Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Welcome to Newspeak

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a political satire written for its time (the late 1940s).  Orwell extrapolates the totalitarian direction of the Stalinism of his day, and imagines what would happen if it were combined with ubiquitous surveillance technology. In the world of the novel, truth is no longer a constant, an unchangeable record of how things really are.  Instead, "truth" varies from day to day according to the requirements of the Party.  If the size of the crowd at a certain event was declared, by the Party, to have been the greatest ever - why, then, it was the greatest ever, and any historical record suggesting otherwise needed to be adjusted [this example is not an actual incident from Nineteen Eighty-Four, but a similar though more extreme "changing of gears" occurs at the beginning of the crucial Chapter IX of the book]. In fact, the Ministry of Truth, where the book's hero, Winston Smith, works, has as one of its main functions this continuous 'adjustment' of the historical record. Winston rebels, but by the end of the book he has been brought back into line; he will declare even that 2+2=5 if his Party torturer demands it.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Waiting close

When we lost Eli - nearly two years ago now - a great many decisions had to be made in a hurry.  We quickly decided that his body should be cremated, but  what should be the resting-place for his remains? We are fortunate that there was a natural answer. Some years ago, wise and generous donors endowed our church with a columbarium - a place (actually part of the church building with a little garden) which provides spaces where the cremated remains of church members may be respectfully stored.  I love the symbolism here - that when we currently-living members enter in to worship we do so in the company of a whole fellowship  of believers extended backwards through time. In England one often enters the village church through the graveyard, receiving a similar message about the "communion of saints".

As you can see from the picture, each niche in the columbarium can hold two sets of remains.  When we laid Eli to rest, that did seem as though it might be a problem.  It was not long, however, before we found out that the space we had reserved for the second occupant was going to be needed soon enough - for me! So, once the stupid cancer has its stupid way with me, I will rest close to Eli as we both await the general resurrection.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Manifesto, Part II

A week or two ago I put up a post called Manifesto.   The idea was to ask myself what I - or what Points of Inflection - should be standing for in these serious days.  It looks as though my own days are short - but if they were long, if I were writing a manifesto for some kind of gathering or movement, what would I emphasize as centrally important?  And in such a document I'd want to bring together both the hard-headed mathematical analysis that I've tried to do, and also the spiritual or even "prophetic" critique which tries to understand the 'principalities and powers' that are in action behind the upheavals of recent times and which we can expect in the future.  So, in the first Manifesto post, I revisited the idea that materialism bears responsibility for our woes, and found it misguided: I felt our problem was that we did not revere materiality enough, not that we revered it too much.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

My mission statement

I can't remember, to be honest, when I first got the idea of a personal mission statement.  It was quite a while ago - I would say before the word "mission statement" had become part of standard managerial-ese, an idea to dread as much as to welcome.  Nowadays it sometimes seems that a highfalutin "mission statement", heavy on jargon and light on content, is a required component of any kind of planning for something new.  Dilbert, as usual, neatly satirizes the trend:

But wherever it came from for me - perhaps from Stephen Covey's Seven Habits, perhaps from thinking about my impending duties as department head, perhaps somewhere else - I found the idea of a personal mission statement a helpful one.  Not something that would necessarily set objectives for me every day - but something that I could review prayerfully, every day, to remind me what was important.  Various versions of this have lived with me over the years - currently it is incorporated into PrayerMate, the excellent iPad app that I use to remind me about daily prayer items. [Splitting it into daily items in this way has allowed me to add comments - "Move out of the comfort zone" has somehow acquired the comment "When was I last in it?"]  But while tidying up my desk (actually, while rectifying the consequences of near-disastrously spilling my drink around the router) I found an old copy with the nine points neatly listed.  I wondered if I should share them.  Please ignore these if they are of no use to you, but here they are:

John's Mission Statement

All to the glory of God
Succeed at home first
Communicate every day
Seek the heart of worship
Move out of the comfort zone
Teach from the heart
Prepare the ground for insight
Start with what matters most
Love alone endures

It is hard to write these things without being all too aware of how I have failed to live up to the aspirations they represent; but, as I approach the end of earthly life, I do feel that by and large those aspirations were solid ones, worth aiming for, and worth seeking Grace for when I miss the mark.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

“Mathematics for Sustainability” sent to Springer

Friends -

I am very excited to share with you the news that Mathematics for Sustainability has been sent off to Springer-Verlag, the publisher, for copy-editing.  During the past couple of months we have been responding to comments from Springer’s readers, and from other friends who have reviewed the manuscript for us, and their input has helped us significantly improve the book.  Now that work is done.

