Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What the Irish guy said

It was right around St. Patrick’s day … the day when ministries working in Ireland leave their verdant paradise to come to America and raise funds from American Christians. Or so I learned. My source explained, wryly, that on that day of all days, Americans are thinking fond thoughts about their Irish ancestors who left the motherland during the potato famine and about the evangelical “saint” whom both Catholics and Protestants tend to claim as their own. So it's a good time to visit.

James has red hair and beard that suggest he hails for Northern climes, and on a trip to Ireland he had built a relationship with Jeremy, the principal of an organization called the Irish Bible Institute. Between taking this guy around to his speaking engagements and fundraising appointments, James set up a lunch for some of his friends who enjoy matters of theology and culture and who might be interested in and available to meet up for lunch; somehow my name made the list.

Jeremy considers himself a Protestant, but not, apparently, without a pang of regret; he was raised Catholic in a time and place where being right with the church and being right with God were on and the same. “Everyone” went to Mass. Even years later, when someone asked him what it was like to be a Protestant in Ireland he replied, without thinking, “I’m not Protestant; I’m Irish!”

When Jeremy was in his late teens he had some time on his hands and wandered into a coffee shop being managed by some North Americans who wanted to talk about Jesus. As Jeremy began to really follow Jesus he wanted to learn more about him and decided to go to Bible school.

You might thing an Irish Catholic who wanted to study the Bible and discovered the Catholics couldn’t help him (at that time) might look to the closest culture that could; he’d go to England. But sometimes the barriers of acceptance stand their tallest when they come between the closest neighbors, don’t they? For historical reasons, a Bible school in Canada was “closer” than any found in England. I wonder how often such dynamics hold true, globally? Certainly I've met people around the world who forged closer bonds with foreign "missionary" types from far-flung places than they could with Christians from churches that were more culturally close (but historically the enemy).

Jeremy told a story about another relative of his who left the Catholic church and whose staunchly Catholic uncle would never call him by his given name again, referring to him as John (the English name) instead of Sean (the Irish). So, to leave the Catholic Church was to become "English."

Hmmm… Most often when I tell stories about the cultural canyons that keep people from following Jesus, the stories are about chasms I tend to consider bigger. Like when a Muslim girl thinks that being a disciple would mean she’d never get a husband or would have to do things she grew up considering forbidden, or a Buddhist boy balks at being the first son who doesn’t do his bit for the ancestors and might not be able to hold down a good job. Guess the same principles can come up anywhere. I remember an old friend who in desperation asked his nerdy Christian roommate, “If I become a Christian, do I have to be like you?”

Sounds as if in the decades since Jeremy was growing up the Catholic Church in Ireland has become less defensive and more interested in embracing and teaching the Bible. The scandals that rocked the church and the growing secularism of society as a whole may have produced a church marked by greater humility and sincerity and a renewed commitment to call people to Jesus and the scriptures; they are big backers of tools like the Alpha course.

It seems that some Protestants and Catholics are finding common ground in those evangelical values that are neither Protestant nor Catholic but transcend them both. And, as Jeremy said, the St. Patrick that Americans care so much about was as evangelical as they come.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.

(An excerpt from the hymn known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate)

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