Who Really is This Man?

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December 6th, next Tuesday for those reading this before the 6th, is an important day in my home each year.  The “why?” is best answered by sharing this true story with you.  If you are a fan of the Paul Harvey radio programs, you will be familiar with one of his shows called “The Rest of the Story”.   This story could easily be one of those stories.   I would like to share this true story with you about a man who made his mark on the world, not with power, or money, or great writings…but with his life.

Back in the 3rd Century this man was born in Asia Minor.  He was born into a wealthy, Christian home.  He was given an excellent education and had everything going for him.  Then his parents died and he was left with the family fortune.  He could have done anything he wanted…yet his heart began to long to serve God.

Unlike most people who dream of winning the lottery, he did not begin buying things for himself with his new found wealth.  Instead, he began to give money to help the poor.  One time he heard of a poor family with three daughters that were marrying age.  In those days, if a woman had no dowry she was likely to end up out on the streets.  This man went secretly at night and threw three bags of gold through their window for the daughters’ dowries.

He decided to take a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  While there he felt the calling of God so strongly on his life that he decided to become a pastor.  This was no easy decision because the most severe persecution of Christians was taking place under the Roman Emperor Diocletian (303-311).  To become a priest in the Christian Church at that time could be a death sentence.  Yet not only did he become a pastor, he also gave away the rest of his money to the poor.

When the Archbishop died the bishops gathered together to choose a new Archbishop.  This was normally one of the bishops.  This time however, they chose this humble priest because they saw his deep spirituality.

Finally, he was arrested, tortured, and thrown into prison.  He would have died there except that the Emperor Diocletian committed suicide in 313.  Constantine became emperor and released all Christian prisoners.  Upon his release, he was reinstated to Archbishop, continuing to help the poor and pointing out injustice in his society.  He was responsible for the first hospitals being built and for the first houses for the poor being established.  He was instrumental in helping to shape the Christian Church in ways that still affect it today.

He died in the year 330, not making his mark with great writings or in his power as Archbishop.  Rather, he left his life as a great example for us.  His example of faith and commitment is one that is well worth following. But the story doesn’t end here. So who is this man?  As Paul Harvey says:  “Now for the rest of the story!”

In the early Church people who had led lives that were excellent examples for others to follow were remembered on a particular day.  Their life would be talked about and all were reminded of how they should be living.  This particular man was remembered on December 6th.  His name was Nicholas.  Remembering his life, people began to give gifts in secret on the eve of December 6th.  Over time, the Dutch Christians held an especially big celebration on this day.  Eventually many Dutch Christians came to America.  They continued to celebrate this day.  The celebration was Americanized. Here’s how it happened:

“After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride the colony’s nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. John Pintard, influential patriot and antiquarian, who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, promoted St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and city. In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that year he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not a saintly bishop, rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe.  The jolly elf image received a big boost in 1823, from a poem destined to become immensely popular, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” now better known as “The Night Before Christmas.”

In 1863, political cartoonist Thomas Nast began a series of annual drawings in Harper’s Weekly, were based on the descriptions found in the poem and Washington Irving’s work. These drawings established a rotund Santa with flowing beard, fur garments, and an omnipresent clay pipe. The picture shown here was the first “red suit” given Santa by Nast.  As Nast drew Santas until 1886, his work had considerable influence in forming the American Santa Claus. Along with appearance changes, the saint’s name shifted to Santa Claus—a natural phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus and Dutch Sinterklaas.”

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(The two previous paragraphs and the picture are used with permission from The St. Nicholas Center at  http://www.stnicholascenter.org  if you would like more info.)

Because of the gift giving, the celebration was moved to Christmas Day.  Eventually, a flying sleigh and reindeer were added from a Norwegian Mythology.

“And there you have, the rest of the story!”  Yes, there really was a Saint Nicholas.  The real man has been lost in the tall tales of recent years.  Not only was Saint Nicholas a real man, but he was a man worth remembering!  He was a man of convictions and commitment even in the face of tremendous worldly wealth and persecution.  Now you know why December 6th is important in my family.  It is a time to give to those in need…remembering the example of Saint Nicholas.

With all of the over-commercialization of Christmas, one can easily forget the real meaning of what is being celebrated.  Yet, let us not, in our desire to regain the meaning of Christmas, simply view all gift giving as a corruption of the celebration.  Rather, it can be a part of it, bringing joy as we give both to our families and to those in need.  And we can share with family and friends, the rest of the story behind “Jolly ol’ St. Nick”.

