Thursday, December 31, 2009

December 31 - John Wycliffe, Reformer, Theologian, Morning Star

John Wycliffe was frustrated and deeply disappointed with the Church he himself was a part of. He could not simply walk away from the Church that he loved and that loved him but he could not tolerate the extremes to which so many of his friends and colleagues had wandered to. He had been gifted with a keen and natural intellect that had a tendency to cut the arguments of his opponents to shreds--even when his argument was not necessarily centered in truth. As John surveyed the Church, he could not help but admit that the paths of theologians and clerics had been right but had been carried to extremes. The pursuit of solitude had driven monastics to isolation and irrelevance. The pursuit of virtue had closed many Church doors to the very people Jesus said he would be with. The Church was not in need of schism--it was in need of reformation and revival and John hoped to be a part of it.

His education at Oxford served him well but also introduced him to cultural discrimination and exceptionalism. He became aware of a prevailing culture and attitude of domination among the leaders of the Church and this disturbed him and saddened him. When he awakened to the fear that the Church leaders could only attain the power the sought by slowly selling off the integrity of the Church to secular powers, he began to suggest a need for the Church to escape entanglement with empires and governments. John's fears that the clergy had become rulers instead of servants was increasingly confirmed and, eventually, he resorted to suggesting that the kings and rulers of the world should stop the Church from whoring itself out. John had the protection of a local ruler and, so, he was able to preach and teach this message without especial fear of reprisal but his words were not very warmly received.

In his attempt to return power and money to the secular powers of the world, John hoped to return the Church to a place free from the corrupting grip of worldly power and wealth. It was only in losing all claims to affluence and influence that the Church could again become a witness to the homeless savior who bore the hopes of the world upon his shoulders. He was resisted stridently by those with much to lose but also by those who honestly disagreed with him regardless of their own wealth and power--regrettably, John's followers and students have not always been good about remembering that there were good men who strongly disagreed with him. Yet, in his resistance, he continued to strengthen his arguments and fight against those who offered the treasures of the Church for mere wealth or power. He remained committed to the rejection of indulgences and simony while insisting that the role of the minister was that of a servant and not of a ruler or judge. John also continued to translate large sections of the scripture so that the treasures of the Church could be distributed among the many rightful recipients.

On Holy Innocents' Day in 1384, John Wycliffe was stricken apoplectic while listening to the mass of the Church he loved and expected more from. He died a gadfly and reformer--never satisfied with the way things were and always looking forward to the way things should be. Later, he was deemed a heretic and his bones were exhumed from the grave. They were then burnt and crushed to dust. The ashes were cast over the river Swift--yet John was never excommunicated from the Church he loved but refused to be satisfied with.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

December 30 - Josephine Butler, Feminist, Activist, Grieving Mother

Josephine's life was indubitably envied by many of her contemporaries and acquaintances. She had had the blessing of a happy childhood with good parents and now was married to an academic and cleric and his income provided more than sufficiently for their needs and many of their desires. They even had four children--three sons and a daughter. Josephine and her husband were active in social causes and vicious opponents of slavery anywhere in the world. In fact, they were known sympathizers with the Union cause of the Civil War in the States. Their activism was a tame sort that would be expected from a socially progressive cleric and his wife and they lived into these roles and expectations with ease. Yet, as life often does, things took a turn and their happy way of life was suddenly and painfully upset: their six-year-old daughter Evangeline died without warning and left the family reeling.

Josephine was overwhelmed with grief and was absolutely inconsolable. She resisted the efforts of her friends and acquaintances to comfort her and instead looked for distraction. In her pain, she was immediately desperate for somebody more desperate than herself. She found an object of focus and compassion in the prostitutes of London who she viewed as victims of the cultural machine--as the ones who were ground up in the gears of a machine designed to help and protect some by sacrificing others. She hated prostitution and saw it as a dehumanizing sin against God and themselves but her growing passion and love for the women enslaved by desperate need overcame her aversion to the acts. Soon, she found herself loving the women more and more and helping them less and less out of a desire to be distracted and more out of an honest and consuming love.

The Contagious Diseases Act that had been passed in the 1860s--which Josephine referred to in a gripping way as "surgical rape"--meant that a police officer could accuse any woman of prostitution and turn them over to a group of government backed medical workers who would perform an intrusive examination upon the woman and confine her for a period of three months to "quarantine" her. This became a way of intimidating and abusing women on the streets of London and a simple accusation by a police officer--no matter their honesty or integrity--annihilated the reputation of the woman and left her untouchable withing polite British society. So, Josephine fought for the repeal of these laws because of the abuse it assisted and the victimization it spread among women who were already victims. Josephine could not understand how a society could be so ostensibly Christian yet simply reject women who were in critical need of help. Josephine had learned to love these women and had become their benefactor--a voice to the voiceless. She was slandered and physically assaulted by Christians and non-Christians alike but her faith bade her remain the friend of the victim and the oppressed. She rejected any morality that appeared built upon a double standard of sexual justice and--finally--in 1886, the laws were repealed in large part due to Josephine's work.

