Bone-shaking at the best of times, the Ibiza’s suspension takes a pounding this afternoon. We’re bouncing along the Grand Avenue, a long straight track that bisects ancient Savernake Forest; I’m giving Joey and Theo a driving lesson: pulling away, emergency stops, hill starts. So, it’s not just the suspension, the gearbox is complaining, and the exhaust is starting to sound distinctly throaty too.
Teaching a skill that’s second nature means I’m having to think about actions and movements to which I normally pay no attention whatsoever. Coming to a stop, do you engage the clutch before putting your foot on the brake? I find myself using my feet to answer the question for me. My feet know, my brain doesn’t. It’s disconcerting, this bringing to my mind’s eye gestures and responses that are normally hidden from view.
Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.Matthew 10:26
We keep things hidden from others, of course, for countless reasons. But we keep things hidden from ourselves too, sometimes out of expedience, sometimes because we’re frightened of snagging on an old pain. But there are aspects of our lives kept from view simply because they’ve become muscle memory, ingrained habits and behaviours we no longer think about. They’re automatic.
Driving is one. Faith is another. Or can be. Now and then it’s helpful to hit a pothole or snap a fan belt. It forces you to pop the bonnet and peer inside, to get your hands dirty again, or burned.
Outside, the air is close and we can hear thunder occasionally over the revving engine. Check the mirror, indicate, brake, then clutch. We pause at an intersection in the middle of the forest to enjoy the last of the sunshine. Handbrake. Above us, the leaves are shivering greens and golds against the featureless deep blue of an approaching storm. We climb out to stretch, and to breathe the air sharp with ozone.
I pull driving to bits in order to see how I do it. Pulling faith to bits to get at the fundamentals is worthwhile too; questions raised in a confirmation class are often harder and more penetrating than those from delegates at a conference or a seminar. They force you to think again about the foundations, about what’s been buried by habit.
In the fast lane of a motorway, driving a modern, silent car with adaptive cruise control, advanced driver-assistance systems, it’s easy to forget the speed and power of the vehicle. Cars are designed to divorce us from the messy and dangerous business of internal combustion. Perhaps everyone should drive an Ibiza now and again – to remind you: it’s noisy, dirty, dangerous and bumpy. Faith can become comfortable too, secure, easy. You can take your feet off the pedals, hands off the wheel. You can nod off.
Like the Grand Avenue, the Bible is helpfully rutted with potholes. Here’s one:
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.Matthew 10:37
You need your feet on the pedals here, and both hands on the wheel. Suddenly we have to concentrate. The Bible has a way of jolting us out of our cosy theological preconceptions, our tendency to mould God to our own ethical norms and standards.
Can we avoid the difficult Matthew passage, dismiss it as an anomaly? Here’s Luke:
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.Luke 14:26
Even worse! This pothole is un-skirt-round-able. Perhaps we should just remain silent about such passages. But commenting on this exact verse, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), rightly points out, ‘silence is only a futile evasion.’ And furthermore, he says, any tasteful watering-down, or clever exegetical shenanigans designed to lessen the impact of Jesus’ words ‘ends up in drivel rather than terror.’
The words are terrible, but I feel sure they can be understood without the person who understands them necessarily having the courage to do as they say. And yet there must be honesty enough to admit what is there, to confess to its greatness even if one lacks the courage oneself. Anyone who manages that will not exclude himself from a share in the beautiful story.Kierkegaard, from Problema II, Fear and Trembling
Through honesty and confession of our own weakness we are granted a share in the story. This is a profoundly important insight. The centrality of confession and forgiveness to the way we live out our faith is a process of endlessly placing potholes before ourselves, getting our fingers burned, refusing to allow our faith to become ‘automatic’ or second nature or strong. It’s bloody difficult, but it’s beautiful, a way of putting ourselves humbly in God’s way.
The Bible is hopeless as a means of confirming our own biases and prejudices; it is constantly wrong-footing us. It is not an instruction manual, a set of rules we can conveniently read off its surface when needed; it’s not the Highway Code. It’s a text in which to live; more, it’s a story in which we share. And every life, like every good story, is bound to be rutted, full of ups and downs, patterned by sunshine, and by storms.
The rain starts to fall, huge grape-sized drops, like an absolution.
And we rush back to the Ibiza, laughing.
Let’s be honest, I’m not really sure how much longer my Ibiza has for this world. It may well be the case that the government’s emergency six month extension to MOT certificates on account of the pandemic could mark my car’s final six months in existence. So, here’s a link – I can’t stop watching this – to what may serve as the Ibiza’s last hurrah…
the beginning and the end,
we call your name, as you call ours:
we would come to you,
for your will is our life,
here & now, there & then, everywhere & always;
we know we cannot live on bread alone,
but by every word that comes from your mouth.
Forgive us our certitude
as we forgive the certitude of others.
Lead us out of complacency and prejudice,
and deliver us from self-assurance.
We long for your kingdom, not ours;
to you be the glory,
forever and ever.
A clarification written by Diana Rowlands to the reflection entitled ‘The Voice of God’ which we posted on Wednesday 17th.
Diana wishes to make it absolutely clear that the decision to put her mother on the Liverpool Care Pathway was made by the hospital where her mother had been admitted following a fall resulting in a broken hip. Despite the family being told their mother would die within days, she survived for 5 weeks, during which time the family had to battle to get her moved to the hospice, as it became apparent she required expert Palliative Care. The care and support provided by the hospice for the last week of her life was excellent in every respect.