Saturday, April 15, 2017

Transgender and Christian

As many readers know, Liane and I have been sponsoring a series of presentations at Penn State this year in honor of our transgender child Eli/Miriam, whom we lost to suicide in January 2016.  Here below is the video from the final presentation in the series, Transgender and Christian, with Allyson Robinson and Austen Hartke



Saturday, April 8, 2017

Creation Care Litany

Our congregation's "Sustainability Circle" is helping put together a service focused on Caring for Creation at the end of this month. I volunteered to help develop a Litany as part of the service.

A Litany is "a ceremonial or liturgical form of prayer consisting of a series of invocations or supplications with responses that are the same for a number in succession." For a Brit of my generation, the model is the Litany in the 1662 Prayer Book, which goes on for quite a few pages and which I don't remember ever using in public worship (though I have used it in my own prayers now and again).  My favorite single petition from the 1662 Litany is

In all time of our tribulation; in all time of our wealth; in the hour of death; and in the day of judgment - Good Lord, deliver us
Anyhow, here is my attempt at a Creation Care Litany - definitely shorter and more manageable. Like most liturgical prayers this is not "all my own work".  I was particularly inspired by two of the litanies on the Earth Ministry website and took over several of the petitions with little adaptation.

[I see this as having two leaders, L1 and L2, leading alternate sections – but it could also be led by one person of course.]

L1: We give you thanks and praise, O God, for the grandeur of all you have made, saying together
We thank you, God

For the healing waters of creation, which bring joy and health, purity and life,
We thank you, God.

For the richness of the good Earth that brings forth fruits and flowers, a pleasure to taste and a joy to behold,
We thank you, God.

For the birds of the air, the creatures on the Earth, the fishes in the seas, for all creatures great and small with whom we share this precious web of life,
We thank you, God.

For the sunlight of day, the mystery of night, the wonder of the stars, and the call of the unknown in the universe,
We thank you, God.

L2: We confess, O Lord, that we have not heeded your call to be faithful stewards of your creation.  From our folly and greed, we plead together
Good Lord, deliver us

From heedless misuse and dishonoring of the wonders of your hand,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From the fear of scarcity and the need to hoard,
Good Lord, deliver us

From the temptations of using more, spending more, and wasting more
Good Lord, deliver us.

L1: In our eagerness to possess Earth’s fruits for our own, we have made our fellow-creatures pay a high price.  For polluted lands and lifeless waters, we cry out together
Lord, have mercy

For the choice to send our garbage where other people live
Lord, have mercy

For the third and fourth and future generations, who will carry the weight of our climate-changing lifestyle
Lord, have mercy

For every species, meant to join in Creation’s song of praise, whose voice will never more be heard
Lord, have mercy

L2: Yet we do not lose heart, for You have set your hope in us.  For the courage and wisdom to work with one another to love and restore the Earth, we ask together
Strengthen us, O Spirit.

For the insight to see You in all the people you have made, especially in the hungry and thirsty, the unclothed, the stranger and the prisoner,
Strengthen us, O Spirit.

For repentance and the determination to begin our stewardship anew,
Strengthen us, O Spirit.

All: Help us to know that in caring for your wonderful world, we are working for your kingdom, being stewards of your creative power, and giving you the glory.   Amen

Image from Pax Christi USA

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Mathematics for Sustainability - due for delivery!

Remember the Mathematics for Sustainability project that I used to talk about a lot?  (Hint: here are some links to earlier blog posts: one, two, three, four, five.   I could easily find more!)

The Math for Sustainability course (MATH 033) has been running for a couple of years now at Penn State. But it was never my dream just to teach this material on one campus or in one university system.

Today, I'm so happy to tell you that - together with my wonderful coauthors Russ deForest and Shahrzad (Sara) Jamshidi, pictured below - we have signed a contract with a major mathematics publisher to produce a textbook based on the Math for Sustainability materials - a textbook which will make it possible for this course to be taught at any college or university in the world.

Sara Russ
The book will be published by Springer-Verlag in their series Mathematics of Planet Earth.  It will be around 500 pages long, printed in full color, and will use only the math that you learn in high school.  The print book should cost around 60 bucks, and it will also be available online (for instance, Penn State students will be able to access the book online for free, because Penn State Libraries have a deal with Springer to give online access to all their books and journals.)  Remember, the audience we are aiming for is those college students who have to take "just one last math course" to fulfill a general education requirement.  My elevator pitch to them: "Okay, you have to take a math course. Would you rather learn the quadratic formula or would you rather save the planet?" There's quite an uptake for the second option!

We've undertaken to deliver the final manuscript at the beginning of July and, if there aren't any hold-ups in reviewing or production, we should see the first printed copies by the end of this year or early in 2018.  The kind of basic ability to think for oneself about sustainability questions, which we hope this book teaches, has seldom been so important to our world and to the future generations which the book is intended to reach.

