Thursday, March 5, 2015

March 5 - Martin Niemoller, Pacifist, Converted from Hatred, Pastor

They came first for the Communists and Martin Niemoller didn't speak up because he wasn't a Communist. In fact, Martin was an anti-Communist and though he had reservations about Hitler and some of his policies he was aware of Hitler's vicious anti-Communist sympathies. He suspected that Nazi rule and government would result in crackdowns on Communism within Germany and Martin could only see this as an unqualified good. He was definitely uncomfortable with some of the consequences of Hitler's rise to power but he was apparently willing to put up with the negatives for the chance to punish those he disagreed with.

Then they came for the Jews and Martin didn't speak up because he wasn't a Jew. He was the son of a Lutheran pastor and had served in World War I aboard various U-boats. He was part of crews that flew a false French flag and sank British and American ships in an attempt to shut down naval commerce in the Mediterranean Sea and the Strait of Otranto. After World War I finished, he decided first to become a farmer. He got married and had very little success as a farmer. Eventually, he gave up farming and decided to follow in his father's footsteps by first studying how to be and then becoming a pastor in a Lutheran congregation.

Then they came for the trade unionists and Martin didn't speak up because he wasn't a trade unionist. Instead he was a pastor who hoped to use the Christian faith to apply order to society and restrain cultural evils. He was looking to unite people with the power of religion but it's unclear about the state of his own faith at the time. He professed belief in the Faith of his fathers but it seemed that Christianity was nothing more than a tool to attain some particular interpretation of utopia within society.

Then they came for the Catholics and Martin didn't speak up because he was a Protestant. In fact, he was a leading Protestant who had an opportunity to speak on behalf of other Protestants in an audience with Hitler. Hitler insisted that he wanted the support of the Protestants. Martin would write many years later: "Hitler promised me on his word of honor, to protect the Church, and not to issue any anti-Church laws. He also agreed not to allow pogroms against the Jews, assuring me as follows: 'There will be restrictions against the Jews, but there will be no ghettos, no pogroms, in Germany.'" Still hoping to purchase security and safety by sacrificing others, he was willing to make this deal because he suspected it would be good for the Church--he was so very wrong.

Then they came for Martin and by that time no one was left to speak up. When Hitler began oppressing the parts of the Church that Martin was associated with he was forced to come to a sudden realization--he had been dealing with the devil and selling his soul for a little more security. He became an outspoken opponent of Hitler and the Nazi regime but there was little time left to change the way of things. He was arrested and held in prison for resisting and opposing the Nazis. When he was released, he was picked up by the Gestapo under the direction of Rudolf Hess. He was sent to concentration and works camps--both Sachenhausen and Dachau. As the Allied forces were liberating the camps, he was transferred to Tyrol and eventually set free. He had suffered but most importantly he had changed. He has been converted from the gospel of security through control and to the Gospel of Jesus the Slaughtered. For years he devoted himself to making up for his earlier failures and never once failing to admit his guilt. He became a pacifist and a proponent of nuclear disarmament and led congregations to work together to expand the Kingdom of God and not simply to endorse or manipulate some political system of this world.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

March 4 - Adrian and Natalia of Nicomedia, Husband and Wife, Martyr and Widow,

Adrian was a loyal soldier in the Herculean legion under emperor Maximian. The Herculean legion was one of the two veteran
 legions promoted to the role of Imperial Guard as emperors became increasingly uncomfortable with the loyalty of the Praetorian guard. To be a member of this legion was a great honor that came with a significant number of obligations and responsibilities. One particular role that members of the Herculean legion served was that of torturer of those who dared to resist the Empire. In this way, they were soldiers that fought not only for territory and control but also the minds of the people the emperor hoped to rule over. In the early fourth century, Christians were a common target for the emperor's wrath and members of the Herculean guard were therefore called upon to torture and kill Christians with regularity.

Once when Adrian was torturing a group of Christians he was stunned with their peace of mind in the face of great pain. As the soldiers he was commanding burned the Christians with hot pokers and beat them savagely, he looked on and had time to marvel at the love and forgiveness they offered their torturers. In Adrian's mind he must have wondered if he could remain so loyal to the Empire if asked to suffer to this degree for it. As they were being tortured he asked them "What kind of reward could you possibly be expecting from your God that makes you so willing to remain loyal even in the face of Rome's worst tortures?"The Christians looked at each other through their pain and Adrian must have considered that he had finally stumped them or broken their will.

