Sunday, September 30, 2012
As he looked back upon his life, Jerome could remember all too well those days that he had gone to the catacombs with shame on his face and guilt in his mind. He had enjoyed the festivities of the night before but the faces of his mother and father haunted him the morning after. They had raised him within the embrace of the Faith but he had found the World more persuasive once he was beyond their physical reach. Their faith could not save him but it could pester him and point him toward a life unlike his own. The education he was receiving was excellent but it left him on his own and to his own devices. Like all of us, Jerome's own devices couldn't save him but were more than capable of ruining him.
So, Jerome descended into the catacombs and walked among the bodies of the Christian dead. Running his hands over the inscriptions of the names of the martyrs, his guilt only deepened. The Faith that had motivated and animated them seemed conspicuously absent in his own life. He tried to fill up that void with pleasure and carnal delight and it took his mind off of his brokenness--for a moment. Ultimately, though, life would come crashing back upon him after his all-too-short reprieve. With it came the guilt that sent him underground to the dead. The light filtered down meagerly in solitary shafts of illumination that would cast the dark aside for a small section of the earthy tunnels. But, then, he moved onward and back into the darkness. In his life, the light of the faith of his mother and father would intrude upon his brilliance and fame and remind him of a life more abundant and free that still haunted his dreams and hopes. But, then, he moved onward in his life and found only more darkness and loneliness.
These late night and early morning trips to the halls of the dead were a type of penance for Jerome but they were simultaneously self-torturing and self-revealing. Jerome converted and was baptized. Further, he followed his own maxim well: "Be ever engaged, so that whenever the devil calls he may find you occupied." His asceticism is still regarded as extreme and devoted. He was unwillingly ordained upon the condition that he could continue a lifestyle of asceticism and disconnection from the world. His gifted mind helped him to translate the scripture from Hebrew and Greek into Latin to make one of the most influential translations in the history of the scripture: the Vulgate. He worked for unity and orthodoxy within the Church and, yet, remained disconnected from it because of some incredible desire for ascetic righteousness and otherness. He was willing to serve as a pastoral caregiver to any who sought it and, yet, he was equally comfortable in solitude and the lonely work of translation.
Reflecting back upon his walks among the dead and the importance of the lives of the martyrs for him, he wrote, "We do not worship the relics of the martyrs, but honor them in our worship of Him whose martyrs they are. We honor the servants in order that the respect paid to them may be reflected back to the Lord." For Jerome, this statement was a statement faith in practice that told much of how he found his way to the Faith of his parents. He had been ferried to repentance by shame and along the way that his father, mother, brothers, and sisters had prepared for him by living out a faith that stood in opposition to the vanities of life. Jerome died outside of Bethlehem in the year 420 having contributed mightily to the study of scripture and his Lord Jesus Christ.
Saturday, September 29, 2012
Lorenzo had a fairly unremarkable childhood. He was the son of a Chinese father and Filipino mother. From his father he learned Chinese and from his mother he learned Tagalog. In Manila, he was raised in a family that found roots and comfort in the Christian Faith. He attended worship with his parents and saw what they were willing to do and say (or not do and not say) on account of the Faith they professed and held. This had an impact that should not be underestimated and cannot easily be overstated. Even as a young man he was already serving in his local congregation as an altar boy and assistant to the priests of his parish. He even received his limited education through the Church in their attempts to provide for him and prepare him more fully for service to the Church and the World. Apparently, his handwriting and penmanship were excellent and so he served as a type of scribe to the ministers and priests that passed through the parish and area.
As he grew older, he found a wife and settled down with her and had three children (one daughter and two sons). He began to carry on the mission started in the family of his birth by sharing his Faith--the Faith of his parents and countless others--with the children entrusted to him. This replicating task was the mission work that Lorenzo devoted himself to until he stood falsely accused by foreign powers. While serving in the local church, he was falsely accused of a crime by the Spanish courts. He was accused of murdering a Spanish man and vengeance was expected. His heart breaking, he fled from Manila having found sanctuary among some priests on a ship leaving for Japan. He left his family behind because he knew that the sword of vengeance would not likely stop at his own neck and would probably end the lives of those close to him, as well.
They did not learn of the boat's destination--Japanese territory undergoing intense Christian persecution--until they were at sea. Having fled false charges in Manila, they landed in Okinawa and Lorenzo was assaulted by an entirely different--and yet ultimately identical--evil. They were accused of being Christians--a charge Lorenzo would not deny--and arrested for their Faith. They were given an opportunity to deny their faith but Lorenzo refused. He was taken to Nagasaki to be brought before a judge. As he traveled in bondage, his mind must have been on his family back in Manila. Surely he thought of his parents. But this reflection would be ended by a judge who questioned him and concluded by asking, "If we let you live will you renounce your faith?" Lorenzo responded, "That I shall never do! I am a Christian and I shall die for God. For Him I would give thousands of lives if I had them to give. So, do whatever you please."
The judge did what he pleased--including jamming splints under his fingernails, having Lorenzo beaten severely, holding him under water until he was nearly drowned and, then, bringing him out and beating him so hard that the water came out of his nose and eyes. Finally, he was hung by his feet in a pit full of trash and sewage. Weights were slowly added to him until he died from suffocation. They took his body, burned it, and cast his ashes to the wind. Though they could torture and kill him they could not destroy the faith that had bore him, formed him, and inspired him. He continued bearing the faith and stories of his brothers and sisters even to the point of death.
Friday, September 28, 2012
Cosmas and Damian had attracted very much attention. It wasn't because they were hungry for renown and consideration. They were influential but they did not seek the power of influence. They were powerful but they did not seek to manipulate or dominate others. This had attracted the attention--negative attention, for sure--of Diocletian. Consequently, they were arrested as enemies of the Empire within the Roman province of Syria. Though there were many of the outcast and needy that would have jumped to their defense, they agreed to be seized by the hand of the Empire. They turned their bodies over to the Empire that outlawed their faith.
