This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Pleasing Prayers- Psalm 19


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

PLEASING PRAYERS – PSALM 19
Lesson 4 of Psalms: Lessons in Prayer

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

You can listen to today’s psalm here:
Psalm 19, read by Lana Elder, with music by Edward MacDowell played by Josiah Elder

In my previous message, I talked about the value of saying “raw prayers,” prayers that pour out to God exactly what’s on your heart, without regard for whether it sounds pretty, or religious, or even kind. God can take it–and He already knows what’s in your heart anyway. Sometimes you just have to say it.

But in today’s message, I want to talk about the value of saying “pleasing prayers,” prayers that are also honest, but which are intentional about being pleasing to God. As a parent, I’m glad when my kids feel the freedom to come to me and express their raw emotions that they’re feeling on their hearts, without holding back for fear of what I might think. While it might sting sometimes, and their perceptions may not always be right, it helps to know what they’re honestly thinking so we can work through their thoughts together. But I’m also glad when they intentionally take time to say things which they truly believe, and which they know will please me .

Such is the case in David’s prayer today, which he ends with these words:

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).

This entire Psalm is filled with “pleasing words,” words which David carefully and intentionally poured out to the God who gave him life.

He starts by talking about how glorious God is, and how His creation declares His glory to the ends of the earth:

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 19:1-4a)

I can see how those words would be pleasing to the God, the Creator, the One who created the earth and everything in it. Then he continues by speaking poetically about how magnificently the sun crosses the sky:

“In the heavens He has pitched a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat” (Psalm 19:4b-6).

Then he launches into a carefully worded anaphora, a grammatical technique of emphasizing an idea by repeating that same idea in different ways. The Psalms are some of the first writings in the world to use this technique which has been subsequently used by writers like Shakespeare and speechmakers like Churchill:

“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.
The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous.”
(Psalm 19:7-9).

When I read this Psalm this week, I thought, “Imagine the care and thoughtfulness David must have put into crafting his words of praise to God in this way. He took a topic that was dear to him and dear to God’s heart, and then through repeating phrases, was able to express to God what he was feeling deep inside.”

I wondered what it would do for my prayer life if I could be as careful and thoughtful in my prayers to God as David was in this Psalm. It seemed like so much work, though, so I just continued writing in my journal as I normally do. But what came out of my pen next surprised me! It was a fully formed anaphora of my own!

“A desire for alcohol is not only for alcohol, but for relief from pain.
A desire for a person is not only for that person, but for relief from loneliness.
A desire for food is not only for food, but for relief from hunger….”

My poem went on for several more lines, describing the various things that people crave to bring relief from real pains. I was surprised at how easily the thoughts flowed from my mind to the paper in front of me. At the end of my thoughts, and my conversation with God, I wrote:

“Thank You for my mind and the ability You’ve given me to think. It’s remarkable. Thank You.”

And as I wrote those words, along with my thanks and praise to God for something I saw that He had created–my mind—I felt a touch of what David must have felt when he wrote his words, giving thanks and praise to God for something he saw that God had created–the heavens and His Word. Any father would be pleased to hear his children think and speak about those things in the world around him which the Father had a hand in creating. It shows honor and respect and true thankfulness.

There’s a time and place for “raw prayers,” prayers that just pour out whatever’s on our hearts to God, however they might sound. But there’s also a time and place for “pleasing prayers,” prayers that are carefully crafted to express other truths on our hearts that also bring pleasure and praise to the God who gave us life.

These aren’t words to butter up God to get what we want, but to honestly acknowledge Him for who He is, realizing how good and right and wise and perfect He is in all of His ways, and in all that He’s created–including us.

We can trust Him and trust His Word, even when He says things we don’t want to hear. We can trust Him that He really does know best.

What words could you speak today that would be pleasing to God? What insights has He given you into His ways or His Word or His creation that could bring out your praise for Him that is truly in your heart?

Why not take some time to voice those thoughts to Him, to write them out with a pen and paper, or type them out on a keyboard or keypad, or voice them out in a song or a poem?

Let the words within you flow out from your heart as a stream of praise to Him, as David’s words did when he said:

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).

Will you pray with me?

Father God, thank You for letting us see that David not only poured out his pain, but also his praise, in ways that brought pleasure and glory to You. Help us to do the same, being honest and real with our problems and pains, but also with our praise and adoration. Help us to think carefully and intentionally about ways we can bring glory to You, both in our hearts and in our words that flow out of them. Let them be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Eric Elder

And here’s the link once again to today’s scripture reading:
Psalm 19, read by Lana Elder, with Edward MacDowell’s “To A Wild Rose,” played by Josiah Elder

And here’s the link to our reading plan of the Psalms. There’s plenty of time to catch up–even if you haven’t already started reading!
2017 Reading Plan for Psalms


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Raw Prayers- Psalm 13


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

RAW PRAYERS – PSALM 13
Lesson 3 of Psalms: Lessons in Prayer

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

You can listen to today’s psalm here:
Psalm 13, read by Lana Elder, with music by Tchaikovsky played by Makari Elder

One of the beauties of reading through the psalms is that it touches on so many emotions that you don’t have to read very far into it to find something that will match what you’re going through. And when you find that something, you can pour out your heart to God in prayer, often using the same words that you’re reading on the pages in front of you.

Within just a few psalms, we’ve already seen David’s emotions range from eager expectation to awe-filled wonder to today’s psalm, in which he pours out some raw prayers full of pain and sorrow. Psalm 13 starts with these words:

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide Your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” (Psalm 13, 5-6a, NIV).

This is a man in pain, a man in anguish, a man who’s wondering if God is even listening any more. In The Message translation of the Bible, David’s words are paraphrased like this:

“Long enough, God–You’ve ignored me long enough. I’ve looked at the back of Your head long enough” (Psalm 13:, 5-6a, MSG)

Those are some raw words. They’re guttural. And they express the real sorrow in his heart..

Maybe you’ve felt this way before. Maybe you feel this way right now. If so, let me encourage you to say some raw words of your own to God. The pain you’re feeling is real, and it’s really okay to express to God how you’re really feeling. God can take it, and there are times when you just need to say it like David did.

I was speaking to a group of people a few weeks ago who were going through various tragedies in their lives. They had lost husbands or wives, sons or daughters, friends or family members. They were dealing with divorce. They were trying to find their way out of addictions. They were experiencing pain at its worst, and I was asked to speak to them about worshipping God in the hard times. (You can listen to the message here.)

I don’t usually say certain words. They’re not part of my normal vocabulary. But during my talk, in an unscripted moment, I covered the microphone and said out loud what I knew many in the room were feeling. I said, “In some of these dark times, you just say, ‘God, this really sucks.'” Nods of agreement began throughout the room.

When the night was over, one of the leaders of the group told me that my talk had really touched the people. And the one thing they said that impacted them the most was the moment when I covered the microphone and said what I said. In that moment, they said, they knew that I knew exactly what they were going through, and that opened them up to hear the rest of what I had to say.

Sometimes we need to get really honest with God, too–to say exactly what’s on our hearts–even if it’s not “pretty,” or “religious,” or what we think we’re “supposed” to say. Sometimes we just need to just let it all out–lay it all out–before God, who sees our pain and knows what’s on our hearts already anyway.

Sometimes we read the psalms, or sing them in songs, and they begin to sound so holy, so poetic, so “nice,” that we can miss just how raw they really are. Eugene Petersen, who translated the Psalms from the original Hebrew into English for The Message translation, said this in his introduction to the Psalms:

“In English translation, the Psalms often sound smooth and polished, sonorous with Elizabethan rhythms and diction. As literature, they are beyond compare. But as prayer, as the utterances of men and women passionate for God in moments of anger and praise and lament, these translations miss something. Grammatically, they are accurate. The scholarship undergirding the translation is superb and devout. But as prayers they are not quite right. The Psalms in Hebrew are earthy and rough. They are not genteel. They are not the prayers of nice people, couched in cultured language.”

I can only imagine the types of words David and the 400 men with him used while they were hiding out in the caves of the dessert while the king and his army were hunting them down to kill them. The men with David were described as “All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented…” (1 Samuel 22:2a, NIV). I can guess that at least a few of their conversations were far from genteel.

And I can believe that at least a few of David’s conversations with God sounded just as earthy and rough. I can hear it in the English translation, but only if I really think about what he was really going through and how shocking it is that he really said some of the things he said to God. It’s not like David suddenly switched into his “religious” voice when talking to God. He just said it like it was. He told God what He was feeling, in a way that he really felt it.

But then somewhere along the way, while pouring out his pain to God, David begins to praise Him instead. He begins to sing to God that not matter what he’s going through, he still trusts in God’s unfailing love. No matter what happens, he still praises God for having been so good to him. The psalm ends with these words:

“But I trust in Your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for He has been good to me” (Psalm 13:5-6, NIV).

How can a man go from pouring out his pain to pouring out his praise in the matter of a few sentences? We see the same thing happen in the book of Job, where Job, who has just lost nearly everything that was dear to him in a single day, tears his robes and falls to the ground. Yet he didn’t just fall to the ground and lie there. The Bible says “he fell to the ground in worship,” saying:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21, NIV).

Somehow, Job was able to pour out his pain and pour out his praise, nearly simultaneously. Somehow, like David, Job knew he could still trust in God’s His unfailing love–no matter what.

If you’re in pain today–in anguish–or if  things look so bleak you’re not sure how you’ll be able to stand it, let me encourage you to try doing what David did, what Job did, and what I at times have had to do: pour out your pain to God, in words that are real and raw, then pour out your praise to Him as well, trusting in God’s unfailing love for yourself.

You might feel like God is being slow to show up, taking His dear sweet time to answer your prayers. You might wonder if He’s even listening at all, because you feel like the only thing you can see is the back of His head. But the truth is, God is listening. He does care. And He is answering your prayers, even if you can’t see those answers yet, or even for a long time.

Pour out your pain. Keep trusting in His unfailing love. And you might just find yourself like David, pouring out your praise as well, saying, “for He has been good to me.”

Will you pray with me?

Jesus, thank You for giving us David’s example of how to pray raw prayers, guttural prayers, prayers that truly express what’s on our hearts. Thank You for letting us see how David and Job and others have been able to not only fall down when they’re in pain, but to still worship You as they fall. Help us to talk to You like they did, and help us to trust in You the way they trusted in You. Thank You for being so worthy of our trust and praise. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Eric Elder

P.S. Here’s the link to the audio message I mentioned earlier:
Worshipping God in the Hard Times

And here’s the link, once again, to today’s scripture reading:
Psalm 13, read by Lana Elder, with Tchaikovsky’s “The Sick Doll,” played by Makari Elder

And here’s the link to our reading plan if you want to read through all of the Psalms with us this year:
2017 Reading Plan For Psalms


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Magnifying Prayers- Psalm 8


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

MAGNIFYING PRAYERS – PSALM 8
Lesson 2 of Psalms: Lessons in Prayer

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

You can listen to today’s psalm here:
Psalm 8, read by Lana Elder, with Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” played by Eric Elder

I set up a telescope one night to look at the moon and the stars. My kids couldn’t believe what they were seeing: how detailed and three-dimensional the moon looked, hanging there in space; how many stars there were–hundreds, thousands, millions–all glittering in the night sky.

They could hardly believe that each star was like our own sun–some bigger, some smaller, spread all throughout space! Each flicker of light that looked like it was no bigger than the head of a pin was, in fact, full of power, warmth, and wonder like our own sun–and there were a shining multitude of them everywhere we looked!

All this revelation, all this insight, all this awe came from simply holding a type of magnifying glass up to what we normally see on a regular basis nearly every day.

As I was reading through the psalms and looking for secrets of effective prayer, these words from Psalm 8 stood out to me:

“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth! … When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have set in place, what is man that You are mindful of him, the son of man that You care for him?” (Psalm 8:1a, 3-4, NIV).

Something happens inside us when we hold up a magnifying glass to the world around us. It opens us up to seeing the incredible work that God has created in a new way. And that fresh perspective can help us to see our own problems in a new way as well.

King David, who wrote these words from Psalm 8 nearly 3,000 years ago, was struck with the same awe and wonder as my kids on the night I set up a telescope for them. As he considered the heavens, the work of God’s fingers, the moon and the stars which God had set in place, he burst out in praise! “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!”

And that made David look at his own life in a new way, saying, “What is man that You are mindful of him, the son of man that You care for him?”

Yet David realized that God was mindful of him. God did care for him. In fact, the same God who took such care to create the world that David saw created him with the same care–and not only created him with care, but considered him worthy to take care of the incredible creation around him!

God, it seems, has a magnifying glass of His own. When He looks at us, He looks with such detail that He can count the number of hairs on our head (see Luke 12:7). He cares for us so much that He has created us in His own image, and given us the task of caring for the rest of His whole creation.

If you wonder if God cares for you, just take out a magnifying glass today, literally, and look at one or two things in God’s creation. You’ll get a new perspective on your own life almost immediately.

This is what happened to William Wilberforce, a member of parliament who played a major role in ending the slave trade in England in the early 1800’s. He came to faith one day, not by looking up into the sky, but by looking down into the majesty of his garden. What he saw there so fascinated him that he plopped down on the wet grass to take a closer look. What he saw was the marvel of a spider’s web.

The movie Amazing Grace captures this faith-defining moment in the life of Wilberforce like this, as his butler finds him in the garden and wonders aloud what he’s found:

“It’s God,” said Wilberforce. “I have 10,000 engagements of state today but I would prefer to spend the day out here getting a wet arse, studying dandelions and marveling at… bloody spider’s webs.”

“You found God, sir?” the butler asks.

“I think He found me,” Wilberforce responds. “You have any idea how inconvenient that is? How idiotic it will sound? I have a political career glittering ahead of me, and in my heart I want spider’s webs.” 

Wilberforce found God by looking closely at a spider’s web, or, as he puts it in the movie, “I think He found me.”

I learned something new about spider’s webs just last week. My son told me that he learned in his biology book that a spider’s web is sticky only on certain strands of the silk it weaves, but that other strands aren’t sticky at all, so that it doesn’t get stuck when scurrying around on its own web. God somehow endowed the spider with the ability to spin different types of silk depending on the need.

I must have missed that fact when I took biology, but it was a little tidbit which enlarged my awe and wonder of God once again. How God instilled in a spider the wisdom and ability to know how to spin a web at all, or which silk to spin for which purpose, made me consider not only how clever the spider is, but how clever the God who created the spider is! And if God did this for a spider, imagine what He’s done for me, whom God says He has created as the pinnacle of all He has created on the earth, made in the very image of God Himself!

That thought makes me want to burst out in praise to God as well: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!” And it makes me look at the situations I’m facing in a new way as well.

What loomed large and overwhelming to me at the beginning of my prayers suddenly seems puny in comparison to what God could do in each of those situations.  Heal a cut?  Mend a relationship? Breathe new life into something in my life that has died?

What seemed improbable just moments earlier suddenly seems no problem for the God who placed every star in the sky and knows each one by name (see Psalm 147:4)!

The God who holds creation together can certainly hold my life together as well. By magnifying God and His creation, I can see how small–how manageable–my own problems are in comparison. Whatever I face, God knows how to handle it.

If you’re facing problems today that are overwhelming you, take out a magnifying glass. Literally. Take a look at one or two things around you today–your fingerprint, a flower, or even a spider’s web. Or take out a telescope and look at the nighttime sky. Or just take a look around you at any ordinary object, but look closely to see the colors, the shapes, the details that you may have overlooked before.

Then marvel and wonder at the God who created all that makes up everything you see. Marvel and wonder that the same God who created each of these things created you with the same care–and has believed in you and trusted in you enough to put you in charge of the care of His incredible creation.

Will you pray with me?

Jesus, thank You for your magnificent creation. Thank You for including me in your plans when You created the world. Thank You for Your promise to finish the work You’ve begun in me. Help me to sort out the things I’m facing. Bring order to my world. Bring peace to my heart. Bring wisdom to my mind. I ask all this in Your name, Amen. 

Eric Elder

P.S. Here’s the link again to today’s scripture reading:
Psalm 8, read by Lana Elder, with Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” played by Eric Elder

P.P.S. And here’s the link to our reading plan if you want to read with us through all of the Psalms this year. There’s plenty of time to catch up. Just pick up and keep reading along! 2017 Reading Plan For Psalms.


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Morning Prayers- Psalm 5


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

MORNING PRAYERS – PSALM 5
Lesson 1 of Psalms: Lessons in Prayer

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

You can listen to today’s psalm here:
Psalm 5, read by Lana Elder, with music by Bach played by Bo Elder

As I was reading through the book of Psalms, I was looking for secrets to having a more effective prayer life. I didn’t get very far into the book when I found one:

“In the morning, O Lord, You hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before You and wait in expectation” (Psalm 5:3, NIV).

There’s something about morning prayers that make them hopeful. After a night of rest, it’s time to start a new day, a fresh day.

I’ve often prayed in the morning, waking up, taking out my Bible and a journal and a pen, then sitting quietly before God. But what I noticed differently in this Psalm is that the author, David, came to God with a spirit of expectancy.

David didn’t just come to God with a list of requests. He came with hope in his heart, expectant that God would answer. David knew the goodness of God. He knew that God was with Him. He knew that God was for him, just like He is for each one of us.

Our prayers have a purpose–not just because they quiet our hearts or help to organize our thoughts. Our prayers have a purpose because they involve another Person. They involve Someone who knows what you’re facing and who has the wisdom and ability to do something about them.

God really does know what you’re going through. He really does care. And that’s why you can come to God with the pieces of your life and ask God to help you put them together.

I love the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases David’s words in The Message translation of the Bible:

“Every morning you’ll hear me at it again. Every morning I lay out the pieces of my life on Your altar and watch for fire to descend” (Psalm 5:3, The Message).

Those words are so hopeful–so helpful. When I read these words I began doing this in my mind’s eye, with my own prayers. I began laying out the pieces of my life on God’s altar, with expectancy in my heart, then watching throughout the day for God’s fire to descend–just like it had descended in times past when people offered their sacrifices to God’s on an altar.

And I began seeing answers, that very day!

After having just written in my journal about what I should do for the day, I got a text from a neighbor at 7:05 a.m. offering to bring over lunch. Then I received word that an anniversary party was cancelled, which I had been wondering if I should attend or not. Then, after taking a morning walk with my wife and praying with her about a situation our daughter was facing, our daughter texted to say how God had just worked it all out! It was as if God were underscoring the words of David for me about laying out the pieces of his life on God’s altar, then waiting in expectation.

It’s good to pray at night or at the end of a project, as that allows us time to reflect on what God has done and to give thanks for what’s been accomplished. But in order to be most effective, it’s also important to offer our prayers up to God on the front end, inviting Him to speak and to work and to be involved in whatever we’re facing.

Martin Luther famously said:

“I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”

God wants to be a co-laborer with you.  He has things He wants to accomplish in and through you. And when you talk about those things with Him up front, He can help you sort them out and let you know what He can do and what you can do. In that way, you can bring it to pass together.

Not every answer comes right away, but that doesn’t mean we still can’t have expectancy in our heart. The past few weeks, my kids and I have been praying every morning for some royalty checks to be deposited in my account for some music I’ve written and produced.  While I normally receive these checks monthly, and they help to pay for the ministry that we do, the checks were delayed because of a new arrangement between the music companies involved. Every morning we’ve been praying, and every day we’ve been hopeful for an answer. At the same time, I’ve been working with the music companies, sending emails and making phone calls and having online chats, trying to help move the process along. I’m doing everything I can, but I’m trusting God with those things I can’t do. So every day we pray for the people involved in this process–the computer programmers, the accountants, and the decision-makers–asking God to give them wisdom as they work out the details.

Then just on Friday night, for the first time in months, I started seeing those deposits coming into my account. One, two, three, four of them! As the night went on, there were more: five, six, seven, eight! The deposits kept coming as the system started working again! I praised God, together with my kids, knowing that relief was on the way!

Come to God in the morning. Sit down with Him and go over your day. Ask Him what He wants you to do. Ask Him to do what you know you can’t do. Then be on the lookout for His answers. They may not come that day, but they might! And they may not come the next day, or the next month, as I had hoped while waiting for my missing royalties.

But even if you don’t see an answer right away, don’t think that God isn’t working on your behalf. Remember what God told Daniel, through an angel that God sent to him twenty-one days after Daniel had begun praying:

“Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them” (Daniel 10:12).

God hears your prayers the moment you utter them. So why not utter them the first thing in the morning? Invite God into your day. Let Him order your steps. Lay out the pieces of your life on God’s altar, then wait in expectation.

Will you pray with me? Then after the prayer, I’d like to share a short thought with you in the P.S. about today’s reading of Psalm 5 that I shared in the link at the beginning of this message.

Jesus, thank You for loving me the way You do. Thank You for caring for me. Thank You for creating me with a purpose in mind, with good works that You want me to do. Help me, Lord, to accomplish those works today. Help me to know that You’ll be with me, working right alongside me, doing what only You can do, while I do whatever I can do. Help me to see the answers to my prayers, whether today, tomorrow, or down the road. Help me to trust You and look to You with a spirit of expectation, knowing that You are good, that You are kind, that You are loving, and that You are ultimately for me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

P.S. When I first contemplated writing this series of messages on prayer, I asked my wife, Lana, if she would be willing to read and record each of the thirty messages I was going to use in this series. Lana had a beautiful reading voice, and she had recorded other Scripture CDs in the past, which I paired with some beautiful music in the background. I had sometimes even invited her onstage with me when I preached, so she could read the passage about which I was preaching, as her voice was so calming and beautiful.

Soon after we planned out the series, Lana was diagnosed with terminal cancer. We were shocked, but we were committed to prayer and to this series, no matter what. Lana went ahead and recorded all thirty passages, plus a few more, knowing that no matter what happened to her, God’s Word, once sent out, would never return without accomplishing that for which God sent it. It’s been almost five years now since Lana recorded these passages for this series. And while her life passed just a few months after she recorded these psalms, like a radiant flower that blooms one day then fades the next, she knew that God’s Word would never fade away. As it says in Isaiah:

“The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:7-8, NIV).

Here’s the link again to Lana’s reading of today’s psalm, paired with music by Bach (“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”) played by our son, Bo. I pray as you listen that God will fill your heart with a spirit of expectancy that He will answer your prayers. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Psalm 5, read by Lana Elder, with music by Bach played by Bo Elder

And here’s the link again to our reading plan for this series if you’d like to read read through the whole book of Psalms with us this year: 2017 Reading Plan For Psalms.


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Conversations With God


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

CONVERSATIONS WITH GOD
Introduction to Psalms: Lessons in Prayer

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

I love talking to God. It’s often the highlight of my day.

For some, like my friend Dan Mountney, waking up and talking with God brings focus to everything else that happens in his day. “It centers me,” Dan says.

For some, like Adrian Rogers, talking to God brings clarity to what God wants him to do. When asked by a reporter if God had spoken to Adrian like the reporter had just spoken to him, Adrian replied, “Oh, no! It was much louder than that.”

For some, like Billy Graham, talking with God is like talking with a best friend. “How do you know God exists?” Billy was once asked. “Because I spoke with Him this morning,” he replied.

What about you? How would you rate your conversations with God? As much as I love talking with God, I still feel in many ways that I am just scratching the surface of what my conversations with Him could be like.

Five years ago, my wife Lana and I were talking about prayer. Lana said, “I’d like to learn more about prayer.”

I was stunned. Lana’s prayer life was already deep and rich and full. She prayed continually, in private and out loud, for me, for our family, for our friends, for missionaries, for entire countries. She prayed for breakthroughs and healings and restorations. She prayed for forgiveness and for a greater love for others. Yet with all she had learned about prayer over the years, she still wanted more.

For me, that was Lesson #1 in going deeper in my own prayer life, to simply know that there’s always more.

At that same time, I was wanting to take a closer look at the book of Psalms. What was it about this book that made it one of the most beloved books in the Bible? What secrets did it hold that made publishers often publish it by itself, or pair it as the one Old Testament book to go along with the entire New Testament? Why do people seem to quote so often from the Psalms, as Jesus did, more than any other book in the Bible?

By combining my curiosity about the Psalms with Lana’s desire to learn more about prayer, we took a deeper dive together into this book to see what we could discover in its depths. We learned that the book of Psalms is really a book of prayers; in fact, it’s the oldest prayer book in the world. The word “psalm” means “song” in Hebrew, the language in which the psalms were originally written. And since they are all songs to God, they are often considered prayers as much as anything else–conversations with Him that came from deep in the author’s heart.

We learned that over half of those “conversations with God” were voiced by King David, as specifically noted in the text, with many of the others alluding to his authorship based on the situations described in the psalms. I was personally looking forward to learning all I could from this man whom God described as “a man after My own heart” (see Acts 13:22).

What I wasn’t expecting was that the next year of our lives would take such an unexpected twist: soon after we began this deeper dive into the book of Psalms and the topic of prayer, Lana was diagnosed with cancer. Ten days later, we were told it was terminal. And nine months after that, Lana was gone, having passed from this life to the next.

It crushed me, and it crushed a part of my heart at the same time. If I had known this would happen when we first decided we wanted to have a deeper, richer and fuller prayer life, I’m not sure we would have done it.

But I was reminded of this thought again when a friend was telling me how he had recently made a decision to go deeper in his relationship with God. He began by waking up ten minutes earlier each day to read his Bible and pray. The following week, he woke up ten minutes earlier still. And the week after that, he woke up ten minutes earlier still, continuing this pattern until he was now waking up an hour or more earlier than usual so he could have as much time with God as possible.

He then told me about several things that had gotten increasingly harder in his life during this time: his work situation, family’s heath and his finances.

It reminded me of the difficulties Lana and I had faced soon after we made our decision to go deeper with God. I was tempted to say something to this effect when my friend said something that stopped me:

“I am so glad I decided to do this with God,” he said, “because if I hadn’t, I don’t know how I could have gotten through this time in any other way.” 

My friend was right. He was absolutely right. If Lana and I had not committed ourselves to a deeper walk with God, I don’t know how we could have gotten through what we had to go through, either. And how much better it is to be on the path of going deeper with God before life throws its worst at you, rather than waiting till it hits you full on? The time I’ve spent grounding myself in God, and in my relationship with Him, is the one thing above all else that has helped me through some of the most difficult challenges in my life.

So here it is, five years since Lana and I decided to take that deeper dive into the topic of prayer as seen through the lens of the Psalms, and now I’d like to share with you some of the lessons that I’ve learned. Along the way, I’ll also tell you about some of the miraculous answers to prayer I’ve seen and some of the amazing conversations with God I’ve had, many of which are no less miraculous or amazing to me than those I read about in the book of Psalms. The same God who walked with David through his highs and lows is the same God who has walked with me through mine–and who will walk with you through yours.

I pray God will speak to you in a special way during your time with Him, both while we’re doing this study together, and on your own for the rest of your days. I can think of nothing more incredible than to be able to talk personally with the God who created you, who knows you better than you know yourself, and who loves you like no one else on earth ever could.

I’m looking forward to our time together. I hope you are, too. I’ll share the details of how we’ll work through the book of Psalms in the P.S. below. But first, will you pray with me?

Dear Jesus, I am so thankful that we can come to you each and every day, all day, at any time during the day, and have a conversation with You. You are so loving and gracious, so kind and helpful, so wise and so knowledgable about all things, including me. Help me as I go through this day. Walk me through every situation I face. Help me to learn all that You want me to learn as we walk through this study of the book of Psalms. In Your name we pray, Amen.

P.S. Here’s my plan for going through the book of Psalms:

There are 150 psalms in the book of Psalms, each containing its own particular thought or theme. For this study, I’m going to share some thoughts with you from 30 of those 150 psalms. If you’d like to read all 150 on your own, I’d suggest reading one psalm a day for five days, starting with Psalms 1-5 this week. I’ll be highlighting one of those five psalms every week in my weekly Sunday message. By reading just five psalms a week, you’ll have two extra days per week to take a break or catch up on your reading as we go along. I also plan on taking a break for a week or two every six or seven weeks, which will give you a break and still more time to catch up if you need it. If you follow along with this plan as we go through the study, you’ll have read through the entire book of Psalms by the end of it. For those who like charts and check marks, I’ve typed up my weekly plan for this series, which you can view or print to put in your Bible. Here’s the link to the 2017 Reading Plan For Psalms.

Thanks for reading along with me! Enjoy!

Eric Elder


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- This Week’s Sermon and New Series Coming!

Note from Eric: Would you like to read through the Psalms with me this year? It’ll be easy… we’ll just read one Psalm a day for five days each week. Then once a week, in our regular Sunday messages on “This Day’s Though from The Ranch,” I’ll share with you something I’ve learned from one of the five Psalms from that week.

As we’re reading through the Psalms, I’ll be looking particularly at how to have a more effective prayer life. Psalms is one of the most beloved books of the Bible and one of the most quoted books in the world. Why? That’s what we’re going to find out!

You don’t need to do anything special to receive these weekly messages. Just look for the Sunday message each week, which you already receive as part of your subscription to “This Day’s Thought from The Ranch.”

What you can do, however, is invite someone else to read through the Psalms with you this year! Just forward this email to them and ask if they’d like to sign up for our free daily emails as well. Your friends will get our inspirational quotes each day, just like you do, including this new series on the Psalms on Sundays. Just invite them to sign up for “This Day’s Thought from The Ranch” on the home page of our website at this link: http://theranch.org.

We’ll start with Psalm 1 next Sunday, February 19th. I’m looking forward to this new series. I hope you are, too!

Sincerely,
Eric Elder


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

Receiving God’s Guidance

by Christian Cheong

 
This is the story of how God guided Abraham’s servant to find the wife for his son Isaac. We’re going to learn some principles in receiving God’s guidance.

Our God is a God who guides, and who wants to guide.

• He did that for Abraham – bringing him out from his homeland to Israel.

• He did that for Moses and the people – from Egypt to Canaan.

• He did that for the wise men who wanted to see baby Jesus – so He showed them the way through a star in the sky.

Today, God wants to guide you in your choices – if you allow Him.

2 Chron 7:14 “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 will heal their land.”

Rom 10:9 “If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

1 John 1:9 “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

It is not that God do not want to guide us, it is more often the case that we do not want to listen to His advice. We ignore His guidance.

RETURN TO THE CABIN

A flight attendant spent a week’s vacation in the Rockies. She was captivated by the mountain peaks, the clear blue skies, and the beautiful forest. She also was charmed by a very eligible bachelor who owned and operated a cattle ranch and lived in a log cabin.

At the end of this week, after a wonderful time with this bachelor, she has to return home to her job. While on board the place, she was pondering, “Should I go back to the city or return to the woods and stay with this man in the cabin for the rest of her life?” She was struggling but believes that God will give her an answer.

To refresh herself, she went into the rest room and splashed some water on her face. Just then, there was some turbulence, a ‘ding’ sound went off and then a sign in the rest room lit up: PLEASE RETURN TO THE CABIN.

She did – to the cabin back in the mountains.

…Modified from Reader’s Digest [1/81], p. 118.

I hope this is not the way you make decisions in life.

• Making the right choice is a dilemma for many people, including Christians.

• How can you and I be certain that we are in God’s will and that the decisions we are making are the right ones?

• This is an important subject for all of us since we all must make important decisions.

This passage in Genesis 24 deals with this subject and problem.

• In this chapter we not only see God providing guidance to His people in an important matter but we also see the conditions under which that guidance was provided.

• These conditions, which could also be referred to as principles, are what I will discuss today.

There are 4 key principles that can help us.

The 1st principle for receiving God’s guidance: Knowing God’s Word.

[See verses 3-4]

We must know God’s will and purposes to help direct our actions and decisions.

• And that knowledge comes first and foremost from God’s Word.

• God’s Word reveals God’s plan, principles and purposes.

• We need to start with that. Without this knowledge, you might as well do whatever you want.

Abraham knew right at the start what he was looking for.

• He gave very clear instruction to the servant where to find a wife for Isaac – not among the daughters of the Canaanites.

• Boundaries have been set because Abraham knew what was right in God’s sight.

Knowledge of God’s Word is the first step in the right direction.

We see Abraham taking steps to see that God’s plan is fulfilled.

• God promised to make him a great nation.

• Isaac must marry and have children for the covenant blessings to be received.

• Abraham understands this, so he doesn’t sit idly and wait for God’s plan to be fulfilled.

• He does his part and takes appropriate action; in this case he begins to look for a wife for Isaac.

Sometimes we think that if God guides us, it means we do not have to do anything.

• Like people who are out of work and yet refuse to go look for a job because they are waiting for God to provide a job.

• Such thinking is unbiblical. God wants us to do our part, but to do it while being guided by the knowledge of God’s Word.

This was what Abraham did!

• His search for a wife wasn’t based on human standards or desires but guided by his knowledge of God’s will.

• Why did he insist that Isaac’s wife be from his own relatives and not from the local people of Canaan? Why did he insist on this condition?

• Because he knew enough of God’s will to know that God wouldn’t bless a marriage to a Canaanite woman.

God did not tell him specifically, “You cannot take a Canaanite woman for Isaac.”

• Although no specific command, God did reveal to Abraham the wicked character of the people of Canaan.

• And he knew that to marry one of them would not be pleasing to God.

• Although no clear command from God, he did have enough information to make reasonable inferences.

In other words, we apply biblical principles to the situation.

• There are many situations in life that we do not have a specific command in the Bible, but we are to apply the principles we come to know from the Scriptures.

• And make a decision that is in line with the character of God.

So, the first principle for receiving God’s guidance is: Knowing God’s Word.

• Psalm 119:105 “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.”

NO LIGHT ON THE RUNWAY

Consider the experience of a friend of mine, who was a recreational pilot when he was younger. On one occasion, he flew his single-engine plane toward his home base at a small country airport.

Unfortunately, he waited too long to start back and arrived in the vicinity of the field as the sun dropped behind a mountain. By the time he maneuvered his plane into position to land, he could not see the hazy runway below.

There were no lights to guide him and no one on duty at the airport. He circled the field for another attempt to land, but by then the darkness had become even more impenetrable. For 2 desperate hours, he flew his plane around and around in the blackness of the night, knowing that probably death awaited him when he ran out of fuel.

Then as greater panic gripped him, a miracle occurred. Someone on the ground heard the continuing drone of his engine and realized his predicament. That merciful man drove his car back and forth on the runway to show my friend the location of the airstrip. Then he let his lights cast their beam from the far end while the plane landed.

…James Dobson shared this about his friend in The New Strong-Willed Child, p. xi.

It is very critical that we know the will of God.

• Jewish proverb: “It is better to ask the way ten times than to take the wrong road once.”

• “For a painter, he cannot do without a brush. For a carpenter, he cannot do without a hammer. For us, our life can do without God’s Word.”

The 2nd principle for receiving God’s guidance: Be Committed to God’s Will.

[See verses 5-6]

We have to DECIDE, right at the start, to keep to God’s plan.

• Abraham was serious about doing it right. It is one thing to know, it is quite another to be completely committed to it.

• It would not be easy to get a wife who is willing to follow the servant back, but he was committed to staying within the boundary lines.

• And it was a success. This story shows us that God guides us when we are committed to His will and not our own.

