Merry Christmas!

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Luke 2:14

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Questioning Your Doubts: A Harvard PhD Explores Challenges to Faith

Thank you!

May you have a wonderful day celebrating Christ’s birth!

Christina

 

 

Paying Attention to Product and Process

Many scientists, especially biochemists, love to cook when they are not spending time in the laboratory. After all, a recipe bears resemblance to a protocol, some measuring cups look like beakers, and a creative dish is just an edible experiment. Whenever I have the opportunity, I enjoy spending time at the granite lab bench known as the kitchen counter.

My goal when cooking is a tasty, nutritious meal that appeals to my family and any guests present. This meal is the product.  I can choose to bake, boil, sauté, poach, steam, fry, broil, grill, braise, or cook sous-vide. These techniques are the process. My choice of cooking method and my skill using that method will affect the quality and properties of the product. For example, steaming vegetables preserves more vitamins than boiling them. Both steaming and boiling transfer heat through water. When you steam broccoli, you place the vegetable in a closed environment (pot with a lid on it) saturated with steam. This method softens the broccoli while maintaining the flavor and vitamin C content. If you were to boil the broccoli, the water-soluble vitamin C would leach out into the water, reducing the nutritional value of the vegetable. Cooking the broccoli sous-vide (under vacuum) preserves water-soluble vitamins, but requires the use of special plastic bags and controlled temperatures not normally found in home kitchens.

College students planning careers in medicine go through the experience of memorizing biochemical pathways for metabolism in the human body, such as the breakdown of carbohydrates into energy. Glucose, fructose 6-phosphate, and glyceraldehyde 3-phosphate are some of the products of sugar metabolism that a student needs to memorize. However, hexokinase, phosphoglucose isomerase, and glyceraldehyde 3-phosphate dehydrogenase are equally important to students, scientists, and physicians. These enzymes convert one metabolite to another. They are responsible for the process that makes the products. Inborn errors in metabolism can cause serious disease for infants and small children. These errors arise from defects in enzymes. When the process is wrong, you do not get the products you need.

Products often catch our attention, while we forget the importance of the process. We see the athlete holding up the Olympic gold medal for the cameras, the graduate walking across the stage for his diploma, or the crisp pages of a newly released book. These products may inspire us to reach for similar goals ourselves. However, if we want the product, we must be willing to go through the process. If you want to be a world-class athlete, you must face hours of repetitive and grueling physical training. If you want a diploma, you have to learn to study. If you want to write a book, be ready to invest blocks of time writing and editing over the course of months.

We may admire a person of good character and forget that spiritual growth is also a process. “Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness, and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love” (2 Peter 1:5-7). To each good trait that we develop as we grow, we need to be prepared to add the next one. The process of growing to become more like Christ resembles slow cooking more than deep-frying. To get a healthy product, we must be willing to forgo our impatience with the process. Instead of becoming discouraged, we need to stick to the goal and take the next step, trusting that God finishes what He starts (Philippians 1:6).

Key Concepts to Tweet

  • Products often catch our attention, while we forget the importance of the process.  Buffer
  • If we want the product, we must be willing to go through the process.  Buffer
  • To get a healthy product, we must be willing to forgo our impatience with the process.  Buffer

What Lab Glassware Taught Me About Community

As a graduate student working in a research lab, I quickly came to appreciate the person who washed and prepared the glassware. If we ran out of clean graduated cylinders, beakers, and flasks, all the experiments for the day would need to be put on hold. Furthermore, we had to place our trust in the person who prepared the glassware. Any soap residue left behind could ruin an experiment. If the flasks were not sterilized properly, our results would be skewed. The lady who prepared our glassware was a member of our research team, and her work was no less important than ours. My scientific adviser taught us to respect all team members by inviting everyone to laboratory social events.

In the laboratory or in the church, there are no unimportant people. Everyone is a vital member of the team. The key to appreciating the unique contributions made by each person is a little dose of humility. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves (Philippians 2:3). Humility purifies my motives, helping me look beyond myself to the needs of others. Humility teaches me to share credit with others on the team and acknowledge their perspective. Humility produces a realistic view of life, showing me my role within a given organization is vital but time-limited. Knowing I will someday yield my role to another motivates me to teach and train those who will take my place.

When I am able to honor people for their contributions within a workplace or church community (Romans 12:10), I gain the freedom to learn from them, and I feel less pressure to pretend to be someone I am not. Celebrating another person’s success does not diminish the value of my own work on the team. Instead, acknowledging the achievements of others motivates me to do my part with greater excellence.

Key Concepts to Tweet

  • In the workplace or in the church, there are no unimportant people.  Buffer
  • When I am able to honor people for their contributions, I gain the freedom to learn from them.  Buffer
  • Celebrating another person’s success does not diminish the value of my own work on the team.  Buffer

Questions Jesus Asked in His Ministry

Sometimes people get the false impression that faith means learning the right answers. However, Jesus understood the importance of asking the right questions. Here are a few examples.

Questions of Priorities

The priorities I would write on paper and the priorities my choices write on the hours of my life sometimes begin to differ in the rush of living. A good question slices through the growing hypocrisy. Jesus understood the gap between intentions and actions, asking questions such as:

And why do you worry about clothes? (Matthew 6:28)

So, could you not watch with me one hour? (Matthew 26:40)

Why are you sleeping? (Luke 22:46)

Questions about Emotions

Jesus understood that faith is much more than intellectual assent. He knew that a good question presses beyond mere information to address the emotions driving our choices.

Why are you so afraid? (Mark 4:40)

Why are you crying? (John 20:15)

Does this offend you? (John 6:61)

Questions about Purpose

Jesus knew we are made for more than mere survival. Life is more than eating, sleeping, and working. Everyone has a greater purpose beyond just getting through the day. He asked people questions to help them get their focus beyond their immediate concerns to the larger spiritual truths.

But what about you? Who do you say that I am? (Matthew 16:15)

What do you want me to do for you? (Matthew 20:32)

Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? (Luke 5:22)

Honest answers to good questions grow our faith more than memorizing the right answers ever will.

 

Key Concepts to Tweet

  • A good question slices through growing hypocrisy.  Buffer
  • How do you handle the gap between intentions and actions?  Buffer
  • Everyone has a greater purpose beyond just getting through the day.  Buffer

Winning in the Twelfth Inning

How can you not be romantic about baseball? – Billy Beane

Last Saturday, my family had the opportunity to attend a baseball game at Fenway Park. For many years, I worked in a research lab across the street from Fenway, so taking the subway into the city brought back memories. You could not have asked for a more beautiful September afternoon to enjoy a baseball game.

America’s Pastime

Sitting in a good seat directly behind home plate, I quickly understood why baseball earned the appellation “America’s pastime”.  As the vendors came through the stands with hotdogs, lemonade, hot chocolate, and cotton candy, I felt like I was having a picnic with all the other fans. People passed money and napkins down the rows, helping each other. The entire stadium participated in “the wave”, standing with arms thrown in the air just long enough to create a ripple effect.  Everyone enjoyed a party in the stands for many innings as the two teams scored runs.

The Ninth Inning

The atmosphere changed a bit in the final inning. At the bottom of the eighth inning, the Boston Red Sox tied the Baltimore Orioles, 6-6. Everyone focused on the field during the ninth inning, especially me. When the Baltimore Orioles failed to score in the top of the ninth, I grew excited at the possibility of my home team winning this game. What a perfect ending to a perfect day!

Unfortunately for Red Sox fans, the ninth inning ended with the tie still standing. Now the Red Sox had to keep the Baltimore Orioles from scoring in yet another inning. While I grew a little nervous for the Red Sox, I felt I just received a bonus. I would have the chance to enjoy the game longer. In the top of the tenth inning, one player grounded out to third, one flied out to right, and the last player grounded out to second. Relief washed over me! Time to win the game in the bottom of the tenth.

Only Runs Count

The shadow of the stadium grew long across the field, and many fans seated around me headed for home.  In baseball and in life, not everyone sticks around when the game goes into extra innings.  When one player singled to the left, then advanced to second when another player walked, I thought the Red Sox would win the game.  After all, they finally got on base, something the other team failed to do.  But in baseball, only runs count. The next player struck out swinging, and all the hard work was for nothing.

The Green Monster at Fenway Park runs out of room after ten innings, so the entire scoreboard was reset. Inning number eleven would be recorded as inning number one. Even more fans left the stadium. Would the Red Sox be able to keep the Orioles from scoring in yet another inning? The first two Orioles players struck out, and the third grounded out to second. Hope swelled in my heart! However, the Red Sox did not even get on base in the bottom of the eleventh.

Waiting to Win

The Baltimore Orioles, who have been almost unbeatable this season when a game goes into extra innings, were simply waiting for their opportunity to win. Opportunity knocked in the top of the twelfth inning, and the Orioles answered with three runs. The Red Sox could not return the answer in the bottom of the twelfth. I left Fenway disappointed for the loss, but inspired by observing what it takes to win in the twelfth inning.

In life and in our journeys of faith, sometimes the game goes into extra innings. We experience delays and unexpected outcomes. Extra innings can breed doubt. Not all our fans will stand with us, although watching the faithful ones keep cheering delivers great joy. Winning in extra innings requires perseverance and quiet confidence to wait for the right opportunity. Winning in our spiritual lives requires living with unanswered questions, trusting when we cannot understand, and finishing the journey we started. Only runs count. (1 Corinthians 9:24)

* The Boston Red Sox won the game the following day at the top of the ninth inning.

Key Concepts to Tweet

  • How can you not be romantic about baseball? – Billy Beane  Buffer
  • Winning in extra innings requires perseverance and quiet confidence.  Buffer
  • In baseball, only runs count.  Buffer

Constructing Newton’s Bridge

Isaac Newton, one of the most influential scientists who ever lived, also was a Christian theologian. He once said, “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.” His quote resonates with me because bridges filled the landscape of my childhood.

I spent the first eighteen years of my life growing up in “The City of Bridges”. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, contains more bridges within its city limits than Venice, Italy, with the current number of bridges totaling nearly two thousand. Three major rivers come together at the Point, the location of Pittsburgh’s iconic fountain first built in 1974.  In addition to the presence of rivers, the steep hills and ravines around the city make bridges a necessity for transportation. The early European settlers of Pittsburgh quickly learned that they had to choose between living in isolation or finding creative ways to span the waters and valleys.

People cluster on one of two riverbanks in their approach to relating human reasoning to faith. The first approach, common in many Christian circles in my childhood and college years and persisting to this day, revolves around mistrust of the intellect. Acquiring knowledge, analyzing information, and questioning assumptions become suspect activities. Too much thinking means that you are not listening to your heart; you are out of touch with practical concerns; or you are not truly spiritual.

Many Christians find support for mistrusting the intellect in a variety of Biblical passages. All the way back in Eden, Eve’s temptation included a desire for wisdom and knowledge. In Proverbs 3:5, an often-quoted verse reads, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” In the New Testament in John 20:29, Jesus said to the doubting Apostle Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” In his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:27), the Apostle Paul explained, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

Clustered on the second riverbank, we find those who worship the life of the mind above all else. Human reasoning reigns supreme. The standard for judging truth becomes data collected through the human senses and processed by rational thought. Atheists and agnostics wield Occam’s razor to slice away the possibility of revelation, preferring explanations that avoid spirituality. While the 14th century Franciscan friar William of Ockham was right to suggest that a scientific model should avoid introducing more causes than necessary, the principle often is used to exclude from the possibility of existence everything not perceivable by the human senses. Occam’s razor is a sound approach to the practice of science, but when brandished too freely, justifies positivism. This philosophy persuades those dwell on this second riverbank to stop their search for spiritual truth when they reach the limits of human reasoning and empirical evidence.

Perhaps the two camps of settlers could survive adequately without venturing beyond the limits of their respective riverbanks. Yet I join Isaac Newton and the early settlers of Pittsburgh in the conviction that a richer life waits for those willing to construct a bridge.

Key Concepts to Tweet

  • “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.” Isaac Newton  Buffer
  • People cluster on one of two riverbanks in their approach to relating human reasoning to faith.  Buffer
  • A richer life waits for those willing to construct a bridge.  Buffer

Patterns Likely to Lead to Success

I enjoy sports on a recreational rather than competitive level, yet I often find inspiration for my non-athletic goals by observing the practices of top athletes. Even elite athletes occasionally experience bad days, sustain injuries, and perform under their potential for a game or a short stretch of a season. Yet, successful athletes know how to return to high performance levels after a setback. They know the secret to a comeback is repeating previous patterns of success.

