Friday, November 24, 2006

The Rendezvous

A Christmas spy story.

Bern sat quietly on the wooden pew in the darkened church. Four advent candles in front burned steadily. Green and red holly decorated with tiny white lights hung in a chain of semi-circles from the side balconies.

He was not the first to arrive, though he had indeed arrived early. It wasn't that he was anxious to attend the service; it was just convenient. On Christmas Eve the streetcar arrived at the corner two blocks from the church at 10:17 p.m., 43 minutes early.

He had found a spot near a side aisle and pulled a Bible from the rack in front of him and placed it next to him, close enough so that it might appear that he had just laid it aside after reading it, but far enough away that it could be interpreted as a marker to save the spot next to him.

Unbuttoning his heavy coat, he waited, watching the candles and listening to the organist softly playing some melody he did not recognize. Bern was not at all religious, but still, it was beautiuful, and by contrast it made him feel dirty. Or rather, it made him feel how dirty he really was. He didn't want to be here, but this was where "Al" - or whatever his name was - wanted to meet, so he was stuck with it. Perhaps this was Al's sense of hunmor. If so, Al had a bad sense of humor.

Anyway, he thought, probably the people who would be up front were hypocrites - they all were. All their pious sermons and choir robes and candles and holly. They were probably just as bad as he was. In fact, he knew one of the people here. Kelly, for instance. He'd seen Kelly get angry. The words that came out of Kelly's mouth were all the proof as he needed that religion was worthless. Yeah, hypocrites.

It made him feel better, but, still, the church - the building, at least - was beautiful...

His thoughts turned back. He wished he had never started down this path. A thousand bucks for a damn internal email list for his company's tech group? I mean, who cares? What's the big secret? If Al was such a fool that he'd pay that much for a silly directory, well, fine, I'll take your money, idiot.

Except Al was no idiot.

Then Al asked for the names of projects his company was working on. Names! So what? Except some of the names were rather descriptive and he had been warned and had signed a non-disclosure form when he joined the company, so it made him nervous. But the money was even better, and Al was so nice and, well, it wasn't really much worse than selling the email directory. But then later Al had wanted the details of the projects, and Bern baulked. Al understood. Al was nice about it. Al said he knew it was asking a lot, and that he'd try to keep Bern out of trouble, but, well, Al's superiors wanted results, and they might tell Bern's company about him selling the directory and project names.

So he gave in. And it got worse...

The church was filling up. People walked in, unbuttoned their coats and spoke in low voices. Several people squeezed past him, a few dusting him with flakes of snow that still clung to their overcoats, but they skipped the space he had saved for Al.

Al! Where was he? Bern began to worry. But why? There was nobody in the world he wanted to see less than Al. Perhaps Al had been caught. If so they'd both be shot or something else very unpleasant. Reason enough to worry.

Then he caught a glimpse of Al, quietly took a deep breath and sighed. He casually picked up the Bible and began reading it as Al squeezed past him and took the open space. They sat, neither exchanging a glance.

As the service began, the main lights went from dim to black and all Bern could see were the candles and the hundreds of dots of white light among the holly. It was indeed beautiful.

Then they sang O Holy Night and he was bothered to find eyes moistening and his voice uneven. As he sat down he bowed his head as if to pray, and wiped his eyes.

Christmas, the pastor said, is the day we celebrate the birth of the Savior, the One who was born from God into the world to live a life utterly faithful to God, loving and true, a life that none of us, with all our flaws, has ever come close to matching.

Yeah, he sighed, well at least they admit they're as bad as I am. But knowing it gave him no satisfaction.

They had become accustomed to the darkness, and while keeping his eyes to the front, Al slipped a small square of rice paper onto the pew between them. Without looking at it Bern slowly picked it up. It was two sheets. He bowed again, as if praying about what the pastor was saying, and looked at the top sheet cupped in his hands.

It said, "Need programming code for TL730, ASAP!"

The TL730! Good God! The seaport nuclear materials detector! They could defeat the detector with that information. Why did they want that!? Oh, God! As if he didn't know.

As impassively as he could, he folded the top sheet of rice paper twice and brought his hands to his face as if to pray. Oh God! he prayed. He slipped the paper into his mouth, where it disolved. The bottom sheet was blank; Al wanted a note back.

The pencil stub in his hand froze over the rice paper, laying on the Bible in his lap.

Christmas, the pastor continued, led to Easter, which makes the story complete. Christ didn't become the Savior by being born, but by dying in our place for all our wrongs; for taking our penalty; for paying our debt.

Al glanced his way.

Finally Bern wrote: "Can't."

Al looked at the paper.

The pastor continued: So through Christ, he said, we can have forgiveness! Freedom from all the ugly things we've ever done that cling to us like leeches! Just say yes to God! Yes! God, I have done evil and I need the forgiveness you are offering to me through Christ! Pray that now!

Al had slipped another sheet onto the pew, but Bern hadn't noticed it. Al nudged him once, and then again.

Bern picked up the paper. "How much time do you need?"

Bern paused, then turned to Al.

"I'm not doing it," he said aloud, "not now or ever."

People glanced uncomfortably at him. If he didn't want to give his heart to God, well, okay, but did he need to announce it during the service?

Al looked frightened, then glanced to his left as if to see if Bern was speaking to the next person over.

As the service ended, the pastor invited those who had prayed to come forward to talk to him.

The row of people filed out towards the center aisle, with Al just in front of Bern.

