The Story of Hairy Mary


As my family will attest, I am a story teller.   I love the fine art of embellishment, coupled with a silly voice and lots of uncontrolled facial and body gestures.   If done well it is an art.  If it isn’t, they just shake their head at my weird-ness. 

I love to tell stories, and I have a giant file at work that has bits of pieces of old legends and children’s stories.   Some of those bits and pieces will never see the light of day.  There might be a good piece to them, but nothing that I can make into a whole.  Others are bound to be part of a posting, sermon, or just random conversation.

In the end, the stories I enjoy most come from a world away.   The stories that come from Japan, China, and other parts of Asia are the most fascinating to me.  They remind me that although our culture is so different, we share some common traits.   Among those common traits is the simple truth that can be found in our stories.

One of my favorites is a Taoist story that is often called the Sack…


Prisoner #16670

(The following message was presented as part of my preaching classing at Wesley Seminary in DC.  As promised, the manuscript of the message is posted here…)

Just one of the many ways I would describe myself is that of being a diehard history buff.   I love to waste time in some obscure history book or glued to the History Channel on television.  I find this “getting lost” as one of only a few handfuls of escape that I have in my day to day.  

At the same time, somehow along the way I found myself drawn to a particularly dark episode of recent history; namely the Holocaust.   I have read virtually everything I can find on the subject.  I have been profoundly changed by the many heartbreaking stories of strength and faith told by those who survived.  

I point to Dietrich Bonheoffer, the Holocaust theologian, minister, and victim as one of the people having most influenced my life and vocation.   I think of Anne Frank, Corrie Ten Boom, and Elie Wiesel and know I cannot overstate the impact that their stories have had on my faith and my life.  The stories from this time empower and challenge me.

At first, I think I was drawn to this era because of a close family relative (a man who was almost like an adoptive grandfather to me) who I believe may have been part of the liberation of many of the camps in the days following the close of WWII. I discovered this piece of his life after his death, and in these stories I feel a sense of connection with this man who so profoundly impacted my life. If my interest was sparked in that connection, it grew to something exponentially more profound when I had the opportunity to visit the Dachau concentration camp outside of Munich, Germany.  

I once heard that there are a handful of moments in one’s life that changes everything that comes after it.   Walking on that sacred ground, there was a very real change in me with each step.   I started to see these stories as images of holiness and godliness born at the very gates of hell.   I experienced heartbreak at Dachau because of many lives and voices that were lost to the great evil found there.  

(I have posted about my visit to Dachau and that can be found by clicking here)

Thankfully, there are many stories that remain.  There are stories that still want to be heard and shared.    Today, I would like to share one particular story.  Today I would like to introduce – or reintroduce if the case be- to a man named Maximilian Kolbe.  If there is a voice that needs to be heard by people of faith today, it is his.  I first heard this story while travelling Germany, and later during a sermon message in the US.   At first, I thought it was a bit of a fish tale and had taken legandary proportions, but I felt called to investigate that sermon and the man it investigated.   This message represents some of that research and my own conclusion.

Kolbe was a Catholic priest, and during the wartime occupation of Poland, Kolbe’s faith drew him to hide more than 3,000 polish refugees, including 2000 Jews, in his priory.  Kolbe was eventually discovered by the Gestapo and arrested for his crimes against the German state. On May 28, 1941, he was transferred to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. 

As you know, Auschwitz was the worst of the worst.  When you dive into her stories and her histories you cannot begin to imagine the evil darkness that was centered at this complex of nearly 50 individual camps.   As soon as you think you have heard it all, more vileness rises to the surface.  It is as if there is a never ending supply of heartbreak from Auschwitz.

When Jews arrived at Auschwitz, they formed a solid line of three or four prisoners abreast.   Together they walked towards a small grandstand like area, where men in military uniforms stood inspecting the arrivals.  At the feet of these uniformed men, some would be directed left and others right.  Those that went left survived, those who went right did not.    All the Jews were welcomed with flowing speeches and promises that if they worked hard they would be okay.

