A Visit to the Hospital

I went out to Haskell Memorial Hospital the other day. I didn’t go as a patient or to receive treatment of some kind, although I have done that before. And thankfully, I wasn’t going to see a sick or injured loved one, although I have certainly done that plenty of times as well. No, this time I went at the invitation of senior hospital management, to take a “behind-the-scenes” tour of the facility and to visit with some key staff members about what working at the eighty-plus-year-old institution is like, and what some of the rewards and challenges are that come from working at the community hospital.

Haskell Memorial Hospital was originally opened in 1939, with funding from a local bond election and a federal PWA grant.

First, a little background. In 1936, Haskell County Commissioners applied for a federal grant from the Public Works Administration to help fund a county hospital. While that paperwork was still working its way through the government red tape, county voters approved a $60,000 bond issue. That was on July 7, 1937 – a remarkable demonstration of vision and forward-thinking community spirit, considering that the country was still in the middle of the Great Depression.

Ground was broken for the new facility on March 9, 1938. Then finally, on June 22, 1938, the county was notified that the grant application had been approved. Construction on the expanded plans continued with a new budget of approximately $100,000, and the hospital opened on October 23, 1939. It was described in the Haskell Free Press as “one of the most modern and up-to-date hospitals in West Texas.” Ex­tensions and new wings were opened in 1952, 1972, and 2015. Unfortunately, the facility is now considered “landlocked,” and cannot be expanded further.

(By the way – were you born at Haskell Memorial? We’re trying to find the oldest person still living in the county who was born at this hospital. If you or someone you know arrived in the old maternity ward in 1939 or 1940, please email or call me ­– haskellstarnews@gmail.com, or 940-864-2810.)

Current Chief Executive Officer Michelle Stevens says that through all the years of its history, the hospital’s mission and purpose have remained consistent. “We are here to serve the community,” she says. “It is absolutely vital that the hospital continues to be available. Most of the patients that we see come from Haskell and all the communities across the county, as well as those from about 45 minutes out in every direction. We are also one of the largest employers in the county, so that is another major benefit.”

Chief Operating Officer – and Rochester native – Mary Belle Olson is proud of the many services that the hospital provides. “If someone needs an MRI or a CT scan, we can do that, right here. We can usually get them in for that procedure within the next day. It’s a lot better than having to wait for weeks for an appointment, then having to drive somewhere.”

I spoke with Louis Enriquez, the hospital’s Chief of Maintenance. He told me that one of the biggest problems they face is the old plumbing and sewer system. “It’s 1939 plumbing,” he said. “Every pipe is old cast iron, and a lot of them have cracks, especially the sewer pipes. They’re all 2” to 4” in size, and a flood is coming – we just don’t know when. It’s going to be a major expense when it fails.” He said the electrical conduits are also a problem. “They’re all very over-stuffed with wires. We really don’t have room to add anything else.” He noted that the concrete walls also make infrastructure repair and replacement a constant headache, and that the basement – where many of the records are kept – often floods following a heavy rain.

Chief Nursing Officer Tammy Mason pointed out that the patient rooms were in serious need of improvements, that most of the rooms did not even have a toilet, and that those that did had doors that were too narrow for a wheelchair or walker to get through. “We are so far out of ADA compliance,” she said, “and if we start trying to fix one thing, we have to bring the entire facility up to date.” She also noted that the rooms are too small for needed equipment and personnel when a patient “codes” and needs resuscitation. Assistant CNO Meghan Shelton added that a more centralized nurses’ station with better access to the ER would also be helpful in managing patient care.

But Nurse Mason also added that she loves being at the Haskell hospital. “We’re a smaller hospital, and I like that we are a lot more family oriented.”

And CEO Ms. Stevens summed up the sentiment that I heard from several hospital staffers. “We have really good people, providing really good care, and we are so much more than just a ‘band-aid station.’ We absolutely want to do as much as we can for someone right here,” she added, “without having to send them somewhere else.”