This is the next-to-final step in the publication process.  The copy-editors read the book looking for spelling errors, misplaced punctuation, and things like that.  This job will take a couple of weeks.  After that, we get to review and incorporate the copy-editors’ corrections (together with any additional minor changes of our own), and then return the final book version to Springer.  At that point everything is out of our hands and the physical process of printing can start.

It is so exciting to have reached this point! I would like to take the time to once again acknowledge (split infinitive! Don’t tell the copy-editor!) the enormous gift that my coauthor Russ deForest has made in bringing the project to completion, especially in recent months when illness has limited the amount I can contribute.  Thank you!

We were honored to hear a few days ago that as well as listing it in their series Mathematics of Planet Earth, Springer have also chosen our book to inaugurate a completely new publication series, Texts for Quantitative Critical Thinking.  This is a strong push from our publisher and helps convey their confidence in the work we have done.

We were also honored by a most gracious and lovely foreword contributed by Francis Su, past president of the MAA.   Here is part of what he wrote (addressed directly to students):

Here’s what stands out to me when I read this book: there are many math books that will feed you knowledge, but it is rare to see a book like this one that will help you cultivate wisdom.

There is a deep difference between knowledge and wisdom. A knowledgeable person may be armed with facts, but a wise person considers how to act in light of those facts. A knowledgeable person may think an answer is the end of an investigation, whereas a wise person considers the new questions that result. And a knowledgeable person might ignore the human element of a problem that a wise person deems essential to understand. As the authors illustrate, mathematics that pays attention to human considerations can help you look at the world with a new lens, help you frame important questions, and help you make wise decisions.

Amen!  I truly hope and trust that this book will help its readers cultivate wisdom.

Thursday, November 9, 2017


Cover of Transforming
A sweet gift arrived in my email last month.  It was a PDF file containing a review copy of Transforming, Austen Hartke's forthcoming new book about the Bible and the lives of transgender Christians (#TransformingBook - it is available for preorder: if you have a local Christian bookstore, please support their business by preordering from them, or you can preorder it here from you-know-who in Seattle).  Publication date is early April next year and, sadly, I don't expect to be around to hold a copy in my hands.  But Austen is a good friend and knows how much this project - a project that only he could carry out - has meant to me.  So when he obtained some electronic "review copies" he was gracious enough to send one on.  As it happens, the email arrived just at a moment when I had been feeling sad about not being able to see this book, and it lit up my face when I realized what it was!

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

That Amazing Photograph

John and Liane in the Ahwahnee Dining Room, May 2016
In my last post, I mentioned that there was a tale to tell about this picture of Liane and me in the dining room at the Ahwahnee, at the beginning of our Yosemite trip in May 2016.

We're both quite down-to-earth people.  Strange, "touched-by-an-angel" experiences happen to someone else - not to us. Yet we'd both agree that the journey that culminated in this picture was one of the strangest we have ever experienced.  There was a message at its heart - a message of grace and tenderness, a message that we were granted at the exact time we needed it.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Ezer Kenegdo

John and Liane in the Ahwahnee Dining Room, May 2016
I've received such a lot of encouraging letters (both the paper and the e-mail kind) recently. Not only letters of sympathy or prayer - though there have been plenty of those too, and they mean more than I can say.  Right now I'm thinking more of those readers who want to express their thanks for the encouragement they have found in the material I've been posting on my blogs, either here, or on Caring Bridge, or Receiving Me, or my math blog, or in other places.  Some want to say "your faith is so inspiring".   Some want to say "I count among my dearest blessings the opportunity to get to know you and to be touched by your wisdom and friendship." Some want to say "It is really remarkable how you combine rationality and science, your faith, and such a positive attitude on the realities of life, in such a beautiful way."  It is great to know that what was written partly as a way to share news and partly, let's be fair, as a kind of therapy for myself, has turned out also to mean so much to so many other readers.  This brings me great joy and thankfulness.  But it's also made it clear to me that I desire to make a public acknowledgment, a "thank you". Read on - this is it.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

If you die, we split your gear

Until some major life event draws near (a house move, a death, perhaps a separation) it is hard for one to realize just how much stuff one has accumulated around one's existence.  Much of it has brought joy or has enabled joyful experiences, but as the end draws near one wonders:  what next for this stuff? How can it continue to bring joy to others? How can we avoid it becoming simply a burden, a nuisance, until - stripped of meaning - it just ends up as someone's waste?