They forced imprisoned Jewish musicians to play music at the deciding grandstand.  Those musicians had the highest suicide rates of any group within the camp.  Some survivors remember seeing tears on the cheek of a musician as they tried to play joyous and celebratory music with a thousand yard stare on their face.  Today there are still survivors who say when they have nightmares in their sleep; the music of those tearful musicians provides the soundtrack.

At Auschwitz a prisoner’s daily food allowance was barely enough to sustain the smallest of children.   Each adult prisoner was given one cup of imitation coffee (made from twigs and cinder) in the morning.  For dinner they were given watered down soup and a small chunk of black bread after returning from the fields or factories where they had worked 15 or 18 hours without rest.

When food was brought to the prisoners they would nearly riot to insure that they received their small chunk of bread.   During these near riots, Father Kolbe could be seen standing off to the side, allowing others to get what was available first.   Despite living on the fringes of starvation himself, more times than not when the food ran out Father Kolbe would return to his bunk with an empty stomach.  

When he did manage to get his rations, he would usually pick off a small amount and hand the remainder, with a blessing, off to a child or a sickly prisoner.   At times he would wrap his meager portion into a small piece of cloth and hide it away all with the intent of using for a celebration of the Lord’s Supper after lights out.  He seldom ate even the smallest of portions.

Those who remember Father Kolbe remember a priest.   He was pastor, spiritual leader, and a source of strength and calm for countless prisoners.   Survivors recall what they labeled as a “Christ-like gentleness” despite the harshness of life in the camp.  When they were in their bunks at night, Father Kolbe didn’t surrender to sleep but instead worked his way from bunk to bunk saying to whoever he found:   ‘I am a Catholic priest. I am a pastor.  I am a Christian. Can I do anything for you?’  

Father Kolbe would sit with other prisoners and provide hope in place where humanity appeared dead.   He would talk about God, and he would urge his fellow prisoners to forgive those who delivered their daily beatings.   He talked about the incredible strength found in overcoming the power of evil with the power of good.  He taught his fellow prisoners how to pray while standing face to face with the devil.

One of the last letters that remain from Maximilian was one written to his mother.   The letter revealed who Maximilian truly was.  In that letter he wrote:

‘Dear Mama, At the end of the month of May I was transferred to the camp of Auschwitz. Everything is well in my regard. Good is good. Be tranquil about me and about my health, because that good God, who is everywhere, will provide for everything with love.”  

As a person who considers his faith strong, I hear Father Kolbe’s words and I hope and pray that if my world collapses, I can face the ugliness of that new place with all the Grace that Father Kolbe put forth.  I hope I too can praise God when I stand in the devil’s own backyard.

Hearing the story of Father Kolbe, it doesn’t surprise me that his life ended as it did.  One day a man in Kolbe’s block escaped. As part punishment and part determent, the men from that block were brought out into the hot sun and made to stand in the center of the camp all day with no food or drink. As they stood, they leaned upon one another, for if they fell, they would have surely met the bullet of angry guard.

When the sun went down and the escapee was neither caught nor returned to the lineup, the camp’s commandant issued the standard punishment for escape.   Ten prisoners were selected to die within the darkest corners of Auschwitz;  a place called the starvation chamber.  Once you entered the starvation cell, the door was locked and you never found your way out.

Of those ten selected was a polish sergeant.  He begged to be spared.  In desperation he cried out; “I have a wife, I have sons.   Without me they cannot survive.”   The sergeant begged his captors:  “Please, Please, do not chose me!”   Tears streamed down his gaunt and skeletal cheeks. 

When the man was pleading with the commandant, Maximilian Kolbe silently stepped forward. The commandant turned to him and demanded to know what the clergyman wanted.

Kolbe pointed to the polish sergeant and said, “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children, and I have nothing.”  The commandant said nothing, but Father Kolbe continued to plead.   Although only a few years older than the sergeant, he told his captors that he was an elderly man and not good for anything anyways.

The commandant, shaking his head in disbelief, waved the skinny priest to the front of the line.   He then allowed the stunned and crying sergeant to go back to his place in the ranks.  Father Kolbe and 9 others were thrown down a set of stairs and into that cement starvation bunker.   The door was locked.

