Translation of this Maori proverb: “The Totara has fallen in the forest of Tane” A Totara is a huge New Zealand tree that grows for hundreds of years and for one of them to fall is a great tragedy. This proverb is said when someone of importance passes away.
Two great Totaras fell within three weeks of each other. Billy Graham at 99 years on February 21, 2018 and Stephen Hawking 76, on March 14, 2018. The fall of a mighty Totara would shake the earth. Both of these men’s life and work have shaken the earth. The tremors will continue.
In March 1959 in the Melbourne Cricket Ground, I was part of the 130,000 strong audience who gathered to hear Billy Graham preach. That was [and still is] the largest crowd ever gathered at the sporting venue. It was awe inspiring. The experience impacted my life. I believed everything Billy Graham said and committed myself to spreading the ‘gospel’ as he preached it.
I became aware of Stephen Hawking in my late 30’s. I admired his courage and determination to keep working despite his many handicaps He was by then a prominent scientist. As well as speaking about science, he also spoke about philosophy and religion.
I was greatly irritated by his announcement that is no God.
To a person like me, firmly established in the ‘God’ business I viewed him as the enemy. I searched for and found scientists who did believe in God and always had them at the ready whenever the subject of Stephen Hawking came up.
However, neither was I completely at ease with Billy Graham. One thing that puzzled me from that first encounter at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, was his emphasis on heaven. I was 22 and Billy was an incredibly good looking young man in his prime. He told us all that his real ‘home’ was in heaven. Using the words of Paul he told us, “I would rather die and be in heaven with Christ than to be here with you” (Philippians 1.23). This was a jarring note to me. I knew that I was in no hurry to die. I assumed this must be yet another indication of my sinful nature. The words of the poet Wordsworth haunted me.
“The world is too much with us; and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers”
Stephen Hawking’s health problems were obvious. In recent years he has required round the clock care by a medical team. His huge health bills have been covered by grants from foundations from the USA. Billy although looking so fit, has also had multiple medical problems of a serious kind. In contrast to Stephen Hawking’s life in a fish bowel, Billy’s private life was ‘private’. A website supportive of him lists some of his health problems; hernias, ulcers, cysts, polyps, infections, pneumonia, chronic high blood pressure, throbbing headaches, falls that have broken 18 of his ribs (we only have 24), Parkinson’s Disease and it states he had other unnamed health issues.
Both Billy Graham and Stephen Hawking have experienced facing life or death questions regarding hi-tech life support.
Billy’s wife Ruth, had been in frail health since suffering spinal meningitis since 1995. This was exacerbated by a degenerative osteoarthritis for many years. Bedridden for months she contracted pneumonia. She was kept alive on life support. On Monday, June 11, 2007 after consultation with his family, Billy requested she be removed from life support. She was buried in the grounds of the Billy Graham Library on June 17, 2007.
While visiting the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Cern, Switzerland, Stephen Hawking contracted pneumonia. He was put into in a drug induced coma and connected to a life support machine. His wife of 20 years, Jane rushed to join him in Geneva. Talking about this time, Professor Hawking, says: “The doctors thought I was so far gone that they offered Jane to turn off the machine. Jane refused to turn it off. She insisted I be flown back to Cambridge.” He admits: “The weeks of intensive care which followed were the darkest of my life.” The illness left him on a ventilator, almost 24 hours a day, unable to speak, and needing constant nursing care. However, he survived and returned to his work. Without a voice and or movement in his hands, operating his computer through a muscle in his cheek he continued in the front line of scientific research. Referring to this new lease of limited life Professor Hawking says: “Because every day could be my last, I had the desire to make the most of every single minute.”
On the other hand we have Billy Graham who throughout his life constantly talks and writes about heaven. For instance, amongst his last books were Nearing Home: Life, Faith, and Finishing Well (2011) The Heaven Answer Book (2012) Where I Am: Heaven, Eternity, and Our Life Beyond the Now (2015). Billy says the reason we must endure (put up with) this life is to serve God’s will and to prepare for the glorious tomorrow beyond the grave. “When a Christian breathes his last breathe on earth, he will take his next breathe in heaven” he writes.
Stephen Hawking brilliant as he was, made mistakes. Although the public, influenced no doubt by his disability, always gave him the benefit of the doubt. Some called him the ‘God of Physics’. In fact some of his calculations were wrong and some of his predictions have been proved incorrect. One of his most public disagreements was with Peter Higgs, the scientist who gave his name to the Higgs boson. Amongst other things, Hawking warned that meddling with the Higgs boson if there was such a thing, could cause the universe to collapse. Peter Higgs refuting this view said Hawking used incorrect calculations. The work in Cern of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) proved Hawking wrong. Hawking admitted his mistake and said that Peter Higgs should receive the Nobel Prize which he did.
To my mind, there are contradictions in Billy’s pronouncements about heaven. Taken at face value, Billy’s preaching and writing expresses a constant desire to die and go to heaven. However, in his life he has had the latest and best medical treatments, all aimed at keeping him alive. I have read his descriptions of heaven and life after death. I know the Bible passages they are based on.
Billy’s interpretations are too simplistic. In fact no one knows what awaits us after death, not even Billy. I can understand how Christians who were in danger of being fed to lions longed for the next life. The same would be true for exploited black slaves yearning to cross over the Jordan, but that is not our situation.
The idea of a fabulous life after death is a common theme in religion. The Moslem faith has a similar view. According to this way of thinking, the world we live in is nothing better than a shabby waiting room. The real thing, the fabulous beauty, and unending happiness etc. comes only after death. This is one of religions (all religions) most powerful tools. Secret knowledge about this next world has been used throughout the ages to exploit and enslave whole nations. It is in fact one of the most costly misconceptions in human history.
From my reading of the Jesus his actions, his parables, his teaching, I note the recurring emphasis on this world, on the ‘now’ In Luke 17. 21-22 Jesus tells us ‘the kingdom is within you’. I follow Jesus not because of hope of heavenly glory. I follow him because his ways make sense in this life. He challenges me to do my best to make this world a better place for people – all ages, all races, all cultures, a better place for the environment, for the poor and the rich.
Stephen Hawking has ruffled the feathers of religious people like me, but without doubt he has helped many people.
Here are just a couple of Stephen’s quotes that inspire me. “Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. However difficult life may seem there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.” And, although he asserts he is an atheist, he said “I believe the universe is governed by the laws of science. The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws.”
At different times and in different ways my life has been impacted by these two men. I am grateful to both of them. That said, I would like to add quote from the Bible which to me is a guiding light.
John 1. 1-3 “In the beginning the Word (the meaning) already existed; the Word (the meaning) was with God, and the Word (the meaning) was God. 2 From the very beginning the Word (the meaning) was with God. 3 Through him God made all things; not one thing in all creation was made without him”.
March 30, 2018