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broken glass

Our home church of First Baptist London has launched a new congregation based on contemporary worship and meaningful community, called Maitland Street Church. It has been a massive undertaking, and since the launch in November has enjoyed a great start.

This should be a major cause to celebrate. In spite of this, I find myself asking – why bother?

Over the last couple weeks I’ve been part of online discussions with other Christians/theologians around the church’s stance on LGBT, and have been deeply troubled by what I have encountered – ranging from perspectives such as “what science teaches us about sexuality doesn’t trump the fact the Bible says homosexuality is sinful” to appeals to “natural theology makes it clear homosexuality is wrong”, with one person saying the idea of a homosexual Christian is something they hadn’t even heard of until very recently, and they find very confusing.

Yikes.

There’s absolutely no way to persuade someone if (their interpretation of) Scripture comes before everything else. Modern psychology and genetics teach that sexuality is not a choice, which to me would indicate to me that the entire sexual spectrum is intentional, yet so many in the church continue to refer to it as a “sinful lifestyle”. The longer the church holds onto these beliefs, the further it drifts into irrelevance.

What does this have to do with Maitland? Very little. But as part of the global church it is part of the massive upheavals happening across the world in respect to Christianity, and religion in general. CBC posted an article today called “Rise in new city churches bucks secular trend”, reporting on the rise and fall of churches in Canada and the demographics behind it. As well, NPR posted this article, “Sunday Assembly: A Church For The Godless Picks Up Steam”. CBC reports:

“…in Australia where, in late December, one in five residents identified themselves as non-religious. New Zealand numbers are even more stark. There, two-fifths of citizens identified as non-religious, pushing Christianity out of its longtime spot as the clear majority.

In Canada in 2011, about 7.8 million people — 24 per cent of the population — cite no religious affiliation, up nine per cent from a decade prior.”

I found this interesting, especially reading it in conjunction with the NPR article, which reports how a non-religious church is gaining attention by giving people a place to meet, dance, sing and have fellowship without religion. This is how they describe it:

It sometimes feels like church in the auditorium of the Professional Musicians union in Hollywood. It’s a Sunday morning, and hundreds of people are gathered to meditate, sing and listen to inspirational poetry and stories.

But then the live band starts up — performing songs by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Jerry Lee Lewis. And instead of a sermon, there’s a lecture by experimental psychologist and neuroscientist Jessica Cail about the biology of gender identification and sexual orientation.

Churches across North America (and elsewhere) are tackling the massive question of how to keep people interested in going to church, and especially how to draw back the many people that have “strayed” – most churches see about a 1/4 rate of retention from youth to young adults/adult congregants. Reginald Bibby, a University of Lethbridge sociology professor suggests in the CBC article “…many churches need to rethink their roles and become more family-focused, something evangelical churches have done right for decades, leaving them as one of the few not experiencing substantial drops in attendance. Evangelicals take for granted that they need to have a top-notch Sunday school for kids so the little kids are going to look forward to coming to church,”.

To me, these kinds of suggestions skate over the fundamental issues plaguing the church by making it sound like something as simple as shaking up Sunday School is the solution. As a young adult in the church, I’ve heard many snide remarks from senior congregants ranging from bemoaning “the moral laxness of this generation” to how the entire world is going to Hell via the unbelieving heathens. Not new sentiments, but one that young ears are sharp to pick up, especially when pointing at issues youth tend to care deeply about – issues like LGBT rights/equality and reproductive rights. Why would we put up this?

I know that by stepping away from an organization I am stepping away for opportunity to add my voice, and only contribute to the monoculture with my absence. But, I find myself starting this year wondering if I am really changing anything by being in church, and if it would be better to step away from it, even temporarily. I have been a hesitant Christian/churchgoer ever since I started about 7 years ago, but I seem to be finding especially few reasons to go now.

Not that there hasn’t been liberal movements inside the modern church. Pastor Mark Sandlin has been instrumental in creating The Christian Left and The God Article, which among other movements have provided a liberal perspective in what is otherwise an oppressively conservative culture. Pope Francis has shaken the world since becoming the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, becoming Time’s Person of the Year as he has challenged the Catholic Church to move in the world with compassion over condemnation, breathing fresh air into the church. Despite maintaining the Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality, the Advocate LGBT magazine named Pope Francis their “Person of the Year”. From the CBC article:

The Advocate magazine said it gave Francis the honour because, although he is still against homosexual marriage, his pontificate so far had shown “a stark change in [anti-gay] rhetoric from his two predecessors”. It hailed as a landmark his famous response last July to a reporter who asked about gay people in the Church: “If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?”

I’m grateful to have met other liberal Christians through resources like The Christian Left. I shouldn’t expect to surround myself only with like-minded people, but at the same time, it has been an enormous relief to find a wider of community that have similar struggles to me. And they have helped me continue to see the value of being part of a church community, though there are times like this that I still wonder.

So this is what I continue to struggle with. Should I keep with church and attempt to be a progressive voice, or decide that my energy, time and sanity are better invested elsewhere? I hope to remain and to be a positive influence in the church, and to challenge myself to read scripture, research further and work to expand my understanding of different theologies/philosophies in and outside the church. I believe that scientific and spiritual inquiry can and should work together, and I hope to find ways that this can work, and explore methods others use.

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pride flag

Right now is an exciting time in our church community, as we launch a new church from First Baptist Church London, called Maitland Street Church.

The team that is dedicated to the launch is meeting several times a week in a flurry of enthusiastic activity to iron out details as well as prepare the building (819 Maitland Street) for services starting in the fall. When I first committed to the project, I was likewise excited at the prospect of starting a new church founded on a philosophy of community, relationship and service.

But I’m struggling to remain excited, at no fault of the church or the people there.

I’ve always been hesitant in my Christianity. I came to faith in my early 20’s despite strong misgivings with many aspects of the global church and my experiences growing up (I wrote about it in more detail in my post What I Believe), and am always conscious of the associations that are created by saying I believe and attempt to follow Jesus Christ.

Even as we prepare for our new church, one that may be the closest thing I’ve found yet to a church I may be truly comfortable to call home, I feel more conscious than ever of how much Christians are in the news, in my mind, for all the wrong reasons.

This summer a debate has raged in Texas and elsewhere in the United States over female reproductive rights, with conservative Christians leading the charge for draconian measures that will put many lives in jeopardy. Even as a major victory for equality and civil rights was won when DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) was declared unconstitutional, conservative Christian groups across America continue to push to keep the definition of marriage only one man and one woman. Though it is absolutely no cost to them or their relationship, these conservative Christians are working to continue to deny thousands of homosexual couples the rights heterosexual couples enjoy.

Closer to home, the news isn’t much better.

Metro News reported recently that despite dropping levels of hate crimes in London, not all the news is good:

The bad news is that hate crimes against the LGBT community across the country rose by 10 per cent in 2011 after an increase in 2010 as well.

Local numbers weren’t broken down by race, religion or sexual orientation, but Pride London Festival president Andrew Rossner believes the local LGBT community is still too often the target of abuse.

Far too often the Bible is wielded by ignorant minds and inept hands as a cudgel instead of a message of support and encouragement, and Christians the oppressors instead of allies. In a Metro News article written yesterday on a Pride London event called Ignite Pride (hosted by Aeolian Hall, mirroring other successful events such as Ignite London and Ignite Health), the one commenter chose to quote Romans 1:18 as a Biblical example of why homosexuality is apparently sinful. Pastor and author Mark Sandlin has written the best commentary I’ve read about this kind of misappropriation of scripture, calling such methods “Biblical” gay bashing. I also wrote this post last summer on sexuality and scripture, and why methods like this of lifting text in an attempt to make a point not supported by the entirety of the Bible does a disservice to God and to scripture.

