Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Laughing Baby YouTube Phenom Reduces Stress

BERRIEN SPRINGS, Mich., Dec. 27, 2011 /Christian Newswire/ -- Laughter is an excellent stress reducer, says Skip MacCarty, D.Min, grandfather of Baby Micah whose YouTube clip of him laughing hysterically as his dad rips up a job rejection letter has amassed over 33 million hits since it went online in February. On Thursday, December 29, Micah and parents will be on NBC's Today Show again for the third time since March.

Micah's "Grandpa Skip," a Fellow of the American Institute of Stress and retired minister, has been teaching stress management for over 20 years. He says that laughter is one of the best medicines for stress relief. Researchers call it "internal jogging" because it gives the internal organs a good workout. It also lowers stress hormones and combats disease. So it's no surprise to MacCarty that many people who viewed the 2-minute "Baby Laughing Hysterically at Ripping Paper" YouTube clip have commented that it calmed them and lowered their stress and anxiety.

MacCarty and his daughter, Pamela Coburn-Litvak (who holds a Ph.D. on the effects of stress on the brain) have co-authored the faith-based Stress: Beyond Coping seminar and e-learning course accessible at They are offering a 24-hour FREE access to one of the four modules of the e-learning course coinciding with the December 29 appearance of Baby Micah on the Today Show. 

"Baby Micah has brought our whole family hours of joy with his contagious laughter," says MacCarty. "What you see on the YouTube clip(s) (there are now several new ones added) is just what this little guy is really like. He's a contagious laughing machine who enjoys life to the fullest, with a few whimpers sprinkled in to remind us that he's human."

Research on humor as a therapeutic modality was sparked by Dr. Norman Cousins' book, Anatomy of an Illness, in which he described his diagnosis of a rare disease for which doctors said there was no cure. He attributed his surprising recovery largely to his self-treatment with lots of humor, including watching comedies and reading joke books. Later he joined the UCLA medical school as Adjunct Professor of Medical Humanities where he helped establish the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology for the study of the brain's contribution to the healing process.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Personal Ponzi Scheme

“I’ve decided that life is a Ponzi scheme.”
I give my friend a quizzical look.
“Do you know what that is?”
“Yeah, sure, sort of. Isn’t that what Bernie Madoff got in all that trouble for?”
She nods her head rapidly.
 “Yes,” she says. “It’s smoke and mirrors--like, convincing others that you have this great thing to buy into…”
I’m still puzzled but I’m listening. Wasn’t this what Bernard Madoff had done? Bilked hundreds out of millions by convincing them to invest in his fraudulent scheme?
I sit up straighter.
My friend is getting her MBA, so she is always enlightening me—stretching my world bigger. The way her mind works amazes me. While we dine in my small office at work, she has educated me as to howthe world is flat, given me insights about the international business world, and helped me understand the virtues of certain marketing strategies.
But a Ponzi scheme?
I listen to my friend expound on her theory.
She explains that she has stumbled on a new source of self-confidence.
The Ponzi scheme.
Most people get their Ponzi schemes from their parents. As they’re growing up, they’re told they’re wonderful, or special…you know? They get this unconditional love that they build their world on and…and they totally buy into, right? So they grow up feeling good about themselves…”
I am on the edge of my seat. And then she says this:
“And since I was raised by crazy people, I didn’t get my Ponzi scheme.”
My eyes widen.
“I didn’t either!”
We talk more about developing our Ponzi schemes—how to use this concept to build our self-esteem.
I love it. It makes sense. Sort of a self-investment. Building myself up.
That’s good, right?
I am so impressed with our new theory that I tell my husband about it when I get home.
“Isn’t that neat? I mean, if I buy into the scheme that I am a self-confident, all together woman, and act accordingly—then…I am. I just have to buy into it and then others do too.”
Before I am finished, he is shaking his head.
I don’t want to have to pretend to be something I’m not, he explains calmly. I’m sick of all the Ponzi schemes. I’m sick of all the falseness in the world. I don’t want to invest in anything but the Truth.
Can you say ‘deflated’?
Still, not willing to let go, I looked up Ponzi scheme on Wikipedia and this is what I found:
”A Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation that pays returns to investors from their own money or money paid by subsequent investors rather than from any actual profit earned. The Ponzi scheme usually offers returns that other investments cannot guarantee in order to entice new investors, in the form of short-term returns that are either abnormally high or unusually consistent. The perpetuation of the returns that a Ponzi scheme advertises and pays requires an ever-increasing flow of money from investors in order to keep the scheme going.”
Reading just a bit further, these words jumped out at me:
“The system is destined to collapse (emphasis mine) because the earnings, if any, are less than the payments. Usually, the scheme is interrupted by legal authorities before it collapses because a Ponzi scheme is suspected or because the promoter is selling unregistered securities. As more investors become involved, the likelihood of the scheme coming to the attention of authorities increases.”
Destined to collapse.
It’s not looking so good for the personal Ponzi scheme.
Sadly, I relay my husband’s words to my friend at work the next day.
“He just says it’s not based on the truth…”
She tilts her head to one side, eyes sparkling with mischief.
“But what is truth?”
And then it’s my turn.

Announcement: If you want to understand how success happens, I mean really understand...join us for our new book club beginning Monday, January 9th. We'll be reading David Brooks' fascinating bestseller, The Social Animal: The Hidden sources of Love, Character, and AchievementWritten in the context of story, Brooks looks at the multilayered science of decision-making and redefines what society sees as success. Won't you join us? We'll be discussing the introduction and the first three chapters. The paperback edition of the book will be released on January 3, 2012.

