Telling the Stories that Matter: December 28 – Holy Innocents’ Day


It had been some time since Jesus had been born but when the magi had seen the star in the distance–a star that they and their fellow astrologers knew nothing about–they set out quickly to find what it was a portent of. Surely, a new star must lead them to something special. As they arrived closer and closer to the place where they would find young Jesus, they began to realize that there was a connection between this star and a rumored new “King of the Jews.” When they questioned other travelers, they asked if they had met the new King but none seemed to know of any new royalty and suggested that the magi keep this kind of talk to themselves–Herod would be none too pleased to find out that there might be another vying for his power. Herod was jealous of the throne–jealous enough to kill his own children to protect himself from their possible conspiratorial machinations. Herod had a good thing going and no amount of blood was too much to keep his pseudo-dominance of his little corner of the world. Yet, somehow, the magi ended up in the palace of Herod and asked him if he knew where the new King could be found. He didn’t know but he desperately wanted to and lied to them: “I don’t know where but if you find him, please come and tell me where I too might find him–I want to pay my respects to the new ruler.”

Herod had gained and held his power by being willing to play the game and sell himself to Rome bit by bit. Herod’s father–Antipater–had been poisoned for offering financial support to the treasonous men who murdered Caesar. It is hard to imagine that the son of a collaborator could rise to power but somehow Herod knew the game well enough to manipulate the right people. He swore his allegiance to Rome while using the Roman army to kill his father’s supposed murderer. He would soon rise to power in Judea and be named tetrarch but he first had to consolidate his power by marrying his niece to cement his claim on the throne. This was an easy task for a powerful man like Herod but required that he banish and exile his current wife and three-year-old son. No cost was too high for Herod in his search for power. A little while later, after convincing the Roman leaders that his father’s treachery had been forced, he was threatened by another usurper who he cast as a traitor and enemy of Rome to his powerful Roman friends. With the backing of his Roman friends–bought with his pledge of allegiance to Rome first and foremost–Herod was further cemented as Governor of Judea and he took the title: king Herod the Great. All it cost was his integrity, his allegiance, and selling the Jewish leadership into Roman control.

Herod had lost so much to gain what he wanted that he wasn’t afraid to spill a littlemore blood for power. When the magi gave him the slip, he ordered soldiers and guards at his disposal to go to Bethlehem and murder all boys under the age of two. They were to die so that Herod could insure that no other would grow up to place a claim upon his throne–he didn’t havemuch left to give Rome to insure they would continue to help him and, in fact, they expected him to keep the peace of it would cost him his life. So, the soldiers descended upon the little village and murdered infants and children because of a desperate man’s fear. All in all, somewhere between 20 and 30 human lives were cut short by the obsessive arm of the Empire that hoped to maintain power by dealing in blood and death. Indeed, a prophecy from Jeremiah was fulfilled (perhaps for the second time): “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”Yet, they missed Jesus. Shortly before the soldiers came, an angel had come to Joseph and instructed him to take Jesus and Mary and get out of Israel–they had to go somewhere Herod could not reach–and go to Egypt. They fled the bloody grasp of Herod and would not return until Herod the Great had died and some of the sons he didn’t murder had taken over. So as not to live under Herod’s son Archelaus, they settle in Nazareth in Galilee

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Telling the Stories that Matter: December 18 – Sebastian, Martyr, Soldier, Wonder Worker


Sebastian had been raised within the bounds of the Roman empire and knew well the laws and principles that were the foundation of Roman reason and expectation. Further, he had been appointed a captain of the Praetorian Guard under emperors Diocletian and Maximian. However, they had appointed him to this influential and powerful position without the rulers knowing what it was he did on Sundays. Sebastian was a Christian and professed his ultimate allegiance tothe same Lord that Rome had slaughtered to keep the pax romana in Judea. Had they known, they likely would have had him executed if he would not deny his faith. Yet, his faith remained secret even as the power of the Praetorians was weakened by Diocletian and Maximian. Because of this secrecy, Diocletian was unprepared for what came next.

