A number of years ago there was a character featured on Saturday Night Live: a depressed-looking, bug-eyed, frumpy woman named Debbie Downer who had a knack for sharing negative information when others were trying to celebrate. Hang with me for a moment as this commentary starts with a Debbie Downer moment.
Saint Patrick was not Irish.
As a young man, he had no interest in God.
He never drove out any snakes because there were none in Ireland.
His use of a shamrock to teach the Trinity is cute for children but it's just a myth.
Now I'm not a party-pooper. I enjoy a celebration but I enjoy it even more when I understand what's legitimate and what's a legend. With St. Patrick's Day behind us, and all the green, the parades, parties with Irish stew and toasts to the "luck of the Irish," let's focus on an incredible man of God who transformed a nation through the proclamation of the Gospel and the planting of churches.
The Real Story of St. Patrick
I recall years ago the descent of the plane when I went to minister in Ireland and how absolutely awestruck I was when I beheld the Emerald Isle for the first time. This deep green countryside is the picture conjured up in the hearts and minds of tens of thousands of Irish celebrants who annually dye the Chicago River green for St. Patrick's Day. In celebrations throughout America, this special feast day is a sign of spring, bringing welcome relief after the cold of winter.
But what's really behind this day and the man we honor?
Patrick was born in Britain in 390 A.D. He was raised in a Christian family but his interest in God was almost nonexistent. He also was illiterate.
Teens are often apt to wander and Patrick was no exception, reaping the consequences. At the age of sixteen, he was kidnapped by thugs and taken hostage on a ship to Ireland. Imagine the trauma and grief his parents experienced while praying for God's miraculous intervention and the return of their son.
For six agonizing years, he was trapped as a slave working as a shepherd on hills where he tended the sheep. He was alone. He was scared. In desperation, he began to cry out to God to rescue him from his plight.
Yet God was at work in Patrick's. In his classic "Confession" he painfully wrote, "I would pray constantly during the daylight hours" until finally God broke through and revealed Himself in a dream and specifically said the following to this young, lost soul: "Your hunger is rewarded. You are going home. Look, your ship is ready.
Risking his life but pierced to the core by the call of God on his life, Patrick journeyed some 200 miles to the Irish coast. He bravely boarded a ship that was going to Britain and he knew instinctively God was taking him back home.
This young man returned to his family transformed by the grace of God. In time he even entered a Christian training center, a monastery, to pursue the calling to full-time vocational ministry as a priest.
Patrick excelled in his understanding of the Scriptures and his character impacted his superiors and peers. Eventually, they affirmed him in becoming an bishop in the Church.
Patrick Returns to Ireland
Three decades from his initial abduction, Patrick sensed God stirring his heart. The Holy Spirit was directing him to go back to the pagan land of Ireland to evangelize the people mired in deception and darkness.
Not only would this be an arduous journey as there were no planes to swiftly carry one to a destination, but this meant facing a hostile culture of pagans known for their angry outbursts and violent behavior.
Patrick recorded his sentiments as he wrote, "I am ready to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved – whatever may come my way!" May his courage ignite something in our hearts to reject silence and cowardice in the face of our cultural attacks today. May this man's bravery inspire us to speak the truth in love regarding subtle sins and the host of carnal indulgences in our day.
“For Zion’s sake we will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake we will not remain quiet, ‘til her righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch” (Isaiah 62:1).
In the face of mockery and physical opposition - history records he was beaten by thugs and harassed by Irish royalty - Patrick persevered in proclaiming the Gospel and training converts in their newfound faith. Like John Wesley who would follow in his footsteps a 1000 years later, he also provided for the training of leadership to shepherd the new churches being planted.
Incredible Spiritual Awakening
As Patrick crisscrossed the countryside, God blessed him mightily. Tens of thousands of Irish were converted and hundreds of churches were established. Thomas Cahill writes in his book, "How the Irish Saved Civilization", through Patrick's courageous leadership, this warrior populace "laid down the swords of battle, flung away the knives of sacrifice, and cast away their chains of slavery."
As we look at the moral decline in America today, it is easy to get discouraged. This is why it's important to reflect on the exploits of this man of God who was instrumental in saving a nation.
From the fall of Rome, the culture was disintegrating on the European continent. Patrick, like Paul the apostle, Wesley, Booth, Wilberforce, Bonhoeffer, and other fearless Christian activists of whom we read, did not retreat in the midst of overwhelming odds. All of them prayed, preached the gospel, affirmed Biblical Christianity and confronted evil fearlessly. Cahill honors Patrick and other champions of the faith who brought transformation to society. Because of him and others who rose to the occasion, "The Irish not only were conservators of civilization, but became shapers of the medieval mind, putting their unique stamp on Western culture."
100 years after Patrick's death in 461 A.D., multitudes of churches and monasteries remained training future leaders as a testimony to this mighty man of God. 1500 years after Patrick lived, let's follow this world changer in lifestyle evangelism.