Telling the Stories that Matter: October 27 – Clarence Jordan, Farmer, Founder of Koinonia Farm, Opponent of the Status Quo

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary had hosted many people before Clarence and would host many after him but Clarence Jordan was something different. In 1938, Clarence had just received his Ph.D. in New Testament and felt equipped to do whatever it was that God was calling him to. The challenge, of course, is that what had seemed so clear for so many years was suddenly cloudier. This further calling had descended upon Clarence as he studied the scripture and would not let him go. He was challenged by what he read and translated and would not allow himself to rationalize away its scandal and strength. Clarence was challenged and rebuked by the stories he enveloped himself in and found his increasing discomfort with the status quo a powerful witness to the possibility of redemption.

Clarence had been raised in a small city in Georgia named Talbotton. It seems that Clarence was always disgusted with the racism that he found everywhere he looked. Further, he was confused by the poverty of the communities around him. He didn’t get why “the way things are” included a lack for people that the Church claimed to love and care for. He didn’t get “the way things are.” He studied agriculture at the University of Georgia so that he could use his mind to carry knowledge back to the people who needed it but couldn’t afford to go and get it. In other words, he hoped to be a vessel of grace and equality for a people so far from the source. This was his path–taking farming knowledge back to poor rural farmers–for many years but he was changed when he began to see a more essential and more fundamental problem: the spiritual roots of poverty.

Not wanting to simply apply a bandage to a wound with a deep cause, Clarence went to Southern to learn and prepare to address spiritual concerns and the spiritual foundation of the system that fed on the lives of the poor. It would be no use to fix the symptoms of the problem if the disease of a broken system was allowed to incubate within society. With degree in hand and his new wife, he moved back to Georgia to begin his life’s work–to continue in the path of God’s calling. He and his wife joined with former American Baptist Missionaries to found a community called “Koinonia Farm.” This community was racially equal. Further, they rejected all violence and materialism. They lived together sharing everything and invited any who were truly willing to take up their cross to come and live and work on the farm. This was not received well by the powers in Georgia. They were investigated. They were harassed and threatened. They were called Communists. Yet, they didn’t seek recourse in political power. Instead, they insisted that the only way to change the region, the nation, and the world was to live out a different life in sight of the “the way things are.” They lived equality instead of demanding that others do so. Their impact is not easily overstated.

Clarence translated the New Testament into English in a translation called the “Cotton Patch” translations. For Clarence, the process of translation was about more than words or phrases but also the context of the scripture. In the Cotton Patch Gospels, Jesus was born in Gainesville, condemned by the politicians in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and was lynched. This was a powerful difference that challenged people in new ways. The scripture as Clarence translated it was not something you could simply put down and out of mind. It stuck in your brain because it shared your context. Clarence was a prolific writer and translator until the day he died in 1969.

from Blogger

Telling the Stories that Matter: October 21 – Malchus, Captive Monk, Husband, Brother

The walls of a cave are greedy things that suck the warmth from your bones and offer no comfort or consolation. Malchus was getting stiff waiting in the mouth of the cave for his pursuers. They intended to kill him when they found him and that is understandable–he had run away from them in hopes of escaping slavery. He was an asset to them that had become a liability. He could resist the call of home no longer so he had seized some food and water and set out to flee with a companion. He had seen their camels approaching speedily and knew that he could not outrun a camel. Further, he and his companion were running out of food and water and needed to find some place to stop and rest.As he awaited his master and another slave who would kill him and his fellow slave where they hid, he reflected back upon how he had ended up in this place.

He had strongly desired to follow after Jesus by living the monastic life of prayer and service. His family had resisted this calling because they expected it would not be especially profitable–and it wasn’t. In fact, Malchus had given up much to live a life of prayer and service but felt that he had gained much, too. He had crept out of his home in the middle of the night and was living among the monks by the time his family knew he was missing. He enjoyed the monastic life but wondered if there wasn’t something more waiting for him–if maybe he was called to something else. He heard word that his parents had died and he was grief-stricken. Then, he heard that they had left him a sizable inheritance and he became apprehensive about material gain. Under his superior’s direction, he returned home to receive the inheritance and visit the graves of his parents. However, that’s not what happened.

