Tag Archives: autobiographical

Derek Campbell 15 December 1930-15 June 2014

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A tribute to my Dad, which my sisters and I wrote for his funeral.

We may be a little biased, but I think we can truly say that Derek Gilliland Campbell was a very special man. A doctor, sportsman in his youth, an elder in the Presbyterian church, someone who loved to create with his hands, a person of deep faith, and, most especially, a loving and devoted husband, father and grandfather.

Our Dad loved to reminisce about his sporting days – he played first team rugby for Hilton College and captained their gymnastics team. But the sporting achievement of which he was most proud was as an oarsman, when he rowed for Northern Ireland in the Commonwealth Games. That was when he was at Queens University, Belfast, where he studied medicine like his brothers and father and mother before him. He came from a long line of doctors, and he was proud of being DR Campbell. He loved Ireland and all things Irish, especially our Mom.

He worked very long hours as we were growing up, but he always made time to be at our special events, and would listen when we recounted the stories of our day – even if he nodded off to sleep occasionally before we were finished. Our Dad enjoyed his sleep almost as much as he enjoyed his food. He liked his nap after mealtimes, and we’d watch in great amusement as he’d nod off even before he’d left the table.

Our Dad loved his woodwork, and we’ll always associate him with the smell of fresh wood shavings. He’d relax in his workshop, creating things. He was also an organiser and creator of systems. Everything had its place; even his workshop was neat and tidy. He actually enjoyed creating rosters for the anaesthetics department at Wentworth Hospital. Dad was very particular, and had an aversion to anything sticky or out of place. Pictures had to hang perfectly straight on walls. For all that, Mom loved to recount how his own mother told her that, when she saw his scribbles on the walls as a child, she despaired of his spelling. He was always interested in how things worked, and would quiz us at table about all manner of things, trying to awaken our curiosity and hone our analytical skills.

Our Dad loved quoting the poetry that had been drummed into his head as a schoolboy, listening to music, and watching TV – Sewende Laan was his favourite. He loved the history of the Anglo-Boer war – he’d drag us off to battlefield sites in KwaZulu Natal and tell us the stories. He also loved biltong, Turkish delight and coconut-covered marshmallows. He loved fishing, especially with Oscar Willis, his best friend. It was such a delight to see the two of them together. They would giggle like kids.

He was shy and reserved when he was younger, so it was with a combination of delight and embarrassment that we watched him become so much more outgoing in his later years. He’d love to tease people, and had a wicked sense of humour. He had a nickname (often less than complimentary!) for almost everyone. He was the master of deliberate spoonerisms – his favourite was to ask the waitress for a ‘tot of pee’.

Church was always a very important part of his life. He was the Session Clerk for many years at Stella Presbyterian Church , and also served as an elder here at Stellenbosch United Church. He faithfully attended a men’s prayer meeting at Stella at some unearthly hour every Saturday morning. He and our Mom would read Scripture together every single day and he prayed for his family. He would pray for each of us, and our husbands and his grandchildren every single day, mentioning each one by name.

Dad liked being the rose among the thorns – he was so proud of his wife, three daughters and seven granddaughters. He accepted our husbands as sons, and thought the world of them. He was patient in the extreme, grateful , content, and generous to a fault. There is a verse our Mom often quotes, which really does describe him: “Better a patient man than a warrior; the one who controls his temper than he who takes a city”. He always, always wanted the very best for us. He was immensely proud of his children and grandchildren – sometimes embarrassingly so – but more than anything else, he loved us. And we will always be so grateful that he didn’t just assume we knew – he told us constantly. Thanks Dad. We love you too.

Latterly, he spoke often about how he was looking forward to seeing his departed loved ones again. We know that he is with them, and with the Lord. And, knowing Dad, he stopped on the way to quiz St Peter about the swing mechanism of the Pearly Gates, and he’s found a good place near the food at the heavenly banquet.

