I read this morning the opening chapter of a book with the intriguing title “I Spend Therefore I Am”. The writer’s thesis is that economic theory has permeated every aspect of our lives. He instances, for example, the on-line dating sites where questionnaires and rankings lay out people like goods on a market stall. He maintains that economics now determines our political and personal decisions. The Enlightenment’s “I think therefore I am” has become “I spend therefore I am”.
After reading this I turned to my dear friend Frederich Buechener and his daily readings entitled “Listening to your Life”. The gist of what he had to say was that words cannot say all there is to be said about life. It led me to ponder how centred my life is upon words. I reflected on a recent week in Bali prior to a preaching responsibility on the Sunday where the concentration upon words affected the Bali activities and vice versa. The resulting sermon left a lot to be desired. This was disturbing enough but what really disturbed me was the realization that “words cannot say all that there is to be said about life”, and that for me life was in effect a matter of “I speak therefore I am”.
This morning I contemplated the word made flesh and his assertion “I love therefore I am”, and tears welled up in the Preacher’s eyes as he recognized the dominance of words in his life and how little time he has left to deal with “The Preacher’s Problem”.
The birth of this sermon has been very difficult. In fact it only came together a few days ago, as opposed to some which can be written weeks before. Perhaps it’s because of the nature of the gospel reading, about Jesus and God and ourselves all tied together in a way that is mysterious yet enduring. It has led me to want to say something about our relationship with one another and with God. And how it is played out in the world. I have been recently reading a book by Jim Wallis who focuses on the common good. He asks, quite rightly where has it gone, and why has it gone. We have become a very individualistic society and world, yet this idea that we are single entities, unrelated to one another is totally false. Both biologically and spiritually we are deeply connected to one another.
So what is the common good? It is where all people are able to live in freedom, it recognizes that each and every person has dignity, and that a good society is one which allows the thriving of all persons, especially the weak and vulnerable. So it is very Jesus like.
As an early church father once wrote “this is the rule of most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good, for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbours.”
So it is not just for the good of ourselves, or those closest to us, but for those we do not know or will never meet.
When we listen to the reading from Matthew today, where Jesus suggests we set aside our mothers and fathers we may have been slightly horrified. However he is not saying just discard them, but rather we have to raise our hearts and minds to include in our circle of concern those who are not family members. When I see those stickers of the family on the back of cars I am often reminded how easy it is to get a bunker mentality. We think we are only responsible for our families because they are who we are related to….
Yet this idea is so wrong.
I am a scientist, I have always loved science, and yet I stand here also as a preacher, part time minister and a Jesus follower. How can the two go together? They go together because God is not separate from us but is an integral part of creation from the very beginning of time, revealed in the ongoing and magnificent process of evolution. And evolution reveals what we fail to acknowledge in our modern society, that we are interconnected with one another at every level. A unity with all of life and with God that requires a response. Jesus could see it in the 1st century, yet we have trouble in the 21st.
So while I want to focus on the common good, I believe if we don’t embrace our common origins we will not be truly able to serve anyone or anything. Modern science helps us do this.
So where does it start.
It starts with the universe.
This new story, based on our current scientific understandings describes the big bang, almost 14 billion years ago as the starting point. It includes the formulation of matter and planets and stars and galaxies, and it relates the evolutionary path from single cell organisms to a species that walks upright, and thinks abstractly. It is a story that is not all about us, but about the creation of the universe, of which we are just a very small, and rather late part.
To show you just how late we come into the picture of creation let us imagine the birth of the universe is on a scale of one year. The big bang would have happened on January 1st. The solar system would have formed in June. Life (micro organisms) would have appeared on earth in October. The first human would have been born on December 31st at 11.56 pm. And Jesus Christ appeared on December 31st at 11.59 and 56 secs. It puts the enormity of where we have come from into perspective
This is our creation story for the 21st century. It gives a message of unity and inclusiveness and a profound kinship with all of life.
Brian Swimme, a cosmologist suggested that “The Universe story shows how profoundly related we are. It shows that we are involved with each other and have been for a long time. So, it is not the case that the earth was assembled and then we were added to the earth, and it was there for our purposes. Rather, we came out of the Earth.”
