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st-patrick-228x300On March 17, Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Cities like Pittsburgh celebrate with parades. Revelers will indulge in Irish-themed food and drinks, even beer that’s been artificially dyed green. Amusing and entertaining as these festivities may be, they reveal little to us of the glorious ways God moved through humble Patrick’s life and ministry.

Like St. Nicholas – the fourth-century bishop who rescued impoverished girls from prostitution, but whom the world has transformed into Santa Claus – St. Patrick was a saint whose original story of holiness we need to hear afresh today. The real St. Patrick was a man of prayer and discipline as well as an evangelist who baptized – by his own account – “many thousands of people.”[1] And that means that St. Patrick sets a valuable example for those of us who seek to start and lead new churches today.

Based upon St. Patrick’s autobiography, his Confession, here are five lessons which Patrick can teach us:

  1. Patrick was humble. He begins his Confession with the words, “I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many.”  Patrick confesses that he’s uneducated and a poor writer. He talks about his failures more than his successes, sharing how his trials were used by God to sanctify him: “. . . thus I was purged by the Lord and He made me fit so that I might be now what was once far from me – that I should care and labor for the salvation of others, whereas then I did not even care about myself.”[2] When he does mention his successes, he’s quick to attribute them to God’s power working through him, never his own strength.
  2. Patrick knew Scripture inside and out. The edition of the Confession which I’m citing here italicizes every allusion to the Bible. The effect is startling: Patrick couldn’t go more than a few sentences without quoting Scripture. He interpreted every major event of his life in terms of Scripture. His knowledge of Scripture went beyond academic knowledge to form and shape every aspect of his life.
  3. Patrick was a man of prayer. Patrick recounts that as a teenage shepherd, long before his public ministry, he prayed hundreds of prayers each day. Fasting and nighttime prayer vigils were regular parts of Patrick’s life. This life of prayer both prepared Patrick for the powerful ministry which God performed through him and enabled Patrick to discern God’s call upon his life. In a scene reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s vision of the Macedonian man in Acts 16:9-10, Patrick had a vision in which a man from Ireland begged him to come back and minister there. Prayer determined Patrick’s participation in God’s mission.
  4. Patrick loved his flock. Patrick was originally from Britain, and first went to Ireland as a captive slave. He eventually escaped and returned in freedom to Britain, but God called him to return to the people who had once enslaved him. Despite longings to go home to Britain or to visit Gaul, Patrick resolved not to abandon his call to stay in Ireland because he loved the people entrusted to his care. In his own words, “as regards the heathen among whom I live, I have been faithful to them, and so shall I be.” [3]
  5. Patrick did not seek his own gain. Near the end of the Confession, Patrick insists that he never charged fees for the ministry he performed. He writes, “I know perfectly well, though not by my own judgment, that poverty and misfortune becomes me better than riches and pleasures. For Christ the Lord, too, was poor for our sakes; and I, unhappy wretch that I am, have no wealth even if I wished for it.” Patrick knew that he was not called to profit from the gospel, but to give his life freely in service of One who had given him new life.

In light of these aspects of Patrick’s life, leaders of church plants and new worshiping communities today would do well to ask ourselves a few questions:

  1. Do we acknowledge our failures and embrace our hardships, letting God use them to grow compassion and humility within us?
  2. How deeply has Scripture shaped the pattern of our lives? Do our visions for ministry come from God through prayer, or from our own ambitions and egos?
  3. Do we love the people to whom God has sent us so deeply that we would stay with them no matter the cost?

Patrick’s world was not that different from our own, and Patrick’s ministry was fruitful not because he became like the world around him, but because he pursued God with zeal and unflinching devotion. May God give us the humility, prayerfulness, and faithfulness of the real St. Patrick.

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[1] St. Patrick’s Confession, as printed in Readings in World Christian History: Vol. I: Earliest Christianity to 1453, eds. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 2004) p. 223

[2] Confession p. 225

[3] Confession  p. 227

This post was first published on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary blog.

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“So, how’s your book going?”, asked a member of my church today. “It’s not,” I said with a smile. She was referring to this project which I happily announced here over a year ago. Last fall I wrote an introduction and two chapters. I outlined other portions and compiled a list of books I wanted to study to inform my writing. A group from my church met with me multiple times to read what I’d written, offering quite helpful encouragement and feedback.

Then our daughter was born.

Having a baby turned my life upside down in many ways, including obliterating the time I had to write. There are these things we call priorities. Learning to care for our daughter without question had to take priority over side-project of writing for which I had grand plans. For months I felt torn, wanting to complete this project I’d started, while at the same time recognizing that I no longer had the free space in life to write that much on top of co-pastoring a church, working a part-time job, and loving my family.

Peace has come, though, as I’ve accepted this as an opportunity to grow in patience and humility. Like marriage, parenthood is full of opportunities to cultivate such virtues, if we are willing to receive such opportunities as gifts for our sanctification. The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts (James 3:5). My tongue boasted of wanting to write a book. I still do. I’ve just realized that it will take years – not months – for me to write this particular book.

That’s not to say I haven’t been writing. I just completed an extended personal essay for the House of St. Michael. (If you leave your contact information in the form below, I can try to get you a copy.)* I’ve also had another totally different writing project under consideration with a publisher. I may still seek publication for Practicing the Truth, but I’m in no rush. To my surprise, God has given me a blessed amount of patience and indifference about these projects. If they work out, may God be glorified. If they don’t, may God still be glorified.

I think that in this I’m tasting the spirit of Psalm 131:1-2: “My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; / I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.” The Lord has been humbling me recently, making me realizing that I can’t always give all I want to give, accomplish all I want to accomplish, or please everyone I want to please. Simply knowing that makes me a bit less frantic. A bit. I’m a long way from being able to continue with the Psalmist in saying, “I have calmed and quieted myself / I am like a weaned child with its mother, / like a weaned child, I am content.” The words calm and quiet do not always describe my inner being. But I want them to. And I believe the Psalmist who says such peace only comes with a heart that’s not proud.

And with that humility comes an ever-expanding freedom to trust that God is the one who completes what God began in us. As Paul says in Philippians 1:6, it is “God who began a good work” in us and “will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”  It’s the hope of Psalm 57:2, which says, “I cry to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me.” Amen. May God fulfill his purposes for me, whenever and however He chooses.

 

 

 

*If you’d like to receive a print copy of “So That Your Hearts Will Not Be Weighed Down”, please leave your name, email address, and mailing address below.

Imagine a saw.  Now imagine trying to hammer a nail with the blade of the saw. It’s not going to work.  It’s more likely to break the saw, or damage the surface which is being nailed, or cut the person using the saw. It’s better to hammer with a nail and saw with a saw. Obviously.

But the same principle is less obvious when it comes to the way we live out the spiritual gifts God’s given each of us.  When we try to do something we aren’t called and equipped to do, we often hurt ourselves and others. For an example from my own life, I’m an introvert. Days of work like yesterday where I have to pretend I’m an extrovert for 15 hours straight leave me cranky and irritable. Sometimes my life feels like hammering with a saw. And I don’t think I’m the only person who ends up in these situations.

This is why I’m grateful for the wisdom Symeon the New Theologian shared about spiritual gifts in “Hymn 54” of his Hymns of Divine Eros. For Symeon, we are like “inanimate tools”, each fashioned by God for different purposes. “The artisan of each tool, for whatever desired purpose, / equips the tool to operate according to its art” (lines 9-10). Just as a saw is meant to be used as a saw and not as a hammer, so also we’ve each been given different spiritual gifts and not given others (Romans 12:4).  Because we each have different gifts and not others, pretending we have gifts that we don’t have is downright dangerous. Symeon writes, “if you were to use them for purposes other than for what they were made / then your life and all your works would destroy themselves” (lines 17-18).

How can we avoid such destruction?  What other choice do we have? Symeon suggests a pretty simple answer: to be what we’re made to be.  We have little choice over what our gifts are, but once we live into our gifts, we discover that they pave the road to joy. Symeon writes, “each person is suited not to whatever / art one wants, but to whatever art one was created for, / and to this art one is disposed suitably and affectionately” (lines 35-37).  Notice that we’re not necessarily given the gifts we want.  I may want to be a talented musician, or a gregarious community organizer, or a charismatic evangelist, but God hasn’t made me to be those things.  But once one begins to live into the “art one was created for” one finds that “to this art one is disposed suitably and affectionately.” When we start using our true gifts, we discover how powerful they are, and how much joy they can produce.

