Monday, July 25, 2011

Secrets and Surprises

The problem that arises when they make a movie out of a TV series is that what makes for good television is not generally the same stuff that makes for a movie blockbuster. You can see this in the hit-and-miss movie series based on the various incarnations of Star Trek. But it is most evident in the Mission Impossible series. Often these movies start with one of the elaborate schemes reminiscent of the TV show. Then something goes disastrously wrong and the rest of the movie abandons the successful TV formula for the more typical overblown movie blockbuster formula of explosions, gunplay and mano a mano fights that by all rights should leave both villain and hero permanently disabled if not dead.

The joy of the TV version of Mission Impossible was watching the team's meticulous plans unfold. Even so, the audience did not know the entire scenario Phelps and company had dreamt up. We knew who or what their target was. We got glimpses of the disguise Roland was working on. We saw some of Barney's gadgets, specially created for the mission. And then we watched the plan unfold, knowing only slightly more than the villains did. Yes, something unanticipated would happen in the third act to jeopardize the plot but the team deftly improvised until everything was back on track. If it was a good episode, the audience was as surprised as the bad guys but also gratified when the final piece of the Rube Goldberg scheme was triggered and the team walked away with the code key, or the crucial piece of an enemy's weapon, or the freed political prisoner they were seeking. And the IMF rarely had to fire a shot--unless the gun was filled with blanks.

In real life, such complicated plans rarely come off as envisioned. Though in World War 2, there were a number such espionage plots that the Brits pulled off. In "Operation Mincemeat," dramatized in the book "The Man Who Never Was," a corpse was given the identity of a fictitious naval officer, handcuffed to a briefcase with papers indicating that the Allies planned to invade Europe via Sardinia and Greece and then allowed to wash up on the shores of Spain. The Spanish passed the intelligence to the Nazis who were thus unprepared when the Allies invaded Sicily instead. In another elaborate ruse, Nazis were misled by a waiting invasion force of tanks, trucks and cannons that were in fact canvas, wood and inflatable props.

On a more serious note, the Brits had captured a German Enigma cipher machine that allowed Allies to decode intercepted Nazi military communications. Knowing when and where German forces would strike helped us foil their war strategy. But they could never suspect that the Allies had the decoder. The importance of this secret was the basis of one of Winston Churchill's toughest decisions. According to Group Captain F. W. Winterbotham, the British got the word that the Luftwaffe was going to bomb the cathedral city of Coventry. If the populace was evacuated, the Nazis would suspect that UK could decode their secret commands. So Churchill did nothing to give the city advance warning. The city was bombed; the cathedral was gutted by a firestorm; hundreds of people died. It was sacrificed to protect a vital secret.

Today's Bible readings are about valuable secrets. In Genesis 29, Jacob, who got his elder brother's birthright and blessing through trickery, is married to his beloved's elder sister through trickery. I know ancient Middle Eastern bridal veils were thick but the wine must have flowed freely because Jacob doesn't realize the deception until the morning after. He confronts Laban, his new father-in-law, and asks what gives. Laban explains that it is against local custom to marry off the younger daughter before the elder. Sure, now he brings that all-important custom up! Because Laban kept it secret, Jacob has to work another 7 years to gain the hand of Rachel, though Laban lets them marry after a week.

That secret is like the cons that the Impossible Mission Force ran on bad guys. And the eventual result is that the next act in Jacob's life reads like a French bedroom farce. Leah and Rachel are literally sister-wives and their rivalry for Jacob's affections leads to a baby arms race. Leah is first out of the gate giving birth to 4 sons, one after the other. Rachel is barren and, as was the custom since the time of Abraham, gives Jacob her maid Bilhah as a surrogate. Any children born to the maid count as Rachel's. Bilhah has 2 sons. That provokes Leah to do the same with her maid, Zilpah, who bears 2 more sons. Then we find that Jacob's sleeping arrangements can be adjusted by the wives trading nights with him for herbs. Leah meets him on his way home from the fields and tells him that the going rate for his services is a bunch of mandrakes. The result of this decidedly non-erotic schedule is 2 more sons and a daughter from Leah. Finally Rachel has a couple of sons, giving Jacob 12 sons, the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel.

This serio-comic family saga is a crucial step in God's plan to bless the world through Abraham's offspring. Which illustrates what Paul says in Romans 8:28--"We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." This is a core concept of faith. If God is the master of creation, if he is good and loves us, then it follows that he would make all things work together for the good of those who love and obey him. But this is not always obvious at every point in life. I'm sure that when Jacob awoke with a massive hangover and the wrong woman as his wife he could not discern God's hand in that. When David, anointed to be Israel's next king, was a fugitive from Saul, his mentor, he probably couldn't detect how this served God. And the Friday of the crucifixion, Jesus' disciples thought that nothing about it made sense, much less that this was God's will.

