Saturday, September 25, 2010

This Is Only a Test

Last Sunday I heard a sermon on the first two verses of Luke 4. That scripture passage immediately follows Jesus' baptism and introduces his forty days in the wilderness. The sermon was titled, "This Is Only a Test."

I left that service thinking about tests, and about one test in particular: the final exam in MATH 300 at Kennesaw State University. I don't remember the exact title of the course, but I remember the instructor, Dr. David Morgan. He loved teaching that class, and he had a reputation for being challenging.

It was the requisite course for upper level math classes, the one I had to take in order to delve into deeper discovery: the beauty of the world that existed in calculus, and just how much of the music theory that I loved can be expressed with algebra. (Sets and operations, Virginia. Sets and operations.) The subject matter was set theory, but the purpose of the class was to teach you how to write and read a mathematical proof.

I was completing my undergraduate degree in math by taking classes at night. Class started at 6:00 p.m. The mid-term had given us a hint of what to expect. I had finished the mid-term at 10:00, and I was not the last one to leave. Some of my classmates had requested and been given permission to come early to get a head start on the final. That didn't work for me, so I arrived at 6:00 and got started.

The exam proved to be as tough as we had anticipated, but we worked at it. As I recall, only a couple of folks gave in to despair. Along about 10:30, another member of the math faculty came into the classroom and wrote a phone number on the chalkboard. He turned to leave but then returned to the board and wrote, "Domino's."

A theorem in math takes the form, "If A, B, and C are true, then D is true," or "Given A, B and C, then D." The purpose of the proof is to use the information in the "if" part, the givens, to demonstrate the result in the "then" part. One particular proof on the exam had me and others stymied. The hypothesis--the "if" part--was very complex. I struggled to find the piece I was missing, the link that would pull A, B, C and D together.

At about 12:30 a.m., the light came on. It was right there in the hypothesis. The thing I kept trying to prove in order to make the rest of the proof work was right there. It had been given to me as being true. I didn't have to prove it; I already had it. Armed with everything I needed, the rest of the proof poured onto the paper, and at 1:00 a.m., I headed home.

Back to that sermon, the preacher pointed out something that sustained Jesus through the tests in the wilderness. He had those things that he already knew to be true. He had the givens: we do not live by bread alone, worship only the Lord your God, do not put the Lord your God to the test.

When we encounter tests and trials, how often do we struggle harder, trying to prove something that will make it all work out, when the very thing we needed to know had already been given to us?

By the way, I earned an A in Dr. Morgan's class. As a result of that work and that test, abstract algebra and real analysis became enjoyable times of deeper discovery.

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