Image by Evan Leeson. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Laura J. Boggess.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Very Mary Christmas

Feet dangling in patent-leather, I sat on the polished pew while the Christmas pageant director assigned parts. I held my breath, waiting as she called names. I dreaded this moment, for I knew I’d be instructed to serve as a sheep or cow. Each year, she would assure us that those lowing, humble barn-dwellers were "important" pieces of the story.
I didn't buy it. I wanted to be Mary.
As I grew older, I was upgraded from beast to human. In this more esteemed role, I had the opportunity to deliver real lines, beyond the scripted moo-ing. We didn’t have enough boys in church to fill all the male roles, so I regularly stood in as a king or a shepherd, wearing an itchy gunny sack. One year, I did get to wear white wings, proclaiming into the church microphone: "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people!"
But even as an angel of the Lord Most High, I secretly pined to be tapped as Mary, Mother of God. This was every Sunday School girl's dream. Each year, the highly favored one would ride down the red-carpeted aisle on a cardboard donkey. She wore a flowing gown, which the director ceremoniously retrieved from the church’s costume vault only once a year. Mary never had lines to memorize. Her only job was to look good.
Each year, Mary seemed to glow, outshining even the glittery star overhead. She radiated in that magical moment when, at the end of the play, everyone in the pews would rise up, gripping candles, to sing “Silent Night” in a circle.
I watched Mary as I mouthed the words. She sat center-stage by the wooden communion rail, while gazing upon the babe in arms. Some years, we had a real-live baby as our Jesus. Mostly, though, we used a doll from the nursery toy-bin. We wrapped it in swaddling clothes—threadbare dishtowels from the church-basement kitchen.
Often, a pretty blonde was christened as Mary. Even at a young age, I knew this was historically inaccurate. But no one seemed to mind in our town, where Swedish descendants bore names like Larson and Anderson. Mary usually matched our toy-box Jesus—a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl doll with magic marker drawn on the back of her head.
Then, behold, in 1982, the heavens opened, and I witnessed my very own Christmas miracle: I was called forth from the pew.
“Jennifer?” she asked. “Would you be willing to serve as our Mary this year?”
I nodded a shy yes, but on the inside, I belted out the Magnificat.
I remember it still, draping a white cloth around my brunette head, then walking down the aisle of my dimly-lit church. I remember cradling the baby in swaddling dishtowels, and hearing everyone laugh when one of the wee kings in a cardboard crown shouted out: “Hi, Mom!” A shepherd stretched out on the step for a long winter’s rest. Beside me, the cattle were lowing and adjusting brown-felt ears. And behind me, I sensed a great company of the heavenly host—all dressed in holey bed sheets. Or maybe they were holy.
Then came the moment for the final number, the hallowed singing of “Silent Night.” A great hush fell over the room, as the congregants rose to their feet and lit candles by passing a flame around the circle.
The pianist began, then all began to sing:
Round ‘yon virgin, Mother and child
Holy infant so tender and mild
And that’s when it happened. At the front of a tiny Iowa church—where I sat in a sheet-covered folding chair—Mary’s story was becoming my own. I looked at the cradled babe, with bits of hay snared in blonde locks. I was beginning to realize, right then, who the real star of this Christmas show was.
I turned my head a bit, bowing my chin lower as voices swelled higher. I hoped no one would notice a single tear sliding down my cheek. I—the holder of the Christ-child—was discovering what those words in the story meant, about a young girl treasuring up all these things, and pondering them in her heart.
Image by Bianca de Blok. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Jennifer Dukes Lee.

    Monday, December 12, 2011

    Two Pies Lighter

    Early on Thanksgiving morning, I drove down an eerily silent College Avenue in State College, Pennsylvania, to deliver a couple of pies to the community kitchen in my church basement. The town felt strangely somber. Streets were empty, students and many of the faculty members—more than half the borough’s population—gone. Anyone who had an excuse to get out was relieved to do so. Nevertheless, an NBC news van sat perched at the edge of campus like a vulture, as if even on that still morning a savory bit of news might break.
    As a Penn State faculty member who has never set foot in Beaver Stadium or watched a football game of any sort on television, I’ll just say that I came to this place for another reason. But football money has funded a substantial portion of our library’s holdings. It has endowed two professorships, one in my own department. And thanks to the influx of cash that football season brings to the region each fall, it has made Centre County a better place to live.
    In other words, across the university and Happy Valley, we’re all aware that we will be sharing the consequences of these crimes and cover-ups for a very long time. 
    What can a person do when the actions of a powerful one or few ruin things for so many? All I could think to do that morning was what I did the year before on Thanksgiving morning: rise early, make coffee, roll out crusts and whisk fillings, slide the pumpkin and pecan pies into the oven, and then drive them over to Saint Andrew’s. 
    Like my students who were eager to identify with Penn State when its stock was up, I must consider the price of collective success and my own willingness to buy into it. Now, those students worry that the brand has gone bad. That fast, a university’s winning reputation has been wrecked by willful evasions and strange manipulations and images of hooligans rioting in our streets.

