Thursday, April 30, 2020

Saturn and Jupiter


As I wiped the sleep from my eyes a little before sunrise this morning, I gazed out my south-facing window and saw two bright objects in the sky. There was blazing beauty to each of them and together they took my breath away. I thought one was Sirius, until I did my research and realized I was looking at the shining glory of Saturn on the left and Jupiter on the right.[1] Such splendour, such sublime majesty in these two planets.

I thought about our own planet in crisis with a virus running amok across the globe. I thought about the grandeur and sterility of each of Saturn and Jupiter. As far as we know, there are no viruses, no bacteria, and no life on these planets. There are storms, of epic proportion, there is dust, there are rocks, there are gases, both volatile and inert, there is sunlight and shadow. All of this has been going on in one form or another for decades, centuries, and millennia. There is a timeless purity to what is going on with these two planets. Processes happen and storms come and go[2] and yet these planets are changeless. There is no global warming caused by the impact of one or another species, there are no pandemics, and no wars.

God has protected these planets from the impact of all such catastrophes and given them over to their own changes and movements. These planets are remarkably ordered by the principles of physics, chemistry, and gravity. Yet, if you were to watch them from a close vantage point, they might appear chaotic and out of control. 

Today, as I watch them from afar, I am reminded that there are places of pristine purity, protected by the huge gulf between humans and these holy places. We have not yet sullied the stars. Annie Dillard says that we have indeed damaged many of the holy places here on earth.

“It is difficult to undo our own damage, and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave. It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind. The very holy mountains are keeping mum. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it; we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree.”
― Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, Harper Perennial, 2013. 

Yet, Saturn and Jupiter give us hope of places not yet seen that are still holy, pure, and unsullied. Let us cling to the hope of one day seeing the holy places of God.


[1] Don’t worry, they are still social distancing. They only look like they are close to each other from this angle.
[2] Some storms have persisted for hundreds of years.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Understanding Testing


The world of COVID-19 testing and our understanding of the virus has caused many of us to read science and health articles laden with new terminology that may be challenging to understand. One of the areas of knowledge that is difficult to understand is COVID-19 testing. Let’s take a closer look at some of the work presently being done.

When it comes to viruses and the diseases they cause, there are two basic types of testing. One, testing to see if the person being tested has virus in their system; and two, testing to see if the person has developed antibodies against the virus. We will look at each in turn with regard to the COVID-19 disease and the SARS-CoV-2 virus[1] which causes the disease.[2]

Virus testing in this first case, is done almost exclusively by reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). This is the recommended initial test to see if a person is carrying the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the deep parts of the nasal passages.[3] This test detects the rna of the actual virus by transcribing its rna into DNA and amplifying the DNA (making more of the DNA). This is a highly sensitive test and is capable of detecting as few as one virus particle. The test relies on the concept that if a virus particle is detected deep in the sinus cavity of the patient, the patient’s body is likely manufacturing the virus particles in the cells of their respiratory system[4] and shedding them out into the world around them through moisture in their breath.[5] This article will not assess the tests but rather describe the tests (some of the readers of this article may already be seeing the pros and cons of this testing method). Spartan Bioscience in Ottawa has just received approval to sell their rapid detection kit to the Canadian market.[6] It is exciting to see this new made-in-Canada solution to testing for SARS-CoV-2.

In the second type of testing, the clinicians initiating the test are looking for antibodies against the virus. Normally, when our bodies are introduced to a new virus in our cells, our immune system goes through a system of activation and biochemical cascades which result in the production of antibodies against the novel virus.[7] These antibodies are part of a healthy person’s biological response to a virus and the beginnings of how we fight off this new challenge to the integrity of our cells. We want our cells to exclusively make proteins for our own use and we do not want them making more viral rna or viral proteins. Therefore, our immune system must initiate its own biological warfare against the invading army of viruses. Antibody testing relies upon this ability of the body to make antibodies against a foreign particle in our system. If our body has experienced the new virus and has had sufficient time to mount a response, there will be antibodies in our blood to indicate that this has happened. Antibodies such as this may last for a matter of months or many years. Thus, one can test for specific antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 while the person is in an active COVID-19 disease state or even after they have recovered. This type of testing may be invaluable in determining who has survived the disease and may possibly be a source of antibodies that could potentially be transferred to another person to give them immunity to the disease.[8]

This second type of testing is more of a classical immunological test. A molecule capable of binding to the antibody, something that bears a resemblance to the binding portion of the viral particle, is bound onto a substrate (perhaps a paper inside a testing cassette) and then a blood sample is placed in contact with the detection molecule. After an appropriate wash, to cleanse the cassette of any unbound particles, the one performing the test looks for evidence of bound antibodies. This is most often a colour change on the substrate (think of how an early pregnancy detection stick works) to indicate the presence of the antibody against the virus. (Again, there are pros and cons of such a testing regime, but for now, we will forgo any assessments.) Tests such as this are in development in Canada as well. The test manufactured by BTNX is approved for sale in the US and UK but is not yet approved for the Canadian market.[9] This type of testing will be critical to further research and for such important tasks as testing donor blood at Canadian Blood Services. We can applaud such active and rapid research into both of these areas of testing.

Post a comment or send an email if this article has created further questions. I will do my best to research the questions and provide answers.



