Will the Real St. Nicholas Please Stand Up?

by Kat Bair

AVOIDING THE TOPIC

I sat in our youth building across from our new Director of Stewardship on staff. She had come over to talk to me about what the youth ministry was doing, and I, smelling an opportunity to recruit a youth advocate with access to the budget, had spent half an hour giving her a tour of our facility and waxing poetic about teenage faith development and incarnational ministry and metrics and all that stuff that big-church staff like.

 

Then she asked me, “So, how do you talk to the teenagers about giving?”  I answered quickly with stories of service projects, mission trips, and donation collections. She didn’t let me off the hook: “What about financial giving? Tithing or contributing monetarily to specific projects?”

 

I shifted in my chair and racked my brain for anything the youth ministry had done in the past year that could be possibly stretched to be understood as a form of financial giving. I had nothing. We set out a change bucket for a couple months that raised about twelve dollars, but we didn’t even commit enough to the attempt that I felt comfortable bringing it up.

 

The fact is, I just don’t want to talk about financial giving. I don’t want to scare away my teenagers; I didn’t want to seem greedy. So whenever giving money came up in scripture, I always turned it into or give your time, or your stuff, or your prayers. None of those are bad things, obviously, but I was offering them just because they seemed more tasteful than asking for money.

 

MONEY MATTERS

But here’s the thing: giving money comes up in scripture a lot. Jesus talks about the poor widow donating her two coins, warns followers not to store up their riches on earth, and even tells a “rich, young ruler” to sell all he has and give it to the poor, in order that he may live a life pleasing to God.[1]

 

This particular story about the rich young ruler, from the gospel of Matthew, ends with the man walking away saddened and not taking up Jesus’ call. According to legend, this was actually the very passage that convinced a different wealthy young man, 300 years later, not to repeat the mistake. A man named Nicholas, living in southern Turkey, was the only son of wealthy parents. They died when he was young, and the wealthy young man became a priest and dedicated his life, and fortune, to serving the poor. Stories surrounding his life, about his habit of secret gift-giving, protecting children, and helping the most vulnerable in society, continued to spread long after he died, and Christians far and wide celebrated feasts and holidays in his honor: St. Nicholas, Patron Saint of Children.

 

THE REAL SAINT NICK

As we celebrate the season of Advent and with Christmas fast approaching, we have an opportunity to reflect on the reality of our beloved Saint Nick and what it means to give. Our modern, American Santa Claus has a workshop full of elves making toys by magic up at the north pole. Our Saint Nick gives without cost to himself, without sacrifice, without hard work. Our Saint Nick does a major disservice to the actual man it honors because, by making the generosity of an orphaned fourth-century priest magical, it removes us from any real responsibility of trying to follow his example.

 

St. Nicholas, the young Turkish priest, did give secret gifts to children, and he gave up his own family fortune to do it. Yet, when I get to the same passage that once transformed that young man’s life, I shy away from its directive and try to soften its blow to the young people I teach.

 

Why do we shy away from asking for money specifically? Why is money, actual money, so much harder to give and, so much harder to ask for, than so many other things? Of course we need to give our stuff and our time and our prayers, but if we are willing to give those things and not money, does that not communicate that we find money more valuable than those things? Do we think our money is more valuable than our time? Than our prayers?

 

THE TAKEAWAY

Jesus is unequivocal here – he tells the young man to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor, because it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than a rich man to find salvation.[2] We owe our teenagers this truth, that money is often more hindrance than blessing, unedited and un-watered down, and I am conscious that I have denied those in my care something by shielding them from it.

 

This Christmas, as someone working in Youth Ministry, I am inspired by the story of Saint Nicholas—not the jolly man with a round belly, but the real man, who’s belly was probably made a little hollower by sacrificial financial giving. I will tell the story of the man who gave to children, not just out of abundance and magical elves, but to the point of his own scarcity, and I will not flinch when challenging myself, and the teenagers I minister to, to do the same.

 

[1] Mark 12:41-44; Matthew 6:19-20; Matthew 16:19-22

[2] Matthew 19:24

Kat Bair is the Director of Youth Ministries at First United Methodist Church of Fort Worth, Texas, and is pursuing a Masters of Arts in Youth Ministry at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary as part of the inaugural CYMT class in Texas. She is a Nashville native with a background in political science and anti-trafficking, and currently lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area with her husband, Andrew. You can find her writing featured through Youth Specialties, the Institute for Congregational Trauma and Growth, Austin Seminary, and elsewhere.

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