Once a prisoner entered the starvation chamber, the only times the door was opened again was when guards came each day to check and remove the dead from the day before.   The chamber was a sauna.   Within a day or two, thirst would take over and usually the prisoners would find themselves liking the moisture off the walls and eventually turning to some of the most animalistic methods of survival.   One by one and very slowly they would give up and die in the cell.

When the ten were in the cell, and the guards opened the door to search for the dead they were shocked by what they saw.   They were met with prisoners kneeling in prayer.   Sometimes the prayer was in song.   There was no crying or screaming from the bunker.   Some of the guards were so taken by the holiness of the scene that they snuck wine and bread into the bunker so communion could be celebrated.  Each day the guards were met with the same scene.

Even as they began to die while praying or singing, Father Kolbe never stopped praying.   When hunger prevented him from speaking he began to whisper his prayers and pleas.When his voice broke due to thirst he continued to pray as if his voice was the loudest in the room.   After two weeks and the passing of five other prisoners, Father Kolbe still prayed.

Finally, enough was enough and the commandant issued a command that the situation be resolved by the end of the day.   A group of guards came in and gave each a lethal injection and on August 14, 1941 the five remaining prisoners died.    It was said by a trustee that Father Kolbe was allowed to die last, and as he did, he raised his arm for the needle, looked to the sky and said: “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”

The man who Kolbe volunteer for, was asked later what ran through his mind when Maximilian stepped forth.  He said this:

‘I could only thank him with my eyes, I was stunned and could hardly grasp what was going on. The immensity of it: I, the condemned, am to live and someone else willingly and voluntarily offers his life for me – a stranger. Is this some dream?

I was put back into my place without having had time to say anything to Maximilian Kolbe. I was saved. And I owe to him the fact that I could tell you all this.

For a long time I felt remorse when I thought of Maximilian.

By allowing myself to be saved, I had signed his death warrant.

Let us here our Lord’s words again, and anew:

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them,

 “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

In the end, maybe the crosses we are called to carry will be subtle and carried without notice, much like that random man or woman in the random pew whose story remains untold.  Maybe it will be the cross of dear old Edna whose ministry takes the form of casseroles and prayer shawls.    Maybe it will be Norman, whose ministry is to remind us all how things have always been done, and how they should remain.

But Perhaps,…

Perhaps the crosses will be loud and change men and women for generations to come, like the souls of those who shined brightly in places darker than our imagination can begin to conceive.

Whatever those crosses may be, we are called each day to deny ourselves and take them up…and follow him. 

I hope and today I pray that in the end I find my cross and grab it with eagerness and with both hands, like those that came before me.

Thanks be to God, for those ugly and beautiful crosses that He has laid, and continues to lay before each of us. Amen.


Forgiving Michael Vick

I want to take a quick moment, and show you all one of the gifts that I got for Christmas.  This is a fantastic gift that will take my neurosis to a  whole new level.    It’s called the NIKE PLUS Sports Band.     I want to take a moment and show you all just how cool this gift is.

It is all built around a tiny little device, called the Nike Plus.   



Along with this little gadget you need an incredibly flashy pair of running shoes, like these:


(Note:   Besides being almost obnoxious in color, don’t they look fast to boot?)

Now, here is the genius of the plus;   you pull out the insole of your shoe and insert the device and you can get all kinds of data, wirelessly beamed up to your wrist.  

Then you pull a USB adapter out; plug it into your computer, and instantly all your runs, calories burned, effort, mileage and pace are wired up to cyberspace for safe keeping and bragging rights.

At first it seems too easy to be true, but it works.    All you have to do is enter your height, weight, and age, take a few steps, and boom! It tells you, that you are ready to run.   Somehow it counts the number of steps you take, calculates everything you need to know.  

You should see me with this thing going.   I try to fool it at the gym, by taking extremely small steps to convince it, that I have run a marathon, but somehow it knows. Like I said, it brings my neurosis to a brand new level.   