If you would like to celebrate this December 6th, perhaps you could find a way to give to someone in need without them ever knowing you did it!!!!  It’s hard to do, but you will be blessed if you can keep the secret!!!

May the days leading up to Christmas be filled with joy and peace and may you have a Christmas this year that is truly a HOLYDAY!!!

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Trekking Toward Giving Thanks

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One day I did a solo climb of Kit Carson Peak.  This is a remote peak in the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountains in Colorado.  It was a tough trek, made more difficult by a chest cold I had been fighting.  After being up above 13,000 feet for a few hours, my body and my mind were saying: “Let’s climb this one another day!!”  They weren’t just suggesting it, they were shouting it.  I do confess that I was ready to call it quits when I decided to stop and take time to pray.  Soon after that prayer, I began to regain my strength and determination to reach the summit.  Before I knew it, I reached the summit at 14,165 feet.  It was glorious (as every summit is)!

There were awesome views to take in and food to munch, but the one thing that stands out above all the rest is when I took time to give thanks to God.  There was surely much to give thanks for at that moment…including my physical well-being.  I also pulled out my pocket-sized Bible and read Psalm 8.  That psalm begins and ends with these words: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”   Looking out from the top of Kit Carson Peak brought that Psalm to life!  There were several 14,000 foot peaks nearby that brought back memories of other climbs I have made…Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak, Challenger, and Humbolt…there far below was the mystery of the Great Sand Dunes National Monument that I had rolled down with my family…and stretching out to the horizons were 1,000’s of miles of awesome beauty.  It was indeed a “thankful”and worshipful moment.

Times like that seem natural for giving thanks to God.  Times of deliverance from some great fear or experiencing some great excitement can bring out the thanksgiving in us.  Yet, truth be known, God desires and delights in our giving of thanks at all times.  Ephesians 5:20 tells us to “always give thanks to God the Father for everything.”

Hopefully, you will be reading this in the days before Thanksgiving Day.  It’s wonderful to have a day set aside for all of us to give thanks.  One of our traditions at home is to go around the dinner table and have each person give one thing they are thankful for.  Surprisingly, it can be a very moving time.  I remember a few years ago when my parents told their grandchildren how thankful they were to have another year of life to just be with them…that moved everyone’s heart!

It is good to have a Thanksgiving Day, but it’s even better to give thanks each and every day.  Today is a good day to begin (or continue) to make the giving of thanks a regular part of our daily lives.  Even in the midst of what seems to be the absolute worst of times in our lives, pausing to give thanks to our Lord can truly help us.  It can bring a perspective that we may not have been thinking about.

One suggestion to assist you in getting started with giving thanks is to use Psalm 136.  This is a psalm of thanksgiving for: 1) who God is; 2) His creation; 3) His deliverance; 4) His leading in your life; 5) His promises and care; and 6) once again, for who God is.  As you read this psalm, take time to personally thank God for some specific things in your life.  It is by the Grace of God that each of us still has the breath of life in us.  As you begin to thank God for whatever comes to your mind, you’ll find more and more things to be thankful for in this life.  May God bless you this Thanksgiving Day and always.  Here’s Psalm 136 for your enjoyment (Whenever God repeats Himself, I take it that He wants us really hear it in our hearts…so take note of the 26 repetitions in this Psalm):

Psalm 136

1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good. His love endures forever.

2 Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures forever.

3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords: His love endures forever.

4 to him who alone does great wonders, His love endures forever.

5 who by his understanding made the heavens, His love endures forever.

6 who spread out the earth upon the waters, His love endures forever.

7 who made the great lights— His love endures forever.

8 the sun to govern the day, His love endures forever.

9 the moon and stars to govern the night; His love endures forever.

10 to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt His love endures forever.

11 and brought Israel out from among them His love endures forever.

12 with a mighty hand and outstretched arm; His love endures forever.

13 to him who divided the Red Sea asunder His love endures forever.

14 and brought Israel through the midst of it, His love endures forever.

15 but swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea; His love endures forever.

16 to him who led his people through the desert, His love endures forever.

17 who struck down great kings, His love endures forever.

18 and killed mighty kings— His love endures forever.

19 Sihon king of the Amorites His love endures forever.

20 and Og king of Bashan— His love endures forever.

