Telling the Stories that Matter: January 19 – Absadah, Martyr, Priest

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 regularly about 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.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: January 14 – Nino, Slave, Missionary, Preacher


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.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: January 7 – Lucian of Antioch, Martyr, Theologian, Falsely Accused


Lucian had received a good education and his desire was to share it with others who felt a calling to the theological life. He had been born to Christian parents with enough money to provide him with a classical education and train him further in theology. Following in the footsteps of his parents, he was active in the Church. Further, he had a significant impact as he served in different roles within the ecclesiastical structure. He was ordained as a relatively young man by the congregation in Antioch and opened a school of theology. His students were well-trained and accepted by congregations of Christians throughout the Roman Empire but somehow he became associated with Paul of Samosata. It might have been because of accusations from opponents or it might have been based on spurious evidence but, regardless, Lucian’s name was connected to Paul’s. When Paul’s theology was labeled suspect–and eventually heretical–Lucian’s reputation and influence were crippled.

Since he was rumored to be heretical, his students were less accepted by other Christians. Then, since his students were experiencing difficulty, prospective students soon found other teachers. For nearly twenty years, Lucian struggled through false accusations and mistaken impressions. As he did so, his own personal spiritual life deepened and intensified. Years later when Church historians would look back at him they would insist that Lucian had been better known for his Christian practice than for his Christian theology and that is saying something since Lucian was one of the chief proponents of literal reading of the scripture in juxtaposition to the allegorical readings suggested by the Alexandrians (in the tradition of Origen). It wasn’t that Lucian felt that figurative reading was a poor practice but, rather, that literal reading was essential in understanding some passages that otherwise might be glossed over and their powerful meaning missed. In his attempt to insure that the words of the scripture not be avoided or not be overlooked, he taught a literal reading that allowed the scripture to speak powerfully and directly when appropriate.

Eventually, his students were accepted again and his reputation was cleansed by continued piety and faithful Christian practice. False accusations simply could not stick to Lucian over the long term and melted away when faced with the intense heat of his personal devotion to Jesus. But once his school of theology was regaining its notoriety and influence, it attracted the attention of the Emperor. As Maximian’s persecutions continued, Lucian was arrested. Unlike many of the Church’s martyrs, it was not a short process for Lucian. Over a period of nine years he was tortured as the Empire hoped to manipulate him to deny his faith. Every time they asked over nine years, Lucian refused to deny his faith–a faith that had already cost him dearly and would likely cost him even more dearly if he continued to refuse. Finally, the Empire tired of their efforts and executed Lucian with little pomp or show.

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When It’s Hard to Breathe

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Tasha has been sick off and on for quite some time. Many days, Tasha can be found on her front porch carefully considering the distinction between having trouble breathing and urgently struggling to breathe. Even with oxygen tanks, some days are too difficult and she ends up going to the emergency room if she can get a ride, or calling an ambulance if she can’t. Some nights, Tasha wakes up gasping for air, no longer wondering if it’s “bad enough” to go the hospital yet and simply rushing there by any means necessary. It’s so hard to think about long term solutions, when it feels like you can’t breathe.

After prayers one Sunday, a group of us went to visit Tasha in the hospital. It had been a hard weekend for her, but Tasha’s first words when we showed up were surprisingly apologetic: “I’m so sorry I couldn’t come tonight,” she said, “I really wanted to be there.” We assured her that it was no problem and that we completely understood, even as we took her hands in ours. Tasha’s husband, Carl, admitted sheepishly that he had slept through the service after a couple of long days and nights in the hospital. We patted him on the back and told him he had nothing to worry about. After all, this was the man who once walked over 140 miles one week to be with his sick wife when he couldn’t find a ride the hospital she was in. It’s so hard to make it to prayers, when it feels like you can’t breathe.

