Thursday, February 28, 2013
In the middle of the third century, Christianity was not an acceptable thing to place one's trust or faith in if you were a citizen or subject of the Roman Empire. Within the bounds of the pax romana there was no room for those who insisted "blessed are the peacemakers." Though Alexandria was fairly far away from the heart of the Roman Empire it was a city of renown and prestige--it was a jewel within the crown of the Empire resting upon seven hills. So, in Alexandria the party line of persecution of Christians held with fervor and Christians were forced to worship and meet in secret lest they be turned over to the authorities and slaughtered by the blade of the Empire. Clergy and Church leaders were of especial interest to the rulers and powers of Rome--to convince a leader of the Church to renounce their faith weakened the resolve of others Christians while executing a leader who refused to renounce their faith deprived the Church of leadership the empire assumed it needed to continue.Essentially, there was a struggle to see who would garner the ultimate allegiance of the people: Jesus the sacrificial savior or the Empire and its assurance of security through control.
Yet, things changed when a plague began sweeping through the Roman Empire and claiming victims on all sides. It seemed that the disease cared little for whom allegiance was paid to as it killed both Christians and non-Christians with ease and speed. Alexandria was particularly hard hit by the plague with over 5,000 people dying every day in its deadly grip. Soon, people began abandoning those who showed any trace of a symptom of the disease and fleeing to the countryside so that they might escape with their lives. With the density of the urban population, the disease spread quickly. Many fled even going so far as to abandon their children, parents, and spouses in the streets because of fear of infection. Having escaped they did their best to keep a watch on the city so that the infection might die out with its victims and they might return.
Once their persecutors had fled in the wake of the plague, the Christians of Alexandria began to come out of hiding and to take care of the sick and dying. They knew that it would likely cost them their lives yet they felt compelled to care for the abandoned and dying by the faith they refused to deny even under threat of torture and death. Soon, the non-Christians who had fled Alexandria began to hear that many of the Christians had stayed behind and had chosen not to save their own lives so that they might comfort those who were already losing theirs Since the city had been abandoned by all those who could afford to escape, there was little persecution of the Christians even though they had come out of hiding. They met in public to worship and proclaim their faith and were welcomed by those who remained because they offered hope and healing when everybody else had run for their lives. Most of those who remained died and were buried with the ones they cared for. Since their faith bade them stay and the world bade them go, they are martyrs having died on account of a faith that changed and held them.
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Francesco Possenti was a popular young man in the social circles and dance halls of Spoleto, Italy. He was a handsome man who took special care for his appearance and was careful always to make a good first impression--especially upon ladies. He was known by his peers as a kind and articulate man. To the parents of his female peers, he was a prime target for a "successful marriage." Yet, his life had been difficult as his father moved around with his job. Eventually some of Francesco's siblings died from various diseases and his own mother died while Francesco was a child. Though it seemed that many of the girls he danced with were very eager to have him as a husband, he continued to turn them away. You see, at thirteen, he had fallen ill and made a vow to God that he would enter the ministry if God would restore his health. Francesco recovered but soon he has forgotten his vow and had resumed his life of careful devotion and pleasant social engagements. Two years later he developed a throat abscess and once again promised God a life of service if God would heal him. He recovered but once again cooled in his fervor as life returned to normal. Apparently, he made this vow again when his head was grazed by a stray bullet but failed to follow through.Once, however, he went so far as to begin the process of joining the Jesuits and break off a pending engagement but for some long lost rationale he stalled the process and returned to his old life.
Francesco's sister--Mary Louisa--died from cholera some time later and Francesco was shaken to the core by her death. After theirmother's death it had been Mary Louisa who had become a second mother to him. He had been shaken by his older brothers' deaths (one from suicide) but the death of Mary Louisa was distressing in a way he could not clearly or cleanly articulate. The clergy of Spoleto processed an icon of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, through the streets as an act of healing and prayer for the community then beset by cholera. As the icon passed by, he was enthralled and heard a voice questioning him, saying, "Why are you still part of the world that you've been called out of?" He didn't have an answer. So, he finally became serious about a life devoted to ministry and decided to join the Passionist order. At first, his father laughed him off since he had declared his devotion before only to back out after some time. Yet, he persisted and his father finally sent him to the monastery with his blessing.
As Francesco traveled, he visited relatives along the way to see how they were doing. Yet, his father had primed them with questioning speeches and thoughts in hope that if this was yet another insincere commitment that he would return before he ever arrived at the monastery. They were unsuccessful in persuading him to give up on the life he had finally truly committed to.While a novice at the monastery, he was an excellent student and obedient to a fault to his superiors. He took his vows and the name Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows. Yet, he contracted tuberculosis before he was ordained a priest. He thanked God when he was diagnosed because he had prayed for some time that he might die slowly and make his dying a spiritually formative experience in his life. He spent his remaining days praying and practicing the Faith that held him. Shortly before his death, he ordered all of his writings but his letters to be burned so that he might not be arrogant or puffed up with regard for his own writing or intellect. The man who had so long avoided the vows he had made had finally found comfort in a life of devotion and service. He died peacefully and was buried shortly thereafter.
Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Jesus had heard that the Pharisees were talking about him having baptized and made more disciples than even John--even though he had never baptized anybody with water and it had been his disciples who had done that--he left Judea and headed back toward Galilee. He decided to get there by going through Samaria. He stopped in a city called Sychar which was near the place Jacob had given to Joseph. The well Jacob had dug was there and Jesus stopped at it because he was tired and it was very warm since it was about noon.
A Samaritan woman named Photina came to get water from the well while Jesus was there but the disciples had gone to the city to get food. Jesus asked Photina for a drink and she responded: "Aren't you a Jew? Would you really ask a Samaritan woman like me for a drink?"She knew well that Jews refused to associate or share with Samaritans.
Jesus responded, "If you really knew what was happening here, then you would have asked me and I would have given you living water."
"You have no bucket, sir, and this well is very deep so where are you going to get this 'living water' you're talking about?" she asked, "Whether you like it or not, Jacob dug this well and his sons and flocks--the ones the Jews claim as only their own--drank from it. Are you greater than Jacob?"
Jesus said to her, "If anybody drinks the water from this well, they'll become thirsty again but the water I offer is different. When you drink the water I offer, within you it becomes a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." Still not quite getting it, the woman relented and, perhaps somewhat incredulously, asked Jesus for some of his water so that she might never be thirsty again and might never have to return to the well. Jesus understood that she still didn't quite get it and so he said to Photina, "Go, get your husband and come back with him."Photina told Jesus in a small voice that she did not have a husband and he responded with all the truth, "You're right when you say you have no husband but you've had five before and you're living with a man now who is not your husband." Photina was shocked and perhaps struggled to find the words, at first, but she was starting to get it.
She responded, "Sir, I can tell you're a prophet, so answer a question for me: Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain here but you Jews say that the right place to worship is in Jerusalem. Which is correct?"
Jesus said to her, "Believe me, the time is coming when that question won't matter.Right now, you worship what you don't know and we worship what we know--don't forget God's promise to Abraham that salvation comes through the Jews. But the time is coming--in fact, it's here right now and right at this well--when the true worshipers of God will worship God not in Jerusalem or in Samaria but in spirit and truth. This is what God desires is worship, after all. God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and truth."
