Thursday, December 15, 2016

EEN Letter to Trump on Pruitt

Scott Pruitt (source: Wikipedia)
I am one of the signatories to the letter below from the Evangelical Environmental Network to President-Elect Trump.  (See here for the full list and more details).  While I might have chosen a different balance of emphases if I had been writing by myself, I am encouraged that this strong group of believers has been able to join together behind the request that Scott Pruitt, a longtime foe of environmental regulation of many different kinds, not be nominated to lead the EPA.

I don't know how effective this letter will be by itself - probably it will have very little effect.  But a resigned fatalism will have less.  So I am pleased to try to make an impact.  With "big government" in Washington no longer the best court of appeal on "big future" questions - like climate change - we owe it to our communities to be more active on a local level, to show the benefits to families and towns and cities and states here and now, form preparing for the coming storm.  See Joseph (Genesis 41) - though one must admit he had "big government" on his side.

Anyhow, here is the letter.

Dear President-Elect Trump:

Congratulations on your election as President.  We write you as evangelical and Catholic pro-life Christian leaders who share your faith.  We pray that God gives you the wisdom and compassion you need to be the leader He is calling you to be.

Psalm 72:13 says a righteous king “will have compassion on the poor and needy, and the lives of the needy he will save” (NASB).  Jesus also teaches us to care for the vulnerable (e.g. Mt. 25), and when God created humanity he commanded us to be good stewards of His creation (Gen. 1:28; 2:15). Together these are linked in our defense of life: from the moment of conception until natural death a whole life ethic permeates both Catholic social teaching and the evangelical commitment to the sanctity of life, as articulated by The National Association of Evangelicals. Caring for God’s creation is a matter of life and our faith compels us to act, especially to reduce pollution.  We have made important progress while our economy has continued to grow, but there is vital work still to be done.

More than half of Americans live in areas with unhealthy air.  Air pollution has been linked to birth defects, low birth weight, premature births, stillbirths, and infant deaths. One-in-three children in the United States suffer from asthma, allergies, ADHD, and autism – all with links to fossil fuels and petrochemicals.  Methane and other organic compounds leaking from natural gas production have been reported to cause birth defects and early term births, and these pollutants make it next to impossible for states like California, Texas, and Pennsylvania to reduce smog to safe levels.  Climate change is one of the greatest challenges our nation faces, including health impacts like the increase of vector-borne diseases like Lyme disease, dengue fever, and Zika.

Given these threats to the vulnerable, who as Christians we are called to defend, we ask you to withdraw Attorney General Pruitt as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 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.

All of us desire pure air and clean water and the opportunity for our children and grandchildren to aspire to the abundant life that Jesus’ brings.  Unfortunately, that opportunity is hindered by pollution that poisons the minds, lungs, and hearts of our children, born and unborn. 

Let us work together with all Americans to create a healthier and more prosperous future, one that the next EPA Administrator helps bring about.  This will require another candidate in place of Mr. Pruitt.
We would be happy to discuss this with you.  Thank you for considering our request.


Sunday, December 11, 2016

Full Wave Rectifier

Cover of Fleming Rutledge's book
I have just finished reading Fleming Rutledge's monumental and magnificent book "The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ".  This is not a book review (I hope that may come later).  It's just a sidenote that arises from some of her vocabulary.  But a sidenote that meant a lot to me.

One of the many things that intrigue and delight me in the book is Rutledge's insistence on translating the δικαιοσυνη... word group by "rectification", "rectify", and so on rather than the more usual "justification/righteousness". There is even a footnote (note 76 on page 337) making the connection with "rectification" as the term is used in electrical engineering - turning alternating current into direct current or, as the footnote puts it, "making alternating currents flow in the same direction". As this thought bumped around in my mind I remembered - back from the days when as a teenager I spent hours building electrical devices of various sorts - that there are two kinds of rectifier: the half wave rectifier and the full wave rectifier

Half-wave vs full-wave
Presented with an alternating current input (current that is alternately flowing in a positive and a negative direction), a half-wave rectifier produces a positive-only current in the simplest possible way: it blocks or discards the negative part of the cycle, while keeping the positive intact. [See the top part of the diagram to the right.] In terms of the analogy that Rutledge's footnote suggests, this is like a God who will purify human existence by simply excluding its negative aspects, its sin and evil and fallenness.

