August 25, 2014

Constantine Influenced Christianity For Good

I read an interesting article (see below) this morning that taught me things I didn't know about the Roman Emperor Constantine.  After reading it, I appreciate what Constantine did to help establish Christianity all over the world.  I had no idea that one man had this impact on the world.  Pretty amazing.  And the timing was critical-- I'll explain.

Constantine lived a few hundred years after Christ's birth and ministry.  His mom Helena was a Christian, but living among nobles in Rome, Constantine grew up with Pagan idols.  His dad, Constantius Chlorus had divorced his mom to marry a woman who would help him become more prominent in government, which left his upbringing mainly to his mom.   And yet he wasn't a Christian like his mom.

Christians had been persecuted for hundreds of years at this point in time in Rome.  They were blamed for the burning of Rome, and the government turned a blind eye to crimes against them.  They were robbed, burned out of homes, killed, and the like while the government did nothing.  We read the beginnings of this persecution among the Christians in the Bible after Christ's death. 

Constantine served in the military, hoping to become a leader in the military and be able to govern territories as he proved himself capable of defending and protecting the people.  His father had risen to become Caesar or Emperor this way.  Over time, Constantine rose to assume the title his father had after his father died, ruling the lands of Britain, Gaul and Spain.

Although Constantine was recognized as Caesar, a rival named Maxentius felt like he deserved the throne.  He led a rebellion against Constantine and a great battle began.  The night before, Constantine saw a sign in the heavens that read 'Through this, conquer' and the letters which spelled out 'Christ' in Greek.  The next day Constantine beat Maxentius at the great battle at Milvian bridge.  He attributed his victory to Christ and became a Christian (although he wasn't baptized until years later so that his many sins as an emperor could be forgiven.) 

One of the first things he did after this victory was that he made Christ the 'patron deity of the Roman Empire.'  Declaring a deity for the whole empire wasn't new, but it was the first time an Emperor actually picked the right god.  Another first, Constantine encouraged Christian worship but didn't persecute any other religion, although he stopped funding the others.  He formed a state-sponsored 'Imperial Church' which worshipped Christ.  Similarly important, he declared that it was not a crime to be a Christian anymore, and declared that it was a crime to persecute them.  That ended hundreds of years of terrible persecution!

This moved Christianity from a small misunderstood, even hated religion into a world religion, accepted and practiced by millions.  Constantine built shrines on holy places and paid for artwork depicting events in Christ's life.  This started the vast creation and collection of Christian art we see today.  He declared holidays based on Christ's teachings that remain to today.  He built three cities, two of which remain the centers of Christian thought (Rome and Jerusalem.)  And as discord came into church leadership, he ordered a convention for them to work out their differences.  That resulted in the flawed but cooperative effort called the 'Nicean Creed' which attempted to describe God.  That ensured that all the leaders in their various places taught the same thing, helping it be similar throughout the kingdom. 

Although Constantine wasn't perfect, he did a lot of good.  He stopped persecution of the early Christians, probably saving the faith from total extinction.  He established Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire, which allowed it to take hold and spread over the world.  Scholars say that Constantine was easily one of the most influential people in Christian History. 

I really like this story because it shows me that we can trust God and his timing.  Heavenly Father waited until Constantine was Emperor before helping him convert to Christianity.  Being a Christian any earlier would have made Constantine's rise in the military and country leadership impossible.  He may have instead been persecuted along with the rest of the religious Christians; he certainly would not have been elevated to the leader of the empire.  We can trust that Heavenly Father knows when to intervene in our lives and that He will help us wait for His timing.  He will bear us up and dry our tears and succor us through the waiting.

Take courage in knowing that Heavenly Father knows you so well, He has all the hairs on your head numbered.  He knows what is best for you and how to help you with your problems. 
(The article I read:  Constantine's Influence Can Scarcely Be Measured by William J. Hamblin and Daniel Peterson.  Deseret News, August 10, 2014 p. 6.)
References:  Wikipedia
Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

August 1, 2014

Alice Herz-Sommer Made a Concentration Camp Beautiful to Save Her Son

Alice and Stephan/Raphael a few years after the war.  Photo courtesy of
I heard about a really amazing woman named Alice.  She survived the Holocaust and lived to be 110 years old.  But the most remarkable part of her story is how she was so happy throughout her life, although she had much to be sad about.  She chose to see the beauty in an often ugly world. 