What had gathered the attention of the Empire had been the work that Cosmas and Damian became so famous for: healing. It must have started small--like all of God's great works--with kind words, prayers, and needy individuals. However, their ministry spread like wildfire as they provided life and healing to people desperate for something different than the sanitized Imperial security that provided no life. Being a follower of Jesus--the one who has the words of life--they offered what no other could: life more abundant. Soon, many others were coming to them for healing and hope. They provided both in abundance without asking for any compensation. For some, this was prohibitive--how could they not give something for the grace and mercy they were being offered? For some, this is still prohibitive--what do you mean I can't do anything to save myself? Cosmas and Damian became known as "silverless" or "unmercenary" because they offered the love and healing they received out of the love born in their hearts through their ongoing conversion. For this work, they were arrested. The World will not stand by and simply watch people offer life and healing when all it can offer is control and something that looks like life. So, it handles the "problem" however it needs to.
Cosmas and Damian were given ample opportunities to deny their faith and affirm the Empire. Having tasted of the waters of salvation and conversion, though, they were unable ever to return to a life of security and control. Instead, they continued to proclaim the Gospel that had gripped and transformed them regardless of what they wanted. They were tortured slowly so as to allow for a change of heart but the Empire failed to realize that their hearts had already begun to be changed by something greater than anything they could promise or threaten. They were hung on crosses to cast fear and humiliation into their hearts but they only found themselves reminded of the love of their Savior who had died for them while they were yet sinners. Stones were cast at them to cause such pain as to make them hate and seek vengeance but they only found themselves reminded of the conversion of Saul who stoned Christians before being converted. Arrows were shot into their bodies to punish them for their faith but they remained steadfast in the face of pain because of a life more vibrant and real within them. Finally, they were beheaded because the Empire could no longer stand to look upon the products of conversion and know it could not produce the same with power, control, domination, and hatred.
Thursday, September 27, 2012
Vincent was born into a historically unremarkable family with five other children. His peasant father and mother evidently took good care of their children and grounded them in the faith that they held so dear and so tightly held them. Vincent had the opportunity to study and receive an education by associating with various societies in more urban areas and received an education in theology while studying in Toulouse. He was ordained in the year 1600 and began a life of service and devotion to the Church and its Lord--Jesus Christ--who promised freedom to the bound.
While serving as a priest in Toulouse, he received a call to travel to Marseilles for some family business. His life had been like so many others for his first twenty-four years. His story differed very little from so many other priests while he served in the urban area of Toulouse. His life and his story was about to change, though, in a drastic and difficult way. It's hardly the kind of thing that anyone would wish for themselves or another but it was the path that Vincent's life took: while in Marseilles, Vincent was seized by Turkish pirates and forced into a life of servitude and suffering.
He was carried against his will to Tunis in Northern Africa. When they landed there, he must have trembled at the thought of what awaited him when he was forced to disembark. The voyage had been terrible but it had, at least, been a limited type of terror--on the ship he knew where he would be the next day and who he would be interacting with. When he was brought onto dry land again he could still smell the Mediterranean sea but it was a very different world that he found himself in. Drawing hope from the faith that held him and countless Christians before and after him, he walked to the slave market where he was purchased by a powerful man who had some interest in Vincent the priest.
As a slave, he was incredibly limited in his interactions with his owner but he began to form a relationship with the man who had bought his freedom and life for a small sum. His love and way of life drew the attention of his owner and the attention became interest. When the owner began talking with Vincent, he found a vibrant faith that led his slave to offer him forgiveness and love. This was so much unlike his other slaves who hated and despised him for commanding and controlling them. Though Vincent did not condone the servitude he was entangled in, he continued to love his owner anyway. Eventually, Vincent's owner was converted to the faith, hope, and love that held Vincent. After this, he freed Vincent and Vincent returned to France.
When he returned to France, it must have seemed like everything had changed because so much of Vincent had changed while serving another in bondage. In many ways, life was better and more exciting because of his rediscovered freedom which he likely took for granted before his enslavement. However, something else was changed--Vincent's outlook on life. He eventually became a chaplain to galley slaves and offered pastoral care and comfort to those who suffered under the hand of bondage and oppression. His ministry became characterized by service to the less fortunate and defeated. For the remainder of his life, he would serve under the guidance of the powerful to provide care to the weak and outcast. When confronted with the physical abuse that the slaves had received, he was also concerned with the spiritual abuse rendered unto them. He began to live a life and ministry of comfort and healing for the least of the slaves and convicts under his care. With priests who were inspired by his life and work, he founded a group of ministers committed to care for the enslaved and bound.
Wednesday, September 26, 2012
To be fair, he had seen it coming. Jeremiah had stood among the people of God and yelled as loud as he could. As they went about their days and the activities therein, they failed to notice the waterfall this river of humanity was approaching. Ignorant of where their path was leading them, they didn't understand what Jeremiah was saying. To be fair, though, God had told Jeremiah to expect this. God had said, "You will go to them; but I know them--they will not listen." So, Jeremiah stood in the middle of his friends and family and screamed distasteful and disagreeable things--true things. Many ignored him because they couldn't begin to understand what he was saying. Others understood what he was saying but refused to believe that it could be true. "No," they thought, "God is still with us. Didn't he just recently turn away those Babylonians?" Jeremiah alternated between tears for their ignorance and disgust for their hardheartedness.
Jeremiah was thrown in jail for telling the truth to people who didn't want to hear it and had the power to punish him for saying it. Jeremiah was beaten, mocked, and abused. Jeremiah even knew he would fail from the beginning. Yet, Jeremiah continued to share the message of repentance and faith in God because God had called him to do so. He lamented his calling. He disliked his calling. But, he lived into it because doing so was what his life of faith and trust in God demanded.
