It has been 4 weeks since my friend, Peter, died. How we had prayed that he would be healed! In the last few months of his life, not a day went by when I did not pray for his healing and often my prayers were in early morning agreement with my wife, Marti. In the last few weeks of his life it became apparent that our prayers were not being answered and probably wouldn’t be. The devastating effects of cancer gave rise to (usually unspoken) prayers that he would not suffer unnecessarily.
In the end, he was taken from us at a time and in a manner that seemed premature and very hard to accept. But, three weeks after he died, we had a very well attended memorial event in our Factory building, a place that he had great vision for. On the day, his second daughter, Sarah, presented the following eulogy for her father. When I sat down to write about Peter, I realised I could not come close to painting the picture that Sarah painted with her words on behalf of the family. This is a bit longer than my usual posts, but worth reading. Enjoy every line!
In the late nineteenth century the famous African American abolitionist wrote;
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men’.
My father had a particular talent for raising strong children. Anyone who has had the displeasure of a meal with all four Kinahan siblings present would agree that loud, firmly held, ardently defended and heated convictions are served with the main course. While today is about remembering and praising my Dad for all his greatness, I thought it only fair to share how he failed miserably as a parent.
His first failure was not that we grew up with very little disposable income, or that my parents limited our sugar intake (and oh, how that has failed in our adulthood!), nor that we wore the most uninspiring, unfashionable and mismatched clothing, or that our haircuts looked like a terraced garden, but it was his decision to buy Bluey, our hideous sky-bright blue Datsun three door car. To say that Bluey was an embarrassment to us is the understatement of the century. There was nothing beautiful about Bluey. It was neither a car, nor a van. There were no back seats, no seat belts and to get in we had to climb over the front seats in the most undignified of manners. Bluey’s colour meant that everyone always knew when the Kinahan’s had arrived. We had the ugliest car of anyone I have ever known, and that is saying something. I have never prayed for anything else as much as a replacement for Bluey. My Dad’s terrible decision to love Bluey so loyally taught me that if one has no choice but to own a Datsun, then one must make sure to have it spray painted a less psychedelic blue, even if this means living with terraced haircuts for the next five years.
Bluey made possible another poor paternal choice: family hiking. My father would pack a rucksack and Bluey would drive us to some remote mountain where we would have the great ‘fun’ of trudging over plateaus and streams to caves set deep in the middle of nowhere. When our whining would finally get too much, my Dad would set up camp in the mouth of a cave – always with a good view. He would take out his small gas camping stove, and boil water for rooibos tea. We would sip our condensed milk sweetened tea as he breathed in the beauty of nature around us while I tried to figure out the quickest route back down the mountain.
He also introduced The Dreaded Sunday Afternoon Family Walk. It seemed his only requirement for the destination was the absence of any sign of human life, or coffee, or ice-cream. Single file, we would walk through thigh high grasslands in wasted physical exertion. For me it was an exercise in self sacrifice and psychological torture because, unwanted exercise aside, South Africa has some highly venomous snakes that love to hide in tall grass, waiting for their next victims.
It is entirely my Dad’s fault that I hate walking or exercise as much as I do because he was responsible for introducing us to the world of reading. Why suffer while breaking a sweat when a whole exciting, undiscovered world of adventure awaited me in the pages of a novel where others walked for you instead? One of my favourite childhood memories is of bedtimes stories. Freshly bathed we would curl up in my parent’s bed as my Mom and Dad read us stories, from Charles Dickens to C S Lewis to L M Montgomery. By the time I was ten years old we had read most of the classics in their original texts. Big words and all.
Unsurprisingly, my father was as widely read as his budget allowed him to be. One of my abiding treats when visiting him in recent years was exploring his eclectic collection of books on his bedside table, from global poverty, to economics, to the Bible, to the theology of Church, and, of course, it included the Screwfix manual. But true to character he pondered what he read, weighed it up, became burdened by it, rejoiced in it, researched it… He never accepted what he read as the final word on the subject. Sometimes I would wish that he would superficially accept what someone wrote and enjoy it for its lack of depth – a bit like a Las Vegas approach to reading. So, I had to introduce him to the John Grisham’s of this world. Just to provide some balance.
While I may be grateful for his introducing me to books, as a teenager I was much less appreciative of our daily family devotions that began at 6:45 on school mornings. They would end just in time for the seven o’clock news on the radio after which there would be a mad dash to do the dishes for six people before school, in between a debate about global affairs. If my Dad taught me one thing from our morning ritual it was this: buy a dishwasher. Washing dishes before school is a sure way to familial stress when hair needs to be styled. In fact, loving dishes was the third most important thing on my list of must-haves in a husband-to-be.
For the reflective thinker that my Dad was, he was capable of surprisingly poor choices when it came to where to teach Kate and I to drive. His idea of the perfect location was a rocky, virtually inaccessible road where we had to practice clutch control while dodging crater like potholes, all with him frequently telling us to be careful not to damage the car. Unfortunately, by this point, Bluey had finally succumbed and I was no longer able to get my own back on her by adding a dent or two. Maybe God took pity on Bluey.
