The Four Paths

You have read today about the “four paths” children may set out on: friendship with God, formal moments of grace, loving service of others and joy in creation.

As adults, we may have explored some distance along these paths. We may no longer entirely think as a child – as St Paul put it. However, the question to put to ourselves is not, “How advanced are we along these paths?” That way leads to pride and self-satisfaction, as if there is nowhere left for us to go. The truth is, none of us is very far along any of these paths.

One question I find helpful for myself is, when I think of these four paths, am I being childish and refusing to grow; or, am I being child-like, and allowing God to take me by the hand and lead me where God wants me to go?

How can I love God more deeply?

Am I open to God’s grace when I receive Holy Communion each Sunday?

Do I recognise Christ when I serve others?

Do I feel God’s presence in the beauty of God’s world?

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.

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…