The greatest test of faith is continuing to trust God when it is hard to see his hand in what is going on. Part of the problem is that we tend to see good in terms of what is good for ourselves. So it may be hard to see something as good if it does not seem to benefit us. Losing one's job is a disaster, though it may spur one's spouse or children to start down a path that ultimately becomes a good career. It's amazing how many successful men, like Charles Dickens or Arthur Conan Doyle, had unsuccessful fathers. Another example: having a handicapped child can be devastating, though the child may be the occasion of bringing a family closer and turning their minds to what is essential. C. S. Lewis pointed out the difference between a simple variety of goodness, which is obvious and unclouded by negative circumstances, such as love, and a complex kind of goodness, one that can only arise in response to evil, such as forgiveness or healing or reconciliation. A complex good or the opportunity to create one can be difficult to recognize.

Another reason we do not always perceive that God is indeed working all things together for our good is that we see good in terms of what is happening now. We have a hard time seeing the long term results of immediate pain or adversity. The whole premise of "Slumdog Millionaire" is that a young man's painful childhood and harrowing life is what prepares him for a great triumph. At times, the movie is hard to watch but that makes the resolution all the sweeter. During a period of trial, it may be hard to say, "This will prove to be a helpful experience down the road."

The ability to think long-term and delay gratification leads to a better life. In the 1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel gave a bunch of 4-year-olds one marshmallow each and told them that if they refrained from eating it for 20 minutes, they would get another. To fight temptation, some kids closed their eyes or kept thinking of how good 2 marshmallows would be to keep from eating the first one. One kid licked the table all around the marshmallow. On the other hand, some just scarfed it down. 14 years later, Mischel checked up on the children and found that those who couldn't wait and ate the marshmallow right away had low self-esteem, were impulsive, easily frustrated, prone to envy others and seen by their parents and teachers as stubborn. Those who were able to wait ended up doing better in school, were more intelligent emotionally and were self-motivated. They were better adjusted and more dependable.

In Matthew 13, Jesus talks of how those who wait and invest their time, labor and money in the Kingdom of God received a surprisingly big payoff. Plant a tiny mustard seed and you will get a huge tree. Put a pinch of yeast in your dough and it will yield a lot of food. Invest all you have in the Kingdom and you will receive a treasure beyond measure. Cast a wide net and you will get a boatful of fish. It requires patience, like waiting for a tree to grow. It requires work, like the woman kneading the dough or the fishermen pulling nets. It requires a big investment, such as buying a rich field or fabulous pearl. But the payoff will come. You just have to have faith in the God who is working through all things for our good.

We are really good with dealing with visible threats and working for immediate rewards. We have a harder time recognizing threats that are slowly creeping up on us or rewards that take time to materialize. Jacob originally sought immediate benefits through deceit, something that divided his family. He had to learn the benefits of achieving what you desire through long hard work and the importance of keeping peace in a tricky family situation. Only then was he the kind of man God intended him to be. And in hindsight, he could see how God was orchestrating all these unlikely elements--a conniving father-in-law, the rivalry of sisters, his discovery of his talent as a shepherd--to bring him to this point.

A lot of bad behavior comes from short-term thinking and acting impulsively. Jesus encouraged us to count the cost, to plan ahead, to wait, and to prepare for his coming. Our motivation is the hope we have in Christ, a hope not yet visible, as Paul pointed out in last week's epistle, but one which can inspire and guide us, especially in times of trial. And Paul knew what he was talking about. All the dire things he mentions towards the end of Romans 8--hardship, persecution, the sword--he endured. There had to be times when he wondered why, if God was behind the gospel, so many roadblocks were being thrown in his way. But he saw the power of the gospel--people healed, lives changed, different races reconciled, communities sprouting up all over the empire--and it encouraged him. And he saw things that defied his imagination, things way beyond coincidence, that revealed to him that God was indeed working behind the scenes, making things work out despite what appears to be happening.

There are people who take the brief mention of predestination in this passage and say that God has stage managed everything; that he's nailed down every detail; that not a single thing happens that he doesn't approve of. I don't think that's how it works. There are Bible passages in which God changes his mind and in which Jesus shows surprise at things both good and bad. I think that, to honor the free will that he has given us, God refrains from over-riding our wills or forcing us to do his bidding. Like the IMF, he has a master plan. And, like a chess master, he is carrying it out, countering moves made to stop it. I could not outmaneuver Garry Kasparov in a chess match. And Paul is saying that nothing in this world, least of all us, can stymie or frustrate or derail God's loving plan to restore his creatures or creation to their goodness. I can't put it more elegantly than the apostle himself: "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

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