ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
Part 1 of 7
by Eric and Lana Elder
As a Christmas gift to you, I’d like to present “St. Nicholas: The Believer.” It’s a new story for Christmas that Lana and I have written based on the old story of St. Nicholas. So starting today and for the next 6 Sundays leading up to Christmas, I’ll be posting 5 to 7 chapters of the book for you to read, ending with the conclusion of the story on Christmas Eve.
As a suggestion, you can either read each section as I post it, or you can read a chapter a day for the next 39 days, using it as a personal devotional leading up to Christmas. Either way, I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as we’ve enjoyed writing it. It’s a Christmas gift to you from both Lana and me, as she was making her final edits to the book right up until the week before she passed into heaven a year ago this weekend, telling me that she felt it was finally ready to be published.
So in honor of her, and as our gift to you, I’m happy to begin sharing it with you today. Above all, I pray that God will use this story to rekindle your love, not only for this season of the year, but for the One who makes this season so bright.
In Christ’s love,
There was a time when I almost gave up celebrating Christmas. Our kids were still young and weren’t yet hooked on the idea of Santa Claus and presents, Christmas trees and decorations.
I had read that the Puritans who first came to America were so zealous in their faith that they didn’t celebrate Christmas at all, charging fines to anyone in their community of believers who failed to keep their shop open on Christmas day. They didn’t want anything to do with a holiday that was, they felt, rooted in paganism. As a new believer and new father myself, the idea of going against the flow of the excesses of Christmas had its appeal, at least in some respects.
Then I read an article by a man who simply loved celebrating Christmas. He could think of no greater way to celebrate the birth of the most important figure in human history than throwing the grandest of parties for Him—gathering and feasting and sharing gifts with as many of his family and friends as possible. This man was a pastor of deep faith and great joy. For him, the joy of Christ’s birth was so wondrous that he reveled in every aspect of Christmas, including all the planning, decorating and activities that went along with it. He even loved bringing Santa Claus into the festivities, our modern-day version of the very real and very ancient Saint Nicholas, a man of deep faith and great joy as well who Himself worshipped and adored the Baby who was born in Bethlehem.
So why not celebrate the birth of Christ? Why not make it the biggest party of the year? Why not make it the “Hap-Happiest season of all”?
I was sold. Christmas could stay—and my kids would be much hap-happier for it, too.
I dove back into celebrating Christmas with full vigor, and at the same time took a closer look into the life of the real Saint Nicholas, a man who seemed almost irremovably intertwined with this Holy Day. I discovered that Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus were indeed one and the same, and that the Saint Nicholas who lived in the third and fourth centuries after the birth of Christ was truly a devout follower of Christ himself.
As my wife and I read more and more about Nicholas’ fascinating story, we became enthralled with this believer who had already been capturing the hearts and imaginations of believers and nonbelievers alike throughout the centuries.
With so many books and movies that go to great lengths to tell you the “true” story of Santa Claus (and how his reindeer are really powered by everything from egg nog to Coca-Cola), I’ve found that there are very few stories that even come close to describing the actual person of who Saint Nicholas was, and in particular, what he thought about the Man for whom Christmas is named, Jesus Christ. I was surprised to learn that with all the historical documents that attest to Saint Nicholas’ faith in Christ, compelling tellings of those stories seem to have fallen by the wayside over the ages.
So with the encouragement and help of my sweet wife, Lana, we decided to bring the story of Saint Nicholas back to life for you, with a desire to help you recapture the essence of Christmas for yourself.
While some people, with good reason, may still go to great lengths to try to remove anything that might possibly hint of secularism from this holiest day of the year, it seems equally fitting to me to go to great lengths to try to restore Santa to his rightful place—not as the patron saint of shopping malls, but as a beacon of light that shines brightly on the One for whom this Holy Day is named.
It is with deep faith and great joy that I offer you this Christmas novella—a little story. I’ve enjoyed telling it and I hope you’ll enjoy hearing it. It just may be the most human telling of the story of Saint Nicholas you’ve ever heard.
Above all, I pray that God will use this story to rekindle your love, not only for this season of the year, but for the One who makes this season so bright.
May God bless you this Christmas and always!
