All posts by Martyn Link

Thrive Perth

Thrive Scotland is a coalition of likeminded individuals from the workplace and faith based organisations united around a common vision of restoring the confidence of the scattered church in Scotland.

Thrive has formed a partnership with Blend coffee lounges to create a space to nurture connections across the city for anyone and everyone in the workplace. It is intentionally cross-sector, city-wide & non-denominational.

We want to create a city-wide network across Scotland of connected, affirmed and empowered individuals of faith to catch a vision to transform their own spiritual walk, their workplace, & ultimately their city.

We have seen God bless this vision in Aberdeen through 8 years of investing in individuals across the city through breakfasts, small group studies, conferences & prayer. We believe the time is right to grow this work across Scotland and launched Thrive Dundee in August 2021. Our hope is to kick off similar initiatives in Perth & Paisley in 2022.

You are invited to a gathering in Perth Blend on Tuesday 16th November at 8.00am. Come along and find out more!

Blessings,

Martyn Link, Jim Grimmer, Barry McAllister

(Trustees of The Business Connection & organisers of Thrive)

Together with the Thrive Advisory Board:

Ken Janke – Global Advance

Tony Hodges – City Vision

Ruth Walker – LICC

Kieran Turner – Evangelical uAlliance

Colin Stewart – Citigroup

Ros Turner – Transforming Work UK

Sarah Hunter – GSK

The start of something…

Dear friends, just wanted to thank you for praying for the first Thrive Dundee breakfast this morning – it was a really lovely early morning meeting. There were 5 of us and it was great to hear folks sharing their covid stories…of being isolated in lockdown, coping with kids with learning difficulties, being overwhelmed with changing legislation & tax guidance, working in essential services…and many other topics.

A couple came through from Perth and are very keen on the Perth Thrive idea. One even came from Gleneagles.

My favourite quote…when talking about the exhaustion of being “Zoomed Out”…she exclaimed “That’s why I’m here!!”

A few people sent their apologies, so might have some new faces in two weeks! Please bear us up before the Father…
“For where two or three are gathered…”

A call to community

I write this as I head into the office for the first time in a long time…I’m even wearing my suit again! If we have learnt one thing during the last 18 months of being forced to keep our distance it is that we need human contact!

We have also learnt that while remote working can be functional it is not ultimately nourishing. Social interaction is richer, deeper & more enjoyable face to face. Isn’t it better for our minds, hearts and souls to share a physical space and to sit round a real table with another person than over a screen?

So, as we are now able to gather again Thrive Scotland and The Business Connection trustees would like to invite you to a social gathering for anyone in the workplace on alternate Friday mornings in Blend Dundee from 7.30 – 9.00am, starting this Friday (20th August).

Come along and share your lockdown stories, meet someone new and enjoy great coffee in a chilled setting. Come when you can, go when you must…we’ll have the place to ourselves so plenty of room! If you’re in the workplace you’re welcome.

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/thrive-dundee-workplace-oasis-tickets-167168055153?ref=eios

Day of days

All of us at one time or another have raged at the injustice in the world. Indeed, social inequality is one of the most pressing issues of our day. We see power imbalances everywhere, corporate greed ruining the planet, governments suppressing their citizens – and our hearts break.

Into this strife Augustine writes. He takes these challenges head on as he addresses the final judgment of the world in Book 20 of the City of God. The last judgment is the day when life as we know it will stop and the veil that has kept us from perceiving the presence and reality of God will be forever ripped in two. We will face our maker, our master, our martyr – but this time the lamb will become a lion and every single person who has ever lived will give account for their life.

While in this life the relative benefit of those who seek to be godly is obscure:

It will then be made clear that true and complete happiness belongs to all the good, and only to them, while all the wicked, are destined for deserved and supreme unhappiness.

