Monday, 18 June 2012

Father Dear Father

" 'Abba' is the intimate word in a family circle where that obedient reverence was at the heart of the relationship..… The best English translation of Abba is simply 'Dear Father'.”
(Thomas A. Smail) 

"Father! - to God himself
we cannot give a holier name."
(William Wordsworth)

Yesterday was Father's Day; my own Dad died many years ago, but I still see it as Dad's day. I often feel the paternal bond and role has been reduced in society today. Obviously a woman carries, nurtures and births her child. Thankfully, the umbilical cord has not been genetically modified: but what binds the father? In Kate Bush's paean to childbirth she wrote "Oh, it's hard on the man, Now his part is over; Now starts the craft of the father". It's generally said that it's far easier to become a father than to be one. For Christians, the shoes a man (or boy) must step into are vast and unfillable; the shadow of emulation, unfathomable.
Thomas Smail was an eminent Scottish theologian, primarily in the Charismatic Movement; he died in February this year.  He had been a priest in both the Church of Scotland and the Anglican Church, ministering around Scotland and in County Antrim in Northern Ireland. In the 1970s, he wrote incisively about the Charismatic Movement in which he had been an enthusiastic participant. He often expressed his feeling that the emphasis on personal experience, so central to the movement, might sometimes eclipse the acknowledgement of God as our father, essential to Christianity. The Evangelical churches may place most emphasis on Jesus Christ, just as the Charismatics glorify the Holy Spirit centre-stage. In 1980, he wrote a book called "The Forgotten Father", which I would recommend if you can find a copy. Thomas Smail sought to restore the paternity of God as the creator of all. It's a very moving read but the message is starkly clear: our inheritance as Christians is entirely dependant on our acceptance that we are God's children. 
A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to be part of a Sunday Eucharist service which also celebrated the First Communion for a dozen children. Due to the warmth and general excellence of the parish catechist, Cathy, the children were impeccably behaved; obviously excited by the occasion but very reverent. The parish priest spoke beautifully and made the service personal yet inclusive to all visitors. He showed the children his own watch, given as a present from his first ever parish some years before. He told them it had been inscribed, because the parishioners wanted him to remember them whenever he looked for the time. He asked how those parishioners and friends might feel if he tossed the watch aside, or simply put it away and forgot he even had it. I found this pretty powerful in the context of the first Eucharist for the little ones. The words "Do this in memory of Me" really struck home later in the mass.
There is a terrible beauty in the truth that an overwhelming number of fathers would lay down their lives for their children. I often overlook the equally painful and noble paradox of the Father who sacrifices His son. When I was little, I couldn't grasp why God would ask Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, compounding the awfulness by calling him "Isaac, whom you love." Later, I began to appreciate that although Abraham was ultimately spared the loss of his son at that time, God sacrificed His: God doesn't test us without honouring His promises.
My own Dad gave up a lot to be with my mother; he subsequently sacrificed a great deal for my sister and me. He also sponsored overseas students, some of whom turned up on our doorstep to thank him years after he had died, he donated to charities and animal sanctuaries, he had a smile and "Hello" for every neighbour. He's left a legacy of kindness. He taught me to say the Lord's Prayer when I was tripping over the words in infant school: "Harold be thy name", that kind of thing. He explained to me that although he was my Dad, God was my father and his father; Big Daddy if you like. I miss my Dad, but even though he's been gone since I was sixteen and a rather wishy-washy punkette ("I may have PVC trousers and a little pink fringe, but I don't smoke, drink or wear safety pins; please be nice to me"), the physical absence over the years hasn't dulled my reliance on his values or way of reasoning. I had a Dad; I have Dad. And just like him, I have the mother of all Fathers too.

The Sioux and other Native American Indian peoples worship God the Creator as the Great Grandfather Spirit. There's an ancient, unaccredited prayer to Him which I wanted to include here as I feel it echoes our own familiar "Our Father".

"Oh, Great Grandfather Spirit, whose voice I hear in the wind,
Whose breath gives life to all the world.
Hear me; I need your strength and wisdom.
Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset.
Make my hands respect the things you have made and my ears sharp to hear your voice
Make me wise so that I may understand the things you have taught my people.
Help me to remain calm and strong in the face of all that comes towards me.
Let me learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf & rock.
Help me seek pure thoughts & act with the intention of helping others.
Help me find compassion without empathy overwhelming me.
I seek strength, not to be greater than my brother, but to fight my greatest enemy - Myself.
Make me always ready to come to you with clean hands and straight eyes,
So when life fades, as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame."

"The Lord's Prayer"  Jose Carreras

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