Epiphany, the End of a Long Search

C. S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, and Lee Strobel share something in common with some ancient characters in the story of the Bible. They all came to believe that they were led to Jesus. Lewis, McDowell, and Strobel all came to Jesus quite reluctantly. The ancient characters described in the Bible story made a great and unusual effort to find Him.

Lewis told his story of conversion to faith in Christ in a book entitled Surprised by Joy: the Shape of My Early Life. He had become a hard-boiled unbeliever and skeptic in his late twenties. His mother died when he was a child, and neither he, his brother nor their father handled it very well. He graduated with a “First” in two different fields of study from Oxford University. This means that he was the top of his class in these areas of study from one of the top universities in the world. He was getting a good start in his teaching assignment at Oxford, becoming more and more entrenched in his unbelief, when something upsetting and unusual happened.

Here is how Lewis described that moment of crisis: “Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. ‘Rum thing,’ he went on. ‘All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once.’ To understand the shattering impact of it, you would need to know the man (who has certainly never since shown any interest in Christianity). If he, the cynic of cynics, the toughest of the toughs, were not—as I would still have put it—‘safe,’ where could I turn? Was there no escape?”

He reports in Surprised by Joy that there was no escape. Once he explored the evidence for himself, his atheism began to wilt and ultimately it crumbled to the ground. A new perspective had taken root and was going to grow into a large tree of faith. Or, in a timelier way of putting this, a flicker of light had penetrated the darkness and had begun to burn more and more brightly.

It was just such a light that some ancient men discovered in the sky, which in some amazing manner led them right to the child Jesus and his mother and step-father. The Gospel of Matthew (chapter 2) tells about this caste of stargazers the Greeks called magoi that somehow inferred from astronomical observations that a new “king of the Jews” would be born. They traveled a very long way, created quite a stir upon their arrival in Jerusalem, and finally found the place where Jesus lived. When they saw the child, they bowed before him in worship and presented him gifts fit for a king: gold, incense, and myrrh. That is what Christians celebrate on January 6 each year, what is called “Epiphany,” meaning “a revelation.”

People like Lewis, Strobel and McDowell argue that just such a revelation could be waiting for us. Of course, we could try to play it safe, too. But if this story is true, there is nothing in the world with which to compare it. As Blaise Pascal wrote, “Let them at least be honest men, if they cannot be Christians. Finally, let them recognize that there are two kinds of people one can call reasonable; those who serve God with all their heart because they know Him, and those who seek Him with all their heart because they do not know Him (Pensees, #194). Perhaps a personal Epiphany awaits.

Smiley Mudd

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Living in a Post-Christmas World

Every year in late December, as I drive about town, I inevitably see what for me is a symbol of the season: a deflated Santa Claus on someone’s front yard. Now really, I am not completely offended by the Jolly Old Man. He represents a tradition that stretches all the way back to a great Christian in the late 3rd and early 4th century, Nicholas of Myra, Turkey—St. Nicholas in popular parlance. Nicholas was a famous Christian about whom a variety of legends have grown. One of the main ones is that he gave away his inherited wealth and went about the countryside helping the poor and sick. Even the Fat Man in the Red Suit is still a flicker of that ancient Christian story, and so I don’t hold any grudge against him.

However, his is now a story of much form and little substance. He is an inflated invention of modern times. He is full of cheer and bears gifts for the “nice” people, but the worst he can do is to put a lump of coal in the stocking of the “naughty.” Even in this there is a semblance of justice, but rather of a weak and toothless kind. The trouble with inflated things is that they won’t hold air forever.

As I write this column, my family is watching the classic Christmas movie, A Christmas Carol. It is the 1984 edition in which George C. Scott plays Ebenezer Scrooge. That Charles Dickens’ story is a tale with more grit and with much more at stake. The possible outcomes of life truly are stark, and they could not be more opposite to each other. And there is indeed opportunity in this life to change the path—and the destiny—of our journey. The Scripture being read in the Cratchit household makes the point of the story subtly but clearly: “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3, ESV). Mr. Scrooge truly does “turn” as he humbles himself before heaven and becomes like a little child in his repentance, begging for mercy and a chance to change his ways. Bob Cratchit’s quote from Tiny Tim suggests the gospel in the story, albeit again hinted but not proclaimed (I paraphrase): “I hope the people see me at church, and they remember the one who made the lame walk and the dumb speak.”

