Telling the Stories that Matter: April 29 – Catherine of Siena, Mystic, Monastic, Betrothed to Christ


The boy was talking very fast and trying his hardest to impress his six-year-old sister Catherine. He knew it was his job and duty to not only take care of her but to entertain her as they walked back from the home of their older and married sister. Catherine was the youngest of twenty-five children since her twin had died shortly after birth and was a treasure to the family. So, he joked with her and told her stories so that the journey home might be a little easier on her. When he turned to see why she wasn’t responding to his best jokes and funniest voices, he noticed that she was no longer walking beside him. Like a good brother, he was instantly terrified that he had lost his youngest sister. He began to look around frantically while yelling at himself for his negligence and carelessness. He was gripped by that horrible combination of certainty that she must be nearby and confidence that an awful mistake has been made that will exact a terrible cost. When he didn’t see her in the immediate area he began to sprint back on the path they had been traveling. He finally found her standing in the middle of the road and staring up into the sky with tears streaming down her face.

He knew that those tears–probably tears of fear at being lost, he suspected–would purchase his punishment with their father and so he began to think of a way to dry them up along with any story Catherine might be tempted to tell before they got home again. He called her name sweetly but she didn’t adjust her gaze away from the blank spot on which it was focused. He became frightened and called out to her louder and more harshly yet she still mouthed silent words with her eyes focused on some invisible subject. When he grasped her hand, she suddenly gasped and seemed ripped back into the world she shared with her family and the rest of humanity. Six-year-old Catherine began speaking of seeing the throne of Heaven with Jesus seated upon it. Around him were Peter, Paul, and John and they joined together with others in worship. The little girl who was nicknamed “Joy” by her family had been overwhelmed by the joy that radiated from the communion and unity of that glorious scene. Even telling it to her brother had an infectious nature and when they got home her family found this to be a miraculous vision of things unseen. This little girl would commit then and there to a life of devotion to the one who had inspired such joy and peace by his mere presence. She would go on to become a leader in the Dominican monastic movement among the devoted laity. Her appointment was not without controversy but it is undeniable that she was called to and suited for this position of service.

When she grew older she was pushed toward marriage by her family. They had raised her in the Faith that they professed alongside her but it seems that Catherine’s childhood vision had faded in their minds over the years while it still burned white hot in her own. When they began to speak of marriage and betrothal, she took a shocking action and cut her long, beautiful, golden-brown hair to a strikingly short length. She was punished for this act and forced to do menial tasks around the home and denied the solitude and silence she craved so eagerly.Yet, it was through this punishment that she learned to find solitude within herself–deserts that could not be denied to her and always held the promise of the presence of God. Eventually, she had another vision wherein she was brought up to heaven by Jesus himself. Once there, she was betrothed to Jesus. He slipped a ring upon her finger to seal her as his and she was taken back to the world she knew and shared with her family. From that day onward she said she could always see the band upon her finger even as others claimed that nothing was there.

Catherine answered a calling to devote herself to her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In doing so she became an advocate of reformation within the Church that called clergy and leaders to hold themselves to a high standard even as they called others to join with them in this standard of excellence and service. She would write numerous letters and treatises on the mystical life of communion with Jesus and the way of love that she knew as the way of her Faith. She cared for the sick and the plague-stricken with her own hands and walked with many weeping and mourning families as they escorted their loved ones to the grave. The little girl who had been inspired by a vision of joy and communion spent her life on others in a way that brought this joy and communion a step closer in her own world.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: April 23 – George of Nicomedia, Martyr, Beloved of Diocletian, Hero

Geronzio had been a servant of Diocletian before Diocletian had risen to the status and rank of emperor in Rome. He had served Diocletian loyally and had gained his respect and admiration. He was, however, a Christian and though Diocletian knew this he did not expect Geronzio to change his allegiance as long as Geronzio did not openly betray him. Geronzio was also married to a woman named Policronia. The two of them had used their connections and influence to elevate themselves to a noble status and to shore up possessions and wealth. They used this wealth and status to provide comfort and aid to their brothers and sisters in the Faith and to prepare their newborn son–whom they named George, meaning “worker of the land”–for his life and whatever it might hold. As George grew in age and education he also grew into the faith of his parents and his many new brothers and sisters that came to his family’s home for services of worship and communion.Tragically, Geronzio died when George was fourteen and within three years Policronia had taken that fateful step beyond mortality and into life more ideal and true. George was among many who were like family to him and he was the inheritor of his family’s considerable wealth but he was without direction and no longer had his father as his mentor. So, George went to the man who had so loved and favored his father: Diocletian.

