Telling the Stories that Matter: November 16 – Hugh of Lincoln, Bishop, Monk, Reformer

Hugh hadn’t asked for power. He had been content in his positions of leadership within the Carthusian monasteries of England. He had been born in France and raised in a Christian family. He loved to tend to the garden near his monastic cell and to live the life of prayer and reflection that characterized the Carthusian life. As people recognized the natural leader within him, he was appointed prior of a monastery and, eventually, prior of a larger monastery. It became increasingly clear that Hugh had been set apart to lead but Hugh never sought power for the sake of power–he was content to be a monk and follower of Jesus and didn’t feel any need to dictate, command, or control.

Henry II was still doing penance for the murder of Thomas Becket. As part of his penance, he was ordered to establish a Carthusian monastery in England but it had experienced quite a bit of trouble in getting started. The first prior had retired without building the monastery and the second had recently died. Henry knew that he was expected to find a prior who would establish and strengthen the group so he sent a group to go and bring Hugh to England to lead this group of unorganized monks. Hugh and the Carthusians knew that this was a dangerous thing–to go to the country that had murdered Thomas and lead a monastic movement–but it was agreed that Hugh could do great work for the Kingdom so Hugh went willingly with a touch of anxiety.

Hugh found that there had been negligible leadership at Lincoln before he arrived. Not only was there not a monastery building but there were no plans to build one. He organized the monks to work together and campaigned with Henry to provide money to them. He insisted that if Henry truly wanted a Carthusian monastery in Lincoln, then he would have to help support them as they established themselves. Realizing that this was the kind of leader he had recruited, Henry supplied an official charter to the Carthusians and helped to fund their endeavors. Further, he was known to attend their worship services when he was nearby.

Eventually, Hugh was elected bishop of Lincoln by the king and the king’s people. He thanked the king but refused to accept it until he could meet with his colleague and they could vote. Hugh wasn’t keen on allowing a king to command the affairs of the Church. Hugh’s colleagues agreed and Hugh became bishop of Lincoln. As bishop, he was not afraid of the king, however. He remained convinced that the king had no room to command or dictate Church policy and did not hesitate to exact Church discipline upon errant members who were connected to the king.Their relation to the king of England did not absolve them from their sins, he insisted. He resisted the king’s appointments to ecclesial positions and even refused some of the king’s direct orders. All of this was done in a culture that keenly remembered the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. Hugh had no fear, however. Further crusading against the culture, Hugh was known to condemn violence against the Jewish people of Lincoln and England. The Jewish people soon learned that they were safe with Hugh.

By the end of his life, Hugh had made it very clear that he wasn’t the average bishop. He had resisted the commands of a king and a kingdom that had shown no hesitation in murdering people like him before. He stood by his commitments because they were his calling. Indeed, he had not asked for power but when given the yoke of leadership, Hugh did not balk or hesitate. He understood that leadership and power were not things to be sought for selfish gain but things to be used for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God and in service to the will of God.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: November 11 – Martin of Tours, Soldier, Defector, He Who Clothed Jesus


Upon his horse, Martin was clearly visible to the crowd through which he rode. The people knew a little about this man who had been raised in a military family of high regard. They knew that his father and father’s father were respectable men. They knew that his cloak and symbols designated him as powerful and influential. Some even knew that he had been meeting with Christians in one of the churches that had been recently been legalized. Martin was legally allowed to attend but it caused a degree of uncertainty in so many of the common citizens of the Empire. These thoughts traveled through the minds of the crowd as they looked to see what this powerful and influential man would do in their presence. Martin’s eyes and mind were in an entirely separated location–on a man who seemed to have fallen on terrible times.

The beggar barely had enough clothing to cover his nakedness. He looked weak from hunger and exhaustion. Most people in the crowd passed over him quickly because he made them uncomfortable. He was “somebody-else’s-problem” and they felt he probably had more problems than they could count or determine.They salved over their discomfort with rationalizations that allowed them to avoid this destitute beggar in mind and sight. Yet, Martin couldn’t look away. His heart burned at the sight of the nakedness of the man and he wondered if there wasn’t something he could do.He was astounded at the way people ignored and avoided the man and wondered if itwasn’t possible that he was seeing things since it seemed that this man was invisible to the crowd. The words of his Christian friends echoed in his mind and he was moved to help. He dismounted his horse, drew his sword and cut his cloak in half. He gave half of the split cloak to the man. The man accepted it wordlessly but with a smile.Not knowing what else to do, Martin mounted the horse and rode off wondering what he had just done.

