Monday, 14 November 2016

The Confessions of Augustine

Although I had heard a lot of great things about the theological giant, Saint Augustine, it took an essay task for me to actually read his Confessions. When I did, I was completely blown away by the beauty and honesty of his writings, (as my classmates soon discovered by my need to comment at every chance I was given in class). Although he is writing in Latin in the late 4th century, Augustine's account of how he came to know peace with God has a way of being relevant even today.

Augustine grew up in the town of Thagaste, in what is today known as Algeria, with a pagan father and a Catholic mother by the name of Monica. He was an intelligent boy, good at expressing himself through spoken word and had a hunger for the wisdom of the philosophers. Augustine never doubted the existence of God but was more intrigued by the teachings of philosophy than the words of the Bible that appeared immoral and contradictory to him. 

It was to Manichaeism that he first turned in search of answers to his tormenting questions about the existence of evil. Here he was taught that the judgmental God of the Old Testament was to be rejected as a malevolent demon at war with the loving God of the New Testament. It was the mind and spirit of man that was good, a separate entity from the evil nature of the human body. This belief allowed Augustine to push away the increasing feelings of guilt that were building up inside of him over the thoughts and actions he knew to be wrong but from which he could not escape.

He eventually turned away from the teachings of Manichaeism, explored Platonism and encountered the influential bishop Ambrose during his time teaching in Milan. Ambrose's rational and allegorical sermons made a big impact on Augustine as did the Platonists' view of a distant and unknown God, but despite all his gained knowledge, Augustine's soul remained restless. Knowledge puffed up his own pride but did not draw him closer to knowing God.


As Augustine came to yearn for the presence of God he was also made more aware of another desire within him – that of rebellion and disobedience towards God. In recollection of his boyhood, Augustine tells the story of when him and some friends stole pears from a neighbour’s garden and threw them to the pigs for no other reason than their own need for adventure and the desire to impress one another. The deed in itself was insignificant but revealed a deeper problem inside -  the inherited state of sin that man cannot escape from.


 As a young man, he battled lust and pride and could not bring himself to let go of them despite the burden of his own conscience. He took a concubine and lived with her for many years, but knew that this was not in accordance with God’s laws for marriage. Later, when his mother arranged for him a young Catholic bride, he was forced to send the concubine he had come to love away and was heartbroken. However, not even whilst waiting for his bride to come of age, could he control his sexual desires and instead took for himself another concubine. He had not yet tasted the sweetness of God and was therefore held captive to the beauty of worldly things. "The enemy had control of my will, he writes, and from that had made a chain to bind me fast". 

It was the doctrine of Jesus, God in flesh, that Augustine struggled the most to come to terms with. Yet as he read the letters of Saint Paul, he came to understand the need for a mediator to reconcile sinful man with the holy God through his perfect sacrifice on the cross. God made himself humble, lowly and weak in order to become accessible to man but in order for Augustine to receive the freedom offered to him, he too had to lay down his own pride and will.
  
Augustine's journey towards finding rest for his soul was long and full of battles but eventually God met with him as he cried out in desperate prayer under a fig tree in his garden. He heard the voice of a child calling him to open and read so he opened the letters of Paul and read the first passage his eyes fell on – Romans 13:13. It was a call to give up the life of sin and clothe oneself with Christ and Augustine took this message to heart, deciding then and there to give his life to God. Although he continued to battle with the temptations of sin, he was captivated by a beauty richer and more satisfying than that of the world and this empowered him to serve God in the Church.

What I find most inspiring about Augustine's writings is his honesty about the struggles he faced and his passionate and genuine response to God. He wrestled with God and he questioned God but then he fell so in love with God that he wanted nothing more than to be transformed by him and to share him with the world.

"Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours."  
Augustine's Confessions, Book 10:xxvii 

Monday, 20 June 2016

Abu Fadi's story

I've recently started reading "I am n", a collection of stories, put together by The Voice of the Martyrs, from the lives of Christians facing Islamic extremists around the world today. It aims to bring to light the suffering of so many Christians across the world who will not compromise their faith even when faced with severe persecution.

One chapter tells the story of Abu Fadi, a Christian living outside Mosul, Iraq at the time when ISIS took over the city in June 2014. He had received a phone call from a friend warning him that the terrors they had heard about in other cities was now on their own doorstep and he feared for his family who lived inside Mosul. As ISIS troops entered the city, chaos and gunfire broke out with prisoners being freed and the cross on the Syriac Orthodox Cathedral of Mar being torn down. Christians packed up their belongings and fled but Abu's disabled mother and sister were unable to do so. Their house was marked with the Arabic letter 'n', symbolising that here lived Christians, known as 'Nazarenes' and they were told that they must leave immediately or else they would be converted to Islam at gunpoint.