Knowing that people were hearing his words but not hearing his message, Jeremiah tried reaching out to them in different ways. He hoped desperately to break through the walls the people had constructed around themselves. He walked around town wearing a yoke around his neck. When people were shocked out of their apathy enough by this strange sight, they learned that Jeremiah was making a statement about the coming enslavement of the Jews by the Babylonians. When Babylon had laid siege to Jerusalem, Jeremiah made the ridiculous gesture of repurchasing the land of his family--the same land that was currently underneath Babylonian feet. This was a sign of hope for a day when the people of Israel could return again to Jerusalem. Jeremiah tried to reach out to the very people that God had assured him would not listen to him. God was right and the people ignored Jeremiah and Jeremiah's God. They had fallen away and no longer knew a life of faith and trust. They needed to wander until they realized they needed to led.
Jerusalem did fall to the Babylonians and the Jews were exiled. Wealthy and influential Jews were carried away to Babylon to serve the Babylonians there. This was the beginning of one of the greatest wounds in Jewish history--the attempted destruction of a people. The Jews who were not powerful enough or influential enough were left behind in Israel to suffer under Babylonian oppression and domination. Life had changed much as Jeremiah had said it would. Yet, he had left them with the hopeful image of his purchase of the land. For some, perhaps, this served as a comforting thought that even though things had changed and God had allowed the Babylonians to conquer Jerusalem, God still cared for Israel and was still working out its salvation and redemption.
Tuesday, September 25, 2012
Sergius was born with the given name "Bartholomew" to a family of aristocrats. His parents were "boyars." This status made them only slightly less influential and powerful than princes in the world of the Moscovites. However, something lost in the waves of history happened and they were suddenly impoverished. Having fallen from their position of wealth and influence, they became like so many other Russians and began struggling to make enough money to live.
Stories say that young Bartholomew was a clever boy with only one problem in his studies: he had considerable trouble reading. Apparently, he could learn well when he heard something or saw something but struggled to read well enough to make written work useful and helpful. For a boy who expressed religious aspirations, this was a significant problem. Clerical vocations involved quite a bit of reading. As Bartholomew was traveling in the hills one day, he was approached by a man who looked like a local holy man. As Bartholomew approached, the man had nothing to say but was holding a piece of consecrated bread--like something that would be used in the Eucharist. This piece of bread would have been made of two separate pieces--representing the two natures of Jesus--and had letters printed on it standing for "Jesus Christ, Conqueror." The man offered him the bread and Bartholomew took it. He ate it as he had learned to do. The man said nothing but as Bartholomew left, he turned back and couldn't find the man who had just been there. Stories say that this was an angelic visitation and when Bartholomew returned home he could read with proficiency and skill.
Bartholomew's parents died when he was a teenager and he went to be with his older brother Stefan who had become a monk. He persuaded Stefan to move from his monastery deeper into the forest and take on a more ascetic life of prayer and devotion than he was already living. They lived with each other and pushed each other on to greater and greater intimacy with the Lord they followed after. Eventually, Bartholomew would take his own monastic vows in Moscow and also take the name "Sergius" as part of his calling. He moved back into the forest to live the life of a hermit but monks began traveling to be with him and learn from him. When they would find him, he would not turn them away and when many of them had found him he agreed to be their abbot when they begged him to. They built their own cells in the forest and lived together in prayerful and holy communion. He led them to live by their own hands and work but to maintain a life of devotion and contemplation. This was a very challenging calling and, yet, his disciples lived into it.
Eventually, the Patriarch would sent a monastic charter to Sergius to make his collection of monks into an official monastery. Having been chartered, the members of his community spread throughout Russia and founded monasteries in the pattern that they had learned from Sergius. Their lives of contemplation and work prepared them well for their new roles of leadership among other monks. Sergius' notoriety meant that he was chosen as the successor for important Russian Church positions but turned them down in favor of remaining a simple monk. He also had the incredible opportunity to seize political power by riding the waves of his popularity in religious circles. Sergius' insistence upon the monastic life in contrast to a life of influence and power is significant for understanding what he was devoted to. Sergius knew where he was called and resisted temptations to power. He died on September 25, 1392. He was admired and respected throughout life and in his death as a Russian saint and monastic worthy of imitation.
Monday, September 24, 2012
Henri was born into a Dutch family in 1932. Recalling his childhood, he was known to say: “I grew up in a very protected and safe environment and I learned to know that I was Dutch and I was Catholic. It took me quite a long time to discover that there were people, many people, who were neither!” His upbringing was religious and he would remark that he was familiar with two voices growing up: the voice of his mother offering unconditional love and the voice of his father spurring him onward to achievement and effort. For Henri, these voices would serve as constant companions and narrators for his life's actions. At the age of six, he says he first felt a calling to be a priest and servant of God's people. This is a calling that he would follow through school and, eventually, see realized when he as ordained a priest at the age of 25.
Henri's gifts were clearly disposed toward teaching and writing. His writing is--to this day--regarded highly among protestants, orthodox, and roman catholics. The decided difference in Henri's approach was his incredible passion for pastoral theology. This passion led him to study the relatively novel discipline of psychology (a discipline still distrusted by much of the Church) with vigor and apply it to his already considerable theological understanding. In this, Henri began cautiously to plumb the depths of the minds of those he served. He taught psychology and pastoral theology for many years at schools such as the University of Notre Dame and Yale University Divinity School. During this period, he wrote prolifically and magnificently. But, he still felt something was missing and he was haunted by many of his own personal terrors and challenges.
In 1981, Henri moved to Peru to serve the poor and discern if God was calling him to work among the people of the developing South. He left the academic regard and salary to serve among the poor and needy of Peru but, ultimately, found that this didn't feel like where God was calling him even if it was good work that he would continue as he served in other places. This work changed Henri for the better and further deepened his commitment to social justice and ministry to the poor but wasn't the last stop on his journey of calling.