Some Thoughts on Small Town Living

My wife and I first moved to Haskell in July 1980, and for 17 of the next 26 years, I served as the minister of the First Christian Church – 1980-82, 1986-92, and 1997-2006. A few years ago I moved back to my Southeast Texas roots, to live in Orange County with my dad as his caregiver. After he passed in December 2018, Kathy and I talked about it and decided that we wanted to move back to Haskell, so we bought a home here and returned during the summer of 2019.

All of that to say, we love Haskell and the many wonderful friends we’ve made here. Three of our kids were born here, and two of them graduated from Haskell County schools. I have known members of the same family for six generations and have performed second, and in some cases, even third generation weddings, funerals and baptisms. That’s rare and special for a pastor these days.

I enjoy the rhythm of life in our small town – the “regularness” of it, the familiarity of it all. I appreciate the traditions of life here, from Wild Horse Prairie Days to Friday Night Lights and how folks who haven’t had a family member playing high school football in 40 years are still holding on to their season tickets. I love our annual Lighted Christmas Parade and the Easter Egg Hunt at City Park. All of these things, and many, many more, are all part of what makes life good in Haskell.

And of course, the friendships – the wonderful relationships with people that we walk through life with. You see them at their best, you see them at their worst, and everything in between. We visit with them at Modern Way and at the post office. From weddings and funerals to the birth of babies and grandbabies and high school graduation – fiftieth anniversaries and backyard BBQs and quinceañeras – towns like Haskell are where life happens, and it’s where the people are who matter the most to us.

Other towns around the area are all also nice, each in its own unique and special way. Stamford has the Cowboy Reunion, and Rochester has its Trade Days. I have friends in just about every community around here, and I cherish all of those relationships. They help make life worth living, and they are a big part of why Kathy and I decided to buy a place and settle here. For better or worse, we have “adopted” Haskell, and it is our intention to stay. You’re stuck with us.

However, as much as I love Haskell – and I REALLY do! – there are things about our town that make me crazy. And so with all humility, I offer some thoughts about a few areas of concern I have.

At the top of the list would have to be people who are automatically opposed to anything new or different. This attitude is especially prevalent in churches, but we find it everywhere. “We’ve never done it that way before.” Just because something is new or untried doesn’t make it wonderful, of course, but just because something is old and familiar doesn’t automatically make it the best, either. Every item that we use every day – automobiles, electric lights, telephones, running water, and more – were all once new and untried. Rather than rejecting a new idea simply because it is new, we ought to be willing to at least listen and consider some fresh ideas and different approaches to problem-solving.

Closely related is the issue of being afraid or suspicious of “new” people moving into town. Yes, Haskell is a tightly-knit community with shared values and a common heritage, but that shouldn’t mean that we hate and fear all “outsiders” who come here. We all have a lot of friends and loved ones buried in Willow Cemetery, but we can’t be so devoted to honoring the dead that we neglect the next generation. Yes, we should cherish the memory of our grandparents – but we also need to make a way for our grandchildren. And sometimes, that means being willing to meet and listen to new people and hearing their thoughts.

One final concern is that sometimes, we are much too concerned with the past and not enough with the future. Have you ever noticed the size of your car’s windshield, compared to the rearview mirror? That’s because when you’re driving, you should be much more focused on where you’re going, as opposed to where you’ve been. We must absolutely have pride in our past – but we also need to have faith in the future.

I love Haskell and I’m very proud to be here. All I’m saying is, working together, we can make it better.

A Good Habit for Life

There are some habits that nearly all of us agree are good things to do on a daily, or at least a regular, basis. We may not always DO them, but we agree that they’re good ideas. Making your bed every morning, for example. Flossing your teeth. Eating a healthy diet.

And I would add, donating blood.

I started donating blood when I was 19 and in college. (More about that in a bit.) In the years following, I made a total of 80 donations – that’s five gallons of blood. But after achieving that milestone, I decided I had done enough, and somebody else could take over. I’m not sure why I came to that conclusion. I guess I felt like I had done my part, and it could now be someone’s turn. Or maybe I was busy that day, or that five gallons was a nice accomplishment – got my name on a plaque! – so now, let that be someone else’s problem.

Except that’s not how life works. I believe we all have a lifelong responsibility to be good citizens, to be good neighbors, and to do all we can to help others. And as far as I am concerned, that means being a blood donor, so I have resumed my old habit.

