Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Lynne Raven: Science vs. Faith

Dear God, how long has it been? As I stood at the window in my hotel room in London, looking at the city below, I found myself feeling like I'd just landed on another planet. 

I should probably explain. I'm a field archaeologist. Home is wherever I happen to be excavating—at that time, “home” was Egypt. The only people I see on a daily basis are the members of my team. Restaurants, theaters, shopping—all are rare luxuries. My wardrobe is simple and functional, much like everything else in my life.  


As I looked at the royal blue tunic I'd planned to wear that night, I realized I hadn’t worn it in months. It didn’t fit my normal lifestyle. Too feminine for a dig. Thinking about it, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d made the effort to be feminine, to actually look like a woman. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt like a woman, the last time I’d wanted to feel like a woman. Feeling and acting like a woman always seemed to get me into trouble. I had discovered long ago that I got on better with people who’d been dead for a thousand years than I did with the living.


I'm not one to spend a lot of time worrying about my looks. For what? I've been divorced over a decade and can't remember the last time I was on a date. I turned forty that summer, but on the good days, I could still pass for thirty. I had fine lines around my eyes—“archaeologist’s squint,” an occupational hazard more than a sign of aging. I haven't changed my hairstyle since college—it's dark and threaded with strands of copper from being out in the sun all day, every day. I know I don’t look my age. But there are times I feel it acutely. I got good genes from my parents. Genes that I haven’t been able to pass on to any children of my own. The thought of the children I’d never have and the family I hadn’t seen in a year brought a wave of unexpected sadness I couldn't shake. It was Thanksgiving in the States. How many years had it been since I’d gone home for Thanksgiving or any other holiday? I told my parents I was too busy, but the truth was that it was too painful to see my three sisters with their children. Seeing what I’d been missing.


I always believed this was the path God had chosen for me. I could never have been satisfied with the life my sisters led back in Missouri. Taking the easy route had never been my style. We all have a purpose. I believed without doubt that mine was to find evidence that would prove the events described in the Bible had actually happened.


As for why I was in London, I hadn’t planned on being here. Three weeks before, I’d been minding my own business, working on my dig in Egypt when that call came, asking me to do a series of lectures in London, to replace a colleague who’d been injured in an earthquake in China. The request surprised the hell out of me, since it came from someone I not only didn’t know well personally, but had been at odds with professionally. What was it Dr. McCallum had called me? Too much of a dreamer to ever be a serious archaeologist. 


Whatever the reason, I wasn’t about to debate the merits of his request. It had been so long since I’d taken any time off from my work, for any reason…and as much as I loved it, I’d been feeling the need for a break for a long time now. It was a feeling I’d never had before, one I was at a loss to explain, even to myself. Work had been my whole life for…how long? Ever since the divorce. 

I was giving serious consideration to adopting a child, maybe two. Not babies. Older kids. Kids who could live the way I live and actually enjoy it. There are lots of kids in the world needing parents. It doesn’t matter if I give birth to my kids or not.


Being in London would hopefully also provide me with an opportunity to seek the funding I needed to continue the dig. Time was running out and I’d already been rejected by the three private foundations that had funded my previous digs. God, I need a miracle, I silently prayed. That’s what it’s going to take if I’m to continue my work—Your work.   

***   

I saw him enter the crowded lecture hall. He was hard to miss. He looked so out of place in the sea of conservatively dressed attendees—but it didn’t seem to bother him. He wore faded jeans and a beat-up black leather jacket. He was with a young woman, a petite brunette who looked as aristocratic as he was scruffy. His light brown hair was in desperate need of a comb. His boredom was evident in his body language, the way he shoved his hands down into the pockets of his jacket. I decided I'd lost my audience before I even got to the podium.


“I fail to see why you couldn’t have come to this event alone, Sarah,” he said, annoyed. “You know quite well that I’ve no interest in spending the evening listening to a decrepit old man talk about life in some desolate outpost of Hades, digging up the pathetic remains of people who lived in another millennium.”


The woman shook her head disapprovingly. “If you had even bothered to read the brochure I gave you, you would know that Dr. Raven is a woman,” she told him.


“No difference,” he said with an offhanded shrug. “Frumpy, gray hair in a schoolmarm’s bun, sensible shoes, no doubt.” He looked at his watch. “I’m going to need a pint—or two—to get me through this evening. I’ll be back. Eventually.” He turned to leave the lecture hall and we were face-to-face. He smiled, and his whole face seemed transformed by it. His eyes, blue and intense, instantly softened. “Hello,” he said in a low voice.


