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Math as proof of God

Yesterday I was at a math conference during which one of the presenters suggested that there is no ultimate mathematical “truth” for humans to discover, but rather that the field of mathematics and its definitions, proofs, and formulas are human inventions. His assertion set my mind to wondering. Is mathematics a human invention? Or could it be that there is indeed ultimate mathematical truth for us to discover and describe?

I pondered this question from a perspective of faith. I definitely believe that there is a higher power, and I’m pretty sure that I believe in the Christian God (I used to harbor a healthy dose of doubt about this, but most of my doubts have been quelled by the book The Reason for God by Timothy Keller, which I highly recommend to anyone who struggles with belief). In any case, whatever kind of higher power exists has created a beautiful, magnificent, and confounding world that humans of all walks of life have been attempting to describe, define, and explain for millennia.

Mathematicians, scientists, sociologists, theologians, laymen, children, etc.—we all endeavor to make sense of our surroundings and to answer questions about what makes the world turn and why we exist. And as we do, we discover phenomenal characteristics about ourselves and about nature that, I believe, only a perfect being could have created and that we, as humans, are in the process of gradually discovering. Take, for example, the fact that the Fibonacci sequence that many of us learn about in middle-school math class actually appears in the spirals of sunflower seeds. In fact, Fibonacci numbers appear in numerous instances in nature.

It is interesting to me that the more I have learned about math and science, the more I have come to believe in God—not less. Despite the intricate complexities of nature, it seems mathematicians and scientists are nonetheless able to discern underlying patterns and structures that bespeak a beautiful and awesome God that has instilled the world with magnificence and wonder in order to engage us in pursuit of His perfection. I truly believe that mathematics is just one of many ways in which we are able to get a glimpse of God.

If only I were able to pose such possibilities to my math students without being fired for proselytizing, perhaps they would begin to see math as an awesome subject rather than a dreaded one! I thought about that this morning in church and smiled to myself as a student of mine sat down just two seats to my right…

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Uncomfortable with comfort

It’s been so long since I’ve written on my blog that I took a peek at my last entry to see what I had written about. Lo and behold, it included advice that I needed to be reminded of today: have faith that the direction your life is taking will lead to fulfillment even if you can’t imagine it now.

It’s not so much that I can’t image feeling fulfilled now—to the contrary, I feel quite fulfilled in my roles as a mother, wife, community volunteer, and faculty member at MSUB—but there is a facet of my life that continues to nag at me and I’m not sure what to do about it. Unless you know me extremely well you’ll think I’m crazy for writing about this, but the one thing that bothers me most about my current life is my level of comfort. Allow me to explain.

As a college student, I had the opportunity to witness the extreme income gaps that exist in our world. I was shaken to my core when I traveled to South Africa and saw wealth so opulent and poverty so staggering, both coexisting within view of one another. I saw children with distended bellies and flies in the corners of their eyes and people living in cardboard boxes—literally living in cardboard boxesjust around the corner from clean, modern, air-conditioned buildings. I’d seen similar scenes in Mexico and Brazil, but the level of poverty in South Africa was far more extreme. It was on that trip that I realized the gravity of our world’s condition and became fully committed to being a part of the solution and not a part of the problem.

Yet here I am today, feeling as if I am indeed part of the problem. I am part of the five percent who consume twenty-five percent of the world’s resources while others don’t even have a stable roof over their heads or food in their stomachs. I have a four-bedroom house that consumes more natural gas and electricity in a month than some will ever consume in a lifetime. Although I bike when I can, I still drive vehicles that consume gasoline, a commodity that has caused immeasurable death and destruction in battles over rights, access, and pricing.

I don’t want this level of comfort for myself and my children. Safety, a solid roof, and food, yes, but not this much. Not while others have so little. I have a desire I will never shake to unburden myself of it all and go serve others in some backwater place without all of these conveniences. The happiest, most deeply satisfying moments of my life have been the moments I’ve spent unshackled to convenience, dirty and tired after a long day of building something for someone and sharing a simple meal in the company of people who have little but love much.