Later in her life, she fought again to have the age of consent raised from thirteen to sixteen to help fight yet more abuse and double standards inherent to the system. This was the life she had been cast into first by her desperate grief and second by a genuine calling from the God she loved and followed. Until the day she died, she remained a powerful activist and feminist who insisted upon the equal rights of women in a system that thrived by victimizing the already victimized.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

December 29 - David, King of Israel, Shepherd, "a Man after God's Own Heart"

David was "a man after God's own heart." He had been the youngest and apparently least fit member of his family when Samuel came looking to anoint a new king of Israel to replace Saul eventually. They didn't even call him in from the field since they needed somebody to watch the flock and protect it and he was considered so unlikely to be the choice. To be honest, Jesse and the rest of the boys fully expected that it would be the oldest son who was selected yet God didn't move Samuel's hand to the mature and muscular man who stood at the front of the line. One by one, Samuel looked into the eyes of the boys and hesitated to hear the voice of God--nothing happened. He began to get worried as he approached the last boy and there weren't any bells going off in his head. He second guessed himself and must have wondered if there wasn't something that was his fault keeping him from hearing God. Then, he ventured a question: "There isn't another, is there?" As the words left his mouth, the tension that had been building in Jesse and the boys reached a fever pitch--of course, there was one more and as the old prophet had moved on from each boy they all breathed in deeply fearing that they had left the next king of Israel alone in the field with the sheep. Jesse sent for the boy and Samuel heard the voice of God. So, he anointed David and proclaimed that this one would be the next king. But, this wasn't why David was "a man after God's own heart."

David was "a man after God's own heart." He had shown courage when no other Israelite dared test God's faithfulness by standing up to Goliath. He gathered five stones--we cannot forget that Goliath had four brothers back in Gath--and strode into battle without the heavy armor to weigh him down. Saul had wanted the boy to take Israel's best efforts at protection with him but God wanted the boy to take only his faith and a sling. He was mocked by the beastly man but refused to be rebuffed--he had God on his side. He swung the sling and released the stone that would fell the mighty warrior with one precision blow of God's will. The army rode the wave of ecstatic jubilation into battle and routed the Philistines. But, this wasn't why David was "a man after God's own heart."

David was "a man after God's own heart." Saul began to fear David's success because of the conversations and songs of the people--it was clear that they were enamored with the man who had slain Goliath and gained Samuel's approval. This was a man of God who stood in contrast to Saul's impetuous behavior. Saul devised ways to bring about David's death but his own son--Jonathan--worked with David to assure his safety. Saul chased after David but David was always one step ahead. When David had the chance to return the favor and kill Saul, he crept away but left a message for Saul who woke up and deduced that David had been close when he was vulnerable and chosen not to kill him. But, this wasn't why David was "a man after God's own heart."

David was "a man after God's own heart." He became king of Israel and led the armies in many successful battles. Yet once when he was at home and his armies were away, he had the bad fortune to be high in palace and to look upon a beautiful woman--Bathsheba--bathing nearby. His heart burned with lust for the woman and he had her brought to him. In a torrent of passion, the two humans gave into their desire and became adulterers. In an attempt to cover over his sin, he called the woman's husband--Uriah--home from the battlelines to be with her. The hope was that they would have sex and Bathsheba and David's sin would be concealed but Uriah's loyalty to David and Israel meant that he slept on the ground outside the palace because he knew it wasn't fair for him to be home and his brothers in arms to be so far away. So, David's fear gripped him and he made a terrible mistake: he sent Uriah back with an order that he be sent to the front lines of battle to die at the hands of the enemies of Israel. But, this surely wasn't why David was "a man after God's own heart."

David was "a man after God's own heart" because of what he did next. When God's judgment was visited upon David and Bathsheba for their sin, Nathan told David that the child would die. David was struck to the core of his heart with sorrow for his sin and its creeping effects upon others. He recognized how he had injured Bathsheba gravely because of lust--not love--and murdered a man who was loyal to him to a fault. Further, he had brought about the death of his own child because of the sinful expression of his own dominant will. The glass of David's self-delusions began cracking as the sin spider-webbed out into his life and laid its sickly clutches upon all the good things in his life and tarnishing them. He turned to God in repentance and sobbed and prayed. The child still died but David had learned not only the lingering effects of sin but also the power and necesity of repentance. David was "a man after God's own heart" because he knew how to lament, pray, and repent when forced to recognize exactly what he was: a broken and sinful man.

Monday, December 28, 2009

December 28 - Holy Innocents' Day

It had been some time since Jesus had been born but when the magi had seen the star in the distance--a star that they and their fellow astrologers knew nothing about--they set out quickly to find what it was a portent of. Surely, a new star must lead them to something special. As they arrived closer and closer to the place where they would find young Jesus, they began to realize that there was a connection between this star and a rumored new "King of the Jews." When they questioned other travelers, they asked if they had met the new King but none seemed to know of any new royalty and suggested that the magi keep this kind of talk to themselves--Herod would be none too pleased to find out that there might be another vying for his power. Herod was jealous of the throne--jealous enough to kill his own children to protect himself from their possible conspiratorial machinations. Herod had a good thing going and no amount of blood was too much to keep his pseudo-dominance of his little corner of the world. Yet, somehow, the magi ended up in the palace of Herod and asked him if he knew where the new King could be found. He didn't know but he desperately wanted to and lied to them: "I don't know where but if you find him, please come and tell me where I too might find him--I want to pay my respects to the new ruler."

