It Takes A Village To Father

It Takes A Village To Father

Father’s Day gives us the opportunity to think about fathering, and in particular our own fathers.  Some memories are good, some aren’t.  Some are great.  Some of us have very few memories at all. 

One of the attractive things about the belief in a literal heaven (a belief I’m agnostic about), is the thought of sitting down with my father and talking about our lives, our loves, and what’s important.  And listening.  And smiling.  And leg-pulling.

My dad was certainly around in my life, working in his shed or the garage, enthusiastically engaging with camping and later tramping holidays.  He was good at talking, and good at making people feel welcome.  He taught me to fish, light fires, and the importance of a big garage.  Unsurprisingly our car wasn’t parked in it too often. 

Dad was also a product of the 1920s.  I can’t remember him reading us stories, or attending anything at our schools.  When I did something just with him, like go fishing, there would always be a mate or two of his along.  Not really one-to-one time.  Not that I resented this.  It was just the way it was; and it was the same I think for all my cobbers.

I don’t think I really had a serious talk with him about anything.  And I was very surprised to learn from his friends much later that he was quite proud of me, and would talk about me to them.  He was dead by then.

Like many fathers he died, as far as I was concerned, too young.  There are things I would have liked to ask him.  And handy practical skills that I would have loved him to teach his grandchildren.  And similarities between us that would have been good to acknowledge and celebrate and laugh about.

Yet when I think about how I was fathered, I don’t think just of my biological father.  When I think back over my life, I see a whole village of men who in little and big ways have influenced me and, in a sense, ‘raised me’ to be who I am.

Foremost amongst that ‘village’ would be my grandfathers – Harry and Fred. 

I didn’t spend a lot of time with Harry.  I do remember his Hillman Hunter car, of which he was proud.  I remember his stories of World War I (he was in the merchant navy).  I remember him in his bowling whites.  Like with my father, if I could meet Harry again, I would have many questions for him.

Fred on the other hand was a big part of my life.  I mentioned his large garden and old leaky bucket the other week.  He’d been wounded at the Somme.  Unlike Harry he never talked about the war.  I stayed with him and my grandmother (Vida) quite often.

Fred liked to read and learn.  He was the only adult I knew who regularly went to church.  He’d catch the tram into Pitt St Methodist.  (Fred never owned a car).  He also liked to play chess.  He liked to walk in the bush, and was an honorary ranger in the Waitakeres.  He didn’t talk much, but when he did it was to encourage me.  He was the only person in my family who wasn’t struck dumb when I applied for ordination training.  He died the weekend I was selected.

There were other adult men in my early life too – fathers of my friends in the street, scout leaders, church ministers.  None of them made too much of an impression.  They were like a bag of Liquorice Allsorts that one found in those days in Birkenhead – practical, often gruff, few with tertiary qualifications (save ministers), not employed in weekends and evenings, and with hobbies and sheds. 

When I was in my early 20s two older ministers were significant mentors, and became part of that ‘fathering village’ for me.

Russ was a parish minister in Epsom.  I met him on the way to jail.  (We were both arrested at Waitangi).  He was a guy who liked gardening, kept chickens, and enjoyed a smoke and a yarn.  He didn’t like committees too much – for example when he tired of a hedge alongside the church, he backed up his Holden, tied a rope around the bushes, and dropped the clutch.  The Board of Managers equivalent were not impressed.  He was a real character.

He got a lot of stick in the blue belt of Epsom for his views on Waitangi and being arrested.  His Session equivalent saw their job as putting the brakes on him.  Yet interestingly, a decade or so later, when I was appointed as minister to that parish, I discovered how loved and appreciated he’d been.  He was one of the most popular ministers that parish has ever had.

Russ had a bach at Whangarei Heads and back in the day we’d go fishing in his dinghy.  Just the two of us.  His wisdom was practical.  He liked people.  All sorts.  And he hated injustice.  He didn’t read or write much that I could see.  He’d construct his sermons in the garden, and not use any notes.

Michael was very different.  He was the minister of the parish where I was ordained (St Helier’s), and I got to know him first in 1982 (when I was 22).  Michael had a style in both written and oral communication of not drawing a conclusion.  His critics called him at best ethereal, at worst woolly.  I think he just liked people to figure things out for themselves; and he saw himself as a guide not an authority. 

Michael was one of those Anglicans who enjoyed the beauty, movement, music, and colour of liturgy.  The words by themselves said little.  They were rather barely adequate signposts to that which was beyond the description of words.  So, the sermon for the day wasn’t so much the 12 minutes of words he offered, but the flower he’d plucked on his brief walk to church that morning.

He also loved children.  He loved how they saw things adults were slow to see.  How they giggled, and liked to touch objects.  Were inquisitive, and unafraid to ask questions.  Children, rather than adults, were the wisdom masters of faith.

Michael trained in Cuddesdon, Oxford, and served his time as an assistant minister in Portsmouth.  When he came to New Zealand his first parish was Glen Innes.  He was something of a novelty on his bicycle, in his black cassock, with his English accent.  I followed him to Glen Innes some decades later and he was still remembered.  Not for these outward things, but for the leaning of his heart.

It was Michael who encouraged me to look with the eyes of the heart. 

There have been many other kindly, interesting, and often colourful men who have assisted, and still assist, in making me who I am.  There’s a whole village of them really.  And I remember and honour them this Father’s Day.

And in memory of Michael, and other men of heart, I wrote this blessing:

May we be blessed with eyes of the heart,

mystical seeing, that seventh sense,

what love gives, that bearer of hope,

the friend who waits for us when we’re slow.

May we be blessed with eyes of the heart,

to know that deeply and truly we are surrounded,

held and upheld by the many hands and generosity,

of those who believe in us, and always will.

May we be blessed with eyes of the heart,

to see what can be seen through a glass darkly,

to hear what can be heard when whispered by grace,

to know what can be known beyond all reason.

It is a beautiful thing to see with, and be seen by,

the eyes of the heart.