The Old Oak Tree of Goodness

Angel Oak

It’s warm in this room where our little gas heater blows a gale of of summery heat over all of us on a freezing night. And hearts are warm too, especially now that the second son is back from Giant Land (USA), his eyes having the look of a man delighted in a universe with so many stunning mysteries and facts and stories and ‘stuff going on’ that it’s hard to know where to begin. But something else in the eyes takes me (his dad) back to the hard places of my own young manhood where the fresh innocence of childhood tasted blood and had to learn to enjoy the smoke of battle and to fight for what that innocence stood for, having been bruised, scarred, muscled-up a bit and made dangerous.

Some would say that innocence is lost once a a boy is hurt or disappointed (and the sooner the better) but the original Latin word came from the idea of ‘not being one who does ‘harm’. In a crime for example, the innocent one has done no wrong. Unfortunately—in modern usage—the word has taken on connotations of weakness and even stupidity and has driven many young people to look for some way of losing their innocence in order to be somehow ‘better’ or ‘grown-up’. But what if when we lose our innocence all that has really happened is that the great big Oak Tree of Goodness that grows in our soul had simply been scratched? And soon fresh new shoots of goodness will be growing from that very scratch, if only we will allow it.

In my own personal experience and from that of many others, this great Oak Tree of Goodness is far more robust than we could ever have imagined. For this is not just some one-dimensional idea invented by classroom moralisers or politicians, it’s three dimensional and as much about truth and faithfulness as it is about imagination, creativity, laughter and anger and the confidence that this Great River of Life is well able to process all the lies, murders and violations the spirits of darkness can hurl at it over an entire lifetime—if only you, the person it lives in, will allow it. So have done with all the shock, horror and mortification (that your favourite screen-faces hope for) and instead dive into this living, infinite and eternal being: the vibrant and flesh-incarnating Good that impregnated the universe at the beginning of time and out of which came all that makes blue skies, rivers and volcanoes—as well as the faithfulness, joy and grace of a new mother making a Christmas present for her first child.
Such goodness cannot be blackmailed or bought by grand speeches and cleverly-crafted statutes on political correctness. In fact it laughs at political correctness because it knows that from it’s very inception pc was a lie created by word-spinning socialisers who—having excised faith and meaning from society—arrogated to themselves the ability to know the best interests of the human heart and, like a badly trained surgeon with a dozen books on surgery arrayed around his operating table, tried to come up with a new Moral Law (Heart if you like) and made their decisions on the run rather than levelling with the patient before the operation started. The problem of course (as anyone would know who has been ‘under the care’ of a tweaking, fuddling and excusing doctor), once you jump on the band-wagon of an experiment, pride makes it awfully hard for anyone to get honest, including the patient.
And so here we are (to use another metaphor), western civilisation screaming that it’s having a crisis of meaning when in fact it’s mother (the old Oak Tree of Goodness) watched it throw a tantrum and run out the door centuries ago and is now telling it—like all good mothers do—’OK darling that’s enough screaming now. Time to come home and have a good bath and go to bed.’ But no, we sulk and grump and refuse to come home. And unfortunately many in the world of Christendom are not helping with all their sugary talk of lost innocence. Who said it was lost? ‘Bruised, scarred, muscled-up a bit and made dangerous’ maybe, but definitely not lost. So who first put this pathetic wailing of ‘Lost Innocence’ out there anyway? No one will ever know, but it has the smell of a poisoned chalice passed around by those filthy spirits.
And now (back to the other metaphor) it’s like, ‘Hey! I’m talkin’ to you Western Civilisation. Swallow your pride and get your stupid ass off that goddam operating table. How dare you allow your imagination to slip down into that quivering and quailing coma of victim-distress when your great old Oak Tree Mother waits, strong, kind, brim-full of forgiveness and about to burst into peals of laughter at the state you’ve gotten yourself into—and all for the sake of your pride!’
Meanwhile, back at that table where our little family celebrates with the son becoming a man, we find that plates are placed before us with large portions of steaming meat-loaf soaked in a sauce that’s a combination of something like perfectly-cooked bacon, something sugary, and something spicy. And all bordered with bright orange slices of carrot, green beans and broccoli: the steam rising like that from the shoulders of a bank of front-row forwards ready to pack down in a scrum on a frosty morning—probably not the greatest simile, but anyway the idea is ‘deep, rich, full of life and ready to smash something’.
We start with grace (as you should at the start of a rugby game too whether you’re a spectator or a player: especially if you’re a player), and then comes the slicing and forking and staking of forks and the tasting. Oh yes! The tasting. And you just want it all to last forever. And as tends to happen when the food and the vibe is good, stories from the day start coming out while we’re eating: not supposed to eat with your mouth full but that’s when you most feel like talking and singing! Somehow the conversation moves to school and the way certain teachers at the old (and for some still present) school used to be a pain but still turned out to be excellent teachers. Then it’s, ‘What about the ones that were a pain and were no good either?’ And after that it’s all about the latest in a string of weddings being announced—this one happening in two days time. What we don’t know yet is that the groom will be in a nasty car accident the night before the wedding and will be unable to be at the church, but that’s for later (and another Oak Tree of Goodness asserting itself). So much happening while we sit around the table and celebrate with the son—and we’ve barely even touched on all the stories from Giant Land yet.


