A Brief History of Choice
I am writing this letter in the middle of March. It was only yesterday that I learned of the death of a person who became severely disabled in the prime of life. A person who was once given only two years to live by the medical establishment but who defied all expectation to survive for many more years. A person with a strong spirit who not only coped, but lived a worthwhile life, despite their problems. I am talking about my parishioner Sandra Gwinnett.
I don’t normally write about parishioners who have recently died, and I do not want to set a precedent, but the reason I am prompted to write this now is that on the same morning that I received the news about Sandra, Stephen Hawking’s death was announced on the news. The parallels are obvious, and given that I had a homily to prepare for our midweek communion service, I thought about these two people in the light of the gospel reading for that service.
The Gospel was from St.Luke, chapter 2 verses 33 to 35. Mary and Joseph have brought Jesus to the temple to fulfil their religious obligations. They are approached by a prophet Simeon who says some amazing things about the infant Jesus, including this:
This child is destined for the rising and falling of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.
Maybe not something that every parent would like to hear. Jesus was going to grow up to be a divisive figure; some people are going to love him, others are going to hate him. Jesus will be so extreme that people will be forced into making a choice for him or against him, and their choice will reveal what they are truly like deep down inside.
Sandra chose to follow Jesus. She was a member of St.Thomas Church before her life-changing accident. She clung to Jesus. Her faith was strong and evident, and it continued to be well-articulated despite her brain injury.
We can never know for certain what a person believes, and some people come to faith late in life. But among the tributes to Stephen Hawking and quotes from the man himself aired on the radio, there were clear indications that Stephen, when he was confronted with the person of Jesus, had chosen the opposite path to Sandra.
Stephen was a household name, he was feted and applauded. He had a brilliant mind. Sandra was unknown outside her family and social circle. Her brain injury had greatly reduced her mental capacities. So in answer to the question who was the cleverest, who had the greatest intelligence, Stephen or Sandra, there is no doubt. But of the two, who was the wisest?
Stephen was a theoretical physicist. He believed in the possibility of there being universes outside of this one. We are not talking of other solar systems here. Another solar system could in theory be reached by a rocket launched from earth even though it may take thousands or even millions of years. No, a parallel universe is something totally outside of our three dimensions, it is a place you could never reach using a rocket no matter how long it travelled for. So Stephen actually had the mental framework potentially to believe in the existence of what a religious person may refer to as heaven, or the spirit-world, but still, as far as we know, Stephen refused to follow Christ.
I am in no way trying to diminish what Stephen achieved in the field of physics, but I am urging you to ask the question, what in the long run matters most? Our contemporary culture, as expressed through the media, values certain things highly and denigrates or ignores others. Take the example of Roger Bannister who also died recently. The press coverage focussed heavily on him being the first person to run a mile in under four minutes, but Roger himself said many times that he considered his lifetime’s work as a doctor to be a much greater achievement. Now take that thought about an achievement in the context of a human life-span, and expand it to consider an achievement in the context of eternity.
So I ask again, who was the wisest? Who made the best choices in the light of eternity?