Book reviews

Child sacrifice: the other side of missionary life

Home is Where: The Journeys of a Missionary Child by Margaret Newbigin Beetham

From the 1930s to the 1970s, Lesslie Newbigin was a missionary and Bishop in South India. When he ‘retired’ back to England, he pastored an inner city church in Birmingham, lectured and wrote a series of highly influential books. 

No Christian writer has influenced me more than Newbigin. I have read all of his books and find him a continual source of wisdom and inspiration.

And it’s not just me. Over 20 years since his death, new books, lectures, blogs and podcasts continue to eulogise his life and work.

Family

Newbigin and his wife Helen had 4 children. His oldest child, Margaret, has written a powerful and evocative memoir titled Home is Where about her upbringing and the impact that her parent’s missionary life had.   It’s a vital book for anyone who appreciates her father’s work.

Home is Where is no hatchet-job on Newbigin’s reputation: in fact it gives further evidence of his warm and good-natured character.

But what it starkly illustrates is the impact that a missionary life can have on children. Newbigin was loved and respected by many, but the price of this was how absent he was from the lives of his children. As Beetham writes:

‘He was a father to a lot of people. Everyone wanted a piece of him and sometimes there was not much left for his daughters.’

In countless books and articles, there is no shortage of reflection and analysis on Newbigin’s thinking and theology. But this book is different. It focusses on Newbigin’s role as a Dad.

Prompted memories

I found Home is Where an unusual and fascinating book.

Beetham is now retired from her career as an academic and lives in Manchester.  Rather than recounting a linear narrative, she weaves in scenes from her life which have prompted memories of her upbringing. A creative use of letters and emails illustrate how the past intersect with her life today.

Her writing vividly recalls the culture in missionary and church circles of the time. She contrasts the heat, noise, colour and sensuality of her early life in India, with the cold, damp, grey, repression of post-war Britain. 

Confusion

When she is sent to boarding school in Kent, her tales of being shunted around Britain between grandparents, aunts and school are moving and poignant.  

Confusion about what ‘home’ meant are constant realities of her early life. When friends celebrated the start of holidays, she felt differently because she did not return ‘home’ as others did. The break from school was mostly ‘days and nights stretched out in undifferentiated greyness, shot through with anxiety or bewilderment.’

Unspoken sadness

She recounts her Mother teaching her to pack by putting the heavy, bulky items at the bottom of the case and folding clothing smoothly on top. Beetham uses it as an illustration of the tendency to conceal deep and heavy matters and present a neat exterior to the world.

Unspoken sadness is a key theme. Her Auntie lost 3 sons to war and suicide, her sister struggled with mental illness and she was afflicted by panic attacks, but none of these matters were spoken of. 

Right at the end of her father’s life, she sits beside his hospital bed, wanting to articulate why so much has gone unsaid. But then they are interrupted by a clergyman who has journeyed to see him.  Her father dies that night and the words are left unspoken.

Similar experiences

Home is Where offers no simple resolution to the dilemma that countless missionaries will have grappled with.  The tension is summed up by a debate at her boarding school where Beetham recalls that she argued for the motion ‘Missionaries should not have children’.

A key reason why I found this book fascinating is that similar circumstances have affected my immediate family.

My paternal grandparents, Wilfred and Doris Kuhrt, were also missionaries in South India for 40 years for the same period as Newbigin.  They knew each other and Newbigin would consult my grandfather on Tamil translation.

My Dad‘s childhood had some similarities with Beetham’s, though he never went to boarding school. His situation was complicated further by disability (he was born with club-foot) and serious illness after he contracted Polio when he was 18 months old.

After returning to Britain after the war in 1945, his parents left him in England a year later when he was 4 years old and returned to India. He did not see them again for 5 years. He wrote about these experiences in a short book titled Life’s Not Always Easy.

Deep and challenging

Similarly to my Dad, Beetham may recount the past with sadness, but she avoids bitterness or sharp criticism of her parents. And, rather than reject the faith which had such a disruptive influence on their early lives, both she and my Dad are Christians very much involved in church life.

The impact that faith-based decisions have on our children is one of the deepest and most challenging of subjects.

Andy Dorton is a community activist who intentionally moved with his family onto a deprived council estate in Hull and has lived there for decades. He wrote this insightful comment:

“The problem with Jesus is that he never had kids: claim he understands all our temptations if you like, but he never had kids.”

……………………………….

