WORLD OF DATA (AND ANGELS)

By JIM NICHOLS

As a professional biologist, I have lived most of my life in a world of data. One does an experiment and collects numbers that may or may not show trends. One designs experiments in such a way as to minimize the number of variables so that observations made might lead to a reasonable conclusion. The conclusions are only as reliable as the observations; the observations depend on the correct experimental design in the first place.

That generally identifies the way many scientific fields operate. One makes an assumption that the natural world works consistently; otherwise, the reliability of the data is zero. One assumes that the same experiment done exactly the same way in a different time and place and by someone else will yield similar numbers and results. This strong assumption is keenly important for the validity of science.

There is a trap here for many people. That trap is to overemphasize the scientific process in such a way as to try to fit every aspect of life into this paradigm. As powerful as the scientific method is, it still depends on dealing with something measurable.

We understand, do we not, that not all aspects of life yield themselves to measurement and data collecting. For instance, we all have some understanding of “courage” and one could certainly try to measure courage acts, but we would not really be measuring courage itself. When I hear a poem or a symphony, it would be possible to measure changes in my heart rate and blood pressure, but that would not really be the same as measuring the effect of the poem or symphony on my actual being. We believe in prayer (although we do not really understand it), but attempts to measure prayer or the effects of prayer seem rather silly. This is despite several attempts to do so.

Logically, many of us understand that even in our clearly scientific world, there are things occurring that do not fit under the scientific umbrella of consideration. I suspect that our modern Western world has deluded itself into believing that, unless something can be examined scientifically, it is not real or important. The “supernatural” has been relegated to fantasy and non-thinking. I suggest that we are the poorer because of that.

If we are attempting to follow God, we have some degree of comfort with this invisible, spirit world. We certainly do not understand it, but, if you are as I am, every now and then something happens that does not really fit the scientific pattern of our life. It may not be profound, but it does rather startle us with an unexpected insight. One category of this for me is angels.

Depending on your point of view, you might consider me rather gullible to people who are asking for money on the street. How much should I evaluate this person? Is the person telling the truth about the need? How truly desperate is this person? Am I simply enabling some destructive lifestyle? In addition, of course, you have only a few seconds to make this decision as to whether to help.

I have been a bicycle rider all my life. There may be a “bike-riding gene” in my family. I have heard stories of my father in the 1920s riding all over the big city and I have ridden for transportation virtually all my adult life. My son and his son have been rather serious bike riders. Perhaps this gene is on the Y chromosome.

The story is simple and predictable. I had ridden for lunch at a nearby restaurant and was just starting back to my office for the afternoon. I was in a rather busy area of town with lots of cars and people. “Mister! Mister!” she called as she waved and ran toward me. “Can you help me, please? My car broke down and I am traveling to see my mother. I had the car repaired at that garage over there (pointing) and I gave them all the money I had but they still need $32 more. Can you help me?”

I do not carry much cash with me, but (with a quick calculation) I figured I had almost exactly $32 in my billfold after I bought lunch. “The car is right over there at that garage?” “Yes, it is. Can you help me get the car back?”

I gave her my money and she said thank you and ran across the busy street. An odd event occurred then. She walked down the street almost out of my view, a car pulled up beside her, the door opened, and she got in. The car drove away and vanished.

I rode my bike across the street to the garage and asked if a woman were in the process of having repairs made and, of course, they had no knowledge of such. When I returned to my office, I searched for any other nearby garage she could have been using, phoned them, and again got negative responses.

I used the word “gullible” earlier and was feeling that way. I went to my next class that was beginning immediately and was still turning over this sequence in my mind. It was only $32, I said to myself. I was still irritated. This became a teachable moment for me, thanks to a student in that class. Since I was still feeling frustrated, I told the class the story. What I was still puzzling was the disappearance of the car; it did not really seem to drive away, it just vanished. “Maybe it just went down that hill,” I said to myself.

As I concluded the story, a male who had not been particularly impressive academically so far in the semester, raised his hand. “Maybe she was an angel,” he said. Seriously. “Maybe she was an angel.” He was not smiling when he said that.

Had I, the biologist, the data-collecting scientific person, just come near to the invisible world? Perhaps not. Logic would suggest that I had simply been taken. Nevertheless, I was still left wondering.

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Hebrews 13:2

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain. 

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