It seems that two Christians had been arrested and tortured when they refused to deny their faith. Mark and Marcellian were close to abandoning their faith in exchange for an end to their pain and an opportunity to be with their family again when they heard whispering outside of their cell. Sebastian comforted them and shared his own faith with them. There in the Roman prison they prayed together and invoked the protection of their crucified Lord. Sebastian encouraged them to be courageous as death approached and they received the holy crown of martyrdom. The next day they surprised Diocletian who expected them to be sufficiently worn down. Diocletian had them tortured again yet their faith would not cave. He called for the family members of the men to visit them and plead with them to make a token sacrifice and renounce their faith. As they visited and pleaded with Mark and Marcellian, Sebastian arrived. At first, the families were worried to see a Praetorian captain near their loved ones yet were comforted by Mark and Marcellian’s joy to see him. Again he comforted Mark and Marcellian and offered prayer with them but he also shared his faith with their non-Christian family. In a few short hours, the families were confessing faith in Jesus and joining with the men in their prayer and worship.

Diocletian was surprised again but this time he thought he had an idea what had happened. Some important families had been having family members become Christians at surprising times andall of the conversions seemed to be connecting around one central figure’s visit: Sebastian. Diocletian called Sebastian to him and gave him no opportunity to regain his status. Instead, he had him taken to a nearby field and tied to a stake. The Roman archers raisedtheir brutal bows and rained death upon him. His flesh was pierced on account of his faith. He was left for dead as his blood was slowly consumed by the soil beneath his naked body. Yet, as the sun fell and the soldiers departed, Sebastian’s heart still beat and he was taken from the place by a Christian widow–Irene of Rome who had been married to Castulus. She took him to her home and nursed him back to health after cleaning his wounds and giving him her bed to sleep in. Amazingly, he recovered and worked a wonder in the house of Irene. A blind woman from the community was skeptical of his faith–perhaps because of his status as a Praetorian–and refused to accept that he was a Christian. He called her to himself and asked, “Do you desire to be with God?” She responded in the affirmative and he made the sign of the cross upon her forehead. Miraculously, she gained her sight the moment after his thumb left her brow.

Yet, one day Diocletian and his entourage were passing through the city and Sebastian saw him coming. He stood upon the step of the home and called out to Diocletian in a loud voice: “See now, Diocletian, the one you condemned to death stands before you. You hope to kill the disciples of Jesus Christ but you only honor those whom you murder and encourage those who escape your desperate grasp.”In a fit of rage, Diocletian ordered his soldiers to beat Sebastian to death and throw his body into a garbage heap after they were sure he was dead. Sebastian died a martyr and evangelist who espoused a faith that was contagious and compelling.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: December 13 – Lucia, Martyr, Unpolluted, Generous

The coins clattered to the stone and Lucia looked around as if she expected somebody to notice. In fact, many people noticed the sound of coins hitting the ground in this poor neighborhood but none of the people were her wealthy soon-to-be husband. She had no trouble giving away the money but knew it must be done in relative secrecy lest her betrothed find out that she was giving away her dowry. Her mother had not approved and had begged her to think of her father–her recently passed father–but could not convince her. At least, not since that night at Agatha’s tomb when she had been healed from her bloody problem. They had waited and prayed all night and Lucia’s mother had finally been healed but Lucia had been the recipient of a vision at the same moment that foretold her soon coming martyrdom. Mom had been happy to be healed and Lucia had not let her know what she had learned. Instead, she proposed that she be allowed to give away her dowry to the poor as an act of alms giving. Of course, mom had resisted but Lucia won out. As she handed over the last of the coins, she breathed a sigh of relief–partly because she had maintained the secrecy and partly because she was glad to finally be rid of the bride money–after all, she had committed herself to a celibate life and had no desire to be a bride in this world.

Yet, as thing so often happen, her betrothed was quick to find out. He was a wealthy man and so he had much influence. Great influence in a city buys many eyes in various places and some of them had told him that they thought they had seen her in the streets giving away a large sum of money. He confronted her and asked to see the dowry set aside for him to gain when he finally married her. She knew she had been caught and so she admitted that she had given it away–knowing well that her martyrdom was likely to 

spring from this moment of opportunity. “If you don’t replace it, I will betray your secret–that you are a Christian–to the magistrate. Maybe then you’ll see some sense once you’ve given up these silly Christian fables.” he yelled. She nodded because she knew he would and because she had come to accept it.

Lucia was arrested at her his insistence and dragged before magistrate Paschasius. This was during the time of the Diocletian persecutions and being Christian was akin to high treason. She was ordered to make a sacrifice upon the Roman altars and she refused. Paschasius was not surprised by any means–it seemed that the Christians were only all too willing to refuse and die if the other option was denying their Faith. “If you do not,” said Paschasius, “then you’ll be killed. Offer sacrifice and live.” Paschasius wasn’t surprised but he was confused–what could be so valuable as to forfeit your life–it didn’t make any sense to him (it never does to the Empire).