The Bedouins had come over the hill and surprised him. He suspected that this would not go well. They seized him and the woman he was traveling with and enslaved them. They were torn from their plans and intentions and dehumanized as commodities to be traded and spent. For many years, Malchus served his new master without letting the poison of hatred seep into his heart. He was a good servant to the man and earned a reward for his consistent and dependable service. Malchus’ master thought it would be a great reward to give the woman he had been traveling with to Malchus in marriage. He didn’t understand that Malchus had two problems with this: (1) Malchus had taken a vow of celibacy, and (2) the woman was already married. Malchus could not do what was asked of him and prepared to take his own life so that he might not sin in this way. As he drew his blade he said, I must fear your death, my soul, more than the death of the body. Chastity preserved has its own martyrdom.Let the witness for Christ lie unburied in the desert; I will be at once the persecutor and the martyr.” 

The woman stopped him and said: “Take me then as the partner of your chastity; and love me more in this union of the spirit than you could in that of the body only. Let our master believe that you are my husband. Christ knows you are my brother. We shall easily convince them we are married when they see us so loving.” They had been “married” by their master but remained celibate and took care of each other in captivity.

Malchus looked ahead when he heard the men dismount their camels and approach the mouth of the cave. “This is it,” Malchus thought, “this is where I die and where my bones will lie and be bleached by desert winds.” Yet, as they approached and called out to Malchus–right before Malchus revealed and refused to defend himself–a lion leaped from the mouth of the cave and snarled menacingly at the two men. They rushed back to their camels but were unsuccessful in escaping and the lion killed both of Malchus’ pursuers before slinking off away from Malchus. Malchus stood awestruck as he called his “wife” from the cave and to the untouched camels. There was food and water and plenty of supplies to get them out of the desert and back to Malchus’ monastery. They had left so that they might return to their homes and found that God was providing for them in unpredictable ways.

When they returned, Malchus was excited to find that his monastery welcomed him back with open arms. But, his companion’s husband had died in the time she had been a slave. She mourned his death but moved to a nearby convent where she could live a life of prayer and service like Malchus. They continued to take care of each other and perpetuate the bond that had brought them together in captivity. Their unorthodox union became one of mutual support and sustenance and preserved them until the day they died.Jerome would distill their story, years later, by writing:“Tell the story to them that come after, that they may realize that in the midst of swords, and wild beasts of the desert, virtue is never a captive, and that he who is devoted to the service of Christ may die, but cannot be conquered.”

from Blogger

Telling the Stories that Matter: October 15 – Teresa of Avila, Mystic, Nun, Doctor of the Church

Teresa was brought up as a Christian by parents who were converts from Judaism.They had worked hard to assimilate into Spanish Christian culture because of her paternal grandfather’s condemnation as a denier of the faith and one who returned to Judaism.Teresa found great comfort and inspiration in the stories of the martyrs and greatly desired to imitate their lives. At the age of nineteen, she left her family and joined the local Carmelite monastery as a nun.

Teresa knew sin well. In fact, she spoke about it passionately as a subject she had received divine inspiration on. She described sin in terms of estrangement and alienation from God. Teresa, the one who said “It is love alone that gives worth to all things,” knew that sin was essentially a lack of life-giving love, mercy, and grace. However, Teresa was best known for her ecstatic and mystical moments. She had visions and felt that the way to union with God was through love and through self-abnegation and resignation. She taught first that to find God we must begin by focusing on our own failures with a penitent and contemplative heart. She called this part of the ascent of the soul to God “heart’s devotion.”

The second stage of the ascent of the soul to God through the self is called the “devotion of peace.” In this, God delivers a state of spiritual peace upon the person as they continue to meditate upon love, grace, and mercy knowing that they cannot save themselves but that salvation is assured to those who trust in God. This peace does not mean the destruction of distraction but only that the person is becoming closer to God and being helped along the journey toward God by God’s prevenient grace. Memory, reason, and imagination are still humanly focused.