But then they quoted Paul's first letter to the Church in Corinth and responded, "For those that love God, God has prepared something that no eye has ever seen, no ear has ever heard, and no human has ever even begun to conceive."The room was filled with a stunned silence that can only rightfully accompany a sudden and unexpected glimpse of profound and hope filled truth. The soldiers turned to see how Adrian would respond--perhaps they were hoping he would dispel the conviction that tickled their hearts and respond with some witty or equally profound statement to support the Imperial lie they were suddenly aware they were a part of. Adrian responded by dropping to his knees and begging the prayers and forgiveness of the Christians.The soldiers were shocked at this but were further amazed when he proclaimed his faith and trust in the Lord of the Christians whom he had just been persecuting. The men he had been commanding arrested him and turned him over to the brutal hands of the Emperor. He was thrown in prison to await the day he would be executed for his crime of faith.

While in prison his wife, Natalia, heard the story of what had happened to him but wanted to hear it for herself. So, she disguised herself and dressed as a young boy so that she might be admitted to see him in prison. When she arrived, she revealed her identity to her husband and asked him to tell her what had happened. He told the story of the birth of faith within him and she was likewise convicted by the words of the Christians and the faith that had gripped her husband whom she trusted. She, too, was converted and asked that he pray for her once he had attained that glorious reward that now loomed before him a little closer every day. The very next day he was paraded before members of the Herculean legion and Natalia and had his limbs first broken on an anvil and then amputated brutally. As he lie bleeding in Natalia's arms, they decapitated him and took what remained of his body away from Natalia and to a great fire to be burned along with the bodies of the Christians he had been torturing just two days previous.As they cast the bodies into the flames, Natalia let out a great cry and rushed to throw herself onto the pyre but a great storm that had been building suddenly issued both wind and rain and the fire was put out before Natalia or the bodies could be burned.

A little while later--and under the cover of darkness--Christians came out of hiding to take the bodies of the martyrs and give them a Christian burial. Along with the bodies, they took Natalia with them and cared for her for the rest of her life. She was the widow of a martyr and a Christian herself and so she was honored among the Christians for years to come. Though she was not a martyr herself it was clear that she had given up much for her faith. So, when she died she was buried alongside Adrian in the place where martyrs were buried.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

March 3 - John Wesley, Preacher, Evangelist, Brand Plucked from the Fire

John Wesley was the fifteenth child in his large English family. Their family was heavily influenced by the faith of the past and the present. John's grandfather has been a Puritan minister and his own father was rector in Epworth when John was born. It was important to the Wesley family to be involved in the life of the Church and it was in the stories and words of the Body of Christ that they found meaning and direction. The profound impact of John's early years in the Church cannot be fully understood or charted. In many ways, it would have been unsurprising years later to find John Wesley among the cultured and refined members whose faith has become little more than adherence to habits of attendance and patterns of speech. Yet, there was a particular moment when he was five years old that seems to have started him along a path away from bored and inherited faith and toward a life of discipline and spiritual formation. The rectory where they lived caught fire while John was in the home. As the walls were consumed in flame and smoke began to choke the life from his young body, he was saved from the fire by some family member who picked him up and carried him out of fiery death. He would remark years later that he felt he had been like a brand plucked from the fire for some special purpose and that he was continually provoked to question why it was he had not been burned to death on that night.

As he grew older his faith was challenged and tested as all faith is and he began to drift away from the faith of family and into the reluctant agnosticism of cynical adolescence.He was bullied and abused by many of his peers and this left a painful mark on him for the rest of his life--even causing him to tremble as a grown man when he about the adolescent savagery of which he had been the victim. As pain and depression further marked his life's attentions he stopped practicing the faith he had been taught and given and instead hoped--like so many did and still often do--that it would be enough only to think his faith. After all this was when he first encountered the Moravians who met in Aldersgate Street in London. He had shown up at their meeting because he had been impressed at the peace of mind of a handful of Moravians on a previous sea voyage when a storm had buffeted and rocked the ship he was on. Perhaps seeking a renewal of his faith or perhaps simply homesick for a simpler time he attended one of their services on Aldersgate and something incredible happened. Looking back, he would write that he felt his heart strangely warmed as he listened to the scripture being read. It was here that he would be renewed in his faith and learn to claim it as his own.

