How does this line strike you? “I was raised by a cool systematic father and a warm episodic mother.” Of all the material that wound up in the 106 page document, it is my favorite. It heads the third paragraph on page three of a Chapter called “Biography” in a document which, at the time I wrote it, didn’t have a title at all and there was no plan to give it one.
My mind has been wandering back to this document lately. It has a name now. I call the collection of essays, The DEBT We Owe, the “we” referring to parents generally. It has been ten years this month since I finished the last one and emailed that last one to my three children. I don’t know if I am moved more by my amazement that a decade has passed already or by some not quite clear feeling that any relevant statute of limitations has run out by now.
My three children were 41, 39, and 37 years old when I started these essays. I knew I couldn’t write the essays without their cooperation so the first thing I did is call them and ask if they would help. It was the feeling of writing an essay and sending it off into the void that I most feared. I was pretty sure I couldn’t keep writing under those circumstances, so I asked them if they would email me every week when they got that week’s essay. They didn’t have to read the essay; they were responsible only to tell me that they had received it. All three agreed and, to the best of my recollection, I received confirmatory emails from all three for the next 52 weeks. The most common such response was, “Got it. Thanks, Dad.” The picture shows what it felt like to get that kind of help from my kids.
The essays were supposed to be about theology. I’ll grant you it’s an odd topic for man in his 60s to choose for his adult children, but one or the other of them would respond very positively from time to time to religious writers who looked like quacks to me. So the project in its first incarnation was something like teaching small children to read the nutrition information on the label of the food they are thinking of buying. Teaching them where that information is and why it is important isn’t like telling them what to eat. That never worked with my children anyway. It was like equipping them to make choices that would enable them to pursue their own goals.
So the theology I was prepared to offer them (mine) was supposed to enable them to “read the label” and make their own judgments. It was a project that even a very liberal and permissive father (me) could justify. That is not, of course, how it worked out. It turned out to be better than that in every way.
First, after receiving their willingness to help me, I sat down and wrote a bunch of theology. Not essays; just a bunch of theology. It was only after I had written quite a bit that I realized that the kids couldn’t get to these positions even if they wanted to unless they were starting from my starting point. And that isn’t where they were starting. So I started writing about how we can know things; epistemological questions, but still not yet essays. My idea was that if they knew my views about epistemology, they would be able to follow the “logic” that led me to hold the theological views I hold. None of this was intended to be persuasive; only descriptive.
That didn’t work either. Their childhoods had been very different from mine. The epistemological views I held simply did not arise naturally from their childhoods as it did from mine. To follow my journey, they needed to know why I had felt the need to formulate the ideas I had about how we can know things and they had to know why it was so important to me—especially if it was not all that important to them. So I gave up, temporarily, on my epistemological writings and started writing about my childhood and the first sentence I wrote about my childhood was “I was raised by a cool systematic father and a warm episodic mother.”
The project by now was to tell them enough about how I grew up that they would understand why I made the epistemology choices I had made and enough about epistemology to understand how they supported the theological positions I had adopted. And after I had written enough theology, I noted that those writings didn’t say much about what it meant to me to live my life as a Christian, so I subdivided the theological writings and called the more practical ones, “discipleship.” It was well after those divisions had been made that I noticed I now had four “chapters,” one beginning with B (biography); one with E (epistemology); one with T (theology); and one with D (discipleship). It didn’t take much rearranging to make those D-E-B-T; nor did it take much to think that there was an important sense that these essays were something I owed my adult children. It was, as the title of this post has it, “The DEBT I owed.”
When I pitched it to the kids, I promised that no essay would be longer than two pages and I held to that. I didn’t play with the font size, although some weeks I wanted to. I didn’t play with the margins, although some weeks I wanted to. I did re-write essays that I thought when I finished them were “just right.” But they were not just right because there were two lines on page three and I had promised there would never be a page three.
The first essay went out on June 15, 2001, a Friday. The next 51 essays went out on the next 51 Fridays. There were a few additional essays required to get from one section to another, so the numbers I am using her don’t quite add up, but there were six biographical essays, ten epistemological essays, nineteen theological essays, and fifteen discipleship essays, counting the last one, called “Looking Back,” which was a celebration of the year we had spent together.
It is not at all uncommon for the giver of a gift or the teacher of a course to realize afterward that he, himself, was the principal beneficiary. That is certainly true here. No child is really called to love his father as a debt. It doesn’t work. But if it did, I would say that my children have paid their debt. Not only did they write me every week to say that they had received that week’s essay—and you can imagine where in their priorities reassuring an anxious father fell—but it turned out to matter to us all that we had run the whole race together and were still together at the end. I learned a great deal about who I have been and why I adopted the epistemology I did and what the overall, often reconsidered structure of my theology is, and just how those beliefs express themselves in the life to which my faith has called me.
 I did have the model, however, of learning to understand and even to appreciate the path my father took to establishing his own views. I never shared the views, entirely, but knowing where he started and how he proceeded helped me to honor the man for the journey he had begun and completed. I think that is what I was hoping for from my own children.
 Since I was writing about myself, the phrase “autobiographical writings” would be more narrowly appropriate. I justify my choice of “biographical” instead by noting that a) autobiography is a subfield, a kind of biography and b) that I needed a B for my title and could not use an A.