A devout cowboy lost his favorite Bible while he was mending fences out on the savannah in Africa. Three weeks later, a Hippopotamus walked up to him carrying the Bible in its mouth. The cowboy couldn’t believe his eyes. He took the precious book out of the Hippo’s mouth, raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed, “It’s a miracle!” “Not really,” said the Hippo. “Your name is written inside the cover.”
So why is my opener a joke about a hippo? Well, the chap who’s thoughts I’ve been looking at today is from a place called Hippo. Or at least that used to be it’s name in the 4th Cebtury. Now it’s a city called Anaba in Algeria. Anyway, back to Augustine of Hippo.
All sorts of things are laid at Augustine’s door. The doctrine of Original Sin. All manner of things that to some folk seem to be all that is wrong with Christianity. And to others of us seem to be self evident truths in scripture. Needless to say that as the bishop of Hippo, Augustine had a massive impact on the life of the early Christian church.
In an absolutely tragic and outrageous simplification you can boil his teaching down to one truth. It’s all about God. We as human beings have absolutely nothing we can contribute to our salvation. We are sinful people whose capacity to understand God is zero. Absolute zero.
As Jean Calvin would put it, 1100 years later, we are totally depraved. In his autobiography, ‘Confessions’, Augustine tells the story of how he went scrumping for apples as a little boy. He was a bit of a tearaway, bringing grief to his poor mother’s heart. And really, Augustine says, we are all lost causes, every one of us. This may seem like bad news. And it is. But it opens us up to the best possible news.
The undeserved, unexpected, surprising truth that God reveals himself to us, to you and to me. That he saves us. Not because we are good. Not because we deserve it. God reveals himself to us because of his own great love for us. It is a gift finding it’s fullest expression in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
This is what Augustine tells us. We cannot get to know God better by praying harder or fasting longer or being gooder (if ‘gooder’ is even a real word?!) All we can try to do is to be in a place where we are attuned to listening to God speak.
Fundamentally it is God who does all the running. He shows us his love. He creates a beautiful works to show his glory. He gives us the scriptures. He sent Jesus. He sends his Spirit.
So while a hippo may not be graceful, Augustine of Hippo is all about grace. We just gotta get in place to listen and receive.
This is part of a series of blogs on the book ‘Longing for God’ by Richard Foster and Gayle Beebe.