The third stage of the ascent of the soul to God is called the “devotion of union.” In this state, the reason of the person becomes subsumed by God’s will and the person becomes further united with God and, therefore, less united with sin. As they walk the path of love that leads to God–and God alone–they find that sin has less of a hold on their life. As they give more of themselves over to God, they find that it rests securely in God. In this stage of mystical union with God, the soul begins to rest comfortably in the overwhelming love of God.

Finally, the soul ascends to the “devotion of ecstasy.” In this place of prayer, the soul divests itself of all that is self and becomes intimately associated with God who is Love. Teresa described this state as being a type of sweet and happy pain. The person is changed and sin is ripped from them as they no longer have a place where it can dwell. Of course, they must again return to the world as we know it but their momentary intimacy with God has fortified them and strengthened their growing faith. In many ways, this was the essence of Teresa’s teaching. There was hope for escape from sin but only in providing less room for it to dwell. Ultimately, sin was only destroyed by the soul’s ascension to God and the incubation of love within the heart.

from Blogger

Telling the Stories that Matter: October 10 – John Woolman, Quaker, Abolitionist, Lover of Life

“I bet I can hit it from here” said John Woolman to his friend.

“No, you can’t,” retorted his friend snidely “it’s too far away for you.” John picked up a small stone and took aim at the robin on a limb of the nearby tree. It was hopping among the branches and keeping guard over its nest. The quiet peeping of the baby birds was inaudible at this distance but John knew that they were nearby. He hadn’t expected his friend to challenge him to do it. But, he had and now John stood with a stone in his hand and a burden on his conscience.

“I’ll hit the branch underneath it and scare it” he thought to himself. He reasoned “If I do that, then it will be good enough and maybe my friend will think I succeeded.” He hefted the stone and threw it. It missed wide of the bird. He selected another stone and felt the tension rise a little as his friend watched intently. He took a little more time before throwing a second time. This time it missed to the other side but was getting closer. “Almost there” he said to his expectant friend. He selected another stone and concentrated on hitting the branch that the robin rested upon. He threw the stone and his heart sank as it hit the robin squarely and caused it to fall from the branch.Anxious to see it fly away, John ran to see if the bird was okay and found it dead on the ground–killed by the errant stone. He was awestruck and so he failed to notice his friend running away for fear of getting in trouble. He was frightened by the death of the bird and repeated to himself that he hadn’t meant to do it. But, he couldn’t escape the memory of deciding to gamble with the life of the robin. He had decided to risk the robin’s life (and the lives of its hatchlings) on a silly wager and game–it had cost him nothing but the robin everything. He collected the baby birds from the nest and fretted over what to do. They would die slowly without their mother and John could not care for them himself. His willful stone had condemned these baby birds to a slow death. He killed them, as he recalled in his journal, out of a desire to offer merciful and quick death to the victims of his lack of consideration. John was changed by this event and began to realize how this scenario played out time and time again in the world that he would grow into.
John was a clerk and a tailor by trade and did what he could to make enough money to live on in the North American colonies. In the colony of New Jersey, he was a reasonably successful tradesman. As a clerk, however, he had one particular challenge. Having learned an incredible respect for life, he could not reconcile it with the colonial attitude toward slavery. When asked to write a “bill of sale” for a slave, he bucked initially before being forced into it. He salved his mind by rationalizing that it was a sale of a slave to a woman who would treat the slave kindly but his conscience continued to sear him inwardly and he regretted the sale bitterly.He feared that his lack of consideration had cost another human more of their life and he resolved not to support slavery in any way from then onward. He was called to the home of a friend to write their will. He wrote out the will but left out the portions concerning who would gain possession of the man’s slave when he died. He recorded in his journal, “I could not write any instruments by which my fellow creatures were made slaves without bringing trouble on my own mind. I let him know I charged nothing for what I had done, and desired to be excused from doing the other part in the way he had proposed. We then had a serious conference on the subject; he, at length, agreeing to set her free, I finished the will.”

