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The Story of Santa Claus, Part 1

Santa Claus is surely one of the most beloved figures of modern times. But did you know that he was perhaps even more beloved long before he acquired a fur-trimmed red suit, a big round belly, and nine flying reindeer to pull his sleigh? It’s true, the historical figure who would one day come to be known as Santa Claus was famous for his kindness and generosity. His story began less than 300 years after the resurrection of Christ in modern-day Turkey—just 500 miles or so up the coast from the boyhood home of the Apostle Paul. Even more fascinating is how his fame spread north and west, throughout Europe and eventually to America. From America, his fame spread all around the world so that today it is told in some form on every continent. As author William J. Bennet puts it, it is a “long and circuitous route,” so be prepared for a lot of history.

Nicholas of Myra

Our story begins with a little boy named Nicholas who grew up in Lycian Turkey, in a popular little seaport town called Patara. Unfortunately, our story also starts off sad. Nicholas’ parents became ill and died when Nicholas was still little. Thankfully, in a monastery not far from Patara, Nicholas had an uncle who would become his guardian. So Nicholas grew up much like the Biblical story of the prophet Samuel who spent his childhood in the Temple under the care of the High Priest, Eli. A key part of Nicholas’ history is that he was the sole heir to his parents’ substantial wealth. But Nicholas was clearly cut from a different cloth even early on. He didn’t really need or want the inheritance. Instead, he decided to give it all away! I don’t know about you, but I don’t know very many people who would give away their entire inheritance.

Scripture tells us in 2 Corinthians 9:7 that “each one of you should give just as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, because God loves a cheerful giver.” Without a doubt, Nicholas of Myra was one of history’s most cheerful givers! Perhaps the most well-known story of Nicholas’ largesse is the story of the three poor sisters. In those days, a dowry was part of the marriage process. Upon learning about the need, Nicholas devised a plan to slip out under the cover of night and drop a bag of gold through a window and into the home of the girls. (Some tales have the bags of gold dropping into the girls’ stockings that had been hung to dry.) He did this on three separate occasions—one bag of gold for each of the girls. The third time, he was caught by the father, but Nicholas made the grateful man promise not to reveal his identity. His act of charity would remain a secret.

Eventually, Nicholas became the Bishop of Myra. He loved and cared for the people with complete devotion, and soon his generosity and kindness became known far beyond the borders of Myra. When new sailors would come to town, they would learn the tales of Bishop Nicholas and then take them back to their own towns and families far away. Nicholas became quite famous. Too famous, perhaps, because when the Emperor Diocletian began his persecution of the Church, Nicholas was sought out, arrested and tortured for his faith in Christ. After more than five long years, Nicholas was finally released by a new Emperor named Constantine. As soon as he was released from prison, he went back to serving as bishop, and the stories of his life continued to grow and spread all over Europe. On December 6, 343, after becoming a very old, wise, loving man, Nicholas himself died. Today, paintings of Nicholas in a long red bishop’s robe and a full white beard can be seen all over the world.

While the similarities are striking, it still doesn't explain how Nicholas of Myra became Santa Claus. That's part two.

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12 Biblical Reasons to Give Thanks

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. I certainly love it as much as I love Christmas (even though it doesn't get near the treatment that Christmas gets).

Growing up, Thanksgiving was the day when my Mom's side of the family got together. It was always a huge meal with lots of people. Of the "big three" (Food, Family, Faith), the first two were always associated with Thanksgiving. But the "faith" aspect of Thanksgiving wasn't really ignited in me until 1986. I was still a new Christian and learning how to have a different outlook on life. Then along came Back to the Street, by Petra. It was the first album to be produced by John and Dino Elefante and the first to feature new lead singer John Schlitt. The entire album is amazing, but the last song, Thankful Heart, really impacted me. 

I have a thankful heart
That you have given me
And it can only come from you...
Help me be a man of God
A man who's after your own heart
Help me show my gratitude
And keep in me a thankful heart
I want to be someone who lives with an "attitude of gratitude," and so Thanksgiving is an opportunity each year for me to sort of "recalibrate" and prepare myself to enjoy the Christmas season in a truly non-commercial, non-material manner. 

