Saturday, 16 June 2012

Neither God's Nor Monsters: A Father's Day Reflection

A child was out walking with his father when they came across a large stone, blocking their path. The boy decided to prove how strong he was to his dad by moving the stone out of their way. So he charged towards the stone and threw himself against it, while his father just looked on. The young boy pushed and pulled with all his might. He leaned his back into it and exerted all his strength turning his face bright red. Still the stone would not move, he was simply not strong enough to shift it. Finally, frustrated, he slumped to the ground. “I can’t do it. It’s impossible,” he said.

His father just smiled and in a quiet, gentle and assured voice simply said, “It’s not impossible. You could do it if you could figure out how to give it everything you have.” On hearing this the little boy got quite defensive and angry. He began to protest that he had given it everything that he had.

His father just smiled and shook his head and once again in a quiet, gentle and assured voice simply replied. “How could you have given it everything you had? You haven’t asked me for help yet.

Wouldn't we all like to have fathers like that? I am sure that some people had and have. Wouldn’t we all like the kind of dad that lets you give it a go with all your might and just watches over you in a loving and supportive way, encouraging you to do it your way and then when needed, and only when needed, gently offers you the help to get the job done. This to me seems like the right kind of paternal help. It is neither controlling, nor is it abandoning. It is gently and calmly reassuring. Don’t we all need someone or something like that in our lives?

Today is “Father’s Day”. Now I don’t remember ever celebrating “Father’s Day” as a child. It is something that has seeped into our culture in recent times. Personally I am glad of this. We should celebrate fatherhood, just as much as we celebrate motherhood with “Mothering Sunday” or “Mother’s Day” as it has become known in recent times.

Father’s Day is something that we have appropriated from our friends across the Atlantic. It began in 1909 when Mrs Bruce John Dodd of Spokane, Washington listened to a "Mother’s Day" sermon. It inspired her so much that she decided that she wanted to have a special day dedicated to her widowed father William who had raised her and her five sisters and brothers alone.

In 1909 Mrs Dodd approached her own minister and asked if they could have a dedicated church service for fathers on June 5th, her father’s birthday. It seems that the date was too soon for the minister to prepare the service (I know all about that kind of pressure). Instead it was held a couple of weeks later. The idea seemed to take off from there. The whole state of Washington soon adopted it and began celebrating Father’s Day, by folk wearing flowers, on the third Sunday of June. According to the tradition a red rose honours a father still living, while a white flower honours a deceased dad (I can see why this part of the tradition has not transferred to the North of England where a white rose and a red rose mean something very different).

Father's Day soon caught on. In 1916 President Wilson declared that he approved of the idea of holding a special "Father's Day". In 1924 President Calvin Coolidge took this further and proposed a day whose aim was to “establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children and to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations."  This led to the formation of the “National Fathers’ Day Committee”, in New York, in 1926. It took another 30 years before Father’s day was officially recognised by the US congress. Then in 1972 President Nixon established the third Sunday of June as an official nationally observed day.


Now as I have already mentioned I do not remember marking "Father’s Day" as a child, unlike Mothering Sunday. That said I do remember my much younger half sister creating things for her dad when she was at primary school.

My childhood relationship with my dad was inconsistent. From the age of 11 until I was about 17 I saw nothing of my father. My parents separated when I was about 2 or 3 and my siblings and I would spend weekends and Tuesday evenings with him. When I was 11 this ended and it was not until my later teens that I once again began to spend time with my dad. He contacted me at my place of work to inform that my granddad was dying. It's strange but I immediately responded and went to the family farm, even though it had been half a lifetime since I had seen them. I remember my dad saying to me "I knew you'd come"and how it filled me with guilt and shame. We spent the next three or four years attempting to bond and get to know each other, but I don’t think we ever fully did. My father died when I was 21 and for the last few months of his life I helped to nurse him, but I do not think we ever truly got to know one another. I know that this is not a unique experience.

 As a child I saw him as my great hero, as this outrageous and exciting figure and then for many years I saw him as quite the opposite, as irresponsible and selfish. The truth is that neither view is wholly true or untrue. He was a human being with many faults and many qualities. I am like him in many ways and not like him in many others.

I had other paternal figures during my childhood some I bonded with and others I did not. I never really connected with my stepfather, truth be told I lived in fear of him. That said I have always had a deep affection for my maternal grandfather, in fact I still do. I remember as a little boy going to visit him on his market stall and him showing me his bionic arm (like the six million dollar man). He had a small scar on his arm, from an injury during the war. I also remember him sending me for small bottles of pop and of him helping me to open them. He always played the same trick and we both allowed it to go on for many years. I would not be able to open the bottle and so I’d ask my granddad to help me. He would then try, but would not be unable to do so either (not even with his bionic arm) and so he’d pass it back to me and somehow this time I would find the strength to open the bottle. Beautiful memories! Yes I will be thinking of my dad and my granddad on Sunday. I know how blessed I am to still have my granddad with me (sadly my granddad died early in 2014).

We all need someone or something to guide us, to help us learn about courage and strength, to help us overcome the obstacles that life throws in our way. We do not have to face the boulders in our path alone. We all need fathering in one way or another. It does not necessarily require a man to look up to, but we need someone or something that offers those qualities to us, just as we also need to develop those very same qualities within ourselves. That said it is important to remember that father’s are not just about strength and fortitude, they are also about caring and warmth too. Thank heavens that fathers are encouraged to develop those qualities today.

Father's are far from perfect and perhaps it's a mistake to idolise them. They are as human as the rest of us. They are neither God’s nor monsters. One of the worst days of my life was they day my father fell off the God like pedestal I had placed him on. That said one of the most beautifully liberating days of my life was the day I was able to see him as a human being, with his own unique talents and brokenness.

I am sure that many folk have memories of their dad’s teaching them to play cricket or football or taking them for long walks and or watching them perform all manner of things; just as I'm sure that folk have memories of dad’s who seemed angry, silent, or distant. I’m sure many folk have memories of dad’s who taught them responsibility; just as I'm sure that many folk have memories of dad's who were unable to spend as much time with them as they would have liked or dad’s who didn’t know what to do with the time they had with them. Not all dads are jolly and carefree; some dads are awkward and uncomfortable. 

Yes “Father’s Day can be difficult for many folk, it can bring up many painful memories and it is important that we acknowledge this. Father's are not always perfect.

Who though can claim to have been the perfect son or daughter? I’m sure I’m not the only one who has rejected or rebelled against or fought with their father at times. I wonder how many folk who are fathers themselves have experienced the same troubles with our own children.

To be a father to anyone is no easy task. In many ways it’s even harder in the modern age. Many people talk about the pressures of modern motherhood, but we hear very little about the pressures of modern fatherhood. The truth is though that the modern father has to learn to be an expert juggler too. This needs to be recognised. We need to see that the care and effort required to father is no easy task. Yes they all fall short, they all make mistakes, and they all struggle to find balance and to be patient with their sons and daughters. They are not God’s, but then neither are they monsters. Like everyone they are struggling to do the best that they can in an ever more demanding world.

I pay homage to father’s and to fatherhood on their special day. We should celebrate those who stand with us as we struggle to move the rocks in our paths, those that offer gentle encouragement. We should all pledge to develop those paternal instincts within each and every one of us so that we too can stand besides those who need that calm yet strong encouragement when they meet those boulders that sometimes fall in everyone’s path.

Happy Father's Day

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