Snippet of the book's preface  (click for full size)

Mind, when I have one, I probably should send a free copy to the White House as well!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Transgender People and the Body of Christ



Trans people welcome!
[Re-sharing this post because the previous image made it look specific to the event at PSU today - it isn't.]

This is a rough transcript of a presentation I gave to the Penn State Faculty-Staff Christian Fellowship, entitled Transgender People and the Body of Christ. The talk ran about half a hour, so this is quite a bit longer than a regular post on this blog.  I’m grateful to the group (which skews relatively conservative) for inviting me and for paying attention to what I had to say.

“Hello.  Why I am I here? Of course that’s easy to answer – because you invited me. But let me change the emphasis a little bit – why am I here? If you want to hear about the experience of transgender Christians, the best thing to do is to invite a transgender Christian, right?  (The Church has a terrible habit of pretending to know more about other people than they know about themselves.)  Or at least, since I’m not a transgender person myself, I should maybe have brought a transgender Christian person to support me, someone we could ask questions of? That would be a bit better than theorizing in the dark.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Why Work? (Part IV)

So, I'm coming back again to worrying about the future of work.  Previous posts in this series: part I, part II, part III.

As with part III, this is not an original post by me but a pointer to an article by someone else that I found helpful.  In this case, an article from the wonderful blog The Weekly Sift by Doug Muder.  In this post Doug muses on "Jobs, Income and the Future".   Here's his summary paragraph:

What “the jobs problem” is depends on how far into the future you’re looking. Near-term, macroeconomic policy should suffice to create enough jobs. But long-term, employing everyone may be unrealistic, and a basic income program might be necessary. That will be such a change in our social psychology that we need to start preparing for it now.
The argument is that artificial intelligence will eventually take over everything that we currently think of as a "job", or at least near enough everything that it makes no difference. I don't know whether "social psychology" is strong enough a concept to cover the adjustment neeeded if this should ever become reality, but Doug makes a case that it does:

Adjusting to that new reality will require not just economic and political change, but social and psychological change as well. Somehow, we will need to make meaningful lives for ourselves in a work-free technological Garden of Eden. When I put it that way, it sounds easy, but when you picture it in detail, it’s not. We will all need to attach our self-respect and self-esteem to something other than pulling our weight economically.

In the middle-term, there are things we can do to adjust: We should be on the lookout for other roles like student and retiree, that give people a socially acceptable story to tell about themselves even if they’re not earning a paycheck. Maybe the academic idea of a sabbatical needs to expand to the larger economy: Whatever you do, you should take a year or so off every decade. “I’m on sabbatical” might become a story more widely acceptable than “I’m unemployed.” College professors and ministers are expected to take sabbaticals; it’s the ones who don’t who have something to explain.

Already-existing trends that lower the workforce, like retraining mid-career or retiring early, need to be celebrated rather than worried about. In the long run the workforce is going to go down; that can be either a source of suffering or a cause for rejoicing, depending on how we construct it.

Most of all, we need to re-examine the stereotypes we attach to the unemployed: They are lazy, undeserving, and useless. These stereotypes become self-fulfilling prophecies: If no one is willing to pay me, why shouldn’t I be useless?

Social roles are what we make them. The Bible does not report Adam and Eve feeling useless and purposeless in the Garden of Eden, and I suspect hunter-gatherer tribes that happened onto lands of plentiful game and endless forest handled that bounty relatively well. We could do the same. Or not.
I'm not fully convinced by this, either by the idea that endless growth in AI and its supporting technologies is inevitable (given the constraints on overall growth that I've written about many times on this blog), or that, if such an AI upheaval fully comes to pass, the resources of "social psychology" will be enough to reorient our lives and sense of purpose.  But it is a wonderful article, worrying about all the right questions IMO.  Here again is the link.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

From Bystander to Ally

That was the title of Dr David Gushee's talk in our "Are You Receiving Me" series, on February 1st.  A video of the event is now available and can be seen below


Dr Gushee spoke about how "being a bystander" is a natural response when we see people in trouble.  Only a small fraction of bystanders are ready or able to become allies - to voluntarily move from privilege to a posture of solidarity.  (In the case of "Christian" Gentiles helping Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, the focus of Dr Gushee's early research, the proportion who became allies was less than one percent).  He gave three factors that encourage this move to allyship: relationships, compassion and courage.  And he noted that the two major narratives of the Bible - Exodus and Incarnation - are themselves narratives of allyship.