It is now nine days after Christmas. We are living in a post-Christmas world, but not just this week—rather, for the past two millenia. “And the Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of an only-born from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 14:6). As I see it, nothing now remains the same. Our very physical world is now hallowed, if not haunted, because of the Incarnation. God holds insider information about the human lives that He created in His image. The Son of God “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15, ESV). That writer gets the point: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16-5:1 ESV). Let us, indeed! And shucks, “God bless us, every one!”

Smiley Mudd

 

Myth has become fact in the coming of Jesus.

One of the most interesting and often discussed friendships of the 20th century was the bond between J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings cycle, and C. S. Lewis, the writer behind The Chronicles of Narnia and of many books defending and explaining the Christian faith—notably titles like The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. Both of these Oxford professors wrote books in their respective fields of Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Lewis) and of Philology (the study of language and languages, Tolkien).

Lewis credited a particular walk with Tolkien down a lane in Oxford, England, as a turning point in his quest for spiritual truth. Tolkien was a most unlikely candidate for friendship with Lewis, since Lewis had a predisposition against both Papists (Roman Catholics) and Philologists (the study of language). Tolkien was both. But as they walked along, they were discussing Lewis’s respect and admiration for the great myths of the Norse Gods. They agreed that such stories had power to shape the imagination and also the life. But what, suggested Tolkien, if one of these great stories, the myth of the Dying God, might actually have happened in human history, that the story told in the gospels of Jesus of Nazareth was myth become fact? The power of the story would be even greater because now it was not rooted only in the imagination, but now anchored in the flow of human history.

Lewis related in Surprised by Joy: the Shape of My Early Life a stunning event that took place one day in his early years as a lecturer in Philosophy and English at Oxford: “Early in 1926 the hardest boiled of all the atheists I ever knew sat in my room on the other side of the fire and remarked that the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels was really surprisingly good. ‘Rum thing,’ he went on. ‘All that stuff of Frazer’s about the Dying God. Rum thing. It almost looks as if it had really happened once’” (p. 216). Lewis reports that this was a devastating blow to his contrived unbelief. Myth become fact, indeed!

This is exactly what Christians claim happened in the dividing line between the centuries, what separates the Common Era from Before the Common Era: it is the coming of Jesus Christ. Those of us who still prefer the more Christian designations of B.C. (Before Christ) and A. D. (Anno Domini, in the year of the Lord), are more conscious and less in denial about what really happened to the world when Jesus was born. The great stories of other cultures, perhaps understood as echoes sounding out from the great voice that had spoken through that most unlikely megaphone, the manger in Bethlehem, were now finding their historical expression. The God Who had created all else outside of Himself had humbled Himself to such an extent that he not only shared the human nature of those made in His image, but He then went on to “taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9) and conquer death once and for all in His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1ff). Of such is our celebration of Christmas. Merry Christmas, indeed!

Smiley Mudd

 

Don’t fumble the baton or the race could be lost.

A Pastor named Bryan Wilkerson tells: “In the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, the American women’s 4×100 relay [team] was favored to win the gold medal. The team featured Marion Jones, a sprinter who had won four gold medals at the previous games in Sydney. The American team was already off to a strong start when Jones took the baton for the second leg of the race. She gained ground as she ran her 100 meters and approached Lauryn Williams, a young speedster who would run the third leg.

“Williams began running as Jones drew near, but when she reached back to receive the baton, they couldn’t complete the handoff. Once, twice, three times Jones thrust the baton forward, but each time it missed Williams’ hand—she couldn’t seem to wrap her fingers around it. Finally, on the fourth try, they made the connection. But by that time, they had crossed out of the 20-yard exchange zone and were disqualified. Everyone knew they were the fastest team on the track. The night before, they’d had the fastest qualifying time. But when they couldn’t complete the handoff, their race was over.”

