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A biostatistician preaches a sermon


In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Good morning! For those of you who were wondering, or perhaps praying, that the bulletin was somehow misprinted, I have some bad news for you…

 

For those of you who do not know me, my name is Richard Zink. My family has attended the 11am service for nearly 18 years, and before that, I attended HTLC while a graduate student at UNC-Chapel Hill, attending services with the woman who would eventually become my wife.  You may also be wondering why I am up here speaking with you today. And to a certain degree, I am a bit curious as to why I am here myself.

 

My presence before you is the result of a discussion that took place in February among some of the congregational science nerds to discuss a grant that HTLC received from Science for the Church. If you are unfamiliar, Science for the Church equips Christian leaders and scientists of faith with content, resources, networks, and events in pursuit of a day when science is no longer a barrier to faith, but instead augments the work of the church. Science for the Church emphasizes faith AND science, as opposed to the faith OR science that has been so common in the past.


 

Part of HTLC’s responsibility for having received this grant is to engage in discussions of science and how it coincides and enhances our faith in some of the primary activities of the church. Now I’m not talking about some clandestine late-night meeting consisting of a tiny group of like-minded individuals, but a big well-publicized event held in broad daylight among a large gathering of students and members of the congregation. A notable activity… such as a sermon on a Sunday morning.

 

So, while we were sitting there, enjoying our lunch, and engaging in a conversation about what type of events we would like to organize, this little voice popped up in my head... from out of nowhere, as these voices often do.

 

“You should offer to give a sermon!”

“You should offer to give a sermon!”

“Hey! Don’t ignore me! You should offer to give a sermon!”

 

And from out of nowhere, I found myself offering to provide a sermon to the people seated around the table. To be honest, I was terrified - I AM terrified - but I think in some ways the terror and uncertainty of giving a sermon is exactly why I chose to do it. No offense to our talented faith leaders, but I think it’s important to hear from the lay people every once and awhile. And for a discussion about the intersections of science and faith, and how they may complement each other, who better to ask than a scientist. Right? Well, I guess we’ll see.

 

When I told my wife, Sarah, that I volunteered to give a sermon at church, she said what any supportive partner would say: “And they’re going to let you?” 

“Sure, they are. In fact, Pastor Will accelerated the timeline on me pretty substantially.”

“What are you going to say?”, she asked.

“I have no idea,” I said.

“Do you really think you should do this?”, she asked.

“I have no idea,” I said, “but I do feel like I HAVE to do this.”

“Are we going to need to find a new church?”, she asked.

“No, I think it will all work out,” I said. Now THAT’S a statement that required some faith.

 

So here we are. The weekend after the 2024 Biologos Faith & Science conference held in Research Triangle Park.

If you are unaware, Biologos is another great faith and science advocate and a wonderful resource for the big questions around this topic. It’s also Earth Day Weekend, where we try to educate ourselves about our fragile planet and how we can take better care of it.


So, to formally introduce myself, I am Dr. Richard Zink. (I get it, I’d have a hard time believing it, too.) I have a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in mathematics from the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and a Master of Science (MS) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degrees in Biostatistics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Perhaps you may have heard of it.) I am a biostatistician, researcher, and software developer, and I have spent the 20+ years of my career contributing statistical thinking in and around medical product development to address unmet medical need and improve patient well-being.

 

Now I know full-well that MOST people do not like math. I also know that when Sarah or I tell people that I am a biostatistician, very few people have any idea what that means. We tend to separate the “bio” and “statistics”, assuming that people are somehow confused or hung up by the combination of words. “Richard uses statistics to analyze medical and biological data.” I think that’s a succinct and straightforward explanation, but we still receive a lot of blank stares. So, today I’ll try a different approach.

Here we go…

 

There are a lot of questions to answer, and there is a lot of information available in the world. My job is to sift through these data, to find a signal in the noise, to find some order in the chaos. In other words, I try to understand and communicate how seemingly unrelated things may, in fact, be related to one another, or potentially even have some effect on each other. And where I’ve chosen to apply these skills is in the development of new pharmaceuticals. Does this new drug make the person better compared to the current standard of care? I certainly hope so.

 

And that's what science attempts to do, right?

Clear away the mud and uncertainty. Help things become evident, knowing that there will always be more mud to sift through.

