The 4th century Church Father, known as St. Augustine was not proud of his past. His nothing-to-be-proud-about past, fortunately became the basis of his reflections on God, as revealed in Jesus Christ.
I was going through Alister McGrath’s brilliant book named Heresy (London: SPCK, 2009) and came across St. Augustine’s response to the heresy known as Pelagianism, which gave me much hope, in my ministry, as recently as this morning.
Pelagianism, according to McGrath can be summarised in the following arguments (found mostly on page 163) :
- Human beings are completely free to act. To a great extent such an action is imperative for “moral action and spiritual renewal.”
- The behaviour of human beings is not influenced significantly by hidden forces, nor is it restricted by powers that ultimately lie beyond their their control.
- “Any imperfection in human nature that might stop us from acting morally could reflect badly on God.”
- “The significance of Christ needs to be located primarily in his teaching and examples.”
In one of writings, Pelagius goes to the extent of saying, ” No one knows the extent of our strength better than God who gave us that strength… God has not willed to command anything impossible, for God is righteous; and will not condemn anyone for what they could not help” (page 164). Julian of Eclanum (386-455 ACE) is said to have further developed these thoughts in ways that it was turned into a gospel of self-improvement “that was adapted to the norms of the Roman culture,” a “sophisticated self-improvement with a strong spiritual core.”
Till here it sounds great, and I can’t help notice how much it sounds like the self-help books I have read. You have the power within you, given from above! We have been blessed by God with everything we need to make life better! Just do it! Heck, it even sounds like one of my sessions, which I believe are deeply rooted in the Bible.
Augustine takes a different stance, summarised as follows ( found on page 165 onwards):
1. We are created good, but the fact that humanity has sinned, causes contamination to our nature.
2. We seem to have, as a result, an inclination to sin, which is not the result of the divine creation, but of the fall. He suggests that the human will has been “weakened and incapacitated – but not eliminated or destroyed – by sin.”
3. He goes on to say that we need divine grace to heal that will.
4. We are not in control of our sinfulness and it contaminated our life from birth and dominates our life thereafter.
Instead, Pelagianist thought does not agree to human disposition towards sin, adding that failure to choose good and sinning could not be excused on any grounds.
A moment to reflect
I want to stop here and mull with you – isn’t that most often where we find ourselves? We are not ready to accept our failures and sins, and often times do no forgive ourselves for the sins we commit. We berate ourselves on the inability to measure up to God despite the fact that Jesus has done everything he needs to do on the cross? As a pastor, this thought has been the most worrisome. Of course I do believe and accept grace, as Augustine does, yet somewhere, this aim to become perfect like Jesus finding failure is unacceptable to me, pulling one down into the abyss of self-condemnation and disappointment.
At this point, the Pelagian heresy reveals itself as moral authoritarianism, says McGrath. For Pelagius only morally upright persons should be allowed to enter the church, whereas Augustine pictured the Church as a hospital, “where fallen humanity could recover and grow gradually in holiness through grace.” (page 167). It also implied that life on earth was a time for recovery and complete healing will be achieved when we are finally in the presence of God. Till then, the Church must include both the sinner and saint.
These are the words that encouraged me:
“Augustine’s view of humanity is that it is frail, weak, and needs divine assistance and care if it is to be restored and renewed.. Grace, according to Augustine is God’s generous and quite unmerited attention t humanity by which this process of healing may begin… Human nature requires transformation through the grace of God…”
also the following words on page 169:
“God in an act of grace, then came to rescue fallen humanity from its predicament. God assists us by healing us, enlightening us, strengthening us, and continually working within us in order to restore us. For Pelagius, humanity merely needed to be shown what to do and could then be left to achieve it unaided; for Augustine humanity needed to be shown what to do and then gently aided at every point if this objective was even to be approached, let alone fulfilled.”
