Monday 22 February 2010

Other People's Children (A Reprise)

When I first blogged on this topic in September 2008, it was in response to a great question that Tim Adeney had asked in a blog he was writing at the time.

"How do you feel about other people's children? Do you see them as people worthy of your time, effort, prayers and affection?"

I've been encouraged to revisit this topic by an excellent post my daughter wrote recently on her blog 168 Hours titled 'The Disappearance of Caring Adults'. In it she presented a great quote from Steve Biddulph and ended with a few questions of her own, one of which was "How can we make ourselves more available to our children, and other people's children?" I've repeated my last post on the topic (with a few minor revisions) because I think it's such an important topic that touches all children and families.

Love your neighbour as yourself

Tim's question of course was directed to those in the church, and is worth asking within the church alone, but I have always felt that as Christians we are far too ready to place a fence around our concerns for others. As I reflect upon questions like those from Tim and Nicole, I can't help but think about how I was treated as a child and the impact it had on my life. While there is good biblical justification for the priority that parents are to give to the care, concern and spiritual growth of their children, we can easily become oblivious to the needs of our neighbours. By neighbours, I mean the broadest sense of the word, the Luke 10 sense, where Jesus challenges the expert in the law ("lawyer" ESV) who had just tried to challenge Jesus himself. You no doubt know how it unfolds; the lawyer asks, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus responds by asking him "what is written in the Law?" The lawyer then quotes from Leviticus 19:8 - we are to "Love your neighbour as yourself." Jesus then responds with the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan and makes it clear for the lawyer that the extent of his love and concern for others should extend beyond his family and fellow Jews even to a stranger (Luke 10:25-37), in fact in other places Jesus extends this even further - "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:43-45). Jesus makes it clear that the Christian life must demonstrate this type of neighbourliness.

Some decent men and women in my life

When I reflect on my first 31 years as a non-believer and atheist, I can identify a number of decent men and a couple of women, who took an interest in me; who saw me as their 'neighbour'. These were men and women demonstrated in the richest sense of Jesus' parable what it is to be a neighbour to other people's children. I'll share how just two of them did it.

There was Paul, the owner of the local slot car track and pinball hall. As a young teenager I would spend up to 25 hours per week at the slot car track - playing pinball machines, racing and repairing slot cars, messing around and hanging over the counter talking to Paul about sport, cars, girls and life in general. Paul had his own wife and two children and his mother-in-law living with him. He was a devoted husband and father even though like most small business owners he worked long hours. He was always quick to give advice - "Don't talk like that!" "Don't you need to go home to do some school work?" "Do your parents know that you're here so late?" "What are you going to do with yourself when you leave school?" "One day I want to be able to tell people that you're an engineer, not unemployed."

There was Mr Campbell my 4th grade teacher. I was a grubby and chubby little kid who would try to sit at the back of the room, with the seat out of my hand-me-down pants and a neglected appearance that was brought to the attention of DOCs on at least one occasion. He was the first teacher who recognised some things in me that others had missed. He took an interest in me in and out of the classroom. He would talk with me in the playground when I drifted towards him. He would encourage me inside the classroom, calling on me to answer questions when my hand didn't go up, setting me work that would challenge me, talking patiently with me when I messed up, and looking for ways to challenge me. He gave me several jobs. One of them was to put me in charge of the brand new school aquarium with tropical fish. I'd never seen tropical fish before. I'd seen goldfish and the mullet I caught from the creek, but never fish like this. I was entrusted with the only local source of knowledge "An introduction to caring for tropical fish" and encouraged to take care of them; and I did with great success. Eventually, he gave me my first public speaking opportunity, a talk I delivered on tropical fish to the class. I was now an expert on something.

There were other people too - a baseball coach, a cricket coach, a single woman who lived next door called Evelynne, a high school geography teacher, Mrs Clarke across the road, and the father of one of my closest mates. All demonstrated that they were concerned for me and that they were interested in my life and my welfare. None of these people were Christians, but all were decent man or woman who had a significant impact on my life, second only perhaps to that the only significant Christian influence, my grandfather. While God was to use a variety of Christians later in my life (between the ages 20-31) building on my Grandfather's godly example, God also used these decent non-Christian men and women in my formative years.