Photina said to Jesus, "Oh, I know that Messiah--salvation--is coming and when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us."
Jesus smiled and said to her, "I am he. I am the one you're waiting for."
As he said that, his disciples rounded the corner with food in their arms. They were astonished that he was speaking with a Samaritan woman by himself at the well but they knew better than to rebuke either Jesus or Photina. Photina returned to the city and gathered people to come with her saying, "You won't believe whom I met at the well. I met a man who knew everything I had ever done. Could this one be the Messiah?" The Samaritans came out to the well with Photina.
At the same time, the disciples were urging Jesus to eat but he said to them, "I have food to eat that you know nothing about." They didn't understand what he meant. They were not quite getting it. So, he continued, "What sustains me is doing the will of God and to complete my mission and work. Don't you say, 'Look at the fields...only a little while longer to the harvest?' Stop for a second and look around and you'll see how the fields are ripe for harvest--people are ready for salvation. Some are already being brought into the fold. For here the saying holds true, 'One sows and another reaps.' You've been sent out to reap and harvest what you didn't sow. You've not started salvation, you've joined in with salvation already in progress."
Then, the Samaritans arrived at the well with Photina and many were already placing their faith in him because of what Photina had said. They asked Jesus and disciples to stay with them and be their guests and they did so for two days. He accepted their hospitality and had many conversations with them and because of these conversations even more believed. It was then that they began to say to Photina, "It's not just because of your words that we now believe. We've heard him speak to us as well because of you and we believe that this one truly is the Savior of the world.
Monday, February 25, 2013
Publius knew he was right--he didn't necessarily like that he was right but he was certain nonetheless. As the governor appointed by Rome to manage and control Pamphylia, he knew that Nestor was going to be a problem. After all, Nestor refused to be quiet no matter how much Publius or Publius' men insisted that silence was better for him since Rome was now ruled by Decius. This led Publius to wonder openly why a man would knowingly flirt with torture and death for the sake of people who could not repay his loyalty. Especially when, by Publius' reasoning, there seemed to be no reason why Nestor couldn't continue as priest and bishop if he submitted himself to Rome and those in power in Pamphylia. Nestor's silence could not be persuaded, though, and Publius was becoming increasingly frustrated with the speed at which the Christian groups were growing. No matter how hard he tried to dissolve and crush them, they continued to grow unabated. In many ways, it seemed that his efforts had only made it worse. The Christians looked to Nestor for leadership and he provided it ably. So, Publius was confident that he was right when he said, "Until we have got the better of the bishop, we shall be powerless against the Christians."
So, Nestor was arrested by the order of the emperor Decius through his servant Publius andheld by Roman soldiers against his will. The Christiancommunities responded in a way that confounded Publius when they praised God for Nestor's faith and prayed that he would not relent under the pressure that Rome would predictably apply. Meanwhile, Nestor had a vision while sleeping in his cell. In the vision, he watched as a lamb was led from its pen to the place appointed for its sacrifice. He watched as it was bound and laid upon an altar. After the lamb was slaughtered, Nestor awoke with confidence and resolve. He eagerly told of his dream to those Christians brave enough to visit him in prison and offered only one interpretation: his Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb that was Slain, had called him to follow after him in martyrdom. His visitors rejoiced with him even while they mourned their own loss as Rome prepared to deprive the Church of a bishop and provide for the Church another martyr. Publius was shocked to see Nestor's apparent lack of fear but he proceeded with his horrible task.
Publius followed through with Decius' wishes and tortured Nestor cruelly. After all, if Publius wished to keep his position and his favor with Rome, then he had no choice but to punish and kill Rome's enemies--loyalty has its benefits but it also has its costs. When Nestor refused to deny his faith and make a sacrifice to the gods of Rome, Publius encouraged him to make the sacrifice even if he didn't mean it. Publius didn't understand why Nestor found this proposal so horrid but then Publius didn't understand that for Nestor to do so would be to place his faith in the saving power of Rome over that of his Lord who also died innocently.So,Nestor was crucified by Roman command and eagerly followed his Lord from this world to the next.The Church that Decius and Publius hoped to crush by murdering one of its bishops grew even more in the gruesome wake of Nestor's martyrdom. Publius had been so confident that he was right--surely, killing their leader should crush their spirits!--but he was magnificently wrong. What Publius and Rome never quite understood, and what they still don't understand today, is that there was another Shepherd who watched over all the little sheep who followed after him, of which Nestor was only one. Publius had known he was right, but--praise God--he was gloriously wrong.
Sunday, February 24, 2013
When Jesus' disciples had come together on the mountain, they asked him, "Lord, will you restore the kingdom to Israel now?" Jesus said to them, "Don't worry yourself with the schedule that the Father has set according to his own will. Instead, know that you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." When he had finished speaking he was lifted up before their eyes and disappeared behind a cloud. The disciples stood around waiting to see if he'd reappear and thinking that perhaps they should wait just a little longer when suddenly there were two people standing among them in white robes. These two said to them,"Why do you stand looking upwards?This Jesus--your Lord--has been taken up from you into heaven. He will come again in the same way that you just watched him go.
So, when they had been given their mission and a new understanding of their calling they returned to Jerusalem. When they had entered the city, they went to the room where they had been staying. The eleven remaining members of the twelve--for Judas had taken his own life in remorse for his betrayal of their Lord--were all there and they must have felt not only the absence of their Lord but also the absence of their friend Judas. Those of the twelve who remained, Jesus' brothers,and several important women--including Mary the mother of Jesus--devoted themselves to one of the things that Jesus had been devoted to: prayer.
After a little while, Peter--the one who had denied Jesus, had been reconciled with a calling to feed Jesus' sheep, and would eventually become a martyr--stood up among the disciples gathered there (there were approximately 120 there) and said to them, "Brothers and Sisters, we all know what happened to Judas. He went out and took his own life in the field that his blood money had purchased. We all know that nobody owns that field of blood, now. It was terrible but it had to happen because it was part of God's plan and it had been foretold by the Holy Spirit through David. Yes, he was one of us and he shared in our ministry but he became the guide of those who arrested our Lord. Remember that it is written in the psalter: 'Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it' and 'Let another take his position of overseer.' So one of the disciples who have been with us throughout our Lord's time among us must become a witness with us to his resurrection. One of Jesus' disciples must help us fulfill this new calling he has given us. It must be one of the disciples that was with us from the time John the Baptizer baptized Jesus. This person must have been with us until Jesus was taken to be murdered."
So two men were suggested: Joseph called Barsabbas--who was also known as Justus--and Matthias. The disciples prayed, "Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take Judas' place in this ministry. Judas turned aside from your will to work his own will. Show us the one who will become an apostle in his place." And so they cast lots to determine which of the two men would take Judas' place and the lots indicated Matthias. With unanimous agreement, Matthias became the thirteenth member of "the Twelve." He would go on to live a life much like the other apostles even dying a martyr in later years. He would devote himself to his calling--Jesus' calling--even if he wasn't one of the original twelve. He was aware of the need and was willing to play his own role in the grand story of the Faith.