Giving blood usually takes about 45 minutes. It is absolutely safe. You will be asked a few basic questions about your overall health and how you are feeling. They’ll check your temperature, your blood pressure, your weight. You’ll be asked about any prescriptions you take, your travel history, and a few questions of a personal nature – but they ask only to make sure your blood is safe to give to anyone (even a little child), and ALL of your answers are kept strictly confidential.

The American Red Cross says that about 6.8 million people give blood every year, totaling up to 13.6 million units. The fact is, someone – men, women, boys, girls, infants and the elderly, cancer patients and trauma victims – someone in this country needs blood every two seconds. A typical transfusion of red blood cells requires three units of blood, and a single car accident victim can require as much as a hundred units. Burn patients often need a lot of blood, as do victims of Sickle Cell Disease and other chronic illnesses. It has been estimated that one donation of blood can save as many as three lives.

Who can give? Just about everyone. You have to be at least 16 years of age in good overall health and weigh at least 110 pounds. As for myself, I’m 65 and a Type 2 Diabetic, but even with the meds I take to keep my blood sugar in control, it didn’t disqualify me. And I got a nice T-shirt as a bonus!

There are some common-sense precautions. If you’re not feeling well, if you’re anemic, if you have a cold or other illness, don’t try to donate – wait until you’re better. Be sure to eat a good meal before, and maybe even have a little light snack just after. Drink plenty of fluids and keep the bandage on tightly for several hours. Don’t try to get up too quickly after the donation – take it easy for a few minutes and let your system adjust before you try to move too quickly. Take it from a five-gallon donor: you’ll be fine.

So my first time giving blood? It was the summer of 1976, and I was working as a ministry intern for a church in Jackson, Mississippi. One of the dear old saints in that congregation was in the final stages of her battle against leukemia, and so the senior pastor and I went down to the local hospital, to each give a unit of blood as a “credit” on her account. He was an experienced donor, but I was a “newbie.” When we were finished, he immediately jumped up and began heading for the exit. I (of course) felt that I just had to keep up with him and be as tough as he was, but with every step, I noticed my legs getting more and more wobbly, and an increasingly unpleasant sensation of dizziness. When we got to the front door, the heat and humidity of that Mississippi summer morning hit me in the face and I collapsed. The next the thing I knew, I was in the front seat of Earl’s VW Beetle, and he was asking, “Are you okay? Are you okay?”

From that inauspicious beginning, I have now given many more times, and I’m asking you to join me and over six million others and become a blood donor.

Just don’t get up too fast.

The Most Important Words

Proverbs 25:11 says, “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” In other words, just as the right frame can beautifully add to a painting or photograph, so the right word at just the right time can make a big difference to someone who needs to hear it.

Additionally, James 3:9-10 reminds us, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” All of us can think of people in our lives who have had a big influence over us, who always seemed to be able to say just the right thing at the right time. We can also remember times when we have been wounded by the careless words of someone whose opinion mattered to us.

The old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is very mistaken. We need to remember that the words we use make a big difference to those who hear them – sometimes with the power to build up, but other times with a terrible power to hurt or tear down. And along those lines, remember St. Paul’s instructions to us from Romans 12: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

In the 1960s, there was a document being circulated and shared called “A Short Course in Human Relations,” author unknown. It was a list of what the writer considered the most important words and phrases that we can use in dealing with other people. At some point in the 1980s, it became a popular poster. After some consideration on this, here is my version of the list – suggestions for the most important words we can say to each other: 

  • Please.
  • I’m sorry.
  • I love you.
  • Thank you.
  • Let me help.
  • You can do it!
  • I made a mistake.
  • What do you think?
  • You did a good job.
  • I don’t know, but I’ll find out.
  • We (As opposed to I, me, my or mine)

May we all be known as people who build up others with words of encouragement. God’s richest blessings on you and yours for a prosperous, safe, and happy 2022.

A Shot in the Arm

I turned 65 a few days ago, so I celebrated by getting a flu shot. Personally, I’m a big believer in vaccines. That is partly based on the science involved, and partly based on personal and family experience.

Back in the 50s and 60s when I was growing up, there weren’t as many vaccines available as there are now, and I ended up having a number of “childhood diseases.” One of them nearly killed me. When I was in the first grade, I had chicken pox, mumps, and measles, all within a period of a couple of months. It was while I was battling measles that my fever shot up to about 105°. I remember being in bed and “seeing” snakes crawling up and down the wall in my room. I ended up with a terrible kidney infection that put me in the hospital for a week. You can bet that when our kids were little, we made sure they had all their shots.

I also remember being in elementary school and standing in line to get a sugar cube with the polio vaccine on it, and the stories my parents told me about their classmates and cousins, pre-vaccine, who contracted polio and ended up crippled or in an iron lung. A generation before that, it was smallpox. My dad (born in 1928) carried a small round scar on his left shoulder where he received his smallpox inoculation.

Over the years, I have had numerous vaccines. I get a flu shot every year. I used to catch the flu about every other year. It would always make me sick as a big dog, and it seemed to be a month or six weeks before I was completely over it. So I don’t mess around about it anymore – I just get the shot and am done with it. It may make me feel a little “blah” for a day or two, but that’s a lot better than six weeks.

I have also been blessed to go on a couple of short-term mission trips to Central and South America. There was a long list of shots that I had to get when I was preparing to go to Peru a few years ago. I was in line with several other people for a yellow fever vaccination, and some of the folks were complaining about having to get “so many shots” for such a relatively short trip. The clinic director told us, with a seriousness that I did not mistake, that we would be given a card proving our vaccinated status, and that we needed to keep it with our passports. “Just remember,” she told us, “you don’t have to have that card to leave the country. But you will need it if you want to get back in.”

Today, thank God, we don’t have to worry about smallpox, or polio, or a whole host of other diseases, and it’s because of vaccines. Vaccines for kids do NOT cause autism. That was a rumor that was started back in the 1990s because of a published report by a British surgeon ­– except he had falsified the numbers in his study. He lost his medical license because of that lie, but the rumor persists. And the Covid vaccine does not make you sterile, it doesn’t implant microchips in your body, and it’s not the Mark of the Beast. And no, it’s not perfect, but if you get Covid, the likelihood is that you will have a relatively mild case. And the main side effect of the vaccine is, you don’t die from Covid – about 99.95% of the time.

So please, if you haven’t had yours yet, go get a Covid vaccine. Now that they have approved the booster for Moderna shots, I plan to get mine soon. And while you’re at, you can also get a flu shot – they’re saying that this flu season could be one of the worst in years.

Some people claim that requiring a vaccine somehow impinges on their “personal freedom,” but the truth is, there are all kinds of restrictions that we agree to abide by, in order to live among others as part of a community. You don’t have the “freedom” to drive your vehicle if you’re drunk. You don’t have the freedom to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.

When the framers of the United States Constitution were drafting the Preamble to that historic document, part of their purpose, they said, was to “promote the general Welfare.” We need to recognize that we have responsibilities to our neighbors to behave in a way that promotes health and wellness as part of the “general Welfare” of the entire community. And surely that is also included in what Jesus meant when He told us to “love our neighbor.”

A Call to Community

According to Genesis 1, as God was creating the universe, He would pause from time to time, examine his work and pronounce that it was “good.” After God created our first parents, he surveyed them, along with everything else he had made and pronounced that it was all “very good.” Then we come to Genesis 2, where the story backs up just a bit and gives us more details about how God created the first humans. When he saw the man alone, it was the first time that God said something was “NOT good,” and so the Creator said, “I will make a helper suitable for him.”

It seems we are hard-wired for relationships. God created us that way, and He has called us to live in community.

That shouldn’t come as a galloping surprise to anyone. God himself exists within a perfect community, a union we understand as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Not three gods, but one, living in perfect community within themselves. In Genesis 1:26, God said, “Let US make humans in our image” – and that “us” is a reference, I believe, to that Divine Community, or if you prefer, to the Trinity. Later, when God gave Israel the “Shema” prayer – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4) – the word translated “one” is the Hebrew word, ekhad. It’s the same word that describes the “one flesh” of husband and wife. One as a union. One as a community.

When God gave the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), it’s important to note that the first commandment begins with, “I AM the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt; you will have no other gods besides me.” Please notice that: the foundation of the entire law was the covenant relationship between God and his people.

God described himself to Moses by saying, “I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” He was defining who he was, at least in part, by the relationships he had. Throughout the days of the prophets, God was constantly calling his people and inviting them into a closer relationship. Sending Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s desire to be in community with his people. That’s why one of the names by which Jesus is known is “Immanuel” – God with us.

According to Luke 4, when Jesus was beginning his public ministry, he read the scripture from Isaiah 61 about proclaiming good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, setting captives free, and rebuilding the ancient ruins – all dealing with restoring broken relationships. In Mark 12, when he was asked about the most important commandment, Jesus said, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength. And the second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The fact is, God has made us so that we need each other. In Romans 14:7, the Apostle Paul says, “For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.” We are called to live in community. Indeed, in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul says that God has “committed to us the ministry of reconciliation.” And what is reconciliation, if not a fancy word for rebuilding relationships?

That community sometimes looks different. We are called the “bear one another’s burdens,” (Gal. 6:2), to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep,” (Rom. 12:15), and to “live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). In Revelation 21:2, heaven is described as “The New Jerusalem.” A city. Not a suburb. Not a farm. Not a solitary cabin by a lake somewhere. A city. And city implies neighbors close by, and relationships all around us.

Genuine community is risky. Relationships take a lot of work and can sometimes be messy. But God has reached out to us, and desires to be in relationship with us, and that is precisely the way we are called to reach out to one another.

Life in the Slow Lane

I recently made a trip to East Texas and a good part of that time was spent driving on the freeway. At one point while I was on I-20, I came up behind some slow-moving traffic. I checked both mirrors and looked over my left shoulder. There was no one coming, so I pulled into the left lane and began to pass an 18-wheeler.

Suddenly my rear-view mirror was filled with the reflection of the massive grill of a large pickup – I mean, this guy was RIGHT ON my bumper. I was already going a few miles an hour over the speed limit to get around the truck that was now beside me, but I sped up as much as my little car could. I finished passing the truck and pulled back into the right lane, and the guy in the pickup roared past me, leading about three or four more cars behind him. I was going well over the speed limit by this point, and they were leaving me behind like I was standing still.

I certainly realize that there are emergencies in life, and there are times when speed is necessary, for a variety of reasons. And I’m aware that no one ever had a hit song, “Life in the Slow Lane.” Still, it seems to me that many of us would do well to take a breath and slow down a little bit from time to time.

I was in the ministry for a long time; I have also been a teacher and a neighborhood coordinator for a faith-based non-profit organization. I have done news and sports for radio and print, and if there’s one thing all those jobs have in common, it is that they all involve talking to folks and hearing their stories – building and developing relationships with other people. And the thing about relationships is, they take time. There is no substitute for this. It takes time to get to know someone, and to share stories. It takes time to sip a cup of coffee and look at pictures of family, or to share a glass of iced tea and talk baseball. Friendships and good relationships with neighbors and others develop slowly, gradually, over a long time, and they can’t be rushed. But they don’t happen by accident. Good relationships occur when someone is intentional about making them happen.

We understand this principle applies in many areas of life. When you plant a garden, you invest time and effort, and then (and only then) can you harvest your crop. When you cook a meal, it takes time to let flavor develop. But many of us have lost our understanding of this.

In a society where microwave popcorn takes too long, we’ve lost our appreciation for slowness. We have the world literally in the palm of our hands, and we can just Google whatever we want to know, for instant solutions. In our rush to get to work, to raise our kids, to juggle everything we have to do, we miss out on the joys of slowing down and savoring moments. Even in our leisure, we rush to get somewhere, so we can take it easy, forgetting that life is a journey, not a destination. So not only are we forgetting to “stop and smell the roses” – we’re not even noticing that there is a rosebush.