This morning as I was eating brekky I found another great insight from CH Dodd.

‘The devils in Pandemonium, “Reasoned high,
Of providence, foreknowledge, will and fate;
Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute;
And found no end in wandering mazes lost.”5

‘It is doubtful whether the human intellect has been more successful in solving the problems. Yet discuss we must … Augustine and Calvin after him had this profound intuition of the electing grace of God, but they both, and especially the latter, made the mistake of erecting upon it a rigid dogmatic system, and thereby laid snares for the feet of believers. The best commentators upon this passage are not the theologians but the greater hymn writers of the church. We shall read it best, not with an eye to logical implications and philosophical problems, but with a mind receptive of the tremendous affirmation that our salvation is rooted in the depths of God.’6

5 Milton, Paradise Lost
6 Dodd C. H. The Epistle to The Romans p.140-141 (commenting on Romans 8:29-30) The Moffatt NT Commentary – Hodder & Stoughton. 1947

The Jasmine Vine of Gentleness (#1 Topic for the September Intensive)


The Jasmine Vine of Gentleness

This morning (on the lounge at the Bendigo team house), I started wondering about the key ingredients for Imaginative Mission and suspected that there may have been some good material in this old podcast, so I listened to it and was pleasantly surprised (it’s normally purgatory listening to yourself). The NT Wright quotes alone make it really worth listening to, especially if you’re feeling in need of a fresh perspective on God’s love and the Jasmine Vine of Gentleness.


A Prayer Journey: The Nightmare and the Rainbow

Chapter One: Fidelia

‘Virgin, that art so noble of apparail,
That leadest us unto the highe tower,
Of Paradise … ‘ 1

I can’t have been walking all that long—must have been about twelve months old—and there was this sense of energy, of being really mobile, of walking barefooted and bare-bodied; of lying on mum’s bed with her, then jumping off the bed and playing a game of hide and seek in a wardrobe. And her so big and strong and white and frolicking, and just the two of us, tickling and giggling and laughing. Safe was how it felt.

And all this inside a house of weather-board, of gauzed-in verandas, iron and fibro; floor boards and lino, which was actually a home in a world that sat on top of deep layers of sandy red loam and clay-pans, out of which grew our gigantic Mulberry tree for climbing in (not that I was enjoying that bit yet), and next to the tree, a sprawling sweet potato patch. And further out, serious and pure- looking forests of grey, hard-leaved mulga, thick heaths of purple and brown-tipped hop bush and clusters of dangling, white-spotted-barked Leopard woods.

Half a century later, contemplative prayer is what it feels like—the deep, fleshy and tender expectancy of a human animal with its tiny, chubby fingers and toes pushing out, reaching out to a faithful presence that is always there: looking on in sheer delight and longing to join in on the giggle and to hold that firm grip, and then to lie there and to just talk about nothing and about everything.

Being forgotten or ignored was not even a concept. What better thing would she have to do than to waste time laughing with me and chasing me. The very idea of discovering that secretly she was not really interested would be like finding out that the sun was getting tired of rising.

Here, in a bedroom in the outback, surrounded by the brightness of sheets and skin and the seclusion of cupboards and doors and walls—of a toddler and his mother—the boy-becoming a man was being inducted into a magnificent world of trueness by an unswerving, devoted inductor whose favourite things were me and fun, me and smiles, me and laughter.

Looking in on something called a mother and a son is easier to do now, but at the time it felt as if ‘we’ were just two parts of the one person, which was more often that not, ‘me’ or ‘I’ playing these games and tricks and jokes inside a single imagination. Two separate bodies but one person instantaneously getting the joke and laughing at itself and with itself. ‘I’ loving the new ‘thou’ she had received into her world.

In Spenser’s Faery Queene, we are told that Una (the Faery Queene) asks Fidelia (the personification of faithfulness) to receive someone into her school, but instead of a baby, her student is an erring knight who has been trapped in a hell of his own foolishness.

