What were you like when you were sixteen? What did you have planned for your life?
How do those plans match up to where you are now?
When St. Patrick was about sixteen, he was captured by pirates, taken to Ireland, and enslaved. I have no idea what teenage Patrick had hoped to do with his life — but I am certain that he did not dream of being taken from his Christian home and forced to work for pagans. I can only weakly imagine what he must have been feeling and thinking as he lost control of his plans.
Yet later in life Patrick looked back on his capture and enslavement as a good thing. What?!
It wasn’t because he thought raiding and enslaving were good things. It wasn’t because he learned to love his work of shepherding. Patrick looked back on his enslavement as a good thing because of the way God used it — even the most terrible parts. In his Confession Patrick wrote:
It was there that the Lord opened up my awareness of my lack of faith…After I arrived in Ireland, I tended sheep every day, and I prayed frequently during the day. More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same. I even remained in the woods and on the mountain, and I would rise to pray before dawn in snow and ice and rain. I never felt the worse for it, and I never felt lazy – as I realise now, the spirit was burning in me at that time…
…I remained on in Ireland, and that not of my own choosing, until I almost perished. However, it was very good for me, since God straightened me out, and he prepared me for what I would be today. I was far different then from what I am now, and I have care for others, and I have enough to do to save them.
Eventually Patrick escaped slavery, and he returned home to his family. But soon God sent him a vision of the Irish people pleading with him to come back. So Patrick returned to the land of his enslavement, this time on a mission from God: to help the Irish people know the truth and love and grace of God. Now the man who had been enslaved in Ireland is the patron saint of that same country. God used the terrible experiences in Patrick’s life to create something good and life-giving.
We all had plans for this last year — and I’m sure none of us had planned to be part of a global pandemic, to quarantine, to do school virtually. Like young Patrick, our plans and our sense of control were totally yanked out from under us.
Last week, during Morning Prayer, we marked the one-year anniversary of COVID coming to the U.S. with this prayer:
Wonder Worker, in this year when everything changed, when we felt worried and weary, when we wailed and we wondered, you gave us a promise…Nothing can separate us from your love. And nothing will be wasted. With you at work, light, life, love, and liberation always win. Amen. [from Illustrated Ministry]
“And nothing will be wasted.” That line in particular has stuck with me.
This past year has been full of changes of plans, full of fear, full of cancellations and loneliness. Most terribly, this year has been full of sickness and death.
And nothing will be wasted.
But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you…
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
When you walk through the fire you shall not be burned,
And the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
The Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:1-3a)
If God is for us, who is against us?…Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:31b, 35, 37)
Nothing will be wasted, because God is for us. Nothing will be wasted, not even the most terrible things. If God can use Jesus’ torture and excruciating death for the good of the world, we can trust that God will find a way to use even our worst experiences to create something good and life-giving.
Young Patrick did not know that his enslavement would be used for great good. Our sixteen-year-old selves didn’t know where we would end up in 2021. And today, it often feels like we don’t dare plan or expect anything at all. There are so many things happening that seem irredeemable. But we know many holy stories that remind us that God is powerful and creative enough to turn all things to God’s good purpose.
From a prayer of St. Patrick:
I arise today, through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me…
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me.
March 17, 2021
Rev. Katherine Museus Dabay serves as university pastor at the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University and takes turns writing weekly devotions with University Pastor James A. Wetzstein.