    Pressing On

    I think of my father’s chagrin after working for more than 30 years for a major corporation that in the late 1990s turned out to be rotten at the top. His retirement a few years too early was embittered by a sense of betrayal at the hands of a company that had once made him proud. I think of those associated with church organizations publicly shamed by corrupt or irresponsible leaders, or the happy-looking families undone by foolish moves.
    It is easy for me to tell my students to use their words and their heads when they would prefer to take to the streets. Those are the English professor’s stock sentiments. But what shall I do with my own disappointment and disgust?  
    The answer came without much thought on Thanksgiving morning: the pies, the drive over to St. Andrew’s. In dark times, we fall back on those practices that a lifetime of practice has taught us. When words fail or fail to come, meaning and comfort spring from the most ordinary, elemental means: our work, small observances. This is the quiet spirit of Advent.
    I will stick around when the TV vans have gone away, just as my father worked on for several years while his company painfully stuttered to a halt. I will continue to teach these kids who will have some difficult questions to answer in job interviews for a few years.
    Driving back to my home in Bellefonte—a town of 6,000 where the preliminary hearings for Jerry Sandusky will be staged this Tuesday morning—I felt a rush of gratitude for sunlight on the forested ridgeline, my car two pies lighter. My heart felt lighter, too, with the satisfaction that comes from making something, from giving a gift that will vanish before the sun goes down, from doing one tiny thing I can respect.
    Image by Chad Miller. Used with permissionSourced via Flickr. Post written by Julia Spicher Kasdorf, author of Poetry in America.

    Friday, December 9, 2011

    What Churches Can Learn from the YMCA

    The YMCA isn't a church, but it sure knows something about bringing people together.
    At the Y, I sometimes see people running alone on the treadmills. They stare straight ahead, eyes fixed on the TV monitors scrolling the news of the day. The only sound they hear is the one pulsing into their ears via buds. Eventually, they step off the treadmill, checking the pace and distance the cold machine has calculated for them. Satisfied, they move along.
    It occurs to me that this is sometimes how we function in our churches, as well. We show up, get all we can for ourselves, and then move along. But just as there’s another, more fulfilling side to community at the Y, so Christ offers more than that in the Church.
    Read the rest of this article at In Part Magazine.
    Image by SEIER+SEIER. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by featured by Senior Editor Marcus Goodyear. Matt Tuckey is a member of The High Calling and blogs at Carlisle Family YMCA.
    Read the full blog entry

    Is it safe for you to die?

    By Bill Ellis
    Special to ASSIST News Service

    SCOTT DEPOT, WV (ANS) -- It was the first Sunday in Advent. I expected the normal “introduction to Christmas” sermon. That, however, is not exactly the preaching style of Dr. Melissa Pratt, in my opinion, one of America’s finest young preachers and pastors. Her exposition of the Word of God is filled with new and invigorating approaches to truth.

    The sermon began with a summary of Ecclesiastes 7:1-3 that was concluded with this statement: “A wise person thinks a lot about death. Happy Advent. Merry Christmas.”

    But what about the wise men, shepherds, camels and angelic choirs? What about Christmas trees and Santa Claus? Where is the church’s annual Christmas drama and cantata?

    The sermon continued, “The truth is, the Christmas season has everything to do with death because it not only has what we experience in this life and how we live it, but what happens after we die that Jesus came to deal with.”

    God, being rich in mercy, sent Jesus to die on the cross to pay the price for all our sins. Were it not for His birth, life, death, and resurrection, we would all be doomed to an eternal destiny of unbearable suffering and separation from the presence of God.

    The question has been running through my mind each day, “How safe is it for me to die?” Death is not a possible “if”, but a definite “when” and an issue we will all deal with very soon. Even at my relative young age, it seems that every year and age of my life has come and gone so quickly. Everything is on a rapid speed except eternity. John Newton helped us understand its duration with these words: “When we’ve been there ten thousand years . . . we’ve no less days . . . than when we’d first begun.” Eternity never subtracts from itself.

    There are two eternal profiles carefully described in Luke 16:19-31 in the frightening and yet blessed story of the rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. This story is filled with warning and its graphic depiction of a great chasm that takes away all hope of transferring from Hell to Heaven -- once there always there. It is the story of eternal separation, punishment, judgment, fire and regret.

    Jesus is the answer to all the fears about death and judgment and the problems and suffering created by sin. Read about His coming in chapters one of Matthew, Luke and John. Mark starts in chapter one with “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1). 

    When I read in Mark’s account, I often think about the night at The White House, when a select group of invited guests heard Alec McCowen, famous English actor, quote this exciting book in its entirety with his dramatic memory in the historic East Room. The delicious dinner with President and Mrs. Carter did not overshadow the book of Mark.

    American leader, Benjamin Franklin spoke of his day and ours: “How many observe Christ’s birthday! How few, his precepts. O! Tis easier to keep holidays than commandments.”
    E. B. White, iconic teacher of those who attempt to write said, “To perceive Christmas through its wrapping becomes more difficult with every year.”

    “An angel of the Lord appeared to Him (Joseph) . . . saying, . . . ‘And she shall bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins’ ” (Matthew 1:20-21). That was the beginning of Christmas . . . the birth of the Savior, born to save all who will believe in Him.

    Do not throw Him out with all the trimmings, trappings, purchases, debt, gifts and papers of our modern Christmas celebrations. Merry Christmas to you and your family from me and my family.