21 and gave their land as an inheritance, His love endures forever.

22 an inheritance to his servant Israel; His love endures forever.

23 to the One who remembered us in our low estate His love endures forever.

24 and freed us from our enemies, His love endures forever.

25 and who gives food to every creature. His love endures forever.

26 Give thanks to the God of heaven. His love endures forever.

 

Being Transported from Earth to Heaven: Entering an Orthodox Church

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This past Saturday, our Church opened its doors for the local “Saints and Sinners Tour”.  People from all over our community and the surrounding area have the opportunity to visit various churches, learning about their faith and practice.

We have been a part of the “Saints and Sinners Tour” for many years and it continues to grow in numbers each year.  This year we hosted many, many people as we gave tours continuously for around 5 hours.

As in the past, people begin to comment on our Church as soon as they enter it.  I hear the same comments each year:  “Wow, I feel the presence of God in this place!”  “Oh my, what a holy place this is.”   “Being in here takes my breath away.”  All that before any tour ever begins.

I confess that I have those same feelings every Sunday as I enter the Church long before our services begin.  I have been here many years, but the feeling never changes.  What is amazing is that I have a similar feeling when I enter other Orthodox Churches.  I remember entering one small Church over in Greece and immediately had the overwhelming desire to get down on my knees and pray.

This feeling of being in the presence of God, of being in a holy place, should be the norm for a Church.  Our spirit ought to be moved without anyone else being there, no music, no preaching…just the presence of our God.  Our spiritual eyes are opened to the beauty of His House…our spiritual ears are opened to the peace that passes understanding…we smell the smell of the holy…all our spiritual and physical senses are suddenly made aware of where we are the holy ground upon which we are standing.

This feeling that comes over people as they enter a Holy Orthodox Church is not something new or different.  As most of you know, Orthodoxy is not into change… it has remained the same Faith for centuries.   The Faith that was handed down from Christ to His Apostles was then handed down to their disciples and they in turn handed it down to their disciples…and so on through the generations until today.  You may have heard the joke:  “How many Orthodox does it take to change a light bulb?”   The answer from the Orthodox perspective is:  “Change…what’s change?”

When it comes to the very Church itself being a Holy place… that too is nothing new…it hasn’t changed through the centuries.  In 1 Corinthians 3, St. Paul describes the Church as being a sacred place and as being the very Temple of the Holy Spirit.  (He is not referring to individual believers but to the Church.  He discusses the individual believer being the Temple of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 6.)

Listen carefully to these wonderful words from St. John Chrysostom in the 4th Century as he describes the Church:

“Just as a calm and sheltered harbor provides great security to the ships moored there, so does the Temple of God.  When people enter it, it snatches them away from worldly affairs as from a storm and gives them the capacity to stand and listen to God’s words in calm and security.

This place is the bedrock of virtue and the school of spiritual life.  You need only set foot on the threshold of a church and at once you are liberated from the cares of daily life.  Go on into the church and a spiritual dew will envelop your soul.  The stillness there moves you to awe and teaches you how to live spiritually.  It elevates your thoughts and prevents you from remembering things or matters belonging to the present life.  It transports you from earth to heaven.

And if there is such great gain from simply being in church when no service is going on, then how much more benefit will people derive from being present when the holy Apostles proclaim the Gospel; Christ stands in our midst; God the Father receives the Mysteries that are performed; and the Holy Spirit gives His own joy.”

Notice that he writes about simply being in a Church when no services are even going on.  That is the way it has always been.  One senses the very presence of the Holy and we are moved from deep within.  Without a word being spoken, some people have their hearts experience a peace and joy unspeakable.  Some find themselves desiring a closer walk with our Lord.  Others may begin to form tears in their eyes as they know they have been doing things that are not pleasing to the Lord.  All of this and more takes place without any sermon being preached.  A person simply knows that they are in the very presence of Almighty God.

God’s blessings to each of you throughout this week and as you enter your Church on Sunday morning!!  If you don’t have one…perhaps you should consider entering an Orthodox Church this Sunday and see what happens.

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“I mean, what would you have done?”

