in praise of the compassionate man

It was Bring a Dad to School Day at our local school this week.

Coincidentally I was in school that afternoon helping with RE. I didn’t expect to have so many dads there. You could see 1 or 2 hanging round the school gate just sorting things out on their phones before entering the building.

It was amazing to see so many men in a primary school environment – men in the playground holding their children’s hands; men in the classroom staring at the teacher or looking absently out of the window…

Groups of men in primary schools is unusual. Often we associate the work of caring for small children with women, not men. 1 in 4 children is growing up in a home where there is only one parent and in 90% of cases, it’s the mother.

It’s unfortunate but perhaps inevitable that there are some zones in public life that seem to be gender heavy in one direction and women in primary schools is one – I should know as I spent 6 years working as a teacher in this field and had dozens of female colleagues and only (3?) male in the whole of 6 years.

I’d been invited to the primary school to talk about prayer & to support a great (male) teacher as he delivered the RE syllabus, which he did very expertly. I looked around the classroom at the collection of dads sat there next to their children and thought about fatherhood.

It’s hard to be a parent today, and it’s hard to be a dad. To be a Christian dad is even harder: Brandon Flowers, lead singer of the band, The Killers, famously said ‘the world is against the Christian man’, & after the resignation of UK MP Tim Farron from the leadership of the Liberal Democrats this week, I’m inclined to believe it.

Confused images of masculinity mean that men are sometimes characterised as either macho bullies or ineffectual and useless domestically. Although I can think of one advert where a man is using the washing machine, the point of the advert is that you only need to dose this particular model up once and then it dispenses the powder just when you need it, automatically, whereas he’s shoving more powder in every time, which is wrong, & his daughter has to show him how to do it properly. It’s hard to be a dad or even a man today.

Jesus was born ostensibly to an earthly father in the person of Joseph and we know he learnt Joseph’s trade for the first few years of his life – as an artisan carpenter. But even as young as 12 years, Jesus could be found in the Temple, discussing important spiritual things to do with his Heavenly Father that even grown men were unsure of. Jesus pointed the way to a perfect Father in the heavens to whom we address our prayers Sunday by Sunday in the words of the ‘Our Father’.

In the gospel today (Matt 9:35-10:8) we see Jesus reaching out to the crowds whom he describes as harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. I wonder how many of those dads at our local school sometimes feel harassed and helpless? Jesus has compassion on the people. He brings in the Good News of the kingdom by words and deeds – healing, teaching, even raising from the dead, and he teaches his followers to do the same.

All of this flows from the compassion of Christ. Compassion is a meaningful word for Christians as it carries at its heart the idea of the Passion of Christ – his willingness to take our suffering upon himself on the cross. To find a compassionate man, we sometimes have to look a long way.

Compassion is strong fellow feeling that is offered for the good of others. It is not controlling feeling, but neither is it weak and ineffectual. Men who have deep feeling that is offered to build up others are a powerful picture of how God feels towards us. They’ve normally learnt emotional connection from their own dads.

Dads, male teachers and other positive male role models have doubtless played a vital part in our own growth and in the lives of our children, and we celebrate those men today. Where our early lives were sadly short of male compassion, we became the poorer and those who’ve had a bad start in this area will struggle significantly to form a healthy image of God for the rest their lives.

From the ages of 8 -11 I encountered 4 very influential male teachers but only Mr Thomas was compassionate.

Mr Spooner was ex army and moustachioed. With military precision he used the ruler on bare flesh for minor misdemeanours or made you stand on a chair feeling humiliated in front of the whole class. I learnt very little that year. His brand of authoritarian discipline was far from the loving kindness of a compassionate man.

Mr Gill was very impatient. I don’t know why he was in primary education – he seemed singularly unsuited. He threw the board rubber across the room in a rage when you got a question wrong. The only thing I learnt in his class was The Amazing Gill Zigzag which was a way of working out the Lowest Common Denominator in fractions.

Mr Kercher taught Religious Education and he was the scariest man I can ever recall. He was buttoned up in an emotional straight jacket. We had to sit in silence in his lessons unless we knew the answer to a question but everyone was so scared of him normally only he spoke. I recall nothing of what he taught us but whatever he did teach, it was bound to put you off religion for life.

He would smuggle polo mints into his mouth one by one throughout the lesson – surreptitiously behind his hand. He once told me off for picking up a pencil sharpener from the floor. I used to feel physically sick as we lined up outside his door for our weekly dose of poisonous piety.

But Mr Thomas was a lovely man. He was my teacher in the year I turned 10 – the year in which my own father left home – so Mr Thomas became an important role model. He was passionate and kind and engaged the children in actual conversation, some of which I can remember even today. He was Welsh and he loved music. He got me playing the piano in assembly and gave me affirmation and courage.

How wonderful to be a man who is so strong and free in himself that he offers compassion to others, compassion that flows out of his own strength and humility, his own ability to be strong and gentle simultaneously. Manhood like this is to be valued and emulated, & originates in God our Father. We are always being wooed by a compassionate God – we just don’t know it most of the time.

It always seems a strange combination in some ways – celebrating Fathers’ Day by looking to Jesus as a role model – Jesus who was never a father himself and who redefined family by stating ‘whoever does the will of God is my mother, my brother and my sister’. So today we thank God for compassionate fathers and pray for all the dads we know. We pray for those who are new dads and those who would love to be dads in the future. We pray for dads who mourn their dads and dads who mourn their children.

Dads – and indeed men of the slightly younger variety – are the missing demographic in many churches – as you’ll notice as you look around. We might ask ourselves why this might be. So pray for dads – having to be strong but perhaps feeling overwhelmed.

Pray for the dads in our parish – dads who bring children for baptism, dads who accompany children to All Age Worship, dads whose work doesn’t leave them much time for compassion; dads who live next door to you, dads who leave the village at 7am on a weekday morning and return after a 12 hour working day. Pray for them.

I was having zero inspiration for a Fathers’ Day talk till I saw all those dads in the Primary RE lesson, some nodding as various insights about prayer were discussed with their 8 and 9 year olds (nodding as people discussed prayer – that means they have a spiritual life).

Dads can’t save the world and as we grow up we realise this – sometimes sooner than later. But dads are reflecting to us a tiny fragment of the unconditional love that Father God has for us his children – love reflected always in the compassionate face of Jesus, his Son. Amen.



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