Thursday, January 31, 2013
His pulse quickened and sweat began to bead upon his forehead ever so slightly. He didn't think anybody noticed his momentary pause and moment of anxiety but he couldn't be sure. Menno Simons swallowed hard and picked up where he left off in the mass. As they approached the moment when the bread and wine would become the body and blood of Christ, Menno became increasingly anxious about what he was doing. "This is silly," he thought to himself, "I've done this simple thing so many times...it's no different than last time." But his inward chiding would not deter the feeling that something special was happening in the moment--it was different than the last time he had done it because he was paying particular attention to the moment and tickling, small voice of the the Holy Spirit as it spoke to his heart. As he continued in the mass, his mind was brought back to only a few days prior when he and some of his fellow priests had been taking everything so lightly in the pub. As they drank and played cards, they seemed to have a life devoid of worry or anxiety--they had a job to do and they were good at doing it. Plus, it paid very well for the son of a poor, peasant family who had lived in a town oppressed by imperial aims and ambitions. He cleared his head by convincing himself that he was being deceived by the devil and that what he was doing was the same thing he had always been doing.
For years, he was tormented by doubts and fears that not everything was right about what was going on in the services. Menno felt as if God was genuinely calling him to live a Christian life and not simply the relaxed life of a priest. At times, he seemed to have felt a call to follow God even if it meant not following the Church. This was a horrifying prospect for a man as loyal as Menno was. Ultimately, he decided to seek out solace and solution in the scripture. Ironically, this was a novel approach for Menno. Most of his friends and colleagues were relatively unfamiliar with the scripture because they had been provided with everything they needed to do their job. When Menno began to voraciously consume the scripture his pain only intensified. He knew that the path he was following was one that others had followed and it had led them to a position known as "the reformation" and he feared it. He didn't want to end up like Luther or Zwingli but he couldn't shake the feeling that something wasn't right. He earnestly desired the unity of the One Church but could not escape the suspicion that reformation was needed if the One Church was to remain Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. Having become familiar with the scripture, he eventually found himself siding with the Anabaptists even if it meant being defrocked and being labeled a schismatic. This wounded loyal Menno like no other blow but he was willing to suffer it because he felt called to the vitiating faith he felt his brothers and sisters were losing. Shortly after the death of his brother Pieter as an Anabaptist martyr at Munster, he finally made the break and became a member of the Church in protest to a Church where baptism and civil citizenship were synonymous and where the sword was wielded with easiness and lightness.
Menno always rejected the sword and insisted that the Christian way was the way of peace even if it cost the individual everything. He once wrote, "True Christians do not know vengeance. They are the children of peace. Their hearts overflow with peace. Their mouths speak peace, and they walk in the way of peace." He spent the remainder of his life serving among other Anabaptists as a preacher of peaceful reformation. It wasn't that he wanted the Roman Catholics to fail but, rather, to succeed wildly and profess a life-giving faith he feared was increasingly absent. Along these lines, he insisted that his brothers and sisters take up peaceful ways of resistance and reformation although some Anabaptists did not. Eventually, as Anabaptists were persecuted and began reacting violently, Menno was asked to be an official leader and shepherd of the group. He still insisted that they renounce the sword and take up the cross. For this, he was criticized by some and lauded by others. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that later Anabaptists began referring to themselves as "Mennonites," even though Menno himself would have strongly resisted the name. He died on January 25, 1561, as a leader and reformer having failed to see the reunion of the Church but in hope that there was room for unity through peaceful reformation.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Sainthood seems to have been a hobby for the family of Basil. One of his grandmothers was Macrina the Elder. One of his grandfathers was a martyr. His father was Basil the Elder. His mother was Emelia. One of his sisters was Macrina the Younger. Among his brothers were Peter of Sebaste, Naucratius, and Gregory of Nyssa. Beyond that, he was a close friend of Gregory of Nazianzus. Looking back over the surface of the waters of time, it is difficult not to be amazed at the inspiring family life of Basil but it's likely that he thought it normal for much of his life. His family was wealthy and generous but never lacking in goods or money. Because of their great wealth, Basil had the opportunity to receive the best education that money could buy--literally--after being educated at the knee of Basil the Elder and Macrina the Elder. He excelled in his studies while in Caesarea and had a particular talent for rhetoric and persuasive speaking. Through all of this and in spite of his holy family, Basil had no real connection to the Faith that moved and motivated so many of his kin. So, he returned to be with his family and practiced law. His life was looking like it would be successful by some standards but atypical from that of his family's history and future.
When he was thirty, a variety of circumstances assailed him. He had been educating his younger brothers but had also been hearing from his sister Macrina that he should not become puffed up with his own education. From Macrina, he heard a different set of values than he had been instructed in by his teachers and mentors--how could she say that knowledge wasn't a good in and of itself? Yet, he met a man named Eustathius and things changed. This bishop and ascetic rocked Basil's world and turned it upside down by pointing to an entirely different set of values as supreme; a set of values that prioritized love and service above knowledge and the world's standards for success. Basil described the whole event like waking up from a thirty year dream. He felt that he could now see through the illusions of life and he too picked up asceticism as a way of taming the body and mind and bringing it in line with Jesus' calling upon his disciples. Basil was changing slowly but surely and now his future looked very different.
After being baptized he began traveling from monastery to monastery to learn more about the monastic and ascetic way. What troubled him about the experience was the intense isolation that the men and women underwent to seek after God. To Basil, this seemed like a broken idea because he understood the Christian community to be a transformed and transforming body that should not be abandoned by any means. He began calling fellow Christians and monastics together to live in community with each other as a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. These little groups of people became powerful witnesses to a Gospel that promised not only salvation but also the redemption and healing of the world. He called to his friend Gregory of Nazianzus and the two of them worked together in transforming monasticism into a communal project before Basil found out that Gregory was avoiding his family because of a desire to be a monk. Basil encouraged his friend to return home and serve in the community that he was already connected with. It was hard to send Gregory away but Basil knew it was best for the Church and for his friend.
Eventually, Basil became a bishop and official leader within the Church. He was a skilled theologian and speaker and was given many opportunities to shape the growth of the fledgling Body of Christ. In one famine, he opened up his church's doors to provide food for any and all that would come and receive it. He spent time regularly with thieves and prostitutes so that he might not forget that Christ was among these and not a commodity that the Church could trade in. He was keenly interested in serving the God who had called him out of slumber and he did so with a passion that surprised many who had met him while a student and become reacquainted with him after his conversion. Theologically, he recanted the semi-Arianism of his youth and became a staunch supporter of the Nicene creed. His theological work was not aimed at vilifying or victimizing the Arians but, rather, at bringing them back within the warm embrace of orthodoxy. When his mentor Eustathius was found to be on the other side of a point of argument, he maintained a loving relationship with the man while all the while arguing against him and insisting he was in error. Basil died in 379 as a servant of the Church that had called and formed him. He had been raised from slumber to pursue those whom God loved furiously. Perhaps the most fitting compliment for the man: he fit in well with his family.
