Telling the Stories that Matter: September 28 – Cosmas and Damian, Martyrs, Healers, Silverless

Cosmas and Damian had attracted very much attention. It wasn’t because they were hungry for renown and consideration. They were influential but they did not seek the power of influence. They were powerful but they did not seek to manipulate or dominate others. This had attracted the attention–negative attention, for sure–of Diocletian. Consequently, they were arrested as enemies of the Empire within the Roman province of Syria. Though there were many of the outcast and needy that would have jumped to their defense, they agreed to be seized by the hand of the Empire. They turned their bodies over to the Empire that outlawed their faith.

What had gathered the attention of the Empire had been the work that Cosmas and Damian became so famous for: healing. It must have started small–like all of God’s great works–with kind words, prayers, and needy individuals. However, their ministry spread like wildfire as they provided life and healing to people desperate for something different than the sanitized Imperial security that provided no life. Being a follower of Jesus–the one who has the words of life–they offered what no other could: life more abundant. Soon, many others were coming to them for healing and hope. They provided both in abundance without asking for any compensation. For some, this was prohibitive–how could they not give something for the grace and mercy they were being offered? For some, this is still prohibitive–what do you mean I can’t do anything to save myself? Cosmas and Damian became known as “silverless” or “unmercenary” because they offered the love and healing they received out of the love born in their hearts through their ongoing conversion. For this work, they were arrested. The World will not stand by and simply watch people offer life and healing when all it can offer is control and something that looks like life. So, it handles the “problem” however it needs to.

Cosmas and Damian were given ample opportunities to deny their faith and affirm the Empire. Having tasted of the waters of salvation and conversion, though, they were unable ever to return to a life of security and control. Instead, they continued to proclaim the Gospel that had gripped and transformed them regardless of what they wanted. They were tortured slowly so as to allow for a change of heart but the Empire failed to realize that their hearts had already begun to be changed by something greater than anything they could promise or threaten. They were hung on crosses to cast fear and humiliation into their hearts but they only found themselves reminded of the love of their Savior who had died for them while they were yet sinners. Stones were cast at them to cause such pain as to make them hate and seek vengeance but they only found themselves reminded of the conversion of Saul who stoned Christians before being converted. Arrows were shot into their bodies to punish them for their faith but they remained steadfast in the face of pain because of a life more vibrant and real within them. Finally, they were beheaded because the Empire could no longer stand to look upon the products of conversion and know it could not produce the same with power, control, domination, and hatred.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: September 22 – Maurice and the Theban Legion, Martyrs, Soldiers, Radicals

Maurice had accompanied his men to the place where the battle was soon to be held. His men were the Theban Legion of the Roman Army. The legion was comprised of almost entirely Christians from Northern Egypt by this point. Over the years, the life and words of the Christian soldiers had an influence on their companions in arms and many conversions were reported as the days and battles wore on. They had now been called to battle to put down a peasant revolt. The peasants had grown tired of being oppressed and abused by the Roman Empire and had begun to resist them. They were known as the bagaudae and they were the reason that the Theban legion (all 6,600 of them) had been called to Gaul.

When they arrived, they discovered two things that made them balk: (1) they were being asked to make war on peasants, and (2) they were asked to make a sacrifice to the Roman gods on the night before battle. Maurice and his legion resisted both of these requests. They continued to proclaim their faith and refuse to sacrifice even as they were threatened and coerced. Finally, the Emperor ordered the decimation of the legion. This meant that all 6,600 men were lined up and every tenth soldier was murdered. 660 men died because they refused to comply with the Emperor’s orders. The remaining 5,940 men were asked again if they would make a sacrifice and spare their own lives. When the legion refused, they were decimated again. 594 more men died because they refused to submit their lives and wills to the Emperor. As they were decimated, some of the men tasked with executing them were converted by the Christians’ nonviolent resistance. Even as they held weapons, they allowed themselves to be killed. Each murder made a strong statement about the inability of the Empire ever to win a single heart and will. Some were converted because, in the midst of death, they had seen true life.

The remaining 5,346 were given another chance to make sacrifice and appease the Empire. As they stood among the dead bodies of 1,254 people who had already made the sacrifice of their life for their soul, they refused again. Maurice offered some words to his superiors:

“We are your soldiers, but we are also servants of the true God. We owe you military service and obedience; but we cannot renounce Him who is our Creator and Master, and also yours, even though you reject Him. In all things which are not against His law we most willingly obey you, as we have done hitherto….We have taken an oath to God before we took one to you; you can place no confidence in our second oath if we violate the first….We confess God the Father, author of all things, and His Son, Jesus Christ. We have seen our companions slain without lamenting them, and we rejoice at their honor. Neither this nor any other provocation has tempted us to revolt. We have arms in our hands, but we do not resist because we could rather die innocent than live by any sin.”