“Here is my offering,” Lucia began, “I offer myself to God, let God do with His offering as it pleases Him.” Paschasius sat in shocked silence for a moment. Lucia’s betrothed was dumbstruck by what he might call her lunacy but others might call her courage. Paschasius finally asked her why she would not like to keep her life and be married. He pointed out many of the desirable traits of her betrothed. Lucia let them know that she had committed herself to celibacy and was not interested in marriage.

At this, Paschasius saw an opportunity to wring a denial out of her. “Deny your faith,” he said slickly, “or I’ll turn you over to the brothel to be raped and become a prostitute.” He gloated to himself and smiled what can only be called a smile of self-satisfaction. In this, he had revealed the Empire’s great lust to control and dominate even if by evil means. He fully expected her to give in but this time he truly was surprised.

Lucia said: “No one’s body is polluted so as to endanger the soul if it has not pleased the mind. If you were to lift my hand to your idol and so make me offer against my will, I would still be guiltless in the sight of the true God, who judges according to the will and knows all things. If now, against my will, you cause me to be polluted, a twofold purity will be gloriously imputed to me. You cannot bend my will to your purpose; whatever you do to my body, that cannot happen to me.” Furious, Paschasius ordered her eyes gouged out and then to be martyred. The soldiers followed through and ended her life as a martyr.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: December 6 – Nicholas, Generous, Wonder Worker, Anonymous Gift Giver


Nicholas knew the likely consequences of the man’s poverty–his three daughters would have no dowry and would not be able to marry because of it. If they couldn’t marry, then they would likely follow the same path that so many other poor, unmarried women did at the time: prostitution. This thought chilled Nicholas’ heart and so he devised a plan. Taking a significant portion of the wealth he inherited from his parents, he converted it to gold and divided the gold equally among three sacks. As day gave way to dusk and the frenetic activity of the street faded into yet more noisy memories, Nicholas left his home and began walking toward the home of the man and his three daughters.

That first night, he must have felt nervous since he wasn’t planning to be noticed. He waited until a group of people were walking down the street by the home and joined in with their gentle throng. He had spied the window of the home and noticed that it was open that night and would allow him the safest and easiest way to leave the gold. If he left it on the doorstep, it would likely be stolen but he couldn’t knock and hand it to them without being noticed. Instead, he waited as his group passed the doorway and tossed the sack through the window. The sack landed with a pleasant thud and the jingling of coins. The father picked up the bag to see what type of garbage had been tossed through the window and discovered that it was filled with gold. Immediately, his thoughts went to his daughters and he rejoiced that he was a little closer to providing a dowry for his daughters. His thoughts turned to fear, though, as he considered that surely this was dropped by some wealthy man walking the street and so he opened the door to find the man who would be frantically searching for his money. There was nobody left on the street. So, the father waited up several eager hours silently hoping against hope that this had been a gift and not an accident. Every step in the street drew the father from the home to see if it was somebody looking for the money but nobody ever came to claim the gold.

The next night, Nicholas took another sack of gold and waited for another group of people to walk down the street. He joined with them again and was glad to see that the man had left the window open again. Feeling that his work for the Kingdom of God was not yet done, Nicholas approached the window with the group of people again. He thrilled to know that he was making a difference in the lives of the daughters and their father but he still did not want to be found out. He tossed the sack through the window where it landed again in the middle of the room. This time, however, when the sack landed the father didn’t hesitate and bolted for the door. He already knew what was in the sack but he wanted to know who had again delivered such a wonderful gift. He gave chase to the cloaked figure and caught up with him. He spun him around and asked who he was that he should leave such a wonderful gift but the man only shook his head and said, “It wasn’t me. Some man gave me this coin and his cloak to run when you came out of your door.” With a subtle deception, Nicholas crept away into the night and again eluded the father.

The third and final night, the father had prepared and hid by the window. When the sack entered the open window, he would leap up and catch the man. Then, he would be able to thank and praise the man who had done such good for him. He waited as Nicholas approached but Nicholas had already detected the father’s plan. He climbed to the top of the house and took the third sack with him. There was no smoke coming from the chimney and so Nicholas knew his plan would work. He dropped the third sack down the chimney where it landed with a triumphant thud. Before departing, the father yelled, “Who are you that I might thank you for these great gifts?”

