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.

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Cruising – A poem dedicated to the refugees who dare to dream of an elusive freedom

CRUISING.
While I slept comfortably in my soft bed
You were in the boat, before dawn
Cruising the illusive border to freedom
and safety.
 
By the time I woke up,
You had drowned
in salt: your eyes first, then,
All of you.
 
Tears and tide together
swallowed you, your children
and your dreams:
Dreams of safety
dreams of certainty
dreams of ease
dreams of peace.
 
While the ones born privileged
For no merit of their own
in countries rich and peaceful,
protected to be called “home,”
debated whether you are worthy,
migrant or refugee
you clutched on to freedom
which looked as real as the fog
that morning
as you sunk to the bottom
and emerged to the surface
as though you were in a never-ending dream.
 
You could’ve been me
I could’ve been you
You could be me, and
I could be you;
All it takes is violence
For that to be true.
………………………………………………………………………………………
Mathews George,  14 September, 2015
As another boat, carrying escaping Syrian refugees from Turkey, sinks in the Mediterranean Sea, near Greek Islands.
Cruising to freedom
Cruising to freedom. Image  Courtesy: Malayala Manorama

Can you relax?

Late morning, almost noon. It’s calm outside, although the ceiling fan which is going nowhere but in circles is raking up a storm.

The bookshelf beside the bed is still dusty. It has been, every time you visited this house.  But the rest of the interiors are beautiful.

You lie there on the bed. You relax.  Do you allow yourself to relax ? Never completely.  Are you capable of relaxing completely?  I don’t know.  There is always something that isn’t complete. That thought is the carpet of your subconscious mind. You keep stamping on it mercilessly,  never paying attention.  Will I ever be complete? One day.

So why not enjoy the moment?
I’m scared.
Of what?
Of resting too long and becoming lazy.  I’m quite capable of being that.
But your seminary life showed that you hardly compromised!
Yes. But these thoughts were in the back of my mind.  I feared so but it didn’t happen.
So why not now?
(A brooding silence).

The question of rest

Rest is an important biblical mandate. There is no permission from the Almighty God to keep running. Our finite human bodies need rest.
Last week I felt I was feeling more tired more often. The reason is primarily that I do no drink enough water and secondly that I do not plan my time well, eventually feeling worn out the next day of a busy week.

The Lord rested after six days of creation. He warned the Israelites specifically to observe the Sabbath, the day of rest.

I need rest at appropriate times. Which also makes me ponder whether I make use of my time effectively, whether I deserve rest. My prayer to the Lord is to show  me what to be and do as well as how so that I can enjoy the time of rest, guiltless.

Contents

One of the challenges you face as a youth chaplain is preparing and sharing biblical content that is related to life. All this through various media. The content has to be in a finished form, bite-sized and easily comprehendable,  packaged keeping today’s social media in mind. Attention spans are less. Dedicated “growing time” or “quiet time” seem to be a rarity. Therefore one might have to grab the attention in the transient window-period of focus and aim to reach the heart.

That takes time,  thought,  personal quiet time, creativity and above all, the quickening of the Holy Spirit.

The most important skill I am trying to develop is a patience to review. 

I get content. I have made content.  All I need to do is pore over those content and take stock of what I have. It’s got plenty for really long time.

But I’m ever in the search of the new and trying to catch up! It’s a hard struggle that way. I need help!

Contents

One of the challenges you face as a youth chaplain is preparing and sharing biblical content that is related to life. All this through various media. The content has to be in a finished form, bite-sized and easily comprehendable,  packaged keeping today’s social media in mind. Attention spans are less. Dedicated “growing time” or “quiet time” seem to be a rarity. Therefore one might have to grab the attention in the transient window-period of focus and aim to reach the heart.

That takes time,  thought,  personal quiet time, creativity and above all, the quickening of the Holy Spirit.

The most important skill I am trying to develop is a patience to review. 

I get content. I have made content.  All I need to do is pore over those content and take stock of what I have. It’s got plenty for really long time.

But I’m ever in the search of the new and trying to catch up! It’s a hard struggle that way. I need help!

Critically, alone

At some critical points of life, you will be alone.

Not necessarily because people ditched you; it could also happen because you never thought that this particular moment would be critical and you had made arrangements to meet those critical moments with the right people at the anticipated critical time.

But the critical moment decides to visit earlier. You are caught off guard. You wonder in your mind for creative responses. Sometimes, none appear. Like right now, for me.You try to be bold and face it.

image

My response was to go silent and immobile. And then I prayed. And waited. That’s all I know, that’s all I can do. I have reached the limits of my intelligence. I am revisiting the limits of my talent. It’s very humbling to be here.

Kurie eeleison.

I surrender. Once again.