I think that it is kind of fitting that today we would meet around the story of Saint Patrick. His story and other stories like it have informed my world view and my Christian view since I first began to learn about his life, his call, and his legacy.
It is the Jesus story that led me in to this chapter of history. Without the Jesus story and how his early disciples chose to act on the things that He taught them, the Patrick story would have no context to draw from and his accomplishments would have likely been local and quickly forgotten
The goal here is not a history lesson or an exercise in scholarly learning. My goal is simply to share with you a story that captured my imagination and informed many of the values that I have today regarding the application of Christian teaching and Kingdom values in my own life.
What I really hope is going to happen is that it will also capture your imagination and will direct a conversation later on how we can possibly increase our effectiveness at spreading the work, the news, and the love of the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ, to the hurting and lost world around us.
Patrick, or Patricus, was born in the early 400s in what is present day England. His parents were Roman citizens, but that does not mean that they were necessarily Italian or Roman. Patrick grew up in his early years as a privileged child of well to do parents. As privilege often does, Patrick’s life was afforded opportunity to spend time on more than just survival. It would seem that Patrick, though brought up in the Christian faith, was much more inclined to mock the faith than he was to promote it. He was scornful of clergy and openly defied the relatively tame lifestyle associated with Christianity.
At the age of just 16, Patric’s life was dramatically changed. Any plans that he had for his life were interrupted by what externally seemed to be a tragedy. A warring band of Celtic pirates raided his village and took Patrick captive. They kidnapped him and forced him onto a boat. He was taken across the sea to Ireland and there, in this foreign and savage place he was sold as a slave. Where he had once lived a life of choice and freedom, his life was now subject to someone else’s choice and his freedoms now only those that his earthly master, a tribal leader named Miliuk, would
It’s easy for us, knowing that there is likely to be happy ending to this story to loose the hugeness, the sheer magnitude of this event in Patrick’s life.This wasn’t just a bump in the road or a blip on the radar. This was life altering, dream killing tragedy of the first order. .
As a slave Patrick was given a task of herding cattle and sheep in the high country. It was a dark time for Patrick. His life and lifestyle as well as just some plain bad luck had collided at once, resulting in the destruction of any plans he had once had for himself. His lifes resume was all burned up with nothing but a pile of ashes remaining. With little left to look forward to, his dreams laid waste, and any illusions of tracking his own trajectory through life shattered, he found that quiet place that so many of us avoid. Without his family, his boisterous friends, or the constant chatter of civilization all around, Patrick’s world suddenly fell silent. It was in the middle of the quiet, boring mundane of what had become the everyday life of a servant slave, Patrick found that place that most of us try desperately to avoid. It was in that quiet place, with only the sounds of nature and cattle around him, Patrick began to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit.
Just like with most of us, the voice probably didn’t start out sounding all that Holy or all that spiritual. It might have sounded at first like his own voice echoing around inside the empty spaces of his own noggin. It might have been just small memories of little things he had heard said about Jesus. It might have been the story he had often heard of the death, burial and resurrection of the one they called Messiah. In that type of quiet place, accented by stillness of the nighttime air, a million thoughts may have raced through his mind in a moment. Those thoughts had one common theme, the truth of Jesus and his redemptive love. The truth that this same Jesus he had once heard of loved even a broken slave, bound to the cattle in the Celtic countryside.
It was in this wilderness setting that Patrick himself said that he finally converted, surrendering his heart and his life to Jesus Christ. With nothing else to hold onto, he held on to faith in The One who held tightly to him in his darkest moments. He was spiritually reborn and he grew in his faith out there in the highlands, with only the smelly animals and that inward voice to keep him company. He was still a slave, but far freer than ever before.
That could have been the end of the story and it would have been a story that ended well. After all, God’s highest priority is to seek out and find the lost one. He sweeps the entire house looking for one lost coin and he leaves the 99 to look for the one lost sheep. Patrick the skeptic was finally and gloriously saved. It was a victory, a win, and a triumph. But God didn’t leave it there. Oh no, It seems that God likes to use broken things, lost causes, destroyed lives in order to show how good He is at putting things back together better than every before.