Before he disappeared, Nicholas responded, “You have nobody to thank but God alone.”The father did not try to follow after Nicholas for it was abundantly clear that he didn’t want to be found out. He took the money and used it to provide a sizable dowry for each of his daughters and to ease the poverty that had gripped his small family. For this wonder–and others–Nicholas is well remembered and memorialized. May we, too, be generous gift givers.

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Father’s Love

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It takes a surprising amount of forethought to carry a Reese’s peanut butter cup safely through a full day. Not only must you protect it from being crushed or getting dirty while you work and walk, but also you need to find a way to keep it from getting too warm and melting.  I’ve learned from Philip, a particular expert in this rare skill, that there are some tricks to making sure that the precious piece of candy makes it all the way to its intended recipient. First, you need to wrap it in a little tissue or paper towel to keep it from warming up too much in your pocket. Second, you need to put the tissue wrapped candy into a plastic bag and tape the bag shut. Painter’s tape from a side job is best, but most tape will do. Finally, when you find work, you should set the wrapped candy down on the porch or sidewalk underneath your pack of cigarettes—folks in the neighborhood might take your meticulously wrapped candy, but cigarettes are sacrosanct and require their own kind of invitation.

Of course, according to Philip, the most important piece of the whole process is what motivates the care and forethought: a laughing smile from a little girl at a big meal and maybe—just maybe—a hug around the neck.

Philip isn’t the only person we know in our neighborhoods that practices such loving care for our daughter, but he’s the one who best understands what kind of candy she prefers. Others have found their own particular ways to show their love for our daughter—Lisa made a gift of coins inscribed with the year of our daughter’s birth because Lisa’s father used to do the same for new babies in their family. Other community members insist regularly that surely it’s their turn to watch over her one night soon, or who put her to bed when we go late and both Jessica and I need to stay in the room. Of course, there are also Christmas and birthday presents from folks with little room in their budgets but much tenderness in their hearts. Certainly, our daughter will rarely refuse the opportunity to share a piece of cake with one of any number of regulars at our meals—she keeps careful track of who is most generous in their sharing, too.

Our daughter was born into, and has never known life outside of, intentional community and its peculiarities. She isn’t surprised when she is warmly welcomed by dozens of people at a big meal in a borrowed space. For her, this is simply the way life is. She may well walk up to the first friendly face she sees and offer them a sticker or leave a baby doll in their watchful care as she tries to find out where the other children are playing noisily. She walks with a three-year-old’s confidence through a crowd of folks who are glad to see her, even if they are actively struggling with injustices like homelessness, housing insecurity, hunger, poverty, and addiction. These folks—part of her extended and extending family—love her well and love me and her mother by doing so.

In the more-than-seven-years we’ve given to the work of Grace and Main, I’ve become convinced that other people know a lot more about what I believe than I do, because they can only see what my beliefs actually motivate me to do with my actions. It turns out that we live out what we really believe—we can talk a dozen different lives, but live only one. So, I’m really not sure what I’d do without all of these beloved people to teach my daughter what we really believe.

At the heart of it, my daughter and my neighbors are slowly teaching me how to follow Jesus in his greatest commandment: to love God with all that I am, and to love my neighbor as myself. What I’ve learned from my daughter and the way my community loves her is how these seemingly two commandments really are one, beautiful commandment. When we love others, we love their father. Every peanut butter cup that Philip protects all day not only makes my daughter laugh, but loves me well by loving her well. If I can feel this way, sinner that I am, then how much more must our heavenly Father know this beautiful, vicarious love

I give thanks for those who are teaching me to love a little better and who are teaching me to see my own meager offerings as a lovingly protected piece of candy. Maybe what I have to offer most days isn’t grand or profound, but is instead meant only to bring a quick smile to the one whom God loves and names as my brother or sister. Maybe that’s enough some days. Maybe I’m learning to trust that small things with great love really are the heart of our work. If I am learning that, it’s because I have the best teachers—the kinds that know how to protect a piece of candy all day and how to rewrite their own budget to make room for something beautiful, but not particularly grand.

God’s children fill our world and every day we have the unique opportunity to love them not because of what they have done or may do, but because they are God’s children. We have a thousand chances every day to love our neighbor and God in some small, almost unnoticeable way—and that ends up being more than enough.

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