The Best Christmas Gift I Could Ever Receive

You never know when one simple act might have long term implications, even long after you’ve forgotten it.

Last week, my wife Mary and I went to the Perea Christmas party, as we always do when the holidays approach. Perea is the preschool in N. Memphis that Church Health has run for almost 18 years. We have 149 three- and four-year-old students enrolled this year, and our teachers make a profound difference in their lives.

The Christmas party was fun, as it always is; after years of parties, Alicia Norman and her staff have perfected the party agenda down to the minute. We begin with dinner, and then the kids present their program. The children sing carols they worked weeks to learn, hand motions and all. Then the Three Wise Men, Mary, Joseph and a baby doll Jesus reenact the Christmas story. Mind you, since Mary, Joseph and the Three Wise Men are three- and four-year-olds dressed in oversized robes and crowns, wardrobe malfunctions are always par for the course. The party is then wrapped up with a competition between all of us as we sing “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” This is when Santa arrives, pandemonium breaks out, and Mary and I take our cue to make a break for the car.

This year I got a very special gift. A woman approached me and said, “You won’t remember me, but 29 years ago when Church Health first opened, I brought my daughter to you. I was a young mother and didn’t know what to do when my child began wheezing. I didn’t have insurance. Someone told me about the Church Health Center. So I came.”

She continued. “You were worried when you examined my daughter, Britney. You diagnosed her with asthma. She was the first child you admitted to LeBonheur. Thankfully, she got better in a few days. I have never forgotten how kind you were to us.”

I felt humbled. I was also embarrassed because she was right –  I didn’t remember any of this. She went on. “Britney is here tonight, and her daughter, Journey, is a 4-year-old at Perea. I’ll send her over to talk to you when there is a break.”

I tried to watch the rest of the performance, but I was anxious to meet Britney. After the show wrapped, Britney came straight toward me and embraced me. It was so powerful. I learned that her husband is the admissions counselor at Memphis Theological Seminary. A few weeks ago after I spoke at the Seminary, he went home and told her about me. She interrupted him. “I know him. He was my doctor when I was a little girl.”

Just then, an adorable Perea student still in costume from the manger scene came toward us. “This is Journey,” her momma said. Britney told me that her husband has been offered a job in Austin, Texas, and they will be moving there after Christmas. I couldn’t help but think that God was smiling on me to have these few moments with them.

I’m honestly not sure what to make of this story. My chance encounter with Britney, her mother and her daughter could have only happened because we’ve kept the faith in the work we do for 29 years. Day in and day out, our staff, volunteers and supporters keep steady in our mission of healing. Sometimes, as a result of that faith, small miracles happen. Maybe “miracle” is too strong a word; maybe it was just what was supposed to happen. Britney outgrew her asthma. Her mother was strong and was always going to help her succeed, and through Britney, therefore, so will Journey.

My part was small, but I do think the impact of Church Health on this family is evident. I suspect they would agree.

We left the party when Santa arrived. I didn’t need to ask for anything. I already had received the best gift possible.

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Fall Forecast

Did you notice summer? It’s gone. Vacation travel dropped, school is starting, and church programs are headed into high gear. Depending on where you live, the weather cooled. Fall has arrived.

Some people use fall as a transition season to try to get organized “before the holidays,” which are the next hallmark of another year going full circle at breakneck speed. For some, fall may be a time of discouragement because of all the stuff they didn’t accomplish in the summer or the dread of the impending holiday deluge of relatives and expenses.

An important truth to remember is that we do not have to sit by helplessly and let stuff happen to us. While we cannot always prevent things from going wrong, we can choose how we will respond to life’s circumstances. We can decide where the meaning will come from in our lives and take action to seek it.

The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes reminds of this. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” may be the most famous words from this Old Testament book. It’s all meaningless! But that’s only the opening line. If we stop there we miss the wisdom that comes from looking at the book as whole. The writer takes a close look at the human condition, commenting on practically everything between birth and death. The upshot is that we have limits. We work hard, and then we work harder. We toil after riches. We indulge ourselves with possessions exceeding our need. We chase after human understanding. We miss out on the wonder of our younger years because we’re so caught up in planning our futures.

But for all this effort, we still face the reality that we cannot do it all—and that trying to is not the point of life.

Trying harder simply does not make us happier.

In fact, our limitations are part of the way God created us. We are not God, and we need to get over thinking we can be. We were not created to be God, but to be with God, to be connected to God. That’s what the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us with his litany of our pointless strivings. A book that opens with “It’s all meaningless” (1:2) ends with “Remember your creator” (12:1) That is where we will find meaning and joy.