As they came to the aisle, Al turned toward the back of the church, but Bern paused. He had sold so much information; secrets that would cause so many deaths.

People backed up behind him. But still he paused. Then he turned toward the front of the church. Al glanced back, paused for a moment, then ran for the exit.

If his debt to God was paid, Bern thought, his debt to his country was not. That, he sighed, would be coming soon.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Slow Miracles

Maybe miracles are more common than we assume.

Usually when I think of miracles, I think of amazing, jaw-dropping affairs, but for some reason - perhaps because I recently wrote about faith uprooting mulberry trees - something came back to me that a friend brought up at a fellowship meeting in college; something you don't often hear about.

He noted that in Deuteronomy 8:4 God told the Israelites that during their 40 years in the desert their clothing hadn't worn out. I wonder, when God told the Israelites that, if they said, "Well how about that! I hadn't thought of that before, but yes, it's true!"

The preservation of clothing is just not the sort of thing that you'd notice - or believe - unless you deliberately look back over a long period of time. For example, if God started preserving people's clothing on Monday and on Tuesday someone said that God was miraculously preserving their clothes, I'm sure everybody else would have glanced at their clothes, and then back at the speaker, then thought, "This guy is a nut."

But that's what interests me about this miracle; there was nothing at all dramatic about it, nothing to draw attention to itself. It's a humble miracle. In fact, I find it hard to imagine a miracle more mundane than people's clothing lasting far longer than you'd ever expect in a camping environment.

I was tempted to call this miracle "boring," but I can't do that because its very mundane nature is the exciting part! I've sometimes regretted that I've never seen a miracle, but now I wonder: Have there been slow miracles in my life - or your life - things God is doing or has done that we have overlooked because they have been so quiet and gentle and slow and we have been too busy and preoccupied to think back over the years?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Scary New Atheism

The latest Wired Magazine has a very interesting article on the "new atheism," and while I can't figure out how it differs from the old atheism, the essay was quite good. Writer Gary Wolf, an athiest himself, was brave and honest enough to ask some hard questions of today's leading atheists.

Let me look at just two of the people he interviews, but really, the article is worth reading in its entirety.

First he talks with Richard Dawkins.

"Dawkins," he writes, "does not merely disagree with religious myths. He disagrees with tolerating them."

Wolf quotes Dawkins as saying, "It is one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever they like, but should they be free to impose their beliefs on their children? Is there something to be said for society stepping in?"

It appears Dawkins backpedals a bit from that rather totalitarian statement, perhaps after being challenged, but - YOW! - I really don't want to hear any more tripe from atheists complaining that it's Christians who want to impose their views on the world. Those Christians who would like to impose a theocracy are a tiny, virtually unknown, minority. Dawkins, on the other hand, is the leading light in atheistic circles. I'd suggest atheists clean up their own house before criticizing us.

Later, Wolf interviews Daniel Dennett, who has just been asked to write an essay on human dignity, and he's finding it to be a tough task. Wolf writes that Dennett can't find a solution to ethical problems using reason alone, so Dennett's solution is for people to just mindlessly keep their inherent sense of ethics - their "default settings," as he puts it - without thinking about them. In fact, Dennett says, "We could have a rational policy not even to think about such things."

What garbage! And Wolf will have none of it.

"On the one hand," Wolf writes, "he [Dennett] aggressively confronts the faithful, attacking their sacred beliefs. On the other hand, he proposes that our inherited defaults be put outside the limits of dispute. But this would make our defaults into a religion, unimpeachable and implacable gods."


But Dennett, Wolf adds, is willing to make an exception so that "philosophers" would be exempt from these default moral values.

Ah. I see. So "philosophers" would be exempt from the morality Dennett would require the rest of us adhere to. Philosophers would be allowed (by whom?) to lie and cheat and murder and rape and steal and enslave and destroy and do medical experiments on unwilling subjects and kick cats and anything else that their truth-loving little philosophical hearts desire.

I don't find this freedom that Dennett would grant to "philosophers" very comforting.

Also, I find it interesting that while atheists can't find any grounds for moral belief - as Dennett demonstrates - they somehow manage to fervently hold the moral belief that religion is evil. For people who claim to be logical, this seems to be a fairly serious lapse.

Anyway, I thought Wolf did a good, honest job. I don't know if he would consider that a compliment since atheists have no logical reason for thinking honesty is any better than dishonesty, but I think he is a man who is better than his atheistic beliefs.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Moving Mulberry Trees

I've always found Jesus' remark in Luke 17:6 fascinating. He said that, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you."

This, of course, sounds like a very useful thing, especially if you are in the tree removal business, but despite an experimental prayer - experimental since I don't really need any trees moved into the ocean - the tree I prayed for remained in place. And a very good thing, on reflection, since is was not my tree I was praying about. Bad me.

But anyway, then I was discouraged. Clearly I didn't even have that tiny bit of faith Jesus says is necessary to move trees.

But when I went back and read the passage more carefully I found I was foolishly adding something that didn't belong. I was incorrectly understanding the passage to say: "Work hard building up your faith and someday when it's really strong then you can use it to uproot mulberry trees."


As I understand it now, Jesus wasn't telling the apostles that they needed more faith, but was simply saying what he said, that if you have enough faith then the tree will move. And if you don't, it won't. There may be cases when God gives you enough faith that your prayer will be answered with a miracle; in other cases he will not give you that level of faith. So relax (I'm talking to myself especially) and don't try to juice up your faith by furrowing your eyebrows and squinting really hard.