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
We know that Jacques Bunel was born Lucien Bunel but we know remarkably little else about his childhood. We know that he became a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Carmelite order and took the name Jacques de Jesus.Jacques served as a minister of the Faith he confessed and loved by becoming headmaster of a school in Avon, France. This school was known as Petit Collège Sainte-Thérèse de l' Enfant-Jésus. From this refuge he would engage in the activities that make him laudable but also cost him his life. As the Nazi scourge swept through Europe, Jacques found a way to resist the Nazi empire nonviolently and in a way that would save lives. Jacques began his revolutionary life saving by offering three spots at his school to three Jewish boys whom he helped assume false identities and names. These three boys were named Hans-Helmut Michel, Jacques-France Halpern, and Maurice Schlosser and would be part of the reason that the Nazis would eventually murder Jacques. Had Jacques known that protecting these three boys would cost him his life it seems that he would have done it anyway. Unlike many other clerics and Christians, Jacques was not blind to the atrocities being perpetrated and was willing to risk everything to be on the side of the righteous and loving. Looking at the faces of the children he protected, Jacques knew he was offering refuge to his savior.
Jacques' sacred work did not end with the three students--like any holy work Jacques' life saving gathered momentum and soon pushed him onward toward more of the same. He found a way to shelter a boy named Maurice Bas by providing him with a job at the school and a new identity.Maurice Schlosser's father was running out of places to hide and so Jacques found a home in the village that would serve as a nearby but disconnected refuge for the man. Finally, he dared another sacred moment when he brought Lucien Weil--a famous Jewish botanist--onto the faculty of his school. Having brought at least six people within his protective power, he knew that it was only a time until the Nazis cracked down upon him. That day came on January 15, 1944 when the Gestapo arrested Jacques and the first three boys he protected. Within the next month they had arrested the others that Jacques had worked to hard to protect. All were shipped away to work and death camps. When told he was being arrested for disobeying the law, Jacques responded: "I know only one law: that of the Gospel and Charity."
The boys and Lucien Weil died in Auschwitz. Jacques was transferred from camp to camp before ending up in Mauthausen in May of 1945. Wherever he went he was known as optimistic and hopeful for liberation. Further, he encouraged his fellow prisoners to share their food and encourage each other. Often, he would go without food so that others might eat. This was near the end of the war and liberation was steadily coming to the camps as the Allied forces beat back the Nazi empire. When Mauthausen was liberated Jacques did a curious thing. He was suffering from tuberculosis and weighed less than 80 pounds when the liberating forces came but he insisted that the others be liberated first. He waited until he knew that all others had gone before him before he consented to be liberated from the hell that the Nazis had engineered for him and other innocents. He died from his illness before he ever made it back to France. His body was shipped back to the school he loved and buried on the grounds of the refuge God had gifted him so that he might try to protect others. Those whom Jacques protected were still murdered by those whom Jacques resisted but he offered love and protection as a testament to the right place of the Church in opposition to great evil. Jacques died a martyr whose death confessed greater allegiance to the Kingdom than to himself.
Monday, January 28, 2013
Thomas' parents had especially high expectations for how his life should proceed. As members of the southern Italian nobility, their several sons all had very precise blueprints for how their lives and ambitions should flow. Thomas was one of the youngest of his brothers and they all shared an uncle who was an abbot in a Benedictine monastery. Without every considering questions of calling and how Thomas felt about it, his family simply assumed that young Thomas would become a Benedictine abbot and monk. They provided him with an exemplary education in a great institution but a war broke out and it became necessary to send Thomas to a school in Naples where he was introduced to the works of Aristotle, Averroes, and Maimonides. Further--and to the eventual dismay of his mother and father--he was introduced to a Dominican preacher by the name of John. As Thomas heard the stories of the Faith again from the lips of John, he felt a buzzing within him that seemed to call him inexorably toward service to God. This much had been expected but to serve in a Dominican monastery would have been considered unacceptable. Their plan had been made and there was no room for God's calling within it.
The Dominicans were pleased to have an able mind like Thomas and knew well that his family would resist his desire to become a Dominican monk. Consequently, they arranged for him to be taken to Rome and sent to Paris from Rome. The plan was mapped out and executed but Thomas' mother had a plan of her own. A few of Thomas' brothers were waiting for him in Rome and they seized him and dragged him back to the home of their mother and father so that he might be dissuaded from following after God's leading. It's easy to look back and wonder why Thomas insisted on the Dominicans over the Benedictines if both are monastic groups that devote themselves to God. It's easy for our minds to think that it would have been better for Thomas to give in and become a Benedictine because it would be "close enough." But, this falls into the same trap that Thomas' family fell into: a feeling that if we can our own will "close enough" to God's will, then that will be good enough without actually having to turn over our lives and wills to God. They imprisoned their own son and brother and did everything within their power to bend his will to theirs and away from God's.
At one point, his brothers decided that it would be better to ruin Thomas then see him become a Dominican. Their dehumanization of their brother had reached its completion and they now saw him as a commodity to be traded for family honor and influence. They paid a prostitute to seduce Thomas and led her into his room where Thomas could not escape. He refused to be seduced and ran the woman out of his room with a burning stick from the fireplace. All the while, he was a tutor and teacher to his family--specifically his sisters. Eventually, Thomas' mother arranged for him to escape and leave the home because she wanted to be rid of him but did not want to go through the indignity of disowning and abandoning her own son. Thomas escaped and eventually became a Dominican monk and theologian. He served the Church as a writer and thinker. His answers to theological questions--memorialized in his master work: Summa Theologica--informed and educated not only audiences of his day but also Christians of all subsequent generations. The one who had been imprisoned and persecuted for his call became a teacher and wise man whose words and works would carry God's message into the hearts of many discerning the first inklings of God's call upon their lives.
Sunday, January 27, 2013
Marcella was born to wealthy parents of considerable influence in Roman society. Further, she married a man of affluence and influence, as well. She was primed for a life of pleasure, recreation, and relaxation. Yet she had only been married for seven to nine months before her husband died and she became a widow. Of course, she was a widow who lived very comfortably thanks to the wealth she had inherited but she was a widow nonetheless. This event became the catalyst that pushed her onward to consider what was truly valuable in life and what of the Roman culture and life was nothing more than illusion and delusion. She devoted herself to a brand of ascetic joy that involved renouncing herself and her own ambitions in favor of taking care of the poor and hungry. She soon found herself with plenty of work to do and many demands on her time and she couldn't have been happier.
At one point, a wealthy man became enamored with Marcella. By this time, Marcella had become a leader in the Roman Church and had become an inspiration to other women to live lives of daring faith. He decided he would woo her and make the widow his wife and he assumed it would be an easy thing since she had been widowed and widows were often of little influence and power in Roman society because of their sex. He went to her and he proposed marriage saying that she could inherit all of his fortune when he died if she would only marry him. He was a wealthy political leader and his fortune was considerable but Marcella responded: “If I wished to marry, I should look for a husband, not an inheritance.” He went away without a wife and with a new understanding of Marcella's devotion to the ministry to which she had been called.
She started a school for women to study scripture and pray. It was rather successful and soon she was spiritual mother to many younger women who sought to follow after the same Christ who had captivated Marcella. Then the Goths came to Rome. The Goths looted and plundered the riches of Rome under the direction of Alaric and soon found their way to Marcella's school. Likely, they had heard that the old widow was a wealthy woman and that her school was highly respected. To the Goths, this meant she was an ideal target for their terror inducing savagery. They forced their way into the school and demanded all of the valuables that Marcella had. She insisted that she had nothing to offer them as she had spent her life giving herself and her things away to the poor. Her wealth, she declared, was in the stomachs of the poor people in the city. The Goths tortured her to get her to reveal her hidden stores of valuables but were not successful since she had nothing but her clothes and a few meager possessions to offer them. The soldiers seized one of her students--Principia--and informed Marcella that they would rape and kill the woman if Marcella did not give them what they wanted. Marcella dropped to her hands and knees and begged mercy from Alaric insisting that she had nothing to give and begging them to leave the woman alone. Seeing the once wealthy and powerful old woman on her knees in tears with blood streaming down her back begging for the welfare of another, their hearts were turned at last to mercy. They took Marcella and her students to a nearby sanctuary--even carrying the weakened Marcella--so that they might not be victimized any further. Marcella died from her wounds shortly thereafter with her head resting on the lap of Principia whom she had saved.