My Dad was nothing if not a man of integrity. He believed that God was interested in and wanted to engage with us in every area of our lives. As a teenager this was hugely annoying. When I would ask him on the weekends if a could visit a friend, without fail he would ask: ‘Have you prayed about it?’. The last question an impatient teenager wanted to hear. I excelled in the art of speed praying. Surprisingly God found in my favour on every occasion.
A further failure is how my Dad has not always agreed with my ideas on how to make things beautiful – after all, who cares if something works, or is safe, or is practical as long as it looks good? Yet, while the compelling need for beauty in my life out shadows all sense, my Dad was a greater lover of beauty than even I am, he just expressed it differently. I cannot, for instance, look at Cosmos flower without thinking of him. On road trips he would often pull over so we would could pick bunches of the coloured flower from the side of the road, where the weed would grow in all its riotous glory mile upon mile. My Dad also loved roses. Once a week, we would find nestled in a bud vase in our bedrooms, a single stemmed rose. A touch of beauty to remind us we were loved. Whether it was capturing beauty on the camera strapped to his belt, pondering the brushstrokes on a painting, or being moved by Andrea Bocelli (played too loudly) beauty in all its forms enlivened my Dad.
However, it did mean that holidaying with him could be painful. A simple ten minute walk to an ice-cream shop could turn into a lesson in patience. A handcrafted mug, the pattern of brickwork on a chapel, a plaque tucked away in a barely seen corner, a vegetable sellers display, a rusty old pitchfork would catch his eye. He would stop, enjoy it, ask questions of those nearby, photograph the object of interest, ponder the hands that crafted it or the eyes that saw it, and then research it when he got home. It has, in recent years, been unilaterally agreed in our family that Trevor Withers should go on holiday alone with my Dad. He is the only person we know who would get as much joy from this amble through culture and random splurges of beauty in unknown places as my Dad did whilst simultaneously quoting passages from the Screwfix manual.
While my Dad passed on his love for beauty to me what he failed to do was pass on any interest whatsoever in fixing things. This privilege belongs entirely to Rebecca, on whom this particular mantle has now fallen. My Dad could fix anything. A broken earing, a smashed electronic device, a caved in ceiling, an impossibly knotted toy…you name it he could make it new again. What my Dad neglected to mention was that this was not normal. All my views on gender equality aside, I ignorantly thought that what made my Dad so remarkable was in fact male chromosomes. So, when I married Tim and something broke I was shocked to discover that he, the genius engineer that he is, had no idea how to fix it – and worse, felt no need to try. When my gendered views were exposed for what they were, I learnt an important phrase that seemed to elicit marginal action from Tim when anything DIY was needed:
‘You can’t fix it/do it/solve it? Don’t worry. I’ll just ask my Dad’.
I have no idea how anything in our home will ever get fixed now. For all his practicality, my Dad was one of the most intelligent people I have ever known. And this has caused me problems, because I’ve had the privilege of meeting and conversing with some great minds but disappointingly, few, if any could equal my father’s depth and insight. What I began to realise is that for some intelligence is an acquired gift, a carefully structured way of thought honed by education and shaped by cultural acceptability. My Dad didn’t carry any of the narrow mindedness of thought or the arrogance of a title, but he carried something rare: he could think. He, however, felt frustrated by his perceived mental inferiority – an insecurity that made him believe that his profound thoughts were significantly limited
Yet, despite this, my Dad looked at the world in a unique and complex way. He delved deeper, further and with more intensity into the world views underpinning actions, beliefs, social acceptabilities than men and women who devoted their lives to the study of this. He was ruthlessly frustrating because he refused to just accept what was before him without fully exploring it in relation to God, the global impact, the individual outcome, the way it could be better.
This intelligence shaped who I am today, for better and for worse. While at university I had professors asking me perplexed where I came from,where I got my ideas, how I came to think as I do. They were intrigued by my perspective – a perspective that I thought was normal. I’d like to say this intrigue is because I am naturally bright, but this is not the truth. I had the privilege -and burden – of learning from a brilliant Dad. This brilliance though has come at a price to all us Kinahan’s: it has made it impossible for us to conform. For all his intelligence, my Dad has failed to teach any of us how to adapt to the status quo, how to embrace accepted thinking.
Surprisingly it wasn’t his legacy of intelligence or his inability to conform that has proved most problematic though, but rather his encouragement of questions. Growing up we were expected to obey first but were always encouraged to ask questions afterwards. And the questions we asked would often change my parent’s minds and the way they lived. Many an evening was spent arguing our latest ideas on politics, God, morality, culture, the length of my skirt. For some reason I found particular joy in asking the hard questions or making deliberately provocative statements of belief. Many a morning post the previous night’s debate, my Mom would have barely slept, worrying about my latest scandalous opinion. My Dad and I would be fully rested. He knew that I was pushing the boundaries of familial thought, playing devil’s advocate, in order for me to know why I really believed what I believed.