For years he worked with Moravians and helped craft a way of doing Church that emphasized regular small group participation, living out the faith while learning about it, and mutual accountability and vulnerability within the walls of the Church. Abandoning the tendency of the Church to become an institution instead of a movement, John insisted that the spiritual life was something that deserved and required special attention. Instead of simply hoping that right doctrine and thought would be enough John called for all Christians to join right practice with right thought. From that moment with the Moravians he personally worked to effect salvation and redemption in his own life and in the lives of those close to him. And there were many who were close to John Wesley since he spent so much time riding his horse and preaching to any who would listen whether in the pulpit of a church or in a field for all interested ears. John felt strongly that God has plucked him from the fire so that he might bring about revival in the Church which he was so certain was in desperate need of new life. He went out into the world and, in his own words, he "set himself on fire and the world has come to watch me burn." The brand that had been plucked from the fire became a great preacher of the gospel bringing hundreds of thousands of people to a faith that changed their lives and redeemed their souls.

As John lay dying on March 2, 1791, he called for his friends and family and they were all too willing to come be near to him as he passed on from this life into another that he had preached and anticipated for many years. The people that drew near to him on his deathbed had had their lives changed by this man and it must have been hard to watch him die even though the too anticipated heavenly redemption for him. He held the hands of those near to him and repeated the word "Farewell" to each of them in turn. Having said his goodbyes, he drew a deep breath and proclaimed like the preacher he was: "The best of all is, God is with us." He repeated this phrase one more time in a weaker voice and passed from this life to the next.

Monday, March 2, 2015

March 2 - Engelmar Unzeitig, Martyr of Brotherly Love, Priest, Angel of Dachau

Engelmar Unzeitig committed an unpardonable sin against the German nation in the estimation of the ruling powers. He had used the pulpit of his congregation to resist and defy the Nazis who had already decided and proclaimed Jews to be the enemy, the problem, and the target for vengeance and victimization. Engelmar defended Jews from the pulpit and urged his congregation to stop believing the corrosive lies the powers were telling. He was a fairly recently ordained priest and as such his allegiance rested firmly with God and the Church before and above any other dominion or power. He could not keep his mouth shut because he felt a calling to speak truth in the face of great deception and confusion. Because of this calling and his carefully chosen words, he was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Dachau to suffer for his refusal to bow before the powers of this world.

At Dachau he definitely suffered but he tried to see it in different terms than that of a concentration camp.He walked under the banner that proclaimed another of the great Nazi lies: "Work will make you free" but he didn't believe it--he knew well that only the Truth could set him free. Engelmar saw Dachau as a mission field and set about his work of spreading faith and hope in the midst of death and oppression. In many ways, Dachau was spiritually formative for Engelmar and he would later describe it as a school of holiness. The suffering he experienced there as he went about the work of the Kingdom raked away his brokenness and corruption and replaced it with life more abundant. He did this alongside thousands of other ministers--Roman Catholic and Protestant. Dachau has been called the largest of monasteries because of the incredible density of ministers within its walls at the time and it is in this context that Engelmar formed and was formed by ministers from his tradition and those who under other circumstances might have been his opponents in argument. It seems that in Dachau those differences didn't matter any more.

In his fourth year in the camp (1945), there was a vicious outbreak of typhoid fever. The hungry and sickly people only got a little closer to death as it swept through the camp with ferocity and sickening speed. Those who showed symptoms were quarantined in one dilapidated barrack and left to die in their own filth. Volunteers were requested to take care of the sick and dying and the general population was hesitant to volunteer as everybody knew it would almost certainly cost them their lives to provide this comfort. Engelmar and nineteen other priests volunteered and began living among sickness and death in the one dilapidated barrack. Their every waking moment was filled with bathing the sick, saying prayers, offering last rites, and feeding the dying. They offered the sacraments to the sick because it was important to them to continue offering the holy mysteries of the Church to those who approached death's door with alarming suddenness. Finally, Engelmar succumbed to the disease (along with seventeen of the other priests) and died. Though he had been in comparably good health beforehand he sacrificed his life and his comfort to care for those in need at the moment. A few weeks later the camp was liberated and its prisoners released.