The NIKE Plus Sport Band and Snazzy Shoes are like the ALMOST perfect gift for runners.   I say ALMOST because in the end it is a NIKE product, and I have an enormous love hate relationship with this company.  If you have ever talked to me about Nike in the past, you would know how angry I was with something Nike did a little over two years ago.  

I very deliberately made the decision almost a year ago to shed all my NIKE products due to their endorsement of Michael Vick.    It wasn’t so much that I did not believe in the ability for a man to make good on past crimes, but rather spoke to my disappointment with NIKE.

It started long before Vick came crashing front and center. Well over two decades ago, NIKE found themselves as part of the sweat shop scandals of the mid 1980 and 90s.    It turns out they had deliberately chosen to manufacture their shoes in some of the poorest places of the world, and do so for pennies a shoe.    Instantly my stomach churned at the thought.     Shame on them, I thought.  I started to see them as the proverbial face of evil, corporate America.

Yet, amidst the pressures of an angry shoe buying public, NIKE started to change.   They were one of the first companies to create large departments with large budgets focused on Social and Corporate Responsibility.   The changes were quick and impactful.    Millions upon millions of dollars has left the coiffeurs at Nike and made its way to underdeveloped countries, non profits, inner city missions, and schools across the globe.

They soon became the example of what a company could be.    Although far from perfect, they were trying.   In the end, I found that refreshing.    In the end, all we could do is ask that others try;  try to be different and to make a difference.

Then, enter Michael Vick.

Vick was the new face of the National Football League and a role model for millions.    His was a story of a young boy growing up in the Ridley Public Housing Project in Newport News Virginia.   His parents were on welfare, and on his front stoop drive by shootings, drug dealing and violence were common place.    As a kid he dreamed of being a professional fisherman, as fishing was his escape from the violent neighborhood he grew up in.    He used to put his hook into the dirtiest of water, just to be away from his neighborhood.    Eventually, he chose football over fishing.   

At football he was a star.   He was drafted by Virginia Tech, broke all kinds of record and started to grow in popularity.    He was third in the Heisman Trophy balloting while in college, and he was drafted first overall in 2001 by the Falcons.  Atlanta quickly started building a team around him. 

Sadly, a great deal of it, if not all of it went to his head.   Soon the size of his ego exceeded his talent.  That is a dangerous situation.

Due to that enormous ego, the world was not entirely surprised when they learned that he was an investor in an illegal dog fighting operation with his cousin.   The world was shocked, however, by the barbaric way he treated those dogs though.    The cruelty of this man towards his dogs was immense, and he was eventually sentenced to 21 months in prison, and two months of house arrest for his crime.   Along the way, he went bankrupt.   He lost his career, his home, and the respect of a nation, if not a world.   To be honest, there was little sympathy or compassion from me on this.

When he finished his prison sentence, he chose to start over.   In 2010 he became the starting quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles and was named the 2010 comeback player of the year, and was named to the Pro Bowl.   As his reputation started to return so did the endorsements.  

When NIKE signed him again, I was angry.    I was mad that NIKE had made it back from the sweat shop scandals only to once again throw it all away with the likes of Michael Vick.  It made me sick to my stomach.

I remember calling NIKE, telling them that all my NIKE gear would now be trashed…and that’s what I did.   I was angry and there would be no way my hard earned income would find its way into NIKE or Vick’s pockets. 

Today, now that it is two years later, and in my gym bag, I find two new NIKE products, I can’t help but ask had anything changed or did I just forget?   Are my principles less intense than my desire to own the new fancy gadget?   What happened?

Over the last few weeks, I have struggled with this.

 It wasn’t until just recently that I started to remember that I am a follower of Jesus, who is a God of Second chances.   I am a person who believes in the power of forgiveness and fresh starts.     If I truly believe that, how can I reconcile what I believe with my anger and resentment towards both Vick and NIKE?   

