Life & Faith

An Examined Life

What is a life well lived? We consider the ripple effects of one man’s influence on generations of students.

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A British Prime Minister is once reported to have said, “I wish I had as much power as a school headmaster!”

Every one of us has some influence on those around us, for better and for worse. For some people, the ripple effects of that influence go on and on, far beyond our expectations.

Rod West was one of those people. In this episode of Life & Faith, we hear about the impact one ordinary – but also not-so-ordinary – man had on students, families, and communities over two decades as headmaster of Trinity Grammar School in Sydney.

“I always saw him as a bit like a Prime Minister, and that I went to a school that was like a country, and he had his teachers and his senior officials around him who were like his cabinet. I thought he had the charisma of – well, in those days, Bob Hawke was Australia’s Prime Minister – he reminded me a lot of Hawkey, because he had this larger-than-life presence. Our notion of a Prime Minister probably has changed since the days of Bob Hawke … but Rod had that character of largeness.”

Tim Dixon was a student of Rod’s, and went on himself to become a speechwriter for two of Australia’s Prime Ministers. His respect and admiration for his former headmaster and mentor is shared by hundreds, if not thousands, of his fellow students.

In a letter Tim wrote to Rod a few days before his death, he tries to articulate what he most appreciated about him:

“You’ve always had a wonderful sense of the theatrical and you brought exuberance and vitality to classrooms and dinner tables all the course of your life. But more than that, you’ve always brought a sense of transcendence to every endeavour, whether it was a chapel service, a Latin class, a prefects’ meeting, or a bunch of lifeless bureaucrats working on a government report … I think you’ve helped me understand a larger God.”

If the bestseller lists are anything to go by, biographies and autobiographies are perpetually compelling to the reading public. What makes a life well lived? What is power for? How do we manage, across a lifetime, to focus on what’s truly important, rather than getting constantly caught up in the merely urgent?

This episode sketches the character of a humble but influential man through the eyes of one who knew him well, in hopes that an examined life has something to tell all of us about who we are, and who we would like to become.

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BUY Rod West’s book, The Heart of Education: https://www.booktopia.com.au/the-heart-of-education-roderick-west/prod9780646965758.html

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Seeking Validation

When you’re a minority of a minority of a minority, the vital question to ask is where you belong.

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“To be a Tamil Christian in itself is a minority but then you take that and transplant that as a refugee community in Australia, and the Tamil Christian community in Australia is even smaller again.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that Max Jeganathan is a minority of a minority of a minority.

His refugee parents fled the horrors of the Sri Lankan civil war when he was one year old to settle in Melbourne and then Perth and Canberra. As he grew up, Max always felt like he straddled the divides between Sri Lankan and Australian culture.

Later, he worked as a policy advisor to Families Minister Jenny Macklin and afterwards for Bill Shorten, the current leader of the Opposition. There, Max again found himself in the minority, with few other public servants of a similar background: “We certainly weren’t represented in the halls of parliament anywhere near as much as we’re represented down Parramatta Road or in eastern Melbourne or northern Brisbane.”

His faith also set him at odds with many of his secular colleagues – and in a context where faith is often seen as an unwelcome intrusion into public life and government policy.

“The separation of church and state does not mean for a second the separation of faith and politics … To expect or assume or pressure anyone into leaving their faith at the door before they engage in public life is completely ridiculous. It’s the equivalent of saying to the atheist or the humanist, look, you can be an atheist, but when you come to parliament, you just have to believe in God while you’re in parliament. That’s as ridiculous as it is to say to the Christian or the Muslim or the Hindu, you’re fine to believe in your religion, but when you come to parliament, you have to be secular.”

If Max wasn’t a global citizen before, he certainly is one now, having studied at Oxford and now basing himself in Singapore, where he speaks across the Asia-Pacific about Christianity and its implications for politics, economics, and public policy for Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.

