Last month I wrote a blog about my mother’s faith and the legacy of Methodism and an active church life she left me. In it I referred only a little to my father’s story of faith. Whereas my mother’s goes back generations before either of us were born, my father’s story can be said to really begin with him. It’s a story that is full of surprises.
The Brooks family has a long and well-documented history and is one where faith and Christianity plays a key role. Our ancestor Thomas Brooks, like so many came to America as a Puritan with the promise of greater religious freedom here. Whether that was his only reason is unknown, but whatever his reasons they mattered enough for him to pay his way by becoming an indentured servant for several years. One of Thomas’ more famous descendants, Phillips Brooks would become an Episcopalian bishop, one hit wonder hymnist who wrote the popular carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and a great sermon writer whose works would influence at least one even more famous pastor named Martin Luther King.
Looking at my family’s religious history and role faith played in it, makes my father’s early life all the more surprising. Though baptized as a child in the Episcopalian Church, Dad did not grow up attending church regularly like my sister and me. His family rarely if ever went to church at all. For over a third of his life my father spent Sunday mornings doing other things. For the last two thirds of his life so far (roughly the time since he married my mother) he attends church every week. It’s an easy thing to overlook, the power and importance of habit, but as much as my faith and church life means to me now, I can’t say for sure I would found my way here without the formation I had as a child, but Dad didn’t have that as a child. He had to catchup with Mom by about twenty years quickly. What’s most amazing is how well he did just that.
Growing up in church with my father, I remember him always being intimately involved in almost every area of its life. Because he’s a banker by trade he’s pretty much sat on either the finance or stewardship committees (as well as others) perpetually. He’s also taught Sunday School frequently over the years, often his own peers, sometimes children’s classes when my sister and I were little, and even sometimes the older adults. If there’s was a dinner or pancake breakfast Dad was in the kitchen cooking. If there was a workday around the church grounds he was there. If the church was sponsoring a house for Habitat For Humanity, he would have his tool belt on before you could blink. Dad was one of those quick to volunteer and often unwilling to say “no” when something needed doing. The man who never attended Sunday School as a child is now teaching it on a regular basis. The man who was never part of any youth group chaperoned many youth trips and events, sometimes even ones his own children didn’t attend.
Even today it’s rare for my father and I to get together and not soon begin talking about what each of our churches are doing. Like father like son. Church has become an essential component of both our lives. So involved is my father in his church, I have trouble imagining what he was like before. When you know what is go without something often you come to appreciate it all the more as a result. Maybe that’s how it was with my father and church.
For many people faith is intellectual in nature. It’s something they pander or wrestle with in their heads. For others it’s emotional in nature, a great feeling like being in love. Looking back I think Dad understood faith differently. He wanted to “feel” it in a more literal sense. In church and in life my father is someone who values a hard day’s work, especially when it’s the simple kind of physical labor that leaves a man tired and reminds him he’s alive. People who exercise regularly often say they feel better when in pain and fatigue at the end of a workout than they do ever sitting in idle comfort somewhere. Dad always looked happy somehow when he was out working in the yard or building something. It was the same when he’d go off on Saturday to help clean up the church grounds or volunteer on a Habitat House. He always looks happiest when he’s wiping the sweat off his brow or trying to catch his breath. Dad’s faith was one that valued work.
When a Protestant uses the words “work” and “faith” in the same sentence alarms go off somewhere, but I’m not talking about work done as an attempt to gain God’s favor or even as penance for past sins. I’m talking about work that helps us feel connected to God and that marks us as God’s. There’s peace and joy in laboring on behalf of the Lord. Our sweat, toil, fatigue, and pains remind us who are as Christians and connect us with the incarnated God who was also pleased to feel such physical strains. The monks understand this. John Wesley understood it too. That’s why he was hardly ever idle a moment in his life and why his bands were able to do so much good with such limited resources. Whether my father ever read something like this in a book or heard it in a sermon, he gets it. The sweat running down his face is like the waters of his own baptism, reminding him and marking him as a child of God.
That’s why he’s always so quick to volunteer, that’s why he likes to take on the backbreaking work, and that’s why he often does it with no thought of thanks or appreciation in mind. It connects him to God in a way that makes it invaluable to him. He doesn’t want to be a saint or martyr, he just wants to “feel” close to God. He may be one of the few people who envies Simon of Cyrene, who was made the carry Jesus’ Cross part of the way to Calvary. The idea of a God who comes to us in the form of a man and endures all the same feelings and pains that are part of being human is quite a beautiful thing, to me and my father. This is my father’s faith.
They often say parents try to give their children what they didn’t have growing up. Usually they say this in reference to something concrete like financial security, proper education, or a stable home life. My father and I were both very blessed in that we had all these things growing up. We both had very happy and stable childhoods. Even so, my father did give my sister and me one thing he didn’t have growing up: a place to go every Sunday morning and that carried with it the promise of being part of something much greater than either of us. My father gave us a church. His story of faith might have begun a little later than some, but he’s done everything he can to make sure it continues long after him. This is my father’s faith.
Happy Father’s Day Dad! Thank you for giving me a church to call home and a faithful example to follow.