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.


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: