I remember once as a little boy watching my dad walking towards the back gate of our yard. He had been gone all day—as he often had been for months—bull-dozing mulga scrub to feed sheep that had been living on the brink of starvation in a relentless drought. He walked with the easy rhythm of an athlete’s body and one that’s well toned by hard work, but there was also something rigid about him—probably to do with the set of his jaw, which somehow makes me even now feel a mysterious sadness.
I didn’t even think about the aroma, but as I remember, I quietly enjoyed this unique vintage, which floated with him when he had been out there like that in the blistering heat all day long: first there was a heavy assault of diesel, then a kind of dry, dusty-ness along with a faint fragrance of sawdust (from the trees that had to be chain-sawed) and all of this in the medium of ordinary old human sweat—but it was sweat that was light-on because most of it had been evaporated and sweetened by honest lashings of machinery oil, blue sky and powdery red before it could go anywhere.
So there I was watching this mysterious creature called ‘daddy’ walking towards our big old homestead, every bit of him covered in red dust: his hat, his week-long growth, his clothes and his boots—everything except his eyes and his lips. Lips that were compressed into a thin pink line, tensioned by the invisible muscles of his soul as it carried all the stuff I didn’t have to worry about, but was more or less aware of: the sheep and the drought, the bank loans, his own secret memories, and of course the girl who had become his wife and my mother.
And here he was on his way from the sheep and the drought to the loans and his wife. Then, as if taken by surprise, he noticed me looking at him and we smiled at each other, really smiled, and then he kept walking towards the back door of the house. Inside, the girl who had become his wife—and was becoming a candle that still burns in my soul today—was in a wheelchair.
According to the teachings of the New Testament, suffering and death is on the one hand a scandalous affront that we are to work side-by-side with God in fighting and doing all we can to overcome, but on the other hand it points out that there comes a time where we are to accept it as a kind of paradoxical synchronicity of the will of evil and the will of God—heading in opposite directions but happening to meet at one particular point. There’s nothing pleasant about this place and fortunately for us there were no well-meaning people of faith trying to oil it with platitudes. Instead we simply watched and listened and tried to do our part helping to feed her and helping dad with the housework—often a bit of a joke and a mess, but we had a go anyway.
The fight had been taken to doctors and to God and to whatever else we thought we could hope in and now we had come to that awful synchronicity where (as I discovered much later) we are told that, in some impossible to understand way, God—who is by the way, even the God of the deep darkness and chaos—was coming close to us and living with us via the mostly-trusting and mostly-patient personhood of this usually gracious and suffering girl my father had married. I’m glad that no one told us that at the time, but after she was gone, I knew it was true and it made so much sense of the things mum used to say to us.
And there was no accident about the ‘sayings’: she would start to breathe harder, then you could see her mouth working and you knew she was trying to tell you something important. So you would watch and wait. On one of these occasions dad was out somewhere and three of us boys were about to go out in the hot sun and chip burrs for the day. Just before we left we knew mum had something to say, so we gathered in front of her in the dining room with our water bottles and hats and—from her wheelchair—she gave us her carefully worded speech: ‘Jesus said … where two or three of you … are gathered in my name… he is there with you.’ It was powerful and beautiful.
But the problem is that no one should ever have to go through anything like this. It is an offence. It’s a Rainbow boxed up inside a Nightmare where the Nightmare stands over you and says, ‘Listen to me little boy. I win. I always win.’ And it does—for a time, which as far you’re concerned, is forever.
But what do you do when one day you look around and have to admit that it seems the Rainbow is now winning? Do you tell your story? Maybe not. Or if you do, you tell it carefully, because without even intending to, you can be implying that you’re now one of the enlightened ones or that you are one of God’s favourites—thereby leaving a lot of people feeling hurt and ignored.
Whichever way we approach this, we can’t deny that there are countless souls who acquire an unmistakeable authority because of the fact that they were not healed and who also talk of quiet and deep God-encounters mediated via pain. And yes there are and will continue to be banal things said about this experience by both the sufferers and by those close to them: the internet is full of over-the-top, gushing faith statements spoken or written by those dealing with pain and by their carers and admirers. Much of it feeling like what could be described as ‘unctuous’*.
It may have helped if my dad had been able to at least have conversations with us about this, but then we live in a ‘verbalisation/confession/my life about me’ drunk society, so perhaps he did us all a great favour by simply keeping his mouth shut, doing what he could, and letting us feel, watch and be in the proximity of ordinary old goodness. If he had gone to some School of Preaching and tried it on us, it would very likely have descended into religious clap-trap and ruined everything. Either way, I can’t forget that sweet moment with a patient and faithful dad: a working-hard, caring-for-mum, loving-us-and-making-us-work-damn-hard dad.
The whole experience reminds me of something Gunter Bornkamm had to say, ‘This encounter compels everyone to step out of his customary background. This bringing to light of men as they really are takes place in all stories about Jesus .. . Any attempt to raise Jesus’ Messiahship into a system of dogma is doomed to failure … there’s an indissoluble connection between that failure and Jesus’ message about the reality of the Kingdom. This alone lends to Jesus’ history and person the character of unmediated presence, gives the force of an actual event to his preaching and makes his words and deeds so compelling. To make the reality of God present: this is the essential mystery of Jesus. This making-present signifies the end of the world in which it takes place.’1
Perhaps it’s okay to be in that silent gap between doomed dogma and Jesus’ message.
* excessively or ingratiatingly flattering; oily … having a greasy or soapy feel.
1. (Gunter Bornkamm pp.61,61 Jesus of Nazareth)