In 1983, he accepted a position at Harvard University Divinity School that many academics would covet--he was required to teach only one semester and was encouraged to write as much as he wanted to. His classes were popular. His influence and fame were notable. Yet, Henri was overcome by the depression that had haunted him for most of his adult life. He found this to be a place of darkness and discomfort. In his journals, he would confess to conflict over his vow of celibacy and his incredible desire for physical and emotional intimacy with another person. This was a place where Henri continued his long struggle with his own sexuality and its implications for his spiritual life. Henri felt that Harvard was a great school but lacking in any feelings of communion. The competition and ambition of its students overtook their calling to love one another and be with each other. Henri resisted this place of darkness and isolation throughout his life--as far as we know--but it was at Harvard where so much of it came to bear upon him and lead to what he alternatively referred to as "burnout" and "spiritual death."
A seeming coincidence brought Henri together with Jean Vanier who told Henri about the communities that he was starting called L'Arche. These communities were meant to be places of intentional communion for people of all varieties. They were noted for taking in many people with intellectual disabilities. In 1986, Henri became the pastor of one of the L'Arche communities--called "Daybreak"--outside of Toronto, Canada. Still deep within his own depression and darkness, this was a challenging time that he relates in his book Adam, God's Beloved. Henri--the famous and influential author, priest, and activist--was asked to take care of a man named Adam who had a severe intellectual disability. Henri felt unappreciated and belittled at first. After all, surely he could be more useful in some other capacity. Yet, Adam became the key to Henri's release from his own darkness. Taking care of Adam--waking him, dressing him, helping him bathe--reminded Henri of the power of love to redeem even the darkest pits. As Henri loved Adam and Adam loved Henri, they were both further converted to life. It was at Daybreak that Henri finally found community and happiness. It was in the simple act of offering unconditional love that Henri found rest and comfort to his soul. Henri died from a heart attack in 1996. He was buried near Daybreak.
Sunday, September 23, 2012
Pio's parents were shepherds in Southern Italy and it was into this life that he was born thirteen years prior to the end of the 19th century. As was his family's custom, he was intimately involved in the local church and served as an altar boy. His family was in attendance with regularity. When Pio looked back at his childhood many years later, he would recollect that he had made a decision to commit himself wholly to God at the young age of five. From then on, he recalled, he strained after intimacy with the God who called him into being and the priesthood. Pio's family helped guide and push him onward in his relationship with God and taught him to pray and memorize the scriptures. As Pio went to sleep at night, he was ushered there on the stories of the scripture told in the voices of those close to him.
When Pio was ten, his family had the opportunity to listen to a Capuchin friar seeking monetary and prayer support for the monastery that was hoping better to live into God's calling upon the life of St. Francis. Pio was awestruck by the friar and subsequently became convinced that this was the particular calling that God had placed upon his life: the monastic life of prayer and mysticism. His family supported this calling and took him to the Capuchin monastery to inquire if he could join them. They had heard of the boy known for prescribing his own penance, have ecstatic visions, and dwelling upon the mysteries of the faith. They assured him that they would accept him if he would receive the education he had missed while tending his family's flocks. Pio's father moved to the United States of America to make enough money to pay for Pio's school and he was soon initiated and ordained into the order.
Pio served as spiritual director of two separate monasteries and became known as a worker of miracles. These miracles--including healing and miraculous discerning--are what occasioned his discharge from the Italian military he was conscripted into (as a chaplain) for World War I. As a spiritual director, he was interested in a daily life of discipleship that involved recognition of one's place before God and acceptance of unmerited suffering as the fertile ground of spiritual growth. In this way, Pio claimed to appreciate the considerable suffering he underwent with his own illness and physical weakness. He advised those under his direction to be as regular with confession as you would be with dusting your house because, ultimately, they had the same effective purpose: removing tarnish and corruption from that which is valuable to you. Pio was quick to advise any who would listen that the practice of Christian teaching amounted to: "Pray, hope and don't worry."
Controversy was not far from Pio's life, however. He experienced great physical pain and suffering because of his poor health but also, he felt, because he was under attack by demonic beings. His understanding of suffering and penance is clear: the pain we experience purifies our souls and is, therefore, good. Pio's visions became intermixed with visions of demons and the Adversary masquerading as angels of light. He was tormented by the confusing aspects of these visions but also, he felt, by the physical attacks of the demons. For Pio, the key to understanding the terrors was in seeing what fruit they bared in his heart and mind. When he felt despair and darkness, he knew that this was not the work of the God of hope and light. Further, Pio experienced the stigmata and became notable to many because of this gift and pain. As he bled from wounds that matched the wounds of Jesus, he found comfort in knowing that he was being purified through his suffering. These marks--and others--remained as a continual calling to Pio to continue onward in his imitation of the slaughtered Lord he loved and followed. Many called him a liar or an impostor. He denied their accusations but had little interest in arguing with them. Investigations found no fraud in what he was doing and affirmed the mysterious and mystical nature of what was going on.
Pio died in 1968 surrounded by his brothers and sisters in Christ. He had offered a mass before retiring to his bed for the last time. A brother came and received his last confession and Pio renewed his own vows as a monk and priest. Death came quietly for Pio who slipped away muttering the name of Jesus and Mary. His funeral was highly attended and people were surprised to see the stigmatic wounds present at his death to have healed completely and left only two red marks--one on each palm. In his death, Pio rested with the God he had so long pursued with abandon. Pio passed through suffering to find himself purified, redeemed, and in communion with the one who had called him so many years prior.
