Do not disturb my circles!

A Lever Long Enough

You may recall that a little while back, there was some hoopla over refugees. That story was about how much you suck. This story is about network effects and social capital.

It all started simply enough, with an article in the local newspaper saying the Syrians were coming here. There was a lot of interest in our church community in seeing how we could help out, and my wife and I had worked with that refugee agency in the past. It was a pretty clear case of God plunking something in my lap and saying, “do this thing.” So I did.

Anyway, I got back in touch with my contacts at the old agency to tell them help was on the way. And then I posted something on the church’s Facebook page asking for volunteers. And then the flood began. From this point forward, my role was one of trying to direct a current far more powerful than me down the right pathways.

We ended up assigned not to Syrians, but a Somali family of ten. Ten people with nothing but the clothes on their backs need a lot of stuff. Left to my own devices, I could have procured a few pieces of furniture and some food with a significant investment of time and money. But because I was connected to a church, I was able to put the word out to a few hundred people (already preselected to be inclined towards philanthropy), and sit back as the donations poured in. Spread out over so many people, no great sacrifice was required of anybody. One person had some chairs they didn’t need, another an old couch, another a lampstand, and every item was checked off the list in no time (which was good, because we had no time). Because the church had a building, I didn’t need to worry about finding a place to warehouse all of these items; people were able to drop them off at a central location at a time convenient to them.

As this was going on, our group of volunteers grew. The (real-life) social networks of everybody in the church became a recruitment tool. What before would have just been idle talk about how “somebody else should do something” was easily translated into action instead. Anybody in the church or who knew anybody in the church was now only a degree removed from the action. Signing up didn’t require any more than a quick chat with me on Sunday.

So we had a large group. Now what? Here the existence of the building again proved critical. The church had plenty of available classrooms where we could gather, meet with the agency coordinator, and plan our next steps.

When it came time to furnish the house, I found myself with the entire youth group at my disposal. Some 40-50 people and half a dozen vehicles descended on the house, cleaning and filling it in a few hours. It would have taken me days to do half as thorough a job on my own.

Our church network began linking into other networks. A local woman who, as near as I can determine, is the effective matriarch of our local Somali community, heard about our church’s involvement, and so drove up to talk to us and see where we might be interested in helping out. A few meetings took place, introductions were made, and soon our networks were enmeshed.

My involvement faded out at this point, but the work carried on without me. Churches regularly get random items donated; many of them are now getting funneled onward. One older couple who moved out of their house even donated its contents to the local refugees, who cleaned it out in short order. When the (largely Muslim) Somalians wanted French Bibles, they knew to turn to us, and we in turn used a connection to the Gideons to help with that. (He was able to provide 3 on short notice. They proceeded to fight over who would get them, so we promised to acquire more.) Last I heard, the aforementioned Matriarch was speaking to our women’s group, which I’m sure will result in even more connections.

I played no part and exerted no energy in any of that. But none of it would have happened if not for me. Because I acted as a group instead of alone, my small effort has been magnified many times beyond my own capabilities.


Reverse Verse

Bible study idea: take a single chapter, and for the next month or two, study it from the perspective of one of the great Christians of the past.

But what chapter would work well for this? I took up a little side project to find out.

To do this, I took a whole bunch (81) of writings off of CCEL, and wrote some code to parse through them for scripture references. Happily, the CCEL staff has a very standardized format, which made this fairly simple.

I’m now working on a good web interface to display and search the resulting information, which I’ll eventually put online. In the meantime, I thought you might be interested in some preliminary results.

Popular books

The most popular chapter, by far, is John 1, with 1,727 references. Next in line are Matt 5 (1,409), Romans 8 (1,369), and 1 Cor 15 (1,223).

Matthew is the most popular Gospel (14,229 references), Mark is the least (2,047) (but then, it’s also the shortest).

The most referenced book is Psalms (14,415). The least referenced is Song of Solomon, with a whopping zero references, the only book outside of the dueterocanon which can claim that.

The most popular Psalms, in descending order are 119 (467), 19 (392), 45 (364), and 2 (323).

Patristic preferences

Athanasius’ favorite book is John (John 1 being his favorite chapter). Psalms is second, but he does reference nearly every book. The same is true of Ambrose and Gregory of Nyssa. Basil references Psalms slightly more than John, and his favorite chapter is Genesis 1. Eusebius likes Acts twice as much as any other book.

