Here’s To You, Santa Nick!

“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.” (Matthew 6:2-4)

“So let us give without reward
For we’re giving for the Lord.
If none know, then better yet!
For nothing can beat that joy you get.
No, nothing can beat that joy you get.”
(From “The Ballad of Saint Nick”)

Today marks one of many beginnings of the Medieval Church’s traditional Christmas season (our modern “Christmas season” took over a thousand years to round into its current form). It is the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, better known in today’s world as Santa Claus. What??? Yes, Santa Claus. It was on December 6th, 345 that the great saint died after a lifetime of humility, charity and quite a few miracles.

kale-st-nick-statue2-c-andrysThe true story of Santa Claus is almost more remarkable than our modern fiction. Born of nobility in a small village in Southwestern Turkey, Nicholas became a Christian during the time of great persecution that preceded the rise of Constantine to the Roman throne. He was known for his fiery demeanor, often mixed with righteous justice, but also for his humility. He stood on the side of gospel truth at the famous Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, vigorously defending the deity of Jesus Christ. Yes, Santa Claus stood before a council of bishops and Roman authorities and stood up for Jesus. Santa. Minus the red coat and flying reindeer, of course.

nicholasNicholas is credited with many miracles during his lifetime, from raising the dead to cursing the wicked, but a simple tale of secret giving to a poor father headlines his legacy.

Back in 2005 I attempted to put this remarkable story of generosity to poetry and I even developed a song version for an never-completed Christmas album project. From this story of Saint Nick came the tradition of giving to the poor at Christmastime and, eventually, giving gifts to each other. Yes, our cherished Christmas morning present-opening tradition owes its life to the humble tale of Nicholas.

Nicholas is one of my most admired heroes of the Christian faith. I can only hope to follow in the shadow of his mighty legacy. Here is the original “The Ballad of Saint Nick” poem I wrote 11 years ago.

O come my children and hear
A legend that’s grown every year
Of young Nicholas, Bishop of Myra

Tonight, before you can rest,
And dream of your Christmas best,
Think of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra

This you must know, a long time ago,
A man had three lovely daughters
He had no money in hand, but dowries to plan
And he had no idea just where to go

One silent night, he awoke with a fright
At the crashing of metal and wood
He dashed out his door, and there on the floor
Was a sack of gold… but no one in sight

A year soon went, and the money was spent
But his little girl fell in love
How could it be, but down the chimney
Another sack of precious mint

When his youngest gal, though, longed to wed her beau
His cupboard again was bare
He said, “I know he’ll come back, I’ll set me a trap
For this kind man’s name I must know.”

Some metal and string, some bells that will ring
Fastened outside the front door
Late one eve, the bells broke the peace
As the giver was fleeing the scene

“Wait, good sir!” yelled the happy father
“Tell me, why should you think of me?”
The giver of night, came into the light
The bishop was the benefactor

“Good sir Nick,” the dad did quip
“Why did you run and hide?”
“Because it’s better to give, and then let live
With only the Lord to know of it.”

And so my children, ‘twas born
A tradition of giving without reward
Of good Nicholas, Bishop of Myra

And when you wake tomorrow morn
Before each wrapping is bruised and torn
I want each of you to praise the Lord
For Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra

Here is the song lyric version:

The Ballad of St. Nick

Come my children, and gather ‘round
And hear a legend long passed down
Of a saint of God from long ago
A gracious man, whose name you know

Well, the story, it goes this way
There was a dad in an ancient place
He had three girls of marrying age
But he was poorer than a page

One dark night at three A.M.
There was a crash that startled him
He peeked outside his bedroom door
‘Twas a sack of gold there on the floor
A sack of gold there on the floor!

One year passed and just the same
Another gift came unexplained
When his daughter fell in love
And he needed a gift from above

Down the chimney came a crashing sound
The father rose, then hit the ground
For laying there, to his surprise
Was a bag of gold where the fire lies
Yes, a bag of gold where the fire lies

By the time his youngest girl
Longed to join the wedded world
The father hoped that once again
The secret giver would come to him

So he set a trap of bells and string
And late one night, those bells did ring
The man jumped up, dashed to the door
His eager heart could wait no more
His eager heart could wait no more

He opened the door and saw a man
Caught in the trap that was set for him
It was the young, familiar face
Of Nicholas, a bishop of grace

He said, ‘Good sir! Why choose me?
Nick replied, ‘I saw your need’
‘But why’d you hide in mystery?’
The giver said, ‘It’s not about me.’

