Monday, January 26, 2009

Mean, median and more

I’m living in a statistics fog. I have an arduous study schedule for each chapter of the text for my stats class:

1. Read the chapter and take notes
2. Complete sample problems in the chapter
3. Go to supplementary web site and study with the tools offered there
4. Complete online quiz
5. Complete sample quiz in the chapter
6. Go to the professor’s on-line site and complete the sample quiz
7. Cry and eat chocolate
8. Struggle through class, anyway
9. Start all over for the next chapter

Things just don’t stick in my brain. I love words. I love the experience of losing myself in a good description, of precise analogies rolling across the page; I love tasting the words in poems and savoring the blessings of a well written devotion. I especially love God’s Word and how it teaches and heals.

I just don’t get numbers. They are only numbers, to me; they do not conjure up symbols as they are intended to. Numbers just stand there and mock me; reminding me that they will always be outside of my reach. For brief moments I think I understand, and then the feeling passes. In statistics talk, the frequency of my distribution is skewed negatively toward panic.

Right now I am managing to stay at a “B” level with the practice quizzes. However, the practice quizzes are easier than the graded quizzes which are easier than the unit tests which are easier than the final. I am also painfully aware that I need to do better than a “C” on this class or it will be strongly encouraged that I repeat the class. Then, I mistakenly look ahead and see at least two other harder stats classes that I need to take looming in the future. I am left standing dejected and forlorn.

It is really hard to keep myself from chuckin’ it all out the window and going to the kitchen to bake brownies. Of course, if I did that, my textbook would probably crash through the heat pump and then I would be dejected, forlorn and cold . . .but, I would have brownies.

Empathy is a strange thing. We look at the struggle of our neighbor but we cannot understand unless we can connect it to something we ourselves have experienced. When I struggle to understand my text or to keep my focus on the professor when his words mean little to me, I get a small taste of what my son deals with everyday in most of his classes. He is an intelligent person with a brain that works differently than the way his teachers teach. When I give myself a break to do some reading and writing, to remind myself that it is possible for me to think in a coherent manner, I get a small taste of why Joel loves computers.

When I look ahead to the seemingly impossible task of passing this 800 level class only to find that I am merely at base camp for the real climb of two 900 level stats classes, then I get a small glimpse of what my young friend feels on a daily basis when he wishes he didn’t have to be in a wheel chair. When I feel like crying in class because I look around and see the faces of classmates who all seem to understand, I know, a little bit, how Elliot feels when he races to catch up with friends on the playground.

When my own brain causes me to fail and fail again in the minor task of learning how to interpret formulas with Greek letters, I get a small glimpse into the life of my friends and family members whose bodies attack themselves in the form of MS and Alzheimer’s. I can’t know what they are feeling, or what their lives are like, but I can get a small glimpse into the struggle that will hopefully help me to love them better.

It is true that we cannot love except that God loves us first. It is also true that we cannot empathize except that God first had empathy for us. He sent His Son to live with us, to feel with us, to struggle and succeed with us. He sent His Son to BE us. He is able to perfectly empathize and to perfectly love us. In this way we know that when we go to Him in prayer, when we drop all of our struggles, pain and sorrows in His lap, He really does know how we feel. More importantly, he knows how we can feel better. Sometimes He takes the pain and struggle away from us, and sometime He walks us through it. He gently reminds us that He did not walk away from the pain He endured for us.

I just need to be reminded that God invented statistics; He invented statistics to help me and not to harm me. My text book may only give me the answers to the even numbered questions, but God has all the answers. God will lead me to pray and study, to find friends who can help, and pray again. He will also lead me to pray for, and serve, the loved ones who struggle in their own lives so I don’t center myself on my insignificant struggles. Then He will lead me to pray some more.

After that, I will bake brownies (with sprinkles on top.)

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you;
I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
Ezekiel 36: 26

Friday, January 16, 2009

Hope in the face of serious math

After 25+ years of teaching young children and 15+years of teaching adults, I understand the importance of hope as it relates to learning. I have seen the research that says that children who have confidence that they can do something are more likely to achieve their goal regardless of ability. I have taught many, many children how to tie their shoes; I could predict which children would learn this skill in a short amount of time based primarily on how confident they were. I even realize that “hope” is a strong emotional skill that promotes a healthy life and effective learning.

I know all of this in my head but my heart is faltering. I am struggling with a lack of hope.