Life is sometimes one giant puzzle, but even with its unanswered questions, it is a gift God wants us to enjoy because we are in relationship with God. And God brings order out of chaos in ways we can never aspire to.

As you mull over what this fall season brings you, consider the forecast for your future, whether next month or next year. Don’t base your forecast on what you can accomplish, even though we all have lists of responsibilities. Instead, base it on what you can remember.

How many ways can you remember your creator? Remember God in the pursuit of balance in your life. Remember God in the way you respond to the worries that keep you awake at night. Remember God in decisions that could change your life. Remember God when you suffer and when you rejoice, when you work and when you play, when you speak and when you hold your tongue. Remember God when you encounter your own lack of wisdom.

“Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone,” the writer of Ecclesiastes says in closing (12:13). In relation to God we find the meaning our hearts crave.

Summer and Sabbath

“Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer” goes the old Nat King Cole song.

Does that sound like your summer? The description of the season as “lazy” makes us think of picnics and swimming and ball games and a lot of other recreational activities we don’t get around to often enough. We intend to do those things, but it’s easy for the “crazy” part of summer to take us captive. After all, kids may get a break from school, but the rest of us still have jobs and obligations.

Yet there is something about summer that calls us to slow down and enjoy, and in that sense summer reminds me of the concept of Sabbath. Let me suggest four points about Sabbath to ponder this summer.

1. Rest. God created the world in six days, then rested on the seventh (Genesis 2:2–3). When we rest from our labors, we recall the marvel of creation and God’s gift of the world for us to enjoy. Perhaps this is one reason people take pleasure in outdoor recreation in the summer and getting close to nature. Rest that connects us to nature also connects us to God in both body and spirit.

2. Rediscover. God said to the Old Testament people, “You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you” (Exodus 31:13). God did not give us the Sabbath as a rule to keep, but as a sign of the relationship God offers us and of the opportunity we have to be God’s people. If our schedules change during the summer for vacations, long weekends, or more sports with the kids, we can also use this time to rediscover our connection to God. Sabbath is a time to rediscover that we belong to God, not to the demands of our daily lives.

3. Restore. Perhaps the most familiar Old Testament phrase about the Sabbath comes in the Ten Commandments, “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). We forget to rest. We deny our own need for restoration of body and spirit, so God reminds us. The commandment to keep the day holy helps us remember to set apart time for Sabbath. Creating this space in our lives brings benefits that restore our health. As you make your summer plans, think about how you would like to be restored through your choices.

4. Reclaim. The plain fact is that Jesus healed on the Sabbath (John 5:9), even though the legalistic Jewish leaders of the day regarded the “work” involved in his compassion as breaking God’s law. By healing on the Sabbath, Jesus reclaimed the day for God’s purpose of using it for our health and well-being. Maybe it is time for us to reclaim the Sabbath as well. Summer is a great time to consider developing new habits that are healing in body and spirit.

Health and Holy Week

Holy Week is a fitting time to remember that God’s grace comes to us in physical, visceral ways.

The gospel writers give us gruesome detail of the physical experience of Jesus sacrificing himself so that we can have peace with God. Soldiers slammed nails through his hands and feet, ripping through skin, tendon, muscle, and bone. They smashed a crown of thorns into his head. They stabbed a spear into his side and bodily fluids poured out. Jesus died on that rugged cross. Jesus did not simply think in his mind, I’ll save these humans who have lost their way, and then suddenly everything was okay. He agonized about the experience so profoundly that he was sweating blood and praying for a way out.

But he went through with it, suffering in his body because humans are created body-and-spirit.

Jesus’ suffering had great meaning. God was present in it, and God also is present in our suffering. By God’s grace we can find meaning in the worst of circumstances.

Our bodies disappoint us. We can have no doubt about that. Even apart from dangerous behaviors or accidents, bodies break. We live with chronic illness, even suffering that seems as though it should be unbearable. Loved ones die while we hold their hands and cool their foreheads and give them one last kiss.

Jesus shows us that the body is at the heart of how we know God. He understood that his life had purpose and meaning precisely through his physical experience, not because of it. The apostle Paul calls Jesus’ death “Gods abundant provision of grace” (Romans 5:17).

Jesus himself said he came so that we can “have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

Yes, Holy Week is a fitting time to remember that health comes to us even in suffering.

Adapted from God, Health and Happiness by G. Scott Morris (Barbour Publishing, 2012).