“If no woman is willing to come to this land (so far), can we just take Isaac back home and settle there?”

• The servant is basically asking: Can we change plan if it doesn’t work?

• Abraham said NO! God has already revealed to him that He is going to give him and his descendants this land.

• So Isaac is not going to leave this ‘promised land’.

Abraham makes it clear that he is totally committed to following God’s plan.

• It makes the servant’s job very difficult, but Abraham is committed to doing it God’s way.

• You see, he is determined to align himself to God’s plan, not the other way around. We don’t change plan and fit ourselves.

King Solomon, the wisest man of all times, wrote Proverb 3:5-6

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”

• NLT translates as “Seek His will in all you do, and (then) He (The Lord) will direct your paths.”

• For a person with great wisdom to say this is special. He is so wise, and yet needs to consult God in all ways.

God eventually worked supernaturally to fulfil His plan.

• God will work supernaturally in your life to bring about His plans, but only when you are committed to doing His will.

The 1st principle for receiving God’s guidance: Knowing God’s Word.

The 2nd principle for receiving God’s guidance: Committing to God’s Will.

The 3rd principle for receiving God’s guidance: Trusting in God’s Ways.

[See verses 7-8]

Faith is crucial. You must trust God.

• Without that, you won’t keep to His plan. You don’t believe that it will happen as God promised.

In verse 7 Abraham recounts that God had made promises that included his offspring staying in this land.

Since God made that promise, Abraham expects Him to keep it by supplying a wife for Isaac.
• His confidence is based on God’s promise, not on personal desire.

• God honours those who trust in His Word!

In verse 8 Abraham acknowledges that it may not happen as he expects.

• This isn’t a lack of trust in God – just an acknowledgment that God may provide in a different manner that he expects.

• Whatever it is, “only do not take my son back there.” We are not going to change God’s plan. We must have this determination to stay the course!

• One way or the other God will provide for His will to be done without His people compromising on His Word!

Many people express a trust in God but their trust is that God will provide what they want and desire, according to their own plans

• Abraham really believes that God will provide on this trip, even though it looks extremely remote.

• What are the chances that his servant can travel 800km, meet a qualified woman from Abraham’s own family, and convince her and her family to let her travel to a distant land and marry a man she or the family has never met?

• Human insight or understanding would say, “No chance!”

• Nevertheless, in verse 7, Abraham clearly expects God to do just this by sending an angel to guide and provide.

• He is not trusting in his own understanding or insight but is rather trusting in God’s ways.

King Solomon says (Prov 3:5): “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”

Whether the issue is marriage, career, studies, ministry, or some other life issue, we must trust God to supernaturally arrange the circumstances at the right time and in the right way.

That’s the 3th principle for receiving God’s guidance: Trusting in God’s Ways.

The 4th principle for receiving God’s guidance is to pray for God’s Wisdom.

The servant did not assume that he would recognize the woman God had prepared.

[See verse 12] He prayed.

• Notice something – after travelling a 800km journey on camel, the servant arrived at the perfect place to meet a young, unmarried woman at the very time the women would be coming to the well to draw water.

• What a coincidence. No, it’s what providence!

• God had arranged the circumstances perfectly for His will to be fulfilled in this situation.

Abraham’s knowledge, commitment, and trust were not in vain.

• God was working behind the scene.

• God will direct our circumstances so that His will is successfully fulfilled in our lives if we do our part to KNOW His Word, be COMMITTED to His Will, TRUST in His ways, and then PRAY for wisdom.

• I believe many of you can look back on your life and see evidence of God working and guiding your circumstances in remarkable ways!

• It is reassuring to see how powerful and wise our God is in directing our lives.

The servant realizes that this is a divine opportunity, so he prays for success and guidance.

• James 1:5 “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.”

• We miss God’s guidance and divine opportunities because they do not pray.

Often we go through life just making decisions based on our own wisdom.
• We need to recognize that we do not have the wisdom to direct our own paths or to make right choices; we need to pray for God’s wisdom if we are to receive His guidance.

Continuing, James 1:6-8 “But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.”

These biblical stories are recorded for our practical application today.

We can receive God’s guidance if we have the knowledge of God’s Word, are committed to His will, trust in His ways, and pray for His wisdom.


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- This Week’s Sermon


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

But, God

by Richard Deem

 
There are a number of powerful 2-word phrases found in the Word of God. Phrases such as: Healed all; gathered in; cast out; raised up; pulled down. Each of these phrases are used in context with the power of God. However, there is one phrase used 43 times in Scripture that causes my spirit to leap for joy. That phrase is: BUT, GOD!

This small two word phrase communicates a tremendous message to all who will hear. It is God’s response to Satan’s challenge. It is the bottom line. It is the last word. It is all over but the shouting. “But God”, when viewed in relation to the challenges of life, is what up is to down; life is to death; in is to out. “But God” stand diametrically opposed to the negative roar of the world. The world says no – “but God” says yes. The world says can’t – “but God” says can. The world says won’t — :but God” says will. The world says stop – “but God” says go. The world says don’t – “but God” says do. The world says defeat – “but God” says victory!

“But God” climbs the highest mountain; traverses the darkest valley; and sings songs of victory in the midnight hour. “But God” exclaims “I’m going to the enemy’s camp and I’ll take back what he stole from me!” “But God is courageous, confident and conclusive!”

I’m speaking to you this morning from God’s perspective. I’m encouraging you to put on your Kingdom glasses and see things as God sees them. I want you to know it’s not over until God has His say. I’ve come to exhort you to stay for the entire game – wait until the last seconds tick off the clock; until the “home team” has had its chance. Wait until the last out is made! If you quit too soon, you’ll leave before victory is seen. I want to tell you this morning that the jury may still be out in your situation – all the votes are not in — the fat lady has not sung – God hasn’t had His final say. I’m speaking to you this morning on the subject “But, God . . .”

May I tell you this morning that in that book of miracles you hold in your hand, there are many instances where our adversary [Satan] is confounded and confused. There are stories of his elaborate schemes going awry, because he failed to realize that God would have the final say. Poor devil! He had worked so hard to get everything just right, yet just when he thinks he is victorious, he hears “But God!” Let’s look at a few of his defeats this morning.

  1. He Thought He Could Stop the Plan of God . . . BUT GOD [Acts 7:9; Gen 38-44]

And the patriarchs, moved with envy, sold Joseph into Egypt: BUT GOD was with him,

  1. Pit [Gen 37:22-24]

B. Potifer [Gen 39:1-6a]

C. Prison [Gen 39:7-20]

Echoes of his brothers: “. . .now let’s see what happens to your dreams.”

D. Palace [Gen 41:25-32]

  1. Notice Gen 39:21 & Acts 7:29 “But God was with Joseph!”

II. He Thought He Could Stop the People of God . . . BUT GOD [Eph 2:3-6]

All of us used to be just as they are, our lives expressing the evil within us, doing every wicked thing that our passions or our evil thoughts might lead us into. We started out bad, being born with evil natures, and were under God’s anger just like everyone else. 4 But God is so rich in mercy; he loved us so much 5 that even though we were spiritually dead and doomed by our sins, he gave us back our lives again when he raised Christ from the dead–only by his undeserved favor have we ever been saved– 6 and lifted us up from the grave into glory along with Christ, where we sit with him in the heavenly realms–all because of what Christ Jesus did. [TLB]

A. Perfect [Gen 1:26]

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

B. Putrefied [Eph 2:3]

Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others.

Created to be kings, they now find themselves as paupers. Once were friends with God – now are enemies. Mind once filled with thoughts of God, now has become breeding ground for lust and evil. Once were rulers – now are slaves. History’s greatest tragedy.

C. Promoted [2:6] — BUT GOD!

And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus:

III. He Thought He Could Stop The Power of God … BUT GOD [Acts 13:28-20]

And though they found no cause of death in him, yet desired they Pilate that he should be slain. 29 And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a sepulchre. 30 BUT GOD raised him from the dead:

  1. Pierced [Isa 53]

B. Planted [John 19:38]

And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus.

For something to bloom, it must first be planted!

C. Powerful [Matt 28:18] – BUT GOD!

And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.  Born in a stable, His mother a virgin, raised in a carpenter shop.  His parents were poor His people were slaves, His friends were a lowly lot.  His chances in life seemed so very slim, He’s expected to be a slave.  But people in darkness saw great light in Him And hope of freedom He gave.  All of the power of heaven and earth God had invested in Him.

He’s to die on the cross, descend into hell, Meet the devil, take the keys from Him.  He yielded Himself to the death on the cross, Cried it’s finished and slumped to die, in the regions of hell the devils celebrated, We’ve destroyed the king they cried!

In the midst of the celebration footsteps were heard Walking through the corridors of hell.  Then the shouting stopped as a voice rang out A voice rang out, a voice that rang like a bell.  Satan then trembled as he recognized Him Who had come to deliver His own.  “Shut and lock the gates”, he cried “Don’t let Him ascend to His throne!”

Don’t listen to the lies and disparaging words of our enemy. Realize that God has the final word! See things from the Father’s perspective. Incline your ear and hear “But God!”  Satan says defeat, but God says victory.  Satan says disease, but God says healing.  Etc.


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- This Week’s Sermon


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

Fill Your Pastor’s Joy to the Brim

by Dana Chau

 
This morning, we look at Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 2, verses 1-4.

Someone has said, “Leaders are not grabbed; they are grown.” In most cases, when you see a terrific wife, husband or young adult, chances are she or he didn’t start out that way. The husband of that wonderful wife has a great deal to do with her inner beauty; the wife of that wonderful husband has a great deal to do with his inner beauty; and the parents of the wonderful young adult have a great deal to do with that young adult’s inner beauty. This is not always the case, but nurture does have its impact on nature.

We have a great impact and a great responsibility in shaping the people God entrusts into our lives, especially those we have regular contact with, our co-workers, our clients, our family and even our church family.

A pastor’s conference spoke of how the congregation begins to take on the likeness of its pastor over the years, so the pastor has no one to blame but himself, if he does not like the congregation after a number of years. I would make another claim, that I believe is true: The pastor that the congregation has after a number of years is not the same pastor who signed the contract many years before, but a person shaped by the congregation.

This morning, we will look at the “why” and the “how” to fill your pastor’s joy to the brim. The “why to fill your pastor’s joy to the brim” actually doesn’t come from this passage, but the “how” does. The “why” comes from Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” So what we will talk about this morning also applies to the Elders of the church. At each of our Elders meeting, we spend a portion of the time asking about and praying for your spiritual well-being.

How many of us would do everything possible to be pleasant with our mechanic or at least avoid arguing with him when we leave him our car for repair? I would want my mechanic to be in a great mood, because an unhappy mechanic can lead to a poor repair job, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Again, how many of us would do everything possible to be pleasant with our surgeon, or at least avoid arguing with her before we go under the knife? Again, I would. An unhappy surgeon can lead to my death, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

But few people think about the importance of having happy or joyful pastor and Elders. Our business is the well-being of your souls. We work to make many opportunities for you and your friends to get to know God, and if you already know God, we work to provide many opportunities for you to mature in your relationship with God. We also work to protect your souls and relationships from being damaged by sin and ignorance.

The next time you go into surgery, pray that God will give your surgeon a joyful spirit. He will do a better job on your body. Furthermore, the next time you meet with your pastor or Elder, pray that they would have a joyful spirit. They will do a better job on your soul.

Paul, the church planter and founding pastor of the Philippi Community Christian Church tells us this morning about three areas of progress in which the Philippians can grow to make their pastor’s joy complete. We saw in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians that he was filled with joy, and he encouraged the Philippians to have the same joy. Now he tells the Philippians how they can be involved in filling his joy to the brim!

If you want the best care for your soul, stay awake and learn how you can get involved.

The first area of progress in which you can grow to make your pastor and Elders’ joy complete is the area of reliance upon God. (We read this in chapter 2, verse 1.)

A pastor who truly is concerned about your soul will not find joy in a bigger paycheck. He will not find joy in a plush house. He will not find joy in the compliments he receives from his sermons. A pastor who is truly concerned about the souls of those he shepherds will find joy when the people he shepherds grow to rely on God as their source of strength enough for them to become a giver and not simply a taker.

Paul’s joy begins to be filled to the brim as he assumed the Philippians have encouragement from being united with Christ, that they have comfort from the love of God, that they have fellowship with the Spirit of God, and that all these enable them to express tenderness and compassion toward Paul.

His “if” statements are like that of the father who says to his son, “If you are a man, you would own up to your mistake.” This statement does not question whether his son is a man, but assumes that to be the truth. A mother who says to her daughter, “If you have a nice dress, why not wear the dress to the party?” This statement does not question whether the daughter has a nice dress, but assumes that to be the truth.

The job of the pastor is similar to that of the parents. The parents teach and model a healthy relationship between a man and a woman so that the child can grow up and have a healthy relationship with the opposite sex. That’s why one of the best things you can do for your child is to love your spouse. Similar to a parent, the pastor teaches and models a healthy relationship between a person and God so that the people he shepherds can grow up and have a healthy relationship with God.

When the people have a healthy reliance upon God for encouragement, for comfort and for fellowship, God becomes their source of strength enough to help them become givers and not simply takers.

Let me give you a few examples. When a person can give encouragement to another without expecting in return because she has encouragement from being unite with Christ, then she has found her source of strength in God. Or when a person can comfort someone who is hurting slightly while he himself is hurting badly, because he has his comfort from the love of God, and he has found his source of strength in God. Finally, when a person can offer friendship to those who reject her, because she has the fellowship with the Spirit of God, and she has found her source of strength in God.

We can only find our source of strength in God when we make our goal in life to know God more. Otherwise, we will seek our strength in the wrong places, in money, in prestige, in possession, or in power. These sources not only will not provide the needed strength in life, but they often produce greed and insecurity. Only one who has found his or her source of strength in God can become a giver and not just a taker in life. And the pastor and Elders who see such progress in the people they shepherd will overflow with joy.

The second area of progress in which you can grow to make your pastor and Elders’ joy complete is the area of resolving to be a loving team in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Resolve means to set your mind to doing. (We read this in chapter 2, verse 2 and chapter 4, verses 2-3.)

Paul calls us away from division, not by thinking alike, but by thinking on the same things, the same love, the same spirit and the same purpose. The church at Philippi was not without problems. In fact, Paul gets very specific and begins to name names when he calls other Christians in the church to help Euodia and Syntyche to resolve their conflicts.

The job of a pastor is similar to that of a coach. A coach leads the team by determining the characteristic, the unity and purpose of the team. I forget which baseball coach was quoted saying, “The secret to coaching successfully is to find out which team members like you, which team members hate you and which ones are undecided. Then the job of the coach is to keep those who hate him away from those who are undecided.”

If there is such division in the church, the pastor has to do more than preserve his job. He has to work with the team to possess a loving unity and purpose. While a baseball team might even win with members who hate each other and who hate the coach, the church cannot win when there is no love and no unity in the members and for the pastor and Elders.

Jesus Christ defined for the Christians what winning looks like, when love and unity characterize the resolve of Christians. Even sources outside of the Bible would affirm the power of having the same love and unity as Christ. From the words of Napoleon Bonaparte, we read, “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and myself founded great empires; but upon what did the creations of our genius depend? Upon force. Jesus alone founded His empire upon love, and to this very day millions would die for Him.”

The purpose of the church is to make the good news of Jesus Christ known to the community, to the country and to the world. This purpose is why we have local ministries, home missions and overseas missions. The good news is that through Jesus Christ, love and unity is possible between one another, even love and unity with God. But unless we are living such a resolve in our own lives, in our own families, or in our relationships with each other, we speak of what we have not experienced. We become like the salespeople who have never used the product – the product of love and unity.

On the other hand, if we resolve, that is set our minds on the same love, unity and purpose as Christ, we not only have good news to tell others about, but we also have good news to show others about and to share with others our experience. And the pastor and Elders who see such progress in the people they shepherd will overflow with joy.

The third and final area of progress in which you can grow to make your pastor and Elders’ joy complete is the area of relating to one another in humility and not in competition. (We read this in verse 3 and 4.)

As the pastor of the church, I am tempted to pretend that I am closest to God, possessing the most important gifts of the church and knowing exactly what I need to do and what you need to do in your life at any given moment. By the grace of God, I sometimes come to my senses or God withdraws Himself from my awareness, and I discover that God is not in my pocket, that I’m not gifted and talented to do all things in the church, and that I sometimes don’t know what God is doing in my life or in your life until afterwards.

God has not called your pastor to model perfection, but humility. You are to see that if God can use someone like me, He can use anybody in this room. To pretend to be something I’m not, or to think that I am better than you are is not only dishonest but will intimidate you from being the person God is making you to become.

A pastor was given an award for humility. A week later, the congregation took the award back because the pastor displayed it in his office. Humility is not mean to be put on display. Humility is also not downplaying one’s strengths and gifts. Humility is not low self-worth. Humility does not think of oneself more highly than he ought to think. Humility is aware of the good and strengths in others.

Competition, on the other hand, sometimes comes from a need to prove oneself, while humility relies upon God. Competition desires to exalt me, myself and I, while humility desires to exalt Christ, the Father and the Spirit. Competition resolves to distinguish the strong from the weak, while humility resolves to direct one’s power for God’s purposes. Competition has many loves, many allegiances and many drives, while humility has one love, one spirit and one purpose, that is to please God. Competition looks to one’s own interests, while humility looks also to the interests of others.

The one who possesses humility possesses godliness. The example set for us is that God humbled Himself in Jesus Christ. The Infinite became limited in time and space to serve and be a sacrifice on our behalf. Christians must learn to descend into greatness, if love, unity and achievement of God’s purpose are to occur in and through the church. And the pastor and Elders who see such progress in the people they shepherd will overflow with joy

Someone tells the story about a boy scout summer camp where the director found an umbrella neatly rolled inside a sleeping bag. The director asked the boy to whom this bag belonged, “Is there a reason why you brought an umbrella? It was not one of the listed items.”

To which the boy replied, “Sir, have you ever had a mother?”

As your pastor and Elders, we don’t try to be your mother, but we are responsible to God for the health of your souls. This morning, the Elders and I have been reminded of our responsibilities. As God gives us the grace and wisdom to do our job, you would greatly benefit from making our joy complete by growing in your reliance upon God, in your resolve to have the same love, unity and purpose, and in relating to one another in humility.


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- 3 Stories And A Conclusion


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

3 STORIES AND A CONCLUSION

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

 
About seven weeks ago, I saw God work in some remarkable ways. I’ve not shared them until today, because part of me wanted to do like Mary did when she saw God work in some remarkable ways. The Bible says that Mary, “… treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, ESV). 

But I’d like to share these three stories with you today to give you three encouragements: 1) that God is really here, 2) that He really does care about us, and 3) that sometimes He blows our minds with the way He works things out. All three stories took place the first weekend in December.

I had flown out to meet my daughter, Makari, in Vancouver, Canada, as a producer friend of mine had invited her to film a brief background scene for an upcoming episode of When Calls the Heart, a beautiful series on the Hallmark channel which is about to start its 4th season on Sunday, February 19th.

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Makari (right), on set with Emma Jean Mittelberg (left) and Erin Krakow (center)

Makari and I had met the cast and crew last year on the set, but this time Makari was going to be in front of the cameras, not just watching from behind the scenes. We were excited and looking forward to whatever God had in mind.

To my surprise, my producer friend, Brian Bird, and his wife, Patty, invited us to sit with them and their family for various events over the weekend, giving us an amazing view of the events as they unfolded. I was hoping for just a few minutes with Brian sometime over the weekend, as I knew he would be extremely busy with other activities, and here we were able to spend several extended periods of time, not only with him, but also with his family and a few of their friends.

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Eric (right) and Makari Elder (left) with Brian Bird (center) in front of his production trailer on the set

Still, with all of the time we spent together, there was a particular project I have been working on that I wanted to talk to him about. At one point during the weekend, I asked him if maybe we could talk for five minutes about it, so I could give him an update on where it stood. We talked right then, for just a minute or two, but it turned out to be just the minute or two that I needed: a shot in the arm to keep moving forward with my project in the direction I was heading.

I went to bed that night thankful that we had been able to talk about this project, even ever-so-briefly, and for all the other amazing opportunities we had had so far in the weekend. But God was just getting started. I haven’t even gotten to the three stories yet!

The next day, Makari and I ducked out of the activities in Vancouver and took a three-hour bus ride south to Seattle, where another friend had invited us to visit her and see a Seattle Seahawks game with her  the next time we were in the area. She has a special suite in the stadium where she and her family watch the home games, and Makari and I were excited to see her and to see the game from her suite, something neither of us had ever done before.

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Eric and Makari with Debbie Macomber (center) in her suite at a Seattle Seahawks game

When we got to the stadium, we were greeted graciously by my friend, Debbie Macomber, and her family. Although I had corresponded with Debbie various times over the past five years, this was the first time we were ever able to meet in person. She was as delightful in person as she was in her correspondence and on television interviews I had seen of her. (For those who may not recognize her name, Debbie Macomber is a New York Times bestselling novelist with over 200 million copies of her books in print. Her recent book, Sweet Tomorrows, is currently a #1 NYT bestseller, too! I normally wouldn’t point out these things, but it’s important to the story!)

As we were watching the game with Debbie and her family in the suite, a few of other people happened to come into the suite with us to say hello, including Steve Largent and Jim Zorn. (For those who may not recognize their names, Steve Largent was a receiver and Jim Zorn was a quarterback back in the early day of the Seattle Seahawks.)

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Eric and Makari with Steve Largent (center), watching the Seahawks play the Panthers

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Eric and Makari with Jim Zorn (center)

They, too, were gracious and kind to Makari and me, and Debbie asked if we’d like our pictures with them. I texted the pictures to a few of my family and friends back home, two of whom, independently, said, “They’re treating you like royalty,” and “It’s like you’re with royalty.” I felt that way, too, especially when I looked out into the stadium and saw, all around it, a “ring” of words marked “Ring of Honor,” which listed the names of ten Seahawks. The first two names on the ring were Steve Largent and Jim Zorn! And here we were watching the game with both of them on one side of us and  Debbie Macomber on the other!

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The “Ring of Honor,” as seen from the suite where we were watching the game

It was like being with royalty! As I tried to take it all in, I felt like everything around me began to fade away, and God spoke clearly to my heart:

“Eric, if you could see yourself the way I see you, you would know that I see you as royalty. You are my child, and I love you so very much.”

It’s one thing to be in awe of the people around you. It’s another to have the God of the universe single you out and say: “I see you as royalty, too.” But the truth is, that’s the way God sees every one of us. There is an aspect to being a child of His that lifts and elevates us in a way that goes beyond anything people could do to lift or elevate us. And if we can just take that in, that the God of the universe not only knows us, but loves us dearly, and thinks that we’re precious children of His–the King of kings and Lord of lords–it changes everything. It changes the way we see ourselves, our worth, our value–even if our only claim to fame is being one of His children. That alone is amazing enough to warrant being listed on God’s own “Ring of Honor.”

But the story picks up from there. The next morning was the day we were to be on the set back in Vancouver. So Makari and I took a late night bus back to Vancouver after the game, got a quick night’s sleep, and woke up early the next day to meet Brian and a few others to head out to the set where they would be filming When Calls the Heart.

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Eric on the set of When Calls the Heart with Janette Oke, author of the book by the same name which inspired the show

When I got to the lobby, I had a chance to sit with Janette Oke, who was also going out to the set with us. (For those who don’t recognize her name, Janette Oke is the author of over 70 books, including, Love Comes Softly and When Calls the Heart, the book on which the new television series is based which we were shooting. Again, I normally wouldn’t mention these things except that it is relevant to the story!)

I had met Janette a year ago, and at that time was so stunned to meet her in person that I asked her if she would pray for me and sign a notebook that I had with me, both of which she did so sweetly. I was astounded. This time around, I was able to sit with her on several occasions over the weekend, and we were able to talk about a wide range of topics. When I met her in the lobby, we sat down together again, and I told her about a project I was currently working on, pulling out a copy of the book I had written which was the basis of the project. As I was telling her about it, she asked several more questions and was keenly interested. I asked if she’d like to take a copy of the book with her, which she very much wanted to do! Awkwardly, I then asked if she would like me to sign it for her, which she also wanted me to do! As I sat there in the lobby of the hotel, I was stunned once again, this time not because I had met Janette Oke and she had signed a book for me, but because it felt like somehow she had met me! And now I was signing a copy of my book for her!  In that moment, I felt like God was speaking to me again, saying:

“Eric, I know you’re aware of the impact others have on you. But don’t underestimate the impact you have on others.”

And God was right. I often underestimate my own impact on others, even though I can so often see the impact others have on me. And it isn’t because I’m particularly special. My message for you with this story is to not underestimate the impact you can have on others, too.  We all have gifts and talents and a purpose on earth, and if we could only see ourselves as God sees us, we would see how He weaves and uses those gifts and talents and purposes for our benefit and for the benefit of others.

But the next story was the most surprising of all. As we went to get into our cars to go to the set, it was snowing heavily. We were trying to figure out who would ride with who, and it looked like there may not be room for me to ride with someone else, so I was about to look for a way to get to the set on my own, when my friend, Brian, who is one of the executive producers of the show, asked me to sit in the front seat of his car with him! (For those who don’t recognize his name, Brian has written and produced hundreds of episodes for television, including five seasons of Touched by an Angel, and has written and produced an upcoming movie for the same people who produced God’s Not Dead, this one based on the life of Lee Strobel, called The Case for Christ, which will be showing in theaters starting April 7th.)

As I stood there, just before getting into Brian’s car, Brian looked over the top of the car at me and said, “This is really unusual. It hardly ever snows on the coast.”

To anyone else, those words might have been just casual words about the weather. But to me, they were nearly identical to some words I had written a few months earlier and had put in the book I wanted to talk to Brian about, and the book I had just signed and given to Janette Oke! In my story, however, I had written about a snow scene that takes place half a world away from where we were standing. I had written: “It hardly ever snows on the coast. And if it did, that would be a very special day.” In my story, the snow scene that follows becomes one of the key climaxes of the story where the main character is desperately needing to know that God is still there, that He really cares, and that He has a purpose for this character’s life on earth. When Brian spoke those words, it was as if God were magnifying them in my heart, saying:

“Eric, it hardly ever snows on the coast. And that makes this a very special day for you.”

And a special day it turned out to be! I got in the car and began to talk to Brian, and, because of the snow, what should have been a 45-minute drive to the set turned out to be a three-hour drive! It was a delay that could have been problematic for all kinds of reasons, but because of the kind of day that it was, it turned out to be incredible–for me, at least! While I was hoping to get five minutes with my friend that weekend, and we suddenly got three hours–three hours in which we shared stories from each other’s lives, at some points laughing, at other points crying, and at many points noting to each other how God was working through each of them. Because of the weather, the scenes we were going to shoot for the show had to be altered, so our time on set wasn’t as long as we had expected. Afterward, we went out to lunch and I got to talk to Brian for another two hours. Then, because the snow was still falling, the drive back to the hotel took another two hours, instead of the expected 45 minutes. By the end of the day, I had spent seven full hours talking with Brian in the front seat of the car or at lunch, when I had been hoping to get just five minutes for the whole weekend, and just a few days earlier had actually been happy to get just one or two minutes with him! It was a special day indeed!

I felt like the woman in the Bible who told Jesus she would be happy with just a crumb off the table of a king, when Jesus went overboard and miraculously healed her daughter! I would have been happy with a crumb that weekend, when God had in mind a full-day feast! As it says in the Bible, God is able to do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine,” (Ephesians 3:20, NIV). I sometimes wonder how that can be, because I can ask or imagine quite a bit! But that day, and over the whole weekend, God certainly went way beyond what I was ever asking or imagining.

Let me close with this. You are like royalty to God. You have no idea the impact you have on those around you. And, if you’ll keep your eyes and ears open, God has some truly special days in mind for you, wherein He will do more for you than all you can ask or imagine. Let these truths sink deep into your heart. And let God speak to you again today. He has so much that He wants to say. 


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- The Value of Vision (Part 2)


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

THE VALUE OF VISION (PART 2)

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

 
Last week, I shared with you about the difference it made in my life to picture myself one year in the future, trying to envision what I could be doing or enjoying differently at the end of the year than at the beginning of the year. This week, I’d like to share about the difference that approach made to my goal setting in the lives of other people as well. Reaching our goals is for more than just getting what we want out of life. As the Bible says:

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV).  

One of the goals I set at the beginning of last year was to write the complete script and score for a new musical I’m writing called “St. Nick: The Musical.” I pictured myself holding a draft of a completed script and score. As I pictured in my mind what that would look like,  I wrote down this goal:

“I’d like to be holding a copy of a completed script and score for St. Nick: The Musical.

It was an ambitious goal, but one I really wanted to try. By the end of the year, I had completed one-third of the script and one-third of the score! Even though I hadn’t completely finished, this was phenomenal for me!

So I took a picture of myself at the end of the year holding a copy of both the script and score.

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What I had envisioned at the beginning of the year had, at least in part, come to pass by the end, at least.

But what I also wanted to do at the beginning of the year was to help some other people write their own books this year, books that they had just been thinking about, but had never actually written. So at the beginning of the year, I wrote out another goal:

“I’d like to be looking at 3-5 others, whom I have encouraged to write, holding copies of their own stories in their hands.”

I didn’t set this goal for profit or gain for myself in any way. I set it because God has poured into me so much insight and wisdom into the writing and publishing process over the last twenty years–to the point where I’ve written and published nearly twenty books during that time. I wanted to pour out some of that insight and wisdom to others.

So I prayed. I prayed that God would show me 3-5 others that I could encourage to write their own books. And God answered that prayer! I asked several of them this past week if they would send me a picture of themselves holding their own books in their hands, whether they had rough drafts, finished drafts or published books. And here’s the result!

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Jeanette wrote a draft of a book about how God helped her through a health crisis in her family.

Kent wrote a draft of a book on creativity for people wanting to reach their potential.

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Al wrote a draft of a book about his father’s service to our country in the 2nd World War, (which he has been able to work on and share with his father along the way).

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Shelly wrote a draft of a book about her intimate walk with God.

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And Laurie wrote a children’s book about trusting in God, even  when “the lights go out.” (And she got it published on Amazon by January 2nd!)

How did this all work? After talking to God about my goal of helping others in this way, God started bringing people to mind, or bringing people to me in person, each of whom expressed their interest in writing and publishing a book. Whenever the topic came up in our conversations, rather than just saying a few encouraging words or letting those comments go by, I asked if there was anything I could do to help them achieve their goal.

In some cases, it was as simple as pointing them to a 90-minute online class I had taught and recorded a few years ago to show people how I create and self-publish my own books on Amazon. (You can watch it here for free!) Then I would make myself available to answer any questions or help them in any other way I could.

In other cases, I offered some ideas for how they could start their book–by writing down the main point they were wanting to make, coming up with a simple outline of the chapters their book could contain, and offering to read each of their chapters each week or whenever they wrote them. Several of the people found that simply having someone else involved and eager to read their work each week was just the incentive they needed to not only start, but to keep on writing.

And I loved reading what they wrote! Each story was magnificent as it unfolded. I was inspired in my faith, and I learned more about my friends than I had ever known before. It never felt like a chore to help others–it was a true joy.

I share all of this with you as we’re still at the beginning of 2017. We have nearly a whole year ahead of us. Maybe God has poured something into your life that He wants you to share with others–whether it’s a skill, a gift or a talent; an understanding or insight into a topic; a way of working, a way of thinking, or a way of living. Maybe there’s a goal you could put on your own list this year that could help someone else–or several “someone else’s”–by the end of it?

Why not take a few minutes to picture what that would look like at the end of 2017 to see that goal accomplished, then jot it down. Ask God to help you achieve that goal, not only for your sake, but for the sake of others, too. Remember that your vision might be just what others need to help them accomplish theirs.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV). 


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- The Value of Vision


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

THE VALUE OF VISION

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

Last year I tried something new in my annual goal-setting. I like the way it turned out, so I thought I’d share it with you today as you look ahead to your own new year. As the Bible says:

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18, KJV).  

This applies to our personal lives as well. Vision is what gives us hope. Vision is what gives us something to “go for.” Vision is what keeps us on track when we’re in danger of veering off.

Last year, my friend, Kent Sanders, in his book, The Artist’s Suitcase, encouraged me to envision myself one year in the future. He wrote:

“Imagine what your life could be like one year from today. How could it be different? Would you look different? Would you have more energy or a better income? What about that book, blog, music, or other project you’re working on? What would it feel like to have it finished? … Write down what you see–your appearance, energy level, success, and the other items that are important to you. This is what your life could be like a year from now.”

I took Kent’s challenge to heart and asked God to help me envision what my future might look like if He and I were to work on it together. I came up with about 15 goals for the year. That was more than I had planned to write down, but not all of them were huge, and not all of them were vastly different from what I was already doing. But by writing them down, I was able to keep them in front of me all year long, which helped me realize all along that I was actually accomplishing my goals for the year, even by doing some of the seemingly ordinary, every day things I was doing.

For instance, this was one of my goals related to my family:

“I’d like to be enjoying rich conversations with my kids (during school, meals, and other activities).”

As I sat with my kids during the year, whether we were talking about their lives, or their schoolwork, or whatever else was on their hearts, I was able to feel good about the conversations at hand, and this was actually one of my goals: to be enjoying rich conversations with my kids! This really helped me as I went through my days, and ensured that I took the time to enjoy those conversations, not just rush through them and onto whatever was “next.”

This goal also helped me, in both small and big ways, to take advantage of the opportunities that arose to spend time with my kids which I might have missed otherwise.

This goal helped me in a small way, when after a dance class one night with my youngest daughter, she asked if we could stop to get something to eat on our way home. She wondered if we could sit down and eat at a particular restaurant. Normally, by that hour of the night, all I could manage was a quick stop at a drive-through so we could get back home because of all the other things that needed to be done. But because one of my goals was “to enjoy rich conversations with my kids,” we decided to stop and order from the menu at a sit-down restaurant–where a waitress actually brought our food to us!  While it might seem like a small thing, when you’re shuttling kids from one activity to another and trying to squeeze as much as possible into every day, taking an hour to just sit and enjoy a meal and a conversation seems costly, time-wise, but is so heavenly, in every other way.

