What do we really know about “St. Nicolas”? He was born to wealthy parents in the town of Patara, Turkey about 270 A.D. He was still young when his mother and father died and left him a fortune. His humility was immediately evident. As a teen ager he heard about a family destitute and starving. The father had no money for food to feed his three daughters. Under the cover of night Nicholas threw a bag of gold coins through the window of their humble dwelling, saving them from starvation.
Eventually, he became a bishop, and was destined to lead his congregation through the worst tribulation in church history. In A.D. 303, the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered a brutal persecution of all Christians. Ordered to sacrifice to pagan gods, Nicholas and thousands of others refused. They were then dragged to prison. Believers were fed to wild animals, forced to fight gladiators for their lives, beaten and set aflame in Roman arenas. Yet the persecution could not stamp out Christianity. Instead, it spread like wildfire. Third Century leader Tertullian observed, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Finally, after years of imprisonment, Bishop Nicholas walked out of captivity, freed by decree of the new emperor Constantine. Those who survived Diocletian’s torture chambers were called “saints” or “confessors” by the people. Nicholas was one of these. The bishop was beaten but not broken. He served Christ’s people for another thirty years. Through the prayers of this tried and tested soldier of the faith, many found salvation and healing. Nicholas participated in the famous Council of Nicea in 324 A.D. He died on December 6, about A.D. 343, a living legend.
St. Nick of yuletide fame still carries faint reminders of this ancient man of God. The color of his outfit recollects the color of bishops’ robes. “Making a list, checking it twice,” probably recalls the old saint’s lecture to children about good behavior. Gifts secretly brought on Christmas eve bring to mind his humble generosity to the three daughters.
Yet is he were alive today, this saint would humbly deflect attention from himself. No fur-trimmed hat and coat, no reindeer and sleigh or North Pole workshop. As he did in life centuries ago, Bishop Nicholas would point people to his Master. “I am Nicholas, a sinner,” the old saint would say. “Nicholas, a servant of Jesus Christ.”
Abraham Lincoln, in one of his messages to the nation, spoke words of deep concern which have a contemporary ring to them:
“We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these things were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own….Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have a become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and persevering grace, too proud to pray to the God who made us.”
I have found it amazing that of all the issues being addressed in Washington that affect our nation, the one both Republicans and Democrats agree on is this: our nation is in serious moral and ethical decline. There was a time, not very long ago, when you couldn’t even get the subject of morals or ethics on the table for discussion, let alone have both parties in agreement on the bottom line. Such is the seriousness of the troubles that fill our streets with drive-by shootings and tax the abilities of our prison system simply to house the criminals we produce. What has gone wrong with our great “experiment in liberty”? Why has the land of the free and the home of the brave become the place of the polluted? Why are people in every city and hamlet from coast to coast afraid to go out alone at night? Mr. Lincoln had the answer to that. But it is more than a moral and ethical problem. As long as we continue to distance ourselves from any tendency toward respect, praise, obedience or commitment to the God who made our experiment in liberty possible, we will all end up becoming the slaves of our own greed, desire and arrogance. If we learn nothing else from the Old Testament, we can at least learn this: any nation that tried to make a go of it without God has ended up in the trash heap of history.
We will continue to hear more about morals and ethics from our leaders in Washington. Our hope is that Christians will be welcomed to this ongoing debate. But whether we are or are not listened to we must understand and live out the fact that morals and ethics do not stand alone. They proceed from the Spirit—a life of involvement with the God who made us all.
We have all heard that life is a journey. It even comes out in commercials. Nissan said, “life is a journey. Enjoy the ride.” American Airlines had the opposite perspective: “We understand, it’s not about the journey; it’s about the destination.” Another reacted with this line, “It’s not about the journey or the destination; it’s about what you do once you get there.” Someone in the fashion industry said: “Life is not about journeys or destinations; it’s about how you look while you are traveling.”
Leonard Sweet writes: “The real meaning of life is not a journey question or an arrival question. It’s a relationship question. Life is a handicap event. We cannot get to our destination without the help of others….We need relationships, guides, and guards who can help us on our journeys and be with us when we reach our destinations. Here’s the real question: Will you be holding hands when you cross the finish line?”
Imagine a busload of tourists on their way to the Grand Canyon from the mid-west. On the long journey across the wheat fields of Kansas and through the spectacular mountains of Colorado the travelers inexplicably keep the shades down. Intent on the ultimate destination, they never bother to look outside. They spend their time arguing over such things as who has the best seat and who is taking too much time in the bathroom. The church can resemble such a bus. We must remember that the Bible has far more to say about how to live on the journey than about the ultimate destination.
I urge you to raise the shades in your life and look out the window on this journey to heaven. One of the ways you can do that is to connect with people and see the interesting and varied landscape of life through the eyes of others. God made us to need and benefit from other people. Let’s all enrich ourselves and the lives of those around us by investing our time in building relationships.
—Adapted from an article in the “Memorial Messenger
Senior Pastor of Cactus Christian Fellowship