The Invisible Church: A Doctrine That Has Come of Age

The Invisible Church: A Doctrine That Has Come of Age

By Fr. Stephen 

praying-hands

Have you been around people who proclaim a faith in Christ, yet totally reject the idea of Church? It seems to be a growing belief among folks in our country. It really has its beginnings with a doctrine that came out of the Reformation: “The Invisible Body of Believers.”

The Reformation began with some noble ideas to get the Roman Catholic Church back on the right track with some beliefs the Reformers thought had gone astray. What began as a desire to correct led to a full scale “protest” and a breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church.

Alas, the Reformers couldn’t agree on what doctrines were correct and so the “protest” carried on against each other. As group after group began to separate themselves from other groups, the divisions began to take on the look of a shattered mirror.

As these groups (which became known as denominations) multiplied, they also called themselves by the name: “church”. The shattered mirror sadly continued to grow as more and more splinters took place. Each splinter group believed differently than the one the left behind. So it was that the number of differing “churches” grew enormous with people having friends and family in differing belief systems.

Each group proclaimed loudly that they used only the Bible to prove their beliefs. But, in fact it was their interpretation of the Bible that was really at the core of their differences. Each group believed they were the ones that held to the “Truth” and that the other groups were in error. Some of them simply condemned others and said those who didn’t hold to their beliefs would wind up in hell. Whew…that was a pretty serious belief!

The majority, though differing in beliefs, sought to find a belief that would unite the various groups. Thus was born the doctrine of the “Invisible Body of Believers”. Anyone who believed that Jesus is Lord would be a member. Differences in doctrine were given second place to this wonderful belief. People in differing groups could now be close friends and joint services could be held where doctrinal proclamations would be limited to just “Jesus is Lord.” This became the most important belief that anyone could hold and it was thought to be the doctrine that united all believers together.

Thus was born the concept of the “Invisible Body of Believers” where it was irrelevant which church one attended. The Lordship of Jesus was the key to belonging to the Invisible Church. Over time, most folks continued to attend their own church, but some began to drop out. As the “shattered mirror” continued to splinter, some people either became confused or discouraged. When there are 30,000 to 60,000 groups (hard to pin down the number) proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” but holding to much different doctrines (all supposedly proven by the Bible), confusion or discouragement are certainly possibilities.

People who made the decision to not attend any Church were often asked why this was so. Many folks found this answer seemed to work well and defuse any arguments: “I am spiritual, not religious!” That phrase spread like wildfire as no one seemed to have a good response to it. It grew to the point that many people could confidently say: “I choose not to attend a church, but I am a Christian and Jesus is my Lord! I worship Him when I am outdoors, in fact, up on a mountain is best!” Because membership in the true church of Jesus, that invisible church, requires only belief in the Lordship of Jesus, then all of these people must be “saved” too.

More and more people are seeing the advantages of “being saved” without need of a church: extra sleep, golf, football on television, freedom to do as one pleases… The doctrine of the “Invisible Church” may be reaching the pinnacle of its evolution with an unbelievable growing membership.

But here are some thoughts for reflection:

  • Why would the Bible talk about ordaining bishops, priests, and deacons for an invisible church?
  • Why would the Bible mention that we should never forsake the assembling of ourselves together?
  • Why would the “doctrine” of the invisible church never be mentioned for over 1600 years after Jesus established His Church if He intended it to be invisible?
  • Is there any authority except “self” for proclaiming “I am spiritual, not religious?” Did Jesus desire a “do-it-yourself” belief in Him?
  • For those who prefer to worship the Lord up on a mountain, when was the last time this honestly took place in your life? This cannot mean simply being in awe of God’s creation, but real, true worship of the Lord.

This article is not merely an issue about how someone may spend their Sundays. What is at issue here is the matter of salvation and how people will spend eternity.

Jesus did in fact establish a Church on this earth. It was never meant to be invisible, but it is meant to be a visible witness to the entire world. This Church has been passed on to each and every generation without fail. Christ passed it on to His Apostles, they passed it on to their disciples, and each generation of disciples passed it on to the next.

It is a place where each and every person is meant to be an important part of an overall Body, with each part playing a role. A thumb by itself, not connected to one’s body, is simply dead flesh. Jesus is the Head of a Body, not of individual parts scattered about by their own desire. “I did it my way” should never be the theme song for how we live our lives.

