Monday, April 28, 2008

Lessons From a Spelling Bee

“Your word is: ate,” directed the head judge at the regional spelling bee. “We ate the delicious birthday cake.”

A pig-tailed first-grader rose to spell her word, smoothing out her fancy Sunday dress as she stood. After sailing through the practice rounds, she stood eager to spell her first word in Round One.

Ate. E-A-T, ate,” she said, confidently.

“I’m sorry,” replied the judge, “but that is incorrect. The word is ate, not eat.”

Stunned, she remained standing, even as the next contestant rose to spell his word.

“Excuse me,” the girl interrupted. “I’ve never heard that word before,” she oddly protested.

“I beg your pardon?” said the judge, confused.

“It’s just that I’ve never heard it used that way,” said the girl.

As the recording judge, I exchanged quick glances with the others at the head table, all of us pondering how we would save the pig-tailed girl from embarrassment.

“I’m sorry.” The head judge spoke up. “Your turn is over, sweetheart. You just didn’t spell the word correctly, OK? Now, you must sit down in your seat. It’s somebody else’s turn.”

Red-cheeked, the first-grader simply stared at us, blinking. Finally, she plopped back in her chair without a word, her crinoline crunching beneath her. The first “casualty” of the spelling bee, horror plagued the little girl’s face.

“OK. Where were we?” said the judge. “Next student? Yes. You, there. Your word is: tense. The student felt tense before his math quiz.”

Tense. T-E-N-S-E, tense,” a tall, lanky boy answered.

“That is correct, sir. You may remain standing,” commended the head judge.

The exchange of words and letters continued for three more rounds as some first-graders continued to stand while others took their seats.

“Excuse me,” the pig-tailed girl interrupted again, her small hand raised.

“Yes?” asked the judge. “Do you need to go to the bathroom, honey?”

“No, ma’am,” she said politely. “I just want to make sure you have the right spelling list. Are you sure that’s the first grade word list?”

“Yes, it sure is,” said the judge impatiently. “Now, it’s time for the next round.”

“But, ma’am. I studied all of the words. We all did,” she said, gesturing to her classmates from The Village School, renowned for winning spelling bees. “And, I just don’t remember that one being on the list.”

Eyebrows raised at our judges’ table. Kids stopped twisting their hair and poking their buddies to stare at the red-faced girl. I squirmed. Her lack of acceptance of a simple mistake made for an awkward moment.

“I must remind you that you are already out, young lady,” directed the head judge firmly. “Now, there are always more spelling bees,” she said, deciding to extend grace once more. “I’m sure you’ll do just fine next time. Please be seated until the bee is over.”

The spelling bee ended as predicted, with The Village School taking three of the top four places in the first-grade division. Finally, it was time for all of the contestants to join their parents at the Awards Ceremony. Curious, I kept tabs on the little girl in the pretty dress. I watched her burst into tears when she joined her parents, explaining her dilemma. Then, I spotted her sitting, arms crossed, during the ceremony, her first grade classmates receiving medals while she sat stunned, deflated and confused.

Witnessing that little girl learn perhaps her first hard lesson in defeat struck an all-to-familiar chord in me. Her situation wasn’t uncommon, yet I couldn’t help but draw a parallel to the hard lessons that many of us as adults are still learning. Think about it. When is the last time you came away from a situation in utter disbelief at its outcome?

Just like the pig-tailed first-grader, if we are not careful, we find ourselves living by a number of false beliefs that seem to give a sense of security but miserably fail us in times of distress. Unfortunately, these beliefs are eventually uncovered, usually through painful circumstances such as accidents, divorce, sickness, death, layoffs, betrayal…the list is hauntingly long.

False Belief #1- If I do everything right, I cannot fail.

