Sunday, November 22, 2009


For the etymologically challenged among you, let me start by breaking down the parts. “Ortho” and “episto” are a compound descriptor for those who embrace an epistemological perspective informed by orthodox Christian thought. This group is further refined, defined, and confined to those who prefer their epistemology in the form of propositional statements. In fact, they can often be downright dogmatic about such matters. That leaves only the “logy,” which is what I’m doing now, but also what OEP's love to do ad nauseum.

Finally, since the Facebook comment thread took place so long ago, the vast multitude reading this blog will have forgotten that, in its original context, I used the term derogatorily.

So, orthoepistopropology is definitely something Jesus gives a rat’s ass about . . . but not in a good way.

He taught in parables. He was a radical reinterpreter of tradition. He understood the importance of context in the search for truth. So how is it that some of those who claim his name can so deeply believe and so vehemently assert that the truth about what we can know about God can be reduced to propositional statements? To make matters worse, these same orthoepistopropologists claim that only their statements are the Truth.

That’s right. In OEP World, the one eternal God, creator of all that is—seen and unseen—can be so effectively captured in words that whosoever memorizes those words can, with absolute certainty, stop striving after Truth, having already found all that will ever be needed.

So, am I suggesting that nothing can be known with any certainty? That isn’t my point, but it is probably an implication of my views. What I am suggesting is that certainty is over-rated, and we’d all be healthier and happier if we learned to live with ambiguity. After all, at the end of the day, isn’t how God thinks of us and what God knows about us more important than what we think we know about God?


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

I Pledge Allegiance

After hearing all the hoopla over the “I Pledge” video, I went to YouTube and watched it, to see what all the fuss is about. What I found was just a bunch of “celebrities” promising to do more than they have been doing—in small ways and not-so-small ways—to help make our country and our world a better place. Sure, their preferences for where and how to get involved reflect their own political values—so would yours and mine if we were the ones making the video. But honestly, unless predisposed or pre-programmed to do so, who could possibly object to what they are proposing to do? What kind of American is opposed to people with money and influence using some of it for good instead of squandering it all?

But what I’m really disappointed about—though not really surprised by—is the ham-handed hermeneutical handling of this "text" in the blogosphere, on talk radio, and even on Facebook. The "Fox Paraphrase" being so carelessly bandied about never actually appears in the video’s script. Only by conflating two remarks, by two different speakers, at two different points in the video can one come up with the tasty sound bite being quoted almost as frequently as Sarah Palin says “death panels.”

Anthony Kiedis (bicep-kissing RHCP) says, "I pledge to be of service to Barack Obama." Then, at the very end, Demi Moore pledges to “be a servant to our president,” with Ashton Kutcher adding “and to all mankind” (Yes, I bristle over this use of non-inclusive “mankind” where “humanity” could just as easily have been used). Put them all together, they spell “I pledge to serve Barack Obama.” The problem is that, even allowing for the conflation, the negative connotation being suggested for “serve” and “servant” can’t really be supported by what the video actually says.

First, any moderately skilled practitioner of the English language should be able to determine that "to be of service to" and "to serve" do not mean the same thing. When I thank someone, who then replies, “glad to be of service,” I don’t assume that we have just entered into a master/slave arrangement. I don’t assume this person is “pledging” to be my bidding. I understand that the expression is idiomatic and conveys a sense of “serve” or “service” as providing help, not blind, partisan obedience. Second, within the larger context of the video’s theme, announced at the beginning, of offering encouraging support to the President (i.e. “you’re not alone”), this totally non-controversial remark is clearly announcing an intention to be in partnership with, not subservient to. I want someone to explain to me how any other reading of these words is anything more than a willful, adversarial, and ultimately deceptive misconstruing of their plain sense. Doesn’t intellectual honesty dictate that we correctly read, hear, and interpret the words of others—even if we don’t agree with their political views?

Demi’s words undeniably cast her in the role of a “servant,” though not to Barack Obama per se, but rather to “our president.” If we assume that the more general reference was chosen deliberately, her pledge takes on a more universal tone. Members of the Cabinet, White House staff, U.S. Attorneys, and many others in Washington “serve at the pleasure of the President.” We refer to the president as “the leader of the free world,” which implies that some degree of following of this leader is expected. Therefore, the concept of “serving the president” is not inherently illogical, or even unAmerican—merely repugnant to some.

