Thursday, 2 July 2020

States of Matter (or Making a Glorious Mess)

It started off as a lesson about touch.


Theo's meant to be looking at the five senses this week, you see, so we've had a bit of fun with tasting food while blindfolded, and guessing the smells.  Today was the sense of touch, so I thought, "Ah yes, those touchy-feely boxes." 

Then I thought, "How about jelly?" 

Then I thought, "Gels.  Foams.  Aerosols.  All sorts of fun stuff!"

And quite frankly, if having a chemistry degree doesn't mean you teach your kids about colloids and viscosity by the age of 10, then what is the point?

So for colloids, we had green jelly, blue shower gel, shaving foam and yoghurt.  (Is yoghurt a colloid?  I'm pretty sure it is.)  Otherwise known as lots of lovely gloop. 

If you missed that bit of your education, a colloid is basically one state of matter dispersed in another one.  So you can have a solid mixed with a liquid, which gives you something like shower gel, jelly, or yoghurt; or liquid mixed with gas, which gives you shaving foam, whipped cream, or whisked egg whites.  Most things that are kinda gloopy are probably colloids.  This website gives a pretty good explanation.


Powders are another interesting one.  All the tiny bits are definitely solid, but because they can flow over each other like the molecules do in a liquid, you can pour a powder a bit like you pour a liquid.

(You can also explode some powders quite nicely, but I think we'll stick to watching YouTube videos for that experiment!)

We had flour, salt demerara sugar and custard powder for a nice range of particle sizes, and talked about whether they felt soft or gritty or squeaky (that was the custard powder).


And then we had viscous liquids.  That's black treacle, golden syrup, olive oil and water.  Viscous is one of my favourite words.  It means thick and sticky.  Viscosity is the measure of how viscous something is.  Treacle has the highest viscosity here, and water the lowest, and we talked about if a liquid got really really thick and sticky, it would pretty much be a solid.


Of course, after all that, they said, "Can we mix it all together?"

And I said, "Sure, why not!"

So we had this:

And this:

And finally these, which you'd almost think were edible if you didn't know they were composed of shower gel, black treacle, cornflour and shaving foam.


After that we melted chocolate and coconut oil (solid into liquid transition) and made these, which are, in fact, edible, if you don't mind all the sugar balls getting stuck in your teeth.


And after that I had to wash sticky gloop off every bowl and spoon in the house, and get the boys to change their T-shirts.  But it was worth it to hear them say, "That was the best homeschooling day ever!"

As long as no one says, "Mum, can we do it all again tomorrow?"

Saturday, 27 June 2020

A cycle of growth

I wonder if you feel like you've had to do a lot of growing lately?

For once I'm not talking about vegetable gardens (although the strawberries are ripening fast), but personal growth in response to events around us.  There have been so many things happening in the world that we have to understand and adapt to, and it often feels overwhelming.  How do we comprehend it?  What's the right thing to do?  How much do we have to change, personally?  What are we responsible for?

Changing and growing is complicated.  It's not like hopscotch, where you hop neatly from box to box and end up at the finish line.  Sometimes there are obvious changes to make and actions to take, but not always.  A good analogy might be a whirlpool, where each part swirls into the next, sometimes trapping you in an eddy, sometimes pushing you onwards.

I couldn't do a good diagram of a whirlpool, so you'll have to imagine this one being full of eddies and swirls instead of nice neat arrows and straight edges!  But I've found it helpful to think about growth as including these four steps, and to try to make time for each one.

hearing

This is usually the first step in realising we need to change something. We hear a new perspective, or encounter a new situation, which makes us think about the world differently.  For many of us recently, the shocking murder of George Floyd has made us re-evaluate our experience and understanding of systemic racism.  The images of pollution on Blue Planet made us reconsider how we use and dispose of plastic.  Or we may have talked to a friend about their struggle to get help for mental illness, or seen an article about living conditions for cocoa growers.

Last year I started to hear stories from LGBT+ people about their experience with church.  I'd been vaguely aware that it was a difficult area, but it was shocking to hear so many voices saying, "I was told God could never love anyone like me", "I prayed for years to be healed", "I felt like I had to choose between my faith and who I was".  Fortunately there were also some stories of acceptance and support, but these often came after years of struggle, not as a matter of course.  That was a first step for me in realising how narrow my experience of Christianity had been, and trying to learn more from people who come at faith from a very different direction.