The challenge

For me the challenge as a Christian is this. If God can use a few decent men and women who didn't know him or his eternal purposes, how much more can God use godly Christian men and women in the lives of their neighbour's children? We all need to ask, how available am I to be used in similar ways? In fact, how can I ensure that I am seeking to be used by God in this way? Am I even conscious that God might use me this way? Of course, I know that God expects me to do more than live alongside people, he wants me to share my faith in Christ with others. But how seriously do I take to heart that I am to love my neighbour as myself? And perish the thought, am I so bound up with caring for my own nuclear family that I have no time or interest in my neighbours (young and old)?

There isn't space to go into much detail, but my personal challenge, and one I hope readers will share, is for each of us to do a quick assessment of the type of neighbour we are to the other families even in our street or apartment block. Of course for this to happen, our lives need to intersect with their lives in some way. How can we make this happen? This will vary depending on our circumstances - whether young or old, married or single, male or female etc. If for example, you have a young family, you have a great opportunity to involve yourself in other people's lives. When my children were growing up my wife and I had wonderful opportunities to be involved with other families. For us there were three areas where we had numerous opportunities outside the church:
  • Through school - we got to know parents and children at bus stops, in the playground, at school events and in the community. In one street where we lived our house was an open house for all 23 children in the street (21 of whom were girls!).
  • Through sporting teams - my daughters played sport summer and winter in the primary school years and generally I ended up coaching their teams. As a result, I had opportunities to know the team members and their families.
  • Through other out-of-school activities like dance classes and music lessons.

I have no idea what influence my wife and I had in these years but I do know that we were enriched by these opportunities, and that we began to develop a concern for these children and their families. With this came opportunities for prayer and for us to share our faith. As well, our own daughters saw us relating to other children, which I'm sure was helpful for them in the formative years of their faith. Christians must not be part of the disappearing group of "caring adults" that Nicole talks about in her post.

Related posts

I wrote an article on families in Case 12 (here) that considers research evidence on the importance of fathers have a special role.

I’ve also written a number of previous posts about families, including:

a) how time spent with children matters (here),
b) the negative impact of the reduction of time spent sharing meals (here),
c) the role of fathers more generally (here),
d) shared community responsibility for children in crisis (here),
e) being a church that welcomes and includes children (here).

Finally, I've written a number of more practical posts about fathers on my other blog 'Literacy, families and learning' (here).

Thursday 11 February 2010

Failing to Understand Death & Dying

Dr Megan Best (a CASE Associate) will be one of the major speakers at a medical ethics conference being run by CASE on the 27th March 2010 titled 'Christian Perspectives on the End of Life'.

Due to the success of our first conference in 2009, 'Medical Ethics: Perspectives on Life and Death', we have decided to run a second Sydney forum in 2010 for those interested in Christian views on the end of life. Speakers will include Dr Best, Frank Brennan, Russell Clark and Kate Bradford.

Dr Best wrote an interesting titled ‘The truth about dying’ for ABC News online recently (8th Feb). Her piece serves as a foretaste of just some of the issues that the conference will deal with. The following is an extract of what Dr Best wrote.

The Extract

I am a palliative care doctor. I look after people who are terminally ill. Let me tell you about a patient I looked after many years ago, during my training. Due to the usual department rotations of medical training, I had been on the spot when he was diagnosed with lung cancer—a tall Lebanese gentleman with an impressive moustache, patriarch of a large immigrant family

I had not seen him for some time, and when he appeared in the ward again, I could see that things had not gone well.

He was a shadow of his former self, gaunt and grey, though the moustache valiantly lingered on. It was like seeing an old friend; any familiar face is welcome in such a setting.

We soon were able to control his symptoms of pain and breathlessness with the appropriate medication. He did, however, continue to suffer.
I asked him what had been the most difficult experience of his illness. His answer surprised me, back then, though it would not now. Despite the trials of discovering he had cancer, experiencing the ravages of chemotherapy, battling with pain and breathlessness and increasing debilitation, the thing that had been most difficult for him was his loss of position in his family.

He no longer ruled the clan, his illness had resulted in a demotion. He found this intolerable, he wanted his authority back, and he wanted more time with his family.

Like most of my patients, thoughts of euthanasia did not cross his mind as a response to his suffering. He wanted more time, not less.
I have always found striking the discrepancy between the public support for euthanasia (among those who are healthy) and my patients’ desire for continued life. I was informed of a recent poll which claimed that 87 per cent of Australians support legalisation of euthanasia.

