Telling the Stories that Matter: October 30 – Marcellus of Tangier, Martyr, Centurion, Loyal to a Higher Power

Everybody loves a parade, right? Well maybe not everybody. You see, Marcellus knew that Maximian’s birthday was approaching but he wasn’t looking forward to the festivities. Of course, he was careful to reveal this to nobody except those closest to him–his secret Christian brothers and sisters. When they gathered, Marcellus spoke of his anxieties for the coming celebration and his brothers and sisters offered comforting and inspiring words for him. They would not share in his decision or its consequences but they suffered similar threats and anxieties as Christians were persecuted and repressed by the Roman Empire.

Marcellus remained nervous as he stood in front his own soldiers near the end of the parade route. Maximian was being conveyed along the road on the way to the temple where sacrifice would be made in his honor. The expectation, soundly fulfilled by every unit of soldiers he had already passed, was for the soldiers to kneel before their lord Maximian as he passed. Marcellus swallowed hard as he saw Maximian’s entourage approach and heard the rustling sound of the soldiers around him dropping to their knees in loyalty to Maximian. Marcellus remained standing and could hear gasps around him as people silently willed him to kneel. The people began to fear for him as he refused to kneel and removed his belt.As he dropped it, it clattered on the stone. The soldiers around him lifted their eyes enough to see what had caused the noise and were confused to find Marcellus removing and dropping his weapons, as well. If that wasn’t enough, Marcellus removed the vine insignia that represented his loyalty to and status in the Empire and dropped it to the ground as Maximian passed.He was immediately seized by the Praetorian guard and hurried away from the crowd. His weapons, belt, rank, status, and history remained on the ground in the place where he had refused to kneel.

He was brought before a judge who ordered him to be taken to another judge. The praetorian guard conferred among themselves about the judge who was to decide Marcellus’ fate. They knew that this judge was known to be merciful to Christians–even Christian soldiers who had defected–and so they conspired to avoid this possibility for lenience. Instead, they brought him before one of their leaders. He was beaten and tried. When asked how he plead, he responded that he had laid down his worldly rank instead of denying his loyalty to Jesus Christ. He proclaimed his faith over the jeers of the assembled guards and when asked if he could not be loyal to both he insisted that he could only be supremely loyal to his slaughtered King and Savior. They beheaded him as a traitor to their lord Maximian but only made him a martyr in the name of his Lord Jesus.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: October 23 – Ptolemaeus and Lucius, Martyrs, Victims of “Justice”

Ptolemaeus had spread the story to any who would listen. He talked about Jesus–who had died, been buried, rose from the dead, and was coming again–and people had responded as if they were thirsty and he was offering water. In a way, he was. One of the women in the crowd had encountered the God he spoke of and came away from the moment a different person. She had found conversion in his words and stories. Ptolemaeus had passed the spark of the Holy Spirit onto her and she had taken it with her back into the life she came from. 

A few days later, Ptolemaeus noticed something as he preached. Soldiers were lining up at the periphery of the crowd and various officials were accompanying them. At the very back he saw a very angry man whispering into the ear of the officials. The crowd scattered. They knew full well that this couldn’t be a good sign. The soldiers seized Ptolemaeus and he was charged with corrupting one of the women. The man was her husband and he accused Ptolemaeus of a variety of terrible crimes because his wife had come home different than when she left and had left him. Ptolemaeus was paraded before a judge who heard charges against Ptolemaeus ranging from adultery and sexual immorality to murder and robbery. Ptolemaeus defended himself but it became abundantly clear that the prosecution was willing to do nearly anything to punish him and be victorious. They perverted justice into personal vendetta and had Ptolemaeus executed for the crimes of which he was innocent.

An onlooker in the court by the name of Lucius protested when Ptolemaeus’ verdict was handed down. He continued to protest as Ptolemaeus was executed savagely. Though he was advised by those around him to be quiet, he continued to point out loudly how justice had been perverted so that those with power might maintain their influence and control. He proclaimed Ptolemaeus’ innocence of the charges and was warned by the judge and soldiers that he would share Ptolemaeus’ fate if he didn’t restrain himself. When Lucius refused to be quiet in the face of evil, he was executed, as well.

from Blogger

Telling the Stories that Matter: October 18 – Luke, Evangelist, Physician, Friend of the Prodigal

Luke was a physician. But not like what we think of when we think of a physician. There was no white coat. There was no large salary (in fact, many physicians were slaves). There was no immediate cultural respect. There was no fancy degree or education. There were no easily dispensed medications or diagnostic tools. But, in Luke’s case,there was an intense desire to help those who suffered. Luke seems intimately connected with prodigals and misfits. Whether he was eating with them and listening to them or doing what little he could to soothe their physical pain and suffering, Luke loved and was devoted to the people that the world said were worth nothing.

Luke learned this from his master–Jesus.

