From Be Thou My Breastplate,
Let the work of the church of God be in these hands. (Fursa’s Breastplate)
The Apostle Paul wrote, “He who desires to be an elder desires a noble thing.” Perhaps it is for that kind of nobility that Fursa directs us to pray. Fursa was certainly an elder; a leader in the church of his day. Perhaps the phrase invokes the idea of Fursa’s special contributions as evangelist, monk, and pioneer of Christian communities in the England, Ireland, and France of the Dark Ages. Perhaps the “work of the church of God” referred to the holy service of those who perform the liturgical functions of priest, deacon, acolyte, thurifer, Gospel-bearer in the community’s act of worship. Then again this is a prayer Fursa intends to share with many fellow pilgrims – not with specialists only. What, then, is this “work of the church of God” into which his prayer calls me to enter?
Once again I must remember to pause and consider the vocabulary chosen by our Celtic forbears to describe their ancient pattern of church-life: “family,” “kindred,” “hearth,” “home,” “household,” and “tribe.” What then might it mean to do “the work of the tribe of God”? For Fursa the special work of his tribe was farming, praying, reading, writing, journeying, and preaching.
How might we answer more generally? If we conceive of the church as being the family of God, exactly what is the work of a family? Surely the work of a family is to make its members secure with a feeling of acceptance and belonging – the experience the Apostle Paul describes as being “rooted and grounded in love.” It is to give its members both a warm shelter from the world and the courage to enter and engage with the world; to watch over their “goings out” and “comings in.” It is to care sufficiently for every member to enable each one to grow up healthy and wise but without smothering or coddling, so that each member is also prepared and ready to take responsibility for the jobs of work that life in this world requires. By praying Fursa’s prayer, the one speaking is taking up the responsibility to safeguard the family’s welfare by serving those needs.
In Fursa’s day it was common for the pioneer of a monastic community to be entrusted with young teenagers to staff his missionary endeavor. This familial, fatherly mentality was therefore essential to Fursa in turning his bands of recruits into the strong and productive communities that they became under his leadership.
So it was with this paternal heart that Fursa undertook the work of the groups of God under his care. Note that Fursa prays daily for his heavenly father to continue to entrust him with this practical labor of love, never taking for granted that what was asked of him yesterday will be asked of him today.
This act of repetition tells us a great deal about this man of God. It shows us that the pattern he adopted of the elder serving the younger was an employment that Fursa counted a privilege. Carefully he crafted and modeled his pattern on the disciple-making of the Lord Jesus, who himself declared that he had come into the world “not to be served, but to serve.” This is the understanding that Fursa now expresses in his words of prayer.
If you have a family, kindred, hearth or tribe, praying Fursa’s prayer will require you to become its servant as you echo his heartfelt words: “Let the work of the church of God be in these hands.