When I marched in the Pride London parade last year, the only mar on an otherwise great day was the clusters of people holding signs along the parade route with scripture similar to Romans 1:18. Unfortunately, so often when I think of Christians, this is what comes to mind: people that worship the same God I do, but (in my mind) doing it so very wrong. What I struggle to accept that we are all part of one broken, splintered and diverse church. And, there are many that are just as unhappy that I’m part of the fold.

What I hope to remember instead as I reflect on my belief and my faith is people like this I met at Pride, instead:

Pride London sign

I discovered that day that there are many people that believe like I do, including the directors of a London “Centre for Spiritual Wellness and Exploration”, called Sabbath Place. They conducted a church service in Queen’s Park before the parade got underway on the spirituality of sexuality and on how we are all God’s children. I’m so glad that I happened upon the gathering that day, in doing so I’ve made new friends, and found much needed renewal of my faith.

It also helped me to reconfirm my commitment to the church and the community, something that in writing this I hope to do again. I struggle as I see so many Christians doing what I see as so much damage to the world and each other, but have found that there are others that think as I do, and are willing to remain in the church despite so much pain, knowing that it would be much easier just to leave, knowing what is easy is almost never the right choice.

I know that we need to be the change that we want to see, and that if I were to just turn my back on the church, it would only become even more of what I despise.

And we all have so much we can give to the church, and there is still so much the church can do for the community. Churches continue to be one of the foundations of many communities, supplying counseling, support, encouragement, food and shelter to those that need it most.

This is what I want to focus on as I think of the new church we hope to build. The goal is to create a church founded on community and support, being a relational centre where the members are there for each other, but much more importantly, are there for their community at large. My hope is that I participate in this church by connecting with the community associations in the area and finding ways that we can support each other, while drawing further experience that may assist the Argyle Community Association as well. There are brief moments (including the Awesome London pitch party this week) where I see and feel the power of collaboration and what people can do together when they share experiences and assets to the benefit of all. I hope that as our communities and L0ndoners in general discover their strengths and those of the people around them, these experiences will only grow.

It can be daunting, but it is so important to stand up for what we believe in, and surprisingly community connections can be made when we do. I can’t wait to celebrate Pride London again this year, it is so important to stand up and be seen as an ally, and to celebrate our LGBT brothers and sisters. If you’ve been out to Pride before, I hope that you’ll be there again, and if this is your first time to the event, I especially hope that you’ll come and see what it is about!

Pastors often say that to be truly living a Christ-centred life you need to follow God out of your comfort zone. As a Christian, I feel that it is our duty to give voice to those who are marginalized, to be an ally to those who need support, and to remember that the most clear instruction we receive from Jesus was to love others and love God. If we start looking at the world through the lens of love first, everything else second, it becomes absurd to say my books says you and your partner should have different chromosomes to be together.

Step out of your comfort zone, and love extravagantly. That, to me, is the real purpose of the church.

equality cross

In 2005, Canada enacted the Civil Marriage Act, legalizing same-sex marriage. This was the final step in a debate that slowly swept through the provinces, with some provinces recognizing same-sex marriage as early as 2001. Through the long battle towards marriage equality here, lines were drawn between politicians and religious groups on either side of a seemingly impassable void. The agreement that was eventually struck was that civil marriages were legally available to both same- and opposite-sex couples, but religious institutions continue to have the choice to perform or not perform marriages, as per their individual beliefs. But even then the law was still in jeopardy, as several Conservative motions in the House of Commons sought to re-open the debate, until Prime Minister Stephen Harper vowed the case was closed.

Now in 2013, the United States are facing a similar decision. The Supreme Court of the United States is now addressing the constitutional legality of the 1996 law DOMA, Defence of Marriage Act, which codifies the non-recognition of same-sex marriages, restricting legally recognized marriages to being only between people of opposite sex. Many groups in the States argue this law intrudes on the lawful ability of individual states to recognize same-sex marriage, a view that some of the federal justices seem to share. There is growing excitement both in the States and as people watch from around the world, as this law may be overturned, potentially opening the floodgates to marriage equality in the United States.

