Tuesday, February 20, 2018

February 20 - Frederick Douglass, Reformer, Abolitionist, Sage of Anacostia

Frederick was born in Maryland but it wasn't his state it was the state where his oppressors lived--Frederick had no place to call his own. Frederick knew who his mother was but he was stripped away from her while he was an infant as if he were only a commodity with no heart or mind to form connections. Frederick knew who his grandmother was because he was raised under he watchful eyes and kind tutelage but he was separated from her when he was only seven years old. Those who held him in slavery did not see any reason they should honor the bonds between he and his grandmother and so they had no problem taking him to another place to do a different job because their lives were and always had been focused on efficiency and profit. Frederick didn't know who his father was though it's very likely that he was the slave of his own father after being separated from his grandmother. Chances are, he was the son of a white overseer who had taken indecent liberties with a slave woman as was his presumed natural and God-given right. After that man died, Frederick was transferred to yet another family near Baltimore.

It was while he was serving the Auld family near Baltimore that he first encountered the written word as anything more than another way for those with power to maintain it. The slave master's wife taught twelve year old Frederick the fundamentals of reading and writing. Frederick took to it with his natural intelligence and was soon beginning to read and write on his own. But the slave master found out and insisted that this was inappropriate on the grounds that slaves who could read might question their lot in life and become dissatisfied with slavery. Hugh Auld knew well that education was a liberator and literacy was the gateway to education. What he didn't know what the already powerful dissatisfaction that brewed in the hearts of Frederick and his brothers and sisters. Auld put a stop to the lessons but the fire of knowledge burned bright and quick in Frederick's mind and he continued to teach himself to read even though he was warned not to. After honing his skills, the adolescent Frederick took to teaching reading to other slaves on Sundays. Given time by their oppressors to worship, they did so but Frederick was keen to teach them to read their New Testament. In it, they found stories of liberation and freedom. In these stories, they began to be freed from their many bonds--all except their most physical and real. Frederick was beaten for these lessons and suffered severe punishments but would not stop teaching or questioning the injustice of slavery upon religious grounds. He was turned over to a particularly cruel slave master for his persistence.

When he was twenty years old, Frederick finally escaped slavery on his third attempt. He boarded a train, he adopted a guise, and in twenty-four hours he was a man finally freed from his physical bonds. He became an ardent activist and abolitionist campaigning not only for the end of slavery but also the end of all injustice and oppression--he even ran to be the first African-American Vice President on an equal rights ticket with Victoria Woodhull (the first woman to run for President). He was quick to strike at the hypocrisy of the religious elite in their use of the scriptures that proclaimed liberation and life as tools of oppression and death and insisted that true religion was not a matter of control but of love and freedom. His work as an abolitionist hastened the end of slavery in the United States and testified to a Christian faith that found its root and power in a Lord who had been oppressed by the powerful.

Monday, February 19, 2018

February 19 - Elias and Companions, Martyrs, Comforters, Inspiration to Others

The five men gathered together and agreed on one particular thing: they felt called to go and be a comfort to brothers and sisters who had been arrested by the Roman Empire. Elias, Daniel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Samuel were Christians in Egypt during a time when Christianity was entirely unwelcome within the bounds of the Roman Empire.Rome had made it explicitly clear that those who were Christians were enemies of the state and would be treated as such with little regard for their nonviolent convictions. Elias and his companions had known people who had been seized and murdered for their faith and therefore they knew well that this calling could be their first step on a path that led inexorably toward their own martyrdom. Yet, they could not shake the conviction that God was calling them to go to Cilicia and comfort Christians that were slaves in the mines there. So, they packed their things and they went out. They arrived without interference and they found the ones they were looking for. They sang songs and prayed with these faithful individuals whose faith could not be deterred by Roman power. When both the comforters and the afflicted had been encouraged by their mutual faith, the men prepared for the journey home. That's when the problems started.