Research done on palliative care populations, however, tells a different story. A study done some years ago in Sydney found that less than one per cent of those referred to a palliative care service made persistent requests for euthanasia.

My own observation is that things haven’t changed much since then. Why the disparity?

I think there are many reasons why this is the case. The absence of death in everyday life no doubt contributes - it is a remote event often occurring in hospitals, and many of us base our understanding of what really happens on hearsay. And hearsay, especially from the distant past, has some horrifying stories to tell.

Yet I think the main reason why our community voices such strong support for euthanasia is because it has been confused about some accepted end-of-life practices which are already legal, but poorly understood. These include withdrawal of life-prolonging treatment and symptom control.

The Conference

If you’d like to hear more from Dr Best or some of our other speakers please consider registering for the conference. You can find details on how to register HERE.

Related Posts

Talks by Dr John Wyatt at the 2009 New College Lectures titled ‘Bioethics and Future Hope’ (here)

Previous post on ‘Matters of Life and Death’ (here)

Other resources on medical ethics on the CASE website (here)

Case magazine on the theme 'Living and Dying Ethically' (here)

Wednesday 3 February 2010

Malcolm Muggeridge - Jesus Rediscovered

This post has been written by Greg Thiele, an Associate of CASE and a regular contributor to the CASE blog

Malcolm Muggeridge was one of those extraordinary individuals whose thought and writings cast a spotlight on many of the concerns and issues of their age. For Muggeridge, the age in question was the twentieth century. He lived through most it (1903 – 1990), and given his various roles (writer, journalist, editor, soldier-spy and media commentator, among others), was perfectly positioned to record and comment on the events, trends and follies of that momentous passage of human history.

Muggeridge was born in London, the son of a Labour politician, and his own early political leanings were decidedly left wing. He was brought up, he later wrote, to believe in the religion of the age: utopianism, and one of his early ideological flirtations was with Soviet Communism. In 1932, having been employed as a freelance journalist by the Manchester Guardian, Muggeridge and his wife, Kitty, settled in Moscow, with a view to living there permanently. It didn’t take long for disillusionment with the Soviet system to set in – the start of a gradual shift away from a belief in the politics of the left as the great way forward for humanity.

During World War II, Muggeridge was active in the British Secret Service. After the cessation of hostilities, he worked as journalist or editor on a number of British newspapers and magazines. In due course he became active in the electronic media as a radio and television commentator.

In his early and middle adult years, Muggeridge achieved a reputation as a drinker and womaniser. This began to change in the 1960s, however, as his writings and other pronouncements revealed a growing commitment to the ideas and ideals of Christianity. Having earlier claimed to be an agnostic, Muggeridge, from the early ‘60s onwards, produced a collection of books, essays and other writings affirming his faith in Christ. Increasingly, Muggeridge came to express contempt for what he saw as the spiritual barrenness of contemporary thought and life, particularly as exemplified in the popular culture and mores of the day, and for ideas of human progress in general. In so doing, he made himself widely unpopular – not least with many leaders of the British religious establishment.

Malcolm Muggeridge defies easy categorisation. While left-leaning politically early in life, and then becoming disillusioned with the socialist agenda for human betterment, to say that he moved progressively to the right is a misconception. He had a deep-seated disbelief in all human agendas, including the attempts to create a “kingdom of heaven on earth” with which the twentieth century was littered. He was, therefore, a man out of step with his times in early adulthood, yet can be seen as having been prophetic in his dismissal of such agendas, as the various attempts to create economic and social utopias came to their (mostly ignominious) ends late in the century; or only managed to stay upright by means of fierce suppression of human rights.

In terms of his religious beliefs, too, Muggeridge is not easy to pin down. In his essay 'Am I a Christian?' he comes to the conclusion that the answer to the question depends on one’s definition of “Christian”. On the one hand, he considered himself enormously privileged to be counted among certain of his heroes (the “small, sublime band” as he often referred to them: writers and thinkers such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bunyan, Pascal, William Blake and Simone Weil). Yet if it meant being lumped in with, for instance, most of the leading figures of the Church of England of his day, he was delighted not to be associated with such people even in name!