XX.1

Unfortunately how this will all work out is not clear to us, or possible for us to discover. Why God sometimes visits judgements on people who deserve it, and sometimes they seem to get away with it. Why those who seek to love God are often buffeted by the winds of adversity, and others who love only themselves are left alone – only God knows the reasons for these things. The important thing is that at the last judgment:

It will become plain that God’s judgements are perfectly just, not only all the judgements that will then be passed, but also all the judgements passed from the beginning, and all which are to be pronounced hereafter until the day of judgment.

XX.1

The duty of the believer is not to watch the wind, seeking to discern the whys and wherefores of individual circumstances and connecting them back to individual behaviour. No our duty is to trust in the loving kindness of our Heavenly Father, for:

At that day, it will become evident by what just decision of God it comes about that at this present time so many, in fact almost all, of the just judgements of God are hidden from mortal perception and understanding. However, in this matter one thing is not hidden from the faith of the devout; and that is, that what is hidden is just.

XX.1

Are we waiting patiently? Are we trusting implicitly? We who cannot predict with any certainty the path of a single starling as it swoops in the evening sky, let alone the dizzying murmuration of several hundred can certainly not predict the hidden course of perfect justice in the hand of the loving God in the life of one person.

Our response should be to ensure we are sowing seeds of righteousness that will bear a rich fruit on that final day, building our lives with solid gold and precious gems, plucking up the weeds and cleaning out the barn. The rest we humbly leave to the maker, master, martyr God.

This happy life is social

What is the greatest goal in life? Do we believe there is purpose in our existence and a reason we are here? Perhaps a more pressing question is…do we think it is ever possible to discover the answers to these questions with any sort of confidence?

I would suggest that for most people today the question of Purpose still echos through our silent musings, but we have long since given up the expectation of actually finding out some sort of objective answer. We are drifting along amidst a sea of uncertainty with no rudder or sail.

This is the value of going back so far into history – for Augustine these questions were the most pressing of his day and the Search for Truth was something every serious philosopher embarked on with all their might. In Book 19 Augustine articulates this task as:

These two ends, then, are the Supreme Good and the Supreme Evil. The search to discover these, and the quest for attainment of the Supreme Good in this life and the avoidance of the Supreme Evil has been the object of the labours of those who have made the pursuit of wisdom their profession.

XIX.1

Augustine then dives into what constitutes a blessed life and the attainment of happiness. He references Marcus Varro who sought to classify the possible gradation of lifestyle (eg the life of leisure, activity, or a combination of both; the pursuit of pleasure, repose, the combination of both etc) and comes up with 288 possibilities!! Spot the analyst!

Augustine then proceeds to explore the concepts of the purpose of virtue; the role of friendship and our striving for peace. One of the central themes of this section is the formation of a peaceful and healthy society.

The peace of the Heavenly City is a perfectly ordered and perfectly harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God, and a mutual fellowship in God; the peace of the whole universe is the tranquility of order – and order is the arrangement of things equal and unequal in a pattern which assigns to each its proper position.

XIX.13

If that is where the City of God is heading, what will become of the City of Men? Augustine undertakes a fascinating exploration of the various definitions of what it means to be a “people”. According to one definition “a people is the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their love”.

He goes on to say “the better the objects of this agreement, the better the people: the worse the objects of this love, the worse the people” (XIX.24). This is a profound point worth reflecting on – what is the object of the love of 21st century western society?

Undeniably it is self-love – our personal self-esteem, self-worth and self-expression. We are loving ourselves to death! We have created narcissistic navel gazing societies who are superficially united in the self-love. This is only a downward trajectory, the more we worship the created rather than the Creator the more the City of Earth will war against itself spiralling into endless splintered factions. Only by changing the focus of our gaze can we wake up from our personal delusion to find ourselves part of a people where:

God, the one supreme, rules an obedient City according to his grace, forbidding sacrifice to any being save himself alone; and where in consequence the soul rules the body in all men who belong to this City and obey God, and the reason faithfully rules the vices in a lawful system of subordination; so that just as the individual righteous man lives in the basis of faith which is active in love, so the association, or people, of righteous men lives on the same basis of faith, active in love, the love with which a man loves God as God ought to be loved, and loves his neighbour as himself.

