Putting God to a Test

marking test red pen IMG_5060.jpg

We adults pulled our chairs into a circle in the back yard near the barbecue. The kids talked loudly and simultaneously at a table nearby. We decided the cousins needed the flat surface more than the adults -preferably some distance away. I watched our tribe balance coleslaw and hamburgers on paper plates that tilted at precarious angles on bare knees.

This clan of brothers, sisters, parents, and in-laws soon engaged each other in an enthusiastic exchange of ideas. Shop talk. Honestly, I would choose them as friends even if we weren’t related. I’m very fond of them.

Our family events are never quiet. If you hesitate to jump in when someone takes a breath there may not be another chance for several minutes. It’s like a double Dutch skip rope conversation with unwritten, but understood rules of rhythmical verbal exchange for entering and exiting a discussion. No one is shy. All of them are accustomed to speaking in public. They do it for a living.

Looking around, I realized we have a lot of teachers in our extended family. Some of our kin studied medicine or the arts, but most found their place in education in one form or another.

I admire all of them, whether they’ve guided at-risk children in preschool, juggled the needs of gifted and learning-challenged kids in the same elementary school classroom, instructed their own kids around the dining table, taught adults in a university lecture hall, tutored overseas pupils online, demonstrated songs to adolescent musicians in the studio, or communicated important concepts from a pulpit. We share a common drive to impart knowledge — and maybe just a bit of common need to be the expert.

The conversation this time centered on performance evaluations for both teachers and students. The bane of all classroom and online teachers – marking assignments and tests– arose as more than theory. Two of the on-line summer school teachers needed to leave the party to grade tests. A physics teacher offered to help the math teacher work his way down the pile sitting in his computer inbox. The volunteer asked if there was a marking key. There was.

My divergent mind started to wander off in another direction.

A marking key has all the answers. Both teachers put on their reading glasses, opened their laptops and got down to the business of comparing the students’ answers to the key. No arguments. Correct. Incorrect. Total grade. Pass. Fail. Next.

The art teacher didn’t have as simple a task. Each submission required consideration of abstract symbolic statements and knowledge of the student’s personality and skill level. Her job was to evaluate how they expressed a concept, but not to tell them what to say. She tried to stay unbiased but still gave a grade based on predetermined criteria she herself established for this assignment.

This is where my rabbit trail veered sharply toward the woods. I remember someone preaching about the dangers of using a marking key with God when we put him to a test. God invites us to try him to see whether or not His promises are true. Some translations of the Bible use the expression “test Me.” This kind of test Me is different from putting God to a test. Putting God to a test is like comparing his responses to a marking key which we have made up ourselves. We decide what the correct response should be before he answers.

Then the accuser transported Jesus to the holy city of Jerusalem and perched him at the highest point of the temple and said to him, “If you’re really God’s Son, jump, and the angels will catch you. For it is written in the Scriptures:
He will command his angels to protect you and they will lift you up so that you won’t even bruise your foot on a rock.”

Once again Jesus said to him, “The Scriptures say: You must never put the Lord your God to a test.”
(Matthew 4: 5-7 TPT)

The accuser determined the acceptable answer which would decide whether Jesus passed the test for proving he was God’s son. Angels caught him, he passed. Angels didn’t catch him, he failed.

Could angels have caught him? Of course, but when the accuser made himself the judge of what God’s behaviour should look like he put himself in the position to judge of the King of the universe with an authority he definitely did not have.

We often hear people say, “If you really love me you will _________.” Children and narcissists love this game.

If you really love me you’ll buy me a pony.

If you really love me you’ll let me go to the party.

If you really love me you’ll let me spend our savings on a boat or a vacation — or anything else I want.

If you really love me you will never challenge me or cause me to feel stressed.

Way back in the years of my youth, Janis Joplin performed a satirical song (at least I hope it was satirical) about what she expected God to do to prove himself.

Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town.
I’m counting on you, Lord. Please don’t let me down.
Prove that you love me and buy the next round.
Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a night on the town.

If you recall, she also expected a Mercedes Benz and a colour TV.

We laugh, but the truth is we sometimes set up a key for marking assignments we give God. Instead of praying in alignment with his purposes we sometimes hand him a list of requirements that look like the instructions an entitled rock star’s agent might submit to a concert manager. Bottled water from Fiji and a dish of red M & M’s only or he walks. We want personal peace, a perfect partner, and a palace on Paradise Boulevard.