Herod had gained and held his power by being willing to play the game and sell himself to Rome bit by bit. Herod's father--Antipater--had been poisoned for offering financial support to the treasonous men who murdered Caesar. It is hard to imagine that the son of a collaborator could rise to power but somehow Herod knew the game well enough to manipulate the right people. He swore his allegiance to Rome while using the Roman army to kill his father's supposed murderer. He would soon rise to power in Judea and be named tetrarch but he first had to consolidate his power by marrying his niece to cement his claim on the throne. This was an easy task for a powerful man like Herod but required that he banish and exile his current wife and three-year-old son. No cost was too high for Herod in his search for power. A little while later, after convincing the Roman leaders that his father's treachery had been forced, he was threatened by another usurper who he cast as a traitor and enemy of Rome to his powerful Roman friends. With the backing of his Roman friends--bought with his pledge of allegiance to Rome first and foremost--Herod was further cemented as Governor of Judea and he took the title: king Herod the Great. All it cost was his integrity, his allegiance, and selling the Jewish leadership into Roman control.

Herod had lost so much to gain what he wanted that he wasn't afraid to spill a little more blood for power. When the magi gave him the slip, he ordered soldiers and guards at his disposal to go to Bethlehem and murder all boys under the age of two. They were to die so that Herod could insure that no other would grow up to place a claim upon his throne--he didn't have much left to give Rome to insure they would continue to help him and, in fact, they expected him to keep the peace of it would cost him his life. So, the soldiers descended upon the little village and murdered infants and children because of a desperate man's fear. All in all, somewhere between 20 and 30 human lives were cut short by the obsessive arm of the Empire that hoped to maintain power by dealing in blood and death. Indeed, a prophecy from Jeremiah was fulfilled (perhaps for the second time): "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."

Yet, they missed Jesus. Shortly before the soldiers came, an angel had come to Joseph and instructed him to take Jesus and Mary and get out of Israel--they had to go somewhere Herod could not reach--and go to Egypt. They fled the bloody grasp of Herod and would not return until Herod the Great had died and some of the sons he didn't murder had taken over. So as not to live under Herod's son Archelaus, they settle in Nazareth in Galilee

Sunday, December 27, 2009

December 27 - John, Apostle, Caretaker of Mary, "the Disciple Who Jesus Loved"

John had come a long way to follow Jesus. His mother--Salome--had watched her two sons--John and James--follow after this itinerant preacher and leave her husband behind. They had a successful fishing business but John and James had other things in mind. John had been following John the Baptizer but had recently switched his allegiance to this new Jesus fellow and had begun to talk about the things Jesus was saying and doing in the sight of the religious leaders. Salome was worried by her sons' association with this man because she recognized that the leaders would do anything to stay in power and keep Rome at a distance--even if it meant turning over well-meaning boys of affluent and influential social status. But, John insisted that he had nothing else he could do except follow Jesus because Jesus was offering something that nobody else could offer: life more abundant.

Yet, as John and Peter watched Jesus slowly suffer and die, they had to wonder if it hadn't all been a hoax. The one who had promised life more abundant was languishing on a Roman cross and being mocked by his accusers and one of his fellow victims. Mary--Jesus' mother--had insisted that she would be present for the death of her own son and so she was. Simeon's words were coming true all over again as Mary experience excruciating agony over the death of her own son before her eyes--the death of a promise and of her own hope, perhaps--and her ears rang with knowledge that a "sword would pierce her own soul, too." John stepped forward to comfort her and wrap her up in his arms so that she might find some relief from the terrible distress engulfing her in front of the Roman authorities. With one arm wrapped around her, he looked up at the source of her hope and distress and wondered if everything had finally broken down beyond repair--wondered if there was room for hope in a world that crucified one like Jesus. Jesus looked down, coughed harshly foreshadowing the death rattle that nested within his chest and called out in a voice barely audible: "Mom...that's your son, now." Mary's sobs escalated in pitch as she suffered under her dying son's compassion. Turning to look John in the eyes, Jesus continued: "John, take care of your mother." John knew instantly that Jesus was calling to take care of Mary and fulfill the duties of a firstborn son to his widowed mother. He nodded his assent to Jesus and Jesus went on to die. As far as John was concerned, this woman truly was a mother to him now.

Even after the resurrection, the ascension, and Pentecost, John still cared for Mary and watched over her. She passed on several years later (some say a decade after Jesus) and John took up the mission of the Kingdom that Jesus had inaugurated with blood from nail-pierced hands. He traveled to Ephesus and Asia-minor. He would eventually be swept up in the persecutions to be executed but would be the last to die because when they went to execute him, their efforts were fruitless. Eventually, they gave up and exiled him to an island--Patmos--where he would receive one final vision revelation. In this vision, he would find hope anew to offer the Church struggling under persecution. The Lamb that was Slain offered an assurance of healing and reward for those who would dare persist in their commitment to a Gospel of life through death in the face of the promise of the latter.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

December 26 - Stephen, Protomartyr, Evangelist

Stephen had just been appointed to be one of seven deacons in the Church in Jerusalem. His job was reaching out to the poor, widowed, and orphaned among the Hellenized Jews of the community. Since he spoke Greek as his native tongue--and was himself a Hellenized Jew--this seemed an especially appropriate calling for Stephen. The necessity of having deacons largely came out of a desire to be more transparent with the use of the Church funds. Some had complained about an inappropriate use of money set aside for alms and the leaders of the Church had responded by appointing more deacons like Stephen. This was a great opportunity for Stephen who felt a passion burning within him to offer the Faith to those around him. This same passion is what led him to talk freely with friends and acquaintance as well as preach in the open where anybody could hear. This same passion is also what got him into trouble with the powers.

They insisted that he had blasphemed God and Moses. They drug him before the Sanhedrin and insisted that he be punished. Yet, they had taken time on the way to get their story straight and decide how they would spin Stephen's words and preaching to be blasphemy. "This man never stops saying things against the Temple and the Torah..." his accusers began with subtle rage, "we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy the Temple and will change the customs that Moses handed on to us." They had leveled a charge against Stephen that would indubitably result in his execution if he was found guilty. Yet, Stephen had a response:

"Beloved ones, listen to me. God appeared to our ancestor Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, “Leave your country and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you.” So Abraham did it. After his father died, God had him move from Haran to this very country. God said to childless and aged Abraham: 'This isn't yours, it's your children's.' And God insisted that his descendants would be strangers in somebody else's land, who would enslave and abuse them for 400 years. 'But I will judge the nation that they serve,' said God, 'and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.' Then he gave him the covenant of circumcision--a physical mark of a spiritual condition--and this covenant and its mark continued with Abraham's son--Isaac--and his grandson--Jacob--and his great-grandsons--the twelve patriarchs.'
Then, Stephen rehearsed their mutual history and spoke of Joseph and Moses and how their people had insisted upon bringing along their false gods even as God led them out of Egypt and through the wilderness. Stephen made his argument: you've missed the point of all of it--you've fallen in love with the words of the story and failed to get the message. He summed it up:

'You stubborn people, you still don't get it! You may have the circumcision--the physical mark-- but you are uncircumcised in heart and ears. You lack the spiritual part that the physical part is supposed to represent. You are always opposing the Holy Spirit, just as our fathers and forefathers used to do. You know the history but you still haven't learned its lesson. You've killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You received the glorious gift of the Law but you've cast it aside for other whims."

So, they drug him out of the city for his death and found a low spot near a wall for him to stay. His accusers went to gather stones and the witnesses laid their cloaks at the feet of Saul--who would become Paul--so that they might better murder the one who dared speak the truth to them. As they were preparing to cast the stones on him (some stones so big they needed two people to carry them), Stephen fell to his knees and cried: "Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" They rushed him with a furious rage and began pummeling him with stones. As he died--in a posture of prayer--he cried out: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit and do not hold this sin against them. They don't get it." He died under a pile of stones.

Friday, December 25, 2009

December 25 - Christmas

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

December 24 - Lottie Moon, Missionary, Champion of Missions, Evangelist

Lottie Moon was easy to miss in a crowd: she was only 4'3" tall and very slender. But, her personality and passion for missions and the rights of women to be missionaries are not easy to miss when we look backward across the annals of history. She was born to a slave holding family in Virginia and lived on the 1,500 acre plantation for the early parts of her life. She was the third of seven children and showed an aptitude toward languages and education. As she grew older, she had the opportunity to continue her education at an all-female school in Charlottesville, Virginia, because her family placed a very high value upon education because of its ability to promote the affluence and influence of those who obtain it. Lottie obtained it well and soon received a Master of Arts degree--one of only a few given out to women in the south in the middle of the 19th century.

Her faith had always been a cultural thing when she was growing up but while she was in school she attended a revival meeting led by John Broadus where the preaching was different than she was used to. The convicting and passionate nature of the minister's words gripped Lottie's heart and compelled her to learn more about what he was talking about. Soon, her faith became very real and intense and her life became less simple. She began teaching in all-female schools (in Kentucky and then in Georgia) because she wasn't sure what else she would do. She was educated and was a good teacher but it didn't feel right. While Lottie was teaching, her younger sister Edmonia became a missionary to the Northern parts of China and left quickly. Lottie found herself thinking of the absurdity of Edmonia's commitment but soon she found herself envying her sister's passion and commitment. Eventually, she followed her sister to China after realizing that this was where God was calling her.

