Telling the Stories that Matter: August 25 – Genesius, Actor, Martyr, Convert


Genesius was not raised in a Christian family but he was a member of a class of people who were not highly esteemed or respected–actors and comedians. He sacrificed to the Roman gods and said all the right things but the Roman world seemed to offer him no opportunities to attain its great reward of wealth and a life of leisure and influence. Diocletian had made it clear that it would not be profitable–or even safe–to be a Christian but he had not been very clear on how anybody else could attain the rewards of the Empire. Genesius was an enterprising man and deduced that Diocletian would be making a rare trip to Rome to celebrate the 20th year of his rule and devised a plan. Knowing Diocletian’s hatred of Christians, he endeavored to work with his troupe and develop an improvisational comedy act mocking Christians and their rites. He expected that this would convince the Emperor to smile upon him and earn him the rewards of the Empire and so he cast himself in the role of the main character with the intention of viciously satirizing Christian practice.

Using his skills as an actor, Genesius was able to become involved in Christian circles to perform the research necessary to do the act well. He was taking significant risk to do so–Christians were being persecuted and arrested–but he knew that he could always offer sacrifice quickly if captured and keep his freedom. Genesius convinced the Christian leaders that he was sincere and began to be educated by them about what it was they believed and trusted.While a catechumen of the Church, he learned about the Church’s mysteries and rites–including baptism. The idea of sacramental rebirth by water intrigued Genesius who decided to focus the act upon this rite in particular. After he had received enough information to do the show, he stopped attending the meetings and classes of the people he had duped.

On the day of the show, the troupe was excited because Diocletian was present for the performance. Knowing that he loved comedy, the troupe knew that Diocletian’s amusement meant their success and benefit. They took the stage and the mockery commenced much to Diocletian’s delight. Genesius played a Christian in the catechumenate and his fellow actors played the stereotypes and comedic parts to the hilt. Subtle and not-so-subtle satire of the Christians pleased Diocletian as the actors must have been aware as they performed. Genesius–in character–requested baptism and an actor playing a priest came out from the wings of the stage area. Much laughter accompanied the baptism of Genesius but something changed as the water left the priest’s bowl and poured over Genesius’ head. Genesius saw a vision and all of his catechumenate came to bear upon his soul. He found himself painfully aware that he was mocking something that had taken seen in his heart and that he found himself truly to believe. He was being converted even as he mocked his newfound Lord and Savior. He had professed his faith in mockery but now it was made real as he found that the seed of faith planted by his time with the Christians had bloomed within him.

Actors playing soldiers came forward and gripped Genesius by the shoulders. They noticed that something had changed about Genesius’ demeanor who had stopped delivering lines and, instead, was staring into space at some unseen vision. They continued on with the play likely thinking that Genesius was planning some particular gag or, perhaps, in accordance with the maxim: “the show must go on.” They dragged him before the feet of Diocletian in the audience and presented him to the Emperor. Thinking it hilarious and excited to have a part in the show, Diocletian demanded the same of Genesius as he had demanded of so many Christians–denial of their faith and sacrifice to the Roman gods. Genesius looked up into the face of Diocletian and said, “I can deny neither my faith nor my Lord Jesus Christ.” Nervous laughter stole through the crowd and Diocletian looked to his aides with confusion in his eyes–he didn’t get it. The other actors froze knowing that Genesius had left the script–he was supposed to have agreed to the Emperor’s demands and make a mockery of all that had preceded and been said.

Diocletian did not like that he thought a joke was being played on him and so he had soldiers–real soldiers–come out and bind Genesius before the crowd. It may not be funny but he refused to allow some actor to rob him of his dignity and aura of fear and adoration. He demanded Genesius’ denial under threat of torture as audience and acting troupe looked on. Genesius responded: “There’s nothing you can do or threaten to remove Jesus Christ from my heart and my mouth. Once I mocked his holy name and now I detest and regret that time. I came so late to the Kingdom and cannot leave it now.” On Diocletian’s order, Genesius was beheaded and made a martyr. He had not received the rewards of Rome but he had received the rewards of the Kingdom of God. He had earned the Martyr’s Crown.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: August 21 – Abraham of Smolensk, Orphan Monk, Falsely Accused, Vindicated


Abraham was born to wealthy parents in the 12th century, so you might say he
was fortunate. However, his parents died when he was very young and he was left to live with others in Smolensk, Russia, who loved him but who could never replace his father and mother in his life. Abraham was raised in the Church and was familiar with its teachings from a young age. Perhaps, his guardians thought that the Church, with all its many brothers and sisters, could be the family that Abraham needed so desperately. In many ways, it was, but it never made up for his deceased parents and their absence in his life. When he was deemed “old enough” to make decisions about his family fortune, he could only think of one thing to do with all that wealth–he gave it to the poor, took up the life of a monk, and moved to the Bogoroditskaya Monastery. He grew into his calling and vocation and was known as a forceful and convicting preacher, as well as being a scholar of the scriptures and the Church’s teachings concerning the scriptures.