Saturday, February 23, 2013
Polycarp had only been a child when he had been introduced to the man by the name of John yet he knew that this man was important. He gave him his attention because his parents seemed to be amazed at the man and when he did this he began to hear John speak words that amazed him. Soon, Polycarp had converted to the faith of John the Apostle and had become a follower of John's Lord--Jesus Christ. Further, he began taking teaching and guidance from John in how he might also be a man of God who faithfully pursued God's calling upon his life. He never was a philosopher or an especially educated man but he had the benefit of spending much time with not only John but also Papias and Ignatius of Antioch. Soon, he was a leader within the Church--even without a philosophical education--in one of the most trying and challenging times in the history of the Body of Christ. It seemed that all who wanted it could claim to be the true Church that was established by Jesus. There was no clear distinction what was and wasn't orthodoxy and many were led astray by teachers who, knowingly or unknowingly, taught their opinions as Jesus' opinions. Polycarp relied upon the teaching and guidance he had received from John to discern right teaching from wrong teaching. Then, he used his natural gifts and talents to teach and guide others to avoid heresy. In this way, Polycarp was father to many.
One of the men that Polycarp taught and mentored was Irenaeus who would go on to grow Polycarp's investment of time and attention by guiding the Church through another challenging and nebulous time of his own. Polycarp's love for Irenaeus quite literally changed the world even if Polycarp himself never saw or knew it. Looking back, this kind of love and devotion is what differentiated Polycarp from his opponents. While there was much argument it was not always full of love and compassion. Polycarp on the other hand seemed to be genuinely affected and transformed by the faith that held him. He was not brilliant or well educated but he was sincere and loving and this lent weight to his arguments. The marks of transformation on his life suggested that he had truly consumed and been sustained by the Bread of Life and the life-giving water of Jesus' teaching. When he told the story of what God had done in his life people were inspired to hand their lives over to the same God he followed. He led by example and not simply be beautiful, rhetorical flourishes.
When he was an old man (as old as ninety years by some estimates), he was arrested for being a Christian by a government that was growing increasingly hostile to those who were devoted to another power. On some level he had seen this coming for Ignatius and John had already been murdered for their faith. He was accused of being Christian and, ever sincere and honest, he gladly admitted that he was--he could see no reason to be ashamed for his faith. They gave him an opportunity to deny his faith in public or be executed. He responded: "How am I supposed to blaspheme my King and Savior? Do whatever you will." They did whatever they willed by building a large pyre of sticks and flammable items. They tied him to the top of it and prepared to drive nails through his body so that he might not escape. He smiled at the worker and assured him: "Don't worry about the nails. The God who gives me strength to endure the fire will give me enough to sit still without your help." They didn't nail him down but they must have expected him to cry out once the pyre was lit. Yet, he didn't. Instead, it seemed that he was unscathed by the flames as he prayed and sang hymns. The crowd looked on amazed and many would be converted because of this sight but his executioners were enraged that he didn't have the courtesy to die screaming like they had hoped he would. Finally, they stabbed him in the chest with a dagger and he died as a martyr.
Friday, February 22, 2013
Hans and Sophie Scholl had allied themselves with a secretive group within Germany. In the early 1940s, this was akin to signing your own death warrant given the subject that the group was concerned with: Nazi atrocities and how they might be stopped. They were university students and they were proponents of nonviolent resistance. Instead of planning assassinations and armed coups, these people--including Sophie's brother Hans--formed a group that became known as "The White Rose." Encouraged by their philosophy professor--Kurt Huber--the White Rose wrote, published, and distributed pamphlets about what the Nazis were doing. In their own words: "We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!" They published statistics about the numbers of Jews and political dissidents arrested and executed in the name of "Nazi progress." Along with these statistics they appealed to the people of Germany to refuse to be a complicit part of genocide and atrocity.They also took to graffiti with a tar based paint on university buildings. Their graffiti proclaimed a great desire for freedom that they felt Hitler and his ilk were slowly strangling in Germany.
Sophie and Hans must have been anxious as they approached the university building where hundreds of students were attending class. They carried suitcases and this would be very conspicuous for two young people during the day. But they had no other easy way to carry the leaflets into the hall without the suitcases and so they did it anyway. Few knew who the members of the White Rose were but loyalists were on the lookout for suspicious behavior. They arrived at the class building and began quickly unloading the leaflets into several piles in the common area to where the classes would be dismissed.Once the classes began to empty, the students would pick up the pamphlets and read yet another stirring argument against passive acceptance of evil. The Nazis had recently lost the battle of Stalingrad and so the White Rose hoped to capitalize on it and convince yet more people that the Nazi campaign was not only evil but doomed to failure. Its writing hearkened back to the first leaflet they had released: "Isn't it true that every honest German is ashamed of his government these days? Who among us can imagine the degree of shame that will come upon us and our children when the veil falls from our faces and the awful crimes that infinitely exceed any human measure are exposed to the light of day?"
Hans and Sophie had dropped off the pamphlets and were fleeing before classes were dismissed when they noticed a handful of pamphlets still in the suitcase. Sophie grabbed them quickly and ran back to the building. She ascended the stairs and in a poetic--and partially prophetic--gesture she flung them into the air and let them flutter down to the floor. She was witnessed by the custodian who turned in Hans and Sophie. Soon, Sophie and all those who associated with her were arrested and facing trial for treason. They had dared to speak ill of those who would not accept the truth. For this, they were tried and condemned to be beheaded. On February 22, 1943, they were executed in the guillotine. Sophie was strong and confident to the end of her life and was not deterred by those who hoped to whitewash their sins. She died a martyr because she refused to stop seeing and decrying the atrocities that were being perpetrated. Her dying words were: "God, you are my refuge into eternity" while Hans preferred the prophecy of "...your heads will fall as well."
Thursday, February 21, 2013
Charalampus had been born roughly fifty years after Jesus' death. This means that he was born before any of the Christian Gospels had been written down. Yet, he did not die until the turn of the second century into the third. This means that he was over one hundred years old when he finally died. In this time, he had become a Christian even though it was frowned upon by the Roman Empire he was a part of. He had been a part of a congregation of people who met regularly to worship and practice their devotion to their savior. Over time, he had become a priest and eventually a bishop. His service to the Church stretched on through the years and his face was welcome in many Christian homes in the area--even if at times only because he had been the pastor to some of their grandparents. For his preaching--even at his advanced age--he was arrested and commanded to stop. Clearly not too keen on torturing an old man, the ruler insisted that if Charalampus didn't stop preaching he'd be forced to torture and kill him regardless of his age. The ruler insisted that Charalampus should stop for his own good. To this, Charalampus responded: "You don't know what's good for me. You don't know what makes me well. Nothing is more pleasing to me than to suffer for my Lord. So, don’t hesitate to put my old body to whatever tortures you want and you will learn that the power of my Lord cannot be overcome."
So, soldiers came in and began torturing hm by raking his body with iron combs. His aged skin came off in strips and chunks and his blood flowed easily but he did not cry out or even stop smiling. He patted one of the soldiers on the hand and thanked him for what he was doing by saying, "Thank you, brothers, for scraping off my old body and further preparing my soul for new and eternal life." The sincerity in his voice, his remarkable endurance, and the soldiers' discomfort at torturing an old man combined to effect the conversion of the soldiers. They confessed their faith and trust in Charalampus' Lord because of the sermon he preached with his suffering. The soldiers were immediately beheaded for this treason and others continued the task of his torture. When agonized screams could not be brought out of him, it was decided that he would be transferred to the emperor--Septimus Severus--to be punished and killed more effectively. At this pronouncement, three onlooker women began to loudly praise God and were immediately martyred as well.
