Just Like Dad

574716_10151110734279376_1861750003_nSunday is Father’s Day. Do your dad a favor – don’t go the tie route. Get him something nifty, like an electric razor or some boxer shorts. You know: show a little creativity in your choice of banal, inexpensive gifts! After all, dad will pretend to like whatever you buy him, so why put in the effort?

I’m kidding about the gift. Not so much about dad pretending to like whatever you get him.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the next few Father’s Days. My kids have finally entered the stage where I can expect some homemade gifts like ashtrays, coffee mugs, and elaborate attempts at pop-up cards. I am especially looking forward to the creative madness that my daughter will produce; Ella has the potential within her to make something heretofore unseen in the universe, and I want in on that kind of creation. And once Jonathan gets a bit older, his detail-oriented mind and science bend might actually produce some Father’s Day chemistry that turns out to be an anti-aging, performance-enhancing serum that allows me to live until I’m 190. So, yeah – I’m stoked about my potential Father’s Day gift haul.

But the greatest Father’s Day gift I’ve ever gotten has simply been to celebrate my own father each year. The joke around our house is that dad was always traveling, but my memory has him home quite a bit. I can see us in the backyard of our old house, tossing a baseball. I can see him cutting that same yard with the tiny, tired push mower that we used for years (it was only after I moved out and went to college that the man actually bought a riding lawn mower, a strange coincidence I’ve never reconciled). I close my eyes and I can picture him leaning against the fence at ballgames, or setting up a tent on a Scout trip, or paddling like a madman as we fought the Table Saw rapid on the Ocoee River.

For as much as we joke about my dad’s absence, it’s his presence that I most remember.

When I stepped away from youth pastoring, I also stepped away from seeing my dad on a weekly basis. In my entire life, there’s been a little more than five years when we didn’t go to the same church; over the past two years, we’ve worked side-by-side on most Sundays in the church’s sound booth: dad on the mixing board, me on the presentation software. Again, it wasn’t so much about what we did together as much as it was the fact we were together. I highly doubt that he would be so sentimental about the arrangement (though he’s surprised me a bit on that front lately), but for me, the warmth and joy of working with my dad on a weekly basis was something to be cherished.

As we both learned in 2011, you only have a little while to spend with your dad.

It was that weekly time together – even when we weren’t in the booth, we were still at the same church, in the same place – that I knew I would miss. There were a lot of wonderful people at the church, people that I still love dearly, but there is something special about being able to spend time with your family week in and week out; something even more special about being able to show your parents your personal growth on a consistent basis. Not that I live for my parents’ approval, but you never outgrow the hope that your parents are proud of you. Every Sunday, I knew that they were.

My kids felt the separation too. When I told the kids that we were stepping away to chase a new path, my kids were both hurt. Jonathan seemed to take it hardest; he started crying. When I asked him why, he said, “I’m crying because now we won’t get to see Nonna (my mom) and Poppy (my dad) anymore!”

He thought that the only reason we saw my parents was because we went to church together.

Once I explained that family is family, regardless of where you go to church, and that we would make special effort to see Nonna and Poppy now, instead of just taking it for granted that we would see them on Sunday, he felt better. In a strange way, so did I. Because I realized – as much as I loved seeing my dad every week – I took for granted that we would see them. It was a given. I didn’t have to work to make sure my kids had a relationship with them, it just happened because of Sunday.

That realization made me a bit sad. I don’t want my kids growing up and taking their grandparents for granted. So we’ve made extra effort (perhaps too much) to get the kids over to their grandparents’ house at least once a week. I worry about over-staying our welcome, but my parents assure me that it’s okay. That they love it.

Kind of like my grandparents used to tell my parents whenever my brother and I went for visits.

It’s weird thinking about that now. I’m now in my dad’s position and he’s assumed the role of his father. My dad had one advantage over me, in that when he was 37, I was 15. He had the youthful energy to be a good dad to a young boy; I sometimes wonder if I suck as a parent because I don’t have the same energy as I did at 27. My kids don’t seem to mind, though, and maybe I actually have an advantage not available to my dad: the perspective that comes from being older. Honestly, I don’t know.

I do know, however, that my dad thinks I’m doing a good job. He’s never sad that too me – or if he did, I mentally deflected it because I’m not great at accepting compliments – but I know he feels that way because he always tells me how great my kids are. That’s high praise. I eat it up.