I needed to hear these words at this point of time in my ministry. I did not want to do build this youth ministry on my own, with the burden that he has given me everything – the circumstances, the possibilities, the gifts, the finance, the creativity… It is too much to do justice to. I wanted to hear that God, in his grace, will guide me, and restore me when I fall, which I was bound to do. I wanted to hear that it was alright to fail, from the God of the Bible. Sometimes it is pastors who preach grace who keep themselves from experiencing any of it.
McGrath’s words on Pelagianism that follows, almost meditative and surely contemplative, are a chilling reflection of how deep rooted these thoughts are in our culture (page 170) :
“Yet Pelagianism continues to be a deep influence on western culture, even if its name means little to most. It articulates the most natural of human thoughts – that we are capable of taking control of ourselves and transforming ourselves into what we would have ourselves be.”
It gives an idealised view of humanity, but Augustine seeks to capture the essence of the human predicament. And that is liberating, especially since, I am not to worry about my failing before God, since my nature is inclined to sin. This must not lead me to taking it for granted but to leaning all the more on his ever-sufficient grace.
Endnote : Disagreement in the Oasis
I do disagree with St. Augustine on his doctrine of Original Sin, just as most of the Eastern, especially Syriac churches would. J.N.D. Kelly in Early Christian Doctrines suggested that the Eastern Church was hardly impacted by his views, taking a different line of thought. I would like to write another post on the human predicament from the eyes of the Eastern Church fathers.
This part of Augustine’s anthropology is definitely an oasis. It is a cool breeze on humid afternoon.
I am encouraged, humbled and strengthened.
(A note I shared with our younger brothers at seminary, on the eve of their convocation which was to be held on 17th March, 2017)
Dearest final year brothers at seminary,
We were privileged to be your mentors for a short time, within the limitations of our immaturity and inexperience. And we all are glad that the Lord has brought you this far, only by His grace, and not by our merit. We are happy that you have come this far. You are the last batch of the seminary that we knew well.
As you approach convocation, may the Lord bless you and fill you with His Spirit.The Lord needs servants who read His word and listen to His voice. May He keep you close to His heart just as you have kept Him.
May the humility of Christ in Philippians 2:6–10 be your trademark, your signature, your logo. May His commitment to give the very best to His people be the force that drives you in His ministry.
May the rest he has ordained into the rhythm of creation be rightfully claimed regularly. Don’t forget.
May your families be a blessing. May your love for your future wife be the love of the cross and nothing less. May your children receive the freedom and discipline which the heavenly Father has brought us up with.
May your commitment to the flock he has given you reflect that of David, who courageously tore away the wild animals, yet was gentle enough to play soothing music.
May a new language and new culture that you are placed in be readily adopted as God’s site of incarnation, and be embraced like a mother would embrace her newborn child.
Through daily quiet time, prayer and regular worship, may your ego melt away leaving only the heart and mind of Christ within you.
May gossip and slander be destroyed from your mouth immediately, the very mouth that receives His life giving body and blood.
May your hands touch only what He has given you lawfully. May your eyes see what He reveals to you.
May guilt from sin, be exchanged for eternal love, justified in His work on the cross for us, and a commitment to never repeat the same, in response to His forgiveness and grace.
There is a world out there waiting for a super human priest, but continue to serve him with all the limitations of a human priest — the very likeness of Him who chose not to employ His super powers.
Looking forward to seeing each one of you thrive in His ministry. Prepare well, there is a long journey ahead.
Welcome, my brothers.❤
Lots of love
During my teens, my father, from time to time , would point out to my beard, the lack of it, or its partial presence, and say that a man ought to be consistent. His voice still rings very clearly in my ears. Consistency is key.
To my surprise, I have come to learn that it’s the same thing that Robin Sharma, Tony Robbins and the Management Guru ilk would propagate. To have impact and to grow, one must be consistent. You don’t have to do great things over night. The small things that you do regularly, will bring about tremendous results, over time. Just like the yeast in the dough which works through it, steadily.