And this goal helped me in some big ways, too. When my oldest daughter mentioned her interest in taking a cruise somewhere, someday, I didn’t give it much thought. Since we normally do things with our whole family, a cruise for a family of seven seemed out of the question. But because of my goal of “enjoying rich conversations with my kids,” I thought about her desire again when her birthday was coming up. I thought, “Maybe I could take just her, and we could go on a cruise together as something special to do, just the two of us.” She happened to call me soon after I had had this thought, telling me about her week, which had been particularly hard. I decided to tell her what I was thinking about the cruise and asked what she thought of just the two of us going. She loved the idea! We found a cruise that we could afford, and we went! And we would have missed it, had I not had this goal of spending time with my kids, and had she not expressed to me one of her own desires.

karis-eric-cozumel

I had similar experiences with my other kids. Because one of my daughters is going into acting, I asked a producer friend if it would be possible for her to be in a background scene in one of his shows. To my delight, he said, “Yes!” So we flew to Vancouver for the taping and she was able to be on camera in a background scene. Even if her screen time turns out to be only a few seconds, the extended time we were able to spend with each other on the trip was priceless. I was able to accomplish my goal while also helping her to accomplish hers. It was a win-win for us both.

makari-eric-wcth-filming

The goal continued to take on a life of its own as my youngest kids and I had been planning and saving for a trip to Israel someday, but we had never done it. It, too, seemed like it wouldn’t happen again this year. But because I had made it a goal, I made it a priority to find a way to do it, and we found one! And on the trip, I was able baptize both of them in the Jordan River–what a blessing for them and for me!

bo-kaleo-eric-baptisms-in-jordan-river-c

Not all of my goals with my kids involved going places. I was able to do some of them right at home. My oldest son knew that one of my goals was to finish a space in my attic that I wanted to use for reading and writing and praying. I had worked on it several years ago, but when my wife got cancer and passed away a few years ago, I stopped nearly completely. But I put that goal back on my list this year:

“I’d like to be enjoying my fully finished attic.”

So my son offered to help me out each week for much of the year, driving an hour each way to come to my house so we could finish all of the tiling and insulating and drywalling. With his offer, and the help of my other kids, too, we were able to get things almost finished! While we’re not quite done yet, I never would have pressed forward to get to this point had I not had this goal, and have the help along the way. And, by having my kids involved, I was able to spend more time with them, even through the work of it all, meeting my other goal of “enjoying rich conversations with my kids.”

lucas-attic-project

Not all of these goals were fun and games, and each of them had its own set of challenges, difficulties, and costs. But in the end, anything worth doing takes effort.

While I didn’t accomplish all 15 of my goals for 2016, by having those goals in mind at the beginning of the year–and at the forefront of my mind throughout the year–I was able to stay focused and stay on track as much as possible for the rest of the year.

I’m looking forward now to writing out my goals for 2017. What about you? What are your hopes and dreams and visions for the new year? It’s not too late to sit down and give it some thought. We have a whole new year ahead of us. Why not write down your goals, keep them at the forefront of your mind, and see what God and you can do together?


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- 2017 Daily Bible Reading Plan


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

2017 DAILY BIBLE READING PLAN
by Al Lowry

Note from Eric Elder: If you’d like to join us in reading through the Bible in a year, you can start today with this “guilt-free” reading plan! Al Lowry describes it below, and there are links at the bottom of this message where you can view, print, and sign up for our “2017 Daily Bible Reading” plan. I hope you will! Here’s Al’s message…

With so many great devotionals out there to consider, how does one choose a good one to kick off the year?

I’m not kidding when I tell you I’ve begun dozens, but have often fallen short of completing these New Year’s resolutions.

More times than I like to think about, especially at the beginning of the year, I’ve voraciously dug into some new study and fallen off way too quickly. It’s been a vicious cycle of failures to me, and once again I’d end up getting down on myself for such incessant lack of discipline.

Then, 2 years ago, my friend, Eric, reset my course with a rather unique challenge: to read through the Bible in a year. I almost laughed when he suggested it, as I’ve desired to–and tried–many times before.  I’ll confess to you that my results would have most likely had me discovering my bookmark buried somewhere in Genesis by year’s end.

So why would this reading plan succeed where so many others did not?  Eric handed me a golden egg that gave the project hope where I had not seen it before.

The unique challenge of this yearly Bible read-through was preceded by 2 intriguing words: “guilt free.”

It was hard to grasp the concept when I already felt like a failure, believing that I’d just fall behind and drop out like other times.  Then, he kindly elaborated to me how this “no-guilt” factor actually set the course for a no-fail agenda.

The idea was to break the yearly Bible readings into the usual bite-sized daily diet (no surprise there).  The saving grace was not to be concerned with falling behind and getting frustrated and giving up. Technically, one could not fall behind, for even if that happened, the reader could resume on the appropriate day, and not worry or feel guilty about unread days. Of course, one would have the option of catching up on the missed text, but only if and when desired.

Initially, it seemed a little absurd to my type-A, overachievement gene to leave blocks of text behind, especially from such an important book. But eventually through careful thought, prayer and counsel from my friend, I began to realize that any devotional or even a topical church message could not thoroughly cover every biblical word every single time, and by taking this approach, I was likely to read more of the Bible by the end of the year than I would have ever read otherwise. All spiritual food we take in nourishes us as does the physical food we ingest. We would only starve if we failed to eat at all.

Logically, wouldn’t God reveal what I needed, and when I needed, it through even tiny mustard-sized efforts I offered up?

And so, exactly 2 years ago, I began my first guilt-free sojourn through the Bible, followed by a second year in 2016. Yes, I confess to missing or not focusing on many of the readings. But making it through at all was a major accomplishment in my life…and twice. 😉

What I found along the way for myself, and I suspect would be helpful for some of you, are a few tricks that stack the deck toward really getting into the game–and finishing.

I’d like to share some with you:

1. Listen to the word:

The Bible tells us to do just that, and with so many audible versions available and devices to listen on, it’s pretty darn easy.

That is not to say reading it shouldn’t be done as well, or in lieu of listening, but just try to have a listenable Bible version to help carry you through. Sometimes I would turn it on when I couldn’t sleep and would then doze off.  (Guilty me would accuse myself of cheating and feel the need to listen again. Guilt-free me would praise God in the morning for breaking my insomnia and allowing me much needed sleep.)

2. Write it down:

Jot down some thoughts along the way, and you’ll be as surprised as I was at the clarity it will bring. You may even find times when these thoughts can help others.

Sometimes days or even a week would go by without writing. But then, I would have some inspiration and these reflections, or devotionals, became ways to capture God’s voice. I offered them to others, and I have them still to reflect on.

I actually had no idea how much I had written until I started looking back through my notes. No need to be excellent authors in order to capture and help clarify an idea God gives to us. Rather, simply surrender ourselves to be willing conduits.

3. Don’t go it alone: 

The Bible states that two are stronger than one, and three are like the wrapped cords of a rope, not easily broken.  I found this to be so true, and I can’t state it enough. Before I started, I invited everyone I knew, and strangers alike, to join me on a special Facebook page.

This community became a small group that listened to my thoughts on passages and my prayer requests, and they shared theirs.  We shared a passage that touched us, or frustrations that we were having in our readings or in our lives.

This group need not be a replacement for church or a small group, but I just have to tell you that walking with others and being accountable is how this worked for me. Maybe it could for you too.

That being said, I’m ready to take the plunge again and would like to invite you to come along. Thank you old friends, who have said you’ll join me again. It is through your encouragement and inspiration that I feel confident to give it another go. And I would certainly love it if new readers join our adventure.

So, if you’ve felt God’s nudging to read the Bible in 2017, please feel free to come on board. We’d love to have you.

This year, I’m going to try something new and go straight through the Bible in book order–from cover to cover–from Genesis to Revelation.

Here’s a link to our “2017 Daily Bible Reading” plan (you can click any passage from this link to read it or listen to it in MP3 Audio, OR you can sign up to receive each passage by email every day at about the same time of day that you sign up):
2017 Daily Bible Reading Plan

And here’s a PDF of the same plan which you can print on one piece of paper (if you print it on both sides) to keep in your Bible. You can also click the links to each passage in this PDF if you want to read it online):
PDF of the 2017 Daily Bible Reading Plan

To join our Facebook group and encourage each other as we read along, click this link and request to join:
Facebook Group for 2017 Daily Bible Reading

And if you’d like to sign up for my emails (usually weekly) to encourage you along the way, just visit my website (which I’ve set up specifically for this purpose) and click “Follow”:
Visit Al’s website and click “Follow” for encouragement along the way

May God bless you and your families in the upcoming year. And if it falls onto your heart, let Him bless you in a special way through this Daily Bible Reading… GUILT-FREE!!!


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- St. Nicholas: The Believer, Part 7 of 7

Wishing you all a most joyous and blessed Christmas celebration!

Greg and Eric for This Day’s Thought from The Ranch


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
Part 7 of 7

by Eric & Lana Elder

 
On this Christmas day, I’m posting the conclusion (Part 7) of St. Nicholas: The Believer, a new book for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas. As I mention in the conclusion of today’s message, St. Nicholas would have never wanted his story to replace the story of Jesus in the manger, but he would have loved to have his story point to Jesus in the manger. And that’s why this book was written.

You can read Part 7 below, or listen to Part 7 at this link, or order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link. (If you missed them, you can follow these links to read Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4Part 5 or Part 6.)

Enjoy!
Eric

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

by Eric & Lana Elder

PART 7

CHAPTER 37

Nicholas stood at his favorite spot in the world one last time: by the sea. Eighteen years had passed since he had retuned to Myra from the council in Nicaea. In the days since coming home, he continued to serve the Lord as he had always done: with all his heart, soul, mind and strength.

Nicholas had come to the shore with Dimitri and Anna Maria, who had brought with them one of their grandchildren, a young girl seven years oldnamed Ruthie.

Ruthie had been running back and forth in the waves, as Dimitri and Anna Maria tried to keep up with her. Nicholas had plenty of time to look out over the sea and as he often did, look out over eternity as well.

Looking back on his life, Nicholas never knew if he really accomplished what he wanted to in life: to make a difference in the world. He had seen glimpses along the way, of course, in the lives of people like Dimitri, Samuel, Ruthie, Sophia, Cecilia and Anna Maria.

He had also learned from people like the ship’s captain that when the captain arrived in Rome, his ship miraculously weighed exactly the same as before he had set sail from Alexandriaeven after giving the people of Myra several years’ worth of grain from it. Reminders like these encouraged Nicholas that God really had been guiding him in his decisions.

He still had questions though. He never quite knew if he had done the right thing at the council in Nicaea. He never quite knew if his later private conversations with Constantine might have impacted the emperor’s personal faith in Christ.

He was encouraged, however, to learn that Constantine’s mother had also made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land just as Nicholas had done. And after her visit, she persuaded Constantine to build churches over the holy sites she had seen. She had recently completed building a church in Bethlehem over the spot where Jesus was born, as well as a church in Jerusalem over the spot where Jesus had died and risen from the dead.

Nicholas knew he had had both successes and mistakes in his life. But looking back over it, he couldn’t always tell which was which! Those times that he thought were the valleys turned out to be the mountaintops, and the mountaintops turned out to be valleys. But the most important thing, he reminded himself, was that he trusted God in all things, knowing that God could work anything for good for those who loved Him, who were called according to His purpose.

What the future held for the world, Nicholas had no idea. But he knew that he had done what he could with the time that he had. He tried to love God and love others as Jesus had called him to do. And where he had failed along the way, he trusted that Jesus could cover those failures, too, just as Jesus had covered his sins by dying on the cross.

As Nicholas’ father had done before him, Nicholas looked out over the sea again, too. Then closing his eyes, he asked God for strength for the next journey he was about to take.

He let the sun warm his face, then he opened the palms of his hands and let the breeze lift them into the air. He praised God as the warm breeze floated gently through his fingertips.

Little Ruthie returned from splashing in the water, followed closely by Dimitri and Anna Maria. Ruthie looked up at Nicholas, with his eyes closed and his hands raised towards heaven. Reaching out to him, she tugged at his clothes and asked, “Nicholas, have you ever seen God?”

Nicholas opened his eyes and looked down at Ruthie, then smiled up at Dimitri and Anna Maria. He looked out at the sunshine and the waves and the miles and miles of shoreline that stretched out in both directions before him. Turning his face back towards Ruthie, Nicholas said, “Yes, Ruthie, I have seen God. And the older I get, the more I see Him everywhere I look.”

Ruthie smiled, and Nicholas gave her a warm hug. Then just as quickly as she had run up to him, she ran off again to play.

Nicholas exchanged smiles with Dimitri and Anna Maria, then they, too, were off again, chasing Ruthie down the beach.

Nicholas looked one last time at the beautiful sea, then turned and headed towards home.

EPILOGUE

So now you know a little bit more about me–Dimitri Alexander–and my good friend, Nicholas. That was the last time I saw him, until this morning. He had asked if he could spend a few days alone, just him and the Lord that he loved. He said he had one more journey to prepare for. Anna Maria and I guessed, of course, just what he meant.

We knew he was probably getting ready to go home, to his real home, the one that Jesus had said He was going to prepare for each of us who believe in Him.

Nicholas had been looking forward to this trip his whole life. Not that he wanted to shortchange a single moment of the life that God that had given him here on earth, for he knew that this life had a uniquely important purpose as well, or else God would never have created it with such beauty and precision and marvelous mystery.

But as Nicholas’ life here on earth wound down, he said he was ready. He was ready to go, and he looked forward to everything that God had in store for him next.

So when Nicholas sent word this morning for Anna Maria and me and a few other friends to come and see him, we knew that the time had come.

As we came into this room, we found him lying on his bed, just as he is right now. He was breathing quietly and he motioned for us to come close. We couldn’t hold back our tears, and he didn’t try to stop us. He knew how hard it was to say goodbye to those we love. But he also made it easier for us. He smiled one more time and spoke softly, saying the same words that he had spoken when Ruthie had died many years before: “Either way we win,” he said. “Either way we win.”

“Yes, Nicholas,” I said. “Either way we win.” Then the room became quiet again. Nicholas closed his eyes and fell asleep for the last time. No one moved. No one said a word.

This man who lay before us slept as if it were just another night in his life. But we knew this was a holy moment. Nicholas had just entered into the presence of the Lord. As Nicholas had done throughout his life, we were sure he was doing right now in heaven, walking and talking and laughing with Jesus, but now they were face to face.

We could only imagine what Nicholas might be saying to Jesus. But we knew for certain what Jesus was saying to him: “Well done, My good and faithful servant. Well done. Come and share your Master’s happiness.”

I have no idea how history might remember Nicholas, if it will remember him at all. He was no emperor like Constantine. He was no tyrant like Diocletian. He was no orator like Arius. He was simply a Christian trying to live out his faith, touching one life at a time as best he knew how.

Nicholas may have wondered if his life made any difference. I know my answer, and now that you know his story, I’ll let you decide for yourself. In the end, I suppose only God really knows just how many lives were touched by this remarkable man.

But what I do know this: each of us has just one life to live. But if we live it right, as Nicholas did, one life is all we need.

CONCLUSION

by Eric Elder

What Nicholas didn’t know, and what no one who knew him could have possibly imagined, was just how far and wide this one life would reach–not only throughout the world, but also throughout the ages.

He was known to his parents as their beloved son, and to those in his city as their beloved bishop. But he has become known to us by another name: Saint Nicholas.

The biblical word for “saint” literally means “believer.” The Bible talks about the saints in Ephesus, the saints in Rome, the saints in Philippi and the saints in Jerusalem. Each time the word saints refers to the believers who were in those cities. So Nicholas rightly became known as “Saint Nicholas,” or to say it another way, “Nicholas, The Believer.” The Latin translation is “Santa Nicholas,” and in Dutch “Sinterklaas,” from which we get the name “Santa Claus.”

His good name and his good deeds have been an inspiration to so many, that the day he passed from this life to the next, on December 6th, 343 A.D., is still celebrated by people throughout the world.

Many legends have been told about Nicholas over the years, some giving him qualities that make him seem larger than life. But the reason that so many legends of any kind grow, including those told about Saint Nicholas, is often because the people about whom they’re told were larger than life themselves. They were people who were so good or so well-respected that every good deed becomes attributed to them, as if they had done them themselves.

While not all the stories attributed to Nicholas can be traced to the earliest records of his life, the histories that were recorded closest to the time period in which he lived do record many of the stories found in this book. To help you sort through them, here’s what we do know:

  • Nicholas was born sometime between 260-280 A.D. in the city of Patara, a city you can still visit today in modern-day Turkey, on the northern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Nicholas’ parents were devout Christians who died in a plague when Nicholas was young, leaving him with a sizable inheritance.
  • Nicholas made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and lived there for a number of years before returning to his home province of Lycia.
  • Nicholas traveled across the Mediterranean Sea in a ship that was caught in a storm. After praying, his ship reached its destination as if someone was miraculously holding the rudder steady. The rudder of a ship is also called a tiller, and sailors on the Mediterranean Sea today still wish each other luck by saying, “May Nicholas hold the tiller!”
  • When Nicholas returned from the Holy Land, he took up residence in the city of Myra, about 30 miles from his hometown of Patara. Nicholas became the bishop of Myra and lived there the rest of his life.
  • Nicholas secretly gave three gifts of gold on three separate occasions to a man whose daughters were to be sold into slavery because he had no money to offer to potential husbands as a dowry. The family discovered Nicholas was the mysterious donor on one of his attempts, which is why we know the story today. In this version of the story, we’ve added the twist of having Nicholas deliver the first two gifts, and Dimitri deliver the third, to capture the idea that many gifts were given back then, and are still given today, in the name of Saint Nicholas, who was known for such deeds. The theme of redemption is also so closely associated with this story from Saint Nicholas’ life, that if you pass by a pawn shop today, you will often see three golden balls in their logo, representing the three bags of gold that Nicholas gave to spare these girls from their unfortunate fate.
  • Nicholas pled for the lives of three innocent men who were unjustly condemned to death by a magistrate in Myra, taking the sword directly from the executioner’s hand.
  • “Nicholas, Bishop of Myra” is listed on some, but not all, of the historical documents which record those who attended the real Council of Nicaea, which was convened by Emperor Constantine in 325 A.D. One of the council’s main decisions addressed the divinity of Christ, resulting in the writing of the Nicene Creed–a creed which is still recited in many churches today. Some historians say that Nicholas’ name does not appear on all the record books of this council because of his banishment from the proceedings after striking Arius for denying that Christ was divine. Nicholas is, however, listed on at least five of these ancient record books, including the earliest known Greek manuscript of the event.
  • The Nicene Creed was adopted at the Council of Nicaea and has become one of the most widely used, brief statements of the Christian faith. The original version reads, in part, as translated from the Greek: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; He suffered, and the third day He rose again, ascended into heaven; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead…” Subsequent versions, beginning as early as 381 A.D., have altered and clarified some of the original statements, resulting in a few similar, but not quite identical statements that are now in use.
  • Nicholas is recorded as having done much for the people of Myra, including securing grain from a ship traveling from Alexandria to Rome, which saved the people in that region from a famine.
  • Constantine’s mother, Helen, did visit the Holy Land and encouraged Constantine to build churches over the sites that she felt were most important to the Christian faith. The churches were built on the locations she had been shown by local believers where Jesus was born, and where Jesus died and rose again. Those churches, The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, have been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the years, but still in the same locations that Constantine’s mother, and likely Nicholas himself, had seen.
  • The date of Nicholas’ death has been established as December 6th, 343 A.D., and you can still visit his tomb in the modern city of Demre, Turkey, formerly known as Myra, in the province of Lycia. Nicholas’ bones were removed from the tomb in 1087 A.D. by men from Italy who feared that they might be destroyed or stolen, as the country was being invaded by others. The bones of Saint Nicholas were taken to the city of Bari, Italy, where they are still entombed today.

Of the many other stories told about or attributed to Nicholas, it’s hard to know with certainty which ones actually took place and which were simply attributed to him because of his already good and popular name. For instance, in the 12th century, stories began to surface of how Nicholas had brought three children back to life who had been brutally murdered. Even though the first recorded accounts of this story didn’t appear until more than 800 years after Nicholas’ death, this story is one of the most frequently associated with Saint Nicholas in religious artwork, featuring three young children being raised to life and standing next to Nicholas. We have included the essence of this story in this novel in the form of the three orphans who Nicholas met in the Holy Land and whom he helped to bring back to life–at least spiritually.

While all of these additional stories can’t be attributed to Nicholas with certainty, we can say that his life and his memory had such a profound effect throughout history that more churches throughout the world now bear the name of “Saint Nicholas” than any other figure, outside of the original disciples themselves.

Some people wonder if they can believe in Saint Nicholas or not. Nicholas probably wouldn’t care so much if you believed in him or not, but that you believed in the One in whom He believed, Jesus Christ.

A popular image today shows Saint Nicholas bowing down, his hat at his side, kneeling in front of baby Jesus in the manger. Although that scene could never have taken place in real life, for Saint Nicholas was born almost 300 years after the birth of Christ, the heart of that scene couldn’t be more accurate. Nicholas was a true believer in Jesus and he did worship, adore and live his life in service to the Christ.

Saint Nicholas would have never wanted his story to replace the story of Jesus in the manger, but he would have loved to have his story point to Jesus in the manger. And that’s why this book was written.

While the stories told here were selected from the many that have been told about Saint Nicholas over the years, these were told so that you might believe–not just in Nicholas, but in Jesus Christ, his Savior. These stories were written down for the same reason the Apostle John wrote down the stories he recorded about Jesus in the Bible. John said he wrote his stories:

“…that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31).

Nicholas would want the same for you. He would want you to become what he was: a Believer.

If you’ve never done so, put your faith in Jesus Christ today, asking Him to forgive you of your sins and giving you the assurance that you will live with Him forever.

If you’ve already put your faith in Christ, let this story remind you just how precious your faith really is. Renew your commitment today to serve Christ as Nicholas served Him: with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. God really will work all things together for good. As the Bible says:

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Thanks for reading this special book about this special man, and I pray that your Christmas may be truly merry and bright. As Clement Moore said in his now famous poem, A Visit From St. Nicholas:

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

Eric Elder

(If you enjoyed this story and want a copy for yourself or for others, just follow this link to order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon.)

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- St. Nicholas: The Believer, Part 6 of 7


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
Part 6 of 7

by Eric & Lana Elder

 
Today, I’m posting Part 6 of St. Nicholas: The Believer, a new book for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas.

You can read Part 6 below, or listen to Part 6 at this link, or order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link. (If you missed them, you can follow these links to read Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4 or Part 5.)

Enjoy!
Eric

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

by Eric & Lana Elder

PART 6

CHAPTER 31

“And you’ve still never told her, after all these years?” Nicholas asked Dimitri. It had been twelve years since Nicholas had gotten out of prison, and they were talking about the bag of gold that Dimitri had thrown into Anna Maria’s open window five years before that.

“She’s never asked,” said Dimitri. “And even if I told her it was me, she wouldn’t believe me. She’s convinced you did it.”

“But how could I, when she knew I was in prison?” It was a conversation they had had before, but Nicholas still found it astounding. Dimitri insisted on keeping his act of giving a secret, just as Nicholas had done whenever possible, too.

“Besides,” added Dimitri, “she’s right. It really was you who inspired me to give her that gift, as you had already given her family two bags of gold in a similar way. So in a very real sense, it did come from you.”

Nicholas had to admit there was some logic in Dimitri’s thinking. “But it didn’t start with me, either. It was Christ who inspired me.”

And to that, Dimitri conceded and said, “And it was Christ who inspired me, too. Believe me, Anna Maria knows that as much as anyone else. Her faith is deeper than ever before. Ever since she met you, she continues to give God credit for all things.”

And with that, Nicholas was satisfied, as long as God got the credit in the end. For as Nicholas had taught Dimitri years earlier, there’s nothing we have that did not come from God first.

Changing subjects, Nicholas said, “You’re sure she won’t mind you being away for three months? I can still find someone else to accompany me.”

“She’s completely and utterly happy for me to go with you,” said Dimitri. “She knows how important this is to you, and she knows how much it means to me as well. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

They were discussing their plans to go to the Council of Nicaea that summer. Nicholas had been invited by special request of the emperor, and each bishop was allowed to bring a personal attendant along with him. Nicholas asked Dimitri as soon as he received the invitation.

The Council of Nicaea would be a remarkable event. When Nicholas first opened the letter inviting him to come, he couldn’t believe it. So much had changed in the world since he had gotten out of prison twelve years earlier.

Yet there it was, a summons from the Roman emperor to appear before him at Eastertide. The only summons a bishop would have gotten under Emperor Diocletian would have been an invitation to an execution–his own! But under Constantine’s leadership, life for Christians had radically changed.

Constantine had not only signed the edict that called for true tolerance to be shown to the Christians, which resulted in setting them free from prison, but he also had started giving them their property back–property which had been taken away under his predecessor. Constantine was even beginning to fund the building and repair of many of the churches that had been destroyed by Diocletian. It was the beginning of a new wave of grace for the Christians, after such an intense persecution before.

As a further sign of Constantine’s new support for the cause of Christianity, he had called for a gathering of over 300 of the leading bishops in the land. This gathering would serve two purposes for Constantine: it would unify the church within the previously fractured empire, and it wouldn’t hurt his hopes of bringing unity back to the whole country. As the leader of the people, Constantine asserted that it was his responsibility to provide for their spiritual well-being. As such, he pledged to attend and preside over this historic council himself. It would take place in the city of Nicaea, starting in the spring of that year and continuing for several months into the summer.

When Nicholas received his invitation, he quietly praised God for the changing direction of his world. While the Great Persecution had deepened the faith of many of those who survived it, that same persecution had taken its toll on the ability of many others, severely limiting their ability to teach, preach and reach those around them with the life-changing message of Christ.

Now those barriers had been removedwith the support and approval of the emperor himself. The only barriers that remained were within the hearts and minds of those who would hear the good news, and would have to decide for themselves what they were going to do with it.

As for Nicholas, he had grown in influence and respect in Myra, as well as the region around him. His great wealth was long since gone, for he had given most of it away when he saw the Great Persecution coming, and what remained had been discovered and ransacked while he was in prison. But what he lost in wealth he made up for in influence, for his heart and actions were still bent towards giving–no matter what he had or didn’t have to give. After giving so much of himself to the people around him, he was naturally among those who were chosen to attend the upcoming council. It would turn out to become one of the most momentous events in history, not to mention one of the most memorable events in his own life–but not necessarily for a reason he would want to remember.

CHAPTER 32

Although Christians were enjoying a new kind of freedom under Constantine, the future of Christianity was still at risk. The threats no longer came from outside the church, but from within. Factions had begun to rise inside the ranks of the growing church, with intense discussions surrounding various theological points which had very practical implications.

In particular, a very small but vocal group, led by a man named Arius, had started to gain attention as they began to question whether Jesus was actually divine or not.

Was Jesus merely a man? Or was He, in fact, one with God in His very essence? To men like Nicholas and Dimitri, the question was hardly debatable, for they had devoted their entire lives to following Jesus as their Lord. They had risked everything to follow Him in word and deed. He was their Lord, their Savior, their Light and their Hope. Like many of the others who would be attending the council, it was not their robes or outer garments that bore witness to their faith in Christ, but the scars and wounds they bore in their flesh as they suffered for Him. They had risked their lives under the threat of death for worshipping Christ as divine, rather than Emperor Diocletian. There was no question in their minds regarding this issue. But still there were some who, like Arius, felt this was a question that was up for debate.

In Arius’ zeal to see that people worshipped God alone, Arius could not conceive that any man, even one as good as Jesus, could claim to be one with God without blaspheming the name of God Himself. In this, Arius was not unlike those who persecuted Jesus while He was still alive. Even some of those who were living then and had witnessed His miracles with their own eyes, and heard Jesus’ words with their own ears, could not grasp that Jesus could possibly be telling the truth when He said, “I and the Father are one.” And for this, they brought Jesus to Herod, and then to Pilate, to have Him crucified.

As a boy, Nicholas had wondered about Jesus’ claim, too. But when Nicholas was in Bethlehem, it all finally made perfect sense to him–that God Himself had come down from heaven to earth as a man to take on the sins of the world once and for all as God in the flesh.

Arius, however, was like the Apostle Paul before he met the Jesus on the road to Damascus. Before his life-changing experience, the Apostle Paul wanted to protect what he felt to be the divinity of God by persecuting anyone who said they worshipped Jesus as God. For no man, according to Paul’s earlier way of thinking, could possibly consider himself to be one with God.

Like Arius, Paul could not believe the claims of Jesus and His followers. But on the road to Damascus, as Paul was on his way to round up and kill more Christians in his zeal, Paul met the Living Christ in a vision that blinded him physically, but awakened him spiritually to the Truth. In the days that followed, Paul’s physical eyes were healed and he repented of his misguided efforts. He was baptized in Jesus’ name and began to preach from then on that Jesus was not merely a man, but that Jesus’ claims about Himself to be one with the Father were completely true. Paul gave his life in worship and service to Christ, and had to endure, like Nicholas had to endure, imprisonment and an ever-present threat of death for his faith.

Arius was more like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who, in their zeal to defend God, actually crucified the Lord of all creation. Arius felt justified in trying to gather support among the bishops for his position.

Nicholas and Dimitri didn’t think Arius’ ideas could possibly gather many supporters. Yet they would soon find out that Arius’ personal charisma and his excellent oratorial skills might actually hold sway over some of the bishops who had not yet given the idea nor its implications full consideration.

Nicholas and Dimitri, however, like the Apostle Paul, the Apostle John and tens of thousands of others in the time since Jesus lived and died and rose again from the dead, had discovered that Jesus was, thankfully and supernaturally, both fully human and fully divine.

But what would the rest of the bishops conclude? And what would they teach as truth to others for the countless generations to come? This was to become one of the pivotal questions that was to be determined at this meeting in Nicaea. Although Nicholas was interested in this debate, he had no idea that he was about to play a key role in its outcome.

CHAPTER 33

After a grand processional of bishops and priests, a boys’ choir and Constantine’s opening words, one of the first topics addressed at the council was the one brought forth by Arius–whether or not Jesus Christ was divine.

Arius made his opening arguments with great eloquence and great persuasion in the presence of Constantine and the rest of the assembly. Jesus was, he asserted, perhaps the foremost of all created beings. But to be co-equal with God, one in substance and essence with Him, was impossible–at least according to Arius. No one could be one with God, he said.

Nicholas listened in silence, along with every other bishop in that immense room. Respect for the speaker, especially in the presence of the emperor, took precedence over any type of muttering or disturbance that might accompany other types of gatherings like this, especially on a subject of such intensity. But the longer Arius spoke, the harder it became for Nicholas to sit in silence.

After all, Nicholas’ parents had given their lives for the honor of serving Christ their Lord. Nicholas himself had been overwhelmed by the presence of God in Bethlehem, at the very spot where God made His first appearance as Man in the flesh. Dimitri, Samuel and Ruthie had all been similarly affected by that visit to Bethlehem. They had walked up the hill in Jerusalem where the King of kings had been put to death by religious leadersleaders who, like Arius, doubted Jesus’ claims to be one with God.

Nicholas had always realized that Jesus was unlike any other man who had ever lived. And after Jesus died, He had risen from the dead, appeared to the twelve disciples and then appeared to more than 500 others who were living in Jerusalem at the time. What kind of man could do that? Was it just a mass hallucination? Was it just wishful thinking on the part of religious fanatics? But these weren’t just fans, they were followers who were willing to give up their lives, too, for their Lord and Savior.

The arguments continued to run through Nicholas’ head. Hadn’t the prophet Micah foretold, hundreds of years before Jesus was born, that the Messiah would be “from of old, from ancient times”? Hadn’t the Apostle John said that Jesus “was with God in the beginning,” concluding that Jesus “was God.”

Like others had tried to suggest, Arius said that Jesus had never claimed to be God. But Nicholas knew the Scriptures well enough to know that Jesus had said, “I and the Father are one. Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father… Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in Me?”

Even Jesus’ detractors at the time that He was living said that the reason they wanted to stone Jesus was because Jesus claimed to be God. The Scriptures said that these detractors cornered Jesus one day and Jesus said, “I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?”

They replied, “We are not stoning you for any of these, but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”

Jesus had certainly claimed to be God, a claim that got Him into hot water more than once. His claim showed that He was either a madman or a liar–or that He was telling the Truth.

Nicholas’ mind flooded with Scriptures like these, as well as with memories of the years he had spent in prisonyears he would never get back again–all because he was unwilling to worship Diocletian as a god, but was fully willing to worship Jesus as God. How could Nicholas remain silent and let Arius go on like this? How could anyone else in the room take it, he thought? Nicholas had no idea.

“There was nothing divine about him,” Arius said with conviction. “He was just a man, just like any one of us.”

Without warning, and without another moment to think about what he was doing, Nicholas stood to his feet. Then his feet, as if they had a mind of their own, began to walk deliberately and intently across the massive hall towards Arius. Arius continued talking until Nicholas finally stood directly in front of him.

Arius stopped. This breach of protocol was unprecedented.

In the silence that followed, Nicholas turned his back towards Arius and pulled down the robes from his own back, revealing the hideous scars he had gotten while in prison. Nicholas said, “I didn’t get these for just a man.'”

Turning back towards Arius and facing him squarely, Nicholas saw the smug smile return to Arius’ face. Arius said, “Well, it looks like you were mistaken.” Then Arius started up his speech again as if nothing at all had happened.

That’s when Nicholas did the unthinkable. With no other thought than to stop this man from speaking against his Lord and Savior, and in plain site of the emperor and everyone else in attendance, Nicholas clenched his fist. He pulled back his arm and he punched Arius hard in the face.

Arius stumbled and fell back, both from the impact of the blow and from the shock that came with it. Nicholas, too, was stunned–along with everyone else in the room. With the same deliberate and intentional steps which he had taken to walk up to Arius, Nicholas now walked back to his chair and took his seat.

A collective gasp echoed through the hall when Nicholas struck Arius, followed by an eruption of commotion when Nicholas sat back down in his seat. The disruption threatened to throw the entire proceedings into chaos. The vast majority of those in the room looked like they could have jumped to their feet and given Nicholas a standing ovation for this bold act–including, by the look on his face, even the emperor himself! But to others, Arius chief among them, no words nor displays of emotion could express their outrage. Everyone knew what an awful offense Nicholas had just committed. It was, in fact, illegal for anyone to use violence of any kind in the presence of the emperor. The punishment for such an act was to immediately cut off the hand of anyone who struck another person in the presence of the emperor.

Constantine knew the law, of course, but also knew Nicholas. He had once even had a dream about Nicholas in which Nicholas warned Constantine to grant a stay of execution to three men in Constantine’s court–a warning which Constantine heeded and acted upon in real life. When Constantine shared that dream with one of his generals, the general recounted to Constantine what Nicholas had done for the three innocent men back in Myra, for the general was one of the three who had seen Nicholas’ bravery in person.

Although Nicholas’ actions against Arius may have appeared rash, Constantine admired Nicholas’ pluck. Known for his quick thinking and fast action, Constantine raised his hand and brought an instant silence to the room as he did so. “This is certainly a surprise to us all,” he said. “And while the penalty for an act such in my presence is clear, I would prefer to defer this matter to the leaders of the council instead. These are your proceedings and I will defer to your wisdom to conduct them as you see fit.”

Constantine had bought both time and goodwill among the various factions. The council on the whole seemed to agree with Nicholas’ position, at least in spirit, even if they could not agree with his rash action. They would want to exact some form of punishment, since not to do so would fail to honor the rule of law. But having been given permission by the emperor himself to do as they saw fit, rather than invoke the standard punishment, they felt the freedom to take another form of action.

After a short deliberation, the leaders of the council agreed and determined that Nicholas should be defrocked immediately from his position as a bishop, banished from taking part in the rest of the proceedings in Nicaea and held under house arrest within the palace complex. There he could await any further decision the council might see fit at the conclusion of their meetings that summer. It was a lenient sentence, in light of the offense.

