I turned 27 two Sundays ago. It’s an elegant number, I think–far more so than 26. Maybe I’m odd, but I associate numbers with colors. 26, for example, is a somewhat boring grey with just a hint of blue, but 27 is a rich emerald green. I don’t know why, but that’s what it looks like in my mind!
I really did have a wonderful birthday. Before we all went into church, our choir sang “Happy Birthday” to both me and my dad (whose birthday was the day before)–and then after church, my aunt and uncle had us over for a crawfish boil. In spite of a sudden cold snap, we all had a great time!
But about a week after my birthday, my excitement about my twenty-seventh year wobbled. It was probably the after-effect of some emotionally charged events, but I just felt restless, fretting over whether or not I’ve “made enough progress” in life, or if I’m even doing any work that matters. And I confess, too, that I found it very easy to compare my life with that of other twenty-seven-year-olds…or with people much younger than me who seem to be “making more progress.”
These difficulties couldn’t have come at a better time, though. I’ve been paying much more attention to the traditional “Church Calendar” this year, and we’re well into Lent, the forty-day season between Ash Wednesday (March 6) and Easter Sunday (April 21). I’m neither Catholic nor Anglican, so I didn’t get ashes on my forehead or give up anything specific. But I have made a concerted effort to reflect more deeply on my Savior and how much I need Him. When you realize how much you need Jesus, it makes His sacrifice on the cross even more poignant, and His triumphant resurrection even more victorious…but you also become hyper-aware of the fact that you’ve spent an inordinate amount of time focusing on yourself. Ahem.
I’ve been doing a Lent-themed devotional every morning during my quiet time–but what’s really brought me to a quieter, more reflective place is a little prayer book my parents gave me for my birthday: The Valley of Vision, a collection of old Puritan prayers. Far from being gloomy and dour, they brim with humility and honesty. These prayers are as forthright about one’s depravity as they are about God’s goodness and compassion on us.
O, how I mourn my sin, ingratitude, vileness
the days that add to my guilt,
the scenes that witness my offending tongue…
I deny them not, frame no excuse, but confess,
“Father, I have sinned”;
Yet still I live, and fly repenting to thy outstretched arms;
thou wilt not cast me off, for Jesus brings me near,
thou wilt not condemn me, for he died in my stead,
thou wilt not mark my mountains of sin,
for he leveled all,
and his beauty covers my deformities.
—The Valley of Vision
I’ve also done a little reading about Saint Patrick, seeing as how tomorrow is his feast day. One of the saddest things about the schism between the Catholic and Protestant Churches (in my opinion) is that we Protestants have been so gun-shy about studying many of the early church fathers, perhaps because so many of them have the word “Saint” attached to their names. We could argue all day long about that, but the fact of the matter is that there are so many incredible stories about ancient missionaries that we’ve neglected over the centuries–stories that can still encourage and embolden us even today.
Take Saint Patrick, for example. As a boy, he was snatched from his home in present-day Cumbria by Irish pirates–but in his old age, he was able to recall those days and say, with confidence, that the Lord had used that that suffering to draw him closely to Himself.
And there [in captivity] the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.
Therefore, indeed, I cannot keep silent, nor would it be proper, so many favours and graces has the Lord deigned to bestow on me in the land of my captivity. For after chastisement from God, and recognizing him, our way to repay him is to exalt him and confess his wonders before every nation under heaven…
…I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I said] from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number…and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time.
This season of preparation proved critical for Patrick, who went on to preach the Gospel to the Irish, the very people who took him captive as a boy. He’s generally regarded today as the founder of Christianity in Ireland, but his influence on the whole world–through the missionaries sent out from Ireland into Western Europe–can be felt to this very day. He might never have achieved the things he did if God hadn’t brought him through those periods of struggle, loneliness, and repentance first.
(As a side note, one of these missionaries sent out from Ireland was Saint Columba. He went to Scotland and, in 565 A.D., banished “a ferocious water beast” in the River Ness after it gobbled up a Pictish farmer. The River Ness flows into…Loch Ness. Just had to pop in that tidbit–it makes me ridiculously happy.)
As I press deeper into this contemplative season, I’m clinging to the assurance that I have a perfect, compassionate Mediator in Jesus. I’m clinging to the promise that He’ll never leave me, and that He’s constantly preparing and strengthening me for whatever He’s called me to do and be. And I’m finding my courage has been shored up just a bit by the story of Saint Patrick. I hope these Lenten thoughts are encouraging to some of you who may be feeling a bit small and lost lately. We are great sinners, but Christ is indeed a great Savior.