St Ninian – missional

Ninian’s mission was to take the gospel to the southern Picts. Born c360, he began his mission in 397, based in Whithorn, at the southern point of Galloway. Basically, find Wigtown then head south, stopping before your feet get wet. Ninian was a Briton who followed Celtic Christianity and apparently studied in Rome – an attractive proposition for the Roman Christians after the Synod of Whitby and they made much of his great missional example.

Whithorn is known as the Cradle of Christianity in Scotland. Here, the oldest surviving Christian memorial in Scotland can be found – the 5th century Latinus Stone. Its Latin inscription reads “We praise you, Lord” and declares that it was erected ‘by Latinus aged 35 and his daughter aged 4.’ There are traces of the chi-rho symbol of Christ, carved in the early Constantinian style indicative of its age and its links to Rome.

Ninian wanted firm foundations and a beacon of hope for his missional calling and at Whithorn he established a church of whitewashed stone, called the Candida Casa, or ‘White House’ (hence Whit … Horn). From there, he travelled widely, sharing the good news of Jesus and converting the southern Picts.

He achieved results, but later many Picts and Celts fell back into paganism. Patrick, writing some 50 – 75 years afterwards, referred to the ‘Apostate Picts.’ (The northern Picts, whom Columba and others would convert, were not yet Christian and so could not be called ‘apostate.’) Ninian was a pioneering missional who knew the risks:

“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’  When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.” (Luke 11:24-26)

The success of pioneering mission may be precisely that it is pioneering; it is first where before was nothing; growth comes later. But there was still encouragement even amongst those who lapsed:

Do not gloat over me, my enemy!
Though I have fallen, I will rise.

Though I sit in darkness
the Lord will be my light. (Micah 7:8)

And all the while, Ninian pursued his mission, answering his calling to walk amongst the southern Picts and work amongst them. Early maps were shown on their side, not necessarily north-south, and Ninian’s mission essentially took him across the land and up the East Coast. A missional trail can reasonably be plotted by noting the dedications to St Ninian around the country. They are found throughout the Pictish lands south of the line of the Firths of Clyde and Forth, and around Stirling, Perth, Fife, Dundee and Forfar. But there is a noticeable lack of dedications in the Highlands and Isles.

Ninian died and was buried at Whithorn which became a place of pilgrimage. Robert the Bruce, knowing he was dying, travelled there to pray and later James IV walked 8 days on pilgrimage to Ninian’s tomb.

So discern your mission, as directed by God. The success of your endeavours may be felt, in gratitude, many years later. God prepares you; then God invites you to act.

[from Timothy Pitt]

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