'Jesus Rediscovered' was published - a collection of essays and other pieces (the title being derived from Muggeridge’s feeling that in some sense he had always belonged to Jesus, but had for most of his life resisted His call). Muggeridge described the content as “the effort of one ageing twentieth-century mind to give expression to a deep dissatisfaction with prevailing twentieth-century values and assumptions, and a sense that there is an alternative – an alternative propounded two thousand years ago by the Sea of Galilee and on the hill called Golgotha”.

The form that “expression of dissatisfaction” took was often highly critical (albeit extremely witty). Science he saw as the “particular fantasy” of his age. “A seventeenth-century man like Pascal”, he wrote, “though himself a mathematician and scientist of genius, found it quite ridiculous that anyone should suppose that rational processes could lead to any ultimate conclusions about life, but easily accepted the authority of the Scriptures. With us it is the other way round”.

The spirit of protest that burned so strongly in the ‘60s received short shrift from Muggeridge: “Public benevolence can never be a substitute for private virtue; it is more important, and more difficult, to check one outburst of temper, however trivial, than to engage in any number of public demonstrations against collective brutality and injustice”.

Institutional Christianity, by and large, did not fare a great deal better. The Church of England of his day he saw as being so ineffectual as to be little more than a joke; and upon the notion of ecumenicalism he heaped scorn. In the essay 'Consensianity', written after a visit to the World Council of Churches at Uppsala, Sweden, in 1968, Muggeridge noted that “the most vital elements in the Christian story have…derived from dissidence, rather than agreement – St Francis, Ignatius Loyola, Luther, Pascal, Wesley, Kierkegaard, etc. At Uppsala…they were able to agree about almost anything because they believed almost nothing”.

The churches – in the West, at least – had concentrated on their social responsibilities while ignoring the spiritual, Muggeridge felt. In so doing, they had effectively signed their own death warrant: by proclaiming that a better world was worth seeking, and indeed attainable, they couldn’t fail to be involved in the subsequent disillusionment when it turned out not to be the case. The language of mysticism and transcendentalism, on the other hand, “had ceased to be comprehensible”.

Are Muggeridge’s thought and writing relevant for us today? Thirty or more years since the bulk of his literary output was published, a certain amount of what he had to say has no doubt lost a measure of relevance. Nevertheless, there is much, I believe, that will repay rereading – or reading for the first time – by Christians now; for at the centre of Muggeridge’s message, from first to last, is the person of Christ, and his Kingdom which, ultimately, is “not of this world” (John 18:36).

Muggeridge saw life in terms of an endless drama between the competing forces of the Will and the Imagination. Out of the Imagination come love, understanding and goodness; out of the Will: lust, hatred and power. Those belonging to the former will be saints, mystics and artists; to the latter belong power maniacs, rulers and demagogues. Muggeridge saw these two forces as struggling for mastery in each individual soul. In a piece called 'Credo', he writes: “One is of darkness and one of light; one wants to drag us down into the dark trough to rut and gorge there, and the other to raise us up into the azure sky, beyond appetite, where love is all-embracing, all encompassing…”.
For Muggeridge, the Christian religion “has expressed this ancient…dichotomy in terms of breath-taking simplicity and sublimity…I believe, as is written in the New Testament, that if we would save our lives we must lose them; that we cannot live by bread alone; that we must die in the flesh to be reborn in the spirit…”.

Like many of his famous exemplars, Muggeridge had an unorthodox understanding of the gospel. He described himself as a “theological ignoramus”, and expressed impatience with, or even indifference to, creeds and dogma of all kinds. Despite the unconventional nature of his beliefs, however, it is possible to see Muggeridge as someone whom God used in shaping a message for his times, and ours.

For those of a naturally skeptical disposition, Malcolm Muggeridge can perhaps be seen as a kind of patron saint. While “seeing only fitfully”, and “believing no creed wholly”, he was able to say, finally, of Jesus: “At the intersection of time and eternity – nailed there – you confront us; a perpetual reminder that, living, we die and, dying, we live. An incarnation wonderful to contemplate; the light of the world, indeed”.

Some other publications by Malcolm Muggeridge

1. 'A Third Testament: A Modern Pilgrim Explores the Spiritual Wanderings of Augustine, Blake, Pascal, Tolstoy, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, and Dostoevsky' (here).

2. 'Conversion: The Spiritual Journey of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim' (here)

'Chronicles of Wasted Time: An Autobiography' (here)