(This article originally appeared in Christianity Today [August 21, 1970], pp. 12-13.)
Yesterday was my birthday, but I didn't expect any cards or presents. I don't have any relatives, and why should anyone else bother with me. The strange thing was that the girl who catches the same bus every morning asked me out for the day to her uncle's cottage. Her uncle was afraid the snow might have damaged the roof, so she agreed to drive him out to check it. I had never had a girl ask me for a drive before, so it was a very special day for me though she didn't even know my name.
It was very cold but sunny, and she picked me up at the bus stop. In the front seat of the car next to her was a white bearded gentleman, who turned out to be a professor, an uncle from the University of Toronto. Every now and then she said something to me, but the professor did most of the talking. He called her "my dear" but once he called her "Mary" so it was nice to know who she was.
The cottage looked like a Christmas card. When we went inside there was a cake on the table. Stuck in the icing were twenty one candles burning brightly. When I went near I saw to my horror that the writing in red letters said "Happy Birthday, Jim." Mary immediately concluded that some gang had broken in. They would probably be back for the guy's birthday party. Perhaps it would be wiser to leave? I managed to hide my confusion and said nothing though I thought plenty.
The professor said the first thing was to find out what the cake was made of. You never know anything without a careful analysis. So he got a knife out of a drawer and cut himself a big slice. I winced when I saw he had cut out my name. As he rubbed the crumbs in his fingers, he examined them carefully and said "Hm a most interesting formation. Two different mixtures have been folded in. There is a blend of flour and sugar, and that fell into egg protein, cream of tartar, sodium chloride . . ."
I could tell Mary was impressed with the old buffer's knowledge of Betty Crocker's recipe, but that didn't explain who baked angel food cake and put the lettering and candles all round the top. Nor did it explain how my name was on the cake with the candles burning at a strange cottage when nobody knew it was my birthday, let alone my name.
"Ah, you want to know about the baking my dear. This particular mixture has to be baked at a temperature of 375 degrees for not less than 30 and not more than 35 minutes. This hard layer of sugar surfacing went on after the main mixture had cooled. It would be interesting to know whether this most unusual circle of wax pillars preceded the red markings . . ."
Mary was obviously getting impatient with the professor's explanation, so I ventured that what she wanted to know was who baked the cake, not what it was made of. He peered at me through his glasses and said "young man, asking "who?" is a very stupid question. Everything is scientifically reduced to "how?" It is only when you can explain exactly how everything happens, and then repeat experimentally . . ."
His niece was in no mood to be lectured by her aged relative, so she butted in and said "please, please professor, all we want to know is the answer to a simple question. Did a fairy godmother say hey presto" or did someone bake this cake, and if so who did it?"
The professor refused to admit that it was a simple as that. He wanted to be sure the cake hadn't got there by chance. We had passed a big flour mill on the way, and a cloud of flour blown in to the atmosphere is always a possibility. It could have swirled into other ingredients and formed a dough like substance. If the cottage door blew open, and a pan happened to be in the oven, and the mixture happened to land in the right place, and a rat had got on the stove and moved the switch to 375 degrees, the over door could have slammed shut for 30 minutes, and then . . ."
That was too much for Mary and she caught the professor by the scruff of the neck, shook him, said "you are a stupid old man," and he collapsed into the armchair.
Having disposed of the learned gentleman she turned on me. "Do you think this cake could have appeared here by chance?" I shooked my head and meekly mentioned about the candles burning and "happy birthday" written on the cake. Mary quickly counted the candles, including the two the professor had wrecked, and concluded that the cake had been baked for a young man named Jim who was twenty-one today.
With that kind of woman's intuition she then looked at me carefully, and asked what my name was. I had to admit it was Jim. "And it's your birthday today?" I nodded sheepishly. And then with ruthless logic she said "and you are twenty-one." That explained everything, so she came over and gave me a big hug and said "come on, uncle, let's sing happy birtrhday." I had to blow out the nineteen candles. The problem was that for me nothing had been explained at all.
Mary was busy cutting pieces of cake and putting them on plates and making coffee. The professor found some sherry. He came over learnedly to the piece of cake he had first cut. He peeled off the icing, and looking at the texture of the surface of the cake he informed us it had cooled before the icing was put on. Also the wax pillars had fallen in when the icing was still soft, and he calculated that the candles had been burning about sixteen minutes. That piece of research seemed to satisfy him, and he moved off with his cake and coffee and the bottle of sherry to enjoy the view outside.
Mary then came and sat next to me, took my hand, looked me in the eyes, and asked "what's she like?" Is she blond or brunette, or maybe ginger? When did you see her last? When I explained that there wasn't a soul in the world who knew it was my birthday, and I didn't have any girl friends, or any friends for that matter, she looked sweetly interested and equally sweetly unbelieving. A boy like me couldn't possibly not have friends. She went off to fix more coffee, and left me to think through the questions that puzzled me.
No one knew me well enough to know my real name was Jim. I was always James at the office. And even if someone got my birthday from the files, there was no way for that cake to be there with the candles burning at the cottage of the uncle of a girl who caught the same bus as I did every day. I wondered whether Mary's first guess could be right. Maybe there was a motorcycle gang, and they planned to be here for the day, and one of them was named Jim, and his girl fixed the surprise?
But that was too much to swallow on my birthday. Somebody must be interested in me. Suddenly I was different, important, no longer the non-person out of jail incognito trying to make myself a place in the world. Then the doubts came back. I might be dreaming. Could it be a fairy godmother? I had always been superstitious, and my mother once told me I had a guardian angel.
Mary noticed that I was far away, and my eyes had filled with tears, so she came over and gave me a big hug, but much longer than the last time. I liked it. I just wished that Mary could have been the girl who baked, or iced, or ordered, or whatever she had to do with the cake.
That's what settled it. As soon as I wished, I knew. She must have found out before she ever asked me to the cottage. She already knew my name, and my birthday, and how old I was, and my time in jail, and she wasn't going to let on. I didn't have to admit I was the Jim the cake was for. If I didn't want to believe it was her who arranged it, I could believe in something else. The cake could have come "Hey Presto" from a fairy godmother, or it might have been for another Jim, and it might have come by chance like the professor said. After all if you have enough flour and sugar and eggwhites and ovens and winds and rats, and everything else for enough millions of years you could get a cake with candles burning on your birthday.
That night I wrote out what had happened to the preacher who had come to see me for the three years I was in jail. As I signed it "Jim" I suddenly remembered the he was the one who knew my real name, and my birthday, and how old I was. He had also heard me prove to him that this world was just chance evolution, as I had learned in first year sience at the University.
I knew at once he had come and put the cake in the cottage, lit the candles, and disappeared. I bet Mary baked and iced the cake. And the professor can't have been that stupid. He put on his act to show me how stupid I was. And he never did check the snow on the cottage roof. All three of them were working for God, and he and they all loved me.
The preacher did the wedding, and the uncle gave Mary away, and strangely I knew I believed in the God who baked the cake for my world, iced it, wrote my name in red, put on the candles, and got them burning for my twenty-first birthday.