The good news is, things don’t have to stay that way. Summer is a great time to practice slowing down just a little. Invite a neighbor over to sit on your porch or your patio and get to know one another over something cold and wet. Fire up the grill and practice your outdoor cooking skills for your family and friends – you’ll discover it’s time well spent, and you may also discover that conversations are more enjoyable over a charcoal fire.

Or just slow down and take a moment for yourself and find some peace in the solitude.

It’s very common at graduations or weddings for parents to think about the baby that they brought home from hospital, seemingly only yesterday, but now that baby is grown up and moving out. The parents wonder, where did the time go? But by then, it’s too late to savor those moments. All you can do is cherish the moments to come.

It may take a little getting used to, and you can’t do it all the time, but there’s a lot to be said for occasionally pulling over and enjoying life in the slow lane.

“God Helps”

I have always enjoyed reading and studying the parables of Jesus – maybe it’s because there’s not much I like more than hearing a well-told story. One of the first definitions of a parable that I learned is still one of the best: an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Jesus was a Master of taking common, ordinary elements from everyday life, and using them to make an application of a spiritual principle. One of the best is the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Luke 16:19-31. (Go ahead and get your Bible if you want to – I’ll wait.)

One of the first controversies people get bogged down in concerns whether this is a fictional parable, or a true story that Jesus somehow knew through His divine awareness. The argument has often been made that it must be about real people since Jesus calls “Lazarus” by name – something He does in no other parable.

I must respectfully disagree. “Lazarus” is a form of the Hebrew name, “Eleazar,” which means, “God helps.” It was a very common name and doesn’t have to mean anything other than Jesus, a good storyteller, is giving a fictional character a familiar name. In fact, its significance may be in its Hebrew meaning: the rich man had many resources on which he could rely, but this poor man’s only help was from God.

One thing that I’ve learned in my study of the parables – people use them to preach and teach all sorts of screwy things. Many interpreters seem to regard the words of Jesus as a blank screen onto which they can project whatever point of view they’re wishing to promote.

That’s especially true with this text. Many interpreters come up with some strange applications of this text, but in my opinion, they miss what Jesus is trying to teach. To understand His point, we have to back up a few verses in the chapter. Earlier in Luke 16, Jesus had been speaking about having the right priorities when it comes to money, and understanding that our money is an asset, a tool, that God has given us, and we must be wise and responsible in using that tool for God’s glory. In Luke 12:21, He talked about the foolishness of storing up wealth for oneself but failing to become “rich toward God.”

Meanwhile, the Pharisees, “who loved money” (Luke 16:14), were “sneering” at Jesus. They had totally bought into a version of what is today called the “prosperity gospel:” the idea that God rewards His followers materially, and that earthly riches are a sign of God’s favor. (There are plenty of TV preachers and others today who audaciously proclaim this same falsehood.) But it is in response to the cynical, sneering Pharisees that Jesus tells this story.

His point, in my opinion, was to teach that we have a responsibility to use our money, as well as our time, our talents, our possessions, and whatever else God may have given us, in such a way as to glorify Him. If we use our wealth only to make ourselves comfortable – as this rich man did – then we have failed to love God with “all our heart,” and we have certainly failed to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Lazarus, according to the story, hung out every day near the rich man’s garbage cans, hoping just to eat the scraps that were being thrown out. His only companions were the stray dogs that he competed against for dinner. Did the rich man know he was there? Did he even see him?

It’s easy to condemn the rich man for his failures, even as we let ourselves off the hook. But Jesus doesn’t let us off that easy. Many of us have become quite skilled at NOT seeing those around us. Who are the needy among us? Who are the friendless near us? Who is the neighbor or co-worker that just wants someone to talk to? We rationalize our failure to help; we excuse ourselves by thinking about the “wrong choices” that “the poor” have made, to put them where they are.

Do we know that? And even if we do, are we really that self-righteous and smug? Is that how God treated us? In another place, Jesus talked about the need to remove the plank in our own eye before we worry about the speck in our brother’s eye. Many of us are quick to give ourselves “grace” for the wrongs we have done; can we not find some grace to help others?

Ultimately, in the story, Lazarus was “helped” by God. May God “help” each of us to see and reach out to those around us.

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.