I am taking a statistics class. I actually took this class about 20 years ago for my Masters program. My Dad was the teacher and he graciously passed me. I distinctly remember the day he told us we did not have to worry about completing the math calculations when we did research because our computers would do that for us. I remember a curious whooshing sound coming from my brain. I suspect it was the sound of my brain’s hard drive purging itself of everything it had struggled to learn. Now, I think to myself: “why do I have to prove on quizzes and tests that I can do this math if I won’t have to do it later? Really, I can just trust the experts that it works.”

My current professor is very much like my Dad: he talks very slowly and distinctly as if that will help us to understand, (bless his heart) he tells the same kind of jokes, (all of my Dad’s former students can recite his favorite jokes) he took each person’s picture so he can remember names (my Dad even took my picture) and he is missing the tip of a finger just like my Dad. I realize that this is a rather small sample of the whole population of statistics professors but I hope a fingertip is not the price of working in this field. As a writer, I really need the tips of all of my fingers. And for this class I need all of my fingers to do the math.

I sit in class and do my best to not allow my mind to wander in between the slow easy cadence of his words. I work hard to focus, I take notes, and I read and reread the chapter, check other sources, do the practice quizzes and bring the professor chocolate chip cookies. Yet, I don’t feel that anything I am learning is sticking with me. I definitely lack hope. It is a blessing that I have many people praying for me. Not only do I have to pass this class, but I have to take two more just like it.

Our president-elect knows about hope. His hope is audacious. His hope comes from surviving a difficult up-bringing and going on to achieve great things despite a world that struggles with prejudice and hate. He will need this hope as he heads into his presidency. This country will need his hope, also. Keep him in your prayers.

The hope we have as children of God is audacious in a different way. It is not a hope based on our own goodness or abilities. It is not a hope derived from our own struggles or accomplishments. It is definitely not a hope that rises up from our past. It is a hope based on a God who loved us so much He sent His one and only Son. Our hope is an assurance born of the Resurrection. It is audacious because we do not deserve it. We are math idiots in a graduate level statistics class with no chance that we can learn on our own. We are sinners who are assured heaven even though we do not deserve it and could never attain it on our own. Yet, we have hope; God will do what He has promised.

In my daily Bible reading I just finished Jeremiah and Lamentations and am currently working through Ezekiel. Talk about a time without hope. Israel was in trouble, big trouble, and a just punishment was raining down hard and fast. But, just as a child being sternly reprimanded by a loving parent, Israel had the hope of God’s love and favor and the assurance of the Messiah’s coming. This is a truly audacious hope. This hope is not a maybe, but complete assurance.

The chance of passing this class does not look good to me. I am very glad that I do not need to pass it on my abilities. I will work as hard as I can and continue to bribe, I mean gift the teacher with cookies, but learning this material and passing this class is in God’s hands. How wonderful that He loves me and cares about my puny little needs.

This week I pray for an audacious-assured-sudden-clarity-of-thought-and-math-ability-hope.

I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand upon the earth. Job 19:25

Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’S great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; and great is Your faithfulness. Lamentations 3: 21-23

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Help me with my unbelief

We’ve got bills coming due and work pay that is late in coming in and I am on the verge of a crisis. Not a real crisis like the health care system in our country today or the crisis felt on Wall Street. No, I have a puny little crisis of faith

Life has unexpected bills. Paul and I have never liked paying for things with credit. We saved money for cars so when one car came to the end of its usefullness we could purchase another used vehicle with cash. We keep a credit card for convenience in on-line and gas station shopping but we pay it off every month. When he gets paid we take out our tithe, pay the mortgage, put the budget amount for groceries into scrip so we know we are eating for the month and then continue on our way. When yearly salary freezes kept us from building up the savings account I got a second job. This is just the way God has led us to take care of our finances. And He has always cared for us.

However, now, He is asking us to take a step of faith. The bills staring at me from the table are not for luxury items: dentist, doctor, furnace repair, and replacing a dying computer are all necessary things. The money I am waiting for will eventually come and employer number five assures me that they will need me to teach that class but they don’t know when. Sooner or later, it will all work out, but for the time being, I worry that maybe I should not take two classes, so I can save some tuition money. The problem is that I will have to take two classes this summer and that is when my work for employer numbers two, three and five will be keeping me extra busy. It all goes round and round in my head and keeps me from falling asleep.

It is a minor problem, in the whole scheme of things. I am not battling cancer, facing bankruptcy, or grieving over the loss of a loved one. My life problem is tiny; my faith problem is huge. I am nearly fifty years old and God has seen fit to care for me every day so far. Why would He stop, now?

