Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Rediscovering the Feast of Saint Nicholas

As we wait for God to become incarnate, we look to the whole body of Christ, past and present, for models of embodied faith. On December 6, the Christian church remembers Saint Nicholas, who was the Bishop of Myra in the province of Lycia during the fourth century.

Nicholas is most well known in the West as the beloved patron saint of children and gift-giving. His connection to the American character of Santa Claus is faint, but it can be traced. According to tradition, Nicholas' parents died when he was young, leaving him a large sum of money. With his inheritance, Nicholas practiced charity, helping those in need.

One legend in particular illustrates his generosity: a family in his community was desperate; the father had lost all of his money and had been unable to find husbands for his three daughters. The daughters were in danger of being given over to prostitution or another form of degradation when, one night, Nicholas appeared at their home. He tossed three bags of gold into the open window (or down the chimney, in some versions) - thereby saving them from a terrible fate. This tale is probably the source of his eventual connection to the tradition of gift-giving at Christmas.

The custom of giving gifts on Saint Nicholas' feast day probably orginated in Europe among Protestants. The Reformation had led many Protestants to all but abandon the remembrance of the saints. But Saint Nicholas remained a popular figure, especially among the children, who received gifts in his name on December 6. The custom spread with immigration to North America when Dutch Children told their English-speaking friends about "Sinter Klaas," the bishop in red vestments who brought them surprises on his feast day. "Sinter Klaas" is older Dutch for Saint Nicholas. The American mispronunciation - Santa Claus - eventually took on a life of its own. This jolly Saint Nick also delivered gifts through the chimney, but on Christmas rather than the saint's day. He wore a red suit rather than liturgical vestments, though he still vaguely resembled the old depictions of Nicholas, which showed him with bald head and full beard.

Aside from the obvious disparities between Saint Nicholas and the secular Santa Claus, perhaps the most poignant difference between them can be seen in the nature of the gifts they give. While Santa Claus has his bundle of toys, the gift that Saint Nicholas gave is nothing short of freedom from poverty and desperation. The life of Saint Nicholas is an example of faith made flesh in actions of true charity. (Taken from God With Us, Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas. Paraclete Press, 2007)

What might you do differently this Christmas season to help someone in need?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Home is Where Your Story Begins

This phrase hangs above my desk in my office at my home. Below it are pictures of our family. My grandfathers and grandmothers share space with Karla's. Karla's parents next to mine. In the center are pictures of us and our children, snapshots of real moments captured in one flash of a shutter. Looking at them, I am reminded of past, present and future...of where I am going and where I come from.

Much more than the places we were born, it is the people who brought us into the world that are our home. As I prepare to spend time with these people over Thanksgiving... as I prepare to go home... I am filled with an appreciation for the road I have travelled thus far in my life and the adventure of the days ahead of me. Where your feet take you, that's where you are. And, in spite of geographical distance, I want the people I love to know that, wherever I may be, wherever my feet may take me, I am always home because they are always with me.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


My beautiful wife, Karla, and I met in a small town in Colorado nestled between the majesty of the Collegiate Peaks and the serenity of the Arkansas River. The circumstances of our lives at the time of our meeting should have kept us from falling in love, but love knows not the self-created boundaries we surround our hearts with. Praise God for that!

While our meeting was not love at first sight for either of us, it began the knitting together of two lives that would eventually become one. I lived in Wisconsin. Karla lived in Texas. We began slowly with phone calls and, of all things in this technological age, hand-written letters. The letters we wrote to one another expressed our hopes, fears, dreams, and growing love for each other. One of the decisions we made during that season of our lives that I'm most thankful for is that we kept the letters. Stored in a portfolio and arranged chronologically, we have these letters available to read even after thirteen years of marriage.

I love Karla. I know and trust she loves me. We love each other dearly. Yet, once we were married, the letters and poems slowed to a trickle and eventually stopped, much like a river during a season of drought. This confuses me. The source and strength of our love for one another never wavered or lessened. If that's true, and we know in the depth of our heart it is, why have the letters and poems ceased to be written?

I fear that the answer is frightfully simple. After observing my own relationship with Karla and having the privilege of walking alongside couples both as they prepare for marriage and seek to enrich their already existing marriages, I've concluded that our expressions of love for one another decrease simply because we take love for granted. We assume that the other knows our love for them and, as a result, we don't recognize the lack of attentiveness we give to expressing that love. The attentiveness present early in the relationship gets replaced by assumption later in the relationship and emotional drought becomes a real possibility.