Which leads us nicely to the idea of human evolution…
There are two facts from modern science which are indisputable. The first fact is that all life belongs to one huge family tree. This is not just about humans but about all living things, animals, plants, insects and even bacteria. We share genes with all other living creatures, not just one or two genes, but thousands of them. From 50-99 percent of all our genes are shared in common with other species, depending on how closely related they are to them. When we look at humans, we are even closer, belonging to the same species, and all containing the same DNA. The idea of race and nationality as separate entities is therefore completely false.
The second point is that species change. The size, shape and colour of animals and plants in a species are not cast in stone but change through time and space. This change is the product of natural selection, whereby those organisms that are better adapted to their environment have a greater likelihood of surviving to adulthood and passing their characteristics on to their offspring. While many people believe that evolutionary biologists do not see direction in this process or see it as purely a competitive environment where only the strongest survive, this is quite wrong. Firstly it is not the fittest, but the most adaptable that survive and reproduce, so strength has very little to do with it. In addition many biologists do see evolution as having a direction, one in which species becomes more complex and advanced as natural selection continues. For example it has been found that members of a species can and do display teamwork, or the art of working together, which is not just for the survival of individuals but for a shared interest. This development is seen as a more progressive adaptation and contradicts the idea that our genes are geared only for individual success rather than group success.
This later point, one of interdependency rather than individualism, together with the first of a single tree of life presents us with a biological view of unity. It is impossible to imagine that we are not linked to other humans, just as we are linked to all other living creatures and that by cooperating rather than competing we are continuing the evolutionary pathway of life. As Joan Roughgarden suggests,
“I trust few readers will be troubled that we and other living things are one another’s kin. Many of us have been dismayed to discover previously unknown brothers and sisters. We can’t choose our parents or kin. Starfish, worms and plants, even rose bushes and redwood trees, are our distant relatives, whether we like it or not. Rather than troubling, for me it’s appealing to think that all of life is united into one body through membership in a common family tree.”
But where is God in this story. For me God is everywhere and in everything.
Many current physicists and biologists would say that life in our universe is more than just the particles that make it up. They would assert that it involves the relationship between the parts rather than the parts themselves, with an unseen order that is required for that life. God is revealed as the other, the extra, the energy, who gives this order, a God who is intimately involved in creation at every level, drawing us together. There is a progression forward, from the smallest amount of stardust to conscious beings, which is astounding and ultimately mysterious.
As Charles Birch has said “The universe is a happening of happenings. Stop the happenings and the universe collapses. God is necessary for the world. God is not the world and the world is not God. God is not before all creation but with all creation. The world includes God and God perfects the world. There is no world apart from God.”
So in this story we also need to see God in a new way. God is not a magical figure intervening at regular intervals in order that humans can somehow have it easy. The process of evolution reveals our organic links to one another, in which God is manifest in the process. Both spiritually and biologically we are connected to teach other and the rest of the created order in a way that is deep, universal and everlasting. Humanity with its ability to be conscious of this fact, to be aware of these connections has a special role to play. And for us Jesus leads the way. Jesus reveals the God found in all of creation, the creative love of the universe. Jesus reveals how we should live together.
So returning to where we started.
The idea of the common good is therefore not some nebulous ideal, or one that only Jesus spoke of and lived. It is a call for us all to live and love for others. It is to challenge the idea that we can survive as individuals and still develop and grow. Rather fullness of life can only be achieved through a unity, seen biologically and spiritually, which seeks to support, nurture and connect with one another. As the reading from John1 says…the commandment we have from Jesus is this, those who love God must also love their brothers and sisters. And this does not just mean our families. For us that includes family, community, secular and religious institutions and the wider body of humanity. It also means care for the whole created order.
And if we do this, what is the reward? The reward is a world where all people are included, all are loved and all live full and complete lives. A world where people have meaning and purpose and direction and love which expands not only their own horizon but all those around them. A world where freedom and liberation is found for the weak and vulnerable. A world where the earth from which we arose is cherished rather than used and abused. A world where those fleeing persecution are welcomed rather than turned away or locked up. A world of peace and hope.