But at the same time, I recognize that the coincidences in my life have been too great to simply be coincidence: I do believe that God has me here, in this place, for a reason. He hasn’t sent me out to the far corners of the world to do mission work, at least not yet. It somewhat perplexes me that He gave me such exceptional foreign language skills then led me to Montana; as the saying goes, the Lord clearly works in mysterious ways. I’m learning to be content with the place He has put me in and the roles He has given me, and to even embrace this place and these roles, but I still can’t shake this discomfort with my level of comfort. Maybe it’s just God’s way of keeping me on my toes and not letting me become acquiescent to comfort so that when the time comes for Him to call on me to relinquish it, I’ll be ready. I can only hope that’s what He’s preparing me for because some day, I do want to relinquish it all and give my life fully to Him.

I’ve been reading Katie Davis’s latest book about her experiences living and working in Uganda, where she has adopted a house full of orphaned daughters and launched a successful non-profit organization. As I read her reflections about how she sometimes struggles with the situation she is in, I chuckle to myself as I realize that I struggle because I’m not in her situation. I long to be, but that is for another time… or maybe it’s not. I don’t know what God has in store for me years down the road, but I do know that as long as I keep my eyes, heart, and mind toward Him, whatever it is He assigns me to do, I will indeed feel fulfilled.

Change of plans

A few months back I purchased a throw pillow that reads, “Sometimes our plans don’t work out because God has better ones.” It seemed a fitting motto for my life, which has taken directions I never would have imagined as a college student majoring in Latin American Studies fifteen years ago. Had someone told me I would be living in Mexico, Brazil, or Argentina by 2017, I would have eagerly believed them and anxiously awaited my future abroad.

Had someone told me, on the other hand, that by 2017 I would be a divorced mother teaching math in Montana, I would have been taken aback–and maybe even cried. What would I use my foreign language skills for? Why would I be teaching math? How on earth would I take care of two children on my own when I wasn’t even sure I wanted children?

As I drove across Interstate 90 last night between Billings and Livingston, where my boyfriend resides, I reflected back in wonder at the unexpected twists and turns my life has taken. Passing the Crazy Mountains, still capped in white above the greening prairie below, I recalled my first trip across Montana in 2003, when I hitched a ride to Seattle with several students from the University of Washington who had volunteered on the same construction project in Lame Deer as I had. At the time, I had never before seen snow-capped mountains or driven across mile-high passes; I remember thinking that the Continental Divide between Whitehall and Butte resembled the set of Indiana Jones in MGM Studios because I had only seen such massive boulders as replicas back east.

Now I drive past the Crazies several times a month and, although I am still awed by Montana’s magnificent beauty, it is no longer a novelty but rather home.

Had someone told me the mere facts of my current life over a decade ago, I would have tried to change it–but had they told me the feelings I would enjoy (and suffer) and the incredible growth I would experience, I would have left God’s plan well enough alone. I never would have guessed that I would make my difference in the world in the middle of Montana, but this is where God wanted me, and I know this to be true because I feel an indescribable sense of belonging and purpose in this place even though I have no family history here and no childhood memories that connect to any state west of Ohio.

And this is why God doesn’t allow us to see into the future: because we can’t predict the ways in which either the expected or the unexpected will shape us and change us. Just like no mathematical model can perfectly predict climate change because there are simply too many variables to consider, our non-omniscient human minds could never hope to map out our own futures and know that we would be sending ourselves down a path of fulfillment.