At first, China was a disappointing mission for Lottie. The culture shock was overwhelming and Lottie's own ethnocentrism caused her to avoid and reject the Chinese customs and culture. Further, as a single female missionary she was assigned to teach Chinese students but not to evangelize or venture into the interior sharing the Gospel. She wrote letters back to the United States hoping that people would "get it" and permit her to be an evangelist instead of only a teacher. Her argument became persuasive when she pointed out that Chinese women were only being reached by other women and that this group could not simply be abandoned. With the permission of the mission board, Lottie stepped further into her calling even as her sister Edmonia was returning to the United States because of deteriorating health. Lottie soon learned that she was more able to reach people if she adopted their cultural dress and appearance. Soon, Lottie was learning to love the people that she had feared and rejected shortly before. Her own redemption was being effected even as she led others to theirs.

Lottie spent 39 years in China meeting the needs of the people and sharing the Gospel message of love, forgiveness, mercy, and grace. She was forever sending back letters pleading for more missionaries--especially more female missionaries--to be sent to China. Yet, budget constraints and limited spending meant that she was also forever being rejected. She fought for missionaries furloughs so that missionaries would not simply waste away and be forgotten in their home. She organized mission societies of women in the United States and contributed significantly to the Baptist passion for international missions. When salaries of missionaries were reduced yet again because of debt and budget constraint, Lottie found ways to make do. Her fellow missionaries found out, at one point, that she had been giving away to the poor most of the food her meager salary could afford. At one point, she weighed as little as fifty pounds because of malnutrition and stress. They insisted on sending her home and she died on the way on December 24, 1912. To this day, churches across the United States collect money for international missions in the week before Christmas and have collected over 1.5 billion dollars since they started in 1888.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

December 23 - Sarah Grimke, Abolitionist, Feminist, Activist

Sarah couldn't believe that her father would agree to that. She may only have been five but she was convinced that her father's actions were reprehensible. She gathered up a few of her things in secret and set out from the house to find a way out of her native South Carolina. Her father--a proud advocate of slavery--had ordered a slave to be beaten and Sarah had tagged along to see what he meant by that. She couldn't imagine that her father would actually order some poor person to be abused yet she was surprised to see a slave tied to a post and whipped repeatedly. That's what had convinced her she had to run away and find a place to live in a state where slavery was not the norm. Of course, five-year-olds--no matter how powerfully angry--cannot get far when they are surrounded by miles and miles of land and so she was caught on her flight and brought back to the plantation to pout silently in her room. This disgust with injustice would characterize the rest of her life.
Sarah was the sixth eldest child of fourteen and was clearly one of the more intelligent children her mother and father had. As she aged, her intellect was further demonstrated in her ability to teach herself and apply her growing wealth of academic resources to the problems at hand. She hoped to follow in the path of her father--a respected lawyer and judge--with one notable exception: she wanted to fight against slavery. As she grew, however, her father began to get nervous about his daughter's intellect. When Sarah let it slip that she hoped to go to college (like her older brother) to become an attorney, she was forbidden from continuing to study so that she would be unable to attend college. It seems that in order to prevent her from achieving, they crippled her intellectually because she was a woman and her father felt it was inappropriate for a woman to take that kind of position. She resisted this obstacle but it proved to be fairly insurmountable for young Sarah. She did, however teach the slave assigned to her to read--in contradiction of the law--because she recognized the power of education even as she was denied its graces. This event only deepened her commitment to women's rights and the suffrage of the disenfranchised.

Sarah was the godmother of her own sister--Angelina, the youngest--and helped tutor and care for her as she grew older. Sarah even came back for her many years later after she had already moved to Philadelphia and become active in the abolitionist community and church there. When Angelina was twenty-two (and Sarah was thirty-five), Sarah came back to Charleston to convert her sister to Christianity and bring her north. Angelina would convert but it would be two more years before she moved north to live with her sister. In Philadelphia, the sisters worked for the abolitionist and the feminist cause and Angelina eventually married. In Angelina's home with her husband Theodore, there was a room for Sarah and the sisters worked together out of the home to edit newspapers and release articles and papers that denounced slavery and repression of women. Though they were rebuked by ministers and eventually given an ultimatum by the Quakers, they refused to accept that slavery was acceptable or women were to be subservient and second-class creatures. They stood upon the same foundation that their opponents stood upon: the Christian faith. By refusing to appeal to another foundation, they refused to concede the holy to those who would abuse it.

