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St Patrick, Relevant To Us

7-17-17

Sent from Ireland this week, revived while visiting my daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren.

Unlike some saints of trinkets and wall-hangings, Ireland’s Saint Patrick was real, and is real.

St Patrick knew persecution. There understandably is some obscurity about a man who lived in the late 400s, but two letters he wrote survive; there are records of his deeds; tremendous influences surely attributable to him are still felt; and he did die on March 17. These things, and more, we do know.

He was born in western England and kidnapped by Irish marauders when he was a teenager. As a slave he worked as a shepherd, during which time his faith in God grew, where others might have turned despondent. He escaped to Britain, became learned in the Christian faith, and felt called to return to Ireland. On that soil he converted thousands, he encouraged men and women to serve in the clergy, he worked against slavery, and quashed paganism and heresies. Among his surviving colorful lessons is using the shamrock to explain the mystery of the Trinity, the Triune God, to converts.

He was an on-the-ground evangelist – possibly the church’s first great evangelist/missionary since St Paul, planting churches as far away as Germany – and he preceded much of history: living more than a hundred years prior to Mohammed; 500 years before Christianity split into Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy; and a thousand years before the Reformation.

I am not Irish; I am American. And my background is not at all Irish; it is German. But propelled, I am eager to admit, by a remarkable book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, I have learned about a gifted people. Not unlike other ethnic groups, the Irish endured persecution through generations, but in many ways in special ways. I have learned about a land that was repository of many tribes, not least the Celts, until its craggy Atlantic coast became the last European stand against pagan barbarism. Those tribes became a people, and their land virtually became, for quite a while, the defiant yet secret refuge of literacy and faith, in lonely monasteries and libraries. You know, the “Dark” Ages. Which were not all that dark. Plumbing was neglected, perhaps; but faith thrived.

As Lori Erickson recently wrote in a series on St Patrick for Patheos, “In the eighth century, Celtic Christians created a masterpiece of religious art called the The Book of Kells, whose vividness, color, and artistic mastery reflected Christian traditions laced with Celtic enchantment. The Book of Kells is an illuminated Latin manuscript of the four Gospels. While scholars don’t know for certain, it was likely created on the remote island of Iona off the coast of Scotland, and later brought to the monastery at Kells, Ireland. Made from the finest vellum and painted with inks and pigments from around the world (including lapis lazuli from Afghanistan), the book is almost indescribable in its loveliness, with designs that are convoluted, ornate, sinuous, and dreamlike in their complexity. Some scholars have called it the most beautiful book in the world,” she wrote. I can add that it can be seen as an early graphic novel.

It is on display at the magnificent Trinity College Library in Dublin – whose famous, cavernous, multi-balconied library room is akin to heaven for bibliomaniacs like me – surrounded by back-lit photos and displays of enlargements. It sits in an environment-controlled case, one page at a time turned every few months. To behold that book, so magnificent in its reproductions, in its reality, was one of the great experiences of my life.

The Book of Kells is awesome for what it is, surely one of the greatest artistic achievements of the human hand, head, and heart. A majestic monument to faith, all the more remarkable for being anonymously produced, unlikely by one person; possibly by a virtual army of creative souls. The Book of Kells is significant, too, for what it represents:

The tenacity of faith; the triumph of trust; the assumption of lonely devotion in the face of worldly temptations and the world-system’s persecutions; the joy of creativity; and obedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Knowing Him; making Him known. Not incidentally investing artistic beauty along the way… and having obvious, visceral, evident fun in the process.

Back to Saint Patrick. When the ancient masterpiece we behold as The Book of Kells was created, the man Patrick who bravely and no less tenaciously fought for the Gospel on that beautiful soil was already, himself, 500 years in the past. Our faith has been blessed with famous noted saints like Paul and Augustine; and those who touched souls for Christ but never were designated saints subsequently, like Martin Luther and J S Bach; and many, many saints who mightily served Christ in obscurity, like the monks who made The Book of Kells, and uncountable missionaries and martyrs.

Saint Patrick, born a pagan, made a slave, once a fugitive, was transformed by a knowledge of Christ. He taught us how to overcome challenges, listen to the Holy Spirit, formulate a vision, and change the world. Not just his world; but the world ever after.

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For more than a millennium a hymn, set to the haunting Irish tune “Slane,” and using St Patrick’s teaching in the words of the 6th-century Irish poet Saint Dallan, has spoken to the hearts of believers and non-believers: God is our All-In-All: Be Thou My Vision. It is performed here – with obvious and profound extra layers of meaning – by the blind gospel singer Ginny Owens.

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Click: Be Thou My Vision

St Patrick Still Says, “Be Thou Our Vision”

3-18-13

St Patrick’s Day has assumed an important part in my life, my faith life, in recent years. And I find myself for a week or so afterwards thinking about meanings and issues surrounding the person and the work of St Patrick. This year I invite us all to do that.