But what he was best known for during his service at Bogoroditskaya was his ministry to the poor and sick that always seemed to be growing. Abraham’s genuine affection for those in trouble and need made him stand out from the average monk at Bogoroditskaya at the time and attracted much attention to his compassionate care from both those in need and other clergy. We could offer many reasons why his upbringing and fatherless and motherless childhood led Abraham to care for such as those whom he loved, but one thing is for certain beyond all other things: whatever it was that formed Abraham, formed him to be more loving and more caring–to be more like his savior, Jesus Christ. Many of Abraham’s peers and colleagues at Bogoroditskaya became jealous of, or convicted by, his compassionate care and genuine love for those who were troubled. Consequently, they leveled charges of heresy and pride against him, insisting that what was genuine was actually corrupt. Abraham’s enemies had reasoned that it was better to put out the light he produced, than to have others see clearly what little light shone from their hearts. The wealthy condemned Abraham for preaching against poverty and greed. After all, when your god is your wealth or your security, then even love and grace must bleed upon your altar. So, an investigation was opened into the character and orthodoxy of Abraham. Abraham avoided the conflict by moving and joining the Monks of the Holy Cross.

But, the accusations followed Abraham and soon he was forbidden to preach. Even though two consecutive investigations acquitted him of any wrongdoing, he was stripped of all priestly functions by his bishop and sent back to Bogoroditskaya to be obedient to his superiors and abandon his ministry to the sick and poor. But, soon a drought gripped Smolensk and the people cried for the Church to pray to God to grant rain to the city and its
fields. When the Church assured the people that it would though, the people demanded that Abraham be asked to do so because they knew personally what great love Abraham held for them. Because of the outpouring of support, the bishop reopened Abraham’s investigation, cleared him of all charges, and renewed him to his priestly role and ministry to the sick and the poor. After Abraham prayed with the people for rain, he hadn’t made it back to his cell when the first drops of rain began to fall on Smolensk. Abraham spent the rest of his life teaching and caring for the poor and the sick, because he had learned the power of love in the lives of those who need it so much. Abraham the fatherless and motherless had become father and mother to so many in need of God’s love and grace and that had made all the difference in the world.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: August 14 – Maximillian Kolbe, Martyr, Prisoner #16670, Lover of Life


Maximillian Kolbe was born Rajmund Kolbe in part of Poland that was, at the time, part of the Russian empire. His father–Julius–and mother–Maria–moved the family around in an attempt to find both freedom and a measure of stability. They worked a variety of jobs before Julius enlisted in a Polish force that hoped to fight and gain the independence of Poland from Russia. Rajmund and one of his brothers decided to become priests and did so by sneaking across the border into Austria-Hungary. There, they studied in seminary in preparation. When Rajmund took the vows that began his process of becoming a priest, he changed his name to Maximillian. This was, in a way, a new birth into life that was free of Rajmund’s fear of the Empire and the oppression it so easily dealt in. It was a turning point for Maximillian.

Eventually, Maximillian would be ordained a priest and he would return to Poland. However, now Poland was a free nation andMaximillian was a spiritual leader who knew how best to resist an Empire. This would come in handy when, years later, the Third Reich began to sweep into Poland bringing death and destruction to Jews, outcasts, and those who resisted the Empire. Maximillian used the radio station he had founded and supervised to vilify the encroaching Nazis. Further, he used the resources and buildings at his disposal to provide shelter and sanctuary to more than 2,000 Jewish refugees. He refused to submit to an Empire that demanded submission or torturous death. This kind of resistance to the Empire was, is, and will always be noticed by the powers. Consequently, the Gestapo came–hiding behind their titles and uniforms that were supposed to make their evil actions legitimate–and arrested Maximillian. He was shipped to prison and, then, to Auschwitz.

They tried to strip him of his identity. They did not call him Maximillian–his chosen Christian name. They did not call him Rajmund–the name his family had given him. They called him prisoner #16670. They hoped that they could quell this resistance by crushing the spirit of one who refused to submit. Whereas they could have used their power and simply killed him, they hoped to crush his will and make an example of him. In the case of Maximillian, they failed.

