Thursday, 24 July 2014

Blurred weeks (#84)

Every parent can tell you that each new child is a new adventure. Just when you start to feel confident that you may have this parenting thing more or less worked out, along comes another unique and wonderful tiny human being to completely upend your world. We have experienced this shake-up with each and every new baby, but this one is different again.

The past few weeks have gone by as a blur of four hourly tube feeds, learning the trick of fitting the CPAP mask without waking a sleeping baby, worrying about the smallest change in Albert's condition and trying not to sleep on public transport on my way to and from work. While I have been at work writing lectures and tidying up administrative matters for the coming semester, Susan has been watching Albert's smallest coughs, sniffles, cries and even his breathing rate, trying to get some idea about what is 'normal' for our newest boy.

There have been more than a few trips to the local doctor (GP) and plenty of anxious calls from work during lunch break. Needless to say, this has been exhausting, particularly on Susan.

Today was our first check in with the cardiac specialist since leaving the hospital. It seems that Albert's heart surgery has continued to display all the signs of being a complete success, and he has no signs of the old pulmonary hypertension (dangerously high blood pressure in his lungs). The local doctor, the specialists and our own observations have confirmed that Albert has no chest cold, nor any signs of infections. Nevertheless, he continues to cough and splutter regularly, as if he has a cold. We are told that this could be a mild reaction to the feeding or breathing devices, and that it is an 'acceptable' side effect. We are not scheduled to see the respiratory team for a little while, so we will have to be content with current assurances.

To be honest, apart from Albert's coughing and occasional angry cry, he seems to be thriving at home. He responds quickly to familiar voices, smiles more regularly (though getting a smile is still hard work) and often coos away at a light fitting or a wall as most of our babies have before him. His last weight in shows that he has gained the best part of a kilogram since leaving hospital!

It is a long slow plod down this road, but we do seem to be heading forward.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Elbow room (#83)

Albert seems to have improved slightly. He is not quite as clogged up today and has been responding very positively to the children and his mother all day. In fact, he probably smiled more today than he has all week! He seems much more relaxed and content, cooing away to himself on occasion and enjoying any interaction with his siblings.

Unfortunately I have not yet had a chance to see these smiles, due to the fact that Beatrix (four year old) suffered an injury just before I arrived home and needed to be taken to the hospital. She was fleeing from her nightly bath and was pulled a fraction too hard by a playful sibling and had her elbow pulled out of its joint. She was in a lot of pain on the way to hospital but was very brave and steadfastly held her ground as the doctor popped her elbow back into its proper position. I have seen this particular treatment many times (with Anastasia) but the transformation never ceases to amaze me. Within five minutes she was waving her lollipop at the TV (with her injured arm) telling me all about the show, without the slightest twinge or grimace.

The car can almost find its own way to the hospital now, but it is worth mentioning that the emergency staff at Hornsby were fantastic once again. We have come to know most of them and they always make our visits as smooth as possible.

Nevertheless, I would love to have a month without having to visit them. Or even two weeks? Please?

Submission and Headship in Christian Marriage

This post is an attempted response to some friends who have asked me to comment on the concept of submission in marriage. This is a response is a little rushed, but it has to start somewhere. I promise to read and carefully consider your comments.

Christian marriage is submission to Christ and each other. Submission, here, does not mean subservience or being cowed in any way by another’s dominance. Love excludes every kind of submission by which the wife would become a servant or slave of the husband, an object of one sided submission. Pope St John Paul II says that St Paul's use of the word "submission" in Ephesians 5 can only be understood in the context of the whole Scripture and careful consideration, specifically within the context of the spousal relationship between God and his people. The command to husbands (to love as Christ loved the Church) is the context in which the wife’s submission should be understood. In other words, a husband’s authority is based on and solely for the purposes of imitating God’s own love for his spouse, the Church. 

Headship is expressed in terms of care, not dominance. Not ownership, but the responsibility of love. True love demands that the man to treat his wife as he would his own body, with care, respect, reverence and love. Just as the Church is herself in the degree to which she, as a body, receives from Christ her head the whole gift of salvation as a fruit of Christ’s love (90:6) and just as Christ’s redeeming love transforms itself into spousal love by giving himself for the Church, so a husband’s love should be a gift of himself for the good of his wife.

