Why I will always be thankful to St. Augustine – perhaps, you will, too.

Why I will always be thankful to St. Augustine – perhaps, you will, too.

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.

Heresy

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) :

  1. Human beings are completely free to act. To a great extent such an action is imperative for “moral action and spiritual renewal.”
  2. 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.
  3. “Any  imperfection in human nature that might stop us from acting morally could reflect badly on God.”
  4. “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’s take

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.

Consistency

Consistency

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.

Imagining another life

If not a pastor, what other vocation could I imagine myself in? A picture from a news piece in the latest The Week magazine, set off fireworks in the brain centre for imagination.

The picture was of an editor who had been working with HarperCollins India.

I can imagine myself as an editor. Sitting all day with books and manuscripts. Reading through draft after draft in an office/study room by a window. Everyday. Meeting writers with potential as well as well-known ones, discussing their writing.

A room full of books. Reading various works, reflecting upon the world, being thunderstruck by ideas, watching storyteller after storyteller weaving their narratives as they firmly grip the reader by their imagination until they emotionally choke… Just a few things I imagine. Of course, there will be work pressure and deadlines like any other job. Perhaps even travelling to various meetings and conferences – all part of the daily life. Somehow, the office seems to be cozy, with lots of coffee, whenever you need!

I have tried imagining myself as a musician. Somehow, it doesn’t work well for me. I love music, I play it, perform it and more often teach music at Christian youth gatherings. I’ve been blessed with many opportunities to do so. But something about the musician life cannot be done full time. I have read biographies and write-ups on musicians and bands most of which convey the busy life of performing and travelling which eventually takes over your creative time and steals away your energy to be saturated in learning and inspiration. One needs to learn and grow spiritually and physically. One has to find time to read and reflect, learn and study discerning the signs of the times and respond.If music performance takes over the input time, then the output will suffer. In my experience it is very difficult to keep up your routine while you travel.

Having said that, I believe there is no greater influencer like music. It is a powerful medium that can express a passionate message in words and tune combined. I know that. Everyone believes it. Just imagine the number of tunes that were perpetually on replay as we grew up. We internalize the messages songs carry.

Every community has its songs and music. From religion to road-shows during electoral campaigns music is everywhere. Human beings are basically rhythmical beings and music, powerpacked with tune can form bonds even change lives, keep faith alive, bestow hope and express emotion. It is a great medium to embed a message. I have an experience to testify to this. 

I was entrusted with the task of leading sessions at the vacation bible school held by the Mar Thoma Syrian Church Sunday School of Sharjah. 1500 children were a number I had never led prior to this. It scared me to bits wondering how on earth I would minister to them, and hold on to their attention. Don Thomas, the VBS leader in the year prior, was very encouraging and constantly assuring me of his prayers. I had recently been worried and down at that time, overwhelmed by the vast area of my ministry and the sheer scope it had. On sharing that with Dr. Mary George, a counsellor and psychologist, who had been actively participating in the youth ministry, she encouraged me to use my talents of cartooning and rapping. I never considered myself as good at them but had fun when I was inspired to explore them. Whatever you are passionate about is in important part of you – and therefore – part of your ministry. That indeed was an eye-opener. Being an introvert I was too shy to use them and hadn’t even considered myself or my material worth using in that way! Sharjah VBS was an opportunity to minister for the Lord Jesus through my rap. The children jumped along and we enjoyed rapping four-line summaries of each day’s teachings and verse, wrapped around a “hook”, or chorus if you like. Nearly everyone in your visual horizon would join in. Pack along actions for the hook and everyone’s praising God with full body involvement. I hope the children remember the hook – Jesus is the king of my life.

But I’m unable to see myself as a full time musician, somehow.

But here as a pastor, working in a fledgling youth ministry, you get to do it  all for the glory of God. 

A few insights from Pokemon Go!


The exhortations in the picture sounded like Jesus. It seemed like the divine, to which nothing is a limitation, was bursting forth through the game screen. It was foolish of me to attempt the game on 2G but that’s what turned my attention to the message on the screen that had the plausible resemblance to a Bible message. Another look at the screen made it seem straightout of the Book of Revelation, which gave me a smile. Pokémon Go was now kindling my imagination.

