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.