I ended up in Montana because I acted on a gut feeling to take a job teaching math on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. I have no doubt that “gut” feeling was, in fact, the Holy Spirit whispering in my ear to make the move out west and abandon my personal dreams of living abroad. Had I taken an overseas job with the federal government (I was, in fact, offered one), I would have made great friends, increased my language fluency, and thoroughly enjoyed South American music and cuisine–but those are all personal pleasures that wouldn’t have satisfied my core desire to contribute something significant and positive to the world. In fact, it likely would have done just the opposite because the information I would have been gathering would have been out of my hands and in the control of the federal government, which would have done God knows what with it (and God surely knew, which is why He gave me the gut feeling to decline the NSA job and accept the teaching job).

Now that I have met a man who shares the unique blend of passions and interests that I have–and, most importantly, a faith in the same God–I am even more convinced that I am right where I am supposed to be.

The moral of the story is to twofold: for one, have faith that the direction your life is taking will lead to fulfillment even if you can’t imagine it now. Believe me, I was struggling mightily a year and a half ago when I was newly divorced and wondering what the hell I was going to do in Billings, MT, for the next 16 years while my girls went through school (because I wasn’t going to move them away from their dad). But I maintained my faith and my prayers, and almost magically, a position at the university was offered to me despite not having the full credentials (yet) for a tenure-track position. And somehow, I’ve managed to both perform well in my position and maintain quality time with my girls, who have taught me about the tattoo I got on my back before they were even a thought in my mind: “The greatest of these is love.” Oh, what we think we know before we have children!

Second, learn to trust your gut. I believe this comes along with prayer, because my most convincing gut feelings have come when I’ve first taken the time to pray earnestly about my situation, as I did during and after my divorce. The most helpful prayers for me have not been of the form, “Please God, let x happen,” but rather, “God, help me to sense your will and have the strength to follow it.” I sensed, I followed, and I honestly don’t think I could be happier, especially not if life had gone according to my own plan.

Amen.

Sick days

My four-year-old woke up with a fever this morning so I kept her home from preschool, meaning I had to miss a day of work. For me, this isn’t a huge deal–I am able to do some of my work from home and can communicate with my students through email to keep my classes more or less on pace in terms of content and assignments.

For other parents, however, missing a day of work is a stressful choice, one that means important bills might not get paid (at best) or a job might be lost (at worst). As I lied next to Libby in bed tonight while she fell to sleep, gently stroking her hair, my heart ached for parents who are forced to choose between caring for their children and making ends meet. What a painful decision it must be to give your feverish child Tylenol in the morning in the hopes that his or her fever will stay under the radar long enough to make it through a day of preschool or daycare so that you don’t have to risk losing essential income or your job.

As a society, we shouldn’t be forcing parents to make these decisions. Children end up feeling unwanted and unloved and parents end up feeling guilty–and other kids end up getting sick because they’re exposed to ill children that our society is too pressed for time and money to properly care for. Children, whose hearts are by nature so tender and innocent, end up hardened at younger and younger ages because they can sense that adults care more about productivity and the bottom line than about quality time.

I’m not one to support an expanded welfare system–I’ve seen the pitfalls of government handouts in low-income communities where I’ve lived–but I do support living wages and more flexibility for parents in the workforce. In the meantime, when you kiss your children goodnight, say a prayer for those parents who have to make painful choices between giving their children the gift of their time or the necessities of food and shelter. Given what I know about global economics, I’m pretty sure those of us who can do both at once are in the slim minority. Let us recognize how extremely blessed we are and do our best to support and fight for better rights for all parents and their children.

Double life

Being a single parent often makes me feel as if I’m caught between two different worlds. On the one hand, I have wonderful mom friends who can empathize with what it takes to be a good parent–but having husbands, they rarely have time to see me on my days off from work because those are their husbands’ days off as well. On the other hand, I have an amazing group of non-parent friends who are almost always up for fun when I don’t have my girls with me–but who get to see each other far more often than I get to see them because they don’t have children to take care of 60 percent of the time.

