It’s St Patrick’s day which, for East Pennsylvania where I currently reside, means beer, green shirts and people who truly have no business imitating the Irish briefly acting like they just fled the Great Potato Famine. Last March 17 I heard my first, “Top of the morning to you” from my Jewish friend before 6:30am as I was getting in my car! But Holidays are “Holy-Days” and this day belongs to someone whom I find to be more holy than average. (Not that the Catholic church has inquired of me recently about who to canonize.)
Patrick is a towering figure for those of us in professional religion. Not only did he plant his own church, he planted dozens. And not only did they affect the culture around them, they revolutionized it within a few decades. Part evangelist, part pastor, part spiritual warrior, part social prophet, Patrick seems to almost have been superhuman. His preaching moved people from spiritualism to the Gospel. His shepherding connected them with churches and abbeys that sprung up across the landscape. His poetic “Breastplate” is still a prayer the world-wide church sources for inspiration. And his prophetic outcry against the pillaging that the “Christian” Britons pursued against the Irish foreshadows the present focus on human trafficking. If Patrick is not a hero don’t look anywhere but the Scriptures to do better. (His chasing the snakes from Ireland is thought to be over the top by historians and scientists but for those of us in ministry work, it hardly seems the most difficult of his accomplishments.)
Yet, lesser known is Patrick’s rocky road to ministry. Born in Roman-colonized Briton he was taken captive by Irish raiders while still a boy. He spent years of his life as a swine herd on the hills of Ireland away from his family before escaping. When he returned home, his cultural development had been turned in a rather odd direction compared to his contemporaries; he found it hard to fit in. Some have wondered if he ended up back in Ireland due to the social ostracization he faced when trying to re-enter society as a young adult after so much time away. And somehow after years of training as a priest, he decided his call was to return to the “barbarians” that were the source of his painful life. Forgiveness like this is rare indeed.
So… beyond the saint is a sad story turned holy ending. As it turns out, this is a bit of a thing. Peter and James in the New Testament wrote about it. Jesus predicted it. The church, though not so much in East Pennsylvania, lives it. Difficult times create great saints. Patrick is neither the first nor the last though he may be my favorite.
On this St Patty’s day I think it’s worth noting what the celebration should be about. It should be celebrated that we get to “stand on the shoulders” of men and women who have paid a higher price than we for the amazing goodness God created through them.
Consider Martin Luther. Under interrogation at the Diet of Worms, he famously stated, “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.” Hundreds of seminarians have pictured Luther bravely bellowing these words in the face of his accusers. But it actually it took him over a day of considering, fearfully wondering what would become of him if he was no longer a priest of the church. Humbly after weighing his options and definitely in fear for his life he decided to take his famous stand. Centuries later many celebrate the Reformation’s beginnings without remembering the cost to Luther as a person.
Consider Jonathon Edwards, fired from his church after preaching the greatest sermon of our country’s early history and playing a seminal role in its First Great Awakening. He and his family almost starved when moving to missionary work among native people after being let go.
Thomas Aquinas, one of the church’s greatest thinkers, completed the massive Summa Theologica. Requiring most of his life, this work is the first great systematic theology. Yet three months before his death, Aquinas had some sort of vision, which lessened the value of his writing to the point he gave it up completely. He died after stating that his work was only “so much straw.”
These men lived out the words of AW Tozer who famously wrote it’s impossible for God to use anyone mightily until they are wounded greatly. (My paraphrase for the technical among us…)
Back to Jesus, Peter and James. Jesus sent his disciples out calling them “lambs among wolves.” Edwards likely believed it when his church pink-slipped him. And Patrick no doubt saw the irony when his recent converts disappeared on a British slave ship kidnapped by Christians who thought the Irish barbaric. The wolves have often been inside the church it appears. Peter, previous to himself being crucified, wrote about the usefulness of “various trials” that prove faith genuine. James admonished the church to consider it “joy when we face trials of many kinds” as character results.
So happy St Patrick’s day and here’s to us all benefitting from great people of the past whose pain God has used again and again. Where would we be without the depth of thought, seriousness of devotion and remarkable humility of “saints” who have gone before us. Their pain made a way for us to celebrate!