Sunday, July 08, 2012

How My Father Lost his Faith: My 2nd Sermon

I didn't know him. Not well. Not as someone expects to know family. I knew about him. I knew things about when he was angry or sad. How he might deal with tragedy or rudeness. I knew a few of his friends and colleagues. He passed in December '09. He had a heart attack at the age of 76. He'd been sick at the end, diabetic, kidney disease and dialysis, but still vibrant with full mastery of his faculties. So that he went to play Bridge at some club, was dropped off by my step mother who proceeded to park, and died.

The man I knew was a bear. A genius whose conversation was a sparring match which examined multiple facets and positioned him as top dog. He couldn't help himself. He had to argue and be right. But not dumb argument. If he argued with you, you could be confident you had earned his respect. But there was so much he didn't say. And it puzzled me. I thought he was waiting for me to come up with an argument which he had a smack down already prepared. It was like a game of chess. He was willing to lose or risk, but unwilling to surrender.

He raised me to be an atheist. I had an atheist perspective in argument that was adult and realised before I understood the issues they argued. And so when I read other atheists, their work resonated and held meaning for me. When I met Christians, I had the contempt of the superior. I recall being left at a church so my Atheist mother might write letters to friends and pay bills when I was a child. There were four of us when I was growing up, each two years from the previous and I was the youngest. The two oldest didn't require full time care when I was six, and so it was only my sickly eight year old sister and I who went to this church. I don't think we went often, it might only have been once or twice but I remember one occasion strongly which lets me illustrate this point. My sister and I were in an art room colouring in pictures of Jesus and being talkative. I was flying beneath the radar of others and was disgusted my sister couldn't do that. But then she was dying of Kidney disease and she was a little slow compared to the rest of her siblings. She remarked that our mother didn't believe in Jesus, and the kindly Sunday school teacher began to talk to her about it. I tried to tell my sister to shut up and enjoy the colouring in. But Pam used that to involve me, and so the Sunday school teacher began to share her thoughts.

"Jesus was real. He was man, but more than a man, he was the son of God. He is the only one in history to rise from the dead." I didn't think the last thing was true. I had known people who had died. Also I didn't believe God existed. So calling Jesus the son of God was causing me to think hoax. She continued "Some people say Jesus was just a moral man. But he also healed the sick and even raised a man that was dead." I felt she was undercutting her argument of the resurrection hoax's uniqueness there. If Jesus was the only one to rise from the dead, how could he have raised others? It didn't worry me as I didn't accept either claim. But it worried my sister, and so the Sunday School teacher went to get help. I got the impression Pam was wavering and I tried to explain to her it had to be a hoax. Maybe Jesus was a nice guy and some people wanted to drive home a point for religious purposes. If Jesus were real he clearly didn't appear to be part of our lives. A guy showed up and he quietly explained to the well meaning Sunday teacher that they weren't to interfere with our parents beliefs. "But why would they send them here if they didn't believe?" "I don't know. I'll speak to their mother about it when I see her." It was my mother's later justifications which were an eye opener to me. She was willing to say anything to anyone. She pointed out the daycare service allowed her to pay bills and it was advertised. He pointed out it was for those who attended service. On the drive back home, Mother tried to explain why she said she sometimes believed, but really didn't. I thought to myself that it was reminiscent of Pam's thoughts too. My father wouldn't be compromised that way in front of me. Years later, long after Pam's death, my father was privileged to read the bible to a Sydney University christmas audience and he did so very well. Denying later he believed any of it.

I became a Christian at the age of eighteen. It was at a Student Life seminar at Sydney University which I attended and where my father worked. Naturally a beautiful girl had been next to me, but my conversion was based on the discovery highlighted by the seminar leader, J John, visiting from UK, that Jesus and God were possible and desirable in ordinary terms. I hadn't thought either was possible until he presented it with various proofs. When my dad raised the issue of the Christian presence on campus I let him know I was one of them, but not one of the troublesome ones. I viewed the Maranatha mob who praised killers for killing abortion doctors as criminals. I also didn't like the perceived militancy of some groups who called themselves Christian, like the Jehovas Witness and Mormons. It was years before I worked out that not all who claimed to be Christian believed in the Christ of the Bible. At the beginning, I was ambivalent about the bible and the supernatural claims of Christ. I thought God had the authority, but I didn't see that it was important. J John had said it was natural to believe in God, that we had evolved culturally wanting to believe. I didn't listen to his spirituality proofs, because I was digesting the 'God is possible' ones. And not for the first time I was at odds with my father on a topic he wouldn't engage with.

I had a cousin who worked as a missionary and dad used that to challenge my thoughts on the issue. I didn't leap to her defence as I wasn't one to view God as active in a spiritual sense. Dad just said that it was ok and the issue was more complex than a simple answer would be before I answered. He had often put words in my mouth, but then dads get to do that.