 

Science is running experiments, and gathering data, and making conclusions about the things around us based on those data. Oftentimes we get things right. And sometimes we get things wrong. And in the instances where we do get things wrong, we work to examine our missteps in order to move ourselves forward. Our ability to learn and grow is based on what we see, and hear, and touch, and think.

 

I think these skills are important in my faith. Never one to take things at face value, I do an awful lot of thinking about the implications of certain biblical passages or ideas, especially in the context of an advanced world that has moved beyond the simple times described in the bible many hundreds of years ago. I often find myself running mental experiments, pressure testing the ideas laid out in text, and how they apply to this crazy world. I truly believe that this is my form of prayer. Oftentimes these experiments lead to a good understanding. Sometimes things end up in a place with which I am not comfortable. And in these instances, I examine where things may have gone wrong, and I think, and I read, and I gather different perspectives, until I reach a place of understanding.

 

Take, for example, the lessons of the past few weeks. Two weeks ago, we had the story of doubting Thomas from the 20th chapter of John. Thomas who said, “Unless I see, I will not believe.” A week later, after Thomas recognized Jesus, Jesus’ response was to say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” In many ways, I fully appreciate Thomas’ approach - he was gathering evidence on which to base his conclusions. Much like a scientist (!) - a good one anyway. Honestly, I am a bit surprised at Jesus’ reaction to Thomas, as last week in Luke 24 we heard that the disciples were “startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” Here Jesus said “why do you doubt? LOOK at my hands and my feet; SEE that it is I myself.” So why was Jesus picking on Thomas when the act of SEEING was so important? Perhaps Jesus was thinking about Thomas, “Ugh, are you scientists always on?”. Or perhaps Jesus wasn’t really addressing Thomas at all. Maybe Jesus was talking to future readers of the bible, and suggesting that faith is not easy, especially when you do not have the opportunity to see His story take place in real time.

 

But what of faith and its impact on science? Well, what is faith? The dictionary says faith is the “complete trust or confidence in someone or something”. Now science may have a lot of answers, and it may provide a lot of tools to find those answers, but there are still many questions left unanswered. Going further, we have a lot of scientific theories, and that is what they are - theories. While we have shown time and time again that they hold up under rigorous testing and application, we cannot prove them absolutely. Similar to a lot of the difficult and unanswerable questions I wrestle with in trying to understand the big questions about life, the universe, and everything, I have a certain level of comfort that science does not have all of the answers. Going further, science, like faith, doesn’t have to have all of the answers for me to believe in it. And eventually, if we go back in time far enough or dig deep enough into any given scientific problem, perhaps a divine hand put things into motion in the first place.

 

Faith AND science are tools that I use to understand the universe, my place in it, and how I am meant to spend the time that I have while I am here. I think it is important to have many perspectives to understand our world and our faith. Listening to only one perspective is akin to walking around wearing a set of blinders.

 

For example, the sole focus on specific passages of the bible may lead us to think that the best approach to solving complex many-shades-of-gray issues is to roll back the clock to 1864, putting women’s health and lives at risk.

 

Or we may become so fixated on what we are able to SEE that we convince ourselves that this round ball on which we stand is, in fact, flat. I’ve got to admit, I did not have flat-earthers on my 21st century bingo card.

 

Or we may become so captivated  by the words we HEAR that we fail to notice the absence of long gone diseases and neglect to protect ourselves with vaccines.

 

Or we may be so fixated on furthering our knowledge of disease, that we take cancer cells without permission from an African American woman in order to conduct research, or deny African American men appropriate medical care for their syphilis to “see what happens” in an untreated group of people.

 

A broad perspective and a diverse world view will hopefully prevent us from wandering a dark path. Our readings today discuss a dark path, and the importance of a shepherd to guide us through. Thankfully, we have guides and shepherds in our faith leaders and scientists. Perhaps if our faith AND science worked more closely together, we would succeed in pushing back the darkness for all of humanity. It’s the reason why we here at Holy Trinity will keep this conversation and relationship moving forward.

 

At the end of the day, I think the goals of science and faith are similar and can be summed up pretty easily by our readings today. “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in TRUTH and ACTION”, and that we are commanded to “LOVE ONE ANOTHER”. 

 

So, if I have any piece of advice I can offer to get you through this or any week, use your SCIENCE, use your FAITH, use all of the gifts that you have been given and that have been tirelessly developed, each and every day to fill the world with good and lift up those around you.

 

And all of God’s people said “Amen”.


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