There is a price to be paid for being an ally, especially (at the moment) for being a Christian ally of LGBTQ people. For Dr Gushee himself, it has led to a steady stream of "disinvitations". Conservative Christians fear they will be contaminated by sharing the same conference or platform as an acknowledged ally of LGBTQ people.  Still more heartbreaking to me was to read the story of Joy Beth Smith, a young staffer working for James Dobson's Focus on the Family organization.  Smith was fired last November after posting 'a Facebook status lamenting transgender suicide'.  Just think about that for a moment.  Even lamenting the loss of some of God's children (should they happen to belong to an excluded class) is so scary to FOTF that they want to banish such lamentation from the private social media accounts of those who happen to work for them.  (Even FOTF seems to have felt some shame over this, as they offered Ms Smith severance money if she would sign a non-disclosure agreement which would have meant we would never have learned of these events. Courageously, she did not; I cannot resist quoting, Nevertheless, she persisted.)

I thank God for David Gushee, for Mary Beth Smith, for Mark Tidd, for Nadia Bolz-Webber, for Ben Wideman... the list can go on... for all the allies. I believe that the change we are working for is right, is beautiful, and is unstoppable.  But there will surely be trouble along the way.  Courage!

Friday, February 10, 2017

Toomey on Pruitt and environmental protection

Pat Toomey
Back in December I was privileged to be a signatory on a letter to (then) President-elect Trump regarding the nomination of Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.  Recently I followed this up with a fax to Pat Toomey, US Senator for Pennsylvania.  (With phone lines clogged and email inboxes backed up, I have heard that a fax is one of the more reliable ways to contact your Congressional representatives.  The Internet company FaxZero offers a limited number of free faxes  online to any US phone number, and they have set up special pages to allow you to conveniently fax your Senator or Representative.  I made use of their service to contact Senator Toomey, and today I received a reply by email. Good on him for replying! (though, as you will see, the response is studiously ambiguous).  In the strange world we now inhabit, I feel it is important to make sure that our representatives in House and Senate hear the voice of "we the people" - whether that is by visiting their offices, attending town hall meetings (if Senator Toomey would be bold enough to hold some), using an app like Countable, writing, emailing, calling - or sending faxes.

Here's what I wrote:

Dear Senator,

I am writing about the pending Senate confirmation votes on the appointment of Scott Pruitt for Director of the Environmental Protection Agency.

He should be viewed skeptically by the Senate, given his past history of opposition to the fundamental missions of the Federal program that he is nominated to direct.   Mr Pruitt has sued the EPA 14 times and has campaigned on the boast that he is “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.”  Yet according to a recent poll (Ipsos, 1-28-2017), 67 percent of Americans want a strengthened or expanded EPA, or for EPA to maintain the same level of protection. Fewer than one-third even among Republicans want the EPA to be “weakened or eliminated”.

The Evangelical Environmental Network, of which I am privileged to be a member, recently sent President Trump a letter signed by over 500 scientists, pastors and ordinary believers, which states in part:

The EPA Administrator plays a crucial role in defending all of us from the health consequences of pollution, especially vulnerable populations like the unborn, children, the elderly, those with heart and lung conditions, and others with special susceptibilities.  Mr. Pruitt’s past actions suggest he would not defend the vulnerable from pollution.

I encourage you, as a person of faith and as a Senator charged with especial responsibility towards our Nation’s future, to vote against Mr Pruitt. He is not the right person for this critical task.

And here is Senator Toomey's reply

Thank you for contacting me about the nomination of Scott Pruitt as Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator. I appreciate hearing your thoughts on this matter.

As you know, on December 7, 2016, President Trump announced his intention to nominate Scott Pruitt to serve as the next EPA Administrator. Currently, Mr. Pruitt is the Oklahoma Attorney General and, among other things, he has been involved in litigation on various environmental matters.

Now that the Senate confirmation process for Mr. Pruitt has begun, I value knowing your views about this nomination. I believe that the Senate's constitutional role in providing advice and consent for presidential appointments is important, and all nominees deserve careful and thorough consideration. As you may know, I supported many of President Obama's nominees and will support well qualified nominees selected by President Trump as well.

Also, while I have supported sensible environmental protections, I am concerned about the excessive regulations coming out of the EPA in recent years that needlessly impede job creation and hurt the pocketbooks of hard-working Pennsylvanians. Under the Obama Administration, the EPA was especially aggressive in proposing new rules that raised energy prices, imposed onerous compliance costs, undermined economic growth, and put Pennsylvanians out of work. I am hopeful that the next EPA Administrator will take a new direction and pursue a more balanced approach that is mindful of both our economy as well as our environment.

Thank you again for your correspondence. Please do not hesitate to contact me in the future if I can be of assistance.
It's a disappointing reply in that it focuses entirely on the costs of regulation and does not acknowledge that regulation produces benefits to the wider population as well.  Nevertheless, Senator Toomey does say (as of course he has to!) "I value knowing your views". A huge amount is at stake, for the future of the nation and the world, in how the present administration addresses climate change.  Leading conservatives as well as "liberals" know this and are making creative proposals for the future. Let's keep asking for an EPA director who knows it too.