After this, the Emperor ordered the slaughter of the remaining 5,346 soldiers. They stood still and allowed their executioners to take their lives. Though it cost them their lives, they refused to sin. Though it cost them their lives, they maintained the Faith that held them to a higher calling than the Empire. Their oath to God held them stronger than any other and they laid down their lives in the proclamation of their faith and hope in God.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: September 11 – Mychal Judge, Chaplain, Priest, Opponent of Hatred

When Robert Judge was a young boy he had his own share of problems. In fact, Robert had enough trouble that many would consider him doomed to a life of desperation and struggle. He had been born into the “Great Depression” of the 1930s and all of the desperate poverty that this entailed for a family of recent Irish immigrants in Brooklyn. When Robert was only six years old he watched his father die slowly and painfully from some dreadful sickness that seemed to steal into their lives by night and rob them of their peace and their hope for a future. In the aftermath of his father’s death Robert began shining shoes to supplement the loss of income. Each day he would go to New York city’s Penn Station to shine the shoes of anybody willing to pay. Robert took occasional small breaks to go and visit the nearby St. Francis of Assisi church. In this church he received an education in the life of Francis of Assisi and in what it meant to be a Franciscan friar. As the day turned to evening, Robert would walk back home to deliver all but twenty-five cents of what he had made that day to his mother. The quarter he kept for himself he put into the hands of the first beggar he came across–Robert knew what it meant to give even when there wasn’t much to give.

As he grew older, Robert decided to pursue the priesthood because he recognized the power of the path of renunciation and sacrifice. As a boy he had learned to give and now he felt a calling to continue to give even if it cost him more dearly. So, Robert studied and eventually received his B.A. from St. Bonaventure University before going on to be ordained a priest at Holy Name College in Washington, D.C. When he became a Franciscan (a member of the Order of Friars Minor) Robert took the name Mychal as his own. He served in a variety of positions but for the last fifteen years of his life he was a member of the monastery at St. Francis of Assisi church in New York city–the same church where he had first felt the stirrings of God’s call upon his life. Though he battled loneliness and alcoholism for many years he was able to overcome these destructive forces and through the help of Alcoholics Anonymous he was able to remain sober. He was known to do such amazing things as to give away his clothing to the poor and homeless and to sit for hours with those that many in the Church rejected–gays and lesbians, alcoholics, people with AIDS, and those who had been hurt and alienated by the Church. Mychal–who had learned to give even when there was little left to give–was a friend to the friendless. In 1992, because of his stunning reputation as a man of God who truly cared for the downtrodden and outcast he was appointed Chaplain of the New York city fire department.

On September 11, 2001, Mychal heard the shocking news that two passenger jetliners had been hijacked. When these civilian aircraft were turned and flown into the World Trade Center buildings he dropped what he was doing and rushed toward the site where hatred and death were unfolding. When he arrived he was stopped by the mayor Rudolph Giuliani and asked to pray for the victims of the attack, their families, and their city. Mychal wasn’t content simply to sit back in prayer and, instead, he surged forward to live out his prayer and offer the sacrament of extreme unction (last rites) to the wounded and dying among the victims. Realizing that there was more work to be done, he entered the north tower and began praying over the rescuers who had set up a command post in the lobby. He offered prayers and assistance to the men and women escaping unexpected hatred and continued to offer the prayers of the Church and the last rites to those who were approaching death. Mychal had learned a life of giving and sacrifice supported by prayer and faith and in those last moments he was found pouring himself out for those whom he loved and for whom his Lord had died. When the collapse of the south tower began to rumble through the lobby, Mychal began repeating the prayer: “Jesus, please end this right now! God, please end this!” With this prayer on his lips, debris from the collapsing tower rushed into the north lobby and struck Mychal in the head. He died shortly thereafter and became the first official victim of the tragedy of September 11.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: September 2 – Jean Marie du Lau and Companions, Martyrs, Champions of a Free Church

In 1792, France was a powder keg waiting for ignition. The French revolution was in full swing and the Reign of Terror was fast approaching.The French monarchy had been trampled underfoot and the new leaders of the State hoped to fix things for themselves and their people. The Constituent Assembly had passed a law that hoped to bring the vocal Church under control in France.The hope was that the Church could be placed under the “enlightened” control of the State and be made to say and do things that supported the aims of the new rulers of France. This new rule involved an oath that clergy were required to take if they wanted to remain in France. In other words, the French revolutionaries only had room for a Church that played according to the new State’s rules.

