"The moment the word 'why' crosses your lips, you are doing theology."
—When Life & Beliefs Collide                

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Higher Math

It has been a long time since I was in a math class. But the other day, while listening to Garrison Keiller’s Writer’s Almanac on NPR, I was suddenly back in the classroom.

He was reading Jessica Goodfellow’s poem entitled “The Invention of Fractions.” I stopped what I was doing to listen.

In his smooth baritone voice, Keillor began,

God created the whole numbers:
the first born, the seventh seal

I was about to get a thought-provoking lesson in Higher Math.

The reading continued . . .
Ten Commandments etched in stone,
the Twelve Tribes of Israel —
Ten we've already lost —
forty days and forty nights,
Saul's thousand and David’s ten thousand.
‘Be of one heart and one mind’ —
the whole numbers, the counting numbers

It took humankind to need less than this;
to invent fractions, percentages, decimals.
Only humankind could need the concepts
of splintering and dividing,
of things lost or broken,
of settling for the part instead of the whole.

Only humankind could
find the whole numbers,
infinite as they are, to be wanting;
though given a limitless supply,
we still had no way
to measure what we keep
in our many-chambered hearts.
It’s been almost three months to the day since Search and Rescue volunteers found my husband’s brother Kelly’s body in the snow cave on Mt. Hood. I know a lot of you were praying, and both Frank and I are grateful for your prayers and notes of support.

As you can imagine, the grief and disappointment for my family are still raw. And I’m still processing everything that happened—from the upsetting midnight phone call telling us Kelly, Brian and Nikko were in trouble to the awful day the search effort was downshifted from “rescue” to “recovery.”

I’m still intrigued by how the story captivated and inspired the nation. We thought this was a private family crisis. Yet countless people watched and wept and prayed and cared deeply about the fate of our three guys right along with us. It’s difficult to explain such a phenomenon.

I can’t help thinking that at least one reason people were drawn to the story may have been because (if for only a brief moment in time) we were witnessing the kind of whole-number living Goodfellow writes about. The kind of unity God intended for the human race from the beginning.

With three men in trouble, scores of people voluntarily banded together as one, solidly united behind the mission of bringing the climbers back alive. It didn’t seem to matter that they didn’t know Kelly, Brian, or Nikko. It didn’t matter that many were strangers to each other or that there were countless differences among them. Somehow none of that got in their way. They dropped what they were doing, strapped on their gear, and headed for the mountain, ready to do whatever they could to find and rescue the three lost men.

The first mathematical equation in the Bible gives us a hint of the kind of whole-number world God envisioned from the beginning. When he created the first man and woman and gave them a monumental mission, he said—the two “will become one flesh.” It’s a higher form of math that doesn’t easily compute in our world. Not only do we have trouble pulling it off in our relationships, even modern technology resists it. No calculator or computer—no matter how sophisticated or how many times you try—will ever tell you one plus one equals one.

Jesus takes the equation even further. According to His calculations, it doesn’t matter how many “ones” you add together, the final sum will always be one. This is His heart for us. And no matter how solidly united SAR volunteers were on Mt. Hood, Jesus means for His followers to surpass them in whole-number living.

Jesus final prayer for us—His dying wish—was “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. . . . May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:21, 23).

I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking I still have a lot to learn about math.