Sunday, October 22, 2017


I have been posting regularly here at Points of Inflection since 2011, or about six years.  A lot has happened in that time. The intention was to write down my thoughts and reflections about mathematics and sustainability, and especially about the challenges presented by the GreenFaith program that I had just joined.  But our youngest child was just about to embark on a journey of gender dysphoria, a gender which would test their courage to the limit and beyond, a journey to bleak places of mental illness, a journey that would ultimately bring us all to a place of terrible loss.  And that's spilled over onto Points of Inflection, though I've tried also to make a more focused site at Are You Receiving Me?

And then at some point during that awful journey, and during the original thinking process that this blog was intended to document, came the call from the family doctor - "I want you to make an appointment with a brain surgeon". Though it turned out that a brain surgeon was not who I needed (that was the result of some strange appearances on the MRI) I did need some very delicate surgery, which I received at Johns' Hopkins, and when it and chemo and radiation were done there was still some chance of a recurrence.  Guess what? I was in the recurrence group. So I am now looking at life-ending metastatic cancer, and meanwhile I have just finished Math for Sustainability thanks to the wonderful work of coauthors Russ and Sara, and it will, I hope, appear early next year.  I am really blessed by the gift of this team to work with.

So it feels like time to write a "manifesto".  If I wanted to say something for the future, for the next six years, what would it be? Are there ways in which I would want to change the fundamental metaphor of "points of inflection"? Is there something I'd like to add? Some error I feel I should defend against?

Here's a really early post which I still feel hits the nail right on the head.  A new manifesto, if there is such a thing, should start here I think.

American households are drowning in "stuff".  But why?

There's a ready answer that many preachers and people of faith would give.  Materialism! Too much attention, too much attachment to physical objects; not enough to the realm of the spirit. Surely this is the ground for a culture of endless accumulation.

I don't think this is right; or, a least, I don't think it cuts deep enough. When you think of a greedy materialist, you might think of a miser returning every evening to gloat over the beautiful objects he has hoarded.  But that kind of greed is not really characteristic of consumer society.  When I've acquired the IPhone 4, I may gloat for a while; but only until my neighbor gets an IPhone 5. Perpetual dissatisfaction, rather than gloating satisfaction, is what I feel about my stuff.

William Cavanaugh writes, "What really characterizes consumer culture is not attachment to things but detachment.  People do not hoard money; they spend it.  People do not cling to things; they discard them and buy other things...Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else; that's why it is not simply buying but shopping that is the heart of consumerism."

What if our unsatisfying overconsumption is a symptom, not of materialism, but of a restless and misguided spiritual quest?  What if we're not materialistic enough

Saturday, October 21, 2017

"Bother", Said Pooh

Last month, a judicial nominee named Amy Coney Barrett appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee for her confirmation hearing.  California senator Dianne Feinstein focused on the nominee’s Catholic faith. “The dogma lives loudly within you” said Senator Feinstein, in a Yoda-like remark which was presumably intended to suggest that Barrett’s Catholic faith might undermine her judicial independence. (For the record, Barrett’s jurisprudence apparently indicates a clear conviction that judges should recuse themselves from cases where their religious convictions might interfere with their faithful and impartial execution of the law.)

I want to use this little story as a peg on which to hang some reflections about my own writing, both here and on Caring Bridge, as I approach my death from cancer. Unsurprisingly, as the end approaches I find myself reaching more often for the language of my faith, talking more about Jesus and the “work he accomplished at Jerusalem”, about God and God’s revelation which, while some demand a miraculous sign and others seek after wisdom, is in fact “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God”, the one in whom “all the promises of God find their Yes”.  And this talking causes me several sorts of botheration---like Winnie-the-Pooh, another easily botherated sort of guy.  If you wonder where all this faith language is coming from, and perhaps share or at least want to understand my botheration, read on...

