Modern day St. Patrick's Day festivities are a reminder to me that our tendency is to take things that are deep and sacred and make them trivial and silly. The fact that we memorialize an unbelievable Christian saint by pinching each other and getting hammered is just plain stupid. In an attempt to reclaim St. Paddy's Day I want to suggest a few things that we could learn from St. Patrick. These are the kinds of things that March 17 should remind us to celebrate and imitate. I read a book last summer that I would highly recommend called Movements that Change the World. It includes a chapter on Patrick that is very enlightening. Addison paints a picture of St. Patrick that is so compelling it made me want to be like him when I grow up! Here is a little background and then three lessons we can learn from Patrick through excerpts from this book by Steve Addison.
Patrick lived a privileged life growing up in Britain. He was born into the Aristocracy and his father was a Roman Magistrate. This meant that one day Patrick would rule a part of Roman nobility in Britain. When he was 16 though - his village was invaded by raiders and he was kidnapped and taken back to the pagan land of Ireland where he was sold into slavery. He lived the lonely and difficult life of a slave for the next 6 years. Before his abduction Patrick did not believe in the living God - but as a slave Patrick came to see the hand of God at work all around him. His land of captivity had become a land of freedom in God. He would stay out late into the night in the forests and mountains to pray. He would rise before dawn to pray in the icy coldness of the Irish winters. This was his delight because the Spirit of God was burning in him. The rest of his story will be told through 3 lessons I think we can learn from Patrick.
1. God speaks through whispers if we will listen.
One night during his captivity in Ireland, God spoke to him in a dream and revealed that there was a ship waiting to take him home to Britain. There was one small problem - 200 miles of dangerous territory lay between him and his escape. But he made the journey and returned home as a runaway slave. He resumed the life that he once knew with his family. But again, God had different plans. Patrick awoke one night to the voices of people he had known in Ireland crying out, "we beg you to come and walk with us again!" Their cries pierced his heart, God was calling him to return to Ireland and he did. Over time he was ordained as a priest and then as a bishop despite his limited education and experience. God took the initiative to transform a teenager into an apostle compelled by the Spirit to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. The slave boy had become a slave of Christ and an apostle to Ireland.
2. The work of God can't be contained by religious institutions
Patrick's lack of formal training contributed to his openness to trying new methods that were not approved by the church at the time. His heart longed to reach the "barbarians" beyond the borders of civilization. By contrast - the church of the Roman Empire was not interested in taking the gospel beyond their own borders. He traveled throughout Ireland to remote and dangerous places to preach, baptize converts, and raise up clergy for new churches. Thousands of Irish people turned from their pagan idols to serve the living God. Many of these converts joined Patrick's missionary band. He gave the Irish the gift of non-Roman Christianity. He liberated Ireland without the backing of the Imperial power. Despite his role in the conversion of much of Ireland, Patrick's worst critics were the bishops in Britain. Patrick's approach was to de-centralize the church and remove the power from the bishops in large urban centers and give it to the rural and tribal people. The Roman leaders did not approve. Rome had the resources but Patrick's followers had the zeal - and they could not be stopped.
3. Christianity is a missionary movement and every Christian is a missionary
In the Celtic church life revolved around the monastery. Most monasteries were in remote places and their inhabitants withdrew from the world. Patrick would transform this concept. Under Patrick's influence, wave after wave of Irish youth flooded into monastic life. Patrick re-imagined the concept of the monasteries and organized them as sending centers. The Irish church took on the character of a missionary movement. Each outpost made decisions in adapting to local needs and opportunities in their immediate region. Celtic monasticism was highly flexible, adaptable and transplantable. Ireland had no major cities, but the monasteries grew rapidly and became the first population centers - they were hubs of unprecedented prosperity, art, and learning. They were led by young men who once would have given their lives in feuds between clans, but now gave their lives to plant the gospel wherever Christ led them. For centuries, Ireland became a base from which Christianity spread throughout the British Isles and to much of western and northern Europe as these young monks followed the call of Christ on their lives.
How this rich history ever turned into shamrock shakes, leprechauns, and getting wasted, I'll never know! I pray that this day will remind us of these lessons, of the life of this great man of God, and how we might follow Christ more fiercely.