Telling the Stories that Matter: June 28 – Irenaeus, Student of Polycarp, Opponent of the Gnostics, Church Father

Irenaeus was not the typical bishop in the early Christian Church. He had been born in the early second century in what they knew as Asian Minor and what we call Turkey. Specifically, he was born in Smyrna to Greek parents. Yet the oddity in his pedigree was that he was the son of Christian parents in a time when most of the Church’s leaders were adult converts. Irenaeus was raised in the Faith in which he became a spiritual leader and teacher and was able to take that which had been passed onto him by his parents and teachers and give it to others. Irenaeus was the study of Polycarp in Smyrna. In fact, Irenaeus was considered one of Polycarp’s prize students. Polycarp,himself, had been the student of John the Apostle. Thus, Irenaeus understood his faith to be founded directly in the teachings of Jesus though his teacher and his teacher’s teacher. The education he received from his teachers, his family, and his congregation was a gift that he treasured and handled carefully. But Irenaeus knew that the gift of truth could not simply be kept for himself but belonged in the hands of those who had ears to hear and eyes to see.

Irenaeus was an opponent of heresy but a lover of heretics. The particular heresy that Irenaeus resisted so avidly was that of the gnostics. They insist that the material nature of humanity and creation is by its very definition corrupt and evil. They go so far as to assert that Jesus only appeared to be human because the physical and the spiritual could have no union if the being was to be called “good.” But, Irenaeus insisted that there was no salvation if Jesus was not fully human because the power of Jesus’ blood-bought redemption was in the incarnation and theincredible physicality of the event. About the heretics he opposed he wrote:

“Such are the adversaries with whom we have to deal, my very dear friend, endeavouring like slippery serpents to escape at all points. Where-fore they must be opposed at all points, if per-chance, by cutting off their retreat, we may succeed in turning them back to the truth. For, though it is not an easy thing for a soul under the influence of error to repent, yet, on the other hand, it is not altogether impossible to escape from error when the truth is brought alongside it.”

So, Irenaeus opposed the heretics in an attempt to bring the Truth alongside their errors so that they might escape the way of death and destruction and begin the journey of conversion that Irenaeus walked with the help of his teachers.

Irenaeus lived in a period of time when being Christian had a steep cost. Martyrs were being made among those who professed faith in Jesus and the ministers of the early Church were constantly working to avoid detection and execution. He was sent from Smyrna to Lyons where he was made a bishop and leader in the Church. He was relatively safe in Lyons in the late second century but he was still forced to deal with both severe persecution and public distrust. He wrote prolifically and intelligently so that others could benefit from his teachings and reasoning but he did not value philosophy over the teaching of the Holy Spirit. In fact, he often insisted that, though philosophy had its place, there was no faith without the movement of the Spirit. Therefore, even though he was a contemporary of Justin Martyr he was not, necessarily, in total agreement with him. About the Kingdom to which he aspired and which the world misunderstood he wrote:

“And when you hear that we look for a kingdom, you suppose, without making any inquiry, that we speak of a human kingdom; whereas we speak of that which is with God, as appears also from the confession of their faith made by those who are charged with being Christians, though they know that death is the punishment awarded to him who so confesses. For if we looked for a human kingdom, we should also deny our Christ, that we might not be slain; and we should strive to escape detection, that we might obtain what we expect. But since our thoughts are not fixed on the present, we are not concerned when men cut us off; since also death is a debt which must at all events be paid.”

Irenaeus didn’t need to say anything more about the Kingdom they sought to a world that so easily misunderstood it, its teachings, and its values–a Kingdom growing quickly by the teachings of those intimately connected to Jesus through a line of teachers and leaders.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: June 24 – G.K. Chesterton, Author, Wit, Prince of Paradox

Perhaps nobody in the history of Christianity has so clearly understood the power of humor and wit to indicate truth as Gilbert Keith Chesterton did. G.K., as he was known, was a writer who was also dubbed the “prince of paradox” because of his uncanny ability to formulate short but insightful sentences that seemed, at first, to smack of wrongness only to give way to sublime truth. He was educated in both art and literature but never received a degree in either subject. Instead, he became associated with publishing houses and freelance journalism. He had been raised a nominal Christian but found himself fascinated by religious and philosophical subjects from a relatively young age. Consequently, he “drifted” closer and closer to the Church as the years wore on and his writings led him closer and closer to Truth. He was an apologist of a sort that was difficult to confront. His humility and compassion in the presence of his opponents presented them with ample opportunities to demonstrate their own conceit or ruthlessness if any was present in them. It wasn’t enough for G.K. to win arguments and debate–he truly wanted to love people even as he contradicted them.

