Telling the Stories that Matter: February 23 – Polycarp, Martyr, Apostolic Father, Bishop


Polycarp had only been a child when he had been introduced to the man by the name of John yet he knew that this man was important. He gave him his attention because his parents seemed to be amazed at the man and when he did this he began to hear John speak words that amazed him. Soon, Polycarp had converted to the faith of John the Apostle and had become a follower of John’s Lord–Jesus Christ. Further, he began taking teaching and guidance from John in how he might also be a man of God who faithfully pursued God’s calling upon his life. He never was a philosopher or an especially educated man but he had the benefit of spending much time with not only John but also Papias and Ignatius of Antioch. Soon, he was a leader within the Church–even without a philosophical education–in one of the most trying and challenging times in the history of the Body of Christ. It seemed that all who wanted it could claim to be the true Church that was established by Jesus. There was no clear distinction what was and wasn’t orthodoxy and many were led astray by teachers who, knowingly or unknowingly, taught their opinions as Jesus’ opinions. Polycarp relied upon the teaching and guidance he had received from John to discern right teaching from wrong teaching. Then, he used his natural gifts and talents to teach and guide others to avoid heresy. In this way, Polycarp was father to many.

One of the men that Polycarp taught and mentored was Irenaeus who would go on to grow Polycarp’s investment of time and attention by guiding the Church through another challenging and nebulous time of his own. Polycarp’s love for Irenaeus quite literally changed the world even if Polycarp himself never saw or knew it. Looking back, this kind of love and devotion is what differentiated Polycarp from his opponents. While there was much argument it was not always full of love and compassion. Polycarp on the other hand seemed to be genuinely affected and transformed by the faith that held him. He was not brilliant or well educated but he was sincere and loving and this lent weight to his arguments. The marks of transformation on his life suggested that he had truly consumed and been sustained by the Bread of Life and the life-giving water of Jesus’ teaching. When he told the story of what God had done in his life people were inspired to hand their lives over to the same God he followed. He led by example and not simply be beautiful, rhetorical flourishes.

When he was an old man (as old as ninety years by some estimates), he was arrested for being a Christian by a government that was growing increasingly hostile to those who were devoted to another power. On some level he had seen this coming for Ignatius and John had already been murdered for their faith. He was accused of being Christian and, ever sincere and honest, he gladly admitted that he was–he could see no reason to be ashamed for his faith. They gave him an opportunity to deny his faith in public or be executed. He responded: “How am I supposed to blaspheme my King and Savior? Do whatever you will.” They did whatever they willed by building a large pyre of sticks and flammable items. They tied him to the top of it and prepared to drive nails through his body so that he might not escape. He smiled at the worker and assured him: “Don’t worry about the nails. The God who gives me strength to endure the fire will give me enough to sit still without your help.” They didn’t nail him down but they must have expected him to cry out once the pyre was lit. Yet, he didn’t. Instead, it seemed that he was unscathed by the flames as he prayed and sang hymns. The crowd looked on amazed and many would be converted because of this sight but his executioners were enraged that he didn’t have the courtesy to die screaming like they had hoped he would. Finally, they stabbed him in the chest with a dagger and he died as a martyr.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: February 11 – A.J. Muste, Pacifist, Minister, Nonviolent

A.J. Muste was an immigrant to the United States of America, as the 19th century slowly became the 20th, but he didn’t have much say in the matter as he was only six years old when his parents moved from Holland. He received a fine education and was a proud resident and citizen of the nation of his parents’ choosing. He graduated with honors first with a bachelor’s degree and eventually with a master’s and doctoral degree. As he matured, he became increasingly involved in social causes even as he tried to figure out the question of his own spiritual calling. He was especially involved in the labor movement and helped organize disenfranchised workers together so that they might negotiate with their employers for a safer and better job. As was expected, he received much resistance from the circles he had been raised in and in which his parents circulated. Yet, he was convinced that he must do something for those in need of help and for the cause of justice and fairness. So, he was willing to sacrifice a good reputation for his convictions.