Rome was exceptionally adept at discovering and identifying Christians. By most accounts, they were also fairly successful at breaking the faiths of those whom they captured. They knew well that those who visited Christians in prison and slave camps were likely to be Christians themselves. When Elias and his companions visited their brothers and sisters, they marked themselves for Rome's attention. As they were returning home they were stopped in Caesarea by a group of soldiers assigned with their interrogation. Their captors asked them why they had made the journey and probably expected to hear some complicated lie that might cover over what Rome knew very well: these men were Christians and therefore unwelcome in the Empire. What they heard however was a frank admission by the men that they were Christians and they had traveled to comfort their brothers and sisters. Surely, they were surprised at the ease with which they had confessed--it was as if they weren't ashamed of the fact. The men had counted the likely cost of their journey--their own lives--and found it to be an acceptable price for serving God. They were tortured and asked to deny their faith but they did not. They would not be broken. Finally, they were beheaded.

Yet, after their deaths two men came forward named Porphyry and Pamphilus and insisted that these men who had traveled far to provide comfort deserved to be buried. They confronted the Empire and insisted on kindness.They must have known the likely outcome of their insistence since Rome was not interested in being kind so much as they were interested in controlling and dominating the minds and hearts of the people. They were accused of being Christian because of their insistence that the men be buried and mourned. They admitted that they were and were tortured before being burned to death. This wasn't the end, however, as another man named Seleucus came forward and spoke loudly in praise of the men who had been willing to lay down everything to follow after their executed Lord. He spoke highly of Pamphilus' and Porphyry's courage and bravery in the face of a grisly death. The soldiers seized Seleucus and he was also exposed as a Christian. For this crime and for the crime of speaking highly of those whom Rome despised and had killed, he was beheaded.It seems that all had indeed counted the cost and were willing to pay it for the privilege of following after a God who had been executed for loving too much, as well.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

February 18 - Philothei, Martyr, Spiritual Mother, Domestic Abuse Survivor

Philothei was a good daughter in an affluent family in Athens. She did as she was instructed by her parents and offered them her heart's deepest love in return. When she was twelve, she was courted by a powerful and influential man. He was wealthy and involved in the politics and leadership of the city. She was very hesitant to marry, however, because she felt a calling that seemed to be at odds with marriage--passionate and sacrificial devotion to her Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, she was obedient to her parents who insisted that this man seemed like a good man and would surely give her freedom to express her faith as freely and clearly as she could.So, she was married to the man and she suffered secretly within his house and his embrace. He was an abusive man who routinely punished her for perceived slights and failures and insisted that she was an inadequate wife. She suffered his abuse--both emotional and physical--and continued to express her faith as she could but he worked hard to restrain her and limit her involvement in the Church she loved. But, no matter how hard he tried he could not turn her eyes and her heart away from the object of her devotion: her crucified Lord.

Philothei became a widow after three years of torturous marriage and she inherited his great wealth. She moved back into the home of her parents and continued to age and mature.She was unwilling to marry again and her family did not push her to do so. Perhaps they realized that the first marriage has been harmful and were unwilling to try again. Regardless, she spent his wealth in a variety of ways that aided the poor and the hungry. She didn't see the great wealth as a thing to be used to defend or secure herself but as a commodity best used by distributing it among those with the most need.Her parents died when she was twenty-five and she was once again the recipient of a large estate. Now that she was no longer bound to a home and now that she had considerable wealth to spend on others, she took up a live of prayer and service that exceeded even her earlier devotion. The money was put into able hands that would administrate its use. In so doing, many churches and monasteries were built with it but Philothei had already turned her attention to founding a convent for women that she felt she had been directed to build by Andrew the Apostle in a vision. She did so and the convent became a refuge and sanctuary for women to flee to from abuse or persecution. A particular group of women--members of Turkish harems--became aware of this convent's willingness to take them in and soon they were coming in droves. For her willingness to shelter these women from abuse such as she had received, she would be further abused.