Symeon says this transition toward our true gifts requires repentance and humility (line 127). From what must we repent? Perhaps the lies we tell others and ourselves regarding our gifts. Pretending to have gifts we don’t have is simple deception and dishonesty. Let’s be honest about what our gifts are and aren’t. And if we’re being honest, we should remember that humility does not mean hiding our true spiritual gifts. Michael Casey writes, “To deny our gifts is to deny others the profit of sharing in their fruits. Such a refusal can have no part in genuine humility” (A Guide to Living in the Truth: St. Benedict’s Teaching on Humility: Ligouri/Triumph 2001 p. 24).  Humility requires not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think (Romans 12:3). That means repenting of the pride that creates the false-selves and facades we use to impress others.  But humility also means acknowledging that, in the Church, we belong to one another (Romans 12:5). Our gifts are not merely our own, but they are given for the sake of the Church.  To hide gifts God has given for the building up of his Body is like putting a lamp under a basket.  When we repent of hiding our true gifts and humbly bring them into the Light, we become happier and the whole Church benefits.

But this sort of humility requires openness and trust. When Symeon calls us to “Hasten and be glued” to “the hands of God and of his saints”, and live “like inanimate tools doing, or moving, or operating nothing at all without them” (lines 147-148, 152-153), he’s not calling us to be mindless robots. He’s instead calling us to the humble submission to the creative intentions of God and the wisdom of those who’ve gone before us. That sort of humility is characterized by openness to receiving and using the gifts that God does want to give us. It also requires trust.  As an introverted church-planter, I’ve sometimes accused God of using wrong tool for the job. But that accusation both comes from a posture of pride and is rooted in a lie about God’s character.  To humbly pursue the true gifts God has given me, I’ve needed to repent of the mistrust and pride which make the clay question and accuse the Potter (Isaiah 29:16, 45:9)

And where does this road of humility and repentance lead? Symeon says, “as soon as you walk on the straight road / you will become numbered with all the saints, / and it will eventually make you all happy” (lines 161-163).  In context, what Symeon means by “the straight road” is the path of fulfilling the tasks which one was uniquely gifted to do. And this produces happinessHappy was not the first word that comes to mind when I think of Symeon the New Theologian. Throughout the Hymns of Divine Eros, I’ve seen Symeon extol the virtues of repentance, humility, and mourning one’s sins.  But there is a deep joy that lies beneath the surface of these hymns. It’s the joy that comes from intimacy with Christ, the intimacy of a tool in the hand of its Creator, fulfilling the purposes for which it was created.  It’s the happiness of freedom to be what one was meant to be, the happiness of hitting the nail on the head.

Christ washing the disciples’ feet, an embodiment of humility.

There are 30 Steps in John Climacus’ Ladder of Divine Ascent. In the first three weeks of Lent, I read through and wrote about Steps 1-21. (See Week 1, Week 2 and Week 3.) That leaves only nine steps left for the second half of Lent. But fewer steps doesn’t mean the ladder gets easier to climb. The final steps are the steepest of all.

This week, we’re looking at Steps 22-25, all of which address the themes of pride and humility: (22) On Vainglory, (23) On Pride, (24) On Meekness, Simplicity, and Guilelessness, and (25) On Humility. Vainglory, or self-conceit, is the beginning of pride.  Meekness is the beginning of humility. As Climacus says, the difference between each is as “between a child and a man, between wheat and bread, for the first is a beginning and the second an end” (page 201). Accordingly, one destroys pride by digging up the root of self-esteem, and one acquires humility by practicing meekness and gentleness.  “The light of dawn comes before the sun, and meekness is the precursor of all humility” (page 214).

Steps 22 and 23 – Battling Against Pride: The battle against pride begins when we start to recognize and cut off all the little things that boost our egos.  In relationship with others, this is another place where people-pleasing can become deadly: “A vainglorious man is a believer – and an idolater.  Apparently honoring God, he actually is out to please not God but men” (page 202).  Rather than seeking the praise of others, we should deliberately pull ourselves back down to earth whenever our heads swell after receiving compliments. John Climacus says, “When those who praise us, or, rather, those who lead us astray, begin to exalt us, we should briefly remember the multitude of our sins and in this way we will discover that we do not deserve whatever is said or done in our honor” (page 206). This seems discouraging, to say the least. After all, a truthful compliment can be a great encouragement. But John is so concerned about this because vainglory is the root of pride. The temptation to become conceited is so powerful that “only the holy and the saintly can pass unscathed through praise” (page 202), and those who do not stand guard can quickly see self-esteem turn to pride, a vice which is so powerfully destructive that he defines it as follows:

Pride is a denial of God, an invention of the devil, contempt for men.   . . . the cause of diabolical possession, the source of anger, the gateway of hypocrisy. It is the fortress of demons, the custodian of sins, the source of hardheartedness.  It is the denial of compassion, a bitter pharisee, a cruel judge.  It is the foe of God.  It is the root of blasphemy (page 207).

