Tag Archives: Margaret Guenther

You might be a green martyr sprouting despite your wound

I was surprised to find my favorite Tweeter, Dan White, featured in an interview in the New York Times: “A Pastor Ripped Apart by Our Divided Country” (First Person, July 21, 2022). There he was sprouting in an unusual,  new place like an Anabaptish weed.

Dan and his wife now direct the Kino Center in Puerto Rico. He was well known as a pastor and a teacher of pastors. But in the last few years he has become well known for being an ex-pastor. Maybe history will see him as one of the martyrs for their third-way faith. I think there are a few of those martyrs from my former church looking to sprout somewhere. They are among the hundreds of U.S. pastors and others who have been traumatized by the spasm of power grabbing convulsing the U.S.

Dan White was an innovative, fearless church reformer himself, but his unifying message was drowned in the sea of division and combat that has flooded the world and the church. I was talking to another pastor, another victim, last week and the only reason he could see for his plight came from a line from the Bible: people are subject to the “ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient” (Eph. 2:2 NRSVA). There is “something in the air,” isn’t there!

Talking about “martyrs” may seem an hysterical way to talk about people like Dan White. But Christians have experienced martyrdom in one way or another in every age of the church as they speak up about their faith. Tertullian is famous for saying in the year 197, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The treatment of my spiritual ancestors, the radical reformers of the 1500’s and before, is collected in a famous book called the Martyr’s Mirror. Martin Luther King was a martyr, along with John Lewis. Today, Jesus followers in India are being hounded by Hindu nationalists; and U.S. Christians are often hounded by Hinduish media myth makers.

Red, white and blue/green martyrs

As I was meditating through Margaret Guenther’s Book, Toward Holy Ground, I was intrigued by her reference to different colors assigned to different types of martyrs throughout Christian history. She was mainly interested in helping me affirm how wonderful it is, as an older Jesus follower, to discover the “marvelous freedom of living deliberately yet carelessly” as a “green” martyr who knows “the heroism and the sanctity of faithfulness to the ordinary,” who appreciates the discipline of the craftsman and has learned the patience of the harvester.

The original impulse of assigning different colors of martyrdom mainly had to do with different ways people “died daily” with Jesus. The colors mainly had to do with the way people expressed their religion – not the idea of “religion” born during the Enlightenment and subsequently expanded during the reordering of philosophical frameworks according to the scientific method (see here), but religion in its original sense of living under a “religio,” a rule (which is becoming popular again these days). The witness that leads to martyrdom is almost always more about how one lives than what one says.

The early Jesus followers had a rule of life which was so distinct from their society they were tagged as “Christians.” Their various rules came up against Roman and other rulers and got them killed. A Christian martyr gets in trouble because she follows the Ruler as a rule, even if she breaks the rules of the power of the air.

When Christianity started morphing into the government in the Roman Empire, Jesus followers sat in the seat of power and often found it practical to align with the “spirit at work among the disobedient.” So some Jesus followers longed for the experience of being beyond what the powers considered normal. This is a common development in spiritual enterprises; if you don’t keep transforming, something’s gotta give. For instance, the Benedictine monastic order started off as a brilliant adaptation to the chaos of the 6th century. Two hundred years later it was still going and expanding! But it needed reforming. Odo of Cluny helped do that. His reforming monastery ended up as one of the most influential institutions in Europe for another 500 years! But it got stagnant and corrupted, too. French revolutionaries were so sick of what the church had become, they literally tore down the huge church building in Cluny. (I saw the remnant). Something seems to be ‘giving” right now in the U.S., as well.


We all understand red martyrs. Red stands for blood. I grew up in my non-Christian home schooled by old movies about martyrs like Quo VadisThat clip still gets my own blood stirred up.


By the 3rd  and 4th centuries, some Christians missed the clarifying threat of red martyrdom. Their impulse to go beyond what had become normal created “white” martyrs. Jerome (347-420) created this new category of martyr “for those such as desert hermits who aspired to the condition of martyrdom through strict asceticism.”