Finding Patterns

A good coach will help an athlete uncover patterns worth repeating. For example, reflecting on what makes for a successful practice session shows an athlete how to prepare for the game. The coach prompts the athlete to consider the amount of sleep he had the night before, the particular foods he ate, how he warmed up, and what was on his mind. Many times when I am working toward a particular goal, I reflect on my past successes to look for useful patterns. I remember what it feels like to focus wholeheartedly on a goal. I remember how to disband negative thoughts and embrace a faith-filled outlook. I remember the work intensity necessary to meet a deadline. I rehearse in my mind the feelings associated with completion of the goal.

Attending Practice

Once I uncover the useful patterns, I need to put them into practice. Our brains love to form habits. Habits make life easy by decreasing the amount of mental processing needed to complete a task. Once you learn how to ride a bike, scramble eggs for breakfast or drive to work along a particular route, your brain guides you almost effortlessly through these tasks without you consciously thinking through each detailed step. Of course, as every golfer who has struggled to fix a faulty swing will tell you, habits can sometimes work against you.

Patterns in our brain are like riverbeds through which water effortlessly flows. Practice is about carving out and strengthening useful patterns. The key to getting rid of a bad habit or correcting a faulty golf swing is to repeat the new habit or swing until it replaces the old one. You can bring old patterns of success to life again to help you in your new endeavor by consciously repeating these patterns until they become automatic once more.

Being Yourself

Everyone has a unique way of getting things done that works for them. I have known many academic high achievers who seem to wait to the last minute to spring into action, yet always brilliantly achieve their goals. At first glance, you might accuse these achievers of procrastinating and urge them to change. However, what appears to outsiders as procrastinating is a pattern of success in disguise. These high achievers function by quietly collecting and processing vast quantities of data before taking visible action. In reality, they have not waited until the last minute to work toward their goals; they have been at work all along.

Both athletes and academic high achievers understand that being yourself is the key to high performance. My pattern of success may be very different from yours. You will do best when you employ your own previous patterns of success instead of mine. Stay true to what works for you to achieve your own best results.

From a spiritual standpoint, moving past doubts and disappointments requires revisiting key moments in your faith journey and remembering what God has done in your life. A good way to rekindle any relationship, whether spiritual or earthly, is to remember the relationship at its best and try to recapture those feelings by repeating the behaviors and actions that strengthened the relationship in the first place. Those patterns likely to lead to success live in your memories. They are waiting to help you succeed in sports, in life, and in all your relationships.

Key Concepts to Tweet

  • Successful athletes know how to return to high performance levels after a setback.  Buffer
  • Stay true to what works for you to achieve your own best results.  Buffer
  • Patterns likely to lead to success live in your memories.  Buffer

Blip or Trend?

At some point in every relationship and along every path to a goal, something goes wrong. A friend disappoints you. A partner is insensitive. You are disillusioned by how a teacher, coach, or church leader handles a situation. You experience a setback. You make a careless mistake. You skip your morning run and choose a double fudge sundae for an afternoon snack. The moment is forever gone; the words cannot be unspoken; and the regret begins.

You cannot undo your choice or rewind your circumstances. Your failed midterm will never magically be given an “A”. In all likelihood, your former boss will not hire you back. However, you have a new choice to make. You get to decide whether this moment in your life remains a blip or becomes a trend.

Choosing Your Future

About five years ago, I learned the concept of the “blip” from a friend who worked as Director of Human Resources for a large bank. He said that a person who loses his job at the bank must decide if this event is a “blip” or the beginning of a career downslide. If the ex-employee is willing to learn the necessary lesson from the unpleasant experience, the event becomes a blip. If the person goes on to the next job with the lesson unlearned, history can repeat itself again, slowly derailing the person’s professional life. Finally, if the person learns his lesson but becomes too demoralized by the experience, the person may never regain his former career trajectory.

Graphing Your Life

A “blip” refers to a point at which a line on a graph makes a sharp change of direction before returning to its original course. A trend is a long-range change in a certain direction. In other words, one argument does not need to create permanent conflict. One double fudge sundae does not necessarily mean the end of a person’s diet. You can lose a battle and go on to win the war.

Marriages that go the distance happen because a husband and wife decide to turn setbacks, disagreements, and stressful events into blips, not trends. People who attend the same church for years do the same within their faith communities. Successful businesses surmount a bad quarter to turn a profit over time. History teaches that individuals who make their mark on society persevere past the quitting point for everyone else.