The woman came up behind him. “This is Dr. Raven,” she told him.


He extended his hand to me. “Connor Mackenzie,” he introduced himself. His Scottish brogue was unmistakable. I noticed that he didn’t introduce his date.   


“Lynne Raven.” I shook his hand. “I left my sensible shoes back at the hotel,” I said, feigning regret.


He looked embarrassed. “You heard that?”


I nodded. “I’m afraid so.”


“I’m sorry—”


“Don’t be.” I smiled. “I get it all the time.” It was the truth. People are always surprised when they discover I'm an archaeologist. They always expect us to look and act like Indiana Jones. I do have the hat and the leather jacket, but no bullwhip. I used to wish I'd had one when I was still married. My ex could have benefited from a good whipping.


“I’m not surprised,” he said. “You certainly don’t look like an archaeologist.”


He wasn't expecting Indiana Jones. He was expecting a fossil as old as some of my finds. 


I laughed. “Having heard your description, I’m relieved to hear I don’t look like one to you.” 


He looked me in the eye, which was a little unnerving. “I think you’re quite beautiful,” he said.


I could feel my cheeks flush. I couldn’t remember the last time a man had made me blush. Maybe my ex-husband, but that was another lifetime—one I preferred not to remember. “Good save,” I said, a bit unnerved by the intensity of his stare.


“Are you enjoying your stay in London?” he asked in an awkward attempt at small talk.


“Very much,” I answered, grateful for the change of subject. “I spend most of my time on excavations. This has been heavenly.”


“Where will you go when you leave?” he asked.


“Egypt,” I said. “We’re digging in the Sinai, near the mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God.”


He looked amused. “You don’t really expect to find stone tablets—” he started.


I shook my head. “The tablets were taken to Israel in the Ark of the Covenant,” I explained. “They were still in the Ark when it disappeared from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. It’s been rumored that the Ark’s now somewhere in Ethiopia, but no one’s been able to prove it. Much as I would love to be the one to find the Ark, we don’t expect to find it in Egypt. We are searching for evidence of the Exodus in general.”


He laughed. “Have you found the secret to parting the Red Sea?” he wanted to know.


I didn't hesitate. “Yes. It’s called faith.”


“I’ve heard archaeologists are now using modern technology to aid their work,” he recalled. “Computers, satellites—”


“We do.” I drew in a deep breath, thinking of the equipment I still needed to continue my work. “Unfortunately, it hasn’t helped in this case. We haven’t found anything significant yet. This has turned out to be a long-term project, which means it’s been costly. My funding’s been cut off, and other sources I’ve used in the past have already turned me down. I have to find a new source of funding ASAP. Time is running out, if I’m going to continue my field work.” Why was I dumping this on him? I glanced toward his female companion, who was watching us intently. “I think your girlfriend’s getting the wrong idea.”


“She’s not my girlfriend,” he said. “She’s my sister.”


Only then did I realize that he was still holding my hand. I withdrew it slowly.


“Have you eaten?” Connor asked.


I shook my head. “I’m beat. I thought I’d just get some Chinese takeout after I’m finished here and call it a night.”


He laughed. “A rare trip to the civilized world and you plan to spend the evening in your hotel room? That’s unacceptable.” he said. “Come have dinner with me.”


“I don’t think so—” I started.


“I may be able to save your project,” he suggested. 


I was more than a little skeptical. “How?” He didn’t look like he had enough cash to pay for dinner. Except for the watch. The watch he wore looked very expensive. He probably stole it. Or so I thought at the time. 


He winked, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “My trust fund,” he told her.


I nodded slowly. “Right.”


He wasn’t about to give up. “I could surprise you. What have you to lose by hearing me out?” he asked.


I hesitated for only a moment. “All right,” I said finally. Even if he didn’t have the means to save the excavation, there was something so compelling about him, I couldn’t refuse. I didn’t want to refuse.


God help me, I was thinking.

***

He came up to the podium while I was talking to a small group of academics after the presentation. He edged his way into the group and leaned in close enough to whisper in my ear, “I’ll be waiting for you outside.”


I nodded. “I’ll only be a few minutes.”


He strode off with a swagger that inspired thoughts I didn’t want to be having, especially about a man I’d just met. I watched him leave the lecture hall, only half-listening to the aging paleontologist from Oxford who was rambling on in a monotone that would have put me to sleep, had my thoughts not been elsewhere. As soon as I could graciously extract myself, I grabbed my coat and headed for the exit.