Eventually, he became a minister in a congregational church but he was committed to non-violence after his experience of World War I and the people whom he met with and with whom he conversed. This was an odd stance for a man such as A.J. but it became a hated stance as he persisted in it through the years approaching and including World War II. But, he was convinced that God had called him to a way of peace and nonviolence that revoked any right he felt toward self-defense or preemptive violence. By A.J.’s reasoning, there was no just war and so not even World War II could be rationalized or accepted. When a son of a member of the congregation where was pastor died in the war, he did not veer from his intended topic for the Sunday sermon: “The Futility of War.” It was another opportunity for him to raise his famous question: “The problem after a war is the victor. He thinks he has just proved that war and violence will pay. Who will now teach him a lesson?” By A.J.’s thinking there was no time when war or violence would pay or would be acceptable. When he had saied this, he must have known he would suffer for it. That afternoon the congregation called a meeting and voted to terminate him as their pastor.He, his wife, and his children were forcibly moved out of the parsonage that night and had to find somewhere else to live.

He remained a minister, associated finally with the Quakers, and committed to nonviolence even if it had cost him his job. He was at one time an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr. and considered an authority on nonviolent resistance. He and his colleagues and associates were arrested repeatedly for hopping fences at military facilities, paddling their boats into nuclear test sites, and sympathizing with those whom the State insisted they hate and fear. For these things, A.J. received and still receives derision but he could not more veer from these convictions than he could stop being who he was. He had become an advocate for peace and nonviolence at all costs and had proven repeatedly that he was willing to lay down anything for a chance at peace. If it is true that the peacemakers are blessed–and I do believe it so–then surely A.J. Muste has a share of blessedness for his refusal to abandon the way of peace even in the face of adversity.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: February 2 – Cornelius, Centurion, Recipient of Visions, First Gentile Convert

In Caesarea was a man name Cornelius. Cornelius had a life that people desired–he was a centurion among notable soldiers–but something felt out of place in his life. He prayed as best he knew how and he gave alms because he suspected it was right. He was eager to live the best life he possibly could. Then, one afternoon, he had a vision: a messenger from God came into his home and called out to him. Cornelius was petrified in fear of the angel but was able to muster up enough courage to ask, “What is it, Lord?”

The angel said, in a voice both soothing and discomforting, “All your prayers and gifts offered in ignorance have made their way to God. So, send some people to Joppa to find a man named Peter–they’ll find him in the home of Simon the Tanner–near the sea. After God’s messenger faded into the crowds surrounding Cornelius’ home, he called two of his servants with a shaky voice and one soldier who was like him in prayer and the giving of alms. He told them what had happened with a mix of fear and hopeful anticipation and then sent them to Joppa to do their part in the unfolding story.

Meanwhile, Peter was in Joppa, by the sea, at the house of Simon the Tanner and he went to the top of the house to pray at about noon. As he was praying, hunger gnawed at him and demanded to be sated but as his thoughts turned to food for his body, his thoughts were turned to a vision from God. He saw the clouds parted and a great swath of fabric being lowered down like a heavenly picnic. On the sheet were many different animals–fat and ready for slaughter. He heard a voice that sounded like it could be his own or it could be the voice of Jesus saying, “Get up, Peter. It’s time for you to kill and eat.”

Perhaps thinking this was a test, Peter said, “You know I won’t do that, Lord. I don’t eat what you have labeled unclean.

The voice insisted, “If God has made it clean, then don’t call it unclean.” In Peter’s vision this exchange happened three times and then the sheet and all its food were gone in a flash. Peter puzzled over the vision all throughout his lunch and then all throughout the rest of the day. As he replayed the vision in his mind, he suspected that God was trying to tell him something. He was still puzzling the vision when Cornelius’ men arrived at the gate of Simon’s house looking for him. He heard a voice again say to him, “Peter, there are three men outside who are waiting for you. They’ve come because I sent them to you.”

