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.

The enormity of this city challenges me.

The enormity of this city challenges me.

The enormity of this city challenges me. There is always something more to do, more people to reach, more scope in the ministry, and more and more.

As a youth chaplain, the scope of ministering to the youth in a city like Mumbai is tremendous, often hitting mind-boggling scales.

I must also know that I am not able to do everything on my own. Must not either.

I remember advice of setting up a human resources team that could assist in various aspects of ministry. We have that in a virtual form, with volunteers with a wide variety of skills from singing, designing, teaching, leading, law, medicine, communication and a lot more. However, a structured, systematic outreach – is that possible through volunteers who may have something to do at times and therefore unable to commit?

 

I have been careful not to be disappointed or expect too much of youth who are already busy and have priorities. I have always approached them knowing that any time that they spend for youth ministry is because of their commitment to the cause and I rejoice no matter how short a time they are able to give, as long as they involve, as long as they share a part of themselves to ministering to fellow brethren.

 

A concern in my mind is, how can the youth ministry grow and reach out to more? How can it assist the growth of more youth in Christ? There are hundreds of unreached youth. People who are on the ledges of faith. How do we get to them?

 

That is when I begin to think God needs to give me some more support. And as you may have rightly judged, that is where “I” the person, the ego, begin to emerge. Of course, the ministry is not about me at the same time it deeply involves ‘me’.There is no impersonal ministry, as far as I can gather. As much as I would like to see fruit, I must also remember that as a pioneer, my job is to till the ground, sow the seeds. And that is not easy.  Preparing the ground, as Isaiah 4 reflects, involves clearing the ground of stones as well.

 

Perhaps, as I reflect, this ministry should have started many years ago. The need is quite telling. It should have grown and bloomed by now. I wonder why it never began. Were we, as a Church, blind?

 

However, I am privileged that I could be part of the beginning. That also mean I perpetually carry the burden that I am not reaching out enough.

From Virar to Colaba.

From Kalyan To Dadar.

From Dadar to Ambernath.

I feel paralized. I need more help and support. Perhaps more staff?

 

While interviewing fellow youth workers from other organizations during the first year, I gathered that the struggle is real and that they face the same too. People have become busier. There is always more people to reach out to, more hearts to be touched, more people to come to salvation in Christ.

 

From time to time, I remember teachings that I have learned and read. This ministry belongs to God. He will do what He has to do in His time. At this moment, he wanted me to be here. He will accomplish what he has started. His words will never return empty. My job is to trust him and to entrust him with my weaknesses and strengths so that he can accomplish what He has to, in His time.

 

 

As you step out of seminary, dear brothers …

As you step out of seminary, dear brothers …

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The sacrament

(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

George.

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Pastoral Ministry : The Journey Ahead to be Fishers of Men

Love in a mug

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.

We obeyed.

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.

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.

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!

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