Saturday, September 22, 2012
Maurice had accompanied his men to the place where the battle was soon to be held. His men were the Theban Legion of the Roman Army. The legion was comprised of almost entirely Christians from Northern Egypt by this point. Over the years, the life and words of the Christian soldiers had an influence on their companions in arms and many conversions were reported as the days and battles wore on. They had now been called to battle to put down a peasant revolt. The peasants had grown tired of being oppressed and abused by the Roman Empire and had begun to resist them. They were known as the bagaudae and they were the reason that the Theban legion (all 6,600 of them) had been called to Gaul.
When they arrived, they discovered two things that made them balk: (1) they were being asked to make war on peasants, and (2) they were asked to make a sacrifice to the Roman gods on the night before battle. Maurice and his legion resisted both of these requests. They continued to proclaim their faith and refuse to sacrifice even as they were threatened and coerced. Finally, the Emperor ordered the decimation of the legion. This meant that all 6,600 men were lined up and every tenth soldier was murdered. 660 men died because they refused to comply with the Emperor's orders. The remaining 5,940 men were asked again if they would make a sacrifice and spare their own lives. When the legion refused, they were decimated again. 594 more men died because they refused to submit their lives and wills to the Emperor. As they were decimated, some of the men tasked with executing them were converted by the Christians' nonviolent resistance. Even as they held weapons, they allowed themselves to be killed. Each murder made a strong statement about the inability of the Empire ever to win a single heart and will. Some were converted because, in the midst of death, they had seen true life.
The remaining 5,346 were given another chance to make sacrifice and appease the Empire. As they stood among the dead bodies of 1,254 people who had already made the sacrifice of their life for their soul, they refused again. Maurice offered some words to his superiors:
"We are your soldiers, but we are also servants of the true God. We owe you military service and obedience; but we cannot renounce Him who is our Creator and Master, and also yours, even though you reject Him. In all things which are not against His law we most willingly obey you, as we have done hitherto....We have taken an oath to God before we took one to you; you can place no confidence in our second oath if we violate the first....We confess God the Father, author of all things, and His Son, Jesus Christ. We have seen our companions slain without lamenting them, and we rejoice at their honor. Neither this nor any other provocation has tempted us to revolt. We have arms in our hands, but we do not resist because we could rather die innocent than live by any sin."After this, the Emperor ordered the slaughter of the remaining 5,346 soldiers. They stood still and allowed their executioners to take their lives. Though it cost them their lives, they refused to sin. Though it cost them their lives, they maintained the Faith that held them to a higher calling than the Empire. Their oath to God held them stronger than any other and they laid down their lives in the proclamation of their faith and hope in God.
Friday, September 21, 2012
Matthew had known desperation. That day he had been in the public square when Jesus came by. In his presence, he felt like he should hide his face from the teacher and healer of so many. Jesus had been healing and teaching some of the very same people that Matthew had been bilking out of even more of their precious little money. He avoided Jesus' eyes as he came by and his coin-purse felt a little heavier and a little more obvious than usual. It became apparent that Jesus was going to do a miracle and Matthew couldn't take it anymore. He turned to slip away in the crowd noticing the eyes of his fellow Jews that were glad to see Matthew leave. He was desperate to get away from Jesus before his shame ate him alive. Just as he was about to slip past the edge of the expectant crowd, he heard somebody call his name. He turned around to see Jesus looking at him with a knowing and somehow loving look. He noticed that everybody else was looking at him, too. Jesus said, "Come follow me." Matthew's heart could stand it no longer and agreed to give into the shame that broke through to repentance and healing. He walked through the death of his self and found life more abundant on the other side.
Yes, Matthew had known desperation. Jesus had been arrested and beaten severely. He had run like the rest of the twelve. They left their life-giving master so that they might not be expected to give up their lives. They didn't get it but Jesus forgave them. Matthew had heard and seen parts of the story and knew that Jesus had been crucified and had died. He met with the twelve--at least, most of them--to talk about what had happened and see if there was anything they were planning on doing. In the midst of his own desperation, he began to see what Jesus had been talking about. He started to get the revolution that Jesus was leading and the Kingdom that he had been bringing into the world. He began to see the fruits of repentance and the nature of the already present and still arriving Kingdom. Then, Jesus rose from the dead and it all clicked together. Once again, his life was changed in a desperate moment of calling and hope in the midst of hopelessness.
Matthew had known desperation. But as he hung upside down with the blood rushing to his head, he wasn't feeling shame or hopelessness. Rather, he was feeling love for those who had tied him to the post and forgiveness for the ruler who had ordered his execution. What did they expect him to do? Be quiet? Surely not after God had dwelled within him at Pentecost and called him to foreign lands to spread the good news that grace and mercy were redeeming the world. He had preached good news and, for its sake and the sake of his Lord, they had condemned him to death. He had brought people into life but those who dwelt in death resented it. As they piled the logs around him and the torches approached, he remembered his Lord forgiving his executioners and prayed for his own approaching murderers. This time, he found truth without the desperation or crisis. So even as the last few grains of his life fell through the hourglass, he understood what Jesus had meant when said, "Come, follow me." Matthew had followed his Lord by proclaiming a Gospel of life to the dead and healing to the sick.
Thursday, September 20, 2012
Paul was the child of a powerful legacy. Growing up in Korea in a time that was hostile to Christians, Paul was only seven when his father and oldest brother were martyred on account of their faith. Paul's father had been one of the first Korean converts to Christianity and wrote the first Christian catechism in Korean. His father and brother refused to deny the Lord that had never denied them and this left a distinct and indelible mark upon Paul. They could not turn loose of their faith because their faith wouldn't let them go. Finally, it cost them their lives which they gave as a testament to the truth of their Gospel and love of their Lord.
Paul and his mother were spared execution and exiled into the rural parts of Korea in the Empire's desperate attempt to apply a tourniquet to the spread of the Faith. They hoped that the execution of some would give the survivors a fear to spread with them into exile. As is so often the case when the World hopes to stop the spread of the Faith, this only fanned the flames and the story that Paul and his mother carried with them was of valiant faith and unquenchable passion. Paul's mother raised Paul and his other siblings in the faith that their father and brother had died in the embrace of.
