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12 April 2014

An Englishman, an Irishman, & Jesus

Neil Thompson Mission Worker in Westport, Ireland
Statue

I’m not about to launch into one of THOSE jokes (he, he, he), but what exactly does it mean for me: being a Christian living in Ireland?

For an Irishman is it about being a good Catholic? As you are probably aware Ireland is considered ‘culturally catholic’ (with a small ‘c’). It’s the sincere Irishman attending Catholic mass at the village church for the last forty years. But is that it? Do we consider Christianity in Ireland to be built on religious works, or on the truth of the Gospel through Jesus Christ?

On first impressions, when we consider Ireland, the following images flood into our minds: creamy pints of Guinness (yum!), twiddly-dee Irish folk music playing away in the snug of the bar, the grizzled old farmer licking his lips on his whisky: generally what the Irish call having a good craic (and not just in the pub!) This picture postcard of Ireland (which adorns many a delightful box of fudge), is the figment of a romantic notion about Irish rural life which has been passed down through the centuries. But what’s the real Ireland like?

Ireland today is a land of contrasts: especially between the haves and the have nots...

Consider the story of John* (*not his real name), who is sitting in his bedsit surrounded by discarded cans of lager, shooting heroin, looking for escape from the realities of his life;struggling with unemployment and without the financial means or self-confidence to sort his life out. John is on his own, and feeling sorry for himself. His drug-user ‘friends’ are not helping him, and he’s actually got wrapped up in some trouble (which he won’t go into) with local Travellers, whom he despises as an underclass robbing the state of social benefits that he feels he deserves (but doesn’t get).  Especially as his cousin allegedly grassed him up and told the Garda (the Irish police) that he used to deal drugs, but not any more since he ran away from his last place in another town in another county. And now finds himself in this depressing place...

This could be one of the 100 young people every week in Ireland who attempt to take their own lives. It’s an utterly sad story of desperation, but one which in my travels so far in Ireland I have heard and seen, and which is all too commonplace.

Rural poverty (both social and economically) is all too common a feature of Irish rural life. The west coast of Ireland is a beautiful place to live, but the glory of the scenery and the Irish culture can mask a shady and dark underside.

Ireland has an immense Catholic religious tradition...you see statues to Mary dotted around the countryside, and prayers to saints you’ve probably never heard of. Prayers for safe travel, prayers for blessings on the family in the home (even the family dog!). This is not to make a mockery, but to show how far man-made religion has transgressed away from knowing who Jesus Christ really is. We’ve made God in our own image: all of us have our idols, those things that we hold onto and value for protection when life gets tough. We use them to try and find a way out of the holes in our lives: for John it could be drugs, for another it could be religious rituals.

Patrick introduced Christianity into Ireland around the 5th century. He had a vision that he believed was from God: calling him back to the land where he had been taken by pirates years before. Patrick believed that the people in Ireland would be made a ‘people of the Lord’ and be called ‘sons of God’. On the statue of St. Patrick in Westport (he was later canonised by the Catholic Church who made him the spiritual father of Ireland), there is an inscription which says:

‘It was then most necessary to cast out our nets that a very great multitude might be caught for God’

And isn’t that what Patrick did...and to us too as 21st century Christians, whether in Co. Mayo, Ireland or Southampton, England.

Here is an extract from Patrick’s testimony:

‘I was about sixteen at the time. At that time, I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others. We deserved this, because we had gone away from God, and did not keep his commandments. The Lord brought his strong anger upon us, and scattered us among many nations even to the ends of the earth. It was among foreigners (the Irish) that it was seen how little I was’.

My, how this reflects the Great Commission set out by Jesus in Matthew 28:16-20!

‘It was there that the Lord opened up my awareness of my lack of faith...So I turned with all my heart to the Lord my God, and he looked down on my lowliness, and had mercy on my youthful ignorance. He guarded me before I knew him, and before I came to wisdom...He protected me and consoled me as a father does for his son. That is why I cannot be silent – nor would it be good to do so – about such great blessings and such a gift that the Lord so kindly bestowed in the land of my captivity (Ireland). This is how we can repay such blessings, when our lives change and we come to know God, to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven…’

This verse brings us hope as Christians in today’s Ireland...that it is not too late for people - like Patrick in the 5th Century, imprisoned by pirates and taken to a strange land...and John in the 21st century, who is imprisoned in his own strange land of addiction and social despair - to come to know Jesus as the only way, the only truth and the only life (John 14:6).

Let’s throw those idols away and follow Jesus Christ: Jesus plus nothing equals everything.

To find out more about Neil & Laura Thompson’s work in Ireland, why not visit the Above Bar Church YouTube channel

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