A full-wave rectifier [lower diagram] is more complicated and expensive.  Instead of simply discarding the negative parts of the cycle, it does something more difficult: it turns them around. Again, in terms of analogy, the full-wave rectifier suggests a God who will take up and transform the whole human being - broken heart, misdirected desires, oppressed spirit and all - and transform this entire person into one who is genuinely "whole", integer, having integrity.  Not amputation (the half-wave picture) but transformation.

The "rectification" presented in Fleming Rutledge's book is full-wave rectification.  Nothing else will do.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Day of Remembrance for Lost Species

(Reposted by permission from Nothing New Under The Sun, by Byron Smith).

This is the Bramble Cay melomys (Melomys rubicola), aka Bramble Cay mosaic-tailed rat. On earth, there are over 2,200 rodent species comprising about 40 per cent of all mammal species. What's one rat?

And the Bramble Cay melomys is amongst the most insignificant of rats. It is not particularly genetically distinct from a number of other similar species of melomys. It's never been useful for any human project. We've never hunted it for fur or meat. No child has ever had one as a pet. No tourists have ever paid to see one. It may perhaps be considered the least of all mammal species.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Help amidst grief

Rouault, Miserere series, plate 1.
It has been a hard year for my family.  First the sudden punch from nowhere of our child's death, and then the painful waiting and watching that comes with my diagnosis of incurable cancer.  We worship a Messiah who is a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief; yet we too have been made acquainted with grief this year, in a way that we had hoped not to know.

We are grateful to the many friends and family members who have reached out to us in our loss.   We've learned, though, that many people feel that they don't know how to speak to someone in a situation like ours.  The sentiments in the Hallmark cards just feel even more inadequate than usual.  You wonder if you'll make someone's pain worse by saying the "wrong thing".  Some well-intentioned folk are so paralyzed by this fear that they end up saying and doing exactly nothing.  As the recipients of many condolences and expressions of sympathy, we thought it might be helpful to share some thoughts about what has spoken to us, and the ideas we have noted for when we need to be the ones who console someone else. As in all human interactions, other people's experience may vary.  (Some more general advice can be found here and here, if you would like to look at this from other points of view.)

So, based on our own experience, what has been meaningful for us?
  • Say something!  In a moment, I'm going to give some suggestions about things that it might be better not to say, but those are secondary.  The primary thing that is meaningful is that you take the time and energy to reach out to the grieving person.  If you don't know how to express your thoughts, you can say "I don't know what to say" or "I can't imagine what this is like for you".  We heard both of those many times and they are a great deal more significant than silence.  There is no substitute for your showing up.
  • Don't be afraid to name the grief - to say the name of the one who has died, or to use the word "cancer" or "Alzheimer's".  When Eli/Miriam died, we wanted to hear people speak their name (and I think this is a common experience).  We wanted to hear your story about the fun time you had had with Eli, or about the moment when he had encouraged you to carry on when life seemed hard, or about the amazing murder mystery party that he had apparently created out of nothing.  
  • Stay in contact.  At first, everyone wants to express their sympathy or ask how they can "help" (more about that in a moment).  But, sooner or later, your life is going to slip back into normal; the shock you experienced in hearing of your friend's loss or bad news is going to fade away - for you.   Don't forget that it is not going to fade away for them.   We grieving ones need your long-term support, and I cannot tell you how heartwarming and meaningful it is when a friend keeps coming back and "checking in" - after three weeks, after six weeks, after two months - until you come to understand that they are there for you for as long as it takes. 
  • As far as help goes, make regular specific offers. It is hardly any use to say "If there is anything I can do..."; all you end up doing is burdening the grieving one with another job, that of thinking up a task for you to carry out.  Instead, anticipate specific needs: "I will bring a meal round next Tuesday evening"; "Can I come by tomorrow afternoon, and let's go for a short walk".  (A not-too-demanding activity, like a walk, that you can do together with the one who is grieving, can make a lot of difference.)
  •  Related to the previous one, if you promise to do something, follow through with it.  A corollary of this is - don't make vague promises (then neither you nor anybody else can tell whether you followed through or not).  It seems to me that people sometimes make unspecific promises to assuage their own need to feel useful - "We must have you guys round for a meal sometime".  This does not help the grieving one - it's like a hand reached out and then withdrawn.  Grief is a time to be specific.
  • Many sites (like the ones I linked above) will stress that it's not about you.  This isn't your chance to share the story of your own relative's cancer, or suggest a new miracle diet, or to talk about how upset you are, or  how confident you are that "God is in control".  No, this is about the grieving person, and helping them is going to be stressful for you.  Do you have your own support system in place? 
I hope that is not too long a list of do's and dont's - and, once again, Liane and I would like to share our sincere thanks to all those who have been there for us, and dared to name the grief, and shown up with help and comfort, again and again and again.  Blessings on you all.  