But for Nicholas, even before he heard what the punishment was going to be, he was already punishing himself more than anyone else ever could for what he had just done. Within less than a minute, he had gone from experiencing one of the highest mountaintops of his life to experiencing one of its deepest valleys.

Here he was attending one of the greatest conclaves in the history of the world, and yet he had just done something he knew he could never take back. The ramifications of his actions would affect him for the rest of his life, he was sure of it, or at least for whatever remained of his life. The sensation he felt could only be understood, perhaps, by those who had experienced it before–the weight, the shame and the agony of a moment of sin that could have crushed him, apart from knowing the forgiveness of Christ.

When Nicholas was defrocked of his title as bishop, it was in front of the entire assembly. He was disrobed of his bishop’s garments, then escorted from the room in shackles. But this kind of disgrace was a mere trifle compared to the humiliation he was experiencing on the inside. He was even too numb to cry.

CHAPTER 34

“What have I done?” Nicholas said to Dimitri as the two sat together in a room near the farthest corner of the palace. This room had become Nicholas’ make-shift prison cell, as he was to be held under house arrest for the remainder of the proceedings. Dimitri, using his now-extensive skills at gaining access to otherwise unauthorized areas, had once again found a way to visit his friend in prison.

“What have you done?!? What else could you have done?” countered Dimitri. “If you hadn’t done it, someone else surely would have, or at least should have. You did Arius, and all the rest of us, a favor with that punch. Had he continued with his diatribe, who knows what punishment the Lord Himself might have brought down upon the entire gathering!” Of course, Dimitri knew God could take it, and often does, when people rail against Him and His ways. He is much more long-suffering than any of us could ever be. But still, Dimitri felt Nicholas’ actions were truly justified.

Nicholas, however, could hardly see it that way at the moment. It was more likely, he thought, that he had just succeeded in giving Arius the sympathy he needed for his cause to win. Nicholas knew that when people are losing an argument based on logic, they often appeal to pure emotion instead, going straight for the hearts of their listeners, whether or not their cause makes sense. And as much as Arius may have been losing his audience on the grounds of logic, Nicholas felt that his actions may have just tipped the emotional scales in Arius’ favor.

The torment of it all beat against Nicholas’ mind. Here it was, still just the opening days of the proceedings, and he would have to sit under house arrest for the next two months. How was he going to survive this onslaught of emotions every day during that time?

Nicholas already knew this prison cell was going to be entirely different than the one in which Diocletian had put him for more than a decade. This time, he felt he had put himself in jail. And although this prison was a beautifully appointed room within a palace, to Nicholas’ way of thinking, it was much worse than the filthy one in which he had almost died.

In the other cell, he knew he was there because of the misguided actions of others. This gave him a sense that what he had to endure there was part of the natural suffering that Jesus said would come to all who followed Him. But in this cell, he knew he was there because of his own inane actions, actions which he viewed as inexcusable, a viewpoint which he felt many of those in attendance would rightly share.

For decades Nicholas had been known as a man of calm, inner strength and of dignity under control. Then, in one day, he had lost it alland in front of the emperor no less! How could he ever forgive himself. “How,” he asked Dimitri, “could I ever take back what I’ve just done to the name of the Lord.”

Dimitri replied, “Perhaps He doesn’t want you to take it back. Maybe it wasn’t what you think you did to His name that He cares about so much, as what you did in His name. You certainly did what I, and the vast majority of those in the room wished they would have done, had they had the courage to do so.”

Dimitri’s words lingered in the air. As Nicholas contemplated them, a faint smile seemed to appear on his face. Perhaps there was something to be said for his heart in the matter after all. He was sincerely wanting to honor and defend his Lord, not to detract from Him in any way. Peter, he remembered, had a similar passion for defending his Lord. And Nicholas now realized what Peter may have felt when Peter cut off the ear of one of the men who had come to capture Jesus. Jesus told Peter to put away his sword and then Jesus healed the man’s ear. Jesus could obviously defend Himself quite well on His own, but Nicholas had to give Peter credit for his passionate defense of his Master.

Nicholas was still unconvinced that he had done the right thing, but he felt in good company with others who had acted on their passions. And Dimitri’s words helped him to realize that he was not alone in his thinking, and he took some comfort from the fact that Dimitri hadn’t completely forsaken him over the incident. This support from Dimitri acted like a soothing balm to Nicholas’ soul, and helped him to get through yet one more of the darkest times of his life.

Although Nicholas was convinced that the damage he had done was irreversible in human terms–and that God was going to have to work time-and-a-half to make anything good come out of this one–Nicholas knew what he had to do. Even in this moment of his deepest humiliation, he knew the best thing he could do was to do what he had always done: to put his complete faith and trust in God. But how? How could he trust that God possibly use this for good?

As if reading Nicholas’ mind, Dimitri knew exactly what Nicholas needed to help him put his trust back in God again. Dimitri did what Nicholas had done for him and Samuel and Ruthie so many years ago. Dimitri told him a story.

CHAPTER 35

Dimitri began, “What kind of story would you like to hear today? A good story or a bad story?” It was the way Nicholas had introduced the Bible stories that he told to Dimitri, Samuel and Ruthie during their many adventures in the Holy Land. Nicholas would then begin delighting the children with a story from the Bible about a good character or a bad character, or a good story or a bad story, sometimes which ended the exact opposite way it began.

Nicholas looked up with interest.

“It doesn’t matter,” Dimitri continued, “because the story I have to tell you today could be either good or bad. You just won’t know till the end. But I’ve learned from a good friend,” he said as he winked at Nicholas, “that the best way to enjoy a story is to always trust the storyteller.”

Nicholas had told them that he watched people’s reactions whenever he told stories back home.

“When people trust the storyteller,” Nicholas had said, “they love the story no matter what happens, because they know the storyteller knows how the story will end. But when people don’t trust the storyteller, their emotions go up and down like a boat in a storm, depending on what’s happening in the story. The truth is, only the storyteller knows for sure how the story will end. So as long as you trust the storyteller, you can enjoy the whole story from start to finish.”

Now it was Dimitri’s turn to tell a story to Nicholas. The story he chose to tell was about another man who had been sent to jail, a man by the name of Joseph. Dimitri recounted for Nicholas how Joseph’s life appeared to go up and down.

Dimitri started: “Joseph’s father loved Joseph and gave him a beautiful, colorful coat. Now that’s good, right?”

Nicholas nodded.

“But no, that was bad, for Joseph’s brothers saw the coat and were jealous of him and sold him into slavery. Now that’s bad, right?”

Nicholas nodded.

“No, that was good, because Joseph was put in charge of the whole house of a very wealthy man. Now that’s good, right?”

Nicholas nodded again.

“No, that’s bad,” said Dimitri, “because the wealthy man’s wife tried to seduce him, and when Joseph resisted, she sent him to jail. Now that’s bad, right?”

Nicholas stopped nodding either way because he knew where this was going.

“No, that’s good,” said Dimitri, “because Joseph was put in charge over all the other prisoners. He even helped to interpret their dreams. Now that’s good, right?”

Nicholas continued to listen carefully.

“No, that’s bad, because after interpreting their dreams, Joseph asked one of the men to help him out of prison when he got out, but the man forgot about Joseph and left him behind. Now that’s bad, right?”

Nicholas saw himself as the man who had been left behind in prison.

“No! That’s good! Because God had put Joseph in just the right place at just the right time. When the king of Egypt had a dream and he needed someone to interpret it, the man who had been set free suddenly remembered that Joseph was still in jail and told the king about him.

The king summoned Joseph, asked for an interpretation and Joseph gave it to him. The king was so impressed with Joseph that he put Joseph in charge of his whole kingdom. As a result, Joseph was able to use his new position to save hundreds of thousands of lives, including the lives of his own father and even his brothersthe very ones who had sold him into slavery in the first place. And that’s very good!”

“So you see,” said Dimitri, “just as you’ve always told us, we never know how the story will turn out until the very end. God knew what He was doing all along! You see…

– at just the right time, Joseph was born and his father loved him,
– so that at just the right time his brothers would mistreat him,
– so that at just the right time the slave traders would come along and buy him,
– so that at just the right time he would be put in charge of a wealthy man’s house,
– so that at just the right time he would be thrown into jail,
– so that at just the right time he would be put in charge of the prisoners,
– so that at just the right time he could interpret their dreams,
– so that at just the right time he could interpret Pharaoh’s dreams,
– so that at just the right time he would become second in command over all of Egypt,
– so that at just the right time Joseph would be in the one place in the world that God wanted him to be so that he could save the lives of his father and brothers and many, many others!

“All along the way, Joseph never gave up on God. He knew the secret of enjoying the story while he lived it out: he always trusted the Storyteller, the One who was writing the story of his life.”

All of Nicholas’ fears and doubts faded away in those moments and he knew he could trust the Storyteller, the One who was writing the story of his life, too. Nicholas’ story wasn’t over yet, and he had to trust that the God who brought him this far could see him through to the end.

Nicholas looked at Dimitri with a smile of thanks, then closed his eyes. It would be a long two months of waiting for the council’s decision. But he knew that if he could trust God in that one moment, and then in the next moment, and then the next, each of those moments would add up to minutes, and minutes would add up to hours. Hours would turn into weeks, then months, then years. He knew that it all began with trusting God in a moment.

With his eyes still closed, Nicholas put his full faith and trust in God again. The peace of God flooded his heart.

Soon, two months had passed by. The council was ready to make their final decisions on many matters, including the decision that had landed Nicholas under house arrest in the first placeand Nicholas was about to find out the results.

CHAPTER 36

“They did it!” It was Dimitri, bursting through the door to Nicholas’ room as soon as the palace guard had opened it.

“They did it!” he repeated. “It’s done! The council has voted and they’ve agreed with you! All but two of the 318 bishops have sided with you over Arius!”

Relief swept over Nicholas’ whole body. Dimitri could feel it in his body, too, as he watched the news flood over Nicholas’ entire being.

“And furthermore,” said Dimitri, “the council has decided not to take any further action against you!”

Both pieces of news were the best possible outcome Nicholas could have imagined. Even though Nicholas’ action had cost him his position as a bishop, it had not jeopardized the outcome of the proceedings. It was even possiblethough he never knew for surethat his action against Arius had perhaps in some way shaped what took place during those summer months at that historic council.

Within minutes of Dimitri’s arrival, another visitor appeared at Nicholas’ door. It was Constantine.

The council’s decision about what to do with Nicholas was one thing, but Constantine’s decision was another. A fresh wave of fear washed over Nicholas as he thought of the possibilities.

“Nicholas,” said the emperor, “I wanted to personally thank you for coming here to be my guest in Nicaea. I want to apologize for what you’ve had to endure these past two months. This wasn’t what I had planned for you and I’m sure it wasn’t what you had planned, either. But even though you weren’t able to attend the rest of the proceedings, I assure you that your presence was felt throughout every meeting. What you did that day in the hall spoke to me about what it means to follow Christ more than anything else I heard in the days that followed. I’d like to hear more from you in the future, if you would be willing to be my guest again. But next time, it won’t be in the farthest corner of the palace. Furthermore, I have asked for and received permission from the council to reinstate you to your position as Bishop of Myra. I believe the One who called you to serve Him would want you to continue doing everything you’ve been doing up to this point. As for me, let me just say that I appreciate what you’ve done here more than you can possibly know. Thank you for coming, and whenever you’re ready, you’re free to go home.”

Nicholas had been listening to Constantine’s words as if he were in a dream. He could hardly believe his ears. But when the emperor said the word “home,” Nicholas knew this wasn’t a dream, and the word rang like the sweetest bell in Nicholas’ ears. Of all the words the emperor had just spoken, none sounded better to him than that final word: home. He wanted nothing more than to get back to the flock he served. It was for them that he had come to this important gathering in the first place, to ensure that the Truths he had taught them would continue to be taught throughout the land.

After more than two months of being separated from them, and the ongoing question of what would become of them and the hundreds of thousands of others like them in the future who would be affected by their decisions here, Nicholas could finally go home. He was free again in more ways than one.

To be concluded…next week!

(Or if you can’t wait, you can order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link!)

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- St. Nicholas: The Believer, Part 5 of 7

Note from Eric: Before I share today’s message, I wanted to let you know that we recorded the 4 main sessions of our 2016 Guided Prayer Retreat, which we held this week in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina. If you’d like to learn how to pray more effectively, why not take a day away, or a couple hours each night for a few nights, to watch on your own and take time to pray along with us? Each session is just under 2 hours, and you’ll have a chance to hear how others pray, then put those ideas into practice in your own prayer life. In these messages, I also share some of the remarkable ways God has answered my own prayers just this past weekend! To watch now, online, for free, just click this link!

Watch the 2016 Guided Prayer Retreat!

2016 Guided Prayer Retreat - Boardroom


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
Part 5 of 7

by Eric & Lana Elder

 
Today, I’m posting Part 5 of the book my wife and I wrote about the real St. Nicholas who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. It’s a new book for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas.

You can read Part 5 below, or listen to Part 5 at this link, or order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link. (If you missed them, you can follow these links to read Part 1Part 2Part 3, and Part 4.)

Enjoy!
Eric

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

by Eric & Lana Elder

PART 5

CHAPTER 25

Back when Jesus was born, there was a king who felt so threatened by this little baby boy that he gave orders to kill every boy in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under. Three hundred and three years later, another king felt just as threatened by Jesus, as well as his followers.

This new king’s name was Diocletian, and he was the emperor of the entire Roman Empire. Even though the Romans had killed Jesus hundreds of years earlier, Diocletian still felt threatened by the Christians who followed Jesus. Diocletian declared himself to be a god and he wanted all the people in his empire to worship him.

Although Christians were among the most law-abiding citizens in the land, they simply couldn’t worship Diocletian. He considered this an act of insurrection, an act which must be quenched in the strongest way possible. By the time Diocletian had finally risen to his full power, he ordered that all Bibles be burned, that Christian churches be destroyed and that those who followed Christ be imprisoned, tortured and put to death.

While persecution against Christians had been taking place for many years under Roman rule, none of those persecutions compared to that which took place during the reign of Diocletian. Nicholas, for his part, didn’t fear Diocletian, but as always, he feared for those in his church who followed Jesus.

Having such a visible role in the church, Nicholas knew that he would be targeted first, and if he were taken away, he feared for what would happen to those who would be left behind. But Nicholas had already made his decision. He knew that even if he was killed he could trust God that God could still accomplish His purpose on earth whether Nicholas were a part of that or not. It was this foundational faith and trust in God and His purposes that would help Nicholas through the difficult years ahead.

Rather than retreat into hiding from the certain fate that awaited him, Nicholas chose to stand his ground to the end. He vowed to keep the doors to his church wide open for all who wanted to come in. And he kept that vow for as long as he could until one day when those who came in were soldiers–soldiers who had come for him.

CHAPTER 26

Nicholas was ready when the soldiers arrived. He knew that his time for second-guessing his decision to keep the church open was over. Unfortunately, the days for his church were over, too, as the soldiers shut the doors for good when they left.

For all the goodwill that Nicholas had built up with people in his town over the years, even with the local soldiers, these were no local soldiers who came for Nicholas. Diocletian had sent them with demands that his orders be carried out unquestioningly, and that those who didn’t carry them out would suffer the same fate as those who were to be punished.

Nicholas was given one last chance to renounce his faith in Christ and worship Diocletian instead, but Nicholas, of course, refused. It wasn’t that he wanted to defy Roman authority, for Christ Himself taught His followers that it was important to honor those in authority and to honor their laws. But to deny that Jesus was His Lord and Savior would have been like trying to deny that the sun had risen that morning! He simply couldn’t do it. How could he deny the existence of the One who had given him life, who had given him faith and who had given him hope in the darkest hours of his life. If the soldiers had to take him away, so be it. To say that a mere man like Diocletian was God, and that Jesus was anything less than God, was unconscionable.

For all his faith, Nicholas was still subject to the same sensations of pain that every human being experiences. His strong faith did not exempt him from the natural fear that others feel when they are threatened with bodily harm. He also feared the idea of imprisonment, having to be isolated from others for so long, especially when he didn’t know how long his imprisonment might last–or if he would survive it at all.

Nicholas knew that these fears were healthy, given to him by God, to keep out any danger and to protect him from anything that might possibly harm his body. But right now, as Nicholas was being forcefully taken away, he wished he could suppress those fears.

“God, help me,” he called out as the shackles that the soldiers were putting on his wrists cut into them. This was the beginning of a new kind of pilgrimage for Nicholas–a pilgrimage that would last far longer than his years in the Holy Land.

It would be hard to compare these two journeys in terms of their impact on his life, for how could you compare a journey freely taken, where you could come and go as you please and stop the journey at any time, with a journey that was forced upon you against your will, where even venturing out to catch a glimpse of the sun was under someone else’s control and not yours?

Yet Nicholas found that he was able to sense the presence of God in a way that equalled, if not surpassed, all that he had experienced in the Holy Land. As he had learned from other believers, sometimes you don’t realize that Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.

Over the course of his imprisonment, whenever the door to Nicholas’ prison cell opened, he didn’t know if the guards were there to set him free or to sentence him to death. He never knew if any given day might be his last. But the byproduct of this uncertainty was that Nicholas received a keen awareness of the brevity of life, as well as a continual awareness of the presence of God.

Nicholas found that by closing his eyes he could sense God’s presence in a way he had never sensed it before. This cell wasn’t a prison–it was a sanctuary. And all Nicholas wanted to do was to stay in God’s presence as long as he could. Soon, Nicholas didn’t even have to close his eyes. He simply knew that he was always in the presence of God.

Of course, his time in prison was also filled with the stinging pain of the worst kind of hell on earth. The soldiers were relentless in their attempts to get Nicholas to renounce his faith. The pain they inflicted ranged from prodding him with hot branding irons and squeezing his flesh with hot pincers to whipping him severely, then pouring salt and vinegar in his wounds. As a result, his back was permanently scarred. The unsanitary conditions of the prison caused Nicholas to experience more kinds of sickness than he had ever experienced before. At times he even wondered if death might be better than what he had to endure there.

It was during one of those times, the darkest perhaps, of the five years he had spent so far in prison, that the door to his cell opened. A light streamed in, but as he looked at it closely, it wasn’t the light of the sun, for as far as Nicholas could tell in his isolated cell, it was still just the middle of the night.

The light that entered the room was the light of a smile, a smile on the face of Nicholas’ young friend, now grown to be a man. It was the light of the smiling face of Dimitri.

CHAPTER 27

Nicholas had seen few faces in his time in prison, and fewer still that gave him any kind of encouragement. To see a smile on someone’s face, let alone a face that Nicholas loved so much, was pure joy.

It hadn’t been easy for Dimitri to find Nicholas. Dimitri had come to Myra knowing that Nicholas had taken a church there. But it had been years since Dimitri had heard from his friend, a time in which Dimitri himself had been imprisoned. Having only recently been set free, Dimitri made his way across the Great Sea in search of Nicholas. Dimitri had to search hard to find Nicholas, but Dimitri had come too far to give up without seeing his old friend and mentor, the first person who had shown him the love of Christ.

Using the street-smarts that he had acquired as a guide in the Holy Land, Dimitri was able to navigate his way through or around most anyone or anything that stood in his way. Dimitri’s tenacity, plus the hand of God’s guidance, helped Dimitri to find his friend, and to find this door which he opened that night for this special visit. It was a visit that, to Nicholas, seemed like a visit by an angel from heaven.

After the door closed behind them, and after an extended embrace, Dimitri sat down on the floor next to Nicholas. They sat in silence for several minutes, neither of them having to say a word. In holy moments like these, words were unnecessary.

The darkness in the small cell was so great that they didn’t even try to look at one another, but simply sat there side by side. Dimitri’s eyes had not yet adjusted to the pitch-blackness enough to see anything anyway, and Nicholas was content to merely know that his friend was right there by him. Nicholas could hear the sound of Dimitri’s breath, a sound which increased Nicholas’ joy, knowing that his friend was still alive and was right there in the flesh.

Nicholas drew in another deep breath and with it he breathed in a new sense of life. It was a breath of life that his friend couldn’t help but bring with him.

CHAPTER 28

“And how are our two young bodyguards doing?” Nicholas asked at last, referring to Samuel and Ruthie. Nicholas had been praying often for all three of them, as he cared for them as if they were his own young brothers and sister.

Dimitri hesitated. He looked at Nicholas but couldn’t say a word. He was eager to tell Nicholas everything that had happened in the years that had passed, about how Samuel and Ruthie continued taking people to the holy places, sharing with others the same good news of Jesus that they had discovered in their days with Nicholas.

Like Dimitri, Samuel and Ruthie had to stop guiding pilgrims when the “Great Persecution” came, as it was now being called. All three of them began spending most of their days seeing to the needs of the other believers in Jerusalem, believers who were facing imprisonment and death, just like Nicholas. Since they were not in a high profile position like Nicholas though, the three of them were able to avoid being caught longer than Nicholas. But eventually, they too were imprisoned, being repeatedly questioned, threatened and tortured for their faith.

Samuel and Dimitri were strong enough to withstand the abuse, but Ruthie was too frail. One day, after being treated particularly harshly, she returned to them and collapsed. Although she had obviously been crying from the pain in her body, somehow she had also managed to keep a smile in her heart.

“How can you do it?” asked Samuel. “How can you possibly still smile, even after all that?”

Ruthie replied, “I feel like I’ve been walking and talking with Jesus for so long now that even death wouldn’t really change that. I’ll just keep on walking and talking with Him forever.”

Ruthie smiled again and Dimitri couldn’t help but smile back at her. But her body was giving out and she knew it. She could sense that she was just moments away from passing from this life to the next.

“You can’t go!” said Samuel. “You’ve got to stay here with me! There’s still too much work to be done!” But Ruthie was slipping away.

“If you die, I’ll just pray that God will bring you back to life!” Samuel was desperate now to hang onto her. But Ruthie just smiled again. She had truly found the secret of living life to the fullest, and nothing, not even death, could take that away.

She spoke, quietly now, with just a whisper. “You could pray that God would raise me from the dead, but the truth is, I’ve already been raised from the dead once. When we met Nicholas, and he introduced us to Jesus, I was raised from the dead and given a whole new life. From then on, I knew that I would live forever.”

With that, Ruthie passed through the veil and into the visible presence of God. The smile that adorned her face in life continued to shine on her face in death, and Dimitri knew where she was. She was just continuing to do what she had always done, walking and talking with Jesus, but now face to face.

Nicholas sat in silence as Dimitri told him the story, taking it all in. As much as he thought he would be sad, his heart began to soar instead. None of this was new to him, of course, but hearing about Ruthie’s faith brought his own back to life again as well.

You would think a man like Nicholas wouldn’t need to be encouraged in his faith. He had brought faith to countless others, and he was a bishop no less. But Nicholas also knew in his heart of hearts that it was people like him who sometimes needed the most encouragement in their faith. Great faith, he knew, did not come to those who have no doubts. Great faith came to those who have had their faith stretched so far that it had to grow, or else it would break completely. By continuing to trust God no matter what, Nicholas found that he was able to fill in any gaps in his faith along the way, helping it to grow even further.

As sad as he was for Ruthie’s passing, Nicholas couldn’t help but smile from deep down in his heart the same way that Ruthie must have done on the day that she died. He longed for the day when he could see Jesus face to face, just as Ruthie was now seeing Him. Yet he loved the work that God had given him on earth to do, too.

“We can’t lose, can we?” said Nicholas with a reflective smile. “Either we die and get to be with Jesus in heaven, or we live and get to continue His work here on earth. Either way we win, don’t we? Either way we win.”

“Yes, either way we win,” echoed Dimitri. “Either way we win.”

For the next several hours, Nicholas and Dimitri shared stories with each other of what God had done in their lives during their time apart. But nothing could have prepared Nicholas for what Dimitri was about to tell him next. For Dimitri, it seems, had met a girl. And not just any girl, but a girl Nicholas knew very well by now. Her name was Anna Maria.

CHAPTER 29

In his journey to find Nicholas, Dimitri looked for anyone who might know of his whereabouts. When he got to Myra, he went first to the church where Nicholas had served as bishop. Not finding him there, Dimitri took to the streets to see if he could find anyone who knew anything about him. And who did he find in the streets, but the very girl–now a woman–that Nicholas had found so many years ago, selling her braided flowers to anyone who would buy them.

She was no longer covered in the cloak of poverty. Both her inner and outer beauty were immediately evident to Dimitri. He was so taken by her that he couldn’t help but be drawn into a conversation. And she seemed to be just as taken by him. She couldn’t believe that a man of his stature and faith was willing to talk to her. He was, she thought, the kindest and most impressive man she had ever met.

When Dimitri mentioned his mission, searching for the bishop named Nicholas, Anna Maria gasped. How could this man, this stranger from the other side of the Great Sea, know anything about Nicholas? Dimitri shared the story of how they met, and Nicholas had rescued him from his poverty of faith. Anna Maria couldn’t help but share what Nicholas had done for her family as well, saving her two older sisters from slavery by throwing a bag of gold through the window for each of them on the eve of their 18th birthdays.

But then, Anna Maria’s smile faded. It was now only a few days until her own 18th birthday, but Nicholas had been taken away to prison five years earlier. No one had seen nor heard from him in all those years. She didn’t even know where he was. Although her father had had a change of heart, and wouldn’t dream of selling Anna Maria into slavery, he still had no dowry to offer to any potential suitor. Without a dowry, as Dimitri knew very well, Anna Maria’s future was dim. And with Nicholas in prison, there was no chance he would be able to rescue their family a third time. Anna Maria had taken again to selling her flowers in the street, and although they were more impressive than her earlier creations, she could barely earn enough from their sales to help the family with the cost of food from time to time.

Dimitri listened, and like Nicholas before him, he knew within minutes what God was prompting him to do. He could be the answer to Anna Maria’s prayers, and with much more than just a dowry. But he also knew that these things take time, so he just treasured these thoughts in his heart, buying a flower from Anna Maria, thanking her for sharing what she knew about Nicholas and continuing on his way, promising to get in touch with her if he ever located their precious friend.

On the eve of Anna Maria’s birthday, Dimitri found himself in the very spot where Nicholas had hidden twice before, years earlier, just outside the open window of Anna Maria’s home. The conversation inside was subdued, as Anna Maria and her father prayed, knowing that there was no way for Nicholas to appear again. They put out the lights and headed for bed.

Dimitri waited for what seemed to him like hours, knowing that he couldn’t dare wake them and risk exposing his plan. For he had saved up enough in his years of working in the Holy Land to easily fill a bag with golden coins suitable for a dowry. But he couldn’t just hand them the money, for he had more in mind than just giving them the dowry. He wanted Anna Maria’s father to give it back to him someday, as a wedding gift to him! It was a long shot, and he knew he would need more time to be sure she was the one for him. He also felt this was the best way to make it all work out in the end, even if she wasn’t the one for him. Something told him, however, that she was. And with that thought in mind, he made his next move.

Carefully and quietly, he reached over the windowsill and let the bag drop quietly down on the floor below. No one heard and no one stirred. Having done his duty to God and to his own heart, he set off again in search of Nicholas. Two weeks later, Dimitri had found Nicholas, and was now sharing with him the story of how he had met the woman of his dreams.

The news couldn’t have been any sweeter to Nicholas’ ears. And again his heart lightened and soared, for even though he was locked away from the rest of the world in his prison cell, Nicholas saw the fruit of his prayers–prayers that were answered in the most incredible way imaginable. He could still make a difference in the world, even from here in prison, even when the world tried to shut him down.

Before Dimitri left that night, he embraced Nicholas one more time; then he was gone. He disappeared through the prison door as miraculously as he had entered it.

It would be five more years until Nicholas would see Dimitri again. Diocletian’s grip continued to tighten around the Christians’ necks. But during all those remaining years in prison, Nicholas felt freer in his heart than he had ever felt before. No man could keep Nicholas from worshipping Jesus, and no man could keep Jesus from doing what He wanted done.

When the day finally came for Nicholas to be set free, the guard who opened Nicholas’ door looked in and said, “It’s time to go. You’re free.”

Nicholas simply looked at the guard with a smile. He had already been free for quite some time.

CHAPTER 30

Thinking Nicholas must not have heard him, the guard spoke again. “I said you’re free, you’re free to go. You can get up and go home now.”

At the word “home,” Nicholas stirred. He hadn’t seen his home, or his church, or hardly any other soul than Dimitri for ten years. He stood to his feet and his movements began to accelerate as he responded to the guard’s words.

“Home?” Nicholas said.

“Yes, home. You can go home now. The emperor has issued a decree that has set all Christians free.”

The emperor he was referring to was a new emperor named Constantine. Diocletian’s efforts had failed to constrain the Christians. Instead of quenching their spirits, Diocletian had strengthened them. Like Nicholas, those who weren’t killed grew stronger in their faith. And the stronger they grew in their faith, the stronger they grew in their influence, gaining new converts from the citizens around them. Even Diocletian’s wife and daughter had converted to Christianity.

Diocletian stepped down from ruling the empire, and Constantine stepped up.

Constantine reversed the persecution of the Christians, issuing the Edict of Milan. This edict showed a new tolerance for people of all religions and resulted in freedom for the Christians. Constantine’s mother, Helen, was a devout Christian herself. Even though no one quite knew if Constantine was a Christian, the new tolerance he displayed allowed people to worship whoever they pleased and however they pleased, the way it should have been all along.

As much as Diocletian had changed the Roman world for the worse, Constantine was now changing it for the better. Their reigns were as different as night and day and served as a testament of how one person really can affect the course of history forever–either for good or for evil.

Nicholas was aware, now more than ever, that he had just one life to live. But he was also aware that if he lived it right, one life was all that he would need. He resolved in his heart once more to do his best to make the most of every day, starting again today.

As he was led from his prison cell and returned to the city of Myra, it was no coincidence, he thought, that the first face he saw there was the face of Anna Maria.

He recognized her in an instant. But the ten years in prison, and the wear and tear it had taken on his life, made it hard for her to recognize him as quickly. But as soon as she saw his smile, she too knew in an instant that it was the smile of her dear old friend Nicholas. Of course it was Nicholas! And he was alive, standing right there in front of her!

She couldn’t move, she was so shocked. Two children stood beside her, looking up at their mother, and then looking at the man who now held her gaze. Here was the man who had done so much for her and her family. Her joy was uncontainable. With a call over her shoulder, Anna Maria shouted, “Dimitri! Dimitri! Come quickly! It’s Nicholas!”

Then she rushed towards Nicholas, giving him an embrace and holding on tight. Dimitri emerged from a shop behind them, took one look at Nicholas and Anna Maria and rushed towards them as well, sweeping his children up with him as he ran.

Now the whole family was embracing Nicholas as if he was a dear brother or father or uncle who had just returned from war. The tears and the smiles on their faces melted together. The man who had saved Anna Maria and her family from a fate worse than death had been spared from death as well! And Dimitri grinned from ear to ear, too, seeing his good friend, and seeing how happy it made Nicholas to see Dimitri and Anna Maria together with their new family.

Nicholas took hold of each of their faces–one at a time–and looked deeply into their eyes. Then he held the children close. The seeds he had planted years ago in the lives of Dimitri and Anna Maria were still bearing fruit, fruit he could now see with his own two eyes. All his efforts had been worth it, and nothing like the smiles on their faces could have made it any clearer to him than that.

Throughout the days and weeks ahead, Nicholas and the other believers who had been set free had many similar reunions throughout Myra. Those days were like one long, ongoing reunion.

Nicholas, as well as the others who had managed to survive the Great Persecution, must have appeared to those around them as Lazarus must have appeared, when Jesus called him to come out of the tomb–a man who had died, but was now alive. And like Lazarus, these Christians were not only alive, but they led many more people to faith in Christ as well, for their faith was now on fire in a whole new way. What Diocletian had meant for harm, God was able to use for good. This new contingent of Christians had emerged with a faith that was stronger than ever before.

Nicholas knew that this new level of faith, like all good gifts from God, had been given to him for a purpose, too. For as big as the tests had been that Nicholas had faced up to now, God was preparing him for the biggest test yet to come.

To be continued…next week!

(Or if you can’t wait, you can order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link!)

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- St. Nicholas: The Believer, Part 4 of 7

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This Day's Thought from The Ranch

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
Part 4 of 7

by Eric & Lana Elder

 
Today, I’m posting Part 4 of the book my wife and I wrote about the real St. Nicholas who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. It’s a new book for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas.

You can read Part 4 below, or listen to Part 4 at this link, or order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link. (If you missed them, you can follow these links to read Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.)

Enjoy!
Eric

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

by Eric & Lana Elder

PART 4

CHAPTER 18

Nicholas’ next step in life was about to be determined by a dream. But it wasn’t a dream that Nicholas had conceived-it was a dream that God had conceived and had put in the mind of a man, a priest in the city of Myra.

In the weeks leading up to Nicholas’ arrival in Myra, a tragedy had befallen the church there. Their aging bishop, the head of their church, had died. The tragedy that had fallen upon the church wasn’t the bishop’s death, for he had lived a long and fruitful life and had simply succumbed to the effects of old age. The tragedy arose out of the debate that ensued regarding who should take his place as the next bishop.

While it would seem that such things could be resolved amicably, especially within a church, when people’s hearts are involved, their loyalties and personal desires can sometimes muddy their thoughts so much that they can’t see what God’s will is in a particular situation. It can be hard for anyone, even for people of faith, to keep their minds free from preconceived ideas and personal preferences regarding what God may, or may not, want to do at any given time.

This debate was the storm that had been brewing for a week now, and which had reached its apex the night before Nicholas’ arrival.

That night one of the priests had a dream that startled him awake. In his dream he saw a man whom he had never seen before who was clearly to take up the responsibilities of their dearly departed bishop. When he woke from his dream, he remembered nothing about what the man looked like, but only remembered his name: Nicholas.

“Nicholas?” asked one of the other priests when he heard his fellow priest’s dream. “None of us have ever gone by that name, nor is there anyone in the whole city by that name.”

Nicholas was, to be sure, not a popular name at the time. It was only mentioned once in passing in one of Luke’s writings about the early church, along with other names which were just as uncommon in those days in Myra like Procorus, Nicanor, Timon and Parmenas. It seemed ridiculous to the other priests that this dream could possibly be from God. But the old priest reminded them, “Even the name of Jesus was given to His father by an angel in a dream.”

Perhaps it was this testimony from the gospels, or perhaps it was the unlikelihood that it would ever happen, that the priests all agreed that they would strongly consider the next person who walked through their door who answered to the name of Nicholas. It would certainly help to break the deadlock in which they found themselves.

What a surprise then, when they opened their doors for their morning prayers, when an entire shipload of men started to stream into the church!

The priests greeted each of the men at the door as they entered, welcoming them into the church. The last two to enter were the captain and Nicholas, as they had allowed all of the others to enter first. The captain thanked the priests for opening their doors to them for their morning prayers, then turned to Nicholas and said, “And thanks to Nicholas for having this brilliant idea to come here today.”

The astonished priests looked at one another in disbelief. Perhaps God had answered their prayers after all.