When we hear, that new story opens up a possibility or a problem, and prompts us to find out more.

learning

Once we've heard that initial story, we will probably find that there are a lot more.  Suddenly we're immersed in statistics, figures, conflicting opinions and personal experiences.  We read books, watch documentaries, join Facebook groups, participate in discussions.  We are learning not just what we didn't know, but how much we didn't know.

It can be tempting to get bogged down in the learning quadrant, trying to find out everything at once, or to give up in despair and ignore the whole thing.  There's also the danger that we feel like learning is all we need to do - once we know about the issue, we don't actually have to do anything differently.  For me, reading books is easy; getting involved with actual people is much harder.

In the wake of Black Lives Matter, it's been easier than ever for those of us who are white to learn what life is like for our black neighbours.  I'm grateful to authors like Afua Hirsch, Ben Lindsay, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  I'm grateful to my friends who have shared their experiences on Facebook or spoken up in church.  There is a lot that I simply had no idea about.  Learning more has been saddening, breathtaking, humbling and eye-opening.

Once we've started to sort through the mass of new information and emotions, the obvious question is, what do we do now?

following

This is the action quadrant.  I've titled it following partly because the original idea for this came from a Bible story, so the reference was to following Jesus; also in the sense that we follow the new ideas and stories to grow - they lead us to knowing different people, doing different things, organising our lives in different ways.  Hopefully.

The amazing Jen at Sustainable(ish) recently held a week-long online festival about all things eco.  It was packed with speakers on topics from mending clothes to growing veg to inspiring your family to get involved.  The one thing I really liked, though, was her persistent question, "What are you going to do now?"  Every talk was ended with the challenge to make one small change as a result, and there was a pledge page to say what you were going to do.  I found that pointer from learning to following enormously helpful.  It was also great to have the emphasis on little steps, rather than feeling like you had to save the whole planet in one go.

As we follow and make changes, it inevitably leads us back to learning more and hearing more.  But the final step is also important.

sitting down

We need rest.  Changing and growing is exhausting, especially if we are trying to convince others to change too, or battling against opposition and circumstances.  We need time to sit down; or to walk, dance, lose ourselves in a book or play silly games with the kids.

Sitting down also carries the idea of reflecting and attending.  It gives us space to think about what we are doing and why we are doing it, and it gives us time to allow our creativity and imagination to work.  If we are following God, we sit down, like Mary, to attend to his words and spend time in his presence.  We "re-centre our scattered senses" in the words of Lectio 365.  Time spent sitting down isn't a waste, or an optional extra.  It's a full part of what we need to do.

In the autumn I attended an away day run by the Bishop of Derby.  Often a conference day will leave me so full of information that I feel like I need another day to process it all!  But this one was different.  Bishop Libby had structured it so that each section of speaking was followed by an equal amount of silent time to consider what we had heard.  We could pray (there were prompts if required), write, walk around the neighbourhood, or just sit in the beautiful building.  I came away feeling refreshed.  That time to sit down had been just what I needed in the busyness of life.

So sitting down re-invigorates us for the challenge of making changes.  We gain a new focus as we hear, learn, follow, and grow in new ways.

Image from Pixabay

Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Martha and Mary: What happened next?

My name is Martha and I work in a church kitchen.  So I tend to have a certain affinity with the Biblical story of Martha and Mary.

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, the traditional version is this.
Jesus and his friends went to stay with two sisters, Martha and Mary.  Mary spent her time sitting with Jesus and listening to all his stories, whereas Martha was trying to keep up with all the housework.  Finally Martha got fed up and went to Jesus.  "Don't you care that I'm doing all the work while Mary just sits here?" she asked him.  "Can't you tell her to help?"  But Jesus said, "Martha, you are worried and distracted by all the work, but there's only one thing you need to do.  Mary has chosen the better part, and it won't be taken away from her."
Source: Wikimedia Commons

(I rather like this picture.  Martha looks like she might just lob a dead bird at Jesus if he doesn't get up and help, pronto.)


Or the meme version:
This is Martha.