    Bill Ellis is a syndicated columnist, and convention and conference speaker on every continent. He is the writer of more than 2,000 newspaper and magazine columns, articles and contributions to books. He is also a widely known motivational speaker and pulpit guest who utilizes enjoyment of life and just plain fun and laughter while speaking to high school, university and professional sports teams as well as to business and professional groups of all kinds. His keen understanding of human problems makes him a favorite speaker for youth, parent, and senior adult meetings. He is accompanied by Kitty, his wife, favorite singer, editor and publisher.

    For information on becoming a subscriber to the Ellis Column for your newspaper or magazine, you may contact him at: BILL ELLIS, P.O.Box 345, Scott Depot, WV 25560 or by calling: 304-757-6089.

    ** You may republish this story with proper attribution.

    Winter Window: Explaining a Spiritual Experience

    By Brian Nixon
    Special to ASSIST News Service

    ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS) -- Recently I had a coworker share with me a beautiful spiritual experience that had occurred in his life. Apparently, he has been seeking the Lord with great fervency, asking for more and more fruit to come from his walk with Christ. Before he knew it he was in tears, overwhelmed by a sense of love and joy surrounding him. He felt as though God had engulfed him with His presence.

    New Mexico fireplace and room
    My co-worker came to me with two simple questions:

    What happened to me? And what do I do now?

    I shared with him a couple of my own experiences of pondering God’s goodness and His creation.

    But his questions gave me to pause.

    What do these deep and personal experiences mean in our lives? I thought.

    I considered for a moment, looking out the window at the recent snows on the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

    Then it struck me, a mental picture of a possible explanation of how and why God uses epiphany-like experiences in our lives.

    “Think of it this way,” I responded. “You are God’s child; He is your heavenly Father. Imagine yourself in a room with your Father. It’s warm and comfortable. But outside a recent snow has fallen, with new adventures calling for you to witness and apprehend: snow angels to make, snowmen to create, sleds to ride, and skis to sail.

    “For you—the child—the reality that lies beyond these walls, doors, and windows is another world: one that creates excitement and fervency to experience.

    Winter Window
    by Alexander Volkov
    “However, there’s a problem. You’re too small. You can’t see out the window or unlock the door to begin this new adventure.

    “Watching you the whole time is your Father. He watches as you try to look out the window on tiptoes. He chuckles as you reach and reach and try to unlatch the door. He notices as you became frustrated.

    “And He sees you as you look to Him, begging to experience the new world outside.

    “‘Please, Daddy, let me see outside!’ you exclaim.
    “With this, your Father smiles. He gently walks over to you, picking you up to see the new, wondrous world the snow has created outside.

    “And with each snowflake that falls, He points out great and marvelous things. You can’t believe your eyes or ears!”

    I looked at my coworker and said this may be what God does when we experience deep, spiritual events in our lives.

    Our Father picks us up and gives us a glimpse of the joy, love, and profound nature of His world to come—of a life lived in His constant presence.
    Boy looking out the window

    We are like the child seeking to see the snow and to experience its wonder. However, as Christians, we’re not seeking snow. We’re seeking God, knocking on His door, calling His name. And God responds by lifting us up to show us His world; the promised world to come, where His kingdom will be established forever.

    My coworker said, “I like that.”

    I said, “So do I.”

    “But,” he continued, “What do I do now that I’ve been lifted up to see God’s new world?”

    Once again, I paused.

    “Well, my friend,” I responded. “You keep asking, you keep knocking, you keep seeking. Then, when your day has come, He will unlock the door and let you experience the adventure forever. You will no longer need to look through a window, for that which you have sought will forever be your reality. You will be home.”

    I pray the Lord will lift you up as you continue to pursue Him. Knock, seek, and ask this coming year! There’s an adventure awaiting you!

    Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, minister, and family man. You may contact him

    ** You may republish this story with proper attribution.

    Thursday, December 8, 2011

    When Love Is an Action

    I have watched how they go these past weeks. Soaring and diving, turning and landing—a migration ballet. I stand in the middle of the street with my neck arched upward for dizzying moments. When they swoop overhead, the world turns and I am lifted to heights, longing for wings. The way they plunge and domino through the sky makes my tummy drop—I am flying with them, my heart lifted by their communal dance. They move as one.
    The birds are heading south and the beauty of it breaks my heart.
    They call me a shepherd at my church. I have a flock that I tend. It’s a way for our leadership to stay abreast of individual needs—divide the congregation into smaller groups and assign elders to watch over them. As shepherd, I am supposed to check in with my flock regularly. Make sure they are doing okay.
    We have had troubles. We have brushed up against each other and bruised tender flesh in the jostling. Sheep do—they bleat wildly when alarmed, bumble about in fear. We lose sight of our Shepherd.
    Sunday night we meet in the sanctuary. There are some good words and some prayers and then we all flood out into the narthex to dress up our church for Christmas. The Hanging of the Greens, we call it. Old and young are here—the same faces we always see when something needs doing…the same faces we’ve argued with and picked at and found fault with.
    We are told to love one another. The word in its original Greek is an action word—a verb. It’s a doing thing. So we do.
    I’ve often wondered—as I lift my eyes to the sky, feel my breath leave my body as the birds move in unison across the sun—how do they do that? What drive inside pulls them forward, what cue from the next allows them to turn so gracefully as one—no hesitation, no clumsy choppy movements? I know it is written on their hearts—this greater purpose that allows for such harmony, such grace.
    I hand an ornament to gnarled fingers, the same fingers that have lashed out at me and those I love in the past…and I lean in closer. Those fingers touch mine and we smile.
    So many times, our fellowship is like the sheep—mindless, aimless, losing sight of our Shepherd. But Sunday night, we spread our wings. We moved as one, pulled by something greater—something we do not understand. When love in an action—we turn with those subtle cues, follow the rhythm of our hearts—this is when we take wing.
    This is when we fly.