But 2013 finds the States still bitterly divided over this issue, with more optimistic polls showing support for same-sex marriage slightly above 50%; although this number is less than encouraging to Canadians that see support levels closer to 80-90%, it is still a massive shift in American beliefs. As it was here, it is conservative religious and political groups leading the charge against same-sex marriage, with arguments including the belief that homosexuality is a sinful lifestyle choice that the rest of society shouldn’t have to tolerate, and is in fact destructive to society. On the other side, people in support of same-sex marriage tend to believe it is a legal issue, not a religious one, and that allowing same-sex marriage is an important step in ensuring true equality for all.

And in the middle of it all, many of the bitter battles of words and actions are waged by Christians on both side of the issue. This is something I struggle with deeply, and find myself wondering about as I examine this extraordinarily complex issue.

How do we meet others in this debate in a respectful and considerate way?

How do we discuss with others, when our views seem so completely at odds?

How do we meet in tolerance? Do we have to tolerate intolerance?

How we face this challenge in a Christian way is deeply challenging, though to me, the right choice is astoundingly simple. With a balance of scientific and scriptural study, I believe that Christians are called to walk with our LGBT brothers and sisters, and struggle with them towards marriage equality.

All reputable psychological associations, based on rigorous research across numerous disciplines, teach that sexuality is not a choice. In all the research I found, the organizations confirm that one cannot to choose their sexuality (while stressing sexual behaviour is the person’s individual choice). Britain’s Royal College of Psychiatrists states:

Despite almost a century of psychoanalytic and psychological speculation, there is no substantive evidence to support the suggestion that the nature of parenting or early childhood experiences play any role in the formation of a person’s fundamental heterosexual or homosexual orientation. It would appear that sexual orientation is biological in nature, determined by a complex interplay of genetic factors and the early uterine environment. Sexual orientation is therefore not a choice, though sexual behaviour clearly is. Thus LGB people have exactly the same rights and responsibilities concerning the expression of their sexuality as heterosexual people.

As well, because sexuality is not a choice and therefore an ingrained part of who a person is, it is unhealthy to encourage/allow practices that try to “change” one’s sexuality. They argue that it cannot be done, and only damages the person to be “changed”, as sexuality is not a “problem” to be “fixed”. The American Psychological Association, the most respected and relied upon psychological association in the world, states [emphasis mine]:

All major national mental health organizations have officially expressed concerns about therapies promoted to modify sexual orientation. To date, there has been no scientifically adequate research to show that therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation (sometimes called reparative or conversion therapy) is safe or effective. Furthermore, it seems likely that the promotion of change therapies reinforces stereotypes and contributes to a negative climate for lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons. This appears to be especially likely for lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals who grow up in more conservative religious settings.

This leads to the issue of what Christians and the Bible have to say about sexuality and sin. I also believe through critical and thorough reading of the Bible that one’s sexuality isn’t a sin, Christians should support same sex marriage. I find it abhorrent that the Holy Word of God, our God of mercy and compassion, is used out of context to prop up brittle arguments to restrict what should be a right. There are few enough passages that address homosexuality, written in a time when the word has little to no bearing on the meaning today. Above all, the message that speaks to my heart, that I believe should compel every Christian to support our LGBT brothers and sisters, is the Greatest Commandment:

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

This takes us back to – how do we face this difficult issue in a Christ-like way?

I think it starts with open hearts, and compassionate dialogue. We should prayerfully consider what exactly it is that we believe, and meet others in a place where we can truly talk it over, and learn and consider exactly where their heart directs them. You may be very surprised where it is, and hopefully the conversation can be one of mutual enlightenment.

One of the most powerful conversations I had about same-sex marriage was with one of our pastors, someone I deeply respect and admire. I found out that our views are very different about same-sex marriage, but I believe we both left with a better understanding of the issue, and a greater respect for each other. If nothing else, by knowledge of the depth of thought and feeling we’ve each poured into it.