As a group, we settled into what we do best: talking, mostly about little things but occasionally about big things too. We talked about the hospital food until Tasha felt like talking about her health or something else that was more pressing, but slower to spring from her lips. It’s strange how an aimless conversation about the relative qualities of cornbread can prime the ears for listening and the mouth for talking about seemingly relentless illness. Tasha offered the dessert from her dinner tray, a single piece of white-frosted, red velvet cake, to Roland, our community’s “Minister of Prayer.” Roland had insisted on coming to the hospital, even though last time we went there it had been to visit him when he was recovering from a surgical procedure. As Roland ate the cake with companionable gratitude, Tasha waded into her own fears about the future. It’s so hard to start talking about things that really matter, when it feels like you can’t breathe.

She promised, again, that she was going to quit smoking. She acknowledged freely that years of cigarettes were likely a part of her failing health, even as she admitted that she had tried before and failed to quit. “But we can do it this time,” Carl insisted. Carl, who is no stranger to the bonds of addiction and the freedom of recovery, offered a renewed hope that some might call naïve, but we’ve learned to call loving. It’s so hard to think about recovery, when it feels like you can’t breathe.

“Yes,” Tasha offered with a touch of resignation at the edges of her voice, “we can.” She continued, “I really want to, but it’s so hard!” We nodded our agreement and held space with Tasha so that she knew she could continue to talk and we’d continue to listen. Over the years, we’ve learned that so much of life in community—a life that is truly shared—is about patient silence as those to whom we’ve pledged our lives and time find the words to wrap around something larger than all of us, but not more powerful than the love of God in us. “This time I’ll do it,” Tasha promised us. We’ve found that community thrives in the fertile soil of trusted promises and generous forgiveness. But, it’s hard to make and keep promises, when it feels like you can’t breathe.

Tasha was tired, but she wanted us to pray with her before we left. Before Roland could begin his prayer though, Tasha wanted to go through her own prayer list and all those who rested heavy on her heart and mind. She wanted to pray for Todd, and Todd’s mother, of course. She wanted to pray for her cousin, who had just lost a daughter. She wanted to pray for the church she attended some Sunday mornings as they searched for a pastor. She wanted to pray for a friend on the street who had struggled with addiction and mental illness and was said to be sleeping outside again. She wanted to pray for a young family that had moved into the neighborhood a couple blocks north of her and especially for their daughter, who rumor said was very smart and a good student. She wanted to pray for my daughter, too. She wanted to pray and give thanks for her marriage and for Carl’s love for her. Finally, she wanted to pray for the strength to quit smoking.

With her community around her, Tasha found that she could still pray, even when it’s hard to breathe.

So, we prayed. Roland lifted all of Tasha’s requests and more in his prayer as we anointed our sister with oil blessed at prayer that afternoon. We marked Tasha’s forehead with the sign of a cross and the prayers of those who loved and missed her. With a few parting jokes, we left so that she and Carl could get some rest. “I didn’t miss prayer after all,” she called to us over the quiet hiss of the oxygen, “you just had to bring it to me.”

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Telling the Stories that Matter: December 30 – Josephine Butler, Feminist, Activist, Grieving Mother


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

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

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

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

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Telling the Stories that Matter: December 23 – Sarah Grimke, Abolitionist, Feminist, Activist


Sarah couldn’t believe that her father would agree to that. She may only have been five but she was convinced that her father’s actions were reprehensible. She gathered up a few of her things in secret and set out from the house to find a way out of her native South Carolina. Her father–a proud advocate of slavery–had ordered a slave to be beaten and Sarah had tagged along to see what he meant by that. She couldn’t imagine that her father would actually order some poor person to be abused yet she was surprised to see a slave tied to a post and whipped repeatedly. That’s what had convinced her she had to run away and find a place to live in a state where slavery was not the norm.Of course, five-year-olds–no matter how powerfully angry–cannot get far when they are surrounded by miles and miles of land and so she was caught on her flight and brought back to the plantation to pout silently in her room. This disgust with injustice would characterize the rest of her life.