Alas! Three Bible verses popped up in my head as I stared at the note on the screen: 

Luke 12:46a The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. 

1 Peter  5:8 Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.
The first talks about the return of Christ of which we know nothing of the day and the hour. We are simply asked to be prepared. There simply is no time to mess around and we have no business doing so! Keeping our act together, living according to the guidance of God through the Word, worship and fellowship, was paramount, lest we fall into the clutches of sin and darkness.The  second verse warns us from taking things lightly all the time, making us aware of the dangers we could fall into. We are hearing reports of people who endangered their lives chasing Pokemons and even crossing international borders, gravely violating rules without realizing. 

The third verse that came to me was :

Matthew 26:10 Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me.

How beautiful! Jesus was aware of the deepest longings of the woman who was anointing him. He saw through the daring of a potentially shameless woman who was being despised for being present too near him;  for crossing the Jewish line of etiquette and  socio-spatial gender boundaries. Why would she do that?

Let’s consult ourselves first. We chase Pokemon for fun, right? Are you sure? What’s in a game that seeks to catch creatures that are not there physically yet exist on the screens and the technology mediated world of virtual reality? Surely, it’s more than fun. There’s a sense of achievement. The Pokemon we caught which others haven’t  enhances our sense of uniqueness.  Everyone wants to feel special – and appreciated. We all want our moment when we are accepted, acknowledged and asked for. 

In gathering together at the gyms and other public places, defending our Pokemon’s, we seek community. We all want to know that we are not alone. If we are too proud to ask the company of others, we can form communities (that may or may not last),” accidentally, through these defensive alliances. Yes, we want relationship. We are a different person,without them. We seek proximity and interaction, we seek protection and care. And we go after Pokemon. We live, move and have our being in a broken world that chases after… Pokémons. 

Jesus is aware of what we seek. He asks us to be aware of what our neighbour seeks. Just as he was. Aware of her  deepest longings, Jesus tells speaks on behalf of her, calling her act, beautiful. Despite her brokenness, the woman knew where to go. Do we know where to go with our brokeness? Which way do we guide the broken people around us, especially the ones who come our way?

So the two injunctions that appear as Pokémon Go loads have deep meaning for anyone who seeks a meaningful life – one that we can truly call LIFE. In short, the Truth – that which is real, which is actual. No floss. 

And there is one who said “I am … the Truth.” Leonard Sweet tells us that in Christian faith the Truth is not a statement, law or method; it is a person.

If Pokémon symbolizes that ultimate thing we are searching for inorder to satisfy us, then, Jesus is the ultimate Pokémon. May our search for Pokémon lead us to the Truth who is none but Jesus.

He is waiting to embrace you when you find him.

My life be like… ooo aaa ooo – Part 1

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…)

Keep writing

For the first time I received an email by someone who read my blog. It was wonderful to hear that the person had been moved to ask me some questions.

One of the things I learnt last year in ministry is to avoid evaluating oneself with tangible results. One must not chase tangible results, it can be very disappointing.

Moreover you never know whose life you touched. Sometimes you get to know later, most of the time you just don’t. The most important thing is to do faithfully what God has entrusted you with.

Of course, the moment you hear from someone who was blessed by what you shared, spoke, sang, sketched,
rapped, forwarded or wrote, is indeed a sweet one. It encourages you to continue.

But just don’t depend on it. You do what you have got to do. Let God do what He will, and just trust Him.

Thanks for writing in friend!

image

Clapton’s guitar

It is so difficult to be the loser.

I like winning, although it hasn’t be the way of things with me.

Jesus’ affinity for the last, the least and the lost is about the only thing that is currently keeping me going. You find it in “Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus” by Robert Farrar Capon. He says, death and losing is about the only way in which God can bring His salvation into our lives.

Which then is a good thing. Am I a successful youth chaplain?  Whatever that means! Currently, by the parameters of the world, I am not successful. Leave those parameters. This is what I would like:

I would like myself to be a wonderful instrument in His hand. I’d like to imagine Him as Eric Clapton and me, his guitar.  That way, a meaningful ministry. Something that would touch so many lives that they see what God sees in them.

I am sure God reads my blog.