Luke was a Greek gentile who had, at least, some familiarity with the person of Jesus even if he never actually saw Jesus.Instead, he heard the stories and found a faith growing in him that spurred him to change. He couldn’t sit still and listen to these stories–they were too important simply to hear–and so he had to tell them to others. He would record the stories that meant so much to him by listening to others and reading what others had written. Beyond that, Luke knew that the stories of Jesus’ disciples were critically important, as well. If Jesus had really brought a new Kingdom into the world, then his disciples would do amazing and wonderful things. Luke recorded these things in a letter that would be known as the Acts of the Apostles. Luke makes a few cameo appearances in this second work but does so in support of the Apostle Paul. When we see him, his character matches the voice in his text: intimatelyconcerned with the lives of the oppressed and unrepresented. Luke had been set on fire with a message of good news about a Kingdom that was changing the world and could only find relief in telling this story to others. His desire to heal became a desire to offer hope to desperate people.

Luke’s mercy and soft heart for the invisible people can be seen in the stories that he chooses to highlight.Consider that Luke’s gospel is the only gospel to tell the radical story of the Prodigal Son. Luke was a friend of the Prodigal and was excited about the God he saw in Jesus that was willing to love and forgive with fury and passion. This was no meek and mild god that stood aloof from creation but, rather, was a God who was elbows deep in the process of healing the voiceless and abused. Jesus was the Great Physician. Luke desired to be his apprentice. Luke’s Gospel is the only Gospel to record Mary’s response to God’s calling: “”has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Luke was energized by the work of healing that had begun in the Church. He recognized that the Kingdom was the possession of those who had no other possessions to prioritize. In this way, Luke characterized the prodigal nature of the Kingdom of God and their common savior Jesus.

He begins his Gospel by writing:

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you…”

Luke recognized the healing power of stories to change the minds and outlooks of people. He knew that the stories that we tell inform the way we think about things and so he wanted to pass them on. These were the possessions of the citizens of God’s new Kingdom. These were the valuables that established value in the New World. This is what Luke passed on to us.

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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 6 – Thomas, Apostle, Martyr, Doubter and Believer

It had all been too much for Thomas. He had been traveling with Jesus for nearly three years and then, suddenly, Jesus had been arrested, tried, and executed. Thomas had invested so much of his hope in Jesus. He had started following him because he talked about having the words of life and about a new Kingdom where things were different. Like many of his friends and family, Thomas dreamed of a world free from Roman rule and oppression. He saw his opportunity to follow after a man who had a plan and so he took it. He hadn’t regretted it until recently. Jesus had always been provocative and unafraid of challenging the powers–Thomas like that–but he had gone too far. He had said too much and it had cost him his life.

Thomas could remember running away from the garden. They had been gathered there while Jesus prayed. Jesus had been talking strangely about going somewhere that his disciples could not go. Thomas was full of zeal for following after this man in whom he placed all of his hope for a better day and a better life. He wanted to go with him like had before when he had met the prospect of a dangerous journey with courage and exclaimed–perhaps, before he thought it out–‘Come on! Let’s go with him so that we might die with him!”Thomas was willing to risk much for the hope he now kindled within himself. Yet, he had run like the other disciples when his hope was seized by the powers, abused, tortured, and murdered. When Jesus breathed his last on that cross, Thomas’ hope faded. The man whom he had trusted and followed had died like so many other leaders who dared to resist the powers of the world.Thomas settled back into a life of bleak–but safe–despair.

Then, he started hearing word from the others who had followed Jesus–“Jesus is alive!” He couldn’t believe it. He had risked so much of himself to believe and trust Jesus that it hurt him even to think about doing it again. As long as Jesus was in the grave, Thomas didn’t have to risk himself ever again. Yet, he kept hearing the joyful but distressing news. They said they had seen him. Thomas shook his head sadly and told them, “He died. They killed him. They won. They always do.” He knew what happened to people who resisted the “way things are.” They insisted he was wrong. Afraid to hope, Thomas said he’d only believe if he could see Jesus alive before him with the wounds they had laid on his body. For Thomas, it mattered that Jesus still bore the wounds of the powers–Thomas wanted the whole thing to be real and true. He figured his friends were still hanging on to hope and being deceived by acon-artist masquerading as their master. If he could put his hand on the wound, then Thomas felt that he might have room for real hope again. Even as he said it, he painfully hoped to be proved wrong but was confident that he wouldn’t be. Never in his life had he hoped so much to be so absolutely fundamentally wrong.

Jesus came to them. Thomas was amazed. Jesus said to him, “Thomas, go ahead. Touch my wounds. Know that I have been killed but also know that I have beaten death.” With tears in his eyes and hope swelling in his soul, he fell to his knees before the resurrection of hope and life and proclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” With these words, Thomas was converted. He suddenly knew what it was that Jesus had been doing. The change he had brought was more than a temporal change of circumstances–it was a fundamental change of reality. In the face of doubt, fear, domination, abuse, and death Jesus had proclaimed: Love wins.Hope wins. Peace winsForgiveness winsLife wins.