For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that some of these who find this video so repugnant have bona fide philosophical objections and aren’t merely venting anti-Hollywood venom, or worse yet, a rabid, racist partisanship. For some of these, I believe it is the concept of “citizen” that, when coupled with notions of inherent rights and freedoms, causes them to reject the idea of being a servant to the president. If we can agree on a working definition of a citizen as “a person owing allegiance to and entitled to the protection of a sovereign state,” especially as distinguished from a subject, who owes “allegiance to a personal sovereign such as a monarch” (both definitions are from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary), we can see in both cases a reciprocity of obligation. You may be inclined to reject the definition I have chosen, preferring to think of citizenship more as a quid pro quo arrangement: citizens give allegiance and get protection in return. Or perhaps even this configuration: the State gives protection to its citizens, so they offer it their allegiance in return . . . at least for as long as they agree with the State’s leaders and those leaders don’t try to speak words of encouragement to their children without parental consent.

I am a staunch proponent of the social contract theory of government. I believe that legitimate governments derive their authority from the consent of the governed. But I also believe that this consent is given collectively, not individually. I can’t “opt out” just because I didn’t vote for or don’t agree with the current, duly elected leaders. Even as a free citizen, I owe my allegiance to my country, and I express that allegiance in a variety of ways, both literal and figurative. I was raised in a time when “traditional American values” included extending the same allegiance to the symbols of the country that was owed to the country itself, and the two most prominent, concrete symbols were the American flag and the Office of the President. Sometimes these acts of allegiance were commonplace: don’t let the flag touch the ground and stand up when the president enters the room. But others were extraordinary, as free citizens willingly chose to die to protect both the flag and the president. The “United States of America” is an abstraction and, therefore, not easily “served” apart from its visible representations.

How can an American citizen feel demeaned by the thought of being of service to, or even the servant of, the President of the United States—whether that president is George W. Bush or Barack Obama?

When did we become so petty and vicious and arrogant and childish and short-sighted in our partisanship?

I know that God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. Not a Libertarian either. And as far as I know, God did not intervene in the election of either George Bush or Barak Obama. Nations come and nations go, civilizations rise and fall, and the world goes on. But I do think Jesus gives a rat’s ass about what we are doing to our country and to our fellow Americans.


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Old Monarch, Two Years Later

When I came to Chaffee County for the first time in August 2007, the day I went to Old Monarch Pass was the high point of the trip (see entry entitled "God's Grandeur" for one account of it). I encountered God on that mountaintop in a way I never had before. I felt God "speak" to me (not audibly, or via any other sensory mode, but perceptibly) about several issues that were weighing heavily on my heart.

I was so affected by it all, I even piled up some stones a la Jacob and announced aloud, "Surely the Lord was in this place."

As I made my descent (I had climbed to the highest point accessible above the pass), I was exhilarated and inspired. Over the next hour or two, as I drove toward Gunnison, I laid out the plan for a work of theological fiction I plan to write, entitled God Explains It All. Unfortunately, I didn't have a way to record my thoughts, so it wasn't until hours later, over dinner in Salida, that I wrote out pages of notes in longhand on the entire experience. It was a watershed event.

So, naturally, returning to Chaffee County two years later, I had to revisit the exact spot at the top of Old Monarch Pass to see what God had been up to since I left.

At first, I thought nothing had changed. The climb was still exhausting, the view was still spectacular, and the rock formation at the top was exactly the same. (I tried to recreate the same pose in my self portrait, but the camera wouldn't cooperate.) But then it dawned on me that these things had not changed because they live in what Keats called "slow time." Whatever changes they go through are so slight and subtle as to be imperceptible to we finite mortals.

Then, I realized that even though the same species of wildflowers and insects were present, the actual individuals with whom I had shared this spot two years earlier had completed a lifetime and were gone. Returned to the earth and reborn in new forms.

Finally, I thought about how much I had changed. My "Bethel" moment in 2007 had been only the first in a series of watershed events. My father died before 2007 was over. I almost became the president of another seminary while my father was dying but found out I wasn't chosen the week after he died. Then I took an ambulance ride to the ER at 9:42 pm on February 1, 2008 with chest pains and spent 16 hours on a gurney. My son moved to another state and took a piece of me with him. My mother moved into assisted living and gave Barbara and me her house, which we remodeled and moved into last month.

All of these thoughts flooded my mind while I was trying to get the camera to sit on a rock for the self portrait, but the wind kept blowing it off. The wind turned bitterly cold, and I saw a large, angry looking, dark blue cloud coming up behind me. That's when it occurred to me that I was the highest point for miles. So I scurried down the peak back to my car, trying not to fall and break something.

The first time, a sense of God's presence filled me to overflowing and lasted for hours. This time, all I felt was God's displeasure. (And no, I'm not projecting God into the thundercloud or suggesting that God used it to chase me down off the mountain.)

