Saturday, 15 June 2013

Father's Day and some thoughts on Panentheism

I love the following by one of my favourite human beings Peter Sampson. Peter was the first Unitarian I ever met as I walked through the door at Cross Street Chapel all those years ago. He has guided me in through the years in ways he will never truly know...

"Things my father could do" By Peter Sampson

Spit into the back of the fire
Turn a piece of metal on a lathe
Dance a quick-step
Ride his bicycle for miles with me on the cross-bar
Solve an intractable mathematical problem for his tearful son
Sing a comic song in the Sunday School pantomime
Play the overture "Poet and Peasant" on the piano
Build a perfect replica of a pullman car for my model railway.
The last thing I saw him do was
Fight the pain in his chest to wrestle with the clasps
On the tin trunk which was to be sent off to Cambridge
Containing all my worldly possessions.
When I received a telegram just before Christmas
To tell me I had won an award at Cambridge
He hugged me; he wept.
When he saw me play Richard the Second at school
He was full of wonder that his own son could be somebody
So different from the boy he thought he knew.
As a boy I had never seemed to be able
To satisfy his stern demands
By doing what he wanted or would have liked me to do
- maths, making models, fighting to defend myself –
But when I started to do the things I wanted to do
(Things I could do) he did not stint his praise,
Almost as if he was glad that I could cope
With what he could never understand.
Almost as if
When he knew that I could do without him
it made his day.

A couple of weeks ago I was collecting for Christian Aid at Urmston Sainsbury’s with Derek Brown the chair of  Queens Road Unitarian Free Church, one of the two congregations I serve. Derek is one of those people who knows everybody and I enjoyed observing him engaging in so many conversations. Derek is also the chair of governors at a local primary school. Three of the people he spoke to were casually dressed men who it turned out were teachers at the school. I commented that it was surprising to see so many male teachers at the school. Derek told me that actually the three men were the only ones at the school. I chuckled to myself as I thought that it was only the male teachers who came to the supermarket to buy their lunch and wondered if the female teachers had prepared their own. I’m not sure what that says about anything all I know is that it made me smile.

There was an item on the news this week reporting on the low number of male teachers, especially in primary schools. Statistics shown that one in four primary schools have no male teachers; that there are only 48 male teachers in state nurseries; that three quarters of all teachers were women; that only 12% of primary school teachers were male. This report appears to coincide with concerns in many areas of society that many children are growing up without any male “role models”, either at home, at school, or within the wider community. Some may say that this is a good thing, but I’m not sure how this can be.

Certainly when I look back at my own life I am very aware of the importance of male role models in my own personal development. Surely in 21st century Britain we all accept the need for both men and women in the development of children and adults for that matter. I know that throughout my ministry and certainly during training that there have been several ministers, men and women, who have been important role models to me. These are people who have shown me the way; people I have turned to as I struggled to find myself within my calling; people who have offered me gentle encouragement as I have doubted myself. Not that I have put them on pedestals, if I have learnt anything in life I have learnt that nobody is perfect, we all have “feet of clay”, I know I make mistakes everyday.

In Exodus Ch 20 you will find the 10 commandments familiar I am sure to most of us. The fifth commandment reads (Unless you are Catholic when it is the fourth commandment) “Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” To me this is essentially what days like Father’s Day and Mothering Sunday (Mother’s Day) are really about. They are days set aside to pay honour and homage to those people who have parented each of us; those imperfect people who have guided our development. Now of course this can be challenging, especially if we have experienced difficult relationships with those people who have parented us. For some people such days can often be the hardest of the year, it is vital to honour this pain too.

As children we may well have looked at our fathers as almost Godlike, certainly I have at times. I still remember the pain when my dad fell of the pedestal I had created for him. The truth is of course that when I placed him there I was not truly honouring him, because by doing so I was not fully recognising his humanity. To truly honour those who have fathered us we need to recognise them for who they truly are warts and all and beauty spots too. Nobody is perfect we are all incomplete we are all constrained by our lives and the pressure it brings and we all make mistakes. No one is immune from selfishness and unloving behaviour, I know I am not.