James Arminius mines Romans extensively (586 references; next up is John with 305).

Jonathan Edwards mostly preached from the Gospels.

Blaise Pascal liked Isaiah most of all.


For the curious, here are the works I searched:
NPNF1-01. The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustine, with a
NPNF1-02. St. Augustine’s City of God and Christian Doctrine
NPNF1-03. On the Holy Trinity; Doctrinal Treatises; Moral
NPNF1-04. Augustine: The Writings Against the Manichaeans and
NPNF1-05. St. Augustine: Anti-Pelagian Writings
NPNF1-06. St. Augustine: Sermon on the Mount; Harmony of the
NPNF1-07. St. Augustine: Homilies on the Gospel of John; Augustine, St.
NPNF1-08. St. Augustine: Exposition on the Book of Psalms Augustine, St.
NPNF1-09. St. Chrysostom: On the Priesthood; Ascetic Treatises;
NPNF1-10. St. Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Chrysostom, Saint
NPNF1-11. Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles
NPNF1-12. Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to
NPNF1-13. Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on Galatians, Ephesians, Chrysostom, St.
NPNF1-14. Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. John Chrysostom, St.
NPNF2-01. Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Eusebius Pamphilius
NPNF2-02. Socrates and Sozomenus Ecclesiastical Histories Socrates Scholasticus
NPNF2-03. Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, & Rufinus: Historical
NPNF2-04. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters Athanasius
NPNF2-05. Gregory of Nyssa: Dogmatic Treatises, Etc. Gregory of Nyssa
NPNF2-06. Jerome: The Principal Works of St. Jerome Jerome, St.
NPNF2-07. Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen
NPNF2-08. Basil: Letters and Select Works
NPNF2-09. Hilary of Poitiers, John of Damascus
NPNF2-10. Ambrose: Selected Works and Letters
NPNF-211. Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lerins, John Cassian
NPNF-212. Leo the Great, Gregory the Great
NPNF-213. Gregory the Great (II), Ephraim Syrus, Aphrahat
NPNF2-14. The Seven Ecumenical Councils
Moody’s Anecdotes and Illustrations: Related in his Revival Work Moody, Dwight Lyman (1837-1899)
ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus Justin Martyr, St. (c.100-165)
ANF02. Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian,
ANF03. Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian Tertullian (c. 160-c. 230)
ANF04. Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth;
ANF05. Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius,
ANF06. Fathers of the Third Century: Gregory Thaumaturgus,
ANF07. Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius,
ANF08. The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, The
ANF09. The Gospel of Peter, The Diatessaron of Tatian, The
The Works of James Arminius, Vol. 1 Arminius, James (1560-1609)
The Works of James Arminius, Vol. 2 Arminius, James (1560-1609)
The Works of James Arminius, Vol. 3 Arminius, James (1560-1609)
Ascent of Mount Carmel John of the Cross, St. (1542-1591)
Proslogium; Monologium; An Appendix in Behalf of the Fool by Anselm, Saint, Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109)
De Servo Arbitrio “On the Enslaved Will” or The Bondage of Will Luther, Martin (1483-1546)
Calvin: Commentaries Calvin, Jean
Harmony of the Law – Volume 1 Calvin, John (1509 – 1564)
Harmony of the Law – Volume 2 Calvin, John (1509-1564)
Harmony of the Law – Volume 3 Calvin, John (1509-1564)
Harmony of the Law – Volume 4 Calvin, John (1509-1564)
On the Christian Life Calvin, John
Dark Night of the Soul John of the Cross, St. (1542-1591)
The Devotions of Saint Anselm Archbishop of Canterbury Anselm, Saint, Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109)
Select Sermons Edwards, Jonathan (1703-1758)
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola Ignatius of Loyola, St (1491-1556)
First Principles of the Reformation or the Ninety-five Theses Luther, Martin (1483-1546)
The Imitation of Christ Thomas, à Kempis, 1380-1471
Revelations of Divine Love Julian, of Norwich, b. 1343
Selections from the Writings of Kierkegaard Kierkegaard, Soren (1813-1855)
The Large Catechism Luther, Martin (1483-1546)
Some Letters of Saint Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux Bernard, of Clairvaux, Saint (1090 or 91-1153)
On Loving God Bernard, of Clairvaux, Saint (1090 or 91-1153)
St. Anselm’s Book of Meditations and Prayers. Anselm, Saint, Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109)
The Complete Works of Menno Simon Volume 1 Simons, Menno (1496-1561)
The Complete Works of Menno Simon Volume 2 Simons, Menno (1496-1561)
Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Underhill, Evelyn
Pensées Pascal, Blaise (1623-1662)
The Pilgrim’s Progress Bunyan, John (1628-1688)
Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans Luther, Martin (1483-1546)
A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life Law, William (1686-1761)
Assorted Sermons By Martin Luther Luther, Martin (1483-1546)
Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 01: 1855 Spurgeon, Charles Haddon (1834-1892)
Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 02: 1856 Spurgeon, Charles Haddon (1834-1892)
Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 03: 1857 Spurgeon, Charles Haddon (1834-1892)
Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 04: 1858 Spurgeon, Charles Haddon (1834-1892)
Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 05: 1859 Spurgeon, Charles Haddon (1834-1892)
Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 06: 1860 Spurgeon, Charles Haddon (1834-1892)
Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 07: 1861 Spurgeon, Charles Haddon (1834-1892)
Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 08: 1863 Spurgeon, Charles Haddon (1834-1892)
Table Talk Luther, Martin (1483-1546)
The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume One Edwards, Jonathan (1703-1758)
The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume Two Edwards, Jonathan (1703-1758)