Saturday, January 26, 2013
While John Bradford was confined to the royal prison--the Tower of London to be precise--he was far away from his books and academic world but that is where all of this had started. Born to a wealthy family, he was given the gift of a good and comprehensive education. From there, John went on to study more and pursue an intellectual career emphasizing his greatest strength: accounting and mathematics. He served as an officer in King Henry VIII's army and was in the position of accounting for payroll for the soldiers who fought Henry's wars. After this, he pursued a career in law as a legal professional but while studying he had the mixed fortune of befriending a man who supported the English reformation. As he studied and talked with his new friend he found himself slowly but steadily being won over to the Anglican church in particular and the teachings of the Church in general. The earnest eagerness of his friend convinced John to take his faith ever more seriously. He could stand it no longer and so he stopped studying law and started studying theology so he might become a minister of the faith he had been infected with.
When he had received his education he began his clerical career first as a teaching fellow and secondly as an ordained priest who was given a region to rove and preach in. With Anglican leaders in control of Britain, he was not under immediate threat but tensions were high with other Christians--Roman Catholic Christians in particular. He preached and taught and served the Faith as best he knew how until Mary Tudor took control of the throne and fortunes were reversed. Soon thereafter he was arrested on charges of attempting to incite mob activity. These trumped up charges took away his freedom and imprisoned him in the Tower of London. It was from his window in the tower that he looked down upon some anonymous criminal going off to die for his crimes and remarked, "There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford." John had not lost his connection with God's grace and his need for God's forgiveness even as he had gained honor and received suffering. He knew well that it was only the grace of God that separated him from a life of unrepentant corruption. One thing he would share with that criminal, though, was a state-sponsored death.
Some time after his famous remark, he was charged and tried before a court disposed toward execution. Predictably, he was found guilty and condemned to death at the hands of an Empire that would not accept his brand of resistance. He was tied to a stake with another man and wood was piled around his feet and body. As they brought the torch, he asked for forgiveness for any that he might have wronged and publicly offered forgiveness to those who had wronged him.Enveloped in forgiveness on all sides, he was set ablaze by murderous hands. He died a martyr of the reformation of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. There with the grace of God went John Bradford.
Friday, January 25, 2013
Had Gregory ever heard the sentiment that "you can't go home again" he would have likely agreed wholeheartedly. After going away to school and studying intensely with his new friend Basil, he returned to the home of his parents full of vigor and hope for the future. Gregory's father--Gregory, Sr.--had become bishop of his home region of the Church after Gregory's mother--Nonna--had convinced him to consider conversion. Years after his conversion, Gregory's father was serving the Church in a shepherding and guidance role and expected Gregory to return from school and join him in leadership within the Church that had served as both comfort and affliction. But, Gregory came home speaking about a life of disconnection from the world and a life of ascetic joy and pursuit. His father insisted that he should serve in a role similar to his own role within the Church and was troubled by his son's change of heart--especially given the struggles between orthodoxy and Arianism that had only intensified over the last few years.Gregory was upset that his hopes were not met with excitement and left his home to go and be with his friend Basil.
Basil didn't offer the conspiring advice that Gregory hoped for. Though Basil and Gregory had hoped to become ascetics together, Basil's advice turned from encouraging to discouraging when he found out what Gregory's father had said. He advised his dear friend to follow his father's advice and teaching and become a Church leader and shepherd. Likely Gregory resisted this at first but soon found himself seeing his friend's wisdom even when he couldn't see his father's identical wisdom. So, he returned to the home of his father and became a leader within the Church--eventually becoming Archbishop. He would even help walk his father back into the embrace of orthodoxy when his aged father became persuaded by a heretic and wandered from the Church's teaching. The father who had insisted on the Church's need for Gregory found himself in need and Gregory willing to serve.
His incredible rhetorical skills made him a noted and highly esteemed leader and theologian, yet perhaps the most amazing aspect of Gregory's leadership and writing was his willingness to lay down anything and everything to reconcile others to the Faith that gripped and held him. When he was invited to councils and synods he was always eager to take a little extra time and effort to bring people back into the fold instead of simply breaking communion with them. At the Second Ecumenical council his presence there was disputed by some of those who opposed him theologically. When he was asked to moderate and mediate the meeting, he did so and reached out to his opposition but they were unpersuaded. Finding that he could not bring peace to the meeting he resigned his position and said, "Let me be as the Prophet Jonah! I was responsible for the storm, but I would sacrifice myself for the salvation of the ship." With these words, he left his position and his willingness to resign power for the sake of unity brought about momentary peace and agreement between the parties. He finished his life serving in the Church that had called and formed him even as he had fought and resisted the drive to power and drive to do solely what he wanted. He was willing to lay himself and his will down for the good of the Church he loved and that loved him.
Thursday, January 24, 2013
Babylas had been a leader of the Church in Antioch. In fact, he was presiding over the Easter vigil and services in the year that the emperor Philip tried to coerce the Church into siding with him. Philip had feigned faith for years and continued to worship the civil religion when he thought he could get away with it. The Church was willing to have him show up but was not willing to make him an object of worship or adoration--when he walked through the Church doors he was nothing more than another sinner seeking grace. In Philip's case, it's dubious that he was ever seeking grace and much more likely that he was interested in covering over his political machinations with the clothing of the Church. Babylas was unwilling to allow it.
When Philip came to the vigil, Babylas met him at the door and tried to save him some shame. Philip asked to be let in and Babylas shook his head sadly and said, "You can only enter if you'll come as a penitent." Philip was uninterested in taking the position of one seeking forgiveness for and healing from sin. It would lower him to be with the people whom he ruled and would not give him the honor he was so confident he deserved. When Philip insisted that he be let in as an honored guest, Babylas was undeterred from his refusal. The tension in the moment only got worse as Philip waited for Babylas to crack and relent. When Philip indicated his armed guards and attempted to coerce Babylas with worldly power and threat it came as a surprise to Philip--but no surprise to those who knew Babylas--when Babylas closed the doors and barred them to the unrepentant emperor. If Philip would not repent from his sins and come seeking grace then the door was to be barred to him as the Church could not honor or esteem one who was not aware of his own sickness--after all, Jesus came for the sick and not for the well.
Babylas paid a price for this and Philip had him arrested, chained, and thrown in prison. He was left to rot in jail alone and constantly chained. He continued his life of devotion and prayer under chains and persecution because he had been called to it regardless of the cost. Occasionally, he was allowed visitors from the Church and they would secret the Eucharist to him so that he might remain part of the communion he had given himself for but he was never allowed out of his chains. His chains were supposed to serve as an ever present reminder of the Empire's ability to punish those who resisted it but for Babylas they were a reminder of the weight of sin upon the soul and the need of healing within the Empire. When Decius took power and the Decian persecutions began, Babylas was martyred as he was already within the iron grip of the Empire that wanted to eliminate Christians. He was one of the first and was buried in his chains as he had requested of his Christian brothers and sisters.