‘Fair Una did Fidelia fayre request,
To have her knight into her schoole house plaste,
That of her heavenly learning he might taste,
And hear the wisdom of her words divine …
And her sacred booke, with blood ywritt
That none could reade except she did them teach …’2

Without saying as much, Spenser’s poem, in describing Fidelia’s sacred book as, ‘with blood ywritt,’ is telling us that she has paid a price to be what she is and what she has to offer. And so it was with my mum in the outback in her little room, at first instructing her babe in the arts of laughter and joy, and then, when the ‘reasons of terror’ arrived at the door, attempting to show me the way into Fidelia’s earthy and ‘sacred booke, with blood ywritt.’ But what if the attempt fails?

In this particular story—unbeknownst to her—the odds are going to be very much stacked against her. Physical frailty, drought upon drought and the permanent threat of bankruptcy will be making it clear that there is no guarantee that this young and inexperienced mother will be finding her way to the land of Fidelia or even that she really knows the answer to that question: ‘What exactly is it that I am going to be faithful to?’

Fairy stories and sacred books tell us that what was happening here was an experience of the ‘tabu’ or ‘herem’*: something so beautiful that you would be chasing it for the rest of your life and something so terrifying that you would be running away from it for the rest of your life. But why would anyone be running away from this mother and child glory?

There are strong, compelling reasons, and in this story they were already making their way towards that little bedroom. But before we go there, a bit of philosophical house-cleaning about what is real, what is valid and what it all means, is going to have to happen in chapter two.

1 p. 17 Quoted by GK Chesterton in his book on  Chaucer – Faber & Faber London
2. Spenser – The Faery Queene

* Albright WF. Stone-Age To Christianity

Why Your Boss Hates Strategy (a confession)

The Gamble1 (Thomas Rick’s book on stage II of the Iraq War) reminds us of the importance of carefully building a good launching pad for young leaders. It speaks of the delicate process of growing an organisational culture of curiosity and learning, and—if the leaders are to be approachable, and are to truly build a team—of the need to invite those under you into a decision- making process where robust argumentation and dispute are welcome, even if it does seem to be bordering on rebellion, and of the essential stepping-stones of good training and an excellent education, especially in human relations and society; anthropology, sociology, history and leadership.

It also speaks of the requirement of two types of courage: ‘ “Courage takes two forms in war,” observes Hew Strachan, the British military historian and interpreter of Clausewitz. “Courage in the face of personal danger, whose effects are felt in the tactical sphere, and courage to take responsibility, a requirement of strategic success.” By taking on his new boss, Odierno displayed that second, more elusive form of bravery. He was laying his career on the line.’

This book also makes clear that—having done these things—you are really only at the same place as everyone else and it’s what happens next that matters most, especially when you’re being pressured by the media for ‘results now’ and superiors telling you the same old war stories from Europe and Vietnam and telling you to ‘hurry up’. More often than not, what the media and the superiors are looking for is tactical light and sound shows, not patiently thought through and strategically intelligent action.

Ricks makes the following observations about what follows this kind of macho short- sightedness: ‘The Bush administration’s tendency was to paper over differences, substituting loyalty for analysis, so the war continued to stand on a strategic foundation of sand. Nor had the president been well served by his generals, who, with few exceptions didn’t seem to pose the necessary questions. “Strategy* is about choices,” said one of the exceptions, Maj. Gen. David Fastabend. “Yet,” he lamented, one day in Baghdad two years later, “We don’t teach it, we don’t recognise it. The army doesn’t understand the difference between plans and strategy. When you ask specifically for strategy, you get aspirations.” Such incompetence can be dangerous. As Eliot Cohen, an academic who would surface repeatedly in the Iraq war as an influential behind-the-scenes figure, commented later in a different context, “Haziness about ends and means, about what to do and how to do it, is a mark of strategic ineptitude; in war it gets people killed.”2

Ricks demonstrates how a failure to appreciate the relationship of strategy to a thing called, ‘What do we actually really want more than anything?’ lead the US into an ill-founded strategic disaster and almost to total defeat in 2007. He quotes Maj. Gen. Fastabend as saying: ‘The army doesn’t understand the difference between plans and strategy. When you ask specifically for strategy you get aspirations.’