Years later, when Patrick was in his early 20s, while doing his job as the captive herdsman, that he heard a voice inside his head that said, “Hurry, your ship is waiting!” The voice inside his head that used to sound just like his own, Patrick now recognized as the voice of the Holy Spirit. Unbelievably and against the odds, Patrick obeyed. Leaving the cattle where they were he walked about two hundred miles to the coast of Ireland. Once there, just like the Voice said, he saw a ship. This penniless escaped slave, smelling of sheep and wilderness, somehow convinced the captain to allow him to board, and he made his way back to England.
There are other amazing details in this story that I am passing up for the sake of time, but eventually he makes it home. This wasn’t the same boisterous spoiled brat that was known for harassing the clergy and poking fun at faith. It also wasn’t some victim with a grudge at having been treated unjustly. The Patrick that came back was someone different, someone crazy and seriously in love with Jesus. This new Patrick, disciplined by time in the quiet presence of the Living God, now found the greatest worth in loving God and loving the people God undeniably loved.
Patrick the scornful skeptic now became Patrick the Priest, dedicating his whole life to serving God. His compassionate love for the ones that Jesus loved led him to devote his life to ministry. He did what he knew how to do and became a pastor in the traditional church where he had grown up. He performed the sacraments. led the worship and taught in the church buildings where people came and gathered together. He did ministry the same way and in the same setting that generations before him had done ministry. He likely thought that he had it all figured out as he served inside the little box with the cross on top of it. He likely felt that he was being successful in ministry and undoubtedly could point to examples in his ministry that would have supported that claim. But God, as God often does, seemed to have something entirely different in mind.
At this point in time, Patrick has gone through three major changes;
- A change from his own plan for his life apart from Christ
- A change from lost skeptic to beloved of Christ
- A change from slave of Miliuc, his Irish master, to a servant of Jesus Christ, his new master.
Upon his return, Patrick followed the course of ministry that seemed obvious to him. He went through the traditional education of the Roman church and became a priest after the Roman tradition. In the Roman church tradition, inclusion in Christianity followed a certain path,
- First you must be civilized. Being civilized in that context usually meant being Romanized. In order to be fully included you had to speak the Roman language or an accepted language of Rome. There were also standards of dress and behavior that were expected. So the very first step to inclusion was behavior.
- The second step was that you had to believe the same way. There was a long list of things that you had to believe, or at least say that you believed. This list of beliefes were taught in the catechism regarding what you had to believe about Christ, the Church, forgiveness and the sacrements. Once you checked off all the boxes in the belief column, you were then invited to
- thirdly, belong. Christianity was like a club with its own clubhouse. It consisted of a bunch of little boxes with the cross on top of it, presided over by a trained and approved professional who had gone through the process of behaving in a civilized enough manner, who believed all the right things, and who supposedly held the key to deeper understanding of spiritual matters, to be released only to those who knew the secret password, who had gone through the steps of the church’s approval. Church was something that you went to participate in. The boxes they met in were ornate and as elaborate so that people would want to come in.
While working inside of this structure, this traditional way of doing church, Patrick had his life changed all over again. He had a vision where the people of Ireland, the ones that had kidnapped him as a boy and sold him into slavery. The same Irish people who sent him to work in the fields without any freedom of choice on his part. They called out to him in this vision. They begged him to come and share Christ with the pagan people of the beautiful emerald Island.
Patrick answered the call of the vision. It took some time, convincing, and a lot of preparation, but Patrick secured permission to lead a missionary team and return to the Island of his former captivity. That in itself was a miracle in that the Roman church would not have considered the Irish to be civilized enough to actually be converted. They had their own language which was considered as crude. They were not culturally romanized and were known for being a passionate and emotional people. They had their own pagan religion that considered nature as sacred more so than ornate buildings.
Patrick knew their differences too. He also knew that the traditional way of doing church would never work with the Irish. But he went anyway. Patrick knew that the civilized church was not there. But he went anyway. Patrick knew their language, their customs, their whole outlook on life and living was different than his, but he went anyway.