Martha runs around doing all the work.

This is Mary.

Mary sits and listens to Jesus.

Don't be like Martha.

Be like Mary.

Mary, clearly, is the one who has her priorities right in this story.  But you won't be surprised to hear that I have some sympathy with Martha.  After all, the work needed doing - she had a house full of people to look after.  Was she being unreasonable?

I think Martha was being very reasonable to stop and ask for help.  Because we don't, do we?  We soldier on, listening to our families sitting around, waiting in vain for them to realise what we want them to do.  We'll make cryptic comments, or hold whole conversations inside our own heads, but we'll never ask, because it should be obvious what needs doing!

But Martha asked.  So either she was desperate, or she was better than most of us at recognising her passive-aggressive tendencies.  At any rate, she went to Jesus and asked for what she needed.  And Jesus, as he did so often, looked at her and told her that actually, she needed something else.

The question is, how did he do it?  If you re-read the story, you'll see that it stops on quite a cliffhanger.  Jesus has uttered his nice neat phrase, but then what?  Does Martha sit down?  Or throw a dead bird at him?  Here are a few more possibilities.

But Jesus said, "Martha, you are worried and distracted by all the work, but there's only one thing you need to do.  Mary has chosen the better part, and it won't be taken away from her." Mary smiled smugly at Martha.  Then Mary and Jesus turned away and continued their conversation.  Martha stood there for a moment, then returned to the kitchen and vented her anger on the pots and pans, muttering darkly about people who just turned up at other people's house and expected to be fed.  Jesus shook his head sadly.  "Some people just don't get it, do they Mary?"

2  But Jesus said, "Martha, you are worried and distracted by all the work, but there's only one thing you need to do.  Mary has chosen the better part, and it won't be taken away from her."  Martha hesitated, thinking of everything that needed to be done, but Jesus patted the seat next to him.  "Come on Martha, I've hardly seen you.  We don't mind if lunch is a bit late.  Sit with us a few minutes, and then Mary will come and help.  Won't you, Mary?"

But Jesus said, "Martha, you are worried and distracted by all the work, but there's only one thing you need to do.  Mary has chosen the better part, and it won't be taken away from her."  There was a pause.  Then Jesus grinned.  "You know I'm right, Martha, but we have been a bit selfish, letting you run around and take care of us.  Come on Mary, you help in the kitchen.  Peter, why don't you lay the table, John can carve the lamb, and I'll sort out the bread and wine.  We'll have dinner ready in no time, and then Martha and I can have a nice chat in the garden this afternoon."

Which scenario would you prefer?  Or do you think there was a different ending?

*******************

Talking of endings, all the ones I tried for this post didn't seem to work.  Should I discuss how we often seem to value the Marthas more than the Marys in our churches?  Should I talk about how our perception of Jesus' likely actions is influenced by our culture and experiences?  Should I say that the Christian faith can often feel like another list of things to do, not an invitation to stop and listen?

Or should I say that to me, the only way the Christian story makes any sense is by understanding it as Jesus alongside us.  If he is not in the mess and the pain and the busyness with us, right there, feeling it with us, then the whole thing falls apart.  We are left with a God who sits on a heavenly cushion and issues unhelpful memes about how it would all be fine if we'd just do things a bit differently.  "Don't be like Martha.  Be like Mary."

But I think Martha could say, "Don't you care...?" to Jesus because she knew he did care.  Because she knew he wouldn't belittle her for asking for help.  And I think that as Jesus worked alongside Martha, and as she learned more about what it was to work alongside him, then she understood why he said that about the better part, too.

I was going to say that we can never know what the ending to the story is.  That's partly true.  We don't know what happened to Mary and Martha that day.  But we can find out what happens when we have a similar story in our own lives.  Does it stop with an unhelpful meme?  Or does it continue as we learn to work alongside Jesus, and as he teaches us how to find the better part, which won't be taken away.

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Lockdown life

Nine weeks in.  It kind of feels like it's gone quickly, and it kind of feels like we have been doing this forever.  The sheer repetitiveness is probably one of the hardest things.  Having said that, we generally seem to have plenty of stuff to do.  Here are some of the highlights.



