First Be Reconciled. A Lenten Address


Liverpool Parish Church, February 22nd, 2002.

Some years ago I heard the story of a man who decided to get involved in his church’s ministry of healing. Having taken the decision, he became depressed and troubled. He knew that it was 30 years since he and his brother had quarrelled bitterly and that the ensuring family feud had led to them not uttering a word to one another over the intervening 30 years.

He resolved to put things right and having tracked down his younger brother he was initially rebuffed and rejected. He gently persisted and reconciliation followed. Healed of this personal unresolved pain he was freed up to be of use to others.

This man’s story reminds me of how often we prescribe remedies for others that we reject for ourselves. It is easy to tell people in far away places to end their savagery or their rivalrous factionalism, to lecture warring tribes in central Africa, or to demand peace processes on the West Bank or the Falls Road, and yet permit domestic warfare in our own homes and families.

Is the physician not commanded first to heal himself? Do we not first need to take out the plank from our own eyes before we can see the needs of others.

At the weekend Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, the President of the Family Division of our courts, was reflecting on the level of bitterness between estranged couples and the effects on their children. Under British law it is true that you can divorce your wife or husband, but you cannot divorce your children.

There has been a 600 per cent increase in marriage breakdown over the last 30 years and one in five children now see their parents divorce before they are 16. With 43% of our marriages breaking up some 800,000 children now have no contact with their fathers. It is estimated that 40% of non-resident parents lose contact with their children within two years of separation or divorce. One of the judges who works with Dame Elizabeth, Sir Nicholas Wall, says that parents are unaware of how damaging their behaviour can be: “Most people who are adamantly opposed to their former partner or spouse having contact do so in the express belief that it is in the interests of the children. Most parents live in the here and now and find it difficult to see 10 years ahead when a teenager or adolescent will round on them for ruining their relationship with the other parent. People don’t see that in the immediate fog of separation. ”

Dame Elizabeth says: “Ask the child and they’ll say, ‘I want to keep both my parents. I love them both. In 1970 I don’t think we recognised the importance of a child having both parents the way we do now. My thinking has certainly evolved. The important thing for a judge is never to think you know it all. The longer I sit the more I feel I have to learn.”

If that is true for the most senior members of our judiciary how much more so must it be true for each of us.

In Saint Mark’s account of the gospel, Our Lord says, “If a kingdom is divided against itself that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself that house cannot stand.”

At one level many people have grander houses than ever before, but broken and divided homes. That is why we need first to be reconciled.

The undermining of binding promises in a family context – the breaking of personal covenants, which for the Christian are made sacramentally between a man, a woman and God Himself – has led to a broader breakdown of communal responsibilities. Trust between people weakens as covenant comes to mean less and less; and in the absence of reconciled parents – willing to make sacrifices at least, as earlier generations put it, ‘for the sake of the children’- can we be surprised when the same children make our messed-up values their own?

The increasing instability of family life and the very serious consequences of widespread family breakdown have a deleterious and fundamental impact on society at large. As well as the tragic personal suffering – and it is considerable – the massive economic impact of family breakdown should not be underestimated. Nor, too, should the effects of increased child poverty, poor educational achievement, and dysfunctional behaviour. Addressing both the cause and the consequences of family breakdown is central to the future health and vitality of the nation.

Private and public attitudes and policy must march hand in hand. All of us can play a part in strengthening marriage and family life. Governments can help remove pressures on families such as job insecurity, poor housing, poverty and debt and by improving the support for those who are left to bring up a child alone. The rampant commercial pressures of longer working hours and Sunday trading leaves many families with little or no shared time together – the precious moments in which quarrels and misunderstandings are settled and when space is made to allow the healing and reconciliation to begin.

In his encyclical, Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II says: “It is urgent therefore to promote not only family policies but also those social policies which have the family as their principle object, policies which assist the family by providing adequate resources and efficient means of support, both for bringing up children and looking after the elderly, so as to avoid distancing the latter from the family unit and in order to strengthen relations between generations.”

But instead of reconciling and strengthening our family relationships, they’ ve been under siege. The great deceit has been perpetrated that we can use and dispose of one another at will and that there are no consequences.

A comment by Will Carling plainly reveals who deeply the Great Deceit has now become engrained. He said, “I didn’t believe I should stay in a relationship just for the sake of the child. I don’t think that is what life is all about” (Guardian 7.10.98).

The Great Deceit has it that when you find your relationship in a mess, the easy and quick divorce is the least painful solution. Add abandonment to betrayal and desertion and you quickly see that this is hardly a solution. Let us at least admit that where families do tragically separate that it is precisely that: a tragedy for all involved. It is a tragedy for the parents who have been separated by adultery and a tragedy for the child who has no clear idea what the of what the implications will be for them.

