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

Sunday 10 June 2012

The courage to be: Don't fear the raven

"No one needs to try to be unique. Nevertheless, being who we are remains a daily challenge. The three things required – self-acceptance, integrity, and the courage to be – don’t happen on their own.

Self-acceptance demands that we aspire to be, not disdain , who we are; it rejects disguise, knowing that it is neither helpful or necessary. Integrity is oneness – being in harmony with ourselves and neighbour. The courage to be is nothing more and nothing less than a fundamental affirmation of our own uniqueness conditioned by the limits imposed by life and death. Practiced together, self acceptance, integrity, and the courage to be lead to human freedom. In contrast, fear disguises reality, trades in duplicity, and rejects human limitations, thereby making freedom impossible..."

"The courage to be" Forrest Church

I was recently invited to lead a “Singing Meditation” at Bank Street Chapel, Bolton. The minister Stephen Lingwood asked if I’d like to come early and watch the Olympic torch (This blog was originally published on 10th June 2012) as it arrived in the town and then go for food. It sounded like a grand idea and so I arrived early!

We wandered to the town square and were entertained by three young women leading what seemed like a mass exercise class. Meanwhile we continued to watch the torch approach via a big screen. Finally it arrived carried by a local man and escorted into the square by an Indian pipe band, playing traditional bagpipe music (Bolton is a truly multi-cultural town).

Once the flame had passed through we went in search of something to eat. As we walked down the precinct we heard the terrifying screech of children and wondered what on earth was going on and then we saw it. In the middle of a crowd of people was an enormous raven wandering up and down. People were crowding round it and it pecked at them in an attempt to scare them off. We carried on a little concerned for the bird, not that we needed to be, and went for food. After enjoying a fish and chip tea we returned to the chapel. On the way we passed back through the town square and as we did I looked up and I saw the great bird once again. He was happily sitting there at the summit of the town hall surveying the scene below. I walked away chuckling to myself and thinking...mmmhhh!!! I think I know who rules this place...yes his time had been disturbed by all the goings on but now he could get back to where he belonged, ruling the roost from his perch high above it all...

It brought the Edgar Allen Poe poem to my mind and those immortal words...”Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore’”

The “Singing Meditation” went really well and they have asked me to share it with them again at some time in the future, which of course I will do. I drove home in a state of bliss feeling connected and at peace and then the image of the raven came back into my mind. It had such beauty and majesty and people did seem terrified of it. It brought the film “The Birds” to my mind . That classic 1960’s horror/thriller directed by the great Alfred Hitcock and loosely based on a story by Daphne du Maurier. The film is set in a California seaside town that is suddenly, and for reason never explained, the subject of a series of widespread and violent bird attacks; a terrifying film in its day that no doubt instilled a fear of birds into a whole generation. Hitcock truly was the master of the suspense thriller; he knew how to tap into that fear that lurks within us all. It got me thinking about the things that terrified me as a child...

Fear does have the power to inhibit but it also has the power of allure. I remember those terrifying public information broadcasts from the 1970’s, images that still stay with me, about the dangers of railway lines, and electric pylons and of course water. Not that we headed the dangers, in many ways it kind of made them more enchanting for me and my friends. When I think of the more exciting childhood memories they were all laced with danger. I also remember a collection of “video nasty’s” that my stepdad must have got a hold of and of finding them and watching them and the waking nightmares and terrors that I suffered as a result.

The childhood memory that haunted me the most though was a Saturday night episode of “Hammer House of Horror”. It was a werewolf tale that vividly remains within my psyche. The image that had the greatest impact was of the beast at the window in the black of night and the person turning round and it being in the room with them. This was etched on my memory for years and to such an extent that I never dared look out through the glass of my room after dark. Even to this day there is a part of me that feels nervous if I look through “glass darkly”

Fear comes in many forms. We need not fear fear in and of itself. It is a vital part of our make up, of our animal heart. It sets the pulse racing and heightens our awareness. Fright is a vital instinct. It points to danger, it’s a warning signal. That said there are other forms of fear which are not so useful. Perhaps the most debilitating of all is dread.

