ST. NICHOLAS DAY

Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” [Matthew 19:21 (NLT)]

Sr. Nicholas

Although it is difficult to know fact from fiction, we do know that St. Nicholas was born around 270 AD in Patara, a city in Lycia, in Asia Minor. The son of wealthy and devout parents, it was his uncle, the Bishop of Patara, who took charge of his spiritual life. Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra, quite likely attended the council of Nicaea, spent seven years imprisoned under Diocletian Persecution, and died on December 6, around 343 AD. While we don’t know much about the man, he must have had a great impact on the early Christian church because, by 450 AD, churches in Asia Minor and Greece were being named in his honor and, by the mid-6th century, the Emperor Justinian dedicated a church to him in Constantinople.

When Nicholas’ parents died, legend has it that he began to distribute the money and property he had inherited to those who begged him for help. Taking seriously Jesus’s command to sell his possessions and give to the poor, he selflessly gave away his entire wealth. It’s said that wherever he saw suffering or need, he gave in secret and expected nothing in return. The best known story of this revered saint is that he secretly provided money for the dowries of three girls whose father was so poor that he was going to sell them into slavery. Nicholas secretly provided each girl with a bag of gold (some say by putting it in their stockings that were drying by the fire). This legend evolved through the centuries into the custom of gift giving on the eve of his saint’s day.

Today is St. Nicholas Day. Last night, in his memory, children throughout Europe put out shoes, boots, or stocking to be filled with small gifts, fruit, nuts, candies and cookies brought by the Saint. These little gifts are meant to be shared with others and not hoarded for oneself. Perhaps we should pare down our Christmas lists so that our gifts can fit into a shoe or stocking. Let us also remember that those gifts are to be shared.

From what we know of the beloved saint, he loved God more than anything. I wonder what he would think of the way his name, faith and generosity have turned into such crass commercialism. While he is the patron saint of children, seamen, brides, the hungry, and scholars he is not the patron saint of credit card companies, malls, shoppers, catalogues or Amazon! Nicholas certainly wouldn’t approve of the way Santa Claus has eclipsed the Christ child in the hearts of many.

As we move into this holiday season, perhaps we should emulate St. Nicholas, the original Santa Claus. His life wasn’t about how many presents were stacked under a tree; it was about dedicating his life to serving God and helping those in need. It is Jesus, not Santa, who is the reason for the season!

Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need. [Deuteronomy 15:10-11 (NLT)]

Blessed are those who are generous, because they feed the poor. [Proverbs 22:9 (NLT)]

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LET ME BE YOUR SERVANT

And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. [John 13:14 (NLT)]

Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. [Mark 10:43-44 (NLT)]

crab appleAs she sang, “Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too,” I reached over to take my husband’s hand. I contemplated the road we’ve traveled together for over half a century as the soloist continued: “We are pilgrims on a journey, we are trav’lers on the road; We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.” As I listened to the rest of Richard Guillard’s beautiful song, I thought it was the perfect choice for a wedding.

I will hold the Christ light for you, In the night time of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you, Speak the peace you long to hear.
I will weep when you are weeping. When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you;
I will share your joy and sorrow, Till we’ve seen this journey through.
[“The Servant Song” by Richard Guillard]

During last week’s worship, however, I realized Guillard’s song applies to Christian fellowship as much as it does to marriage. His words describe the church or, at least, what the church is supposed to be. We comfort and support, encourage and enlighten, pray for and serve one another. We share good times and bad, walk together, go the extra mile, and help carry one another’s burdens.

“Will you let me be your servant?” That’s what Jesus was asking when he stripped off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and knelt to wash the disciples’ feet. That servant, on his hands and knees and holding a wash rag, was God! When Jesus came to Peter, the man protested and only relented when told, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me.” Whether Jesus meant that Peter’s sins had to be washed away by the cross or that Peter needed to humbly submit to Jesus, I’m not sure. Either way, Jesus taught a valuable lesson both about servanthood and accepting God’s grace.

It’s important to serve but equally important to graciously accept the gift of service that comes with Christian love. Jesus washed the disciples’ feet but He also allowed a woman to wash his feet with her tears and wipe them with her hair. Servanthood in Christ’s church involves both the giving and accepting of grace but, for many of us, giving comes far easier than accepting.

How can we wash one another’s feet if we won’t take off our shoes because someone might know we have athlete’s foot or see the ugly bunion, corn, bruised toe, or blister? Let’s not be afraid to share our vulnerability, expose our failings, acknowledge our doubts, admit our fear, or disclose our needs. Let us love and serve one another as did Christ and let us accept that love and kindness as did His disciples.

Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you;
Pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too.
[“The Servant Song” by Richard Guillard]

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. … When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality. … Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. [Romans 12:9-10,13,15 (NLT)]

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MARIA’S SON

blue flag iris - blue-eyed grass - pansyLook carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. [Ephesians 5:15-17 (ESV)]

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. [Psalm 90:12 (ESV)]

Maria, an elderly woman, used to come to our Tuesday Bible study but stopped when she could no longer drive. Last Christmas, her son gave her a beautiful gift: the promise to drive her to Bible study every week. This was no small gift; she lived nearly an hour from her son and a half hour away from church. By the time you add the son’s driving time to and from his house to hers, to and from her house to the church, the hour of class, and the time it took to get his mother (and her walker) in and out of the car four times, this gift was nearly a five hour obligation every week. Maria’s health eventually failed and, today, we learned that she went home to Jesus.