What did my father believe? What was his reasoning? He didn't share that with me. It was too dangerous for him, or I hadn't earned his trust, or, more likely, a little of both. I think I overheard him once saying to my Stepmother that he was afraid of losing his faculties as he got older and he didn't want to recant his position from deathbed weakness. But that may be merely an imagined conversation I have. I wanted to know. It was important to me. But he wouldn't share.

It was after his death, speaking with his sister, that I gained some insight. He had been part of a fellowship group in the Presbyterian church where they had lived. He had been devout in his teens. But he had faded in his twenties. I knew he was married on his twenty first birthday. I knew my mum's attitude and had insight into her reasoning. There are biblical passages warning against marrying non believers. Here for me was a living example.

I see today youth group leaders and children. It is beautiful how they participate in raising children with love for the Lord. It is a revelation that my father had been like that, and yet had raised me as an atheist and was so defensive about the issue. What had happened? He lead a remarkably successful public life. His private life had a few spots, but he wasn't a criminal or a thief. He was a nice guy capable of inspiring great loyalty from his students and friends.

He once shared with me how he felt guilty about the way he had targeted a student of his from one of his first classes as a teacher. He had kept in touch with some of the others, but this one had dropped from view. He had been weak and weedy, and my dad had used him as a counter example illustrating what not to do in most activities. My dad expressed regret about it. It was a remarkable sharing and I, in my early thirties, wondered if it was to do with me. I'd always been fat and my dad had openly despised me. He had said so to his father, once, in front of me. Saying that I smiled too much, was fat and too nice. His dad had said he was like that too when he was young. I think Granddad also tried getting father to read Jurgen at that time. If so it showed some insight. I tried getting Dad to read that book too. It lampooned the church and religious reasoning and so was banned in the US in the early 20's, but it addressed the issue of religious belief so well. Something my father seems to have been afraid of. Dad gave the book back to me, unread.

J John had shared how God was possible with me. I naively ignored the rest of what J John had said. J John is an evangelical Christian and he had shared that God was real and present in our lives today. It was to take me from the age of eighteen to forty three before I accepted the spiritual dimension of God. I guess I am as slow as my father said. Had I listened to what he had said twenty five years earlier I might have been able to apply to my life that thing which my father had feared. I might have got my father to face what he feared. Too late I made the discovery. I failed my father. But maybe I'm not too late with those my father loved. I have to ask myself, what was it my father feared? Why?

I asked my mother why she abused me growing up. And she told me it was because she had been betrayed by her father. My mother had three sisters, two of whom committed suicide. I believe my mother navigated terrible storms, and she turned from one who could have helped her and put her trust in the tangible which she could control. Only such control is an illusion. We are all subject to life's storms. And what we rely on can be taken from us faster than we acquired it. I was born after my parents had separated. My sister, Pam, was two years older than me and sickly from birth, so that my mum considered suing the delivery doctor because Pam's umbilical chord had been wrapped around her throat and there was a delay in cutting it. It was heartbreaking to raise a child to thirteen years of age and watch her die. Pam tried to be graceful. Knowing her body had rejected a kidney transplant and faced with returning to dialysis she asked my mother for permission to die. She had wanted my mother to know that she had tried, but her life inside a hospital was too hard, too painful. Mother told her she believed in reincarnation and thought Pam would come back in a better body for all she had suffered.

I didn't see all that my father weathered in those days. My mother burned down our house and we were saved by our dog warning us. We ended up holidaying by the sea before buying a replacement house. Mother wanted to tour Europe but we couldn't afford that. Coming home from work one night, at the new house, Dad was too tired to walk the dog. Losing patience with my siblings while I pretended to sleep, he put the dog out the front door and told Kiddles to go walk itself. Kiddles went to play among trees opposite the house but was struck by a car on the way back, and died on our doorstep. I pretended to sleep while Kiddles was buried.

We got a bigger house after that. But still we argued and bickered as a family, and Pam was dying. Mother got upset with father, and told him he wasn't good enough. He slapped her, and so she said she was leaving. She took the two oldest with her and drove off. He got very angry and told Pam and I to go to our rooms. Naturally Mother drove back and got my big sister to get Pam and I to climb out of our windows. Pam made noise getting out, alerting Father who chased after Mother's car in his car. Mother pulled over and asked what he wanted. He said he wanted Pam and I. We were driven back home and he released his rage by ordering us to stand still while he kicked and punched us for leaving. Pam wisely fell to ground and I joined her while Father was screaming for us to stand up. Pam told him to stop because she had her colostomy bag he could damage. I cynically suggested he kick me if he had to kick because Pam had the bag. He demanded to know if I wanted him to kick me, and I said 'no' but I didn't want him hurting Pam. He sent us to our rooms again. I now think he felt shame too.