The Church is the very place where all the aspects of salvation are found. All of the Sacraments of the Lord are found within the Church. It begins with Holy Baptism and Chrismation. Confession of our sins takes place within the Church. It is the place where members receive the very Body and Blood of Christ, which then nourishes every cell within a person. Prayers for healing and being anointed with Holy Unction come from the Church. Marriages are blessed by God within the Church; it is something God does, not we through our vows. Ordinations of clergy are done within the Church. And at the end of our earthly life, prayers are said at our funeral which takes place in the Church. Our whole life is meant to be lived as a member of the Church, not as a self-ruled, individualistic journey.

The Church is the place where people come to offer corporate worship. The earliest documented service of the Church comes from the hand of an Apostle of Christ: The Liturgy of Saint James the Apostle. This service and all of the services after him reflect the corporate sense of worship and not some individualistic endeavor. The Church in the Book of Acts also reflects this same corporate sense of worship.

The Church is here today for each and every person. Salvation is truly found within the Church. This we affirm and proclaim to the world today. And with God’s help we will pass this Faith on to the next generation.

 

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Why Should I have my House Blessed?

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In my Orthodox parish we will be celebrating Holy Theophany (The Baptism of our Lord) on January 6th. The celebration of this Feast of our Lord actually begins on January 5th, a day known as the Forefeast of Theophany.

Together with the other services celebrating this Feast of our Lord, there is a service of the Blessing of the Waters. This is usually conducted in the church. However in many places throughout the world services are conducted near open bodies of water. As a sign of blessing as Christ blessed the Jordan, Holy Water is poured into the body of water. A cross is then thrown into the water to be retrieved by young folks diving into the water.

Here in Colorado, many Orthodox gather on the Continental Divide for a special blessing of the waters of both sides of the Divide. Frozen crosses of water are placed in the snow on each side. In this way, the water flowing to the Pacific and the water flowing to the Atlantic are both blessed.

The holy water from the church is given to the faithful to consume throughout the year and to use in blessing their homes. In the weeks following the Feast, Orthodox clergy visit the homes of parishioners and conduct a service of blessing using the holy water that was blessed on the Feast of Theophany.

Someone asked me a very good question last year at Holy Theophany:

“Why should I have my house blessed every year? I mean, come on, I had it blessed several years ago and that seems good enough for me.”

Here is my response:

That is a great question and one that every Orthodox Christian needs to ponder. House blessings are not just some cultural tradition, but a very spiritual and important issue for you to consider.

When I was a prison chaplain, I would go around the prison to the cell of each Orthodox man and bless their home. Often other men would see me or hear about it and they too would ask for their cell to be blessed. The reports back were always the same: “Father, I felt such peace after my cell was blessed and I slept so well!” It was something that many men looked forward to each year.

Many years ago when I was a fairly new priest, a family asked me to help them. They were seeing “ghosts” in their home on a regular basis and it had the whole family scared. Being a very inexperienced priest, I felt this was a definitely above my pay grade and called upon a wonderful monastic for his advice. He said he would come and together we would bless their home. We did the entire service for blessing the home and as we went through the house, he told me that he could see the demons were fleeing in front of us. I of course saw nothing. This man is holier than I could ever hope to be! He told me that the Holy Water stings the demons like fire and they flee from it. We continued to bless the home until he said every evil had been removed. The report back from these folks in the following weeks and months was of peace, no sightings of “ghosts”, and very good nights of sleep.

I share these two stories with you to show the need we all have for the peace of the Lord in our homes. I am not suggesting that your home is filled with demons and all kinds of evil. But, throughout the year we may end up bringing things into our homes that we really don’t want there: such as anger, gossip, slander, lying, lust, hatred, envy, covetousness, sloth, despair…you get the idea. Many of the Holy Fathers of our Faith tell us that there is a very spiritual aspect to all of these and they affect the atmosphere around us. So it can be in our homes and often it happens so very slowly that we do not recognize its impact.

So the question you asked really gets reversed: “Why would any Orthodox Christian not want their home blessed each year?” When Holy Theophany rolls around this year and the list for house blessings is made available, be sure to sign up. It may be the best “cleaning” you can possibly give your home.

A Different New Year’s Resolution

2017

2017 is right around the corner!!  Incredible!  With the New Year upon us, many people will be making their annual resolutions.  These usually range from what we eat, drink, smoke, and wear…to the shape of our bodies and what we plan to do about it.  With the vast multitude of resolutions that we have available, I would like to add one more for your consideration:  What comes out of our mouth!

“We all stumble in many ways.  If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.  When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.  Or take ships as an example.  Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.  Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts…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 (and sisters) this should not be” (James 3).