I didn’t know Maria or her son but I do know about time. I spent enough hours shuttling my daughter to and from dance classes to know that a mere hour between drop off and pick up is not enough time to accomplish anything in the way of running errands. By the time you get to Costco or Target you have to turn around and come back. Time is a precious commodity and, once spent, can never be recovered. Maria’s son spent his hours as would Jesus—in loving service. Can we say the same thing?

We have plenty of labor saving devices: food processors, instant pots, microwaves, automatic sprinklers, power drills, washers, dryers, dishwashers, pressure cookers, power mowers, computers, and even a virtual assistant in Alexa. In theory, with all these modern conveniences, we should have plenty of time. Yet, when I speak with others, a common complaint is a lack of time. What do we do with all the time we save?

Rather than a shortage of time, perhaps the problem is in our priorities. Since God gave us the Sabbath, I don’t think He has a problem with rest and recreation. Nevertheless, He didn’t put us here just to have a good time. He’s trusted us with the gift of time; could it be that He’s also testing us to see what kind of stewards we are of that gift?

Forbidden to reap their harvest right up to the edge of their fields and or strip their vineyards bare, the Israelites were to deliberately leave produce for the poor. The way we use our time is a little like harvesting it. Rather than leaving wheat and grapes in the field, perhaps we should deliberately leave some time in our lives for the needs of our families and our brothers and sisters in Christ.

What would Jesus do with our spare minutes? How can they be gleaned for God’s purposes? How can we use our time to magnify God and further His kingdom? Where can we spend it to improve the lives of others? The answer may be as easy as taking someone to Bible study.

One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. [Proverbs 11:24 (ESV)]

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (ESV)]

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LOVE LIKE A CHILD

And do everything with love. [1 Corinthians 16:14 (NLT)]

GrandpaI actually thought the prayer’s words that Sunday asked God to show us what children can teach us about love. Looking through old photos of my children and grands later that day, I thought about the ways children love. Unconcerned with decorum (or potential lawsuits), they’re demonstrative: touching freely and unabashedly. They cuddle and climb on laps, hold hands, and spontaneously give hugs and kisses. They burrow under the covers with us and aren’t bothered by morning breath or bed head. It doesn’t matter if they’re soaking wet from the sprinkler or their faces are covered with jelly or chocolate nor do they care if we’re sweaty and dirty from working in the garden or dressed in our finest for a night on the town. Children know that touch, whether a high-five or hug, is an important part of love.

Children don’t need words to express their love—rather than talking about it, they show it. In his nineties, Grandpa was frail, nearly deaf, and partially blind by the time the first great-grand arrived. Nevertheless, they didn’t need to talk; the little one knew how to speak with love and the two of them communicated silently, playing games only they understood. Another grand sought out a shy child in her pre-school who wouldn’t speak at all. The girls became fast friends because they didn’t need words to communicate. Perhaps children don’t need discussion because they know that loving actions speak far louder than do words.

Children love with gifts and service and the adults they love become the recipients of a wide assortment of shells, dandelions, painted rocks, pot holders, feathers, rubber band bracelets, drawings, beaded jewelry and pinch pots. As for service: my grands have been known to fight over who gets to help me water the plants, set the table, wipe my counters, dust the furniture or help fold the laundry. Children know that giving of self is a fundamental part of love.

Children love unconditionally and with forgiving hearts. Both of our foster daughters continued to love (and defend) the parents that failed them time and time again. They’d wait all afternoon for the promised visit that never happened only to faithfully wait again the following week. They loved even when the love was undeserved and forgave what seemed unforgivable (and I pray they still do). Children love without judgment.

Children love with generosity and without embarrassment. Last year, when the cousins were at our house, the eldest boy introduced the little ones to the dress-up box. After helping them into princess and pirate get-ups, they wanted him to dress up, too. There was just one costume that fit him and the little guys begged him to wear it. Without complaint, the fourteen-year old donned a Cinderella dress for his young cousins and allowed them to accessorize it with a lady’s hat, purse, and beads. He did this with a smile because children love generously, unselfconsciously, and with joyful laughter.

It wasn’t until I was done with this devotion that I re-read the words to that Sunday’s prayer and discovered it asked God to show us what children can teach us about Him. I thought of the story about a little girl who was busily drawing a portrait. When the teacher asked who it was, she replied, “God.” Reminding her that no one knows what God looks like, the girl said, “They will when I’m done!” God is love and children certainly know how to love; perhaps the face the little girl drew was that of a child. Indeed, children can teach us a great deal about both love and God.

Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. … God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. [1 John 4:11-12.14b (NLT)]

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A HEAVY LOAD

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

When troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. [James 1:3b-3 (NLT)]

viceroy butterfly“He will deliver us from our troubles or carry us through them. Either way, we will be free of them eventually.” How easily these words can be uttered until, of course, those troubles apply to us. Had Job’s friends been Christian and said those words, I don’t think they would have been any more comforting than what was said. While true, they won’t bring back the amputated limb or cancerous breast, pay the staggering medical bills, tuck the motherless child in bed at night, change the diagnosis of Parkinson’s or schizophrenia, or bring back an abused child’s innocence. While true, those words can’t wipe the tears of a mother holding her stillborn baby, the husband watching his wife vanish into dementia, or the man whose body is in mutiny because of ALS.

The valleys I have traversed have been neither as deep nor as dark as those others are traveling. I’ve never climbed mountains as steep as the mountains they face daily. The storms that battered my soul pale in comparison to the tempests others endure. They grow weary from carrying burdens heavier that I can imagine. It’s not just the victims of life’s afflictions and misfortune that bear a burden. Everyone who loves and cares for them becomes part of their arduous journey; they shoulder heavy loads, as well. I cannot fathom the emotional and physical weight they carry nor the exhaustion they must experience on a daily basis.

I know enough not to say, “I know what you’re going through,” because I truly don’t. Even with the same diagnosis, no two people share the same circumstances. Reminding someone that God works all things for good or that we grow through suffering may be of little comfort to those who are in anguish and pain. Suffering isn’t a riddle that needs to be solved and it won’t end once we know what it is God is teaching us or what good will come from it. No matter how well meant our words may be, they can sound trite and hollow.

The kindest thing Job’s friends did was sit quietly with him for seven days; perhaps, we should follow their example. Rather than words, we can offer love: our presence, support, sympathy, compassion, patience, encouragement, ears, or even food. Rather than telling people to rejoice in all circumstances, we could find ways to bring joy into their lives. Most of all, we can offer our faithful and heartfelt prayers.

Lord, we offer prayers for the ill and infirm, the troubled, weak and helpless and for those brave souls who love, comfort and care for them. Reassure them of your loving presence. Endow them with courage and faith as they pass through dark valleys, scale steep mountains, and endure powerful squalls. Strengthen them and give them hope. Give us wisdom and show us how to lighten their burdens, lift their spirits, relieve their pain, and ease their fears. Let us know when to remain silent and what to say when we should speak.

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares. [Henri Nouwen]

Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. [Galatians 6:2 (NLT)]

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. [1 Timothy 2:1 (NLT)]

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SUZANNE FROM SINGAPORE

aster - nodding onion - deptford pinkWalk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. [Col. 4:5-6 (ESV)]

Revealing her roots with her English accent, Suzanne told me she lives in Singapore, is the CEO of a foreign corporation, and was taking a holiday at her beach home in southwest Florida. We had a few minutes before class started and, trying to find common ground, I asked if she had any children or grands coming to visit. Replying that her children were still single, Suzanne said she doesn’t much care for children and hoped to never have any grands. After telling me that a young family had recently visited her London apartment, she disclosed her annoyance at the small child who’d touched her priceless antiques and run across her valuable Persian rugs. When Suzanne added that she had no idea how anyone could host guests for more than a few hours without having full time staff, I realized how far her world is from mine and most of the other women present in the room. I’d have to dig deeper to find common ground!

Although dressed beautifully, Suzanne didn’t flaunt her wealth by wearing a Chanel suit, Manolo Blahnik heels, and Harry Winston diamonds to a lunch time Bible study. Her words, however, were equally as ostentatious. Clearly, she is a powerful wealthy woman who lives a privileged life but she seemed oblivious that most of the world doesn’t live her way. I think she would have been surprised to know that I’d just hosted guests for a week without having a maid or cook, that the elderly woman at the next table still works so she can pay for her health insurance, that the woman beside her has been single-handedly caring for her handicapped husband for the last eight years, or that the woman beside me is raising two grandchildren by herself.

While I’m pointing a finger at Suzanne, I’m also pointing three at me. My conversation with her made me realize how often I am unaware and insensitive to other people’s circumstances. Just as I assumed Suzanne would love small children, I often assume other people have the same politics, history, finances, family situation, interests and preferences that I do. Like hers, my words have been patronizing, oblivious, and tactless more times that I care to admit.

I thought about that conversation when reading Paul’s words about seasoning our conversation with salt. Salt makes food palatable and our words should be palatable to all who hear them. Suzanne’s insensitive words were heard by only a few Christian women at Bible study but what if they’d been heard by unbelievers who may not have been so forgiving? What if those unbelievers had judged Christians by her pretentious manner?

A popular piece of advice for speakers is to “know your audience” and businesses spend thousands of dollars in market research to do just that. This sage advice applies to us, as well. Let us remember that we are walking advertisements for Jesus; as His spokespersons, we must be respectful, tactful, kind, humble, and compassionate in our words. When we are finished conversing with people, they should feel that they heard something of value and, more important, that they are valuable both to us and to God.

They may forget what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel. [Carl W. Buehner]

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. … always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. [1 Peter 3:8,15 (NLT)]

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. [Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV)]

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