Friday, September 8, 2017

A Long Silence

There's been a long silence on Points of Inflection.

Some friends and readers, knowing that I am dealing with terminal cancer, might have been wondering whether I am still around.  For sure, this blog will at some point be shuttered when the cancer wins - or thinks it wins.  Not that it really does win. Cancer is stupid. When it kills me, it kills itself too.  But it is then gone forever: while I await the resurrection at the renewal of all things. It is like a tiny parable of  "the death of death in the death of Christ".

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Review: "Merchants of Doubt"

(Crossposted from GoodReads) Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global WarmingMerchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming by Naomi Oreskes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been familiar with the basic message of Merchants of Doubt for some time. It is that much of the (alleged) controversy that we perceive around climate change was and is an example of motivated reasoning, generated deliberately by a small group of aging scientists who had previously employed similar tactics to undermine the scientific consensus on the links between smoking and disease; between chlorofluorocarbons and ozone depletion; and between powerplant emissions, acid rain, and damage to forest ecosystems. Funded to a significant extent by industries that feared the consequences of regulation, this group generated the appearance of controversy, and then relied on reporters' unwillingness to make scientific judgments and respect for the "Fairness Doctrine" to ensure that consensus science was depicted in the media as simply one side of a "he said...she said" face-off.

Why did these people do it? Here is where I found the book helpful (apart from its exhaustive documentation of the story I just told in the previous paragraph). The authors show how many of the key figures had backgrounds in the Manhattan Project or the Cold War physics community that grew out of it. For them, the conviction that communism and socialism were the real enemy never went away; in fact, it hardened into a certainty that any government regulation at all was the first step on a road towards complete loss of freedom. Therefore, any science which identified a problem whose solution seemed to require such regulation had to be blocked. Because it seemed to lead to unacceptable conclusions in a different realm (the realm of politics and governance), the science itself had to be wrong somewhere. When the tobacco industry or the fossil fuel industry or whoever it might be went looking for scientific "hired guns" who would fight the dangers of regulation, these scientists were ready, because of their ideological stance, to hear the call.

Oreskes and Conway don't mention it, but I have often wondered whether creationism has a part to play in this story also. Here again, consensus science (in this case the theory of evolution) led to unacceptable conclusions in a different realm (a certain kind of theology). Creationist authors like Whitcomb and Morris (The Genesis Flood) assured their readers that the views of mainstream scientist could be disregarded because "the evolutionist seeks intellectual justification for escape from personal responsibility to his Creator", a foreshadowing of the climate "skeptics" who similarly claim that mainstream climate science is poisoned by the prior ideological commitments of its practitioners. There is probably no direct connection between Fred Singer and company and the "creation scientists"; but the work of the latter may have prepared an audience to accept the arguments of the former.

View all my reviews

Saturday, July 1, 2017

News on "Math for Sustainability"

If it seems as though I have been talking about the "Math for Sustainability" project for years, that's because I have.  I think it was in 2012 that I first proposed something like it  as part of my Fellowship class for GreenFaith.

So it is exciting that in two weeks we should have submitted the "final" version of the book to Springer.  "Final" is in quotes here because their readers and copy-editors still have to make their comments on it, and we then have to respond and incorporate them in the TeXscript, but this is a major milestone.

Part of the project is to build a website to support readers of the book, and I'd like to let you all know that is now live at   I encourage you to head over there and take a look!

The very last section of the main text, Section 6.4, is called "After Math".  In this section we try to go beyond mathematics and open up the idea that sustainability requires not just numbers, but values: our full ethical engagement.  Readers of this blog will know that, for me, such questions need to be viewed through the lens of Christ's presence as the meaning and as the master of creation.  I can't go that far in a general textbook, of course; but I can (and I hope we do) challenge readers to discern what it is that they value, and how well those values hold up under the challenges that the Anthropocene epoch is sure to bring.


Friday, June 23, 2017

Memories XIII: Eli/Miriam Memorial Site

For the last year we have used the Are You Receiving Me web address ( as a pointer to the series of talks and events on campus that we have helped to sponsor in memory of our dear child.

As time moves on, it is not so relevant to use this address to point simply to a schedule of talks that are past.  Liane and I have decided to use the address to point to a more permanent memorial for Eli/Miriam. This will include the talks and events but also other material like Eli's obituary in the Centre Daily Times, other writing and interviews we have done, and so on.