Buy Home is Where: The Journeys of a Missionary Child by Margaret Newbigin Beetham

6 thoughts on “Child sacrifice: the other side of missionary life”

  1. Hi Jon, I’ve thought about this in the light of the story of Abraham and Isaac. I think all of us as parents impact the lives of our chidren by our decisions. It’s not only missionaries who might be tempted into overworking and neglecting to spend time with their children or who might unintentionally expose them to things that are harmful. The best thing we can do for our chlldren is seek God’s help to be a true Christian witness to them, and that will involve being obedient to Him, whatever He asks of us, cherishing their mother till death do us part, and investing time in training them to grow up as mature disciples, not exasperating them with unrealistic expectations and giving them unconditional love.

    I think, with regard to Andy Dorton’s comment, Jesus’ choosing to remain unmarried and celibate, and therefore not fathering biologically related children, was part of his sacrificial calling. If we feel called, as an unmarried person, to do something which we know will inevitably be incompatible with being a loving husband and father, we should remain unmarried and childless for that season (or lifetime) and some people have that ‘gift’.

    But I think we are flattering ourselves if we think we love our biological children or wives more than Jesus loved his “brothers and sisters and mother” (Matt 12v50) and therefore following God for us is harder in some respects than it was for Jesus because Jesus didn’t have really close loved ones to consider like we do. Jesus does understand all our temptations because there is not any kind which he has not faced. (Hebrews 4v15).

    Like

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting Martin. I completely agree that we ALL affect our children’s lives through the choices we make and don’t make. I think that missionaries are just a more extreme form of this because of their decision to live a certain lifestyle – and it was probably even worse in the days when India was a month’s voyage away, rather than a few hours of flying.

      I find it helpful to think that my children are not ‘mine’ but are people for whom I have special responsibility. The times I have found this hardest is when decisions we have made, about where we live or where they go to school, seem to adversely affect them.

      But I don’t see Dorton’s quote as meaning that we love biological relatives ‘more’ than Jesus loves people. I think the usefulness of the quote is its provocation – it shakes us to not fall back on Biblical clichés too easily.

      As someone wise said to me this morning, it is in the anguish faced by Jesus’ mother Mary that we probably find the closest thing to this issue. He chose a path which meant worry, anxiety and ultimate heart-break for his Mum. It seems at times that she struggled with what he was doing and the hassle it was creating. I think this gives us some comfort when our children struggle with the choices we have made.

      Like

  2. Your article about ‘child sacrifice’ brings into sharp focus the way that we balance our priorities as Christians, especially the first two – to God and to our family; work for the kingdom we believe comes further down the list. My wife and I are fortunate that in our work for God we have never had to relinquish this responsibility for our children as they grew up. We often consider that God’s purpose for Abraham and Sarah was to achieve one thing – simply to bring up a son to follow in their footsteps of faith.

    Now we have reached the age where our concern is for our grandchildren and even one great grandchild. But all of these descendants live abroad and we are sad not to be intimately involved with their upbringing in the faith. However this does mean that we spend much more time praying for them, presumably like those missionaries in India with their children!

    Thank you once again for this blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jon, as a fellow lover of Newbigin, with his work forming the foundation of my doctoral methodology chapter, and as a dad who has dragged his kids around different countries (and then wonder why they have inherited the same wanderlust), I found this piece very moving and I was so grateful that you had taken the time to write the review. I remember reading Norman Grubb’s biography of Rees Howells, who left his children behind when he went to East Africa, and being struck by the same thought – why did you even have children?

    Perhaps part of the answer might be in changing expectations of involvement with children over time, but as someone who was sent to boarding school at 8 (for military, non-missionary, reasons) I am conscious of the limp I have walked with all my life because of this detachment.

    Dorton’s comment for me (as well as being really challenging!) goes to the root of something that we often feel as Christians, I think – that the ‘reality’ of God’s love for us is quite different (in an emotional register) from that our parents have for us. I often watch Long Lost Family and marvel at the deep emotional connections between people who a few weeks before did not even know of each other’s existence or who have been separated for decades, and think to myself – that is just like God’s love for us! He came, after years, decades, to rescue us and bring us home, to adopt us, to give us safety and a hope. And yet, in church, the gospel never feels like Long Lost Family, and I wonder why not? Do I weep for those who are so far from the Father in the same way that ITV manages to get me blubbing? I do not! And I should really!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s