Friday, October 26, 2007


A couple months ago, my boss was having me research info on fire safes. As with a number of businesses, we back up the information on our servers to a tape drive, and put the tapes in a small safe to protect them from fire and/or theft. If you're not familiar (which I'm guessing most people are not), fire safes are typically given ratings of one-hour, two-hour or three-hour, which is more or less considered the amount of time a given safe can sit in a typical building fire without the contents being damaged. My boss wasn't happy when I gave him the particulars of what these ratings mean on a more technical level, expressing that he wanted a safe that would offer complete protection and be truly fire-proof. I explained to him as it says on this website:

Remember, provided there is enough heat, NOTHING IS ACTUALLY FIREPROOF and everything WILL BURN.
As you likely have heard in the news, a large portion of Southern California is burning this week. Over thirty fires have consumed half a million acres of land (about half the size of Rhode Island), taken the lives of at least six people, injured over fifty firefighters, destroyed over 1,500 homes, and are still going at this time.

Like pretty much everything that happens around me, the fires caused some introspection and reflection. Even in areas like the one where I live that are not actually on fire, ashes fall continually, and the sky has been a brownish-orange for six days and probably will continue to be for some time even if the fires are extinguished soon. Everywhere is being effected.

But it did get a bit personal on Monday morning when I drove to work and found the street my office is on blocked off by police. I was a block away from work, and though I couldn't see the fire itself, I could tell from the smoke that it was just a block away again on the far side of my office. I was allowed through the roadblock and arrived at work where my boss informed me that we were not yet told to evacuate, but we knew there was a high likelihood of it as indeed, the fire was just a block away. He himself had gone to the roof of our building and taken pictures of the flames rising through the trees on a neighboring ridge earlier that morning.

I sat at my desk and took some time to survey the junk that usually litters it. Once the call came to evacuate, which was pretty much a sure thing, I wouldn't have time to grab more than one or two things off of my desk, so I decided to be preemptive and grab everything that was irreplaceable, put it in a bag, and take it to my car that moment. It stuck me as I was gathering up my belongings that there were some things that I brought to work with me because I thought they would be safer sitting in a drawer in my work desk than sitting in a drawer in a desk in my home. "What if something happened to my house?" I'd often thought in the past. "Better to bring this to work for safekeeping." Nothing of monetary value, just personal sentimental value. Now I had come to realize that work was not a safe place after all. About an hour later, in fact, my boss would be having me load office equipment into my car to take home for safekeeping, ironically including our fire safe.

I started to think about it all. I already knew that home was not safe. I don't have a safe, so important documents are kept in a cardboard box. Put the box on the floor, and it will be destroyed in a flood. Put the box on a high shelf and it will be destroyed in a fire. Put the box in my car and it will be destroyed in a car crash. Put it anywhere at all and it could be stolen.

Is buying a safe the answer, though? Testing safes for effectiveness is a very lengthy process, and few safes that are not priced at hundreds of dollars make it. They put them in furnaces to simulate fire conditions; then while still hot, they drop them from a certain height to simulate a collapsing building; then they submerge them in water to see if they keep watertight because no doubt the firefighters will dump hundreds of gallons of water into your office building to stop the burning. If you didn't choose a safe that was good enough for the sort of fire that hit your building (which of course, you can't predict), then your stored materials will be melted, charred, smashed and soaked.

But how much is enough to spend on a safe? As the quote above indicates, despite the fact that you can be very dedicated to finding a way to protect yourself from fire, there is a chance that some sort of catastrophe will come that will burn not just your documents, but the safe itself! Sure, it's not likely, but it is possible.

The point of all of this is that in the midst of worrying throughout the rest of the day about the thousands of dollars of office equipment and confidential information of clients that were loaded into my car, I realized I could guarantee no safety. Everything that I own, and everything that my employer had put me in charge of, all of it had potential to be lost, damaged, stolen or destroyed. What's a person to do?

There is a principle that Jesus taught, and I think it's one of a handful of principles that have practical application for all people, not just those who believe in Christ's deity. Yet it is not such an obvious one like, "Love thy neighbor as thyself," or "Thou shalt not kill." In Matthew 6, Jesus said,
"Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
I think most people think of this as a spiritual thing, and if you are a Christian, you definitely should, but there is a completely mundane and practical application to this. Buy yourself some fancy clothes, and eventually, they will rot away and go out of style. Buy yourself a cool car, and eventually it will break down and become a pile of scrap metal. Put your money in the bank and the bank will go under due to bad business decisions or embezzlement, the bottom will fall out of the value of the dollar, the stock market crashes and the real estate bubble bursts. Every worldly possession you have can, and eventually will go away.

But if you invest in educating children? If you invest in saving the environment? If you invest in peace, love, understanding, and all sorts of other hippy-dippy stuff like that? The return on that sort of investment is worth more than any amount of money.

A friend of mine remarked that when he watches the news these days, and sees people evacuated from fire areas, repeatedly they so often seem to cry out that they have lost "everything." He wondered to me, "Don't they still have their lives? Don't they still have their families? Don't most of them have insurance that will allow them to rebuild most if not just about all of what they did lose?" It would be a tragedy if I were to lose all those material possessions, no doubt. But so long as I have my wife, my children, and my God, I have all that I truly need. And even if I did lose my family, I would have the fond memories of the joy we shared. No fire can take that away from me.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Why is the sky blue? (It has nothing to do with wavelengths.)