CHAPTER 19

The captain’s concern about what to do with the grain on his ship dissipated when they arrived at the church as fast as the storm had dissipated when they arrived on shore.

Within moments of beginning their morning prayers, he was convinced that it could only have been the mighty hand of God that had held their rudder straight and true. He knew now for sure he wanted to make an offering of the grain to the people who lived there. God spoke to him about both the plan and the amount. It was as if the captain were playing the role of Abraham in the old, old story when Abraham offered a portion of his riches to Melchizedek the priest.

The captain was willing to take his chances with his superiors in Rome rather than take any chances with the God who had delivered them all. He knew that without God’s guidance and direction so far on this journey, neither he nor his men nor the ship nor its grain would have ever made it to Rome at all.

When the captain stood up from his prayers, he quickly found Nicholas to share the answer with him as well. Nicholas agreed both to the plan and to the amount. The captain asked, “Do you think it will be enough for all these people?”

Nicholas replied, “Jesus was able to feed 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fish–and what you want to give to this city is much more than what Jesus had to start with!”

“How did He do it?” asked the captain–almost to himself as much as to Nicholas.

“All I know,” answered Nicholas, “is that He looked up to heaven, gave thanks and began passing out the food with His disciples. In the end everyone was satisfied and they still had twelve baskets full of food left over!”

“That’s exactly what we’ll do then, too,” said the captain.

And the story would be told for years to come how the captain of the ship looked up to heaven, gave thanks and began passing out the grain with his crew. It was enough to satisfy the people of that city for two whole years and to plant and reap even more in the third year.

As the priests said goodbye to the captain and crew, they asked Nicholas if he would be able to stay behind for a time. The winds of confusion that had whipped up and then subsided inside the captain’s mind were about to pale in comparison to the storm that was about to break open inside the mind of Nicholas.

CHAPTER 20

When the priests told Nicholas about their dream and that he just might be the answer to their prayers, Nicholas was dumbfounded and amazed, excited and perplexed. He had often longed to be used by God in a powerful way, and it was unmistakable that God had already brought him straight across the Great Sea to this very spot at this very hour!

But to become a priest, let alone a bishop, would be a decision that would last a lifetime. He had oftentimes considered taking up his earthly father’s business. His father had been highly successful at it, and Nicholas felt he could do the same. But even more important to him than doing the work of his father was to have a family like his father.

Nicholas’ memories of his parents were so fond that he longed to create more memories of his own with a family of his own. The custom of all the priests Nicholas knew, however, was to abstain from marriage and child-bearing so they could more fully devote themselves to the needs of the community around them.

Nicholas pulled back mentally at the thought of having to give up his desire for a family of his own. It wasn’t that having a family was a conscious dream that often filled his thoughts, but it was one of those assumptions in the back of his mind that he took for granted would come at some point in his future.

The shock of having to give up on the idea of a family, even before he had fully considered having one yet, was like a jolt to his system. Following God’s will shouldn’t be so difficult, he thought! But he had learned from his parents that laying down your will for the sake of God’s will wasn’t always so easy, another lesson they had learned from Jesus.

So just because it was a difficult decision wasn’t enough to rule it out. An image also floated through his mind of those three smiling faces he had met when he first landed in the Holy Land, with their heads bowed down and their hands outstretched. Hadn’t they seemed like family to him? And weren’t there hundreds–even thousands–of children just like them, children who had no family of their own, no one to care for them, no one to look after their needs?

And weren’t there countless others in the world–widows and widowers and those who had families in name but not in their actual relationships–who still needed the strength and encouragement and sense of family around them? And weren’t there still other families as well, like Nicholas and his parents, who had been happy on their own but found additional happiness when they came together as the family of believers in their city? Giving up on the idea of a family of his own didn’t mean he had to give up on the idea of having a family altogether. In fact, it may even be possible that he could have an even larger “family” in this way.

The more Nicholas thought about what he might give up in order to serve God in the church, the more he thought about how God might use this new position in ways that went beyond Nicholas’ own thoughts and desires. And if God was indeed in this decision, perhaps it had its own special rewards in the end.

The fury of the storm that swept through his mind began to abate. In its place, God’s peace began to flow over both his mind and his heart. Nicholas recognized this as the peace of God’s divine will being clearly revealed to him. It only took another moment for Nicholas to know what his answer would be.

The storms that had once seemed so threatening-whether the storm at sea or the storm in the church or the storms in the minds of both the captain and Nicholas-now turned out to be blessings of God instead. They were blessings that proved to Nicholas once again that no matter what happened, God really could work all things for good for those who loved Him and who were called according to His purpose.

Yes, if the priests would have him, Nicholas would become the next bishop of Myra.

CHAPTER 21

Nicholas didn’t suddenly become another man when he became a bishop. He became a bishop because of the man he already was. As he had done before with his father so many years earlier, Nicholas continued to do now, here in the city of Myra and the surrounding towns: walking and praying and asking God where he could be of most help.

It was on one of these prayerful walks that Nicholas met Anna Maria. She was a beautiful girl only eleven years old, but her beauty was disguised to most others by the poverty she wore. Nicholas found her one day trying to sell flowers that she had made out of braided blades of grass. But the beauty of the flowers also seemed to be disguised to everyone but Nicholas, for no one would buy her simple creations.

As Nicholas stepped towards her, she reminded him instantly of little Ruthie, whom he had left behind in the Holy Land, with the golden flowers in her hand on the hillsides of Bethlehem.

When he stopped for a closer look, God spoke to his heart. It seemed to Nicholas that this must have been what Moses felt when he stopped to look at the burning bush in the desert, a moment when his natural curiosity turned into a supernatural encounter with the Living God.

“Your flowers are beautiful,” said Nicholas. “May I hold one?”

The young girl handed him one of her creations. As he looked at it, he looked at her. The beauty he saw in both the flower and the girl was stunning. Somehow Nicholas had the ability to see what others could not see, or did not see, as Nicholas always tried to see people and things and life the way God saw them, as if God were looking through his eyes.

“I’d like to buy this one, if I could,” he said.

Delighted, she smiled for the first time. She told him the price, and he gave her a coin.

“Tell me,” said Nicholas, “what will you do with the money you make from selling these beautiful flowers?”

What Nicholas heard next broke his heart.

Anna Maria was the youngest of three sisters: Sophia, Cecilia and Anna Maria. Although their father loved them deeply, he had been plunged into despair when his once-successful business had failed, and then his wife passed away shortly thereafter. Lacking the strength and the resources to pick himself up out of the darkness, the situation for his family grew bleaker and bleaker.

Anna Maria’s oldest sister, Sophia, had just turned 18, and she turned a number of heads as well. But no one would marry her because her father had no dowry to offer to any potential suitor. And with no dowry, there was little likelihood that she, nor any of the three girls, would ever be married.

The choices facing their father were grim. He knew he must act soon or risk the possibility of Cecilia and Anna Maria never getting married in the future, either. With no way to raise a suitable dowry for her, and being too proud to take charity from others, even if someone had had the funds to offer to him, her father was about to do the unthinkable: he was going to sell his oldest daughter into slavery to help make ends meet.

How their father could think this was the best solution available to him, Nicholas couldn’t imagine. But he also knew that desperation often impaired even the best-intentioned men. By sacrificing his oldest daughter in this way, the father reasoned that perhaps he could somehow spare the younger two from a similar fate.

Anna Maria, for her part, had come up with the idea of making and selling flowers as a way to spare her sister from this fate that was to her worse than death. Nicholas held back his tears out of respect for Anna Maria and the noble effort she was making to save her sister.

He also refrained from buying Anna Maria’s whole basket of flowers right there on the spot, for Nicholas knew it would take more than a basket full of flowers to save Sophia. It would take a miracle. And as God spoke to his heart that day, Nicholas knew that God just might use him to deliver it.

CHAPTER 22

Without show and without fanfare, Nicholas offered a prayer for Anna Maria, along with his thanks for the flower, and encouraged her to keep doing what she could to help her family-and to keep trusting in God to do what she couldn’t.

Nicholas knew he could help this family. He knew he had the resources to make a difference in their lives, for he still had a great deal of his parents’ wealth hidden in the cliffs near the coast for occasions such as this. But he also knew that Anna Maria’s proud father would never accept charity from any man, even at this bleakest hour.

Her father’s humiliation at losing his business, along with his own personal loss, had blinded him to the reality of what was about to happen to his daughter. Nicholas wanted to help, but how? How could he step into the situation without further humiliating Anna Maria’s father, possibly causing him to refuse the very help that Nicholas could extend to him. Nicholas did what he always did when he needed wisdom. He prayed. And before the day was out, he had his answer.

Nicholas put his plan into action-and none too soon! It just so happened that the next day was the day when Sophia’s fate would be sealed.

Taking a fair amount of gold coins from his savings, Nicholas placed them into a small bag. It was small enough to fit in one hand, but heavy enough to be sure that it would adequately supply the need.

Hiding under the cover of night, he crossed the city of Myra to the home where Anna Maria, her father and her two older sisters lived.

He could hear them talking inside as he quietly approached the house. Their mood was understandably downcast as they discussed what they thought was their inevitable next step. They asked God to give them the strength to do whatever they needed to do.

For years, Sophia and her sisters had dreamed of the day when they would each meet the man of their dreams. They had even written love songs to these men, trusting that God would bring each of them the perfect man at the perfect time.

Now it seemed like all their songs, all their prayers and all their dreams had been in vain. Sophia wasn’t the only one who felt the impact of this new reality, for her two younger sisters knew that the same fate might one day await each of them.

The girls wanted to trust God, but no matter how hard they thought about their situation, each of them felt like their dreams were about to be shattered.

At Anna Maria’s prompting, they tried to sing their favorite love song one more time, but their sadness simply deepened at the words. It was no longer a song of hope, but a song of despair, and the words now seemed so impossible to them.

It was not just a song, but a prayer, and one of the deepest prayers Nicholas had ever heard uttered by human tongue. His heart went out to each of them, while at the same time it pounded with fear. He had a plan, and he hoped it would work, but he had no way of knowing for sure. He wasn’t worried about what might happen to him if he were discovered, but he was worried that their father would reject his gift if he knew where it had come from. That would certainly seal the girls’ doom. As Sophia and Cecilia and Anna Maria said their goodnights-and their father had put out the lights-Nicholas knew that his time had come.

Inching closer to the open window of the room where they had been singing, Nicholas bent down low to his knees. He lobbed the bag of coins into the air and through the window. It arced gracefully above him and seemed to hang in the air for a moment before landing with a soft thud in the center of the room. A few coins bounced loose, clinking faintly on the ground, rolling and then coming to a stop. Nicholas turned quickly and hid in the darkness nearby as the girls and their father awoke at the sound.

They called out to see if anyone was there, but when they heard no answer, they entered the room from both directions. As their father lit the light, Anna Maria was the first to see it-and gasped.

There, in the center of the room, lay a small round bag, shimmering with golden coins at the top. The girls gathered around their father as he carefully picked up the bag and opened it.

It was more than enough gold to provide a suitable dowry for Sophia, with more to spare to take care of the rest of the family for some time to come!

But where could such a gift have come from? The girls were sure it had come from God Himself in answer to their prayers! But their father wanted to know more. Who had God used to deliver it? Certainly no one they knew. He sprinted out of the house, followed by his daughters, to see if he could find any trace of the deliverer, but none could be found.

Returning back inside, and with no one to return the money to, the girls and their father got down on their knees and thanked God for His deliverance.

As Nicholas listened in the darkness, he too gave thanks to God, for this was the very thing Nicholas hoped they would do. He knew that the gift truly was from God, provided by God and given through Nicholas by God’s prompting in answer to their prayers. Nicholas had only given to them what God had given to him in the first place. Nicholas neither wanted nor needed any thanks nor recognition for the gift. God alone deserved their praise.

But by allowing Nicholas to be involved, using Nicholas’ own hands and his own inheritance to bless others, Nicholas felt a joy that he could hardly contain. By delivering the gift himself, Nicholas was able to ensure that the gift was properly given. And by giving the gift anonymously, he was able to ensure that the true Giver of the gift was properly credited.

The gift was delivered and God got the credit. Nicholas had achieved both of his goals.

CHAPTER 23

While Nicholas preferred to do his acts of goodwill in secret, there were times when, out of sheer necessity, he had to act in broad daylight. And while it was his secret acts that gained him favor with God, it was his public acts that gained him favor with men.

Many people rightly appreciate a knight in shining armor, but not everyone wants to be rescued from evil-especially those who profit from it.

One such man was a magistrate in Myra, a leader in the city who disliked Nicholas intensely-or anyone who stood in the way of what he wanted.

This particular magistrate was both corrupt and corruptible. He was willing to do anything to get what he wanted, no matter what it cost to others. Although Nicholas had already been at odds with him several times in the past, their conflict escalated to a boiling point when news reached Nicholas that the magistrate had sentenced three men to death-for a crime Nicholas was sure they did not commit. Nicholas couldn’t wait this time for the cover of darkness. He knew he needed to act immediately to save these men from death.

Nicholas had been entertaining some generals from Rome that afternoon whose ship had docked in Myra’s port the night before. Nicholas had invited the generals to his home to hear news about some changes that had been taking place in Rome. A new emperor was about to take power, they said, and the implications might be serious for Nicholas and his flock of Christ-followers.

It was during their luncheon that Nicholas heard about the unjust sentencing and the impending execution. Immediately he set out for the site where the execution was to take place. The three generals, sensing more trouble might ensue once Nicholas arrived, set out after him.

When Nicholas burst onto the execution site, the condemned men were already on the platform. They were bound and bent over with their heads and necks ready for the executioner’s sword.

Without a thought for his own safety, Nicholas leapt onto the platform and tore the sword from the executioner’s hands. Although Nicholas was not a fighter himself, Nicholas made his move so unexpectedly that the executioner made little attempt to try to wrestle the sword back out of the bishop’s hands.

Nicholas knew these men were as innocent as the magistrate was guilty. He was certain that it must have been the men’s good deeds, not their bad ones, that had offended the magistrate. Nicholas untied the ropes of the innocent men in full view of the onlookers, defying both the executioner and the magistrate.

The magistrate came forward to face Nicholas squarely. But as he did so, the three generals who had been having lunch with Nicholas also stepped forward. One took his place on Nicholas’ left, another on Nicholas’ right and the third stood directly in front of him. Prudently, the magistrate took a step back. Nicholas knew that this was the time to press the magistrate for the truth.

Although the magistrate tried to defend himself, his pleas of fell on deaf ears. No one would believe his lies anymore. He tried to convince the people that it was not he who wanted to condemn these innocent men, but two other businessmen in town who had given him a bribe in order to have these men condemned. But by trying to shift the blame to others, the magistrate condemned himself for the greed that was in his heart.

Nicholas declared: “It seems that it was not these two men who have corrupted you, sir, but two others-whose names are Gold and Silver!”

Cut to the quick, the magistrate broke down and made a full confession in front of all the people for this and for all the other wrongs he had done, even for speaking ill of Nicholas, who had done nothing but good for the people. Nicholas set more than three prisoners free that day, as even the magistrate was finally set free from his greed by his honest confession. Seeing the heartfelt change in the magistrate, Nicholas pardoned him, forever winning the magistrate’s favor-and the people’s favor-from that moment on.

When Nicholas was born, his parents had named him Nicholas, which means in Greek “the people’s victor.” Through acts like these, Nicholas became “the people’s victor” both in name and in deed.

Nicholas was already becoming an icon-even in his own time.

CHAPTER 24

Within three months of receiving her unexpected dowry from Nicholas, Sophia had received a visit from a suitor-one who “suited her” just fine. He truly was the answer to her prayers, and she was thankfully, happily and finally married.

Two years later, however, Sophia’s younger sister Cecilia found herself in dire straights as well. Although Cecilia was ready to be married now, her father’s business had not improved, no matter how hard he tried. As the money that Nicholas had given to the family began to run out, their despair began to set in. Pride and sorrow had once again blinded Cecilia’s father to the truth, and he felt his only option was to commit Cecilia to a life of slavery, hoping to save his third and final daughter from a similar fate.

While they were confident that God had answered their prayers once, their circumstances had caused them to doubt that He could do it again. A second rescue at this point was more than they could have asked for or imagined.

Nicholas, however, knowing their situation by this time much more intimately, knew that God was prompting him again to intercede. It had been two years since his earlier rescue, but in all that time the family never suspected nor discovered that he was the deliverer of God’s gift.

As the time came closer to a decision on what they should do next, Nicholas knew his time to act had come as well. And in order to make it clear that his gift was to be used first and foremost for Cecilia’s dowry, and then after that for any other needs the family might have, he waited until the night before she was to be sold into slavery to make his move.

Once again waiting for the cover of darkness, Nicholas approached their house. Cecilia and Anna Maria had already gone to bed early that night, sent there by their father who had told them not to expect any similar miracle to what happened for Sophia. But somewhere in the depths of his despair, their father still had a glimmer of hope in his heart, a wish perhaps, more than anything else, that Someone really was watching out for him and that his prayers just might still be answered. With that hope, he decided to stay awake and stay close to the window, just in case some angel did appear-whether an earthly one or a heavenly one.

Nicholas knew this might happen, and he knew that Cecilia’s father might still reject his gift if he found out that Nicholas had given it. But he also hoped that perhaps her father’s proud heart had softened a bit and he would accept the gift even if Nicholas was discovered.

Seeing that the house was perfectly quiet, Nicholas knelt down beside the open window. He tossed the second bag of gold into the room.

The bag had barely hit the ground when the girls’ father leapt out of the window through which it had come and overtook Nicholas as he tried to flee. You might have thought that Nicholas had taken a bag of gold rather than given a bag of gold the way the girls’ father chased him down!

Fearing that all his efforts had been wasted, Nicholas’ heart was eased as the man didn’t rebuke Nicholas but thanked him without even looking at who he had caught.

“Please hear me out,” he said. “I just want to thank you. You’ve done so much already for me and my family that I couldn’t have expected such a gift again. But your generosity has opened my eyes to the pride in my heart-a pride that almost cost me the lives of two daughters now.”

The girls’ father had spoken both breathlessly and quickly to be sure that the stranger would hear him before trying to escape again. But when he looked up to see who he was talking to-Nicholas the priest-the shock on their father’s face was evident. How could a priest afford to give such an incredible gift?

In answer to this unasked question, Nicholas spoke: “Yes, it was I who delivered this gift to you, but it was God who gave it to me to give to you. It is not from the church and not from the charity of my own hand. It came from my father who earned it fairly by the work of his hands. He was a businessman like you. And if he were alive today, he would have wanted to give it to you himself. I’m sure of it. He, of all people, knew how difficult it was to run a business, just as you do. He also loved his family, just as you do, too.”

Nicholas paused to let his words sink in, then continued, “But please, for my sake and for God’s sake, please know that it was God Himself who has answered your prayers-for He has. I am simply a messenger for Him, a deliverer, a tool in His hands, allowing Him to do through me what I know He wants done. As for me, I prefer to do my giving in secret, not even letting my right hand know what my left hand is doing.”

The look on Nicholas’ face was so sincere and he conveyed his intentions with such love and devotion for the One whom he served, that the girls’ father could not help but to accept Nicholas’ gift as if it had truly come from the hand of God Himself.

But as they said their goodbyes, the girls and their father could hardly contain their thankfulness to Nicholas, too, for letting God use him in such a remarkable way.

As much as Nicholas tried to deflect their praise back to God, he also knew he did have a role to play in their lives. Although God prompts many to be generous in their hearts, not everyone responds to those promptings as Nicholas did.

Nicholas would wait to see how the family fared over the next few years to see if they would need any help for Anna Maria, too.

But Nicholas never got the chance. The new emperor had finally come into power, and the course of Nicholas’ life was about to change again. Even though Nicholas often came to the rescue of others, there were times when, like the Savior he followed, it seemed he was unable to rescue himself.

To be continued…next week!

(Or if you can’t wait, you can order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link!)

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Retreat Announcement, and St. Nicholas: The Believer, Part 3 of 7

live.theranch.org

Dear friends, we’re just 10 days away from hosting our “2016 Guided Prayer Retreat“! We’ve designed this 3-day event to help make your prayer life as effective as possible. We’ll be broadcasting the retreat online for free for anyone who wants to watch. Just visit the link live.theranch.org to see the daily schedule and to participate with us during the retreat using the online chat feature. From this link, you can also request reminders to be sent to your phone or email when each session starts so you won’t miss a thing. Visit live.theranch.org to request your reminders now!


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
Part 3 of 7

by Eric & Lana Elder

 
Today, I’m posting Part 3 of the book my wife and I wrote about the real St. Nicholas who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. It’s a new book for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas.

You can read Part 3 below, or listen to Part 3 at this link, or order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link. (If you missed them, you can follow these links to read Part 1 and Part 2.)

Enjoy!
Eric

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

by Eric & Lana Elder

PART 3

CHAPTER 12

Once again, Nicholas was standing on a beach, alone. This time, however, it was on the shores of the Holy Land, looking back across the Great Sea towards his home.

In the months following his visit to Bethlehem, Nicholas, along with his young guide and bodyguards, had searched for every holy place that they could find that related to Jesus. They had retraced Jesus’ steps from His boyhood village in Nazareth to the fishing town of Capernaum, where Jesus had spent most of His adult years.

They had waded into the Jordan River where Jesus had been baptized and they swam in the Sea of Galilee where He had walked on the water and calmed the storm.

They had visited the hillside where Jesus had taught about the kingdom of heaven, and they had marveled at the spot where He had multiplied the five loaves of bread and two fish to feed a crowd of over 5,000 people.

While it was in Bethlehem that Nicholas was filled with wonder and awe, it was in Jerusalem where he was filled with mission and purpose. Walking through the streets where Jesus had carried His cross to His own execution, Nicholas felt the weight on his shoulders as if he were carrying a cross as well. Then seeing the hill where Jesus had died, and the empty tomb nearby where Jesus had risen from the dead, Nicholas felt the weight on his shoulders lifting off, as Jesus must have felt when He emerged from the tomb in which He had been sealed.

It was in that moment that Nicholas knew what his mission and purpose in life would be: to point others to the One who would lift their burdens off as well. He wanted to show them that they no longer had to carry the burdens of their sin, pain, sickness and need all alone. He wanted to show them that they could cast all their cares on Jesus, knowing that Jesus cared for them. “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened,” Jesus had said, “and I will give you rest.”

The stories Nicholas had heard as a child were no longer vague and distant images of things that might have been. They were stories that had taken on new life for him, stories that were now three dimensional and in living color. It wasn’t just the fact that he was seeing these places with his own eyes. Others had done that, and some were even living there in the land themselves, but they had still never felt what Nicholas was feeling. What made the difference for Nicholas was that he was seeing these stories through the eyes of faith, through the eyes of a Believer, as one who now truly believed all that had taken place.

As his adventures of traveling to each of the holy sites came to an end, Nicholas returned to the spot where he had first felt the presence of God so strongly: to Bethlehem. He felt that in order to prepare himself better for his new calling in life, he should spend as much time as he could living and learning in this special land. While exploring the city of Bethlehem and its surroundings, he found another cave nearby, in the city of Beit Jala, that was similar to the cave in which Jesus had been born. He took up residence there in the cave, planning to spend as much time as he could living and learning how to live in this land where His Savior had lived.

Dimitri, Samuel and Ruthie had gained a new sense of mission and purpose for their lives as well. As much as they wanted to stay with Nicholas, they felt even more compelled to continue their important work of bringing more people to see these holy places. It was no longer just a way for them to provide a living for themselves, but they found it to be a holy calling, a calling to help others experience what they had experienced.

It had been four full years now since Nicholas had first arrived on this side of the Sea. During that time, he often saw his young friends as they brought more and more pilgrims to see what they had shown to Nicholas. In those few short years, he watched each of them grow up “in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men,” just as Jesus had done in His youth in Nazareth.

Nicholas would have been very happy to stay here even longer, but the same Spirit of God that had drawn him to come was now drawing him back home. He knew that he couldn’t stay on this mountaintop forever. There were people who needed him, and a life that was waiting for him back home, back in the province of Lycia. What that life held for him, he wasn’t sure. With his parents gone, there was little to pull him back home, but it was simply the Spirit of God Himself, propelling him forward on the next leg of his journey.

Making arrangements for a ship home was harder than it was to find a ship to come here, for the calm seas of summer were nearing their end and the first storms of winter were fast approaching. But Nicholas was convinced that this was the time, and he knew that if he waited any longer, he might not make it home again until spring–and the Spirit’s pull was too strong for that kind of delay.

So when he heard that a ship was expected to arrive any day now, one of the last of the season to sail through here on its way from Alexandria to Rome, he quickly arranged for passage. The ship was to arrive the next morning, and he knew he couldn’t miss it.

He had sent word, through a shopkeeper, to try to find his three best friends to let them know that he would be sailing in the morning. But as the night sky closed in, he had still not heard a word from them.

So he stood there on the beach alone, contemplating all that had taken place and all that had changed in his life since coming to the Holy Land–and all that was about to change as he left it. The thoughts filled him with excitement, anticipation and, to be honest, just a little bit of fear.

CHAPTER 13

Although Nicholas’ ship arrived the following morning just as expected, the children didn’t.

Later that afternoon, when the time came for him to board and the three still hadn’t shown up, Nicholas sadly resigned himself to the possibility that they just might miss each other entirely. He had started walking toward the ship when he felt a familiar tug at his sleeve.

“You a Christian?” came the voice once again, but this time with more depth as about four years were added to his life. It was Dimitri, of course. Nicholas turned on the spot and smiled his broadest smile.

“Am I a Christian? Without a doubt!” he said as he saw all three of them offering smiles to him in return. “And you?” he added, speaking to all three of them at once.

“Without a doubt!” they replied, almost in unison. It was the way they had spoken about their faith ever since their shared experience in Bethlehem, an experience when their doubts about God had faded away.

As Nicholas tried to take in all three of their faces just one more time, he wondered which was more difficult: to leave this precious land, or to leave these three precious youth whom he had met there. They all knew that God had called them together for a purpose, and they all trusted that God must now be calling them apart for another purpose, too, just as Nicholas had previously felt he was to move to Bethlehem and they were to continue their work taking pilgrims from city to city.

But just because they knew what God’s will was, it didn’t mean it was always easy to follow it. As Nicholas had often reminded them, tears were one of the strongest signs of love in the world. Without tears at the loss of those things that matter most, it would be hard to tell if those things really mattered at all.

A lack of tears wouldn’t be a problem today. Once again, Nicholas asked them all to hold out their right hands in front of them. As he reached into his pocket to find three of his largest coins to place into each of their outstretched hands, he found he wasn’t fast enough. Within an instant, all three children had wrapped their arms completely around Nicholas’ neck, his back and his waist, depending on their height. They all held on as tightly as possible, and as long as possible, before one of the ship’s crewmen signaled to Nicholas that the time had come.

As Nicholas gave each of them one last squeeze, he secretly slipped a coin into each of their pockets. Throughout their time together, Nicholas’ gifts had helped the children immeasurably. But it wasn’t Nicholas’ presents that blessed them so much as it was his presence–his willingness to spend so much time with them. Still, Nicholas wanted to give them a final blessing that they could discover later when he was gone, as he often did his best giving in secret.

Nicholas wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry at the thought of this final gift to them, so he did a little of both. Under his breath, he also offered a prayer of thanks for each of their lives, then bid them farewell, one by one. The children’s hugs were the perfect send-off as he stepped onto the ship and headed for home–not knowing that their hugs and kind words would also help to carry him through the dark days that he was about to face ahead.

CHAPTER 14

The wind whipped up as soon as Nicholas’ ship left the shore. The ship’s captain had hoped to get a head start on the coming storm, sailing for a few hours along the coast to the harbor in the next city before docking again for the night. It was always a longer trip to go around the edges of the Great Sea, docking in city after city along the way, instead of going directly across to their destination. But going straight across was also more perilous, especially at this time of year. So to beat the approaching winter, and the more quickly approaching storm, they wanted to gain as many hours as they could along the way.

Keeping on schedule, Nicholas found out, was more than just a matter of a captain wanting to make good on his contract with his clients. It was also soon to become a matter of life and death for the families of the crew on board, including the family of the captain. Nicholas found out that a famine had begun to spread across the empire, now affecting the crew’s home city back in Rome. The famine had begun in the countryside as rain had been sparse in the outlying areas, but now the shortages in the country were starting to deplete the reserves in Rome as well. Prices were rising and even families who could afford to pay for food were quickly depleting their resources to get it.

The ship’s captain was not a foolish man, having sailed on these seas for almost 30 years. But he also knew that the risk of holding back on their voyage at a time like this could mean they would be grounded for the rest of the winter. If that happened, his cargo of grain might perish by spring, as well as his family. So the ship pressed on.

It looked to Nicholas like they had made the right decision to set sail. He, too, felt under pressure to get this voyage underway, although it wasn’t family or cargo that motivated him. It was the Spirit of God Himself. He wouldn’t have been able to explain it to anyone except to those who had already experienced it. All he knew was that it was imperative that they start moving.

He had thought he might spend still more time in the Holy Land, perhaps even his entire life. It felt like home to him from the very beginning, as he had heard so many stories about it when he was growing up. He had little family waiting for him elsewhere, and up to this point, he was content to stay right where he was, except for the Spirit’s prompting that it was time to go.

The feeling started as a restlessness at first, a feeling that he was suddenly no longer content to stay where he was. He couldn’t trace the feeling to anything particular that was wrong with where he was, just that it was time to go. But where? Where did God want him to go? Did God have another site for him to see? Another part of the country in which he was supposed to live? Perhaps another country altogether that he was supposed to visit?

As the restlessness grew, his heart and his mind began to explore the options in more detail. He had found in the past that the best way to hear from God was to let go of his own will so that he could fully embrace God’s will, whatever that may be. While letting go was always hard for him, he knew that God would always lead him in the ways that were best. So, finally letting go of his own will, Nicholas began to see God’s will much more clearly in this situation as well. As much as he felt like the Holy Land was his new home, it wasn’t really his home. He felt strongly that the time had come for him to return to the region where he had been born, to the province of Lycia on the northern coast of the Sea. There was something, he felt, that God wanted him to do there–something for which he had been specifically equipped and called to do, and was, in fact, the reason that God had chosen for him to grow up there when he was young. Just as Nicholas had felt drawn to come to the Holy Land, he now felt drawn to return home.

To home he was headed, and to home he must go. That inner drive that he felt was as strong–if not stronger–than the drive that now motivated the ship’s captain and crew to get their cargo home, safe and sound, to their precious families.

Storm or no storm, they had to get home.

CHAPTER 15

Nicholas’ ship never made it to the next harbor along the coast. Instead, the storm they were trying to outrun had outrun them. It caught hold of their ship, pulling it away from the coast within the first few hours at sea. It kept pulling them further and further away from the coast until, three hours later, they found themselves inescapably caught in its torrents.

The crew had already lowered the sails, abandoning their attempts to force the rudder in the opposite direction. They now hoped that by going with the storm rather than against it they would have a better chance of keeping the ship in one piece. But this plan, too, seemed only to drive them into the deepest and most dangerous waters, keeping them near the eye of the storm itself.

After another three hours had passed, the sea sickness that had initially overcome their bodies was no longer a concern, as the fear of death itself was now overtaking all but the most resilient of those on board.

Nicholas, although he had traveled by ship before, was not among those considered to be most resilient. He had never experienced pounding waves like this before. And he wasn’t the only one. To a man, as the storm worsened, each began to speak of this as the worst storm they had ever seen.

The next morning, when the storm still hadn’t let up, and then again on the next morning and the next, and as the waves were still pounding them, they were all wondering why they had been in such a hurry to set out to beat the storm. Now they just hoped and prayed that God would let them live to see one more day, one more hour. As wave after wave pummeled the ship, Nicholas was simply praying they would make it through even one more wave.

His thoughts and prayers were filled with images of what it must have been like for the Apostle Paul, that follower of Christ who had sailed back and forth across the Great Sea several times in similar ships. It was on Paul’s last trip to Rome that he had landed in Myra, only miles from Nicholas’ hometown. Then, as Paul continued on from Myra to Rome, he faced the most violent storm he had ever faced at sea, a raging fury that lasted more than fourteen days and ended with his ship being blasted to bits by the waves as it ran aground on a sandbar, just off the coast of the island of Malta.

Nicholas prayed that their battle with the wind wouldn’t last for fourteen days. He didn’t know if they could make it through even one more day. He tried to think if there was anything that Paul had done to help himself and the 276 men who were on his ship with him to stay alive, even though their ship and its cargo were eventually destroyed. But as hard as he tried to think, all he could remember was that an angel had appeared to Paul on the night before they ran aground. The angel told Paul to take heart–that even though the ship would be destroyed, not one of the men aboard would perish. When Paul told the men about this angelic visit, they all took courage, as Paul was convinced that it would happen just as the angel said it would. And it did.

But for Nicholas, no such angel had appeared. No outcome from heaven had been predicted and no guidance had come about what they should or shouldn’t do. All he felt was that inner compulsion that he had felt before they departed–that they needed to get home as soon as they could.

Not knowing what else to do, Nicholas recalled a phrase of his father’s: “standing orders are good orders.” If a soldier wasn’t sure what to do next, even if the battle around him seemed to change directions, if the commanding officer hadn’t changed the orders, then the soldier was to carry on with the most recent orders given. Standing orders are good orders. It was this piece of wisdom from his father, more than any other thought, that guided Nicholas and gave him the courage to do what he did next.

CHAPTER 16

When the storm seemed to be at its worst, Nicholas’ thoughts turned to the children he had just left. His thoughts of them didn’t fill him with sadness, but with hope.

He began to take courage from the stories they had all learned about how Jesus had calmed the storm, how Moses had split the Red Sea and how Joshua had made the Jordan River stop flowing. Nicholas and the children had often tried to imagine what it must have been like to be able to exercise control over the elements like that. Nicholas had even, on occasion, tried to do some of these things himself, right along with Dimitri, Samuel and Ruthie. When it rained, they lifted their hands and prayed to try to stop the rain from coming down. But it just kept raining on their heads. When they got to the Sea of Galilee, they tried to walk on top of the water, just like Jesus did–and even Peter did, if only for a few short moments. But Nicholas and the children assumed they must not have had enough faith or strength or whatever it might have taken for them to do such things.

As another wave crashed over the side of the ship on which Nicholas was now standing, he realized there was a common thread that ran through each of these stories. Maybe it wasn’t their faith that was the problem after all, but God’s timing. In each instance from the stories he could remember, God didn’t allow those miracles on a whim, just for the entertainment of the people who were trying to do them. God allowed them because God had places for them to go, people they needed to see and lives that needed to be spared. There was an urgency in each situation that required the people to accomplish not only what was on their heart, but what was on God’s heart as well.

It seemed that the miracles were provided not because of their attempts to try to reorder God’s world, but in God’s attempts to try to reorder their worlds. It seemed to Nicholas that it must be a combination of their prayers of faith, plus God’s divine will, that caused a spark between heaven and earth, ignited by their two wills working together, that burst into a power that could move mountains.