When Sarah was seventy-eight years old, the United States ratified the fifteenth amendment to the United State Constitution which stated: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." In many ways, this was a victory for Sarah and in her advanced age, she could have sat back and congratulated herself for the rest of her life yet she was not finished. A little while later, she attempted to vote on the basis that the fifteenth amendment should expand voting to all people regardless of sex. She was rejected, however, as it would take the nineteenth amendment in 1920 before women could vote. Sarah spent the rest of her life rehashing old arguments with new circumstances and campaigning for a world she would never witness. She died on December 23 in the year 1873.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

December 22 - Chico Mendes, Rubber Tapper, Environmentalist, Murdered

Chico wasn't a minister or a Church leader. He attended religious services and was described as having much faith but he wasn't acting on behalf of the Church when he resisted the developers who were invading and pillaging the Amazon rain forest. Instead, he was acting out to hear the "cry of the Earth" and respond to the needs of the people near to him--his neighbors. He began by unionizing and organizing rubber tappers who worked in the Amazon rain forest in Northwestern Brazil. The workers were being manipulated and the powerful were taking advantage of them to render wealth from the natural resources of the rain forest. The powerful and wealthy profited mightily from this arrangement but the poor and the working were slowly and singularly trampled and abused. Chico wanted to stop this as best he knew how so he joined the workers together and stood resolutely defiant in the face of the manipulations of those who stood to gain from the destruction of the rain forest. They negotiated for better working conditions and this might have been acceptable. Yet, when they pushed for sustainable and environmentally sound harvesting practices, they were rebuffed because they got in between the powerful and Mammon. The ranchers could only continue to profit so obscenely if they cleared the rain forest away to make room for grazing land.

Chico once said, "At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rain forest." His unionizing efforts were quickly and steadily being changed into environmental efforts on behalf of the rubber tappers who needed the rain forest to continue working but, also, on behalf of those who fought to protect the treasure of the Amazon rain forest. He flew to Washington, D.C. to represent the environmental concerns to a group hoping to pave roads through the rain forest. Thanks to Chico, it was postponed and then renegotiated. His constant refrain was the need for sustainable practices that protected and took care of the treasure of the rain forest for the future. Soon, the "cry of the Earth" was becoming the "cry of the poor," though as he led groups of the poor and the working class in nonviolent resistance against the ranchers who hoped to profit in the now and forget about the future. Chico's groups understood the power and scope of nonviolent resistance as Jesus had taught when they marched into the camps of the loggers and put themselves in the way of the loggers and the trees. Further, they pleaded with the workers to reconsider what they were doing to the rain forest, to Brazil, and to the world as a whole. Many of the workers could not bear to continue in their job and so the ranchers plans were often thwarted by unarmed and insignificant people even though they had paid and sent armed individuals to remove the treasure that stood in the way of their financial gain.

Chico gained many enemies and opponents--like his Lord Jesus--by refusing to turn away from his nonviolent resistance when it got in the way of the aims and goals of those worshiping themselves and their own interests. Eventually, Chico--the man of faith--was assassinated at the command of the ranchers. Like the early Christian martyrs, his death was expected to be the end of his cause yet this is not what financed death brought into the region. In response to his death, money came pouring into the cause and rain forest reserves were founded in his name never to be transgressed by the men who bought his death. What had started as a call to protect his friends had become a call to protect a national treasure. It had ended up being a call for a man of faith to hear the cry of the poor and disenfranchised and to defend them by the only means available to him: nonviolent resistance.

Monday, December 21, 2009

December 21 - Melania the Younger, Mother, Pilgrim

Melania was a child of wealth to an affluent and influential family in Rome. In fact she was a member of the family Valerii. She was Christian from an early age and was a child of an age after the persecutions that claimed so many Christians. As a follower of Jesus, she felt compelled as a teenager to commit to a life of celibacy and prayer. Yet, her parents were not especially fond of the idea and tried to convince her to marry a patrician of some importance named Pinianus. She insisted that she felt called to celibacy but eventually conceded to her mother and father's wishes and was married at the age of fourteen to another wealthy man who desired children. Up to this point, her story is not all that different from other young women in the late fourth century yet it is at this point that it takes a turn.

In the span of only seven years, Melania and Pinianus had two children. Yet, her first child died at a very young age and Melania was heartbroken. But, the pain of one lost child was compounded when their second child also died young. After seven short years of being a wife and mother, Melania had tasted more than her fair share of matronly tragedy. She begged Pinianus to grant her the right to commit herself to Christian celibacy and charity. Further, she asked him to join her in a life of devotion to Jesus. Perhaps because of her earnestness and zeal, Pinianus was convinced and joined with his wife--who he now called sister--to follow an increasingly narrow road that would lead to being a better and more fit disciple of Jesus.

Melania and Pinianus traveled for many years to various parts of the Roman world including Africa and the Middle East to spread the Christian Gospel and provide hospitality and charity to the needy. While in Africa, she became associated with Augustine and Alypius and had a friendly relationship with the two that was mutually beneficial for the discipleship of all involved. She and Pinianus established nunneries and cloistered environments and took in pilgrims and converts so that they might continue to journey further along the path of devotion to Jesus that they, too, travelled. Eventually, they settled in Palestine and considered their long pilgrimage over. They established a home for pilgrims in Jerusalem that provided for the sick and suffering but also the travelling and the strangers. She also met Jerome while in Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem, she finally agreed to sell the remainder of her property and when she had received the funds from their sale, she continued her acts of charity and benevolence to the people of Jerusalem in the name of her savior Jesus. Even after her husband's death, Melania continued to build convents and cloistered spaces for those pilgrims who also found themselves along the narrow way that leads to the Kingdom of God. Near the end of her life, she traveled to Bethlehem to celebrate Christmas with a friend in a convent and found herself growing suddenly more ill by the moment. After praying with her friends and loved ones, she retired to her bed never to rise again. Her last words--fitting words for a pilgrim like Melania--were: "As the Lord willed, so it is done."