That night, while he slept, he had a vision of Jesus standing among the angels wearing the given half of the cloak that Martin had split. Jesus pointed at Martin and said to the angels, “See, this is Martin. He is the Roman soldier who hasn’t been baptized but who has clothed me.” Martin woke with a start and considered what he had seen. It had an immediate impact upon him that he couldn’t shake. He shared it with his Christian friends and they reminded him of the passage of scripture that insisted that Jesus would be among the poor, the sick, the prisoners, and the naked. He rejoiced with them in his encounter with their Lord. He was slowly being changed. He finally requested to be baptized and his Christian brothers and sisters did so gladly and with much joy. As the glow of his vision and baptism began to fade slightly, however, he soon began to be burdened by his profession of soldier. He struggled with this for nearly two years before the call was made for all soldiers to prepare to go to battle the Gauls. Martin went to his commander and dropped his sword in the dirt and said, “I am a Christian. I cannot do as you command. I cannot fight.”

The commander ordered him jailed and mocked him before the other soldiers. He questioned what kind of faith Martin held that would prevent him from fighting for the Empire. The commander didn’t understand a faith that wanted to love enemies and promote peace even at the cost of death. He jeered at Martin and tried to undermine the calling that Martin felt. As people labeled him a coward and questioned his courage, he responded:“I’m not afraid to die. I’m afraid to kill. Send me into battle unarmed–even at the front lines–and I will go gladly but I will not kill my enemy. I am called to love them.” His commander responded with a sickly smile and agreement to send Martin forward on what was clearly a suicide mission. Yet, that night the opposing army changed its mind and sued for peace. The battle never happened and Martin was released from his bondage as a soldier. He went from there to become a monk and lead others along the path of faith that he followed.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: November 3 – Martin de Porres, Dominican, Almoner, Devotee of Love


Martin was the child of Spain’s domination and conquest of the Peruvian people. His father was a Spanish nobleman who denied any connection to young Martin. His mother was an black former slave who had been taken advantage of by Martin’s father. She raised Martin and his sister Juana in poverty and to the best of her meager abilities. Though there was often a lack of money and food in the family, there was never a lack of love among those who shared a roof with each other. Their poverty was influential and therefore Martin became a servant boy to the local group of Dominicans. He was of mixed race and they were hesitant to accept him (and it would be many years before they would accept him fully) but he steadily rose through their system and was eventually the almoner of the monastery. As almoner, it was his duty to disburse the alms and funds of the monastery to the local poor. When it became clear that Martin had a gift for hospitality, he was also put in charge of the infirmary. Martin didn’t try to do great things but instead focused on loving people. He brought a cup of water to the poor and to the sick with the intention of relieving a need but in the cup of water they often found healing. It wasn’t Martin’s intention to do great things but his loving spirit effected great changes. It was this same loving spirit that came out as the primary force in his life time and time again. His devotion to love is what made him saintly.

When he was young, he truly was a servant at the Dominican monastery. The priory that he was associated with underwent some considerable financial distress when he was still the servant of the monastery and not fully a member. The debts that they had accrued became an unmanageable burden for the brothers. As the brothers gathered to discuss the serious and precarious situation they were surrounded with, Martin intruded upon them and said, “I am only a poor mulatto, sell me. I am the property of the order, sell me please!”The brothers were shocked that he had come in and offered his freedom to purchase their own.In Martin they saw that the ethic of love and sacrifice was more primary than his desire to be free. They did not choose to accept Martin’s offering and found another way to avert their disaster but Martin’s words echoed in their heads for years to come as a testimony of the primacy of love over freedom.

