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Spelling Lessons

Spelling is one of my good things. And good things can get in the way of better things.


I don’t have the training of the spelling bee whiz kids one sees on TV or YouTube. They seem extraterrestrial. I learned to spell the old-fashioned way: phonics, rules, exceptions, usage, and brute force memorization of peculiar words I supposed I would have to use again.

Being good at spelling, however, hasn’t proved to the life-enhancing skill one might have thought it would be. I remember getting precisely zero dates in high school because of my prowess.


I did enjoy one brief, shining moment in a very small spotlight. Some time ago, CBC Radio thought it might be cute to go to the campus of the University of Manitoba as classes resumed one autumn and host a spelling contest between students and professors. The word went out from the Dean of Arts: Would three intrepid faculty members take on whoever was nominated as student champions by the U of M Student Association?


Wisely, not one member of the English Department agreed to serve. No upside: Win and you look like a bully; lose and you look like a chump.


I, however, was glad to fight for the honour of my colleagues, so when the phone call came, I answered that call. Three o’clock in the afternoon on a fine September day, outside on a campus courtyard, to spell for glory.


The students acquitted themselves well, and my faculty colleagues were up to the challenge. The deciding word, however, stumped five out of six: “idiosyncrasy.” (Almost everybody thinks of “democracy.”)


Your servant remembered that idiosyncratic word (sorry, but this is my story and I’m going to milk it to the last drop) and triumphed on behalf of professors everywhere. Not on this day would faculty dignity be compromised.


After we were off the air and the techs were packing up, the host said she had “jodhpur” in the chamber to shoot next. But I spelled that correctly, too. (I did have a bit of special knowledge here, though, teaching religious studies and encountering the Sanskrit/Hindi “dh” all the time: “Buddha,” “dharma,” “Gandhi.”)


The nice CBC reporter then just smiled, and she left—pretty much like everyone in high school did, too, now that I think about it….


Nowadays, The New York Times has been running a popular “Spelling Bee” game for a while. I’m fairly good at that, also. The fastest I have gotten to the top level (“Genius”) is nine-and-a-half minutes, and I arrive at that level more days than I don’t.


But, yes, many days I don’t. And that shameful allowance brings me to today’s point.


As I stare at the screen, I realize that in this game the answers are all literally right in front of me. There are no additional letters hiding somewhere. The agonizing truth is that there are words staring back at me that I simply cannot yet recognize. Everything I need to score perfectly is available, and my failure to score perfectly is completely my failure.


(Okay, I simply must pause to point out that on numerous occasions I have thought of a genuine word—a Merriam-Webster-endorsed word—that is not recognized by the game. While I’m at it, I protest that some of the words the game allows strike me as so slangy as to be, well, simply not thinkable by a gentleman. Harrumph. But I press on…)


The moral and spiritual lesson that occurs to me this morning is this: Just because I can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Just because I can’t see the remaining words in the Spelling Bee doesn’t mean they aren’t there. And just because I can’t see what God is doing at this juncture of my life doesn’t mean God isn’t doing something, and something excellent.


Paul tells his Philippian friends: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:6–7).


I want to fasten today on the phrase “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding.” First, Paul does not promise that all will suddenly become calm and friction-free, our usual definition of “peace.” Instead, as a former rabbi who has the Old Testament always in mind, he means that we will enjoy shalom (= “flourishing”).


Second, Paul says that this is “the shalom of God.” This is the flourishing provided by the Maker of heaven and earth. As such, it is the product of God’s transcendent power and goodness: those divine ways that are not our ways but are as much greater than ours as the heavens are high above the earth (Isaiah 55:8–9).


Third, it may be that God will bring to bear on my situation “off-screen letters,” so to speak: elements and agents that I do not and cannot see. I need to trust that the God who made all will make whatever is necessary in this situation to turn it to good.


Fourth, however, it may also be that everything God needs to bring shalom in this situation is already present. I just lack the capacity to appreciate it. In fact, I may even be balking at experiences and circumstances that God has graciously provided for my improvement, rejecting as bad what God intends for good.


(The Apostle James tells us to “count it all joy when you encounter various trials” and the author of Hebrews tells us to value, not despise, the Father’s loving discipline; James 1:2–4; Hebrews 12:1–13).


Just because I don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Just because I can’t (yet) appreciate God’s gracious governance of my situation doesn’t mean that God isn’t graciously governing my situation.


I may be good at spelling—even at the level of what the New York Times (with ridiculous elasticity of definition) calls a “genius”—but I still miss a lot of words. I am certainly no spiritual genius, so I should simply expect not to be able to recognize what God is doing.


In many situations, yes, as in many Spelling Bees, all I see is a meaningless, frustrating jumble. So I should do as Paul (a true spiritual genius) advised us all to do: refer everything upstairs, and expect the puzzle to be solved completely in due time, whether or not I ever see the result.


Maybe God will whisper the answer to me. Maybe he’ll deal with it some other way. Meanwhile, my duty is to do what the Bible keeps telling me to do: Wait on God. Trust in God. Obey God so far as he has indeed commanded.


Pull on my jodhpurs and just get back in the saddle, full of expectant hope that God will do what God always does: Get it all right.

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