Those words of wisdom from St. James tell us the importance of controlling what comes out of our mouths.  Our words shape our whole lives, who we are and what others think of us.  How we appear to others in the work place and in our communities is something that we should take very seriously.  Often however, my own tongue is wagging before my brain ever kicks in.

All people would do well to have control over their tongues.  If a person has no control over that area, it is difficult to trust them with other aspects.  What comes to most people’s minds at this point is cursing.  Certainly, this is very important as the Holy Scriptures clearly tell us in Colossians 3:8…”now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.

Would you want to go to a doctor who said:  “Stick out your @#&%#@ tongue, I want to take your @@#&%$#@ temperature” or “Listen you @#%$#@ @#&%$#@ you have the @#$&$#@ flu”.  Most of us would question that doctor’s professionalism and his character (he might have the skills but he would still lose the patients, especially my family).  So it is with each of us.  Our worth, our professionalism, and even our Faith are often measured by what comes out of our mouths (for good or for bad).

But controlling one’s tongue goes far beyond cursing.  How about what we say about other people?  Saying something bad about someone or something might feel good for the moment.  But, as we have all experienced, those words may just come back to bite us and that good feeling will be long gone.  Many times we do not find out that something bad we said about someone has gotten back to them, but we can guess that it did by the broken relationship we experience.

This is a problem that has a remedy. As we read in Colossians 3:8, “you yourselves are to put off all these”…we are to do these things ourselves!! We simply need to begin saying good and positive things about another person or situation.  If we don’t have good words to say then perhaps we would do well to be quiet.  In the same manner that negative words breed negativity, so it is that positive words are very contagious.  If one says:  “It’s a great day…I love my job…I’m happy to be here…_______ is a great person”, others will be finding ways to say positive things as well.

Now you may live or work in a very tough environment, where you hear negative and even ugly things every day.  It is so easy to want to answer back with the same type of words.  Usually, this just escalates the situation.  Consider these simple words from Holy Scripture: “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1).  Over the many years in my work as a Chaplain, I had ample opportunity to truly test that proverb.  I can tell you it does work; and it works very well.  I would encourage you to test it out yourself the next time you run on to someone being ugly and spewing forth wrathful words. It is amazing just how well it works.

So in addition to your resolutions to eat less and exercise more, I would encourage you to add this matter of what comes out of your mouth to your list for 2017.  One of the best things that any of us can resolve to do for ourselves, our families, our friends, and our work place is to speak words that are good and positive to those around us. Our words have the power to help make us be the very best people we can be.

May God bless you richly in 2017!!! 

A Closer Look at those Magi from the East

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Each Christmas, songs are sung about the Wise Men or Magi that came from the east looking for the one who had been born.  Their story can be read in the Gospel according to St. Matthew (2:1-12).  The story is an old familiar one to most of us.  Sometimes it’s easy to pass over some spiritual gems because we’ve heard the story so many times.  So let’s take a closer look.

The Magi had been given a sign from God, a star.  They heeded that sign, leaving home and country.  They came from a great distance traveling as much as two years. They came not as curiosity seekers, but specifically to worship the King that had been born.

The Magi had seen “His Star in the east”, but then the star disappeared.  They continued on without the star.  When they came to Jerusalem, they had to ask people where this King was at. Then after meeting with King Herod (who tried to trick them), the star miraculously reappeared.  Not only that, the star also moved, guiding them to the child.  The star is one of the great miracles of this story.  Many people have tried to explain this star:  “It was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn” or “It was the appearance of a new star which shines brighter”.  However, the star appeared for a time, disappeared, then reappeared, and then moved.  This was not some natural phenomenon; God intervened in His creation with a special sign to direct the Magi.

When the Magi arrived before the child, their first act was to offer themselves in worship.  Then they were able to offer their gifts.  Amazingly, they were prophetic gifts; Gold was given, the gift for a king (remember the Queen of Sheba brought 4.5 tons of gold to honor King Solomon – I Kings 10:10).  They brought this gift proclaiming the child to be the King of Kings.  Secondly, they gave him incense.  Incense was to be offered only to God and only offered by a priest.  The prophetic meaning was twofold:  that the child was fully God (which is what Christmas is all about – the Incarnation) and that he was to be the High Priest in Heaven.  The last gift offered was myrrh.  Myrrh was used to embalm the dead.  This pointed toward the ultimate reason the child had been born: to lay down his life for the world.  St. Gregory the Dialogist wrote the following about how we can apply this to our lives:

“We offer gold to the new-born King, if we shine in His sight with the brightness of the wisdom from on high.  We offer Him incense, if we enkindle – on the altar of our hearts – the thoughts of our human minds, by our holy pursuit of prayer; so as to give forth a sweet smell to God by our heavenly desire.  We offer Him myrrh, if we mortify the vices of our bodies by our self-denial.”

