Christmas on a Supermarket Floor


It was a day of running errands. Lisa was in Christmas baking mode and my day was spent getting last minute gift cards, fetching lunch, and making runs to the store for more sugar, shortening and a few items for Christmas Eve dinner. It was the during last run to the market that I came across a sight that changed my perspective of the holiday.

I was in a hurry and after grabbing my shopping cart I quickly headed to the back of the store, moving down the leftmost isle and turning right. To my surprise, there in front of me an elderly woman lay flat on her back, surrounded by two women, each of whom were trying to find her pulse. I left my cart and rushed forward. “I am  Family Doctor, what’s going on?”

“She collapsed, I think it was a seizure!” said the younger of the women, her fingers on the woman’s neck over the area of the right carotid artery, “I think I feel a pulse.”

I looked down at the woman. She was clearly unconscious. She was breathing in a labored fashion, gurgling with each breath. “She’s breathing, so she has a pulse,” I replied, “Has 911 been called?” A man nearby siad that he had just seen the paramedics pull up outside the store. As she was breathing and the paramedics were on the scene I realized there was nothing I could do for her as a physician. I stood back as the paramedics took over her care.

As I watched them attend to her the thought went through my mind, “Merry Christmas…” Whatever her plans were for Christmas, they had certainly changed. I wondered about her family, and if she was going to be in the hospital over the holiday. My heart ached for her. I found myself saying a prayer for the woman as they loaded her onto a stretcher and wheeled her away.

I have thought of her often today, for her story reminds me of the fragility of life and the futility of human plans. Regardless of the intensity of our efforts or the thoroughness of our preparations, stuff happens. Everything we desire and hope for can evaporate in a moment. Christmas is not a time of year we like to think about such things but for people like the woman in the market, these thoughts can be thrust upon us.

In such moments the true message of Christmas is profoundly relevant. Christmas is not about gifts, music, cookies, or even getting together with family. Christmas is about the birth of the Christ child, the One who came to die for the sins of the world, the One who came to save us from our sins. It is He who gives us hope, He who promises peace, He who we celebrate.

It is because of the Savior that we can be hopeful in any and all circumstances, the reason we we have hope in the darkest moments. Whether we find ourselves on the floor of a supermarket, or in a bed in a hospital, it is the true story of Christmas that keeps despair at bay.

We have hope and peace, “For unto us was born that day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Merry Christmas


Calling Out a Friend


I received a Christmas gift this week, inexpensive but meaningful. It came from a patient who is becoming a friend, a man who attends my men’s support group on Wednesday mornings. His gift of a T-shirt touched my heart.

In October Lisa and I took a trip to the Smoky Mountains and I have shared many stories of the trip, of the people and the beauty and how much we wanted to return there. His gift of a “Great Smoky Mountains” T-shirt was personal, a gift that made me smile.

What made the gift even more meaningful is the back story behind our friendship. Joe (not his real name) has been a patient of mine for several years. He is an alcoholic, for a while drinking enough for his blood tests to reveal liver damage. For years our visits were characterized by him making empty promises to do better, half-hearted commitments to decrease his intake but never to quit. He almost never followed up as requested and sometimes over a year elapsed between visits.

This changed a little over a year ago. During that visit, when he said, “I know I need to do better,” I interrupted him.

“You know what your problem is?” I said matter-of-factly, “Your problem is that you’re are a filthy, rotten, drunk.”

He looked as if I had slapped him in the face. I explained that I felt comfortable saying this because I was also a filthy, rotten sinner. My struggles were not with alcohol, but being a good man is still a struggle. I went on to explain that the key to a successful life was not the absence of dysfunction, but the willingness to recognize one’s dysfunction and deal with it. I told him he needed to get serious about his alcoholism.

He did. He has been sober for months now. A few months ago he started coming to the Wednesday men’s group. (The purpose of the group is for men to encourage one other to be better men, a perfect environment for him.) He has been a fixture ever since, openly discussing his problems and sharing his life with the other men.

His gift was not only kind, it was the perfect illustration for our conversation that morning. We discussed the proverb, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend”. The truth that there are times in life where we go off course and need some sense knocked into us, times when the truth we need to hear is painful. Faithful friends, true friends, will love us enough to hurt us when this happens.

He shared about how my words about his drinking had hurt him yet had also helped him turn his life around. It was a powerful moment. His story inspired us as the group talked about being the type of men who could both speak such words in love and who could also receive such words when spoken to us.

We went on to review the second half of the proverb, “Profuse are the kisses of an enemy”, about the tendency to surround ourselves with people who only tell us what we want to hear, who only praise us and never correct us, and how this is unhealthy and harmful. (We also talked about how a certain orange tinged politician could benefit from this lesson!)

We live in a world that is afraid to confront, afraid to correct, out of fear we will lose friends or be called judgmental. The words of my friend and the gift he gave are proof that this is not always the case. We have a relationship based on truth and a shared desire to be better men. For me, this is true friendship.



Being Right, Doing Wrong

Doing the right thing has always been important to me. As my children grew up two of my most oft repeated sayings were, “Never count the cost of doing the right thing” and “The right thing and the easy thing are almost never the same thing.”

For most of my life doing right has been ego protective for me. I think it has a lot to do with my upbringing. I grew up in a highly critical home with mockery and put downs an essential part of my upbringing. Parental abuse can destroy self esteem and I defended myself against it by working hard to be and do the best I could. In my head I countered negativism by telling myself, “You did the right thing.”