His experience abroad gives him renewed perspective on Australia – an affluent country, but one with striking levels of both anxiety and personal debt. People are looking for meaning through material advancement, and we’re good enough at it, says Max, that “we can actually trick ourselves into thinking that it’ll get us the fulfilment that we’re looking for”.

The problem is that if we seek validation in our jobs, families, or income, then an affair, a health crisis, a tragedy, a recession, or a change in government – not that Australians know anything about this, right? – can deeply unsettle our sense of security.

That’s at least partly why Max anchors his trust in Jesus – although he clarifies that “the only good reason to be a Christian is because it’s true”. And so he encourages everyone to examine the truth claims of a belief system to see how it lines up with reality.

Almost as a bonus, he also recognises that his faith delivers a profound sense of belonging.

“When you find your belonging in the person of Jesus it’s not like you’re invincible, but your identity is invincible. There’s nothing really that the world can throw at you that can shake who you are.”

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Banishing God

A journalist defies our squeamishness about religion to make the case that God is good for you.

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“I may get into trouble here with fellow Christians – obviously the New Testament is the centre of Christianity – but there is a sense in which the Old Testament is more fun. Parts of the Old Testament are great poetry and parts of it are written in a very elevated style, but a lot of it is written in the style of the Daily Telegraph or the Herald Sun – it’s very punchy, it’s very direct. There is tremendous humour in it. The book of Jonah is like a Mel Brooks comedy, it’s screamingly funny.”

There’s a lot that’s surprising in Greg Sheridan’s new book God Is Good for You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times. It’s a classic defence of the Christian faith, in a parallel tradition to the many and popular atheist critiques of religion. But he assures us it’s not just a matter of an older white male wishing things were as they used to be.

“I’m not arguing for the past – the past was a foreign country, full of its own villains and terrors. I’m trying to hold up a mirror to where we are today.”

In this episode of Life & Faith, Simon Smart quizzes journalist and author Greg Sheridan about why he wrote the book, where religion is headed in the West, the fallout of the sexual abuse scandal in the church, his personal faith, and more.

“I’m a secular journalist, I’m a foreign editor of The Australian. My life is involved in the rough-and-tumble of politics and journalism … So it was quite a big thing for me to get to the point of writing about God. People of my generation didn’t talk too much about religion, so that we wouldn’t argue about it. Then the other hurdle was, you’re not really worthy of writing about it. But then you think, well, you’ve got a public microphone, and if you leave it only to the people who are worthy of it, it’ll be a very small cohort!”

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Buy God Is Good for You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times: https://www.booktopia.com.au/ebooks/god-is-good-for-you-greg-sheridan/prod9781760636791.html

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An Invisible Wound

It’s everywhere, and it can be crippling. But people can be freed from the grip of trauma.

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“Trauma is an overwhelming need which people really don’t see. It’s not a physical wound that people would identify and want to help you with, it’s a wound that you have on the inside because of something you have gone through.”

Elizabeth Muriuki is General-Secretary of the Bible Society in Kenya, and she has experience of trauma healing from both sides. Her organisation uses a program developed by the Trauma Healing Institute to help people suffering from trauma – and she went through the program herself after losing her daughter. Does it work? Elizabeth gives an enthusiastic yes in response to that question. It takes time, she says, but it works.

In this episode, we talk to people working on the front lines of one of the world’s greatest areas of need: the trauma that millions upon millions suffer from globally.

It’s easy to avoid the pain of others, and hard to lean into it. But the Trauma Healing Institute, established by the American Bible Society, trains people in how to sit with those who’ve experienced traumatic events, and how to help them move forward.

They work in conflict zones around the world, with refugees in the Middle East, with people who’ve experienced domestic violence in South America or gang violence in Central America, in the US prison system. Trauma happens everywhere, explains Andrew Hood, who manages the Trauma Healing Institute.

“One of the things that has been so astounding to me as I’ve worked in this program is that I’ve seen Syrian refugees transformed by this, and I’ve seen suburban Philadelphia natives transformed by this. The point is, all humans hurt; all of us grieve. And it’s rare for us, often, to have an opportunity to process that in a community setting.”