I am not, here, advocating the sort of argument sometimes used in the past to justify a kind of patriarchal dominance under the guise of Christian 'headship'. 

In practical terms, a husband’s first concern is the flourishing of his wife. He therefore devotes his time and effort to his primary task, via a number of smaller sacrifices. He works hard to provide for her, and protect her physically, cherish her individual gifts and talents, encourage and enable her to flourish in Christian life, work, hobbies, friendships and charity. His authority (within marriage) is solely for this purpose. He cannot claim a single pleasure, comfort or gratification for himself by invoking his husbandly authority. That is not its purpose or power. If he ever attempts to do so then he has entered into a game of power and dominance which undermines, even destroys both his own authority to love, and his wife’s ability and desire to submit herself in love to him. If there is a sacrifice to be made, a true husband will seek to take that sacrifice upon himself in service of the wife. If there is a burden, a struggle, a danger or some tedious and odious duty, the husband’s authority is to take that on himself to spare his wife. His sole authority and complete responsibility is to serve her with every moment of his life.

In turn, his wife is called to submit herself to her husband as to the Lord. What does this mean? A wife is never called to submit to any self seeking whim of her husband. How is it that we submit to our Lord? First we confess our weakness, and entrust our needs to him. We call on him to forgive us for our weakness. We call on him to protect us, nurture us, teach us and love us with God’s self sacrificing love. We call on him to give everything to us. We call on him to live for us, and we call on Him to die for us. 

Many modern commentators confuse submission with being dominated, or subservient. Christian submission is nothing feeble or cowering. Christian submission is bold, audacious and confident. Just as Christians submit to their Lord by boldly confessing their sins with the certain hope of forgiveness, just as Christian boldly place all their worldly needs before Him and rightly hope for his protection and love, so a Christian wife boldly and clearly submits her needs to her husband. 

Some husbands mistake this submission for ‘nagging’. A wife rarely nags. What some men think of as ‘nagging’ is simply a wife boldly submitting her need to her husband until he finally pays attention and gets on with being a Christian husband! Submission of this sort does not mean that a wife’s opinion or preferences are subservient to her husband. To submit herself wholly to her husband, a wife must share her thoughts, reasoning, preferences, opinions and priority of needs clearly with her husband. In doing so she is mercifully guiding him in his task of loving her with everything he has. A wife submits herself to a husband’s self sacrificing love, by making her thoughts, her opinions, her preferences and her needs very clear, and by insisting that he understand their priority. In short, she places herself completely into his love, and demands that love.

This kind of love requires each spouse to give up their self reliant, self seeking, self centred life and commit themselves wholly to their spouse. It is a momentous and dangerous commitment to enter into. Marriage has the potential to be a reflection of heaven on earth, or hell on earth. Exposed so thoroughly to each other, spouses have more potential influence on their spouse’s happiness than any other human being in the world. By focusing on the small benefits each person might gain by means of petty power games, spouses can easily destroy all happiness within a marriage. But, when focused on each other’s needs however, the potential for mutual happiness escalates to divine levels. 

In practical terms, a wife who pays attention to her husband’s needs will soon learn some very simple things that will make him very happy indeed. Just as a husband who pays attention to his wife’s needs will soon learn that some simple ways of self giving that will make her a very happy woman indeed. 

It is remarkably easy to make each other happy. The trouble is that we are often so concerned about our own needs that we not very good at paying attention to the other's.

Nervous nights (#82)

Albert is improving slowly.

For about a week he looked on amazed as the household buzzed, shouted, bumped, laughed and sang around him and, more than occasionally, at him. He seems to have recovered from stage fright and is now responding positively to each of his siblings and to his parents. He still smiles each day, but he is playing hard to get. The amount of effort required to win a smile seems to be excessive, but the delay it does keep his siblings attention for extended periods of time.

Due to his obstructive apnoea he requires CPAP any time he drifts off to sleep. This means he and at least one of his parents are effectively housebound. It also means that we cannot risk exposing Albert to even the smallest cold or flu at this delicate stage. He has something of a sniffle already but this seems to have been caused more by the feeding tubes and breathing masks he endures for a good part of each day than any infection.