I’m not complaining about my situation and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I love my children and they have taught me my most important lesson in life: that it isn’t all about me. Ironically, having my life become tied to my children has been one of my most freeing experiences because it has broken me of my habit of feeling in control of my life and of becoming aggravated when things didn’t go as I had hoped or planned. Although I’ve always been a conscientious person who endeavors to make the world a better place, I was once very particular about my personal schedule: I wanted to help and care for others on my terms and at my convenience.

I now expect that most things likely won’t go as I hope or plan and instead live by a motto that adorns one of my throw pillows: “Sometimes our plans don’t work out because God has better ones.” Indeed, the fact that, on most days, I feel extremely happy and content with where I ended up in life must indicate that He knows what He’s doing–because being a single parent in Billings, Montana, was certainly never a part of MY plans! But I’m happy nonetheless.

That being said, it can still be tough to live between the starkly different worlds of parent and non-parent. When I’m spending time with my non-parent friends, I frequently feel pangs of longing for my two beautiful girls as I pause between conversations and realize that several days will go by before I again see the two people I love the most. When I have my girls, I sometimes feel pangs of jealousy when I hear of an event or gathering that all of my friends will be attending without me because I’ll be at home giving baths and tucking in my children, then quietly reading or working while they sleep.

Most of the time the Gemini in me doesn’t mind jumping between these two different worlds every 4-5 days when my ex and I exchange our girls. But sometimes, on days like today, when no one else is around and it’s just me in my apartment, the solitude feels oppressive. So I write to flush out the emotions that periodically build up inside, knowing that they shall pass and I will soon feel gratitude and optimism in my heart again. In fact, I already feel better…

Live simply so others can simply live

My mom recently shared with me a motivating op-ed from the New York Times about ways in which folks can react productively to Donald Trump’s election. The op-ed lists 12 steps a person can take to bring about positive change to confront the discouraging outcome. Were I to write my own list, it would look much like this one–but with one major addition: I WILL live more simply.

I believe that most Americans, regardless of political affiliation, fail to recognize the connections between our lifestyle and dirty politics. Americans, on average, consume FAR more resources than any other people on the planet: we drive more, we live in larger homes, we consume more processed foods (which require more packaging and transport than raw foods), and we spend gobs of time utilizing energy-consuming devices such as televisions, computers, tablets, and smart phones (yes, I recognize the mild hypocrisy in sharing this message on just such a device–but I will shut it down and unplug it when I’m done).

How does our level of consumption connect us to dirty politics? All of our politicians are charged with upholding our “quality of life,” which amounts to defending our nation’s claim on resources (including people, such as low-wage workers) around the globe. Neither party can truly pursue economic or social justice if we all expect to continue consuming approximately 20% of the world’s resources when we make up only about 5% of the world’s population–as a math teacher, I can assure you the numbers don’t work out.

I am not advocating that we all abandon our homes, jobs, and hobbies to retreat to the woods, but I AM advocating that we learn to relinquish some of our so-called luxuries as residents of the wealthiest nation on earth. I, for one, do not own a smart phone (the phone I do own will go for 4-5 days without needing to be charged) and, although I own a personal vehicle (two, in fact), I rarely drive one unless I’m leaving town (which isn’t very often): I choose instead to ride my bike wherever I go, even on frosty mornings like today when everyone else is running their cars for 15 minutes prior to even driving so that the occupants won’t have to suffer a moment of chilliness during their morning commutes.

I also make sure to turn off lights when I leave a room and unplug all of my devices and appliances when I’m not using them. Surprisingly large quantities of “phantom” energy is wasted while our microwaves, TVs, computers, coffee makers, etc., rest unused but plugged in; unplugging them prevents this waste. I also reuse as much as possible: I use old wash cloths and tattered clothes to clean up spills and messes rather than wasting paper towels; I use glass jars from previous food purchases to store leftovers. I bring these jars to the food co-op to purchase bulk items such as beans, rice, honey, and peanut butter so that I don’t have to waste plastic containers. And, speaking of spills, I use water rather than chemical cleaners for most household cleaning (except for toilets, which I DON’T flush every single time I tinkle, and tubs–they get an “eco-friendly” cleaning product). A sterile environment is terrible for our gut flora anyway 😉