I had no trouble finding him outside. He was standing next to a Harley Davidson, two helmets in hand. “Here,” he said, tossing one to me. “Put this on.”


I was speechless for a moment. “I don’t think so,” I finally managed to say.


He laughed. “Chicken?” he asked.


“I beg your pardon?” I was indignant.


What did he have in mind? I wasn’t about to ride off on a motorbike with some man I’d just met, not even this one. 


“I said, are you afraid to ride with me?” His blue eyes were taunting. “You needn’t be. I’m quite a safe biker. At least I am when I have a passenger aboard.”


“Oh, I’m sure you are.” I wasn't unconvinced. 


There was a chill in the air. I stood there, hugging myself. I could see my breath. How long was I going to allow the debate to continue? Finally, I slipped my coat on. As I did so, I glanced toward the security guard near the doors. The man regarded me with a look that left no doubt in my mind that he’d gotten the wrong idea about what was going on between myself and Connor.


“Get that bloody helmet on and come on.” Connor was growing impatient. He put on his own helmet and gestured to me again to get on the bike. 


The man was challenging me! He had nerve, I’d give him that. Impulsively and against my better judgment, I rose to the challenge, I tucked my hair behind my ears and pulled on the helmet. I climbed aboard the bike with him.


“Where’s your sister?” I asked, remembering he hadn’t come alone.


“Sarah? She brought her car. She had to go back to the station.”


“Station?” I asked.


“She’s a television journalist.” 


“Do you really have the means to help me get funding?” I asked then. “Or are you just coming on to me?”


“Both.” He started the engine. He said something else, but I couldn’t hear him above the Harley’s roar. I hung onto him as he raced the bike through the streets of London, wondering what I’d gotten myself into. 


I felt like a moth who’d flown dangerously close to a flame....

***

We ended up at a small, casual Chinese restaurant near Regent’s Park. “You mentioned getting takeout,” he said, holding the door for me. “I hope not being able to eat out of the cartons won’t be too much of a disappointment.”


“I think I can live with it,” I said. We took a booth at the back of the dining room that came as close to privacy as the restaurant afforded. He slid into the booth across from me and picked up two menus. I took the menu he offered me and scanned it quickly. 


“Do you know what you want?” he asked.


I could feel my cheeks flush. He’s talking about food, you idiot, I mentally scolded myself. “Yes,” I said, keeping my eyes fixed on the menu. “I’ll have the cashew chicken.”


I noticed a folded newspaper lying on the seat next to me. I picked it up. It was folded, a story on stem cell research facing out. I shook my head. I may be, as an archaeologist, considered a scientist, but I'm also a Christian, a pastor's daughter. And no matter what my parents think, my faith remains strong.  Some things are just morally wrong. 


Connor regarded me with curiosity. “What is it?” he asked.


I showed him the newspaper. “You’re opposed to medical research?” he asked, surprised.


“Not at all—but they won’t be satisfied with that,” I predicted. “They’ll want to clone human beings. Man has always had a yearning to play God.”


“Do you not think it’s possible that this could benefit mankind?” he asked. “Science is on the brink of eradicating illness, improving mental ability and physical prowess. Is that not a good thing?”


“No,” I answered without reservation. “We don’t have the power or the right to artificially create life.”


“Obviously, we do,” he disagreed, taking the paper from me. “Science is going to change the world, you know.”


I disagreed. “Then maybe we need to change the scientists,” I suggested.


I could tell he was trying not to laugh. “Change the scientists?”


I nodded. “They may be able to create the physical body, but they can’t create a soul,” I maintained. “Are you at all familiar with any of the ancient religions?”


He pursed his lips as if considering the question. “No. Can’t say that I am.”


“According to the ancient Jewish mystics, the Guf—the Hall of Souls—holds a finite number of souls,” I explained, toying with a bottle of soy sauce absently.  “When a child is born, the soul descends from Heaven to enter the physical body. In the case of a stillbirth, no soul comes. The mystics believed when the Guf is emptied, the Messiah will come. Each birth would bring the Messiah’s arrival closer.”


He looked amused. “And do you believe this also?” he wanted to know.


“I believe there’s some truth to it,” I acknowledged.  “I believe the Messiah will return when the Hall is emptied.”


“Perhaps your God intended us to create bodies for those souls waiting in the well,” Connor suggested in a mocking tone. “Heaven could be outsourcing.”


I held my tongue, just in case he could help me secure funding for the dig.


He waved to the waitress, who came with water and took our order, then made a quick exit. I took a deep breath and approached the topic I really wanted to discuss with him. “How can you help me get my funding?” I asked. 