As Paul grew older he began to work for a government interpreter and travel with him to Beijing with some regularity. This gave Paul a particular set of opportunities that included speaking with the Chinese bishop and sending letters to the Pope through the bishop. His constant request was a plea for bishops and priests to be sent to Korea to provide leadership, teaching, and training. There was some hesitancy to do so because of Korea's stance toward the Faith they viewed as an infestation needing to be exterminated. However, much to Paul's relief and in answer to his prayers (and the prayers of many other Korean Christians) ministers were sent. They found Paul to be an eager student of theology and scripture and the bishop was prepared to ordain him to ministry when the Korean empire cracked down upon them and instigated a new wave of persecution.
Paul was drug before the judge and commanded to renounce his faith upon threat of execution. Echoing the voice of his father, brother, and countless other Christians, he provided a defense of his faith and continued to profess it to the judge. The judge was amazed at the clarity and passion in Paul's argument and admitted that it sounded to him that Paul was right but begged him simply to pretend to deny his faith so that his life might be spared and he might spread the faith he so loved. Paul refused because he knew well that denying his faith may grant him more days but it would not give him life. Instead, it would destroy any hope he had of offering life more abundant and free to those who sought it. So, Paul refused to deny his faith. The judge said, “You are right...but the king forbids this religion, it is your duty to renounce it.” Paul responded, “I have told you that I am a Christian, and will be one until my death.”
For this, Paul was tortured. He did not offer anger or malice to his torturers but instead proclaimed the good news that Jesus had died for them and been raised from the dead victorious over all things. They continued to torture him until he was crucified. He died 38 years after his father and joined them in their rest and comfort in the presence of God.
Wednesday, September 19, 2012
Rich Mullins, the son of a mid-western farmer and his Quaker wife, was born in Indiana but traveled much throughout the course of his life. He attended Quaker services with regularity but his own spiritual pedigree is muddy at best--just how Rich would like it. He had connections to Quakers, Methodists, Baptists, and Roman Catholics among yet even more congregations. On more than one occasion, Rich advocated a certain kind of spiritual authenticity that seemed to make denominational divides and distinctions that once seemed so important and daunting to fade away into a kind of inconsequential haziness. Rich wanted to follow Jesus and didn't really care what that meant he was called or how others might identify him. At a very young age, his great-grandmother gave him a gift that he would spend the rest of his life giving to the world--she taught him to play piano and started his musical development. He took to it with a prodigious amount of natural talent and was an accompanist for a local, touring congregational choir. Rich attended several different schools while he studied music as a young adult but didn't stay in any one school for very long. It was always clear that his first passion was the Lord Jesus who loved him. It is his second passion for which he is best known: honest and soul-searching music that glorifies God.
Shortly after earning his B.A. in Music Education from Friends University in Wichita, Kansas, he moved to Tse Bonito, New Mexico, with his dear friend Mitch McVicker. He already had a remarkably successful career as both a singer and a songwriter. He had two hit songs that were fast becoming popular praise choruses and had released a few albums to much critical acclaim. After reading Brennan Manning's The Ragamuffin Gospel, Rich was so touched by the text that he named his new band "The Ragamuffin Band." They were in high demand in Christian music circles and it seemed that his career was set to "take off" even further. If this were the story of most men, then we'd expect to hear more of awards and material gains but Rich had moved to Tse Bonito to live on a Navajo reservation and teach music to the children that he met there. Though his performances were regularly sold out, Rich never accepted more than $24,000 a year as a salary. Instead, he gave over every check he received to his accountant. Rich's accountant paid Rich the salary of the average "working person" in the United States and gave the rest away as per Rich's instructions. Rich turned down the world's brand of success to follow after his Lord Jesus like his hero Francis of Assisi had done. Rich cast aside the world's gains because he recognized them for what they were: weights around his neck as he tried to ascend into God's presence.
Rich and Mitch McVicker were headed north on I-39 from Bloomington, Illinois, on September 19th in the year 1997. They were headed to a benefit concert in Wichita, Kansas. The jeep flipped for some uncertain reason and the two men were thrown from the vehicle as a tractor-trailer truck bore down upon their wrecked jeep. Both were badly injured from their wreck but Rich would be killed when the truck veered to one side to avoid the wrecked jeep and killed Rich instantly. Mitch was seriously injured but he survived the wreck. Rich died only days after having recorded an album on micro-cassette in an abandoned church. The Ragamuffin Band had been there and Rich had recorded it so that they could hear the ten songs that Rich wanted to include on the next album (entitled "The Jesus Record"). This final recording had none of the professional editing so common in music but still communicated the authenticity and passion that Rich had for God and for his music. Even though Rich died, the band went on to record "The Jesus Record" and release it not only with a copy of Rich's final recording but, also, with a tribute album where Rich's part was played by Christian musicians who had been friends and admirers of Rich. In the end, you can't help but wonder if Rich might not have preferred it that way--God getting the glory, his friends serving God, and Rich being allowed to hang on for the ride.
Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Joseph's mother gave birth to him in a stable. She had been driven from her home because of the debts of her recently deceased husband. Joseph's father had been generous but not wealthy. He had guaranteed the debts of many of their poorer neighbors and when they had failed to pay, their debts became his debts. When he died unexpectedly, Joseph's family no longer had any means to support itself. Joseph's childhood was, at times, painful. He was not a good student and was given to staring vacantly into the distance. His teachers could not understand how Joseph could study and, yet, fail his exams. Looking back, it seems apparent that Joseph had some form of learning disability but at the time it was easier to call him ignorant and unsuitable for any profession that involved thinking.