The reason for the drinking season

Just a little after 400AD, a group of Irish pirates successfully attacked some British towns, leaving with a group of slaves. Among them was a 16 year old named Patrick. Though the son of a deacon and grandson of a pastor, he was not particularly devout himself. This changed after he was enslaved, and under the Irish whip his faith grew. By his own accounting, young Patrick would say up to 100 prayers a day, and as many again in the night.

After six years of captivity, God answered. In his sleep, a voice came to him and said, “You do well to fast: soon you will depart for your home country.” Shortly afterward, it returned and told him, “Behold, your ship is ready.” Patrick obeyed and fled his master. He traveled through 200 miles of unfamiliar territory with God as his guide, arriving at the same day that the ship he was destined for was setting out. At first, the sailors angrily told him to leave them alone, but after a brief prayer their attitude changed and they welcomed him on board their ship.

During this time, he faced hunger and deprivation, but each time he was delivered semi-miraculously. He was even captured once more, but God assured him the captivity would last for only two months, which is exactly how it played out. After a time, Patrick found his way back to his family. Nice story, huh?

Then God threw him a curve ball. One night, Patrick was given a vision:

I saw a man whose name was Victoricus coming as if from Ireland with innumerable letters, and he gave me one of them, and I read the beginning of the letter: ‘The Voice of the Irish’; and as I was reading the beginning of the letter I seemed at that moment to hear the voice of those who were beside the forest of Foclut which is near the western sea, and they were crying as if with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.’

Go back, God commanded him. Return to the barbarians to who would have enslaved you for the rest of your life. Like Jonah, he resisted at first, and so another trial was sent his way to clarify the situation. A scandal erupted around some sin he had confessed to from his teenage years (Patrick is so ashamed, he does not tell us what it was). Being brought low, Patrick gave in, and went to preach the gospel to the pagans of Ireland. It was a task his slavery had made him uniquely suited for. As a slave of the Irish, he had become fluent in the Irish language. As the slave of a druidic high priest, he had also become knowledgeable in the Irish religion. As a slave of Christ, he embodied the spirit of love and forgiveness that is so central to Christianity when he put all that aside and set out to help the Irish.

In the end, St. Patrick was responsible for the eventual conversion of the whole island. In a complete reversal of his childhood, he defended his former slavers against those who would enslave them, going so far as to excommunicate a Welsh chieftain. He was beaten, robbed, and even put into chains, but still he persisted, and today he is a central figure in Irish culture and myth. Even the shamrock owes its status as Ireland’s official symbol to a legend that Patrick used it to illustrate the Trinity.

He died 1,550 years ago today. Like St. Valentine, his holiday still carries on his name, but lacks his spirit. So take a moment to honor St. Patrick. He was a far better man than any of us.

Read his life in his own words.


“Let It Go” is a villain song

If you have a daughter, you’ve seen Frozen by now. Pop quiz: what is the message of the song “Let It Go”? It is treated like a positive development in Elsa’s life, and millions of little girls sing along to it with joy. And yet, what is actually happening on-screen is that Elsa is cursing her entire kingdom with eternal winter. This seems inconsistent.