Sunday, December 20, 2009

December 20 - Ignatius of Antioch, Martyr, God Bearer, Apostolic Father

As he walked across the wilderness flanked by guards and wild beasts, Ignatius' mind drifted back to the day Jesus had come to his little town. He had been teaching for a while and offering that particular blend of love and expectation that he was so well known for when a ruckus had been stirred up. Ignatius peeked from behind his mother's skirts to see that the disciples had been trying to keep some of the local mothers away from Jesus when they tried to bring their children closer to him. Ignatius immediately knew what had been on their minds--having their children blessed by this wandering holy man--because his own mother had mumbled something about it earlier that day. So, he knew this Jesus was an important man and he had been trying very hard to listen especially close to what he had to say. It made sense, as far as he could tell, and so he assumed that he was missing the point since he was only a child and wasn't used to understanding wandering holy men. He had much to say about the power of love to change things and the love of God for all people. To young Ignatius this made sense and he hadn't questioned it but he was surprised to see quizzical looks on the faces of the adults. Then, it happened. Jesus beckoned him forward from behind his mother's skirts. "Don't keep the children out," Jesus started, "for they understand the Kingdom of God in ways that you struggle to grasp." Jesus took Ignatius into his arms and blessed him--much to Ignatius' mother's approval--before saying: "If you want to be a part of the Kingdom, you have to lay down much and be just like a little child."
From that day on, Ignatius had been keen to follow after Jesus. Jesus had confirmed Ignatius' feeling that the Kingdom he spoke of was honestly that simple (not easy but simple) so as to allow a little on to understand it. Ignatius had followed after the words of Jesus as best he could but Jesus had eventually been killed. On that day, Ignatius had wept for the death of his Lord but, also, for the slaughter of his innocent hope in a Kingdom where love was enough. When Jesus was raised from the dead, Ignatius was finally and irrevocably stamped with the high-minded hope that dared to trust God to bring life through death and redemption out of sin and brokenness. He had become a student of the Apostle John and had, eventually, matured into a leader in the early Christian Church when it was no more than a movement much maligned by the powers that be. Eventually, Peter had appointed Ignatius as Bishop of Antioch and entrusted many souls to his shepherding before finding his own death at the end of a life of truth-telling and at the hands of the Empire. Eventually, these same forces conspired to rob Ignatius of his life. He was arrested and marched to Rome for his execution: being torn apart by wild beasts in the Colosseum.

As he traveled, he had the opportunity to write letters to various congregations along his route. He had heard rumors that they were hoping to release him from the soldiers who guarded him and so he sent them letters pleading with them to allow the will of the Empire to be done since it coincided with God's will. The Empire hoped to snuff out the fledgling faith by killing another of its leaders. Of course, this failed and only further spread the Gospel of love and forgiveness but they were convinced that a little more blood might make the difference. Ignatius assured the congregations that martyrdom was an honor that he looked forward to. As he approached Rome, he sent one final letter to the Church in Rome and insisted that they do nothing except tell the story of his martyrdom. He included a powerful image: "I am writing to all the Churches and I enjoin all, that I am dying willingly for God's sake, if only you do not prevent it. I beg you, do not do me an untimely kindness. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God. I am God's wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ." The soldiers eventually threw him to the floor of the Colosseum and the beasts killed him for his faith.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

December 19 - Sundar Singh, Convert, Missionary, Sadhu

The crumpling of a body is a unique and easily remembered sound. As the Brahmin holy man's legs gave way he fell into a heap at the crowded--and stifling--bus terminal. The people scattered and some went for help. A man rushed back with a glass of cold water for the holy man knowing that he was likely suffering from some type of heat exhaustion. The life giving water was offered to the man but he pushed it away ferociously because it was not in his personal drinking vessel. The crowd understood that the man was trying to maintain his distinctness and so a boy ran to the home of the man and found his vessel. When he arrived, they filled it with cold water and the holy man drank quickly from his vessel and was strengthened and revived. In these startling moments, Sundar became painfully aware of a lesson hidden behind the circumstances: the people of India were like the man who would accept water only in the way he was familiar with--they would only accept a story of faith in the guise of an Indian man and not with the appearance of Western thought or teaching. It made everything make more sense as to how effective his life had been and why God had called him to live such a peculiar life--perhaps even why God had called him from those train tracks so many years previous.