When Jesus needed to get across the lake, but His disciples had already taken off in the boat, He was able to ignite by faith the process that allowed Him to walk on water, and thereafter calm the storm that threatened to take their lives when He finally did catch up to them.

“Standing orders are good orders,” Nicholas recalled, and he believed with all his heart that if God hadn’t changed His orders, then somehow they needed to do whatever they could to get to the other side of the Sea. But it wasn’t enough for God to will it. God was looking for someone willing, here on earth to will it, too, thereby completing the divine connection and causing the miracle to burst forth. Like Moses when he lifted his staff into the air or Joshua’s priests who took the first steps into the Jordan River, God needed someone to agree with Him in faith that what He had willed to happen in heaven should happen here on earth. God had already told Nicholas what needed to happen. Now it was up to Nicholas to complete the divine connection.

“Men!” Nicholas yelled to get the crew’s attention. “The God whom I serve, and who Has given each one of us life, wants us to reach our destination even more than we want to reach it. We must agree in faith, here and now, that God not only can do it, but that He wills us to do it. If you love God, or even if you think you might want to love God, I want you to pray along with me, that we will indeed reach our destination, and that nothing will stand in the way of our journey!”

As soon as Nicholas had spoken these words, the unthinkable happened: not only did the wind not stop, but it picked up speed! Nicholas faltered for a moment as if he had made some sort of cosmic mistake, some sort of miscalculation about the way God worked and what God wanted him to do. But then he noticed that even though the wind had picked up speed, it had also shifted directions, ever so slightly, but in such a distinct and noticeable way that God had gotten the attention of every man on board. Now, instead of being pounded by the waves from both sides, they were sailing straight through them, as if a channel had been cut into the waves themselves. The ship was driven along like this, not only for the next several moments, but for the next several hours.

When the speed and direction of the ship continued to hold its steady but impressively fast course, the captain of the ship came to Nicholas. He said he had never seen anything like this in his whole life. It was as if an invisible hand was holding the rudder of the ship, steady and straight, even though the ropes that held the rudder were completely unmanned, as they had been abandoned long ago when the winds first reached gale force.

Nicholas knew, too–even though he was certainly not as well seasoned as the captain–that this was not a normal phenomenon on the seas. He felt something supernatural taking control the moment he first stood up to speak to the men, and he felt it still as they continued on their path straight ahead.

What lay before them he didn’t know. But what he did know was that the One who had brought them this far was not going to take His hand off that rudder until His mission was accomplished.

CHAPTER 17

The storm that they thought was going to take their lives turned out to be the storm that saved many more. Rather than going the long way around the sea, following the coastline in the process, the storm had driven them straight across it, straight into the most dangerous path that they never would have attempted on their own at that time of year.

When they sighted land early on the morning of the fifth day, they recognized it clearly. It was the city of Myra, just a few miles away from Nicholas’ hometown, and the same city where the Apostle Paul had changed ships on his famous journey to Rome.

It was close enough to home that Nicholas knew in his heart that he was about to land in the exact spot where God wanted him to be. God, without a doubt, had spared his life for a purpose, a purpose which would now begin the next chapter of his life.

As they sailed closer to the beach, they could see that the storm that raged at sea had hardly been felt on shore.

The rains that had flooded their ship for the past several days, and that should have been watering the land as well, hadn’t made it inland for several months. The drought that the captain and sailors had told him had come to Rome had already been here in Lycia for two and a half years. The cumulative effect was that the crops that were intended to supply their reserves for the coming winter and for next year’s seed had already been depleted. If the people of Lycia didn’t get grain to eat now, many would never make it through the winter, and still more would die the following spring, as they wouldn’t have seed to plant another crop. This ship was one of the last that had made it out of the fertile valleys of Egypt before the winter, and its arrival at this moment in time was like a miracle in the eyes of the people. It was certainly an answer to their prayers.

But that answer wasn’t so clear to the captain of the ship. He had been under strict orders from the keeper of the Imperial storehouses in Rome that not one kernel of grain could be missing when the ship arrived back in Rome. The ship had been weighed in Alexandria before it left Egypt and it would be weighed again in Rome–and the captain would be held personally responsible for any discrepancy. The famine had put increasing pressure on the emperor to bring any kind of relief to the people. Not only this, but the families of the captain and crew themselves were awaiting the arrival of this food. Their jobs, and the lives of their families, relied on the safe delivery of every bit of grain aboard.

Yet without the faith and encouragement of Nicholas, the captain knew that the ship and its cargo would have been lost at sea, along with all of their lives.

While it was clear to Nicholas that God had brought him back to his homeland, he too wasn’t entirely certain what to do about the grain. While it seemed that giving at least some of the grain to the people of Myra was in order, Nicholas still tried to see it from God’s perspective. Was this city, or any other city throughout the empire, any more in need of the grain than Rome, which had bought and paid for it to be delivered? But it also seemed to Nicholas that the ship had been driven specifically to this particular city, in a straight and steady line through the towering waves.

The whole debate of what they were to do next took place within just a matter of minutes of their arrival on shore. And Nicholas and the captain had little time to think through what they were going to do, as the people of the city were already running out to see the ship for themselves, having been amazed at the way God had seemingly brought it to their famished port. They were gathering in larger and larger numbers to welcome the boat, and giving thanks and praise to God at the same time.

Both Nicholas and the captain knew that only God Himself could answer their dilemma. The two of them, along with the rest of the crew, had already agreed the night before–as they were so steadily and swiftly being carried along through the water–that the first thing they would do when they arrived on shore was to go to the nearest church and give thanks to God for His deliverance. Upon seeing where they had landed, Nicholas knew exactly where they could find that church. It was one that his family had visited from time to time as they traveled between these twin cities of Patara and Myra. Telling the people that their first order of duty was to give thanks to God for their safe passage, Nicholas and the captain and his crew headed to the church in Myra.

As they made their way across the city and up into the hills that cradled the church, they had no idea that the priests inside its walls had already been doing battle with a storm of their own.

To be continued…next week!

(Or if you can’t wait, you can order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link!)

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- St. Nicholas: The Believer, Part 2 of 7


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
Part 2 of 7

by Eric & Lana Elder

 
Today I’m posting Part 2 of the entire book my wife and I wrote about the real St. Nicholas who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. It’s a new book for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas.

You can read Part 2 below, or listen to Part 2 at this link, or order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link. (If you missed it, you can read Part 1 at this link.)

Enjoy!
Eric

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

by Eric & Lana Elder

PART 2

CHAPTER 6

Nicholas stood alone. He was on the same stretch of beach where his father had stood just ten years earlier, looking out at the sunrise and the waves on the seashore.

Nicholas’ father never made it out to look at the Great Sea again, having finally succumbed to the sickness himself. Nicholas’ mother passed away first, within two weeks of the first signs of illness. His father lasted another three days after that, as if holding on as long as he could to make sure his wife passed as peacefully as possible from this life to the next, and making sure Nicholas was as ready as possible to take the next steps in his own life.

Nicholas’ father didn’t shy away from tears, but he didn’t want them wasted on wrongful emotions either. “Don’t cry because it’s over,” his father had said to both his wife and his son. “Smile because it was beautiful.”

There was a time and place for anger and disappointment, but this wasn’t the time for either. If given the chance to do it all over again, his parents would have chosen to do exactly what they did. It was not foolishness, they said, to be willing to risk their lives for the sake of others, especially when there were no guarantees that they would have survived anyway.

As it turned out, the plague ended up taking the lives of almost a third of the people in Patara before it finally ran its course. The sickness seemed to have a mind of its own, affecting those who tried to shield themselves from it as well as those who, like his parents, had ventured out into the midst of it.

After the death of his parents, Nicholas felt a renewed sense of urgency to pick up where they had left off, visiting those who were sick and comforting the families of those who had died.

Then, almost as suddenly as it came to their city, the plague left. Nicholas had spent most of the next few weeks sleeping, trying to recover from the long daysand even longer nightsof ministering to those who were affected. When he was awake, he spent his time trying to process his own feelings and emotions in light of the loss of the family he loved. In so many ways, his parents were his life. His life was so intertwined with theirs, and having them taken so suddenly from him, he hardly knew what to do without them. He went to live with his uncle, a priest who lived in the monastery in Patara, until he was ready to venture out further into the world on his own. Now that time had come, and it was time for Nicholas to make his decision.

Unlike many others who had been orphaned by the plague, Nicholas had been left with a sizable inheritance. The question on his heart wasn’t what he would do to make a living, but what he would do to make a life. Through all that he had experienced, and now recognizing the brevity of life for himself, Nicholas now knew why his father had come so often to this shore to pray. Now it was Nicholas’ turn to consider his own future in light of eternity.

What should I do? Where should I go? How should I spend the rest of my days? The questions could have overwhelmed him, except that his father had prepared him well for moments like these, too.

His father, always a student of the writings of Scripture and of the life of Christ, had told him that Jesus taught that we needn’t worry so much about the trouble down the road as just the trouble for that day. Each day has enough trouble of its own, Jesus said.

As Nicholas thought about this, his burden lifted. He didn’t have to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life just yet. He only had to decide on his next step.

He had enough money to travel the length of the entire world back and forth three times and still have enough to live on for years to come. But that wasn’t really what he wanted to do. He had never had a desire to live wildly or lavishly, for the life he knew up to this point already gave him tremendous satisfaction. But there was one place he had always wanted to see with his own eyes.

As he looked out across the sea, to the south and to the west, he knew that somewhere in between lay the place he most wanted to visita land that seemed more precious in his mind than any other. It was the land where Jesus had lived, the land where He had walked and taught, the land where He was born and died, and the land where so many of the stories of His lifeand almost the entirety of Scripture itselfhad taken place.

Nicholas knew that some decisions in life were made only through the sweat and agony of prayer, trying desperately to decide between two seemingly good, but mutually exclusive paths. But this decision was not one of them. This was one of those decisions that, by the nature of the circumstances, was utterly simple to make. Apart from his uncle, there was little more to keep him in Patara, and nothing to stop him from following the desire that had been on his heart for so long.

He was glad his father had shown him this spot, and he was glad that he had come to it again today. He knew exactly what he was going to do next. His decision was as clear as the water in front of him.

CHAPTER 7

Nicholas’ arrival on the far shores of the Great Sea came sooner than he could have imagined. For so long he had wondered what it would be like to walk where Jesus walked, and now, at age 19, he was finally there.

Finding a boat to get there had been no problem, for his hometown of Patara was one of the main stopovers for ships traveling from Egypt to Rome, carrying people and cargo alike. Booking passage was as simple as showing that you had the money to pay, which Nicholas did.

But now that he had arrived, where would he go first? He wanted to see everything at once, but that was impossible. A tug at his sleeve provided the answer.

“You a Christian?” the small voice asked.

Nicholas looked down to see a boy not more than ten looking up at him. Two other children giggled nearby. To ask this question so directly, when it was dangerous in general to do so, showed that the boy was either a sincere follower of Christ looking for a fellow believer, or it showed that he had ulterior motives in mind. From the giggles of his little friends nearby, a boy and a girl just a bit younger than the one who had spoken, Nicholas knew it was probably the latter.

“You a Christian?” the boy asked again. “I show you holy places?”

Ah, that’s it, thought Nicholas. Enough pilgrims had obviously come here over the years that even the youngest inhabitants knew that pilgrims would need a guide once they arrived. Looking over the three children again, Nicholas felt they would suit him just fine. Nicholas had a trusting heart, and while he wasn’t naive enough to think that trouble wouldn’t find him here, he also trusted that the same God who had led him here would also provide the help he needed once he arrived. Even if these children were doing it just for the money, that was all right with Nicholas. Money he had. A map he didn’t. He would gladly hire them to be his living maps to the holy places.

“Yes, and yes,” Nicholas answered. “Yes, I am indeed a Christian. And if you would like to take me, then yes, I would be very interested to see the holy places. I would love for your friends to come along with us, too. That way, if we meet any trouble, they can defend us all!”

The boy’s mouth dropped open and his friends giggled again. It wasn’t the answer the boy had expected at all, at least not so fast and not without a great deal of pestering on his part. Pilgrims who arrived were usually much more skeptical when they stepped off their boats, shooing away anyone who approached themat least until they got their land legs back and their bearings straight. But the boy quickly recovered from his shock and immediately extended his right hand in front of him, palm upraised, with a slight bow of his head. It gave Nicholas the subtle impression as if to say that the boy was at Nicholas’ serviceand the not-so-subtle impression that the boy was ready for something to be deposited in his open hand. Nicholas, seeing another opportunity to throw the boy off guard, happily obliged.

He gently placed three of his smallest, but shiniest coins into the boy’s upraised palm and said, “My name is Nicholas. And I can see you’re a wise man. Now, if you’re able to keep your hand open even after I’ve set these coins in it, you’ll be even wiser still. For he who clenches his fist tightly around what he has received will find it hard to receive more. But he who opens his hand freely to heavenfreely giving in the same way that he has freely receivedwill find that his Father in heaven will usually not hold back in giving him more.”

Nicholas motioned with his hand that he intended for the boy to share what he had received with his friends, who had come closer at the appearance of the coins. The boy obviously was the spokesman for all three, but still he faltered for a moment as to what to do. This man was so different from anyone else the boy had ever approached. With others, the boy was always trying, usually without success, to coax even one such coin from their pockets, but here he had been given three in his very first attempt! The fact that the coins weren’t given grudgingly, but happily, did indeed throw him off balance. He had never heard such a thought like that of keeping his hands open to give and receive. His instinct would have been to instantly clench his fist tightly around the coins, not letting go until he got to the safest place he could find, and only then could he carefully inspect them and let their glimmers shine in his eyes. Yet he stood stock still, with his hand still outstretched and his palm facing upward. Almost against his own self-will, he found himself turning slightly and extending his hand to his friends.

Seizing the moment, the two others each quickly plucked a coin from his hand. Within an instant of realizing that they, too, were about to clench their fists around their newly acquired treasure, they slowly opened their fingers as well, looking up at the newly arrived pilgrim with a sense of bewilderment. They were bewildered not just that he had given them the coins, but that they were still standing there with their palms open, surprising even themselves that they were willing to follow this man’s peculiar advice.

The sight of it all made Nicholas burst out in a gracious laugh. He was delighted by their response and he quickly deposited two more of his smallest coins into each of their hands, now tripling their astonishment. It wasn’t the amount of the gifts that had astonished them, for they had seen bigger tips from wealthier pilgrims, but it was the generous and cheerful spirit that accompanied the gifts that gave them such a surprise.

The whole incident took place in less than a minute, but it set Nicholas and his new friends into such a state that each of them looked forward to the journey ahead.

“Now, you’d better close your hands again, because a wise manor woman–“ he nodded to the little girl, “also takes care of that which they have been given so that it doesn’t get lost or stolen.”

Then, turning to walk toward the city, Nicholas said, “How about you let me get some rest tonight, and then, first thing in the morning, you can start showing me those holy places?”

While holy places abounded in this holy land, in the magical moments that had just transpired, it seemed to the three childrenand even to Nicholas himself–that they had just stepped foot on their first.

CHAPTER 8

Nicholas woke with the sun the next morning. He had asked the children to meet him at the inn shortly after sunrise. His heart skipped a beat with excitement about the day ahead. Within a few minutes, he heard their knock–and their unmistakable giggles–at the door.

He found out that their names were Dimitri, Samuel and Ruthie. They were, to use the common term, “alumni,” children whose parents had left them at birth to fend for themselves. Orphans like these dotted the streets throughout the Roman Empire, byproducts of people who indulged their passions wherever and with whomever they wanted, with little thought for the outcome of their actions.

While Dimitri could have wallowed in self-pity for his situation, he didn’t. He realized early on that it didn’t help to get frustrated and angry about his circumstances. So he became an entrepreneur.

He began looking for ways he could help people do whatever they needed, especially those things which others couldn’t do, or wouldn’t do, for themselves. He wasn’t often rewarded for his efforts, but when he was, it was all worth it.

He wasn’t motivated by religion, for he wasn’t religious himself, and he wasn’t motivated by greed, for he never did anything that didn’t seem right if it were just for the money, as greedy people who only care about money often do. He simply believed that if he did something that other people valued, and if he did it good enough and long enough, then somehow he would make it in life. Some people, like Dimitri, stumble onto godly wisdom without even realizing it.

Samuel and Ruthie, on the other hand, were just along for the ride. Like bees drawn to honey, Samuel and Ruthie were drawn to Dimitri, as often happens when people find someone who is trying to do what’s right. Samuel was eight, and like Dimitri, wasn’t religious himself, but had chosen his own name when he heard someone tell the story of another little boy named Samuel who, when very young, had been given away by his parents to be raised by a priest. Samuel, the present-day one, loved to hear about all that the long-ago Samuel had done, even though the other one had lived over 1,000 years before. This new Samuel didn’t know if the stories about the old Samuel were true, but at the time he chose his name, he didn’t particularly care. It was only in the past few months, as he had been traveling to the holy sites with Dimitri, that he had begun to wonder if perhaps the stories really were true.

Now Ruthie, even though she was only seven, was as sharp as a tack. She always remembered people’s names and dates, what happened when and who did what to whom. Giggling was her trademark, but little though she was, her mind was eager to learn and she remembered everything she saw and everything she was taught. Questions filled her mind, and naturally spilled right out of her mouth.

Dimitri didn’t mind these little tag-alongs, for although it might have been easier for him to do what he did by himself, he also knew of the dangers of the streets and felt compelled to help these two like an older brother might help his younger siblings. And to be completely honest, he didn’t have anyone else to call family, so finding these two a few years earlier had filled a part of his heart in a way that he couldn’t describe, but somehow made him feel better.

Nicholas took in the sight of all three beaming faces at his door. “Where to first?” asked Dimitri.

“Let’s start at the beginning,” said Nicholas, “the place where Jesus was born.” And with that they began the three-day walk from the coast of Joppa to the hills of Bethlehem.

CHAPTER 9

After two days of walking and sleeping on hillsides, Nicholas and his new friends had just a half day left before they reached Bethlehem. For Nicholas, his excitement was building with every hill they passed, as he was getting closer and closer to the holy place he most wanted to see, the birthplace of Jesus.

“Why do you think He did it?” asked Dimitri. “I mean, why would Jesus want to come hereto earth? If I were already in heaven, I think I’d want to stay there.”

Even though Dimitri was supposed to be the guide, he didn’t mind asking as many questions as he could, especially when he was guiding someone like Nicholas, which didn’t happen very often.

Nicholas didn’t mind his asking, either, as Nicholas had done the same thing back home. His parents belonged to a community of believers that had been started about 250 years earlier by the Apostle Paul himself when Paul had visited their neighboring city of Myra on one of his missionary journeys, telling everyone who would listen about Jesus. Paul had lived at the same time as Jesus, although Paul didn’t become a believer himself until after Jesus died and rose again from the dead. Paul’s stories were always remarkable.

Nicholas got to hear all of the stories that Paul had told while he was in Myra, as they were written down and repeated by so many others over the years.

As a child, Nicholas thought that anything that happened 250 years ago sounded like ancient history. But as he started to get a little older, and now that his parents had passed away, too, it didn’t seem that long ago at all. The stories that Nicholas heard were the same stories his father and his grandfather and his great grandfather, back to six or seven generations, had heard, some for the very first time from the Apostle Paul in person. Nicholas loved to hear them over and over, and he asked many of the same questions that Dimitri was now asking himlike why would Jesus leave heaven to come down to earth in person.

“The simple answer is because He loved us,” said Nicholas. “But that alone probably doesn’t answer the question you’re really asking, because God has always loved us. The reason Jesus came to earth was, well, because there are some things that need to be done in person.”

Nicholas went on to explain the gospel–the good news–to the children of how Jesus came to pay the ultimate price with His life for anything we had ever done wrong, making a way for us to come back to God with a clean heart, plus live with Him in heaven forever.

Throughout the story, the children stared at Nicholas with rapt attention. Although they had been to Bethlehem many times before and had often taken people to the cave that was carved into the hillside where it was said that Jesus was born, they had never pictured it in their minds quite like this before. They had never understood the motivations behind why God did what He did. And they had never really considered that the stories they heard about Jesus being God in the flesh were true. How could He be?

Yet hearing Nicholas’ explanation made so much sense to them, that they wondered why they had never considered it as true before. In those moments, their hearts and minds were finally opened to at least the possibility that it was true. And that open door turned out to be the turning point for each of them in their lives, just as it had been for Nicholas when he first heard the Truth. God really did love them, and God had demonstrated that love for them by coming to the earth to save them from their certain self-destruction.

For Nicholas, when he first heard about the love of the Father for him, the idea was fairly familiar to him because he had already had a good glimpse of what the love of a father looked like from the love of his own father. But to Dimitri, Samuel and Ruthie, who had never had a father, much less one like Nicholas had just described, it was simultaneously one of the most distantly incomprehensible, yet wonderfully alluring descriptions of love they had ever heard.

As they made their way through the hills toward Bethlehem, they began to skip ahead as fast as their hearts were already skipping, knowing that they would soon see again the place where God had, as a Man, first touched earth less than 300 years earlier. They would soon be stepping onto ground that was indeed holy.

CHAPTER 10

It was evening when they finally arrived at their destination. Dimitri led them through the city of Bethlehem to the spot where generations of pilgrims had already come to see the place where Jesus was born: a small cave cut into the hillside where animals could easily have been corralled so they wouldn’t wander off.

There were no signs to mark the spot, no monuments or buildings to indicate that you were now standing on the very spot where the God of the universe had arrived as a child. It was still dangerous anywhere in the Roman Empire to tell others you were a Christian, even though the laws against it were only sporadically enforced.

But that didn’t stop those who truly followed Christ from continuing to honor the One whom they served as their King. Although Jesus taught that His followers were to still respect their earthly rulers, if forced to choose between worshipping Christ or worshipping Caesar, both the Christians and Caesar knew who the Christians would worship. So the standoff continued.

The only indication that this was indeed a holy site was the well-worn path up the hill that made its way into and out of the cave. Tens of thousands of pilgrims had already made their way to this spot during the past 250 years. It was well known to those who lived in Bethlehem, for it was the same spot that had been shown to pilgrims from one generation to the next, going back to the days of Christ.

As Dimitri led the three others along the path to the cave, Nicholas laughed, a bit to himself, and a bit out loud. The others turned to see what had made him burst out so suddenly. He had even surprised himself! Here he was at the one holy site he most wanted to see, and he was laughing.

Nicholas said, “I was just thinking of the wise men who came to Bethlehem to see Jesus. They probably came up this very hill. How regal they must have looked, riding on their camels and bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. For a moment I pictured myself as one of those kings, riding on a camel myself. Then I stepped in some sheep dung by the side of the road. The smell brought me back in an instant to the reality that I’m hardly royalty at all!”

“Yes,” said Ruthie, “but didn’t you tell us that the angels spoke to the shepherds first, and that they were the first ones to go and see the baby? So smelling a little like sheep dung may not make you like the kings, but it does make you like those who God brought to the manger first!”

“Well said, Ruthie,” said Nicholas. “You’re absolutely right.”

Ruthie smiled at her insight, and then her face produced another thoughtful look. “But maybe we should still bring a gift with us, like the wise men did?” The thought seemed to overtake her, as if she was truly concerned that they had nothing to give to the King. He wasn’t there anymore to receive their gifts, of course, but still she had been captivated by the stories about Jesus that Nicholas had been telling them along the road. She thought that she should at least bring Him some kind of gift.

“Look!” she said, pointing to a spot on the hill a short distance away. She left the path and within a few minutes had returned with four small, delicate golden flowers, one for each of them. “They look just like gold to me!”

She smiled from ear to ear now, giving each one of them a gift to bring to Jesus. Nicholas smiled as well. There’s always something you can give, he thought to himself. Whether it’s gold from a mine or gold from a flower, we only bring to God that which is already His anyway, don’t we? 

So with their gifts in hand, they reached the entrance to the caveand stepped inside.

CHAPTER 11

Nothing could have prepared Nicholas for the strong emotion that overtook him as he entered the cave.

On the ground in front of him was a makeshift wooden manger, a feeding trough for animals probably very similar to the one in which Jesus had been laid the night of His birth. It had apparently been placed in the cave as a simple reminder of what had taken place there. But the effect on Nicholas was profound.

One moment he had been laughing at himself and watching Ruthie pick flowers on the hillside and the next moment, upon seeing the manger, he found himself on his knees, weeping uncontrollably at the thought of what had taken place on this very spot.

He thought about everything he had ever heard about Jesusabout how He had healed the sick, walked on water and raised the dead. He thought about the words Jesus had spokenwords that echoed with the weight of authority as He was the Author of life itself. He thought about his own parents who had put their lives on the line to serve this Man called Jesus, who had died for him just as He had died for them, giving up their very lives for those they loved.

The thoughts flooded his mind so fully that Nicholas couldn’t help sobbing with deep, heartfelt tears. They came from within his very soul. Somewhere else deep inside him, Nicholas felt stirred like he had never felt in his life. It was a sensation that called for some kind of response, some kind of action. It was a feeling so different from anything else he had ever experienced, yet it was unmistakably clear that there was a step he was now supposed to take, as if a door were opening before him and he knew he was supposed to walk through it. But how?

As if in answer to his question, Nicholas remembered the golden flower in his hand. He knew exactly what he was supposed to do, and he wanted more than anything to do it.

He took the flower and laid it gently on the ground in front of the wooden manger. The golden flower wasn’t just a flower anymore. It was a symbol of his very life, offered up now in service to his King.

Nicholas knelt there for several minutes, engulfed in this experience that he knew, even in the midst of it, would affect him for the rest of his life. He was oblivious to anything else that was going on around him. All he knew was that he wanted to serve this King, this Man who was clearly a man in every sense of the word, yet was clearly one and the same with God as well, the very essence of God Himself.

As if slowly waking from a dream, Nicholas began to become aware of his surroundings again. He noticed Dimitri and Samuel on his left and Ruthie on his right, also on their knees. Having watched Nicholas slip down to his knees, they had followed suit. Now they looked alternately, back and forth between him and the manger in front of him.

The waves of emotion that had washed over Nicholas were now washing over them as well. They couldn’t help but imagine what he was experiencing, knowing how devoted he was to Jesus and what it had willingly cost Nicholas’ parents to follow Him. Each of them, in their own way, began to experience for themselves what such love and devotion must feel like.

Having watched Nicholas place his flower in front of the manger, they found themselves wanting to do the same. If Jesus meant so much to Nicholas, then certainly they wanted to follow Jesus as well. They had never in their entire lives experienced the kind of love that Nicholas had shown them in the past three days. Yet somehow they knew that the love that Nicholas had for them didn’t originate with Nicholas alone, but from the God whom Nicholas served. If this was the kind of effect that Jesus had on His followers, then they wanted to follow Jesus, too.

Any doubts that Nicholas had had about his faith prior to that day were all washed away in those timeless moments. Nicholas had become, in the truest sense of the word, a Believer. 

And from those very first moments of putting his faith and trust fully in Jesus, he was already inspiring others to do the same.

To be continued…next week! (Or if you can’t wait, you can order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link!)

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- St. Nicholas: The Believer, Part 1 of 7


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
Part 1 of 7

by Eric & Lana Elder

 
Starting today and continuing for the next 6 weeks, I’ll be posting, as a series, the entire book my wife and I wrote about the real St. Nicholas who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. It’s a new book for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas.

You can read Part 1 below, or listen to Part 1 at this link, or order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link.

Enjoy!
Eric

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

ST. NICHOLAS: THE BELIEVER
A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas

by Eric & Lana Elder

DEDICATION

This book is dedicated to my sweet wife, Lana, who inspired me and helped me to tell you this spectacular story.

Lana had just finished making her final edits and suggestions on this book the week before she passed from this life to the next, way too young at the age of 48.

It was her idea and her dream to share the story of St. Nicholas with as many people as possible. She wanted to inspire them to give their lives to others as Jesus had given His life for us. This book is the first step in making that dream a reality.

To the world Lana may have been just one person, but to me she was the world. This book is lovingly dedicated to her.

INTRODUCTION
by Eric Elder

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. Instead they charged fines to businesses in their community who failed to keep their shops 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 a 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 3rd and 4th 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 to me equally fitting 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,
Eric Elder

PROLOGUE

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 he’s 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 be 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 it 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 would often 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 the shore. He knew that 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 that 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, who created him, who sustained him and with whom he is now living forever.

His name is Nicholas–and this is his story.

CHAPTER 1

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 somewhere in particular. 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 couldn’t count the number of times his dad would sneak up behind someone afterwards and put some apples in their sack, or a small coin or two. As far as Nicholas knew, no one ever knew what his father had done, except to say that sometimes they heard people talking about the miracle of receiving exactly what they needed at just the right time, in some 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 his parents 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 about whom he’d ever heard. One day, Nicholas thought to himself, 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 which 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 these days, irrespective of their wealth or poverty, their faith or lack of faith, their love for others or their 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 real reason to doubt the words his father had spoken.

But it would be only a matter of months before Nicholas’ faith would be challenged and he would have to decide if he really believed those words for himselfthat 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.

CHAPTER 2

Nicholas woke to the sounds of birds out his window. The air was fresh, washed clean by the seaside mist in 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 of them 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 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 had 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, but 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 family. He gave his wife and son one more final squeeze, then walked out the door to return to the other boy’s home.

CHAPTER 3

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 familiesentire 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 the 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 to 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 Pataraand 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.

CHAPTER 4

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 reallike rocks and trees, or hands and feetsoon took on a more ethereal nature. And those things that were more difficult for him to touch beforelike faith and hope, love and peacebegan 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 onfocusing 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 liveand 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.

CHAPTER 5

When Nicholas awoke one day to the sound of his mother coughing, time seemed to stand still.

For all the preparation his parentsand his own faithhad 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 lifefor all the healing that He had brought to othersthere 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 stillnot to come one step closer to the sickness that had now reached her bodyor 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 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 onwith or without himjust as it had since God had first spoken the water and earth into existence, and just as it would until the day God would choose 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 inhe realized that this was the final test of everything that he had believed up until 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! (Or if you can’t wait, you can order the paperback, eBook or audiobook from Amazon at this link!)

St. Nicholas: The Believer, by Eric & Lana Elder, A new story for Christmas based on the old story of St. Nicholas


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Every November, we invite our readers to help offset the costs of this ministry. There’s no obligation, just the joy of helping us reach more people for Christ! Click here to make an online donation of any size, or send your donation to: The Ranch Fellowship, 25615 E 3000 North Rd, Chenoa, IL 61726. Thank you!


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Lana’s Hope


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

LANA’S HOPE

by Lana Elder
The Ranch

 
Note from Eric: I reread this message that my wife, Lana, had written about 4 years ago the month before she passed away. Her message was significant then, and it is just as significant now, if not more so, as she expressed her desires for those of us still living if the cancer she was battling ever took her life. If you need hope today, even in the midst of whatever you may be going through, I hope you’ll read this message. Lana also included a link to a video message I had given back then called “Eric’s Hope.” Both messages still speak volumes to me. I pray they speak volumes to you as well.

Lana’s Hope

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the title of my blog, “I’m Believin’!”

I picked that title because I had so many people praying for me and I would always agree in prayer with them and end by saying “I’m believin’!” I really do believe God can do anything, absolutely anything.

I have believed in God for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until after college that I decided to really get to know Him better. I joined a Bible study and found a great church to join. And through it all I have come to know Jesus as the savior of my sins, my healer, my friend, my everything! My relationship with Him has grown over the years so much so that I trust He is helping me to help me make the best decisions each day.

So being in a situation like this, where death could happen at any time, I have no worries for myself if that happens. I’ve spent so much time with Jesus already that it’ll be like going home to see my friend.

I love to take walks in the country and many times I’ll listen to some worship songs or contemporary Christian music or podcasts. During these times, I’m often overwhelmed with how much God loves me. I’ve been memorizing Scripture and listening to great worship songs for over 25 years.  The words to these songs and so many scriptures are embedded deep in my heart. So when cancer came, I didn’t question God’s love for me. I already knew He loved me to pieces, just like I know He loves you to pieces.

But lately I’ve been wondering what people will think if I were to die from this cancer. I wonder if people would lose their faith in God or lose their faith in His ability to heal people miraculously. I would be so sad and disappointed if anyone lost their faith, or part of their faith, if I’m not healed.

I pray often for my children and others reading this that their faith would not be shaken if I were to die, but that they would know that God is in control and is always looking out for what’s best in each person’s life. I am quite confident that He who began a good work in me will carry it on until completion.

My faith isn’t dependent on whether I’m healed or not. My faith is dependent upon the fact that Jesus died for my sins so I could spend eternity with Him in heaven and I know God loves me and will work all things for good in the end.

I’m sure the early disciples, who were martyred for their faith, prayed that God would deliver them. And many times, God did deliver them. But other times God had a plan to use their suffering and death to bring about the salvation of many people. God really does have a will for each of our lives that is unique and purposeful.

I have great hope that God can heal me, but my hope is in Him completely no matter what. I know I can’t go wrong by putting my hope in Him. As Psalm 25:3 says:

“No one whose hope is in You
    
     will ever be put to shame…”

Having said all of that, I’m still praying that God would heal me completely, and I’d love for you to continue praying for my healing, too. My appointment yesterday showed my blood levels were too low to receive any chemo. So I will be having a blood transfusion tomorrow (Saturday) afternoon at 3:00 pm. Please pray that my platelets will also come up. Right now they are at 30,000 but they need to at least double or triple before they can continue with any treatments. And lastly and most importantly (at least for my body) please pray for my bones because they seem to be giving me the most pain. Some new pain medications have helped but the pain is still there. BTW, I’m starting to get feeling in my left thumb and left foot again, since switching to this new chemo. Praise God and thanks for your prayers! They are a little numb but I can tell they are on the way to recovery.

Before I close, I wanted to share a link with you to a new video Eric recently did for a film project called Nouvelle Vie (New Life) to give hope to families facing cancer. This video was filmed a few months ago when Eric was in Dallas, but we just found out you can watch it online. I was surprised when I saw the title they gave it. It’s called “Eric’s Hope.” I had no idea what they were going to call it when I first started writing this note to you and titled it “Lana’s Hope.” It’s like God had it all planned out, to share a message of hope with you today from both of us! Here’s the link to the video (just to warn you, you may want to get a Kleenex first!)

Click here to watch “Eric’s Hope”

Eric's Hope - Video

As you can tell from the video, my life has been so blessed to be married to Eric. It’s like being married to Jesus (I’m not kidding!) He’s the rock in our family and he’s been a super caretaker these last few months. He’s kind, tender-hearted, and just a great godly man.

There’s so much I have to be thankful for in life, from my great husband and my wonderful kids, to the friends and family like you all that have been so gracious in your care for me and in your prayers.

I love you all!
Lana

P.S. from Eric: Starting next week, I’ll begin sharing with you the book Lana and I finished writing just prior to her passing from this life to the next. It’s called St. Nicholas: The Believer, and I believe it will help you get the most out of the upcoming holiday season, reminding you to keep putting your hope in the One who gives us unending HOPE.