It was Joseph's earnest desire to be a monk--even though he had been apprenticed to a cobbler--and so he applied to a monastery. He was rejected because of his apparent ignorance and inability to pay attention for longer periods of time. Undeterred, he applied to yet another monastery. They accepted him and tried to work with his difficulties at learning but ultimately dismissed him when they could not find a way to work around his challenges. Finally, he applied to the Franciscan monastery and was accepted. This was hardly an easy calling but the Franciscan brothers were willing to accept that he had a deep desire to live the life of prayer and devotion. They recognized a call upon Joseph's life that transcended intelligence or education.
Joseph was known for being given to moments of ecstasy and deep contemplation of the Lord he loved and followed. One gift only made him more unpopular with some: he seemed to be able to discern the hidden sin in a person's life. He would directly approach them and tell them that they smelled and needed to go be cleaned. He would then direct them to the confessional at the local church, chapel, or monastery. He was not allowed to hear confession or preside over masses because of his lack of education and knowledge but he was known for healing people who came to him seeking aid. His daily life soon became inundated with individuals recognizing holiness and calling in his life that his ignorance could not diminish. Joseph was far from intelligent but it didn't matter to the people who came near to him because he loved them and wanted to help them.
Joseph was pushed around throughout his life by people who thought they knew better than him because of their comparatively greater intelligence. His final years involved much travel because of the throngs of people who constantly came to him seeking his love and healing. Joseph was content to stay among them but his superiors moved him around because they detested the scenes that were created around him. When Joseph died among his brothers and sisters, he refused their request that he heal himself saying, "No! God forbid!" He, then, comforted them with soothing words before passing on to his eternal rest.
Monday, September 17, 2012
James Carney struggled his way through seminary. Not because he wasn't smart--he was--and not because it was the hardest thing he'd ever done--he had recently finished serving in World War II--but because it challenged him in new ways that only Jesuit training could. He studied philosophy and theology for hours and hours doing so in Latin. He reflected back upon his time in the military and what it meant for his life. He engaged his own self-discipline as he was formed in the crucible of his seminary experience and when he emerged, he was prepared for the calling that God had placed upon his life: the life of a missionary priest to a poverty-stricken people. James Carney--who asked to be called Padre Guadalupe in honor of "Our Lady of Guadalupe"--had been called and appointed to Honduras.
James lived a fairly typical life in Honduras as a local priest among a people who struggled daily to know where they would find their next meal and how to make sure their families were cared for. He said mass every week, he baptized, he offered the sacraments, he taught children, and otherwise did what any other priest was doing throughout the world. But James felt that in pursuing his calling and moving to Honduras he had somehow missed it. Instead, he began to consider the poverty of his people and the suffering they labored under. He knew it only indirectly. After all, he was an American citizen who was provided for and comfortable even if living among those who struggled. He began to become intimately acquainted with their lives by leaving the church buildings and entering into the homes of his people. Eventually, he would become a Honduran citizen and give up his American citizenship and passport. He donned the clothes of the people and slept on dirt floors, in hammocks, and wherever he was invited. James Carney found that within his calling was a deeper calling to become intimately associated with a people that the government did not care about.
Eventually, James Carney began to argue that the Church could not stand passively by and watch the poverty-stricken suffer but should, instead, try to alleviate their pain. He began arguing for social and economic justice in Honduras and this attracted the ire of those with power--those who had benefited from the broken Honduran system. Suddenly, he was accused of being a communist and heretic by those with power and the Bishop began to hear criticism of the priest who was a friend of the poor and outcast. As often happens to those who confront power with truth, the influential and powerful people exacted their revenge for James' slight against them and had him exiled from Honduras to Nicaragua. James' citizenship in the country he loved--where the people he loved lived--was revoked and he was told not to return.
While in Nicaragua, James Carney continued his ministry among the Nicaraguans while still dreaming of his beloved in Honduras. There had recently been revolution in Nicaragua where the Sandinista forces had overthrown a government that had failed and oppressed the poor. This was an inspiring event for James who began to associate with a guerrilla force intending to try to start the same thing in Honduras. They crossed the border into Honduras and James went with them as their "priest chaplain." James knew well that he would essentially sign his own death warrant by returning to the country where he belonged but was not welcome. The force was caught, interrogated, and tortured. This included James Carney. Finally, James Carney was taken in a helicopter over the jungle and tossed out of it alive. He fell to the ground and if he survived the fall, then he died of exposure, hunger, or thirst in the days that followed.
James Carney was clearly a man who was willing to fight for what he felt was worth fighting for. This is somewhat troubling for some people who are uncomfortable with the idea of a revolutionary priest that fights for a politicized cause. James' Marxist leanings further complicate the discussion for many Christians who distrust Marxism and its political trappings. Regardless, James can and should be remembered as a person willing to die for those he loved. By living with the poor and outcast of Honduras, he became so attached and connected to their lives that their suffering was his suffering. Their pain was his pain. Their yearning for revolution and change burned in his heart, as well. Because of this and God's calling upon James' life, James Carney was martyred because he refused to stop loving those that the powerful had deemed inconsequential and unlovable.
Sunday, September 16, 2012
Cyprian had been raised as a non-Christian and received a fine education before converting to Christianity in the early third century. It is clear that he was a man of means and affluence because of his possession of a villa and his considerable influence among the citizens of Carthage before his conversion. When he converted to the Faith, he gave away a significant portion of his wealth and possessions to the poor people of Carthage. This was greeted with joy and appreciation from the poorer citizens and respect from others. In a short time, he was ordained to ministry in Carthage. Years later, he was elected Bishop of Carthage.
From his position as bishop, he began to hear the rumblings of a terrible set of events that would soon befall North Africa. Emperor Decius had been speaking against Christians and had started persecuting Christians within the Roman Empire. Eventually, these edicts were picked up in North Africa. Carthage was considered a significant target for these persecutions because of the growing number of Christians there under Cyprian's watchcare. Ministers of the Faith were being rounded up and compelled to sign statements of allegiance to the Emperor and sacrifice before the Roman gods and powers. If they refused, there were drastic and dire consequences. When the edict was pronounced in Carthage, however, Cyprian was nowhere to be found.