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Justin Lee's Visit to Campus

Justin speaking at the HUB

Before or after the election?

At one point we thought we had the choice of November 6th or 13th for Justin Lee's visit to speak on "Loving through our differences", so that was the question we asked ourselves.

Later it turned out that November 13th was the only date that worked for him.

We could hardly have guessed how appropriate this message after this election would be.

Justin gave a couple of talks - to an adult Sunday School class at State College Presbyterian as well as to the big audience (about 170) in the HUB - and he also attended the early Thanksgiving dinner which has been held in Centre County for a number of years now - an event especially for LGBTQ people who are not able to "go home for Thanksgiving" because of family rejection.

I'm excited that so many people heard his message and want to remind everyone that there is a series of these events coming up.  The next one, on February 1st, features Dr David Gushee, a noted evangelical writer on ethics, who will speak on “Changing our Hearts towards the LGBTQ Community: Moving from Bystander to Ally.” For the full program, see .

Original source for picture on Facebook here.

More about work

Illustration from original article
Here is a link to another article about work and dignity which seems to me to tie up with the earlier "Why Work" posts that I made.  It's by Sherrod Brown, a Democratic senator from Ohio who ran a successful "populist" campaign.  He begins: "To create wealth in America, we make it, we grow it or we mine it."   I suppose the word "make" is pretty wide, but from the article it seems pretty clear that he is thinking about industrial production.  One can question this limited definition of "creating wealth" - and later on, Brown affirms the value of jobs that don't fit his definition, like teaching or healthcare work - and still hear his central assertion: "When we devalue work, we threaten the pride and dignity that come from it."

Here is the link to the full article:

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

First thoughts on President Trump

Thanksgiving 2014: John, Eli, Liane
I imagine there will be quite a few musings on this blog about the upset that has overtaken the US with the election of Donald Trump.  Just as with Brexit, nobody believed it could happen until it did.  There is something strange in the water this season.  Here are some very quick thoughts, perhaps as much to help my spinning mind as to share with my friends.

1. "John, do you regret becoming a US citizen now?" No, a thousand times no. The US needs loyal but skeptical citizens now more than ever. This is my home, and I am duty bound to "seek its welfare".  To do so effectively requires citizenship and its rights and responsibilities - the full range, not just to vote now and again.  So far as it lies within me, I am ready.  If I had not been ready to vote this time, I would have felt in some strange way that I had betrayed my friends (even though that one vote could not possibly have made a difference.)

2. "What will you miss?"  Well, I think we will all soon be missing the grace, thoughtfulness and poise of Barack Obama.  But, on a more personal note, I miss Eli - God, I miss him today.  Even though today would have been an awful day for him, he would have turned it into intelligent, dry, humorous thought, helped me see it differently - and maybe would have helped me push through to a reason for hope (or maybe I would have helped him).  Eli made me look at the world upside down, to understand some of what the word "privilege" means and how it can be to live without it.  That is a lesson that, I hope, I will never forget.

3. "What danger are you in?"   I am in no danger.  I am a child of privilege: white, educated, straight, cisgender, articulate, and wealthy enough to be safe (at least for a while) in Trumpland.  I am also privileged by incurable cancer: a decision to deny the problems of climate change (which seems like a decision that a Trump administration will surely make) is a decision to privilege those presently alive over against future generations - and my diagnosis means that the problems of future generations will not, in a direct sense, be my problems.  Yes, I'm all right.  But if I allow that thought to undermine my commitment to fight for LGBTQ people or sustainable energy policies or environmental justice or policing as though black lives matter - well, let Eli be the first but not the last who is on my case if that should happen.  "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning." (Psalm 137:5)

4. "Can you see any good in this?" It yells to the church to be an alternative community, one embodying the values of the Kingdom.  These values are not those of Trump, nor of his elite opponents.  Never was an alternative community more needed.  Are we too compromised to enact it?  "With man it is impossible; but with God all things are possible." (Matthew 19:26)

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Memories X: All Saints Day Homily

[This is the message that I delivered for the All Saint's Day service of Receiving with Thanksgiving, the ministry that our child Eli (Miriam) helped to start. 

