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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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.

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.

Churching at Colaba and some snaps

Colaba was sleeping even as I stepped into Wesley CNI church, this morning on my inter-denominational church visit. She resembled one that was snug on Sunday morning after storing week.

I loved the calmness this old church bore on me. As I stepped in from the pavement, I could glance upon an empty horizon at the end of the road – yes,my favourite, the seaside.

I loved coming to Colaba again. There was something about it which is hard to miss. May be it’s the dilapidated buildings which once proclaimed the splendour of the British Imperial life. May be it’s the “service” industry’s (whatever that means!) attempts at giving those buildings a botox or a nose job to make it look young though old, vainly retaining the vestiges of colonialism. Perhaps it is that colonial hangover or even an unbelievable appreciation towards the British who invested so much in a country not their own. Anything beautiful that was not your effort looks enticing when the creator is gone, forever.

The service was characterized by a familiar CNI liturgy. The songs and the service indeed drew me in, except for the excited little girl on the seat beside me. I felt God wanting me to let her be and help her find the pages in the worship book. Her mum who clearly had no familiarity of written English was excited to see her child attempting to sing from the English hymnal.

The Sermon by Rev. Kalison, spoke about the power of resurrection. Christ our Lord is risen and he comes to us and strengthens us saying, I have power over everything, so cheer up. I was encouraged. I needed the power or resurrection too. Yes,  I am a pastor myself, but I need to hear the Word of God and open my heart to the Lord’s power. That I did. Praise God. The Easter day message that I shared at the small church near which I stay, rang through my ears and encouraged me even more.

After the service I walked out into a different Colaba. It was a tourist Colaba which was noisy and full of shops. Yet it was picturesque and I started clicking pictures with Retrica app filters.

I had a nice calm time and here are some of those pictures

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A necklace of Easter thoughts: “He is not here.” (Matthew 28:6

A necklace of Easter thoughts:

“He is not here.” (Matthew 28:6)

 

Last Christmas, we visited Abhaya Bhavan, a home for the destitute and sick, run by the Missionaries of Charity. As we entered the Home, I glanced past the beautiful crib they had prepared. Tinsel covered the roof, and on the inside you could see colourful lights that blinked.I looked closer in  surprise, a couple of decorating material and colour hangings and gift wrappers lay there, rolled together, in the middle of the manger, but no Jesus! It was Christmas and Jesus was no longer there in the crib.

 

For years, everyone had tried to tie baby Jesus down in a decorated manger. But he had left the manger because he was not meant to stay there, forever as a helpless baby; instead he was meant to become someone who exerted great impact on the whole world, which was more inconvenient to our lives than a pretty baby.

Following his crucifixion, the High Priests and other leaders tried to tie Jesus down to the tomb. But the mighty God, who became man was too powerful for them. Who imagined that someone would defeat death? They tried to keep the Good News in the tomb. But the news was too Good to be contained.

 

Easter is a story of transformation. In fact it is a story of the greatest transformation which changed the stories of many.

 

When the earliest rays of the to-be-Easter day were reaching Jerusalem, Mary Magdalene and the “other” Mary were nearing the tomb of Jesus. They would anoint Jesus’ body, a procedure that was part of a decent burial. After all he was dead. He had said he would rise on the third day, but now that he was dead, however disappointing that was, he deserved a decent funeral. May be some day, his tomb might become a great memorial monument where people come to remember the life of that good man.

 

What they saw at the tomb added fear to their already disappointed hearts. It  made them doubly vulnerable. An earthquake and a supernatural encounter later, they were so afraid. This was too much to ask for when your teacher, who had good intentions, were dead and when they wanted to have good memories of him.

 

“He is not here”: Divine incapacitation giving new meaning to life.

Verse 2 picturizes the coming of the supernatural – heralded by an earthquake, followed by an angel who descends and sits on top of the stone which he rolls away from the mouth of the tomb. It stands for God’s power doing its thing in contrast to the feeble human efforts to keep him dead – as the High Priest and Inc. and the Marys tried. The soldiers who were meant to guard the tomb are said to have “For fear of him. . .  shook and became like dead men” (verse 4). They wore uniforms of the Imperial army of Rome. Perhaps, they had the medals. They fought valiantly. They were brave, able men. But the able men were incapacitated by the Divine (read God). That is because the Divine had different plans.

