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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Truth About Math

Many tears in the history of my life have been shed over math.
It started with a change in curriculum when I was in fourth grade. I never recovered.  Beginning with the torture of "speed drills" and continuing until I took the final exam of my final college math class ever, math homework was almost always soaked (literally) with the salt of sweat and tears.  My very kind high school math teacher will remember me forever simply because of the exorbitant number of phone calls she received at unwholesome hours of night because I could not figure out parabolas, long division, and the theorems of geometry.  She's a wonderful lady who usually said something like, "How long have you been working on it, honey?  Three hours?  Okay.  Why don't you put it away and go to sleep? We'll look at it together tomorrow."
She was remarkable.  But that didn't change my passionate dislike for everything related to numbers.  I'm serious.  Finances, probability...it didn't matter.  The only numbers I could appreciate were those printed neatly in the corners of book pages so that I could remember where I stopped when I'd had the misfortune of needing to put down whatever it was I'd been reading.
I've spent at least the past five years of my life making an unconscious list of why language is so much more awesome than math will ever be and how God invented math as punishment for rebellious teenagers.
All of it covered in pride.  "I don't like doing things that don't come easily.  It makes me look bad."
And fear.  "I'm never going to understand...ever!"
And defeat.  "I have worked so hard and continued to fail...what's the point?"
So today was a bit of a shock.  And obvious evidence that God uses the very unexpected to prove His faithfulness.
I go to math tutoring.  Believe me, it's not out of joy and excitement that I do it.  It's necessity.  After graduating from college with no plan, I had to spend some time praying and seeking counsel about the future, I have decided to pursue grad work in Linguistics.  The problem is that I have to take the GRE.  And this grad-school entrance exam requires what seems to me like extensive knowledge of algebra, geometry, and problem solving.  All of a sudden, the ghosts of my past rose up to haunt me.  Studying on my own got me nowhere and the only results were the frustrated yells heard throughout the house, "I want to study language! WHY are they testing me on my ability to solve for x????  'X' is a letter, not a number!"
Needless to say, mom wasn't unwise when she sent me to tutoring.
My math tutor is another one of those fantastic people who loves math.  Jenny likes art for its math and math for its art.  She likes her clothing selections for the math of it.  She even picked her shower curtain because it has cocentric circles on it.  Weird.
I've done pages and pages of homework with just a little bit of progress.  She encourages and explains again and again.  She is patient.  I'm still making 40% on my practice tests.  I still cry sometimes.  I still have to force myself to take a deep breath and press on into the numeric forests of darkness.
Today was my fifth session.
As we wrapped up my final questions, Jenny mentioned the Bible study going on at her church on Tuesday nights.  Our conversation turned to things spiritual.  Which is providential.
Things have been rough in my walk recently.
"I've really been struggling with faith recently, Jenny.  For some reason I have no trouble trusting God with big things like hopping over to a foreign country all by myself.  But when it comes to real deal life...like paying my bills, and putting gas in my car, and even that my car is 21 years old and not gonna last forever...when it comes to those little things, I don't even always pray about them.  Somehow, I'm convinced that God doesn't care or doesn't notice.  I know what the Bible says about His concern for me as His child and that He is going to take care of me.  But I don't believe that for some reason.  I use my literary brain to find a way to excuse myself from the applications.  I limit the applications to the intended reader and leave myself out of the circle of His grace.  And so naturally, I worry. A lot."
Jenny smiled.
"You need to know the God of math."
I didn't smile.  I don't associate God with math.  Math is a result of the fall somehow.
Jenny saw my skeptical grin."No really.  Look."  She wrote some numbers on the board.
"How many numbers are there?"
"Well, they keep going forever.."
"Right.  They are infinite.  So we know that man couldn't have created numbers because man is finite and can only create finite things.  Only an infinite God could have created infinite numbers."
I let the words forge a path in a new region of my mind.
"Huh...right.  Never thought of that..."
"So God is infinitely big...and concerned about the big things."
"Yep.  I know that."
"But look at this, Emily."  She wrote the number "1" on the board and then the number "0" a foot or two away.  "How many numbers are between 0 and 1?  Name just one for starters."
My face was blank for a moment.  Then I realized where she was going with the question.
"0.5?"
"Good, yes.  What's smaller than 0.5 and bigger than 0?"
"Um...0.25."
"Right.  And half of that is 0.125 and half of that...."  Her hand scrawled indefinite marks on the board.
"...Emily, the numbers between 0 and 1 are infinite.  God is not just infinitely big.  He is infinitely detailed.  He set up the number system to reflect this. This is the the kind of God who deals with bills and gas money and old cars."
I am weak in faith.
Tears welled up in my eyes for a moment.
There was a holy hush in the room.
Chalk dust fell to the carpet.  My keys jingled from their clip.
Jenny blinked and tipped her head.
"You know, Jenny, I kind of like math."