Therefore, since so great a cloud of witnesses is set around us, let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, [2] looking away to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of faith – Jesus who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross and despised its shame, and is now seated at the right hand of God. [Hebrews 12: 1,2, ESV, altd]

The question I want to get at is, Why remember?  What good does it do, to put it bluntly, to bring back to mind those who are now dead?  If they are long gone, isn’t it just fakery to pretend that we can remember anything significant about them?  And if they have only recently passed, won’t it just hurt to bring them back to mind, and to know that that particular smile or that particular gesture of love are ones we will never see again?  I promise you, it hurts like hell.  So why do it?

Friday, November 4, 2016

Why Work (part III)

So, this is a follow-up from my last "Why Work" post, but it isn't written by me.  It's a New York Times op-ed from the unlikely combination of the Dalai Lama and Arthur Brooks from the American Enterprise Institute, which I felt took up some of the same ideas.   Here's how it starts:

In many ways, there has never been a better time to be alive. Violence plagues some corners of the world, and too many still live under the grip of tyrannical regimes. And although all the world’s major faiths teach love, compassion and tolerance, unthinkable violence is being perpetrated in the name of religion.

And yet, fewer among us are poor, fewer are hungry, fewer children are dying, and more men and women can read than ever before. In many countries, recognition of women’s and minority rights is now the norm. There is still much work to do, of course, but there is hope and there is progress.

How strange, then, to see such anger and great discontent in some of the world’s richest nations. In the United States, Britain and across the European Continent, people are convulsed with political frustration and anxiety about the future. Refugees and migrants clamor for the chance to live in these safe, prosperous countries, but those who already live in those promised lands report great uneasiness about their own futures that seems to border on hopelessness.


A small hint comes from interesting research about how people thrive. In one shocking experiment, researchers found that senior citizens who didn’t feel useful to others were nearly three times as likely to die prematurely as those who did feel useful. This speaks to a broader human truth: We all need to be needed.

(Read the full article here.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Why Work? (part II)

Pride movie poster
Four years ago I was worrying about work.  I still am.

The immediate cause of my present fretfulness was attending a showing of the wonderful movie Pride, sponsored by the Centre County LGBTQA Support Network.  The movie is set in Margaret Thatcher's Britain of 1984, and is based on a true story - a story that I had never heard. It dramatizes the unlikely story of a group of gay and lesbian activists in London who determined to raise money for striking miners in Wales, at a time when the Tory Government, emboldened by its victory over General Galtieri in the Falklands, seemed determined to starve the miners' union into submission.

Monday, October 17, 2016

How Evangelicals Understand LGBTQ People (or don't)?

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Calvinism recently.

One catalyst for this has been a marvelous article called Teaching Calvin in California, by Berkeley history-of-religion scholar Jonathan Sheehan. Sheehan argues for the educational importance of engaging with that dread text of the Reformation, Calvin’s Institutes, including the (then and now) outrage-inducing doctrine of double predestination – that is, that both the saved and the damned are the way they are because of God’s choice, that this choice is just and cannot be disputed, and that both the salvation of the saved and the damnation of the lost equally display God’s glory.  “The classroom erupts in protest”, writes Sheehan.  Calvin teaches us, Be careful what you believe in. Investigate what your own views demand…”    By their own engagement with “the terribleness of Calvin’s challenge”, Sheehan’s students are already obtaining a hands-on education – “participating in the intellectual revolutions of the modern world.”

Thursday, October 13, 2016

And Now, A Word from Dr Karl Barth

Barth and MLK, Princeton, 1962
It's hard to find something quotable from Barth's Dogmatics because of the way the book works.  It's not just an exposition of a series of loci like a traditional dogmatics - it is more that each locus (doctrine) is used to tell the story of all the other loci from the perspective of that locus.  Or think of a vast, interweaving web of stories like Tokein's Silmarillion (multiplied by about 25 times in length).  The effect of the whole work just is in the interweaving and circumincession of the different themes - and quoting a little piece hardly seems to do justice to that.