Eventually, the two women were able to reach Abu through the help of  a Muslim friend who drove them out of the city. From there they began their journey to the relatively safe city of Erbil along with almost forty thousand others also fleeing from the surrounding areas. They were stopped at an ISIS checkpoint along the way and Abu was questioned, answering truthfully that they were Christians and were not permitted to remain in their homes. The guards refused to let them leave, giving them instead the choice of converting to Islam or being killed. After much discussion and pleading, Abu was forced to his knees and given a final chance to denounce his faith in Jesus which he refused, praying instead for strength, wisdom and courage. Just as he was waiting for the sword to come down on him, another ISIS official arrived and, inquiring on the situation, ordered that they be left to continue on their way with the message that ISIS would be victorious throughout the whole world.

After being stopped several times along the way and having most of their valuables taken away from them, Abu and his family were finally able to reach Erbil. Despite the poor conditions and lack of food and water to go around amidst all the refugees, they thanked God for his protection and presence.

I find stories like these inspiring and challenging. For many people in the world, what they believe in defines the rest of their lives; what opportunities they will have, how they will be treated by their societies and in some cases, whether they live or die. Yet, for Abu and many others like him, the cost of following Jesus is worth it. His hope in Jesus as his saviour for eternity was more real to him than the threat of death for himself and his family and he was willing to prove it. The stories of these courageous Christians who stand for their beliefs in the midst of suffering, responding with humility and forgiveness, must be heard. With this blog, I hope to contribute to making the plight of some of these many unsung heroes of faith known.               

Monday, 25 August 2014

Above life itself


As we are seeing more and more of the violence happening in the Middle East, with stories of beheadings, mass murder and terror, we are reminded of the frailty of life. People in Iraq have been killed in great numbers and been forced to flee their homes because of their faith, many being Christians or other minority groups.  Had I been there at that time the same thing would have happened to me. It’s humbling that we as human beings are so vulnerable.
At the same time, there is great strength in the dedication these people have shown. As they face the choice of conversion, death or fleeing their homes, many have held firm to their faith, showing the world that there is something they value more than their lives here on earth. They place their trust in God, not because of what he guarantees to do for them but because they believe him to be true and worthy of all glory. They believe God to be good even when he doesn’t step in to rescue them but allows them to suffer and even die because they choose not to deny him. That is a faith that goes deep and despite the tragedy and horror of it all, I believe they have won a great victory.
Their courage challenges me to ask how genuine my own faith is and what requirements I have of God for him to be praised. Is Jesus Lord in my life because he is giving me what I want or simply because he is worthy to be Lord?
As the struggle for these people continue, we have a chance to show our support and concern by doing what we can. The Christians in Iraq are asking people all around the world to pray for their protection and provision. At the moment, the town of Amerli in Northern Iraq is in desperate need as they fear being massacred like other towns before them. They have been surrounded by Isis for 8 weeks, holding off the forces with women and children joining the men in arms, but are now critically low on food and water.
When faced with such a powerful threat like Isis, I believe the best thing we can do is to call on the Almighty God and ask him to step in with his strength and mercy. Starting from today, Christians over the world are joining together for five days of prayer and fasting for Iraq. Not only will this have an impact on the world but I believe it will also do something in our hearts as we are prepared to give up a little of our own comfort out of compassion for others.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

one body, one mind, one heart


There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all. There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord. God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in us.
But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part where he wants it. How strange a body would be if it only had one part! Yes, there are many parts but only one body. The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you”. The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you”.
This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad. All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.
1 Corinthians 12

There is something fresh and alive about the way the Holy Spirit moves and shapes a church, equipping individuals with unique gifts and strengths, then fitting them together to become one body. It’s a powerful picture! A limb on its own, disconnected from the rest of the body, is lifeless and can do nothing. But when it finds its rightful place, it is a valuable asset, designed for a unique purpose.
When one part of the body is hurting, the rest of the body is affected and hurts with it. It’s the same in a healthy church, as people are knitted so closely together, that your pain becomes my pain and your gain becomes my gain. Where one part is weak, the other parts will step in with their strength. When one part is moving forward, the rest celebrate and move with it.  We are not individuals, competing against one another but we are one body, working together towards the same goal.
As living bodies need to be connected to a mind for them to function, so we, as a church body, are meant to come together under one head and authority. Jesus calls us to be his hands and feet. We are not the brains making the calls, we are the ones responding to his signals and putting them into action. We are not called to create our own mission but to hear God’s word and obey. As the same Holy Spirit leads each individual, we find ourselves living in unity.
I believe that, as God fits the different parts together as one body, connected to one head, he wants one heart to be at the centre. His. In the same way that our physical hearts pump blood to every part of our bodies, so the heartbeat of God should reach each one of us. What breaks the heart of God should break the heart of his church. What angers him, should also anger us. What pleases him should please us. We each have hearts as individuals that beat for unique causes but as one body, they come under submission to God’s greater will. Our selfish desires are exchanged for his desires. No longer is it all about us, but we find our place in the bigger picture.  We no longer live for our own profit; we have died to ourselves and now live for Christ.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

