Toddlers as Memento Mori

Families 150 years ago experienced often the pain of a baby or toddler dying. I have been reading about the beginnings of our worshipping community of St Mary’s Busselton as the Molloys, the Bussells and the Chapmans began their pioneer life first in Augusta then at the Vasse.

Georgiana Molloy apparently gave birth in a tent in Augusta, possibly assisted only by a Noongar woman. This baby drowned two years later. In the Australian landscape, and under those conditions, deaths in childbirth, deaths from snake-bite, drowning, accident and disease in the first years of life were bound to be common.

Families adjusted by having many children. Demographers point out that as societies become more affluent, they have smaller families. With safer life-styles, you need fewer spares.

Captain John Molloy’s gravestone St Mary’s Church, Busselton

That doesn’t lessen the burden of pain. Parents bonded emotionally with their infant child only to have that bond violently broken by an early death. You can read the pain on the gravestones scattered around our old cemeteries. For Georgiana Molloy the pain of losing children may well have contributed to her own early death.

It also meant, however, that these infant deaths taught families of that era to be more aware of the everyday reality of death, and more conscious of three things in particular which are often absent from our thinking:

  1. Sorting out what happens after death. It is true that the Victorians could be sentimental about the afterlife (“There is a happy land far, far away”), but they could also glory in the benefits of the resurrection. Because Jesus has risen from the dead, our destiny, though the details may not be clearly seen, is to be anticipated with joy.
  1. The act of dying. We may die in our sleep, or in an accident, in the twinkling of an eye. But it may be that we will be conscious in our dying, and we will want to be ready to set out on that adventure in a manner that matches our faith. We can plan ahead. For me, or you, as an individual, what will constitute a good death?
  1. If, after death, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart imagined, … God has prepared for those who love him” (I Cor. 2:9 ESV), and if, we are to approach the act of dying with faith, then how much more should our lives now reflect the goodness of God? We should live each day with gratitude for the gift of eternal life.

The Repetitions of Toddlers

We took our grand-daughter to the Busselton foreshore this afternoon. It’s a great place for kids. There were quite a few kids swimming in the enclosed sea-pool. There were adults strolling on the grass, enjoying Simmo’s ice-creams. The famous jetty was crowded with people, some just venturing out 30 metres to the kiosk, others making their way to the aquarium one kilometre out to sea.

Aurora turns two in just a few weeks, so she’s an active toddler. She enjoyed an ice-cream. She swallowed about 80% of it; she smeared the other 20% from face to toes like 50+ sun-cream.

We wandered off, expecting her to enjoy all the activity around her. We came across a three-step brick staircase designed in a wide semi-circle. Aurora’s eye glinted. She grasped the rail, and took herself down the three steps at the end. Then she toddled off to the centre to the next rail, and hauled herself up again. She was very pleased with herself. We were ready to move on, as adults always are, but she went back to the end, grasped the rail and hauled herself down again. Of course we applauded her.

Back to the centre rail and up again. Her grin was wide and infectious. Aurora was having fun, and she had Grandma and Grandpa’s attention. Over and over again. How many times? Seven times? No: seven times seven. Maybe seventy times seven. Well, actually, it was probably about seven to ten times.

Aurora & GP on the stepsBut toddlers do learn by joyous repetition. Climbing steps – today – was just the challenge Aurora needed, and it was far more compelling for her than the attractions of the Busselton foreshore.

In our humility we need to learn by joyous repetition too, as we are toddlers in God’s kingdom. The action that challenges me is forgiveness. I don’t do it automatically, just as Aurora instinctively knows an adults automatically climbs steps. I can only become a forgiving person if I practise like a toddler with obsessive repetition. How many times? Seven times? No. Seven times seven. Or maybe seventy times seven.

As a teacher, Aurora is in good company.

All God’s Children

Friends have today drawn my attention to an article about the lack of balance in reporting the Israeli/Palestine conflict. Children on the Israeli side, it said, were also traumatised by the rockets landing on Ashkelon and on kibbutzim near Gaza.

Followers of the Palestinian Jew Jesus should be blind to “sides”. God sees no Israeli “side”, nor does he see a Palestinian “side”. There is only the “side of humanity”. Children are traumatised, and it matters not where they live. We weep for each child. No child should see the devastation a rocket or a bomb brings; broken bodies, homes destroyed, adults fearful. If young Daniel or Mohammed, or little Fatima or Eva is killed in an explosion, parents will experience almost unbearable grief, and struggle with anger against those who lit the fuse – the “side” they are on is equally meaningless.

I take “sides” against those who divide up humanity. I am on the side of children who curl up in fear. I am on the side of those children who look for their parents and cannot find them. I am on the side of those parents who carry their child’s broken body to be buried today.

I pray for the grace to continue to weep for the children of Israel/Palestine.

Children in Ashkelon crying in fear after a rocket lands near their home.

Let the Children Come

My local Federal member, Nola Marino, replied to my letter about asylum seekers with the assertion that she was proud of the Coalition’s record in ‘stopping the boats’.

It’s true that fewer children (and adults) have died at sea because of the Coalition’s policies, and I remind myself to credit them for that. Each life saved is a victory.