We had something of a scare on Saturday, he was struggling to breathe normally and seemed to be tiring out rather too quickly. We are fortunate to have an attentive and careful doctor and, due to her close monitoring of Albert over the weekend via visits and phone calls, we were spared a hospital visit this week. His lungs remain clear and he seems to be healthy and happy most of the time.

We are able to tag-team the four hourly feeds, and the three older children are now trained in the feeding technique, relieving a little of the pressure. You can imagine, however, that in spite of the joy of having Albert at home finally, we are still somewhat on edge. His every cough or splutter sees us dropping what we are doing and rushing to check he is well.

In about a week we begin travelling down a long list of specialist medical appointments, and we have to figure out some way to ensure his safety in a car trip. It should not be a problem, but these things take thinking through and preparation.

It seems that Albert is doing well at home. Please God that trend continues!

Monday, 14 July 2014

Atheists, Agnostics and Apathetics

Can we please, please dispense with the habit of describing anything that is not Christianity 'atheism'? I understand that popular media, public debating and even so called "expert commentary" have long since dispensed with boring things such as clear definitions and accurate use of language, but please? If people want to use a word to describe their attitude regarding the possibility of the existence of divine beings, we should at least take them seriously enough to describe their stated position accurately, and encourage them to do so too.

Some definitions.
Atheism (in the narrower and proper use) refers to the specific belief that there are no deities. In other words, it is the assertion that we know that there is no God.
Agnosticism, in contrast, refers to the belief that nothing is known, or can be known about the existence of God. 
No doubt, there are some people who have carefully considered the arguments from pure reason, the evidence available, and the propositions of various religions and decided that the most rational conclusion is that it all proves that the there is no such thing as a higher or divine being(s). But these people are far less numerous than our census figures indicate.

It seems that, if I do not agree with nor wish to be accountable to, the faith system, moral propositions or social requirements of the various monotheistic faiths, and I am not attracted to the vigorous asceticism of Buddhism (as opposed to the fluffy Hallmark version of Buddhism we saw in Western countries through the '70s and '80s) or the confusion of Hinduism, an easy option is to declare myself an Atheist and ignore them all.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not, here at least, taking a shot at genuine atheists or agnostics. In fact, I mean to defend them. The atheists or agnostics, that is, who have reached their conclusions and defend their positions with deep thought and rational arguments. I mean to distinguish them from the hordes of people who use the tag 'atheist' as a convenient way to avoid any claims of religion, to avoid deep consideration of ethical matters, and/or to avoid any conscious effort to form and be faithful to a coherent moral system or code. In other words, I am concerned that an increasing number of people utilize the label 'atheist' out of intellectual and moral laziness rather than out of any genuine consideration of the evidence and arguments.

Take, for example, a study published in the academic journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (Oxford University Press) took 11 Catholics and 13 Atheists  (all female) and compared their neural patterns as the subjects considered 48 different moral dilemmas. The researchers conclude that the subjects identified as Catholics displayed 'enhanced' and 'superior' use of the relevant areas of their brains when compared to the subjects described as atheists.

Before Catholics get excited about the study proving anything, we need to consider the fact that atheism was not clearly defined in the study, where Catholics were specifically chosen because Catholicism:
(1) very clearly emphasizes the fusion of thought and action.
(2) very explicitly emphasizes the individual as a creature who must feel overtly guilty for sinful actions; and
(3) explicitly involves an appeal for charity and empathy for others
I am privileged to call several atheists friends, and I believe the study does them a grave disservice. It assumes that an atheist does not think about their actions, hold themselves accountable on the moral plane, or empathize or care about others. The atheists I know are strong moral thinkers, passionate believers in human rights (though often in different ways to Catholics) and hold themselves to rigorous moral standards. In fact, if a person had genuinely wrestled with the problem of God's existence (or not), and genuinely struggled to discover a purpose to the universe and their own limited existence, it would seem likely that he or she would end up a deep thinker and careful moral agent, or join Nietzsche in his madness.

