Solving for x

God’s surprising approach to outsiders
August 14, 2016 | John 4

Solving for x
Not to bring up unpleasant memories, but do you remember high school algebra? Do you remember “solving for x”?

The teacher would give you an equation like this

2x + 3 = 7


4 + 4x = 22 – 5x


3x2 + 12x + 6 = 42


15x3 – 100 = 20

Your job would be to “solve for x” in each of these different equations. It wasn’t always easy, was it? Once you got out of school, you may not have had so much opportunity to “solve for x,” but “x” still represented the unknown. Part of the reason why we use “x” for the unknown, is that xenos in Greek means strange or foreign. (There’s a TED talk which gives another reason.)

In math and in life, we always have trouble with the unknown.

The statistical website fivethirtyeight recently asked about people in the Northeast about baseball and politics:

In the survey, [we] asked 1,071 people which baseball team they supported (if any), how strongly they supported the team, and then . . . asked them this:

How upset would you feel if you had a son or daughter who married a Boston Red Sox/New York Yankees . . . fan?

Red Sox fans were asked about marriages to Yankees fans and vice versa.

Eitan Hersh, “What The Yankees-Red Sox Rivalry Can Teach us about Political Polarization” (Aug. 11, 2016).

It turns out that about 1 in 5 baseball fans would be upset if one of their children married a fan of a rival team. (Let me just be clear about one thing — if any of our kids gets married to a Red Sox fan, Katherine is going to be way beyond “upset.”)

Continue reading Solving for x

Un-shading the Truth


A Pattern of Prayer, part 2: A Pattern of Contrition
February 21, 2016 | Psalm 51
(David’s repentant prayer)

Sometimes people who have done wrong attempt to shade the truth. They tell the story in a way that shifts blame a little bit: “And then, the gun went off”; or “She got hit in the fight.” instead of “I shot him,” or “I hit her.” It is very hard to tell the complete truth. “Mistakes were made,” is the preferred non-apology of politicians.

We recently read in the news that Volkswagen had systematically evaded emissions standards for its diesel engines. To explain why he resigned, Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn said he was resigning “in the interests of the company even though I am not aware of any wrongdoing on my part.”

Here’s what happened. Modern internal combustion engines are highly computerized. If you had a science class in which your teacher taught you how an internal combustion engine works, that’s still the same —

fuel + air + compression + heat = combustion

— but now the way that process is controlled has a lot to do with the precise way a computer tells the engine to act. The computer controls the various factors to provide a proper balance between performance which is acceptable to the driver and emissions which are acceptable to the regulators.

What seems to have happened is that some Volkswagen programmers, with or without the knowledge of their bosses, programmed the engines so that the engines could tell whether they were being tested. If they were being tested for emissions, they hardly produced any nitrogen oxides (NOx) at all. But once the test was over, the engines just spewed out NOx — something like 40x the allowable amount.

Apparently, the road to cheating was just a step-by-step process, as first engineers tried to write software that would meet the standards, then software that would be particularly careful to pass the tests (and generally meet the standards), and finally software that would pass all the tests without paying any attention at all to the standards.

Sociologists and engineers call this the “normalization of deviance” — the slow adjustment of standards so that what was once considered unacceptable behavior gradually becomes acceptable. And that turns out to be relevant to our examination of the prayers of the Bible . . . .

Stop, stop, stop.

I know that some of you are distracted by the fact that my illustration does not fully cover the engineering, political and programming aspects of the Volkswagen scandal. I want you to set that aside for now. After church, for those of you interested in the automotive engineering, please see John Freeman or Nate Potratz; for those of you interested in the political aspects of emissions laws, please see Mack Crenshaw or Isaac Brohinsky; for those of you interested in the programming issues confronted by the software engineers, please see Jonathan Johnston or Russ Clarke.

Back to the current point.

“Normalization of Deviance.” Little-by-little, step-by-step, calmly and incrementally, there is a cultural shift in what is considered “okay.” We get used to increasingly deviant behavior.

As we turn this concept over in our minds, we begin to see that it helps us understand how people find themselves in the position of straying far from what they had believed to be acceptable.

Today we are going to look at a very famous series of events in the Hebrew Scriptures, which leads to King David’s recognition that little-by-little, step-by-step, he had moved very far from behavior which God considered acceptable.

Let’s pray.

Continue reading Un-shading the Truth

Contra mundum pro mundi.

“Against the world, for the world’s sake.”

colsonColson’s public-square work offers modern evangelicals a workable model. Initially, Colson considered himself contra mundum, “against the world,” as a believer. He wished to stand against evil. He never lost this vital perspective, but his friend, First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus, suggested Colson tweak the self-descriptor. The Christian, he said, is contra mundum pro mundo, “against the world for the world,” an elegant and accurate summation of evangelical engagement with a fallen order. The believer, and particularly the public-square witness, opposes evil, but does so not to defeat opponents or gobble up cultural territory. We are against the world out of love, seeking always to win lost friends to Christ and usher them into flourishing.

Owen Strachen, “Chuck Colsen was not a Culture Warrior” (Oct. 2015) (

Fractal Compassion

From the biggest picture to the smallest interaction

Matthew 9:35-36

Math Class!

Okay, so you take a triangle, like so. 20150816sermon_Page_01A simple equilateral triangle.

Now you connect the midpoints of the sides to divide it into three triangles that are ½ as big. (There really are four, plus the original one, but it looks like three.)

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Now you take each of the three, and you divide them. You have nine triangles, each the 1/4 the size of our original.

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Do it again! Now you have 27 triangles, each 1/8 the size of the original. You can
keep on doing this, and the patterns are not the same, but they are similar, on a smaller and smaller scale.

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This is one of the simplest illustrations of the concept of fractal geometry, which you may have heard of, and which has all sorts of useful applications in the real world. Some very simple rules (like “connect the midpoints of a triangle”) can result in some very complex and beautiful patterns.

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(Don’t worry, this is not a TED talk, there’s a sermon in here somewhere.)

Continue reading Fractal Compassion