Dad, where is the peace? Where is the joy? I’ve been watching you my whole life and I still don’t understand.
Alan had watched eight decades come and go, and I only five – a pup next to the old fella. So really, what did I know? But he didn’t ask that. He didn’t put me in my place. There were no father-son lectures, no sermons. He just sat, pursed his lips a little, cradled his chin in his hands and told me that he wasn’t always sure. That was it.
He said that he wasn’t always sure.
It was a moment of pure honesty, of utter submission to the universal mysteries that confront us every day. It was a few moments in the Okanagan sun. We were sitting at a homemade, green painted wooden picnic table. We were in the cool, peaceful shelter of gigantic willow trees that he had planted about 20 years before. And I was surprised. I didn’t expect that answer – not from a man of the cloth – although I suppose that I don’t know what I expected.
He wasn’t always sure.
My dad was a church minister for most of his long working life, and for much of my life I couldn’t understand why. He never struck me as a minister type, not really. It’s true that he loved to laugh and that he would play family games with us. He was an award winning gymnast and cyclist in his youth. He and Mom met while square dancing in Vancouver. He helped us build forts and he took us Christmas tree hunting. One Halloween he and Mom dressed in white long johns with appropriately placed green fabric fig leaves: Adam and Eve!
But much of the time he was quiet, contemplative, and he wrestled with finding a message that would appeal to small town churches. He looked for a message that was true, a message that made sense, and a message that people would be open to considering. It rarely worked out that way, and we would move… again.
We lived in a long series of short towns in the 1960’s and 70’s. We were in tiny places, often well under 2000 people. I once worked in a school half again as big as that. And those little, conservative communities were used to things being done a certain way – not often my dad’s way – so we would pack up, load up, and move on.
But Dad was passionate and he persevered, always searching for meaning, always looking for peace. He made a life of it, moving us pillar-to-post around the west, one small town after another, one more gravelly lacework of unpaved roads, the next sway-backed-shelf grocery store, the latest muddy playground and one more potholed road.
We moved from one tiny parsonage to the next: old, worn out, paint cracked, too small, one bathroom, six kids in small walls. We moved to one more pay cheque that forced Mom to garden, to bake all of her own bread, to watch as other families went to restaurants. We moved to one more town where she would darn socks and carefully tend hand-me-down clothes. By the time I was in the ninth grade, I was living in my seventh home. It wasn’t peaceful. It wasn’t easy. Much of the time I felt like there was very little joy, certainly not the kind Dad preached about on Sundays.
So why? Why did he choose such a life, pulling us along in the same rut that was supposed to bring everlasting fulfillment? He might have been trying to outrun his own pain. He never once put it that way but it may have been so.
Dad was born on the Canadian prairies in 1927. He was a youngster during the depression. He knew the taste of hunger and the exhaustion of hopelessness far too many times. On one occasion vividly remembered, the only food in the house was an orange. There was one solitary orange.
He watched as his own dad went down the road again and again, looking for work wherever it could be found. He watched as his mom struggled to put food on the table. He watched and was profoundly moved by the hundreds, thousands of hungry, much too thin, worn out men who rolled through the city on rail cars, desperate for a meal and for work – for any work at all.
Then when he was in his early teens, Dad, his brother, and his mother travelled east and boarded a ship for England, a place where hopelessness did not yet run quite as deep, did not cut as close to the bone as on the alternately sweltering and freezing Canadian prairies. His own mom’s family took them in and they made do, a fresh start of sorts. But his dad stayed behind and Alan was essentially fatherless, again.
Not long after they arrived, the war was on England’s doorstep and it became unsafe for anyone to travel the Atlantic, even those on civilian passenger ships. There was no coming home. Away from the prairies, relatively safe with his mother’s family in England, away from London, Dad lived out much of the war. But he had gone from a depression on the Canadian plains to a war in Europe, a war that reached across the channel with bombs, with V2 rockets, with hunger, with desperation, with horrors unknown to those who have not seen war.
In January, 1945, as soon as he turned 18, Alan joined the Canadian army in England, working out the remainder of the war in service to his country. Like almost every veteran I ever met, even those who did not see active combat, he rarely talked about the things he did see. He didn’t dwell on broken bodies limping along country roads, about eye patches or primitive prosthetics. He didn’t dwell on wheelchairs, canes, crosses or tombstones. He didn’t talk about fallen friends, missing limbs, or smouldering ruins, screams wrought by demons in the night or distant stares of shell shocked friends by day.
