Sunday, 30 March 2014

Happy 90th Birthday!

My late mother said that my father had two loves – Medicine and Missions.  In the language of Economics this might be for-profit and nonprofit – although both are service.  Maybe some doctors are in it only for the bucks?  But it can be a career of humanitarian service – as the Order of Canada awarded to my Dad attests.  Perhaps the vignette that captures this best is that of a young graduate of medical school departing for the mission field in 1950?  I was born a year later, in Belgian Congo.  So I know whereof I speak!

Dad’s grandfather had gone to China as a missionary – with a guy called Hudson Taylor.  In those days you left your wife and children behind – one of the sacrifices of mission work.  So his son, my grandfather, became a Child Head of Household – to use the language of the AIDS pandemic.  Yet when great grandfather returned from China, he used to pray every day, living in Toronto, that his progeny would become missionaries.

He had immigrated to Canada from Ireland.  This Irish Catholic lad was converted to Protestantism at the Yonge Street Mission.  Did he know about the great Irish missionaries of the Dark Ages, I wonder now?  They were called the Peregrini.  Like St. Columba going to Iona in Scotland.  Others went to England, Holland, and as deep into Europe at St. Gaul.  Unlike the missionaries of Hudson Taylor’s ilk, these guys left home for good.  They basically emigrated as we would say today.  But they were very well resourced, as they were from the aristocracy.  This is ironic – they were well off, but they chose to serve… overseas.

These were the days when the candle of Christianity in Europe was burning low, barely flickering.  But centuries earlier a European called Patrick had gone and converted the Irish.  So it was their turn to return the favour, in the ebb and flow of missions.  Similarly, missionaries from Africa are now refreshing American and British Christianity.

In yesterday’s Toronto Star there is an article about a British socialist – Tony Benn – who dies recently.  It says that he will be remembered as “champion of the powerless”.  Bear in mind the double entendre in quoting the following four paragraphs:

“Prime Minister David Cameron said: “He was a magnificent writer, speaker, diarist and campaigner, with a strong record of public and political service.”

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband said: “Tony Benn spoke his mind and spoke up for his values.  Whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him, everyone knew where he stood and what he stood for.  For someone of such strong views, often at odds with his party, he won respect from across the political spectrum.  This was because of his unshakable beliefs and his abiding determination that power and the powerful should be held to account.”

“He was elected to the House of Commons at 25, but his parliamentary career seemed to come to an abrupt end in 1961 when his father died.  As the new Viscount Stansgate, he was barred from the Commons so that he could take up membership in the unelected upper House of Lords.  For three years he battled to change the law to allow hereditary peers to renounce their titles.  Voters in his parliamentary district of Bristol West elected him once more, even though he couldn’t take his seat in the Commons.  In 1963, the bill passed, and the Times of London declared, “Lord Stansgate will be Mr. Benn today.”

“Benn, who favoured abolition of the monarchy, British withdrawal from the European Union, and any strike that was going, hadn’t changed.  But his image did.  He was over time transformed from the demonized figure of the 70s and 80s to that often-treasured English archetype: the radical dissenter.”

Is it hard to call a celebrated humanitarian missionary doctor a “radical dissenter”?  Well I am thinking of his values.  Going off to Africa in 1950 as a missionary did not exactly make you a card-carrying member of the Establishment!  His own parents had mixed feelings about it, after all the sacrifices they had made to get him the best education available at the time, and after my grandfather’s challenges as a Child Head of Household.

Tony Benn renounced his aristocratic title rather than leave the House of Commons.  A lot of people said he was crazy.

Thank you, Dad, for being a non-conformist when your values demanded it of you.  Thanks for being a radical among Medicine Men.  Thanks for being a dissenter when it comes to the worship of Mammon.  Thanks for renouncing your perceived right to opulence in favour of professional and public service.

My mother remarked how lucky he was – to have two children… one a nurse married to a doctor, and the other a missionary.  Both are modes of service.

And thank you, Father in heaven, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  We have seen his glory, full of grace and truth.  He was in the world, which was made through him, but he was unrecognized.  Perhaps because he was a radical dissenter?  He also championed the poor and was a missionary from afar – our role-model of service.