As I drove home, I didn't see trees and roads and people.  I saw algorithms.  Geometrical shapes. Reciprocals.  I saw grid lines on everything.  Formulas floating in the air over stoplights.  The world is a new place today somehow.  The same God who created language, created numbers.  It's another language. Another way of seeing the universe.  Another window into the mind of God.
Today I learned something that I could have, but did not, learn from literature.
Today I took God out of the little box where I'd tried to contain Him.
There will still be days when I sprinkle my linear equations with tears.
There will still be moments when I want to break my pencil and walk away.
But for some reason, I think it'll be different after this.
I get it now.  Math is all about God.
A loving God who cares about little tiny details like the number of hairs on my head and the price of gas in Hampton, Virginia.  The same God who writes poems and invented laughter.
I don't know.  Math isn't all that bad.   

Friday, July 19, 2013

Book Review: Revolution in World Missions

The landscape of missions-related books is littered with ideas ranging from odd to faddish.  Contrastly, Yohannan's work infuses the conversation with passion and experience.  I'm still personally thinking through a lot of what he says, but his main point is well made.  Believers in the West need to reconsider the way we do things when it comes to sending missionaries.  And we need to be willing to sacrifice for the gospel.  Yohannan offers a reasonable, workable solution to the problem of Western missions deputation costs by redirecting funds to indigenous missionaries, and he levels well-aimed, yet humble critique at the worldliness of the Western church.  As I said, I'm still thinking through his approach, but from what I can tell he is biblical.  He emphasizes the Word and prayer, and it seems that those who train under his ministry reproduce disciples that reproduce.  If you're interested in missions at all, this book is important because it discusses a very relevant topic that all gospel-spreading churches need to be aware of in the organization of their missions philosophies.  

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Book Review: The Road

A good book doesn't distract you from life, it takes you deeper into life.  A good book makes you love goodness, beauty, and truth.  It expands you as a person.  It makes you understand and love other people better.  That's the best I can do for a definition, because most of it is inexpressible.  And that is The Road.  It is a good book.  By definition.  And unspeakably so.

Since I'm not one whose interests gravitate toward post-apocalyptic literature, I almost didn't read it.  And I admit that it was the comments of a few friends who had read it and another song by Andrew Peterson that pushed me over the edge, which is an appropriate analogy for the book itself.  McCarthy takes his readers to the edge of existence, and he doesn't bring them back.  I hate it.  I hated it from the third page.  I wanted it to stop.  With every page, I felt my spirit writhing with the need to finish.  Stopping, of course, was out of the question.  It was completion that I longed for.  Resolution after the mercilessly slow slogging through the swamp of desperate depravity.  And of course, there was none to be had.  I also expected that.  It's an extreme adult version of Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.