My father had quite a “romantic” view of life, he often lived with his head in the clouds and he was not always the most responsible of people and he could certainly be deeply selfish. That said he was a lot of fun and was certainly a good story teller. In the few years that I knew him he told me many tales, many of which have stayed with me. How many of them were actually true, I'm not sure. That said I don’t think it actually matters because they all had truth within them; they possessed something of that universal "mythos" within them.

I remember when he was ill and towards the end of his life he recounted a tale when he was once at Appleby horse fare, a place he loved; where he was probably at his happiest. He was talking to me about faith and God. It was during a time of my life when I was a man of little or no faith; I certainly had no belief in God. He recounted that he saw a priest staring down into the water from a bridge. He asked the priest what he was doing and he told him that he was staring into God’s eyes. My father looked into the water and said he could only see himself and the priest. At which point the priest replied that this is where God dwells within you, within me and within everything.

Now whether this actually happened or not I do not really know. I have certainly heard versions of this tale in recent years. Here is a version I came across last week by Mark Link:

“A Little girl was standing with her grandfather by an old-fashioned open well. They had just lowered a bucket to draw some water to drink. “Grandfather,” asked the little girl, “Where does God live?”

The man picked up the little girl and held her over the open well. “Look down into the water,” he said, “and tell me what you see.” “I see myself,” said the little girl. “That’s where God lives,” said the old man. “He lives in you.”

Whether or not the story my dad told me 20 years ago actually happened to him or not, doesn't really matter to me. He did teach me a truth that has grown in meaning over the years. It stayed with me and survived my darkest days, it kept on re-surfacing. The ghost of my father still haunts me. Does yours haunt you?

When I think of God I always go back to the story my father told me, it finally began to make sense when things began to change within me some 10 or more years ago as I began to recognise the truth in it. I realise today that my greatest barrier to faith was that I did not believe that I was lovely of God's love, that I was not formed from it. These days though I see Gof in everything. This is why when I first heard  Forrest Church’s phrase “God is not God’s name. God is our name for that power that is Greater than all and yet present in each,” it immediately made sense, it echoed in my heart. This is why “Process Theology” and Panentheism (not to be confused with Pantheism) speak to me, they chime in my soul. They speak of an essence that is somehow more than life and yet it is present in all of life drawing us on but not controlling everything. Some have described this as the “Lure of Divine Love” that never leaves us; we just need to turn to it. The characteristics of which are both male and female and yet way beyond the limits of gender; way beyond the limit of time and space and human conceived constraints. When I think of God these days I think of a guiding loving hand that holds, guides and sustains and encourages you to be all that you can be.

Father’s Day brings me back to images of children learning to ride backs, or to swim, or more recently in my case learning to drive. How when you first attempt to do these things you are terrified, I know I was; how you don’t want the person guiding you to let you go. Just think about your own attempts to ride a bike. As you begin your body doesn’t seem to be working, you become aware of your awkwardness, as you start pushing at the peddles, as you wobble and no doubt fall a few times, but eventually you manage it, you are guided through it and eventually you make it. Once you do it the first time, you can do it for ever.

Did we do this on our own, no we were helped we were encouraged; we were guided through these fears we were held until we could trust ourselves. Father’s day is about honouring those who have guided us encouraged us and held us when life seemed too scary; those who gave us the faith to trust in ourselves and to trust in life and those who taught us that the divine presence is always with us.  They may not have been our biological fathers, they may not have been men, but we should honour them.
None of them were perfect and to truly honour them is to recognise their imperfection, just as to honour ourselves is to recognise and love who we are warts and all and beauty spots too.

Father’s I pay honour to you on this your special day

Happy Father’s Day

1 comment:

  1. Thank you a thoughtful piece I always enjoy them.