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Why I am still a Christian

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I’m not sure how I would describe myself other than as an ecumenical Christian in the sense that I have consciously responded to the grace of God in Christ and I recognise as my sisters and brothers in faith all those who are Christian, regardless of the particular Christian tradition which claims their loyalty. My mother is Baptist, my father Presbyterian, I was raised in the Evangelical tradition, the students I taught prior to coming to Ireland were predominantly Pentecostal and Charismatic, and I now lecture theology at a Catholic college and attend a Church of Ireland church. I suppose you could call me ‘protestant’ if you’re looking for a label. I do find something in every tradition to protest against but more to embrace, welcome, and learn from, so I’ll only accept the label if you don’t take it too seriously. I love working in a college with a Catholic ethos, alongside Catholic theologians. Whatever my ambivalence about identifying my particular denominational allegiance(s), I am clearly and unequivocally Christian.

When I was little, faith in God and loving Jesus were a natural part of life. In my family home, the Christian faith was very genuinely modelled for me. I cannot overstate the importance of my parents’ faith for my own faith journey; my earliest and formative experience of Christianity was overwhelmingly positive. My parents are not perfect, but they are authentic, and their commitment to Jesus Christ is lived out with compassion and conviction. As a child I could easily believe that God loved and accepted me because I experienced that unconditional welcome from my parents. When I encounter hypocrisy and lifeless formalism, in myself as much as in others, I do not write off Christianity because I know that there are richer possibilities for living as a Christian.

A good beginning is a good start, but it isn’t the whole journey. As a four-year-old, ‘Jesus loves me’ and ‘God who made the stars’ sat very comfortably alongside Santa and bedtime stories. As a forty-something-year-old academic, if my faith hadn’t grown along with me I’d be in trouble! That growth hasn’t always been easy. I have often found myself in a space where my understanding and lived experience of Christianity is glaringly, woefully inadequate.

The first few times were terrifying. Was I losing my faith? But then, usually gradually, I would discover a deeper, more mature expression of the faith which I could hold together more authentically with my developing personhood. Over the years, I have learned to trust the process. It works both ways: my faith also challenges my self-obsessed and life-denying attitudes and behaviour, nudging me toward maturity.

I am still a Christian because, in periods of crisis and challenge, I have found the necessary resources for conversion and growth within the Christian tradition. One example: I grew up a white English-speaker in Apartheid South Africa. Right to the end of secondary education I attended all-white state schools. I grew up knowing that racism was wrong and that all human beings were made in God’s image and were to be treated with respect. But I was also taught that religion and politics do not mix, and therefore, so long as I did not personally treat people of other racial identity in an un-Christlike manner, I had done my Christian duty. It was not my place as a Christian to challenge the status quo. The Group Areas Act and state control of the press made it surprisingly easy to live such a horrific contradiction. When I was shaken out of my naivety in my late teens and early twenties and had to come to terms with my inadvertent complicity in the oppression, there were powerful Christian voices such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu to point me to more authentic expressions of Christian involvement in society. I did not have to abandon my faith in order to embrace social justice, but I had to repent of the distortion of individualistic pietism.

At other times the challenges to my faith have come from studying science and philosophy, from disillusionment with Christian institutions, from dialogue with people who are very different from me, and from the ups and downs of living. Sometimes it is hard to pinpoint the reason why the words of theology and the rituals and disciplines I engage in start sounding and feeling meaningless and hollow. But I am learning that the disconnect is an invitation to explore more deeply the Christian tradition to discover new ways of being, saying and doing that can bring together the components of my life authentically, even if not always entirely coherently.

I am still a Christian because I do not try to do it by myself. I remain committed to corporate worship even though the institutional Church can drive me nuts. But I also need fellow Christians to share the journey with me in other ways. That companionship has taken different forms over the years – one-on-one mentoring, spiritual direction, a Bible study or spiritual formation group, or a good friend. Sometimes it is intentional, sometimes more informal. The constant factor is that there are times and spaces for reflecting upon and speaking about God and faith and lived experience. There is something powerful in the communal dynamic which I could never replicate as a solitary Christian.

I am still a Christian because in the Christian story I find a way to construct meaning in life which opens me up to Mystery and so makes life sacred and precious. It does not allow me to domesticate reality or to settle for a mediocre existence. The Christian tradition has the depth and breadth to contain my searching and the God whom I find in Jesus Christ has the power to transform me.

(This is a slightly adapted version of an article published in the Irish Catholic, 9 November 2009)