It took me a while to understand what my dad did for a living. This is probably true for most kids whose parents don’t fit into “These Are the People in Your Neighborhood” categories (doctor, firefighter, mail carrier, shopkeeper, and so on). I couldn’t hope to explain what copywriting is to my kids, much less public relations. I’m not entirely sure my parents understand it either, for that matter.
I knew Dad was a teacher; sometimes I waited in his office while he taught classes. I also knew that he was a priest—he had those shirts with special collars—but that part got confusing. He was hardly ever the guy at the front of the church, and I never saw him marrying people or baptizing babies. Mostly, if he wasn’t at The Seminary, mowing the lawn, or making bread or gazpacho, he was in his study (“The Study”), pounding away on his typewriter. We had to make sure not to pester him. “I have eggs in my head,” he’d explain, “and I’m afraid they might break.” Only once they’d hatched would he emerge to play a board game or toss a ball in the yard.
A fuller picture developed over the years. Dad studied, taught, and wrote about the Old Testament. By the time I was in college, I understood that this was a journey he’d begun following the early death of his own father, a devout Marxist whose life had revolved around justice for the working man rather than any bourgeois piety. Fatherless at thirteen in a small town in Northern Canada, he’d struggled to make sense of his life until one day, hoping to score points with a prospective girlfriend’s parents, he’d stepped into an Anglican chapel and found the meaning he’d been craving, or at least the path that might lead to it.
In that light, it’s only natural that much of Dad’s work as a theologian has revolved around the Book of Job, and through it the most existential of religious questions: Why does God let bad things happen to good people? Or, to put it another way: Why did my dad have to die so soon? Why was life in Meadow Lake so hard? How can I reconcile the wonderful feeling that first day in the little church—a sense of sweetness and hope like flannel sheets fresh from the clothesline—with the newsreels I’d seen of a world at war?
So that’s what Dad did for a living. But it was very much his own living, not something he imposed on the rest of us. Mom held her own faith dearly, but my sister and I preferred to spend our Sundays watching reruns of Star Trek and Space: 1999. Over time, we settled into the twice-yearly routine familiar to so many Episcopalians. Still, I was always proud of him. I could see the respect, esteem, and love he inspired in his colleagues and students. When he served as an interim pastor for several years (for churches that tended to stop looking for a permanent replacement as soon as he was in the pulpit), I’d join my mom and sister to hear his sermons from time to time. But church, God, the Bible—those were his affair, not mine. Unexamined agnosticism seemed adequate to my own, milder strain of adolescent angst.
The year I graduated from high school, Dad published a commentary on the Book of Job. Well received and highly regarded, it helped form his reputation as someone whose insights were well worth listening to. I didn’t, of course. I hadn’t even read Job. But again, I couldn’t have been prouder, and gave my inscribed copy (“For Daniel, I wrote this copy just for you. Love, Daddy”) a prominent place on my bookshelf. And there it remained.
Dad retired a decade or so ago. After more than thirty years at The Seminary, he was almost delirious with anticipation: as much as he’d loved teaching, now there would be nothing to come between him and the page. His head carried the eggs for books and papers to last the rest of his life. The days couldn’t begin early enough, and he’d be in the basement with his laptop for hours before sunrise, studying and illuminating the Word of God. Surely a scholar of Job should have seen the cancer coming.
The outlook was worrisome at first, then not quite as bad, then much worse. He told his team to use their best judgment and show him no mercy. And so it was. For nearly a year, he lay in a recliner in The Study, recovering from chemo, then radiation, unable to write, read, or even think clearly. He lost much of his hair, much of his weight, most of his strength. I returned home as often as I could, even knowing how much my visits would exhaust him and how much worse off he’d be afterwards.
But time passed, the treatments ended, and their ravages began to abate. There came a week when my mother would be out of town, and I came to look after him. He was still frail, his head downy with fine white hair, his frame hollow, but life was beginning to come back into him. We spent the days together in The Study, me writing public relations copy, him sitting in the recliner reading, underlining, jotting the kind of marginal notes that filled the books covering the walls around him. After dinner, we’d return to The Study and talk too late into the evening. He paused more often now to rub his eyes or collect a thought, but then his hand would reach for a place it knew by heart to pull out a Robert Frost collection, or something by Rilke or Whitehead, for the perfect quote to illustrate his point.
I’d always been somewhat intimidated by his brilliance. Transcending his modest origins, Dad had acquired a deep classical education even beyond his exhaustive theological and linguistic knowledge. The admiration he inspired in me cast a shadow on my own self-image—apathetic, indecisive, insubstantial. Maybe this is one reason I’d never ventured onto his own ground, never read any of his work, much less the Bible itself. For all my apostasy and distraction, I’d never definitively stopped believing in God. When confronted by my peers with arguments belittling the faithful as deluded or idiotic, my unspoken response ran to the effect of, “Well, my dad’s the smartest guy I know, and he believes. So go to Hell.” But I’d never really talked with him about what he believes, or how, or what or how I might believe.
Once Dad was back on his feet, he resumed a project his illness had interrupted: seeing another book on Job to publication. This one took a more personal approach, including an epilogue addressing his recent trials. Again, his community took notice; the book was cited as one of the best of the year for parish clergy, who could always use a little extra Joban perspective when counseling those in pain. I bragged about this honor to an old roommate—a southerner raised Baptist—only to find myself unable to answer the obvious follow-up questions about the book’s substance: why, then, do bad things happen to good people Chagrined, I finally began to read.
I found Dad’s new book quite accessible, even without having read Job itself. I also found it deeply intuitive. I realized that I’d never been as far from his ground as I’d thought, that all these years I’d somehow been living within his work, as his understanding of Job and God informed and shaped him as a person and as a parent. The book made sense to me in the same way Dad made sense to me, with no classical education or religious background needed.
I’ve since moved on to Dad’s original Job commentary—and, yes, the Book of Job itself. I don’t know how much further I’ll venture (though Dad does have a book on Ecclesiastes in the works: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity …”), and I don’t imagine I’ll be sliding into a pew any Sunday soon. It’s enough for now to be reading Job with Dad, and through him. And to think of him reading the lines, time and again, from which he drew a title:
For there is hope for a tree,
if it be cut down, that it will sprout again,
and that its shoots will not cease.
Though its root grow old in the earth,
and its stump die in the ground,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth branches like a young plant.