Alice was living in Prague, Czeckoslovakia when Nazi Germany took over the city in 1939.  She had recently married her sweetheart Leopold and delivered her first child, a boy they named Stephan.  And she was a renowned pianist-- performing beautiful music to adoring audiences.  Her happy life changed as Hitler began to persecute the Jewish people because, although Alice didn't practice her religion, she was Jewish.

Hitler made it clear that he disliked the Jewish people immediately upon entering Prague.  As he had done in other cities he had invaded, Hitler began to destroy the Jewish people.  He took all of their possessions, including their businesses, he moved them into Ghettos, split up their families, and ultimately moved them to concentration camps where he could finish them off.  Only a small percentage of the Jewish people in Prague survived Hitler's treatment.  This was a dark time in world history.  But the adversity created many heroes like Alice.

Alice watched as her family members fled to America or were rounded up and sent to a camp.  When Alice, Leopold and Stephan were ordered to move to a camp in 1943, Alice decided to do all she could to help her 6 year old son Stephan survive.  Because Alice was a performing artist, she was placed in a camp called 'Theresienstadt.'  It was where they put people with performing abilities.  Rumors had been going around that Hitler was killing the Jews and he wanted the rumors to stop.  Hitler wanted to keep the world thinking that his regime was treating the Jews well.  If Hitler could film Jewish musicians performing classical music and show it to the world, he could keep fooling everyone. 

Leopold was an accomplished violinist, but because he worked as an accountant to support the family, he went to a regular work camp nearby and visited Alice and Stephan (who was allowed to stay with his mother.)   Alice, Leopold and Stephan were cold and hungry in their camps.  And they tried not to worry about what would happen to them and their loved ones.

For Stephan's sake, Alice looked for the good in everyone and everything in the camp.  She wanted to find it and to point it out to Stephan so he wouldn't be afraid or scarred by this awful experience.  She wanted him to survive and when he was freed, to still see the good in life.   She tucked him within her arms at night and gave him any extra food she could spare during the day.

Alice was assigned jobs like breaking rocks or washing clothes.  But for a half hour a day she was allowed to practice piano.  She and the other musicians were to perform concerts regularly, although they were given no sheet music to use.  Alice had to remember the difficult music she had learned before.  Fortunately, she was a devoted pianist, having practiced 4 hours a day before her internment in the camp.  Her memory served her well.  She put on complicated concerts weekly for the guards, prisoners and German dignitaries, receiving great praise for her technique and expression.

Being able to play her music brought great joy to Alice and Stephan.  The music she played was so beautiful that it transported them away from the dark, ugly, and heartless camp back to the happier places in their past.  The guards and the other prisoners had the same experience of feeling happier when she played.  Her music became an oasis in an awful place.  Alice told people, "It is music that takes us to paradise."

Alice's combination of looking for the good in their awful world, and bringing beautiful music into it worked!  Alice and Stephan survived and were freed when the camp was liberated in 1945.  Leopold didn't survive, so Alice devoted herself to raising Stephan to adulthood by herself.  They first returned to Prague, but moved to Jerusalem shortly thereafter.  Stephan grew up to be a famous musician like his mother, performing the Cello worldwide under his new name Raphael Sommer.  And Alice practiced the piano for 3-4 hours every day until she died at the age of 110.  The music she played brought her joy and made her world beautiful, no matter where she was.  She forgave all those who hurt her and looked forward to each day optimistically.  She said, “Every day in life is beautiful...every day!”

No matter what trials we are enduring, we can look forward to each day as a beautiful gift and enjoy it fully.  Heavenly Father loves each of us and will bless us through our experiences. 

Sources:  Muller, Melissa and Reinhard Piechocki, Alice's Piano The life of Alice Herz-Sommer.  St. Martin's Press.  New York. 2006.

Watch documentaries about her:  "The Lady in Number 6" and "Everything is a Present." 

Terry Fox Runs for Other Cancer Fighters

Photo courtesy of
My husband Scott and I went to Canada recently and enjoyed the area very much.  While driving around, I saw a building named the 'Terry Fox Sports Facility.'  I asked Scott who Terry Fox was and he told me his story briefly.  So cool!  He's a real hero!