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
It was January in England and Charles was only fifteen when he set out into a storm for some now forgotten appointment. The journey was difficult but manageable for a young man like Charles. Yet, as he drew nearer and nearer to his destination the storm grew more and more insurmountable and inescapable. It was as if the storm was offended by his continued journey and determined to turn him aside. Eventually, Charles did turn aside into a little Methodist church where he might find shelter from the wind and snow. As he waited for the storm to pass, he picked up a Bible and considered it. He had heard some of the stories contained therein but they had not had any significant effect upon his life as of yet. He opened to Isaiah--perhaps a favorite book of his at the time--and was hit by a verse: "Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth, for I am God, and there is none else." At these astounding words, Charles bucked. There is none else? Surely that couldn't be right. Yet, he was caught upon the hook of God's grace and could not escape either the snowstorm or God's furious love. It was alone in that little church that Charles would say "God opened [his] heart to the salvation message." Charles Haddon Spurgeon was converted to a faith worth talking about.
He was later baptized in the Baptist church his family attended. His passion and intensity were plain to see by the leaders and laypeople alike in the small church. He was asked to preach the following winter and he did so gladly to much acclaim and appreciation. It seemed he had a gift. Few expected the boy preacher to have much of a gift--if any at all--and were amazed to hear the way Charles spoke to them as one having authority. His style was not the cultured and educated style of many clergy but, rather, was characterized by an earnest and sincere directness that gripped the heart of the reader and begged it to reconsider what Jesus had to say. Whereas many preachers were waxing theological and earning accolades with sweet words, Charles had one powerful strategy: beg the listener to take Jesus seriously and at his word. It was very effective and he soon found himself a pastor (less than five years after being converted) and preacher at the largest Baptist church in all of London.
In spite of his failure among homiletical critics, soon he was regularly preaching to crowds of more than 10,000 listeners. All of this happened within ten years of finding Jesus in a little Methodist church where he was forced to take shelter from the storm. He was finding that there was "none else" but God that brought salvation and hope for many. He was soon invited to preach at the Crystal Palace and he did so gladly having just founded a preacher's academy that he had been publicizing. He entered the area to test its acoustics and determine where the platform should be placed. He picked a phrase that spoke to him and which he routinely used in sermons: "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!" As he shouted it repeatedly, it fell upon the ears of a man who had been doing some renovations and repairs in the building. As the repetitions hammered upon his brain, he was struck by the incredible desperate sincerity in the voice of the preacher and he left his job to go home and think upon the sentence he had heard several times. That night the man was converted to follow after the one and only Lamb of God.
Charles' sermons became one of the most widely read publications in the history of printing and his sermons became collector's items for those desperate to hear a word from God. Though he never extended an altar call at any point in his career he did invite all who were moved to meet with him in the church building on Monday morning. Routinely, these meetings were full of people moved to tears and conversion by the sincere and hopeful words of a man who had been turned aside by a snowstorm. He died, as the end of the 19th century approached, a noted and lauded preacher not by critics but by the ones whose lives had been changed by his preaching.
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Timothy had heard about the one they were talking about--Jesus. Perhaps he had even met himbut apparently he had not been persuaded to become a follower of his if he had indeed run across him in his travels. Of course, Timothy was only a late teenager when Jesus had been put to death and it was Paul who had really brought the Gospel to him later in Lystra. In fact, it was nearly two decades after Jesus' death that Timothy finally found him in the words of the traveling missionary who seemed to be calling Timothy to a higher calling than a typical life in Lystra. It had all happened when Paul and Barnabas had showed up one day to preach their message in Timothy's town and region. With much prayer and passion, they brought about a miraculous healing of a crippled child and the people were shocked. In the face of compassionate power that the Empire could not match--for it could cripple but never heal--many of the witnesses were converted to the faith of Paul and Barnabas. Timothy, his mother Eunice, and his grandmother Loida were all part of these initial converts in Lystra. Timothy became the companion of Paul and went with them on their missionary journeys.
It was at the feet of Paul that Timothy received his education in the faith that now gripped his heart and soul. As they traveled, Paul taught and Timothy learned. In this way, Timothy was immersed not only in the waters of baptism but in the ebb and flow of Christian teaching. Thus, it was no surprise when this loved one of Paul became a leader in the Church at Ephesus. Paul appointed Timothy to be a shepherd of a flock in need of guidance and leadership. Though Timothy did not look forward to leaving his cherished place of guidance by Paul's side, he knew that God had called him and prepared him for an important ministry within the Church. Paul went on with his journeys and Timothy became a leader in the Church. Indeed, Timothy received letters from his mentor advising him how to live into his calling but most of Timothy's decisions were made by focusing on the guidance of the Holy Spirit.One day, though, Timothy received a letter inviting him to a prison where Paul had been incarcerated for preaching the message he shared with Timothy. Timothy traveled and said his farewells to his mentor and Paul reminded Timothy to have confidence in his calling even if it felt overwhelming at times. Paul died and Timothy returned to his flock with the knowledge that the message that he and Paul carried could very well cost him his life. Eventually, it did.
There was a festival going on in Ephesus that involved parading idols before the people so that they might worship and appeal to the gods they were supposed to represent. Timothy could see the faces of the people who put their hopes in dead stone. They sought healing and help and they received nothing but disappointment.Recalling the day he had seen God heal a crippled boy, his heart burned at the thought of misplaced faith and so he took to the street and stood in front of the parade to preach words of true hope and effective faith. They screamed for him to stop and he continued anyway because he had been trained and taught by Paul that the Gospel was worth suffering for. So, he was beaten savagely and dragged by his clothes and arms through the street before those who had such desperate hope stoned him to death and made him a martyr.
Monday, January 21, 2013
Agnes was a young Christian of maybe one twelve or thirteen years of age when Diocletian's regime came calling for her life.She was a Roman citizen living in Rome with her wealthy and influential parents when the persecutions began to claim her brothers and sisters in the Faith. As was the case with many wealthy Christian families at the turn from the third to the fourth centuries, Agnes and her family's peaceful existence was turned on its head as the Empire demanded more and more and accepted less and less resistance. However, Agnes' noble parents meant that they would simply be extorted and coerced instead of immediately killed--the time of noble death usually came after they had been bled dry of all their resources by a power-hungry ruling class that no longer cared for them. So, Agnes should have been okay--except Agnes was beautiful.
She was so beautiful that the prefect's son prized her above all the other maidens and went to his father to see what could be done about gaining Agnes as his wife. The prefect was confident that the family would be all too happy to give their daughter over to his family as the bride of their son. So, he sent a courier asking what they thought of the proposal. Amazingly for the day, Agnes' father wanted to know what Agnes thought about the proposition. She rejected the offer and word was sent back to the prefect as the family waited--holding their breath at the expected retaliation. The prefect was furious that they would dare deny him his wishes and his will. He didn't understand why her father hadn't forced her to marry his son and demanded that Agnes be brought before him. When Agnes arrived, she seemed confident in a way that surprised the prefect and so, instead of questioning her--somehow knowing she would continue to refuse even under threat--he ordered her to be killed. "But, prefect," one of his advisers interjected,"she is a virgin and cannot be executed...it would be unseemly." Everybody let out their breath feeling that surely Agnes' life would be spared. They underestimated the cruelty of the Empire.