It’s not a simple process, and it’s tough work to be involved in. But both Andrew and Elizabeth insist that there’s plenty of hope alongside the pain.

“Your trauma will always be with you. The point is that it’s not the end of your story – we believe it’s a beginning of your story. You carry it with you, in a way, throughout the rest of your life, but hopefully it can be redeemed into something, if not beautiful, at least something that is a springboard for hope.”

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In Vino Veritas

Caring for the drunk and the vulnerable in the party capital of Europe.

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“It was a square mile that had more pubs, clubs, and bars than anywhere in the European continent.”

San Antonio, Ibiza. According to Brian Heasley, it’s the “playground of the rich and famous”, a “stomping ground of the young and drunk”, a beautiful place with an underbelly.

“There’s a darker element – everybody’s taking drugs, somebody’s selling drugs,” he says.

In 2005, Brian decided to move there – with his wife and two young children, then aged six and nine. It was a challenging environment to raise a family, but it’s where they felt God wanted them to be.

“Church needs to be in broken places,” Brian says.

Brian and his wife found themselves walking the streets of Ibiza asking themselves: What does a church look like in Ibiza?

So, they started asking people if they could pray for them. Many of them were drunk, a little confused, sometimes wary, or even a little freaked out. But most of the time, they were up for it. That first summer, they prayed with more around 1,000 people.

“I think people were genuinely responsive to the fact that we were listening and offering the chance to talk and pray about that.”

Brian established the 24/7 Prayer organization in Ibiza. A small team, all wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the 24/7 logo, continued to walk the streets and pray for people in need. Then they opened a drop-in centre where people could use the internet, grab a drink of water, and take a breather from the relentless nightlife. They also started driving drunk and vulnerable people back to their hotels in a vehicle affectionately dubbed the “vomit van”.

Locals – from bar owners to the cops, to the workers in the local health centre – started to take notice and realise that Brian and his team were not just there to pray but to offer “actual” help as well. They chipped in where they could, and they started to change the way they did things too.

“People became more compassionate,” Brian says, “people started saying they were ‘doing a 24/7’.”

These days, Brian is the international director of 24/7 – he’s back in the UK and overseeing several 24/7 prayer rooms around the world, including the one that’s still operating in Ibiza. There’s a Latin phrase Brian likes to use when describing his work there: in vino veritas.

“In wine there is truth. Sometimes people are a little bit more honest, a little bit more vulnerable than they would be normally,” he says. “We were modelling a way to care for drunk people.”

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Find out more about 24-7 Prayer: www.24-7prayer.com

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You Are What You Wear

People are prepared to pay the price for ethical fashion – and the industry is taking notice.

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“We believe that we won’t need to use the word ethical in the next five years - because that is what the fashion industry will be.”

Davyn de Bruyn has a bold vision – and he doesn’t think it’s too far out of reach. As the Managing Director of Thread Harvest, an ethical online fashion marketplace based in Australia, he knows that “people are prepared to pay more for ethical fashion”.

He’s not the only one who’s convinced the needle is moving in the fashion industry towards ethical wear.

Gershon Nimbalker puts together Baptist World Aid’s annual ethical fashion guide. It scores fashion companies – from Cotton On and Country Road, H&M to Zara, even major department stores like David Jones and Myer – and gives them a rating from A through to F.

The scoring criteria include company policies and how well they’re enforced, whether companies have a relationship with their suppliers, factory conditions, and worker wages.

“People are willing to pay the difference to get this right,” Gershon says.

And companies are starting to notice - but competing on price while achieving ethical standards in the fashion industry is not without its challenges.

“The one question mark we have with some of those fast fashion brands, is whether their business model is consistent with workers being paid a living wage,” Gershon says.

“The only brands that are paying a living wage, are usually niche ethical brands that are committed to working with workers from the ground up … and you often pay more for those products as well.”

For both Davyn and Gershon, their Christian faith is woven into their advocacy for ethical fashion.