I miss the letters and the poems. I miss the joy that accompanied the process of putting pen to paper and expressing how much Karla means to me. They tell our story and our story is far from over. If it is to be told, we are the ones to tell it and we are the ones who most need to hear it. Perhaps this is true for you as well.

Monday, July 6, 2009


It's been 10 months since I've relocated my family from Colorado to Texas. More specifically, from the beauty and majesty of the Colorado Front Range to the bayous of Fort Bend County. All of my common logic and appreciation for aesthetic beauty wasn't enough to keep me from returning to the state of my birth. I returned to Texas in spite of the urban sprawl of Houston, the miserable heat of the summer months, and the numerous pests that call the Gulf Coast Region home. Texas is and will always be home. It calls its wandering sons and daughters back in spite of itself.

Since returning, one of the pests I have come to know well, too well, is the southern chinch bug. I'll save you from the scientific description of this little critter and simply say it is a royal pain in the dairy aire. The chinch bug attacks St. Augustine grass in times of hot, dry weather. I'll refrain from belly-aching about how hot and dry this summer is. Let's just say dust has more moisture in it than Missouri City, TX. Thus, my yard, primarily St. Augustine grass, rolled out the red carpet for the chinch bug and he/she has left more irregularly shaped brownish/yellowish spots than I care to count. Dry yard results in chinch bugs...Chinch bugs result in dead grass.

Just like the flat coastal regions of Texas, our inner geography can go through dry spells. We often experience them during seasons of transition. These transitions can be physical, emotional, and spiritual. A move leaves us dry, longing for the moisture present in friends left behind. A relationship ends and leaves our hearts dry and thirsty for someone who will love us and stand by us as we are. Various circumstances leave us spiritually dry, searching for God in the wastelands of our broken hearts.

It is at these times, these dry times, that the chinch bugs of life attack. They settle in and leave desolation behind. The only solution - water. Even when my yard seemed beyond recovering, steady watering invites new life, new growth, restoration. Even when life appears hopeless and there seems little chance of recovering the life that once was, steady watering brings new life, new growth, restoration. But, not just any water will do. Only living water. "Whoever drinks the water I (Jesus) gives them will never thirst. Indeed, the water Jesus gives will become a spring of water welling up to eternal life." You want to be prepared for dry seasons, reach for Jesus. You want to restore your life in the midst of a dry season, reach for Jesus. Noone and nothing else will satisfy.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Blessing of Boundaries

My godfather owns a cattle ranch just outside Houston, TX. He allows me to bring my family up as regularly as we're able to enjoy getting out of the city. We love it! Sunsets, starlit skies, and evening breezes are welcome relief from the congestion of city life.

We also get the opportunity of helping with projects around the ranch. Whether it's feeding the horses, helping with yardwork, or mending fences, there's always something that needs to be done. This is just the way it is on a ranch. It's the rhythm of daily ranch life.

My godfather tells me, and it's been affirmed by others who manage ranches across the nation, that a great deal of time is spent on fencing at a ranch. This is especially true of Black Angus cattle ranches, where breeding is an art. A great deal of money is spent on obtaining properly pedigreed bulls and heifers to ensure the birth of healthy calves. Once they're on the property, a ranch owner must be incredibly attentive to the females to determine when they're ready to spend time with the resident bull. This sounds simple, but considering that the bull can be downright uncontrollable when he knows the females are ready, things get challenging. Apparently, traditional barbed-wire fencing is not enough to keep him away from the ladies. A romantically-inclined bull will go through barbed-wire to satisfy his immediate hunger and throw a rancher's long-term strategic plans for growing a healthy herd into chaos.

The response by most ranchers is electric fences. Although barbed-wire seems more of a deterrent, a single-wire electric fence is much more effective. The jolt received when a bull encounters an electric-fence is an effective boundary and allows the rancher to do what's in the best interest of his or her cattle. I've accidently encountered one of these wires and understand why. Believe me, it will get your attention and cause anyone, person or bull, to reconsider crossing the established boundary.