Physical

The trampoline features A LOT.  The boys can do front flips, back flips, any-way-around flips...


I just bounce.  Gently.

Also cycling along the canal towpath, hitting tennis balls around at the local playing field, and - for me - exercise DVDs.  I might even have tummy muscles by the end of all this!  We've occasionally jumped on the bandwagon and joined in with Joe Wicks, but the poor guy always looks like he's making such hard work of it. He's had a wrist injury the whole time.

Educational

A recent survey found that middle-class children were doing 6 hours of school work per day, while lower-income kids did 4.5 hours.  From which I conclude that either most parents are stretching the truth, or our family is the dregs of society.  I can cajole the boys into 2 hours if I try really hard, and it usually means that the next day they want a day off, "because we did so much work yesterday, Mum".


We've managed to keep a few things ticking along, though.  They both have online Maths and English websites to do activities on.  Toby did a display poster about Bentley cars and Theo did toy car addition and subtraction (play to their interests, why not?)  Occasionally I get creative and we do things with food colourings and paint.








The boys' music lessons have continued online - Theo has a live video link for guitar, which works well.  Toby's group keyboard lesson is done via recorded video, which he hasn't found quite so interesting, plus my electric piano doesn't have as many sounds as the music centre's keyboards!  But they've had more time and energy to practice than when they had to fit it around school.  And I don't have to drive to town in rush hour traffic.  Definite bonus.

I've also decided that Lego is officially educational, since that's their other main activity.  Since it involves design skills, following instructions, sharing and cooperation, and (when they decide to pool their resources to buy a new set) money management, it's not too much of a stretch, I feel.  They recently spent a full three hours sorting the entire collection into individual colours.  Why do they never concentrate that long on school work?



Social

Well, obviously social is a bit more of a challenge - I'm counting myself fortunate to be an introvert right now.  And even I could do with seeing a few more people!  However.  We're Skyping family regularly, and the boys have managed a few video calls with friends, or chats from the pavement as we've been cycling past their house.

Our church has embraced Zoom with gusto, so I've been joining in the weekly "coffee mornings" and Sunday services.  Zoom has also made it possible for our book club to keep chatting (occasionally we even talk about books!) and I've been trying out a few new things, such as the Derby Happy Cafe and the amazing Sustainable(ish) online conference, which covers pretty much everything environmental you ever need to know.



Offline, our street had a socially distanced street party for the VE Day bank holiday, which probably wouldn't have happened if we hadn't all been stuck here.  Usually our street is the kind where we barely see our neighbours from one week to the next.  It was perfect weather, we shared some food and talked across the road, and the house with the best sound system played music, and Toby declared, "I want to stay until everyone goes inside" - which turned out to be, finally, about 10:30 at night.

Spiritual

We celebrated Easter with our traditional Palm Sundaes, Simnel cake, and, um, chocolate for breakfast (all very spiritual, don't you know?)  We also did a couple of Easter egg hunts.  I really enjoyed the Radio 4 Easter Day service, and having discovered that, have continued listening to the Sunday service they broadcast.




Family "church" has been variable in frequency and quality, but we have tried a bit.  The Reflectionary website is good - we prayed prayers based around a slice of bread, and will have a go at clouds in a bottle for Ascension.  BRF is posting regular Messy Church at Home activities too - I think we could manage paint splatter flames for Pentecost.  And the boys loved this gratitude scavenger hunt from Simple Acres Blog!


For myself, the extra time gained by not having to dash out the door in the morning has meant I'm actually managing daily prayer for the first time in years.  A friend recommended the Lectio 365 app, and I've found listening to something rather than reading surprisingly helpful. It forces me to slow down and concentrate, rather than dashing through it.

Mental

Gardening is proven to improve mental health, I believe, and fortunately the lockdown happened at just the right time to start planting vegetables.  Watching seeds turn into little plants all by themselves made me feel like everything can't be totally wrong in the world.  The CDs are for bird scaring; they seem to have worked on the pigeons, but that's just given the sparrows the chance to peck at the plants instead!


We've also had some beautiful flowers in the rest of the garden.  Graham's favourites are the peonies.



