This piece first appeared on the website City Dads Group and I have permission to post it here.
The light lingers over the lake, the boat bobs, tubing is done for today. My twin boys and their new friend from school are using towels as capes. The sun has kept us out later than we should be, and we have a 45-minute drive home. It’s time.
“Let’s get going, boys, it’s late and you’ll have to get up in the morning,” I shout down the hill from the deck we’ve been enjoying. They are done, sunburnt and weary. They head our way.
“Watcha gotta do in the morning, dude?” the new friend asks.
“We have to go to Mass.”
A blank stare from the boy.
“You know, church.”
“Wait, you guys go to church?” the new boy asks.
Without missing a beat, my other son says, “Wait, you don’t?”
I grew up going to the Heritage Presbyterian Church, on, you guessed it, Church Street in the great Midwest. I’ve never not gone to church, even in my groggiest college days. I’m not talking every week, just as often as I could.
My wife grew up attending Catholic schools, sang in choirs and was one of the first girl altar servers her church allowed at the time. She was a youth minister for a number of years and works in ministry still. She’s gone to Mass regularly for as long as she remembers.
There was no doubt our kids were going to church. You’d probably guess there was some difficult decision making that had to be done. Nope, not really. We went with the one with incense and water and coded garments and saints.
It’s time for me to be a bit more honest. I’m not a good Christian. The dogma borders on myth to me. I’m uncomfortable with some of it, unsure. Religion asks a lot of a man, in my opinion, and sets him up for failure, doubt, pain. So, why do we go to church?
The sunset is spectacular out my rearview; high cirrus clouds take the red light and bend them pink here and orange there in stripes across the sky. The familiar, comforting voice of Marty Brennaman calls the Reds game on the radio, three to two in the seventh. The country road cuts through cornfields, forgotten little towns with unnecessary stoplights and down a long hill that leads us home. It is pastoral, serene, simple, right.
A boy sighs audibly, the scent is grape Jolly Rancher. The other boy says in a quiet voice, “Thank you, God, for this beautiful day.”
I whisper, Amen. They doze off and I am left to contemplate in the quiet, now sacred, cab of an old F-150.
You see, if you set the theology aside, forgo the dogma, there is great simplicity in faith. In seven words, my son pretty much summed up where 50 years of hard thinking got me. Prayer, thanksgiving, beauty.
I want my sons to pray, not this specific prayer or that one, no, their own prayer. I hardly believe prayers are answered — people die, lotteries are lost, tests failed — and I learned long ago not to ask for things. But prayer makes you listen. When you ask Yahweh or Mary or Buddha or Ra for answers, you have to find them. They’re between your heartbeats, behind a setting sun, between the stars. They are there in the moment between the breaths of two dozing man-cubs in the backseat of a red Ford truck.
I want my sons to give thanks. My question for those unfaithed – for lack of a better word – has always been, “To whom do you give thanks?” In this crazy, selfish world, it is easy to become the center of everything.
Giving thanks changes that. It is an admission of vulnerability, of need, of humility. The joy of giving thanks, outwardly, overwhelms the vague smugness of self-praise. It’s never mattered where the thanks go – upward, downward, inward – what matters is the search for thankfulness in the rooms of the heart marked “Love and Kindness” and “Truth and Beauty.”
I want my sons to see beauty. Sunsets, trees, cathedrals, oceans, faces, eyes, hearts – it is everywhere. In beauty, one sees the mask of, well, I’ve tried to avoid it, but, God, and behind the mask is … I dunno, truth? Somethingelseness?
One of my sweet boys, 3-years-old at the time, thought a dethorned rose was so beautiful he carried it around like a touchstone for a whole day. The next morning it was wilted and he was sad but thought it was “still sorta beautiful,” I’m still not sure if he meant the rose or the rose’s story. Another time, we sat on a soccer pitch on a warm fall evening and watched the sunset. The other boy, then 8 years of age, said it was “glorious,” which it was. He knew the science of it all, but he still offered the question, “Why would God do this for us?” Grace, I whispered.
Children are ill-prepared for theology and dogma. Without the benefit of experience, the tales of commandments and compassion and resurrection and redemption are jumbled in detail and mystery. What a child learns from these stories — common across the cultures — is that there are rules and justice, that love is way important, that renewal and do-overs are possible. It is not the “redeemed one” that’s important, it’s that there is a redemption song.
I don’t know, then, if I can teach faith to my sons.
I can show them mine, though.
And, they can show me theirs.
It is dark in the driveway. I open the back door. My breath catches as the soft light shines on two slumbering, sweatshirted, rosy little boys, and I offer up a quiet prayer of thanksgiving for these beautiful, beautiful boys, and, before my breath starts again, I know it has been heard.
One little boys stirs, “Oh, thank God, we’re Home.”
And yes, he did capitalize “Home.”