I look a bit more like my dad these days, which is funny because for the longest time I didn’t think we looked anything alike. Now, my hair is going gray (though not as gray as his) and I definitely see him staring back at me from the mirror, or in pictures. I’m taller and thinner, but the eyes are the same. I can only hope that mine give off the same kindness and good nature that his do. After years of wondering which parent I favor, my physical presence finally caught up with my personality and the answer is clear.

I’m just like my dad.

And that’s awesome.

Happy Birthday to Mom

ImageToday is my mother’s birthday. I won’t tell you how old she is, but if you take my age and add 20, you’ll have an idea. We celebrated last Saturday by taking her out for lunch at a local restaurant, and she enjoyed eating with her two boys, two daughters-in-law, and four grandkids. It was a nice afternoon.

See, we haven’t really celebrated my mom’s birthday in years. Her birthday is May 30; my first daughter, Ruthanne, was stillborn on May 31, 2004. We were in the hospital on my mom’s birthday that year, struggling to comprehend what was happening. I’ve written about Ruthanne before, but I don’t think I’ve ever acknowledged that her birthday sort of stole the thunder from my mom. If she had lived, it would’ve been a dual celebration. But since she didn’t, it kind of killed our desire to do much of anything around this time of year.

Not that my mom minded too much; if there’s one thing she doesn’t really like, it’s being the center of attention. It’s kind of funny – both my brother and I ended up being people who don’t mind being on stage, performing or speaking, and our being wired that way sort of pulled mom along into the spotlight. She would deflect it, of course, but people would seek her out to commend her on raising two “fine boys” and she would have to spend a few minutes being the focus of conversation.

Sometimes people ask her what her secret is; usually, she tells them to just trust God and let the kids be themselves. From my vantage point, that’s a true enough statement, but there were other things that helped shape my brother and I, things that aren’t intuitive to some parents. She let us be ourselves, but she also drew us firm boundary lines. She surrounded us with good friends and tried to make even the bad ones welcome. Our home was never closed off to the other kids in the neighborhood – everyone within five miles knew the Brooks household was always open, and the fridge was usually full.

In fact, some of my friends liked my parents better than me. I didn’t mind; their respect for my parents kept them from inviting me to do some truly stupid things. They knew my parents wouldn’t approve and they didn’t want to break their hearts by inviting me along. As a kid, that was kind of annoying; but as an adult, it’s touching in a way. 

Touching too is the fact that I have sort of grown up with my parents. They got married young, and had me when they were barely into their twenties. They never tried to be my friend, but they never treated me as if I weren’t a friend. Like I said, I knew where the boundaries were, and as long as I stayed within them, things were fine. My parents allowed me to follow my passion for reading and drawing; they encouraged me to write; they let me play baseball and basketball and become an Eagle Scout. And while they were together in philosophy, they often weren’t together in presence. My dad traveled a lot, which meant it was mom and her boys against the world.

It probably also means that we were closer than other kids and their mothers. I learned sarcasm from my mom (who learned it from her dad). I learned how to be gracious in the face of struggle and how to be authentic with the people you love. I saw firsthand that parenting could be overwhelming, but I never knew just how deeply some of our troubles were. I was thirty-five before I learned that some years my Christmas presents came from garage sales. To borrow a phrase from my grandparents’ generation, I never knew we were poor.

I also never knew the absence of laughter. If you could say one thing about my mother, it’s that laughter runs through her veins as surely as blood. You can’t spend more than five minutes with my mom before someone is laughing hysterically. Occasionally the jokes are even clean. Growing up that way made humor my default language – I always knew the power of humor, it’s ability to infect people and become a conduit for ideas. Even now when I speak, I try to use humor as much as possible to help get my point across. And if my mom is in the audience, I know exactly where the loudest laughs will come from.

Case in point: my senior year of high school, I was cast as the male lead in the musical, “The Boyfriend.” In the third act, my character had to make a grand entrance at a costume ball dressed as Pierrot from the Comedia dell’Arte – essentially, I came onstage dressed in a satin clown costume that included a tiny satin dunce cap with black poofy balls affixed to the side. As soon as I made my entrance, a hoot arose from the audience, a single, uncontrolled guffaw at my appearance that reverberated through the otherwise silent hall.

It was my mom.

In her defense, I did look ridiculous (a fellow student suggested that I looked very much like a contraceptive device). And it seems wholly appropriate that of all the people in the audience who could’ve laughed at me, it was my mother that did. After all, we’d been laughing together our whole lives. We still are.

So happy birthday, mom, even though you’ll hate that I wrote about you, even though you’ll think that some of these stories are embarrassing or not worth telling. Whether you like it or not, these stories are worth telling, because they show how much you’ve influenced me, and Ryan, and our wives and children. They’re worth telling because they help us understand and appreciate you all the more, something that a good mother is due.