This thought process has persisted throughout my adult life. At times it has led to me to stand alone, even against superiors who had the ability to harm me professionally. I could handle the thought of harmful repercussions, what I could not handle was facing myself in the mirror if I compromised my values. This commitment served me well in the vast majority of circumstances.

This commitment to doing right may sound noble but it isn’t. In many ways it was self-serving. There is more to doing right than being right.  Doing right isn’t just about what we do, it is about how we do it.

I was reminded of this last week when I made the mistake of reviewing old patient reviews online. While my reviews are for the most part very positive some of my older reviews are quite harsh. More than one patient described me as “arrogant” or “condescending.” As I read the reviews I came to a difficult realization. Some of these patients were probably right. I have no doubt that there were times that I was so focused on being right that I forgot to be kind, to listen carefully, to understand or to empathize. While my diagnosis and treatment plans may have been “right”, my incomplete communication and sense of compassion wasn’t. The reviews left me with a sense of sadness. I wish I had done better, had been better.

Reading these reviews left with a renewed commitment to not only do right, but to do rightly. At times this may involve treating patient fears and not just their symptoms. Other times it may require listening to unjustified criticism, responding to unreasonable demands or allowing unjustified anger to go unanswered. Being right does not give me the right to point out every wrong I see in others.

I am learning that I am called to not only be right, but to be righteous. As the prophet Micah so beautifully said, “He has shown you, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you- to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” Mercy refers to treating people with kindness even when they are in the wrong. Humility leaves no room for arrogance when I am in the right and demands that I put the needs of others before my own.

By the grace of God I can say that I am a better man than I was many years ago. May he give me the grace to become a better man with each passing day.


Life isn’t Boring


What makes living worthwhile? What gives value to a life?

This week came the story of a man with a pistol taking the lives of 11 people in a bar. In an Instagram post written during the killing spree the murderer gave his reason for taking the lives of others. “Life is boring, so why not?”

A few days later my wife and I participated in the “Walk to end ALS.” (ALS is an always fatal progressive neurologic disease, also known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease) We walked in support of a friend from church who has battled the disease for the last four years. Over 30 of our church friends walked together, each with their words, steps and donations saying to our friend, “Your life matters, you matter.”

It is a confusing world. One young man in perfect health decides that his life, and the lives of strangers, are worthless. In a matter of minutes he sacrifices multiple lives on the altar of his boredom. To him, human life was insignificant and disposable.

At the same time another man, cursed with an incurable disease, fights for every precious moment. His love of life and love of others is contagious and encouraging. To him, life is a gift from God, full of meaning and meant to be treasured. 

There can be no denying that it is my friend who has the right perspective. Life is not boring. It is precious. 


How to Find Nice People

Deep Creek Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Deep Creek Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

There is so much rudeness and meanness in the world that I sometimes wonder, “Where have all of the nice people gone?” I do not know where all of them have gone, but based on 6 days of first hand observation I have reached the conclusion that a great many of them are in Tennessee. I have experienced so much kindness, goodness and politeness this week on vacation that I may go into withdrawals when I get home to California.

We have been in the Smoky Mountains this week (which, unbeknownst to most of my California friends, is a huge national park and tourist area) watching the leaves turn orange, red and yellow, listening to Southern Gospel Music at Dollywood, and eating unhealthy amounts of fried food. Wherever we found ourselves, it seemed every waiter or waitress, cashier or attendant took an interest in where we were from and in making us feel welcome. The people reminded me of the dog from the movie “Up”, it was if they all felt that they had just met me and they loved me.

Today we went for dinner at a place called “Elvira’s” a café about a mile from the cabin where we have been staying. We received the typical warm and friendly greeting but this time with a twist. It was given in a distinct Russian accent! The owner of the place, a woman in her 30’s, had emigrated from Siberia a little over 15 years ago. In typical Tennessee fashion, she took the time to share her story with us as we finished our dinner.

She was a linguistics major in Russia specializing in British English. She traveled to America to work on her language skills (She said that at the time her conversational English primarily consisted of, “Pardon me, but can you repeat that?”) She knew very little about our country and her knowledge of US geography was limited to New York, Los Angeles and Texas. She did know that she wanted to see American rollercoasters and therefore eventually ended up in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee at Dollywood. She fell in love with the Smoky Mountains and never wanted to leave.

She moved here, became fluent in the language (She can pull off a perfect southern accent), and eventually became a citizen. Seven years ago she opened her own restaurant. She told us her family marveled that all she had to pay for the government permit was the $20 business license fee at city hall. Her Uncle Sasha couldn’t believe it and kept asking her who else she had to pay off! She spoke with joy at her good fortune in being able to live in America and be an American. Freedom is a gift she clearly appreciates and values.

This appreciation of America was something we saw displayed several times this week. One of the gospel groups we heard sang a version of “I’m Proud to be an American” during their show. The entire audience rose to their feet and sang along. We went to a family dinner show another evening that closed with a medley of “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America”.  The entire audience, similarly unprompted, also stood and joined in, and applauded loudly. They love their country.

Things in Tennessee were much simpler, slower, and more genuine than they are in California. The area is nowhere near as affluent as Orange County, but the folks here seemed happy, content and grateful. It was a good week. Hopefully I will be able to bring some of the nice home with me.