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Every November, we invite our readers to help offset the costs of this ministry. There’s no obligation, just the joy of helping us reach more people for Christ! Click here to make an online donation of any size, or send your donation to: The Ranch Fellowship, 25615 E 3000 North Rd, Chenoa, IL 61726. Thank you!


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- In The Kayak


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

IN THE KAYAK

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

(You can listen to the audio of this message at this link)

Last week I shared with you about God being our Savior. I want to talk again about God being our Savior, and specifically, just how close God is to each one of us–how close He is to you.

The God Who Saves, by Kirk Billiter

Here’s a picture that Kirk Billiter painted for this talk that says, in Hebrew, “The God who Saves.” Kirk has printed out some cards with this picture on it, and if you look on the back, there’s a verse I want to focus on again this week. It says:

“Surely the arm of the Lord is not to short to save, nor His ear to dull to hear” (Isaiah 59:1).

I want to talk about how very near God’s arm is to each one of us.

I’ll start with a story. I was preaching this last Sunday at a church in Streator, and I was talking about God being with us. I felt the night before that I was supposed to not just tell people that God will be with them, but to let them know that God IS with them, right there, in that moment–just like He is with you now. I want to let you know that God is here, too, with us, in this moment. Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered in My name, I will be there” (Matthew 18:20). And certainly there are more than two or three here, gathered in His name. That would mean that He is here.

So I was going to preach this message and before I preached, I went to the church early by about half an hour, and I thought, “I’m just going to look at some of the scriptures again that I’m going to talk about–just sit in my car and look. But I don’t want to pull up to the church, because then people will stop and they’ll start talking to me, and I really want to have a few moments just with God.”

So I went about a block away from the church. I was driving down the street looking for a little spot where I could park. I didn’t want to park in someone’s front yard–it’s a little creepy on Sunday morning to have somebody out there parking. So I went by and saw this open field on the right. I passed it and went to the end of the dead end street and had to turn around, so I decided to park near the open field, which was across the street from a house.

I sat there looking through some of the scriptures. I was looking through the book of Mark in the Bible and all the times when God was with people–there in the book of Mark–and what happened in those moments. As I was sitting there in my car, another car came towards me. It started slowing down, and I was thinking, “Oh, gosh, they live here. They’re going to pull in and say ‘What are you doing in my front yard?”

This couple pulled right up to my window and rolled down their window. I rolled down mine.

The man said, “I can’t believe you’re parked here in a little red Mini Cooper.  My brother, who lives in this house, owned a little red Mini Cooper exactly like that. He sold it a couple of years ago, though. So as I pulled up here, I just couldn’t believe it. Why was that little red Mini Cooper parked in front of his house, which he had sold previously.”

Streator is not a big town, and I had lived in there for about ten years, and knew that it was highly unlikely that there was another little red Mini Cooper anywhere in Streator. He went on to say, “In fact, my brother had removed the white racing stripes, which most Mini Coopers have, you know. He had removed them, just like yours has them removed.” He added, “How strange is that, that you would be parked here?!?”

I said, “Well, I was just getting ready to preach a sermon at the church nearby, and I just looked for a spot to park.”

He said, “This is just amazing. I’m going to have to tell my brother about this,” and he drove on.

I sat there in my car, looking at all the times when God was with someone in the Bible. Sometimes He was with someone in a boat. There would be a storm going on and Jesus was right there in the boat with them. He was walking on the water, then He gets in the boat, calming the storm and calming their hearts.

I thought, “Well, that doesn’t happen to me today. Jesus doesn’t jump in my boat.” Well, even I don’t jump in a boat! It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a boat! But I’m in a car–a lot–every day. And Jesus jumped into my Mini Cooper with me that morning! In fact, it wasn’t my Mini Cooper. It was my daughter’s. She was out of town for the week, and I was just borrowing it since it was at my house. I hardly ever get to drive this car. I happened to drive it that day. I happened to park there, half an hour before my sermon. I happened to park in front of the very house. And this couple–God had to direct them out of from wherever they came from to come down this street at that very moment and point out to me that this house is where a little red Mini Cooper ought to be! And that made me feel that I was right where I ought to be.

I was able to get up and share a message that morning that “God is With Us” with total conviction–total confidence–that God really is “with us.”

Mini Cooper on the morning I preached

What does that look like in your actual life? What does that mean when He shows up in your car with you?

I used to wonder. I would have these experiences, and I would think, “Wow, God! That’s You!” I would feel like the two disciples walking down the road to Emmaus, and Jesus was walking right with them, and they don’t recognize Him. Later, He breaks bread with them and all of a sudden they recognize Him, and He’s gone. Then they realize, “That was Jesus! He was right here!”

I used to wonder, “What do I do with experiences like that? Am I supposed to go talk to the guy who owns the house or something?” And I’ve come to the conclusion, over years and years of having this happen, that a lot of times God just wants to say, “I’m with you, Eric. I’m right there with you. I’m not asking you to do anything. I just want you to know that I am with you.”

About a month ago, I had another unusual experience when I was fully awake. I was thinking about being in the river of life–this great river that God takes us on. I was having this conversation with God, and I was picturing myself in this river, when God said, “Are you sure you want to take this? Do you want to go ahead and take this river?”

I said, “Yeah, I do.”

He said, “Jesus is over there on the shore, standing next to a kayak. You can go over to Him, and you can go on this river.”

I said, “That sounds awesome. Can He pull me over there with a rope or something?”

God said, “You can swim, Eric. You can swim.” (Just a little reminder that sometimes we need Him to pull us and other times He says, “You can do this.”)

I thought, “All right. I can swim.” So I swam over to the shore, and I got up to Jesus. I looked down and there were two seats in the kayak. I thought, “Do I sit in the front or do I sit in the back, if I’m going to go on the river with Jesus?” I’ll share what I had written that day, as I was was writing it down as it was happening.

God said, “There’s actually only one seat. He’s in you, and you’re in Him, like He’s in Me, and I’m in Him. Then I saw those two seats swirling, round and round and round–the front was in the back and the back was in the front–and all of a sudden there was just one seat.

God said, “One seat. One person. Two beings.”

I asked, “Who’s in control?”

God said, “You’re both in control. You move your arm, He’ll move His. If you let Him, He’ll move His arm and it will move yours. You’re both in complete control at all times. You both will move as one to the extent that You’re going in the same direction. You’ll both have to yield to the other if you want to go in different directions. But He’ll be as glad to go in the direction you choose as you’ll be glad to go in the direction He chooses. It’s a joint effort; truly a partnership.”

I put my hand on this steering stick in front of me (kayaks don’t normally have one, but this one did), and His hand, contained within my hand, went to it simultaneously. Then He put His hand back at His side, and mine naturally followed it.

And so began the journey.

I just love that, the fact that the arm of the Lord is not too short to save. In fact, the arm of the Lord is about as long as… your arm. If you have accepted Jesus Christ, if you have invited the Holy Spirit to come inside you, then He’s in you. I don’t know how you picture it, but I used to picture the Holy Spirit within me as a light inside my heart or something–the Holy Spirit in me.

But no, He’s a being, and He inhabits your body. Your arm is His arm. Your feet are His feet. Your words can be His words to the extent that you let them be. Your eyes can be His eyes. Your ears can hear with His ears. Your heart can feel what He can feel.

The arm of the Lord is about this long on me (as long as my outstretched arm). I don’t know how long it is on you–about the length of your arm, I’m guessing. And you can go any direction you want–you have free will. You can take your feet and go wherever you want, and Jesus will go right along with you. Sometimes He may cry as He goes. Sometimes He may plead with you, “Please, let’s not go there.” Sometimes He’ll rejoice with you and say, “Yes! This is where I want to be!”

Sometimes you’ll be worshipping God and raising your arms and He’ll say, “Yes! This is what I want you to do with your arms!”

Some days He’ll say, “Hey, I’d like to go over here. Do you want to come with me?”

And you can say, “Yes,” or you can say, “No.” But if you say, “Yes,” you are in for an incredible experience.

Maybe the next day He’ll say, “Where do you want to go?”

And you’ll say, “I would really love to do this.”

And He’ll say, “That sounds awesome! Let’s go do that.”

Does this give you a different perspective of Jesus being with you? Of God being with you?

I just want to encourage you, remind you, that God IS with you.

I mentioned last week, if you want an exercise, you can look through the book of Mark in the Bible, like I did a week ago. I just went through scripture after scripture. It’s sixteen chapters, the shortest of the four gospels–Matthew, Mark, Luke and John–the stories about Jesus. And I started circling every time that God was with someone, that Jesus was with someone, and what happened when He was with them.

It was incredible. People were healed. People were saved. People were forgiven. People’s lives were changed.

I shared last week with you how my life was changed, and I’ll close with this. Last week, I wasn’t quite sure if I was going to mention this book I had written, Fifty Shades of Grace. It talks about my journey–I had been involved in sexual activity with men as well as with women when I was younger, and God said, “Eric, that’s going to kill you if you do that. I don’t want you to die.”

When I heard God say that, it quickened my heart, and I said, “God, I don’t want to die, either. I don’t know how to change. I don’t know what I can do.”

God showed me that Jesus came to die for my sins and sent His Holy Spirit to help me do whatever God wanted me to do. I put my faith in Christ that day, turned my life around, and I’ve never gone back. It’s been thirty years, and I’ve never gone back–never gone back–not for lack of temptations or all kinds of opportunities, but because God said, “I don’t want you to die.”

And when you sin, it will have consequences, and ultimately you will die.

So I wrote all this in a book about a year ago. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to share about it last week because the high school team was leading worship, and I thought, “I’m not sure if I should share this. I understand high schoolers know about this, too–I get it–but there’s also a lot of stuff in here and I wasn’t sure if I should share it.

But God nudged me to share it and I did. Afterwards I went up to the high school worship team to tell them they did a great job. One of the girls said, “I can’t believe you wrote that book! I read that book and it was awesome!” She gave it to her friend, who was also on the worship team, and her friend said, “That is the best book! It was incredible!”

I had written it under a pen name so they had no idea who I was! So here, I was embarrassed, thinking, “I don’t want these kids to be exposed to this,” and I almost shortchanged an opportunity for God to speak. I don’t want to shortchange God on those opportunities.

God is with us–He is with you. He will nudge you in the right direction. And when He does, follow him. His arm, surely, is not too short to save.

Let’s pray.

Thank You, Lord, for coming–for being with us. Lord, I pray that You would help us to realize that You are with us, even now, even in this moment. Lord, for whoever might be listening to this, or reading this, I pray that they would know that You are with them–whether they’re in a little red Mini Cooper, or in a boat, or walking along a road. Let them know that You are with them–and let them know what a difference it makes to be in Your presence. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Jesus Has Saved Me From…


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

JESUS HAS SAVED ME FROM…

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

I gave a message to a group this week that I wanted to share with you. Jesus has saved me from many things, but in this message I share the biggest thing Jesus has saved me from, which may surprise you. I also want to encourage you to invite Jesus to save you from whatever you may need saving from today. You can listen to the message at the link below, or read the transcript of the message below the link. (It’ll be worth your time! Please listen or read!)

Click here to listen to “Jesus Has Saved Me From…”

I was thinking as we were just singing that song about “God is with us,” how much of a difference it makes when God is “with us.” And I know God is so pleased that you’re here tonight. I know that it’s sometimes hard to get here, and hard to make time in your schedule to do this. But I also know, having been in Care Groups many times myself, just how valuable this is. For me to come here on Thursday nights, for the various things that I was going through, this was life to me, and I so much looked forward to coming here and digging into whatever God had to tell me. So I know God is really pleased that you’re here tonight, too. I hope there’s an anticipation and an excitement about what you’re going to hear from God tonight, in this time, in the worship time, and in your small group afterwards, that God really is with us.

Just as an exercise for next week, if you want an idea of what to read in your Bible, I’ve been reading this week in the book of Mark–it’s the shortest of the four gospels: Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John, with the stories about Jesus, only sixteen chapters–and I’ve been reading through and looking at all the times when it says that Jesus was “with” someone. Whenever Jesus was with someone, things happened: people were healed, they were forgiven, and their lives were changed. It was amazing. And I’ve been circling those and going through–it’s only taken me two or three days to get through the whole book of Mark–and circling all those times when Jesus was “with” someone.

That’s the same thing that God does for us. He wants to be “with us.” He is with us, and He’s glad to be with us. So if you want a little exercise for this coming week, look through the book of Mark, and maybe take a look at those times when Jesus was “with” someone. I’m going to talk about that a little more next week.

But tonight, I want to talk about Jesus being our Savior.

Dave asked me to speak on this chapter from Mike Baker’s book, I Am Revealed, and we’ve been going through the names of God, and this week it’s on the name of God being “Savior.” There’s a verse in here I love and it says:

“Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save…” (Isaiah 59:1).

It’s almost ludicrous. Of course it’s not. His arm can reach anywhere! And of course, if He’s “with us,” then it’s absolutely not too short.

So I want to talk a little tonight about how God can save us from so many things. Whatever you’re going through right now, God’s arm is not too short to save.

There’s a question that Mike asks at the end of this chapter that I pondered on for a little while, and I’ll ask it to you, too. He says:

“Finish the following sentence with something specific, rather than just the word sin: ‘Jesus has saved me from…’ Personalize this statement according to your own experience. And in what ways has this saving made a difference in your life.”

So he wants us to finish this sentence, “Jesus has save me from…,” and list some specific things. I don’t know what comes to your mind. A bunch of things come to my mind. Before I mention that, let me preface it with this:

I got a text from a friend yesterday who was driving through the town where I live, which is called Chenoa, and she had stopped for gas, and she was trying to send me a text to make a joke about how much she loves the town of Chenoa, because it means she’s almost home. But her AutoCorrect changed it to “I love you so much, and don’t you know it!”

She quickly called me and said, “Just ignore any text that you get from me. That was AutoCorrect!”

I’m glad she called because I might have really wondered, “Wow! What exactly is going on here?”

But that’s not the worst AutoCorrect. The worst one that I’ve ever made was that I was writing to a friend who was praying with me about another friend who was sick and dying in the hospital. They thought he could have died any day. My friend texted me and said, “I’m praying that he recovers.”

I wrote back, and I meant to say, “I hope he does, and soon.” But it came out, “I hope he dies, and soon.”

I didn’t catch it until later in the afternoon when I texted my friend back to give her an update. My friend said, “I just thought, Eric, you must know this illness better than I do, and you know that it’s going to be better for him that it goes quickly.”

“No, no! I hope he does, not dies. I hope he recovers!” It was a terrible, terrible AutoCorrect.

After I told that story to a cousin of mine, he sent me this coaster that says:

“AutoCorrect can be your worst enema.”

AutoCorrect can be your worst enema.

But he said that mine takes the cake, though, praying that my friend would die, and quickly!

As I looked at that coaster, thinking of tonight, AutoCorrect is not my worst enema, or my worst enemy. There’s actually a worse enemy for me. Do you want to know who my worst enemy is? Maybe you can guess. It’s myself. And when I answered this question, “Jesus has saved me from…,” my answer was one word: myself.

Jesus has saved me from myself.

Because I was living my life the way that I wanted to live it. I was doing whatever I wanted to do. And I had no idea that what I was doing could have killed me. No idea. No clue, whatsoever.

Until I was in a Bible study in Houston, and some guys were talking about some Bible passages that said, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 3:23). The Bible said that everyone had sinned, and everyone deserves death for their sins. I thought that was a little strong. I wasn’t sure I had really done anything like that. I’d been a good Christian kid my whole life. I hadn’t really done anything that I would probably die from, or because of.

And a guy said, “Why don’t you ask God what He thinks about how good you’ve been?”

I said, “That’s fair.” So I went home and I asked God, “God, is there something I’ve done for which I could actually die?” And within two weeks, God answered my question. And He pointed me to a passage in the book of Romans that listed a whole number of sins, many of which I had done, including sexual activity both with men and with women. And at the end of that chapter, it said that those who do such things will die. And I was cut to the heart.

This dates me, but the word AIDS was not even a word when I first entered the kind of activity in which I was involved. It was about three months later that the Center for Disease Control finally identified that this was happening to men, and they were dying from it, and they gave it a term. But I had already been involved in that lifestyle. If anyone had that disease at that time, it was a certain death sentence.

I had never been checked, never been tested. I had no idea. I was just having fun.

And I read that passage, and I thought about everything that God did, all that He created me for and how He wired my body, and I was using it in ways that were not glorifying to Him, not honoring to the people whom I was with.

I thought it was loving and kind. I thought it was great. But God opened my eyes and said, “Eric, you could die from this. And I don’t want you to die. That’s why I sent Jesus, to die on the cross for your sins, so you wouldn’t have to, and you could live with me forever.”

That was the first time I ever realized that I needed a Savior. Because up until that point, I was doing just fine all by myself–at least I thought I was. But that day I realized, “Oh, my God. I need someone to save me from this, and I cannot save myself.” Jesus was the only person I could think of who could save me.

I put my faith in Him. He healed me–changed me. I was on a path going this way. He picked me up and put me on a path going the other way. In His grace and mercy, He gave me a wife. He gave me not just one child, or two children, or three, or four, or five, but six children. I was on a path headed to death, and Jesus put me on a path of life abundant.

And I look at my life today, thirty years later. I’ve gone into full-time ministry. I share encouraging messages with people, every day, in 160 countries around the world. I’ve homeschooled my kids, with my wife. We’ve homeschooled all six of them through high school. I’ve got two more to go. Four of them have graduated.

I would never have chosen homeschooling my children if I had stayed on the path I was on. I wouldn’t have had a wife and children. I wouldn’t have a ministry. Everything that I do today, I look at that and think that everything was changed because of that one decision, thirty years ago.

It’s the same for each of us. There are so many decisions we make that change the trajectories of our lives. If you make a little course correction here, or a big course correction there, thirty years from now you’re going to be in a whole different place.

What has Jesus saved you from?

I know for me, Jesus saved me from myself–my own worst enema. And He continues to save me from things, as I keep asking Him, saying, “God, help me.”

I happened to write this story down. I had never told it in such detail before, until last year, and I published it in a book called, Fifty Shades of Grace, (under a pen name, Nicholas Deere… you can read an extended preview here). It goes into a fair amount of detail of what God did for me, how He changed me, how He changed my thoughts, my feelings, my actions, how He gave me a wife and what that has meant to me, and how God’s mercy continues and continues.

I happened to be in Israel earlier this year. I was at the city of Capernaum, which is the city where Jesus healed two blind men, which was the passage that I read in the scripture as I was struggling with what I had done and what to do with what God had revealed to me.

These two blind men came to Jesus in the city of Capernaum, and they said “Have mercy on us.” They wanted to see. And Jesus asked a question. He said, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” (Matthew 9:28). And I felt like Jesus was asking me the same question, thirty years ago. “Do you believe I can heal you from this, too, and change you?”

And I said, if anyone can do it, Jesus can. And I put my hand up in the air. I was just walking down the road in Houston, Texas, reading my Bible, reading that passage, and Jesus changed me. The next day was entirely different.

I was in Capernaum, taking my kids and some other people on a tour, and when I walked up to Capernaum, I realized that was the city where these two blind men were healed. I happened to have my book in my backpack, which I had just finished writing. I took it out and I took this picture there. I thought, those words (in that passage) were written 2,000 years ago, and they’re still touching me today! The words in this Bible–2,000 year-old-words–and they are still changing us. Read it! Enjoy it! It’s God’s love letters to you!

Eric Elder at Capernaum

I had a chance to share my testimony with these 35 people, back in Capernaum, in that city where the blind men were healed. In that city, where, after I read about it, I was healed, 7,000 miles away in Houston, Texas, and 2,000 years later.

Sharing my testimony with our group in Capernaum.

Many of you are Christians in here tonight. I want to encourage you–refresh your memory. “Jesus has saved me from…,” and fill in the blank. You can take great heart from that.

Some of you may not have ever put your faith in Christ, and I want to give you a chance, right now, in this moment, to do that. It’s amazingly simple. At the same time, it can be amazingly hard, because it involves out hearts. But the words are easy. And thankfully the Holy Spirit can AutoCorrect anything we say that’s not quite right. He’ll fix it!

But I would love to pray with you. If you would like Jesus to save you–save you from your sins, save you for a better life here on earth, and save you for an eternity with God in heaven–you can pray with me, and say, “Jesus, I’m sorry for what I’ve done. I want to change. I need Your help. I need a Savior.” And then invite His Holy Spirit to come in and help you do that–to renew you and refresh you.

If you’d like to do that, you can sit right where you are, and pray with me, silently in your head if you want. Let’s pray–to the God who is “with us,” whose arm is not too short to save.

Lord, thank You so much for saving me from myself. Lord, for those in here who need a Savior tonight, I pray they would repeat these words after me in their own hearts. Dear Jesus, I’m so sorry for what I’ve done. I need Your help. I need a Savior, and You’re the only one who can do it. I invite Your Holy Spirit into my life to change me, renew me, refresh me, restore me, give me hope, give me healing, and give me Your heart. Lord, I believe that You died for my sins, so I could have a new life here on earth, and the promise of a certain life with You in heaven, forever and ever. I thank You for that, and I accept that gift of eternal life. I pray this in Jesus’ name, Amen.


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Making Things Right


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

MAKING THINGS RIGHT

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

Jeffrey and Misti making a brand new start

Jeffrey and Misti, making a brand new start

I spoke last weekend at the wedding of a couple who, in their own words, said they wanted to get married in order to “make things right.” If you’d like one of the best tips for how to “make things right” in your own life, I hope you’ll read this message. Whether you’re single, married, or just want to know what’s next for your life, I believe this message contains something for you. Here are the words I spoke to them, and about them, on their wedding day…

You know, it’s a miracle what you two are experiencing today, and what we’re witnessing today.

When I met with Jeffrey and Misti recently to talk about their wedding today, they told me that when they first met each other, they were just friends. Neither of them was sure that they wanted to be in a relationship.

In fact, they were both looking for reasons why it wouldn’t work. Each of them had been seriously hurt by previous relationships, and neither of them was sure if they wanted to enter into another one.

But over time, they truly fell in love. And now they can both say wholeheartedly, “I’m so glad that we did.”

Misti said: “This is the the best relationship I’ve ever had. I feel more comfortable with him than anyone.”

To which Jeffrey added: “Definitely!”

I asked them why they wanted to get married now, after all this time. They’ve already been together for several years, and they’ve had two beautiful children along the way. “Why now?” I asked them.

Misti said: “We’re ready for it. We want to write our story together. We want to make ourselves a whole family, to close that circle, and to grow in our relationship together.”

Jeffrey said: “We want to make things right.  We want to get rid of the things in the past and move forward for the future, to better our family, to set a good example for our kids, and to be a good role model for others.”

And then, Misti added, like a kid in a candy store: “I wish it were already here!”

They are so excited to get married! And that makes me so excited for them! They really do want, and are truly getting, a fresh start today–right now, right here–in the presence of all of you who love them and who have so graciously come to support them in this decision.

Although they made their decision to make things right many months ago, today is the culmination of that decision. That one decision has put into motion all that you see today. And the impact of that decision won’t stop here. This is just the beginning. Their decision, as stated in their own words, “to make things right,” will have an impact not only on them, but on many others, for GENERATIONS to come.

As Misti said: “It’s CRAZY how it has turned out for us, from where we started to where we are now.”

And the key to their decision, as Jeffrey and Misti would be the first to tell you, was that they have invited and allowed God to speak into their decision-making process.

There’s a verse in the Bible that describes how this works. When you ask God for help in making your decisions, here’s what the Bible says God can do for you, as recorded in the book of Isaiah chapter 30, verse 21. It says:

“Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21).

Let me read that again:

“Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21).

The key to making good decisions, to making things right, is to ask God–then to listen His answer, whether it comes in a voice that is still and small, or whether it comes in a voice that is loud and booming. Either way, God will speak in answer to your prayers, and if you’re listening, you’ll hear a voice in your ears from behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”

Jeffrey and Misti, you have asked for God’s wisdom. You have invited Him to speak into your lives. And you have walked forward in the wisdom that He has given you. Today’s wedding is one more evidence of that truth being lived out in your lives.

My encouragement to you, from this day forward, is to continue doing what you’re already doing. Keep loving God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength, and keep asking Him to speak into your lives. Keep listening for His voice. And keep doing whatever He speaks to you, whenever He speaks to you, saying: “This is the way; walk in it.”

If you do that, your marriage, your life, and the impact you will have on everyone around you will exceed even your own wildest imaginations.

P.S.  Jeffrey and Misti also made the wise decision to listen to the godly counsel of others who had walked this way before, and who helped them grow in their faith and understanding of which way they should go. If you’d like more tips for how to have the best possible marriage you can have, I’ve posted my book, “15 Tips for a Stronger Marriage,” online for free at this link, or you can order the paperback from our online bookstore at this link

15 Tips For A Stronger Marriage, by Eric Elder


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Making Old Things New


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

MAKING OLD THINGS NEW
by Eric Elder
The Ranch

If you need encouragement that God can take those parts of you which were, perhaps, once good and beautiful and useful, but have, over the years, lost their shine, lost their luster, or lost their apparent usefulness, I hope you’ll read this message which I shared at the funeral of a dear friend who passed away last week….

Eric Elder holding a quilt made by Marge Albrecht

Eric Elder holding a quilt made by Marge Albrecht

I’ve known Marge for almost 25 years, having first met her when we moved to Gridley in 1992. I think that’s a pretty long time to get to know someone. But looking around this room, I realize that I’m still the newcomer to this party. Many of you have known her many more years than I have.

There are a lot of things each of us could share about her. I know I could share about the time when she invited my wife, Lana, to her ladies’ Bible study, which is where Marge prayed for our family as we were going through several trials of our own. I could share about when Marge took up a collection among the women in her Bible study and gave it to us when I didn’t have a job.  I could share about Marge’s laughter and her positive spirit, even in the face of some of the hardest tragedies anyone can face in life: losing a spouse, losing your children, losing your health. I could go on and on about Marge, and I know each of you could, too, with your own stories.

But I’d like to focus today on one thing that Marge had a knack for doing–something which made her so much like the Savior she followed with all her heart: she had a knack for making old things new again. Specifically, she took scraps of old material and turned them into stunningly beautiful quilts.

Lana loved looking at the beautiful quilts that Marge, together with her friend Duane, made so often. Lana loved the patterns and the colors and the unique stitching on each one. Lana loved them so much that I asked Marge one day if she would make a special one for Lana–just a small one, because that’s all I could afford–but one that would be as beautiful as all of the rest. So Marge made one, and I gave it to Lana on a special occasion. We framed it and hung it on the wall in our living room where it has been for the last fifteen years.

Marge had a way of seeing beauty in things that other people would have thrown away or cast aside long ago: an old tie, a pretty blouse that had lost too many buttons, or some scraps of leftover cloth from a set of curtains. She would hold on to those scraps, still seeing the beauty in them even though they may have seemed to others to have been outdated or worn out or entirely worthless.

Then she would take them and make them into something new. Something beautiful. Something worth far more than the individual pieces.

Close up of a quilt made by Marge Albrecht

A close up of one of Marge’s quilts.

Her friend Duane would piece together the quilt, and Marge would add some stitching–hand sewn, personalized, and with a unique pattern for each and every seam that connected one piece to another. What was once an eclectic collection of tattered and leftover scraps would become a piece of art that far surpassed the beauty of the individual pieces, whether a tie or a blouse or a curtain, even compared to their original best.

It’s a fitting analogy of what Jesus can do with our lives. He takes those things that are in us, those parts of us which were, perhaps, once good and beautiful and useful, but have, over the years, lost their shine, lost their luster, or lost their apparent usefulness.  And, in His skillful hands, He redeems them. He restores them. He breathes new life into them–a new usefulness, a new worth, a new value of which far surpasses the original.

The cloth and the thread and the beads which make up this small piece of quilt can’t have been worth more than a few dollars to most people, if anything. But with the love and the care and the finest attention to even the smallest detail, those pieces were worth enough to me that I was willing to pay $100 for what Marge and Duane were able to do with them. (And I would have bought an even bigger one at the time if I could have afforded it!)

Jesus does the same. With love and care and the finest attention to even the smallest detail, He takes those pieces of our lives and makes them into something that is priceless. The good news is that Jesus is willing to do this for any of us, at any time.

But the amazing thing is this: Jesus doesn’t force Himself onto anyone. He is a gentleman. He doesn’t go where He’s not invited. He doesn’t take something from us to make it new without our willingness to give it up. He doesn’t barge through the doors of our lives. Instead, He invites, He woos, He draws each one of us to come to Him. He gives us permission to ask Him for what we need, to seek Him out, and to knock at His door so we can come in and eat with Him.

And then, like a true gentleman, Jesus makes good on His promises. He promises that if we ask, He will provide. If we seek, we will find. If we knock, He will open the door for us and invite us in to eat with Him, to walk with Him in His garden, and to talk with Him for as long as we’d like. And once we knock, and He opens that door, He never shuts it again. He leaves it open for us to come in and spend time with Him anytime, day or night, throughout our lives.

Marge is one of those people who asked, who sought, who knocked on Jesus’ door, and for whom Jesus opened that door, with a smile on His face and His arms outstretched to welcome her in. And once that door was opened, it was never shut again. Marge took Jesus up on His offer in full. She went back and forth to Jesus’ house on a regular basis, not just once a week or twice a week, not just once a day or twice a day, but sometimes every hour or two–sometimes every minute or two. Over the years, that path between where Marge lived and where Jesus lived was well worn, and I’m sure, to both of them, it seemed like hardly any distance at all.

I believe that it was out of her relationship with Christ, and because she had such an intimate fellowship with Him on such a regular basis, that this is how she was able to come to see the good in any situation, the good in any person, the good in the world around her, even when there were so many things that could have possibly brought her down.

Even a few weeks ago when I talked with her, she expressed to me that she was facing one of the hardest battles of her life. She said she had to wonder if what she was going through was real or not, because she couldn’t believe this was happening to her. Her health was failing her like never before, and the nights, she said, were especially hard. But she told me she was making it through because she just kept holding on tight to Jesus. She just kept holding on tight to the promises that she KNEW to be true. And she told the devil, on many occasions, to get lost! The nights were long, she said, but then daylight would come, and she would be able to see clearly again that Jesus was still right there with her, walking her through every step of the way.

And she kept holding tight to Jesus, right to the end. When she took her last breath here on earth, she took her next breath in heaven, and I am sure–I am positive–that nothing in this life could have fully prepared her for that first breath of heavenly air.

Knowing Marge, if she were here in person, she would be the first to say, “Oh, you can’t imagine what it’s like here! Come, please come! Don’t let anything stop you! Not the pain of your past, not the problems of your present, not the fear of your future. Whatever it takes, do whatever you can do to come! You’ve got to try this! You’ve got to be here! You won’t want to miss it!”

And, knowing Marge–and the well-worn path between her place and the place where Jesus lived–she had experienced bits and pieces of heaven right here on earth many, many times. I am sure she prayed these words from the Lord’s prayer more times than any of us could count: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s an invitation for God to send a little bit of heaven down here to us on earth. That’s where she found her comfort. That’s where she found her strength. That’s where she found her redemption.

Marge had written some words on a piece of paper that she kept in her Bible, words from one of the Psalms, plus some words of a simple poem. Above those words, she had written a title: “My Daily Prayer.” From Psalm 19:14, she wrote:

“Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14).

And as for the poem below it, she wrote:

“Lord, grant me grace throughout this day
To walk the straight and narrow way.
To do whatever in Thy sight
Is good and perfect, just and right.”

Marge lived by words like these–and not just these, but on every word that came from the mouth of God. They gave life to her. And they can give life to you.

If Marge were here, I am confident she would say, “Come! Please come! Please don’t miss out on what Jesus has to offer you, both there on earth and here in heaven with Him forever. Ask Him for what you need. Seek Him and you will find. Knock on His door, and He will open it wide–with a smile on His face and His arms outstretched to welcome you in–always, at all times, and forever.

“Bring to Him every piece of your life, not just the good bits and the shiny bits, but the broken bits, the worn-out bits, the seemingly useless bits. Let Him redeem and restore each of those bits, too, so they can become even more glorious than they ever were, or ever could have been, even when they seemed to be at their best.” Then Marge would say:

“Jesus really can make all things new. If you could see me now, you would know that it’s true!”

And for those who have already put your faith in Christ, I am sure Marge would say to you: “It’s all real! It’s all true! Never doubt. Never give up. Never stop coming to Him with all that you need–and you, too, will receive what you need from His hand. You, too, will find. You, too, will be invited in, again and again, with a smile on His face and His arms outstretched to welcome you in–always, at all times, and forever.”

I could end my message right there, because there’s enough in what I’ve said so far that would be truly good and useful. But I wouldn’t want you to leave today and not know why I believe Marge would say each of those things.

I believe it, not just because the Bible tells me so–although it certainly does and its words are trustworthy. I believe it because, like many people throughout the ages–some of whom wrote their stories down and recorded them in our Bibles–I, too, have seen through that thin veil between heaven and earth from time to time myself. One of those times was just a few years ago. It involved Kirk, Marge’s dear son and one of my dear friends, who went to heaven before she did.

I had a glimpse of heaven that day, a day when Marge needed some help. She had a new freezer coming, and she needed help to unload the frozen food from her old freezer into some coolers so it wouldn’t spoil while she waited for the new freezer to arrive and be installed. I had a number of things already on my schedule that day, with three kids at home who needed care and work for my ministry that I needed to get done. When people call me for help, I ask God if this is something He wants me to do. I want to be helpful when I can be, but I also know I have a limited amount of time in every day. But if God says, “Yes,” He wants me to do something, I try to do it if I can.

On this occasion, when I asked God what I should do, it was Kirk who answered me! He said, “Eric, could you help my mom out today? I wish I could be there to do it myself, but I can’t. If you could be my hands and my feet and could help my mom, it would mean so much.”

Hearing from Kirk that way, I couldn’t say no. I called Marge and said, “Yes, I can do that.”

I went over to her house and helped her unload her food into some coolers. It wasn’t hard work, I told her. It just wasn’t on my schedule for that day. But I told her what I felt Kirk had said to me. She teared up and replied, “Thank God! That’s an answer to my prayers.” She was sincerely thankful for my help, but she was also sincerely thankful for a message from her son in heaven, who, after all these years, still loved her and still cared for her like no time had passed at all.

Marge is right there now with Kirk, as He, too, loved Jesus and had made a well-worn path to the place where He lived many times. And like Kirk expressed his love to his mom that day from heaven, I am 100% certain that Marge still loves and cares for each one of you. She would want me to tell how very much she loves and cares for you how much she has thought of you and prayed for you over the years, and how very much she longs for you to be with her one day in the place where she is now. Fully redeemed. Fully restored. Fully made new again, in every possible way.

Always know she loves you very much, even now, just as Christ loves you–with no hint of guilt, no threat of condemnation, not a shred of shame for what you’ve done. She sees the you that God created you to be–a beautiful quilt in the making–because she sees you with the eyes of Christ.

She loves you always, no matter what. She always has. She always will, at all times, and forever.

Just like Jesus.


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Lana’s Kiss


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

LANA’S KISS

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

 

I’d like to tell you about something that happened to me with my wife Lana last Monday.