As I see it, this is a parable for living with what I have called from time to time a Generational Vision. In short, we must appreciate what has been handed to us from  those who have gone before us, and we must faithfully pass that on to those who follow us—a Generational Vision. The point? Don’t drop the baton in the transfer from generation to generation. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2Timothy 2:2 ESV).

We have just finished a month of appreciation for what we have inherited from the Reformers of the 16th century in the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses. These imperfect but faithful disciples called us back to the Scriptures and to salvation by God’s grace through our faith. They rediscovered the “priesthood” of all believers. Our present task is to take the good things we have inherited, filter them through our own thorough reading of Scripture in the fellowship of God’s people, and then make that our legacy for those who follow us. Don’t drop the baton in the transfer from generation to generation.

Of course, this has application to our family relationships as well as to our relationships at church. Our children should see a credible witness in their Christian parents of the faith, hope, and love embedded in the Gospel. All of the children in the Church should see the same from all the adults that confess faith in Jesus, whether parents or singles. The race of faith is like a relay, not a solo sprint or even a marathon. We will of necessity receive the Truth in Christ from those who have gone before us, and unless Jesus comes again in this generation, we will surely be required to pass it on to those who follow. Let’s do it well!

Smiley Mudd

What Baptist-Christians Owe to the Reformation

October 31, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of a rather world-altering event. On that date in 1517, Martin Luther posted on the chapel door of the University of Wittenberg, Germany, a list of discussion points he hoped to engage with other scholars at the university. It was the 95 Theses. In those 95 challenging bullet points, he questioned the common practice of selling indulgences (basically “get out of Purgatory free” cards) and the absolute power of the Pope to interpret the meaning of the Church and the Christian life—among many other things.

It appears that Martin had been reading his Bible, in the just-published edition of the Greek New Testament (1516) from a thoughtful Christian scholar named Desiderius Erasmus. The Renaissance (literally, re-birth) was moving right along with its emphasis on the recovery of time-tested paths. Erasmus had this funny and seemingly outmoded idea that the Christian Church should study and recover the original faith of the followers of Jesus. They needed the Bible, and not just a translation that no one could read, in order to do that. As Martin read and reread this original text of the New Testament, he was struck at how different it seemed from what he had been taught as a good Roman Catholic Christian. He had labored within the current teaching of the Church, trying to balance the books between his self-perceived sins and the penance he was tasked to do. He could never feel fully pardoned, no matter what he did (and he did a lot).

Then along came the book of Romans. “The just shall live by faith” it repeated from the book of Habakkuk. “What? I am not pronounced righteous by my deeds, but rather by my faith!?” This was earth-shaking (good) news for Martin. He wanted to hash out the implications of this with his fellow teachers. But someone came along, read the 95 Theses, snatched it up and took it to that new-fangled instrument for bibliophiles called the Printing Press, and the Reformation had begun.

Baptist-Christians came along later in the surge of what has been called the Third Wave of the Reformation. We are heirs of this rediscovery of salvation by faith alone on the basis of God’s grace alone founded on the teaching of the Scriptures alone (sola fide, sola gratia, sola Scriptura). Every self-respecting Baptist-Christian says “Amen!” (perhaps rather loudly) to these emphases when they are taught from the pulpit. As I see it, we do well to celebrate this heritage. After all, Martin didn’t set out to create a Lutheran Church, but to reform the Church of Jesus Christ our Lord so that it would be a more faithful Church. That is the heart-cry of Baptist-Christians, as well. We should know from reading our Bibles, too, that “Baptist” and “Lutheran” are merely adjectives. The real Noun is Church. And Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18, NIV).

Smiley Mudd

On Having an Open Mind

G. K. Chesterton was both a colorful figure and a prolific writer. He lived in England in roughly the first half of the 20th century. He wrote stories about a fictional Catholic Priest named Father Brown, who had a penchant for solving mysteries. He also wrote essays about economics that criticized both socialist and capitalist notions. And, he wrote often about philosophy and religion. He was a rather famous convert to Catholicism, ironically crediting the faulty arguments of non-believers with convincing him of the fundamental truth in Christianity. Perhaps that is why he is often considered the master of paradox.