Sarah was the sixth eldest child of fourteen and was clearly one of the more intelligent children her mother and father had. As she aged, her intellect was further demonstrated in her ability to teach herself and apply her growing wealth of academic resources to the problems at hand. She hoped to follow in the path of her father–a respected lawyer and judge–with one notable exception: she wanted to fight against slavery. As she grew, however, her father began to get nervous about his daughter’s intellect. When Sarah let it slip that she hoped to go to college (like her older brother) to become an attorney, she was forbidden from continuing to study so that she would be unable to attend college. It seems that in order to prevent her from achieving, they crippled her intellectually because she was a woman and her father felt it was inappropriate for a woman to take that kind of position. She resisted this obstacle but it proved to be fairly insurmountable for young Sarah. She did, however teach the slave assigned to her to read–in contradiction of the law–because she recognized the power of education even as she was denied its graces. This event only deepened her commitment to women’s rights and the suffrage of the disenfranchised.

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

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

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Telling the Stories that Matter: December 17 – Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, Near Martyrs


“You see, fellas, those Jews can look healthy, too, thanks to the fine food they eat here in our palaces.” boasted king Nebuchadnezzar. He was answered with the expected nods and grunts of affirmation. Being the king of Babylon meant that people agreed with you and didn’t bother to correct you when you were wrong. The four men he was referring to were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah and they had secretly requested not to eat the meat offered them since it had been offered to idols first. In an attempt to keep themselves clean, they had risked the wrath of one who is always right–those who are always right must do much to maintain their status–and so they had been allowed to eat only vegetables for ten days and drink only water as a test. Their handler had been hesitant to allow it but was amazed to see them looking healthier every day as they subsisted upon the bare minimum and prayer. Even now, the king could not tell that his prisoners had been refusing his meat.

Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah, and Daniel had been taken captive when the Babylonians overwhelmed and overran Judah. The four men had been of noble birth and blood in Israel and so they made effective bargaining tools for the Babylonians who hoped to purchase Judah’s submission with threats of death and violence against the noble and respected. In essence, they were hostages but they were treated well. They were provided with fine accommodations and were even allowed to worship as they pleased–sometimes. They were even given Babylonian names (you may be more familiar with some of these): Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were addressed by these names but they remained connected with their heritage. Consequently, three of them (all but Daniel) ran into some trouble when Nebuchadnezzar built a gold statue of himself to be worshiped.

He had decreed that when the people heard a great cacophony of musical instruments, they should immediately cease all other activities and bow before the statue of the king. The people were quick to oblige for they knew the penalty for withholding worship of the king would be severe and immediate. As if to prove them right, Nebuchadnezzar had his workers build a furnace to ruthlessly murder any one who would dare defy his royal order. The king knew that this visible threat would cause the hearts of the hesitant to quake and surrender. Yet, he didn’t anticipate Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The instruments were played and people shouted. The crowd dropped to the ground in reverence to their manipulative persecutor but the three men stayed on their feet, perhaps mumbling a prayer to the Lord God Almighty whom their true names made reference to. He ordered them brought before him to face his fury. He had the guards drag them near to the furnace as it blazed and crackled. “Bow before me as your god or you will burn this very moment.” The three men shook their heads and insisted that there was only one God worthy of worship. Nebuchadnezzar demanded worship but God was worthy of worship without demands or manipulations. “Make it hotter–seven times hotter!” screamed Nebuchadnezzar and his anxious workers did as he commanded. “Will you not now save yourselves and worship me?” he asked them. They resolutely refused.

So, he threw them into the fiery furnace and as they entered into the flames, bound by ropes, their entrance caused the flames to shoot out and consume the men who threw them in. This was no concern for Nebuchadnezzar who had no care for the men he manipulated. Expecting to harvest the fear he produced in those who watched his heinous actions, Nebuchadnezzar was surprised to see what looked like four men walking together in the flames. “How is this possible? and who is that fourth man?” he questioned his men in surprise. A murmur rose up that the fourth must be one appointed by God to go forth and watch over them in the flames. The ropes had been consumed but they were fine. “Come out, please.” Nebuchadnezzar pleaded with the men. The three men came out at his request and were untouched by the fire or the soot. Nebuchadnezzar didn’t know what to say but eventually decreed that nobody should oppose the God of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Perhaps that is the one good thing to say for Nebuchadnezzar in the story: he recognized that there was one greater than himself even if it had no immediate impact on his life except to provide him a way to avoid losing face before the near-martyrs: Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.

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