 

As a result of the Divine revelation the Marys were so afraid too but the angel had sweet words of assurance,

“Do not be afraid.”

 

Both are incapacitated but the women are then told some-things that hadn’t been in their minds that Sunday morning: Jesus had been raised and he would go to Galilee and they would meet him there.

 

Now that gave them a whole new perspective on life – that their Rabbi was still alive and that they would meet him! Life had more to it, if this meant that Friday was not the climax. The incapacitation due to a fear inducing revelation from God, now led to a new perspective on life itself.

 

Have you felt incapacitated? That your plans were not working the way you thought were best? That you made plans and nothing of it has borne fruit and you simply can’t go ahead? Has something paralyzed your ability and determination to go forward? Easter tells us of God’s straight encounter that stops short-sighted human plans. If you were seeking Jesus, like the Marys, then you will receive a new perspective on his plans, even if that means you need a bit of correction in what you sought! But if you were trying to keep him away from involving in your life, like the soldiers, you are alive, yet “like dead”(verse 4). When you have the fullness of life bursting open in front of you, will you remain still or receive it?

 

“He is not here”: Drawing attention to the imperatives

In the Bible, we see that God often spoke through prophets and angels. And when they spoke, we had better listen, or we would be missing out on the most important matters of life. So when they say “He is not here,” then what is?

 

The Angel’s first imperative statement, “do not be afraid,” is reminiscent of angel Gabriel’s assurance to Mary – she could bank on it for she was covered by God’s grace (Luke 1:30). So could the Marys, in our portion.

 

The second imperative is, “Come and see the place where he lay,” (Verse 6). In the Greek original of the New Testament, deute (“come!”) is the same word used by Jesus when he calls his disciples in Matthew 4.19 and Mark 1.17. So the angel was a calling, on behalf of God, to a renewed witness!

 

To witness what?  They are called to witness ton topon hopou ekeito (the place where he was laid). The root word of ekeito means to store, to be laid permanently, etc. They are invited to see the place where people thought he was laid permanently, so that they were done with his ‘I am the Messiah’ nuisance. It was an invitation that would change their life because what they saw and experienced (including the unexpected Divine encounter) filled them with fear and great joy (verse 8) that they couldn’t walk anymore; they were running to tell the news to the rest of the disciples, as commanded by the angel!

 

Notice the emotions: fear and great joy. Earlier, they were a disappointed duo who were hurt further by fear of the Divine encounter, but the imperative of Easter has now given them great joy, that they run. The joy is increased evermore when Jesus meets them and says ‘Greetings!’ the Greek of which is, “Rejoice!” Isn’t that the most wonderful first utterance from a risen Lord, who defeated evil and its consequence, death?

 

When God thwarts or stills your plans, do not be apprehensive or anxious about the future. Do not be afraid, comes the voice from God, for He has risen so that you may have a new purposeful and meaningful life which comes from realizing the significance of Jesus’ cross and resurrection for our lives and living in obedience to His words. In him, it is going to be a hopeful life so believe Him when he says “Rejoice!” They believed, and they immediately held his feet and worshipped him. What else would we do when the Divine Joy of Easter descends upon us?

 

“He is not here”: The Signal of a transformed and transformational beginning.

Following his joyful greeting, Jesus repeats the words of the angel. We could say the angel had spoken for him and now Jesus confirms his words by repeating them.

 

In verse 6, the angel said, “he is not here,” and after the imperative to go tell the disciples of the resurrection, indicated that Jesus was going to Galilee! (verse 7)

 

Of all places, Galilee?

That is where he grew up (Nazareth of Galilee); that is where he began his ministry; that is where he called his first disciples (Matt 4 :18-22). His disciples had fled right after his fellowship meal the previous night of his crucifixion. But he still had plans for them. He would go exactly where he had started his ministry, exactly where he had called them and “there they will see me”(verse 10). The Greek word for ‘see’ here, orao indicates not just regular seeing – orao means to perceive in an experiential way, to recognize… They would all meet at Galilee and they would experience him – the risen Jesus. This time they will recognize who he is and perceive the deep significance of all that he said in the past three and half years he had been with them. And he would send them again, in the name of the Triune God, with love and with authority, assuring them of his ever-abiding presence.