Charalampus was brought into the presence of Septimus Severus but already rested within the presence of his God as he devoted himself to prayer on the journey while the soldiers had dragged him along by his beard. When he arrived, he was tortured with a variety of cruelties including fire and being impaled. When he remained alive, the emperor was incredulous and demanded to know by what power he maintained his life. Charalampus responded that it was by the power of Christ. The emperor had a task for Charalampus and brought a man before him who had been possessed by a demon for many years and asked what Charalampus might do about that. With a prayer and one spoken word he cast the demon out of the man and infuriated the emperor.Claiming that he must be a sorcerer, the emperor condemned him to be executed. As the executioner approached with his sword drawn Charalampus yelled: "Lord, you know that all people are only flesh and blood...forgive them for what they do and bless them all." With these words, he died before the executioner had even begun to strike. The daughter of Septimus Severus became part of Charalampus' legacy as well when she converted on the spot and became a devoted follower of Jesus.
Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Frederick was born in Maryland but it wasn't his state it was the state where his oppressors lived--Frederick had no place to call his own. Frederick knew who his mother was but he was stripped away from her while he was an infant as if he were only a commodity with no heart or mind to form connections. Frederick knew who his grandmother was because he was raised under he watchful eyes and kind tutelage but he was separated from her when he was only seven years old. Those who held him in slavery did not see any reason they should honor the bonds between he and his grandmother and so they had no problem taking him to another place to do a different job because their lives were and always had been focused on efficiency and profit. Frederick didn't know who his father was though it's very likely that he was the slave of his own father after being separated from his grandmother. Chances are, he was the son of a white overseer who had taken indecent liberties with a slave woman as was his presumed natural and God-given right. After that man died, Frederick was transferred to yet another family near Baltimore.
It was while he was serving the Auld family near Baltimore that he first encountered the written word as anything more than another way for those with power to maintain it. The slave master's wife taught twelve year old Frederick the fundamentals of reading and writing. Frederick took to it with his natural intelligence and was soon beginning to read and write on his own. But the slave master found out and insisted that this was inappropriate on the grounds that slaves who could read might question their lot in life and become dissatisfied with slavery. Hugh Auld knew well that education was a liberator and literacy was the gateway to education. What he didn't know what the already powerful dissatisfaction that brewed in the hearts of Frederick and his brothers and sisters. Auld put a stop to the lessons but the fire of knowledge burned bright and quick in Frederick's mind and he continued to teach himself to read even though he was warned not to. After honing his skills, the adolescent Frederick took to teaching reading to other slaves on Sundays. Given time by their oppressors to worship, they did so but Frederick was keen to teach them to read their New Testament. In it, they found stories of liberation and freedom. In these stories, they began to be freed from their many bonds--all except their most physical and real. Frederick was beaten for these lessons and suffered severe punishments but would not stop teaching or questioning the injustice of slavery upon religious grounds. He was turned over to a particularly cruel slave master for his persistence.
When he was twenty years old, Frederick finally escaped slavery on his third attempt. He boarded a train, he adopted a guise, and in twenty-four hours he was a man finally freed from his physical bonds. He became an ardent activist and abolitionist campaigning not only for the end of slavery but also the end of all injustice and oppression--he even ran to be the first African-American Vice President on an equal rights ticket with Victoria Woodhull (the first woman to run for President). He was quick to strike at the hypocrisy of the religious elite in their use of the scriptures that proclaimed liberation and life as tools of oppression and death and insisted that true religion was not a matter of control but of love and freedom. His work as an abolitionist hastened the end of slavery in the United States and testified to a Christian faith that found its root and power in a Lord who had been oppressed by the powerful.
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
The five men gathered together and agreed on one particular thing: they felt called to go and be a comfort to brothers and sisters who had been arrested by the Roman Empire. Elias, Daniel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Samuel were Christians in Egypt during a time when Christianity was entirely unwelcome within the bounds of the Roman Empire.Rome had made it explicitly clear that those who were Christians were enemies of the state and would be treated as such with little regard for their nonviolent convictions. Elias and his companions had known people who had been seized and murdered for their faith and therefore they knew well that this calling could be their first step on a path that led inexorably toward their own martyrdom. Yet, they could not shake the conviction that God was calling them to go to Cilicia and comfort Christians that were slaves in the mines there. So, they packed their things and they went out. They arrived without interference and they found the ones they were looking for. They sang songs and prayed with these faithful individuals whose faith could not be deterred by Roman power. When both the comforters and the afflicted had been encouraged by their mutual faith, the men prepared for the journey home. That's when the problems started.
Rome was exceptionally adept at discovering and identifying Christians. By most accounts, they were also fairly successful at breaking the faiths of those whom they captured. They knew well that those who visited Christians in prison and slave camps were likely to be Christians themselves. When Elias and his companions visited their brothers and sisters, they marked themselves for Rome's attention. As they were returning home they were stopped in Caesarea by a group of soldiers assigned with their interrogation. Their captors asked them why they had made the journey and probably expected to hear some complicated lie that might cover over what Rome knew very well: these men were Christians and therefore unwelcome in the Empire. What they heard however was a frank admission by the men that they were Christians and they had traveled to comfort their brothers and sisters. Surely, they were surprised at the ease with which they had confessed--it was as if they weren't ashamed of the fact. The men had counted the likely cost of their journey--their own lives--and found it to be an acceptable price for serving God. They were tortured and asked to deny their faith but they did not. They would not be broken. Finally, they were beheaded.
Yet, after their deaths two men came forward named Porphyry and Pamphilus and insisted that these men who had traveled far to provide comfort deserved to be buried. They confronted the Empire and insisted on kindness.They must have known the likely outcome of their insistence since Rome was not interested in being kind so much as they were interested in controlling and dominating the minds and hearts of the people. They were accused of being Christian because of their insistence that the men be buried and mourned. They admitted that they were and were tortured before being burned to death. This wasn't the end, however, as another man named Seleucus came forward and spoke loudly in praise of the men who had been willing to lay down everything to follow after their executed Lord. He spoke highly of Pamphilus' and Porphyry's courage and bravery in the face of a grisly death. The soldiers seized Seleucus and he was also exposed as a Christian. For this crime and for the crime of speaking highly of those whom Rome despised and had killed, he was beheaded.It seems that all had indeed counted the cost and were willing to pay it for the privilege of following after a God who had been executed for loving too much, as well.
Monday, February 18, 2013
Philothei was a good daughter in an affluent family in Athens. She did as she was instructed by her parents and offered them her heart's deepest love in return. When she was twelve, she was courted by a powerful and influential man. He was wealthy and involved in the politics and leadership of the city. She was very hesitant to marry, however, because she felt a calling that seemed to be at odds with marriage--passionate and sacrificial devotion to her Lord Jesus Christ. Yet, she was obedient to her parents who insisted that this man seemed like a good man and would surely give her freedom to express her faith as freely and clearly as she could.So, she was married to the man and she suffered secretly within his house and his embrace. He was an abusive man who routinely punished her for perceived slights and failures and insisted that she was an inadequate wife. She suffered his abuse--both emotional and physical--and continued to express her faith as she could but he worked hard to restrain her and limit her involvement in the Church she loved. But, no matter how hard he tried he could not turn her eyes and her heart away from the object of her devotion: her crucified Lord.
