Tuesday, November 10, 2009
4. CHILDHOOD - AN ABSENT FATHER
Eight or nine Christmases ago I buried my father. My two brothers asked if I - the professional clergyperson - would offer the eulogy at his funeral. That was a difficult ask, because, well, I didn't know my father. Never had. When I was a young teenager I despised him. I was reading a book a day back then, and I would occasionally be silly enough to ask him a question - only to be told 'Get your head out of those books, Rowland, they're giving you wrong ideas!' As a mid-teen (fortunately) I made a conscious decision to forgive him, and accept him, even if he was the most uncreative, boring person I knew. Occasionally since then I tried to get close to him, especially when in his 60s he had a psychotic breakdown, but, no, he responded with 'Don't ask those personal questions, Rowland.'
Now what are fathers for? Role-models about how to solve problems and take responsibility, initiators into manhood, leaders and providers, yes, yes, yes. When I was preparing the eulogy, and with a blank page in front of me after many hours of thinking about him, I phoned some of his old friends. 'What would you say?' I asked them. Their consensus: 'Well, to be honest Rowland, your dad probably lived the last sixty years of his life without welcoming a new idea. He got the same train from Mortdale or Oatley to the city (of Sydney) every day, moved paper across the face of the earth for the government, and got the same train home again. He didn't have to think on his job, or in our church (a small Brethren assembly - more of that later). But one thing you can say about him: he was predictable, yes, but you could also call it faithful.
Now that was an 'aha' experience for me. In the wash-up of a person's life, someone who was supposed to be your mentor - what would you prefer him to be, if you had to make the tough choice: brilliant, or faithful? You can find brilliance anywhere, but faithfulness? I am now deeply grateful for my father's life, even though I can't remember ever exchanging a meaningful sentence about anything. He has modeled a faithful life, and I too am a disciplined person as a direct result of his influence.
I've told a few people and a few conferences that I've never really felt I had anything to grieve about since my father died. I have never shed a tear for him, nor felt inclined to. That has been a liberating thing for many who heard me say it: and for me, too, I guess.
Update: I've just returned (July 2007) from a speaking trip to the Anglican diocesan clergy conference in Bathurst NSW. There I jotted down this wisdom from someone: 'Each of us has to mourn the parent we had, and also, very importantly, the parent we didn't have'.
Update 2010. Reading Margaret Marcuson's Leaders Who Last - excellent by the way - I've realized again why am I a Baptist pastor and not an Anglican! Ecclesiology/theology yes; but mainly family systems theory. As an eldest/responsible son of an underfunctioning father I could not easily cope in my one short life with similar bishops! When I was a school-teacher, a staffworker with InterVarsity Fellowship, World Vision etc. the only 'good' bosses (Lew Ellem, Ian Burnard, and Harold Henderson respectively) gave me maximum autonomy. Anyone else identify with that?
And another important note: My father's father was a simple man: he polished brass in a building at Redfern for a living. I remember he came by train to our home in Oatley one night, and my father asked him: how did you find your way here? My grandfather said: 'Oh I got off the train, and simply followed another person'. I remember as a kid having an 'aha' moment then! My father did a better job than his father, and I think I've done a better job of fathering than my father did. But my kids are better parents than I was. And hopefully that will continue through to our grandchildren's parenting!
Update 2014: Wednesday is a highlight every week: I drive our 11-year-old grand-daughter Millie to school then home again. This morning, she told me her regular teacher was on long-service leave, and for two months they had a substitute teacher. 'I'm her favourite,' Millie told me. 'Why is that Millie?' 'Oh, all the other kids chatter too much and this teacher gets frustrated. I don't: I quietly do what I'm supposed to do...'
Forgive me for being a proud grandpa!