According to author and church planting coach, Doug Murren, Patrick instructed those who went on this missionary journey with him to not build churches. They were instructed to go into a village and meet people. They were to live in the same houses, engage in agriculture, animal husbandry and building of the infrastructure, all the while developing deep relationships. They were to live their Christianity on display, immersed in the local culture not apart from it. They met together and with the community to teach the Way in homes and taverns, in barns and in fields. It was only after a period of five years, if there was enough interest, they would then be allowed to build a structure where they could gather together. By that time it would be clear that they didn’t go and meet at the church, The Church went to meet together and celebrate as a family.
At the same time that Christianity was influencing the Irish culture, Patrick allowed the Irish culture to influence the practices of Christianity. The Irish people’s great love for nature was adopted into the practices and the teaching of Patrick and those who ministered with him. suddenly the everyday shamrock Clive became a real life illustration of the trinity of Faster, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Irish great love of story influenced the homily, or the way that the Good News of Jesus Christ was presented. The Bible became a story book rather than a rule book as they followed the epic story of God’s redemptive love from creation to the very end. Story took prominence over liturgy, capturing the Celtic imagination and transporting them into those thin places where heaven and earth would meet. The story was told in the local language, not the language of Rome.
In the Gospel account written by John the Apostle, friend to Jesus, he says it this way,
The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood
I am not sure if Patrick figured it out as he went or if he had planned it from the very beginning. Patrick, following in the way of Jesus the Living Word, in order to reach the people he had been called to reach did just that, he moved into the neighborhood.
Within a decade of Patrick and his followers choosing to move into the neighborhood of the Irish, monastic communities began to form. Traditionally the monastic community was a place that was separate from the everyday reality of the world. It was a place of devotion where only those who truly believed were allowed to reside. There were walls and doors that kept out the distractions of the world so that those inside could devote themselves to Christ without interruption.
In the Celtic model of monastic community there were no doors. Within the community there were clergy and craftsman living and laboring side by side. Farmers and friars shared the same table at community meals. Each and every neighbor had the interests of their neighbor at hears. Hospitality was the rule and the level of hospitality was the standard by which they compared themselves with. The best homes in the community were set aside to welcome in visitors who could stay as long as they chose with no requirement of believing the right things or even behaving the right way. Instead of going to church, the community became the church.
The other day I took my son to the children’s ministry at one of the large churches we attend. We went in just as the main service was getting ready to start so I felt a little bit of urgency to get him off to his kids group. There was a program going on and most everyone besides us were in a costume. The children’s ministry was held in a large room and there were small clusters of kids chatting in various groups randomly spread around the room, all in costume. There were a couple of adults off to the side who were deeply engaged in conversation with each other. I felt a little uncomfortable, but told my son to go ahead and go inside. He turned to face me then grabbed ahold of my legs with both hands in the universal language of kids saying, dad, don’t make me go. It sort of stuck in my mind and thought about it after we both made our way back to the main service. What was it that made me and my son so uncomfortable? He had wanted to go before we got there. He was actually excited to go. Then it hit me that what bothered me and scared him was that there was no clear path into the group. We were obviously on the Outside of something that we wanted to be a part of, but the posture of those already there communicated that we weren’t a part and our own insecurities communicated one word, unwelcome.
What Patrick did, what I hope his story inspires in us, is to make clear the path to being a part, to remove the barriers to community. To fling wide the welcoming doors of our hearts so that others might experience the joy we have found in serving Christ
What captures me and draws my heart toward the story of Patrick
- How when all the distractions are taken away, in the boredom of the mundane, God often takes advantage of those moments to speak to us, changing our lives dramatically.
- How Patrick responded to the call of God on his life in the only way he knew how, by becoming a priest in the common church structure of his day. He did what people typically did who wanted to obey the ministerial call, and yet he was able to see beyond what was always done and imagine a different way of reaching out to the lost folk of Ireland
- How rather than an attraction based approach to preaching the Gospel, he chose an immersion based approach. Instead of inviting them to church, he brought church to them. Rather closing the doors to all but the most devout he flung them wide open to welcome in everyone.
- How he allowed hospitality and community to instruct and direct the practices of The Church in Ireland and how we can do the same.