As I got into my car to drive back down into the valley, I apologized to God for trying to script a holy moment. "The wind blows where it will."


Pick a Pass and Start Climbing

I drove over Independence Pass Monday, and it was the first time I have felt genuinely uncomfortable driving in the mountains. The only way to describe the road is narrow, crooked, and steep. I saw numerous places where the actual road surface had fallen away. The white stripe was missing and there was no guard rail. But, at the top, it was unspeakably beautiful. Exquisitely delicate wildflowers bravely staking their claim in the harsh wind and blinding sun, serving no purpose beyond delighting their Maker.
This road is a testimony to human ingenuity and tenacity, to our tireless quest to reconnect with our estranged planet, but mostly to an insatiable appetite to get to whatever precious commodity de jour is hidden away in Aspen. Been there. Done that. T-shirts were too expensive.

I drove over Cottonwood Pass yesterday. Cottonwood is actually 31 feet higher than Independence, but you wouldn't know it without the sign at the top. The approach is gentler, meandering for miles around and between the Collegiate Peaks before starting the ascent. The road is wide and well paved. Even the switchbacks have wide shoulders. Not once was I nervous. I ate my picnic lunch at a little turnout on the Pacific side of the pass, then wrote for a couple of hours. About midafternoon, I coasted back down into Buena Vista and, of course, Bongo Billy's, for a pick-me-up.

Two mountain passes. Similar heights. Only miles apart as the eagle flies. Two different worlds. One soothing and reassuring, the other terrifying. One easily accessible to drivers of almost every level of expertise and vehicle. The other reserved for those brave enough and sufficiently prepared to make the journey, and exacting a price from them for their audacity.

And yet, both yield their blessings and rewards to those who come.

It occurs to me that people see God in this way.

For some, God is severe and demanding, relentlessly driving us to greater depths of humility, greater heights of holiness, or both. A God of rules and restrictions who can be approached only through monumental effort and at great risk. A God who expects more from us than we can ever deliver.

Others see God as easy to approach, regardless of our circumstances. Warm and inviting and nurturing, welcoming all. The road is broad and smooth, and God even provides roadside assistance for those who break down along the way. A God of love and acceptance who requires only that we desire to come and be part of the family. A God who is never disappointed with our many shortcomings and outright failings.

And yet, both yield their blessings and rewards to those who come.

Acknowledging that all theology is metaphor, and that anthropomorphic metaphors are among our favorites, surely God is both of these . . . and so much more.

Would Jesus GARA about this? I think so. Not whether or not we "get it right." That's not even one of the options. Only that we embark on the journey.

Ciao for now,

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Leader of the Pack

This is actually yesterday's post, but I was too tired last night to drive into town to upload it. I'll do better tonight.

At first glance, this may look like a take-off on the hilarious toll booth scene in Blazing Saddles, but trust me, it is for real.

Guanella Pass is undergoing a great deal of construction to repair winter damage. In three places, so much of the roadbed is gone there is room for only one lane of traffic at a time. Not an uncommon scene, but most of the time, when I come across such a scenario, there are people monitoring driver compliance--outfitted with dayglo orange safety vests and armed with a plastic flag on a stick (which they wave in a manner that makes sense only to them). But this was an honor system--just a red light sitting there, daring you to breach the DMZ.

Maybe instead of Blazing Saddles (where the toll booth was manned), this is really a candid camera setup. How long will drivers sit in a line at a red light without any confirmation that there are as-yet-unseen cars heading toward them with no room for evasive action? Apparently, previous experience has taught the concocters of this cruel mind game that 10 minutes is the most an average, law-abiding driver can wait. And so, after 10 minutes, during which a few cars have indeed come skidding around the downhill curve (taking a total of about 30 seconds) the light changes to green.

Now, go back and look closely at the picture. Check out the truck's license plate. Texas. And then ask yourself, "Who drives from Texas to north central Colorado in a work truck like that?"

I was second in line, right behind the truck from Texas, my own origin disguised by the Colorado plates on my rental. I don't know who the driver was, but he struggled with the red light. I had followed him up from town, so I knew he was traveling with another car. When we came upon the red light, they both stopped, but then the car went on. Color blind? Illiterate? Inventive? (The road curved off to the right just after the traffic light, so maybe it was a variation on right-turn-on-red. After all, there was no cross traffic.) Stubborn scofflaw? Daredevil? I will never know. But I had time to study the truck driver's reaction.