It was going to be a transformational seeing, leading to yet another beginning – the beginning of a renewed, refreshed, reinvigorated ministry. It became a transformed beginning which in turn, would be the beginning of transformation in the lives of many, sourced from the renewing personal experience of Easter.

 

And this time on “they would follow him whithersoever he might lead- even to a cross if need be, counting it now their highest privilege whereas it had been their most terrifying fear”(quote by Herbert Stevenson,  Road to the Cross).

 

The risen Lord goes to the very beginning. Where you began and where you failed.  He can transform you and give you a new start. Going by the narrative in the gospel, that seems to be the sole purpose for which he came – to transform people, give them a new beginning and make them transformational communities that continue his work of restoring the image of God in them. He is the beginning, he is the end.

 

Let us submit ourselves before the risen Lord,

experience him afresh,

Allowing him to still our plans.

Obeying his word.

Let us be set afire by his plans and purposes,

transforming us inside out, Only to transform lives, that are “like dead,” into

ones so confident

that they will not die, for

He has risen, abolishing the sting of evil and death,

and gifting us:

eternal life . . .

 

Happy Easter.

Mathews George, Easter 2013

2012, for me ended on The theme ‘vulnerability’. Following an elbow dislocation and later a surgery, I realised that I was not as strong as I thought to be. A great deal of help and understanding from friends gradually took me to recovery. The self-sufficient and capable George was now dependent and thankful to many people. I had to learn to take help. The Physiotherapy following The removal of plaster was very painful. I moaned, cried, huffed, puffed, struggled and felt irritated at times. I was weak. Not at All The picture I had of myself. The weak and moaning side of myself was never allowed expression But in the hostel single-room it reigned regal. I took it slow. Allowed time to heal and believed God wanted to teach me some things. And teach he did.

God enabled me to do much, with my right hand even though it was later observed that my little finger remained bent and powerless drawing a path all the way to the elbow which remained numb. Doctors found a slipping ulnar nerve on the left side of the elbow which is slowly recovering while there’s muscle deterioration on The hand. It looks scary as I see the right hand thinning down compared to The left.

I’ve been worried about that. Plus all The tasks and pending work before me. The ten semester exams I missed will greet me, come Jan 17. . .

The two worst thoughts a person can have affected me: I am unable to do What I have to do so I don’t trust myself to do it. A loss of trust in oneself. The second is, God will do only What he wants to when he wants to so there’s no point in praying, especially for a miraculous healing without The suggested surgery to fix my ulnar nerve under elbow.

These thoughts took The wind out of me. I began to get scared. Panicked. I felt hard to breathe. I began to feel hopeless. Dear ones called and encouraged me. But  . . .

Even the next morning I woke up in panic, out of breath. . . And I was supposed to be a seminary student in preparation for pastoral ministry . . .

THEN:

God warned me in class today. My mother  had read out from James yesterday [over the phone] following up from what she had read during the family prayer back home  and warned me for having lack of faith. She told me that I was the one who was supposed to stand up in situations like this and become an enabler.  I asked her whether she was encouraging me!

But during a paper presentation in class today based on Isaiah, God warned me through one of my classmates who read aloud Isaiah 7:

 

Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands (Isa 7:4 NRSV)

If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all. (Isa 7:9 NIV)

I read it in different versions.

It shook me.  I read the portion again and sat like a little boy who just received a second chance.

It’s funny. My mind’s calm now. I feel like I was just spanked on bum for not listening. And I feel alright.

I finished an assignment yesterday, and will finish one more once I finish this blog post.

The change is amazing. Just two verses. Direct speech. The context of the verses (Isaiah Chapter 7, Syro-Ephramite war -Read it!) makes things clearer.

Look to the Lord.

All of this can happen even to a person who has dedicated his life to tell others about God and his steadfast love, care and guidance which gives us hope.

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pic courtesy: http://mindfulnessangermanagement.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/open-heart.jpeg

 

And I needed a spanking.

 

God, I need more.

 

What I need and What I’ve been steadily lacking is a trust in myself. A lack of confidence that I am capable of doing things, taking up responsibilities and the like.
However, it’s been a learning experience for me.
Today, I spoke to a counsellor who encouraged me to face my struggles in the face, and to keep realistic expectations.I was also asked to not bother about others’ opinion.