I just spoke to Cherian George, a friend of mine, who is an IT guy also working overtime as a gospel worker. He finds it tough but able to manage work, his passion for ministry and consequent assignments and family, together. He is consistently working hard.
Merin, my cousin, is able to write a small anecdote linked to the Bible everyday. Rev. Prince, another friend of mine, has been consistent in producing short, beautiful podcasts from the Word of God with an apt illustration each day for over 350 days now! Rev A. T. Zechariah and Rev. Abu have been putting in great effort towards preparing Daily Manna devotion series that goes through a book in the New Testament, each month. In addition, they have been recording it as a podcast and have been sending it around every single day without fail. There are people behind the scenes who get up everyday and forward these messages to the groups and friends who are waiting to listen to this. They are consistent. It seems as though I have not been working hard enough to be consistent.
I tried. I am trying. Been writing a short daily devotion named #JesusInMumbai everyday since Feb 28. It attempts to find Christ in everyday things and people in the city of Mumbai. I have enjoyed it ever since I began and have been writing consistently over these days. Though I enjoy writing, it has been my principle of late to not look or wait for perfection – an attempt to fight with the perfectionist I am! What usually happens is that unless its going to be a masterpiece which requires time and a lot of effort, I will not attempt it, especially when time and effort come at a premium!
My solace in failing at attempts to be consistent is that, Jesus was instrumental in employing a flippant character like Peter and ilk for his kingdom’s. I hope to grow and become consistent in relationship with him, in the ministry he has bestowed upon me.
On the previous day of INTIMATE ’17, the workshop for young married couples and those who were preparing to become one, we gathered around as an organizing team with the resource persons at Cynthia’s house. Her mum and Dad had lovingly opened up their house and heart to host the guests.
The house upstairs where their grand parents lived was opened up as a studio where the art /craft work for the next day were being prepared. Chembur youth had gathered as volunteers under the members of the organsing team – John, Cynthia, Riba and Ansu.
Dr. PC Mathew and Ciby, the leaders of the workshop shared with us that we were doing this for the Kingdom and not one of these efforts would go wasted. “God is no one’s debtor,” PC’s father would remind him in his childhood. As we sat there together as a team, praying for the programme, we prayed for impact. PC had begun by telling us that the call of Christians is not to do great miracles or tumble governments but simply to obey. It was for God to do those things and we were called merely to obey what we were called for. If we obeyed, he would bring everything to pass.
The Game Changer Project ( The Mar Thoma Youth Ministry of Mumbai) thus far had organised something for a community that needed much attention : young married couples and youth who were preparing to get married.
The love we received from the participants, many of whom had moist eyes, was overwhelming. They had never imagined that they would be so blessed, that they would learn so much and most importantly – that they would not be interrupted by their toddlers ( our brilliant volunteers had been taking care of them). They could not wait to lead a Christ-centred married life.
The organizing team had met just over a month ago to discuss how to go about the programme, given the time constraint and an only available date of the speakers. The planning meeting which Christina and I hosted went on from 8 pm to 2 am. We carefully lined up everything from the start, from scratch, all the way to the theme and logo, having begun with prayer. It was planned to the tiniest detail.
And God blessed the plans.
Two days before the programme, a parent shared that she wasn’t comfortable with us taking the children to a home nearby (which belonged to one of our members). Since the venue, which was the hall of an Orthodox Syrian church did not have another space other than the Church above – which was out of bounds – we had planned the above.
Till the day of the programme, that was the only loose end. But we knew that the Lord who led this far would lead us forward. Trust and obey – that we did.
On the day opened up a guest room, that could be used by mothers of infants to feed. At other times, it would be the kids playroom. And the best part – it was air- conditioned, and close enough for the parents to pop-in, yet closed enough that the childrens’ noise stayed-in. He is no one’s debtor, you see.