XIX.23

A brief history of civilisation

As we near the end of the City of God something of its epic ambition is really starting to hit me. It is a phenomenal book, charting history, philosophy, Greek gods, the rise and fall of Rome, the repeated conquering of the known world.

As we near the end (Book 18 of 22), you expect the pace to slacken off, easing into the final straight. Instead the 80 pages of Book 18 are encyclopaedically expansive. We are treated to a view from Augustine, probably writing in 426AD, of the entire history of human society since the founding of cities to his present day. The reigns of rulers and kings are recorded from Augustine’s extensive records and compared with the equivalent sequence of events in the history of Israel.

Rather than recount all that here, I want to focus on two key themes that emerge and have striking relevance for today. Firstly, our intrinsic desire to deify ourselves, and secondly the purposeful intermingling of the heavenly and earthly cities. These two themes shed light on the difference between the two cities.

In charting the origins of many of the so called Greek Gods Augustine shows how people elevate others who achieve some spectacular feat, incredible military victory of undertake some form of quest. He notes that “ceremonies in honour of false gods were established by the king of Greece” during the time of Joshua.

The recurring theme is that people want to be more than human. Whether it is an origin story like Romulus & Remus being raised by a she-wolf, or a mythical tale of “Gorgon with serpent locks and turned to stone those who looked upon her” there is the repeated desire to ascend from this mortal body and live forever among the gods. Often on pain of death societies would reinforce the divine nature of these ascended super-humans as they wrote plays and invented ceremonies to celebrate and replay the legends to rapt audiences.

It got me thinking how we still have this desire to ascend. It is perhaps expressed differently today but the impulse is still strong. Just today there was a football match where a successful player was retiring and the eulogies had religious undertones – how this legend would never be forgotten by the fans, effectively living forever, immortal in their collective consciousness.

Similarly hosts of actors are effectively immortalised through the silver screen by their work to live on beyond their years as downloadable content for fans not yet born. We cannot escape the human attraction of becoming like God, even after all these centuries since that false promise was made in the Garden of Eden. Then, as now, it is an empty aim, disappearing as quickly as grasping the morning mist. We just can’t lift ourselves up to become more like God.

By contrast the City of God is all about a people who are not being lifted up to possess unnatural abilities, but are being pressed down to experience pain and suffering as they go about their very human pilgrimage to heaven. This is our second theme. The intermingling of the two cities leads to the church suffering from outward attack:

In this wicked world, and in these evil times, the Church through her present humiliation is preparing for future exaltation. She is being trained by the stings of fear, the tortures of sorrow, the distress of hardship, and the dangers of temptation; and she rejoices only in expectation, when her joy is wholesome.

XIII.49

And inward division from false teachers:

There are those in the Church of Christ who have a taste for some unhealthy and perverse notion, and who if reproved – in the hope that they may acquire a taste for what is wholesome and right – obstinately resist and refuse…they become heretics and, when they part company with the Church, they are classed among the enemies who provide discipline for her.

XIII.51

This is profound teaching, and as someone who grieves for the state of the visible church in the west, I am greatly encouraged to read:

The dearer this name (Christian) is to those who want to live a devout life in Christ, the more they grieve that evildoers within the Church make that name less beloved than the hearts of the devout long for it to be.

XIII.51

It is ok to grieve for the state of the church – Augustine sees this as part of our persecution in this world – and have our hearts broken by the sinfulness within the church. Reading this book, I realise there would probably be something wrong with us if we didn’t care about the purity and health of the church. The key is to balance this with the the comfort of God and to draw deeply from the wells of salvation so that we can say with the psalmist “you’re consolations have gladdened my soul” Psalm 94.19. This will ensure our sufferings are redeemed for our good.

Seek the alchemist

Maybe it’s because I just finished reading The Diamond Age by Neal Stevenson, a 1995 sci-fi classic about nanotechnology, but the title for this post is taken from the quest one of the main characters embarks upon. Alchemist have the power to turn boring, abundant materials into ultra-precious items.