Martin had a habit that wasn’t expressly forbidden but was not smiled upon by his fellow Dominicans. His love of the poor and the disenfranchised seemed to extend beyond that of his brothers. In fact, one evening he was stopped by a brother after he had been observed escorting a sick and dirty person into his own room and giving him rest and comfort in his own bed. As he entered again into the hallway to go and fetch some food and water, the brother said that he had gone too far. “That man will dirty whatever he touches–including your own bed.” He looked loving into the eyes of his brother and responded, “Compassion, my dear Brother, is preferable to cleanliness.Reflect that with a little soap I can easily clean my bed covers, but even with a torrent of tears I would never wash from my soul the stain that my harshness toward the unfortunate would create.” Without saying another word, the brother walked away with Martin’s words echoing in his ears, again. Martin had made it clear that, for him, love was more important than preference,cleanliness, or comfort. The brother walked away wishing he could say the same for himself.

In many of the places where Spain conquered, disease followed in their footsteps. Peru was no exception. Martin’s heart was broken for the sick and the needy in the streets. He understood that the monastery doors were locked for a rational reason: to protect those inside from the contagion that crept through the air to lay low the rich and the poor. Yet, the rationale was not enough for Martin who would unlock the doors so that he might take care of the sick. In doing so, he was being disobedient to his superiors even though he had vowed obedience. This was no little matter and eventually his superior approached him to say that this must stop. He was ordered to stop being disobedient. To this, he replied in a small and humble voice:“Forgive my error, and please instruct me, for I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity.” In doing so, he was not being passive-aggressive to his superior but, rather, articulating the implications of what his superior was teaching. He was willing to be obedient as long as it did not require him to subvert his calling to love. His superior withdrew the request to stop and insisted that love was, in fact, more important than obedience to superiors.

Martin died in Lima, Peru, in 1639. He was widely acclaimed as blessed and a healer of the sick and unfortunate. His life had proclaimed the power of love and in death he was united with the God that is Love.

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Love Found in Faltering Steps

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I don’t like to be late, but nearly eight years of running on “Grace and Main time” may have had some effect on my punctuality. So, when I pulled my car into the street parking near a certain apartment building, I was not only in a hurry, but also anxious about it. As was often the case during this season in the life of the neighborhood, I was met by several kids at my car door. No longer worried about tardiness, but newly worried about the flow of traffic through the neighborhood and whether or not the kids were watching it, I grabbed my bag and made my way to the stairs to answer their myriad questions. Their many different questions (What we were going to have for dinner? Did I bring my frisbee? When was the next big meal was?) gave way to one most pressing and important question: where was my daughter?

Satisfied for a moment by my answer that she was coming with her mom in a minute, the kids went back to playing while I helped set up for a community meal on the front lawn of the apartment complex we affectionately call “Big Blue.” When my daughter arrived, the kids were excited for her to join their games, but were reminded by her unsteady toddling that she was still learning how to walk. Leaving their game to the side, they eagerly took turns holding her tiny hand and walking slowly with her from one end of the lawn to the other. They showered her in praise for her faltering steps, rejoicing not in her speed at walking but in her willingness to try and get up after falling. In fact, they were so fascinated with her progress that they had to be reminded to eat over and over again. These children with whom I’ve shared numerous meals have found a variety of ways to love me, but none have been as dear to me as walking carefully with my daughter from one end of the lawn to the other.

Robert was at the meal that night, too. It was courageous for him since he had relapsed just a few days before the meal. He had hoped nobody would notice that he was using again, but he was too near and dear for us not to notice. You can’t help but notice somebody’s faltering steps when you’re holding their hand. As my daughter walked back and forth across the lawn, Robert found a corner of the porch to eat his burger by himself. I knew he didn’t want to talk about his relapse—he’d said as much just moments earlier—so I enjoyed my hot dog and potato chips a few feet away in silence. Not knowing what else to say and not wanting to force Robert into a conversation, I waited until I’d finished my meal to pat him on the back as I made my way to the compost and trash. “We love you, brother,” I insisted, “and we’re glad you’re here.” A few weeks later, Robert was ready to try again at sobriety. It didn’t stick that time, either. But, just last month, Robert celebrated two years clean and sober. We rejoiced not in his speed at recovery, but in his willingness to keep trying.