Philothei became a widow after three years of torturous marriage and she inherited his great wealth. She moved back into the home of her parents and continued to age and mature.She was unwilling to marry again and her family did not push her to do so. Perhaps they realized that the first marriage has been harmful and were unwilling to try again. Regardless, she spent his wealth in a variety of ways that aided the poor and the hungry. She didn't see the great wealth as a thing to be used to defend or secure herself but as a commodity best used by distributing it among those with the most need.Her parents died when she was twenty-five and she was once again the recipient of a large estate. Now that she was no longer bound to a home and now that she had considerable wealth to spend on others, she took up a live of prayer and service that exceeded even her earlier devotion. The money was put into able hands that would administrate its use. In so doing, many churches and monasteries were built with it but Philothei had already turned her attention to founding a convent for women that she felt she had been directed to build by Andrew the Apostle in a vision. She did so and the convent became a refuge and sanctuary for women to flee to from abuse or persecution. A particular group of women--members of Turkish harems--became aware of this convent's willingness to take them in and soon they were coming in droves. For her willingness to shelter these women from abuse such as she had received, she would be further abused.
The Turks who controlled Greece at the time were enraged that Christian women were helping their harem women to escape and so they began to apply pressure to Philothei and the women she was like a mother to. The politically minded hoped to crush her because of her resistance. The religiously minded hoped to afflict her and persecute her until she converted to their own religion. If they could crush or convert her, they suspected that they could do the same to all who shared her devotion to Jesus. They reasoned that she was a prime target because she was a woman and would be unable to stand up their abuses because of her sex. Neither group was successful. When they had given up on coercion, they resorted to violence. They knocked down the doors of the convent and drug her into the street by her hair. They beat her savagely while demanding she renounce her faith. She refused their demands and offered forgiveness to them for their abuse. For this, they beat her further. She died of her wounds while professing a faith that taught her to love her abusers and give her life for others.
Sunday, February 17, 2013
Richard Wurmbrand just didn't know when to shut up. He had a lot of time to reconsider his calling and his convictions but he simply wouldn't stop preaching the Gospel that had changed his life and set flame to all his previous ambitions, hopes, dreams, and securities. He had much time to consider how he had arrived in prison--his first sentence was eight and a half years and his second was about five years long--but he never found himself turning away from the high calling that had landed him within shackles and isolated in solitary confinement. He had been called to preach and he could not imagine squelching that calling even if he might gain his freedom by doing so.
Richard had been born to a Jewish family in Bucharest, Romania, in 1909. When he was young his family moved regularly and even lived in Istanbul for some time. His father died in 1918 and his family moved back to Romania in 1924. As a youth, he became infatuated with the ideals and methods of the Communist Party. This was less than a decade after the Bolshevik revolution. So, a Romanian teen must surely have thrilled to imagine the dreams that were publicized and suggested by the Party. He moved to Moscow as a young man to study Marxist thought and philosophy. In Moscow, he had not been comfortable or happy. So, he returned to Romania secretly and against the wishes of the Party. They were none too pleased that the young man had escaped and slighted them and so the secret police captured and arrested him. He was imprisoned for a short while for this crime and while in prison he renounced the communism of his youth because of its excesses and failures. After his release, he was married in 1936. In 1938, however, his world was changed when he and wife befriended a Romanian carpenter who seemed especially friendly and loving. Soon, they heard the Gospel from this man--Christian Wolfkes--and were converted to the Faith that would sustain them for the rest of their lives.
As converted Jews themselves, they took part in evangelism efforts through the Anglican mission to the Jews. Eventually, he would be ordained an Anglican minister. After World War II, he was ordained a Lutheran minister in his native country of Romania. The Soviets moved into Romania in 1944 and Richard, his wife, and his congregation were forced to become a part of the underground church. The Communists were unwilling to allow the Church to function in their State and so it became a secretive thing that demanded much and promised adversity. It grew wildly. He began preaching to his fellow Romanians and the Soviet soldiers. In 1948 he was arrested for his ministry and imprisoned. He served his time and continued to be a minister in the prisons that he was held in. In 1956 the Soviets released him and told him never to preach again if he wanted to remain free. He began preaching immediately. In 1959, they arrested him again, beat him, tortured him, and sentenced him to twenty-five years of prison life that promised to be full of more beatings and torture. Roughly five years later he was released from prison as part of an amnesty agreement brokered by western Christian groups.
Richard spent the remainder of his life preaching the Gospel he had been willing to sacrifice everything for. He wrote book after book about his experiences in prison and the stories he saw there. Further, he wrote about the plight of the underground Church so that others might know what was going on in countries where the Church must be hidden to escape the Communist Party.This effort became a group now known as "Voice of the Martyrs" and it worked to raise awareness of the abuses perpetrated against peaceful Christians in the name of State security. Eleven years before his death Richard and his wife were able to return to Romania for the first time since their escape through amnesty. Richard died in California on February 27, 2001.
Saturday, February 16, 2013
Janani Jakaliya Luwum knew that he carried only a letter and no weapons but he was aware that the actions he was setting himself about would carry violent repercussions. As Archbishop of the Anglican church in Uganda, he knew that critical words could very well result in his own death at the hands of the man whom his letter addressed: Idi Amin. Yet, he was gripped with a faith that said it would be better to suffer while speaking truth to the dangerous and powerful than it would be to poison his soul and mind by stifling the movement of the Holy Spirit. He had converted to Christianity when he was approximately twenty-six years old and had gone on to ministerial training the following year. Janani had taken vows before God and the Church that he would not shirk his duties as a shepherd and priest and in doing so he might have been signing his own death warrant. He was ordained a priest in 1954 and Amin came to power in 1971. Yet, Amin's power could not deter Janani. So, he wrote a letter and personally delivered it to Idi Amin. The letter was a group effort of clerical leaders in Uganda protesting Amin's way of keeping power and control through the easy distribution of military death to those who stood in his way. For bringing yet more attention to these deaths and disappearances--and especially for the letter--Janani was arrested and charged with treason.
It was January 16, 1977, when Janani was arrested along with two other cabinet ministers. Idi Amin and his henchmen immediately went to work spreading slander and lies about Janani's politics and offenses. He was labeled a traitor and paraded before a crowd. As he and a large audience looked on, other men were brought onto a stage who confessed to knowing about and participating in illegal activities with Janani and his companions. Idi Amin insisted to all who would listen that Janani had been trying to initiate a coup against him and was intent on violent insurrection. The men who had confessed had never met Janani but Idi Amin had used them to implicate the Janani and his companions. The "confessors" were freed for they had done their part and there was never any intention to punish them--they were merely there to win the crowd's approval. After the supposed "confessions" were heard, Janani and the men were put into a car to be transferred to an interrogation center. The next day, it was reported that they had crashed on their way to the interrogation center and all three had died from their injuries.