Sundar was raised by a Sikh woman who wanted him to receive both an excellent education and excellent spiritual mentoring. So, she took him to the local Sadhu--an ascetic Indian holy man--to be mentored in the faith of his people and took him to a western school so he might learn English and other subjects. This school was a Christian mission and so he began to learn some of the faith as he advanced in his studies. But, then, tragedy struck when he was fourteen and his mother died unexpectedly. This shock led him to reject the faith of the Christians who spoke of a loving God who cared for the people of the world. He openly rejected their faith and mocked their converts. He brought his friends together so that they could watch him burn a bible page by page in defiance of the faith he so eagerly resisted in his rage. His rage did not ease his suffering and so he found himself laying on railroad tracks and screaming at the heavens: "If there is a God, then show yourself! If you're real, come to me or I will lay here and let the next train run over me and end it all." Sundar waited for quite a while and nothing happened and so he resolved to die when the train came shortly after dawn. As dawn was breaking, he had a vision where God spoke to him and called him to serve as a missionary to his own people.

He ran home, he woke his father and shared the story of his own conversion. His father was outraged and demanded that he renounce the absurd moment and vision. When Sundar refused, his father schedule a great party--but this party was a farewell ceremony and after the meal, Sundar was expelled from his home and disowned by his widowed father. As he walked away from his only family, his stomach began to hurt and he realized that he had been poisoned by his own father. He struggled to keep going and was eventually crawling due to the pain. Yet, he was taken in by a local Christian family and nursed back to health. He was baptized in the community and became a servant of God in the leper community nearby.

Eventually, he took upon himself the Indian garb of the Sadhu and began an itinerant ministry of mission work to the Indian people. In his yellow robe and turban, he began speaking to people who would otherwise ignore and reject the faith he offered. He spoke of Jesus--the man whom God had become in this world--and one important Gospel message that God loves us and desires to be with us. In other words, Sundar brought water to the people of India in a vessel they recognized and preferred. He would travel to Tibet--to minister to the Buddhists there--and throughout India on foot because of the calling to share the faith with his people.

He received some formal education but not much. He was occasionally sponsored by various ministries and ecclesial organizations but they never defined his identity. Instead, he kept pursuing the redemption of a people he cared for by offering the message that God's love was furious and unrelenting and that there was hope for life in the words and stories of the Christian faith. In 1929, he endeavored to make one last journey to Tibet--the visits had started very painfully but had gotten better each time he visited--and so he set off through the mountains. He never arrived and his body was never found. It is possible that he was murdered by bandits or that he died of exhaustion but one thing is for certain: Sundar went places and talked to people that other Christians did not have access to. Sundar was called by God to reach those he loved even if they rejected and abandoned him.

Friday, December 18, 2009

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 to the 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 and all 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 raised their 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.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

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.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

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.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

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.

Monday, December 14, 2009

December 14 - Juan de la Cruz, Mystic, Reformer, Imprisoned

Juan had a challenging childhood. His father died and left him and his mother and two older brothers alone at Avila in central Spain. Further, theirs was a family among the great group known as conversos--Jews forced to convert at the tip of a sword. Though his family had been forcibly converted to a faith that had cost them any chance at financial success and committed many sins against them, Juan found himself at home in the Christian faith. He was educated at a Jesuit institution when the Society of Jesus was still new. The Jesuit founder--Ignatius of Loyola--may have been alive for the first few years that Juan spent studying. As he grew older, he joined a Carmelite monastery with intentions of eventually becoming a Carthusian hermit. Then, he met Teresa.

Teresa de Avila (or Teresa of Jesus as she is sometimes called) spoke to Juan in a way that enticed him. She convinced him--slowly at first--not to join the Carthusians in pursuit of solitude and prayer but rather to make a life of reformation his prayer. Teresa was working to bring reformation to the Carmelite order and saw a coworker in the recently-ordained Juan. They began to work together and spiritual formation and maturity seemed to travel in their wake as they settled among various Christian communities. They were, however, met with resistance--as can be expected--by those who were uninterested in the reformation and healing of the Church. The resistance began as being barred from entering some convents and monasteries but eventually became more severe as they became more influential among spiritual communities.

Juan had been ordered to relocate by a superior--perhaps to break up his work with Teresa--and had been advised to stop his reforming work. When he refused both, he was seized by his brothers and imprisoned in a small cell. It was barely big enough for him to lay down and yet they felt it was the best place to keep him. He was fed and given water but was abused and mistreated by the same people who he had covenanted to love and take care of. Weekly, he was brought out of his cell to be publicly whipped and humiliated for his works of reformation and discipleship. While in his cell he wrote poetry including his most famous poem: La noche oscura del alma or The Dark Night of the Soul. In it, we read of the mystic path that leads the follow of Christ through a dark night of the seeming absence of God from the life of the disciple. In this dark place, disciples learn to lay down their egos and lives so that they might find life through death and darkness. In his small cell, these words must have resonated in his soul to provide him with some modicum of comfort even as his life seemed to fall apart around him.

He was able to engineer and escape by breaking his cell door and squeezing through a small window in a nearby room. Having left captivity behind, he tried to return to a normal life and found himself consistently drifting back to the monastic life. Instead of seeking solitude again, Juan began founding monasteries with Teresa and continuing to pursue the reformation of the Church he loved and had served even in the face of its enemies and adversity.