In Christ’s love,
My name is Dimitri—Dimitri Alexander. But that’s not important. What’s important is that man over there, lying on his bed. He’s—well, I suppose there’s really no better way to describe him except to say—he’s a saint. Not just because of all the good that he has done, but because he was—as a saint always is—a Believer. He believed that there was Someone in life who was greater than he was, Someone who guided him, who helped him through every one of his days.
If you were to look at him closely, lying there on his bed, it might look to you as if he was dead. And in some sense, I guess you would be right. But the truth is, he’s more alive now than he has ever been.
My friends and I have come here today to spend his last day on earth with him. Just a few minutes ago we watched as he passed from this life to the next.
I should be crying, I know. Believe me, I have been—and I will be again. But for now, I can’t help but simply being grateful that he has finally made it to his new home, a home that he has been dreaming about for many years. A home where he can finally talk to God face to face, like I’m talking to you right now.
Oh, he was a saint all right. But to me, and to so many others, he was something even more. He was—how could I put it? An inspiration. A friend. A teacher. A helper. A giver. Oh, he loved to give and give and give some more, until he seemed he had nothing left to give at all. But then he’d reach down deep and find a little more. “There’s always something you can give,” as he himself would sometimes say.
He always hoped, in some small way, that he could use his life to make a difference in the world. He wanted, above all, to help people. But with so many needs all around, what could he possibly do?
He was like a man on a beach surrounded by starfish that had been washed up onto shore. He knew they would die if they didn’t make it back into the water.
Not knowing how to save them all, the man on the beach did what he could. He reached down, picked one up, and tossed it back into the water. Then reached down again, picked up another, and did the same.
Someone once asked the man why he bothered at all—that with so many needs all around, how could he possibly make any difference. He’d just toss another starfish into the water and say, “It made a difference to that one.” Then he’d reach down and pick up another.
You see, to the world you may be just one person, but to one person you may be the world.
In many ways, my friend was just like you and me. Each one of us has just one life to live. But if you live it right, one life is all you need. And if you live your life for God, well, you just might touch the whole world.
Did his life make any difference? I already know my answer, because I’m one of those he reached down and picked up many, many years ago. But how about I tell you his story, and when I get to the end, I’ll let you decide if his life made a difference or not. And then maybe, by the time we’re finished, you’ll see that your life can make a difference, too.
Oh, by the way, I haven’t told you his name yet, this man who was such a great saint, such a great believer in the God who loved him, created him, sustained him and with whom he is now living forever.
His name is Nicholas—and this is his story.
Nicholas lived in an ideal world. At least that’s the way he saw it. As a nine-year-old boy, growing up on the northern coast of what he called the Great Sea—you might call it the Mediterranean—Nicholas couldn’t imagine a better life.
He would often walk through the streets with his father, acting as if they were on their way to do something important. But the real reason for their outing was to look for someone who was struggling to make ends meet, someone who needed a lift in their life. A simple hello often turned into the discovery of a need to be met. Nicholas and his father would pray, and if they could meet the need, they found a way to do it.
Nicholas told me he couldn’t count the number of times his dad would sneak up behind someone later, putting some apples in their sack, or a small silver coin or two. As far as he knew, no one ever knew what his father had done, except to say they sometimes heard people talking about the miracle of receiving exactly what they needed at just the right time, in an unexpected way.
Nicholas loved these walks with his father, just as he loved his time at home with his mother. They had shown the same love and generosity with him as they had shown to so many others.
His parents had somehow found a way to prosper, even in the turbulent times in which they lived. They were, in fact, quite wealthy. But whether their family was rich or poor seemed to make no difference to Nicholas. All he knew or cared about was that they loved him like no one else on earth. He was their only son, and their times together were simple and truly joyful.
Their richest times came at night, as they shared stories with each other that they had heard about a Man who was like no other Man they had ever known. A Man who lived on the other side of the Great Sea about 280 years earlier. His name was Jesus. Nicholas was enthralled with the stories of this Man who seemed to be so precious in the eyes of his parents. Jesus seemed both down-to-earth and larger-than-life, all at the same time. How could anyone be so humble, yet so noble? How could He be so poor that He was born in an animal stable, yet so generous that He could feed 5,000 people? How could He live His life so fully, yet die a death so cruelly? Jesus was, to Nicholas, an enigma, the most fascinating person of which he’d ever heard. One day, thought Nicholas, he hoped to visit this land on the other side of the sea—and walk where Jesus walked.