Baking, apparently, is also stress relieving, which is why it's almost impossible to get hold of flour.  I've had fun experimenting with a few different recipes like beetroot brownies (4 tbsp flour!).   Theo wanted to make strawberry cake, and we celebrated Graham's birthday with a coconut cake.  The boys decided that it needed to be decorated with a tropical island, so Toby made a palm tree.




We also celebrated Graham's birthday with a delicious takeaway curry.  The boys declared it to be "the best meal ever!".  Considering neither of them would even touch curry six months ago, that's got to be good.  Graham and I are quickly adding Indian restaurants to the list of places we can eat as a family (previously limited to pizza, carveries and McDonalds).  When we can eat out, of course.


Finally, here's a funky photo of Toby and Theo that they created themselves.  At times like these, you have to keep counting your blessings, and these two are certainly high up on my list!



Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Small steps in the right direction

The endless murmur of traffic passing on the nearby dual carriageway has been muted.  There are no vapour trails crossing the blue sky overhead, and the sound of birds singing seems clearer than ever before.  The world has suddenly become a much quieter place.



It turns out that we can change our habits and cut carbon dioxide emissions - for reasons that no one would have wanted, and a human and economic cost that we don't yet know.  The EU may achieve a 9% decrease in emissions in 2020 due to the coronavirus lockdown, but the big question is what happens afterwards.  Will this be a blip, or the start of a downward trend?

Meanwhile, this period of enforced inactivity has given us an opportunity to reflect on the changes we have made so far, and maybe given some of us time to make a few more.  I just thought I'd share a few of mine - not to show off, as a lot of people are way ahead of me, but to give us all a little more hope and inspiration to keep making our own small steps, while the big changes happen around us.

Kitchen

We cut the amount of plastic in the veg drawer when we started getting veg boxes delivered.  We recently changed supplier to a local farmer who delivers fruit as well, but as soon as lockdown started she was inundated with people wanting deliveries, so I've been supplementing it slightly from the supermarket.  Having a veg box means we have to wade through rather more cabbage and cauliflower than we might choose to, but that's what local produce looks like around here.



I've been so impressed by this Greener Cleaner dish brush that I ordered several more for my cafe from the Ethical Superstore.  We've had it for ages, and the bristles are still as good as new, not all splayed out and flattened down.  It's made from wood pulp and recycled plastic.

Sadly, our local farm shop and butchery has been a casualty of the lockdown.  There are some other possibilities for eggs and meat, but obviously I don't want to go shopping around too much right now.  I discovered this recipe for vegan burgers which is brilliant - easy to make, perfect texture, and I even got the boys to eat them!

black bean burger


Household

The ecoegg Laundry Egg seems to be doing a pretty good job cleaning our clothes.  The mineral pellets stand in for detergent and are apparently much better for the environment.  It does make a bit of noise, thumping around inside the machine, though.



I like this paper tape from &Keep - it has just the right amount of stick.  We haven't finished the roll I bought for Christmas yet, despite the boys constantly finding projects which involve taping things all over their bedroom walls (or the rest of the house!)

Toby's bedroom wall

I'm also feeling extremely virtuous because I've finally got round to making hankies from one of Graham's old shirts, thus recycling and avoiding paper tissue waste all in one go!  My sewing skills are not up to much, you understand, but I figure even I can hem a handkerchief.



Personal care

I've been using soap in the shower for a while now, and my lovely sister-in-law gave me a Lush shampoo bar and conditioner bar, which work really well.  I need a better solution for storing all these bars though - any tips?



Washable sanitary pads from Cheeky Wipes take me back to Toby's cloth diaper days - they're made of the same kind of stuff.  For light periods, they're fine; mine used to be much heavier, and I think I would have struggled with cloth pads then.  Admittedly, these are about as cheap and simple as you get.

Another lockdown win was making my own deodorant (and getting to test it before too many people have to smell me!)  Eco-friendly deodorants are generally really expensive, but this recipe from Sustainable(ish) used ingredients I mostly had already.  The only thing I had to buy was coconut oil.  I mixed it up, bunged it in an old salsa jar, and so far - sniffs - so good.




We tried toothpaste tablets, but that didn't work out so well.  They were kind of gritty and not very minty, and then the rest of the tin got damp and they all just turned into a sludge.  Besides, my kids are very specific about their toothpaste, so for now we're sticking to the normal kind.