In Medieval Europe the impulse of the desert fathers and mothers was woven into most religion. So people looked farther, like the first monastics did. It became very popular for people to go on pilgrimages to visit the sites or relics of martyrs, putting themselves in the danger of not being able to get home or dying on the road. For instance, my hero, Francis of Assisi, made a pilgrimage to Egypt in 1219 in an attempt to convert Sultan al-Kamil and put an end to the 5th Crusade


The Celtic Church added  the category of “green” martyrs (or blue), basically “glas.” Irish doesn’t really have a good cognate for green or blue in translation and “glas” is much more descriptive than either (see here). Glas is more specific to a place or natural phenomenon and less distinct as a concept, which is one of the reasons Celtic Christianity appeals to me. Glas martyrs experienced a kind of martyrdom by devoting themselves to practical rules in their own place, maybe even attached to a place, like Cuthbert wading into the water every day to pray (according to Bede), or monks living on Skellig Michael (which is glas in the picture above).

The martyr colors need an update

The red martyr has the feel of “I need to stand firm in an evil day” (Eph. 6:13). Red martyrdom usually comes upon people rather than them seeking it, like what happened to the kind people killed by Dylan Root. There are still red martyrs. Coptic churches are blown up. The Chinese government threatens the burgeoning church there. Inequities and violence sap the capacity of many brilliant servants in the U.S. I think a pastor, like Dan White, or anyone whose ministry is ended or hobbled by the power-hungry authoritarian elements rising up everywhere could be considered a red martyr. They are not killed, perhaps, but they are traumatized and often neutered.

The white martyr has the feel of “I’ve got to get out of this place” ( 2 Cor. 6:1-7:10). People are leaving the church in droves, looking for something more and getting out from under dominating leaders and moribund thinking. Any church leader who is mostly focused on getting or keeping power probably has a philosophy about to become moribund. In the U.S., people leave churches or kick out their leaders because their white supremacist/heteronormative denomination won’t change their hurtful theological statements; then people leave the newly cleansed churches because they have to toe the line to a legalistic application of the new theology, which is also non-inclusive and power-driven. Evacuations from church war zones reflect the spirit of the white martyrs of old who could not not tolerate the worldliness of their church.

The original white martyrs fled to the Egyptian desert. Their medieval imitators “fled” on pilgrimages. Americans go on some great pilgrimages, too (as you know I do). But I think their best contribution to white martyrdom is creating alternative communities in self-defined “wildernesses” in which to flee (I have done a bit of that myself). In an anti-institutional age (for good reason) people get out by getting small and getting communal. I know many people who have exited their church but held on to the small group where they got most of their face-to-face faith. Sometimes people get very small and intimate. As a newly-credentialed spiritual director, I know first hand that new spiritual directors are rapidly being minted for a lot of one-to-one Christianity (SDI has 6000 members!). Like Jesus followers have often done, people are escaping the ruins of old institutions and chaos.

Green martyrs have the feel of “This is not radical enough for me” (1 Peter). That’s not “radical” in the sense of extreme (although extremists have a similar motivation) but radical in the sense of intense, focused, true, basic. I think there are a lot of new green martyrs these days, looking around town for community, looking for a good rule of life in step with the Ruler. The church is not what is used to be even three years ago! Many people  I know feel a new freedom, a new sense of urgency, new inspiration. Their old way of life did not survive Covid or survive the evils associated with the ascendance of Christian nationalism. The expression of their faith is experiencing the renaissance of starting from scratch and imagining being faithful in their new surroundings.

Maybe Dan White is a green martyr out of necessity, cast out of the institution he created, living on his island, collecting the like-minded and like-wounded, appreciating the sacred in the ordinary, crafting something beautful, and harvesting his small garden — a green martyr despite his wound. Maybe nurses and teachers, Christian or not, should be considered green martyrs since they devote themselves to the common good in a specific place without recognition or pay even when the spirit of the air tries to tear down what they build up every day. Maybe you are a green martyr despite your wound and you should secretly wear the name to get some comfort as you stick with a day-to-day faith which is basic to you but hard to plant in a post-Covid world.