This seems to me the perfect analogy for Book 17 of the City of God where Augustine traces the unpredictable growth of the City of God. To the uninitiated it might appear obvious how this city will be built – those children in the line of the early fathers of faith would be the chosen people and increase in number until they become a nation. But this is far from how things turned out in practice.

Through two examples Augustine shows how the growth of the City of God is far from straightforward. He uses the examples of Eli the priest and King David as hinge points in the history of Israel where significant changes are unveiled in God’s plan. Like the master weaver clipping the spool of wool to attach new thread, God switches the fulfilment of his promises as he sees fit.

Eli was a priest during the period of the judges, before Israel had a king. When he is old an unnamed prophet says his family is effectively cursed due to their unfaithfulness and the priesthood is no longer going to be within his bloodline (1 Samuel 2.27-36). God would rise up those whose hearts, not purely heritage, were right. Much more was at stake here than familial employment. Augustine sees this as:

An event which pointed prophetically to the future…it betokened the change which was to come in the future in respect of the two covenants…and the transformation of the priesthood and monarchy by the new and eternal priest-king, who is Jesus Christ.

XVII.4

We see here God establishing one family, the leading family from the priesthood of Levities to be a perpetual devoted tribe, but subsequently being displaced due to unfaithfulness. Instead God raises up Samuel, an outsider, to be his chosen priest. Ultimately in Augustine’s day (400AD), that priesthood had been lost in the sands of time.

Similarly, with the promise of an eternal heir who will reign on David’s throne God is establishing a dynasty that was only partially fulfilled in history. In this case the unfaithfulness of the progeny did not invalidate the promise but served to illustrate how God would take the faithfulness and sins of his people, mixed with divine providence to produce spiritual gold.

It is the house of David because of its descent from him; but it is also the house of God because it is God’s temple, built not of stones, but of human beings, for the people to dwell there for ever with their God and in their God, and for God to dwell there with his people and in his people. Thus God will fill his people and the people will be full of their God.

XVII.12

As Augustine draws this section to a close he skips forward to the time of Jesus’ life and ministry, seeing him as the great king of the city. The great ingathering of citizens of the City of God again pivots as now “the people of the Gentiles, whom Christ did not know in his bodily presence…(are) added to those who are true Israelites both by descent and by faith, constitute the City of God”.

Incredibly in the hands of the master alchemist even murder can be redeemed – becoming only slumber for Jesus. “What is a crime in you will be sleep for me”.

Truly God’s ways are beyond ours, his masterful purposes overcoming our weakness, sin and failure. Weaving success and failure into the broad tapestry of his salvation plan. The hands of Jesus taking the worst desires of his enemies and folding them into the curves and creases of the fabric to bring forth something pure and wholesome from something vile. This is the alchemist’s touch, remaking the brokenness into beauty through his own body. He waits for you to bring him your raw and rare material, why wait any longer?

A message from the Oracle

In a scene from one of my favourite films Neo is anxiously waiting for a message from the Oracle – an all wise guru who he believes will tell him his destiny. It is one of the key moments in The Matrix and drives to the core of our hero’s self discovery. Is he really “the one” or just another wannabe?

As he sits in the waiting room surrounded by kids bending spoons he suddenly appears uncertain, inexperienced and bemused. What the prophet says to him only adds to his confusion. It appears the path of his destiny is not as clear as he thought it would be after meeting the Oracle.

If the focus of The Matrix is the self-discovery of the chosen one through a vague Oracle, the focus of the Bible is rather a decisive Oracle declaring great promises to chosen people. In Book 16 of the City of God Augustine traces the separation of the people of God from the people of the earthly city – beginning in Adam, to Noah and then Abraham and his descendants.