Energy and Economy

Switching our energy supplier to Bulb hasn't done our energy bills any harm, and hopefully helps the environment too.  Be prepared for an expensive switchover month though, because Bulb takes payment in advance, so you effectively pay for two months in one go.  Then we got a refund from our old supplier and a referral bonus from Bulb, so it all evened out again the following month.

I find it hard enough to keep track of our pensions at the best of times, never mind trying to work out if they're invested sustainably.  I've cautiously added in a few ethical funds to the mix, but of course the economy is all over the place right now, so it's hard to tell if that was a good idea.  Also, the labels ethical and sustainable cover a wide range of investment options, from avoiding tobacco and alcohol to only investing in companies which help to generate renewable energy.  It's not always easy to tell what you're getting.

When it comes to ethical bank accounts, building societies tend to come higher up the rankings.  So I've tried to favour those when I've been shopping around for savings accounts.  It might not be a perfect solution, but again, it's a small step in the right direction.

Have you made any eco-friendly changes lately?  What would you like to do next?



Sunday, 19 April 2020

Playing with Pendulums, or, Why Science is Great

Yesterday I hooked some nuts onto an old paperclip, tied it to a piece of string, and hung the string from a windowsill outside my house.  When I lifted it to one side and let go, it swung, just as I knew it would, ticking smoothly and silently from side to side until it settled again in the vertical position.  I smiled with satisfaction.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The boys, of course, weren't anywhere near as enthusiastic when I suggested we could measure the length of time that the pendulum took to swing to and fro.  They managed a few half-hearted observations before running off to the trampoline again.  But my brain was starting to remember a few hazy physics facts, and I was intrigued.  Shortening the string obviously reduced the swing time, but by how much?  Could I figure out what the relationship was?  I shortened, measured, measured again, made a few calculations, drew a graph... ah yes!  Now I remembered what this was like...



It's been quite a while since I did science in any formal sense, but this little experiment reminded me why I enjoy it.  Interestingly, the reasons are very similar to why I enjoy being a Christian, even though many people would see the two as completely different.  Here are my reasons.  What do you think?

1. It's so easy, anyone can do it

In my first year at university, I studied a module on astronomy.  One of the projects was to observe a variable star - one which changes in brightness over time.  Every night, as I walked from the dining hall to my room, I looked up, located the star, and estimated its brightness compared to two nearby stars.  That was it.  No special equipment, no travel to exotic locations, just looking, noticing, and writing it down.
Credit: Pixabay


Tying a piece of string to a windowsill isn't much harder.  Or mixing vinegar and bicarbonate of soda, or watching a bee fly.  However many times it's been done before, there's always a thrill in doing it yourself and discovering that yes, it really does work like that.  And if you look carefully enough, there's always the possibility that you might see something that no one else has ever seen before.

Likewise, the fundamentals of Christianity are pretty simple.  Love God.  Love your neighbour.  Follow Jesus.  You don't need any equipment or special theological knowledge to get going.  Just a little bit of observation and an eagerness to learn more.

2. It's so complicated, you can learn for a lifetime

That variable star, Delta Cephei, is, amazingly enough, one of the ways that astronomers can measure the size of the entire universe.  And pendulums lead you very quickly into gravitational force and simple harmonic motion, so before you know it you're thinking about planets whizzing round the sun, electrons carrying current along a wire, or even teeny-tiny bonds jiggling about inside a molecule.

Wherever you get into science, you can find threads of discovery which will lead you out among the galaxies, down to the tiniest particles of matter, or into the most intricate properties of materials.  You can spend a lifetime studying a single species of beetle, or you can dip into geology, chemistry, astronomy and biology.

Credit: Pixabay


In comparison, it can be easy to think that the Christian faith is pretty well fixed.  Believe x, y, and z, don't do a, b, and c, and don't ask too many questions.  This might be the case if we believed in a God who laid down the law at some point in the distant past and then let us get on with it.  However, as theologian Lesslie Newbigin describes it, "The knowledge which Christian faith seeks is knowledge of God who has acted and is acting."1  There are endless new situations in which we are called to follow Jesus, endless discoveries which change what we thought we knew about God.