George became a soldier under Dicoletian’s watchful care and guidance. Diocletian was heartbroken when he heard of Geronzio’s death but was overjoyed at the prospect of guiding George’s career and continued service to Rome. He was aware that George was a Christian but underestimated George’s allegiance to his faith. Eventually, George was promoted to the rank of Tribunus and set upon a career that would likely end up with him in a powerful political position within the Roman empire. Further, he served as one of the Emperor’s personal guards and soldiers–living into Geronzio’s favor with Diocletian. While in this position he had many opportunities to use his wealth and influence to better the lives of those with whom he came into contact. At one point he arrived in a village of non-Christians who had taken to a bloodthirsty ritual of human sacrifice. They would cast lots and the young woman who was indicated by the lots would be sacrificed to appease the dark god they feared. When George arrived he was stricken at the ruthlessness of such a ritual and stopped them in the midst of their ceremony of slaughter. He spoke at length with not only the leaders but the assembled crowds and told a story of a God who did not demand blood and death but had, instead, given blood and died so that we might be forgiven. At his words, their hearts turned and they abandoned their ways of death and many came within the fold of the Christian faith. They gave over their allegiance to a slaughtered and risen Lord and gave up faith and hope in slaughter and domination. For this he was labeled a hero because he had slain the dark beast that dwelt within them and brought them into the way of life more abundant and free.

Tragically for both George and Diocletian, Diocletian began to be swayed by Galerius and his own fear of a loss in power. Having heard so many lies about the Christians, Diocletian issued a command throughout the army. All soldiers were to give a sacrifice to the roman gods and values to demonstrate their allegiance and deny any faith in the Christian God. Those who refused were to be executed as Christians and traitors to the Roman army. Diocletian was stuck deciding between his beloved friend George whom he knew as a Christian and the power he hoped to consolidate with this bloody edict. He begged George to renounce his faith and offered him great gifts of land, money, and slaves if he would give his greatest allegiance to Diocletian and Rome. George refused and still Diocletian begged. Diocletian still offered him his most persuasive gifts but George did the incredible by giving away all that he already owned to the poor and to the Church that he had served so eagerly and willingly. He was tortured and finally he was beheaded so that Rome might make a statement about power. Eventually, George was turned over to the executioners with many other Christians for torture and death.However, Rome and Diocletian also made an unintentional statement about the faith of the Christians of whom they made martyrs. George died in good company and died so that others might know there was more to death than a grave and more to life than comfort.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: April 18 – Apollonius of Rome, Martyr, Apologist, Not Afraid to Die


Apollonius had spent years in study and was strikingly familiar with the major philosophers and schools of thought in the second century Roman empire. He had converted to Christianity because of the witness and testimonies of the early Church members but had continued to study the beliefs and convictions of those he had left behind and hoped to bring to faith with himself. He was a Roman senator and knew that his power brought a modicum of protection with it. He knew that there was a law against being a Christian but he knew two other things, as well: 1) the Roman rulers would not simply betray him without cause, and 2) he was called to share the grace and love that he had freely received. Eventually, one of his slaves betrayed him as a Christian to a praetorian prefect by the name of Perennis. It’s likely that Perennis and others knew but they were turning a blind eye to Apollonius’ faith because they had no desire to enforce the law upon their friend and respected colleague–they were comfortable enforcing the law upon “the little people” who didn’t matter but feared what might happen if the laws were enforced fairly and equitably. So, Perennis had Apollonius arrested so that he might come to trial. He also had the slave’s legs crushed as punishment for forcing the hand of the Empire.