I love you, mom. Hope you have a great day.

When Anything Was Possible

photo (21)This morning, because he was climbing the walls, I put my son in my car and took him for a drive. We ran an errand for work first, then headed down Highway 78, eastbound. We passed through Loganville, Between, Monroe…and as the mile markers swept by, Jon asked me where we were going.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I think I’m going to take you to where I went to college.”

“You’re gonna take me to your college?” he repeated.

“Yeah. The University of Georgia.”

“The Yoo-be-nursery of…how do you say it?”

I smiled. “The University of Georgia.”

“Oh. You’re gonna take me there?” he asked, looking at me in the rearview mirror.


“Okay. Can we get ice cream?”

The great thing about my alma mater is that it’s less than an hour’s drive, yet feels like going to another planet. As we turned onto Milledge Avenue, Jon immediately started asking questions. “Why are there so many houses? Why do people have couches in the yard? Why do they have bulldogs on everything?” It was non-stop.

I turned into the Butts-Mehre Building parking lot, thinking that I’d take him to the sports museum inside and show him the glory, glory of old Georgia. We walked in and in quick order took pictures with the 1980 National Championship trophy, Herschel Walker’s Heisman Trophy, and a very nice lady who knew where the restrooms were (that was Jon’s idea). But all of that lasted less than a minute; suddenly, Jon wanted to know where the scientists were.

“I want to see the scientists, like me.” (Special thanks to my brother- and sister-in-law Terrell and Julie White for sending Jon a Big Bag of Science Experiments for his birthday. My kitchen floors will never be the same.)

So we left the Butts-Mehre, went down by Foley Field (Jon had zero interest in the baseball diamond), turned by Stegeman Coliseum (he wasn’t interested in that either) and zipped over towards the Biology, Chemistry and Food Sciences buildings. He begged me to find a place to park so he could “see the scientists make stuff up”, but I couldn’t find a spot, and wasn’t sure we could get into some of the labs anyway.

“That’s sad,” said Jon. “Don’t people want to see scientists?”

I’ve yet to tell him what Bear Bryant said on that issue: “80,000 people never showed up to watch a chemistry test.”

We turned left on East Campus Avenue and drove behind Sanford Stadium. I turned left again on Baldwin Street and showed him Park Hall. “That’s where daddy spent most of his last two years of college.”

“That looks boring,” he replied.

We turned right onto Milledge once more, and then made a right onto Broad Street. I parked downtown near the Arches and we took a stroll across North Campus. We looked at squirrels, trees, the Chapel Bell, the Law Library Atrium, and the inside of the main library. I walked him back down to Sanford Stadium and made the mistake of telling him that’s where all the dead Ugas are buried. After that, he wanted to talk about nothing else.

It was a nice trip, despite the fact that the campus looks almost nothing like I remember it. Fifteen years after I left, the university has become what former president Charles Knapp had dreamed: a top-flight center of education. I marveled at how young the students are compared to when I was in school; how many of them still think they’re invincible enough to smoke; how many of them seem far more determined than I was when I roamed the same grounds.

As we walked back to the car, I took Jon to Park Hall, where the English and Classics departments are headquartered. I snapped a picture in front of my old haunt, and recalled when a professor stopped me on the front steps and told me that, with a bit of revision, some of my pieces would be press-ready. And then the professor offered to send them to his friend at The New Yorker – and could almost guarantee they’d see print.

I stood there and watched that memory play out one more time: I shook his hand and told him thank you, but no. I wasn’t prepared to face rejection. He asked me to reconsider; told me that of all the students in my “Writing for Publication” class, I was the only one to demonstrate real potential.

I told him no a second time. Then I walked away.

It’s been fifteen years, and I still remember that. In college, so the saying goes, anything is possible. You’re not who you were, not yet who you’ll be. You’re a bundle of potential and passion and purposeless energy. You’re waiting to be aimed somewhere and to see how far you’ll go.

At least, that’s the way some people were. I wasn’t. I’m 37 now, and am just finally reaching my “anything is possible” phase. It took me this long to realize the things about myself that are good and worthy and deserving of people’s attention. Today, I wouldn’t hesitate to take that professor’s hand and say, “Let’s sit down and make those revisions now. Why wait?” I would whole-heartedly accept his offer and be so excited about even the possibility that I might get read, much less published.

But I am that person today because I wasn’t that person then. I am a husband and father and writer today because I couldn’t see myself as any of that then.