3. It makes you part of a story

In science, almost every experiment looks back into history as well as forward to discovery.  If I move a magnet in and out of a coil of wire to produce an electric current, I am reminded of Michael Faraday, the first to do the same thing and work out what was happening.  DNA, that most modern of molecules, is inextricably linked with the names of Rosalind Franklin, James Watson and Francis Crick.  In calculations, I might use Avogadro's Constant, Boyle's Law or Carnot's Theorem - all harking back to their original discoverers or popularizers.

Faraday in his laboratory. Credit: Wikimedia Commons


Like every story, it contains some mythology - Newton's apple, Archimedes' Eureka! - some moments of enduring genius, some bits we'd rather forget ever happened, and some parts that we've had to revisit to give proper recognition to those who were airbrushed out of the plaudits.  But whenever we do science, we place ourselves in this story.  These are the people who came before us, this is how they thought and worked.  This is the tradition that I am now carrying on, and the knowledge that I hope to pass on to those who come after me.

Well, it doesn't take a Faraday or a Franklin - or even a St Augustine or a Mother Teresa - to see the similarities with Christianity.  Both give us a way of seeing the world, a sense of our place in it, and a reason for what we do.  For many Christians and scientists, the two stories overlap, each informing the other.

4. It joins you to a worldwide community

Both science and Christianity have been dominated by white male Europeans or Americans for several hundred years (just think of the names which spring to mind first), but they are spread much more widely than that.  At the academic level, many research papers will credit people from different nations, either those who have travelled to work together, or because of collaborative efforts between universities across the world.  For amateurs, citizen science sites like Zooniverse or SciStarter recruit volunteers to count penguins in photos, analyse star pictures, or track the effect of Covid-19 on oceans.

Even if you are working alone, science is never done in isolation.  The results of one experiment only make sense when shared with, compared to and repeated by others who are doing similar work.  Those others might spot mistakes or have insights that you never would have discovered by yourself.

Christianity, of course, has a name for this worldwide community - the church.  Most churches are connected in some way to others in different countries.  They pray for each other, share news and support each other.   Our faith in God grows and widens as we realise that Christianity isn't just restricted to our culture's interpretation of it.  God is discovered by theologians in Venezuela, pastors in the Philippines, and youth workers in Singapore - and by us, right where we are, too.

5. It makes you ask what and why

What happens if this changes?  Why does that work one way but not another?  Why is the sky blue?  What do penguins do in winter?  Science gives us a way of asking questions about the world around us, and a set of tools to try to answer those questions.  It arouses our curiosity about the things we see every day, encouraging us to understand what we see at a deeper level.

And it gives us a set of values to judge the results against.  Can someone else repeat the experiment?  Have we guarded against all possible errors?  Have others in the field looked at the results and agreed with our conclusions?  In this way new and startling theories gradually become accepted truth.  We gain a new place to stand, a different way of asking what and why.

Credit: Pixabay
In a similar way, our Christian faith gives us a place to stand and ask questions from.  By following Jesus we are encouraged not just to accept the world as it is, but to try and understand God more deeply through it.  Our questions are often more complex and unanswerable than those of science, going to the heart of who we are.  Why do we suffer and how do we meet God in it?  What is good and why should we do it?  Who is acceptable to God and why?  And we test the answers against what we know of God as revealed in Jesus.

What do you think?

It's surprising how many thoughts can come out of a single swing of a pendulum.  Have you discovered or rediscovered anything that you enjoy exploring lately?  How many of my reasons resonate with you?  And what kind of story and community are you part of?

1 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society

Thursday, 30 January 2020

Discovering different lives: 5 books that changed my viewpoint

One of the things that characterised 2019 for me was the feeling that I was suddenly hearing from a lot of viewpoints that I'd never heard before.   I realised that most of the people I know are a lot like me, and that other people have a very different way of seeing the world.

Put like that, it seems dumb not to have realised that before.  But most of these books have been published in the last 4 years (Americanah is oldest, from 2013), so maybe, too, these are voices that just wouldn't have been heard, and experiences that wouldn't have been talked about, a decade or more ago.