"In our world," said Eustace, "a star is a huge ball of flaming gas."

"Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what a star is made of."
-Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis
I'm sure what I have to say here is a reiteration of what others have said hundreds of times if I cared to search through literature and what passes for it on the Internet, but perhaps it stands to be said once again anyway. There are a lot of people in the world these days who, whether they would state it this way or not, put science in the place of faith. I think this is a grave mistake, and a way of closing oneself off from truly glorious possibilities of experience in this life (not to mention the next) by being closed-minded.

Let me make something very clear, though. It is often such self-professed skeptics who hurl the accusation of closed-mindedness at those who do have faith. Hypocrisy? No, actually, because they can often be right. You see, the very point I wish to make here is that science and faith are not opposing sides such that one must choose one or the other, but two separate things that can and should coexist in harmony. Among those of us who have faith as a major aspect of our lives, there are more than a few who have taken a position wherein they have done the opposite of the skeptics, and put faith in the place of science. Given that faith tends to be a thing more rigid than science in general, a person in such a mindset might rightfully be said to be more closed-minded than a person of the opposing camp.

It came as a bit of a surprise to me, and it may to you, to find out that C.S. Lewis, arguably the most prominent Christian apologist of the 20th century, was a believer in evolution. Modern evangelicals love Lewis, but hate evolutionary theory; how many know of his views on this matter?

The thing is, recently I finally had a chance to read some of Lewis' science fiction. (I've been well-acquainted with his "Chronicles of Narnia" since I was about six. Prince Caspian is a book I fondly remember as being the first novel I managed to read within a 24-hour period, back when I was seven years old and I had just discovered that The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe was only the first book in a series of seven!) Perhaps not as deeply engaging and enchanting as his Narnia books, but still a pretty good read, Lewis had written a trilogy of books involving space travel and aliens. The thing that seems odd about them is the manner in which the main character of the stories discusses with sentient beings on other planets his attempt to grasp what forces of nature might have caused them to evolve into the forms that they have come to be, while at the same time, it is quite clear that this protagonist is a devoted Christian in the midst of a very Christian story. The power of Lewis' interplanetary theology drips from every page of the tale, and is a strong, positive message. Yet I suspect that if these stories were to be written today, no Christian publishing house would touch them for the science that doesn't fit in with the popular evangelical world-view.

It's a shame. No really, I mean that not in the "Oh, it's too bad," sense, but in the real sense of meaning that I'm embarrassed for fellow Christians who might miss a good message for the sake of fighting a world-view that need not be the enemy of the faith we live. After all, who can doubt the fervor and intensity of Lewis' faith? Yet he maintained that faith while being quite comfortable accepting the science of the 20th century right alongside his faith. Is it so impossible that Christians could do the same?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to advocate that we all embrace evolutionary theory. It has its merits, but the strength of science is in the allowance of skepticism. By all means, doubt evolution, question it! But don't reject it out-of-hand as though it were blasphemous just because you can't fit it easily into your world-view. And I give the same message to those whose religion has become science, whether you realize it or not. There are a lot of scientists who feel that the natural world is pointing to the idea of a higher power: science and religion can and do mix freely.

What is it that has failed in our culture that so many of us can't see this? I think it is a lack of understanding of the basic questions we ask in order to understand the universe. I thought I had shared this allegory with you before, and if you've heard it excuse me, but it's one of my favorites: There once was a community of mice who all lived inside of a piano. Every day, as the mice went about their business, beautiful music floated down from above them and filled their world. The mice had come to believe that there was a being who was larger and more intelligent than them who lived outside of the piano, and this person, the Great Musicmaker, made the music because of a love of beauty. Some mice decided one day to go and try to find the Great Musicmaker, so they climbed up the insides of the piano to see what they would see. Eventually, they came to a large cavern filled with strings and hammers. As they stood there wondering what they were seeing, the music began playing. They were shocked at what they saw, and they returned immediately to the rest of the mice. Once back, they reported, "There is no Great Musicmaker, only hammers striking strings!"

What's the point of this story? The point of this story, and all that I am writing here is that the question of HOW things come to be is a separate one from WHY things come to be. When the mice looked on the hammers and strings, they understood the HOW, and were somehow blinded to the WHY. Likewise, in our world, many people examine the world and find "There is no God, only space-time and matter and forces, and all can be explained by gravity and chemistry and quantum forces." I've said it many times; yes, all can be explained by those things, but only the HOW of those things.

But there is an extension to this allegory that perhaps fits to the modern world. Suppose the mice chose to continue to believe in the Great Musicmaker? Really, they would be right to do so, wouldn't they? Where they would be wrong is if they denounced those mice who claimed that the strings and hammers existed, and said that is was wrong to believe in the existence of strings and hammers. That would be putting so much emphasis on the WHY that there was no room for the HOW.

It is my belief that everything that exists, exists for a reason. It is also my belief that this reason is twofold: one aspect is WHY the thing exists, and one aspect is HOW it came to exist. Those two aspects may be and probably are strongly intertwined, so I see no reason why either one should be divorced completely from the picture.