Instead, he came home and in his own way tried to set the world straight. The Canadian government offered veterans free land or free university education. Dad chose the latter, enrolling at UBC. He trained first as a phys-ed teacher and then as a social worker, becoming well employed by the parole board in Vancouver. He worked with men who had run afoul of the law, helping them get back onto a safe, healthy track. He was good at it. He was very good.
When he left that work to pursue a career in ministry, his employer tried twice to get him to return, both times without success. Alan had set a new course, one that he said he felt called to. Preaching. Hospital visits. Soup kitchens. Weddings and funerals. Sandwiches in the freezer to hand out when people came to our door asking for ‘bus fare’ and more.
It was ministry – yes – but abiding joy, the kind we heard about on Sundays? I didn’t see it, not as often as I thought a minister should show it. But maybe I was too young to see what Dad carried. Maybe I was too young to appreciate his pain. He didn’t talk about it and perhaps that’s why I didn’t know its depths. Perhaps I didn’t see that he spent his career in trenches that I simply could not understand. I had never been in them. I couldn’t have known.
And it could also be that I was looking in the wrong places. Maybe I was looking for the wrong things. Maybe I was looking at the surface at the wrong time because I didn’t yet know how to look deeper.
But now I know. I know some of those depths. I know some of them firsthand. I know their wretched, debilitating agony and I know what it takes to climb out of such darkness. I have seen half of my immediate family dead. I am the only living member of my family to have seen two of my brothers, my mom and my dad – all dead. I literally watched three of them die and I found the body of the fourth. At times it has been too much.
I have known death, divorce, betrayal, depression, illness, suicide, and so much more. I have known the bottom of a bottle – of many bottles. Not recently, but I have known them. I have known hundreds of miles of country roads on which I have raged at the heavens while wearing holes in my shoes. I have known tears that have arrived unbidden and have refused to leave. I have known quivering hands and a stammering heart, panicked breaths, terrors in the night.
There were times when I suspected that my dad also knew these things. And now I know that he did. Mom told me of times when he completely collapsed, even of a time when he checked himself into a hospital, fearing for his own mental health. Like many of us, he carried things that he didn’t know how to carry. He carried things that he didn’t know how to put down.
But he rarely told us about any of it. I wish he had. Instead, he focused on helping others as best he could. He was generous. He was kind. He laughed as often as he could and he played games with his kids, but Alan struggled. In his own quiet way he struggled. Many of his generation did. War will do that. Poverty will do that. Job insecurity and worries about providing for your family will do that.
But this story is not about pain. It is not really about illness or tragedy. It is about hope, even when it appears that there is none. It is about comfort, quiet, and trust, even in difficulty. It is about service. It is about a slow awakening, a gradual awareness of what it means to be alive. It is a dawning realization that even in the midst of searing agony that leaves lasting scars, there can be joy. There can be hope. There can be peace.
They need not be exuberant. They need not be ever present. They may arrive only occasionally. They may have to fight for their places on the surface. They may even need a counsellor or a hospital to help them emerge. They might hide between the cracks, between the scars, but they can be found. They can be found.
Perhaps when Dad was quiet he was reflecting on the good things he had known. Perhaps he was giving thanks for that solitary orange, that they didn’t go entirely without food that day, that he didn’t die in the war, that he wasn’t maimed or blinded, that he was able to go to university, that some of his kids still lived, that he was able to eke out a career as a man who helped.
Perhaps in his silence he was considering the grace he would say at dinner. Maybe he was giving thanks for his home and his family. He didn’t talk much about these things so I didn’t always know. And I didn’t really know where his joy was when I couldn’t see it, but the longer I live, the more I realize that it was there. I simply had to learn how to look, and where to look. I wish I had been able to see it sooner.
Now, the more troubles I encounter, the more I understand my dad. It is possible to have quiet reserves of joy, of peace. They may not always be on the surface, but they are always there, waiting, hopeful.
There will be pain, but who am I to say how much? And who am I to say how much joy is enough, or how it should look or where it might be found? Like my dad, I’m not always sure. But as I look back on his life I know that it can be found, and I am grateful that I have lived long enough to learn.