Yet, when they found the bodies and prepared them for burial they noticed that Janani had been shot multiple times are relatively close range. He had been shot once with a pistol in his mouth and three times in the chest. The story leaked out that they had been transferred to a military base where they were beaten, tortured, threatened, and finally shot to death. Idi Amin himself pulled the trigger that stole the life of Janani. He died a martyr because he refused to compromise the truth and he would not be frightened by the threats of those in power. For this offense, he died. By this offense, he proclaimed life deeper and more real than any that the world's powers could offer.
Friday, February 15, 2013
Ben Salmon's early life suggested nothing that might be considered saintly or even out of the ordinary. He was an active member of his own Roman Catholic parish and the Knights of Columbus. Further, he was active in labor unions and social justice causes but only to the extent to begin to gather attention. He married his high school sweetheart and it seemed that all was going to be typical for Ben. But, Woodrow Wilson and the United States government joined the then-current "war to end all war" and in 1917, Ben received notification that he had been drafted to serve in his country's military. This presented a particular problem for Ben who insisted that he was a pacifist and would not serve in any war regardless of who said it was a "just war" or a "good war." Ben remained convinced that Jesus did not leave open the option of war to his followers no matter how "just" it was. He applied not only for the status of conscientious objector but also to be totally removed from the military system--he was unwilling to even be a noncombatant within the military. This status was conferred upon the churches known as "peace churches" like the Quakers and the Mennonites. But the Roman Catholics were convinced that this was a "just war" and so Ben's application was dismissed as cowardice.
When asked why he refused to serve he cited his faith and insisted that he didn't have the right to wage war on those that Christ called him to love. For this, he was the object of a military court martial and sentenced to death. This sentence was later reduced to twenty-five years in prison but it cannot be forgotten or avoided that the State was willing to impose death upon somebody because of their refusal to support State-sponsored death. He was routinely moved from prison to prison because he refused to do any work that might be related to the military system or might support a war he saw as a compromise of the his Christian calling. Even after the war was ended--shortly after he was incarcerated--he was held by the State as a prisoner. For long periods of time he was held in solitary confinement, sustained on only bread and water, and forced to live in hot, small, dark cell over the the sewers. He would write why all this happened in a letter: "Far more than two years I have been illegally imprisoned because I refused to kill or help to kill."
Eventually, Ben engaged in a hunger strike with the intention of either being freed or being starved to death. He was no longer even willing to cooperate in the State's abuses that kept him alive. He wrote to a military group: "My hunger strike is not a negative program, but a positive appeal to humanity that they substitute Love for Force. If I succumb in this attempt to hold myself aloof from Militarism — organized murder — I hope that you gentlemen, who are mainly responsible for my predicament, will, with your co-murderers, make some provision for the needs of my widowed-mother, wife and child. whom you have thus far robbed of their breadwinner, and whom, in the event of my demise, will be prevented from obtaining the support that I could otherwise provide." They forced milk down his throat and did their best to keep his hunger strike secret from the public. Yet, when his hometown paper found out about it they referred to him as a "slacker" and "the man with a yellow streak down his spine as broad as a country highway." He found few friends in his quest to proclaim life and peace. He was denied the sacraments by priests, he was labeled a heretic for not supporting the State's war and suggesting that Christ called us to peace, and he was vilified and abused with regularity. Finally, though, they released him because of his hunger strike. He was free from his bonds but not from the reputation he had developed. He died shortly after his release because of his deteriorating health. He died a man who remained convinced of his early suggestions: “The justice of man cannot dethrone the justice of God” and “There is no such animal as a ‘just war.'”
Thursday, February 14, 2013
Claudius Gothicus was emperor for only two years before dying of smallpox. But in those two years he unleashed wrath upon Christians and those would dare to defy the emperor and his empire by aiding and comforting Christians.His particularly favorite punishment was death for those who opposed him or for those who felt an inclination to lessen his wrath. He also had the opportunity to kill one of the world's best known martyrs: Valentine. Valentine was twice condemned by Claudius' decree: he was a Christian and he gave aid and succor to Christians. Furthermore, he was a prized victim for the empire because he was a Christian priest. As a priest, it was his duty and privilege to administer the sacrament of marriage. Those Christians who wanted to undergo this sacrament would come to him and he would hear their vows and call them to become one flesh and not simply two people living together for mutual benefit. This was a special and unique ceremony and for these ceremonies, he was arrested, beaten, and imprisoned. For hoping to cultivate love among those who were murdered and oppressed, he was required to die.
Luckily--or perhaps unluckily--Claudius took a liking to Valentine. Perhaps it was because of Valentine's association with marriages or perhaps it was because Claudius felt that Valentine was associated with love. Surely, Claudius felt he understood love--he was the emperor, a divine being according to the senate--but he did not truly understand what Valentine had been doing and preaching. Instead, he knew a love that took, demanded, coerced, and manipulated. Yet, he conversed regularly with his prisoner and found it enjoyable. At least, he found it enjoyable until Valentine tried to preach to him. He was outraged that anybody would try to preach to the emperor as if the emperor didn't already know everything. He ordered Valentine to be beheaded for this offense.
As Valentine was bound in chains and retrieved from his cell, the jailer seemed to want to ask something. Finally, the jailer could withhold himself no longer and told Valentine about his deaf and blind daughter. Though the jailer was the emperor's man he recognized true power and true love in Valentine and felt that he might be his daughter's last chance. With a smile that denied he was headed for death, he pronounced a prayer of healing for the jailer's daughter. When he would return home later, he would find her cured of her blindness and deafness. In that moment, he would feel the beginnings of his own conversion away from the empire and toward the God who had called Valentine. Before he would find out, though, he would take Valentine to the place where the emperor demanded. There, Valentine was beheaded for swearing allegiance first to a God who is love after he refused to deny his God in favor of the emperor.
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Claudius had delivered an edict to be obeyed under penalty of death: all Jews must leave Rome. This meant that those of Jewish blood were forced to leave not the Roman Empire but the portion of the Empire known as "Rome." Prisca and Aquila--a Jewish couple--had conflicting emotions about it. In one sense, they had been expecting something like this for a while. It was clear that the Romans were becoming increasingly annoyed and frustrated by the Jews who didn't seem to want the pax romana they offered. The most opposed of the Jews plunged daggers into the backs of Roman soldiers and officials and the most cooperative were still less than happy to have them there. So, it wasn't surprising that the Romans would do something so rash yet it must have been surprising suddenly to be evicted not only from your home but from your city, region, and nation. They gathered up what they could carry and took enough to restart their business--making tents--and traveled to Corinth in Greece. There, they tried to start over.
We're not sure if it was before or after Paul's arrival in Corinth that Prisca and Aquila were converted but it is certain that they were involved in his ministry in Corinth regardless of when they vowed to follow after their crucified Lord. The three of them shared a profession and worked together so that they might find stability again.The preaching of Paul was infectious and soon they found themselves encourage and invigorated in their faith. Paul even lived with them for nearly eighteen months. Paul had decided to move on to Syria--to continue to preach the Gospel and found churches--and Prisca and Aquila went with him. Along the way, they stopped in Ephesus and when Paul moved on from there, they remained behind as pillars of the Church community. Often, the services would take place in their own home. They were leaders and foundational members of the Church in Ephesus. In fact, when Apollos was preaching an incomplete Gospel--he only knew about John's baptism--they took him aside and tutored him in Christian theology. In this way, they were committed to the health of the Body of Christ and were willing to spend their time and attention building up fellow believers in a world that was increasingly less accommodating for Christians--even Christians who were successful business people.