I am not Irish; I am American. And my background is not at all Irish; it is German. Propelled, I am eager to admit, by a remarkable book, “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” by Thomas Cahill, I have learned about a gifted people who, not unlike other ethnic groups, endured persecution through generations; and learned about a land that was repository of many tribes, not least the Celts, until its craggy Atlantic coast became the last European stand against pagan barbarism. Those tribes became a people, and their land virtually became, for quite a while, the secret refuge of literacy and faith, in lonely monasteries and libraries.

I will also admit that my main interest in things Irish was principally fed by my daughter Emily’s missions trips there. She had a heart for Northern Ireland, rather the border of north and south. She served in the city of Londonderry (or Derry, depending on one’s prejudice); she returned for a longer time, ministering to street kids in the fabled neighborhoods of the “Troubles,” where things have improved, but violence still occurs – somehow less on American news shows, however. American “journalism” has moved to other bloody areas around the world.

Emily met Norman McCorkell at church. They fell in love. They married. They attended Irish Bible Institute together. They have gifted me with two grandchildren. So I am rather more emotionally invested in things Irish than I previously was. But something near my home in Michigan taught me more about old St Patrick’s mission, and new Ireland’s troubles, than my visits and conversations have done.

There is an “Irish Shop” a few towns away from me, where imported items are sold, and which offers annual tours to the Ould Sod. The American-born woman who operates the shop with her husband always seemed to appreciate our visits, and, like my wife, was a kidney transplant recipient, so there was never a shortage of conversation. We told her about Emily; how the ministry was scrupulous about being “Christian,” not Protestant or Catholic in its outreach, about the many dangers of the neighborhoods they entered with hot coffee and warm words.

One time we entered the shop, and by way of introduction – for she must have many customers – I said, “we’re the couple with the daughter who works with the street kids of Derry.” She remembered us: she said, matter-of-factly, “Oh, yes. Teaching the Protestant kids to hate Catholics.” No tongue-in-cheek. She was not kidding. Automatic reaction.

That remark, that attitude, taught me anew the lingering power of hate. It is never new, sadly, yet we all need to be reminded, if we are to attempt resistance. Two weeks ago in Derry a mortar-filled van was discovered and defused minutes before exploding. It would have caused history-making devastation. I was reminded that if people had been killed, perhaps Emily and her family, there are other people who would not a shed a tear. And, of course, the other-side around, too.

St Patrick knew persecution. There understandably is some obscurity about a man who lived in the late 400s, but two letters he wrote survive; there are records of his deeds; tremendous influences surely attributable to him are still felt; and he did die on March 17. These things, and more, we do know.

He was born in western England and kidnapped by Irish when he was a teenager. As a slave he worked as a shepherd, during which time his faith in God grew, where others might have turned despondent. He escaped to Britain, became learned in the Christian faith, and felt called to return to Ireland. On that soil he converted thousands, he encouraged men and women to serve in the clergy, he worked against slavery, and quashed paganism and heresies. Among his surviving colorful lessons is using the shamrock to explain the mystery of the Trinity, the Triune God, to converts.

He was an on-the-ground evangelist – possibly the church’s first great evangelist/missionary since St Paul – and he preceded much of history: living more than a hundred years prior to Mohammed; 500 years before Christianity split into Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy; and a thousand years before the Reformation.

No labels – except the gospel and love. The gospel AS love. He preached reconciliation before the issues arose that we think are irreconcilable. But nothing is impossible with God.

This week I am lifting up three friends, especially, in prayer. Somehow their challenges all relate, in the eyes of my heart, to the mission of that brave apostle of God from so long ago.

One friend faces serious health issues, and has been nervous about approaching God. Patrick taught that God can become our breastplate, our shield, as well as our dignity. He takes those things upon Himself.

Another friend lost her husband four years ago, and their anniversary was St Patrick’s Day. Her wounds sometimes still seem fresh. It is a gift as well as a magnificent burden to have a tender heart. St Patrick taught that God offers to BE our heart, and our vision, in all matters of life.

Another friend is ministering to her precious daughter through a crisis. I don’t know the details, but when Christians ask for prayer, we don’t have to know the details; God knows. St Patrick taught that God does not only gift us with wisdom: He IS our wisdom. He not only bestows spiritual treasures: He IS our treasure.

“St Patrick’s Breastplate” is a prayer that has comforted uncountable people for 1500 years. Another ancient Celtic hymn, “Be Thou My Vision,” incorporates the words I have just quoted. We can draw inspiration… if we choose to listen. Reconciliation, healing, love, and peace are still pummeled by life’s waves of indifference and hatred.

But, for those who will not listen, St Patrick reminded us that God offers to be our ears, too.

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For more than a millennium the hymn, set to a haunting tune and using St Patrick’s teaching, has spoken to the hearts of believers and non-believers. At its essence is a plea for what is already true: that God is our All-In-All.

Click: Be Thou My Vision

Of Presidential Elections and Rendering Unto Washington

10-8-12

A provocative blog this week by my friend Craig Bubeck on the site Internet Monk addressed the role of Christians in the political process. Drawing upon his own reassessments, he dealt especially with this season’s hot buttons: the role of morality in civic affairs; loyalty to nation and party; and the legitimacy of coerced charity as practiced by government.