St. Anne and the forgotten grandmothers we need

Saint Anne ca.750 Faras Cathedral (Nubia) in present-day Sudan

The wall painting of St. Anne, above, from the now-submerged Faras Cathedral, was saved from the waters of Lake Nasser (Lake Nubia in Sundan) in the early 1960’s as Aswan Dam came into service. Polish archaeologists discovered her under the plaster of more recent redecorators. Now Anne is secured in Warsaw in the Polish National Museum. She looks like she might still be pondering what happened to her.

No one knows why she is holding a finger to her lips. She could be encouraging silence for prayer. Or she could be modeling a common pose for praying, guarding one’s lips against the entrance of evil.  I think it is fine if you invent whatever meaning suits you, since Anne is an invention herself. The purported mother of Mary, entered history in the late 100’s or early 200’s when the author of the Gospel (or Protoevangelium) of James added her to the story of the birth of Jesus.

Legendary or not, St. Anne became a very popular saint by the late Middle Ages in Europe and is still widely venerated. Where I come from in Southern California, the friars among the Portolá Expedition were naming mountains on her feast day in 1769.  So we have the Santa Ana Mountains and the Santa Ana River flowing from them (or so they thought), which leads to the present day city of Santa Ana, near Disneyland. In the early 1800’s the Moraga expedition named the river that flows through the southern half of the Central Valley of California after Anne’s husband San Joaquin. Anne and Joachim are the grandparents of Jesus in popular imagination. As a grandparent myself, it is nice to vicariously feel necessary.

The Holy Kinship — Matthäus Gutrecht the Younger (c. 1500-1510). Philadelphia Museum of Art

I became interested in Anne as I read Margaret Guenther’s nice book about becoming old  called Toward Holy Ground: Spiritual Directions for the Second Half of Life. She uses Anne as a centering image for what she writes.

“Image” is an important word when it comes to Anne. She is not written about in the Bible, but she is depicted all over the Bible-for-illiterates: the medieval church building. When Guenther interpreted  the many images of Anne and the family that grew along with her legend in Medieval and Renaissance art,  she revealed scenes I wish were influencing the Jesus followers of today:

Typically, God the Father is in the sky, watching over the scene in the garden, while the Holy Spirit descends as a dove directly over the Christ child. The matriarchal, earthly trinity is, of coure, comprised of Anne and Mary, with the child between them. It is an immensely satisfying picture of the union of divine and human.

At the heart of it sits the grandmother in the garden. If she is a typical grandmother, she is convinced that the child she holds is perfect, gifted, and beautiful. She has no trouble loving him unconditionally and his divinity is easily apparent to her, for grandmothers can see the divinity in every child even when the parents cannot.

Can you think of many Annes in the hagiography of popular culture today? The world did stop for Queen Elizabeth last month. Was she an outlier, or are there more? Oprah? Jill Biden?

I’m not sure our old people even want to be old people or display a lot of wisdom to call on. It seems like a lot of young people rarely even relate to their grandparents, who tend to pop in on their way to their latest destination, or who must be visted in Florida, or who just get in touch when they can’t master a new bit of virtuality.

Our own secret St. Anne

As soon as I saw St. Anne peering out of the Faras icon, I thought, “I think we have a picture of St. Anne I have been ignoring for over 40 years.” I had to ask if we still had it. It used to be over our fireplace in the old house; as it turns out, it is now in the bathroom off our guestroom. Here it is.

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne — DaVinci

Whenever I looked at that painting, I thought of the dear freind who gave it to Gwen, and did not give much thought to St. Anne. Maybe I was not ready for her.

Anne is a commanding figure in DaVinci’s painting, but she is still, like many grandmothers, comfortably in the background. The action is all about what Mary is going to do about the baby Good Shepherd already going after sheep. I think Anne looks on with a serene confidence which speaks of knowing a lot about how things work, how to live, and how to die.

