August 4, 1926 – February 4, 2018
Reflections about my father
When my brothers and I were sorting through our Dad’s things after he died, we came across a small black book of his sermons. It was a surprise to us because he had actually told us that he had burned all of his sermons in the wood stove at his home in Westport. That type of gesture was very much like my Dad. He loved a dramatic flare, both in his role as an Anglican Chaplain and also as the patriarch of our small, close-knit family. I have included a quote that illustrates his simple, direct, and dramatic style in the order of service:
Someone dies. Our carefully-fashioned plans come tumbling down, and we begin to understand Shakespeare’s lines: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances.”
The sermon that this quote comes from was the first one in his small black book. Over the course of his career as chaplain he preached it 15 times, in Fredericton, Andover and Cross Creek, New Brunswick; in Werl, Baden and Lahr, Germany; in London Ontario, Moose Jaw Saskatchewan, in Ottawa and then after he retired from the military in Lombardy, Portland and Westport.
The first time my Dad preached the sermon it was at St. Anne’s Chapel in Fredericton. He was 28 years old. It was in April 1955, Louis St Laurent was Prime Minister, the world was still recovering from the end of World War II and the opening of Canadian Parliament was televised for the first time. It was spring, the Sunday after Easter. He was just about to meet the love of his life, our mom June. He was a young man at the beginning of his career.
When I read that sermon, I was struck both by how innocent and how wise he was at that time and I read it carefully for some clues to his outlook on life and on death. Here is another quote which is also included on the funeral card.
Remember Peter Pan standing on the rock in the midst of the lagoon in which the waters raced about him until drowning seemed inevitable? “To die” cried Peter, “to die will be an awfully big adventure!”
He went on to preach:
Many people need this emphasis on death as an adventure. Faith in immortality, they think is only for the weak to comfort them in their feebleness; it is something that makes death hurt less. That is such a strange perversion of our actual experience. At any rate, when I, for one, am weak, I will care the least about immortality. When I am weak, I will be willing to lie down, go to sleep and never wake.
But when we are strong, when we are at our best, it is then we crave the chance of going on. To me, faith in immortality springs from human strength pounding against the too narrow bars of this earthly life.
Let me repeat this last line: To me, faith in immortality springs from human strength pounding against the too narrow bars of this earthly life.
I’m sure there are many ways that we can interpret this statement based on our own experience and perhaps what we knew of my father. And we all knew him a little differently.
But what we are left with is a statement about life, death and the belief of immortality that is based above all on the idea of human strength. My father was a complicated man. He was intelligent yet always questioning, proud yet tender, full of doubt and full of faith all at the same time. But most of all my father was strong. And at the end, he was so ready to die, and yet that strength in him caused him to rail against death when it finally came.
When all is said and done, what remains is quite simple. My father lived a good life, and he died a good death. As I often told him, he won the game of life. And that is really all that any of us could ask for.
“To me, faith in immortality springs from human strength pounding against the too narrow bars of this earthly life.“John Farmer, 1926 – 2018