At first, he just sat where he was, engine running . . . roughly. Then, he put it in drive and lurched forward. I thought he was following suit and following his buddy, but then he stopped and put it back in park again. Maybe he was looking for the white stripe that tells you where to stop for a red light. If this was the case, he was a perfectionist, because he pulled up two more times before finally coming to rest where you see him in the picture.

No bold nonconformist myself, I started my car again and pulled up to make the gap between us "appropriate." Didn't want to encourage anyone in line behind us to swing out and try to swoop in between us. Then I turned off my engine, rolled down all the windows, hopped out to take the picture, then settled down to relax and wait.

Sure enough, the light finally turned green, and our pack headed out together up the mountain. Just where it widened back out to two lanes again, there was the truck driver's buddy, parked on the side of the road, waiting for him. Apparently, he had survived his reckless trek unharmed. Just up the road, they pulled off together into a campground (hence the cooler in the back of the truck?), making me the leader of our pack.

I knew there were two more red lights in front of us, so I solemnly resolved to myself to stick the landing on both of them on the first try . . . because I suspect that Jesus may just GARA about such things.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Starbucks, Ph.D.

I have a confession to make. If there were such a thing as a blogging dictionary (perhaps there is), and you looked up the word "sporadic," you would find there a picture of me. That's because, even though I understand that blogging is intended to be informal and spontaneous, I have not yet been able to bring myself to post anything other than carefully thought out, well-crafted essays--which are a lot of work!

If you have have read my previous posts, you may disagree with my self-appraisal, but please don't shatter my il/delusion.

Anyway, I am using my Rocky Mountain solo retreat as an opportunity to break that particular mold. I am committing myself to post something every evening, hoping that the day's activities and/or the quirky ambiance of Bongo Billy's will be sufficient inspiration. Plus, that's where I go for free wifi. Don't expect anything profound or insightful. If you do get anything out of reading these, consider it pure lagniappe.

The trip has been relatively uneventful so far, but there have been a few interesting episodes. I will relate only one, in case I need the others as fodder for the week of "marathon" blogging.

As I left the Denver airport, I hadn't decided yet what route to take to BV. Last time I made this journey (see earlier blog, "God's Grandeur") I came all the way on 284, so I was inclined to take in some different scenery. On impulse, I decided to stay on I-70, thinking I would come in from the north, through Leadville (elevation 10,152 feet). On further impulse (and, to be honest, part addiction), I got off briefly at Idaho Springs because I saw a Starbucks sign.

Everything was going pretty much as normal: iced venti latte, Gold Card, treat receipt. But while I was waiting for my drink, I wandered over to the stand with the straws, napkins, sugar etc. There I saw a holder with business cards for the District Manager, and something caught my eye. It said "D____ M____, Ph.D." (don't want to out her in such a widely read venue, hence the anonymity).

I have probably been in 100 different Starbucks since 1996 (the year of my first), and I have never seen anyone associated with the company who had a Ph.D. degree. Intrigued, I went back up to the counter and asked the barista. After all, maybe it was some kind of Starbuckese with which I am not familiar, not the abbreviation for an advanced academic degree. Sure enough, she has a Ph.D. in industrial psychology.

So, I did what anyone else would have: I emailed her to ask how and why the holder of a Ph.D. ended up as a District Manager for Starbucks . . . and did she think there was room for one more! Imagine that--all the iced venti lattes I can drink . . . for free!

And just so she wouldn't think I was weirdo or something, I took a picture of the Idaho Springs Starbucks and attached it to the email. That doesn't make me a stalker, does it?

Haven't heard from her yet, but I'll keep you posted. See ya tomorrow!


P.S. - In keeping with the title and theme of this blog, I have to admit that Jesus probably doesn't give a rat's ass about my little Starbucks adventure today . . . unless he is the one who prompted me to exit at Idaho Springs. Hmmm, I wonder.

Friday, January 16, 2009


The past year has been filled with difficult departures for me. On December 23, 2007, my father died after a sudden and precipitous decline from what seemed like pretty good health for an 87 year old. In my last post (“God’s Adult Children”), I made a brief reference to the effect his death has had on me, but I suspect I will be dealing with it for quite some time to come. One of its most telling consequences has been the impact on my mother’s life. Pop's strong will and sure hand in managing their household affairs right up to the end disguised the extent to which she is losing her grasp on the world around her. Whether we attribute it to Alzheimer’s or just old-fashion dementia, she is slowly but surely “leaving” us as well.

Then, in the early fall, our 25-year-old son moved to another state to start a new job. I helped him pack the truck, made the trip with him, and helped move him into the new apartment, so we had lots of time together. Plus, he’s been back home to visit for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. But we have always been very close, and we’ve never been apart for such long stretches of time or separated by so much distance. He occupies a place in my life that no one else can fill, so even though I’m proud of what he’s doing and glad to see him get out on his own, I miss him very much.