Still, there are some nuggets and one of my favorites comes at the end of volume IV.2 - that is the tenth volume (if I am counting correctly) and we are on page 837 of this enormous work.  There are still three volumes to go but there is a sense that the end is approaching - not the end of Barth's ideal Church Dogmatics, which famously would have included a series of volumes V.1, V.2,... about pneumatology, but of the work as it actually stands, limited by Barth's declining health and ability to continue.  Right at the end of IV.2, which takes as its focus "Jesus Christ: The Servant as Lord" (preceded by "Jesus Christ: the Lord as Servant" in the volume before - see what I mean about his style)  Barth gives an extended exposition of the "love passage" in I Corinthians 13.  He concludes by vamping on "Love never fails" (verse 8).  Let me quote (at length, but still abbreviating significantly)

There is a particular emphasis on the "never"... ουδεποτε πιπτειν means that it [love] is the one form of Christian action which does not require and is not subject to transformation or absorption into a higher and future form, and to this extend to destruction.  In virtue of love there is already in the temporal existence of the community and Christians a υπομενειν [verse 7] - a persistence in the face of hostile forces....Love is the connecting link between now and then, between here and hereafter.  In the famous sentence of Troeltsch, it is "the power of this world which already as such is the power of the world to come."
You see what Barth is up to here? Perhaps it helps to know that one of the primary distinctions that drives the whole Dogmatics is that between God's redemptive action in Christ and "religion" - there is even an early section entitled, IIRC, "The Word of God as the End of Religion".  So the idea that there is something in human life that makes a "connecting link" in the sense that Barth describes here - after 8,000 pages - is quite a surprise.  Of course the point is that love is itself a gift of God, the highest gift.  There are many things of which we religious humans are quite proud, of which this cannot be said.  Read on...

[Verse 8b] "But whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away."  The futures [that is, future tenses] are references to the end and goal of the present age.  Prophecy, tongues and knowledge will then be subject to the relativization to which they are already subject as determined and seen from this standpoint... "We shall all be changed" - this is the future which already determines its present.  In the eternal light to which we move, prophecy, tongues and knowledge will be taken up into a new and higher form.   Their present form will certainly be destroyed.  Prophets will have done their work, and those who speak with tongues will no longer need to deliver their ecstatic utterance because the extreme case will one and for all have become normal.  And Paul definitely says of knowledge in v12 that it will not be set aside or abolished but will take place in a new and more perfect form: επιγνωσομαι... Theological research and instruction will then be outmoded. Demythologization [a long-running theological feud between Barth and Bultmann] will no longer be required. There will be no further scope for the investigation of a correct hermeneutics and debates concerning Law and Gospel, etc. No more volumes of Church Dogmatics will  be written.
 Don't you love the way this guy can laugh at himself and at his life's work?
Not because these things are vain and futile, not because they are ashes or wind,  but because they will all be genuinely real only in their telos or perfection, which includes the fact that their worth and worthlessness will all be weighed on the eternal balances, that the wheat will be separated from the chaff, that they will all pass through the refining fire of 1 Cor 3:12ff in which it will be shown whether the building is of gold, silver or precious stones or wood, hay and stubble, and there will be surprises in both respects for all theologians, both small and great, both regular and irregular, both orthodox and heterodox.   This wholly salutary relativization is the πιπτειν to which love is never, never exposed even there and then.  And when the Christian loves he [or she, Uncle Karl!] does something which is not exposed to this relativization but abides absolutely.  Even in the best of cases this cannot be said of [his] prophecy, tongues and theology in themselves and as such.
There are three more pages but I'll have to urge you to read them for yourself!  Here is the final piece.