As Perennis brought Apollonius to his trials he pleaded with him to renounce his faith–even if he “didn’t mean it”–because those in power were all too willing to find him not guilty of the crime. He reminded Apollonius that the punishment for being a Christian was death and insisted that the right course of action for a senator like Apollonius was to renounce his faith and maintain his influence and power in the world. When Apollonius refused to apostatize before the court he was given over to the senate of which he was a member to be tried by his peers and–hopefully–dissuaded from his faith. This was the moment that Apollonius had been counting on and so he shared his faith with the whole senate. He knew they would give him a charitable ear because of their respect for him and that his arguments–well crafted by many years of education and the passion he now felt for life and truth because of his faith–would be heard without interruption. He ended his great testimony by praying, “O Lord Jesus Christ, give us a bit of your spirit so that we might be helped to obey your teachings to: make peace over anger, join in pity with others and for others, temper our desires, always increase in love, put away our sorrow, cast aside our foolish pride, not love vengeance, and not fear death. Help us to trust our spirit to God the Father who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit now and forever.” Perennis couldn’t understand why Apollonius wasn’t taking the easy and reasonable way out of death and yelled at him, “Are you determined to die today?”

Apollonius responded, “Oh no.” He continued, “I very much enjoy life but my love of life does not make me afraid to lose it. There’s something better waiting for me: eternal life! There is something better given to the person who has lived well on earth.” He admonished the listening crowd to cast aside their pride and self-obsession but they were unwilling to pay the price of faith. He was convicted for his crime not because the senate was willing to convict one of its own but because he was unwilling even to pretend not to trust God. For his crime his legs were crushed and he was decapitated. He died a martyr who had been given a rare chance to preach the Gospel to his executioners.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: April 10 – Gregory V of Constantinople, Martyr, Patriarch, Archbishop


Georgios Aggelopoulos was born to a poor family in Dimitsana, Greece, in the year 1746. Like so many of his contemporaries, he seemed destined for a fairly forgettable life comprised mostly of hard work, limited rewards, and devotion to the Church–this ended up being true but not quite in the way that we might expect. Georgios received a decent education but his own natural talents and aptitudes propelled him forward so that he was able to study in Athens for two years. His uncle was an influential man in Smyrna, however, and arranged for Georgios to receive a high quality education there not because of any ability to pay but rather because of his surprising intellect and in spite of his many obstacles. Georgios’ family expected that he would go on to a career in academic circles and this would have been a surprising career for one of his background. Yet, it was his commitment to the Church and monastic spirituality that would hold most strongly when presented with other callings. Georgios became a monk and took the name of Gregory. As a monk he finished his education before becoming first a deacon and eventually an archdeacon in the Church in Smyrna.

At the time, the metropolitan of Smyrna was a man named Prokopios and under his guidance, Gregory was ordained a priest and designated the aid of the bishop. In 1785, Prokopios was selected to become the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. This meant moving to Turkey and being an Eastern Christian leader in the heart of the Ottoman empire. The Ecumenical Patriarch was a representative not only of Christianity but also of the Greek people. However, when Prokopios was elected patriarch, Gregory was ordained as a bishop and installed as the Metropolitan of Smyrna. By all accounts, he was an able and gifted metropolitan who seemed intimately concerned with the pastoral care of the people in Smyrna. It comes as no surprise then that he was the successor of Prokopios as Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in 1797. In many ways, this was a drastic change. He left behind Greece for the heart of the Ottoman empire and with his departure lost many of his securities and protections. As the patriarch, he was forced to deal with Turkish leadership that resented not only him but all of the people he represented. Approximately one year later, Gregory was deposed from his position by the Muslim leaders of Turkey and banished from Turkey. He took up residence at a monastery on Mount Athos and devoted himself to study and prayer. In 1806, after a change in politics by the Turkish leadership, he was once again appointed Ecumenical Patriarch. His second appointment lasted approximately four years before he was once again deposed and deported.