Prisca and Aquila moved back to Rome through Corinth once the ban was lifted and were known as encouragers along the way. At some point, they saved Paul's life by risking their own. This couple was united behind one cause: a Gospel that proclaimed life even at great risk and cost. After they had been returned to Rome they were victimized by the Empire. Their possessions were seized, they were beaten severely and humiliated, and finally they were beheaded. Though they had hoped to return to their home from far away, they had changed much in their travels.Their faith was a vibrant and surprising thing that led them to work alongside Paul to do great things in a rapidly expanding world. They were instrumental in the founding of the Church at both Corinth and Ephesus and although those congregations had challenges, the communities were also pillars of the Body of Christ for many years.
Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Scholastica had a brother that everybody had heard about. In fact, he was her twin brother and his name was Benedict. Benedict was the founder of the Rule of St. Benedict and the source of a monastic group known as Benedictines. Yet, Scholastica was reported to be every bit as devoted and pious as her brother if not more so. Yet, as a woman in the sixth century her options were severely limited. She became a nun because of her incredible devotion and faith and eventually became abbess of a community of women who followed after the rule and way of life that Benedict had discerned and pioneered. Her leadership was capable and inspired and she was known for the passion that she brought to a life of prayer and work. This passion was an inspiration to the women she led.
It was her practice to meet once a year with her brother to discuss the spiritual life and to read scripture together. The communities that they led were only five miles apart but they met on some neutral ground partly to emphasize that there was some special connection between brother and sister that was worth honoring with a change in location. The last time they met they weren't certain that it would be a final meeting but Scholastica was aware of her own failing health. They met for longer than they ever had and even longer than they had intended to meet. They discussed scripture. They prayed together. They broke bread and communed with one another. They encouraged and challenged each other as only a brother and sister in the Faith can. Then, as night was falling Benedict got up to go and return to his monastery where he might rest in his cell. Scholastica asked him to stay even longer so that they might continue in their fellowship--perhaps she even intuited that this would be their last chance. He insisted that he must return home as it was his calling to be there. She simply nodded, folded her hands, and began to pray.
As Benedict watched his sister pray, he felt the sudden cold gust of wind that preceded a thunderstorm. His eyes widened in surprise and confusion. At the first peal of thunder, he went to the window and looked outside to see the first large rain drops strike the dirt outside of the building. Turning to Scholastica, he said, "May God forgive you, sister," and asked, "What have you done?”
She responded simply: "I asked you and you would not listen; so I asked my God and he did listen. So now go off, if you can, leave me and return to your monastery." With these words, she began packing up her things knowing very well that he would now stay but she wanted to indicate to him his freedom to choose. Benedict stayed with his sister and they talked later into the night. Shortly thereafter, Scholastica died and Benedict mourned the loss of his sister but thanked God that he had had a little more time with her.
Monday, February 11, 2013
A.J. Muste was an immigrant to the United States of America, as the 19th century slowly became the 20th, but he didn't have much say in the matter as he was only six years old when his parents moved from Holland. He received a fine education and was a proud resident and citizen of the nation of his parents' choosing. He graduated with honors first with a bachelor's degree and eventually with a master's and doctoral degree. As he matured, he became increasingly involved in social causes even as he tried to figure out the question of his own spiritual calling. He was especially involved in the labor movement and helped organize disenfranchised workers together so that they might negotiate with their employers for a safer and better job. As was expected, he received much resistance from the circles he had been raised in and in which his parents circulated. Yet, he was convinced that he must do something for those in need of help and for the cause of justice and fairness. So, he was willing to sacrifice a good reputation for his convictions.
Eventually, he became a minister in a congregational church but he was committed to non-violence after his experience of World War I and the people whom he met with and with whom he conversed. This was an odd stance for a man such as A.J. but it became a hated stance as he persisted in it through the years approaching and including World War II. But, he was convinced that God had called him to a way of peace and nonviolence that revoked any right he felt toward self-defense or preemptive violence. By A.J.'s reasoning, there was no just war and so not even World War II could be rationalized or accepted. When a son of a member of the congregation where was pastor died in the war, he did not veer from his intended topic for the Sunday sermon: "The Futility of War." It was another opportunity for him to raise his famous question: "The problem after a war is the victor. He thinks he has just proved that war and violence will pay. Who will now teach him a lesson?" By A.J.'s thinking there was no time when war or violence would pay or would be acceptable. When he had said this, he must have known he would suffer for it. That afternoon the congregation called a meeting and voted to terminate him as their pastor.He, his wife, and his children were forcibly moved out of the parsonage that night and had to find somewhere else to live.
He remained a minister, associated finally with the Quakers, and committed to nonviolence even if it had cost him his job. He was at one time an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr. and considered an authority on nonviolent resistance. He and his colleagues and associates were arrested repeatedly for hopping fences at military facilities, paddling their boats into nuclear test sites, and sympathizing with those whom the State insisted they hate and fear. For these things, A.J. received and still receives derision but he could not more veer from these convictions than he could stop being who he was. He had become an advocate for peace and nonviolence at all costs and had proven repeatedly that he was willing to lay down anything for a chance at peace. If it is true that the peacemakers are blessed--and I do believe it so--then surely A.J. Muste has a share of blessedness for his refusal to abandon the way of peace even in the face of adversity.
Sunday, February 10, 2013
Paul knew sailing would be rough and so he told his captors--Roman soldiers transferring him as a prisoner to Rome for trial--that it would be a costly trip because of a storm. But the pilot said differently and the centurion was convinced that the pilot was right. The harbor wasn't a good place to be in the winter and so the crew felt pressure to get out on the water and arrive in a different port--maybe Phoenix?--to weather the winter. So, they disembarked and began their journey when a decent wind blew from the south and they became confident that they could make it to the next stop. Yet, they stayed close to the shore.
Soon after, the wind picked up and changed direction. The crew fought with the wind but were unable to gain control and were forced to go where the wind willed.The storm beat upon the poor boat for days and drove it a great distance. They began throwing cargo overboard like Paul had predicted but it wasn't enough. Each hour their hope for escape weakened until eventually the crew had given up any hope for safety. At this time, Paul came to the crew and said, "I told you that we shouldn't have sailed but it's okay. Don't worry--we'll lose the boat but nobody will lose their life because of this storm." The crew was convinced that they were facing the end and so they laughed at him and asked why he was so confidence since he was in the same place as them. Paul replied, "Last night an angel of God--whom I belong to and whom I worship--appeared and said, 'Don't be afraid, Paul, you'll make it safe to Rome where you will be tried. God is protecting the people on the ship.' So, don't worry friends--I have faith that God will do this thing that God has promised. We'll end up shipwrecked but we'll be alive."
After two weeks of persisting in the storm, Paul noticed that some members of the crew were anxious about how close they were getting to the land. They began testing the depth of the water compulsively and eventually determined that it wasn't safe to continue in their boat. They tried to deceive the rest of the crew and the prisoners by releasing anchors and saying they would wait for morning to determine what to do. Under the cover of night and storm, they also released a raft and were preparing to get into it when the centurion stopped them because Paul had said any who did not stay with the boat would die. They cut the raft loose and remained on the boat. Before morning broke, Paul was found eating while the crew continued to be anxious about what they would do. Paul encouraged them to eat and stop worrying because soon they would wreck and the food on their stomachs would be more valuable than the work they did to save a boat destined for wrecking. So, all 276 people ate while Paul broke bread and gave thanks to God for God's blessings in the midst of the storm.