Eventually, one of the men in Maximillian’s block was found missing. The Nazis were enraged at the idea of a person escaping their exquisitely crafted hell and their rage flowed out in a series of commands: ten random people from that block would forfeit their lives as punishment–by starvation in a locked bunker. They rounded up ten men and paraded these condemned ones before the inhabitants of Auschwitz. They proclaimed the cause of their death–the “missing” man who would later be found dead in a latrine–and hoped to spread fear through the people like a poison to destroy their hope and capacity for cooperation with each other. The Empire dealt in terms of death and was skilled at wielding it willfully.

One of the men–Franciszek Gajowniczek–cried out in fear and desperation for his wife and children that he would leave behind. The hearts of the Nazis were not moved but the heart of Maximillian was. Maximillian stepped forward and volunteered to die in the man’s place. Maximillian–lover of life that he was–hoped to purchase the life and future of another man with his own excruciating death. The Nazis agreed to this for whatever reason and led the ten men into a bunker, locked the door, and gave the men over to death and desperation. Maximillian led the condemned in songs and prayers while they slowly died from starvation and dehydration. After three weeks of torturous death, Maximillilan and three others were still alive and still singing and praying. They were weak and they were, most assuredly, dying and yet they were offering love to their executioners. The guards removed them from the bunker and injected them with carbolic acid. They died there on August 14th, 1941. Though the Nazis dealt in death and believed themselves powerful, Maximillian dealt in love and life and knew the true power of a redeemed heart willing to make sacrifice for another.Maximillian died that day but he resisted and defeated an Empire that couldn’t begin to comprehend the redemption and conversion at work in Maximillian.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: August 4 – John Vianney, Priest, Confessor, Shepherd


John Vianney was not a well-educated man. He had been born to a family of poor peasants near Lyons, France. He briefly served in the military before deserting. He greatly desired to be a priest because of the heroic quality of the outlawed ministers who would supply spiritual sustenance and succor under threat of arrest, imprisonment, and even death. Yet, he was not a learned or well-read man. His inconsistent education combined with his relative lack of academic intellect suggested that the priesthood was not an appropriate profession for him.Regardless of his suitability for the profession of priest, John was ideally suited for the calling and vocation of priest.

He was, eventually, recommended for ordination–although, it was with great hesitation that the bishop agreed to assign him. He was not learned like other priests but he was sincerely interested in taking care of people and providing spiritual support and formation. In 1815, he was finally ordained. In 1817, his bishop assigned him as the parish priest of a small village–Ars-en-Dombes–where he was expected to live out a life of obscurity and do little damage. Even though the bishop failed to see John’s potential, God was calling John to do great things.

Even though it was clear that his advisers, friends, and supervisors felt that his was an unimportant calling, John understood his parish to be a flock of people thirsty for life-giving water. Though he was unable to do much education on abstract theology or erudite books and theories, he repeatedly poured himself out for his flock. His people talked among themselves and wondered if he ever slept since they were aware that he was constantly visiting members, officiating over the work of the Church, and engaging in his own spiritual formation. Though John’s sermons were simplistic and far from eloquent, they spoke with the power of a man who truly believed that love was stronger than death. John’s every action and movement became a powerful sermon about sacrifice, love, peace, and hospitality.Though the world had labeled him insignificant and his parish unimportant, John devoted himself to the ministry of loving these people with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength.

John would hear confession on some days for up to 18 hours. His skills with confession were laudable and his investment in his people reaped dividends in their own spiritual formation. By being devoted to their lives–day in and day out–John gained a familiarity with them that allowed him to move them in confession and formation. He helped call out their sin and weakness and moved them onward to greater growth and devotion to their common Lord and Savior. This unlearned man knew little of books but much of people and holiness and lead onward calling his flock to follow into the Kingdom of God.

As John continued his ministry at Ars-en Dombes, this unimportant town became a center of people seeking compassion and care. For those who sought healing from the world and their own self-initiated slavery to sin and destruction, John offered a hand to hold while Jesus Christ freed and redeemed them. John never quite understood what all the fuss was about and why so many people wanted to honor him and never would. For John, this was simply what being a priest meant. Though John was not martyred–in fact, he died of natural causes–it’s true to say he repeatedly laid down his life not only for his friends, but also, for his enemies. John lived a life worthy of remembrance and emulation. Miracles and feats accompanied this gentle and soft-spoken shepherd but, for John, the greatest miracle of all was God calling greatness out of the insignificant and unimportant.