Peter was eager to find some resolution to all of this and so he hurried down to the gate and said, “I’m Peter. Why has God sent you?”

They responded, “Cornelius has sent us to find you. He is a good man who fears God and is highly respected among the Jews. He received a vision and one of God’s messengers told him to seek you out and hear what you have to say.” Peter took the men into the home and made them his guests and when the sun rose again, he and some of his fellow Christians went with the men back to the home of Cornelius.

Eventually, they reached Caesarea and found that Cornelius had prepared quite the event and audience to hear Peter’s words. As Cornelius’ messengers went out seeking Peter, he had become anxious and eager to hear what words might come. So eager was Cornelius to know how and who he should worship, he fell at the feet of Peter and offered worship on the spot to Peter. Peter tapped him on the back and said, “Not me Cornelius. I’m human just like you.”Cornelius led Peter in to meet the audience and when Peter saw all the ones gathered to hear him, he remarked, “You all know well how Jews do not associate with other nations and have strict laws concerning purity. Well, God has shown me that no person is unclean.So, when Cornelius sent for me I came quickly without knowing why. I was responding to God’s guidance, what were you doing?” Hearing this, Cornelius told the story of the vision and the message and asked Peter if he would be so kind as to share what God had laid upon his heart.

So, Peter cleared his throat and said: “I know well that God is not partial to nations but instead looks at the hearts of individuals. But as for the word he sent to Israel–the good news that Jesus is Lord of all–you already know what happened in Judea and how it began with John baptizing Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus was anointed and went about doing good things and casting out evil and the enemy wherever he went. You saw it and so did I. They put him to death by crucifixion thinking it would be an end of him but he was raised again on the third day. After this resurrection, he appeared to many and he was close to us again. He told us what it is that we should do: preach to the people and bear witness that he is the one called to judge the living and the dead. After all, it was Jesus that all the prophets talked about when they said that all those who trust in him receive forgiveness from sin through his name.”

But there was more to it than words. While Peter was speaking, the Holy Spirit fell on Peter and upon the audience and redemption and salvation came very near to the audience who found themselves transformed by the gospel message of forgiveness and life in the face of sin and death. The fellow Jewish Christians that came with Peter were surprised to see Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit. But they couldn’t deny that the gentiles were speaking in tongues and offering praise to God who had made Jesus Lord of all. Peter turned to his fellow Christians and said, “Surely none of you can hold the baptismal waters hostage from ones such as these men and women who have heard the good news and been filled with the Holy Spirit.” So, they were baptized in the name of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and Peter remained with them for a while.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: January 29 – Jacques Bunel, Martyr, Priest, Opponent of the Nazis,


We know that Jacques Bunel was born Lucien Bunel but we know remarkably little else about his childhood. We know that he became a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Carmelite order and took the name Jacques de Jesus.Jacques served as a minister of the Faith he confessed and loved by becoming headmaster of a school in Avon, France. This school was known as Petit Collège Sainte-Thérèse de l’ Enfant-Jésus. From this refuge he would engage in the activities that make him laudable but also cost him his life. As the Nazi scourge swept through Europe, Jacques found a way to resist the Nazi empire nonviolently and in a way that would save lives. Jacques began his revolutionary life saving by offering three spots at his school to three Jewish boys whom he helped assume false identities and names. These three boys were named Hans-Helmut Michel, Jacques-France Halpern, and Maurice Schlosser and would be part of the reason that the Nazis would eventually murder Jacques. Had Jacques known that protecting these three boys would cost him his life it seems that he would have done it anyway. Unlike many other clerics and Christians, Jacques was not blind to the atrocities being perpetrated and was willing to risk everything to be on the side of the righteous and loving. Looking at the faces of the children he protected, Jacques knew he was offering refuge to his savior.