Most of the clergy in France refused to sign the oath and submit the Church to state control. It included a passage that invalidated any “bishop or archbishop whose see is established under the name of a foreign power.” Not only was this person not welcome in France but it was also criminal to support or follow them. The State had outlawed the Kingdom that was “not of this world.”They rounded up the resisting clergy and imprisoned some of them and detained others in their churches so that they could forcibly exile them from their new republic that was to be devoid of a free Church. For many of these ministers, their sanctuaries became their prisons.

While awaiting deportation, the ministers heard the mob approach their prisons and churches. They must have known that the mob was coming for them full of furor for the State and disgust for the actions of the Church. They must have suspected what was coming. They approached the church where Jean Marie du Lau was being detained and pulled the doors open.Jean was waiting for them at the entrance in his clerical vestments as he might await the body of a parishioner for a funeral. He stood at the front of his people but offered no violence or resistance. The mob asked, “Are you the archbishop?” Jean smiled–perhaps knowing what was coming–and confirmed that he was, indeed, the one they were looking for. When he answered, they hacked him to pieces with their pikes and swords. He died offering forgiveness instead of wrath.

They seized the sanctuary of the ministers and began holding a “trial” to determine their fate. Two-by-two, the ministers were paraded before the “judges” and questioned forcefully. They were ordered to take the oath and admit the right of the State to rule the hearts and minds of the people. When they inevitably refused the oath, they were sent down a narrow stairway to a garden. When they stepped through the door, an angry mob would tear them to pieces and brutally murder them. This bloody exercise in the power of the State–the power to take a life–continued until 191 priests and bishops had been murdered and martyred.

One of those martyred was Francis de La Rochefoucauld Maumont–the bishop of Beauvais.He was an invalid and aged minister who could no longer walk. He had been carried to the sanctuary by others on a stretcher and rested on it as others were ushered to their trial and martyrdom. They called his name and he responded,“I am here at your disposal, judges, and I am prepared for my death but I cannot walk to you. I would appreciate it if you would carry my cot wherever it is that you want me.” They brought him before the self-appointed judges and he refused to take the oath. They carried him down the narrow stairs and he was murdered like all of his friends.

It is good for us to remember the deaths of these faithful men and their stance against control and for a free Church. They were not afraid of the deadly threats of the State because they were citizens and ministers of a Kingdom that was–at its essence–established under the name of a foreign power: Jesus Christ and a kingdom of love and forgiveness.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: August 22 – Anne Hutchinson, Teacher, Dissident

Anne Hutchinson was born Anne Marbury to a family that was well known for its dissent and disagreement. Her father had been jailed and persecuted for his dissent with ecclesiastic officials in England. He had insisted that so many of them were unprepared, untrained, and incompetent. For this, he suffered. In this, he taught his daughter the value of dissent and the likely outcome. Though, it would seem that Anne needed little help finding room for dissent and challenging the Church to be what it is called to be instead of what it is comfortable being.

Surely, she thought back to her father’s punishment as she stood in the courtroom in Massachusetts undergoing trial for dissenting from the popular opinion of the Puritan officials. Anne had taken to teaching bible studies in her home. She started by inviting her female neighbors and friends but there was something very different about Anne’s approach to the scripture. She wasn’t teaching the same interpretations that the Puritan preachers repeated in the pulpit. She welcomed questions and confusion and did not label them as marks of a lack of faith. Instead, she encouraged the participants to question things like the enslavement of the native peoples and the subordination of women.

She spoke and taught as a minister and authority on the scripture and Christian teaching. She invited the listeners to imagine a radically equal and welcoming Church. She suggested, upon occasion, that the clergy were inappropriately expressing their authority by confining and repressing her brothers and sisters. She suggested that the clergy were using moral and legal codes to insure their own place of power and influence by stripping others of their capacity for action and thought. This would, eventually, cause her great suffering but not before it started to catch among the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Eventually, her home bible-studies were full and being attended by men in addition to women. She had to move the meeting into the local church because her home could no longer accommodate the large crowds. The clergy opposed her teachings under the pretense that she wasn’t qualified to teach and might misinform them but this pretense gave way when they realized that their power over the people was waning and they were choosing to listen to Anne, anyway. They decried her teaching because of her sex and she responded from scripture that her actions were acceptable and in line with orthodox teaching. They were losing their power over those whom they drew it from and they began to get nervous. As is the case with most who oppose the status quo in favor of divine calling, she was attacked and vilified by the powers-that-be.

