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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Another Truth About Math

He takes his classwork very seriously.  He's not the easily distracted student who pauses every once in a while to wiggle his pencil and watch it "turn into" rubber like the other 7th graders.  He doesn't talk to the boy next to him (the one wiggling his pencil to make it look like rubber..) and he doesn't sneak reading Calvin and Hobbes under his desk.  Nathan is focused.  In a way that some internal thinkers aren't.  And he expresses it in a way that internal thinkers never would, with his hands waving and his face knotting into expressions of intense concentration.
I had spent much of the hour watching him crash boldly into the dense math worksheet left by the real teacher.  For me the morning had been a lot of passing out of papers and writing of homework on the board and then monitoring students to make sure that they worked diligently while I sat at the desk mulling over the irony that I, of all people, was substitute teaching for a math teacher.  "Substitute teaching"...a phrase which here means "handing out worksheets and holding back the flood gate of questions until the real teacher returned."  The hardest question I had had to answer that morning was "May I please use the restroom?" One that I used all my authority to answer confidently, "Yes.  You may."  Having experienced the suffering of being denied bathroom privileges in many high school classes, I happen to be very merciful about letting kids go.  My students somehow figured this out early on.
Nathan was not one of them.  He was not eager to leave to escape work, though I'm sure if I'd offered him the chance he might have taken it.  I did not know if math was his favorite subject or not, though I would guess not since it was determination and not delight that flashed in his face as he attacked each problem.  He was on a quest.  Each number was a small beast to be destroyed by a shining pencil lead.

I smiled with understanding the first few times he accidentally spoke his thoughts aloud in distinct whispers.
"1...minus...7?  No...that's did...arg..?"   It reminded me of my own incomprehensible babbling, sounds I also make when I am contorting my brain to figure out an equation.  His struggle resonated deeply with me.
I tried not to stare as his hands danced in front of his face drawing invisible numbers on an imaginary chalkboard for his eyes alone. When he failed to find an answer that fit the problem, his hands covered his eyes, and he emitted a small groan as he sank back in his chair.  The rest of the class must be used to this type of thinking from Nathan, because they did not complain and hardly seemed to notice.

These meaningful antics continued for about 20 minutes. Every so often I could hear his verbal explanation of an entire problem in erratic half thoughts and rerouted attempts to solve.  The occasional victorious grunt or frustrated moan.  Then another set of numbers written in the air.  My intent observations deteriorated to the random disinterested glance as the class period wore on.  I would check to make sure that no one was distracted by his habits, then return to my own fervent writing.  I had my own thinking to do.  My own problems to figure out.
At last with about 10 minutes left to finish the work, Nathan buried his face in his palms and let his fingers grasp his white-blond hair. The desperate words, his first whole sentence in many minutes, he articulated with clarity and raw emotion.

"This doesn't make sense!!!!"

It was not a cry for help.  He did not look at me imploringly in hopes that I would offer assistance.  He may not have even realized I was still in the room. The statement was one of realization and fact.  And it brought my own thoughts into clear focus.  Nathan could have been reading over my shoulder.

Moments before, I had been very busy scrawling my thoughts in a sketch book and trying to lace them all together.  They looked something like this...Grad school...then more school?  PhD?  Linguistics?  Journalism?  Well, Lord, what I do with that random desire?  This weird talent?  A passion for art that I can't create?  A longing to help women in particular understand how theology impacts them?  An interesting, but seemingly useless, habit of writing poetry that nobody cares about?  Move?  Stay here?  Hope for a sign?  Pound the pavement for a full time job? Work fast food?  Get more education?  Professional development....  

I was, again, trying to fuse the frayed edges of my post-undergrad life into some kind of reasonable whole.These normal considerations easily spiral for me into an obsessive practice that I like to call "figuring things out."  That's the phrase I use when I really mean, "I'm not trusting God." And my heart was, once again, trembling with the realization.
"This doesn't make sense!!!"
Nathan continued to crunch numbers.
But my heart was seared with truth.

The world of math has a ridiculous phenomenon called an "irrational number."  These are numbers that have no end.  Like Pi.  It's 3.14159....and it goes on forever.  It can't be simplified or finished.  But it's real.
The world of life has a phenomenon called "irrational events."  They are questions that have no obvious answers.  They can't be simplified or finished.  But they are real.

Solomon talks about them in Ecclesiastes. Things that happen, unfulfilled desires, random messiness of existence...vanity, vanity, all is vanity... all strung together in what we've been promised is a "beautiful tapestry of God's plan."  But from where I stand it looks like a bag of yarn all twisted together in crazy colors and knots.  Grab one string to try to untangle it and the knot gets worse.  What do I do?  Well, I can  press my eyes in to my palms and pull my hair and yell, "This doesn't make sense."  But I think He wants me to trust Him instead of "figuring things out."

He knows the end and the beginning and everything in between.  He has numbered all my days and written them in His book.  And His goal is not to make me a teacher or a writer or a linguist.  His goal is to make me more like Jesus, and He has promised that He WILL do it.  I can't speed up the process or try to "make sense of it."  The fact is, most of it isn't going to make sense.  He's much too complex for me to understand.  
It is mine to rest in Him.
The Creator of Irrational Numbers.  

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