Thanks for visiting

Monday, June 5, 2017


Moses and Joshua Bow Before the Ark, by James Tissot
So Donald Trump has decided to walk away from the 2015 Paris climate accord.  Count me among those who believe this will make less difference that may at first appear to the ultimate outcome of humanity's battle with climate change - which is, at root, a battle with ourselves; whether the interests of our future selves can overcome the greed and inertia of our present selves.  Aquinas would have called this temperance (before that word became associated specifically with alcoholic indulgence):  "a disposition of the mind that binds the passions".

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Letter to PA Human Relations Commission

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission is considering guidance clarifying that discrimination against LGBTQ people in Pennsylvania would be treated—and investigated—as a form of sex discrimination. This guidance, which follows precedents set in federal courts and by federal agencies, would be a huge step towards helping ensure LGBTQ Pennsylvanians are able to live their lives free of discrimination.

There is a public comment period that ends in a couple of days (you can find information on the linked website). Here is the letter I sent. Please, if you live in Pennsylvania and support equal opportunity protection for LGBTQ people, send your own letter of support.  I don't doubt that they will receive plenty of comments that lean in the other direction!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Memories XII: Joy, Sorrow, Time

Of all the pictures we have of Miriam (Eli) as a young child, this is probably my favorite.

It's an autumn evening, some time before Miriam's first birthday.   I've just got home from work - maybe four straight hours of teaching math to Oxford students - good work but demanding.  And I have not even had time to take my tie off before I'm swamped by the waves of joy coming from this strong-willed little person.  (To the right of the picture my guitar awaits - Miriam loved music.)

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Bret Stephens, Alan Jacobs, and climate change

Alan Jacobs (via
My aggregator list has about 30 different blogs on it.  All of them represent voices that I found interesting and important when I added them; many have now fallen silent, and I regret that, and wonder whether I should remove them or whether they might, perhaps, come back to sparkling life.  One blog that is very alive and  consistently fascinates me is Alan Jacobs' Text Patterns.

Jacobs is currently a distinguished professor at Baylor and before that was at Wheaton College.  He wrote a fine biographical study of C.S.Lewis - one of the best, I think - and more recently has published a history of the Book of Common Prayer - I'd love to read that as the BCP has been a steady guide to me in my Christian journey.

He also writes a wide-ranging blog which right now is revolving around two aspects of our present age which are both loudly announced (by some people) and which seem to be mutually contradictory: on the one hand, that this age is the dawn of the Anthropocene, the age when the human race is getting "big" enough to become the central influence on our planet's ecology; and on the other hand that it is also the dawn of the posthuman, the era when human beings are transcended and (according to some) superseded by machines that are faster, stronger, more agile, precise and intelligent that we are.   "Ours; not ours", writes Jacobs. "It is in the light of this twofold reality that theology in our time should be done."

Saturday, April 29, 2017

My final class (probably)

Class photo
Last Thursday I wrapped up Math 583, Introduction (interpreted in a rather generous sense) to K-Theory, which is likely to be the last class I teach at Penn State.  My students presented me with a beautiful and generous card, and also insisted on taking a group photo (see picture).  I was instructed to put a picture of "something K-theoretic" on the board above us, so I chose the irrational slope foliation on the 2-torus, which Michael Atiyah had me read about when I arrived at Oxford as a new graduate student, and which I was teaching my own students about a couple of weeks back.

It has taken me a lot longer than you might expect to realize that my life as a professional mathematician revolves around my delight in teaching - not simply in teaching classes in the usual sense, but in explaining, making stuff clear, a gift that my parents gave me (both of them being teachers, and my father a teacher of mathematics who ignited my delight in geometry from a very early age). Most of my research has arisen from a desire to explain things to myself which I believed, sometimes wrongly, were clear to everyone else.  I don't think that this is everyone's path, or that it has to be, but it was certainly mine.   Writing books is of course a well-known symptom (compare Ecclesiastes 12:12) and I have churned out a few.  We are meeting on Monday with the publisher from Springer for Mathematics for Sustainability, which as regular readers know has been a major dream of mine for many years. It is incredibly exciting to feel that finally coming together.