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to me.  A few months ago, I remember a turning point.  Like the rubber-necker at the accident scene, I decided to download the 10 episode documentary entitled “The Michael Vick Project” which televised his attempts to revive his career.     In that series, I saw a genuine regret, shame, and desire to make things right and doubt started to creep in.   I was still angry, but perhaps in watching that series, the ground work for my eventual return to the world of Nike was laid.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a foul taste that Vick still illicit in me.

Today, I see Michael Vick and I still see what he did to those dogs.    I see in Vick, what is wrong with our country, our sons, and the sport that I love.    I still get angry when I see the pictures of the saved dogs in a newspaper or magazine.    Part of me is convinced that he got off easy in light of the fate of those dogs.

But… and there is always a but…

I also recognize something that NIKE seemed to have embraced that I, as a pastor and follower of Jesus failed to see.  

When asked about the decision, NIKE officials issued a very clear cut response to the controversy, which I never discovered until much, much later; 

“We, under no circumstance support or condone the past decisions of Michael Vick,” NIKE commented, “but sometimes forgiveness is only possible when another is willing to take a second chance.”   They continued:  “sure, we might hurt because of it, or we might gain immensely, but we believe we are called to be about second chances to people trying to make a change.    Should we all be willing, now that we told Vick he was wrong, to listen to see if Vick has said he has heard?  Truth be told the power of redemption is seen in proportional levels to how far the redeemed have fallen, and few have fallen further.”

So there we have it.   

I read the statement and wondered.  

I wondered why when I was calling for the life time imprisonment of Michael Vick, NIKE was able to act more like a Christian than I.

Sitting back and thinking about it, maybe there is finally SOME forgiveness on my part available to Michael Vick.  At the same time, I think that point when I can freely give it is miles away.  While I still look at him and see the face of a dog beater, I feel compelled, by the nature of my faith, to be willing to let him prove me wrong again.  I feel compelled, while part of me, still wants the jury to be out a little while longer.

I want to be ready to offer Michael Vick forgiveness because I want to be more Christ like in my walk…but I still see the faces of those dogs.

I want to be ready to offer forgiveness for the vile acts of this man because if I can forgive a man that did this horrible things…but nothing directly to me….maybe,…just maybe…  I can forgive those who did bad things to me….   

Or maybe, better yet,  I can forgive myself for the stupid things I’ve done.

I want to be ready to offer Michael Vick forgiveness because I want to experience what a life fully lived in Christ is like, and I can’t do that until I am willing to let go of the reality of all the past hurts, past mistakes, and past shames of my own life. 

If I am ready to admit that freedom from the crap of the past is available to Vick, than its available to me too.  When I close my eyes and see the images of the mistakes I’ve made I know that I want them gone.   I won’t be able to fully recognize that ours is a God that erases the past guilt, embarrassment, and shame of all of our lives until I can offer it to myself.

Although I am ready, I am not there.   Maybe part of me doesn’t want to forgive.  I certainly cannot envision forgetting.    Maybe it’s because there is something bigger than football, and fame.  Maybe when I give my forgiveness to Vick, I can’t see past my own dogs…   or maybe I can’t see past my own mistakes.

Maybe I am wrapping up forgiveness in the separate concept of fairness.  Maybe I want more punishment and less love.

 Then again, maybe its more about me not being ready to fully being ready to admit that I am a new creature in Christ, and as such there are implications and responsibilities due to that fact.   Maybe I am not ready to let go of the same old same old.  

Maybe I am hesitant to admit that I was made new, but that’s for me, and not Michael Vick.  

I believe, with every ounce of my being, that forgiveness is more something we do for ourselves than for others.  In the end, there is nothing easy about it.   It’s hard and its unnatural.   Maybe that’s precisely why we need to be about it.    If it was easy and without effort, would it be worth doing?  If I don’t accept the possibility of another being a new person, can I ever expect to view myself that way?    When I see myself in the mirror do I see the man before my own Damascus road experience or the man after?    

I wish that when I lace up my shoes on the sidewalk or in the gym and I see that swoosh, I didn’t think of Vick with each step.   I wish I wasn’t thinking about the mistakes of years or decades past.  I wish I wasnt thinking of those dogs.

God, I wish this entire faith thing was easier, amen.

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