It was in January of 1819 that he returned to Constantinople for the third and final time. As the Christian leadership of a resented Christian population, he continued to anger the Ottoman leadership. In March of 1821, Greek citizens began to violently resist Ottoman domination of Greece and blood was spilled by both sides. Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II demanded that Gregory suppress the Greek violence against Turks in Greece. Gregory did what he could to make for peace but it did not come. As the Ecumenical Patriarch and the ethnarch of Greeks in Ottoman Turkey, he was held responsible for the violence and the uprisings that would later be known as the beginning of the Greek revolution. Shortly after worship ended on Easter Sunday in the year 1821, Ottoman soldiers arrested Gregory from within the sanctuary of the church where he had just celebrated Easter. He was dragged to the edge of the city in his clerical vestments and hung from the gate in retribution for the acts perpetrated by the revolutionaries against the Ottoman authorities. His body hung there for three days as an example before being drug through the streets and being cast into the Bosphorous. His body was recovered by a sailor and given a Christian burial. In his memory, the main gates of the Patriarchate compound were welded shut in 1821 and have remained so since then.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: April 4 – Martin Luther King, Jr., Martyr, Preacher, Dreamer

The audience in Mason Temple was justifiably enraptured as Martin Luther King, Jr., preached yet another gripping and inspiring sermon. As he moved to conclude the sermon his mind–and the minds of the audience–were drawn once again to the weapons and bombs that were threatened and used against them.Martin’s flight to Memphis for this cause had been delayed by yet another bomb threat.He concluded the sermon, “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.” As the imagery settled, he continued: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.” This would prove to be a dark foreshadowing of the limited time left on earth for Martin. He finished“And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”With these words, Martin ended his sermon and went back to room 306–a room he had stayed in often–at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Martin led countless individuals in the struggle for civil rights in the United State of America. He was one of the founders of the influential Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and gave direction to people looking for a way to resist the powerful and abusive parts of the American power structure. They marched and met and slowly raised the consciousness of the American people in relation to the struggle that they were undergoing simply for equality and justice. One of the foundational tenets of Martin’s leadership was the philosophy of nonviolence. This philosophy led to many sit-ins and passive forms of resistance which proved to be especially powerful in a nation where media were looking for a story. He drew the inspiration for how he might best resist nonviolently from Jesus, Gandhi, and the writings of Howard Thurman. With each nonviolent protest, they were met with violent opposition from those who hated their very existence. They absorbed the wrath and evil intentions of their enemies and offered them something resembling love and forgiveness in return. As the violence escalated, Martin and those who followed after him suffered even more. But the power was found in the increased awareness of the rightness of their side and the wrongness of their enemies as their enemies perpetrated great evil in an attempt to remain powerful. In other words, the nonviolent protest of Martin and his people provided a canvas upon which the inherent, institutional evil could take form and be recognized. With every blow and wound they received they gave witness to the evil that motivated such injustice.

Martin was a preacher and recognized the power of the spoken word both to inspire and provoke. It seems that at every stop he would be in a church preaching to a capacity crowd about the inherent spirituality of what was going on. The civil rights campaign was not his only cause. After much reflection his nonviolence extended into his political life and he became a leader in the cause to end the Vietnam war. This did not gain him any popularity among the powerful–many of whom he had already offended–but it did help to ease his own conscience as he considered what his faith and calling demanded of him. He preached and he taught and in so doing he excited the joy of his audience and the antipathies of his opponents. So many of them were regular members and attenders of a church but saw no problem with the injustice and evil that they supported. Martin’s preaching demanded awareness from those that supported him and those that resisted him. He didn’t just help reform American political attitudes. He began the process of reforming the Church in America and around the world.

At 6:00 p.m. in the evening of the fourth day of April–in the year 1968–Martin prepared to leave room 306 and go to another church to preach another sermon in support of the sanitation workers in Memphis. By doing this, he was further living into his conviction: “true compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar….it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” As he stepped out the door he turned to the musician who was with him–Ben Branch–and said: “Ben, make sure you play Take My Hand, Precious Lord in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” At 6:01, a shot rang out and a bullet entered Martin’s head and settled in his spinal column. The man who had received the Nobel Peace Prize for working through nonviolence and civil disobedience to end racial injustice was gunned down in Memphis on his way to preach a sermon commanding love for enemies. He died a martyr and was buried shortly thereafter in a funeral that was widely attended. According to his wishes, nobody talked about his many awards or degrees but, rather, his wife chose to play a recording of a recent sermon in which he said he’d rather be known for being a man who tried to “feed the hungry”, “clothe the naked”, “be right on the war question”, and “love and serve humanity.” As the preacher got one more chance to preach–an honor he would have indubitably enjoyed–Mahalia Jackson sang Take My HandPrecious Lord and a nation laid to rest a martyr and prophet.April 4 – Martin Luther King, Jr., Martyr, Preacher, Dreamer

