Today marks the Episcopal Church's commemoration of Anskar of Scandinavia. He was a Saxon from what would become the Northern German provinces who was committed to an abbey at an early age after his mother's untimely death. He was a quick study, an apt student and not particularly attentive to his advancement in pious work until he had a vision of the Virgin Mary and his mother. According to his biographer, that was his wake up call. From that moment on, he excelled, not only in his work but also his devotion to the proclamation of the Gospel and the propagation of the Church to the far North. Under Charlemagne and his son, Louis, Anskar labored long and hard to establish communities of faith in the areas now called Sweden and Denmark. He worked among the high and low, seeking conversion of king and commoner alike. This was not easy work. The culture was not particularly receptive. His proponents and supporters were not very effective and sometimes even a detriment to his work. Still, he was a passionate, committed and intelligent servant of the Gospel and during his lifetime was able not only to expand the influence of the Church in Northern Germany, but also to expand its frontiers. Sadly, the seed of the Good News he sought to establish in the North did not bear fruit immediately after his departure from this life. A Pagan reaction drove the Church back and it was a generation or more before the Church found a foothold again where Anskar had originally "turned the earth."
Episcopalians (and Anglicans) remember Anskar today as the deep ancestor of the Swedish and Danish Lutheran Churches. We have been close to these reformed Catholic bodies from the outset, and count them as close cousins...but as I sit here in my office I am not thinking so much about Lutherans and Episcopalians getting along...or about how the Reformation affected us, them and the greater part of Europe "back in the day."
I am thinking about Anskar's work as an apostle, and am grappling with the understanding that our labor in the Lord's proverbial vineyards is not at all about what we can accomplish, "get done" or succeed in as we serve Jesus in this life. It is about being faithful; and from that core of faith comes action-regardless of success as the world sees it. Anskar labored, and though I am sure he would have loved to see the Church flourish as a result of his labors, all reports seem to indicate that he was more than content to do his part without expectation of accolade. When asked about any desire he would have to be a channel of the miraculous, he is reported to have said, "If any miracle should be worked by God through me, I would like that miracle to be that He makes me a good man." (sic)
I find in life, ministry and careers, we can get caught up in the impact we are trying to make on the life and story of creation. Job said it, "O, that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever!" (19: 23,24)
That is the world talking, that is our flesh. We fear death and oblivion. We fear being forgotten. We worry about being important. We want to see the work we do, the impact we make on Life to be remembered. The alternative is obscurity, and our self is sent off into the shadows. We lie asleep in Christ and no one knows or calls our name....right?
No. Look to Anskar. Not that we remember him on this day, or that he is commemorated as a Saint (with all the bells and whistles) by our brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church. Look to him as one who worked hard, prayed hard and loved with abandon the people he was sent by God and the Church to evangelize. He gave all he had, all he could do, all he could offer in the service of Jesus Christ. His mission, though, "failed" when the Pagans ejected the Church from where he had sought to establish it....still, after years lying fallow, that same mission field was reinvigorated and the Church was reestablished. The lesson? Don't base your sense of success, or your sense of self, on things that are passing, ephemeral. What we undertake day to day as members of the Body of Christ is not to work for our own acclaim and commemoration, but for the glory of God.
Today, my prayer is that, as people of the Church-yet-to-be come along and walk where I have been, they find a Church that is vital and ready to take on whatever God is asking of it in that moment. I don't want them to say, "Gee, Marshall did this...or that....or didn't do this or that....rather, I pray, let them find the Church to be beautiful, prepared and ready for them to do their part in their generation. What matters more than anything is that the Church is whole and committed to Jesus, not that my picture hangs on a wall in some hall or that my name figures in someone's bibliography or narrative....
Anskar worked hard and let the rest go...I pray God will give me the strength to do the same when it is my time to move on.....