"We'll see what we can do about that," growled the prefect. His armed and trained guards stripped a young teenage girl of her clothing and chained her hands and feet. She was taunted and mocked for her nudity and age and then led naked through the streets of Rome. The guards led the defenseless girl at sword point as if she were a dangerous criminal--she who had refused the prefect's wishes--and brought her to a brothel to be raped so that she might then be executed. When they tried to seize her they found themselves unable even though she did not resist them. It seemed that their bodies didn't work right. When she was finally pushed into the brothel, men lined up to rape the young girl but were stricken blind as each of them tried to step forward and perpetrate that unholy act upon her. In fear, they took her from the brothel and tied her to a stake. As they tried to set the young girl on fire the wood refused to catch. In fear and panic, the commander drew his sword and drove it through Agnes' throat. The naked little girl had brought an Empire to its knees only by refusing to be shaken or coerced. Her grave became a site of adoration and prayer and yet more Christians were gathered in by the empire for martyrdom upon visiting Agnes' grave.
Sunday, January 20, 2013
Anterus had died and so the Church needed a new bishop in Rome. Many Christians from the surrounding communities gathered in one location in Rome to select, call, and appoint a new bishop of Rome--the next pope. Of course, they were mourning the passing of Anterus but they were also busy about the business of the Church as they felt God was calling them to be. The Church did not know it at the time--though some may have seen the writing on the wall--but the next pope would be crucial for the life of Christians throughout the Roman Empire as Decius would become emperor and the Decian persecution was only a little ways away. For now, though, the emperor was Marcus Julius Philippus--remembered as Philip--and life was relatively easy as evidenced by the significant public gathering of Christians. As they talked about who the next pope might be several notable names were passed around--until something miraculous happened. The assembly stopped talking suddenly when they saw a dove slowly circle the gathering. Every eye focused on the dove and every mind turned to the familiar story of Jesus' baptism and they wondered if this dove might mean something amazing. The bird landed gracefully upon the head of a lay Christian named Fabian.
At first, there must have been confusion as to why the dove had not landed on one of the notable people in the group--it had chosen an unknown who wasn't even a priest or deacon. But as they began to voice their confusion, their minds turned to the story of the anointing of David in the house of his father Jesse. David had been a youth of so little importance that he hadn't even been invited for Samuel to inspect when choosing a new king from the sons of Jesse. Yet, God had called David and so David became king. The people held their tongues for they felt God was calling Fabian to be pope even if they didn't see how he was qualified for it. So, they selected, called, and appointed Fabian to be the bishop of Rome--the next pope.
Fabian's papacy was tame for the majority of the time and Fabian served honorably in this exalted and humbling position. Yet, when Decius became emperor the Church became very aware that a storm was brewing. Decius was no friend of the Church and would not be baptized by the pope as emperor Philip had been with his son. Instead, Decius would baptize Fabian--in blood. With the advent of the Decian persecution, the Church was eviscerated and dwindling. Through Fabian's leadership, missionaries were sent to Gaul to carry the Christian faith out of the reach of Roman oppression. Instead of hoping to renew and maintain the Church by focusing inwardly, Fabian knew that the Church was only maintained and renewed by reaching out and spreading the Gospel given to it. So, missionaries were sent that would do the work of the Church even amid the tyranny of the Empire. This great work was essential but it came at a very high price: the life of the pope. Decius hunted down Fabian and had him burned alive in the catacombs where the Church met. The pope who had insisted upon recording the deeds and words of the martyrs--because he was aware of the power of a good story--was made a martyr himself when he refused to bow his knee at the Imperial altars.
Saturday, January 19, 2013
The persecutions that Diocletian engineered within the Roman Empire are still looked back upon with a sickly amazement. Diocletian engaged in a dance of death that was meant to bully and coerce Christians into denying their faith or simply failing to live it out. Either of these options was fine by Diocletian since his goal was the termination of Christ's followers and both outcomes poisoned and assassinated Christian faith. Of course, if they wouldn't do these things, then they would die at the hands of the Empire in an attempt to lessen the number of influential Christians. This is where Diocletian failed to understand his enemies--the death of a martyr may have weakened the weak but it only strengthened the faithful.Further, it propelled the martyr's story into public consideration because of the oddity of their willing death. Since most the martyrs died willingly and most died without offering any resistance, the people who witnessed or heard about their deaths began to ask the questions that led to eventual faith. Every time the Empire punished and killed a martyr they only spread the Christian infection further.
Absadah feared the coming wave of persecution in Egypt and fretted regularlyabout how to address it when it finally arrived in his small town. He had been fine being Christian when it only cost him little things and occasionally inconvenienced him. He was a priest of the Church and felt a particular pressure to lead his flock in the trying times that were clearly approaching. But, when it was going to cost him his life, he balked a little. When the decrees swept through his part of Egypt, he became anxious and frightened. He ran home and he locked himself in. His earnest hope no longer rested in a resurrected savior but now rested in a barricaded door and the chance that they might not find him if he made himself hard to find. He had barred the door against any intrusion and crept into a place of seeming security so that he might keep his life. Then something miraculous happened.
Jesus appeared to Absadah who was amazed that any could enter into his home. Speaking to Absadah Jesus said, "No security can repel me, Absadah, and no persecution can truly kill me for I am the resurrection and the life." Absadah was immediately aware of what he had been doing--trading faith, hope, and love for security, chance, and fear. Jesus called Absadah to live the life he had already committed to live as a servant and disciple of life and love itself. So, Absadah's security was infiltrated by Jesus and left him with only two options: deny his faith or learn again to trust the God who had been executed. He left his home and went to the officers. He turned himself in as a Christian and set an example for his little flock. They arrested and tried him and found him guilty of trusting a power of which the Empire did not approve. He was beheaded outside of Alexandria to frighten others--but they only succeeded in spreading a gospel that proclaimed life to the dead and hope to the frightened.
Friday, January 18, 2013
Every night before she went to bed, little Amy Carmichael prayed ardently and enthusiastically for God to turn her brown eyes blue as she slept. Like many brown-eyed Irish girls in the 19th century, she adored the typical image of feminine Irish beauty that included blue eyes and white skin. So, she prayed fervently--prayed with a hope that it seems only children can muster--for God to change the part of her that seemed to be designed wrong. She desperately hoped for God's intervention--but it never came. Amy had brown eyes from the day she was born to the day she died. Regardless of how much she begged, God was not moved to effect a change in the design of Amy. However, Amy's faith was not weakened or lessened by God's refusal. Amy still trusted God even if she didn't receive everything she wanted.
As she grew older, she began teaching a Sunday morning class at a local church for a group of women who were in need of spiritual direction and guidance. This class eventually became a congregation called the Welcome Evangelical Church in Belfast, Ireland. She helped lead in and prepare for worship and people began to seek her out more and more frequently with the hope that her dependable and seemingly unrelenting faith might prove contagious. She continued there until she had the opportunity to hear Hudson Taylor preach about mission work in China. Though she suffered from various nerve conditions that ill fitted her for international mission work, she answered the call all the same.
After some preparatory time in Japan, she moved to southernmost India to serve as a Christian missionary among the people of the country. The missionaries she worked with did everything they could to fit into the culture of which they were becoming a part. Amy reflected once that she now understood why she had brown eyes--a blue-eyed missionary would have been an oddity that never could have truly fit in with the people--and was thankful that God had persisted in God's intricate and elegant design instead of catering to the wishes of a girl who had not yet met her calling. She even darkened her skin with coffee to further aid in her integration and assimilation into Indian culture. She did all of this, largely, for the children she ministered to in India.