This year I started thinking, what does the Bible have to say about thankfulness? Many of my Facebook friends participate in the activity of making a daily post to identify their thankfulness for something or someone. That's fantastic. A few years ago, I started the "Say Thanks" campaign on Facebook and each year try to get a few more people to participate. Also fantastic. But I felt like some element was still missing. So I did the study and found that the Bible did have a lot to add to this conversation. Here are twelve Biblical reasons to give thanks:

  1. Scripture Commands It. 1 Chronicles 16:8 says, "Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done." Psalms 100:4 says we are to "Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. Need more? See also Psalms 105:1; Isaiah 12:4; and Colossians 3:17.
  2. Because of His Righteousness. "I will give thanks to the LORD because of his righteousness and will sing praise to the name of the LORD Most High" (Psalms 7:17).
  3. For His Laws. What would cause someone to want to get out of a nice warm bed at midnight? Psalms 119:62 says,"At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws."
  4. Because His Name Is Near. "We give thanks to you, O God, we give thanks, for your Name is near; men tell of your wonderful deeds" (Psalms 75:1). This is the most fascinating reason I found. I think, as believers, many of us have really missed out on the power of knowing some of the many names Scripture uses for God. His names reveal His character—and in many cases, His promises to us. To have that kind of knowledge near (handy) is something for which we should truly be thankful.
  5. Because He Reigns. The twenty-four elders of Revelations 11:17 fell prostrate before the Lord and had this to say: "We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and have begun to reign."
  6. For His Deliverance. "Save us, O God our Savior; gather us and deliver us from the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name, that we may glory in your praise" (1 Chronicles 16:35). Later, Psalms 106:47 would repeat this almost word-for-word.
  7. For Answered Prayer. The Psalmist gave thanks because the Lord answered his prayer for salvation (Psalms 118:21). And in his second letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul said "many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many."
  8. For Christ and the Victory He Gives. In 1 Corinthians Paul writes, "But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (15:57). And then in his second letter he echoes that sentiment, saying, "But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him (2:14). In 2 Corinthians 9:15 he calls this an "indescribable gift!"
  9. For His Love and Deeds. When Scripture uses the same phrase multiple times (even in Psalms), it's worth giving a bit of extra attention to: "Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men" (Psalms 107:8, 15, 21, 31).
  10. Because His Love and Mercy Endures Forever! This is a big one. 1 Chronicles 16:34 says it outright: "Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever." Then in verse 41, people were "chosen and designated by name" to give thanks in this fashion. When Solomon moved the Ark into the Temple (2 Chronicles 5:13) he had a full band and choir on-hand to sing this phrase, and then "the temple of the LORD was filled" with the glory of the Lord. We see this same phrase used contextually in 2 Chronicles 7:3, 6; and in 20:21. The Psalmist repeats it eight times (Psalms 106:1; 107:1; 118:1, 29; 136:1-3). And finally, the prophet Jeremiah records the phrase in 33:11 as a prophetic promise from the Lord concerning what one day will again be heard in Israel.
  11. For Other Believers. In his letters to both the Ephesian and Roman Christians, Paul takes time to give thanks for other believers (Ephesians 1:16; Romans 6:17).
  12. For Everything! This may be the hardest reason to give thanks. Ephesians 5:20 says we should be "always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." 1 Thessalonians 5:18 backs that up saying that we should "give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." That's for the good and the bad, the highlights and lowlights. Of course, it is easier when you make reasons 1-11 a matter of lifestyle. 
This year, as you prepare for Thanksgiving Day, I encourage you to spend some time meditating on each of these reasons to give thanks according to Scripture itself.
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In October of 1983, I was just starting my sophomore year in high school and Huey Lewis had just released his Sports album. Heart and Soul, The Heart of Rock & Roll, If This Is It, and I Want a New Drug were all hits. At that time, I was more of a metal head, so I missed these songs the first time around. In fact, I didn’t even realize I liked Huey Lewis until many years later. But how can you not like a song with lyrics like this:

I want a new drug ...One that won't make me nervousWondering what to doOne that makes me feel like I feel when I'm with youWhen I'm alone with you

You know what he’s talking about. A lot of folks associate this with romance and infatuation. But those who’ve experienced true, deep, abiding love that spans decades know something that romance can’t even come close to touching: this “feeling” is unstoppable. In the words of Westley from The Princess Bride: “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.”

In a 2000 LA Times article, Kathleen Kelleher wrote the following:

Call it a natural high, but like drugs, the feeling can become addictive. [When in love], the brain is awash in drug-like chemicals. Michael Liebowitz, a psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, theorizes that there is a substance in the brain called phenylethylamine, or PEA, which quickens the flow of information between nerve cells. PEA is the body's natural speed: It jolts lovers' brains with feelings of euphoria, elation and exhilaration.