Of course the temptation for people with this sort of gift is to believe that being able to explain things is enough.  (That might account for my thinking seriously at one point in my youth about becoming a pastor - after all, it's all about explaining the Bible, innit?  Mercifully I was dissuaded from this.)  Explaining is often a necessary step, but for accomplishing meaningful change, it is never a sufficient one.  We also need builders of community, summoners to action, companions in suffering, co-celebrants in joy: and that is true whether I'm talking about the community of faith or about working for a sustainable future.  For those who have been that sort of partners to me and my family, especially in the crucible of the last few years, I am truly grateful.


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.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Role model?

I found this story on the website of the organization Our Daily Bread:

A cancer-stricken believer was dying. I was in his room as his family gathered around him. One by one he spoke to his children, to their spouses, and to his young grand children. He gave each a loving, tender blessing. Even his warnings were spoken with gentleness. He reminded them to keep the Lord in the center of their lives. We wept together, knowing that soon he would no longer be with us. A few days later he was gone.
As a "cancer-stricken believer" myself, I can hear and acknowledge the aspirations that this story represents. When my time comes I, too, want to leave my family with a parting blessing.  I am encouraged when I hear that people are inspired by my "perseverance", or that somehow I am a "role model" to them.

I'm also frightened by the story.  Because the role of "role model" can be a burdensome one.  If someone is looking to you to see how a "cancer-stricken believer" should behave, what if it all becomes too much? What if, at some point, I am in such pain that I want to scream obscenities or such fear of death that I am reduced to despair? What becomes of the "role model" then?

I know Eli/Miriam wrestled - much more deeply than me - with this same issue, the issue of  the heightened expectations created by being a "role model" to some.  Although "cancer-stricken believer" isn't everybody, it's not all that uncommon a status.  "Transgender Christian" - now there is someone a little out of the ordinary!  For many people, Eli was their only model for this role - and he knew it - and he wanted, to the end, to live it out.  And sometimes, being this model was a burden to him also.

In Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings Frodo - the hero and "role model" of the story - having resisted, until the last minute, the lure to power that the Ring represents,  finally succumbs and claims the Ring of Power for his own.  At this point he is not a role model at all - Tolkien even received a letter suggesting that he should have been executed for treason, rather than honored - but his failure is redressed by a gracious, providential act: Gollum, grabbing his "Precious", overmastered by demented joy, topples into the fire and achieves the destruction of the Ring that Frodo was unable to bring about by his own efforts. (It is clear from Tolkien's letters, especially #246 in the edition edited by Humphrey Carpenter, that he regarded this point as extremely important; Peter Jackson's elision of it in the movie edition seems to me to be a serious misunderstanding.)

The point I am trying to make is that the role of "role model" is ultimately too much for any human being (save one - see Hebrews 12:2) to sustain consistently.  Especially when the "role" being modeled is a minority one, especially when it is one which "endures such hostility" (oops, I slipped back into Hebrews again), as Eli's was and mine is not.  Sometimes you don't want to be a "role model" - you just want to be your ordinary, fallible, beautiful human self - a unique person made in God's image, yes, and also a person who needs some space away from being "on duty" the whole time.

So let's show our role models some grace, whoever they may be, in the anticipation of that final act of redemptive grace that Tolkien symbolized in his narrative of the Sammath Naur.  What's more, let's remember that each role model has a network of supporters ("Frodo wouldn't have got far without Sam, would he, Dad?") who make any "modeling" that we do see possible and effective.  Do not these supporters need to receive grace too?   Let us all consider how to stir up one another to love, to  quote from Hebrews one last time (10:24).   Amen

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Memories XI: One year on

It's been a year since we said goodbye to our dear child Eli/Miriam for the last time. A year since his struggles against the pain of mental illness finally became too much.  A year in which we have wept and shouted and lamented - and also a year in which we have tried to carry on as much of Eli's legacy as we can (see for details of the speaker series which is one way we've been doing that).

Today though I just want to remember some of the ways in which this extraordinary young person touched other people's lives and hearts.  A life which was not long - which was all too short - nonetheless went very deep. Eli (or Miriam) seemed like an adult from their early teens. (And yes, he would have had plenty to say about powerful men who act like children at the age of 70.)