The strategy was pretty much: ‘Go get the insurgents and to hell with anyone who gets in the way.’ Years later the army was so demoralised that if an IED exploded, soldiers would randomly kick in doors and give ‘two to the chest.’ The epidemic of hate, bad morale and casualties had commanders—from the President down—urging loyalty, courage and sacrifice like a cracked record, and even accusing faithful commanders of ‘disloyalty’ when all that was being done was the citing of factual statistics. The leadership was looking and talking in the wrong places and as a result losing the respect of their soldiers and losing the war.

Finally, one afternoon, a retired general (in the US) sat down in his basement lounge to watch the Iraq hearings in congress. He became fascinated by the ‘economy with the truth’ of the speakers and then—quietly disgusted—he recognised an old symptom: ‘generals knowing they are losing a war but it’s all too risky and complicated to tell the truth’. Engrossed, the old warrior’s brain ticked and ticked away until it got dark. Then, still thinking, he switched off the TV and just sat there, deep in thought. Finally his wife came downstairs to see what was going on and asked him what he was doing. ‘Iraq,’ was his one word reply. To which she—like a good wife of a retiree—said, ‘Maybe you should do something about it.’

Thanks to her encouragement, a small group of men worked with that retired general and (after considerable effort) persuaded the president to consider the fact that strategy may be the problem. Finally, after years of argument and outrage, the strategy was changed to make the care of the local population the number one priority. The so called ‘mission’: the killing of insurgents was now #2 priority.

David Petraeus, appointed as the new commander to implement this ‘protection of the locals’, faced the impossible task of inspiring an entire army. So he did what all true leaders did, he judiciously exceeded his authority and—without consulting the president—declared that there was going to be no more of this talk about ‘turning Iraq into a model of democracy’. Instantly a huge wave of relief swept through the staff. They knew this guy was the real deal: he had the courage to take responsibility for axing a dumb mantra, and had demonstrated that courage by high-handedly risking his career right at the start.

Next he hired Emma Sky (a British peace activist who hated war), to be a key advisor—granting her deep access to confidential meetings. And as if that wasn’t ‘different’ enough, after meeting a Palestinian-born man in a public toilet (in the US), he hired him as his personal translator. Apart from sending a ‘we will be using our imaginations’ signal to his staff, both of these people proved to be invaluable influences on his decision-making.

Petraeus—quoting an Australian counter-insurgency expert—explained that, ‘just because you enter a war stupidly it doesn’t mean you should exit it stupidly’ and under this new strategy, they would be attempting to defuse a civil war as well as arrange the best way of exiting Iraq. He also warned that, although civilian casualties would fall, troop casualties would rise. And they did, which brought Petraeus a lot of respect in Iraq but a lot of grief in congress.

Soon schools, markets and the general population became much safer places to be. And instead of rumbling around in their humvees, US troops walked in long spread-out patrols across neighbourhoods, chatting with locals and being made welcome. Sheiks started to hand over weapons caches and to sign up with the US against al-Qaeda, for it was now becoming clear to many that the real enemy here was al-Qaeda.

In the long run, history will have the final say about Iraq, but it is recognised that the adoption of an appropriate strategy did in fact avert a national blood-bath and leave Iraq in a much better position than it would have been. And yes, there was a spike in US casualties, but even that reduced significantly as locals were inspired and trained, forced al-Qaeda out, and took ownership of their nation again. Late in the book, Emma Skye is quoted as saying, ‘The US does not deserve to have an army like this.’

On a personal note I would like to add that short-sighted, primarily tactical** measures are the drug of choice not just for the military but also for those engaged in religious work. And there have been a number of times in my leadership journey where I opted for putting young, poorly-supervised (and not well supported) personnel into absurdly challenging situations, which even some of our senior leaders would have struggled to handle. Effectively, like those generals in Iraq—in my enthusiasm for the aspirations and plans of our larger Cornerstone movement—I allowed expansion to come before quality and made strategically dysfunctional decisions, which seriously hurt people. Unfortunately, they (not me) were the ones who paid the price for my recklessness and—whenever I can—I have been slowly catching up with them and apologising. They are surprisingly excusing and forgiving.


PS: some commentators have voiced thoughts about ‘doing this in Afghanistan’ but the dynamics are not the same and it won’t work to ‘do it the same’.

*It’s a challenge to find a satisfactory definition of strategy, so I’ve constructed the following one: ‘Strategy is the easiest pathway to maximum success, given the resources you have available.’ And a formula to go with it: S = QB4E, which means ‘strategy equals quality before expansion’.

** A tactic is defined as ‘a convenient and practical action or manoeuvre requiring skill and care,’

1. Ricks T.   The Gamble is part II of Rick’s masterful historical work on the Iraq War. Part I is titled Fiasco

2.  Ibid. p.14