But it’s not just Robert and my daughter that need hands to hold. Living in community has meant a lot of things to me over the last several years, but perhaps the most surprising has been how uncomfortable it can be to be known so deeply and personally by so many. There are those parts of me that I’d like to hide away from those who love me so dearly, but community makes it hard to hide. My tendency to take things too personally and grumble to myself about others, my reflexive desire to try to make people like me, my desire to control others to ease my own anxiety, my habit of trying to “figure people out” instead of just sitting with them, my own selfish pride—all of these broken parts of me feel like jagged edges primed to hurt those I love the most. I’m pretty sure I could hide these things away if it weren’t for the fact that we’ve given ourselves to each other in the bonds of community, in shared life, work, and prayers. I’m going to stumble, I’m going to hurt others both intentionally and unintentionally, I’m going to want to quit some days, and I’m going to fail.

But, God has surrounded me with people who will hold my hand as I learn to walk across the lawn. They are so dedicated in their love of me that they’ll need to be reminded to eat. These good people—like Robert—rejoice over my faltering steps. When I sit in the grass and refuse to get back up because I’m tired of trying and failing, it’s people like Robert who will sit still with me in silence until I’m ready to try again. It probably won’t stick this time, either. But sometimes miracles happen, as Robert testifies by way of word and action.

There are so many ways for us to love God, but I think I know God’s favorite: holding the hands of God’s children and walking carefully with them. Love is so much more resplendent in our faltering steps.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: October 27 – Clarence Jordan, Farmer, Founder of Koinonia Farm, Opponent of the Status Quo

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary had hosted many people before Clarence and would host many after him but Clarence Jordan was something different. In 1938, Clarence had just received his Ph.D. in New Testament and felt equipped to do whatever it was that God was calling him to. The challenge, of course, is that what had seemed so clear for so many years was suddenly cloudier. This further calling had descended upon Clarence as he studied the scripture and would not let him go. He was challenged by what he read and translated and would not allow himself to rationalize away its scandal and strength. Clarence was challenged and rebuked by the stories he enveloped himself in and found his increasing discomfort with the status quo a powerful witness to the possibility of redemption.

Clarence had been raised in a small city in Georgia named Talbotton. It seems that Clarence was always disgusted with the racism that he found everywhere he looked. Further, he was confused by the poverty of the communities around him. He didn’t get why “the way things are” included a lack for people that the Church claimed to love and care for. He didn’t get “the way things are.” He studied agriculture at the University of Georgia so that he could use his mind to carry knowledge back to the people who needed it but couldn’t afford to go and get it. In other words, he hoped to be a vessel of grace and equality for a people so far from the source. This was his path–taking farming knowledge back to poor rural farmers–for many years but he was changed when he began to see a more essential and more fundamental problem: the spiritual roots of poverty.

Not wanting to simply apply a bandage to a wound with a deep cause, Clarence went to Southern to learn and prepare to address spiritual concerns and the spiritual foundation of the system that fed on the lives of the poor. It would be no use to fix the symptoms of the problem if the disease of a broken system was allowed to incubate within society. With degree in hand and his new wife, he moved back to Georgia to begin his life’s work–to continue in the path of God’s calling. He and his wife joined with former American Baptist Missionaries to found a community called “Koinonia Farm.” This community was racially equal. Further, they rejected all violence and materialism. They lived together sharing everything and invited any who were truly willing to take up their cross to come and live and work on the farm. This was not received well by the powers in Georgia. They were investigated. They were harassed and threatened. They were called Communists. Yet, they didn’t seek recourse in political power. Instead, they insisted that the only way to change the region, the nation, and the world was to live out a different life in sight of the “the way things are.” They lived equality instead of demanding that others do so. Their impact is not easily overstated.

Clarence translated the New Testament into English in a translation called the “Cotton Patch” translations. For Clarence, the process of translation was about more than words or phrases but also the context of the scripture. In the Cotton Patch Gospels, Jesus was born in Gainesville, condemned by the politicians in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and was lynched. This was a powerful difference that challenged people in new ways. The scripture as Clarence translated it was not something you could simply put down and out of mind. It stuck in your brain because it shared your context. Clarence was a prolific writer and translator until the day he died in 1969.

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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.

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