However, on the one hand, success in stopping the boats does not solve the problem of displaced people in the region. The Coalition is right: we need to do much more. Australia has a special responsibility in the region because we are wealthy country, and, like it or not, many refugees choose Australia as the place they seek for their new home.

But I protest what is happening to real children because of the Coalition’s policies: over one thousand are locked up in less than ideal conditions.

By itself, locking up a child is injurious enough. Children should be free. Robbing them of their liberty is a crime humane society should never tolerate.

But more than that, Australian Government detention centres are no places for children. They are designed to take away hope from adults. Children in them are not generously fed and clothed. Education is minimal. They do not play; partly because there are no inviting play areas except asphalt pavement in the hot sun, partly because they feel defeated. Children should not be harming themselves. They should not being made sick because of the way we are treating them.

As a human being, a father and a grandfather, I cry for these thousand children. As a Christian, I protest against a Government whose policies amount to child abuse.

Harsh treatment of human beings is counter-productive. There are difficult policy choices. On that, I agree with Ms Marino MP. But let us proceed by love, not cruelty. I raise my voice with other Christians. #LoveMakesAWay.

Child’s drawing – from Christmas Island detention centre

Never stop being a child

We sometimes think being a child is something that happens between the ages of three and thirteen, and then it’s over. We’re no longer that child when we become the adolescent and then the adult. We read Erik Erikson’s stages of human development, and think that when we have completed the childhood tasks of trust, autonomy, initiative and competence, we leave them behind. Or we look at James Fowler’s influential stages of faith, and think that when a teenager begins to name their own belief system, they have entered the ‘synthetic-conventional’ stage, and the ‘intuitive-projective’ and ‘mythic-literal’ stages of childhood no longer have any sway in their life.

The truth is that we carry each stage with us: it remains important that as adults we attach to people with trust; that we continue to approach tasks with a sense of initiative and personal responsibility. In our faith-life, we continue as adults to find riches in the stories of our faith taken literally and simply, and continue to draw strength from the community’s understanding of God, even as we deepen our own understanding of who the Divine One is.

Hainz Streib's Styles of Religious Development

Hainz Streib’s Styles of Religious Development

That’s why I like Heinz Streib’s ‘Styles of Development’ in which he shows how different styles of being religious dominate as we develop, but the earlier styles continue underneath – as his diagram illustrates.

Our childhood lives in our heads. In my thirties, I was a school chaplain. I deliberately remembered my feelings as a farm boy sent to boarding school to empathise with the boys in my care.

In my forties and fifties, my childhood memories crowded my dreams forcing me to make sense of my present life through the symbols of my past.

Now in my sixties, I am grandpa for four little kids and I recall my childhood to understand the dynamics of parents and children and grand-children, and work out what I can contribute to their flourishing.

If our childhood is still part of us, then we should continue to honour it. We need play. We need nurture. Who we are now is built on the foundation of our childhood, so reflection on our childhood helps us understand ourselves.

The characteristics of childhood like its openness are also vital for our relationship with God.

We need to keep being children. As if we could stop…

The children of Nazareth

The Franciscan Missionaries Serving the Holy Land (Custodia Terrae Sanctae) have been excavating the ancient village of Capernaum for nearly a century. The archaeologist currently in charge is Father Stanislao Loffreda ofm. Their main interest is in the house of Peter, which became a house church (domus ecclesia) in the first century AD, and later an octagonal church. You can read about the site here.

Saint Peter’s house and the village layout also reveal a little of what life would have been for Jesus growing up in the neighbouring village of Nazareth, where archaeology has been limited by the density of current occupation (see this article). At the time of Jesus, however, Nazareth was a tiny hamlet, much smaller than its neighbour Capernaum.

It is unclear from the New Testament whether Jesus had brothers and sisters. There certainly were other closely related children growing up in the house where he lived. Each house held more than two parents and their immediate children, but the excavations show that these houses were not huge. Maybe the individual compounds were home to four or five adults and eight or nine children.

The children would have been able to run through the narrow streets formed by the high walls of the houses.  All the adults of the village would like have known all of the village children, so their behaviour was probably fairly restrained! They would also be required to help in tasks in the home and in the fields outside the little village.

Reconstruction of Capernaum (Kaphr Nahum)

Preparations in July

Getting ready for Christmas in Australia for a child often starts when school closes for the year. It’s hot. Sometimes the day temperatures in south-west Western Australia rise to the mid-thirties Celsius in December, and the dry easterlies start to blow.

For a farm kid in the fifties, those weeks before Christmas were a time of great freedom. We were discouraged from staying indoors, and the wide open spaces of the farm were literally that. We could run, or ride our bikes, as far as we liked, and simply enjoy the gift of creation.

But there was also the excitement of preparing for guests. Some like my mother’s parents, would come only for Christmas Day, after church services. Others, like Dad’s sisters, Auntie Kate and Auntie Pix would come and stay for some days.

We expected presents. More about them later.

This year, I am beginning my preparations early: my book of daily meditations for Advent is at the printers now.  I hope it will be launched in Perth in October, but the books need to be ready in good time. I feel excited about this book. It has been a joy to write; as I reflected last Advent on the Scriptures for next Advent, I was able to wait on God for inspiration. My prayer is that what I have prepared will encourage readers as you prepare for Christmas 2014