He smiled. “You get right to the point, don’t you?” 


“I can’t afford not to,” I said honestly. “The clock is ticking. I don’t have much time. If I’m to stay in Egypt, I have to do something yesterday. If you’ve been putting me on—”


“I haven’t,” he assured me. “My stepfather is founder and chairman of Icarus International. Ever heard of it?”


I nodded. I was vaguely aware of it. “Pharmaceuticals, medical research....”


“The Phoenix Foundation, our philanthropic division, gives millions to various worthwhile projects every year. We can fund your work for the next five years.”


“Why?” I wanted to know. There had to be a catch.  


He leaned forward and grinned. “Why not?” he countered.


I took a drink, stalling while I searched for a diplomatic way to say what I was thinking, just in case he really was sincere. “You don’t give me the impression you even believe in what I’m doing in the Sinai,” I said finally. “Why would you care if I can continue my work or not?”


“Consider it a challenge,” he said. “You believe, I don’t. Prove me wrong.”


I was almost amused. “You’d be willing to risk all that capital to be proven wrong?” 


He shrugged. “For one thing, it’s not my money. And for another, I think this might prove a most interesting experience.” 


A rich man looking for a diversion, I decided. Well, if he was willing to provide it, I was willing to take it. I couldn't afford to be proud. It wasn't like I had any other options. Aloud I said, “Right. You just surprised me, that’s all. I need to submit a proposal—”


“That’s not necessary,” he said. “You have me to present your case.”


“It can’t be that easy,” I said, unable to believe I could leave London with funding for the next five years, just like that. 


“It is. Edward will do this if I ask him.” He put his hand on mine. His touch made me feel odd, but not in a bad way. There was something strangely familiar about it. I withdrew my hand slowly.


“Why?” I asked again. “Of course I’m grateful—”


“Grateful enough to put up with me for a time?” he asked, his eyes meeting mine.


“Put up with you?” I asked, immediately suspicious. There it was. I knew there would be strings attached. “What, exactly, does that mean?”


He leaned back and regarded me in a way that made me feel as though I was being appraised. “I’m interested in what you do. I’d like to see it firsthand. Is that so hard to believe?” he wanted to know.


“Would you be coming along to oversee your stepfather’s investment, then?” I asked, bracing myself for an ultimatum I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to want to hear.


“Not at all,” he said. “Call it curiosity. It would only be for a brief time.”


I hesitated momentarily. Confession time. “The Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt doesn’t know why we’re really there,” I reluctantly revealed. “The Exodus is a touchy subject. To prove that it actually happened would be to reinforce Israel’s claims in the territory.”


“Are their suspicions not aroused by the location of your site?” he asked.


“No.” I took a deep breath and went on. “You see, the reason no proof has been found so far is that the so-called experts have the dates and locations all wrong. Traditionally, it’s been believed that Moses’ royal adversary was Ramses II—but I’m part of a very small minority that believes the Pharaoh the Bible actually refers to is Ahmose I—who reigned two hundred years earlier. I’ve been studying the Exodus for most of my professional life, and all of my research points to Ahmose. I believe I’m on the right track. My benefactors think otherwise. So when we failed to make a find, they pulled the plug on me.”


Connor lit a cigarette. “But the mountain, surely.”


“They had the wrong mountain,” I said, confident in my theory. “I believe that the actual mountain of God is the Jebel Hashem al Tarif—it’s right on the main Sinai highway, forty-five kilometers from Taba. It fits all the information provided in Scripture much more closely than does the Jebel Musa.”


“And the Red Sea?” he asked. 


“Mistranslated. Yam Suf in Hebrew means reed sea, not Red Sea.” I paused. “So we got our permits to dig under false pretenses. We told them we were looking for artifacts relating to Ahmose’s reign. Even then, it took us a year to obtain them. We’ve had to be cautious. There’s a military installation close to the mountain. I feel like they’re always looking over our shoulders.”


“I see.” He was silent for a moment. “Well, I’m still willing to secure your funding, if you agree to my terms.”


I still had reservations, but he was my only hope of saving the dig now. “You have a deal, Mr. Mackenzie,” I agreed.


“It’s Connor,” he said as the waitress returned and placed our plates in front of us. He reached for one of the two cellophane-wrapped fortune cookies. “Let’s see what the future holds, shall we?” He removed the wrapper and broke the cookie in half. He stared at the small slip of paper for a moment, then started to laugh. “It looks as if I have no future.”


I took it from him. It was blank. “Maybe,” I said, “it means your future can’t be revealed to you yet."  


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