by David Romanik
One of my favorite annual responsibilities is serving as the “pronouncer” for the spelling bee at St. John’s Episcopal School. It ticks a lot of my boxes: I get to speak in front of a crowd, I get to indulge my love of language and word origins, and this past year, I got to quote Kanye West when I used the word “interject” in a sentence (i.e., “As Taylor received the award, Kanye interjected, ‘I’m real happy for you and I’mma let you finish…”). For me, the most interesting feature of the spelling bee is the way competitors are informed that they have misspelled a word. When spellers misspell a word, they hear a bell ring, whereas when they spell a word correctly, they hear nothing. I’m intrigued by this phenomenon. In other competitions, success is marked by noise and celebration (when someone scores a goal in hockey, for instance, a literal siren sounds). In a spelling bee, however, you are only alerted when you make a mistake. You don’t get any audible confirmation that you are on the right track.
It occurs to me that this is not a bad metaphor for life. We rarely get confirmation that we are moving in the right direction. We get up, make our way through the day, come home, and wonder if we did what we were supposed to do that day: if the way we spent our time was edifying and worthwhile. Generally, it’s only when we make a mistake or fall short of expectations that the alarm bells start ringing and we realize that things have gone wrong. This can feel unfair, even cruel. We live in a world that can be pretty unsparing. Those who say or do the wrong thing are often ostracized, regardless of whatever good they have done for the community in the past. Perhaps even worse, our focus on the mistakes we have made can lead us to believe that we are, in some ways, irredeemable.
One of the unique gifts of our faith is that it is predicated on the assumption that we are more than what we have done wrong. Christianity is honest about the reality of sin and human frailty. At the same time, we believe that even our worst failings can be redeemed and transformed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Indeed, we believe that our identity as persons created in the image of God cannot be taken away by the mistakes we have made. Even as we hear alarm bells alerting us to the wrongs we have done and the mistakes we have made, our call is to attend to the quiet and insistent hum of God’s grace and mercy.
I have heard the season after Pentecost described as the “dog days of discipleship”. We have moved beyond the spectacular stories of Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection and are invited to acknowledge the more mundane dimensions of our faith, namely the fact that we sometimes fall short and are often not entirely sure that we are on the right track. Our task is not just to pay attention to what we have done wrong, but to trust that God’s grace will sustain us during these dog days and throughout our lives.