Augustine compares this period to “the boyhood of this race of God’s people from Noah down to Abraham himself. As the people of God began to be identified from their kin:

When we are studying the people of Christ, in whom the City of God is on pilgrimage in this world, if we look for the physical ancestry of Christ in the descendants of Abraham, we discount the sons of his concubines, and Isaac presents himself. If we look in the descendants of Isaac, we set aside Esau, and Jacob presents himself, who is also Israel. If we examine the descendants of Israel himself, we set aside others, and Judah presents himself, because it was from the tribe of Judah that Christ was born.

XVI.41

So we see this sifting of a family from among a people, of a brother from his siblings, and the younger being favoured over the older. To each is given precious promises of land, a people and prosperity.

Only in King David did this come to fruition, for “David marks the beginning of an epoch and with him there is what maybe called the start of manhood of God’s people, since we may regard the period from Abraham to David as the adolescence of the race”.

What strikes me about looking at these passages through Augustine’s eyes is the deliberate detail that he picks up in the ancient record. At one point he points out that the line from Adam to Noah to Abraham “does not include anyone without a statement of the number of years he lived”. God took effort to ensure there is an accurate and detailed history of the early growth of the City of God – names, ages, locations, promises and answers are all given in detail.

Looking back from thousands of years later, during what we might call the “setting sun” stage of our growth, it’s comforting to rest on the certainty of fulfilled promises from the original Oracle, and observe the global inheritance of Abraham now being displayed for all to see. There is no counting of the number of believers alive today – millions around the world who shine like the stars in heaven.

“He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”” Genesis‬ ‭15:5‬. Abraham believed the clear message of the original Oracle – the true hallmark of all those citizens of the heavenly kingdom who would follow in his footsteps down through the ages.

The right and wrong cause of conflict

Looking back over the last few weeks we have touched on some big themes – some of which we like to talk about, others we try to avoid. I’ll let you decide which is which!

I was struck when reading Book 15 of the City of God this week that there are really insightful lessons for us on a key topic that perhaps we don’t like talking about but is an inevitable part of being human – conflict.

In this section Augustine traces the early days of the earthly and heavenly cities, right back to their founding fathers Cain and Seth. He sees the conflict between Cain and Abel as a picture or symbol of the conflict that will always exist between the two cities.

As we trace Cain’s descendants they are the first to establish a physical city on earth. He compares this to how Rome was founded by two brothers, one of whom killed the other. Augustine contrasts the evil jealousy of both sets of brothers with the goodness experienced in the heavenly city:

Cain was the diabolical envy that the wicked feel for the good simply because they are good, while they themselves are evil. A man’s possession of goodness is in no way diminished by the arrival, or the continuance, of a sharer in it; indeed, goodness is a possession enjoyed more widely by the united affection of partners in that possession in proportion to the harmony that exists among them.

XV.5

He goes on to explain that the members of the earthly city “fight among themselves; and likewise the wicked fight against the good and the good against the wicked. But the good, if they have reached perfect goodness, cannot fight against themselves”.

Thus we see that there will always be conflict between the citizens of the two cities as well as conflict within the earthly city as it fights itself. Moreover, we know that no citizen of the heavenly city has reached perfection so “there may be fighting among them inasmuch as any good man may fight against another as a result of that part of him which makes him also fight against himself”. He goes on to say

Spiritual desire can fight against the carnal desire of another person, or carnal desire against another’s spiritual desire, just as the good and wicked fight against one another. Or even the carnal desires of two good men may fight.

XV.5

There is much more in Book 15 worth exploring, including a fascinating explanation of the long length of life before the flood, incest and giants. But that is for another day! The jewel that I would hold up before us is this brief dive into the types of conflict, summarised as:

  • Earthly city infighting
  • Earthly and heavenly city fighting each other
  • Individuals within heavenly city fight with themselves against their own sinful nature
  • Spiritual desire of one person fights against carnal desire of another (within the heavenly city)
  • Carnal desires of two good men fight against each other

While the first and the last in the list are ultimately ungodly conflict, the other three causes could have a godly purpose and motivation. Indeed, there can be no progress towards perfection without conflict – either in the individual or the church. There are remnants of the sinful (carnal) nature in all of us, even the most godly.