    Struggling to Serve

    About a year ago my husband and I signed up our family of four to deliver Meals on Wheels once every six weeks to elderly residents around town. It seemed like the perfect family volunteer opportunity.
    What we didn’t anticipate was the mutiny.
    Our sons, Noah and Rowan, resisted this family activity from the start. Rowan got carsick and complained of headaches and nausea as we crisscrossed town. Eventually I got smart and handed half of a chewable Dramamine tablet to him before we left the house. But while the pill dispelled the queasiness, it left him groggy and did nothing to improve his attitude.
    Meanwhile, Noah couldn’t tolerate the smell of the cooked food that wafted from the warming bins stashed in the back of the mini-van. Broccoli days were the worst. To combat the pungent odor we rolled the windows all the way down, even in mid-February, and blasted the heat while Noah sat hunched, knees to chest, his T-shirt pulled up to the bridge of his nose.
    One Saturday my husband suggested that Noah smear Vicks VapoRub under his nose. The heavy menthol scent masked the stench of the food, and that, combined with the frigid air circulating throughout the van, was enough to keep Noah from gagging.
    Despite our heroic comfort measures, though, the boys still complained relentlessly. “Why do we do this?” whined Rowan. “I hate it! It’s so boring, and it takes so long.”
    “We choose to suffer a little to help those who suffer a lot,” I lectured one day from the driver’s seat, turning up the volume of the “Jesus CD,” as my kids call it, in an effort to drown out their complaints with Christian music.
    “This is not suffering a little,” said Noah, in a muffled voice from the backseat. “This is suffering a lot.”
    I glanced in the rearview mirror, prepared to launch another lecture about the importance of serving, when I caught sight of my ten-year-old. His brown eyes swam with tears as he held the VapoRub container clamped around his nose like a feed bag.
    That was the day we quit Meals on Wheels.
    Later that night I struggled to compose an email to Rhoda, the program coordinator. It seemed over-the-top to mention the gagging and the VapoRub and the tears, so I finally explained that delivering Meals on Wheels simply didn’t work well for our family. It was the truth, but it felt more like a declaration of failure.
    Rhoda’s gracious response should have freed me: "I absolutely understand…You need to do what’s right for your family." Yet, as I closed the laptop, a dull ache lingered deep in my gut.
    Image by Josh Liba. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr. Post by Michelle DeRusha.

      Wednesday, December 7, 2011

      Empty Nest Christmas Tree

      Sometimes, the Christmas tree in the corner of your living room is more than a pretty decoration with twinkling lights. If you look closer, you'll see memories whispering as the ornaments dangle on those pine branches. That's what empty-nester Nancy Franson discovered when she pulled trinkets from a box to hang on her tree. To read more about Christmas in an empty nest, visit Nancy's blog here ...  
      Image by Katerina Plevkova. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.
      Read the full blog entry

      The mystical queen of Madagascar to whom Jesus appeared in dreams

      By Berthe Raminosoa Rasoanalimanga
      Edited by Mark Ellis

      ANKARAMALAZA, MADAGASCAR (ANS) -- Volahavana was born of royal lineage in Madagascar. Her father was well-respected as a healer in their village, but when he called on his many pagan gods for healing it made his daughter ill at ease. She wanted to know the one true living God, if he existed. She asked her father, "Can God be seen?"
      Volahavana (tallest figure) in front of her home (Photo:'Tantaran'ny Fifohazana eto Madagasikara' by Pastor Zakaria Tsivoery)

      When she was about ten years old, God began to reveal himself to  Volahavana through her dreams. Every night a tall man robed in white would take her to a large stone building. He would wash her feet and dry them with a towel, and then lay her on a bed and rock her to sleep.

      Then, at dawn, he would take her back home.
      In another dream, she would see herself being caught in a net and lifted up to heaven. These two dreams came to her regularly until she was twelve years old.

      After that, the dreams stopped, but in the middle of the day she often heard a voice calling her name. She would run home to see if her parents were calling her, but it just made them laugh; they thought she was crazy.

      Pondering all these things, she would find refuge under a tree, crying and wondering about this God whom she wanted to know.

      Mark Ellis is a senior correspondent for ASSIST News Service and the founder  He is available to speak to groups about the plight of the church in restricted countries, to share stories and testimonies from the mission field, and to preach the gospel.

      ** You may republish this story with proper attribution.

      Monday, December 5, 2011

      What is the Truth About the Date and Origin of Christmas?

      Should Christians Celebrate The Holiday?

      By J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Detective
      Special to ASSIST News Service

      MISSION VIEJO, CA (ANS) -- So, exactly when was Jesus born? Every year, as the Christmas season approaches, many Christians ask the obvious questions related to the birth of Jesus. First, was Jesus actually born on December 25th? And second, if He wasn’t born on this date, why in the world do we celebrate it as if He was?
      The birth of Christ

      Well, the Bible is absolutely silent about the precise date on which Jesus was born, but a careful and somewhat forensic investigation of the scripture WILL give us a rough guideline related to the birth of Christ, and if nothing else, shed some light on whether or not December 25th has anything to do with Jesus’ true birthday…

      To begin, we have to take a minute to understand the way that ancient Jews lived and raised sheep in order to understand when Jesus was born. Does that sound crazy? Well, hang with me here for a minute. It was the Jewish custom for shepherds to send out their sheep into the fields in the early spring at about the time of the Passover. They did not bring these sheep home until the first rains started in early to mid-fall.