It all makes a lot more sense once you learn how the script developed. Elsa was originally intended to be a villain. “Let It Go” was written as her villain song, but when the writers listened to it, all they heard was “self-empowerment.” Surely that couldn’t be a bad thing, so they rewrote the whole movie, and left the song as-is.

I think the song-writers knew exactly what they were doing. Good guys don’t say things like “no right, no wrong, no rules for me,” that’s straight up Nietzschean uber-mensch talk, the kind engaged in shortly before embarking on a genocide. And indeed, Elsa did launch an attack on all the muggles while she sang this song. A little while later, she shoots her sister in the heart, and instead of trying to help her, she dumps her out in the snow and creates a monster who attempts to finish the job.

But she’s empowered, so it’s all good.

Anyway, that’s why Frozen is not a good movie; it is narratively incoherent. There’s no clear moral, the central song contradicts what is shown on-screen, and even the love song is undermined by the fact that the male half is secretly plotting to kill the female half. Also the whole “the secret was love all along” ending was trite, and absurd; Elsa had love from the movie’s start, and it didn’t help her then.

Just nobody tell my daughter.

Message: I want what happened to the Indians to happen to you

A Syrian Parable

The following is a true story, and a parable. My life has many layers.

For a little while now, I’ve been working to organize a group of about a dozen people to welcome and assist refugees (Syrian and otherwise) who are being settled in our area. Over the course of several months I’ve been trying to navigate around everyone’s conflicting schedules and slow responses to emails (my fault as much as anybody else’s) to little avail, so finally I just picked a date. Last night was that night. Everybody who could would gather at the church and we would be briefed by my contact at the refugee agency. It was all coming together.

About an hour before the meeting that I was supposed to head, I got the following text from my wife:

They’re sending me to the hospital

What was the proper course of action? Should I attend to my own family first, or give priority to the refugees?

I chose my family. Didn’t even hesitate.

At this point, you are yelling at your screen, calling me a racist. How do I know that? Because that’s what you’ve been doing on Facebook for the past several days.

“Brothers and sisters, slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them is truly righteous.” –Epistle of James the Socially Just 4:11 The most common article shared on social media is not “Recent event proves my politics were right all along.” That is merely the camouflage people wear for their real message: “I am a good person, and I’ll prove it by showing that I hate these bad people.” This what motivates a person to proudly declare that they have cut off former friends/relatives who promote badthink (consider if they instead phrased it as “I’m building myself an echo chamber!”). This is why you’ve seen people rush to tell you that, *sigh*, so many of their old friends and relatives are total xenophobes isn’t it terrible? And you get the sense that while they say this horrifies them, there’s a part of them that delights in it and couldn’t wait to tell everybody they know. Because by telling you how much they don’t like those people, they get to tell you how virtuous they are. Nothing feels quite so good as moral indignation; humans love to signal virtue. And it’s always easier to tear someone else down than to build yourself up.

“But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will never be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Racist,’ will be immediately swept up into Heaven.” –Social Gospel of Matthew 5:22 So I’m sure it felt good. But what did you accomplish? Have you ever in your life, found that “you are a dirty sinner and I am not” made you more inclined to listen to somebody else’s arguments? If they peppered it with insults, did that incline you further toward them, or further against them? Then why have you embarked on this same strategy now?

Here’s what you would have done if you cared about the Syrians for their sakes rather than your own. You would have taken a moment to understand and address the concerns of those you are lecturing. People have very real reasons to be worried about the importing of large Muslim communities, and pretending those don’t exist or refusing to even mention the issue does not strengthen your credibility. Instead, it reiterates to them how little you care about them, and hints that you may well be willing to sacrifice them for the sake of political correctness.

And even if they weren’t worried about the Muslim issue (the Gulf states have refused to take in Syrian refugees. We can safely eliminate “don’t want Muslims in their country” as a motivation), many people would still have good reason to oppose them. The refugees will not be placed in the neighborhoods of well-off, privileged people like you and I. They will be stuck in low-income housing among the poor. There, they will probably compete for low-skill jobs, and very likely raise the crime rate in their area. Those poor people you’re looking down on have the same obligation to look after their own families that I did. They are not bad people for doing so, any more than you are a good person for dismissing as irrelevant the costs that will fall on them rather than you. Acknowledging that would have given you a chance to win them over.

(Oh, it also would have helped if you haven’t spent the past several years being silent about ISIS and their butchering of Christians, or even our treatment of refugees when they’re Christian. People do notice if you only speak up at the moment it is advantageous to your party, and they draw the appropriate conclusions. But let’s put that aside for now.)