G.K. wrote many books–both fiction and non-fiction–which are still reprinted and read today. Once he was asked by the writers of the British newspaper The Times to add his voice to a chorus of highly regarded thinkers and speakers on the subject: “What’s wrong with the world?” The great minds of the day were given room to make their arguments for inherent flaws of the world as they saw it. G.K., however, took a different approach and tendered the briefest of all responses when he wrote:

“Dear Sirs,
I am.
Sincerely yours,
G.K. Chesterton”

Though it was clearly a humorous and witty response, it was also a statement of G.K.’s deeply held Christian convictions. In this witty response, G.K. was able to insist upon the fallen nature of humanity and its own need for redemption from some outside source. The humor of the letter enabled its message to slip by the intellectual defenses of the readers and lodge a particularly potent paradox within their minds.

G.K. can only truly be understood by reading his work and contributions to the faith. Accordingly, I will close with a selection of some of my favorite quotes:

“By a curious confusion, many modern critics have passed from the proposition that a masterpiece may be unpopular to the other proposition that unless it is unpopular it cannot be a masterpiece.”

“Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.”
“The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”
“You can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it.”
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
“The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.”
“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.

“There is a certain poetic value, and that a genuine one, in this sense of having missed the full meaning of things. There is beauty, not only in wisdom, but in this dazed and dramatic ignorance.”
“The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”
“Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.”

“It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.”

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Telling the Stories that Matter: June 9 – Colum(ba) of Iona, Dove of the Church, Penitent, Missionary

Royal blood flowed through the veins of Colum. Being the son of Fedlimid and Eithne in the county of Donegal in Ireland, he was the great-great-grandson of the once High King of Ireland, Niall Noigiallach. He was given the name Colum (meaning “dove”) but over the centuries he has become better known as Columba (the latin derivation of his name) and Colum Cille (meaning “dove of the Church”). Great expectations rested upon Colum’s shoulders as he grew up with everybody knowing his royal ancestry. With such a storied history, it’s easy to imagine that Colum felt pressure to become a warrior leader in sixth century Ireland. But, his name was Colum and it seemed that God had other plans for him.He received an excellent education at the Clonard Abbey on the river Boyne. He received his education under the guidance of the great teacher Finnian of Clonard. Following in the wake of Patrick and Brigid and being nearly contemporaneous with Brendan paved the way for Colum to become yet another powerful Christian leader in the ruins of a world once controlled by–and now only haunted by–Rome. He was a good student and even now is known as one of the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland.”

But just because he was a good student doesn’t mean he always followed the instruction of his teacher. Finnian had a psalter that he prized not only for its value to the community but, also, for its beautiful poetry. Colum had the opportunity to make a copy of it at Finnian’s request. Colum was an appropriate choice because of his intelligence and scribal talent but there was, apparently, a misunderstanding between the two. Finnian understood Colum to be making another copy for the monastery–Colum thought that this copy was for himself. When Colum finished his laborious and skillful copy of the psalter he thanked Finnian for his willingness to make such a wonderful gift but Finnian was surprised that Colum would even suggest such a thing. Over a matter of days, weeks, and months this dispute widened and began to overshadow even itself. Soon, it was about much more than a book and the king of Ireland–Diarmait–was forced to step in to provide resolution. Diarmait sided with Finnian and Colum was stripped of any claim to the psalter. At this time, clan Neill was preparing the wage war on Diarmait and so Colum became their supporter. The two armies went to war at the battle of Cúl Dreimhne with Colum praying for clan Neill and Finnian praying for the armies of the king. The aggressive clan was successful and nearly 3,000 royal soldiers died at their hands. In the aftermath, Colum realized what he had prayed for and began to regret the sin produced by his hasty rage.

