Monday, May 11, 2009

The Old Testament heart

Note: first posted 7/5/07. I thought it timely to repost it.

This is a long one! I've been pondering the themes in this post for many months now, especially on my recent holiday. Now is the time to write it. The lyrics which structure the post are from the song 'The Dive' by Steve Knightley, of Show of Hands. Click on 'full post' to read.

One November noon, we left the docks
Heading southwest from Morecambe rocks.
My dad and me, our 'nine to five',
He used to steer. I used to dive.

So over the side I slowly went down,
A hundred below, the seawater brown.
Well, after an hour, I got low on air,
When I surfaced again his boat wasn't there.


I miss my father.

Shortly after his death I went to see my spiritual director, a very wise old Franciscan monk. He asked me how close I was to my dad, and after some scattered comments I said 'Somehow I feel much less afraid of death now. I feel he's now right there on the other side, and when I die his will be the first face I see.'

'Ah,' said my director. 'Very close then.'


I have very vivid memories of that time. In particular I remember when I decided that I was going to take the funeral, which was a very strange decision to make in many ways. I was sitting on the hospital bed in the room where my father had died - his body had been taken away but our things were still there, so the staff hadn't yet put another patient in.

I made the decision in part because there were very clear reasons why it would have been inappropriate for the local incumbent to take the service, which I need not go into here. More, though, was the sense I had of being propelled forward with great ferocity - almost an anger - an insistence that the funeral had to be done right. More than anything else, though, was an awareness of something very strong within me that was coming forward; something really rather primitive in many ways, but also very vital and alive. A remarkably powerful sense of will and purpose.


My father wore two rings - his engagement ring and his wedding ring. My elder brother got the engagement ring as it was inscribed with my father's initials, which my brother shares. I wear the wedding ring on the middle finger of my right hand. I would like my eldest son to have it when I die - he was named after my father.

When I first put it on it was too large for the ring finger. My mum suggested putting it on the middle finger, where it now sits. Of course it's now a bit tight. As if I have expanded to fill the space.

I felt different as soon as I had put it on. Not sure if it is because I am a Lord of the Rings fan or otherwise superstitious but it represents to me now precisely that strength of will or affirmation of purpose that I felt come upon me at that time. It marks a change in me. A death. A birth.


Looking back now I see that until he died I always lived under the shelter of my father. He was always there, and he always supported me. I was lazy; not necessarily in a physical sense but, perhaps, in a more fundamental moral sense. A passenger perhaps; not a driver. I didn't pass my driving test until two years after he died. It had never seemed urgent until then, but I passed my driving test on the day I was appointed to my present job. There is a sign in that, I believe.

And it is when I am driving now, especially when I am on my own, that I am most aware of my father's presence with me. There are times when it is stronger, other times when it is weaker, but there is this persistent awareness of him being with me; and that is as much a moral image as a spatial one.

I remember long car journeys with him, either to boarding school or university. Sometimes talking, sometimes just a companionable silence.

I believe osmosis is a generally ignored form of parenting.


My marker buoy had come untied
And drifted away, his boat at its side.
He looked at his watch, three miles to the South,
And turned back again, his heart in his mouth.

Soft rain on my face, the sun nearly set
I cut loose the weights, let fall the nets.
Lights on the shore so bright and clear,
The combs drifting in and nobody near.


I first heard this Show of Hands song live, down in Putney. I was utterly bowled over by it, not least because I was so hooked by the story - will he live or will he die? It's a true story, and the writer knows the people about whom he talks. I find Show of Hands to be a very male group, which I intend as an unambiguous compliment.

Long time readers of this blog will know that I have long struggled with the question of non-violence (newcomers can explore the links on my sidebar). The debate is sharpest within me when considering the 'frightening scenarios', ie 'what would you do if...'. Stanley Hauerwas says that this is a failure of Christian imagination and that Christians should be concerned with the wider questions that arise prior to such scenarios taking place. I am becoming clearer in my mind that this is not the whole truth, however much sympathy that I have with his perspective. If an opportunity had arisen then it would have been the right thing to do to kill Seung Hui Cho. I do not mean that killing him would have been without sin; I mean that in such situations there is a choice between the present reality and possible futures. Sometimes a love for the concrete present must be allowed to restrict the possible future. We trust that the future lies in God's hands and that he can redeem us from wherever we are found.

There are good men; and there are bad men. Sometimes a man is good because he is somebody near.

Sometimes a man is good not just because he has killed the bad, but because he is prepared to do the same thing again. That is, he is not crippled with regret or remorse. He recognises the link between death and life.


We do need ways for warriors to be re-integrated into society. Hauerwas is very good on this, not least that the greatest sacrifice asked of a soldier is the request made of them that they sacrifice their unwillingness to kill.


There is, of course, the equal and opposite error. Not the exercise of the will but the elevation of the will, the 'puffing up', the Alpha Male expanding his chest.

At the age of ten I was made Head Boy of my primary school; I instantly began trying to copy the authority figures and give my classmates orders. I was rapidly and violently disabused of my authoritarian notions.

