It is this deep sense of unworthiness that has brought me apparent clarity of thought.
Yesterday one of my daughters and her husband invited Susan and me to the cinema to see the film The Railway Man. I knew nothing about it and watched it without introduction.
I have to confess I felt a significant reluctance to be in the cinema when I discovered it was about the Thai-Burma Railway. I don’t know quite why. But I do know I tend to avoid books and films about this era.
Perhaps it was because my father served the Australian army in the war, in Moratai. He had a portrait of himself painted by a Japanese prisoner of war – a person of whom he spoke with great respect. It hangs now in my sister’s home, the primary physical proof of all of those months in the tropics, awaiting possible cruelty, processing soldiers and prisoners of war. How much he praised the Americans for their victory in the Coral Sea. How little I appreciated as a young man in my twenties the personal nature of his gratitude.
Perhaps it was because my father spent so many hours in his aviary, watching the finches flit and scoot between the foliage. Like the Railway Man with his train timetables, he too was a man with a deep but quiet interest, a man of solace. He kept books on birds from all over the world. Was it a type of proof of civilisation? A way of guaranteeing that he fought for something important? Was it a way of keeping his mind in order?
Perhaps it was because he never disciplined me in a physical manner, even if I was rude. He was such a gentle man. Once, when I was obnoxious, he threatened to take off his belt. That was enough to make me a pool of tears, writhing on the floor. I am certain he would not have hit me. I remember there was a deep regret on his face – he feared his response more than he was impatient with my childishness.
In the film I dreaded that they would depict the torture. And later I dreaded that the British soldier would enact revenge. I held my hands over my eyes and ears more than once in the film.
And yet, when the British soldier accepted the apology of his persecutor, when he forgave him, I had the sense that I was hearing the deepest of truths about life. To not excuse the cruelty, to not offer a cheap grace. But to stare at the horror of it in the face and to forgive it. To find friendship in it. To have redemption. I was hearing the Apostle’s Creed, the Westminster Confession, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the Sermon on the Mount.
And I was hearing again properly the truth of how unworthy I am.
I felt so very conceited watching the words come up at the film’s close. There was nothing to do but weep.
I am very grateful to my daughter and her husband. It is a magnificent film.
They didn’t talk much about the film afterwards. My behaviour was of the awkward kind, the kind not expected of a father at a family outing. In particular, the kind not expected of a father who has never been to war, who has read about it only in books and who has listened to a few small tales from his own father.
Yet I am so grateful to have been invited, to have recalled again my own father’s tales, and to have been reminded of the substance of my faith.