He had fled Carthage claiming to have seen a vision and heard God's calling to avoid the persecution. He was accused of cowardice and lack of faith before other clergy and their common superiors. In many ways, Cyprian had lost the credibility that allowed him to speak so forcefully to the people he guided and ministered to. He still administered Carthage as its bishop but did so through intermediaries and without stepping foot into the city. The general disapproval of other Christians was abundantly clear to Cyprian who received letters and messages intended to rebuke and question his decision to leave Carthage.
For years, the battle that Cyprian would fight was two-fold: (1) defending his flight from Carthage as ordained by God, and (2) whether or not to accept Christians that had denied their faith back into the embrace of the Church. This was a tenuous position for Cyprian who argued against allowing "lapsed Christians" back into the Church except in exceptional circumstances. His argument was constantly weighed against the public consideration that he had fled the persecution. For Cyprian's enemies, he behaved hypocritically by refusing mercy to those who had crumbled under the same pressure they accused Cyprian fleeing from. Cyprian would wage this battle to the day he died even after he returned to Carthage (following the Decian persecution).
The edicts and actions that would eventually be referred to as the "Valerian Persecutions" began in 256. Roman priests and ministers were martyred (including Sixtus II, and Laurence) and the persecution crept its way into Carthage. This time, however, Cyprian remained in Carthage to face the persecution. As was the practice of the persecutors, the leaders of the Christian communities were called out first and commanded to deny their faith. Cyprian was brought before the Proconsul and proclaimed his faith boldly. For this, he was exiled from Carthage. And, so, he left Carthage again because of persecution but this time he was forced to do so. While in exile, he ministered to others who had been exiled by the persecutions and provided Christian discipleship and formation for those who had refused to deny their faith. The Christian community in exile had maintained their faith and Cyprian had received a blessed second chance to stand in an exiled Kingdom.
A year later, he was summoned again to his villa in Carthage because of a new edict demanding the execution of all Christian clergy to suppress the growing Faith. He refused to deny his faith and was threatened with execution. When this did not deter him, the proconsul condemned him to be decapitated by sword. He responded, "Thanks be to God!" They took him into an open place in the city so that people could watch what happens to those who follow God and refuse the Empire. He was followed by his flock to the place of his execution where he removed his own clothes without assistance from the Empire. He knelt down and prayed for Carthage, for his persecutors, and for himself. Finally, he tied his blindfold and bowed his head. Then, the Empire showed its weakness in its ferocity--in it, the Church showed strength in its weakness.
Saturday, September 15, 2012
It was just barely past 10:20 a.m. on Sunday morning when the children made their way downstairs. They had just finished listening to the pastor's sermon: "The Love That Forgives." Perhaps their minds dwelt on the incredible calling that the pastor's sermon placed on the lives of those who followed after Jesus--love your enemies so much that you can't help but forgive them? Sure, maybe that stuff worked for Jesus but it would be so hard for a black person in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. This was the city where dogs and hoses had been turned on peaceful demonstrators. This was the city often described as the "most segregated" city in all of the nation. This was the city of "Bull" Connor who, in response to Brown v. Board of Education had said, "You're going to have bloodshed, and it's on them [the Supreme Court], not us." They were supposed to learn to love and forgive these people?
As they gathered in the basement of 16th Street Baptist Church their minds might have only been concerned with what fun the teacher might have in mind for them. Perhaps they were focused on what everybody else was wearing and doing. We know that one little girl had asked another older girl to help tie her belt--it must have been coming undone. In this sanctuary--this haven from the hate and destruction of the world--where they tried to worship and follow after a crucified and abuse Lord, they were not as scared as they were used to being. For a brief moment, perhaps, they felt some respite and comfort in the basement of this place. Then it happened.
A bomb--nineteen sticks of dynamite--went off.
The cement and glass of the basement wall became a horrible mess of shrapnel and death. One poor girl was so thoroughly mutilated by the blast that she was unrecognizable to all but her father who knew her by the ring she wore. One child's eyes were lacerated and filled with glass. How does one adequately describe a singular blast of indiscriminate hatred that murders children in a church basement in cold blood? Regardless, it is a powerful testament of the conversion of the bombers to the wide way that leads unto destruction.
As people flocked to the site of the bombing, they soon found out that four children had been killed and over twenty other people had been injured physically. The amount of emotional, mental, and spiritual wounds on that day cannot--and perhaps should not--be quantified. That was a day when hatred and darkness struck out and caused inestimable damage. As the gathering crowd looked up, only one stained glass window had not been blown out in the blast: an image of Jesus gathering the little children unto himself. The face and head of Jesus had been blown off by the blast but the remainder of the image stood as an eerie statement about where Jesus was in the blast--about who else the bombers were bombing.
This event--the martyrdom of four little girls (Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins)--would demonstrate the brutality and evil of the kind of people who would be willing to bomb a church and children because of their own fear and ignorance. The four men who were eventually implicated in the plot (three of whom were found guilty, one died before being charged) remain nameless here because it is best that the world forget their stories entirely. They thought they were doing it to protect themselves and their families from integration of black citizens with white citizens. All they did was further show the world what it was that they truly believed in: a supposed gospel of peace and happiness through domination, destruction, and willful power.
As one of the men was led away after being found guilty, he was asked if he had anything to say. He retorted: "I guess the good Lord will settle it on judgment day." Of this, I have no doubt but, perhaps it is most fitting to remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in response to this atrocity:
And so my friends, they did not die in vain. God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city....And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of all human personality.This was the "Love that Forgives." This was, truly, the seed of redemption that brought about integration and healing. This was the spirit of conversion that leads unto God.