[1] The virus itself is a simple little biological entity, less alive and more machine-like. It consists of only 30,000 base-pairs of rna and just a few proteins. Perhaps I will write more on that later.
[2] This virus is also sometimes referred to as “the coronavirus” (but of course it is simply one of many coronaviruses) or the 2019 novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV.
[3] "Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2020-03-21. Retrieved 28 March 2020.
[4] For that is what virus particles do, they get inside a host cell and use the cell’s machinery to make more virus particles.
[5] Notice I avoided saying, “by speaking moistly.” This is out of respect for our Prime Minister and the great job he is doing each day keeping the Canadian public informed. It is so easy to stumble over one’s words in such settings. We all need to give him a break.
[6] “Everyone wants them: Rapid COVID-19 test kits made in Canada approved for use,” CBC News, 2020-04-13, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/spartan-covid19-test-kit-new-1.5530669.
[7] People who are immune-compromised for various reasons may not be fully capable of mounting such an immune response against the virus.
[8] I am intentionally using a number of conditional words and clauses here. The research has not yet shown whether or not it might be possible to transfer immunity via this method. But, it is a hopeful plan.
[9] “Health Canada says rapid blood test for COVID-19 remains under review,” CBC News, 2020-04-12, https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/health-canada-rapid-blood-tests-under-review-1.5529590

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Science and Faith in Pandemic Times



Dr. Francis Collins has been a hero of mine since my days in the Molecular Diagnostic Lab at the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary. In those days he was the lead investigator on the Human Genome Project as everyone raced to be the first to map the approximately three billion base-pairs of the human genome. Since July of 2008 Dr. Collins has served as the director of the National Institutes of Health, a position to which he was appointed by President Barack Obama and selected again by President Donald Trump. It is a position he holds to this day. The NIH is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for biomedical and public health research in the United States and Dr. Collins’ role is to oversee all projects and funding from the US government.

On April 6, 2020, Biologos interviewed Francis Collins regarding the latest research into the novel corona virus that is causing the disease known as COVID-19. Christianity Today reporters were sitting in on the interview and will likely write about this conversation in the days and weeks to come. Dr. Francis Collins is a gracious and humble follower of Jesus who is overseeing all of the research into the virus, vaccines, antibodies against the virus, and many other projects in the US. The interview reveals that many Christians do indeed integrate faith and science. To quote Mark Noll, "There is hope for the evangelical mind" (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 1994). Don't miss the end of the interview where Dr. Collins reveals the things for which he is praying right now. Here is the link to the recorded conversation. 



Saturday, April 4, 2020

Transitions in a Dangerous Time


“But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight
Got to kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight
When you're lovers in a dangerous time.” – Bruce Cockburn, “Lovers In A Dangerous Time.”

These words of Bruce Cockburn acknowledge that there is darkness. This present darkness in which we walk can be characterized by fear, deprivation, danger, psychological and spiritual stress, and relational conflict. Cockburn’s words also acknowledge the need to challenge the darkness and create space for the light to splash into and obliterate the darkness. Indeed, these are the times in which we live.

It has often been noted that no matter how much we try to convince ourselves otherwise, few of us will change our lives, our work, or our organizations without the pressure of significant pain (or as Bruce Cockburn might describe it, darkness). The pain may come from a business that is not sustainable, a lifestyle that is destructive, a career that is waning, or a significant health issue that causes us distress, but it takes a large shove to propel us into change mode. Since March 13th in Canada, the Church (and many other aspects of life) has experienced discomfort and a big push in a particular direction. Many are reeling from the impact, even as they adjust to new realities.

In 2003, a group of friends joined my wife and I in creating a network of house churches in the city of Calgary. The story of how this came to be is a story of difficulties that built to a change point all of its own, but what I want to focus on today is the fact that once we had made the leap and changed the way we organized a church, we soon found that there were further pressure points involved in the transition. It wasn’t enough to shrink a mega-church or even a midi-church into a living room and kitchen, we had to blast away at the build-up of our collective traditions to find the foundations of our newfound structures.

Jeff Christopherson, in a recent two-part article in Christianity Today, address the topic of the new church planter in an article entitled, “The Road Ahead: 10 Characteristics of a Future Church Planter.”[1] It is an article aimed at church planters and those who oversee the development of new congregations in Canada and the USA, but beyond that, it can be seen as a call to new kinds of churches, new ways of doing ancient traditions, and new ways of being the body of Christ. I will leave it to the reader to search out and read the article and will only list the ten characteristics before extrapolating further thoughts beyond the strict text of the article. The ten transitions that must be made as enumerated by Christopherson are as follows.

1.     From Entrepreneurial √úbermensch to Apostolic Catalyst
2.     From Sunday-centric to Christ’s Body
3.     From Ecclesiastical Supremacy to Kingdom Submission
4.     From Drafting Free-Agents to Developing Disciple-Makers
5.     From Replication to Multiplication
6.     From SoloClerics to Co-Vocational Teams
7.     From Christendom to Secularity
8.     From Doctrinal Precision to Spiritual Authority
9.     From Prominent Church to Transformed City
10.   From Underserved Communities to Overlapping Gospel Movements

Back to Cockburn, “nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight.” A vibrant Canadian church that creates meaning for people’s lives, strengthens them in times of darkness, and shares hope for the future is definitely something worth having. In my opinion, Christopherson has identified an accurate set of transitions for which the church is primed. Who will step up, kick at the darkness, and lead toward change? For those who are attentive, the present pain of the church can be a catalyst for transition and increased health. Who wants to talk about the present pain of the church? Who is ready to look toward these transitions? Who wants to see a healthier church and a healthier Canada on the other side of this present crisis? There are many of us who are available to talk more about these things and coach others toward change. Let’s help each other stay on mission.




[1] “The Road Ahead: 10 Characteristics of a Future Church Planter,” Jeff Christopherson, Christianity Today, October 29, 2019 and November 4, 2019, https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2019/november/road-ahead-10-characteristics-future-church-planter-part-2.html