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 http://receivingme.net 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.






 


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.


Sincerely,





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.