Humanity seems to have too much in common with the bulls of the world. From the beginning of creation, God clearly established boundaries for humanity, boundaries that were in the best interest of humanity as they allowed for healthy relationship with God, others, and themselves. Didn't take much for self-interest to tempt us to cross those boundaries, resulting in broken relationships. Even today, whether we are Christians or not-yet Christians, we are willing to cross ethical boundaries for short-term gratification rather than uphold those boundaries, trusting our Shepherd has our best interests at heart. If we would only live within those boundaries, we might come to know that they exist only to allow us to experience life in all its wonder and beauty. God's boundaries aren't about restricting us, but protecting us from ourselves that we might experience life in all its fullness.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Blue Bell and Grace

For those that know me, that I would actually write on the beauty of Blue Bell ice cream comes as no surprise. Growing up in East Texas, I spent many an afternoon eating Blue Bell's top-seller, Homemade Vanilla, from the carton with my mom right beside me. The bottom line is Blue Bell lives up to the hype. It simply is the best ice cream in the country.

Founded in 1907, the original Brenham Creamery Company purchased excess cream from local dairy farmers and sold butter to people in Brenham, Texas. Later, they expanded production of their creamery to include ice cream. This move restored the company to good financial status as well as the good graces of the community. Renamed Blue Bell Creameries in 1930 after a native Texas wildflower, which, like ice cream, thrived in the summer, Blue Bell now produces the third-best selling ice cream in the United States. This "little creamery" in Brenham has accomplished this even though it only sells in seventeen mostly Southern states.

I have visited the "promised land" and tasted the many flavors Blue Bell produces. I have lifted multiple spoons and savored this sweet nectar of heaven over and over again. I never get tired of Blue Bell ice cream... never. Yet, I will acnowledge one significant limitation - no matter how diligent I am in trying to extend the joy that Blue Bell brings me, it is only momentary joy. Yes, a few scoops of Homemade Vanilla or the seasonal gem Southern Blackberry Cobbler cure whatever ails me, but it's only a short-term fix.

All of us, I am sure, have our own short-term fixes for the bumps and bruises we experience in our lives. Some are harmless, while others are quite harmful. The real danger is when we allow these short-term fixes to dull our attentiveness to the source of our brokenness, placing our own selfish interests ahead of God's interest both in and for us.

God has not been silent as this condition has progressed historically. Speaking into history and responding to humanity's broken condition, God didn't offer Blue Bell, but grace. As much as I love Blue Bell, I recognize the momentary joy it brings pales in comparison to the eternal bliss God offers in a restored relationship with Him made possible only through the gift of God's grace in Jesus Christ. While Blue Bell is good, Jesus is better.

You may not know this, but Blue Bell differentiates between the cost of diferent ice creams by color-coding the rims of the half-gallon containers. Thus, the color of the rim designates the cost of ingredients in different flavors. If it cost more to make the ice cream, the additional cost is passed on to you and I. For example, Country Vanilla and Strawberry have a silver rim because they are the least expensive to make, Homemmade Vanilla and Cookies-n-Cream have a gold rim, and Southern Blackberry Cobbler and Southern Hospitality have a brown rim because of the special ingredients used.

What color do you think designates the cost Jesus paid on humanity's behalf in order to make possible a restored relationship with God? I believe I would choose red, a deep purplish-red that reminds me of the blood spilled, of the price paid so that I might experience abundant life. A color that also reminds me of the lifestyle God has called me to, a life of self-sacrifice, a life of giving myself away by sharing with my very life the good news of God's grace in Jesus Christ so that others may live.

If you ever find yourself in Texas, come on by the Carroll household. We promise to treat you to a heapin' bowlful of Blue Bell ice cream. We also promise that, by God's grace manifested in our broken and redeemed family, you might also taste of the goodness of a life of faith and be drawn to the feet of Jesus.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Isn't That God's Job?

My daughter Ella is walking affirmation. She's a natural when it comes to brightening your day. She's also a perfect example that we are, all of us, theologians. There is simply no way around the reality that each of us wrestles with life's biggest questions and wonders if there's a God who cares or, if he cares, how he manifests his care for us in the 21st century.

Recently, Ella was in the car with my wife. They pulled into a gas station and Ella noticed a woman working on her car. Ella asked, "Mom, why do people try to fix their own stuff? Isn't that God's job?"

Great questions baby girl! I believe we may be growing entirely too dependent upon ourselves in our efforts to "fix" whatever is going on in our lives. Isn't that God's job? The God of all creation who cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field longs to care for us, BUT we often refuse to receive that care. This week, instead of working so hard to fix your own stuff, take a risk and invite God to speak into your circumstances. Ella is convinced that's his job. I'd tweak that and say confidently that it's his joy to get knee deep in the stuff of our lives and bring restoration.