These are just a few of the spiritual gems found in this story, enough to give us some good food for thought.  The Magi had a star which guided them on the right path.  We all need something to guide us on the right path.  Our Church , the Holy Scriptures, our devotional studies, our rule of prayer, seasons of fasting, etc, etc…all of these and more can certainly be a guide for us.  BUT. just like the star disappeared for a time, we may experience spiritually dry times.  When this happens (not if it happens, because it will happen), if we remain faithful (going to Church, praying, studying, fasting…even when we don’t feel like it), we will find ourselves on the right path, growing in our faith.  We may feel that our prayers don’t even reach the ceiling…but we pray anyway!  We may feel that we are getting absolutely nothing out of Church…but we go anyway!  We may feel a blank wall as we read the Holy Scriptures, but we read anyway!  Notice the common word “feel”…that should never be our guide!!  Our spiritual life and growth are not based on how we feel.  The Magi were excited when they first saw the star, but they continued on their journey even when the star had disappeared.  Eventually, the star reappeared and they reached their goal…the King of Kings.  Let us have them same faith when those spiritually dry times come our way!!!

One last food for thought:  Like the Magi, we should first offer ourselves to God in worship.  Then we will be able to present our gifts (good works, finances, serving in our Church, etc.).  Sometimes it’s easy to think that our acts of kindness and good works (even giving money) are enough.  The Magi remind us of the most important thing:  Worship of God! 

May your celebration of Christmas be filled with the worship of God.  And may it bring you great joy and blessings.  Let’s remember (as a bumper sticker I saw said):

“Wise Men Still Seek Him” (so do Wise Women and Wise Children!!).

Could you give back your best gift?

gift

We often call Christmas the “season of giving”.   If you are like me, most of that giving is in material things.  Toys for little ones, maybe nice clothes for older ones… maybe something really expensive for those precious ones.  And of course, there is always the receiving of these fine gifts from others who have entered into the “season of giving”.  Most everyone really likes being on the receiving end of a gift. 

Now this article is not about to condemn such activities.  In fact, I think it is really nice that we have a chance to give gifts to those we love and care about.   And, it’s really nice to be on the receiving end too!  At the same time, it is called the “season of giving” for a much different reason.  Perhaps this story will help shed a little light.

Wealth More Precious than Jewels (Author unknown)

A wise woman who was traveling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food.  The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and wanted it, so the woman gave it to him. She did so without hesitation. The traveler left rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime. 

A few days later, he came back to return the stone to the wise woman. “I’ve been thinking,” he said.  “I know how valuable this stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious.  Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me this stone.”

Even though this traveler had gotten hold of a precious stone that was worth a fortune, he realized that he was missing out on something even more valuable. The Giver of the gift had something of much greater worth than that stone. The traveler came back desiring that greater treasure.

We can be a lot like that traveler as we go through life.  We may suddenly find ourselves in a bad situation.  It could be serious, as in a health problem or divorce or death of a loved one.  It could be less serious, as in feeling depressed or stressed out or in need of some material thing.  Next thing we know, we find ourselves asking God for help.  I imagine every one of us can recount a time when God intervened to bring us that gift we asked for. 

Many of us have gone on our merry way after receiving His gift of help, forgetting that just maybe there was something far greater behind that gift.  Is it possible that the One, who could give us that gift of help we needed, might actually have something more valuable to give us?   Indeed, the real message of Christmas is not just that we have a God who is able to heal our broken health, or to bring comfort in the midst of great grief, or to bring peace of mind when our world is stressed out beyond belief.  The message of Christmas is far deeper and greater for those who would bring their gift of life back to God and seek the more precious gift. 

For those who would like to look further into that gift of Christmas , here’s some great reading from the Giver of Life Himself:

Luke 2:1-20; Galatians 4:1-7; John 1:1-13; 3:13-21.

God’s richest blessings to each of you this Christmas season!!

Put Christ Back in Christmas??

christmas

Put Christ Back in Christmas?

For the past several years there has been a common cry go out in our country: “Put Christ back in Christmas!” Many of the people I know who send out that message on social media and share emails emblazoned with that phrase are also folks that quit going to Church a long time ago. If we are honest with ourselves, the truth is Christ never left…it is people who have left.

This year Christmas falls on a Sunday. If it is anything like the last time this happened, many, many churches will be closed. The most often reason given: Christmas is a family time, so people should be with their families that morning. The Holy Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ is one of the great Feast Days of the year. It is not meant to be simply a “family time” for us to share presents. It is the celebration of God becoming man (the Incarnation) for our salvation. His Birth changed this world forever!

