By Steve Dresselhaus
Mexico’s long Baja peninsula is one of those hot, rocky, barren, desolate deserts where life is hard on the best of days and where, for the careless or unprepared, death is but half a step behind–at least it seems that way as the desiccating, relentless sun threatens to turn all creatures for whom moisture is essential into raisins. Five hundred years ago, Baja’s climate and geology twice conspired to defeat Hernan Cortés, the conquistador, thwarting his attempts to exert Spanish dominion. It is one of those places where religion comes easy during the summer, as desperate deals are plea-bargained with the Almighty in a last-ditch effort to eliminate any potential risk of spending eternity here. The hellishness of a Baja summer is enough to weaken the resolve of even the most ardent practitioner of atheism, causing him to waver and doubt his faith in purposeless matter and pointless nothing and to seek solace in a religion of hope.
We were part of a caravan returning from a baptismal service at the beach and heading back to the desert town of Ciudad Constitución, a town in the center of the Baja peninsula. The beach, on the magnificent Sea of Cortés, was a mini cove in a larger bay called Ensenada Blanca. It is a beautiful, rocky, dreamy place which could easily grace the cover of a tourist brochure. Ciudad Constitución, well–that is a different ball game all together. The best way to picture Ciudad Constitución is found in the words of a missionary coworker who described one of its restaurants by saying, “ It’s the restaurant with the cement floor.” Monastic desert fathers from the early centuries of the church, who believed in the theology of “no pain no gain,” would have gladly chosen Ciudad Constitución as the place in which to prepay their time in Purgatory.
A church family had borrowed a Ford pick-up truck for the occasion. When the caravan reached the worst possible place, just past the middle of nowhere but before starting the countdown to anywhere, the pick-up sputtered, coughed and wheezed its way to silence as the last drops of fuel disappeared, having burned their way into heat and C02. Running out of gas was no big deal, or so we thought, because the vehicle had two gas tanks, and both had been mostly filled that morning. I was driving a Ford van with two fuel tanks and an identical dashboard as the truck’s. When the pick-up ran out of gas, I simply jumped from my van, walked over to truck, reached for the toggle to change tanks……but there was no toggle switch hanging beneath the dashboard. The dashboards were identical, absolutely identical, except for the one essential switch – lights, gas gauge, speedometer, front and back air conditioner, tachometer – nothing, absolutely nothing was different————-except for the absent switch.
In the direct sunlight, heat mounting in our vehicles, small children beginning to cry, our discomfort grew. There was no need to keep the caravan of cars intact so we sent every vehicle except for the truck and my van on to the city in order to get the people to comfort and safety. Deserts are not a safe place to be stranded, especially back in the year 7 BC (Before Cellphones).
After a seeming eternity, during which our minds were filled with silent cursing, since as missionaries we try to hide things like that, a Green Angels truck showed up. Green Angels are a Mexican roadside assistance program of mechanics who patrol the desert highway with tools, extra fuel and some commonly needed spare parts, giving aid to stranded motorists like us. We purchased 5 gallons of gasoline from them, enough to get us the 50 miles to Ciudad Constitución. I made sure that the driver of the pick-up truck poured the gasoline into the appropriate gas tank because putting fuel into the tank to which we had no access would do nothing to relieve our predicament. Since just that morning he had filled the truck with fuel, I trusted his judgment as he assured me he had chosen the right tank. He hadn´t. Sometimes it is soooo hard, so very hard to maintain even the minimal basic Christian standards of love, patience, tolerance and forgiveness.
There we sat, in the blazing sun, our borrowed pick-up truck with a tank full of fuel, but effectively still out of gas. Desperation drove us to drastic measures. We crawled under the truck, onto the nearly melted pavement, disconnected the fuel lines and rerouted them from one tank to the other. Once the lines were redirected and the air purged from them, we got the engine running and resumed our desert journey back to town, arriving hours later than planned.
I went with my friend to return the borrowed truck. I needed to learn where the invisible switch was. Now, well into the night, we arrived at the owner’s house and I asked him where the switch was hidden. Frowning, he wrinkled his forehead, narrowed his eyes and then looking at me a bit curiously pointed to the middle of the dashboard where in very clear lettering in English it said, “FUEL, FRONT ” and “ REAR.” I had looked at that switch a hundred times. I had probably even touched it. How could I not have seen it?
In my van, with its identical dashboard, that very switch was for the front and rear —- “AIR CONDITIONERS,” not the front and rear gas tanks. Looking at that switch smack dab in the middle of the dash I had only seen what I thought I saw. I had been conditioned by experience to see what I expected to see, never stopping to ask myself why a single cab pick-up truck would even have a front and rear air conditioner.
Now, years later, as I look at the world, I observe a lot of people who are only seeing what they think they see. Whether it be their political views, or their tolerance levels for profit-driven news media, or their fear (or not) of COVID 19, their faith in predictive modeling, or global warming, or veganism, or 5G conspiracies, or vaccinations, or religious or atheistic dogmatism, more and more people seem to be ferociously locked into seeing only what they are willing to see. Claiming to believe in science, they deny it by attempting to shut down contrary interpretations of the evidence and by threatening with arrest those who disagree with what is currently considered “settled” science. Getting alternate views deleted from YouTube, Facebook and Twitter is the new book burning and is the goal of those individuals desperate to silence the ideas of others. They attack those who interpret evidence differently and they buttress their ever narrowing and combative views by selectively choosing only that which confirms what they want to see. When exposed to ideas which differ from their own, instant, reactive, scorn-filled attacks are launched before they beat a hasty retreat into the comfort of their tidy little delusions and snuggle in the warmth of their own long-held assumptions. Blind faith in their own narrow views has turned many people into mono-focused ideological Gollums. There is no scientist so blind as the scientist who denies others the freedom to disagree.
I am a follower of Jesus. I want to be a classical follower, the kind who hearkens back to the good ol’ days before we began to think politicians of either party, left or right, were our allies, who armed with nothing but a one vote majority believed themselves capable of solving moral problems rooted deep in humanity’s sinful heart. My desire is to live my life in such a way that I begin to act like Jesus, to think like him, to serve like him. I´m not there yet, but I am trying. Because I believe that the only way to know I am right is to be willing to be proven wrong, I analyze and monitor my beliefs to either confirm what I believe, or, with gratitude, adjust them to be more in line with knowable truth. Jesus says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Jesus has a way of pointing to the toggle switch hidden in plain view.