Anne is not only associated with the Holy Family of Jesus, which calls us to kinship and connection, people light a candle in front of her statue (or pay attention to spiritual directors like Margaret Guenther, writing in her old age) for many reasons.  Women consult her when they would like to conceive or can’t, since she, like Hannah, conceived miraculously in her old age. She’s all about healing and about the arts and crafts of homemaking. She is help for the troubles of birth and present for the blessings of a “good death.”

I have been known to light a few candles myself. I love being part of the communion of saints, historical and legendary, saints living (like you) and dead, saints closeted away in my DVD collection (where I found Francis on the 4th) or tucked away in European museums. I especially love Anne, right now, because she was, in her time, a much-needed antidote to too much patriarchy, as men made her daughter, Mary, a goddess instead of a human, like the rest of us (similar example). I also love her because Anne is a much needed encouragement in our time to pay attention to people who are wise, who can offer some direction in an overwhelming time. I wish all our ancient political leaders qualified as wise people, but they mainly serve the invisible hand. So it makes sense for us to search out the forgotten wise women in Christ hanging on the walls of our lives.

In the Catholic devotional universe, people pray for St. Anne’s favor and ask to be adopted as her grandchild. That may be effective sometimes and is undoubtedly well-intended. But diminishing Anne to an intercession tool might undermine the teaching of all those paintings. Grandmothers in the Spirit are grounded in the earth at the center of our extended birth and rebirth families. They are meaningful and they know it, and they make meaning. They are deeply rooted in the present age and the age to come. Their appreciation for eternity rubs off on us. They are finally content with the love they have and so enfold us in love. Their lively but enigmatic faces (a DaVinci speciality) lead us to look beyond what we normally see toward broader wisdom and beyond the present moment toward deeper lives and good deaths.

I hope your own grandmother was or is an Anne-like presence of faith, hope, love and communion. During the course of writing this I thought of grandmother Gwen and the dear friend in California who gave her the painting a long time ago. I hope people are seeking them out right now. Grandmother Margaret Guenther died in 2016, but she is still someone I listen to through her books. I have so much need for spiritual grandmother energy I may pull my kneeling bench into the bathroom and pray with St. Anne for a while!  She may not be a fact, but she embodies what we really need, and what people needed when they invented her. Who is waiting comfortably for you in the background of your life?

A spiritual midwife: God’s helpers in birthing new life

People were clamoring for spiritual direction! One of the best things I heard throughout all the dialogue of our mapping process last year was the persistent request for more help to grow in grace. We need to nurture further gifted people in the body who direct us. We need to pay attention to the people and resources we have already been given. We want to provide everyone with good opportunities to go deep. It will take more spiritual midwives — men or women who can help with the spiritual birthing process. We need them, whoever they might be.

Shiprah and Puah
Shiprah and Puah

We need clever and brave midwives like Shiprah and Puah, the forerunners of good midwives everywhere. Here is their story:

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”
                 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”
                So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own. — Exodus 1:15-21

Shiprah and Puah! Why haven’t any of our most recent female children been named after these great figures in Bible history? Is it because Moses gets most of the airtime in the Exodus story and these women only a few lines, so they are easily forgotten? Is it because our family story is written by and about men, primarily? Probably both.

Even though it is a male-dominated story, a very basic image manages to push its way to the surface quite often: narratives of  pregnancy and birth, stories of new life that redirect and transform.

God the midwife

Pivotal women in the Old Testament story set the stage for THE birth story. Luke’s sensitive telling makes the incarnation vivid. Mary asks the angel “How can this be?” Nicodemus asks Jesus when he is called to be born again “How can this be?”

It can be because God himself is the midwife. Psalm 22 spells it out as we are led to pray:

You brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
 From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God. — Psalm 22:9-10

When we see God pictured like this, it should dawn on us, like Margaret Guenther says, “that the midwife helps new life into being and protects it; even more than the mother, she is the tender guardian of its safety…Shiprah and Puah may well stand as an icon, the foremothers of all midwives, but behind them is another guardian of new life. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. The Lord is my midwife, I shall be kept safe” (Holy Listening p. 84).