There is no definition of atheism nor any description of the how such people were identified, but I strongly suspect the 'atheists' were, in fact, simply people who had chosen to use the label to avoid the genuine struggle with morals and metaphysics that is common to humanity. Not surprising at all, then, that their brains fell behind the Catholics in thinking through moral dilemmas. While I definitely come to different conclusions that my atheist friends, I suspect they would do much better in the above study than the average Catholic.

This does, of course, raise the old argument about religion helping even lazy people be effective moral agents, but that debate is for another time. For now, I propose that we should use a different label for people who, for reasons of fear, ignorance or laziness, do not engage with this level of thought. Some of them, at least, might more accurately be described as "apathetics."

I will leave the last word to one of my favourite comedians, the agnostic David Mitchell.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Kneeling at my son’s cot (#81)

Our baby son has recently come home from hospital after an extended recovery from pneumonia and open heart surgery. He has recovered well, if slowly, but he still requires a breathing mask fitted when he sleeps and we are still feeding him through a nasal gastric tube. Since his feeds are every four hours, I have found myself kneeling beside his cot while he sleeps, watching his feed gradually drip through down the tube for about half an hour. My knees and back are not what they used to be, particularly at the 2AM feed, and so I often catch myself on one knee before his cot, as if genuflecting to his tiny sleeping body.

When I first noticed I had slipped regularly in this posture, my tired mind wondered if it was inappropriate, perhaps mildly sacrilegious, to be genuflecting to my sleeping son. After all, we normally genuflect before the sacred body and blood Christ. Our act of reverence simultaneously declares our belief that Christ is truly present in body, blood, soul and divinity, and places us at the feet of our Lord as he suffers for us, gives himself for us on the cross.

Mary and John shared one of the greatest honours known to us, that of standing at the foot of the cross and hearing his last words. Joseph of Arimathea was privileged to bind Christ’s body and place it in the tomb. Thomas and others were blessed to touch and see his risen body, and to believe. Christ has loved us all beyond any measure, and these few were given a privileged opportunity to express their love to him in small practical ways.

Before Christ went to the cross, he taught his disciples that showing practical love for the least of his brethren was, in fact, showing love to Christ himself. When a man asks Jesus who he was required to love, Jesus replied with the story of the Good Samaritan. At the risk of oversimplifying the parable, Jesus was asked “who do I have to love?” and he answered “who needs you to love them?” Mother Theresa (Therese of the Cross) and Saint John Paul II both took up this theme in their lifetimes, declaring that they saw the wounded Christ in the broken and needy bodies of fellow human beings. Mother Theresa did not tend the dying bodies of the poor because she was attempting to be Christ to them, but because she saw Christ in them, and counted herself privileged to have the chance to tend Christ’s wounds through theirs.

All this passed through my mind as I knelt before my son’s cot, holding his feeding tube and listening to the soft whirring sound of his breathing machine. I watched his tiny lips twitch slightly at some baby dream, and remembered seeing them bloodless and grey as the doctors desperately tried to revive him a few months ago. I watched his tiny chest rise and fall, and I remembered that he bears a scar vertically down his chest from his open heart surgery. I watched him kick briefly against his blanket and remembered that each of his limbs, and so many other parts of his body had been pierced by needles and tubes.

I have been privileged to serve many people in small ways in my life so far, but I have not yet encountered anyone so battered and weary, so desperately in need of constant and exhausting care. In short, I have never had the privilege of being this close to a ‘little one’ who brings me to the wounds of Christ. In serving Albert’s needs, our family has been given a rare privilege to tend Christ’s wounds. To love Christ in small ways, for his inestimable love for us. It seems appropriate to be kneeling by his cot, as I perform this this small, tedious yet privileged act of love.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Writing for the Catholic Leader

I have been writing short pieces for the Catholic Leader (Brisbane) for a while now.

One of the new changes coinciding with Brisbane's new bishop has been the revamp of the Catholic Leader. They have managed to get a number of good people on board and, while I do not receive a hard copy of the paper, I have been enjoying their internet content.

My most recent pieces are "Living in a world of wonder", "Gaming with a moral code", "The issue of Church and State", "Knowing Jesus takes a lot of growing" and "We need more annoying people."

In addition to their regular content, I strongly recommend checking out the other writers, such as Fr John Flader's 'question time' series, and Bernard Toutounji's pieces to name a few.