Sometimes He answers with the stuff we want because he’s a good Dad and enjoys giving good gifts to his kids. Sometimes he answers with a character-building test of his own – an inescapable obligation, an impossible co-worker, an incomplete map.

We pray, “If you are really a good God prove it by buying the next round.” And he does – in the form of a flood, or a forest fire, or a false accusation, or a failed career, and includes a free blank sheet of foolscap and a pencil.

We compare his response with our marking key. None of these circumstances qualify as correct answers. In fact, they don’t even make the A, B, or D multiple choice list of close but wrong options.

We are confused. We cry, “God would not do that, therefore he is not God.” We walk away because God failed the test. We continue to consider ourselves the ultimate authority who prepares the correct answer on our own marking key.

Sometimes we project that grading ideal onto someone or something else – scientists, philosophers, politicians, self-help authors, organic foods, husbands, meditation -– anything really. When  answers fail to match our marking key, we move to the next thing until our bitter options dwindle down to A) absence B) anger C) apathy D) all of the above.

God is a good father and cares more about our character than our comfort. He could easily make things easy, but he doesn’t always. He loves us too much.

I’ve lived long enough to be disappointed with God many times. There were years when I only spoke to him in times of desperation because, well, the other options were worse. He loved me anyway. He is devoted to my eternal well-being. One day he invited me to take a chance on him. I did. He showed me aspects of himself I could not have seen if he had responded the way I wanted and expected him to.

Here’s the thing: God is God and I am not. He is smarter and wiser and more compassionate than I am. His perspective is from a place beyond eternity. His thoughts are higher than my thoughts and his ways greater than my ways. He wants relationship, which means he wants to connect and be understood. Tests are about learning what we have learned and what we have yet to learn. We need them. God doesn’t.

“How can these trying circumstances help me understand you, Lord?” I ask.

“Sit down. Pick up that pencil and the sheet of foolscap. Take notes,” he says. “I’ll show you.”

There is more.

Acknowledging Our Own Littleness

kennewick trees vertical bw IMG_1309

Not until we have become humble and teachable, standing in awe of God’s holiness and sovereignty, acknowledging our own littleness, distrusting our own thoughts, and willing to have our minds turned upside down, can divine wisdom become ours.

-J.I. Packer

As a singing teacher I sometimes noticed that students who found change most difficult were those who had received notoriety too soon. They clung to style or technique that had earned them trophies in the past. It’s one of the reasons why child prodigies often have difficulty finding their way in the adult world. It’s hard to let go of success.

Spiritual growth requires a teachable attitude – also known as meekness. There is a line from an old hymn playing in my head this morning:

I will cling to the old rugged cross ’til my trophies at last I lay down,

I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it someday for a crown.

Sometimes trophies can become heavy burdens as we journey on this path. Sometimes we need to lay them down so we can move on.


piano player


My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves.

And friends, once that’s taken care of and we’re no longer accusing or condemning ourselves, we’re bold and free before God! We’re able to stretch our hands out and receive what we asked for because we’re doing what he said, doing what pleases him. Again, this is God’s command: to believe in his personally named Son, Jesus Christ. He told us to love each other, in line with the original command. As we keep his commands, we live deeply and surely in him, and he lives in us. And this is how we experience his deep and abiding presence in us: by the Spirit he gave us. (1 John 3:18 -24 The Message)

I’ve had the privilege of teaching some very gifted students over the years. I noticed that the most successful – those who developed and maintained a love of music and who sang or played both skilfully and from the heart – had something in common. They learned from their mistakes. They did not ignore them, neither were they overwhelmed by them.

The hardest ones to teach were the ones who, although equally gifted, couldn’t accept correction, no matter how carefully I phrased it. Some always had an excuse: “The sun was glaring on the page. You played a wrong note and it threw me. My parents woke me up too early and I’m tired….”

Some fully acknowledged their mistakes, but broke down in episodes of self-flagellation and dire prediction: “I’m so stupid. I’ll never get this right. I just can’t do it. I’m not smart enough. I haven’t got talent like the girl you were teaching before me. It will never happen!” (I may have been one of these.)

Some had plenty of talent. They swam in oceans of potential. They dreamed of accolades and standing ovations – but they didn’t dream of stopping to fix mistakes. They ignored them, or practised them over and over so that they were set in concrete after a few weeks, or they just plain never practised at all, as if the potential of being a star was close enough.