      During this time, when the flocks of sheep were out in the open fields, shepherds would stay with the sheep to insure their safety. They would stay with the sheep both day and night. This would continue until the shepherds drove their sheep back in from these fields early in the month of “Marh-esvan” (a period of time we would now locate sometime in October). In essence, shepherds stayed in the open fields with their sheep for the entire summer.

      This cultural tradition, documented in many non-Biblical records and accounts of the time, is also well documented in the Jewish scriptures. The Book of Ezra documents the fact that the winter rainy season was a time when the Jewish people knew better than to leave themselves out in the rain: Ezra 10:9-13, “So all the men of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days. It was the ninth month on the twentieth of the month, and all the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and the heavy rain. Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, ‘You have been unfaithful and have married foreign wives adding to the guilt of Israel. Now, therefore, make confession to the LORD God of your fathers, and do His will; and separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.’ Then all the assembly answered and said with a loud voice, ‘That’s right! As you have said, so it is our duty to do. But there are many people, it is the rainy season, and we are not able to stand in the open. Nor can the task be done in one or two days, for we have transgressed greatly in this matter.”

      The Jewish people endured the winter as a time of rainy and harsh weather. It was not the time to be out in the rain, tending flocks in the open fields. Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived also affirmed this fact: Song of Solomon 2:11, “For behold, the winter is past, The rain is over and gone.”

      Given this brief cultural background of the ancient Jewish shepherds, let’s now take a look at what the Bible has to say about timing of Jesus’ birth:

      Luke 2:8 “And in the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night.”
      There Were Shepherds in the Fields

      Notice a couple of things here. It is clear that the shepherds are living in the fields with their sheep. The Greek word translated here in the New American Standard Version as “staying out” is “agraulo├║ntes”. It means that they were staying overnight; the shepherds were “camping out”, so to speak. In the KJV, the expression translated as “abiding in” the fields with their sheep. They are not out on a day trip, at least not according to the scripture. They are actually living out there with their flock! This certainly seems to indicate that we are within the range of time when shepherds drove their sheep into the open fields and stayed with them for the May to October time period. They are already out there at the time of Jesus’ birth, and they apparently have not yet returned. If nothing else, this seems to indicate that Jesus is born sometime between May and October, and certainly not as late in the winter as December.

      So Why Do We Celebrate It on December 25th?

      This is really the 64,000 dollar question (for those of you old enough to remember the famous game show). For many Christians, there is some discomfort about the dating and origin of our Christmas holiday, primarily due to the fact that its dating (and many of its symbols) are rooted in prior pagan traditions. The present date for Christmas (December 25th) traces back historically to the 4th century.

      The star of Bethlehem
      When Constantine declared that Christianity was to be the official religion of the Roman Empire, he introduced the faith to a culture that was already deeply committed to the pagan worship of prior Roman Gods. Christian leaders were in for a real challenge as they tried to eclipse prior cultural commitments to these Gods. Pagan festivals and celebrations abounded throughout the year, celebrating and honoring Roman Gods of one variety or another.

      One of Rome’s biggest religious festivals occurred in the winter. The festival was called “Saturnalia”, and it was a celebration that coincided with the winter solstice. It occurred very roughly over a period of time that corresponds to December 17th- 24th, and ended on December 25th. This date, declared by Emperor Aurelian in 274AD to be “Dies Natalis Invicti Solis” (“Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun”), it was a celebration of the Roman god, Saturn. December 25th is also the winter solstice. It is the time when the sun, after being at the lowest point in the skies, begins to rise over planet earth, resulting in longer days. It marked the beginning of a number of pre-Roman pagan festivals and also served as the marker for Roman holidays.

      In addition to this, December 25th was also celebrated as the day on which the Iranian mystery god, Mithras, was born. He was considered to be the “Sun of Righteousness”. (For more on alleged similarities between Mithras and Jesus, refer to a longer explanatory article HERE). The foundation clearly existed for this pagan celebration, and its formidable tradition competed for the hearts and minds of God starved people within the Roman Empire. So it shouldn’t surprise us that early church fathers decided to redirect and reinvent the holiday as a Christian celebration. From the very beginning, this was a strategic move on the part of those who wished to advance the truth of the Gospel. Whether their efforts were misguided or not, their inner most desire was to draw people from a lie, to the source of all truth.

      An early church theologian of the fourth century, writing about the newly named celebration marking the birth of Jesus said: “We hold this day (December 25th) holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it”.

      The first Christmas Celebrations were little more than a simple mass, but as the generations passed the Holiday of Christmas grew to overtake a number of other cultural holidays across the world. As each culture added its own bit of folklore to the tradition, we eventually found ourselves with the holiday that we know as Christmas Day. Many of our present day traditions have little to do with the Bible story of the nativity, and little to do with the scriptural evidence. We’ve posted a number of additional articles that examine each of the traditions in more detail.

      So Is Christmas Just A Pagan Distraction?

