Sunday, July 24, 2016

July 24 - John Newton, Ex-Slaver and Lost Cause


John Newton was born on July 24th, 1725, to a family of affluence that had grown rich on the backs of slaves. Though his mother died young from tuberculosis, it was his father’s desire that John should become a slave master in the family business on a sugar plantation. Before this could occur, however, John was pressed into service to the empire as a naval officer. For whatever reason, John tried to desert and was punished severely: 96 lashes, humiliation in front of the whole crew, and demotion to the status of servant. John’s well-planned life that had been formed quickly by the desires of his father and the values of imperial England was falling down around him.

His pain turned him to thought of suicide but he refrained from a quick d
eath and tried to throw himself into a dark abyss one choice at a time instead. He requested to be transferred to a slave ship and made a servant of a slaver. His self-imposed punishment and exile was ended, however, when his father sent a crew to recover him. On his way back to England aboard the Greyhound, a terrible storm descended upon them. John had only just changed places with another man when the man was swept overboard and drowned. Having read Thomas a Kempis’Imitation of Christ and in a great panic John prayed to God in desperation for grace and protection. After the terrible storm had passed, that night, he began reading the scriptures and feelings the beginning of his conversion. Whereas the promises and plans of the world had failed him and left him empty, the promises and plans of God began a process of conversion.

He would, eventually, become an Anglican priest—though not until June 17th, 1764—and experience God’s grace and formation as he continued the process of conversion from who he was into what God was making him into. Throughout John Newton’s story it is evident that his conversion was a slow and steady process that involved the persistent formation and repair of all that was broken about him. In fact, it was only after years of being a priest and continuing in relationship and conversation with other Christians that John eventually renounced the slavery that he had grown up under.

Some have criticized John Newton for dwelling in sin even as he claimed the mantle of Christian.Charges of hypocrisy are not unheard when telling the story of John Newton. Even though John later regretted his commitment to the slavery he had engaged in and supported, it cannot be simply overlooked. Yet, it only serves to strengthen the power of his story: conversion is a process that takes time whereby we are made more into the image God has for us. Though John’s continued support of slavery is distasteful for us, it must be remembered that unlike many people who struggled with the issue he did renounce it--better late than never. Also, it makes the story more real and more honest because it so closely resembles the struggles of all Christians in the process of conversion away from the world’s image and into God’s image. Perhaps this is why so many Christians have connected with his hymn “Faith's review and expectation”—you might know it as “Amazing Grace.” Perhaps, it is that Christians can sing along with John Newton confidently:
Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

July 23 - Phocas, Martyr, Grave-digger

Phocas had finished tending his gardens and it seemed that yet another day had slipped away into dusk while he worked busily to grow the crops that had been planted and sustained. Giving thanks to God, he watched the Christian pilgrims sneaking away under the increasingly dark cover. Under the rule of Diocletian, food was becoming increasingly difficult to find for those professing Jesus’ name and lordship. More and more Christians were coming to Phocas to receive food from his vast gardens along with the poor and oppressed that had been coming for some time. This was a blessing and, yet, there was a catch: the more he helped his brothers and sisters, the more the Empire’s gaze turned to Phocas’ home at Sinope near the Black Sea.

As is always the case for those who attract the hatred of the empire, Phocas was ordered to die by an imperial sword. For, you see, the power of the empire is ultimately rooted in the power to deprive you of your life. Diocletian sent soldiers to find and execute Phocas for his obedience to Jesus—a power besides Rome. And, so, the soldiers traveled to Sinope where they found the gates locked. Looking for a place to stay the night, they came upon the home of Phocas. They did not know what he looked like when they arrived at his home looking for him. Phocas promised to show them where they could find the man they were looking for in the morning but, first, invited them into his home for a meal and a place to sleep. He fed them, perhaps he washed their feet and he provided them with a place to sleep and recover from their travel. As they slept that night, Phocas went out and dug a grave near his garden. Praying while he dug, he prepared himself for his own martyrdom.When he had finished digging his own grave, he spent the remainder of the night in prayer.

In the morning, the thankful soldiers awoke and prepared for the day. They were appreciative of Phocas’ hospitality and kindness but were unprepared for Phocas’ confession. Phocas agreed to show them the man they were looking for and lead them out of his home. As they approached Phocas’ garden, he stood in front of the grave he had dug, turned to face them, and confessed to being the man they were looking for. The soldiers who had been tasked with killing Phocas—menace and rebel that he was—suddenly found their imperial resolve weakened. They offered to return to Diocletian and lie: “We couldn’t find him.”

Phocas knelt in the dirt, bared his neck, and refused to let the soldiers lie, sin, and risk their own lives to save his. He assured them that he was not afraid of death—a concept entirely foreign to the threats of the Empire—and, instead, eagerly anticipated his martyrdom. Having given permission to his executioners, they decapitated him and finished the burial he had started the night before.

Phocas denied the power of the Empire over him and left an indelible impression upon not only his executioners—the soldiers—but, also, all who would hear the story of the willing martyr and grave-digger. The great power of the Empire—the ability to deprive you of your life—had failed to convert Phocas and, yet, Phocas’ seemingly incomprehensible willingness to love and die converted many.