For all the love that Nicholas and his parents shared and held them together, there was one thing that threatened to pull them apart. It was the one thing that seemed to be threatening many families in their country in those days, irrespective of their wealth or poverty, their faith or lack of faith, their love for others or lack of love.
Nicholas’ friends and neighbors called it the plague. His parents had mentioned it from time to time, but only in their prayers. They prayed for the families who were affected by the plague, asking God for healing when possible, and for strength of faith when not. Most of all, his parents prayed for Nicholas that regardless of what happened around him, he would always know how very much they loved him, and how very much God loved him.
Even though Nicholas was so young, he had seen enough of life to know that real threats existed in the world. Yet he also had been shielded from those threats, in a way, by the love of his parents and by their devout faith in God. As his father had learned over the years, and had many times reminded Nicholas, “In all things, God works for the good of those who love Him.” And Nicholas believed him. Up to this point, he’d had no reason to doubt the words his father had spoken.
But it would only be a matter of months before Nicholas’ faith would be challenged and he would have to decide if he really believed those words for himself—that in all things, God would truly work for the good of those who loved Him.
Tonight, however, he simply trusted the words of his father, listening to his parents’ prayers for him—and for those in his city—as he drifted off into a perfect sleep.
Nicholas woke to the sounds of birds out his window. The air was fresh, washed clean by the seaside mist of the early morning.
But the news this morning was less than idyllic. A friend of Nicholas’ family had contracted the sickness that they had only heard about from people in other cities. The boy was said to be near the point of death.
Nicholas’ father had heard the news first and had gone to pray for the boy. Returning home just as Nicholas awoke, his father shared the news with his wife and with Nicholas.
“We need to pray,” he said, with no hint of panic in his voice, but with an unmistakable urgency that caused all three to slip down to their knees.
Nicholas’ father began the prayer: “Father, You know the plans You have for this child. We trust You to carry them out. We pray for Your healing as we love this boy, but we know that You love him even more than we do. We trust that as we place him in Your hands this morning, You will work all things together for good, as You always do for those who love You.”
It was a prayer Nicholas had heard his father pray many times before, asking for what they believed was the best in every situation, but trusting that God knew best in the end. It was the same type of prayer Nicholas had heard that Jesus prayed the night before He died: “If You are willing,” Jesus prayed, “take this cup from Me. Yet not My will, but Yours be done.”
Nicholas never quite knew what to make of this prayer. Wouldn’t God always want what’s best for us? And how could someone’s death ever be a good thing? Yet his father prayed that prayer so often, and with such sincerity of heart, that Nicholas was confident that it was the right thing to pray. But how God could answer any other way than healing the boy—and still work it out for good—remained a mystery.
After Nicholas’ mother had added her own words to the prayer, and Nicholas himself had joined in, his father concluded with thanks to God for listening—and for already answering their prayers.
As they stood, the news came to their door, as if in direct answer to what they had just prayed. But it wasn’t the answer they were hoping for. The boy had died.
Nicholas’ mother began to weep quietly, not holding back on her tears. She wept as she felt the loss of another mother, feeling the loss as if it were her own son who had died.
Nicholas’ father took hold of her hand and pulled Nicholas close, saying a quiet prayer for the family of the boy who had died, and adding another prayer for his own. He gave his wife and son one more final squeeze, then walked out the door to return to the other boy’s home.
The boy’s death had a sobering effect on the whole city. The people had known the boy, of course, and were sad for the family.
But his death was more sobering because it wasn’t an isolated event. The people had heard stories of how the sickness had been spreading through the cities around them, taking the lives of not just one or two people here and there, but entire families—entire neighborhoods. The death of this boy seemed to indicate that the plague had now arrived in their city, too.
No one knew how to stop it. All they could do was pray. And pray they did.
As the sickness began to spread, Nicholas’ parents would visit the homes of those who lay dying. While his parents’ money was powerless to offer relief to the families, their prayers brought a peace that no amount of money could buy.
