Telling the Stories that Matter: January 19 – Absadah, Martyr, Priest

The persecutions that Diocletian engineered within the Roman Empire are still looked back upon with a sickly amazement. Diocletian engaged in a dance of death that was meant to bully and coerce Christians into denying their faith or simply failing to live it out. Either of these options was fine by Diocletian since his goal was the termination of Christ’s followers and both outcomes poisoned and assassinated Christian faith. Of course, if they wouldn’t do these things, then they would die at the hands of the Empire in an attempt to lessen the number of influential Christians. This is where Diocletian failed to understand his enemies–the death of a martyr may have weakened the weak but it only strengthened the faithful.Further, it propelled the martyr’s story into public consideration because of the oddity of their willing death. Since most the martyrs died willingly and most died without offering any resistance, the people who witnessed or heard about their deaths began to ask the questions that led to eventual faith. Every time the Empire punished and killed a martyr they only spread the Christian infection further.

Absadah feared the coming wave of persecution in Egypt and fretted regularly about how to address it when it finally arrived in his small town. He had been fine being Christian when it only cost him little things and occasionally inconvenienced him. He was a priest of the Church and felt a particular pressure to lead his flock in the trying times that were clearly approaching. But, when it was going to cost him his life, he balked a little. When the decrees swept through his part of Egypt, he became anxious and frightened. He ran home and he locked himself in. His earnest hope no longer rested in a resurrected savior but now rested in a barricaded door and the chance that they might not find him if he made himself hard to find. He had barred the door against any intrusion and crept into a place of seeming security so that he might keep his life. Then something miraculous happened.

Jesus appeared to Absadah who was amazed that any could enter into his home. Speaking to Absadah Jesus said, “No security can repel me, Absadah, and no persecution can truly kill me for I am the resurrection and the life.” Absadah was immediately aware of what he had been doing–trading faith, hope, and love for security, chance, and fear. Jesus called Absadah to live the life he had already committed to live as a servant and disciple of life and love itself. So, Absadah’s security was infiltrated by Jesus and left him with only two options: deny his faith or learn again to trust the God who had been executed. He left his home and went to the officers. He turned himself in as a Christian and set an example for his little flock. They arrested and tried him and found him guilty of trusting a power of which the Empire did not approve. He was beheaded outside of Alexandria to frighten others–but they only succeeded in spreading a gospel that proclaimed life to the dead and hope to the frightened.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: January 14 – Nino, Slave, Missionary, Preacher


Nino felt a calling to go to Iberia–in fact, she had had a vision commanding her to take what little she had and travel east to the land that would eventually be known as Georgia. But there was one very significant impediment to Nino’s missionary calling: she was a slave and, according to the Roman powers, her life was not her own to direct. She had quite a pedigree being related to notable and powerful leaders both within the Church and without it, yet she had been taken captive from Armenia and brought to Constantinople as a servant. However, this did not lessen the intensity of her calling. The words of Mary in her vision still rung in Nino’s ears: “Go to Iberia and share the good news that is accomplished in Jesus Christ. I will take every step before you do and be your shield against enemies you’ll know and some you’ll never know. Take a cross and plant it in a land to proclaim salvation and life through my beloved Son and Lord.” So, somehow–some way–Nino risked much to leave and do God’s work in a land where she had no connection.

When she crossed the border into Iberia she began looking for a town–any place where people would congregate–and she settled there. She planted the cross she carried into the ground and began preaching a Gospel that so few had heard in the little town. The fires of conversion caught in the tiny town and soon Nino’s message was spreading into the larger cities and eventually arriving in the capitol. When the queen heard Nino’s message she was transfixed and requested an audience. Nino–the slave–went to speak with the queen and share a faith that depended upon a crucified king. When she arrived, she discovered that the queen was ill and not responding to the cures of the greatest of the royal physicians. Nino offered a humble but earnest prayer on behalf of the queen and she was healed.The two women conversed. We don’t know what was said but the queen was converted and this created a pathway to speak with the king. The king was tolerant of his wife’s conversion but was not personally persuaded that day. It would take another set of circumstances.