Dread and other forms of debilitating fear can overwhelm us and lead to crippling forms of anxiety which can inhibit us from simply living and being. When we are overcome by such emotions everything can appear bleak; our senses become dulled; it drains all the colour and taste from life. This leads to us projecting our anxiety and worry onto everything that we do in life; it takes the very life out of living and leads to abject misery. It drags us into pits of depression and traps us in the very things that we believe protect us from present dangers. As a result we go deeper into ourselves and get lost and trapped in our black holes of doom and gloom. It can be very difficult to find our way out of these black holes. It sucks the life out of us and stops us being who we really are, all that we can be.

So how do we overcome the power of this debilitating fear? How do we find the courage just to be?

Well it takes just a little faith and a little love to create the courage just be. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Which of course it is, but it is far from easy.

This brings to mind a verse from one of my favourite hymns “Others call it God”

The verse goes like this...

“A picket frozen on duty,
A mother starved for her brood,
And Socrates drinking hemlock,
And Jesus on the rood;
An millions, who though nameless,
The straight, hard pathway trod –
Some call it consecration,
And others call it God.”

The straight hard pathway of faith is not easy...

The images depicted in this verse are of characters who had the courage to do what they believed they were there to do, whether a picket on duty, or a mother looking after her children or the likes of Jesus and Socrates who were willing to sacrifice their lives for love or truth...They had the courage to be...inspirations to me, inspirations to us all
Socrates was charged by the Athenian council with “corrupting the minds of the young, and of believing in deities of his own invention instead of the gods recognised by the state.”

He courageously contested the charges against him, but ultimately lost and as a result was condemned to die. He accepted the judgement of his peers, while responding with these immortal words “The difficulty is not so much to escape death...The real difficulty is to escape from doing wrong, which is far more fleet of foot.”

He did not fear death because he felt that it would take nothing from him of value. As he said to the court “I have never lived an ordinary life...I did not care for the things that most people care about – making money, having a comfortable home, high military or social rank.” Neither did he fear what death would bring which he saw as either the sweetest sleep or a journey to a better place, a place of justice. As he proclaimed “nothing can harm a good man either in life or after death.”

Socrates would rather have surrendered his life, than his integrity. Both in life as in death he perfectly illustrated the courage to be. He had the integrity and therefore courage to say “I have a more sincere belief than any of my accusers, and I leave to you and to God to judge me as it shall be best for me and for yourselves.”

“Jesus on the rood” (Jesus on the cross) like “Socrates drinking hemlock” is another incredible example of someone living out the courage to be. This is truly an example and beacon to us all. He was not immune from fear though. He struggled with it as he hung dying on the cross. In the Gospel accounts of his life he rarely quoted scripture, but at this moment he did. That said he did not quote the comforting 23rd Psalm “I shall walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil for thou are with me”. No, instead he quoted the much starker 22nd Psalm “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?” He did not quote the comforting words “My cup runneth over”, instead he cried out “I thirst”.

Some might say where is the courage here? Well it is in what comes next, as he utters “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In these words lies the essence of his message of radical love. For Socrates integrity gave him the strength to be; whereas for Jesus it was love; the love of God and the love of neighbour as for self. He surrendered himself utterly to his purpose and to his God as he uttered those immortal words “Father, I commend my life unto thy spirit.”

This is where we find the courage to truly be, to overcome the power of unnatural fear, through living in and through love, truth and integrity. Love will always overcome fear; love will always enable us to find the courage to truly be all that we can be. It is love that enabled the picket to stand in the freezing cold to stand up for what he believed in; it is love that motivated the mother to sacrifice herself for her children; it is love that enabled both Jesus and Socrates to make their ultimate sacrifices.

We will always know the emotion of fear, we will always feel it. We need it, it is a natural instinct. That said we need not be enslaved by it. We need not fear that raven perched above us. To be free all we need do is live in integrity, live in love and the courage to simply be will shine out of us. In doing so not only do we liberate ourselves, we will be a light to others who in turn may be inspired to liberate themselves and others too.

Let love and truth show us the way to be all that we can be...