John had effected redemption in one through relationship and love. Having thus started, John would go on to change many people’s opinions on bondage and slavery. He did not seek to confront or create conflict–John wasn’t interested in arguing with people about freeing slaves so much as he was interested in redeeming the slaveholder and letting that redemption take its own path in freeing slaves. Later he would begin to resist the tides leading to the French and Indian war. His commitment to life continued to push him further as he endeavored not to make the same life-stealing mistakes that he had made in his past.

from Blogger

Telling the Stories that Matter: October 4 – Francis of Assisi, Friar, Disappointment to his Father, Inspiration to Many

Selling cloth was something he was very familiar with. Francis was there because he had been ordered to be there by his father to sell their wares and increase the family fortune. His brothers were there, as well, helping to provide for the family by convincing prospective customers of the quality of their cloth. Francis did as his father told him to but his mind wasn’t totally on commerce. Rather, it was on the beggar who was sadly walking away from the stand. He had come and asked for alms and been turned away by Francis and his family. Francis had spoken his denial before he had even stopped to think about the person under the filthy rags. Now, he stood with his eyes fixed on the back of a person who was quickly embodying Francis’ every flaw and failure: his street fights, his crude humor and mockery of the less fortunate, his disdaining of the poor when with his rich friends, his expensive and gaudy clothing, and all the other things that made Francis who he was. With every step, the reverberations of the beggar’s foot upon the ground sounded a chorus of condemnation in Francis’ heart. Having reflected upon his own life and that of the beggar, he was shocked to notice that he had lost track of the man. The man had slipped into the crowd and rounded a corner before Francis even realized what it was he wanted to do. He dropped the wares he was holding and bolted through the crowd. He struggled with the mass of people and finally found the beggar in an alley a few hundred yards away. With tears in his eyes he begged forgiveness from the startled and bemused beggar. He began handing over the possessions he had on him and begging the beggar to take them. The gifts he had received, the money he carried–all of these things he gave to the beggar.

When he returned to his father’s stall, he saw his father shaking his head sadly in disappointment. “That’s your son…” he muttered to his wife–Francis’ mother. “It’s your fault! You wanted to name him after John the Baptizer and you had him baptized on that day. You wanted him to serve God” he continued.

He may yet do so,” she replied. “That is–if he hasn’t already begun” she added to herself with a smile.

“God forbid that Francesco should do that. He has so much opportunity. He has so much potential. God forbid he should waste it” he exclaimed. Francis came back and picked up the wares he had dropped and accepted the chiding and mockery of his brothers and friends. They mocked him for his compassion and soft heart. Perhaps, Francis regretted it. But, regardless, something had taken hold in him that would not let him go.

When he was older, he began serving the poor and the diseased in Assisi. He took care of them as they died knowing that those with power did not care–did not even know–about the least of their brothers dying alone in the streets. The mockery his friends dispensed did not let up and, perhaps, only intensified. They asked him if he planned to marry and he would say–with his mother’s smile–that, yes, he did intend to marry a woman fairer than all. Francis’ darling bride was the life of service and poverty that he was already living into.

One evening, while praying in a church, he had a vision of the crucified Christ speaking to him. Jesus said, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.” Francis was shocked and overwhelmed by the vision. Indubitably, he questioned his sanity. Perhaps to alleviate his anxiety he took the vision literally and sold his horse to buy some materials and began repairing the building that he had been praying in. For this, he was mocked yet again by his father and friends. As he was realizing that his vision was a calling from God to bring peace and healing within the Church, his father was beating him and demanding that he give up his life of service. Finally, he renounced the father to whom he had been a perpetual disappointment in favor of service to his Father who loved him and called him.

He sold his things. He became poor so that he might love the poor more fully. Francis devoted himself to that which many only speak about in theoretical and abstract terms. Whereas many had said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” about poverty and sickness, Francis said “How can I best serve those whom God has called me to?” Francis–never ordained but always a minister–went on to found a monastic order and become an inspiration to countless Christians and non-Christians. As a man of peace and love, he changed the world he was a part of. He preached confidently, prayed fervently, and learned to love as he had been called to that day in the market when he dropped everything related to his father’s business to be about his Father’s business.

from Blogger

The Winter’s Lie and Lisa’s Ring

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It was one of those winter nights that will never grace the front of a postcard. Dirty piles of half-melted and refrozen snow lined the curbs and every awning threatened to drop ice cold water down the back of your jacket or onto any brazenly uncovered heads. You had to watch your step because the wet sidewalks and streets might have a patch or two of ice hidden somewhere. It was the kind of winter night that makes you think that even the winter has grown tired of itself, and is now sloughing off what moisture it had stored up for snow in a dismal drizzle. Looking forward to spring for many reasons, our little group of leaders gathered around coffee and cocoa in one of our house’s living rooms.