(Thus) love is the "greatest of these".  It is the future eternal light shining in the present. It is that which continues. Whatever else may be revealed, one thing is certain, and that is that love will never cease, that even then the love which is self-giving to God and the brother [or sister], the same love for which the Christian is free already, will be the source of the future eternal life, its form unaltered.  Already, then, love is the eternal activity of the Christian.  This is the reason why love abides.  This s the reason why we had to say previously that it is love alone that counts and love alone that conquers.   This is the reason why it is the way.
 Okay, I've always loved this particular chunk of Barth (and I probably get more out of IV.2 than out of the other volumes I've endeavored, not very successfully, to read).  But with a diagnosis of metastatic cancer, it comes back to me anew.  Firstly, the surprising words "wholly salutary" referring, if you remember, to the Day of Judgment.  That ties up to my experience right now.  I find myself resonating with the Psalms which look forward to that Day.  Whatever is revealed - whatever surprises may be in store, whether good or bad - I am glad that my life will be open to the Righteous One, the Healer who does not have to rely on blurry images from X-rays or CTs or MRIs but who knows for sure where the malignancy is and how (and at what cost!) it can be removed.  Second, I feel a great reassurance in the "Love alone endures".  As people's lives come to an end, they ask "What of all of this will last?"  (See Being Mortal by Atul Gawande).  I know that over the past years, one of the key choices that Liane and I have made has been love for our child Eli.   And, yes, I do believe and trust that this will last when much else is lost; that this love for which God set us free will endure, "its form unaltered". What that means I cannot imagine.  But it is worth looking forward to.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

I won an award!

This showed up in my e-mail yesterday:

"Dear Dr Roe,
Congratulations! The Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium (PERC) has awarded you the title of Campus Sustainability Champion for 2016. You were nominated by one or more of your colleagues for your work to advance sustainability on your campus or in your community. The Campus Sustainability Champion title is awarded annually to students, faculty, administrators, and staff of Pennsylvania colleges and universities who have made meaningful contributions benefiting social, economic and/or environmental sustainability on their campus, in their community, or in society at large. Contributions can be in areas of teaching, research, co-curricular programs, campus culture, community service, and campus operations, including food recovery. Your award reinforces your credentials as a leader in the transition to a sustainable future"

Well, I'm embarrassed to admit that I had not heard of PERC, but I am excited that they had heard of me, and I will turn up to the awards ceremony in a couple of weeks primed to tell more people about the Mathematics for Sustainability course and book.  I'm also going to be sending off the book proposal to three publishers this week.  Regular readers will know the sense of vocation that I have about this project.  Yet  with my illness and the frequent sense of exhaustion that it (and the treatments) produce, writing is going a good bit more slowly than I had hoped.  I am excited by the recognition and the sense that others see what a meaningful thing it is too - and also motivated once again to keep going and produce something that is readable, challenging and clear.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Receiving with Thanksgiving

In my time, I've been a student group leader in a "Christian Union" - the on-campus ministries in British universities founded by UCCF, the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, historically the ancestor of Inter-Varsity Fellowship here in the USA.

I've been a trustee of the Oxford Evangelical Pastorate, a student ministry founded in the 19th century.  In this place I was honored to share some time with Stella Aldwinckle, whom the Pastorate hired as chaplain to the university and who was the founder of the Socratic Club, the venue for many of C.S.Lewis' messages in defense of Christianity.

I've been the faculty adviser to a student ministry associated to a large evangelical church in the US.

And now, I'm the faculty adviser to Receiving with Thanksgiving - a new Christian group on PSU's campus.  It's not big.  It's not showy.  And I couldn't be more proud. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

A special invitation

This post makes me nervous.

I'm nervous because I want to address the post to my LGBTQA friends and readers, especially those in the State College area. And, however much I may strive to be an ally and supporter, I am straight and cisgender (and privileged in other ways too) and I'm worried about ending up using the word "you" too often.  Whereas when I write with my specifically Christian, or environmentalist, friends and readers in mind, it's easy for me to say "We".

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Sneaky Steward

Last Sunday's lectionary gave us the parable of the "dishonest manager" in Luke 16:1-13  It's a notoriously confusing passage to interpret - is Jesus really recommending dishonesty? what kind of financial arrangements are going on here? - but it should also come home with some force to believers who, like me, think of the language of "stewardship" as appropriate for delegated, human authority over the earth's resources - "What is this that I hear? You have been squandering my possessions! Turn in the account of your stewardship, for you can be steward no longer!"