Chesterton was also the master of the pithy sentence—like this one, for instance: “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” He was justly skeptical of the person who constantly touted keeping “an open mind.” Think about it. You can debate the salient claims of different modes of rescue in the flooded streets of Houston, Texas, or even the theoretical burden and benefit of the occasional hurricane; but, if you are standing waste deep in water outside your front door on a Houston street, it might just be wise to quit debating and get into the neighbor’s boat while you still can. There may be better boats, and it might be more thrilling to ride in a helicopter, but if the boat will take you to safety, it is wise to get into it.

Chesterton, as with the followers of Jesus through the ages, confessed personal confidence in the rather “hard saying” of Jesus: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Now that is a watershed statement, isn’t it? I suppose that we can debate whether Jesus believed this or was just trying to reassure His followers on the eve of His crucifixion; but really, it comes down to this: is it true? Was Jesus right?

If not, then the story of Jesus may have some historical value (and the historical record is rather overwhelming in favor of His real existence), but it would then be a fatally tragic story. He died young, after all. Rather, Christians believe it is a tragic story with a triumph to follow. Christians have always confessed faith in the simple but compound affirmation of both His death and His resurrection. They have done so because people who were there when both of these events were claimed to have taken place saw them and then reported their surprised and amazed experiences. Those eye-witness accounts were preserved in the written record of the New Testament of the Bible.

The Christian message is that truth can be found because truth is centered in a Person (with a capitol P). In fact, for most adult converts to the faith, there is this remarkable moment that comes when, in the Chestertonian sense, the mouth opens, perhaps with hesitancy but with wonder and hope, and then shuts again on the Bread that is offered and finds that it nourishes the soul with something that is beyond the temporary and the ordinary. Indeed, that reminds us of another one of those quizzical but stirring sayings of Jesus: “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in my will never be thirsty” (John 6:35, NIV). Granted, He was speaking of spiritual hunger and thirst, but that is quite the saying, nevertheless. The hope of Jesus’ followers is that everyone will keep an open mind, just long enough to close it on the truth—ah, and ultimately on The Truth Himself.

Smiley Mudd

Some things should not be taken for granted. Religious liberty is one of those.

Independence Day is rightly a Big Deal for American citizens. It is the anniversary of the first signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, when the British colonies of New England officially cut ties with the Motherland. It took eight years of war before those ties fully disentangled. George Washington was asked some years after this how it was that his collection of relatively untrained farmers and tradesmen in the Continental Army could have defeated the most powerful army of their generation. His reply went like this, “It is almost a miracle that we won that war” (See John Ferling’s lively book by that title, Almost a Miracle: the American Victory in the War of Independence.).

Every year for the past several years, beginning on July 4, I have read a work of history that widens my perspective on what it means to be an American citizen. Over the past few years, this has included Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, a foray into The Federalist Papers, a reading of The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Ferling’s book (referenced above), 1776 by David McCullough, and this year, a second reading of Edward Larson’s recent book entitled The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789. I am trying to keep my history chops up! It is scandalous how ignorant of history many Americans are.

What I have gained from this now annual ritual of reading is a greater appreciation for the heritage we enjoy and for the principles on which our republic is founded. Through this, I have also become more and more aware that we have never fully lived up to our ideals. The Constitutional Convention kicked the worm can of slavery down the road, and it took a war, the passing of a century, the Civil Rights Movement and still more to try to overcome that deferment. Even now, just as we seem to make progress, something new sets us back again.

When the Constitutional Convention was at an impasse, James Madison drafted the first ten amendments known as The Bill of Rights. The very first one says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The Bill of Rights emphasized the limits of the federal government over the individual citizen. Note the two sides of that very first compound clause: “… no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” There was to be no “state church” as there had been in England, and citizens would be free to exercise their religion without government interference. The consciences of the individual citizens of the republic were to be respected in matters of religion, as long as those matters did not violate other appropriate and just laws.

As I see it, this is a fitting application of the statement in the Declaration of Independence that affirms “the unalienable right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It parallels the freedom of conscience assumed in John 3:16, “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish ….” Such freedom of the individual conscience, and the personal accountability before God that comes with it, is worth fighting to preserve for all generations of American citizens. I for one do not intend to take this for granted.

Smiley Mudd

One end is always another beginning.