“For I was hungry and you told someone else to give me something to eat, I was thirsty and you told someone else to give me something to drink, I was a stranger and you told someone else to invite me in… Truly I tell you, whatever you told someone else to do, you did for me.” –Social Gospel of Matthew 25:35,40 Actually, put all three previous paragraphs aside. Here’s what you really would have done if you cared about the Syrians: you would have gotten involved with your local refugee program or donated to them or made some sort of sacrifice to help them. Because of fortuitous timing, I was able to run an experiment. Whenever I saw somebody local post something in the style of “I am a good person because I care and you are not,” I invited them to our meeting, where they could learn how to physically help refugees. Not one showed up.

Telling people you hate them and are better than them does not win them to your side. Your strategy is already bearing the predictable fruit. The White House has been pursuing much the same line, and in doing so, they turned the support for that anti-Syrian refugee bill from a majority into a veto-proof majority. So congratulations to all of you. I know it felt good patting yourselves on the back. I hope it was worth it.

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
Epistle of James 2:15-17

Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.
2 Timothy 2:25

The better your message makes you feel about yourself, the less likely it is that you are convincing anyone else. –McMegan’s Law

My Little Pony

Augustine on My Little Pony

My Little Pony teaches us that friendship is magic. But is it? Is it really? Let us turn to Augustine to find out. (Spoilers: No)

I was miserable, and miserable too is everyone whose mind is chained by friendship with mortal things, and is torn apart by their loss, and then becomes aware of the misery that it was in even before it lost them. …… Look upon my heart, O my God, look deep within it. See, O my hope, who cleanse me from the uncleanness of such affections, who draw my eyes to yourself and pull my feet free from the snare, see that this is indeed what I remember. I was amazed that other mortals went on living when he was dead whom I had loved as though he would never die, and still more amazed that I could go on living myself when he was dead – I, who had been like another self to him. It was well said that a friend is half one’s own soul. I felt that my soul and his had been but one soul in two bodies, and I shrank from life with loathing because I could not bear to be only half alive; and perhaps I was so afraid of death because I did not want the whole of him to die, whom I had love so dearly.

Friendship is not magic! It chains us to things that will not last, and leaves us torn when they inevitably pass away. Make sure to tell your daughter this constantly when she’s watching her cartoons.

The one true sexual choice


The left is quite willing to criticize people’s sexual choices. A fairly large segment of the left criticize people who chose to engage in prostitution, particularly if they are the clients, and perversely I think more critical of unofficial prostitution (e.g. sex in exchange for fancy dinner) than straight-up cash exchanges. Sex in an environment of power inequality is clearly objectionable to the left, as is any expressed or perceived obligation to sex even if voluntarily entered into. Much of the left will criticize anyone who abstains from sex for religious reasons. Sex to cement an exclusive marriage that will endure even when one partner would prefer to end it, traditionally the only acceptable purpose for sex in most cultures, is clearly criticized across the left.

I think it more accurate to say that, rather than being unwilling to criticize people’s sexual choices, the left now criticizes every sexual choice but one: Sex for immediate, mutual, short-term pleasure. Sex within a long-term relationship is acceptable, but only if immediately pleasurable to both parties and only if the relationship would exist without the sex. And anybody who doesn’t have sex for immediate mutual short-term pleasure, is criticized either as a prude or as a neckbearded loser so undesirable that nobody would be pleased to have sex with them.



I recently had occasion to attend a service at a Mennonite church. Now, Mennonites can range from practically Amish to standard evangelical. These were by most appearances practically Amish; the congregation was dressed in home-made Amish-style clothing and there were no instruments during worship (although the words to the song were projected from a Macbook). Clearly, an insular group, unfamiliar with other ways of life.

The first part of the service was about efforts to rehabilitate ISIS sex slaves. The second part was a talk by Brother Yun, a major figure in the Chinese house church movement.

Virtues and Values


I’m gonna get a little Sapir-Worfy here.
I think something went terribly wrong when we as a society stopped talking about virtues and started talking about values.
Just… think about the words themselves. Value. what does it mean to value something? to passively regard it as a good thing.
I value good screenwriting. I value good wine. I value my time.
But virtue is different. virtue is a character trait. Virtue is a guideline for actions.
With Value, it’s enough to believe something.
With Virtue, you have to do something.

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