Jacques’ sacred work did not end with the three students–like any holy work Jacques’ life saving gathered momentum and soon pushed him onward toward more of the same. He found a way to shelter a boy named Maurice Bas by providing him with a job at the school and a new identity.Maurice Schlosser’s father was running out of places to hide and so Jacques found a home in the village that would serve as a nearby but disconnected refuge for the man. Finally, he dared another sacred moment when he brought Lucien Weil–a famous Jewish botanist–onto the faculty of his school. Having brought at least six people within his protective power, he knew that it was only a time until the Nazis cracked down upon him. That day came on January 15, 1944 when the Gestapo arrested Jacques and the first three boys he protected. Within the next month they had arrested the others that Jacques had worked to hard to protect. All were shipped away to work and death camps. When told he was being arrested for disobeying the law, Jacques responded: “I know only one law: that of the Gospel and Charity.”

The boys and Lucien Weil died in Auschwitz. Jacques was transferred from camp to camp before ending up in Mauthausen in May of 1945. Wherever he went he was known as optimistic and hopeful for liberation. Further, he encouraged his fellow prisoners to share their food and encourage each other. Often, he would go without food so that others might eat. This was near the end of the war and liberation was steadily coming to the camps as the Allied forces beat back the Nazi empire. When Mauthausen was liberated Jacques did a curious thing. He was suffering from tuberculosis and weighed less than 80 pounds when the liberating forces came but he insisted that the others be liberated first. He waited until he knew that all others had gone before him before he consented to be liberated from the hell that the Nazis had engineered for him and other innocents. He died from his illness before he ever made it back to France. His body was shipped back to the school he loved and buried on the grounds of the refuge God had gifted him so that he might try to protect others. Those whom Jacques protected were still murdered by those whom Jacques resisted but he offered love and protection as a testament to the right place of the Church in opposition to great evil. Jacques died a martyr whose death confessed greater allegiance to the Kingdom than to himself.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: January 24 – Babylas of Antioch, Martyr, Prisoner, Buried in his Chains

Babylas had been a leader of the Church in Antioch. In fact, he was presiding over the Easter vigil and services in the year that the emperor Philip tried to coerce the Church into siding with him. Philip had feigned faith for years and continued to worship the civil religion when he thought he could get away with it. The Church was willing to have him show up but was not willing to make him an object of worship or adoration–when he walked through the Church doors he was nothing more than another sinner seeking grace. In Philip’s case, it’s dubious that he was ever seeking grace and much more likely that he was interested in covering over his political machinations with the clothing of the Church. Babylas was unwilling to allow it.

When Philip came to the vigil, Babylas met him at the door and tried to save him some shame. Philip asked to be let in and Babylas shook his head sadly and said, “You can only enter if you’ll come as a penitent.” Philip was uninterested in taking the position of one seeking forgiveness for and healing from sin. It would lower him to be with the people whom he ruled and would not give him the honor he was so confident he deserved. When Philip insisted that he be let in as an honored guest, Babylas was undeterred from his refusal. The tension in the moment only got worse as Philip waited for Babylas to crack and relent. When Philip indicated his armed guards and attempted to coerce Babylas with worldly power and threat it came as a surprise to Philip–but no surprise to those who knew Babylas–when Babylas closed the doors and barred them to the unrepentant emperor. If Philip would not repent from his sins and come seeking grace then the door was to be barred to him as the Church could not honor or esteem one who was not aware of his own sickness–after all, Jesus came for the sick and not for the well.

Babylas paid a price for this and Philip had him arrested, chained, and thrown in prison. He was left to rot in jail alone and constantly chained. He continued his life of devotion and prayer under chains and persecution because he had been called to it regardless of the cost. Occasionally, he was allowed visitors from the Church and they would secret the Eucharist to him so that he might remain part of the communion he had given himself for but he was never allowed out of his chains. His chains were supposed to serve as an ever present reminder of the Empire’s ability to punish those who resisted it but for Babylas they were a reminder of the weight of sin upon the soul and the need of healing within the Empire. When Decius took power and the Decian persecutions began, Babylas was martyred as he was already within the iron grip of the Empire that wanted to eliminate Christians. He was one of the first and was buried in his chains as he had requested of his Christian brothers and sisters.

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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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