The organizing team went into a meditative mood as they set up the garden for the culmination of the programme : the candle light dinner. It looked more beautiful than I had ever imagined. It was well arranged to the tiniest details – mosquito coils at the foot of the table. Mosquito coils? Don’t won’t to ruin the aroma of the candles and flowers on the table? No, we used mosquito coils with lavender fragrance. Beat that!
It was just brilliant working with these passionate youngsters who had a burden that young people needed Christ as they entered and lived out their marriages. And God blessed them. I was just blessed to work with them and the volunteers who stood with us.
How do you thank them?
Of course, I thanked them a million times, even in church and in front of their parents. But gratitude needs more.
So far the youth ministry has worked on no / shoe-string budgets and contributions of generous people who pop-up at the right time. And those who worked for it never got anything – of course, they were never expecting anything.
But this time, three years down the line, I felt, that these youngsters ought to receive something symbolic, yet tangible. We need to use our funds to say thank you to our team.
A leader is not leading an organization, but people. He is not responsible for the results, but responsible for the people who are responsible for the results. Take care of your people and your mission will be fulfilled (Brilliant thoughts from Simon Sinek). I have been huge fan of Jesus’ servant leadership.
And I decided to do so; to express gratitude to beyond words. So I made them mugs with the poster Cynthia had made and put their names on it, so that they remember this wonderful event till the mugs broke. On doing that, I realise that I should have done this earlier and should not have shied away from thinking whether the Diocese would think it a waste. The Diocese, to whom I had never asked this before will pay this time, and I am sure that they will be glad to since these children are our own and did something for the Lord and His Church. On harking back, the first ones to receive these mugs should have been the Youth Ministry Ideators, who managed 50 days of lent video editing and uploading in 2015. A committed team of 15 people, these boys with full time jobs did an unforgettable job, which really helped launch the youth ministry forward. They were invited home for a get-together, during the infancy period of the ministry. We won’t forget it. The same team also organized the Walk With Him Concert and mission tour with the Rapture band, entirely planned online and executed on ground. The Lord was gracious and that has been the highest attended programme for youth in the past two years. Each of them deserved at least a mug and that is on the cards too. We remember, that despite the rains and a flooded Mumbai, around 500 youth turned up!
God has given us wonderful youngsters right here in Mumbai and my heart is moved by their sincerity and hardwork in the name of the Lord. I pray that the Lord uses them for His glory wherever they are.
I take the mugs to INTIMATE ’17 team today as we gather to settle accounts. I hope they smile, and would do things like these again for the Lord.
I fondly remember and thank God also for the Youth Ministry Ideators who have been by my side over the past two years.
There are some definitive changes I wish to bring about in my life, today on. Actually, yesterday on, since I made the list last evening.
I have been observing pastors and trying to emulate some of their good qualities. Having seen pastors of all shapes and sizes all my life, the realization that I have a long way to go dawns, not infrequently. It is a good thing, I take it. So here are some things with respect specifically to communication I have been a resource person to many camps, sessions, retreats, etc. like never before in my life (more about those humbling experiences in another post) and you have to communicate with the organizers before and after the programme. I think I have not been doing that well. What makes me say so? Because the way some pastors went about it made me feel dignified, appreciated and made me think, “ hmm… that is a good way of doing things.”
So this is a list of pastoral qualities I observed in pastors around me which I would like to emulate, with immediate effect (That sounds more like a statement issued by an authority…hmm….). The list includes some non-pastors as well.
1. Be like Rev. Abey when it comes to pre-programme calls and follow up.
When he is in charge of a programme, expect calls well in advance to inform you about the event, its specifics, etc. He will discuss it with you over the days and seek your opinion and by the time the ministry begins, you have a tab on what’s going to happen and you are well prepared.
He will inform you of the requirements and ask you what you might need. Changes in the plan are promptly informed.
A reminder, a programme-eve check and a post-programme appreciation call is part of his approach. Looks good to me.
You value your resource person this way and forge a new relationship with that person. If I were an organizer of something I would do that.
(Continued in the next post…)