I expressed many of the thoughts written here, while he told me that he has prayed and thought and read over same-sex marriage for many years, and has been deeply saddened and wounded by actions of many in the global church towards the LGBT community, but also very wounded that many have assumed the worst of him because he doesn’t think the church should perform same-sex marriages. Through his scholarship and work in the church, he believes that Jesus called on only one man and one woman to be wed; I obviously disagree, but I hope that I have gained better understanding as we talked, and that I may have planted even a small seed of further consideration in his heart.

In the very end, this is an issue of marriage rights, legal and not religious. Marriage is a legal right before a religious one, and I believe that every consenting adult couple should have the ability to wed, to share a life together, and not be restricted from the legal rights heterosexual couples enjoy, and far too often, take for granted. No one should be restricted from what should be their right by their chromosomes, an issue I am honestly amazed still exists in 2013. I believe religious institutions should perform same-sex marriages as expressions of love and devotion, but it is their right not to. It should not be their right to influence the legality of the marriage. We are not theocracies.

But regardless of what I believe, this debate is largely a bitter battle between Christians as it continues to unfold, and will likely continue to long after the legal debate is settled. As we approach Easter, and spiritually approach the cross, how can we face each other, and accept both Christ and the global church into our hearts?

We must follow Christ’s divine example, and reach out with compassion, grace, and understanding.

Knitting

I have been knitting for over 6 years now, and it is definitely one of my favourite pastimes. As I’ve learned more about it, and slowly learned new projects and new methods, my appreciation of it has only deepened. I’ve learned that there are so many benefits to knitting, beyond being able to produce clothes on my own. They include:

Community

Knitting (and other hobbies) are a wonderful way to meet others and connect over a common activity, share ideas/patterns and participate in mentoring/learning relationships. There are even digital knitting communities, like the hugely popular knitting social networking site, Ravelry.

Relaxation

In her always sold out talks, knitting blogger The Yarn Harlot (aka Stephanie Pearl-McPhee) has explored the neuroscience of knitting, and its short and long-term impact on the human brain. Long time knitters have the same overdeveloped areas of the brain as people who meditate constantly, like Buddhist monks. Its meditative qualities both allow it to be an activity that is entertaining when done alone, or done unconsciously while the brain engages in other activity. Knitting has been shown to possibly reduce the pain of diseases like Crohn’s and fibromyalgia. Knitting has been shown to potentially reduce trauma and post-traumatic stress when “used” in emergency situations. If we all carried emergency knitting, we could reduce the impact of bad days, bad news, and stressful or frightening situations. Some students with ADHD use knitting as part of their learning plan, allowing part of their brain to focus on the repetitive motion of knitting, and increasing focus and engagement on their lesson or reading. None of these effects happen overnight though, a small amount of practice on the basic stitches is necessary first.

Appreciation of history

Knitting has helped me develop a greater appreciation for history and tradition, connecting with an occupation that people having been doing for over 1000 years. And as a male knitter, I’m often teased for doing something so “delicate” and “feminine”. Beyond disagreeing to such constrictive gender identifications, I’m fascinated to learn more about how much male tradition there is in knitting (it was originally a male-only occupation). This includes events like the world wars, where often men were sent knitting needles and wool instead of completed clothing, because they were to produce their own in times of rest. Beyond utility, this may have been a welcome distraction, as the repetition and focus knitting demands could have helped soldiers find some peace.

Charity

This is one of my favourite aspects of knitting, and connects so well with others. There are many community groups and organizations that knit together for common goals, both close to home and international. Currently I knit for a London group called Keeping Kids Warm, which collect hand-knitted and bought clothing for children in disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the city. To me, this is a wonderful way to give back to our city, meet other knitters and connect over a common hobby and passion. It is also a terrific way for many to continue to connect with their city, as many of the contributors are elderly and/or shut in, so though they cannot come out to events they can continue to participate.

These are only a few of the many benefits of knitting. There are many knitting groups across the city, and in most communities. I encourage everyone to give it a try, and am always glad to help others learn if they’re interested in starting!