It is essential to the story that the boy is conceived in the living world and born into the dead one.  Everything is dying.  It would be inappropriate to say that "the boy lives with his father..."  Rather, they are dying together as they travel pointlessly, hopelessly toward the southern ocean of the world.  In the chilling account of their journey and their gruesome adventures, something of goodness is woven through it.  The atheists are somehow satisfied, because the goodness remains unnamed, but it cannot be anything other than God Himself.  Love is immortal, you learn.  Though you cannot say what it is anchored in.  Even so, latent anger pulses through every line.  The unasked question of the entire work is "why?" and an accusing finger points heavenward as they pass their moments always dragging themselves slowly toward certain ends, but uncertain means.  And it doesn't end well.  It cannot.  Like the dying world around them, there is no hope.  But it isn't necessarily a bad thing to lose hope.  As long as you find something in yourself to live for.  Some fire to carry. These are not the lies. It is the last paragraph that holds the lie.  The lie that the world will not be remade.  Cannot.

It is a truthful work.  Incomplete with a severe, visceral quality to its themes.  Read it because, as I told Janice, it is like surgery.  Gross and painful in the process, but life saving in the results.  The Road will teach you what to treasure.  Even though danger lies in its assumptions.

There is are mysteries.  There are darknesses.  Losses.  Storms that can't be weathered.  And at the end of it all there is the fire.  The fire that destroyed everything.  And the fire that keeps you alive.  And the fire must be carried.  And you are left longing for the Light.  

Monday, July 15, 2013

Book Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns

Having read The Kite Runner a couple years ago, I expected Hosseini's second book to be just as searing.  What I was not prepared to face was how intensely A Thousand Splendid Suns would magnify my sense of justice and my passion to protect oppressed women of society.  Hosseini's descriptions of Afghan women, their strength, beauty, intelligence and endurance, provide a backdrop of depth humanzing the story for the American reader.  The faces behind the burq'as take definite, provocative forms under the strokes of the author's pen.  The fast-paced unraveling of the plot quickly drew me in so that I started the book one Friday afternoon and finished it the very next day after a 10-hour book binge.  I could not put it down.  Aside from a few stylistic melodramas, which I think were not unwarranted given the topic, the book's value is its immediacy in recent history.  Women today are facing these things in a very real and hostile world not so far away. Most importantly, this book set forth one of the most powerful expressions of sacrificial love that I have ever seen.  As a reader, I will treasure the truth of Laila and Miriam for a long time to come.  As a woman in Christ, I will seek to help other women live out their potential as the crown and glory of creation.
Cheers to Hosseini.  He created a work that moves his audience.  It makes me want to name my daughter Miriam someday.  

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Grace of Fiction: Why We Should Demand Windows

It could be that I am just more attuned to the problem because I was an English Education major.  But it seems to me that in spite of the plethora of excellent arguments, good education, and even good examples of the topic the misconceptions are just as deeply rooted as they have always been.  In the past month, I have found myself in more than one conversation with Christians who believe fiction to be a waste of time.

Granted, there is a lot that falls under the category and there is plenty of it that isn't worth consideration.  Just like any art, there are the fakes and sub-par crafters.  We don't need to broad brush whole library shelves on the demerits of the fringe.  But what Christians tend to do is not to look at each work of fiction individually and determine whether it is worth their time.  They tend to dichotomize all writing in to two categories: Fiction and Non-Fiction.  Almost everything of the former is deemed a waste and nearly everything of the latter is thought noble and good (as long as it avoids most objectionable elements and then allows them only in small quantities.  The excuse for these is that "it's a true story.")  Somehow the life of Winston Churchill is more righteous than To Kill a Mockingbird.   

I understand that the misconceptions arise from good intentions.  The argument is that we have only one life and only one chance to make it count for Christ. Yes!  I agree.  But does it necessarily follow that we should avoid fiction then?  The counterargument to my view almost always drags in Philippians "whatsoever things are true...think on these things."  But even this assumes that the meaning of "true" is something along the lines of "that which exists or existed."  A narrow definition at best.  Additionally, Christians often obsess over the obvious didactic qualities of a book, and we fail to consider worthy anything that doesn't draw a clear lesson. We expect, indeed we feel guilty if we cannot find, the moral of the story to be laid out in flannel-graph clarity.  In doing so we miss the value and maturity of latent theology present in every piece of literature which requires critical thinking and wrestling with hard questions to discover and evaluate.    

