As an academic educationalist, it is well worn territory to me that we use words - potential, underachievement, intelligence, ability, attainment, and many others - which in one sense have a clear meaning but, once put under the microscope, prove highly problematic to pin down. So, for example, a teacher might consider that a child is attaining below their potential, is underachieving. But on what basis is that judgement made? What is it that makes us think that a particular child could be attaining more than they are at the moment? Is it what they say in discussion compared with what gets written down? If so, are we not pitting, at least informally, one attainment test against another?
So, it is, I suggest, with the concept of 'home'. A word we use frequently, but where is home for me? Is it my house in Hampshire:
currently let out but where I may well return in due course? Or is it where I am currently living in a rented apartment?
Or London where I lived for most of my childhood? Or Felixstowe where I was born? Or Oxford which is where my parents come from?
In Africa this issue takes on several further dimensions. 'Home' is often used to mean ancestral home, the village one returns to at Christmas and other key times. But people may not ever have lived in this village, and indeed their parents might not have done either. In this sense, Dar es Salaam is home to very few people, it was very noticeable when I was here Christmas 2012 that the city emptied considerably, so, for example, church attendance was about half of normal. It is the nature of big cities that people come here seeking their fortunes, then to end up struggling to make ends meet through street hawking and other such activities.
Allied to this, it takes some getting used to just how many people at all points on the socio-economic spectrum who live away from their familes for work. So a number of my immediate colleagues have familes in Kenya, my housekeeper has daughters in Malawi and so it carries on. Similarly, on one occasion at a primary school in Jamaica, I said I was from England and asked if any of the children knew anybody there, to get the answer from one little girl, "Yes, my Mum."
I suppose one of the reasons I've been thinking about this recently is related to last week's blog, working through Jeremiah and now Ezekiel whose ministries saw the exile of the people of Judah to Babylon. And it is still the case today that many people are forced to live away from home, with conflict through the ages to the present creating a large number of people separated from their homeland.
Of course, from a Christian perspective, our home is heaven:
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also
we eagerly wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ
In much the same way that, no matter how well I learn to speak Swahili, how many local friends I make, how familiar with local culture I become, I will always be an outsider here, so as Christians we will never - and should never - be completely at home in this world. In writing to people facing a hard time in the early church, Peter links this idea with a call to high moral standards:
Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain
from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul.
1 Peter 2:11
I have to say, I find this line of thought very helpful. In an eternal context life here is very short, if during that time we are being called to show restraint in our behaviour, then this is a small price to pay for what Jesus has done - and will do - for us.
Before I finish, I'd like to pay tribute to Caroline Thornton, who was called home on Thursday. Caroline was, in effect, a voluntary part-time member of the staff of St James's Church, Muswell Hill, when I was organist there in the late 1990s. Particularly, she ran the weekly club for the over 60s, and also was the most superb manager of the church bookshop where I did the occasional shift. She must have been some way into her 40s when Caroline decided she wanted to learn to play the cello, I played piano for her both at the over 60s club on one occasion and also for her grade examinations. I seem to remember also fielding heckling from her when trying my hand as a stand up comedian at a church weekend away.
It was after I left Muswell Hill in 2000 that Caroline became increasingly infirm through multiple sclerosis, so that for the last few years she had no voluntary movement below the neck at all. It was during this time that she kindly accommodated me when I needed to be in London overnight for various church-related events. What I particularly remember was her good humour, and the way she was clear what she needed her helpers to do - there were two full-time au pairs - and the graceful and grateful manner in which she accepted the help. She continued to help ensure that shifts in the bookshop were filled until quite recently. I encouraged her to write a book about her experiences wtih au pairs, but then we disagreed as to who the book should be aimed at, I thought it needed to be specifically geared towards adults needing help, Caroline was thinking about au pairs more generally, including those looking after children. To my knowledge the book didn't get written - I'm sorry, Caroline, if I was first encouraging and then discouraging.
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
This simple verse seems to me to sum up the Christian view of life and death. As long as we have life it is a precious gift from our Lord, with the call to live to His glory. When we die we have the promise of eternal life to come. So, it is right to enjoy life, to look after our bodies, and it is also right to look forward to a future with Jesus.
So, Caroline, no more pain, no more medication and associated side effects, no more physiotherapy, no more dependence on others for every need and want. If, when my time comes, my end is as protracted and difficult as yours, I hope and pray that I will show the same fortitude and good humour as you did. Let's agree to argue about your book again in Glory.