The Day of the Son

An exegetical commentary on Mark 13 in honor of W. Tyler Reynolds

It was April 14th, 2017 and my friend Tyler and I were in my parked car outside his apartment in Coralville, IA. We had both been paying attention to the recent news surrounding North Korea and their nuclear missile testing. Needless to say, we were worried. With a new (and outspoken) U.S. President in office whose weak spot was foreign policy, how were we as a nation going to respond? Were we on the brink of inevitable geopolitical conflict? Was North Korea actually going to attempt a nuclear missile launch?

With all of these questions and anxieties running through our heads, we started to pray together. We prayed for peace on the Korean Peninsula. We prayed for leaders domestic and abroad. We prayed that nations would resolve their conflicts through diplomatic and nonviolent means. And finally, we prayed that Jesus would return soon to make all things right.

The last petition we prayed was not out-of-the-blue. I had been thinking about Jesus’s return fairly frequently over the past several weeks, perhaps more than I had at any point in my life. And so, praying for his expedited return was not unexpected. But as Tyler and I finished praying, said our goodbyes, and I drove back to my apartment, a number of thoughts went through my head. What, if anything, could I say that would be of comfort to Tyler concerning the end times? What do I actually believe about the return of Christ? Am I Pre-, Post-, or A-millenial? What do I believe about Preterism? Do I have any sort of working eschatological timeline? 

I know I’m not the only one who’s had these kinds of thoughts. At various points, I’ve asked my pastors their views on eschatology, but they (through no fault of their own) usually have more questions themselves than answers. I could have read excerpts from systematic theologies, but those would have been biased. No, I wanted source content, so I turned to a particularly famous piece of apocalyptic literature in the Bible: Mark 13.

I am choosing not to post my commentary on the text here, because that would take up too much space. Instead, a link to my commentary on BibleArc.com can be found below. I pray that it would help you think more about eschatology and answer at least one question you had about the end times. However, I can almost assure you it will raise more questions than it answers!

Commentary on Mark 13

The Quiltmaker

The women in my family have always had a penchant for doing craftwork… Aunt Julie was next level.

My earliest memories of “Aunt Julie” and her husband “Uncle Joe” come from their days of living in Eau Claire, WI back in the early 2000’s (although I’m sure I knew them before that). They were living in a split-level home in a newly-developed subdivision on the East side of town, and we saw them at least once a month, if memory serves. All of their kids were adults by this point and had moved out, so when we would visit I would spend my time playing with their two dogs Reggie and Baxter while the grown-ups sat and talked together. They were an obligatory stop while out with my Mom trick-or-treating on Halloween, and we usually exchanged gifts at some point during the holiday season. (Uncle Joe always had really good lawn decorations.) It was at their house that I got to watch the results trickle in of at least one presidential election, watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” for the first time (the animated version, not the irreverent redux with Jim Carey), and got a firsthand glimpse into Aunt Julie’s favorite hobby – quilting.

The women in my family have always had a penchant for doing craftwork. My grandma has been doing needlepoint since before I was born, and two of her daughters (my Mom her sister) have always made Christmas stockings for the kids in our extended family. But Aunt Julie was next level. She had stacks of quilting magazines at her house, would be constantly looking at new fabrics and designs, and of course, measuring, cutting, sewing, and stuffing1 the quilts she made. (I’m sure I’m not doing her labors justice.) She would make them (obviously) for her own home, but also as gifts to her children and grandchildren.

My first Aunt Julie blanket quilt

Uncle Joe worked for Cub Foods for some time, and as a result, was always traveling for work. And true to style, he and Aunt Julie moved often but managed to stay in the Midwest. By 2004, they had moved away from Eau Claire and were living in Minnesota. My family went up for a visit, and I returned – to my delight – with a brand new quilt that Aunt Julie had made for me. I don’t know what I had done to deserve a quilt so nice. On one side, it had a solid blue border with blue and green designs on the interior. The reverse was a warm and soft solid tan flannel. And on this reverse side in the corner, there was a patch that read “Alex Bates, 2004”. In addition to the patches on the front of the quilt, a series of winding (and nonintersecting) curves were sewn in that snaked along both sides.2

The only thing I remember from that ride back from Minnesota was falling asleep in the backseat wrapped in this quilt – kept warm (but not too warm) by its exquisite craftsmanship. And it would stay by my side (or perhaps more literally, on top of me) for the next eight or so years. Perhaps it is a testament to Aunt Julie’s skill as a quilter (as well as my laziness as a teenager) that I would not sleep under the covers of my bed as most normal people do, but was perfectly content to sleep on top of all my bedding (comforter and all) with nothing except my “Aunt Julie blanket” to keep me warm. (She later corrected me for using the term “blanket” to describe her creation.)