And the seeds of this vice are planted every time we seek glory in the eyes of other people. But the seeds do have to be watered in order to grow into pride.  And there are other things we can do to cut off the our prideful brooding and the internal processes that water our thirsty egos. John counsels, “A help to the proud is submissiveness, a tougher and humbler mode of life, and the reading of the supernatural feats of the Fathers” (page 208).  The other way to conquer a vice, though, is to seek the virtue which is its opposite.

Steps 24 and 25 – Seeking Humility: Meekness is simplicity, honesty, and gentleness. A meek person is single-minded and genuine, yet submissive and patient.  It is a characteristic more easily recognized than described, so it should not surprise us that the process of becoming meek is not easily described.  It begins with honesty, “speech that is neither artificial nor premeditated” (page 215). Honesty is a matter of action as well. The meek and simple person is consistent in their speech and behavior, so Climacus writes “Let us run from the precipice of hypocrisy, from the pit of duplicity” (page 216). To become meek one must also be teachable, open to receiving instruction and trusting in the wisdom and tradition which one receives, rather than one’s own thoughts. “Fight to escape your own cleverness.  If you do, then you will find salvation and an uprightness through Jesus Christ our Lord” (page 217).

From the seed of meekness sprouts the tree of humility, and Climacus cannot speak highly enough about humility.  He rhapsodizes about the beauty and power of “Holy Humility.”  Like meekness, is a work of art whose beauty is more easily admired than described or imitated.  Its reception comes as a gift of God to the soul which has been purified by the steps described earlier in The Ladder.  Climacus uses the analogy of baking bread to explain:

“The soul is ground and refined by visible repentance.  The waters of true mourning bring it to a certain unity.  I would even go so far as to speak of a mingling with God. Then, kindled by the fire of the Lord, blessed humility is made into bread and made firm without the leaven of pride” (page 220).

This quote pulls together allusions to several of the previous steps in The Ladder. The grinding of repentance is the harsh discipline described in Step 5. The waters of true mourning are the gift of tears from Step 7. Unity is simplicity and purity, just as God is one and pure: “[God] is simple and uncompounded.  And He wants the souls that come to Him to be simple and pure” (Step 24, page 216). When the ingredients are present, The Lord provides what is necessary to transform them into the divine virtue of humility, which is a gateway to the divine life:  “Repentance lifts a man up.  Mourning knocks at heaven’s gate.  Holy humility opens it.  This I say, and I worship a Trinity in Unity and a Unity in Trinity” (page 221).

But just as each person is different, the recipe producing humility in each person is different. Climacus describes various ways in which other monks have sought to achieve humility: remembrance of past sins, meditating upon the Passion of Christ, humbly acknowledging one’s daily temptations, weaknesses, and sins.  Some, though he says they are rare, humble “themselves in proportion to the gifts they receive from God and live with a sense of their unworthiness to have such wealth bestowed on them, so that each day they think of themselves as sinking further into debt. That is real humility, real beatitude, real reward!” (page 224). Just as meekness springs from honesty, humility is the product of truth, including truthful self-knowledge. “The man who has come to know himself is never fooled into reaching for what is beyond him.  He keeps his feet henceforth on the blessed path of humility” (page 226). Dedication to truth is a helpful spiritual discipline which not only uproots pride but has the power to tame other vices such as gluttony, lust, and greed.

Notice also that as in last week’s post, the mind and body are intimately connected in the pursuit of humility.  Climacus recommends hard work coupled with internal discipline to cultivate this virtue: “The wonderful Fathers proclaimed physical labor to be the way to and the foundation of humility” (page 227).  This isn’t just a matter of getting dirt under your fingernails to prove that you’re not “too good” to do menial jobs. The repeated, deliberate, grinding nature of physical work shapes us internally and externally. To demonstrate, John recalls what John 13 says about Christ in the Upper Room, washing his disciples’ feet:

The Lord understood that the virtue of the soul is shaped by our outward behavior. He therefore took a towel and showed us how to walk the road of humility (cf. John 13:4). The soul is molded by the doings of the body, conforming to and taking shape from what it does.”

It’s one thing to point to the example of Christ.  But John Climacus is here doing more than that.  He’s drawing on the monastic principle that what we do physically cannot be separated from how we think. Prideful thoughts will be weakened with humble actions. The humility of Christ reached its greatest depth during his physical suffering of crucifixion and death (Philippians 2:8). Let us begin to seek humility by bowing our knees in submission to our Servant Lord (Phipppians 2:9-11).