One of my favorite fish stories in the Bible is the one about the fish with the coin in its mouth. I can so easily see myself as Peter; finding out in horror that taxes are due and running back to warn Jesus (as if He didn’t already, know.) Jesus didn’t even let Peter get a word in edgewise before He had the problem solved:

…go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours. Matthew 17: 27

You see, our problems are nothing to Jesus; it is not that He doesn’t care. Jesus lived a human life for us; we know He understands our fears and worries. It is not that Jesus dismisses the problem either. He knew the importance of paying the temple tax and He knows the importance of our problems, too.

No, our problems are nothing to Jesus because He is God and He can solve them as easily as with a coin in the mouth of a fish. Jesus could have told Peter to go get a job and earn the temple tax, but He didn’t. He simply provided the necessary coin.

I am all in favor of careful budgeting and living within your means. I am especially in favor of tithing. But I don’t budget in order to provide for myself and I don’t tithe so that God will return the favor and take care of me. God provides for me. He loves me and He cares for me. That is the whole story. The rest comes from the gratitude that He puts in my heart.

When I start to get snotty and think that my efforts at cost cutting, and my juggling of six part time jobs is what keeps us afloat, then it is time for a faith lesson. And that brings me to one of my other favorite stories: the one of a father with a son who suffered convulsions. He begged Jesus to heal his son, if He could:

“’ If you can’?” said Jesus, “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” Mark 9:23-24

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Crossword puzzles

I am a bit of a crossword puzzle fanatic. Okay, I am a certified crossword puzzle fanatic. I am not very good at them, but I enjoy them all the same. I do crosswords alone, I have to do one in order to fall asleep at night, I have gotten angry with family members who have carelessly spilled breakfast food on the newspaper crossword, and I need crossword puzzles to survive some social situations such as long meetings. I don’t lie to my family about puzzles and I don’t secretly spend our family’s life savings on them but I guess I am pretty close to needing a 12 step program like puzzler’s anonymous.

Hello, my name is Kim and I am a ten letter word for one who is obsessively devoted to puzzles.

I am not entirely sure why I enjoy puzzles the way I do. I know I have a thing for words but I suspect that I spend too much of my day using words to tie things up in confusing knots. By the end of the day my brain wants something that can be solved by words to help me accept the confusion my life and sin causes.

Sometimes I get stuck with a puzzle I hand it over to my husband to finish. He always finishes it because he knows, and has instant recall, of every word know to man. This skill is rather amazing and just a little bit unsettling. I was not a crossword puzzle fan when I married him, but somehow I must have known this characteristic would come in handy some day. I feel a bit sorry for him, though. It is no fun to share a crossword with me because of two reasons: I always do them in pen and I always make mistakes. They are a mess when I finally get them finished.

One of my favorite Martin Luther quotes is as follows:

Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death and the world.

I was drawn to this quote as a young person, even though I did not understand it. It became a little clearer to me when I first started teaching and first started making mistakes that affected people other than me. I came face to face with the cruel hard reality that regardless of how hard I had worked in school over the previous four years, I still did not know everything and my students were suffering because of it. They needed me to sin boldly and then ask and receive forgiveness. I couldn’t help those children who were struggling with learning math or reading, or help those children who were struggling with learning how to treat each other unless I acted boldly. Every situation needs a leader. It is better if the leader is being led by God. No leader, even one led by God, will be able to escape sin and mistakes. The only recourse is to sin boldly and live in mercy and grace.

What a strange way of living! To sin boldly means you dive in to your life with the confidence of three truths: I am a child of God, I am going to mess up my life and the lives around me, and I am forgiven. This is strange to us because we want what we cannot have; we want to create our own perfect heaven. We think we can plan and execute a life that is perfect. Think of the time we waste doing God’s job! We can’t make a perfect world but we can’t sit back and be afraid of doing nothing, either. We must sin boldly and then accept forgiveness, mercy and grace. It is the only way to live in God’s world, as God’s child.

So, I will try to live my life in pen and sin boldly.

But there is more; I would never finish a puzzle if I didn’t work from the mindset that I make mistakes. I have tried finishing puzzles I have found on airplanes. I never finish them because I wrongly assume that the answers already inserted by the passenger before me are correct. I can’t finish a puzzle unless I assume all the answers could be wrong. I have to assume the possibility that every word I put in is a possible mistake, until the whole puzzle is done. I can’t hold on to my mistakes and hope things work out in the end. I have to be willing to admit I was wrong and try a different word. But, this makes for a messy puzzle.

If I am going to sin boldly and live in mercy I better ask God to help me repent. I also need to learn to turn to my crossword puzzle dictionary more often. God gives me all the answers in His Holy Word.

But in keeping with this promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless, and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation. 2 Peter 3: 13-15a