It was not uncommon in India at the time for young girls to be given to the local Hindu temple. This saved the family of the girl money because they did not have to take care of the young one who was considered a drain on finances--unlike a son--and made money for the priests who often sold the young girls as prostitutes to help cover the expenses of the girl and the priest who controlled her. Amy couldn't bear to let this happen and so she devoted herself to rescuing these young girls and housing them in whatever way she could. Soon, she had founded the Dohnavur Fellowship and provided a safe haven for over one thousand children who might otherwise die or be forced into prostitution and/or slavery. Given her devotion to pursuing and rescuing the abandoned children of India, it was no surprise that Amy insisted: "One can give without loving, but one cannot love without giving."Amy gave much and loved much because she had been intricately and elegantly designed to share God's love with people who needed it desperately.
Amy died in 1951 due in part to complications from an earlier injury obtained in her pursuit of ministry. In accordance with her wishes, she was buried in India near the Dohnavur Fellowship without a gravestone.The children she had loved and cared for in India had to do something for the woman they loved and remembered. They put up a fountain for birds over her grave and inscribed the hindi word"Amma" upon it. This word perfectly condensed God's intricate design into one word: "mother."
Thursday, January 17, 2013
Anthony's parents were something of an exception for Egyptian citizens in the lower regions of the nation--they had money and they owned land. From their affluence, they were able to provide handsomely for son and daughter even though Egypt was under the control and dominion of the Roman empire. But, they died when Anthony was eighteen years old. This left him in charge of his family estate and inheritance. The potential conflict between Anthony's faith and his family's wealth did not come to bear until he was in charge of it and charged with providing for his unmarried sister. Anthony felt called to do something ridiculous--to live a revolutionary life of freedom and self-renunciation in the desert--but was anchored to the world that tempted him by his family wealth and obligation to his sister. So, it came as a pleasant surprise when his sister was willing to join an early convent so that Anthony could follow his calling. Anthony sold his family's possessions and gave the sum total of all his considerable wealth to friends and neighbors.With this radical act, Anthony set out for the desert to live into a calling.
As he journeyed further into the wild, he slowly became more and more detoxified from the temptations and holdings of the world he left behind but it would be silly to believe that he simply walked away and was never again tempted to the affluence and influence of his youth. It was a long process but it came to bear very quickly with a very acute temptation as he journeyed. As he thought back to the city he had left he wondered if it was possible he had made a mistake. With poetic timing, Anthony looked down and saw a silver plate--of much value--holding a mound of silver coins. With these coins, he couldgo back and nearly regain the life he had left behind. He could abandon a hard calling for an easy and comfortable existence. He thought about it. Then, he spoke to the one he knew was behind the temptation: "Give it up, Satan, I won't be tempted." As he finished his retort to the temptation, it vanished and faded as Anthony's hopes would have had he given into temptation. As he traveled further, he found a larger, golden plate with and even larger mound of golden coins upon it. Wordlessly, he built a fire and tossed the gold into it whereupon it promptly vanished. He wasn't beyond temptation but he was slowly removing the barbs of the Empire from his flesh and gaining true freedom.
Anthony's life in the desert was the life of a monastic hermit. He secluded himself first in a tomb so that he could best devote himself to a life of prayer and service but no matter how far he got into the wilderness, news traveled back to the cities and increased the amazement of the people for Anthony's deeds. When he became sick, some Christians went and gathered him up to take him to a monastery and heal him. But when he was better, he left again and this time he found an old Roman fortress and made it his hermitage. The pilgrims who came to see the holy man spoke to him through a small hole in the wall of the fortress and received very few words back from him. He offered his teachings to his disciples but refused to be a spectacle for those who were not connected to him. He accepted gifts of food and drink but mainly subsisted upon the bread he made himself. As any monastic of legendary qualities, he was soon surrounded by disciples and students regardless of whether or not he wanted to be a hermit. He taught but he was devoted first and foremost to a life of self-renunciation and denial that blossomed in prayer and worship.
When he approached the end of his life, he endeavored to finally escape one more bond upon his life and so he made his peace with his disciples. He gave away his only clothing--two cloaks. One cloak was given to Serapion his disciple and the other was given to Athanasius. He gave his abbot's staff to Macarius and then he laid down prostrate upon the ground and died having made peace and preparation.Anthony had spent a lifetime rejecting the temptations of power and influence so that he might escape the hooks they would place in his soul. He had even gone so far as to ignore a letter from the emperor Constantine before being convinced by his disciples to at least offer a blessing by letter. For Anthony, freedom and peace were found in renunciation--even if it cost him his everything.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
Raoul had wealthy parents--though he never met his father who died three months before he was born--and this afforded him many opportunities. For example, he was able to study architecture at the University of Michigan even though it meant quite a bit of travel to get there from Sweden. When he returned to Sweden with his degree in hand he soon found that there was no room for young architects among the Swedes. So, first he took a job in South Africa but eventually ended up with a job in Hungary. His boss--Kálmán Lauer, a Hungarian Jew--utilized him to help handle imports and exports between Sweden and central Europe. It was a great opportunity for a young man and he proved invaluable. Especially invaluable after Nazi coercion brought about laws restricting business done by Jews in Hungary. Lauer trusted Raoul and since Raoul had learned Hungarian he made him his representative and allowed the Christian to take care of business matters where he could not do so as a Jew. Eventually, Raoul was a partner in ownership of the company and was spending more and more of his time in Hungary. Then, one day, an emissary from a refugee organization in the United States contacted him on behalf of president Roosevelt. It seemed that the organization wanted to rescue Hungarian Jews from Nazi oppression. Raoul was just the man for the job.
Sustained by his faith and his commitment to the sacredness of life, he reentered Hungary as a Swedish diplomat. As a diplomat from a different country that Hungary hoped to keep good ties with, he was able to issue protective passes that would label the bearers as individuals preparing to immigrate to Sweden. With these passes, they were relatively untouchable by the Hungarian Nazis. He was even able to lobby with the Nazis to consider these men, women, and children to be Swedes and not required to wear the yellow star that was forced upon the Jews in Hungary. But, this wasn't enough. He purchased a building and declared it to be exempt from Hungarian law because of his diplomatic immunity. He put large Swedish flags on the front and titled it the "Swedish Research Institute." But, once inside the doors it was clear that this was a place for Jews to find sanctuary from oppression. But, this still wasn't enough for Raoul--he felt called to more. The one house became several houses and the several houses became many. Yet, there was still more to be done.
It was clear that death awaited those who could not find some escape or protection and so, again, Raoul further laid himself out for his neighbors. He took to pulling off bigger and bigger stunts to free Jews from the chains of the Nazi regime. He could not free every Jew he met--and this thought tormented him--but he tried. Once, he was atop a train headed for Auschwitz and passing protective passports through the slats to the Jews within the train car. They were unsealed and, therefore, unofficial but Raoul was willing to risk everything to save these lives. He was ordered to stop what he was doing by the guards and they fired a warning shot over his head. He stopped and considered the situation--he might lose his life if he persisted in saving a few more people but he would surely lose more if he denied them their last chance at hope. So, he began passing the passes again and the guards fired at him. Whether they had poor aim or were not trying to hit him, Raoul escaped unscathed and stepped down onto the train platform. As the guards watched, he insisted that the doors be opened and that the inhabitants be checked again for Swedish protective passes. The guards opened the doors and Raoul led the men, women, and children to waiting cars and back to safety.