I feel like these books have made me think more about prejudice, identity, and my assumptions about them.  But more than that, they've taken me to new places and helped me to see the world through different eyes.  And that's what books, at their best, are there for.

Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch


Afua Hirsch was born in the same year as I was, and grew up barely 30 miles from my home.  Like me, she had family links to another country outside of Britain, and spent some time in that country.  But unlike me, the colour of her skin has meant that she has spent her whole life having her Britishness questioned.

The similarities we share made the differences all the more startling.  This is a life where hairdressers don't know what to do with your hair, fellow delegates at a conference assume that you are a waitress, and your sister's baby is described as "like a little gangster" - all in the same kind of environment that I am familiar with, but where, as a white person, I was utterly oblivious to these challenges.

The details from Afua Hirsch's own experience are backed up by references to wider research about race in Britain, and all of it is eye-opening, informative and engaging.

Good as You: From Prejudice to Pride - 30 Years of Gay Britain by Paul Flynn


This is another book which had a personal resonance; the 30 years in the title correspond very closely to the first 30 years of my life.  But once again, those 30 years are looked at very differently from the way that I saw them.

How does it affect your life when "people like you" are represented only negatively, or not at all?  When you have no role models for a settled, loving relationship?  And how do things change when, gradually, you see singers, TV characters, and film actors who share your own feelings and experiences?

I never had to ask myself those kind of questions, but many people did, over those 30 years, and this book explores some of the answers.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


I'd already read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's moving novel about the Nigerian civil war, Half of a Yellow Sun, so I knew the quality of her writing when I picked this one up.

Ifemelu, a Nigerian girl, moves to America, and discovers that in America, her nationality is irrelevant: she is black.  And being black comes with a whole host of expectations about what she can say, how she can say it, how she should behave, how people will behave to her.  She writes an anonymous blog about race, to much acclaim, but then, when she moves back to Nigeria, has to reconsider her experiences and identity yet again.

This is a powerful story dealing with some big themes.  In some ways it covers similar ground to Brit(ish), but from a fictional perspective.  Like Afua, Ifemelu moves between countries and finds that she is labelled differently in each one, and doesn't fit completely in either.

Al-Britannia, My Country: A Journey through Muslim Britain by James Fergusson


Unlike the other books here, this is written by an outsider to the community he is writing about.  But James Fergusson is clearly sympathetic to and genuinely interested in the faith and lives of Muslims in Britain.  He - and I - see a country we hardly knew existed, as he visits Muslim schools, mosques, and even cage fighting events in Birmingham, Bradford and Leicester.  He brings out the humanity and community behind the shock headlines of radicalisation and riots, and asks questions about the role of faith in society, and what it means to be British.

Here is yet another layer to the Britain that I think I know - once again, a strikingly different experience but with surprising similarities.  Like churches, mosques are struggling to hold out much appeal for the younger generation.  Muslims, like Christians, are dealing with the complexities of holding a faith in an increasingly secular country, with the added pressure that Islamic religious fundamentalism is often equated with radicalisation, and legislated against.

James Fergusson finishes his book by undertaking the Ramadan fast - not as a statement of belief, but more as a kind of homage to the Muslim faith.  One thing that really stood out was the way that this changed his relationship with his Muslim neighbour.  Before, they had barely spoken, despite living next door for several years, but as soon as the man found out that Fergusson was also keeping Ramadan, he invited him over, and brought him meals several times.  The shared experience created a bond that might not have formed any other way.

Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett


Simone is a teenager who's HIV-positive, black, has gay parents, and is directing a student production of Rent at her Catholic school, while dealing with someone who is threatening to make her HIV status public.  All that sounds like it should be far too much to fit into one book, never mind one character.  But Simone manages to be real, likeable, brave and fun - much more than just a way to challenge stereotypes.

Admittedly, this book is not for the faint-hearted, especially if you have children coming up to the teenage years.  Simone and her friends are definitely not shy about sex, even if they get pretty embarrassed when their parents try to talk to them about it.  If Judy Blume was straightforward, Camryn Garrett takes it to another level - but she manages to keep a good dose of humour in there, as well.

Like the other books, this deals with questions about coping when you are rejected or stereotyped based on who you are - both the parts that you can hide, and the parts you can't.

Have you read any of these books?  What did you think?