There was the Renaissance Faire (see above) where Eli helped everyone have a good time and taught everything from sewing to swordplay.  There was the writing and poetry and music - sometimes dark, always thought provoking and crafted with skillful allusion.  There were the extraordinary role-playing games that seemed to appear out of nowhere, taking over our house with a dozen people enjoying themselves following instructions on a spreadsheet that Eli had created.  There were the personal commitments to others: even in his own darkness, Eli worked indefatigably to help friends make good decisions and live a more fulfilled life.  There was the scintillating wit, which could always bring a smile even as he sometimes used it to hide his own pain.  There was...but I don't think I can go on.

I don't want to make out that our child was some kind of perfect saint. Of course not, and it would dishonor his memory to pretend that. And there were depths that I probably never saw.  I do believe though that this prayer which Eli used for Receiving with Thanksgiving represents his deep desire.  I hope I can make it my prayer too.
I am your servant, God. When there is chaos around me, help me stay centered. When those around me argue and fight, let me be your peacemaker. Show me and help me remember what’s truly important. Help me keep an open mind. Help me soothe the anger of others. Help me resolve the conflicts in my life, so that I may find peace. Stay with me God. Enter into the hearts of all those with whom I cannot find common ground. Fill their hearts and fill mine. I am your servant, God.
 Rest in peace and rise in power, dear child. We will never stop loving you.

Friday, January 20, 2017

A sword shall pierce your heart also

Pieta by El Greco
It's been a while since if posted here on Points of Inflection.  I have quite a few things I'm thinking about which need to appear here - but I've also been out of town, first visiting family on the West Coast, then at the Gay Christian Network conference in Pittsburgh, then trying to survive the beginning of the semester and the start of what will probably be my final Penn State course - and the energy to write things up has been a bit lacking.  I have posted fairly regular health updates over at CaringBridge - most recently including the exciting news that I will get to start immunotherapy treatment in a couple of weeks.

And amid all of that, some weighty and important dates are coming up: this Sunday, January 22nd, when Eli/Miriam would have been 23 years old; and next Sunday, January 29th, the anniversary of his passing.   Lord forbid that pushing paper and popping pills should so preoccupy my life that I forget this.  "If I forget thee, let my right hand forget its cunning."

In the midst of this, and in the middle of a dark night several days ago, a thought jerked me awake.

Mary lost her child also.

It is hardly a new thought. It is anticipated right from Jesus' presentation in the temple, when the aged prophet Simeon blesses Jesus.  He utters the words that we now know as the Nunc dimittis, the words that currently seem so significant to me at Evening Prayer, 

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.

Then he goes on to speak to Mary specifically, and says "This child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel".  And then, parenthetically, as though it were a minor matter, come the words of my title: "By the way, a sword will pierce through your own soul also."

Mary lost her child also.

Traditional understandings have always interpreted Simeon's word here as a prophecy of the Crucifixion, and especially of Mary's grief at the loss of her firstborn (the Pieta, often depicted in Christian art.)  I think they are right.  But if they are, imagine Mary, knowing from day one what was coming, knowing that any moment in her son's life might be the moment when the state comes for him, when the "grave opens its mouth" in the language of the Psalms.   Hear the interaction at the wedding in Cana in the light of that knowledge
When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour is not yet come." (John 2:3,4)
 Mary lost her child, and she knew that loss was coming.

I am not a Catholic. But I have never felt so close to the Blessed Virgin as in that sudden moment of midnight wakefulness.  I could, if not pray to her, at least talk to her.  We are both members of a club that nobody wants to join, a club of those who cannot be comforted, because their children are no more (cf. Matthew 2:18)

Mary lost her child, and the powerful and prosperous joined forces to destroy him.

As Eli/Miriam's birthday approaches, I cannot but think of the temporary triumph of the powers of darkness as represented by the erasure of information about LGBTQ rights from the White House web page immediately after the inauguration of the new president today.   Just so did the authorities of his time attempt to erase Jesus himself. "Come, let us wipe him out; let his name be remembered no more!" (cf Psalm 83:4)

Mary lost her child, but her mourning was turned into joy.

Jesus' resurrection gave the cosmic middle finger to the powers of death.  It brought joy to Mary (though how should we understand the Ascension? another discussion, I think) and hope to the disciples' hearts.  The rest of us club members are still watching. Waiting.

We are waiting for the third day.

May it come soon.