Someone told me the quality of being teachable is called meekness. On this last day of the year I have been doing a review of what I learned. It would be easy to ignore evidences of change and focus on failures, making excuses for my mistakes. There are hundreds to pick from. It would also be easy to fall into despair, and spout off my frustrations with my lack of love and self-discipline and tendency to repeat the same wrong note twenty times in a row. But self-criticism that condemns is debilitating. It removes hope and makes me want to quit and wallow in shame.

“God is greater than our worried hearts,” John the Beloved wrote. He knew our Great Teacher sees our potential. His corrections are directed at bringing out the talent he has already placed in us. He chooses the music that will challenge enough to stretch us, but not exasperate us. He urges us to practise, because he knows the joy and freedom we will experience when that which once seemed impossible flows naturally and beautifully.

The teacher smiles and says, “Well done!”

Then we grin, ask for our next new piece of music, and rush home to practise.

Close Enough: The Benefits of Imperfection

Stars and Bucks
Stars and Bucks

Perhaps the reason we see so few essays on the benefits of close enough is that those writers who understand that the wide-spread application of excellence burns entirely too many calories and occupies more than it’s fair share of active brain space have already moved on to more interesting topics -because they can.

Some things need perfection: open-heart surgery, bridgework (both dental and municipal) pouring foundations, keeping books, inspecting nuclear power plants, maintaining aircraft. Some things don’t: tossing out ideas, telling stories, breaking traditions, playing T-ball, making beds, smoothing ruffled feathers and serving pretty good American-style coffee in the Middle East.

Teachers sometimes struggle with resisting the temptation to hang one more suggestion on a student’s performance or project. Of course, everything can be improved, but sometimes close enough is good enough for now. We all need to extend ourselves enough grace to simply enjoy what we have accomplished so far. Not everything needs the albatross of potential hanging around its neck.

Sign it. Stick it on the fridge and let’s go for coffee.


More than Words

Though I Walk Through the Valley
Creation Waits

She sang to us. She really did.

That first day, as we settled into our new desks, Miss Cheney sang “Getting to Know You.” The other grade four kids snickered, and I probably went along, but this teacher fascinated me. That was the day I met the woman who taught me the survival skills I would need in a confusing world where any display of emotion was castigated as an annoying weakness at best or punishable disloyalty at worst.

She was a little over the top, our Miss Cheney. She wore pretty flower-pink lipstick and wide swinging skirts and colourful scarves over soft low-cut sweaters that managed to just graze our strict principal’s nerves. She taught us arithmetic with music, poetry with music and gym with music.

Dahlia -detail

I was the kind of kid who tended to disappear in a classroom. My parents once went to a parent/teacher interview with a teacher who insisted I wasn’t in his class. I was. My main coping skill up to that point was knowing how not to make an impression. But Miss Cheney noticed.

She noticed I was sad. She noticed I could sing. She never asked me to tell her why I was sad. Perhaps she knew I couldn’t. Instead she took me aside and explained to me that when it wasn’t safe to cry or tell people how I felt because they would be angry or disappointed, I could take my sadness and put it in a song and people would say it was beautiful.

She taught me “Come Unto Him” from the Messiah. She taught me “I Wonder As I Wander”  and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” She taught me “Whispering Hope.”

People said it was beautiful. Then they cried. I no longer needed to.

I learned music was a safe place for sorrow, for joy, for anger — for all the tumultuous emotions that later pummeled me in adolescence.

I learned music was a safe way to express my prayers when I had no words.

Someone mentioned recently that when people quote the famous verse in Romans 8, “All things work together for good…,” it is usually quoted without the previous verses.

“Go back and check them out,” they said, “It may change how you understand that verse.”

This is The Message paraphrase by Eugene Peterson:

“All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

Meanwhile, the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” (Romans 8:22-28)

I  know deep in my heart there is more than this. Not all communication with Abba Father needs to be in words. (Neither English nor any other spoken tongues are his first language.) When we groan in pain beyond words he intercedes, translating our sighs into even deeper expressions of longing. We work together for good. Together we pray for His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

This is what Miss Cheney was trying to tell me, and the day when I could sing Rachmaninoff’s wordless Vocalise, lost in prayer,  I knew she had been a messenger of grace in my life

God bless you, dear Miss Cheney, wherever you are.

I no longer have the voice I once had, (I now use art and photography to try to say what I cannot) but this song still expresses the unexpressable in my heart. In this recording Anna Moffo sings the Rachmaninoff Vocalise No. 14.

I Will Fear No Evil
Though I Walk Through the Valley