The Christmas Guest

One of the greatest blessings of my life was to be the host of A.M. Sunday, a Gospel music radio show on KVRP in Haskell, Texas. I used to take requests, and every year at Christmas, I’d get requests for Grandpa Jones reading “The Christmas Guest.” The only problem was, I didn’t HAVE a copy of him doing that piece, and this was long before you could simply download the song from iTunes or pull it up on YouTube. But I DID have a version done by Reba McEntire, and I would play that. And I understood why people liked it so much, because I absolutely fell in love with it.

There have been many different versions of this story. This one was written by American poet Helen Steiner Rice, arranged by Grandpa Jones and Billy Walker. An older telling was by a French pastor and author, Ruben Saillens, and another by Leo Tolstoy.  They’re all based on the words of Jesus when He said, “Whatever you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me.”

So whether you heard it back in the day on “A.M. Sunday,” or if this is your first encounter with this poem, I hope it blesses you as much as it always has me. And Merry Christmas!

THE CHRISTMAS GUEST

It happened one day near December’s end,
Two neighbors called on an old friend,
And they found his shop so meager and lean
Made gay with thousand bows of green.

And Conrad was sitting with face a-shine,
When he suddenly stopped as he stitched a twine,
And he said, “Old friends, at dawn today
When the cock was crowing the night away,
The Lord appeared in a dream to me
And said, ‘I’m coming your guest to be.’

“So I’ve been busy with feet astir,
Strewing my shop with branches of fir.
The table is spread and the kettle is shined,
And over the rafters the holly is twined

“Now I’ll wait for my Lord to appear,
And listen closely so I will hear His step
As He nears my humble place.
And I’ll open the door and look on His face.”

So his friends went home and left Conrad alone,
For this was the happiest day he had known.
For long since, his family had passed away,
And Conrad had spent many a sad Christmas Day.

But he knew with the Lord as his Christmas Guest,
This Christmas would be the dearest and best.
So he listened with only joy in his heart,
And with every sound he would rise with a start.
And look for the Lord to be at his door,
Like the vision he’d had a few hours before.

So he ran to the window after hearing a sound,
But all he could see on the snow-covered ground
Was a shabby beggar whose shoes were torn,
And all of his clothes were ragged and worn.

But Conrad was touched and he went to the door,
And he said, “Your feet must be frozen and sore.
I have some shoes in my shop for you,
And a coat that will keep you warmer, too.”

So with grateful heart the man went away,
But Conrad noticed the time of day,
And wondered what made the Lord so late
And how much longer he’d have to wait.

When he heard a knock, he ran to the door,
But it was only a stranger once more:
A bent old lady with a shawl of black,
With a bundle of kindling piled on her back.
She asked for only a place to rest,
But that was reserved for Conrad’s Great Guest.

But her voice seemed to plead, “Don’t send me away!
Let me rest for a while on Christmas Day.”
So Conrad brewed her a steaming cup,
And told her to sit at the table and sup.

But after she left, he was filled with dismay,
For he saw that the hours were slipping away.
And the Lord hadn’t come as he said he would,
And Conrad felt sure he had misunderstood.

When out of the stillness he heard a cry,
“Please help me, and tell me where am I?”
So again he opened his friendly door,
And stood disappointed as twice before.
It was only a child who had wandered away
And was lost from her family on Christmas Day.

Again, Conrad’s heart was heavy and sad,
But he knew he should make the little girl glad.
So he called her in and he wiped her tears,
And quieted all her childish fears.

Then he led her back to her home once more.
But as he entered his own darkened door,
He knew the Lord was not coming today,
For the hours of Christmas had passed away.

So he went to his room and knelt down to pray,
And he said, “Dear Lord, why did You delay?
What kept You from coming to call on me?
For I wanted so much Your face to see.”

When soft in the silence a voice he heard,
“Lift up your head, for I kept my word.
Three times my shadow crossed your floor,
And three times I came to your lowly door.

“I was the beggar with bruised, cold feet;
And I was the woman you gave something to eat;
I was the child on the homeless street.
Three times I knocked, and three times I came in,
And each time I found the warmth of a friend.
Of all the gifts, love is the best,
And I was honored to be your Christmas Guest.”