Governor Vane–one of Anne’s supporters–lost his position to John Winthrop who had Anne arrested, charged, and tried. They resented that she was teaching that women were equal with men and worth equal treatment and consideration. They suggested that she was inciting rebellion and sedition. Further, they were enraged that she would criticize the clergy–the professional religious–even though she was a woman. They forced her–even though she was pregnant–to stand for days and answer the interrogations and accusations of the male board. She responded to all of their charges and accusations and stood firm in her right to say and do what she had done. She is quoted as saying to them, “You have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm. I fear none but the great Jehovah, which hath foretold me of these things, and I do verily believe that he will deliver me out of your hands…” In desperation, they found her guilty and banished her from the colony “as being a woman not fit for our society.” They were correct but it was by far more of a charge against their society than it was against Anne. Before her exile, she was made to suffer the indignity of a religious trial on the basis of a charge of blasphemy. Further, they felt it was inappropriate that she had allowed men to be present at her house studies and she was also condemned for this. Of these charges, she was also found guilty and excommunicated from the Puritan communion.

Before she was exiled, many of her followers (including Roger Williams) voluntarily left the colony and started a new one in Rhode Island. Due to the abuses of the Puritan judges and officials, Anne suffered a miscarriage. Regrettably, she was mocked for this and informed that this was the judgment of God upon her for her sins. A follower of hers suffered the same fate. She was exiled and found a home with her husband and followers in Rhode Island where she helped lead and manage the colony for many years before her death at the hands of Native Americans while traveling.

In many ways, Anne’s life was proof that dissenting from the powers-that-be can cause suffering and persecution but, yet, it is still worth doing when the powers cannot see the Kingdom. Anne taught Christian doctrine freely and without regard for how it would be received by those who stood against her. Anne dared to profess the radical notion of the dignity and equality of women against a people who stood to gain by repressing women. Consequently, she was crushed in the gears of a system made for maintaining power for those who have it. But in being crushed, she bore a powerful witness to the sin and corruption within the system.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: August 18 – Emygdius, Martyr, Healer, Pagan Convert

Emygdius was born to a family of non-Christians in the third century. He was born in Trier in what would eventually be known as Germany. His noble family scorned him when he converted to Christianity at the age of twenty-three but he was not deterred from his faith. Instead, he hoped to win them as he had been won. Whether they turned him out or simply continued to refuse him, eventually Emygdius found some other place to live and joined with three other Christians who felt a burning desire to share their faith in Rome. Knowing Rome to be a dangerous place for a Christian–especially one with a steadfast love for its citizens–they went aware that they may be walking to their own death.Their love compelled them go when their reason bid otherwise.

After arriving in Rome, he was taken in by a wealthy man by the name of Gratianus. Gratianus had a paralyzed daughter and Emygdius was moved in compassion for her and her devoted father. In his compassion, he prayed for and cured her. Gratianus and his family soon converted and Emygdius’ fiery ministry of healing and evangelism had started in a powerful way.

Soon thereafter, Emygdius prayed for and cured a blind man in the streets of Rome. This miracle gathered the attention of the crowds. They had seen this new man–Emygdius–make the sign of a cross across the face and eyes of a local blind beggar and, then, seen that the blind man was no longer blind. They must have wondered how he did it. He had made the sign of that group–those Christians–and the man’s eyes had gained that which they had never had.He had made the sign of the Empire’s great torture but, apparently, he was taking this sign as a holy thing. In their amazement, they picked him up and carried him to the temple of Aesculapius crying out, “This one is the son of a god! Let’s take him to the temple where he belongs!”

Setting him down, they stared at him in anticipation of the great works he would do now that he was in a temple and being adored. Afraid to blink in case they missed it, they stared at him in rapt attention. Looking around Emygdius noticed that there were hundreds of sick people praying to idols for healing. He offered a simple and quiet prayer on their behalf and many were healed at that moment. The crowd gasped and prepared to worship him when Emygdius stopped them and proclaimed, “I am a follower of Jesus–whom you have crucified–and a Christian.” As the crowd gazed in shock, Emygdius tipped over and shattered the idols in the temple. In a flourish, he pushed over the great statue of Aesculapius demonstrating the superiority of the Crucified King over dead idols. For Emygdius, there was no hope in religious observation and adoration–rather, there was only hope in pursuit of and trust in Jesus. Many were converted to the Gospel of love for enemies and forgiveness for all that day in that temple to other gods.