      I do have a number of friends who truly hate Christmas. I’m not just talking about my friends who are atheists; I’m talking about Christian brothers and sisters who believe that the rather pagan origin of the Christmas holiday invalidates it entirely. They often tell me that to celebrate Christmas is to acknowledge its pagan roots. For them, celebrating Christmas is actually the equivalent of celebrating the ancient pagan mythologies and gods, and they believe this to be a form of idolatry. That’s not actually an isolated view. Christians throughout the centuries have sometimes come to the same conclusion about Christmas. The holiday was even slow to catch on in America and gain the acceptance of the first settlers to the colonies. The celebration of Christmas was even banned by law in Massachusetts in the colonial days of our forefathers!
      But think about it for a moment. When we co-opt an ancient celebration, symbol or word and give it a new meaning, are we acknowledging the first meaning or the secondary, more powerful meaning that we have ascribed to the date, symbol or word? Let me give you some examples. There are several English words that originally had a very different meaning than they do today.

      In fact, these words meant exactly the OPPOSITE of what they presently mean! The word “brave”, for example, first meant “cowardice”. The word “luxury” first meant “a sinful self-indulgence”. Even the word “nice” first meant “stupid” or “foolish” in the 13th century! Now none of us have stopped using these words because their meaning has changed. None of us are so committed to the origin or original meaning of the word that we refuse to speak them! In fact, most of us don’t even know the origin of these words. We embrace their contemporary meaning, and our ignorance of past expressions does NOT invalidate what they mean to us today. These words are still useful and practical in our everyday lives. In a similar manner, our present day holidays, regardless of their original meanings are equally valuable and practical as spiritual commemorative events.
      Jesus on the cross

      If you need a further example, we could always look to the cross. In Roman times, the cross was an ugly, brutal instrument of death. The outskirts of large cities were often landscaped with crosses that lined the roads leading to the city. Criminals were brutally executed on these crosses and displayed for all to see. The message of the cross was clear. The cross was a symbol of the power, authority and bloody brutality of the Empire. The cross served to remind all those who saw it that Roman law was final and supreme. The cross certainly was filled with meaning in the days before Jesus. But all that changed after the resurrection, as a new faith system was born and adopted the cross as a new kind of symbol. For us as Christians, the cross demonstrates the gift of Jesus who died there to make eternal life possible for all those who believe. For us, the cross symbolizes the sacrifice that is necessary for our sin, and the fact that Jesus, a sinless man and God himself, was executed there to pay for sins he didn’t even commit - to pay for OUR sins. So, for us, the cross has a new meaning. It is a meaning that we have ascribed to it as believers and it is a meaning that supersedes the old fearful symbolism of the Roman Empire. The cross is now OUR symbol of grace and sacrifice.

      Now I doubt that Christians who refuse to celebrate Christmas also refuse to honor or wear the cross. But the Christmas holiday is really no different. As Christians, it shouldn’t really matter to us what the origin of the holiday was all about. It shouldn’t matter what it originally represented or celebrated. What matters now is the new meaning that we have ascribed to the day, and this new meaning has power and practical use in our daily life. We are not ignorant of our history. 

      We recognize that traditions and customs have grown over the years. But in the midst of all of this we still know the truth, and we have simply adopted this holiday as a practical and real way to enjoy and celebrate our Savior.

      J. Warner Wallace is both a detective (currently working cold case homicides), a missions leader and a church planter. His background was originally in design (earning a BFA from California State University at Long Beach and a Master’s in Architecture from UCLA), but he has been a police officer and detective for the past 23 years. Jim wasn’t raised as a Christian. In fact, he was a conscientious and vocal atheist until he was 35 or 36, and always considered himself to be an “evidentialist”. His experience in law enforcement only served to strengthen his conviction that truth is tied directly to evidence. But Jim took his first serious and expansive look at the evidence for the Christian Worldview and realized that Christianity was demonstrably true. After becoming a Christ follower in 1996, Jim took an evidential approach to truth and applied it to the Christian worldview. He eventually earned a Master’s Degree in Theology from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary and built the website, blog and podcast. Jim’s diverse experiences have provided him with some unique opportunities to examine the logical conclusions and practical realities of the “secular world view” and compare these to the blessings of Biblical Christianity. These comparisons often take the form of observations and evidences that are similar to the evidences one might offer in front of a jury. For more information please go /

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      Remembering Saint Nicholas

      By Chris Pick
      Special to ASSIST News Service

      WILLIAMSPORT, PA (ANS) -- December 6 marks the beginning of the Christmas season for many people around the world. In fact, many people celebrate Christmas on this day - the anniversary of the death of a well-known Saint, Bishop Nicholas (Which is why December 6th came to be regarded as St. Nicholas’ Feast Day).

      Illustration of St. Nicholas
      with children
      There are of course many legends about Nicholas, and these legends have given birth to other stories and legends surrounding Nicholas or, as he is become known by countless children around the world, “Santa Claus.”

      Many Christian parents struggle over the Christmas tradition of Santa Claus and whether or not they should share the Santa Claus legend with their own children – or even allow their own children to believe in such a mythical figure. In fact, some would argue that Santa Claus is a deliberate deception played on innocent children and created by the devil himself to take the focus off the true meaning of Christmas. And, if you arrange the letters of Santa around, you get the name “Satan!”

      However, there is a way for parents to share the story of St. Nicholas with their children and, in doing so, point them to the true meaning of Christmas. And that is by sharing the story of St. Nicholas who modeled Jesus Christ. Everything he did pointed to Christ!