As always, Nicholas’ father would pray that death would pass them over, as it had passed over the Israelites in Egypt when the plague of death overtook the lives of the firstborn of every family that wasn’t willing to honor God. But this sickness was different. It made no distinction between believer or unbeliever, firstborn or last born, or any other apparent factor. This sickness seemed to know no bounds, and seemed unstoppable by any means.
Yet Nicholas watched as his father prayed in faith nonetheless, believing that God could stop the plague at any moment, at any household, and trusting God to work it all out for good, even if their lives, too, were seemingly cut short.
These latter prayers were what people clung to most. More than anything else, these words gave them hope—hope that their lives were not lived in vain, hope that their deaths were not going unnoticed by the God who created them.
A visit by Nicholas’ father and mother spoke volumes to those who were facing unbearable pain, for as the plague spread, fewer and fewer people had been willing to leave their own homes, let alone visit the homes where the sickness had struck. The prayers of Nicholas’ father, and the tears of his mother, gave the families the strength they needed to face whatever came their way.
Nicholas watched in wonder as his parents dispensed their gifts of mercy during the day, then returned home each night physically spent, but spiritually strengthened. It made him wonder how they got their strength for each day. But it also made him wonder how long their own family could remain untouched by this plague.
When Nicholas finally found the courage to voice this question out loud, a question that seemed to be close to all of their hearts, his father simply answered that they had only two choices: to live in fear, or to live in love, and follow the example of the One in whom they had entrusted their lives. They chose to live in love, doing for others what they would want others to do for them.
So every morning Nicholas’ father and mother would wake up and pray, asking their Lord what He would have them do. Then, pushing aside any fears they might have had, they put their trust in God, spending the day serving others as if they were serving Christ Himself.
While his father’s response didn’t answer the immediate question on Nicholas’ heart— which was how much longer it might be till the sickness visited their own home—it seemed to answer a question that went much deeper. It answered the question of whether or not God was aware of all that was going on, and if He was, whether or not He cared enough to do anything about it.
By the way that God seemed to be directing his parents each day, Nicholas gained a peace of mind that God was indeed fully aware of all that was going on in the lives of every person in his city of Patara—and that God did indeed care. God cared enough to send Nicholas’ parents to those who needed to hear a word from Him, who needed a touch from His hands, who needed a touch from God not just in their flesh, but in their spirits as well.
It seemed to Nicholas to be a more glorious answer to his question than he could have imagined. His worry about when the sickness might visit their own home dissipated as he went to sleep that night. Instead, he prayed that God would use his own hands and words—Nicholas’ hands and words—as if they were God’s very own, reaching out to express God’s love for His people.
In the coming days, Nicholas found himself wanting to help his father and mother more and more as they delivered God’s mercy to those around them.
They worked together to bring food, comfort and love to each family touched by the plague. Some days it was as simple as stopping by to let a mother know she wasn’t alone. Others days it was bringing food or drink to an entire family who had taken ill. And still other days it was preparing a place in the hills around their city where they carefully laid the bodies of those who had succumbed to the sickness and whose spirits had passed from this life to the next.
Each day Nicholas’ heart grew more and more aware of the temporal nature of life on earth, and more and more in tune with the eternal nature of the life that is unseen. It seemed to Nicholas that the line between the two worlds was becoming less and less distinct. What he had once thought of as solid and real—like rocks and trees, or hands and feet—soon took on a more ethereal nature. And those things that were more difficult for him to touch before—like faith and hope, love and peace—began to become more solid and real.
It was as if his world was turning both upside down and inside out at the same time, not with a gut-wrenching twisting, but as if his eyes themselves were being re-calibrated, adjusting better to see with more clarity what was really going on—focusing more acutely on what really mattered in life. Even surrounded by so much sickness and death, Nicholas felt himself coming alive more fully than he’d ever felt before.
His father tried to describe what Nicholas was feeling by using words that he’d heard Jesus had said, that whoever tried to hold onto this life too tightly would lose it, but whoever was willing to let go of this life, would find true life. By learning how to love others without being constrained by fear, being propelled forward by love instead, Nicholas was starting to experience how it felt to truly live.
Whether that feeling could sustain him through what lay ahead, he didn’t know. But what he did know was that for now, more than anything else, he wanted to live each day to the fullest. He wanted to wake up each day looking for how God could use him, then do whatever God was willing to give him to do. To do anything less would be to shortchange himself from living the life God had given him to live—and to shortchange God from the work God wanted to get done.
