- John Van Sloten
A Most Encouraging Faith & Science Conference
This week I stepped out of the wilderness.
I was at a conference for the STEAM project at Fuller Theological Seminary in Chicago - a wrap-up event for a grant I'd received to preach sermons on the human body and write a book about it - and through a providential series of events I was made new.
It began before I'd even arrived. Landing in Chicago I got an email approving a three month project extension and budget re-allocation (i.e. more time and salary for me to write!). This was a huge relief (and God was only getting started).
Because we'd arrived a day early we had 6 hours to kill. My scientist-partner Marc Bomhof suggested we hit downtown Chicago. At first I didn't think it made sense; a pricey Uber and an hour long train ride. But we went anyways and had a blast. All week long Marc had this kind of influence on me. Going for drinks, when I didn't go for drinks, twice. Broadening my perspective regarding the scope of my book. Saying 'let’s go for a bike ride' when we only had 45 minutes between the session and dinner. Nudging me into a place where I could physically remember the cross-Canada trip we took together; re-experience the joy of peddling, the wind in my face, and the gift of side by side cycling conversation. Over this past transitioning year I have said 'no' to way too many things (depressed I suppose). No more.
As the conference began, the goodness continued. Our Fuller Seminary hosts were incredibly hospitable; though their good natured staff, whole-hearted welcome, project interest, gifts of good food and programming, and provision of an acquisition editor lead (the moment I arrived I spoke with Justin Barrett who passed a great contact on to me!), I felt so taken care of. Several times throughout the week conference leaders offered up words of encouragement along with invitations to future engagement. One Templeton-connected leader insisted I write a book on preaching science.
My interactions with scientists were wonderful. I met a physicist whose work connected to the Large Hadron Collider. Barry was what appeared to be in the late 60s, but when I asked him what he loved about physics he became a 10-year-old. His eyes brightened and his speech quickened as he told me of his calling, as a young boy who loved math, into the field of science. We went on to talk about the nature of his work in relation to the two-book worldview I was writing about. At first I wasn't sure if we were connecting, but the next day I saw him taking a photo of the cover of
Every Job a Parable, and then attending my workshop, and then he asked me to sign the copy of EJAP he'd been given (graciously, by Tyndale, who, last minute, hand delivered 70 books to the conference center). Then he told me how excited he was to read the book and unpack the parable of his work.
Then there was Josh the chemistry professor. We met in a hallway, introduced ourselves and shared a bit about our projects. Then I told him how I'd always wanted to preach a sermon on a catalyst. Which led him to tell me about the nature of catalysts. Which led me to connect the nature of catalysts to the nature of the Holy Spirit. Which led him to say, "I'd never thought about that before." After our three minute conversation we both moved on. And so did the Spirit - onto Josh! Unable to stop thinking about the connection, he had to step back from his workout and write it all down. Relaying the experience to me he said that as a Lutheran he'd never felt the Holy Spirit's presence and leading like that before. This was the first time in his life something like this had happened. And now he's planning to work with his pastor on a sermon on catalysts.
For years I've said that all it would take for this two-book idea to take off would be a small move of the Holy Spirit in people's hearts. And here it happened! Via a three minute interaction. Later that day I got a rejection email from a major publisher I'd been pursuing. And it didn't matter. Not compared to what just happened with Josh. In my mind his experience was a foretaste of what will happen when the Spirit opens many more people's hearts and minds. When Josh told me all of this I felt more joy over my life's work than I'd felt for years.
Then there was the software engineer who read a sample chapter of my new book and said is was "amazing". And the astrophyscist who insisted I sign his copy of Every Job a Parable in the breakfast buffet line. It just kept going. Encouraging responses to my talks. Feeling fully alive giving those talks. Feeling like a preacher again, but different. Some listeners were shocked by the approach, others were intrigued. One guy was overwhelmed.
As I took in all of the other talks, everything I heard affirmed what I was writing. It felt like I was on the right track with this science book.
And what was most beautiful about all of these experiences was the love; for the physicist, chemist, pastors, event coordinators, and campus workers who raised their own support... for the Nashville guy's amazing accent and creativity, and the unique gifts of each of the attendees. The ancient mystics had a phrase - Ubi Amor, Ibi Oculus - where there is love there is seeing. The truth of this phrase was pulsing through me all week long. I felt it in the worship services that bracketed the conference, hearing Colossians 1:15-20 read that first night, singing, feeling Christ near, lifting my hands before him. My heart was starting to beat again.
And those morning walks, in the early mid-western heat and humidity, reminding me of a childhood growing up in Toronto. So much green. So many birdsongs. The plastic bagged newspapers lying on people’s driveways reminding me of those early-morning Globe and Mail deliveries as a boy. Walking back from my morning walk on my last day with the words of E.E. Cummings running through my mind;
i thank You God for most this amazing day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today, and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing breathing any–lifted from the no of all nothing–human merely being doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
So much to thank God for... how could I ever doubt him?