Monday, December 18, 2017

December 18 - Sebastian, Martyr, Soldier, Wonder Worker

Sebastian had been raised within the bounds of the Roman empire and knew well the laws and principles that were the foundation of Roman reason and expectation. Further, he had been appointed a captain of the Praetorian Guard under emperors Diocletian and Maximian. However, they had appointed him to this influential and powerful position without the rulers knowing what it was he did on Sundays. Sebastian was a Christian and professed his ultimate allegiance tothe same Lord that Rome had slaughtered to keep the pax romana in Judea. Had they known, they likely would have had him executed if he would not deny his faith. Yet, his faith remained secret even as the power of the Praetorians was weakened by Diocletian and Maximian. Because of this secrecy, Diocletian was unprepared for what came next.

It seems that two Christians had been arrested and tortured when they refused to deny their faith. Mark and Marcellian were close to abandoning their faith in exchange for an end to their pain and an opportunity to be with their family again when they heard whispering outside of their cell. Sebastian comforted them and shared his own faith with them. There in the Roman prison they prayed together and invoked the protection of their crucified Lord. Sebastian encouraged them to be courageous as death approached and they received the holy crown of martyrdom. The next day they surprised Diocletian who expected them to be sufficiently worn down. Diocletian had them tortured again yet their faith would not cave. He called for the family members of the men to visit them and plead with them to make a token sacrifice and renounce their faith. As they visited and pleaded with Mark and Marcellian, Sebastian arrived. At first, the families were worried to see a Praetorian captain near their loved ones yet were comforted by Mark and Marcellian's joy to see him. Again he comforted Mark and Marcellian and offered prayer with them but he also shared his faith with their non-Christian family. In a few short hours, the families were confessing faith in Jesus and joining with the men in their prayer and worship.

Diocletian was surprised again but this time he thought he had an idea what had happened. Some important families had been having family members become Christians at surprising times andall of the conversions seemed to be connecting around one central figure's visit: Sebastian. Diocletian called Sebastian to him and gave him no opportunity to regain his status. Instead, he had him taken to a nearby field and tied to a stake. The Roman archers raisedtheir brutal bows and rained death upon him. His flesh was pierced on account of his faith. He was left for dead as his blood was slowly consumed by the soil beneath his naked body. Yet, as the sun fell and the soldiers departed, Sebastian's heart still beat and he was taken from the place by a Christian widow--Irene of Rome who had been married to Castulus. She took him to her home and nursed him back to health after cleaning his wounds and giving him her bed to sleep in. Amazingly, he recovered and worked a wonder in the house of Irene. A blind woman from the community was skeptical of his faith--perhaps because of his status as a Praetorian--and refused to accept that he was a Christian. He called her to himself and asked, "Do you desire to be with God?" She responded in the affirmative and he made the sign of the cross upon her forehead. Miraculously, she gained her sight the moment after his thumb left her brow.

Yet, one day Diocletian and his entourage were passing through the city and Sebastian saw him coming. He stood upon the step of the home and called out to Diocletian in a loud voice: "See now, Diocletian, the one you condemned to death stands before you. You hope to kill the disciples of Jesus Christ but you only honor those whom you murder and encourage those who escape your desperate grasp."In a fit of rage, Diocletian ordered his soldiers to beat Sebastian to death and throw his body into a garbage heap after they were sure he was dead. Sebastian died a martyr and evangelist who espoused a faith that was contagious and compelling.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

December 17 - Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, Near Martyrs

"You see, fellas, those Jews can look healthy, too, thanks to the fine food they eat here in our palaces." boasted king Nebuchadnezzar. He was answered with the expected nods and grunts of affirmation. Being the king of Babylon meant that people agreed with you and didn't bother to correct you when you were wrong. The four men he was referring to were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah and they had secretly requested not to eat the meat offered them since it had been offered to idols first. In an attempt to keep themselves clean, they had risked the wrath of one who is always right--those who are always right must do much to maintain their status--and so they had been allowed to eat only vegetables for ten days and drink only water as a test. Their handler had been hesitant to allow it but was amazed to see them looking healthier every day as they subsisted upon the bare minimum and prayer. Even now, the king could not tell that his prisoners had been refusing his meat.

Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah, and Daniel had been taken captive when the Babylonians overwhelmed and overran Judah. The four men had been of noble birth and blood in Israel and so they made effective bargaining tools for the Babylonians who hoped to purchase Judah's submission with threats of death and violence against the noble and respected. In essence, they were hostages but they were treated well. They were provided with fine accommodations and were even allowed to worship as they pleased--sometimes. They were even given Babylonian names (you may be more familiar with some of these): Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were addressed by these names but they remained connected with their heritage. Consequently, three of them (all but Daniel) ran into some trouble when Nebuchadnezzar built a gold statue of himself to be worshiped.

He had decreed that when the people heard a great cacophony of musical instruments, they should immediately cease all other activities and bow before the statue of the king. The people were quick to oblige for they knew the penalty for withholding worship of the king would be severe and immediate. As if to prove them right, Nebuchadnezzar had his workers build a furnace to ruthlessly murder any one who would dare defy his royal order. The king knew that this visible threat would cause the hearts of the hesitant to quake and surrender. Yet, he didn't anticipate Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The instruments were played and people shouted. The crowd dropped to the ground in reverence to their manipulative persecutor but the three men stayed on their feet, perhaps mumbling a prayer to the Lord God Almighty whom their true names made reference to. He ordered them brought before him to face his fury. He had the guards drag them near to the furnace as it blazed and crackled. "Bow before me as your god or you will burn this very moment." The three men shook their heads and insisted that there was only one God worthy of worship. Nebuchadnezzar demanded worship but God was worthy of worship without demands or manipulations. "Make it hotter--seven times hotter!" screamed Nebuchadnezzar and his anxious workers did as he commanded. "Will you not now save yourselves and worship me?" he asked them. They resolutely refused.

So, he threw them into the fiery furnace and as they entered into the flames, bound by ropes, their entrance caused the flames to shoot out and consume the men who threw them in. This was no concern for Nebuchadnezzar who had no care for the men he manipulated. Expecting to harvest the fear he produced in those who watched his heinous actions, Nebuchadnezzar was surprised to see what looked like four men walking together in the flames. "How is this possible? and who is that fourth man?" he questioned his men in surprise. A murmur rose up that the fourth must be one appointed by God to go forth and watch over them in the flames. The ropes had been consumed but they were fine. "Come out, please." Nebuchadnezzar pleaded with the men. The three men came out at his request and were untouched by the fire or the soot. Nebuchadnezzar didn't know what to say but eventually decreed that nobody should oppose the God of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Perhaps that is the one good thing to say for Nebuchadnezzar in the story: he recognized that there was one greater than himself even if it had no immediate impact on his life except to provide him a way to avoid losing face before the near-martyrs: Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

December 16 - Thomas Becket, Martyr, Champion of the State, Enemy of the State

It's hard to classify where Thomas Becket fits into the question of State and Church. For much of his career, he was a friend of the powerful in England. The king and Thomas were fast friends for many years and Thomas even served as a foster father to one of Henry's sons. As Thomas rose through positions of power and influence within the Church, he garnered yet more attention from the powerful and respected. Yet, he continued living the life of a servant of the Kingdom by taking care of the poor and disenfranchised that had been created by the very systems he was so involved in. Thomas' story is a conflicted one even at its more heroic parts. For years, people have tried to gloss over his early affection for the State as being a matter of cunning or somehow less corrupting than it may appear to be yet it cannot be doubted any longer that Thomas defended and encouraged the king even as his actions drew the ire and disrespect of the people of the Church.