We were having our monthly meeting to plan and coordinate our work and talk about how we were spending the money in our common fund to meet needs around our neighborhoods and city. We’ve had a common fund in our community since even before we’ve called ourselves Grace and Main. The common fund is part of the commitment we’ve made to each other and to the Kingdom of God: we pool and share resources to meet needs inside and outside of our community. The way we’ve done it, and to what extent we’ve done it, has changed over the years by baby steps, but we remain committed to living simply and sharing because we believe that these are commitments to which God has called us.

But every winter, our common fund is stretched very thin as we struggle alongside sisters and brothers within the frigid grasp of homelessness and housing insecurity. We have a homeless shelter in our city and it is a blessing for most of those who stay there, but it is also a short-term shelter, so it cannot provide shelter to anybody throughout the whole span of the winter. Even if it could, its sixteen beds would be quickly overwhelmed. So every winter, we talk a lot about how to keep as many people as possible in shelter somewhere. This means filling as many hospitality rooms as possible, helping with more utility bills, and paying for hotel rooms for those with no other options. By the end of January and beginning of February, this means that dozens of people are sheltered, but our common fund is usually fairly close to depleted.

Sometimes, those monthly meetings become strategy sessions to figure out how we can keep people sheltered when money is tight and hospitality rooms are full. Sometimes, long winters try to convince us that there isn’t enough to go around and that homelessness is just a sad, but unavoidable, reality of our world. Sometimes, we are tempted to believe the winter’s story about scarcity. But, Lisa reminds us that the winter is a liar.

As we talked about how we were going to find several hundred more dollars to cover hotel costs for a half dozen brothers with nowhere to go, we became increasingly frustrated. As far as we could tell, there just wasn’t anywhere left to tap to cover the cost. As we sat in frustrated silence, lamenting the lack of funds, Lisa spoke up. “I’m not sure I always follow all of the talk about money,” she began sheepishly, “but are we saying that we don’t have enough money to keep people off the streets?”

“That’s what we’re afraid of,” I admitted, inwardly fearing that the lie of scarcity that sounds so convincing in the winter might be true, after all.

“Well, I don’t know if it will help,” Lisa said, “but if somebody can give me a ride, I’ll get my ring. We can probably sell that for $100.” As the room turned in shock to Lisa, she continued, “That should cover a person for a week at the hotel, right?”

We all knew which ring she was talking about. It was her wedding ring, and there were a whole host of good and bad memories wrapped up together in that thin circle of metal. Many tears had been shed together over all that ring had meant and failed to mean. It was a treasured possession, even if all of the memories it occasioned were not themselves treasured. That ring had graced her finger when she was homeless. That ring was on the hand that gripped mine when she told us, “If you guys ever stop doing this, I just don’t know what I’ll do.” That ring was with her when she moved out to a place of her own, safe and secure in its own way. That ring was a silent witness to her commitment to the community when she became one of our leaders. We all knew which ring she was talking about.

In our shock, we couldn’t find the words to say, so Lisa reiterated herself and added, “unless y’all think that isn’t enough.” But, the truth was that it felt like all too much—it felt like more than any of us could, or would, ask of her. Moments before, we had been tempted to believe the lie that there isn’t enough to go around, but our sister Lisa exposed the lie. She offered up something she called valuable to provide shelter to someone God called valuable. In that moment, she reminded us of Laurence, who held out his arms before a demanding Roman prefect declaring of the impoverished folks around him, “This is what the Church calls valuable.”

We thanked Lisa not only for her scandalously generous offer, but also for speaking aloud for the Spirit in that moment. Then, we prayed. By the following evening—before Lisa could sell her ring and before our brothers’ rent could run out—our common fund had been restored enough to cover the upcoming expenses. It turns out that Lisa was absolutely right: the winter is a liar.

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