The Great Deceit asserts that cohabitation and marriage should be on an equal footing. But the facts simply do not bear this out. Only four per cent of children not being brought up by their own married parents live in stable cohabiting households. But don’t let the facts get in the way.

The Great Deceit also peddles the myth that all this is simply a private matter. It isn’t. Collapsing families lead to collapsing communities as the delicate network of family ties are severed, as trust is displaced by deception, and commitment by desertion. The whole of civic society is affected by the metropolitan falsehood that the ‘family is over’ or, as that most sophisticated doyen of the metropolitan chattering classes, Polly Toynbee, has it “family is no more than a code word.”

Revealingly she also says: “When politicians talk about ‘strengthening the family’, liberals reach for their revolvers.” Another commentator, Simon Jenkins, writing in The Times, says, “families are by their nature Darwinian units.”

From this I suppose we are to conclude that nothing should be done to strengthen the family and that the evolutionary process would render the family as extinct as the dinosaur. Toynbee confirms this interpretation in the following phrase: “Ministers would do well to abandon the ‘family’ and’marriage’ labels altogether” she says.

This, of course, is the logical culmination of the economic individualism of the 1980s. Social individualism cares nothing for covenant or commitment. It cares only for do-it-yourself ethics and the tired old mantra of personal choice and personal autonomy.

Reciprocated duties and communal responsibility are the antidote to this privatised individualism but I do not pretend it will be easy to reverse the monumental shift in cultural values which has been so carefully orchestrated and encouraged.

The economic and social price of collapsing family and community life has been incalculable; but nor can we put a price on the personal costs of severed relationships.

There was recently an article published in a national newspaper, which recounted the story of a man grieving over the death of his son. What pained him most was that he had never told his son how much he had loved him – and now it was too late. For the Christian, especially as we prepare ourselves in Lent for the events of Holy Week, we are all too acutely aware that the Son needs to know that the Father loves him. Only then is it possible to endure what follows. In broken homes a son or daughter is frequently left wondering whether they are loved.

The lack of closeness between fathers and their children is one of the great tragedies of our times. Fatherhood is in acute crisis – never before have so many men been missing from the lives of their children.

Some men are missing because they simply are not there from the start. The role of men has been reduced or demeaned. For instance, by the payment of money to young men for their sperm so that artificial insemination techniques can be used to create their child in an anonymous woman’s womb. The young man has been paid for sex and surrendered his child.

In the famous Oxford student case the young man who wanted to have some say over whether his girlfriend aborted their baby was told it had nothing to do with him. The judge found against him although his girlfriend was sufficiently impressed by his integrity that she allowed the child to be born and he has brought up his child. – But it was no thanks to the law.

During Lent Pope John Paul II asks us to mediate especially on the figure of God as Father. Jesus gives us the words to address God as a Father in the Lord’s Prayer. Through the parable of the prodigal son we are doubly reassured that even when we have strayed away from the Father there will be a welcome for us when we return: that we will be reconciled.

With three of my children I have worked through the process of preparation for the sacrament of Reconciliation. For this particular adult it was especially helpful to rediscover the importance and the beauty of this most underused and underestimated of the seven sacraments.

As the children prepared each week we studied a chapter of the preparatory booklet together. The first thing we did was to take apart the word reconciliation. One of the best interpretations that we could place on the word was that it meant putting broken things back together. Prodigal fathers and prodigal sons need to be put back together again – and fathers need to tell their sons and their daughters that they love them. Following Our Lord’s own baptism God the Father was not abashed about proclaiming his love for His son: ” And suddenly there was a voice from heaven, ‘this is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on Him.'” (Matt 3:17)

So many of our own children – especially those who have been abandoned – would give anything to hear such powerful words addressed to them. Even those of us who are there for our children and love them deeply often suffer from our very British reserve and innate shyness – which makes us so reluctant to express how we feel.

Jesus’ response to His Father was to go off and to spend forty days in the desert, thinking about how best he could reciprocate his father’s love. Too often we are so busy taking that we never give back; or we evaluate everything in terms of personal gratification. Giving time is probably one of the greatest gifts we have on offer.

Rob Parsons, of CARE, wrote a book called ‘The Sixty Minute Father’ – where he details the tiny amounts of time which fathers spend with their children. By contrast, many children in Britain spend an average of two hours a day watching TV – some as much as five hours – and much of the content is extremely violent in nature. They frequently watch the TV alone, without any parent around. Computer games absorb children for an average of 45 minutes a day. The amount of time spent watching television in Britain is nearly 50% more than we spend in work – and phenomenally more than we spend in time with our children.

