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?

Expensive Presence

It was my granddaughter’s second birthday on Tuesday. And my other granddaughter’s second birthday on Monday. Two years ago my daughter and my daughter-in-law both gave birth to two wonderful little girls, just a day apart.

Zoe & tractor.DVDjpgAs you can imagine, there were lots of celebrations. Zoe, in Perth, had one big party on Sunday. Counting the grown-ups, there were about 70 guests. There was a pony for pony rides, and there were tractors. Zoe loves tractors. There was a tractor DVD, the birthday cake was shaped as a tractor, and Zoe got tractors for presents.

Aurora is having a week-long series of small family parties. I haven’t calculated the total number of guests who will celebrate her second voyage around the sun, but it will also come to quite a crowd. Aurora has a cake at each party, and lots of presents.

Presents: they’re an issue, I think, for our affluent society. Grown-ups like to take care that the presents Aurora sparklesthey buy are appropriate for the child, and the thought that goes into gift-giving expresses love. We grandparents sometimes buy expensive presents because we know that quality items will last longer and be safer for our grandchildren. The internet, with e-Bay and specialist toy-shops, opens the choice of presents wider and wider. There’s a real sense in which we can’t avoid buying presents. On the surface not to buy good presents would appear to be denying our grandchildren.

But the end result of two birthdays for our granddaughters is more presents than they can appreciate; a sense that they deserve a never-ending cornucopia of material goods, and a profound connection between material goods and family love.

It disturbs me.

We can’t fix the problem simply by stop buying presents. Unless we are superb at crafts, even making all our presents will not counter the messages of an affluent society.

We need to talk about it. We need to raise the issue with our friends, and speak prophetically where we can. We can set out to change the way our culture thinks about gifts.

And we need to flood the children in our lives with presence, countering the culture of expensive gift-giving with the valuing of time and attention lavished on the children we love.

[Published on the Starts at Sixty website]

Momentum for parenting

A young girl sailed past me on her bike. This morning was a beautiful morning to be out on the beach-side path, and she was obviously enjoying the sunshine. Her dad followed behind on foot doing his running routine. A hill slowed the girl’s bike down and the girl started to turn to reduce the angle of climb. Her dad caught up with her just at the moment her handle bars started to wobble. Dad continued to run, but gently put his hand on her back transferring just enough momentum to the girl and bike to re-start her climb.


There, I thought, is a good dad. That’s what parenting can be like. Just a gentle encouragement at the critical moment. That girl will grow up remembering that loving pressure on the small of her back, and it will give her strength whenever life begins to be difficult.



Learning to ride

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.

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)