When the Soviets took Hungary, it seems that Raoul would be free again to live his own life now that the Jews could hopefully be safe again. He had saved tens of thousands of Jews from imperially sanitized death. Yet, he was arrested on January 17, 1945, and charged with being an American spy. Charged with espionage he was hid away in secret prisons. Later, the Soviets first insisted that he had died of a heart attack and later that he had been killed by Zionist Hungarians. Eventually, it was uncovered the the last years of Raoul's life were filled with torture, interrogation, and eventually his own execution at the hands of the Soviets. He died because he refused to agree with empires that life was a commodity to be traded and manipulated. Because of his faith in a God who taught love for neighbors and enemies, Raoul was appropriately murdered as a revolutionary--after all, nothing is more revolutionary than love in a world that cannot stand the sight or sound of it.
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
The persecution in Thebes had been intense for quite some time but with the way Decius and Valerianus were ruling the Roman Empire it was only getting worse day by day. Paul wasn't sure what to do as he and his fellow Christians began meeting in secret and contemplating their next course of action in those turbulent times. Paul and his friends found themselves in the middle of a precarious situation: their lives and their homes tied them to Thebes but Thebes was becoming an increasingly dangerous place to live for Christians. Paul found a way out of the situation, though, by abandoning all that tied him to Thebes and becoming a hermit.
He traveled to the mountains of the Theban desert and came across a cave that looked especially inviting. As a twenty-two year old man with a few possessions, this was a significant change of lifestyle but it represented a strange kind of freedom that few knew or understood. Near his cave was a palm tree and a hidden mountain spring. Surely the words of Jesus rang in his head nearly every day as he went to gather fruit and water--"Listen carefully, don't worry about what you will eat, or what you will drink, or about what you will wear. Isn't there more to life than food and clothing?Notice the birds of the air; they don't do plant or harvest or put away supplies for security and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren't you more valuable than birds? And what's worrying ever done for you--has it added one single solitary second to your life?" Time went on and Paul's life became more and more isolated and devoted to prayer and worship. His city clothes gave way to time and wear and eventually Paul was clothed in garments made from the leaves of the nearby tree. His life had become simple and divorced from need upon what the Empire could offer--Paul was an island in the midst of the Roman Empire that needed and accepted no ruler but God.
One day, however, a raven flew down to greet the mostly silent Paul and it carried a small loaf of bread in itsmouth. Paul gave the small bird his thanks and rejoiced at the bread provided for him by God's will. He broke it joyfully and consumed it. The next day he saw the raven approaching again with bread and was joyous again. This process continued for the remainder of Paul's life. After subsisting upon what he could gather for twenty-one years he became further liberated from the needs of this world and found his needs met without his own work. His needs were met because he was more valuable than the birds of the air and because Jesus had taught his disciples not to fear--knowing that fear enslaves many to the empires of the world. Paul had nothing to lose and so he had everything to gain and nothing to fear.
Paul was very, very old when Anthony came one fateful day to visit with Paul and seek his advice, Paul welcomed him gladly into his small cave. Anthony was going into the desert to become a hermit and Paul--being the first recorded Christian hermit--was the person to talk to before setting out upon the path of material renunciation that leads to true freedom. Years later, Anthony--that much venerated monk and hermit--would refer to Paul as "the first monk." That day and that night, the two men talked and broke bread together. As Anthony was leaving he had the presence of mind to turn and thank Paul for his time and he saw a vibrant old man staring back and welcoming him to return whenever he would like. When Anthony did return a little while later, Paul had died in his cave in a peaceful and comfortable position. Anthony took it upon himself to bury the old man and commit his body back to the dust as a man finally freed from sin and corruption.
Monday, January 14, 2013
Nino felt a calling to go to Iberia--in fact, she had had a vision commanding her to take what little she had and travel east to the land that would eventually be known as Georgia. But there was one very significant impediment to Nino's missionary calling: she was a slave and, according to the Roman powers, her life was not her own to direct. She had quite a pedigree being related to notable and powerful leaders both within the Church and without it, yet she had been taken captive from Armenia and brought to Constantinople as a servant. However, this did not lessen the intensity of her calling. The words of Mary in her vision still rung in Nino's ears: "Go to Iberia and share the good news that is accomplished in Jesus Christ. I will take every step before you do and be your shield against enemies you'll know and some you'll never know. Take a cross and plant it in a land to proclaim salvation and life through my beloved Son and Lord." So, somehow--some way--Nino risked much to leave and do God's work in a land where she had no connection.
When she crossed the border into Iberia she began looking for a town--any place where people would congregate--and she settled there. She planted the cross she carried into the ground and began preaching a Gospel that so few had heard in the little town. The fires of conversion caught in the tiny town and soon Nino's message was spreading into the larger cities and eventually arriving in the capitol. When the queen heard Nino's message she was transfixed and requested an audience. Nino--the slave--went to speak with the queen and share a faith that depended upon a crucified king. When she arrived, she discovered that the queen was ill and not responding to the cures of the greatest of the royal physicians. Nino offered a humble but earnest prayer on behalf of the queen and she was healed.The two women conversed. We don't know what was said but the queen was converted and this created a pathway to speak with the king. The king was tolerant of his wife's conversion but was not personally persuaded that day. It would take another set of circumstances.
The king--like so many other members of the royal class--had a passion for hunting. One day while he was in a nearby forest, he descended further into the forest than he had ever traveled. Soon, he was surrounded by unfamiliar streams and rocks and realized that he wasn't entirely sure how to find his way back out. He began tracking his path to discover his escape when he was suddenly struck blind. Lost deep in a forest, blinded, and surrounded by animals that would eventually overcome their timidity to inspect and perhaps kill a disabled man, he began to fear for his life. His thoughts flew to Nino and Nino's God and he prayed a simple prayer: "Jesus, if you are indeed God like the slave says, then save me from my darkness so that I might abandon all other gods and allegiances to follow and worship you." With the sounding of his "amen" his sight returned and he beat a hasty retreat to his palace. When he arrived, he called for Nino and was converted. Soon thereafter, Christianity became acceptable in Iberia and was no longer punished.
The king and queen were taught by Nino but Christianity was exploding in Iberia and the king recognized that more teachers and ministers were needed to accommodate the needs of the growing community of Jesus' disciples. Emperor Constantine sent a bishop and ministers to Iberia and a great church was built there. Nino could see that the Church had gained a foothold in Iberia and so she retired to a small hermitage in the mountains where she could again devote herself to prayer and service. When she died, the king built a monastery by her grave and continued to tell the story of the slave who had freed a kingdom.
Sunday, January 13, 2013
Mev Puleo didn't want you to have the opportunity to look away from the unpleasant. One of her many passions was art and her medium was photography.With a point, a click, and some strange alchemy of chemicals and paper she was able to grasp the face of a child or the body racked by poverty and make a statement that could not be ignored. With the permanence of the photographic image, she was able to convict the hearts and minds of many people who would much rather simply wait a moment and forget all about the plight of the less fortunate. Mev couldn't look away from the passion that for the poor and disenfranchised and so she didn't want you to do so, either.