Sometimes, we take the path we think we’re supposed to take because we have a hard time imagining ourselves take any other path. We choose what we know because we’re afraid of what we don’t. And sometimes, we discover that we end up where we started; we come back to the path we turned away, prepared to take it and see what happens.

That’s what I felt today, standing on a campus that isn’t the same as it was fifteen years ago. But then again, neither was the man standing there. Today, with my son in tow, I went back in time and realized I hadn’t missed my moment; I’d just been preparing for it.

Carpe diem, right?

Anything is possible. Even today.

My Daughter’s Salvation

ImageI can officially tell this story now. It’s been killing me for a couple of weeks, but I wanted to respect my daughter and only tell it once she’d had the chance to do so herself. Yesterday, at the close of our church service, during the invitation time, my daughter walked forward and told the church that she had given her life to Jesus Christ, her Lord and Savior. The church then got a good laugh out of her when the senior pastor asked whom she wanted to baptize her: me or the senior pastor.

“You,” she said, swinging a thumb in the senior pastor’s direction. It was a totally unscripted moment.

Which really, if you know my daughter, is absolutely perfect. But to be clear, she didn’t accept Christ yesterday; she did it a couple of weeks ago, during the big Discipleship Now weekend that my students participated in. Every year, around 20 some-odd churches in Gwinnett County and beyond pull together for one massive DNOW event. The past couple of years it’s been graciously hosted by Cross Pointe Church (senior pastor James Merritt) and over 800 students have come for a weekend of music, the Gospel and fellowship. This was my students’ third year participating.

Thus, it was my daughter’s third year participating. That’s what happens when you’re the preacher’s kid – you get to go to every event, regardless of whether or not you actually want to. We try and do our best (Rachel and I) to make it fun for Ella, and she genuinely enjoys the music and the freedom she has to run to the front of the stage and dance or hop around while the music plays. It’s part child’s play, part unfettered worship, and she only gets that chance during youth events like DNOW. So we let her go for the gusto.

Now, the past two years, she’s brought along books or a notepad for the sermon time. She would look up every once and while during the messages, but for the most part, she was more interested in the world of her own imagination than in the world of the Bible. And Rachel and I were okay with that.

See we’re weird – we’ve prayed for Ella’s salvation since before she was born (Jon’s too), and while we’ve always prayed that she would come to Christ while she was young, we’ve never felt the need to push her. Several of her friends have made confessions of faith long before Ella, and while she was always curious and asked plenty of questions (which we answered thoroughly without trying to push her one way or the other) she never seemed all that interested in making a decision herself.

In her mind there were three things she knew: Jesus was God, Jesus was Lord, and saying you believed that meant you had to get baptized, which meant getting wet in public in a very strange pool. Which meant, in her mind: no thank you.

But this recent DNOW changed things for her. She actually paid attention to our speaker for the weekend, the wonderful Clayton King. Clayton is a gifted speaker and an anointed preacher, and something about him – specifically, his humor – grabbed Ella’s imagination. On Friday night, she had her notebook and was doodling, but she would laugh right along with the audience, sometimes just before. Never took her eyes off her notebook, but was still engaged.

She was listening. Clayton had her attention.

So it was that on Saturday night, as we waited for the doors to the sanctuary to open, Ella walked over to me and said, “Daddy, will there be music tonight?”

“Yes, Ella,” I said.

“Well how long til that funny preacher man starts talking? I want to hear him because he’s funny.”

In retrospect, I know why that line struck me so hard, but in the moment it didn’t register. I just thought it was funny that my little girl wanted to actually hear the preacher preach. After years of being dragged to events like this on, she’d finally found a speaker who could hold her focus. It struck me as so funny that, when I realized Clayton King was seated on the row behind us, I made it a point to relate the story to him and introduce Ella. She smiled and waved coyly. Clayton waved back.

The music was great, but when Clayton started preaching, it just felt different. Ella was doodling, but she was sitting next to me, all snuggled up. Usually, that’s reserved for her mother, not me. As Clayton went through his message on the significance of Christ being Lord, I began to feel a familiar sensation. My heart began beating rather quickly. As Clayton neared the end of his message and began his invitation, I suddenly realized something.

I had the same sensation I’d had years ago when I gave my life to Christ. As Clayton continued talking about how Christ must be Lord of our lives if we’re going to be Christians, I began to pray: God, are you telling me I’m not saved?

I mean, I was sure of my salvation, but I’m nothing if not wiling to question things.