As the days passed, Nicholas came to know what his father and mother already knew: that no one knew how many more days they had left in this world. His family no longer saw themselves as human beings having a temporary spiritual experience, but as spiritual beings, having a temporary human experience. With eyes of faith, they were able to look into whatever lay ahead of them without the fear that gripped so many of the others around them.
When Nicholas awoke one day to the sound of his mother coughing, time seemed to stand still.
For all the preparation his parents—and his own faith—had given him, it still caught him off guard to think that the sickness might have finally crossed over the threshold of their own home.
He thought that maybe God would spare them for all the kindness they had shown to others during the previous few months. But his father had cautioned him against such thinking, reminding him that for all the good that Jesus had done in His life—for all the healing that He had brought to others—there still came a time when He, too, had to face suffering and death. It didn’t mean that God didn’t love Jesus, or wasn’t concerned for Him, or hadn’t seen all the good He had done in his life. And it didn’t mean that Jesus remained indifferent to what was about to take place either. Jesus even told His disciples that His heart was deeply troubled by what He was about to go through, but that didn’t mean He shrank back from what lay ahead of Him. No, He said, it was for this very hour that He had come. Greater love, He told His disciples, had no one than this: that they lay down their lives for their friends.
Nicholas’ mother coughed again, and time slowly began to move again for Nicholas. He stood to his feet. As he approached his mother, she hesitated for a moment. It was as if she was torn between wanting him to stand still—not to come one step closer to the sickness that had now reached her body—or to get up on her feet, too, and throw her arms around him, assuring him that everything would be all right. But a moment later, Nicholas had made her decision unnecessary, for he was already in her arms, holding on as tight as he could as they both broke down in tears. As Nicholas was learning, having faith doesn’t mean you can’t cry. It just means that you can trust God, even with your tears.
Nicholas’ father had already shed some of his own tears that morning. He had gone outside before the sunrise, this time not to visit the homes of others, but to pray. For him, the place where he always returned when he needed to be alone with God was to the fresh air by the sea, not far from their home. While he knew he could pray anywhere, at any time, it was by the sea that he felt the closest to God. The sound of the waves, rhythmically washing up on the shore, seemed to have a calming, mesmerizing effect on him.
He had arrived in time to watch the sunrise off to his left, looking down the shoreline of the Great Sea. How many sunrises had he seen from that very spot? And how many more would he have left to see? He turned his head and coughed, letting the question roll back out to sea with the next receding wave. The sickness had come upon him as well.
This wasn’t the first time he had asked himself how many days he had left to live. The difference this time was that in the past, he had always asked it hypothetically. He would come to this spot whenever he had an important decision to make, a decision that required he think beyond the short term. He would come here when he needed to look into eternity, taking into account the brevity of life. Here, at the edge of the sea, it was as if he could grasp both the brevity of life and the eternity of heaven at the same time.
The daily rising of the sun and the swelling, cresting and breaking of the waves on the shore reminded him that God was still in control, that His world would carry on—with or without him—just as it had since God first spoke the water and earth into existence, and just as it would until the day God chose for its end, to make way for the new heaven and the new earth. In light of eternity, the lifespan of the earth seemed incredibly short, and the lifespan of man even shorter still. In that short span of life, he knew that he had to make the most of each day, not just living for himself, and not even just living for others, but ultimately living for the God who had given him life. If God, the Creator of all things, had seen fit to breathe into him the breath of life, then as long as he could still take a breath, he wanted to make the most of it.
Coughing again, Nicholas’ father remembered that this was no mere intellectual exercise to help him come to grips with a difficult decision. This time—as he looked out at the sunrise once more, and at one more wave rolling in—he realized that this was the final test of everything that he had believed in up to this point.
Some of life’s tests he had passed with flying colors. Others he had failed when fear or doubt had taken over. But this was a test he knew he wanted to pass more than any other.
He closed his eyes and asked for strength for another day. He let the sun warm his face, and he gently opened the palms of his hands to feel the breeze as it lifted up along the shore and floated over his body. He opened his eyes and looked one more time at the sea.
Then he turned and walked toward home, where he would soon join his precious wife and his beloved son in a long, tearful embrace.
(To be continued… next week)
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