‘I seek to give without reward
For I’m giving for the Lord
And that’s enough to make my day’
For the joy of the Lord had made his day
Yes, the joy of the Lord had made his day

The father could not contain his joy
He told every man, woman, girl and boy
Of what Saint Nicholas had done
His story grew into a tradition

Oh, my children; listen to me
It’s more bles’d to give than receive
You see those presents under the tree?
I give to you, for God gave you to me

So let us give without reward
For we’re giving for the Lord
If none know, then better yet
For nothing can beat that joy you get
No, nothing can beat that joy you get

Posted in Current Events

The Great Value of Looking Around

It’s so easy to lose sight of the working of God around us, isn’t it? I mean, we spend most of our days looking out for ourselves, our families, our homes and, so often, we miss those little events happening in the surrounding world.

This fall, our church is studying the Gospel of Mark, the shortest and most action-packed of the biblical accounts of Jesus’ earthly ministry. In the gospel, our Lord bounces around from place to place as He proclaims the coming of the Kingdom of God (in the form of its King). He heals the sick and disabled, casts out demons with a glance, and teaches a rag-tag band of hand-picked disciples about the nature of God and the exercise of faith.

One thing I’ve noticed lately is how many times Mark records an action that only an eyewitness could know. While it would be easy to write, “And then Jesus did this and then he did that…” Mark instead adds details, like, “Jesus looked up and saw a crowd (9:25),” or “The disciples looked up and saw no one (9:8).” The author records glances and thoughts, and the fact that the disciples were having a hush-hush conversation as they traveled (9:33-34).

We just finished studying Chapter 9, and one of the most common of Mark’s observations in chapters 6 through 9 is how many times people noticed something with their eyes. The words “saw” and “looked” and “noticed” are peppered all over the gospel text! Even Jesus is recorded seeing things (6:34, 48 and 9:25, for example). In Mark 6, Jesus is recorded looking up towards heaven when he blessed the loaves and fish. The author could have just said, “Jesus blessed the loaves and then…” but he didn’t! He recorded eyewitness details of the blessing, including the direction that Jesus looked.

Out of this focus on sight and noticing things I began to wonder how often we just go about our daily tasks without pausing to look at the world immediately around us. Are we looking for the hand of God at work? Or are we too busy focusing on ourselves? Jesus saw his disciples and reacted. He saw the crowds and reacted. He saw a demon-possessed boy and reacted. The Lord was always looking around Him to assess the situation and how He could proclaim the kingdom, teach a lesson, or help (heal) the distressed. Out of looking came compassion.

More than 15 years ago I did a bible study based on the book, “Experiencing God” by Henry Blackaby. In that book, Blackaby states something like, “While your waiting and praying and hoping to know what the will of God is for your life, it would be wise to spend more time looking for how God is working in the world around you. If you see an opportunity to help someone or teach someone or be present in someone’s life… do it! God is constantly working in the lives of people around. Many times He invites you into His work. It would be a shame to miss that invitation because you’re not looking!” That was the gist of it.

“Ninety percent of people are asleep, and those of who are awake look around us in wonder.” — Samuel Graynamore, Joe Versus the Volcano

I love that quote from the fictitious character Samuel Graynemore in Joe Versus the Volcano. He believed that most of the world is asleep, a.k.a. not looking at their greater surroundings. But those who see past their own present circumstances are amazed and filled with wonder. I’m not sure what his personal philosophy of life was (if the character even had one) but as Christians I wholeheartedly believe that when we stop focusing only on ourselves and sincerely look for the hand of God working around us, we will see it. And His working will leave us with a sense of wonder and amazement.

Looking around is a great way to see God at work in the world. But be prepared: you will also see heartache and wickedness in this world — even close to home. But look for God at work in the midst of the madness. See His Spirit. See His followers. And, if you have opportunity, join in!

Be God’s.

Posted in Current Events, Theology

Me and ‘Mine Ears:’ A Life Out of Balance, Part Three

Two years ago I posted a few blog posts about my ongoing battle with advanced-stage Meniere’s Disease. I wanted to give you an update on my fight in this third blog. If you want to know the background behind my illness, read here:

Last year was a pretty good one for my Meniere’s, all things considered. I felt strong enough to drive my truck and a new RV out West to New Mexico in April of 2015, though I was limited to about three hours of driving each day. Exposure to motion and light has a cumulative effect on my Meniere’s, and by the time I have fought traffic, speed and the overall bumping motion of travel for a few hours, my body and brain has had enough. Last year I decided to break up long driving trips for the sake of my head. I get so worn down by motion that I simply cannot safely drive past a certain point in any trip. I never know when that moment will hit me, so I break up driving into segments.

Las Cruces, New Mexico is 680 miles to the west but it took me six days to get there — about the same speed as a one-horsepower stagecoach, I reckon. I camped in state parks and Walmart parking lots about every 120-150 miles. Along the way, I lost two days due to resting; days in which my vestibular system needed to recover from the previous day’s travel. This is one thing I have discovered about traveling with Meniere’s Disease: I have to add rest days to any trip in order to best absorb the motion of travel. I can no longer travel more than two days in a row without it affecting my head in significant ways.

By moving to New Mexico, I hoped to recapture the better feeling of the desert climate that I experienced in 2013. A combination of lower humidity and less-dense air (altitude) seemed to placate some of the most severe Meniere’s symptoms, including vertigo spells. But since I camped out West in 2013 I have entered a worse stage of the disease and the climate didn’t affect me this time the way I had hoped. Yet still, I spent another six months living in the mountains on land I purchased and enjoying the beauty around me.

Vestibular Rehabilitation

During my time in New Mexico I went through a physical therapy program called vestibular rehabilitation. Dr. Rachel at Back in Action Sports Therapy in Alamogordo, NM worked with me twice a week to “re-train” my brain to read my faulty balance signals differently. I cannot recommend this rehab enough for Meniere’s patients. It was tough to endure but it helped me tremendously. After almost four months of balance training — eyes open and (ugh!) eyes closed — I felt better than I had in two years. I no longer leaned right to counteract leftward pulling from my brain. I learned to disregard most of the faulty signals my brain was getting from my damaged inner ears. I no longer needed a cane to walk steadily!

By September of last year, the vertigo was minimal thanks to the steroid shot in my left ear the October before and my walking was steady and fairly balanced. I still had tinnitus, occasional balance issues and trouble getting around in the darkness (sight is SO important to balance!), but I felt that I could manage these things much better. I even moved to tropical Louisiana to buy my first house and live in a different climate. I felt good!

When the “Juice” Wears Off…

This year has seen a gradual reduction of the steroid shot, leading to a full return of my vertigo symptoms. I knew when I was injected with the steroid in my left ear that the shot was intended to be one of three. Sadly, finances forced me to only settle for one shot. I couldn’t afford another one and my temporary health care policy wouldn’t even cover the shot I received. So I had to hope for the best!

The vestibular exercises I was taught in New Mexico have also lost their settling power on my system, perhaps because the vertigo is so bad.

And so I continue to fight the illness that will not leave me. My wife and I found a doctor in Little Rock, Arkansas, who specializes in diseases of the inner ear. We have an appointment to see him on September 2nd. It is my hope that he can set up a treatment schedule for me and, I hope, give me a referral to go through vestibular rehab refreshment program.

As for a steroid shot, we’re going to ask. But the last ENT we saw doubted that it would do me any good. But then again, he also said we needed to see a specialist because Meniere’s Disease was not one of his specialties (contrary to what we thought and what the internet recommendations said!).

Finding a good Meniere’s doctor is not very easy. They are few and they are scattered. My wife and I went to a doctor recommended by a Meniere’s website only to find that he doesn’t really know any more about the disease than the average ENT. He can treat early stage Meniere’s but not my severity. He recommended a neurootologist, a specialist in the field of the inner ear nervous system and diseases. They have an additional two years of medical school in which they focus in on special conditions. The closest ones to me were in Little Rock, AR, and Baton Rouge, LA. And so we’re headed north to Little Rock.

Some really good news is that I now have Medicare to handle my health insurance. Back in 2014 I was found to be disabled by Social Security and I started receiving monthly payments in 2015. In July of this year I became eligible for Medicare Part A and B. Because of Medicare, I can treat my illness. My Healthcare Marketplace plan with Humana wasn’t going to allow me the freedom to see the specialists I needed to, nor would it cover the high costs of medical care. I was stuck and Medicare is giving me a lot of hope of getting better. Being legally disabled stinks, to be sure, but it has allowed me access to the medical care I need to keep fighting Meniere’s Disease.

My Current Battle

Right now I am fighting constant vertigo, confusion of sight and balance, and a strong sensitivity to light. I walk with a cane and generally have about two hours of “good” health each day after I wake up and before the symptoms catch up to me to render me disabled. I sleep late because my body seems to respond better to more rest than less rest. Of course, too much rest can rob me of the two good hours I long for each day!

The thing I cannot stress enough is this: Meniere’s is a frustrating disease of unpredictable symptoms. What worked for me one day fails me the next. So it is impossible to find routines that work consistently. It is an everyday battle that is exhausting. Sometimes I find my will to fight it to be lacking. I just want to give up. Other days I want badly to overcome my symptoms and be victorious.

I have resumed taking vitamin supplements in an effort to regain some vestibular function in advance of my doctor’s appointment. I take a daily dose of Vertisil, Vinpocetine and a Lemon Bioflavanoid. They may be helping me, though I only have two days worth of results so far. But I have felt a little better the past two days, so… I keep on fighting!

That’s the latest. I really appreciate your prayers and well wishes. God is with me in this battle and I have never doubted His love and care for one moment. In fact, I see this struggle as a chance to glorify Him through an attitude of faith and through my hope in His help. I may be broken but the Holy Spirit really likes to use cracked vessels to shine the Light of Christ into a darkened world. I pray that He uses me in such a glorious way!

— John




Posted in Current Events | 4 Comments

Of Silence, Peace and Restless Hearts: A Blog From Iona

Author’s Note: I wrote most of this blog while on the Scottish island of Iona early in July. Mrs. Newton and I spent a week on the western island with a tour/retreat group. My time on Iona was filled with thought — mainly reflection on Scripture and pondering about matters of life and faith. This blog, in origin and in spirit, is from Iona.


Silence, peace, rest, refuge and waiting… all of these words seem to be interrelated. Maybe one produces the other, then another and so forth. Maybe they are all synonyms or cousins. All of them, however, have been at the forefront of my mind this week on Iona.
My thoughts keep turning to the physical characteristics of this blessed island off the west coast of Scotland. To the lush green grass and the deep blue sea. To the rocky crags and the beaches of smooth stone. To the grey stone abbey and the white block houses; the waves crashing against the shore and the wind coursing between hedges of fuchsia. These are all physical attributes of Iona, things that make the island insanely beautiful and deeply desired. Add in the spiritual significance of this place and Iona is a must-see for any lover of goodness, truth and beauty.

It has been fun to learn about Columba over the past six days, and the religious order he founded that evangelized most of the British mainland in the span of a hundred years. From this tiny island, three miles long and a mile and a half across, monks went out on mission, befriending kings, establishing monastic centers, and spreading a message about God’s care that reverberated in hearts and minds. Celtic Christianity captured Britain, and for four hundred years Iona served as the sheltering mother for monasteries, pilgrims and merchants.

Iona was such an important place that kings and lords demanded to be buried there. Three Saints lived and died there. And many thousands and hundreds of thousands of Christians made trips there to worship God and find refuge.

The Stunning Nature of Silence

Iona is one of the quietest places I have ever been. Though it is an island filled with wildlife, dotted with houses and harassed by the crashing Atlantic Ocean, if you stop in the middle of it on a sunny day and cease all activity, you’ll likely hear the sound of silence. No noise other than an occasional seagull or endangered corncrake bird.

(What is a corncrake? We first learned of that little creature at a worship service, when a lady prayed openly for the restoration of “the corncrakes, wildcats and other endangered Highland and Hebrides species.” I thought, “What?? Did she just say ‘cornflakes?’” Indeed, the corncrake is a small Oriole-sized bird that is being fiercely protected here on Iona. Unlike the typical high-pitched singing or chirping sound of most birds, corncrakes sound a bit like bullfrogs, with a croak/short burst of noise/baritone call.)

Ah, stillness. Iona is amazing, seemingly void of all air conditioners, lawnmowers and every other piece of technology that makes background noise. Instead, you may hear a light breeze in the background, followed by silence. The world still exists around you but it is a place of perfect stillness and quiet!

The quietest place on Iona was found outside of this small craft shop located midway across the narrow isle.

The quietest place on Iona was found outside of this small craft shop located midway across the narrow isle.

I first noticed this still effect when our Iona tour group headed across island on a walking trip to St. Columba’s Bay, one of a number of pilgrimage sites. Shannon sat down on a bench outside a small artisan jewelry shop and I walked up to her when I noticed something remarkable. The only noise I heard was the sounds my ears constantly make (I suffer from constant tinnitus). I was overwhelmed by emotion. I motioned to my wife and shushed my lips, pointing to my ears and then the surrounding environment. It was almost too amazing to believe. Silence. Peace. Stillness. Remarkably, the island grass was still waving in a light breeze and sheep were grazing on every hillside and yet… silence.

Mrs. Newton and I talked at length about how our society is filled with noise and busyness. Even out in the American countryside, there is noise. Air conditioners, cars, weed eaters, airplanes outside… even inside our homes there is constant noise. Ever heard a refrigerator or ceiling fan? A dishwasher? An air conditioner? If you say, “No,” then you’ve probably become accustomed to having your ears filled with noise. The noise is still there. True silence? Found only between your ears and accessible via industrial-grade earplugs (unless you’re me, of course).

stockvault-speaker97042It could be that part of our world’s anxiety and stress problem could be blamed on the noise with which we fill our environment. I know that I, for one, have great difficulty finding rest in the midst of the noise or, more importantly, being silent before the Lord.

In Psalm 37, the older and wiser King David instructs his hearers to, “Be silent before the Lord and wait expectantly for Him (v7).” The command is literally, “Be quiet!” Be silent. I’m reminded of another famous verse, this one from Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” To be still. To let go. To be quiet.

Learning to Block the Noise

Have you ever noticed how our world doesn’t appreciate the concept of silence? Music blaring, cars racing, machines whirring, TVs entertaining… the things were are exhorted to buy in order to occupy our time.

When I was growing up, I never understood why people read books. Funny, right? My older sister was a book lover and she would spend her free time with her nose in a novel or short story series. Family vacations, at home, during holidays… when someone would ask, “Where is Jennifer?” the answer would always be, “Upstairs reading.” I kind of grew to despise books, holding to the firm belief that Jennifer would have enjoyed her childhood a lot more if she simply looked out the window instead of looking at a page of tiny words.

It’s funny how attitudes change over time. I married a book reader. She reads multiple books each year and, in fact, just downloaded a new one here on Iona. Books may be one answer to the silence problem our society faces. Retreating from the noise and bustle of life to read a bit all alone might be a needed bit of stillness for the sound-bombarded soul.

Another way to combat the noise is to simply create a space around you where the noise is at its least. A “safe space” for stillness. One lady in our group mentioned that her back deck is her place of stillness. I’ve always enjoyed going hiking away from neighborhoods, letting the trail be my still space. The wife and I are hoping to one day build a covered gazebo-like place on our mountain property, with benches, so people can go away from the noise and either read a book, say a prayer, or just enjoy the creation of God around them. Speaking of which…

Creation and the Sensation of Peace

Psalm 19 says that the heavens declare the glory of the Lord; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. When King David looked at those heavens at night, he was amazed by the greatness of God (and the smallness of man; Psalm 8). Another man of faith, the Apostle Paul, put a theological spin on this sentiment when he wrote, “For since the creation of the world the invisible attributes of God have been evidenced by the things He has made.” God can be seen in His creation. Just like a potter that has left a thumbprint on a vessel he has just created, God has left His thumbprint on this universe — heavens and earth.