The Bible never says "Thou shalt not read fiction."  Neither does it say "Thou shalt."  It is inspired, infallable Truth about the gospel.  Redemption.  And it does give us guidelines for wise use of our time and prudent watch over our hearts and minds to protect our purity.  I must assert that we do ourselves a disservice on both counts when we fail to know something of good fiction.  One of the best ways to guard our hearts and protect our purity is by the constant practice of handling the ideas and concepts of good fiction.  I am convinced that he means for us to use fiction (both the reading and writing of it) as a means of grace.    

Many writers have done better justice to the argument in favor than I will attempt to do here.  I simply want to bring out an often-overlooked point.  C.S.Lewis said the following in his book An Experiment in Criticism: 

"...we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself. And even when we build disinterested fantasies, they are saturated with, and limited by, our own psychology. To acquiesce in this particularity on the sensuous level—in other words, not to discount perspective—would be lunacy. We should then believe that the railway line really grew narrower as it receded into the distance. But we want to escape the illusions of perspective on higher levels too. We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian monads. We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows, even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is “I have got out.” Or from another point of view, “I have got in”; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside...Literature enlarges our being by admitting us to experiences not our own. They may be beautiful, terrible, awe-inspiring, exhilarating, pathetic, comic, or merely piquant. Literature gives the entree to them all. Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom realize the enormous extension of our being that we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense, but he inhabits a tiny word. In it, we should be suffocated. My own eyes are not enough for me. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or bee.In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in a Greek poem, I see with a thousand eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do."
We are to be people able to obey Romans 12:15.  "Rejoice with those who rejoice.  Mourn with those who mourn."  To a person who has known deep suffering, nothing is more gracious than when another is able to connect on that level.  "But," you might argue, "how can I who have never known the loss of a loved one...?" Has the agony of death not yet touched you?  You need to read more.  The ability of a person to relate to others in a meaningful way is magnified astronomically through good literature.  Ministry is relationships and relationships grow through shared experience.  Through the vicarious experience of pain through literature, you may begin (I do not say perfectly) to experience the thoughts and feelings of those around you and bless them with your kindness instead of your indifference.

Readers are empathizers.  And for all the talk of "respecting the narratives of all people" we are very bad at actually empathizing.  We draw wrong parallels and offensive conclusions when we take our tiny-world perspectives and say to someone who truly suffers, "Oh, I totally understand where you are coming from!" The empathizer may not say a word.  The empathizer knows that there are some sorrows too deep for words.  He will not try to project his imposed experience on it.
I will never forget when my dad first learned that he had colon cancer, and my family began working through the magnitude of our questions and what it would mean if we lost him.  In what was intended to be an encouraging phone call, a well-meaning friend starkly reminded me, "You know, if God wants your dad to have cancer, then it's a good thing."
True.
But tactless.  Even harsh.
Especially when spoken to a confused, hurting 14-year-old whose unregenerate definition of "good" most definitely did not include cancer.  
In simplified terms, the regular experience of good literature trains us to think outside of ourselves and reminds us that there is more than one, blunt way to express truth.  It destroys the selfish tendency to assume that our perspective is the only right one or the most complete one or that simple answers solve huge problems. By reading, I know that I don't know everything, that the world is infinitely more complex than I first imagined.  That I can't glibly tell a suffering friend that everything will be fine and take lightly the weight and importance of the pain being experienced.  (See this wonderful article on tragic worship for more on the importance of pain... http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/05/tragic-worship.)  

The invitation to read and know humans better thereby is also an invitation to higher joys.  We have all seen a friend rejoicing over something with such intensity that we wished we could share it to the same degree. Reading brings these heights into the mind and is essential to articulating something past, "I'm glad for you..."