Of course, Huey Lewis didn’t invent this idea. It’s been around a while. Consider Proverbs 5:

My child, be attentive to my wisdom, pay close attention to my understanding.Drink water from your own cistern and running water from your own well.May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife you married in your youth – a loving doe, a graceful deer … may you be captivated by her love always.

That word “captivated” is a Hebrew verb (shagah) which means “to swerve; to meander; to reel” as in drunkenness. In other words, Solomon is calling on his son to be always intoxicated with his wife’s love.

This year, Phyllis and I celebrate 21 years of marriage. They say the legal drinking age in the US is 21, but I can tell you for certain that I’ve been drunk on her love now for over two decades. I suppose now it’s legal. And I’m looking forward to drinking deeply for many more decades to come.
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Good Friday Meditation: O Sacred Head, Now Wounded

Hands down, my all-time favorite "easter" song is O Sacred Head, Now Wounded. The original poem is often attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), but in recent years has been attributed to the Medieval poet Arnulf of Louvain (died 1250).

The first time I heard the song was on the 2000 4Him release Hymns: A Place for Worship. Listen to the 4-Him version here:
O Sacred Head, Now Wounded by 4Him on Grooveshark

The music and lyrics both are hauntingly powerful. Let them burrow deep into your soul....

O sacred Head, now wounded
With grief and shame weighed down
Now scornfully surrounded
With thorns, Thine only crown
How art Thou pale with anguish
With sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish
Which once was bright as morn!

What Thou, my Lord, has suffered
Was all for sinners' gain
Mine was the transgression
But Thine the deadly pain
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
'Tis I deserve Thy place
Look on me with Thy favor
Vouch safe to me Thy grace

Sacred Head now wounded
Sacred Head with shame weighed down

What language shall I borrow
To thank Thee, dearest Friend
For this Thy dying sorrow
Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever!
And should I fainting be
Lord, let me never, never
Outlive my love to Thee!

Sacred Head now wounded
Sacred Head with shame weighed down
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The Story of the Christmas Tree, Act 3

In Act 1, we learned how the little fir tree became important to Christians. Boniface used the tree as an object lesson to teach about God! Then in Act 2 we learned about the Paradise Tree and its use in teaching about Creation and the Fall. But it would be another 350 years before the final act would take place.

In 1512, a brilliant young theologian named Martin Luther was brought on to teach at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. But Luther was much more than a theology professor. Luther was a passionate student of God’s Word. So passionate, in fact, that it got him in quite a bit of trouble over his lifetime. On October 31, 1517, Luther wrote a letter to bishop Albert of Mainz. In it, he included a copy of his "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences," which came to be known as The Ninety-Five Theses. Luther’s studied objections to “indulgences” and other church practices eventually led to his excommunication by the religious leaders of his time earned him the title of outlaw by the Emperor. In fact, it was made a crime for anyone in Germany to give Luther food or shelter. Nevertheless, Luther refused to back down, stating publicly, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything.”

In 1525, Luther married former nun Katharina von Bora. Because of Luther’s status, money was often short, but the marriage was strong. The two had six children, and by the time his first child was born in 1526, Luther had already shifted his focus to the organization of a new congregation of believers based on his beliefs.

As the story goes, one wintery night, Martin Luther was returning home to his family. It was dark and cold, but the sky was filled with millions of stars. The trees, mostly tall evergreens, were covered with frost. Legend has it that Luther was meditating on God’s word, preparing a sermon for his people. When Luther saw the stars twinkling in the sky through the icy green pines, it reminded him that Jesus was the light of the world. Luther was deeply moved by the beauty of this natural wonder and the spiritual truth it brought to mind. When he arrived home, he was eager to recount his experience to his family. To help them understand, he gathered some candles and hung them on a little fir tree to represent the twinkling lights he had seen on his walk home. The tradition of lighting the tree with candles had officially begun. Eventually, a “tree skirt” was placed underneath to catch the melting wax from the candles.

Perhaps that walk was the seed for Luther’s thoughts when he would later quote and then comment on Isaiah 60:1 in one of his Christmas sermons: "’Arise, shine ; for thy light is come.’ Undoubtedly, Christ is the light of which Isaiah here speaks, and which, through the Gospel, shines in all the world, enlightening those who rise — who desire him.”

And so, from a tiny fir springing out of the stump of a mighty oak, to a tree decorated for a play, to a legendary walk by Martin Luther, the story of the Christmas tree is born.