Terry Fox was a Canadian boy who loved to play sports.  Because he was short, his middle school coaches discouraged him from playing basketball, telling him he'd be a better runner.  So Terry started running, but kept coming back to basketball as his favorite sport.  He practiced so much that he made the high school basketball team in spite of his shorter height.  In fact, in his Senior year he was named Athlete of the Year.  He was offered a spot on the college basketball team the next fall, not because of his height or skill, but more because of his determination.

Shortly after graduation, Terry was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, a cancer of the bone in his knee.  In 1976, the treatment for the disease was leg amputation in addition to chemotherapy and radiation treatment.  Terry underwent all of these procedures and started physical therapy with his new prosthetic leg.  He started running again, although it was very painful on his stiff artificial leg.  He had to hop on his good leg twice for each step on his artificial leg, since the spring in his artificial leg took so long to reset.  It made for a painful run, causing shin splints and bruises on his good leg, and sores, blisters and bruises on his stump. 

He had heard of a runner (Dick Traum) who completed a marathon with a prosthetic leg and chose a marathon several months away in which to run.  This gave him a goal to work toward.  Terry finished the marathon 10 minutes after the last runner did, to the cheers of the adoring crowds.  Emboldened, Terry announced that he would run across Canada to raise money for cancer research.  His mom was alarmed and unsupportive at first, but seeing his determination, she joined the rest of the family in supporting him.

Having successfully beat his cancer, he wanted to offer other cancer patients courage and hope.  He felt it was his new purpose in life and set about to make it happen.  He said, "My quest would not be a selfish one. I could not leave (treatment) knowing these faces and feelings would still exist, even though I would be set free from mine. Somewhere the hurting must stop....and I was determined to take myself to the limit for this cause."  

He set out a course across Canada starting at the Atlantic ocean and ending at the Pacific.  He called it 'Marathon of Hope' because he would run a Marathon each day until he crossed the continent.  He filled two bottles up with sea water in Newfoundland.  He intended to pour one into the Pacific ocean when he finished, and keep the other as a souvenir.  He asked for monetary contributions, securing enough funding to start his journey.  Then he asked Canadians to contribute, hoping to raise $1 for each of the 24 million citizens.  Terry's best friend would drive a van behind him and cook his meals. 

Starting running on April 12, 1980, he was faced with a snowstorm, heavy rain and intense winds the first few days.  Nevertheless, Terry ran a marathon each day, persisting in his quest.  Slowly, his efforts were noticed by the media and he began to get more support.   A hotel owner offered him a room every night in his hotel chain as he crossed the country.  That was probably a nice help!  People began running with him or cheering him on as he ran.  Local governments asked him to speak when he visited their towns.  And people began to contribute money to the cause, making him happy in spite of the pain he was in with each step. 

Running a marathon every day (remember that's 26 miles!!!) would exhaust any healthy athlete.  (He even ran on his 22nd birthday.)  Imagine how extra hard it would be for an amputee running on a prosthetic leg.   Remember that he had just endured surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments a few years prior.  Terry was exhausted by the time he reached Thunder Bay, Ontario (on Lake Superior) in September and doctors made him stop the run. Terry was devastated and said,  "Everybody seems to have given up hope of trying. I haven't. It isn't easy and it isn't supposed to be, but I'm accomplishing something. How many people give up a lot to do something good? I'm sure we would have found a cure for cancer 20 years ago if we had really tried." 

Even though the run was stopped, Terry had raised $1.7 million dollars to that date.  By the next February, $24 million had been collected!  Terry had met his goal, and the people kept giving.  To date, Terry has raised $400 million, all dedicated to cancer research.  One of Canada's leaders said, "It occurs very rarely in the life of a nation that the courageous spirit of one person unites all people in the celebration of his life...  [we think of Terry] as one who inspired us with the example of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity". 

Bridges, roads, schools, running trails and facilities are named in Terry's honor, as well as a yearly run to raise money for Cancer research.  A song was even written about him (Rod Stewart's 'Never Give Up on a Dream.")  In a 1999 public opinion poll, he was named Canada's greatest hero.  Pretty amazing.  It's a wonderful thing to see the difference one person can make. 

Terry took his struggle against Cancer and turned it into a way to help others.  He showed amazing courage, strength and determination as he thought of others.  What a hero!