For those of you who have followed my story through my writings here or in my book Fifty Shades of Grace (under the pen name Nicholas Deere), you’ll know that Lana and I shared a truly intimate relationship–a relationship that has lasted, I feel, even since she has passed “through the veil” as they say between heaven and earth. That’s been almost four years now this November.

A few weeks ago, I was prompted to ask her, as unusual as it may sound, if she would release me for a new relationship at some point if God would have that in mind for me. I wasn’t quite sure what I meant by that, actually, as I felt she had already released me for such a relationship while she was still here with me, just a few weeks before she died. But I felt this was something I should do now at this point in time.

It wasn’t quite as simple as I thought, though, both for what it might mean to her or to me. But after wrestling with the idea for a bit, I went ahead asked. Nothing particular happened, and I didn’t really know what I expected would happen, so I just let my question be what it was. I also knew that I couldn’t just expect her to say, “Okay, sure, you’re released!” I didn’t think it would be quite that simple. In a way, it was a very big “ask.”

That was a few weeks ago. Then on Monday morning of this week, just before I woke up–and while I was still in that in-between state where I was not quite awake, but not quite asleep either–Lana showed up! She was about a foot away from me, and we were both standing there in my bedroom. (I was actually lying down on my bed, but I saw her through my own eyes as if we were both standing.) She was still about a foot away from me when she leaned forward, ever-so-slightly, and gave me a kiss on the lips. Her lips were still wet, like she had just licked them. Our kiss lasted for only a second or two, but it was delightful.

And while our kiss was sweet in and of itself, the extra-amazing part of it for me was that when we kissed, Lana was still about a foot away from me! It was as if we had both closed our eyes and leaned towards each other to kiss, but there was something like a glass wall between us that kept us about a foot apart. We shouldn’t have been able to kiss, but somehow we did! And when I opened my eyes again after our kiss, she was still about a foot away from me.

I was especially surprised by how far away she was because I felt her lips on mine–and they were clearly wet! That couldn’t have happened if there was a glass wall between us. I would have never felt her lips on mine. I was so amazed by it that I asked her, “How did you do that? Can we do that again?!?”

She leaned towards me again–and again, we kissed! And again, it was just for about a second or two, but I felt her wet lips on mine, even though we were still a foot apart! I felt them!

And then I woke up fully.

I thought about that kiss for a time, wondering if it was real or not, and then went on with my day. Later in the day, however, I suddenly remembered that dream. I wondered, “Was that Lana’s release? Was that the release I had asked her about a few weeks ago?”

And in that moment, I realized that if she really was just a foot away from me–which seemed like such a huge distance for giving each other a kiss–that was actually incredibly close! It was as if she had finally made her decision and had come to me from wherever she was in heaven! And to come within a foot of me and lean in and give me a kiss–twice–and with her lips wet to the point that I could actually feel them…Wow! That was really close!

I decided right then to ask her: “Lana, was that you releasing me?”

She knew that I wasn’t sure why I had even asked her for a release, and she knew that I didn’t know who, if anyone, God might have in mind for me for the future. But she also knew that I felt prompted to ask the question, and she was glad to respond.

She said, “Eric, I don’t know who might be in your future. That depends on you and whoever that person may be. What I do know is that I’m no longer there to give you the pleasure I wish I could. I can–through heaven’s veil–but I want more for you there than what I can give you from here.”

As she spoke, I realized that it was not glass between us, but the veil of heaven, which must have been so utterly thin at that moment that I could even feel her wet lips on mine. I also remembered, in that moment, that when Adam was in the Garden of Eden, he had access to God in heaven, yes. But God saw that Adam also needed–wanted, longed for–more. Adam wanted someone who was right there with him. And God provided that “more,” a true peer, one who could walk intimately with Adam while he lived his life here on earth.

Lana said, “I want more for you, too, Eric, right there–with you–in the garden. I want that for you very much. And as much as I have loved you, and still love you, I want to release you, now, so you can experience and enjoy even more love, right there, right where you are. I love you, Eric. And I give you my full release to enjoy the blessings of MORE. I give it to you gladly, freely, willingly–and with deep, deep pleasure.”

In bed that night, with Lana’s words still on my mind and with a smile on my face, I fell asleep. When I woke up on Tuesday morning, it was a new day. A whole new day.

I know this story may sound unusual to some people. It’s unusual to me. But for those who have loved someone deeply, and with whom they have shared an intimate relationship here on earth and the mutual bond of a relationship with Christ, those we love are never really far from us–even though we may be separated by death.

There’s a veil between heaven and earth, but sometimes it is so thin that people throughout the ages, as recorded in the Bible, have been able to see through it and enjoy an ongoing fellowship with those who have gone ahead–our relationship with Jesus in heaven being preeminent of all.

Put your hope and faith in Him again today. He’s closer than you might think.


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Praying Loving Prayers (Part 2)


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

PRAYING LOVING PRAYERS (PART 2)

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

Last week I shared with you how I’ve been convicted about praying loving prayers: prayers that I can stand behind AND which express my love for others in a way that they can hear it. It’s already really changed the way I pray in just a few weeks. I feel like my prayers have been more loving, more kind, and by that definition alone, more effective than ever before.

In one conversation, a friend asked me to pray for a relationship that she was hoping would work out. She said, “I’ve asked some people to pray for me about it, but I don’t want them to just pray that whatever happens will happen! I want them to pray that the relationship would work out! That’s what’s really on my heart.”

When I heard her say what was really on her heart, I knew that was a prayer I could stand behind AND which would express my love for her in a way that she could hear it. I asked if I could pray for her, got up off my chair and knelt down on my knees–and prayed that her relationship would work out!

In another conversation, a friend was telling me about her upcoming cancer treatments. Although there were many things she brought up that I could have prayed for–from healing of the cancer to the treatments and the fatigue that they produce–at one point she said, “What I really want, though, is to be able to enjoy food again! I’ve only had 3 meals in the last 6 months that I’ve actually enjoyed eating.” When I heard her say those words, “What I really want…” I knew that was a prayer I could stand behind AND which would express my love for her in a way that she could hear it. I asked if I could pray for her, took hold of her hand and knelt down on one knee, praying that she would  be able to enjoy food again! (I’ve also been praying for her healing and the treatments and the fatigue, but I saved those for my personal prayers at home. What she seemed to really need in that moment when we were together was to enjoy eating food again.)

In yet another conversation, I was talking with a friend on the phone who lives several states away. He told me about a difficult situation a family was going through who lived down the street from him. He wondered if he should stop by and try to talk to them, and he asked if I could “keep him in prayer” about it. I said I would and decided to ask him if I could pray for him right then while we were still on the phone. He said, “Yes,” so I prayed a simple prayer: “God, help ____ know if he should stop by and talk to his neighbor or not. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” It didn’t take long. It didn’t take a lot of words. But I was able to pray with my friend, right then and there–right at his point of need–giving him the benefit of the prayer and the awareness that I cared, both at the same time.

It sounds like I must be praying for people constantly, and in some ways, I am. But in other ways, I’m usually just going about my day. When a need arises, I pray. It’s as simple as that.

Last weekend, while I was grilling hamburgers in my backyard, a friend texted to tell me that her doctor had just called her with some bad news: her biopsy results came back and she had tested positive for breast cancer. I got down on my knees, right there in front of my barbecue grill, and prayed that God would heal her completely, through surgery or supernaturally, and that the cancer would never, ever come back. If anyone saw me, they might have thought I was praying and making sacrifices on the altar of my barbecue grill. I wasn’t! I was simply driven to my knees to plead with the God of the universe–the God who created my friend, and who loved her and cared about her even more than I did–to work a miracle in her life. I texted her back to let her know I had prayed and what I had been praying.

As you pray, pray prayers that you can stand behind AND which express your love for others in a way that they can hear it. I’m still learning how to do this myself, but I’m seeing the fruit of it already. I’d appreciate your prayers for me as I do.

Join Eric Elder & Greg Potzer for a Guided Prayer Retreat, Dec. 7-9, 2016, at The Cove

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about prayer, and how you can have a more effective prayer life, I’d love for you to join Greg Potzer and me for a “Guided Prayer Retreat” in December. The deadline for signing up is October 15th, so let us know soon if you’re interested in joining us in person at The Cove in North Carolina. (You’ll also be able to join us for the event live online, but we’d love to meet you in person if you can come!) Click here for more details or to register to join us in person!


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Praying Loving Prayers


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

PRAYING LOVING PRAYERS

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

 

Can I share with you something from my heart that I’ve learned about prayer in the last two weeks?

Two weeks ago, I was talking to a dear friend who’s going through a painful divorce. At the end of our conversation, I said something that I thought was incredibly loving and kind. I said that, even after all that she had shared with me about her divorce, I was still praying that if there was any way possible, even at this late hour, that God would bring about a reconciliation.

She said, “Eric, if you have even one speck of love for me, you will never, ever, ever pray that prayer for me again.”

I was totally caught off guard by her reaction. While I meant well with my prayer, and I have seen God pull off miracles at the 11th hour in similar situations, what I didn’t realize was how my prayer sounded to her ears. She felt betrayed. Hurt. And the pain on her face was excruciating.

What to me was an expression of a last sliver of hope for her situation was to her like a 10-ton weight that I had just dropped on top of her. In one fell swoop, I had negated her thousands of hours of praying about the situation, her decades of wrestling through and trying to do everything she could possibly do to avoid what she now felt God was leading her to do. I had invalidated the very real and very difficult decision she had finally come to, a decision that she felt went against everything she had ever believed in, and was going to cost her immeasurably in terms of her family, her friends and her standing in the Christian community.

The pain I caused her in that moment was as real and as strong as any of the other pain she had experienced over the years.

I went home and cried. And I’ve been crying on and off every day for the past two weeks–not just about how I hurt her with my prayers, but how I’ve hurt others in similar ways by similar prayers over the years. While my prayer was a true statement of my belief in a God who can do anything, absolutely anything, it wasn’t kind. It wasn’t loving. And it caused real pain.

While I believe it’s right and good and God-pleasing to have strong, deeply held beliefs, I don’t believe it’s right and good and God-pleasing to express those beliefs–in prayer or otherwise–in a way that crushes others, whether intentionally or unintentionally. It’s not kind. It’s not loving. And it causes real pain.

We cannot sacrifice others on the altar of our beliefs–especially when there’s a better way.

I’m not wanting to discourage you from praying for others. I’m wanting to encourage you to be sensitive to how others might receive your words, even those words that you believe are right and true and good.

Even Jesus held back at times from sharing the full weight of what He could have said because He knew His words would have crushed those who heard them. When He was heading to His imminent death, Jesus told His disciples, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear” (John 16:12).

It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t want to tell them everything. It’s just that He knew that if He told them in that moment, His words would have crushed them.

If there’s one thing I could share with you today, it would be this: Don’t sacrifice others on the altar of your belief. Instead, come alongside them in prayer. Pray prayers that you can stand behind AND which express your love for them in a way that they can hear it.

How can we do this? It can be as simple as asking, “What do you want me to pray for you?”  Then listen to their response and pray the best possible prayer you can pray that honors their request.

Jesus did the same. He didn’t presume. On several occasions, He simply asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” (see Mark 10:36 and 10:51).

So I asked my friend whom I had hurt so deeply, “What do you want me to pray for you?”

She said, “Pray that I would be able to truly love my husband through all of this. I want to be able to do that no matter what happens with our marriage.”  Now that was a prayer I could stand behind. That was a prayer I could pray with my whole heart AND which would express my love for her in a way that she could truly hear it.

Don’t sacrifice others on the altar of your belief. Come alongside them in prayer. Pray prayers that you CAN stand behind AND which express your love for them in a way that they can truly hear it. As the apostle Paul said, “…if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2b).

Join Eric Elder & Greg Potzer for a Guided Prayer Retreat, Dec. 7-9, 2016, at The Cove

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about prayer, and how you can have a more effective prayer life, I’d love for you to join Greg Potzer and me for a “Guided Prayer Retreat” in December. We only have 12 spots left, so let us know soon if you’re interested in joining us in person at The Cove in North Carolina. (You’ll also be able to join us for the event live online, but we’d love to meet you in person if you can come!) Click here for more details or to register to join us in person!


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- This Week’s Sermon


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

Tender Mercy Makers

by Jeff Strite

Romans 12:1-12:8

I once read the true story of a preacher was organizing an evangelistic outreach using small acts of kindness to demonstrate Christ’s love. He phoned several neighborhood grocery stores and Laundromats for permission to do specific services.  On one call, the employee who answered the phone hesitated, then said, “I’ll need to ask the manager, but first, let me make sure I understand: You want to clean up the parking lot, retrieve shopping carts hold umbrellas for customers, and you don’t want anything in return.”
“Yes, that’s right,” the preacher replied.
After a few moments the employee returned to the phone.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “we can’t let you do that because if we let you do it, we’d have to let everyone else do it, too!”
(Ann Jeffries, Kansas City, KS Christian Reader, “Lite Fare.”)

Now, isn’t that odd?  Here’s a church that was willing to show God’s love to a grocery store, and the store won’t let them do it because they’re afraid they’ll have to let other groups do the same thing.

Now why did that store respond like that?  Because NO ONE does stuff like that!  This church was obviously out for something… an ulterior motive. And the grocery store was right. The church did have an ulterior motive – they wanted to reach their world for Christ and the tool they were using was something called “showing mercy.”

Paul writes: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is… showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.” Romans 12:6 & 8

The first question that came to my mind was: what exactly IS mercy?According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Mercy is:  2 a : a blessing that is an act of divine favor or compassion (that’s what God does)  3 : compassionate treatment of those in distress (that’s what people do).

Basically, mercy is the act of getting your hands dirty helping others. Mercy is where a person visits the shut-ins, feeds the hungry, clothes the naked. This goes beyond “giving money” to these people. It’s where a person who shows mercy by DOING the act of helping. And they do this act without expecting to be paid to do it.

Now-why should we be merciful?   Well, we should be merciful, because we serve a God who is a “merciful God.”

“Therefore know that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and MERCY for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments;   Deuteronomy 7:9 NKJV

David wrote:

• For the LORD is good; His MERCY is everlasting, and His truth endures to all generations. Psalm 100:5
• Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His MERCY endures forever. Psalm 118:29
• AND in the most famous psalm where David tells us “The Lord is my shepherd”, he ends the psalm with these words: “Surely goodness and MERCY shall follow me all the days of my life; And I will dwell in the house of the LORD Forever.” Psalm 23:6

We serve a merciful God. But the verses I quoted only give us a small indication of what His mercy is like. In Ephesians 2:4-7 we hear these powerful words:  “because of his great love for us, God, WHO IS RICH IN MERCY, made us alive with Christ EVEN WHEN WE WERE DEAD in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved.  And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

When God saved us He showed us His immense and immeasurable mercy.  And we become like God – we grow up to be like Him – when we learn to show His kind of mercy to others.

There’s an example of God’s kind of mercy in Mark 1:40-42. There we’re told that a leper came to Jesus, and knelt before Him and said to him, “If you will, you can make me clean.”  Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I will; be clean.” And immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.”

One preacher commented on this story by saying “The amazing part of this healing is how Jesus did it – Jesus TOUCHED him!”  You didn’t touch lepers. They were unclean! If you touched them, you became unclean and no one wanted that! But Jesus TOUCHED this man.

Philip Yancey tells the story of Dr. Paul Brand who devoted his life to treating leprosy patients in India. In the course of one examination Brand laid his hand on the patient’s shoulder and informed him through a translator of the treatment that lay ahead.  To Dr. Brand’s surprise the man began to shake with muffled sobs.   Brand turned to the translator “Have I said something wrong?”  She questioned the patient and then replied: “No, doctor. He says he is crying because you put your hand around his shoulder. Until you came here no one had touched him for many years.”
(Brian Mavis; sermoncentral)

You see, that is the reality that lies at the very heart of what it means to show mercy.  Mercy is the intentional touching of people who suffer.  It’s the intentional “getting close” to folks who aren’t ordinarily “touched”

A man was visiting a home for the retarded. For an hour he talked with a young woman named Mary whose body was covered with tumors. He put his arm around her and said, “you really are a beautiful person.”  “Thank you,” she replied. “No one has ever gotten close enough to notice.”

Mercy is getting close to people who hurt… and touching their needs.  This is the kind of mindset that drives those with the gift of mercy.  It’s like 2nd nature to them… they do it instinctively.

These are the kinds of people who instinctively do what Jesus describes in Matthew 25: 35-40 “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’  “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’  “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Now, if you’ll notice Jesus is NOT talking to the folks with the “gift of mercy”.  He’s talking to everybody.  He expects EVERYBODY to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick and imprisoned.  Because He is a God of mercy, He expects His people to be a people of mercy.  He expects ALL of us to find ways to become hands-on when it comes to helping others – to find ways to get our hands dirty. To touch the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.  Because it’s often ONLY when we TOUCH those who are hurting that we become motivated to help them.

Back in the 1990’s I read the story of a famous Pop Star who had visited a refugee camp in Bangladesh. It was basically a Photo-op to paint him as a compassionate artist.  He said “That 1st morning I must have washed my hands a dozen times. I didn’t want to touch anything, least of all THESE people. Everyone in those camps was covered with sores and scabs.  I was bending down to one little child, mainly for the photographer’s benefit, and trying hard not to get too close. Just then someone accidentally stepped on the child’s fingers and he screamed. As a reflex, I grabbed him… forgetting his dirt and his sores. I remember that warm little body clinging to me — and the crying instantly stopping. In that moment I knew I had much to learn about practical Christian loving.”
(Pop Star Cliff Richard in Reader’s Digest Feb 1990 p. 199)

He touched the child… and it changed his view of that little boy.  And he learned – at that moment – what it is to show MERCY.

Now… what are some practical ways that you can show mercy to people around you?
1. I’ve always been impressed with the folks that help with Habitat for Humanity. They give of their time to build and refurbish houses for those who can’t afford a home, and the home they create is not just a place to live. It’s a NICE place for those in need.
2. Then there are the folks who volunteer at the local Emmaus Center. They provide food, shelter and job training for people who have no place else to go. They are worthy of our praise.
3. Then there are the folks who work for our Food Pantry. Just last week a volunteer came back from a distribution center with 1200 pounds of food. That which we couldn’t use, we sent over to the Emmaus center to help feed the needy there. Every month we help out 50 to 60 needy families in our area.
4. Here in church, Doug Brown has found been doing the ministry of “TOUCH” letters. These are letters that are placed on the back table with post-it notes attached that tell who the letter goes to – people who are shut-in or sick or have other needs. The church is encouraged to write notes of encouragement to these people.  I just visited a lady this week who had received one of these “touch” letters and she told me how pleased she was to know how much people cared for her. In addition, she’d received a number of other cards and notes from people here.

Back at the first church I served I remember visiting a certain woman in the nursing home. It was very disconcerting to visit with her though. She’d suffered a stroke and the entire left side of face and body sagged and was immobile. And, when I visited with her she always cried. If I shared a sad piece of information she cried and if I shared something exciting from the church she cried. It made me uncomfortable sometimes.  One day I came in to visit with her and found her sitting at a small desk with paper and a pen writing something. I asked her what she was writing and she replied that she was writing notes of encouragement back to the members of her church.  Can you imagine that? She refused to allow her stroke and life in a nursing home to quash her desire to minister to the people she cared for at church.

Everyone can show mercy others..,all it takes is deciding to get our hands dirty.  But certain people have the GIFT of mercy.  How would you know if you have this “gift”? Well, someone put together observations they thought would apply to those with the gift of mercy.
• Deeply loyal to friends.
• In fact, they seem to have a need for deep friendships.
• Empathize with hurting people.
• The decisions they make are based on benefits to those in need.
• Deeply sensitive to loved ones.
• Tend to attract people in distress. They’re like a magnet for them.
• Desire to remove hurts from those in need.
• They tend to measure acceptance by the closeness of an individual.
• And oddly, they seem attracted to prophets – prophets are almost polar opposites in their gift.

Weaknesses
• They will tend to take up offenses for friends
A little explanation is necessary here. Jesus teaches us that if someone offends us we need to go and find a way to address that. And, if the offender is a Christian they need to come to us and make it right. Once that is done, the conflict is over. HOWEVER, if I am your friend and I take up your “offense”, I become angry or upset at the person who offended you. But if that person makes it right with you, and I don’t find out about it – I’m still offended for you even though you no longer are. That’s the danger of “taking up offenses” for someone else.
• Can become possessive
• May tolerate evil to avoid hurt or danger
• Can fail to be firm
• Tends to lean on emotions rather than reason in making decision
• They can defraud others
• They can react badly to God’s purposes in others’ lives
• May fail to show deference to those in authority
• Tend to cut off insensitive people.

The gift of mercy is a powerful gift. It reflects that we understand the Mercy God has shown to us.

Years ago Bill Hybels made a comment about that thought:   “I would never want to reach out someday with a soft, uncallused hand – a hand never dirtied by serving – and shake the nail-pierced hand of Jesus.”

Now, why would Hybels make that connection? Why would he link the condition of our hands… with the condition of Christ’s hand?  Because it was in that “nail-pierced hand of Jesus” that we obtained OUR Mercy

Mercy is showing love to people that aren’t all that lovely and desirable.
Mercy is showing love to people who are hard to love.
Mercy is showing love to folks who aren’t attractive/popular/fun to be around

But that’s kind of how we must have looked to God when He saved us. You and I must not have looked all that lovely and desirable God when God touched us.

Colossians 1:21 says that at one time you and I “…were alienated from God and were enemies in (our) minds because of (our) evil behavior.”

Ephesians 2:1-2 says we “… were dead in (our) transgressions and sins, in which (we) used to live when (we) followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.”

And that “(we) were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world.” Ephesians 2:12

We were not all that pretty and desirable to God.  We were enemies and dead in our sins.  But Romans 5:10 comforts us by saying “… if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”

It’s by the nail scarred hands of Jesus that we have received MERCY.

Jesus came down out of heaven. Do you understand the significance of that? He came down to our world and faced the struggles and pains and temptations that you and I encounter every day. He didn’t have to do that! And when He came down, He touched us when we weren’t touchable. And when He touched us He saved us and changed us.

How do we KNOW when we’ve mastered this concept of showing mercy?

We know we’ve mastered it when it doesn’t matter if we get the credit for what we do. Just as long as God gets the credit.

As Jesus said: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven”

One church youth group understood this and taught their youth minister a powerful lesson.  David Stone (a preacher from Louisville, KY) related how he used to have a special outing for his youth when he was a youth minister. He’d read about Jesus washing His disciples’ feet and then send them out in groups, for a period of 2 hours, with instructions to minister to the people of Louisville, as they think Christ would have.  One group went out and bought ice cream cones and took them to a retirement community where several of their congregation lived and delivered the dripping cones to their door.  Another group went to a self service gas station and pumped gas for the patrons.  Each group returned and then shared what they had done and there was a spirit of joy and excitement as they realized they had done something for others and for God.  One group, however, arrived about 15 minutes late. When asked what they had done, they replied that they had gone to their arch rivals, the Baptist Church (they competed heavily in church basketball and other activities). They asked what they could do, and so they were allowed to sort the children’s library – which took all of 45 minutes.  Then they asked what else they would be allowed to do.   “Well,” replied the Baptist preacher, “we do have a shut-in that needs her yard raked. She’s needed done for some time now, but we haven’t been able to get anybody over to her home.”   So the youth went, raked her yard, shared in a prayer circle at her request and then she said these words: “I am so glad I belong to the Baptist Church, it’s so nice to know that they care so much for me that you kids would come out and help me.”  At that, Stone exclaimed: “Well, you did tell them you were from 1st Christian, didn’t you.”  “No,” they replied, it never occurred to us. We were just so excited about serving God that we forgot all about that.”

And here is how people who have the 7 gifts listed in Romans 12 might react to a person being in the hospital:

1. The Prophet: “What is God trying to tell you through this illness? Is there some sin you have not confessed yet?”
2. The Server: “Here’s a little gift. I brought your mail in, watered your plants and washed your dishes?”
3. Teacher: “I did some research on your illness and I believe I can explain what’s happening.”
4. Encourager: “You were so wise to go see the Doctor when you did. Can you imagine much worse it would have been if you had waited?”
5. Giver: “Do you have any insurance?”
6. Organizer: “You just relax. I’ve assigned your job to 4 others at the office.”
7. Mercy giver: “Do you need another pillow or blanket? More water? Would you like me to put you on the prayer list?”


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Sharing From My Heart


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

SHARING FROM MY HEART

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

Eric Elder's "Water From My Well"

Dear Friends,

Today I’m releasing the most surprising book I’ve ever written. It’s simply a living journal of my walk with Christ, written as it was happening. It’s not a book I was planning to write. In fact, I’m working on three other books right now that are really on my heart to share with people. But this book isn’t any one of them!

This book is literally my daily walk with Christ. In it, I share my heart. I share my goals. I share my questions for God and the answers He is giving me. I share my struggles as I’m going through them, not in hindsight, when everything is neat and tidy and finally makes perfect sense to me.

The surprising thing is that I didn’t even know I was writing a book until two or three weeks ago! I was simply writing from my heart every week or so since the beginning of the year and sharing those writings publicly with you. What’s especially surprising is that somehow, this very personal and intimate method of sharing has touched a chord within many of you in a way that seems to be deeper and more heart-stirring than anything I’ve ever written before.

Your responses to these messages–especially the past few weeks–have made me think that you might like to read these messages again and even share them with your family and friends. I would love for you to do that! I’ve just been re-reading all of my messages from the beginning of the year, and each one speaks to me, even now, in a new and fresh way.

So I’ve put them all together in a book: twenty inspiring messages from my own personal well. You might remember some of them: whether it’s how I went about setting my goals at the beginning of the year and had to recalibrate them part-way through; or how God reminded me to keep my feet forward and my knees bent when I came across the boulders in the river of my life; or how I fell in love–and faced the loneliness that followed when things didn’t go as I had hoped and dreamed.

Through it all, I have found God’s presence in a new and deeper way–a new and fresher experience–culminating in my desire to go even deeper with Him than ever before. I didn’t know how to do it, though. But then I found out! (Hint: it involved a super-scary jump from a very high cliff into a rushing river below, with my tether attached firmly to Jesus. And to my surprise, the same moment I jumped, Jesus jumped too, smiling at me all the way down!)

For those of you who are looking for a sermon in this message today, here it is: sometimes people need to hear about the real you and your real walk with Christ, not necessarily the one that is neat and clean and has been tidied up over the years. They want to know how you live your life on a daily basis. Share it with them! Let them know your joys, your trials, your struggles. Let them know your doubts, your fears. In this way, your faith becomes real to them, and they want to jump in and follow along.

Do you know someone in your life right now who could use a boost in their faith in Christ? Do you know someone who would love, love, love to see what it’s like to follow the Living God and discover the joy and peace that He can bring through everything that comes their way? Do you know someone who could use a touch, deep in their heart, to activate them, liberate them, set them free–not just free from sin, but free to do that which is deepest on their heart, that which is at the core of their being, that which is possibly a barely-tapped but ever-present longing of their heart? (Maybe that someone is you?)

If so, maybe you could get a copy of this book for them and for yourself. Maybe you could be the one who could tip the scales in their lives toward something that they would have never considered on their own. Maybe you can be the bearer of the best news ever, bringing them the words of Life–the good news that Christ wants to walk with them every step of the way of this life and in the life to come.

Please know that I’m not offering these books to make money. I have already shared each of these twenty messages with you over the past eight months freely and without cost. You or anyone else in the world can read them any time by scrolling back through the Sunday Sermons on our website (just look for the ones written by Eric Elder starting in January, 2016).  But I also know that some people really want to hold a book in their hands. Some people really want to download an ebook to take along with them through their days, a book that is easy to read, easy to digest, and contains easy-to-implement ideas to help them grow deeper in their relationship with Christ.

As I said before, maybe that person is you! If so, I hope you’ll get a copy of this book for yourself, too! Let’s go deeper with God together! You can get it from Amazon in either paperback of Kindle editions or in paperback directly from our ministry for a donation of any size. I’ve included the links below.

P.S. if you’ve already read and been touched by the messages in this series, I would be happy to send you a free paperback copy of the book if you’ll just post a 1-2 sentence review on Amazon describing how you’ve been touched by the messages. Just mention in your review that you’ve read the messages online and have been touched by them. Your comments and reviews on Amazon could be the very thing that helps someone else decide to get a copy of the book, thereby touching his or her life as yours has been touched! Thanks so much!)

Here are the links:

Click here to get the paperback from Amazon
Click here to get the Kindle ebook from Amazon
Click here to get the paperback for a donation of any size to our ministry
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"Water From My Well" by Eric Elder - Front Cover


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This Day’s Thought From The Ranch- Going Deeper

Special Note from Eric: Today’s message marks the last in this series that I started at the beginning of the year. If you’ve been enjoying these messages, you’ll be glad to know I’m just putting the finishing touches on a book I’ve created containing all twenty messages which I’m calling, “Water From My Well: Finding God in the Midst of Life, Love and Loneliness.” I hope to have it available later this week so you can reread these messages anytime or share them with friends! I’ll let you know as soon as it’s ready. (My daughter Makari has just finished painting a picture for the cover; I thought you’d like to see a preview!)

"Water From My Well" by Eric Elder - Front Cover


This Day's Thought from The Ranch

GOING DEEPER

by Eric Elder
The Ranch

 

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve shared nineteen messages with you on a variety of topics, from goal-setting and goal-keeping to keeping your feet forward and your knees bent so you don’t get sideswiped by the boulders in your life. Today I’d like to share one more message with you in this series, a message I believe will help each of us go deeper in our walks with God than we’ve ever gone before.

Before I started this series, I was telling a friend that there were some aspects of my walk with God where I felt like I had hit bedrock. I feel like I had dug as deep as I could, and there was no further I could go. If I tried digging any further, my shovel would just clank against the rock,  over and over again.

I wasn’t frustrated by this feeling, however. In fact, I was quite comfortable to rest right where I was!

But my friend told me about a character in a movie who was running through a desert when all of a sudden the ground beneath him started to give way. A huge hole opened up, revealing a rushing river below. As the ground gave way, the character jumped into the newly opened hole and into the rushing river underground, taking took him further and deeper than he had ever gone before.

My friend saw me as that character in the movie and couldn’t help but believe that there was a rushing river beneath my feet as well that God wanted me to jump into.

I was intrigued by the idea, but I didn’t know what to do about it. The ground beneath me was seemingly impenetrable. What else could I do?

But one of the things I’ve also been trying to do this year is trying to grow in my own personal relationship with God. For the past few months especially, I’ve been trying to deliberately focus on what my unique relationship with Him looks like, not superimposing onto it what other people’s relationships with Him look like.

Knowing that this was on my heart, and combining it with the vision of the idea of the ground giving way  beneath my feet, my friend encouraged me to do something I had never done before. It sounded almost heretical, at least to someone like me who loves the Bible and has read it many, many times. My friend asked me to consider setting aside the Bible for a period of time in order to focus very intentionally on my own personal relationship with Him.

I thought the idea was too risky. Unnecessary. It didn’t feel safe, and I didn’t want to do it.

But while I was in Israel earlier this year, walking down a road where Jesus likely walked, I read these words in my Bible, words spoken by Jesus Himself to the religious leaders of His day–leaders who had studied the Scriptures for years, inside and out. Jesus said:

“You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about Me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from Me the life you say you want” (John 5:39-40, MSG).

I was struck to the heart and challenged anew. What would it look like if I were to fast for a period of time from relying on other people’s relationships with God as a substitute for my own, even if those others included people like David and Moses and Paul. What would–and does–my unique relationship with God look like?

I decided to give it a try for a time, praying and asking God to build my relationship with Him even stronger than before. And just last week, I finally broke through!

During our worship service at church, our pastor was talking about prayer. Everything he said was speaking directly to my heart. It was if God Himself were prefacing every sentence with my name.: “Eric, …” “Eric, …” “Eric, …”  I jotted down notes as fast as I could, knowing that God was using these words to speak to me directly, encouraging me to take the next step towards going deeper with Him.

When the message was done, we sang a song to God in response to all we had just heard. As I sang, I felt like I could practically see the ground beneath my feet starting to give way! I could see a hole opening up right there in the concrete floor! And as the ground was giving way and the floor was falling out, I could see it clearly: that rushing river that I couldn’t see before!

When the song ended, the shaking stopped, and the concrete floor was perfectly solid once more–hard as rock. But I had seen the river, and I very much wanted to jump through that hole and into the river, letting it take me further and deeper than I had ever gone before.

The next few days, I was captivated by that image of the river beneath me. I felt like I could almost slip down through the ground at any moment and into the water below. But then I’d stop myself. I wondered, Do I really want to do this? I was tethered, in a good way I felt, to all of these other people’s relationships with God–and I wanted to stay tethered to them. What would happen if I were to really unhook and explore what my relationship with God was like on my own?

On Wednesday, I found my answer!

I was listening to a speaker at a men’s breakfast at our church, when suddenly the speaker shouted: “STAY TETHERED TO JESUS!” I knew that instant exactly what God wanted me to do! All I had to do was to release my tether from relying on the experiences of others, and tether myself to Jesus Himself, which is the very thing I would love to do as well!  I love the Bible; it’s my favorite book in the world. But I don’t want to miss the forest for the trees. I don’t want to be holding onto the words about Jesus so tightly that I miss taking hold of Jesus Himself!

Yes, Lord! I thought. That’s what I want!

I took the other end of my tether, and I hooked firmly to Jesus. I looked into the hole below me that had now opened up again, and I knew I could make the jump whenever I was ready. And I was ready, knowing that Jesus was holding tightly to the other end of my rope.

I jumped!

What I hadn’t expected was that at the very same moment that I jumped, Jesus jumped, too! AHHHHH!!! Now I was in a total freefall, with no ground beneath me and no rope above me. I looked over at Jesus, shocked that He had just jumped over the edge at the same time that I did! He just looked at me and smiled as we continued to hurtle down toward the river below.

That wasn’t what I had expected. It was better! I was doing this with Jesus. Praise God!

Over the past few days, I’ve been heading down that river with Jesus, going further and deeper than I’ve ever gone before. But that’s not the end of the story.

Yesterday morning, I woke up thinking about this new journey. And while I love the idea of having Jesus with me, I kept saying over and over, “I don’t want to go alone.” (He’s a good friend; He knew what I meant.)

Then I looked up above us, and in the same way I had seen Jesus and me jumping over the edge of the hole and into the river, I now saw one or two dozen more people at the edge, parachuting over it! They were coming along with us!

They were coming with us, but I felt like God was saying that they weren’t ready yet to get in the river with us. They wanted to watch as we went along. But one by one, God was saying, when they saw the joy that it brought us to be in the river, they would join us in the river, too. And not just one or two dozen, but hundreds and thousands–and eventually hundreds of thousands!

I wouldn’t be alone! We’d all be rushing down the river together, going further and deeper than we’d ever gone before.

How about you? Want to come along? I’d love to have you join me!

Just make sure to “STAY TETHERED TO JESUS!” (And don’t be surprised if He jumps when you do!)

I’m convinced this isn’t the end of this story. The best is yet to come!


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