Yet, there is more to the story. The reach of the State began to increase even more and to take advantage of the clergy of England. Now that Thomas was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry hoped to command him and further cement his power over the clerical and Church leaders in his kingdom. Yet, now Thomas balked. He resisted Henry's suggestions and refused to be directed to serve the State's whims any longer. At first, Henry felt there must be a misunderstanding but Thomas' refusals only continued as time went on. Henry called for leaders to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon and swear their allegiance first to the British empire and secondly to the Church. Thomas was conflicted yet refused to sign. For this decision, he suffered condemnation from those he had been ingratiated to and learned to love and please. As the crisis continued, he eventually excommunicated those who sided with Henry and the State over the Church. In these actions, it seems Thomas made his choice as to who would be his master--yet it is not hard to imagine that all of this was a challenging decision for the man who had rested in the king's own courts. Thomas was forced to flee the king and ended up in Normandy.

When Henry heard of the newest volley of excommunications and Church actions, he remarked from his sick bed: "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" What was intended to be a remark was interpreted as a command and a group of four knights went forth to find and judge Thomas. When they arrived at the worship service that Thomas was presiding over, they left their weapons outside and ordered Thomas to come with them to be judged by king Henry. He refused and they retrieved their weapons. As Thomas proceeded to the sanctuary for the vespers service, he was assaulted and killed by Henry's men. He died quickly as the men were trained by the State to exact the king's commands even against those who had been near and dear to the king.

Friday, December 15, 2017

December 15 - Annie Armstrong, Layperson, Advocate for Missions, Founder of the Women's Missionary Union

Annie Armstrong had a Baptist pedigree that many other Baptists may have envied. Her immediate family was intimately involved in church life in Baltimore, Maryland. Her ancestors had been Baptists about as far back as anybody could remember and her father's great-grandfather had been a man who helped establish the first Baptist church in Maryland: Henry Satre. In other words, Annie was very familiar with the life of the Church and the roles that it filled in the lives of those around her. Yet, it wasn't until she was nineteen (four years after the end of the United States of America's Civil War) that she finally had an experience she would call "being born again." This moment was a significant one for her and was a leap forward in her conversion away from the powers of this world to Lord of All Creation. Shortly thereafter, she left that first congregation--Seventh Street Baptist Church--and was a charter member in a new congregation: Eutlaw Place Church. The pastor at the time was a man with a heart for missions who preached about a need to go into the world and meet the needs of a people that live in darkness because of a calling upon the lives of the members to reflect the light of their Lord and Savior. This was a message that Annie heard loud and clear.

The Baptists of Annie's day were loosely confederated in conventions and associations. The typically independent Baptists convened and associated for missions purposes, at first. They became increasingly aware that they could do more good for the world and meet more needs if they'd work together. Annie was involved in these efforts early on. While in Baltimore, she became intimately associated with a variety of people with a variety of needs regardless of social or racial identity. As a follower of Jesus, Annie felt called to associate with those that many in the nation looked down upon and resented.

In 1888, Annie met with a group of women from many Baptist churches to address the question of female involvement in missions throughout the world. They were aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and organized a group that worked through the denominational structure to encourage women to think about their faith in terms of missions.This group would eventually be called the Women's Missionary Union (WMU) and Annie would be its first director. Her early efforts for missions involved writing many letters--Annie is said to have written over 17,500 letters in one year--and providing a loving hand and a hospitable environment to children and the lonely, disenfranchised masses. The SBC wanted to pay her a salary for her efforts to raise missions awareness among Baptists but she refused not only the salary but also reimbursements for any of her expenses. She insisted that her work was a calling and labor of love.

Annie eventually resigned from her position of leadership because of a fear that her work was paving a pathway for the ordination of women--an issue she was stridently opposed to--and Annie never worked with the WMU again. She continued to live a life of emphasis on mission work but stuck to her convictions and abandoned the organization she had helped to establish. Yet, near the end of her life (a few years before the beginning of the Second World War and in the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the WMU) she offered a blessing for the WMU and shared her hope that it would continue to grow stronger and stronger each year.