My Father met my mother as a faithful man. He showed amazing loyalty to my Mother and he wholeheartedly embraced her Atheism. But nothing worked for him. He had an amazing career as an academic, starting Sesame Street as their chief educational evaluator and working for the UN as a consultant advising on third world education. Teaching at Columbia University's Teaching College (Paul Simon had been a student). But he would come home from work and his family was dysfunctional and his younger daughter was dying. He was helpless. His wife wanted a divorce. They returned to their native Australia after Pam's death. And then Father found he had Melanoma Cancer.

Father survived Cancer and rebuilt his life. He remarried. He got work at Sydney University as Professor of Educational testing measurement. He took pains to point out that that was testing measurement and not testing and measurement. He did some more TV work as adjudicator and question writer for Sale of the Century. My little sister Simone got honourable mention from Tony Barber when she was born and Tony congratulated Father for his two children, including my other half sister Rachel but not mentioning Father's first family. Father gave me his wedding portrait with Mother. I tried to find out who was in it, but when I asked he lost his temper. My father didn't like failure.

My father called himself rational. He liked to point to what he could see. He couldn't see God. He didn't hear God calling his love for him when he felt lost and alone outside the land of his birth when he felt his family had turned against him. He didn't feel the blessing at being rewarded for his life's work. He didn't feel the comfort God gave him when Pam entered her rest. He looked for love from those he hadn't failed and who hadn't failed him. But God remembered him and called to him.

God called to me and spoke to me on the night of my sister's death. I hadn't recognised it as I disbelieved in the spiritual and embraced only the rational. Asked to turn off a light downstairs I didn't want to as I felt it 'haunted.' I notice nowadays that those who call themselves rational seem haunted by spirits. I got a splinter in my finger for my troubles. A few months later, in Australia. God called to me again. This time, I had a dream in which I met Him. I asked to stay with Him, but He smiled on me and said my time was not yet for that. But I had to get to know him. I promised I would. I was eleven years old. I was eighteen when I finally accepted God as God, but then I waited. I was forty three when I was baptised. But I was baptised only after my Father had died. For nearly twenty five years I could have shared a mature faith in God with my Father. But I failed.

I had had many blessings before I was baptised, but I had not fully turned to God and I felt overwhelmed by my troubles. I was delaying being baptised until I could see the light of a new life, a dawn I knew I must see. But then I decided to stop waiting and just do it. I was troubled with the thought of losing my accommodation I had a mortgage on but couldn't pay. I decided to leave my troubles with God. The woman who had been by my side when I became a Christian was gone, a stranger to me. So I invited another. She didn't show either, although her friends and family were. Her wider family of Christians. My new family. That provides me with tremendous insight into my Father. He yolked himself to an atheist. I intend to yolk myself to a faithful woman.

But I haven't explained enough. Clearly, to me, my father was trying to be gallant with his wife, he chose the woman he married on his twenty first birthday, but it doesn't explain why he chose her. But there is another clue I have not yet shared.

My grandmother was an amazing woman. She was never rich, although she was raised well off. Her family had fled the antisemitic Tsars in the late 1800's settling in Holland as Rabbi and musicians. A branch of that family survived Amsterdam in WW2 as part of the resistance and now lives in North Italy as the worlds largest producer of high quality socks. Her father was a musician who led several orchestra in London, where she was born in 1898. She left school at thirteen. Her father heavily invested in airships and lost all of his money. He died in Johannesburg establishing their first orchestra in the early thirties. Meanwhile my Grandmother came to Australia, married a gambler, divorced him and raised her children alone. She didn't strongly adhere to her Jewish faith. She married a Catholic man and, after she divorced, her children started a Presbyterian (Scottish) fellowship. Her relationship with her Christian daughter was strained. In her later years, I shared a book with her as I do with all I care about. AB Facey's A Fortunate Life was the book I shared and she really enjoyed it. I asked what she liked the most, and she said it was the part he wrote after his wife had died, towards the end, where he denies God and the blessings of the Lord's work. As a Christian, I was the right one for my Grandmother to confide in because I was spiritually dead. I was safe. And that is the final clue for me explaining my Father's choice of wife. He chose a woman that could please his Mother.

I haven't, but then I felt betrayed by my mother. And so my sermon reaches nub. For my sermon illustrates why my father lost his faith. But what does it say to you? God never gave up on my Grandmother and Father, although they both continually rejected Him in life. So many blessings they pretended to ignore so they could feel sorry for themselves. When Nanna passed, I was asked if I wanted to say anything. I wanted to say the passage Luke 16:19-31, Lazarus and the Rich man. I think if my Father or Grandmother were given the choice now, or the ability to tell those that they love, they would tell them to embrace God. God loves you, He calls to you desperate as those who are in love call. He gave me what was needed to talk to my Father and Grandmother. I failed. But here I stand. As if one who had died came back, and could tell you what they had learned. And I say to you, He loves you.
Post a Comment