He makes the point that too many Christians automatically reject state-mandated charity, when (recalling Jesus’ admonition to show love “to the least of these”) believers should applaud charity, no matter what the source; and that “values voters” tend to compartmentalize acts of love and charity. The church’s domain, many think.

Craig’s essay did provoke thoughts. I believe I have fairly stated his theses, and my own thoughts are based on his, not the second round of debating-points. I think that a lot of sincere citizens – sincere about their love and country and love of God, including therefore love of fellow men – do not often enough admire or support acts of charity when committed by government agencies.

However, the “other” side of the question (and it IS a foundational question facing Christians and all Americans) concerns how many governmental acts of charity are acts of love. That is to say that Jesus’ bedrock challenge, the element of love, should be the yardstick by which we formulate national policy and our own responses. Long-term, does the state’s co-option of charitable impulses – picking winners and losers, deciding between those in need, attaching strings to aid and comfort – assist the least of these amongst us solely? Or does it, ultimately, interfere with the prerogatives of churches and individuals? Is it a distinction with a difference?

The widow was praised for giving a mite, all she had. The rich man, in the parable, is not praised for, at least, giving something. There is nothing in Jesus’ story about mandating that the widow give, or setting her donation level, or rejecting the rich man’s donation. Love, in the heart, was the Lord’s determinant. Likewise it is evident, even to the extent of using a Roman coin in another of the Lord’s lessons, that “giving unto Caesar” meant the things of Caesar’s – first amongst them money and taxes. Surely the “things of God’s” meant the currency of love, deposited in the heart.

“The poor you will always have with you.” Many Christians do not dig deeply into yet another verse. It is not easy so to dig; my suspicion is that the parables and admonitions of Jesus seem to meet us less than halfway in order to oblige us to think a little harder than usual.

The statement about the poor is some times, at least subliminally, regarded as a reminder that “there are always those who are less fortunate than ourselves.” Perhaps a sanctified defeatism, that poverty will never be totally eradicated? Yet St. Augustine viewed Christ’s words not as a statement of fact or a statistical view of society, but a command, a challenge, a commission from God Almighty.

In the Augustinian view (in his “Confessions”) Christ was saying that no matter how severe the relative poverty — or, that is to say, also the relative comfort-level — of our neighbors, we must retain the spirit of charity. We believers, that is. In the original tongue, “charity” meant “love,” the act of Christian loving and compassion.

It would seems clear that such an impulse, a holy command rather than a feel-good, do-good suggestion, would find little fulfillment in the cultivation of systems that would transfer personal responsibility, and personal commitment, to others. In fact when governmental agencies assume the impulses and instincts toward charitable impulses – and sometimes virtually outlaw them, by sanctions against churches and faith-groups – we witness a war against religion.

A giant step in my political and ecclesial maturity was when relatives from Europe (where in many countries three per cent of citizens attend church, and where “state churches” are a matter of course) told me that many people attend church three times in their lives: baptism, marriage, and funeral. When the clergy is paid by the state, the Bible recedes to a book on the shelf among driver’s manuals and counselor’s handbooks; and the clergy is relegated to a list of state-supplied counselors you may call on, or not.

My own relatives in America, my grandparents, shared Great Depression era stories with me. A propos cheering “charity” when dispensed by the government, I recall that my grandmother, who sold cookies (not apples, as in the common images) on street corners, frequently confronted by “block captains” that government assistance for her family was tied to registering and voting with one of the two political parties. Render unto Caesar – Washington – indeed.

Simply: it is seems to me that if Christians perceive that there are problems in society, they ought to act more Christian than, perhaps, they previously have been acting; and should encourage fellow Christians and churches and faith-groups to respond better. That includes monetary gifts and it certainly includes physical involvement.

But when Washington says it can do such things better than Christians can – but moreover, and increasingly, attaches conditions regarding Christians’ freedom of conscience about things like abortion, homosexuality, reliance on the Bible’s instructions and God’s commands – we ought to reconsider the extent of “rendering unto Caesar.”

Surely Jesus did not categorize conscience and liberty, much less the charitable impulse, as things that are primarily the government’s domain.

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“Be Thou My Vision,” a beautiful Irish hymn of the fourth century, associated with St. Patrick, seems appropriate to hear in relation to this message. This version is by the trip Selah:

Click: Be Thou My Vision

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About The Author

... Rick Marschall is the author of 74 books and hundreds of magazine articles in many fields, from popular culture (Bostonia magazine called him "perhaps America's foremost authority on popular culture") to history and criticism; country music; television history; biography; and children's books. He is a former political cartoonist, editor of Marvel Comics, and writer for Disney comics. For 10 years he has been active in the Christian field, writing devotionals and magazine articles; he was co-author of "The Secret Revealed" with Dr Jim Garlow. His biography of Johann Sebastian Bach for the “Christian Encounters” series (Thomas Nelson) was released in April, 2011. Read More