What this tells me is that in vain do we seek a life free of conflict, whatever city we belong to and whatever our need for peace and calm. We should expect conflict, welcome it (to some extent), and learn from it in order to grow in godliness and spiritual maturity.

Choosing a life void of conflict, with comfort or any other object as our goal, is choosing a life of spiritual stagnation. The key question I leave this section of the book with is this…will I live determined to be driven and controlled only and ever by my spiritual desires throughout any and all conflict I experience? Whilst I naturally avoid conflict, if when it comes, I can keep this as my spiritual north, then the conflict will be redeeming and healing whenever it arrives and wherever it leads.

“Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.”
‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭4:5‬ ‭NIV‬‬

Shame, lust, and sex in paradise

Now that I have got your attention let me say right up front, I wouldn’t be writing about these topics if they weren’t the main theme of Book 14 of the City of God. But having committed to blog my way through it, these are the topics Augustine addresses and there are some timely lessons, reminders and corrections that we need to heed. It’s probably good for me to write about things I would ordinarily avoid!

Augustine begins by tracing the origins of our first disobedience and the ethical standards within the two Cities – one that lives by the standard of the flesh, the other that live by the standard of the spirit. These two cities are “different and mutually opposed”. Augustine then investigates how our corruption manifests itself and finds faults of both mind and body (ie flesh). Although he notes that:

Man has undoubtedly the will to be happy, even when he pursues happiness by living in a way which makes it impossible of attainment.

XIV.4

Four “disturbances” or “passions” are identified that drive our emotions: desire, fear, joy & sadness. Augustine rightly sees that these passions are not good or bad in themselves but are dependent on how our wills direct them.

A love which strains after the possession of the loved one is desire; and the love which possess and enjoys that object is joy. The love that shuns what opposes it is fear, while the love that feels that opposition when it happens is grief. Consequently, these feelings are bad, if the love is bad, and good if the love is good.

XIV.7

Switching gears to before we had our fallen and corrupt nature, Augustine takes us back to the Garden of Eden – paradise! He asks what kind of emotions they possessed while they were sinless. He says there was “a serene avoidance of sin” and proposes that offspring could have been granted in this sinless bliss until “the number of predestined saints was made up”.

Unfortunately we never got to see what would have happened if Adam had never sinned. All subsequent offspring were conceived after the Fall. This raises a very specific question in Augustine’s mind – how would procreation have been different in paradise? He sees the evils of sexual lust, the sense of shame it creates and wonders how it could ever have been done purely.

For Augustine it boils down to the inability of our wills to control every part of our bodies. Why did our first parents, as soon as they had sinned, feel shame when the knew they were naked, and sought to cover themselves?

It was after the sin that man’s nature felt, noticed, blushed at, and concealed this lust: for man’s nature retained a sense of decency, although it had lost the authority to which the body had been subordinate in every part.

XIV.21

Augustine imagines a paradise where there was no conflict between lust and will, and the act as of procreation was as natural and pure as any other bodily act.

Reading this book I can understand why Augustine has been perceived as “anti-sex”. He is willing to speculate beyond the bounds of scripture, and his piercing intellect wraps his arguments up in a forceful hypothesis. But in areas in this book he is over-reaching scripture’s solid ground.

Unfortunately in the following centuries the church built upon teachings such as these a disapproving tone regarding sex. We know God loves marriage and designed it as an illustration of his love for his bride, the church. We will never know this side of eternity what marriage was like in Eden.

Moreover, shame of their nakedness was quickly followed by shame and guilt from lying about their deception, and shame of murder by their son. Perhaps a better perspective on this discussion is the concept of modesty rather than shame?

Those within the City of God know every act they do has the faint taint of sin, but yet we seek to use our wills and direct our emotions to serve God and others by acts done in love. We know too well that no act we ever do, or relationship we ever have, will ever be wholly free from sin. Those within the City of Man deny their shame, redirect their wills and rejoice in the fulfilment of their selfish desires – preventing them achieving happiness whilst desperately seeking to attain it.