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The other night we invited a man and woman over to our “Home Sweet Home.”
It turned out to be quite a night.  They stayed much longer than expected.  During their 2 ½ hours in our home they managed to say every cuss word imaginable in front of my wife and children.  I know I should have intervened and stopped them, but they were our guests and I felt rather awkward.  In the midst of their curse words, they started kissing each other (right in front of us).  These were not simple little kisses, but wild, sensual ones.  My children were hiding their heads under the pillows on the couch.  At one point in their visit the woman took off her shirt and bared herself to all of us as we sat there in disbelief.   We were uncomfortable with their behavior, but each of us failed to do anything about it.  It was very awkward, but they were guests in our home…I mean, what would you have done?? 

Now I know some of you are saying, “What is wrong with you?  For crying out loud, you should have thrown those nutty people out of your home!”  Well, I suppose you are right, but gosh, we did invite them over…it just seemed like we had to sit and listen to what they had to say and watch what they did in front of us.  I do confess that after they had gone I felt violated and my conscience was heavy.  I know their presence in our home had a bad impact on my wife and my children, but doggone-it… they were our guests…I mean, what would you have done??

Even as I write this, I have come to a decision…the next time I invite someone like that over to my house, I promise that if they begin to display any behavior that is inappropriate for my children, my wife, or me…I will…turn off that television program or DVD!!  (Did I have you going for a while!!?)

We wouldn’t want “guests” like I described above sitting in our homes, polluting our families.  Yet, many of us don’t hesitate to bring home such “guests” that constantly shout foul language in our ears, have sex right in front of our children, and may even kill a few people for good measure…all in the secure setting of our “home, sweet home”.

You may never have thought of it in these terms.  I didn’t realize that I was actually inviting “guests” into my home that I would never invite in person.  There is something about a DVD that makes it seem neutral…but whatever they are saying or doing on that video is being said or done to me and my loved ones in the room with me.  If I would throw them out in person, then maybe I ought to turn them off when they are not “in person”.

As I ponder this, I think the following verse should be taped to the front of my television (if my “guests” don’t measure up to it, they should be turned off!):

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things…And the God of peace will be with you.”  (Philippians 4:8-9)

Crisis Preparedness?

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When a serious issue or a crisis comes into your life, how will you deal with it? For most of us it is a question that can only be truly answered when that something happens. Oh, we can guess and speculate how we’ll handle it…we may even talk as if we know exactly how we’ll handle the worst of situations. But, truth be known, none of us really knows how we’ll deal with that crisis until we are in the midst of it. 

By our own personal experience, we can probably testify that we handled a past crisis much different than we would have ever guessed. The more serious the crisis in our life, the less we will know how we might handle it. Those who imagine themselves so very strong may be the ones who totally fall apart. Likewise, those who seem weak may be the ones who summon up unknown faith and strength to see them through the crisis.

Even though we may not really know how will actually handle a serious crisis in our lives, there are some things we can do ahead of time to enable us have some resources to help when something does happen in our lives. For instance, if you haven’t prayed for the past 10 years it might be doubtful that prayer will be a part of your bag of useful tools when you are in the midst of that crisis. Likewise, if you haven’t been to Church since your wedding day, finding solace in the Church may not be the first place you look for help.

The same could be said for the reading of Holy Scriptures; for having a confidant…a close friend that you can trust and confide in; for having a relationship with a spiritual leader…one that will be there for you when your world is turned upside down; for having a good exercise program that helps you clear your mind; for having a way to deal with everyday stress (besides downing a six-pack every night after work).  There are many more things we can do in this regard, but keep in mind, we don’t do them simply to get ready for a crisis. We develop these areas because they are a great help to us now… we will be better people by doing the right things now. 

It is somewhat like Pavlov’s experiment with dogs (a bit of a stretch I suppose).  By us doing the right things daily we can “imprint” on ourselves what kind of things we should do when the unexpected happens. When a serious crisis hits our life, we may go into an “autopilot” mode…doing the things that we are used to doing. Hopefully those things will be the very stuff we need to get back on our feet again…to overcome the sorrow or pain in our hearts.

There are no guarantees in this matter of handling a crisis…our reaction may totally surprise us anyway. But since these are good things for us to be doing for our lives anyway, it only makes sense to begin doing them now!! 

 May the Lord bless you each day…and may He especially be there for you when some unexpected crisis blindsides your life. 

“I sought the Lord and He heard me, and delivered me from all my fears….this poor man cried out, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.  The angel of the Lord encamps all around those who fear Him, and He delivers them…The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears, and delivers them out of all their troubles…Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all…”  (Verses from Psalm 34…well worth reading the whole Psalm!!)