That’s when it became clear: it wasn’t me God was working on. It was Ella. And when Clayton gave the invitation to stand up and say “JESUS IS LORD!” if you had accepted Christ as your Savior, Ella turned to me, eyes full of confidence, and I nodded.

And she stood up and said, “JESUS IS LORD!”

I’ve been in ministry now for over 15 years, 12 of them as a youth pastor. In all of those years, that was the single-most precious moment. As someone prone to question whether or not the church still has what it takes to win the world to Christ, God reminded me very powerfully and personally on Saturday March 2 that the Gospel still changes lives, and always will. The church may sometimes limp forward, but the Gospel forever marches on, strong, bold, calling people to realize their sinfulness and Christ’s power to save them.

Ella went down front that night by herself. She didn’t ask me to come with her. And when she went down yesterday morning, it was completely on her own as well. Seven years of prayer for our daughter’s salvation came to fruition in a little girl who chose Jesus all on her own – and was so sure of it that the needed no one to guide her on the journey. She’ll be baptized soon, probably by the senior pastor, and I’ll be sure to post pictures.

Jesus saves. Never forget.

The Birthday Princess

ImageToday is Ella’s seventh birthday, and we’ve been celebrating since this morning. She’s enjoyed some special treats throughout the day, and expects even more this weekend at her birthday party. I guess you could say we spoil her.

But we don’t see it that way.

We’re celebrating her life, which is something we don’t take for granted. Believe me when I tell you that there’s nothing on this earth that makes my heart swell like her slipping her hand into mine as we walk. Sure, the hand that’s reaching out for me has gotten bigger than I’d like to admit, and yeah, my heart breaks to think that I might only have a few more years of such unfettered, un-self-conscious love to enjoy, but it’s still overwhelming to be loved so innocently.


Sometimes when I look at her, I find it hard to remember what she was like as an infant. She’s so much more herself now that’s she’s older that those early months/years seem a blur. To watch her float around the house, dancing to music only she can hear, making up words to songs that only she understands, is to watch my daughter without a filter. To see her as she really is, all the way down to her soul.

When she sits down to draw a picture now, a clear figure emerges – complete with perspective, shading, detail – and fits within a larger narrative picture. She tells you the whole story when she shows it to you, and even gives you a hint of character voices. It’s impressive.

She still sleeps like a wild animal. She’s all over the bed, arms and legs akimbo beneath the covers, breathing so deeply you would think her near comatose. Trying to wake her up on a school day is sometimes like arguing on the internet: pointless and not very productive. Then, on days when she doesn’t need to sleep late, she’s up by 6:20 and racing through the house like a deranged cat.

Talking to her has become an adventure. It’s a combination of her high-level reading skills, ever-listening ear, and decidedly animated friends that produces the first grade equivalent of a Robin Williams stand up, which is to say that she’s hysterical and full of non-sequiturs. What’s really funny is when she throws in an inflection that quite obviously came from someone else – an adult, one of her school friends, her mother – and it sounds like an entirely different person but still fully Ella. And the best part is, she doesn’t even realize she’s doing it.


She looked at me this morning in the car. We were waiting for her bus to arrive, and she had this funny expression, a mix between sheer joy and hopeless confusion. Finally she looked at me, eyebrow raised and said, “You know I’m only three years away from ten, don’t you? Today I’m seven, then eight, nine, ten. I’ll be practically grown up. And then I’ll be a teenager. You can handle that, right?”

I looked at her and lied. “Sure I can handle that.”

But my heart knew it couldn’t. As much joy as there is in watching my child grow up, I can’t help but feel the tinge of sadness that comes as she passes ever farther away from the little girl she once was. I know I still have a lot more time with her before she starts hating my guts, but the weight of those days, the preciousness of them, makes me wish they could linger a bit.

And then she drops something on the floor, or accidentally spills grape juice on the freshly cleaned carpet and I wonder, “How long ’til college?”


The birthday princess is growing up. The world is slowly becoming hers; I find that instead of her encountering things through my eyes or Rachel’s eyes, she’s seeing things through her own eyes more and more. And it’s a fascinating world to view, even if it sometimes gets a bit myopic (“When can I have a snack again? You said fifteen minutes fifteen minutes ago. It’s been fifteen minutes. So I can have a snack now, right? Because it’s been fifteen minutes. It has. Really. Why is your eyeball suddenly bleeding, daddy?”). Here’s to enjoying the ride through her childhood, to infinity and beyond.

Happy birthday, Princess Ella! Your mommy and daddy love you very much.