His children followed where the questions took them. For Kate it became in how the West interpreted, and misunderstood, China, and the marginalised. For me it became about gender equality and, in particular, the way in which the Bible was used to justify self interest that excluded women in the name of God. For Joel it became about the suffering in Palestine. For Rebecca it became about poverty alleviation. In all these areas my parents theological background was challenged as they humbly explored these ideas with us and embraced a different way of thinking to what they had previously held.
When fear gripped the white population as Apartheid’s power was waning, my Dad demonstrated how asking questions shaped his own values. One of my most life defining moments happened when I was five years old. My parents were with Youth With A Mission in Delmas, South Africa. I was running down the dirt road outside our house with a group of friends when a black boy, a little older than me, and who I didn’t know, picked up a stone and threw it at me. It hit me in the eye and I rushed home in floods of tears at the pain and indignity of it, stringing together every racist sentence I could remember in my short white life. Expecting sympathy and my Dad to go out and inflict justice on the boy, as was his right as the superior white man, my parent’s response shocked me: they were furious with me and told me that if they ever heard me speaking of black people like that again I would get a hiding (ie spanking) I would never forget.
Uniquely, my Dad has always been a man ahead of his time, which is a problem if all one wants to do is fit in. For years my parents ran a multi-racial pre-school in a backwater town during Apartheid – a preschool far superior to the local white’s only one. And while they ran this preschool Kate and I attended a government school where our classmates white parents dropped them off in full extremist – AWB – milita uniform. My Dad would later tell me that our schoolmates parents couldn’t understand how God had blessed the Kinahan children with intelligence when they were clearly sinning by treating black people as equals. They said that for all their ideological differences, my parents must be doing something right.
While my contemporaries parents were trying to make as much money to be as happy as possible, wealth and the pursuit thereof has never been a motivating factor in my father’s life. His one desire was to do the will of God whatever and wherever this would take him and this meant that, in our case, we didn’t have many luxuries growing up. Ice cream on a Sunday was the pinnacle of excess in our family. Yet, despite this, at his core my Dad was generous. He saw need around him and responded to it often in sacrificial ways. I remember one day as a teenager my Dad telling us that he and my Mom had put some money aside for our education but that God had told them to give it away and they had. God had assured him that He would take care of us. Today, Kate holds a master’s degree in law from China, I went to Oxford, Joel has a master’s in Social Anthropology from SOAS, and Rebecca a masters in International Development from the foremost political institute in Paris. God kept his promise.
In our high school years my Dad employed a gardener for a day a week. He was the most useless gardener one could ever have – he would spend most of his time sitting under the tree dozing in the shade with his hat pulled over his face. This did not matter to my father who knew the gardener’s story and the poverty that he and his family were experiencing. He wanted to give this elderly man dignity by paying him well for the one day a week he could afford to, even if this meant my Dad did most of the gardening himself.
When we bought our house two years ago, despite not owning a home of their own and living on considerably less than we do, my parents, without us knowing, paid for our carpets. It probably meant they ate even more basic food than they usually did. As i feel the softness of our thick carpets beneath by barefeet every day I think of my parents and their undeserved generosity and graciousness towards us.
A while back I read Richard Rohr’s book on the Enneagram where he explores nine basic world views developed by the Desert Fathers in Egypt. I think my Dad and I shared the same personality type: the need to be perfect…and the need to perfect. We both saw ourselves and the world as primarily and delightfully good. However, as the imperfections of life became more pronounced we became as Rohr, also of the same personality, writes, ‘hypersensitive to anything we perceive as wrong or ugly…We are even more critical of ourselves than we are of everything else…We’re perfectionists, and we’re never satisfied with what we could always improve’. Perhaps this is why my Dad found such redemption and joy in nature, the uncorrupted, unpolluted, God-breathed wonder on his doorstep where nothing needed to be improved or perfected.
A few years ago I was in a meeting where we were all asked who the most influential person in our lives was and why. I didn’t even have to think: it was my Dad. My father taught me to think. He and my Mom taught me to value each human being as equally important. He taught me that the character and nature of God was always to be trusted. He taught me that loving God and serving others was more important than pursuing my own selfishness. He taught me the joy of being loved by family. He taught me that I could be anything because I had God with me. He showed me that it didn’t matter if someone was a president or a fruit seller, educated or uneducated, rich or poor, popular or marginalised, their worth wasn’t in their title, status or societal importance, their significance was in their God-loved humanity – a humanity that could be obscuring the world’s next Einstein or Mother Theresa. He failed horribly at teaching us to value wealth, prestige, status, superficiality, hiking, 6:45am starts, practicality, adopting the status quo, ugly coloured cars, or self interest. Instead he and my Mom raised strong children in the hope that we could become those who help repair the broken world. As he did.