thoughts on truth


“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” I can’t remember who said that but I read it once in a book of quotes and it has stuck with me ever since.
What does truth mean to us today and how much value do we place on it? Do we value it enough to want it in its pure form even when it isn’t simple, or do we seek a truth that matches our own reasoning for what we hope is true? Does the concept of one absolute truth even exist in our culture or have we accepted the idea that we can each have our personal version of truth, tailored to fit our personality and needs?
What if truth takes seeking to find? What if it comes at a price? What if finding the truth would change everything you thought you knew, turning your world upside down – would it be worth it?
I finally got round to watching the Matrix a while ago and was fascinated by the scene of Neo being presented with the two different pills. He was faced with the choice of having reality revealed to him which would shatter illusion of life as he knew it or forgetting it all and going back to living in the comfortable lie. He chose to know the truth but it came at a high cost.
What if the illusion of life is far more attractive than the reality, seeming easier, simpler and more comfortable? How many of us would choose to ignore truth and remain in ignorance for as long as we can?
It seems we live in a culture that values other things above truth. Happiness, comfort and tolerance are more important to us. We would rather all get along than struggle through the hard questions until we find an answer.
And yet, what is anything worth if it is not true?
An apple can look delicious, but is inedible if it is made of plastic. A roof can seem strong and waterproof but will not keep out the rain if it is made of cardboard. A promise can bring great hope but is of no worth unless it is kept.
What when one final answer is demanded and all we’ve done is agree to get along and avoid the question?    

Monday, 10 February 2014

Ecclesiastes


One of my favourite books in the Bible is the book of Ecclesiastes, written by King Solomon. Although he was the richest and wisest man to have lived, he could see no meaning in his wealth or wisdom. He decided to try out different paths of life and find what was of real value and purpose.  
Looking into wisdom and knowledge, he found that this only leads to more grief. Pleasure and happiness are good while they last but what value do they have in the long run? Success, money and power can be snatched away in a moment. We work hard to do good and to change things around us but what truly makes a difference? In the end we will all end up in the same way. What can we take with us when we die? What do we leave behind that has any value to those who remain? 
His questions are almost depressing and so are many of his answers. Everything is completely meaningless he concludes. Nothing in this life is certain, nothing of this world will ever fulfill you, not a single person on this earth is always good.
Reading the newspaper on my commute home, it seems there are constantly disasters happening in every corner of the world. Somehow I have been spared from so much pain and injustice and it’s not because of anything I have done. Good things happen to bad people and bad things to good people. Some things we deserve and other things happen to us for no reason. It’s easy to feel strong when all is going well but reality is that life is fragile and can be snatched away without warning. After finding that every path leads to a dead end, Solomon turns his focus to God.
“Accept the way God does things for who can straighten what he has made crooked? Enjoy prosperity while you can but when hard times strike, realize that both come from God. Remember that nothing is certain in this life.” Ecclesiastes 7:13-14.
Enjoy your life while you can he says, but remember where it came from. Fear God and honour him with your life because this is ultimately what matters. I love this book is because of its honesty and bluntness. It leaves you with more questions than before but challenges you to seek out the answers for yourself.  
“If you find within yourself longings that nothing in this world can satisfy, it can only mean you were made for another world.” C. S. Lewis.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Keith Green

I remember as a kid, my mum playing Keith Green at home and telling us how great he was. I didn't get what was so great about him and thought his music was old fashioned. Recently though I started listening to him again and the lyrics of his songs blew me away!

Keith always had a love for music and grew up singing and playing the guitar and piano. Despite his obvious talent, he never had the breakthrough he was hoping for and at the age of 15 he ran away from home in search for truth and purpose. He explored drugs, music, eastern mysticism and free love but nothing left him satisfied. At the age of 21 he finally found the truth he was looking for in Jesus and was never the same again. As he and his wife, Melody, learnt more about Jesus, they felt the urge to open their home to all those around them in need. Although they didn't have much money themselves they shared what they had with others.

Keith had been writing and playing songs about his search for truth but now all his songs became about his new found love for God, shocking and upsetting many in his audience. Becoming a star no longer mattered to him, he just wanted to serve God and tell the World about this new life he had found. This guy was intense and would often challenge Christians to repent and take their faith seriously.

What inspires me most about this man was his humility and honesty. Though he was radical in his messages he was constantly asking the Holy Spirit to change him and show him his own sin so he could repent and be more like Jesus. As he continued to write songs and became famous the thought of earning money from his ministry greatly disturbed him. Instead he decided to let people buy his music for whatever they could afford to pay and put on concerts for free where thousands of people came and gave their lives to God.

In one of his songs, Oh lord, you're beautiful, he writes;

I want to take your word and shine it all around,
but first help me just to live it, Lord
and when I'm doing well help me to never seek a crown
for my reward is giving glory to you

Oh Lord, please light the fire,
that once burned bright and clear
replace the lamp of my first love
that burns with holy fear.

God continued to use him for great things until he died at the age of 28 in a plane crash. Though his life on Earth was short he had discovered the beauty of Jesus and knew what really matters, living his life with conviction, completely sold out for God. This is a man worth listening to!