We need spiritual midwives

We need more directors who are like midwives for new birth: present to another in a time of vulnerability, working in areas that are deep and intimate, helping a birthing person to greater self-knowledge, assisting at a natural event. A spiritual midwife, like one who stays with a woman through a natural birth, sees what the birthgiver can’t see, knows the signs of transition, witnesses the crowning of newness. She or he recognizes the time to confront, the time to encourage and knows how to do both. Our goal for 2013 is to provide a roadmap for spiritual direction that helps people understand and exercise their options for growing in grace.

We are already blessed with people among us who have received training in spiritual direction. But we don’t need to wait to get on their schedule. We don’t need to go to the “spiritual birthing center” to give spiritual birth, per se. We have an assortment of ways we might meet the need. Our cells are hotbeds of spiritual direction, if one is listening and not devaluing. Our pastors are good directors, and getting better, as are our Cell Leader Coordinators. But one doesn’t need to wait for a one-on-one, you can access what is being taught in our meetings, dive into the pastors’ book recommendations, make a friend who is consciously a spiritual friend, or be involved in the day retreats of spiritual direction. We plan a whole brochure on the topic.

We can put Shiprah and Puah on the front of the brochure, but it won’t do much good unless people who are talking about needing direction receive the gifts given. We need directors, but we also need people who really want to be directed. It is often said that the person seeking to find direction finds a guide. A person who can’t be directed often complains they are without guidance.

{Update: see our further recommendations on The Way of Jesus site]

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Sit with the birthgiver: Finding glory in Morning Glory

“[E]ven seeming emptiness is not sterile. In the times of waiting, it is enough if we do nothing more than sit with the birthgiver, offering a hand to be held.” – Margaret Guenther

God is so filled with love that he is repeatedly born in the empty, welcoming space of the soul. You can see that as a vision of eternal fertility. Or you can see it as an invitation to further tragedy as new life is aborted 1000 times a day and wasted. But, the truth is, the emptiness is teeming with life. Whether life-receiving or life-rejecting, we are not vacuums, even when we act vacuously.

We could miss the morning glory

Morning Glory (2010) - IMDbWe could miss the life. I walked out of Morning Glory and said, “That movie was charming and meant nothing.” But Gwen immediately and appropriately corrected me. “What do you mean? That movie was about staying with someone and hoping for change.” It dawned on me that, “I am Rachel McAdams having a moment of self-loathing as I leave the theater!”

Rachel is the struggling producer of a morning TV show. Harrison Ford is the curmudgeonly has-been anchor subjected to her care. With perpetual perkiness, indefatigability and hope, Rachel wins him over, saves the show, proves mom wrong about disrespecting her dreams, makes New York seem friendly and gets the supposedly hunky guy (although I wasn’t seeing the purported hotness, there).

On the other hand, we could pretend that cobbled-together plots like that bear some resemblance to reality. As I walked out of Morning Glory, my first reaction was ungenerous and narrow, but it was not totally wrong. I laughed. I teared up. I enjoyed Rachel running in slow motion past Prometheus in Rockefeller Plaza. But at some point, I had to hit my head and say, “What do you mean? She found an apartment in Manhattan in one-morning! She meets a guy and after one page of dialogue they have passionate sex! Jeff Goldblum was cast! Real life is not like what rich people fret about in New York!” The movie is purposeful delusion. It is systematically giving birth to wind

Wait for something to be born

So, as usual, there was birth planted in its emptiness. But, in the end, I think the life of God was aborted. So, as usual, my reaction was right and wrong. So I am glad to remember the original quote up top. It is probably the wisest response, most of the time, to patiently wait for anything that can be born to be born.

I want to spend this week holding hands with people as they are giving spiritual birth. If they give birth to wind, may I hold their hand again when the next spiritual pregnancy comes to fruit. Even the movies are clamoring for morning glory. I think it is up to me to see that yearning as an emptiness waiting to be filled by God. When the smallest bump can be seen, or even the discomfort of being sick with something that isn’t recognized as something, yet, it is good for me to sit and hold someone’s hand. I’m not sure what will be born, or not. But my comforting presence given freely to those making their fear-filled journey through the big city is not useless.