Gershon says, “My faith has certainly crystallised for me the things that are really important – that commitment to make the world better, to make it just,” Gershon says. “Love transcends boundaries, it’s not just limited to my family and friends, but extends to wherever in the world there’s need.”

“When you look at a garment, you can immediately see where there’s a tear or a rip, and you’re drawn to it – but you go and repair it,” Davyn says. “In the Christian faith, we believe that you are created in the image and likeness of God, which means you have infinite value and worth. … If someone has infinite value and worth, then surely we should all have equal opportunity to thrive and enjoy the benefits of this beautiful world we were created to live in.”

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Read the 2018 Ethical Fashion Guide: www.baptistworldaid.org.au/resources/2018-ethical-fashion-guide

Shop at Thread Harvest: www.threadharvest.com.au

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Speak Up, Show Up

A conversation about death, loss, and what you can really say and do to help grieving people.

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“Hope was with us for 199 days and then she was gone.”

Nancy Guthrie has had to live through what many dread as the worst of all experiences of death – the death of her child. And she had to go through it twice.

“I had lots of questions. There were things I thought I understood about God that this brought to the surface – maybe I didn’t understand as much as I thought I did.”

As a Christian, Nancy turned to the Bible for answers. It wasn’t easy, but she eventually found herself in a place where she could believe that “somehow, [this experience] is going to accomplish God’s loving purposes for my life, and for my family”.

Then she fell pregnant again, unexpectedly.

“It felt like there were grey clouds gathering in the distant horizon that were getting ready to sweep through my life again,” she says.

Her son was diagnosed with Zellweger Syndrome, the same rare genetic disorder that had taken the life of her daughter, Hope, prematurely. Gabriel lived for 183 days.

“You have to make a decision about whether or not this grief is going to continue to define you, to be dominant, if you’re going to keep giving it a lot of power in your life, or if you’re going to be able to find a place for it in your life.”

In this episode, Nancy shares more of her story of loss, grief, and hope – and how she’s found a way to turn her pain into something helpful for others facing similar situations. She also gives great advice on how to really help grieving people.

First, speak up: “When you speak to them about the person they love who died … you didn’t make them sad, they’re already sad.”

And show up: “You remember who is willing to stop the busyness of their life to enter into that sorrow with you.”

For Nancy, it’s her faith that has shaped the way that she has been able to grieve well, and help others grieve well.

“Faith informs loss, but it doesn’t make loss hurt less by any means. So I would say what faith instilled in me [was] this sense that this loss wasn’t random or meaningless, and it filled me with a confidence that this life is not all there is.”

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Life on Mars

An aerospace engineer and an astrogeologist discuss the whether and why of space exploration.

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"For all these wonderful technologies, for all these incredible achievements that you see - rockets that can be reused, drones that can fly long missions, every discovery by the Hubble or the Kepler - there’s this realisation that when all the really, really good stuff comes along, I’m going to be dead."

When James Garth was a young, budding aerospace engineer, he came across an ad in his copy of Aviation Week that read: "In 200 years, space flight will be routine. You, however, will be dead." It was an existential-angst-inducing moment. But it hasn’t kept him from being constantly excited about the work he gets to do now.

"My main job is to make sure the wings don’t fall off – if the wings fall off, it’s a bad day, and if the wing stays on, it’s a good day," James says. He’s not being flippant – the wings of an aircraft, he explains, are designed to not fall off, of course, but only just.

"Aerospace is a really demanding profession because you’re pushing yourself up against the extremes of what is actually possible," he says. "You’ve got to shave out weight at every opportunity, you’ve got to constantly innovate and use new materials and new technologies … and that’s actually why I love doing aerospace engineering."

In this episode, we’re celebrating National Science Week in Australia with two conversations on space travel, the wonder of the cosmos, the possibility of life on other planets, and - of course - the best science fiction on offer.

Hear from two Australians with very cool jobs: James Garth, an aeronautical engineer, and a man who has travelled to Mars. Twice. Well, sort of.