Most important, I don’t buy much of anything except for food–and most of the food I do buy comes from within a few hundred miles of where I live. Although it costs me more to purchase local and organic foods, I do so because it is better for our farmers (living wages) and better for the environment. My food budget is easily my second-largest expense after rent, and I can make it work because I don’t spend much money on clothes, shoes, makeup, accessories, or household items. Almost nothing in my apartment matches because I’ve bought it used or received it as hand-me downs, but it’s functional and that’s what matters. My clothes are surely not in season (unless the season they were purchased in years ago happens to be back in style) but they keep me covered.

I am not sharing these ideas to toot my own horn, but rather to offer suggestions for ways in which others can begin to cut down on their consumption as well–and, in turn, to begin to cut their ties to dirty money and dirty politics.

Live simply so others can simply live. It’s the best way that I can think of to achieve social justice, and it doesn’t require waiting four years to make a change.

What do white and minority men have in common?

I’ve been reflecting on this question ever since a lengthy conversation I shared with a friend of mine a couple of weeks ago about the social issues surrounding public education in the United States. During the conversation, my friend commented on his experience growing up in a small Montana school district in which it was “uncool” for boys to be smart. He expressed feeling like somewhat of an outcast because he was (and is) indeed smart, and his fellow classmates knew it. His comment struck me because a similar phenomenon is commonly documented in minority communities, where black students can be labeled “white chocolate” or “oreos” and native students can be labeled “apples”—colored on the outside but white on the inside—for excelling in school, suggesting that if one is good at school, she or he is less authentically ethnic than others of their skin color.

This parallel prompted me to begin questioning my perceptions of dominant culture and what exactly constitutes it. The typical assumption is that white males are at the helm of society and that the dominant culture is therefore defined and shaped by them. But is it? If it is, why do we see this resistance to education—which advances one within the dominant culture—among so many white men?

I am not a white male, so I cannot presume too much here, but my theory is that there is a large swath of the white male population that is, like males of minority populations, excluded from dominant culture in a way so significant that it stimulates visceral reactions against anything that smacks of white, educated elites, prompting them to reject even common-sense opportunities like public education. This theory makes sense in light of the widespread support for Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate.

So how are certain white males excluded from dominant society? They enjoy all of the benefits of their sex and skin color, don’t they? Why would they have any reason to feel threatened? My sense is that some very similar dynamics have played out in white communities in the old industrial belt and in rural America as have played out in many minority communities over the past several decades, during which manufacturing jobs have diminished and farming has been overtaken by multinational conglomerates. Thousands of white men, like minority men, have lost their livelihoods and their dignity as the jobs they once relied upon have been shifted overseas or to corporate control. They can no longer provide for their families without a second income or government support, and in our culture, when men feel wounded, they are taught to fight rather than to reflect upon and process their emotions. Since there is no single identifiable villain to physically fight, they fight both by scapegoating AND by resisting those who are still seemingly successful: white educated males and females (which explains the vehement opposition to Hillary Clinton).

What I’m suggesting here is that we begin to recognize the ways in which these white men have been made to feel devalued much as we have made it a national priority to recognize the ways in which minorities are sidelined and mistreated in our country. I am not suggesting that their experiences are identical (or that we forget about the very real history of racism in our country), but I am suggesting that white men will only become angrier if we continue to focus our attention on minority issues while diminishing the loss of dignity experienced by white men simply because they are white and we therefore assume their problems aren’t as important or worthy of attention as those of minorities. All human beings feel a strong desire for recognition and worth, and most will fight for that recognition and worth if it isn’t offered to them. So let’s include white men in conversations about marginalized groups because many of them have been marginalized—and we’re only making their feelings of marginalization worse by treating them as if they all enjoy the same benefits that educated white men from wealthy family backgrounds enjoy, because they don’t.