But to be fair, the value of the fir tree goes back even further than any of these stories. The prophet Isaiah, under the inspiration of the Creator himself, would speak these words more than two thousand years before Boniface or Luther:

“Evergreens will grow in place of thorn bushes, firs will grow in place of nettles; they will be a monument to the Lord, a permanent reminder that will remain” (Isaiah 55:13).

As you gaze at your Christmas tree this week, may it remind you of His Story as recorded in the Bible. He is the creator. He is eternal. He is three in one. And even though Adam and Eve brought sin into the world, He sent the Light, Jesus Christ, to save us.

Thank you, Lord, for the Christmas tree that keeps telling that story year after year. Amen.
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The Story of the Christmas Tree, Act 2

In Act 1, we learned how the little fir tree initially became important to Christians. Boniface used the tree as an object lesson to teach about God the eternal, creator of all things—Father, Spirit, and Son!

As the years went by, churches all over heard about what happened and they too wanted to use the tree to help others learn about God. This eventually led to something called a Paradise Tree.

From the eleventh Century, (during the middle ages), the church celebrated Adam and Eve day on December 24th. As part of that celebration, they used religious plays called “Mystery Plays” to depict the story of the creation of Adam and Eve, their sin and banishment from Eden. It’s at this point that our story is more practical than spiritual.

If you were tasked with putting together a winter play or pageant about the Garden of Eden and wanted to fill your stage with beautiful trees in winter, what sort of tree would you have to use? The answer should be obvious: An evergreen tree was the logical choice. And at least one tree in particular—the tree of the knowledge of good and evilwas decorated with apples symbolizing the forbidden fruit.

Apples on a fir tree. Seem familiar?

The play ended with the promise of the coming Savior and his incarnation, so gradually flat wafers symbolizing the forgiveness of sins in communion were added to the paradise tree, making it now not just the tree of knowledge but also the tree of life. This resulted in a very old European custom of decorating a fir tree in the home with apples and small white wafers representing the Holy Eucharist at Christmas time. These wafers were later replaced by little pieces of pastry cut in the shapes of stars, angels, hearts, flowers, and bells.

So in Act 1, Boniface used the tree to teach about God. Then in Act 2, believers used the tree on December 24 to teach how Adam and Eve sinned and why we need Jesus. But there’s still one more very important part to our story, and this part wouldn’t happen for at least another 350 years! That's Act 3.
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How to Select a Winner From Facebook Fans (Page Likes) In 3 Steps

I recently ran a contest for a client designed to quickly get "new Likes" for their Facebook Page. It was a giveaway, with a very desirable prize, so we exceeded our goal in less than 48 hours. Metrics have gone through the roof and even after announcing the winner we have continued to gain new Likes. Win/Win, right?

However, chances are, you are reading this because you have recently experienced the same nightmare I experienced: Facebook no longer permits you to see a list of those who have Liked your Page (Did they ever? Memory fails me...). And it appears that there are no apps or third-party software capable of breaking past that barrier either.

NOTE: If you have less than 250 fans, you *should* be able to see the complete list by using the "page id" of your Facebook Page, then type it into the location bar like so (minus the brackets):

So how can you choose a random person from all your fans if you can't put all their names in the drawing? Great question. Here's the MacGuyver-style duct-tape and chewing gum approach I used to find a truly random winner.

STEP ONE: Random Names

I used a random name generator to generate 20 different first names. This prevented any first-name bias on my part.

STEP TWO: Graph Search

I then used Facebook graph search to search for
“People named [Insert First Name Here] who like [Insert Your Page Name Here].”
In the example above, I searched for people named "eric" who like Facebook guru Mari Smith.
That's me at the top of the list.
I copied and pasted all the results into a document in order to generate a small, manageable list of randomly chosen fans. (Obviously, I had more info about the individuals in my list. The list below is for reference only):

1. Christopher M
2. Chris C
3. Christopher C
4. Chris P
5. Chris B
6. Nikki R
7. Nicole C
8. Alan F
9. Jim W
10. James M
11. Brandon D
12. Brandon C
13. Laura B
14. Erin C
15. Mary A
16. Mary B
17. Sarah H

STEP THREE: Pick a Winner

Amazingly, of the 20 randomly picked first names, only nine of those represented fans, which is why I only have 17 choices in my list. I then used a random number generator to pick a winner from this list.

So, our randomly selected contest winner was #15: Mary A!

As I said, it's a cobbled together approach, but it works and will have to suffice until some smart hacktivist person devises a better approach. If you already know of such an approach, please share your insights and/or links in the comments!
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