The word “Christmas” comes to us from two Old-English words: “Christ’s Mass”. It was a church service dedicated to the Birth of Christ. Christmas was a family time only in the sense that the entire family went to Church to celebrate His Holy Nativity.

Put Christ back in Christmas? No, we should put ourselves back in Christmas; worshiping the One called Emmanuel: “God with us!”

If you are looking for a Church that will be celebrating this great Feast Day of the Faith, check out your local Orthodox Church. They will all be open Christmas morning and they will all be worshiping the One Who became man for our salvation. And do make it a family time by inviting all your family and your friends.

Have a blessed and joyous celebration of the Holy Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ!!

“Joy to the World!”

joy-to-the-world

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come; let earth receive her King.”  So go the words to one of our favorite Christmas songs heard from living rooms to shopping malls throughout our country.  Most of us could sing the above lines and more without any outside help.  The truth of the matter is that there really is “Joy” when God is King of our lives.

The Book of Judges in the Holy Scriptures ends with this verse:  “In those days there was no King; everyone did as they saw fit.”  This verse is a summary of the Book of Judges.  Judges tells us of the Israelites roller-coaster ride.  One minute they are experiencing God’s blessings and peace; the next minute they are turning away from God and find themselves enslaved.

When we think of the Book of Judges, we think of the great heroes that were mightily used of God:  Deborah, Gideon, and Samson.  They were all used to rescue Israel from bondage to freedom.  But the real thrust of Judges is the fact that Israel would not walk in that freedom.  They would not keep the Lord God as King, but instead exalted themselves as kings.

Historically, whenever a great nation or empire has fallen, it has fallen from within first.  The sense of right and wrong gave way to “do whatever is right for you”.  Morals had decayed to the point where they had become non-existent for many of the people of that nation.  In their minds, they had become kings of their own lives.  They had no authority greater than themselves.  No one, not even God, could tell them how to live their lives.  Each one of those nations is now simply a part of our history books.  They have perished, collapsed from within.

“In those days there was no King; everyone did as they saw fit.”  The last thing anyone would want is for that verse to read:  “In these days…”  Thankfully, we do live in the greatest nation on the face of the earth.  We are a country that was founded on godly principles.  In fact, our country is described as “One Nation under God.”  But, we are already several generations removed from our founding fathers and warning signs are everywhere.

The television continually screams into our brains to “do whatever is right for you”, with no regard to the morality of that decision (not to mention the spiritual and psychological wounds).  The black/gray/white areas of morality of 40 years ago have changed so drastically that what used to be considered absolutely wrong is now considered okay (it’s not even in the gray).

Can you imagine the things that are on prime time television today even being on the television ten years ago?  If this log-rhythmic decline of morality (which looks something like an avalanche) continues, who could possibly guess what could be on television in even 5 years’ time.

There seems to be a growing number of people who proclaim that they have the right to do whatever they want, whenever they want, etc.  The authority for such decisions is simply self.  They have proclaimed themselves kings and would like the rest of us to do likewise.  This kind of “self-rule” can seem innocent enough and even right, but throughout the history of the world it has always seemed to lead to destruction.  This can be illustrated even in a small unit like a family.  If the children have no rules or guidelines to live by, chaos is usually the result.

I remember hearing the famous preacher, Billy Graham, once say that if God does not bring judgment on America, He will owe an apology to Sodom and Gomorrah.  Now if I asked each of you readers to tell me what the sin of Sodom was, I suspect you might have an immediate answer.  But is your answer accurate?  Listen carefully to these words of the Holy Prophet Ezekiel about what was really the sin of Sodom:

“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, your sister Sodom and her daughters never did what you and your daughters have done.  Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom:  She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.  They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” (Ezekiel 16:48-50)

This sounds all too much like a society that had exalted self-rule to the point of destruction.  When self sits upon the throne of anyone’s life, the rule quickly becomes:  “do whatever is right for you” without regard for the ultimate consequences.  As we see our own country going through so many changes, what can we do to best help it?

It truly is time for us to take action on behalf of the country we love.  It is certainly not the time to point blaming fingers at others…that is not what God is calling His people to do.  Again may we listen carefully to the Holy Scriptures as we hear exactly what God would desire us to do:  “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

As we celebrate Christmas this year, let’s pray for our country and may we acknowledge Almighty God as our King in both our words and our deeds.  “Joy to the world, the Lord is come; let earth receive her King.”

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!!!

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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