The practice of controlling every element of our lives is probably the most common, and likely the most dangerous. While living by a proper moral code and practicing intelligent life skills absolutely aid a person in skirting danger and devastation, they in no way render someone immune from it. But, subconsciously we often think it does! Just as the little girl believed that if she memorized the entire first-grade spelling list, she couldn’t possibly make a mistake, many adults never even consider failure as a possibility. It is those who say, “I will be the perfect parent,” or “Divorce could never happen to me,” or “Other people get sick, but I won’t,” who find themselves the most devastated when these situations actually occur, especially when every preventative effort has been made to thwart them. Through control, we can find a deceptive sense of comfort.

False Belief #2- If I belong to a certain group, I am immune from disappointment and heartache.

Similarly, the belief that exemption from harm is automatic when one resides within a “safety net” is also destructive. While it was likely that the little girl would achieve success at the spelling bee BECAUSE she belonged to a successful school with ample resources, rich tradition and high expectations, had she never been told that success isn’t EVER guaranteed? She reminded me so much of those who believe that social or economic status equates a life full of ease and ultimate happiness. Others even use spirituality as a false sense of safety. Many believe that simply becoming and living as a Christian means that bad things will never happen to them. However, security is fleeting, and comfort isn’t God’s purpose!

False Belief #3- If I believe in #1 or #2 and I fail anyway, it must be someone else’s fault.

Finally, when the unexpected occurs, there are those who are quick to point a finger outward- at others. “Are you sure you have the first grade list?” the little girl boldly asked the spelling bee judges, still very sure that the simple mistake she had made couldn’t possibly have been a fluke, and was definitely NOT her fault. Blame is a common defense ultimately rooted in denial. For many, blame turns to anger and even vengeance. Not only do people point fingers outward, but they are sometimes pointed upward, at God. “Why did You let this happen?” we ask, or “I didn’t DESERVE this, God!” we shout. Sadly, it isn’t uncommon for hurting people to abandon their beliefs instead of seeking God’s wisdom for comfort and understanding.

As much as we hate to admit it, things happen, LIFE happens, mistakes happen. Yet, how do we resolve this and feel any sense of peace?

I believe the key lies first in the premise of humility. God’s Word says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11) Sure, we understand this on an intellectual level, and most of us don’t intentionally flaunt extensive preparation, economic status or spiritual stance as an indestructible shield. Yet, our hearts are often counting on these things to keep us from experiencing hurt. So, we must check ourselves constantly. Are we depending on God for our ultimate comfort or something else? Do we believe we are more immune from disaster than others because of who we are or what we have accomplished? Are we exalting our control, our resources or our spiritual status as absolutes or as guarantees instead of as the simple tools they are intended to be? If we are, we should expect to be humbled!

Does that mean that God punishes us for a lack of humility? Actually, because we depend on other things for a false sense of security, God doesn’t have to do that. We, in fact, punish ourselves when our securities fail us because we have used them in a way God never intended.

Beyond humility, grace in all situations is also key. What about those tragedies or misfortunes, you may say, that are simply out of our control? How do we avoid them? We simply can’t. They are what they are…we are neither able to predict them nor direct their outcome, so we waste precious time in unnecessary worry. Instead, Philippians 4:6-7 suggests, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, 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.” God wants us to replace anxiety, worry and self-pressure for prayer, for giving thanks, for relinquishing control to Him. When this happens, the peace of God transcends all of our own self-made securities. Finally, instead of promising ultimate protection from harm, He promises to guide us and to guard our hearts and our minds. God doesn’t abandon us in our struggles! Instead, He offers a truer sense of security and protection through His presence and guidance. Then, if we let Him, He will renew us because of our misfortunes, not in spite of them!

My friends, if you find yourself asking, “Are you sure you have the right list up there, God? Are you sure I am supposed to be the one living out this life?” Be certain that the answer is a resounding, “YES!” Instead of pointing a finger outward or upward when life goes awry, pry open that hand and try presenting an open palm instead. Let go of those artificial securities and give Him thanks for His provisions, present Him your most precious requests, and trust that He will guard your heart in all circumstances. There, may you find freedom, where the peace of God transcends all understanding.