Eventually, Emygdius ended up in Ascoli Piceno where the local governor–Polymius–demanded an audience with him. Polymius had heard the stories of Emygdius’ healing and evangelistic efforts. He knew how the people responded to this loving and compassionate man. He sensed that Emygdius was the name on the lips of Ascoli Piceno. He wanted Emygdius to join with him and, thereby, to gather the allegiance of the people behind him. He hoped that Emygdius could be convinced and seduced by Imperial offerings of power and glory because he had heard that many Christians could not be converted by force. He offered power to Emygdius but Emygdius refused it insisting that it was not real. He offered power and influence if only Emygdius would worship at the statue of Jupiter. Emygdius refused. He offered his beautiful daughter’s hand in marriage along with the power and influence and left them alone hoping that Emygdius’ desire for the beautiful woman would win him over. Instead, Emygdius shared the message of Christian hope and faith with her and converted her. As Polymius returned to find the two, Emygdius was baptizing his daughter. Enraged, Polymius had Emygdius decapitated.

For Emygdius, the sweet seduction of power and influence was of no interest because it was not real–the promises of power were vain illusions and delusions. Emygdius had seen through the Imperial lie of power and happiness and, instead, knew that true power was found in submission and sacrifice. He had sworn allegiance to the slaughtered lamb instead of the rampaging lion and this allegiance held him regardless of even the greatest threats.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: August 10 – St. Laurence, Martyr, Deacon, Keeper of the Church’s Wealth

Laurence was a deacon in Rome during the 3rd century. Like so many 3rd century Roman Christians, he faced innumerable pressures from the Roman Empire and the expectations of the imperial mindset. Also like many 3rd century Roman Christians, he faced down death because of refusal to cooperate with the imperial lies and deceptions. In the case of Laurence, it was the persecutions executed by Valerian that would result in his eventual death. Valerian, like other emperors, disenfranchised and exiled powerful Christians in the Senate and murdered priests, deacons, bishops, and powerless Christians. Laurence, indeed, was well accompanied in his death and died a faithful follower along with his other brothers and sisters in the faith.

As a deacon, he was a leader within the early Church and intensely connected with the lives of many other Christians. He helped officiate the services of the early Church and offered hospitality and compassion to countless needy individuals and families. As an officiant and leader in Rome, he was well-acquainted with Pope St. Sixtus II. Valerian had Sixtus seized and ordered his execution. This surely had a significant impact on Laurence. As Sixtus walked to his death and martyrdom, Laurence met him and asked him: ” Father, where are you going without your son? Holy priest,where are you hurrying off to without your deacon? You never mounted the altar of sacrifice without your servant, before, and you wish to do it now?” Sixtus looked at his dead friend and took a moment from his own walk to death and glory and remarked to Laurence, “Soon, you will follow me.” Sixtus wasn’t wrong.

Only a couple of days later, the Roman prefect demanded the wealth of Laurence’s church. Since there was great persecution, the prefect was astute enough to know when he could take advantage of the disenfranchised to pad his own pocket. Laurence asked for three days to gather it together for the prefect and, perhaps thinking it was gracious, the prefect granted the time. Laurence quickly distributed the wealth of his congregation to the poor, sick, needy, and crippled people in the community. He took the wealth intended to provide for the needy and gave it over into the hands of the needy. After three full days of pouring himself out, Laurence lead a group of needy people to the prefect. When the wealth of the Church was demanded, Laurence spread his arms wide and indicated the needy people around him. He stared into the eyes of the prefect and said, “You want the wealth of the Church? Here they are.” Looking into the eyes of imperial Rome, Laurence insisted that these poor and oppressed people that Rome placed no value on were, in fact, valuable and worthy of love and devotion. Seeing the shock and rage upon the face of the prefect, and knowing that he had likely signed his own death warrant, Laurence continued: “Yes, prefect, the Church is rich, indeed. Far richer than the Empire.”

His death was ordered. He was seized and beaten. Finally, he was chained to a metal gridiron. He was given a chance to deny his faith but he refused. He had been baptized into death of self and remained comfortable with his commitments even if it infuriated the Empire that didn’t get it (it never does). They lowered the gridiron over the fire and began to grill Laurence. They hoped to prolong Laurence’s pain and suffering. They hoped to demonstrate the power of the Empire over the death and destruction of the body.They reveled in the power of fear over the minds of people. Yet, Laurence had already demonstrated the failure of the Empire to ever change or heal even one person. It was, instead, the love that Laurence offered and the Church taught that was, truly, transformational. He died on the gridiron but not before calling out to his executioners: “This side is already done and if you want me cooked just right you better turn me over.” In his death, as in his life, Laurence offered a mockery of the values and methods of the Empire and the world. For Laurence, as for the rest of us, the only hope for life and change dwelt in a God who was love, a Lord who was a lamb, a Spirit who dwelt in the hearts of people, and a death that brought life.

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