Friday 5 April 2013

Swimming with Bonhoeffer

Okay, a confession as we begin. I’ve not been swimming with Bonhoeffer. Although saying that, there could have been a Bonhoeffer in the pool and I might not have known about it, but the main point is that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wasn’t in the pool.

So, moving on from that.

About six months ago I started taking my delightful three year old E swimming. We go every week and have a half-hour lesson. It’s pretty much the highlight of my week and it’s a fantastic daddy-daughter-date where E and I are able to have a chat about what’s going on. We talk about the weather, her friends, what she wants for lunch, how cold she is. All the big existential stuff.

And then we get to the swimming part.

E wears three little arm floaty-disc things on each arm and over the last six months I’ve seen her grow in confidence such a huge amount. And if I’m honest, my times swimming with E have been the most profound spiritual experiences of my weeks. This is the activity that grounds me, that gives me perspective and that also teaches me innate truths about God, and our relationship with him.

I’m sure that many of you will have heard plenty of anecdotal stories about how supporting a child, or encouraging someone to grow in confidence and take baby steps is easily used as a metaphor for the relationship of human-becomings with their creator.

If you’re not into such anecdotal analogies, it’s probably best to stop reading.


I’ve been wanting to write a reflection on these experiences for a while, but today something prompted this to happen more urgently. So here we are.

When E and I first started swimming, she would cling on to me. She wouldn’t let go. She held tightly to me, I have the nail marks to prove it.... But E was at the point in her swimming journey where she needed to be held tightly. She wasn’t ready to go anywhere without me, in this narrative I just happen to be “Daddy”.

Gradually over time, weeks after we started, E was getting braver and braver. She would only hold loosely to me. She would only hold me with one tight-fisted hand.

Slowly but surely, after this she began to move out further into the water. She would let go of me and kick with her legs. But she would say words that as a human and a father, I delighted in.

“Daddy I need you.”

To which I would constantly reply as I held my hand under her belly to support her,

“I’m here gorgeous. I’m not going anywhere.”

We would then smile.

And off she would go again.

The cry would come out of her mouth if she felt at all panicked,


And my right hand would gently rise up from the water and prop up her belly.

“I’m here gorgeous. I’m not going anywhere.”

Then our eyes would meet, and we would smile. Me content that she’s safe and that actually, she likes having me there. Her safe in the knowledge that Daddy has got her.

This has happened throughout our time swimming together, she’s constantly been growing in confidence and swimming ability, she’ a fast learner and loves the water.

E has grown, and she has grown knowing that Daddy’s hand is there within a second if she needs it. No messing round.

“I’m here gorgeous. I’m not going anywhere.”

This has been our journey, a shared and lovely one.

A few weeks ago I noticed that she was relying on me being there less and less.

And then today.

Today, we were at the pool, we were swimming side by side, and she looked at me, and said,

“Daddy, I don’t need you, go over there.”

My pride at my daughter’s confidence and swimming ability was stopped from swelling up inside of me by my own rising insecurities, “she doesn’t need me!!!! My little girl doesn’t need me!”

E was going off on her own, with her floaty-arm band things, zooming around the pool, with me consigned to sit in the corner of the pool at the edge of everything.

And she swam everywhere. And loved it.

A couple of times she looked over at me, but actually, she was happy enough.

At one point she panicked, and within two seconds I was there with her, the hand ready to steady her belly. She smiled, and said again,

“Daddy, I don’t need you, go over there.”

For months I’ve been thinking about the relationship of a father and daughter swimming as an analogy, for the relationship of a disciple with Christ. A follower and their relationship with God.

Which brings me to the cheesy line, something like something said in Gavin and Stacey:

“And that’s a bit like us and God” (or something).

Today’s experience only added to the need to write this.

As a follower we begin the journey of discipleship clinging to God, holding on for dear life, and the voice of God speaks to us in our despair and our worries, and says, “I’m here gorgeous. I’m not going anywhere.”

And as we grow in confidence we do more and more things, with God an ever present. Safe in the knowledge that God’s hands will support our belly’s if we need it.

And here the analogy splinters.

Because, actually, the call for the disciple, is to remain ever-close to God in journeying onwards.

A child will eventually learn to swim without their Daddy. And that is actually to be encouraged.

But the analogy splinters too, because actually, as disciples, I think it’s possible to grow in faith, to grow in confidence and assurance of God.

And actually, then to move on from saying, “Daddy, I need you”, to “Daddy, I don’t need you, go over there.”

And I think, that is the moment, the action, the notion, the concept, that made me write this post today.

The idea that as we grow in faith, in discipleship, in confidence in God and of his call, of his giftings, of his will for us, it can actually be easier to actually grow away from God.

That we grow, that we journey on in discipleship and do so, to the point where as, professionalised Christians, we don’t actually need God.

We no longer rely on him.

We no longer actively look to see where God is.

The God who has fed us milk, who has taken baby steps with us, who has held us closely and encouraged us in our walks with him.

We step out into the world, ready to do his will, ready to grow and build the kingdom with and for him.