"In the Canadian Arctic the ground is frozen, there’s permafrost, and we know there’s permafrost on Mars," Jonathan Clarke says about the location of his first Mars simulation experience. "In Utah you’ve got a red, dry desert with rocks that are full of clay, full of sulphates, just like we see on Mars," he says of the second.

An astrogeologist, Jon would love to go to Mars for real one day.

"I love beautiful places. Mars has grandeur. It’s got volcanos with cliffs eight kilometres high and canyons 12 kilometres deep, it’s got blue sunsets and pink skies, and great dust storms - it’s an extraordinarily beautiful landscape and I’d just love to be able to explore that in person."

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These interviews were conducted at ISCAST’s Conference on Science and Christianity. Find out more about ISCAST here: www.iscast.org

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Same Species, Bigger Sticks

Is the human race on an inevitable trajectory onward and upward? Not quite, says Nick Spencer.

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"We are the same species but with bigger sticks, and those sticks can be used to reach further and achieve more - but they can conversely be used to beat a lot more people. That is precisely the point. Were we to find ourselves under the same pressures of resource scarcity that our ancestors endured every single day, we would probably find ourselves less moral than we think ourselves to be."

Is the world a better place to live today than it has ever been before? Some would answer this question with a resounding yes – like Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard. His latest book, Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress, charts improvements over time across a whole range of markers – life expectancy, child mortality, wealth and poverty, war and violence, and more – and one of the central claims of his book is that we owe all this progress to the Enlightenment.

Nick Spencer, Director of Research at Theos Think Tank in the UK and author of The Evolution of the West: How Christianity has shaped our values, says that there’s more to the story of the human race.

"The beef I have with Steven Pinker is that he traces all good things to the Enlightenment and no bad things to it," Nick Spencer says, "and as soon as you do that, you’re almost invariably oversimplifying history for your own purposes."

In the episode, we look at the positives of the Enlightenment, as well as some of its more ambiguous elements.

"You can certainly see an enormous potential for human moral progress," he says, "but you have that twin fear of technological progress that seems to continue apace, with the more ambiguous form of moral progress that may or may not happen."

"The worst possible scenario is a coincidence of significant technological progress and development with moments of human fallibility – if you get that, which is what you did get in the 1930s and 40s, the scene is not a happy one."

But even as a self-confessed "glass half-empty" person, Nick Spencer has hope for humanity, which is rooted in his Christian faith.

"I think that the human person has a malleability, a creative fluidity … the person is responsive to love," he says. "I think, therefore, the person can be redeemed through responding to the love of God, and that means the person’s future can be redeemed and can 'progress' – it can blossom and flourish in a way that it might not otherwise."

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WATCH Nick Spencer debate Steven Pinker on the future of humanity: http://bit.ly/2LI2S1e

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Guess Who’s Not Coming To Dinner

Politics, religion, and being a good guest at dinner - or a good citizen in the public square.

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"The old edict in the UK is that there are certain conversations you avoid around the dinner table: one is politics, the other is religion. Seeing as I write on politics and religion, I don’t get invited to dinner very much."

Nick Spencer says it makes sense to think that the combination of religion and politics in a conversation at a dinner party will be explosive – politics is typically about compromise, and religion, to many people, is all about not compromising. He suggests, however, that "you can talk about politics and religion without heading straight for the neuralgic issues".

In this episode, Nick explores the ways in which people can mix politics and religion well.

He also uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate ways the Bible has frequently been used (and misused), and often to great effect, by both sides of politics in the UK. On the left, it has been used to "justify bombing in Syria", and on the right to "justify materialism and voluntarism".

But his point is not that politicians should leave religion out of politics. Instead, he makes a case for welcoming the Bible – and other rich, comprehensive moral doctrines – into public debate.

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Nick Spencer’s book, The Political Samaritan: How power hijacked a parable, is available to purchase here: http://bit.ly/2LjoYuZ

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