Friday, July 22, 2016

July 22 - Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles


Mary of Magdala was found in the crowd that had turned on Jesus as He drug the cross to Golgotha. Fickle as people are, it is not especially surprising that they had turned on Jesus and now gloried in His agony and looming death. Equally unsurprising is Mary’s presence near Jesus as He walked the Via Dolorosa. After all, Jesus had cast seven demons out from Mary and began the beautiful process of conversion and redemption. Mary’s feet were planted firmly in the Kingdom and, for her, that meant walking alongside—or at least as close as possible—Jesus as He agonized in His journey. The Twelve may have fled for their lives but Mary continued to follow because of hers.

Arriving at the Cross, Mary waited with Jesus as He shed his blood and took away the sins of the World. She was present as they took the Lord God Almighty down from the Cross and buried Him in the tomb. It is inconceivable what pain went through her as she watched Jesus slowly suffer and die. Who can tell the fear and desperation that passed through her as they carried her Lord and placed him in a tomb?


She went with the other women to the tomb on the third day and found it empty. She ran for Peter and others and told them of the emptiness that she had discovered. The emptiness of the tomb must surely have symbolized to her the emptiness of hope for the once-exorcised and now seemingly abandoned disciple of Jesus. As she stood there, weeping for herself and for her lost Lord, she sees a man approaching. In her desperation, she takes Him to be the gardener and pleads with him to tell her where Jesus has been laid. The man, Jesus, only calls out her name and casts the fear, confusion, and emptiness out of her.

She cried out, “Teacher!” and is comforted again by His presence. He commissions her, again, and gives her an important message: “Go to my people and say them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” She took this blessed charge and ran to tell them the blessed news. Mary had carried the Gospel message—Jesus has lived, died for our sins, and been raised from the dead—before any other and, thus, is well deserving of the title: Apostle to the Apostles.

Though others may overlook Mary and focus solely on the other disciples, there can be no doubt that this devoted follower of Jesus Christ was an apostle and citizen of the Kingdom of GodShe was the first to hear the good news and the first to proclaim it to the world. As is the case for all conversions to the Kingdom of God, Mary was redeemed by the life, death, and teachings of Jesus Christ and made into an instrument of God’s redeeming love. Indeed, Mary—Mary who never abandoned Jesus and whom Jesus called by name—was a witness to the redeeming power of love over death and evil.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

July 21 - Victor of Marseilles, Martyr, Opponent of Idolatry

Victor was raised as many Roman military officers might have been. He showed great promise as a soldier of the empire. He was well known for his bravery and intelligence. He had the right pedigree—a noble background that assured him advancement and power within the imperial system. He was well-equipped for imperial success. Indeed, one would imagine that a man like Victor would have too much to lose to abandon an empire and imperial success for a crucified Lord.

And, yet, Victor—who served the empire—refused to offer sacrifice to the gods and values of Rome. Instead, Victor called the imperial gods what they were: idols. His opponents seized this opportunity and denounced him before the empire. Mighty Victor the intended role model of so many Roman citizens was brought before two prefects, Asterius and Eutychius, who recognized that such a notable man should instead appear before the emperor. And, so, Victor was brought before Emperor Maximian and given a chance to repent of his verbal sin against the empire—they asked him to deny the truth he had seen and proclaimed. They asked him to lie and become an idolater.

Surely, Victor knew the eventual cost of his truth-telling and, yet, he endured Maximian’s tortures. He was severely beaten and, still, would not deny the charge of idolatry. They put him on the rack and tortured him slowly in hopes that his resolve would crack and he would escape pain into the arms of poisonous agreement. They underestimated Victor's commitment. They drug him through the streets hoping, still, that humiliation and abuse would shake loose Victor’s conviction and “bring him to his senses.” Victor accepted their abuse and would not take part in their blindness—the one who had seen could not simply un-see like they were demanding of him.

Maximian threw him into prison under a guard of three soldiers thinking that isolation, abuse and brokenness would have the desired effect if left to simmer and stew. While in prison, Victor ministered to his guards and the three of them were converted. Longinus, Alexander and Felician were liberated from the imperial lie and brought into the Kingdom of God that day.

When Maximian heard this he had the three converts brought before him and beheaded. He had to stop the hemorrhaging while he still had a chance. Still, Victor would not participate in the imperial lie. Maximian was becoming enraged and confused at Victor’s actions. Maximian could not understand how Victor could take such abuse and, yet, still be reaching out in mercy to his abusers. Maximian could not understand how the Kingdom of God’s values differed from the Empire’s. Maximian didn’t understand the process of conversion—- all he understood was self-deception and a bland hope for security through domination. So, Maximian ordered Victor to the temple of Jupiter—perhaps hoping that the grandeur of the temple would change Victor’s mind. Maximian hoped to woo Victor back to the comfortable lies of the Empire.

As Victor stood before the statue of Jupiter he was expected to burn incense to Jupiter and the Empire. Everybody held their breath as every eye was on Victor. As they watched, Victor kicked the statue of Jupiter and it fell over. In one defiant and powerful act, Victor reinforced what he had been saying all along: the gods and values of Rome are dead and useless. He was immediately seized by the shocked mob and Maximian ordered the offending foot cut off. After his foot was cut off, Maximian ordered the beaten and bloody Victor to be crushed to death by a millstone. And, so, Victor of Marseilles was martyred for refusing to believe and preach the imperial lie. St. Victor died for the Kingdom of God in opposition to the damning self-deception of the imperial machine.