But as we grow in confidence and faith, we actually take our eyes off God. And because of this we lose ourselves.

We don’t lose our faith in God.

We just don’t know why it matters anymore.

We become so proficient, too proficient at the life of faith, that we no longer need or even glance towards God.

And through the last 18 months or so, through the dark, darker and even darker, I realise that is where I have got to.

“Daddy, I don’t need you anymore, go over there.”

This is a challenge, and this can happen in every walk of life, in every journey of faith. I would argue that I think the danger is especially strong regarding “professional Christians”. Those whose full-time work is the work of the God stuff.

And my status with God, that’s not a new revelation to me today. That’s a long conversation that’s been going on for 18 months. That’s a conversation with diocesan officers, with bishops, with incumbents, with a counsellor, with a spiritual director, with friends, with fellow disciples.

That’s a conversation that runs and runs.

But as I look back through the scanner darkly, through the haze of stress and sadness, I see God at work at times, in other places I see only endless shadow, infinitely dark.

But as I sit here now, with the embers of a discipled-faith, not going out, not growing, but just smouldering safely away, I can recognise that so much of what has gone before has taken place because of the voice that says to God, “Daddy, I don’t need you, go over there.”

And that has been my voice, battered down and trampled on.

But it’s also been the voice of the context with its unrealistic expectations.

It’s been the voice of the model of ministry which, truth be told, finds an active faith as something that gets in the way of things that need doing.

It’s been the voice of superiors who have repeatedly said, “I’m greedy for your time.”

The one voice who it hasn’t been, is God’s.

God’s voice doesn’t say, “Daddy I don’t need you, get over there.”

Naturally God doesn’t banish himself, but God also doesn’t distance himself purposefully from the disciple. God doesn’t long for the day when the disciple will step so far out in faith that he or she won’t look back.

It’s one thing to get out of the boat and start walking on the water. To look to Jesus and say, “Daddy, I need you.” Before falling into the cold water below.

But it’s another thing, to get out of the boat, to start walking, to glance at Jesus and then keep walking. Walking the full-length of the lake, then walking out of the lake, across the beach, over the fields, over the hills and onwards across distant seas, only turning around to shout back, “Daddy, I don’t need you, go over there.”

Jesus wants the disciple to get out of the boat, and walk, but never to forget him totally.

Jesus sends them out in pairs. But the idea is that they come back. They don’t just keep walking in their own meandering direction.

When I was writing my MA dissertation about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of New Monasticism and how it should shape the church, I was struck by a beautifully profound part of Bonhoeffer’s classic work, Discipleship.

Below is a short extract from my dissertation, it quotes from the Fortress Press editions of Discipleship and Ethics.

Bonhoeffer suggests that those who follow Christ become, ‘members of the community of the cross, they will be people of the mediator’ (Discipleship, 99). Part of this new citizenship will mean watching Jesus go to the cross, and being, ‘overcome with amazement and fear at the way to which he has called them.’ (Discipleship, 99)  Being conformed to Christ, ‘to the one who has become human - that is what being really human means.’ (Ethics, 94). In a discussion of Mt 6:5-8 Bonhoeffer writes of the disciple’s need for their own will to die,


My will has died when Jesus’ will alone reigns in me and all of my will has been drawn into his. It has died in community with Jesus, in discipleship. (Discipleship, 154).

And for me, the phrase, ‘overcome with amazement and fear at the way to which he has called them” is absolutely key.

And it’s a phrase that has hung around with me since I read it.

The disciple is called to walk with Jesus.

The disciple is called to walk with Jesus towards the cross.

The disciple is called to walk towards the cross with Jesus, and this should be a process that overcomes the disciple with amazement and fear.

At no point does the disciple say, “Daddy I don’t need you, go over there.”

Deep down, once I’ve got past my “father-love-psychobabble-need-to-be-needed-ness” I know that I am delighted with the progress that E is making!

That she is more prepared to for anything, if she’s walking by water without me.

But the journey with discipleship is a different thing. It’s a journey that can and should only be walked with God.

And it’s a journey where the disciple should always, always, always, be in the habit of saying, “Daddy, I need you.”

But yet I recognise that if we lose sight of the cross we’re supposed to be walking with Jesus towards, then it’s no wonder that sometimes we lose sight of Jesus.

Perhaps before we utter the words, “Daddy, I don’t need you, go over there”, we should take a look around, refocus our eyes on the cross and realise afresh that we can only walk towards the cross with Jesus. Without Jesus with us, we’re not walking towards the cross at all.


Anonymous said...

Good post Tim. Thanks.

BeatLiturgist said...

Thanks David. Feedback appreciated.

Autumn said...

Thanks Tim, it was helpful for me too. Esp. the bit about the times when, consciously or unconsciously, we tell God to go away because we don't need Him. I understand pain and fear better in that context, because they are so often tools God uses to draw us back.
Thought-provoking, thanks :)

BeatLiturgist said...

Thanks Autumn :) , there really is something deeply challenging about the Jonah in the whale moment.
Your coments appreciated.