Good question. Fraser himself gave several different accounts, but it seems most likely that it was patterned after a combination of two or three men.  Fraser was on record as saying once, “my purpose was not to make a portrait, but a type.” The American Bison on the rear was likely modeled after an animal in one of the zoos in New York City; again, Fraser’s story changed a few times – sometimes he said it was at the Bronx Zoo, sometimes at the Central Park Zoo.

Besides premature wearing, the coin had other problems. For some reason, the dies which were used to strike the blanks wore out at an unusually fast rate. Changes ordered by the mint to try and extend the life of the metal dies just made the problem worse. Even on newly minted coins, the date quickly rubbed off and became illegible; the “Five Cents” and other lettering was gone almost as fast. Nobody objected when the order to replace it was given.

But I just love this coin. When it was first released, it was praised for its bold American themes – the rugged Indian face and that majestic bison, more commonly known as a buffalo. It’s well-known that bison were hunted almost to extinction, and only through the dedicated efforts of ranchers and preservationists were they able to make a comeback, to be saved for future generations. There’s a lesson there, about the true spirit of America and never giving up.

Beyond that, finding that coin in my pocket the other day is a reminder of the little blessings that come our way, if we will take the time to notice and appreciate them. In this case, I received the blessings of recalling a sweet memory and an interesting little story and savoring a little patriotic pride.

Not bad for such a little coin.

Changes, Changes

Someone has said that change is the only constant. Or as a character in a movie once said, “Nothing changes but the changes.”

The truth is, change is always with us. And most of us don’t like it. We get used to things being a certain way, and we want them to stay that way. Even when we don’t like something, if it’s familiar, we often prefer keeping it. “Better the devil you know,” we say.

But if life teaches us anything, it’s that everything changes. Parents grow old and die. Children grow up and leave. Neighbors come, neighbors go. Jobs end, and jobs begin.

It can be very depressing if we dwell on it with the wrong perspective. But it doesn’t have to be.

When change comes, we can either become angry and sullen about having our routine upset, or we can be thankful for the blessing we had and the time we had it. C.S. Lewis once pointed out that God gives us glimpses of heavenly joy, but only for a time. That way, we would understand the eternal joy that awaits, but we would never mistake this world for our true home. I don’t know if I agree completely with that or not, but it’s worth thinking about.

Another thing about change: every change is an opportunity for growth. It’s true, we like things the way we get used to them, but it’s also true that every familiar thing was once UN-familiar. I hated coffee the first time I tried it. Now I drink it every morning. Every best friend was once a stranger. Every golfer had to go through picking up a club and making that first ugly, awkward swing. The changes around us present us with a wonderful buffet of new opportunities, new experiences, possibilities for personal growth.

An old proverb says, “Be not the first to embrace the new, nor the last to forsake the old.” I think there’s some wisdom in there.

One other thing about change: the constant changes in this life and in this world, make our hearts yearn for the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, the One who does NOT change, the One whose love is always constant and whose compassions never fail. So I hold on to the unchanging Eternal One, and He gives me the strength and courage to face the changes I meet.

Bring it on.

God in the ‘Hood

Ask most people what Bible passages they think about in connection with Christmas, and they will often point to the well-known story of Mary & Joseph, the angels and the shepherds, from Luke 2. Some people will throw in Matthew 2, and the story of the Wise Men, and the Christmas Star, the wicked King Herod and the murder of the innocents. Those are certainly great stories, and they for sure give us the details of Jesus’ birth.

But none of those is my favorite Christmas Bible verse.

The scripture verse I like best at this time of year is John 1:14. Most translations will say something like, “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. And we beheld his glory – glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” But I especially like the way that the Bible paraphrase “The Message” puts it: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”

When you think about it, that’s a pretty good way of expressing exactly what Jesus did when he came to earth. Here’s what I mean.

Moving into a neighborhood reflects a choice. It’s possible to accidentally pass through a given area or section of town, but you don’t MOVE IN unless you mean to do so. Moving into a neighborhood means you chose it – and you probably chose it for a reason. There may be many different reasons why someone would pick a given neighborhood, but obviously, it doesn’t happen by accident. You have to do some planning, some preparation, and spend some time and effort in the process.

The Bible says that God sent Jesus “when the time had fully come” (Gal. 4:4). In other words, it wasn’t some kind of last-minute, half-hearted effort. It was a deliberate choice that the Father and the Son made to enter into our humanity, to provide the example of how we ought to live and the atonement for when we could not. Jesus chose to become like us, so that we could become like him.

Every neighborhood has its own blessings – and challenges. We all recognize that there’s no such thing as a perfect neighborhood; we also know that every neighborhood has its own unique advantages. If all we do is complain about problems, we will miss the good gifts around us.

When Jesus became human, he willingly accepted the limitations of his humanity. He couldn’t be everywhere at once anymore. He accepted the frailties of a physical body. He voluntarily limited himself so that he could fully experience the human condition. But he also received the blessing of feeling wonder at the beauty and marvel that is creation, and could understand from personal experience the love of the Father for his children.

Neighborhoods invite relationships. When we live close to others, we build relationships. Not every neighbor becomes a best friend, but we understand the value of good neighbors and looking out for each other.

As a “neighbor,” Jesus has entered into our lives, and he invites us to enter into a relationship with him. Really, that’s what Christianity is – not going to church, not keeping a bunch of rules, but being in a relationship with Jesus, sharing life together. It’s not complicated.

Jesus said that one of the two most important commandments was to love our neighbors as ourselves. He demonstrated that truth by becoming a neighbor to us, and inviting us to become his neighbor and friend, both now and into eternity.

Jesus in the manger. God in the neighborhood. Merry Christmas.