Graduation. Marriage. New job. Empty nest. An end of one mode of life is always the beginning of another.

The graduating senior has lived on the top of the food chain for a full year, but that ends at graduation. Either that graduate gets a job or goes on to a higher level of education. And that puts him/her right at the bottom of the food chain once more. The senior becomes a freshman, and some of the swagger is squelched. The patterns of familiar relationships are soon gone forever. The entry-level job has a humbling effect, as well.

The carefree single adult preparing to get married has a similar prospect. The time of untroubled life with only oneself to amuse or provide for will soon be over. If marriage is entered with historic and Christian conviction, that single person is about to be united in a lasting bond with someone who is really different: different in gender, personality, interests, aspirations, and more. From God’s point of view, human opposites are made for each other! But success in such a lifetime adventure requires a dying to self-interest and a willingness to be stretched and adapted in order to become, over time, that well-matched pair which God envisioned.

Parents who send their last child off to school to seek his/her own place in the world or off to take a job and live in his/her own apartment often have a mixed experience. Some parents are chanting the famous lines of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Some feel like a death has occurred. So much of life had come to revolve around that child or those children. It is often hard to adjust to how quiet and undisturbed everything is at first.

It is that time of year when these Ends-Beginnings are happening. Graduation, weddings, moving—transitions of life are beginning to happen right now. As I see it, major changes like these are tests of the quality of our faith. We are moving from one mode of life to another, but is our faith making the adjustment? Have we come to believe in a God “who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17b, NIV)? Are we holding to the One who says to His people, “Never will I leave you/ never will I forsake you”? (cf. Hebrews 13:5, NIV). Are we living under the grace and mission of the One who said, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20, NIV)?

Thankfully, though our lives change regularly, sometimes majorly, God’s character and truth do not. We can move confidently into a new mode of life when He is holding our hands. What the Lord said to Joshua has meaning for all God’s people: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9, NIV).

Smiley Mudd

We live somewhere between nostalgia and eternity.

My most pressing task right now is preparing for a memorial service coming up this Saturday. That alone would be taxing. What makes this one different is that it is for a high school classmate that I haven’t seen often over the past four decades, except for our class reunions every ten years. I learned via Facebook that he had passed rather suddenly back in January. Then, his younger sister and another classmate contacted me about officiating in his memorial service. His sister said, “We just want to remember my brother well, and share our hope in Christ.” I feel quite honored to do that.

Here’s the complication. Though my father and mother were earnest servants of Jesus during my high school years, I was not. As those years rolled by, I was increasingly disconnected from following Jesus. I really thought that life was to be found in the latest pleasures being offered “out there,” rather than in the offerings of the little church my father had started. Score a temporary win for the World, the Flesh and the Devil.

And now, 44 years later, I am returning to my high school town to officiate in a Christian memorial service. The man who passed was not a church-attender, but his sister believes that he was a believer. I can’t judge from my level of knowledge. What I do know is that preparing for this service has brought back a lot of memories that I had buried somewhere in a scrapbook in the attic.

They are returning like Mr. Toad, the Badger, the Rat and the Mole retaking Toad Hall from the weasels (read The Wind in the Willows to get that reference). Nostalgia is assailing me suddenly and unexpectedly. Some of those memories are as fresh and vivid as if they happened yesterday. (Of course, yesterday, I was still looking for a key to my motorcycle that I misplaced a couple of weeks ago. Alas.)

As I see it, this is really where the wave of current life hits land. Our present life carries the flotsam and jetsam of our experience forward, and crashes it against the shoreline of our future. Some of that gets distributed on the beach, and some, well, just keeps floating about somewhere out there in our vague recollections, often unnoticed and forgotten for years.

The Apostle Paul wrote of “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead” (Philippians 3:13, NIV). In the context, he meant that he was forgetting his misplaced confidence in “the flesh” and was straining toward the fulfillment of God’s purposes for his life, not simply forgetting everything in the past. In fact, he had just recounted all the issues of his past of which he was not proud, and he told his own story of coming to faith in Jesus repeatedly. Perhaps not merely forgetting but remembering differently, in light of the grace of God in Christ, is what we need to do. At least, that is what I hope to do on Saturday.