Mev had first been awakened to this calling after having been a Christian for several years. At the age of fourteen, she went on a trip with her parents to Brazil. While they were in Rio de Janeiro and seeing the sites as tourists, they decided to go up and see the "Christ Redeemer" atop Mt. Corcovado. As their bus made the trip up they circled the mountain a few times. On one side, Mev could overlook the homes of the wealthy and respectable. Their homes were brilliantly designed and ostentatiously expensive. In those homes lived a class of people who had little fear for their daily bread. As they came to the other side of the mountain, though, they saw shacks and dilapidated buildings that housed a different class of people. These people were the poor of Brazil and many of their waking thoughts were consumed with fear for their lack of daily bread and anxiety over how to change their circumstances. Mev found herself increasingly uncomfortable with her comfort--she wanted to look away but she couldn't. Suddenly, the chair was too soft, the air conditioning was too pleasant, and the scenery too breathtaking.Her eyes glanced upward to see Jesus standing with his arms stretched wide in the gap between comfort and fear. She feared that though Jesus had been lifted above both sides, it seemed that he had only become a convenient way to avoid looking at the needs of the poor from the comfort of affluence. So, Mev made a decision that day: she decided to change the world.
Mev became an outspoken activist and artist who shared powerful convictions and words about the ability of the Church to bridge the gap between rich and poor--between have and have not. She endeavored to increase awareness about poverty as she struggled to end it personally. Her pictures and her speeches refused to give into the temptation to overlook or forget the suffering of so many. Thankfully and gloriously, Mev wouldn't stop pestering the Church about its obligations to all people. Yet, her great benevolence was no insurance against tragedy and suffering. In 1994, a malignant tumor was discovered in her brain--she was given six months to live.
Words from the journal she kept in college came calling back to her. She had written that she would rather live a short but meaningful life--a life "crammed with meaning"--then to live long and securely without meaning. Mev ended up living almost two more years after her diagnosis and spent every day of it in service to the God who had called her to change the world. The priest eulogized over her at her funeral: "She had wanted to give the poor a face, a voice. She always wanted to be identified with them. And so it came to pass: by the time of her last days you could see them all in her face--the poor of Bosnia, the hungry of Haiti, the powerless of Brazil. She who gave them voice, lost hers. She who helped us see their faces, could finally see no more....She became the poor she loved." Mev was thirty-two years old when she passed on to rest with Christ her Redeemer.
Saturday, January 12, 2013
Alexander Men was the child of a Jewish family that converted to Christianity when Alexander was less than one year old. In fact, Alexander was baptized on the same day that his mother was and his initiation into Christianity was completed. Yet, there was more in store for Alexander and his family as the Soviet empire continued to grow and flourish in Russia. With the growth of the Soviet ideals, there was an expectation that Christians--clergy and lay--would swear allegiance first to the State and second to the Church.Many in the Church bought their relative safety through this idolatry but Alexander's family--and by extension Alexander--were part of the movement that refused to do so. They were part of the Russian True Orthodox movement--specifically, they were part of a group called the "Catacomb Church." This group knew they must meet in secret if they were to meet at all because they had run afoul of the imperial powers simply by existing and refusing to bend their knee before a broken and corrupt State.
Of course, such allegiances have their cost even if they are a holy and Christian thing. In 1958, Alexander was expelled from college for the sake of his allegiances and commitments. The powerful did not approve of who Alexander approved of and, so, they refused to accommodate him. He had already committed to becoming a priest and this obstacle only spurred him onward. A few years later, he graduated from Leningrad Theological Seminary and was ordained as a priest in the Orthodox church. Alexander was known as a priest of the intellectuals and engaged in rigorous and exacting debates with Orthodox and atheists. He expressed a powerful commitment to ecumenical theology throughout his clerical life and called upon his students and spiritual children to have faith and courage in the face of both Soviet rule and denominationalism. Recognized as an intelligent man and good teacher, he routinely was invited to teach on religious topics in a variety of places but was hated by those in power because of their distrust for Christians. He was routinely arrested and questioned by the KGB in an attempt to coerce him into silence. Alexander was unchecked in his devotion.
When Soviet rule was coming to an end in Russia, many Christian missionaries were surprised to find a people thirsty for spiritual growth and Christian teaching instead of solely committed atheists. Surely, there were many who rejected the work of the missionaries but there were others who had found sustenance for their faith even from within the iron curtain--they had known men like Alexander and had found Jesus at a cost. Alexander's commitment to his faith persevered through the falling of the Soviet Empire but he was claimed as one of its victims in 1990. At the age of fifty-five, he left his home one morning bound for a teaching engagement. As he walked the path, he heard the patter of footsteps. Before he could turn around, an unknown assailant (or perhaps assailants) cleaved his skull with an axe. Alexander Men died because he refused to submit himself to the Empire or its powers. Instead, he remained committed to a Lord who was crucified and buried to conquer death. No walls fell or resolutions were passed with his death but his work continued long after his death and authentic Russian spirituality flourished because Alexander--and people like him--refused to give up on his faith even when confronted by adversity and death.
Friday, January 11, 2013
Nicholas Herman struggled with poverty. He had trouble finding enough money to afford to live in seventeenth century France. So, he enlisted in the military and went to fight for France in the Thirty Years War. The war had been going on for nearly fifteen years by the time Nicholas joined its ranks and prepared to fight for as long as meals and a small stipend would be provided to him. It wasn't what he had wanted to do--few at the time would have volunteered to fight a war if there was no economic incentive--but it helped provide for his needs. He was devoted to the Faith he was raised in but found life unsavory and wondered if he might be missing something in his own everyday Christian life. But, while afield with the military, he had a vision that would change his life for the better.
Nicholas was looking about himself in the middle of a very cold winter. A tree barren of all leaves stood resolutelybefore Nicholas' gaze and seemed to cry out for notice and consideration. Nicholas' mind drifted toward the eventual full bloom that awaited the tree come summer and he held the image before him in tension with what he knew awaited the tree standing barren and steadfast among death and destruction. In the tree, Nicholas saw his bleak existence and in its hope he saw his own: a hope that relied upon God's good grace and steadfast love. Though life was hard and desperate for young Nicholas he was filled with hope for a life consisting in deep love between creator and creation. In a barren tree, God had reached down and touched Nicholas' heart with a vision that granted hope and strengthened his persistence.
When he was discharged from the military, he went to a Carmelite monastery and petitioned to become a brother.Because of his relative lack of education he could not become a cleric but he persisted and became a lay brother and was assigned to work in the kitchen. His duties included cooking, cleaning, and serving--in other words, he was called to sustain the monks and he did so gladly. He took the name of Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection upon entering the monastery. But, his culinary skills are not what he is best known for. Rather, he is known as a fantastic proponent of the power of love. He insisted that the many works of men and women to explain and grasp the love of God were unnecessary. There was a simple way of life and love that Lawrence called his friends and colleagues to: loving God in the everyday moments.Instead of doing great and big things to "earn" the love of God, Lawrence endeavored simply to appreciate God's steadfast love in the small things. When he was cooking a meal, he thought of himself as cooking for God and with God. When he scrubbed a pot or a pan, he was doing it for and with God.
Lawrence had an intimate and deeply personal relationship with God and advised all of his friends and colleagues to do the same no matter what else they might be doing with their lives. After all, Lawrence knew well that there was only hope for life in the love that animated and sustained all of creation. Though he was a barren tree hoping desperately for summer, he knew that God was already effecting a summer in his soul and this love informed all of Lawrence's actions. His many sayings and teachings on God's love and presence were gathered together by people who appreciated them after his death and bound together in a text known as The Practice of the Presence of God. There was no other calling for Lawrence than this: to know and be loved by the God who gave hope and faith to God's much loved creation.