Clearing the Hurdles

Jonas Salk, the University of Pittsburgh researcher who developed the first safe and effective polio vaccine, had to clear several hurdles before he led his own laboratory. Three institutions turned him down before the dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine offered him a lab. However, when he arrived in Pittsburgh, Salk quickly discovered that the lab was in a cramped basement location of an old building with no laboratory equipment. Yet Salk found funding from the Mellon family, a wealthy and influential family in Pittsburgh.  He turned the cramped basement into a working virology laboratory and went on to develop a vaccine for the worst disease of the postwar era. The rejections became blips and Jonas Salk became a household name.

The next time your faith is shaken through challenging circumstances or frustrating encounters with difficult people, remember Jonas Salk. Choose to make your momentary problem a blip. Even if justified, reject the impulse to wallow in your frustrations, turn away from relationships, and become cynical. Instead, question your doubts, re-engage people productively, and get back in the game.

Key Concepts to Tweet

  • You can lose a battle and go on to win the war.  Buffer
  • Choose to make your momentary problem a blip.  Buffer

Three Great Easter Questions

While preparing for the Easter holiday, I began to think about the great questions contained in the Biblical account of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, celebrated by Christians on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. These questions quickly get to the heart of the Christian message and remain relevant even today.  How would you answer the following three questions?

1.    You are not one of his disciples, are you? (John 18:17)

A young girl asked the Apostle Peter this question as he was waiting outside the high priest’s courtyard after Jesus was arrested. Peter had enough courage to follow Jesus to the religious leader’s court when the other disciples simply stayed behind. Peter put his faith into action more than most, but in the end, not enough to keep from denying Jesus to a servant girl. Fear won the day over faith. Weakness triumphed over love and loyalty. The question of the servant girl echoes to this present moment. Everyone who learns about Jesus must decide, “Am I his disciple or not?”

2.    What is truth? (John 18:38)

Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who sat in judgment at Jesus’ trial, asked Jesus this question. Of course, Pilate asked the same question that philosophers have been asking and attempting to answer for thousands of years. But Jesus was not another philosopher with a theory of truth. He claimed to be the truth (John 14:6). Pilate was asking the wrong question. The right question becomes, “Who is truth?”

3.    Why do you look for the living among the dead? (Luke 24:5)

Two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning asked this question to the women who had come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint the body with burial spices. The women came to pay respect to the dead, but they became the first witnesses to the central miracle of Christianity. Christianity is not about the sayings of a good moral teacher. Christianity goes beyond advice for living a successful human life. Christianity is about resurrection. Resurrection means hope beyond this lifetime, power beyond natural explanation, and love that lasts for eternity. A Christian settles for nothing less.

Key Concepts to Tweet

  • Jesus was not another philosopher with a theory of truth. He claimed to be the truth.  Buffer
  • Resurrection means hope beyond this lifetime, power beyond natural explanation, and love that lasts...  Buffer

Which Butterfly Caused the Tornado?

The public expects science to deliver discoveries that provide increasingly precise answers about our world. Yet some scientific discoveries suggest inherent limits to scientific knowledge. One example is chaos theory, popularized as the “butterfly effect.”

The butterfly effect is a simple insight first extracted from the complex science of meteorology by Edward Lorentz in 1961 at MIT. He found that small changes in initial conditions, such as rounding a number used to represent an atmospheric condition from .506127 to .506, could completely transform a long-term weather forecast. He explained this insight in his 1972 paper, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”

His paper described both a practical limit for weather predictions and a philosophical limit for the explanatory powers of science. In complex, nonlinear systems, a small change in input can produce a large change in output. Thus, weather predictions more than a week in advance always will be fairly inaccurate. The philosophical limit is that the effects of chaos prevent us from knowing which butterfly caused the tornado.

So the lesson of the butterfly effect is that our world will remain fundamentally unpredictable because tiny differences in our scientific measurements make too big a difference in the final answer. Everything happens for a reason, but science may be unable to give us an exact cause for an event. Accepting limitations to the explanatory power of science does not diminish the importance of science. After all, the discovery of our human limitations in fully comprehending our world is a finding with profound significance.

Questions to ponder: What does the inherent limitations of science say about the limits of human understanding? Does science preclude spirituality?

Key Concepts to Tweet

  • Everything happens for a reason, but science may be unable to give us an exact cause for an event.  Buffer
  • Accepting limitations to the explanatory power of science does not diminish the importance of...  Buffer