A world we would all like to see.
This blog is not what you think. I have worked at Royal Perth Hospital since 1983, and apart from two lots of maternity leave, and a couple of breaks of service to go overseas I have been here all that time. Phew!!! It seems a long time. For most of the last 20 years I have been down at the Shenton Park Campus, a hodge podge of buildings that houses both an elective orthopaedics and a rehabilitation service, including those patients with spinal injuries or brain trauma. I have been involved in research all that time, firstly in Rehabilitation Engineering, and then with the Joint Replacement Assessment Clinic. I have to give credit to all the patients I have dealt with, who have voluntarily been exercised to near death, photographed, made to stand, walk, bend and basically do any number of things for the sake of improving the lot of others. And if they were lucky, even themselves!
Over this time I have seen plenty of things change, but the thing that hasn’t changed is the commitment of the staff to the care and health of the patients. I have worked with occupational therapists, physiotherapists, social workers, surgeons, nurses, all those in theatre, plus all the ancillary staff and they all have demonstrated this attribute. So let me share some of my memories…
I have seen members of the staff distraught over the sudden loss of a patient, down from the Kimberley for an extended period. This patient had a brain injury and used video conferencing to speak to her son once a week. I know this because the video conferencing was in our department and we would hear her squeals of delight when she could see and hear her son. She was cared for and loved by the staff during her long and difficult stay, separated from her family but supported by those around her. Her death was a tragedy that touched everyone.
I have seen doctors strive to overcome complications from surgery, whether it be a spinal or brain injury or a joint replacement, strive to improve the outcome of surgery using newer, better techniques, and I have seen engineers use their talents to develop and improve wheelchair accessibility, communication and mobility aids for those with severe injuries.
I have seen a patient suffering from Guillain Barre disease stay within the hospital for many years, until at last he succumbed to a lung inflection. I have had the person who looked after him, providing the technology so that he could communicate with his family using the blink of an eye, come to my office and be heart broken, shedding tears of grief over his loss.
I have seen programs designed to allow high level quadriplegics leave the hospital and go home to their families, even while still on a ventilator, and supported all the time by amazing nurses. I have seen older surgeons teach younger ones, and younger ones teach one another. I have seen the place totally flooded, totally decorated for christmas, and totally flat out as more and more patients need care, or a joint replacement, or rehab for a spinal or brain injury.
And I met and worked albeit briefly with Sir George Bedbrook, an orthopaedic surgeon who revolutionized the care of spinal patients and who made the Shenton Park campus possible. I remember doing a project when I was at school on multiple sclerosis. As a naïve youngster I wrote Sir George a letter enquiring about the treatment of the disease, and surprisingly received a reply. Little did I realize I would get the opportunity to work with him later on. He was gracious and enthusiastic then and he continued to be in the years that followed. Without him and many others, the hospital would have remained just a dream.
So why do I write this. As the Shenton Park Campus of RPH is about to close, or the Royal Perth Rehabilitation Hospital as it was known when I started or the Infectious Disease Hospital when it was first built, it is a good time to reflect. The hospital represents so much more than just a set of buildings. It represents a community of people striving to make a difference, striving to improve the life of others in some small way, through their caring work. It is a community where people support and commit to one another, both patients and staff alike, and everyone sees the results, sometimes joyous and sometimes tragic and deeply distressing.
We who have worked at the hospital are reminded of this every day. For around the campus I have seen parents, husbands, and wives push their loved one in a wheelchair around the campus, a loved one who is so brain injured they hardly know their surroundings. But they sit in the sun, surrounded by trees and birds, helping the best way they can. Even with the poor state of the buildings it can be a peaceful place. Often the only thing required is to be present somewhere outside. …
In our world where every thing is about money, about what we deserve and what we get in return, I am thankful I have worked in such a place.
And I will really miss it. I think ultimately Western Australia will really miss it.
For places like this take time to build up but are quick to pull down.