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VULNERABLE FAITH: St. Patrick meets the Twelve Steps

Read Steve Bell’s Foreword to the second printing of Jamie Arpin-Ricci’s book, Vulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Way of St. Patrick…

I was recently honored to be asked to write the foreword for the second printing of Jamie Arpin-Recci’s marvelous little book, Vulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Radical Way of St. Patrick (Paraclete Press, 2015 First Printing)

The book is now out and available online and in stores. In Winnipeg, copies can be found at Common Word Bookstore, 2299 Grant Ave.

With permission from the publisher, I’ve reprinted my foreword below. I hope it’ll convince you to check it out!

Steve Bell
Treaty 1 | Winnipeg

Arpin-Ricci has found a unique way to blend the life struggles of St. Patrick to help us restore our own dilemma of neglected discipleship. Referencing the Twelve Steps, the reality of Patrick’s life, and the need for Christ in our own lives slowly unfolds into an understanding of how Christ fulfills shalom in all the areas of our lives. We need this book.

Randy Woodley – author of Shalom and the Community of Creation: An indigenous Vision

VULNERABLE FAITH : Foreword by Steve Bell

The beautiful burden of the Christian life is that we are called to live faithfully in the tension between the poles of hope and history; between expectation and experience.1 On the side of hope/expectation we have a glorious vision of the coming Kingdom of God; God’s future that is already present to us “in the Church and in Christ Jesus” by the power of the Holy Spirit. It comes with the promise of a renewed creation, redeemed relations, restored dignities, the surrender of fraudulent crowns, the healing of wounds, and the drying of tears. The staggering image of the city of God descending to earth amidst shouts of joy, a city which the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge hymned as “thine own calm home, thy crystal shrine, thy habitation from eternity!” is enough to inspire endless songs and poems of wonder, praise, and eager longing. And so it should. 

On the side of history/experience, however, we have a very different narrative. Ours is the story of what the newly published First Nations Version of the New Testament calls “bad hearts and broken ways.” It is the story of exploitation and deceit. It is the story of unjust privilege, dispossession, and cruel exclusions. It is the story of disease and disasters. It is the grim tale of creation at war with itself as human creatures, having banished God to remote heaven in defiance of creaturely limits, seeking to subjugate the rest of creation to human will. And, as Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall cautions, “humans simply aren’t wise enough, or good enough to assume such mastery.” History is bearing this out.

Is there a way to live with the tension between these two poles without sliding into a Pollyanna faith that denies the truth of experience, or, on the other hand, a Utopianist’s cynicism that denies our desperate need for divine deliverance?  Jamie Arpin-Ricci thinks so.

“Vulnerable Faith” is a book that frames the wisdom teachings of Jesus and the hope born of Christ’s resurrection through the story of St. Patrick and the spiritual tradition of AA’s Twelve Steps. The book’s insights arise out of the lived experience of a Christian community called Little Flowers located in an impoverished neighborhood in Winnipeg’s West End. 

An Unlikely Mash-Up

Personally, I was immediately intrigued by Jamie’s imaginative mash-up of St. Patrick and the Twelve Step tradition of AA. As a boy my imagination was captured and inspired by the legend of St. Patrick—the slave-shepherd turned servant-shepherd who freely gave his life for the ones who cruelly took it. Also, as a boy, I witnessed the transformative power of the Twelve Step program through my father’s work as a prison chaplain. Dad wasn’t scandalized by brokenness. He knew it too well in his own life. Twelve Step spirituality was vital to Dad’s healing work with some of Canada’s most broken men, and it was key to his own recovery when alcoholism became a reality in his own last days. One of the most moving things about my father’s funeral was that the honorary pall-bearers of this much celebrated Baptist pastor were the men of his AA group that met faithfully around his bed in his dying year.

The key insight of “Vulnerable Faith” is that faithful witness becomes possible when the followers of Jesus embrace their martyrological identity. “Imagine,” Jamie writes, “what we might do for the kingdom of God if we genuinely didn’t fear death. Imagine what we might dare to try if we didn’t care about social rejection. Imagine what we could create if we did not limit ourselves and our imaginations by the seeming impossibilities of circumstances, but embraced the command to ‘seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.’ It is out of this kind of missional imagination that the kingdom breaks forth impossibly into the world, and God’s loving reign is occasionally seen.”

Following Bonhoeffer’s lead, however, Jamie insists that the way of Jesus is both counterintuitive and costly, and is rather unlikely to bear the marks of success as defined by our suffering-adverse culture. Jamie knows, in his experience, that the way of Jesus is a descent before it is an ascent. And yet, it is this way of kenotic, self-giving love and radical hospitality that finally gives birth to authentic newness out of the decay of history. 

The Martyrological Way

In closing, the lyrics (and audio) below are from a song I wrote after reading a collection of sermons by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They kept coming to mind as I read Jamie’s book and seem to be a fitting on-ramp to “Vulnerable Faith.”

by Steve Bell
Album: Wouldn’t You Love To Know?

The peace of God is with the patient ones
Bearing up under affliction
For the joy that Love has promised us
Though waves of agony wash over us
May we know
What mothers know
The strange blessing of bearing

Quietude becomes the lover
Oriented toward the other
Sufferings gladly enduring
For the sake of another’s flourishing
May we know
What martyrs know
The beautiful blessing of bearing

God, we pray that in the days to come
Ever keep before our longing
The mystery of your bleeding son
Through the night into the dawning

Love enwombed in God’s creation
Fortifies the soul’s elation
Hearts on fire to love attending
Tribulations notwithstanding
May we know
What Jesus knows
The glorious blessing of bearing

1 See Douglas John Hall, Lighten Our Darkness: Toward an Indigenous Theology of the Cross (Revised Edition, CSS Publishing Company)