Thomas was changed and given back his hope but now his hope rested not in a new world order but in a Kingdom not of this world. He went on to be a missionary for the Lord he so gladly professed. He would be martyred, eventually. It would seem that even after he had been arrested for healing and preaching that he continued to preach the hope that had changed his life. He proclaimed the death of death and the end of evil. For this, he was killed so that might not spread his hope among others. In his death, he only further proclaimed a loving God with a life changed by faith, hope, and love.

from Blogger

Bruce’s Coffee Maker

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When we helped Bruce move into his new home near the Urban Farm, he had more things to move than the first time we helped him. After all, the first time we helped him move it was from a tool shed with a rotting floor into a bedroom on the Northside. He wasn’t yet clean and sober, but he was on his way and was beginning to believe that he was loved in the same way he saw that we loved others. As Bruce began joining us for meals, prayers, and our shared life as a community, he also began to collect other things he needed first to survive, and then to flourish.

On the day he moved in, he received some of the obvious resources a person who has recently experienced homelessness might need: clothes, a few different kinds of blankets, a couple of pairs of good shoes, a dozen pairs of new socks, a mug and some basic toiletries. But, as time went on and he began to be freed from the bonds of addiction, Bruce also began to collect some personal, hand-made items, too: a piece of art (hasty, loving, crayon scribbles on construction paper) from a family that welcomed him into their lives and at their table; a white, beaded Chrismon to hang on a tiny, green tree near Christmas; a hand-knotted prayer rope for the days when temptation was almost too much; a notebook to collect the prayers that rested heavy on his heart.

As Bruce went from being someone who ate with us to being a regular, and finally became an integral part of our leadership, he collected the kinds of things he needed to live out his calling. One of the first gifts like this that he received was two bags of tools to put to use with his substantial carpentry talent. In his little room, he stored the community’s largest water jugs—the ones that provided cold water, lemonade, and sweet tea to the neighborhood from on top of an old end-table set up near the street. His book shelves began to fill with Bibles and other books to read, discuss, and share with whoever was interested. In a mostly clean manila folder, he kept his signed copy of the covenant we make with each other when we take up Grace and Main’s work as a calling. Outside, in the repaired tool shed that became out first tool library, he kept old lawnmowers, trimmers, and other big tools that had been donated, repaired, cleaned up, and made available to the neighborhoods where we’ve found our home. He also began stockpiling an odd assortment of specific pieces of cookware for him and a team of developing leaders to make breakfast for dozens of people every week.

But, when we helped Bruce move this most recent time—the third (and hopefully final) time—into a house of his own, he had everything he needed except for one item: a coffee maker.

So, of course, we looked around and found a coffee maker for his new home and he was glad to receive it. It wasn’t a fancy model, but it would certainly make fine coffee. Combined with a set of heavy, ceramic mugs and a nice sugar bowl, the coffee maker made a silent promise that this home would be a place of hospitality—especially since Bruce doesn’t drink coffee.

He wanted the coffee maker because he knows that our little community has a particular affection for coffee and he wanted to continue to find ways to show his love in tangible ways. Coffee is a common gift shared between friends at the birthday parties we host for neighbors and friends of the community. Bags of coffee were occasionally donated by neighbors during our impromptu, Northside breakfasts, often with the hopeful comment: “I want to help with these breakfasts, if you think you can use this.” Hardly a set of prayers is prayed that doesn’t have the scent of coffee wafting into the room from somewhere nearby. Evenings passed in conversation on a porch with too-rapidly-cooling cups of coffee became a pastime for we who had committed ourselves to each other.

Bruce had learned time and again that in our work, the aroma of Christ—that scent that tell us Jesus is near—smells a lot like brewing coffee.

In addition to the resources and tools that Bruce has been collecting, he’s also been collecting days—days clean from addiction. Just this past month, we celebrated Bruce’s five-year anniversary (1,827 days!) of getting clean and beginning the lifelong process of recovery from addiction. Nowadays, Bruce lives in (and runs) a hospitality house of his own next to Grace and Main’s Urban Farm. We’re busy building our third tool library in his back yard and continuing to grow food right next door. Bruce is a staff missionary with Third Chance Ministries and one of Grace and Main’s covenanted leaders—having taken up our way of life and ministry as his vocation.

Yet, all of the resources and accomplishments he has accumulated over the years pale in comparison to his greatest collection: lives changed by the Spirit through his and our shared work. The wide-ranging impact that can be seen throughout the neighborhood where Bruce once lived underneath a house and we first invited him to join us for a meal—no strings attached. There are more than half a dozen people who are now in the process of recovering from addiction and are at least one year clean and sober because of the Holy Spirit’s work, Bruce’s and the community’s witness, a patchwork of prayers, and generous support.  Even more have begun the process that we pray will one day culminate in freedom from addiction—they’re not there yet, but they’re on the way and they’re starting to believe. Over the years, Bruce’s leadership has meant the community acting with more hope and faith to stand and live alongside folks struggling with homelessness, hunger, poverty, and addiction. Dozens of people have meaningful work to do, a place to stay, and thanks to give to God because of the work that Bruce and others are doing.

Our little community is better for Bruce’s presence, and so is the world. Thanks be to God.

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