In the morning, they saw land and rejoiced. Though they did not know precisely where they were the crew was prepared to land at all costs. So, the sailed the boat toward the shore. As they drew closer, they struck a reef and the ship was immobilized upon it.The waves beat against it and they were forced to abandon their boat and swim for land. The soldiers knew their duty and so they drew their swords with the intention of killing the prisoners so that none might escape. The centurion stepped in and stopped them, though, and ordered all people to swim for the shore if they were able. Those who weren't able picked up pieces of the boat to float upon and made their own way to land at a slower pace.All 276 of them made it safely to land just as Paul had insisted they would.
Upon the shore, the crew and passengers were cold and wet but greeted warmly by the native people of the island they learned was called "Malta."
The Maltans built a fire and gathered the shipwrecked passengers and crew around it. Paul wanted to do his part in helping to sustain this generous act and so he gathered a bundle of wood. The warmth of the fire had roused a viper and when Paul released the wood, the serpent struck out and bit his hand. It held on and released its poisonous venom with speed. The Maltans began to speak under their breath about Paul that he must be some terrible murderer if justice would pursue him so far as to strike at him with poison after he survived a shipwreck. All eyes were on Paul as he shook off the serpent and went about his business with no anxiety of fear. All those gathered on the beach waited for Paul to succumb to the terrible venom and became increasingly surprised as Paul remained healthy and fine. They insisted he was a god. He insisted he was God's. He didn't see the big deal--God had promised he would be safe and he had no reason to doubt the one who had called him on that road to Damascus. He preached the faith that gripped him and many were converted from among the Maltans and the boat's passengers and crew.
Saturday, February 9, 2013
Apollonia was a virgin not because she had no desires for or hated men but because she had chosen to remain celibate so that she might more fully devote herself to her Lord Jesus. Those who married took upon themselves vows before God to care for and honor another person--they took upon themselves another obligation. These vows held sway and often kept married Christians from living in the same sacrificing and devoted way that their celibate brothers and sisters were able to. Apollonia's devotion was highly respected in the Church in Alexandria but was beginning to be a cause for disfavor among the non-Christians in the city. Decius had barely taken power but the people knew he was no friend of the Christians and so they had no fear that he would outlaw their abuse and murder. Further, the thousand year anniversary of the beginning of the Roman empire was taking place. Further still, one of the non-Christian poets had predicted a great calamity within the walls of Alexandria because of the presence of Christians within. With all of these circumstances swirling together in one perfect storm, it came as no surprise when many of the non-Christians joined together as one mob to exact their own brand of justice upon the Christians.
The people of Alexandria got an early start to the Decian persecutions. They seized two well-known Christians and tortured them to the thrill of the gathered crowd. When they grew tired of the couple, they killed them. They burned down the homes of suspected Christians and brutally mugged and stripped any reported Christians they met in the streets. The mob went so far as to kick down the door of the home of a prominent and wealthy Christian so that they might loot and pillage the home. Apollonia was not only celibate but was also a deaconess--all of this conspired to make her a perfect target. They took her to an open place and held her down. They began by pounding her face and mouth with clubs and fists with the special purpose of breaking or knocking out her teeth. When this savagery proved too humane, they retrieved a pair of tongs and began slowly and painfully removing her teeth one by one.
The pain was incredible but she endured it without returning evil for their evil. Even though they were torturing her to the best of their abilities, she noticed that they had built up a pile of kindling and logs upon which they planned to burn her alive. They had already started the fire and it was roaring by the time they dragged her before it. Their plan was to throw the faithful woman upon the flames and then rejoice in her agonizing death. As they approached, they gave her an ultimatum: deny her faith or burn to death. She asked one request from a bleeding mouth: "Please give me just a moment to pray about it." Perhaps they thought it would be another great occasion to mock her or perhaps they felt she was beginning to cave to their abuse and would renounce her faith after prayer. They released their hold on her for a moment and she leaped into the flames without a scream. She died an eager martyr who could not even consider denying the faith that had gripped her all those years.
Friday, February 8, 2013
Paul had been called to preach a Gospel that the world found foolish yet was truer than any story ever told. Paul had been charged to tell the grand story of how God had created humans in God's own image but humanity had turned its back upon God. In the stunning climax, God became human to redeem those whom God loved even as they continued to reject God. For being a preacher and a storyteller, he was regarded as an oddity in Japan at first. Eventually, though, this surprise turned to hatred as those who came to power had no room in their world for a man like Paul who had turned his back upon his nation in their estimation. By swearing their allegiance to God, Paul and his fellow Christians threatened the power that the ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi--known as Taikosama--held.
Ironically, the rulers an leaders of Japan had initially been the ones who welcomed Christian missionaries to Japanese shores. They had welcomed them gladly because they knew that Western powers endorsed the Christian churches and they suspected that this would increase trade possibilities. Further, the rulers had grown somewhat uncomfortable with the Buddhist monks who would not do as they told them to do and felt that an influx of Christianity could limit the power of the monks. Yet, as Christianity grew in both Japan and the Philippines, they became aware that it demanded more and more allegiance from its members than they were comfortable with their citizens giving away. Further, it seemed that the politically savvy among the western powers knew better how to manipulate the Christian churches to gain power in foreign locations.Soon, Christianity was banned in Japan and those who swore allegiance to Jesus were executed for it. Ministers and vocal Christians were martyred and persecuted. Paul and his companions were twenty-six of the victims.
They refused to deny their faith and so they were gathered in chains and sentenced to march to Nagasaki while singing a hymn--for all six hundred miles. It took nearly thirty days for the soon-to-be-martyrs to arrive in Nagasaki and they greeted the day that they arrived with renewed singing and rejoicing. They were brought before twenty-six crosses and they met them with joy. One of the twenty-six, a man named Gonsalo, rushed forward unaware of how tragic this experience was supposed to be and pointed at a nearby cross, "Is this one mine?" he asked hopefully. Taken aback, nobody responded to him at first but eventually one of the soldiers indicated which cross was his. He knelt down and embraced it with tears in his eyes. Slowly, they were affixed to their crosses while they sang hymns and joked with each other. Paul was so short that when bound to the cross his feet could not reach the support and so they were forced to bind him to the cross by tying him under his arms and across his chest. One soldier stepped on Paul's chest as he tightened the knot and a minister among them complained at the brutality but Paul insisted that it was okay because the man was just doing his job.
Once the crosses were raised Paul began preaching to the awestruck crowd. They had come to see the power of the Japanese rulers and had found willing martyrs proclaiming life even as they slipped into death. The soldiers were amazed and some were converted. The crowds listened to Paul as he preached and proclaimed his own forgiveness of the people and the powers who persecuted and executed the Body of Christ. All twenty-six of them died as the powers of Japan tried to prove their dominance. All they had proven was that despite their own political machinations, the Kingdom of God had arrived in Japan and could not be turned back.