The king–like so many other members of the royal class–had a passion for hunting. One day while he was in a nearby forest, he descended further into the forest than he had ever traveled. Soon, he was surrounded by unfamiliar streams and rocks and realized that he wasn’t entirely sure how to find his way back out. He began tracking his path to discover his escape when he was suddenly struck blind. Lost deep in a forest, blinded, and surrounded by animals that would eventually overcome their timidity to inspect and perhaps kill a disabled man, he began to fear for his life. His thoughts flew to Nino and Nino’s God and he prayed a simple prayer: “Jesus, if you are indeed God like the slave says, then save me from my darkness so that I might abandon all other gods and allegiances to follow and worship you.” With the sounding of his “amen” his sight returned and he beat a hasty retreat to his palace. When he arrived, he called for Nino and was converted. Soon thereafter, Christianity became acceptable in Iberia and was no longer punished.

The king and queen were taught by Nino but Christianity was exploding in Iberia and the king recognized that more teachers and ministers were needed to accommodate the needs of the growing community of Jesus’ disciples. Emperor Constantine sent a bishop and ministers to Iberia and a great church was built there. Nino could see that the Church had gained a foothold in Iberia and so she retired to a small hermitage in the mountains where she could again devote herself to prayer and service. When she died, the king built a monastery by her grave and continued to tell the story of the slave who had freed a kingdom.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: January 7 – Lucian of Antioch, Martyr, Theologian, Falsely Accused


Lucian had received a good education and his desire was to share it with others who felt a calling to the theological life. He had been born to Christian parents with enough money to provide him with a classical education and train him further in theology. Following in the footsteps of his parents, he was active in the Church. Further, he had a significant impact as he served in different roles within the ecclesiastical structure. He was ordained as a relatively young man by the congregation in Antioch and opened a school of theology. His students were well-trained and accepted by congregations of Christians throughout the Roman Empire but somehow he became associated with Paul of Samosata. It might have been because of accusations from opponents or it might have been based on spurious evidence but, regardless, Lucian’s name was connected to Paul’s. When Paul’s theology was labeled suspect–and eventually heretical–Lucian’s reputation and influence were crippled.

Since he was rumored to be heretical, his students were less accepted by other Christians. Then, since his students were experiencing difficulty, prospective students soon found other teachers. For nearly twenty years, Lucian struggled through false accusations and mistaken impressions. As he did so, his own personal spiritual life deepened and intensified. Years later when Church historians would look back at him they would insist that Lucian had been better known for his Christian practice than for his Christian theology and that is saying something since Lucian was one of the chief proponents of literal reading of the scripture in juxtaposition to the allegorical readings suggested by the Alexandrians (in the tradition of Origen). It wasn’t that Lucian felt that figurative reading was a poor practice but, rather, that literal reading was essential in understanding some passages that otherwise might be glossed over and their powerful meaning missed. In his attempt to insure that the words of the scripture not be avoided or not be overlooked, he taught a literal reading that allowed the scripture to speak powerfully and directly when appropriate.

Eventually, his students were accepted again and his reputation was cleansed by continued piety and faithful Christian practice. False accusations simply could not stick to Lucian over the long term and melted away when faced with the intense heat of his personal devotion to Jesus. But once his school of theology was regaining its notoriety and influence, it attracted the attention of the Emperor. As Maximian’s persecutions continued, Lucian was arrested. Unlike many of the Church’s martyrs, it was not a short process for Lucian. Over a period of nine years he was tortured as the Empire hoped to manipulate him to deny his faith. Every time they asked over nine years, Lucian refused to deny his faith–a faith that had already cost him dearly and would likely cost him even more dearly if he continued to refuse. Finally, the Empire tired of their efforts and executed Lucian with little pomp or show.