By constantly handling the metaphysical until it is (in the words of Harper Lee) "the air you breathe," you learn, and you enlarge yourself, and you know grace more.  You're able to extend understanding where before you might have judged or dismissed.  And beyond this...you come into contact with something greater than yourself.  Something beyond flannel-graph literature.

Might it be the reality of God in unexpected places?  

It is not the only argument.  It is just the one that I think is most downplayed by those who (possibly?) do not want to take the time and discipline to enjoy a good book every once in a while.

Maybe we should pray for the humility to demand a few more windows.  

Chamber 2: The Nautilus on the Complexity of Love

Never do desire and revulsion
sweetly mingle more
than in the elements of bread and wine.
I would not crush you in the symbol
yet must with desperate longing to be the one consumed
I want
I do not want
your death
Against the grain of what I can believe
it must be so
all thought and feeling
even being
you have overwhelmed
in New Covenant forged in your blood
so by exquisite tang of
sorrow and delight
you give this rest.  

Monday, July 1, 2013

Book Review: The Yearling

The third installment in these scraggly, underfed book reviews for the summer...

Last year, Alex and Carley introduced me to Andrew Peterson's breathtaking new album, Light for the Lost Boy.  Having only recently begun to appreciate the poetry of this fantastic artist, I was thrilled with the new CD and reveled in the depth of songs like Carry the Fire and Don't You Want to Thank Someone. However, I had a few complaints.  One of them was the Ballad of Jody Baxter.  Gasp, dear reader, at my ignorance.  I found the song disjointed and frustrating.  Who was this Jody lady and why was she running down to the creek to go fishing and what does a deer, a storm, and a garden have anything to do with it?  I dismissed the song as the poetic ramblings of a desperate, yet beloved, artist.  I extended mercy knowing that I myself have written things before that meant little to anyone else.  Whenever I listened to the CD, I skipped the song and enjoyed the rest that I could understand.  Oh, I was casting aside a rare jewel with the recklessness of a monkey!  

On the way to church one Sunday, Alex played the CD and did not skip the Ballad.  My groans were instantaneous.  "Ugh!  This is the worst song on this whole album!  It makes no sense."  This is not the first time I have spoken with complete stupidity to my dear friends.  Alex was surprised that I didn't like it, knowing my love of literature. He patiently queried, "Did you know that he wrote the song because he was inspired by a book?"  Instant regret filled me that I had degraded something sprung from the revered ground of written text.  "Oh...?"  Alex could not remember the name of the book.  My own research returned the title: The Yearling. And the realization that Jody was a young boy.  (blush...)

I admit, with further shame, my adamant skepticism.  Andrew Peterson, my favorite modern poet, was inspired to write a song because of a book about a deer?  Seriously?  Baby animals are cute... I say that knowing that it groups me with the stereotype of women nationwide.  But whole books about baby animals and in particular a baby deer that doesn't even show up in the book until 100 pages in?  
Still, Andrew Peterson had liked it.  Loved it even.  Enough to write a blog post about it with his own tears to end it.  Tears?  Yes.   

The book rambles.  It frustrates.  It survives.  And I loved it.  I loved the hunting and the figuring and the living that goes on.  It's pages drip with life.  And death.  I love the opulence of its descriptions and the drawings of the rooted earth.  The orientation of the entire book is not Jody, or even a person at all.  It is nature.  Everything is seasons and colors and elements.  Always everyone in relationship to nature.  

Honestly, I had no idea that I had a place in my heart for such a book.  Rugged living isn't my go-to literature.  But something of its themes rushed fresh air into musty corners of my heart.  The rigors and delights of youth in the wild and the distinction between immaturity and innocence slice through the deceptively wandering plot.   

In Jody's words, the book left me, "Torn with hate for all death and pity for all aloneness."  And I add the ache of Tennyson's words.  "Though much is taken, much abides."  Jody grows up.  The yearling dies.  
And in Peterson's words, "It was good, good, good. But now it's gone.  And there's a little boy who's lost out in the woods always looking for the fawn."    

Read it.  Relish it.  And return to the woods.