John de Graaf and David Batker wrote a book called What is the Economy For, Anyway?  The idea of the title is, of course, that if  you think the answer is obvious, you might just need to stop and think!  In the same way, Jesus' steward has his attention called to the question "what is wealth for"?  The resources he has been entrusted with will not be his for long; will it be possible for him, while the opportunity lasts, to negotiate an exchange for something of more enduring value - in fact, for some relationships that will support him even when this former wealth has faded to ashes.  The steward is shrewd because he appreciates the fading nature of wealth and acts promptly to secure something of more lasting value.  Just as de Graff and Batker advise that "it's time to stop chasing growth and start pursuing happiness" - or as any number of articles these days will tell you, buy experiences not things - the experiences will last longer.

But Jesus will have his disciples take this a step further.  What are the most lasting things they can "buy" with their wealth?  According to the parable, there are experiences, friendships, connections that can be secured which lead to being welcomed into "eternal dwellings" (aoinios - that is, dwellings that belong to the Age to Come, to the kingdom).  Who are the proprietors of these residences, which if the smart steward had only been a little smarter he would have recognized to be the most desirable of all?  We have to look elsewhere in Jesus' teaching for the answer.  In verses 19-31 of the current chapter, as well as in chapter 12  (especially verse 33), we see that building connection with the poor, the needy, is the way to provide yourself with "moneybags that don't waer out, and treasure that does not fail."   In the end, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also".

In my understanding, then, the "dishonest manager" is commended for his smarts in getting out of the financial "sinking ship" and investing in relationships instead - but the "children of light" should be smarter than he because they should recognize the unlikely kind of relationships that are really worth investing in; the ones where there is in fact no "earthly" prospect of return.  How does this circle back to the environmental stewardship question?  By asking me once again whether my concern for stewardship is truly a concern for the flourishing of creation - especially, for the flourishing of future generations who "desire to be fed" (verse 21).  Am I just offering leftovers?

Saturday, September 17, 2016

A Few Devotional Apps

My (non-electronic) prayer book, with dedication from my Uncle Wyatt
I first got a tablet device (iPad) in the winter of 2014, just after my then-startling cancer diagnosis.  I felt - correctly as it turned out - that I might be doing a lot of traveling time and hospital time and that the iPad would provide a good way to read books and keep up with the news.  (Playing games - beyond Words with Friends - was not, and mostly still is not, on my horizon.)

Of course, one soon discovers unexpected applications.  Liane and I found that time spent in the waiting room (and we were in waiting rooms every weekday for six weeks that summer) presented an ideal opportunity to do the New York Times crossword (there's an app for that!).  Two years later, the crossword is a much-anticipated pleasure every day. (Except for last Thursday's...that is another story!)

Another surprise to me though was how the iPad helped with my devotional life.  I'm a teenage convert, which means that I have been praying and reading Scripture for more than forty years - daily when I have had the time and energy.  I've used many different "patterns" over the years, including books like the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, daily notes like those from Scripture Union, and study guides like Alan Stibbs' Search the Scriptures.  Change is good; this is not something that you "get right" once and for all, because you and your relationships are changing.  When I got the iPad, I found there were many prayer, meditation and Bible study apps available.  Some were terrible, but some have - for now - become a regular part of my life.   Here are a few that I use, with brief reviews.

  • iPray BCP - This gives the text of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer with a calendar that (in theory) gives you the correct collect (special prayer) for each day - it seems to get a bit confused sometimes, especially towards the end of the church year,  but it is mostly accurate, and there are some collects (like that for the 6th Sunday after Trinity) which I love so much, I look forward to them for weeks! 
  • YouVersion - This is the best Bible text application, in my opinion, with many translations in different languages available, as well as the original Greek and Hebrew for those who want to wrestle with them. Also has many Bible reading plans available if you want them - too many "Christian Celebrity X Reading Plan" for my taste, but I go regularly round and round the one-psalm-a-day plan, and the app gently nags me if I miss one.
  • WordLive - This is Scripture Union's reading plan in app form (you can also obtain it as a podcast).  Each day there is a passage of Scripture to read, notes and relections on the text, and suggestions for prayer arising out of it.
  • PrayerMate - Keeping a prayer list is not an easy thing - I cannot say enough good things bout this app which helps me list topics, organizations and people for whom I want to pray; suggests a selection of topics each day; offers scope to make notes or send encouraging messages if you want to; and can be linked to the RSS feed (from a church say) if you want prayer news that automatically updates.  To me, really helpful (YMMV of course).
  • -This is a web site (though they have just come up with an app as well) based on A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro.  The daily prayers connect me with many saints from across space and time who I would otherwise never have heard of.  Challenging and beautiful.
  • Presence  - Multimedia app weaving together music, film, poetry and photography to deepen people's connection to God.