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Found

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One evening earlier this year, I was giving a half dozen folks a ride home after a particularly fine meal at one of the Grace and Main hospitality houses. We had had one of our perennial favorite meals: chili with baked potatoes, tortilla chips, plenty of shredded cheese, and more black coffee than you’d likely think reasonable. The potatoes had seemed to bake all day and the chili really had been in the crockpot since about 7 that morning. The coffee was extra strong, just like our folks tend to like it – especially Todd, who counts strong, black coffee as one of a very few things he cannot live without. As I snaked through the neighborhood in the golden minivan we call “Lee,” dropping friends off at their homes or a nearby store if they wanted to get some shopping done before going home, I turned the radio on and began to lapse into a silent reconsideration of the night’s activity interrupted intermittently by contented conversation and warm “seeya laters” as we dropped off each friend.

For whatever reason, I just couldn’t get past the noise and activity of the night’s meal. I had heard so many words, both joyful and despairing, and I couldn’t really find a way to make sense of them all. I look forward to our shared meals, but I often find that I come away with a heart full of other’s worries and fears to mix with my own. I love our community and what we get to do and participate in, but it often brings me into communion with heartbreak that I simply can’t explain away.

I recalled a pair of conversations about shelter: one friend who had new, stable shelter for the first time in a long while; the other friend who had unexpectedly lost their shelter because of a crooked deal with a predatory landlord. Another one of our regulars had had to remind me about how he needed some clothes and I had promised to find some for him with a local partner. “I forgot,” I confessed, “but I can do that tomorrow if you like.” I made a note on my phone, but I continued to turn it over in my mind.

A new guest at our meals, who had only been eating and praying with us for a little over a month, had been especially boisterous at the meal and seemed eager to prove himself to the gathered crowd. With a pat on the shoulder, one of our longtime regulars had quieted his nerves and invited him to share a cigarette on the porch. A few of our developing leaders had let me in on some of the neighborhood news that hadn’t yet reached my ears and alternately gave me a laugh and caused some mild concern for a neighbor who might be sick.

All of this was undergirded by the constant chorus of my dear daughter doing animal noises on request, with special attention given to lion and dinosaur roars. The noise of the meal and the many conversations followed me into the van that night. I decided to drop Todd off last, because we don’t always take the most direct route and because he enjoys the quiet. “Maybe in that companionable silence,” I thought, “I might find some meaning in all of the noise.”

So, we rode along with the radio on and paying little attention to whatever forgettable song was playing. As we rounded a familiar corner on the way to Todd’s apartment—the apartment we had helped him move into after we helped him and other leaders get their slum apartment complex shut down—Todd clapped me on the shoulder with a big grin and said, “The Spirit just came over me, Josh.” Just a few seconds later, with the hint of laughter at the foundation of his deep, bass voice, he added, “You know how that happens sometimes?”

Shocked out of my hurried recounting of the night’s activity, I worried that I had missed something in my inward reflection. Anxious that I might have missed some holy moment and eager to catch up, I stalled with the first question that popped to mind: “Just now?”

“Yeah,” Todd responded, with a quiet, common place confidence. “Yeah, just now,” he repeated through a satisfied smile.

“What did the Spirit say, Todd?” I asked, eager to keep Todd talking and hoping that maybe Todd had the words to make all of the disparate parts of our night stick together.

“Nothing much,” Todd admitted, nearly laughing, and added, “just a feeling that it’s all okay, you know?”

“Yeah,” I responded, thoughtfully, and not sure I really did get it. At least not in the same way that Todd did. In the midst of all of the noise of the night, Todd hadn’t found the Spirit like a golden thread running through a dozen conversations. He hadn’t found the Spirit in the holy intersection of God’s lavish providence and the world’s inexhaustible need. He hadn’t found the Spirit in the voice of a friend or a stranger, waiting for him there with a truth of which he needed to be reminded. No, the Spirit “just came over” Todd.

Todd didn’t find the Spirit, the Spirit found him. And when it found him, it didn’t draw meaning out of the noise – not this time – but left him with a wordless confidence in the goodness of all that had come before and all that was coming. In my search for a word or words to ponder in my heart and make sense of our work, I missed the wordless Spirit that came over Todd. But to my great benefit, Todd was paying attention and willing to break silence to share something holy. Todd is teaching us to listen to the hum of a dozen conversations and a noisy, shared meal and know that the Spirit is saying everything will be okay, even if we can’t find the words — especially when we can’t find the words.

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