At almost the same time, I “broke up with” my best friend of 18 years. Hurt feelings and hard words dominated our last bits of communication, and we haven’t spoken for over 3 months now. I told him the friendship had become toxic to me and urged him to take the steps necessary to heal it, but he couldn’t see what I could see, so he walked away. I miss him.

Which brings me to yesterday—the effective resignation date for my #2 at the seminary. I hired him 4½ years ago to help me achieve a bold and ambitious vision. We celebrated quite a few victories along the way, but we had our rough spots too—mostly because our styles are so different. Recently, though, he felt himself being called in a different direction, and I knew I couldn’t stand in his way. We tried to avoid talking about his imminent departure, and we got through the day yesterday without being too emotional. He left as he arrived—a trusted and valuable member of my team.

This is not intended to sound like a Pity Party Post. I’m just reflecting on an experience that has not been all that common for me. Historically, I have been the one who left—whether restless, ambitious, detached, or just idealistically seeking greener grass somewhere else. When you’re the one who leaves, you don’t get much practice at being left. And at this point, I’d have to say I don’t particularly like the experience. But, as I reflected on all of this on the drive home last night, I realized the other meaning buried in my title.

“Leavings” are also what’s left behind, a residual effect, a lingering presence. All five of the persons in this story may have “moved on” in some way, but there is a residue that remains—what Stephen Schwartz’s amazing lyrics call “a handprint on my heart.” To some varying degree, I am who I am today because of each of these people who—at least for now—have left my daily sphere of living. And their influence will continue, not only through their “leaving,” but also through their “leavings.”

I think God made us that way on purpose. And if I’m right, then Jesus would certainly GARAAT.


Friday, January 9, 2009

God's Adult Children

My brother-in-law and I were discussing the nature of prayer last night, especially as a vehicle for God’s interaction with us. I found out that we both downplay the role of petitionary prayer, as usually conceived, because it runs the risk of reducing God to a cosmic short-order cook. I stated that I often experience what I call, for lack of a more precise term, “promptings” that I identify as God trying to get my attention. They aren’t audible, but they do seem to be language based. Something that is to intentional thought what peripheral vision is to gazing. An echo in the moment just before it fades to imperceptibility. Just enough realness not to be imaginary; just enough otherness to imply external agency.

From there we moved on to consider why some people report receiving regular, detailed, totally unambiguous communiqués from God, directing virtually every aspect of their lives. Are they über spiritual? Are they deluded? While I certainly can’t just flatly deny the validity of their experience, I cannot be satisfied with this view of the divine/human interaction. Whereas uncritical emphasis on petitionary prayer reduces God to something less than fully divine, the notion of God’s specific directing of every detail of our lives reduces us to something less than fully human. I, for one, believe that God created us to be more than life-like animated game pieces, moved around the board by a hand other than our own, toward an endgame that has already been determined.

At this point in the conversation I was searching for an image or analogy to convey my admittedly somewhat unorthodox views. Here’s where I landed:

My father died a little over a year ago. He was 87, and I was 54 at the time, so for many years our relationship had been that of a parent and an adult child. I have been on my own and directing my own life for considerably longer now than I was a dependent living under his roof and his rules, but that didn’t keep him from having his own opinions about whatever I might be doing. He usually realized, though, that his own role had changed from authority to advisor, and I think he had made his peace with that and maybe even experienced pride and joy when watching who his son had become. To be honest, I was often the one who initiated those conversations in which his advice was solicited. But knowing that I could use him as a sounding board without being bound by his feedback was a liberating experience that made me feel like a real grownup.

We start out as totally helpless infants, utterly dependent on others for everything we need in life. Loved and nurtured by parents and extended family, we grow into children, discovering the “self” inside of us and exulting in what we can do for and by ourselves. Adolescence follows, moving from awkwardness to displacement to rebellion against the very ones who brought us to that point in life. But it concludes with the discovery and reintegration that signal the onset of adulthood. As parents, we love our children unconditionally at every stage of their lives. But when they finally reach adulthood, who of us would want to see them return to infancy, or childhood, or adolescence? Isn’t the greatest joy to be found in seeing the mature, independent men and women they become?

Maybe that’s how God wants to be with us. Maybe God wants us to still be connected through prayer, wants us still to be attentive to promptings and guidance, but at the same time be our own people--not mindless Stepford creatures. Maybe if we're lucky, and we live long enough, we get to grow up and be God's Adult Children.

I think Jesus would give a rat's ass about something like that.