These have all been helpful to me in different ways.  Perhaps one or more of them may be a blessing to you also!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Some Reflections on Bicalutamide

I returned from an unexpected inpatient stay in hospital the other day (see my CaringBridge blog more more about this) with a prescription for a new chemotherapy regimen that includes a daily pill of bicalutamide, a drug that is usually given to combat prostate cancer but that genetic profiling suggests may be effective against my head and neck cancer also.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The "Unsustainable" Church of Acts 4?

St Barnabas, who "laid money at the apostles' feet"
At the end of the fourth chapter of the book of Acts, after Peter and John have made their first defense before the Sanhedrin (and probably anticipated that that same fate will befall them that overtook their master) comes a famous description of the living arrangements of the early church.

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no-one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.
Socialism! Or, at least, a lot of ink has been spilt trying to prove that it wasn't.  Perhaps this was only a temporary arrangement, while the church was getting itself started, some sort of sign; or (for some writers) perhaps it was actually a sign of financial irresponsibility, a prematurely realized eschatology which ultimately led to the need for St Paul to organize the "collection for the saints at Jerusalem" which so preoccupies him in the later part of Acts and several of his letters (e.g. 2 Corinthians).  But this kind of critique has to be read back into the text; there is nothing in Acts 4 (or in the subsequent story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5) that suggests that Luke is taking some kind of critical distance from the behavior he describes.  This is just the way it was, he seems to say, and maybe the way the true church should be.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Are You Working Hard Enough To Maintain Your Elite Status?

That was the subject line of an email that I received as we were returning from the hospital the other day.  Background: The sender was the frequent-flyer miles program of the airline that I usually fly with.  Last year, which included a wonderful vacation in New Zealand with Liane as well as other personal and business trips, had promoted me to the lowest named tier ("silver") of their frequent-flyer program. This year, with all kinds of travel curtailed by loss and cancer, somehow it looked like I wouldn't make the grade.  What a failure! Shouldn't I be getting out there and flying more?  Look, here are some special offers!

It's a basic assumption of this kind of advertising that, if you slice your customer base into various levels ("silver", "gold", "platinum" and the rest), then people will grasp for the higher status levels - however meaningless they may acknowledge that the whole exercise is.  Something about the idea that "I am inside the elite group and you are outside" feels tremendously appealing.  Let's take a moment to acknowledge that it is also completely un-Christian.  As Paul writes,
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)
We are called to imitate Jesus in repudiating the whole grasping business.  We could ask one another how well we are doing at getting rid of our elite status so as to serve others more effectively.  One hopeful example seems to be the author J.K. Rowling

This news is a few years old (see here) but I only came across it today and found it an encouraging antidote to "Airline X"'s trying to convince me to worry about my "status" in their dumb frequent-flyer program. 

Monday, July 18, 2016

Mike Pence and Causality

Governor Mike Pence of Indiana has been in the news since his selection as Donald Trump's vice-presidential nominee.  Of course, this means that some of his more surprising statements over the years have suddenly found themselves highlighted.  For instance, "Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn't kill."

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Memories IX: A Step over the Void

Skyline Traverse is a Seneca Rocks classic, described in the old guidebook as "one of the finest routes of its grade".  The author then continues, however, "The start of the second pitch has filled the hearts of many beginning climbers with fear".  When you arrive there, it is not hard to see why, especially if (as the "beginning climber") you are the second person on the rope.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Are You Receiving Me?

Justin Lee
Our child Eli loved to dream big.  Several times over the years, he and I dreamed together about putting on some kind of event - perhaps a mini-conference - in State College that would highlight the call for the Christian church to be fully inclusive of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, as well as the many gifts that our LGBTQ siblings have to offer the church.  This call, we believed and still believe, is one that issues from the heart of the gospel and is also one that many Christians are longing to hear (whatever may be the 'official line' of the churches to which they belong).