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Donuts and Coffee

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I’m always amazed at what donuts can accomplish. There’s always a little anxious energy in the hour before one of the occasional events that we host. That energy is amplified when we’re having an open “work day” at our Urban Farm. It’s always hard to say what the weather is going to be like and we’re rarely certain just how many people will show up. Our February work day with CBFVA congregations and personnel was no exception. As the members of Grace and Main gathered early to go over the plans one more time before everybody got there, there was still a faint, anxious buzz. So, we did what we’re good at.

We put out cider donuts made hot and fresh that morning. We put out the big coffee pot and some creamers, including some cashew milk shared with us from the neighborhood when they heard we were going to have a work day. We laid out extra gloves and stacked some tools against a nearby tree. We checked to make sure we had remembered to bring prayer books for our guests to use before lunch. We kept an eye on the hill that we knew the vans would soon come down and made sure bottles of water were cold and there was sunscreen set out for those who forgot theirs. In short, we practiced hospitality and let the donuts and coffee get ready to do their part of the work.

Our little, intentional community has committed itself to the practice of hospitality, (among other things). But hospitality is not only opening our homes to provide space for others to rest, eat, and share life. It is also about opening our lives and making room for the other—whether they be people experiencing homelessness, people in need of a listening ear or a cup of coffee, or vanloads of volunteers who are coming to work in our gardens. Hospitality isn’t only something we provide, but is something we receive as well. We receive hospitality when we find a seat on somebody’s porch and catch up over tea, or when we are welcomed into a neighborhood by people whose family has lived there for generations, or when loving hands plant seeds though they may not see the produce when it is harvested.

When the first vans came down the hill, I said a quick, silent prayer of thanks and hope. As they unloaded, found the bathrooms, marveled at how incredible the donuts were, and refilled their coffee cups, the buzz of anxiety faded—the donuts had once again accomplished something amazing. Friends from Roanoke, Oak Level, Richmond, Halifax, and Danville began good work planting hundreds of seed starts in our greenhouse. Many of the seeds they started will end up in gardens all around the city, not just the gardens at the Urban Farm. We cleared brush and prepared the part of the property that will soon become a neighborhood “commons.” A few lovely people helped us to put gutters on the new tool library and get our rain water catchment system installed to make sure that our gardens have plenty of water. A host of fasting teenagers—nearing the end of their “Thirty Hour Famine”—built a stone and dirt swale to redirect water toward our new retaining pond. These good people collected stones from ditches, steadily removed trash from a hillside, and helped us to participate further in what God is doing in our midst.

We stopped for midday prayer before lunch and gave thanks for all that had gone well that day and all that was still yet to happen.  We joked and laughed and daydreamed about other things that we could do on the land. We talked about how the mushroom logs produce mushrooms, about the process to change our city’s zoning codes to allow for our work (and now the work of several other gardens), about how many years it takes the asparagus to come in, about beneficial weeds and insects, about the praying mantis egg sacs we found and carefully transplanted to the garden, and about favorite and least favorite vegetables (mine are asparagus and cauliflower, respectively, if you’re interested).

At the end of the day, we waved goodbye to these people who gave a Saturday to good work. With bent backs and dirty hands, they had given thanks for food to eat and people to share it with, even if their hands might not touch the harvest. As the vans ascended the hill away from us, I marveled at how much work they had accomplished in a part of one day and about the careful balance between the slow and steady work to which we’ve committed ourselves and the sudden, short presence of friends from all around. As it turns out, hospitality isn’t just donuts and coffee; it’s also sometimes about welcoming people to participate in community even for just several hours and giving thanks for that offering. We gave thanks for the generosity of congregations and partners around the state who have supported our work with their time, prayers, encouragement, and financial support. There weren’t any donuts left in the box, but they had done such amazing work.

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