That lesson has gone very deep. For most of my life I have been suspicious of my own will. It has been kept caged up in case it got me into trouble. I proceed cautiously and patiently. Also relentlessly, it must be confessed. I find it very difficult to go into reverse - one reason why I am so conscientious about moving forward, thinking through as many options as I can before I take a decision.

Thing is, decisions cannot be avoided; or, better, the avoidance of a decision is also a decision itself, and therefore it is not without consequences.

My father's death woke me up. It woke up my will. This frightens me sometimes.


Was there ever a reel, a rod or a line
So strong and true, so straight or fine?
That tied and wound him through time and space:
He came out the darkness right to that place!

Now we don't talk much about that day;
Got two kids of my own now, and one on the way;
But if they're to grow, and if they're to thrive,
One day they'll go, one day they'll dive.
And when they come up for light and air
I hope someone's close; I hope someone's there.


One of the reasons why shivers went up my spine when I first heard this sung were because the lyrics fitted so well with regard to children, though my 'one on the way' has now arrived.

Fathers are needed. I'm sure I'm not on my own in thinking that I fail sometimes; but this isn't me seeking reassurance - I think I do OK! - it's more a recognition of the truth, that I struggle to raise them well, that often I really don't know what I'm doing.

This is most acute when considering the question of smacking. I am short-tempered sometimes; normally if I am in some stress from other things; so occasionally I shout more often than I consider genuinely wise. I never believed I could become so cantankerous.

I can't believe that smacking is absolutely out of bounds. Not as a routine issue - and certainly not done with any instrument or as some form of structural discipline (in the way that I was 'slippered' at school...) - but sometimes a child needs to see that a parent can be provoked into anger, and that that anger can have physical consequences to reinforce the lesson, the establishment of a boundary. It has only happened, with my eldest, perhaps five or six times; even less with number two. I always hate myself later, but I don't regret it. The benefits seem to be so clear.

Of course, perhaps those benefits are false - it's just conforming somebody else's will to my will, and who am I to impose my will? Actually, who am I not to? That is precisely the point. It is the father's job to raise a child able to enter into society and make their own way in life. The mother will identify with the child and seek to nurture and affirm. It is the father that must prune and shape. I think there is a biological basis to this, but actually the roles are not unequivocally biological. Sometimes it is the father who is nurturing and affirming whilst the mother exercises discipline.
"Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the judgements which the LORD your God has commanded me to teach you, that you might do them in the land where you are going over to possess it. So that you and your son and your grandson might fear the LORD your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged." (Deuteronomy chapter 6)

Hebrews 9.22 states that unless there is the shedding of blood there is no άφεσις (aphesis - remission/ forgiveness/ redemption & new life). This is about Jesus and his death; it is also a wider Biblical principle. Not one that is comfortable for a modern awareness.

A few months ago I read an outstandingly good book about survival, by Laurence Gonzales. I liked it especially because it linked in with the neurological work done by Damasio and others which I have been interested in for a long time. I'd like to share this quotation with you - Gonzales is describing a group of people who have been cast adrift at sea in a small boat, and the way in which some of them were mentally ready to do the work of survival, whilst others were 'losing it' - and becoming a hazard that would potentially kill everyone. Hard decisions had to be made, and Gonzales quotes another writer in saying this:
"To survive, you must at some point allow cool to become cold. Stockdale wrote, "In difficult situations, the leader with the heart, not the soft heart, not the bleeding heart, but the Old Testament heart, the hard heart, comes into his own." Survival means accepting reality, and accepting reality takes a hard heart. But it is a strange kind of coldness, for it has empathy at its center. Survivors discover a deep spiritual relationship to the world...."

The Old Testament heart is the capacity to inflict pain for the greater good; to keep eyes fixed upon the essential point, and to take the measures needed to ensure long term flourishing. It is when the heart is set wholly on God that priorities find their proper place, and God's hand guides the blade. It is when will power is allied to idolatry that darkness and destruction descend on the community.


At my father's funeral I preached the resurrection. I was profoundly grateful that I had had a conversation with him not long before when he had explicitly avowed his belief, and that he found my rather academic explorations rather beside the point. I said this: "when we are faced with the harsher realities of life, and we are thrown back from the everyday, the Christian faith, the faith which Bruce shared, comes with a clear message, a message of hope. For Christianity was born when Jesus rose again from the dead, and the shockwaves from that event are still rolling around our world. Many people, perhaps most people today, question this Christian belief in the resurrection. Bruce didn’t question it – he told me so himself. Bruce had a simple and living faith, which worked through him and animated all that he did. He lived a Christian life; he didn’t talk about it much, he just did it. And at the heart of the Christian message is a testimony that death does not have the last word."

My memory of giving this sermon is exceptionally clear. I felt totally exposed; my will was utterly present; and it was right. It was as if this was the place where I received the anointing of the Holy Spirit, here is where God affirmed me as a priest.

"I came that you might have life, life in all its fullness."


It's November noon
We're leaving the docks
My son and me
From Morecambe rocks.

Let's dive.

Let's dive.

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