      The real Nicholas was born to a wealthy family in a small fishing village named Patara in Lycia and raised to be a devout Christian. His parents loved to travel, and they took their little boy on several trips including a visit to the Far East where a young Nicholas first saw the longing eyes of children in need – many of them begging for food on the streets.

      Nicholas’ parents died in a plague epidemic when he was twelve. Remembering what he saw on his journeys and what his parents taught him, and obeying Jesus' words to sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, Nicholas used his whole inheritance to help assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering.

      Nicholas dedicated his life to serving God and sought the holy by making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. And as he walked where Jesus walked, he sought to more deeply experience Jesus' life, passion, and resurrection. In John 14:12, Jesus tells Philip, "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these...” (NIV). And Nicholas did great things! He walked in Jesus’ footsteps and demonstrated the life of a devout follower of Jesus Christ. And like the Apostles who carried on with what Jesus began, Nicholas’ ministry and work was filled with signs and wonders.

      Nicholas left the Holy Land and began a long journey to Myra (the principal city in Turkey) to become an altar boy. At the time, the council of church elders in Myra was indecisive over the appointing of their next bishop. They resolved to meet in the morning after spending time in prayer and meditation at their lodgings. That night, one of the elders had a dream. In his dream, God told him that the first person named Nicholas to enter the cathedral the next day would be the new appointed bishop.

      Meanwhile, as Nicholas was returning by sea from his visit to the Holy Land, a mighty storm threatened to wreck the ship. Nicholas calmly prayed. The terrified sailors were amazed when the wind and waves suddenly calmed, sparing them all. The next day (after reaching land), a tired Nicholas entered the first church he found and was warmly greeted by an elder. The elder asked what his name was. When Nicholas told the elder his name, the elder took Nicholas to the other elders saying “Here is our new Bishop!” Nicholas was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.

      Many referred to Bishop Nicholas as the Wonder-Worker. He became the secret benefactor of three young girls from his parish who were born into a poor family. In those days a young woman's father had to offer prospective husbands something of value, called a “dowry.” And the larger the dowry, the better the chance that a young woman would find a good husband. But without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry. And poor unmarried young girls were destined to be sold into slavery.

      Statue of St. Nicholas
      The teachings of Christ were written on Nicholas’ heart. He held close Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 6: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

      “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (verses 1-4, NIV).

      So, mysteriously, on three different occasions, a bag of gold appeared in the poor father’s home and provided the needed dowries for his three young girls. The bags of gold, tossed through an open window, are said to have landed in stockings or shoes left by the fire to dry. This is what led to the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes, eagerly awaiting gifts from Saint Nicholas.

      Another story tells of three theological students, traveling on their way to study in Athens. A wicked innkeeper robbed and murdered them. Then he hid their remains in a large pickle barrel.

      It so happened that Bishop Nicholas was traveling along the same route and stopped at this very inn. In the night, God revealed to him the crime in a dream. He got up and summoned the innkeeper. Finding the bodies of the boys, Nicholas prayed earnestly and the three boys were restored to life and wholeness. 

      In another story, a terrible famine struck the country. Bishop Nicholas persuaded a grain merchant to give him a small portion of his tribute which was intended for the emperor. Nicholas prayed, and the portion miraculously multiplied. It was enough to feed the entire starving population of Myra for two years and replenish the merchant’s cargo.

      With these blessings came persecution for Nicholas. It wasn't long after Nicholas was made Bishop of Myra before Diocletian and Maximian began their persecutions of Christians, and the new bishop was imprisoned. Under the Roman Diocletian, who ruthlessly persecuted Christians, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith. He was exiled, imprisoned, and tortured. The prisons at the time were so full of bishops, priests, and deacons, that there was no room for murderers, thieves, and robbers.

      When Constantine became emperor, Nicholas was released with countless others and returned to his preaching only to find a new threat: Arianism - the theological teaching attributed to Arius, a Christian presbyter from Alexandria, Egypt, which denied the Trinitarian concept of God. 

      Arianism taught that the Son of God did not always exist, but was created by God the Father. Thus, he was therefore distinct from God the Father. But thanks to the bold teaching and prayers of St. Nicholas, the metropolis of Myra alone was untouched by the filth of the Arian heresy, which it firmly rejected.

      Nicholas died on December 6, AD 343 in Myra. And because of his popularity, stories continued to be told of the gift-giver. And over time (through such legends and stories), both his name and appearance began to change from country to country. From the German Weihnachtsmann to the Dutch Sinterklaas to England’s Father Christmas to the American Santa Claus, the real story of Saint Nicholas inevitably became intertwined with other stories and legends. And soon, it was lost in the Christmas traditions. Yet, retellings of the real Saint Nicholas story point to the true meaning of Christmas and give God all the glory. And his story can teach our children to follow the Christ-like example that Nicholas led – at Christmastime and all year round!

      Chris Pick is a singer/songwriter, missionary, and advocate for the Persecuted Church and Native Missionary Movement. He has been involved with several mission projects which have included work in South America, Africa, Asia, and North America (at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota). He is also a representative for Gospel for Asia ( and for Voice of the Martyrs ( As a singer/songwriter, Pick’s music has been heard globally and charted on many continents in both mainstream, adult contemporary, and Christian ( ). Pick resides in Williamsport, PA along with his wife Michelle (a Fifth Grade public school teacher in Central PA). You can contact him at or follow Pick on ,Twitter , MySpace or Reverb Nation

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