The Turks who controlled Greece at the time were enraged that Christian women were helping their harem women to escape and so they began to apply pressure to Philothei and the women she was like a mother to. The politically minded hoped to crush her because of her resistance. The religiously minded hoped to afflict her and persecute her until she converted to their own religion. If they could crush or convert her, they suspected that they could do the same to all who shared her devotion to Jesus. They reasoned that she was a prime target because she was a woman and would be unable to stand up their abuses because of her sex. Neither group was successful. When they had given up on coercion, they resorted to violence. They knocked down the doors of the convent and drug her into the street by her hair. They beat her savagely while demanding she renounce her faith. She refused their demands and offered forgiveness to them for their abuse. For this, they beat her further. She died of her wounds while professing a faith that taught her to love her abusers and give her life for others.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

February 17 - Richard Wurmbrand, Prisoner, Preacher, Voice of the Martyrs

Richard Wurmbrand just didn't know when to shut up. He had a lot of time to reconsider his calling and his convictions but he simply wouldn't stop preaching the Gospel that had changed his life and set flame to all his previous ambitions, hopes, dreams, and securities. He had much time to consider how he had arrived in prison--his first sentence was eight and a half years and his second was about five years long--but he never found himself turning away from the high calling that had landed him within shackles and isolated in solitary confinement. He had been called to preach and he could not imagine squelching that calling even if he might gain his freedom by doing so.

Richard had been born to a Jewish family in Bucharest, Romania, in 1909. When he was young his family moved regularly and even lived in Istanbul for some time. His father died in 1918 and his family moved back to Romania in 1924. As a youth, he became infatuated with the ideals and methods of the Communist Party. This was less than a decade after the Bolshevik revolution. So, a Romanian teen must surely have thrilled to imagine the dreams that were publicized and suggested by the Party. He moved to Moscow as a young man to study Marxist thought and philosophy. In Moscow, he had not been comfortable or happy. So, he returned to Romania secretly and against the wishes of the Party. They were none too pleased that the young man had escaped and slighted them and so the secret police captured and arrested him. He was imprisoned for a short while for this crime and while in prison he renounced the communism of his youth because of its excesses and failures. After his release, he was married in 1936. In 1938, however, his world was changed when he and wife befriended a Romanian carpenter who seemed especially friendly and loving. Soon, they heard the Gospel from this man--Christian Wolfkes--and were converted to the Faith that would sustain them for the rest of their lives.

As converted Jews themselves, they took part in evangelism efforts through the Anglican mission to the Jews. Eventually, he would be ordained an Anglican minister. After World War II, he was ordained a Lutheran minister in his native country of Romania. The Soviets moved into Romania in 1944 and Richard, his wife, and his congregation were forced to become a part of the underground church. The Communists were unwilling to allow the Church to function in their State and so it became a secretive thing that demanded much and promised adversity. It grew wildly. He began preaching to his fellow Romanians and the Soviet soldiers. In 1948 he was arrested for his ministry and imprisoned. He served his time and continued to be a minister in the prisons that he was held in. In 1956 the Soviets released him and told him never to preach again if he wanted to remain free. He began preaching immediately. In 1959, they arrested him again, beat him, tortured him, and sentenced him to twenty-five years of prison life that promised to be full of more beatings and torture. Roughly five years later he was released from prison as part of an amnesty agreement brokered by western Christian groups.

Richard spent the remainder of his life preaching the Gospel he had been willing to sacrifice everything for. He wrote book after book about his experiences in prison and the stories he saw there. Further, he wrote about the plight of the underground Church so that others might know what was going on in countries where the Church must be hidden to escape the Communist Party.This effort became a group now known as "Voice of the Martyrs" and it worked to raise awareness of the abuses perpetrated against peaceful Christians in the name of State security. Eleven years before his death Richard and his wife were able to return to Romania for the first time since their escape through amnesty. Richard died in California on February 27, 2001.