 

Smiley Mudd

Green Beer and Leprechauns: Correcting our Memory of Patrick of Ireland

St. Patrick’s Day is almost upon us, and for many, this means avoiding those pesky pinching leprechauns (and friends) and, well, drinking too much beer–green beer at that. Why do people do these things? Well, for some, any excuse is good enough to drink too much beer. And, there is an Irish rumor out there that those who didn’t wear green on March 17 would become the victims of sneaky leprechauns who would pinch them unawares. So, to warn the potential victims, friends and family would pinch the non-green wearing. Seems like doing the leprechauns’ work for them, but hey. I have a better reason for wearing the green, though for the most part, I am happy to avoid being pinched, too. My reason is to remember a truly great man and missionary named Patrick.

What do we really know about Patrick? When did he live? Where was he born? What country is he usually connected with? Why should we care about any of these questions? I’m glad you asked, because now I’m going to tell you.

PATRICK OF … IRELAND

            Imagine this: You are a 16-year-old young man who is taking a walk along the beach with your family one day. As you all walk along, suddenly, you see about 50 longboats sailing toward the shore. This causes you some concern when you see what look like fierce soldiers getting out of the boats and forming into bands on the shore. They are wearing helmets and carrying long spears. So you run toward your home. By the time you get there, these pirates have fallen upon the town. They set house after house on fire. Everyone is running for their lives. As you are darting in and out between burning houses, you run right into some of the warriors. They grab you and drag you back toward the shore and their waiting boats.

Before you know fully what has happened, they are loading you aboard one of their boats and are sailing away. The boat trip takes a long time across the sea toward the west until you reach land again. By this time, you realize where you are going: Ireland. You had heard about these barbarous Irish marauders who capture slaves from England and Scotland. Now you have experienced this firsthand. You have been taken as a slave to Ireland! You are across the Irish Sea from home—many days journey both by land and sea. There is nothing you can do about it.

Before long, you have been sold to a king in a region of Northern Ireland. He doesn’t treat you well. You are sent out to tend pigs. In fact, for weeks, sometimes months, you are all alone. You follow the pigs around as they search for water and food. You learn to live off of whatever you can find to eat, often going days without food and barely enough water.

But something else begins to happen. You have nowhere else to turn, so you begin to pray—a lot. Before all of this happened, you knew about God and about Jesus Christ from your parents. But you had really taken it very seriously or personally—until now, that is. Later, you will come to write this: “I would pray constantly during the daylight hours…. The love of God and the fear of him surrounded me more and more. And faith grew. And the spirit roused so that in one day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and at night only slightly less.” You begin to really trust God to provide for you and to guide you.

And then one day, after six years of such slavery, you have a very unusual experience. You receive a supernatural message. “You do well to fast,” a mysterious voice said to him. “Soon you will return to your homeland.” Before long, the voice spoke again: “Come and see, your ship is waiting for you.” So you decide to escape and even run 200 miles to a southeastern harbor on the coast of Ireland. There you get on board a ship of traders (probably carrying Irish wolfhounds to the European continent).

When your ship arrives on the coast of Europe after a three-day journey—in France to be exact—your ship’s captain expects to find a vast and fertile land. Instead, the whole area seems to be devastated from war. There appears to be nothing to eat at all. Your captain mocks you. You have told him your story about how God has delivered you from slavery. Now, he says to you, “’What have you to say for yourself, Christian?’ You boast that your God is all powerful. We’re starving to death, and we may not survive to see another soul.’

You answer confidently. ‘Nothing is impossible to God. Turn to him and he will send us food for our journey.” At that moment, a herd of pigs appears, “seeming to block our path.” Though you instantly become “well regarded in their eyes,” your companions offer their new-found food in sacrifice to their pagan gods. You decide not to partake in that ritual.

In a short time, you are able to make your way back home to Britain and you are reunited with your family. This is glorious, especially since you had begun to think that you would never see them again, and that you very likely would die out in the wilderness with no other human being around.

This is just what did happen to a young man named Patricius, whom we call Patrick. He was carried away into slavery in Ireland around AD 430. And here’s what happened next.