Colum was outcast from many of the clerical circles of Ireland for daring to pray against the king and Finnian. He didn’t try to defend himself against their accusations but, instead, expressed his regret and penitence. Knowing that exile was likely looming over him, he committed himself to becoming a missionary to Scotland and converting a number of souls equal to those that were lost on the dark day of Cúl Dreimhne. He boarded his ship with twelve of his disciples and sailed to a foreign land for a second chance. He was granted land on the island of Iona where he founded a monastery to serve as the spiritual base of operations for his missionary work. He began circulating not only among the powerful and influential but, also, the poor and outcast. The dark shadow of Cúl Dreimhne followed him as he went among the Picts preaching repentance and forgiveness. Many were converted because of his preaching and the wonders he worked among them. Upon more than one occasion, he healed sick people and escaped plots against his life through miraculous and supernatural means. In the year 597, he died while at the monastery on Iona. He had completed his penitent quest long ago and so he was buried on the grounds of the monastery he founded.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: June 2 – Blandina of Lyon, Martyr, Slave, Strong to the End

The political and social climate of Lyon in the second century was bleak for Christians and those whose faith did not align with the values of Rome and the emperor Marcus Aurelius. The good that Christians had done through prayer, generous giving, and hospitality was quickly forgotten when the people cried out for a scapegoat as they inevitably and often did. Blandina was a Christian slave to a Christian master and this presented an interesting dynamic into her experience at the hand of Rome when she and her brothers and sisters in Christ were arrested and threatened with death if they would not give up their convictions for the commandments of Rome. Citizens of Rome at the time faced death by the comparatively easier method of decapitation.Slaves died slowly at the hands of the imperial torturers and their cruel tools. This was dramatically effective for Rome because many slaves would often choose to renounce their faith and implicate their masters when threatened with torturous death on one hand and offered freedom from slavery on the other. They had more to gain in apostasy and so they were considered prime targets for imperial coercion.

Because of this tendency for slaves to renounce the faith for promises of freedom, Rome was able to convince slaves to lie about their Christian masters and insist that Christians were cannibals and incestuous. These lies only furthered Rome’s efforts at propaganda and made it easier to deceive a population all too eager to be part of the accepted majority and all too afraid of being outcast from society. All of this only made the lives of the Christians more challenging. The brothers and sisters of Blandina feared that she would renounce the faith because of the torture that loomed over her and her relatively small size.They assumed that a woman of her stature and livelihood would suffer greatly under the hands of the empire’s best ministers of agony. Nobody would have been surprised to see her cave into the empire’s demands but they all hoped that she would be able to withstand the torture. So, they did what Christians do–they prayed for her and encouraged her to face her inevitable suffering with faith, hope, and love. Blandina was indeed tortured and it was gruesome at best. With each new savage effort to destroy her faith she repeated one phrase to those charged with producing agony within her:“I am a Christian, and we commit no wrongdoing.”Eventually, she outlasted her torturers and they returned to their leader and insisted that they had nothing else to offer in the way of pain.

On the day of the execution of Blandina and her brothers and sisters in the faith there was one more planned torture for her. But this time it was psychological. They brought her in chains to the arena to watch her brothers and sisters be beaten and executed. They expected that being confronted with the brutality and finality of death that she would renounce her earlier confident confessions. Yet, she surprised them by loudly calling out to those being martyred and encouraging them to face their deaths with faith, hope, and love. She encouraged them to forgive those who clearly were deceived by the darkness of Rome and their own inescapable sin. When the guards realized she was only encouraging her brothers and sisters they drug her away and prepared her for her own vicious death. They tied her to a stake in the arena so that she might torn apart by vicious animals to entertain the Roman crowd. The animals, however, refused even to approach her as she prayed quietly for her accusers and captors. Finally, they cut her loose from the stake, wrapped her up in a net, tied her to a hot, iron grate, and cast her again before a bull.As she prayed, Blandina was gored by the bull and thrown into the air. After some time, she finally died and received her martyr’s crown.

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