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When It’s Hard to Breathe

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Tasha has been sick off and on for quite some time. Many days, Tasha can be found on her front porch carefully considering the distinction between having trouble breathing and urgently struggling to breathe. Even with oxygen tanks, some days are too difficult and she ends up going to the emergency room if she can get a ride, or calling an ambulance if she can’t. Some nights, Tasha wakes up gasping for air, no longer wondering if it’s “bad enough” to go the hospital yet and simply rushing there by any means necessary. It’s so hard to think about long term solutions, when it feels like you can’t breathe.

After prayers one Sunday, a group of us went to visit Tasha in the hospital. It had been a hard weekend for her, but Tasha’s first words when we showed up were surprisingly apologetic: “I’m so sorry I couldn’t come tonight,” she said, “I really wanted to be there.” We assured her that it was no problem and that we completely understood, even as we took her hands in ours. Tasha’s husband, Carl, admitted sheepishly that he had slept through the service after a couple of long days and nights in the hospital. We patted him on the back and told him he had nothing to worry about. After all, this was the man who once walked over 140 miles one week to be with his sick wife when he couldn’t find a ride the hospital she was in. It’s so hard to make it to prayers, when it feels like you can’t breathe.

As a group, we settled into what we do best: talking, mostly about little things but occasionally about big things too. We talked about the hospital food until Tasha felt like talking about her health or something else that was more pressing, but slower to spring from her lips. It’s strange how an aimless conversation about the relative qualities of cornbread can prime the ears for listening and the mouth for talking about seemingly relentless illness. Tasha offered the dessert from her dinner tray, a single piece of white-frosted, red velvet cake, to Roland, our community’s “Minister of Prayer.” Roland had insisted on coming to the hospital, even though last time we went there it had been to visit him when he was recovering from a surgical procedure. As Roland ate the cake with companionable gratitude, Tasha waded into her own fears about the future. It’s so hard to start talking about things that really matter, when it feels like you can’t breathe.

She promised, again, that she was going to quit smoking. She acknowledged freely that years of cigarettes were likely a part of her failing health, even as she admitted that she had tried before and failed to quit. “But we can do it this time,” Carl insisted. Carl, who is no stranger to the bonds of addiction and the freedom of recovery, offered a renewed hope that some might call naïve, but we’ve learned to call loving. It’s so hard to think about recovery, when it feels like you can’t breathe.

“Yes,” Tasha offered with a touch of resignation at the edges of her voice, “we can.” She continued, “I really want to, but it’s so hard!” We nodded our agreement and held space with Tasha so that she knew she could continue to talk and we’d continue to listen. Over the years, we’ve learned that so much of life in community—a life that is truly shared—is about patient silence as those to whom we’ve pledged our lives and time find the words to wrap around something larger than all of us, but not more powerful than the love of God in us. “This time I’ll do it,” Tasha promised us. We’ve found that community thrives in the fertile soil of trusted promises and generous forgiveness. But, it’s hard to make and keep promises, when it feels like you can’t breathe.

Tasha was tired, but she wanted us to pray with her before we left. Before Roland could begin his prayer though, Tasha wanted to go through her own prayer list and all those who rested heavy on her heart and mind. She wanted to pray for Todd, and Todd’s mother, of course. She wanted to pray for her cousin, who had just lost a daughter. She wanted to pray for the church she attended some Sunday mornings as they searched for a pastor. She wanted to pray for a friend on the street who had struggled with addiction and mental illness and was said to be sleeping outside again. She wanted to pray for a young family that had moved into the neighborhood a couple blocks north of her and especially for their daughter, who rumor said was very smart and a good student. She wanted to pray for my daughter, too. She wanted to pray and give thanks for her marriage and for Carl’s love for her. Finally, she wanted to pray for the strength to quit smoking.

With her community around her, Tasha found that she could still pray, even when it’s hard to breathe.

So, we prayed. Roland lifted all of Tasha’s requests and more in his prayer as we anointed our sister with oil blessed at prayer that afternoon. We marked Tasha’s forehead with the sign of a cross and the prayers of those who loved and missed her. With a few parting jokes, we left so that she and Carl could get some rest. “I didn’t miss prayer after all,” she called to us over the quiet hiss of the oxygen, “you just had to bring it to me.”

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