One day, perhaps even 30-40 years later—Patrick had a vision. Here’s how he described it. “I had a vision in my dreams of a man who seemed to come from Ireland,” Patrick wrote. “His name was Victoricius, and he carried countless letters, one of which he handed over to me. I read aloud where it began: ‘The Voice of the Irish.’ And as I began to read these words, I seemed to hear the voice of the same men who lived beside the forest of Foclut  … and they cried out as with one voice, ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.’ I was deeply moved in heart and I could read no further, so I awoke.”

Now think about this: How in the world could he possibly go back as a missionary to the very people who had stolen him away from his family and made him into a slave, neglecting him and making him tend to their sheep (and possibly pigs)!? Well, by the grace of God!

With courage and with grace from God fueling his heart, Patrick returned to Ireland. When he arrived as a bishop, there were already Christians and churches there. He began to work with them, nurture them and lead them to reach out to others. Over the next several decades, God used his word and work to bring the Good News of Jesus to the entire Island. Estimates of thousands came to faith in Christ during this time. The control of druid paganism was mostly defeated. Despite death-threats and setbacks, he persevered and was used by God to bring many into God’s kingdom there. And not only this, but many of those became skilled in the copying of manuscripts of the Bible and other great ancient literature. Remember, this was 1,000 years before the printing press was invented. Every “book” had to be copied by hand, taking months to complete a full manuscript. Over the following centuries, as barbarian tribes swept over the landscape of Europe, it was the Irish missionaries and scribes who preserved the Bible and other classical Greek, Latin and other literature. As they moved out from Ireland into those conquered lands, they carried this language and learning with them, and as Thomas Cahill stated it, they “saved civilization.” Others consider this a little tongue-in-cheek exaggeration.

It is also interesting that Patrick faced some serious criticism from the Christian leaders back in Britain. In his later years, they were trying to call him back from Ireland, and he didn’t want to leave. The longest written piece that we have from Patrick, and from which the story of his enslavement and escape comes, is his Confession (singular). He recounts how a good friend was used by God to commend him to other bishops and pave the way for him to become one, too. And then, many years later, that same trusted friend turned on him and tried to undermine his ministry in Ireland. Was it because of jealousy? Was it a spirit of competition? Was it a ploy of power? Patrick did admit that he used bribes to keep local officials from interfering with his ministry. He also refused to allow women who were new converts from giving their jewelry as offerings. Maybe these had something to do with the “recall.”

What happened was this. Patrick had once confided in his friend about something he had done while a teen, prior to his capture and enslavement in Ireland. Many years later, that friend was using this as leverage to get Patrick called back from his service as a bishop. What had he confessed to have done as a 15-year-old? Murder? Sex? What? At any rate, he faced what so many others in ministry have faced: the loss of a trusted friend and a false accusation. He appealed to the Christian leaders to whom he wrote to allow him to live out his years in Ireland to serve the people he had come to love. And that is where the story ends, as far as we know it. We have no record of what happened next.[1]

PAUL OF … THE WORLD

The Apostle Paul had the missionary spirit that Patrick caught as well. His life’s ambition was to go where no one else had gone with the Good News of Jesus. Read about his sense of calling in Romans 15:14-22. Notice these parallels with Patrick:

  1. Paul found the grace of God in Christ in a most unusual manner, much like Patrick did later on.
  2. As a gratefully forgiven sinner, Paul wanted others to find this grace, also, and so he went to tell others about it. So with Patrick.
  3. Paul even went to those that he would not have cared about in his pre-Christian times. Paul went to the Gentiles, Patrick to the Irish.
  4. Both endured many hardships and threats to complete their life-mission.
  5. Both faced misunderstanding, false accusations and betrayal to complete that mission. Paul often wrote to defend his actions, even to those who shared his faith. The little we have of Patrick’s own writing was much the same, a defense of his ministry.

So think about it. Have we found God’s grace in Christ and developed this relationship through prayer? Are we open to what God may have for our lives as we serve Him? Are we ready to share with others about Jesus’ love and grace? Are we willing to endure whatever it might take to fulfill God’s calling on our lives?

Smiley Mudd

[1] Read more here: https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/patrick/.