A survey by Care for The Family found that

* Over half of fathers say they spend five minutes or less on an average weekday with their child on a one to one basis;

*Nearly half of all fathers had not had any discussion with their child in the previous four weeks about behaviour, sex, relationships, religion, current affairs, or rights and wrongs in life.

* Nearly half of fathers would like to have changed in some way the upbringing of their child;

*The most common changes fathers said they would make were spending more time with their child particularly in the early years, talking with him or her more and sending him or her to a different school.

A common realisation amongst many men is that they are pressurised and deprived of the time, which they know in their hearts they need for their relationships.

I do not like the phrase ‘quality time’ because it implies that small pockets of time will be set aside and duty will be done. I say this to myself as much and probably more than I need to say it to you but in a busy life and hectic schedule it is crucially important to be around when you are needed and not just when the diary permits. Unconditional love does not dispense time through an egg timer.

Contrast the father who has walked out on his children with the deep and enduring love that Jesus had for the Father: “I and the Father are one” he said. So many people today would give so much to be able to say that.

We all know how quickly the child becomes a man and that one day we will wake up to the experience of a child who says that they are too busy to spend time with their parent – perhaps the inevitable result for parents who declined to spend time with their children. No one was ever heard to say on their deathbed that they wish they had spent more time at the office. If families are to be reconciled, a good beginning is to set aside organised time to spend with the family or with the child – insisting that Sunday, for instance really will be a different day – giving some space to build relationships.

Giving expensive pieces of technological equipment to a child can be a substitute for giving yourself. Someone wisely remarked that you can be so busy giving your child what you didn’t have that you fail to give them what you did have. Do we express our love through our presence or through the materialism of an expensive present.? Perhaps during Lent we could designate some television free evenings. The flickering box in the corner has too often taken the place of the flickering lights of the hearth, around which family conversation and crack could take place.

Einstein said that if you want your child to be a genius “read aloud to them.” Children should be valued whether or not they are geniuses but the cultivation of a love of books and reading aloud to them will provide a lifelong source of enjoyment that can be shared across the generations. In the context of the chosen stories there can be conversations that transmit values and facilitate healing.

In earlier generations a boy would work in the fields or at the smithy or mill alongside his father. Skills would be transmitted and the child would learn about responsibilities, duties and obligations. Today children are taught about rights and entitlements by media gurus and politicians but who transmits these far more important timeless values? If we want our children to share faith and our values we have to take the time to pass them on.

Someone made the calculation that if your child is aged ten, they have already lived 3650 days. That leaves another 2920 before their childhood is over. The sand is always flowing through the egg timer but it is never too late in life to begin. However old your child, your brother, your sister, your mother or your father may be it is never too late to begin.

To sum up: Unless we make it abundantly clear that responsible fathers and family stability are crucial for children and society generally; unless we acknowledge that ideally a child should have both a mother and a father; unless we reaffirm the important role of fathers in child rearing, we risk further long term social collapse and civic disaggregation.

Above all we must contradict the mythology that fathers are a feckless bunch who couldn’t care less about their progeny and who regard parenting as someone else’s problem. Without responsible fathers we will not produce responsible children or, for the future, responsible citizens. And if we wish to heal the conflicts in those far away places let us first be healed in our own homes; let us first be reconciled.

A Concluding Prayer:

This is a prayer of Fr.Nicholas Postgate, who was arrested while baptising a baby, taken before the Lenten Assizes in York in 1679, and executed at the age of 82. In recalling his words we thank God that we live in more tolerant times, learning to honour and respect one another’s traditions:

O gracious God, o Saviour sweet,

O Jesus, think of me;

And suffer me to kiss Thy feet

Though late I come to Thee.

Behold, dear Lord, I come to Thee

With sorrow and with shame

For when Thy bitter Wounds I see

I know I caused the same.

O sweetest Lord, lend me the wings

Of faith and perfect love,

That I may fly from earthly things

And mount to those above.

For there is joy both true and fast,

And no cause to lament,

But here is toil both first and last,

And cause oft to repent.

But now my soul doth hate the things

In which she took delight,And unto Thee, the King of Kings,

Would fly with all her might.

But oh, the weight of flesh and blood

Doth sore my soul detain;

Unless Thy grace doth work, O God!

I rise but fall again.

And thus dear Lord I fly about

In weak and weary case,

And like the dove that Noah sent

I find no resting place.

My wearied wings, sweet Jesus mark,

And when Thou thinkest best,

Stretch forth Thy hand out of the ark,

And take me to thy rest.

Amen.