Iona doesn’t have the highest mountains or the purest white beaches on earth. There cannot possibly be more than a hundred trees on the island! There is no flowing creek that cascades down a dramatic waterfall into a tropical lagoon. No, Iona is a wind-swept island on the turbulent and cold west coast of Scotland, inhabited by marshes, ferns, rocks and grass. And yet, Iona is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. There is a great peace in its beauty, a peace that hits the heart and leads a stressed-out soul to relax‚ if but for only a moment.

My soul is easily ministered to by the beauty of God’s creation. Is yours? I’ll never forget one of my most memorable interactions with Creation. In 2011 I found myself on vacation, tent camping my way through Colorado by myself, exploring gold mines, Old West towns, waterfalls and the other adventurous landmarks that make Colorado special.

The mountain town of Silverton, Colorado, is in the lower-right of this picture.

The mountain town of Silverton, Colorado, is in the lower-right of this picture.

One day I drove to Silverton, a high-altitude mining town in the Southwestern part of the state. Silverton is in one of the most beautiful settings of Colorado, in my opinion, situated at 10,000 feet in elevation and surrounded by jagged rocky mountaintops on all sides. It is in a bowl — a high mountain saddle — that is bisected by the cold Animas River, a rushing stream that owes its origin to the melting snowcaps above Silverton.

After driving east of town to the Old Hundred Mine and snooping around on foot, I walked back to my grey Ford Focus and looked up. I don’t know what existential thing happened to my spirit in that moment but I suddenly was mentally, emotionally and spiritually floored. I leaned back against my car and took a deep breath. I found myself in a mountain valley that slopes down to the Silverton saddle, with steep, tall, rocky mountains on my left, on my right and standing right in front of me. I was surrounded! The air was clean and crisp. The sun was shining off the peak in front of me. I was both transfixed on the beauty of the place and completely stunned by it. God was certainly present in that place, though I also had no reason to question His attendance anywhere else in my life! But His Creation in that moment was testifying to His beauty, His might, His power, His… everything. And the fact that I could enjoy it with my own eyes and my own heart spoke to His love and grace for me.

The west side of Iona.

The west side of Iona.

I am fully convinced that God’s Creation can also be an agent of His peace. If the heavens declare God’s glory, the skies show His workmanship, the trees clap their hands in praise, and the stones cry out that Jesus is Lord, then… they must also point to His perfectly present peace. On Iona, we were surrounded by the vistas of white sandy beaches, green lush grass, and rocky outcroppings, and our ears were serenaded with the sounds of waves crashing and seagulls conversing. There was great peace on that island (though sin was also present thanks to humanity, both residing and visiting!).

One aspect that Mrs. Newton and I plan to commit to the operation of Restless Heart is that of “Creation’s Counsel.” We want to find a spot for our retreat center where people can come and find an environment of peace. Where water flows and trees wave and beautiful views beckon the heart to peace. I cannot help but think that the human heart may be more receptive to hear the ways of God if it is surrounded by the things of God. And so we want to see God minister to restless hearts through the peaceful things He has made while we counsel those hearts with His Word.

Final Thoughts

Iona had long been on my bucket list of places to visit, dating back years before I met my wife. It wasn’t until after we first met last year that I found out she had previously committed to a trip to Iona led by a former mentor at John Brown University. I must admit that I was very jealous. As our engagement proceeded, she was worried that this committed trip would prevent us from getting married when we wanted. So I decided to join her and call it our “official honeymoon.” Am I ever glad I went!

The week was relaxing and renewing for my heart and mind. I got to know my wife a lot better and we dreamed deep dreams about our family and our ministry. We came away from the time stronger as both individuals and as a couple. Like many pilgrims before us, we sought the Lord on Iona and He heard us. And now we’re ready to face the next exciting chapter of our lives. Stay tuned for details!



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