Quilt 2.0

As time went on, as is imaginable, I slowly started to outgrow the quilt I had received from Aunt Julie. And so, in May of 2012 I was presented with a new quilt from Aunt Julie as a high school graduation present. Her skill had evidently improved over time. This quilt was bigger, featured better and more durable stitching, and was stylistically more complex. I made a Facebook post some years ago thanking her for her efforts:

fbquilt.png

This quilt in particular has been with me through a lot. For starters, it kept me warm for three years of dorm life at St. Thomas (where I did my undergrad), and one year in a house off-campus (where we, as single guys, liked to keep the heat down during the wintertime to save money). The summer between my sophomore and junior year of college, I decided to go on a 10-week summer missions trip to South Carolina and was told by leadership to pack light. Neither this suggestion nor the knowledge that South Carolina would be hot during the summer stopped me from bringing it with.3 My quilt continued to be a small semblance of familiarity when I moved to Iowa City and felt the weight of living alone in a new city. And of course, it kept me warm at night during my first winter here. I even trusted it to keep me warm this past January when I (perhaps against my better judgment) decided to have a sleepover at a friend’s shed4 in Iowa City in weather below 10° F. (Granted, I was also wearing a hat, coat, and was wrapped in a sleeping bag as well and laying next to four other guys who were doing the same.)

My first quilt from Aunt Julie is at my parents’ house in Eau Claire, WI. Since I have a newer (and arguably better) quilt at my disposal, my Mom has taken to using my old one as a throw when she’s watching TV at home. My current quilt is currently sitting on my bed in Iowa City. Since it’s summertime here now, I doubt it’ll get used much (though it will most assuredly not leave my bed until I move). This winter it will again see much use. (Though perhaps since my roommate-to-be is engaged as opposed to being single, we may decide to keep the heat on at least every other night.)

Recent history

The last time I spent any significant length of time with Aunt Julie was during a three-day weekend at her RV vacation home in Lake Zumbro, MN in the summer of 2015. I was humbled by her hospitality, and I had many opportunities to observe the relationship between her and my dad, especially as they reminisced about their childhoods. Some of my cousins who had always been foggy in my memory became crystal clear as we forged new relationships over that weekend. As we left, I felt sorry that we didn’t get to see that side of the family more often.

Then, just four months ago, I learned that Aunt Julie had been diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. I had never followed along while a family member battled like that. She happened to be in Eau Claire for treatment while I was on break in May, and though she was weak from the battle, she was as kind and considerate as I ever remember her being. There were no hints of self-pity or defeatism over her fight, only genuine interest in how we (my dad, mom, sister, and myself) were doing as a family. In fact, it was so ordinary to her character to act in this way that only now do I realize how extraordinary she actually was. I’m reminded of a quote by C.S. Lewis:

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

If Lewis is onto something and what he is describing is what it truly means to be humble, then perhaps Aunt Julie was one of the most humble people I’ve ever known – not only during the time we visited her in May, but for as long as I’ve known her. She seldom talked about herself but always wanted to know how other people were doing. And she always seemed to gush with pride over her children and grandchildren.

My Uncle Joe informed us yesterday through Julie’s CaringBridge site that she had taken her final step on her journey. She passed away in the morning on July 2nd, 2017. I called my dad right away to make sure he was doing OK, and then made sure to talk to my heavenly Father about it as well. My prayers continue that our family would be comforted during this time, and that God would use these circumstances to bring about his glory, and greater good. That last petition I’m drawing from Romans 8:28 which says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” That verse became a bedrock of comfort and assurance for me in summer of 2013 when I lost my grandfather to Alzheimer’s/Dementia. I began to hope, perhaps more vividly than ever, that God could work all things for my good – even the death of someone so dear to me. It’s my hope now that anyone reading this who is struggling in the wake of Julie’s death would find the same comfort and assurance in that verse that met me four years ago (and continues to meet me).

But, in accordance with Julie’s final wishes, she would not want us to focus on her death but rather direct our energies toward celebrating her life. And there seems to be a lot to celebrate: her marriage of 42 years to my Uncle Joe, her children, her grandchildren, her devotion to family and friends, her remarkable character, her generosity- the list goes on. And while the world may seem a bit emptier without her around, Aunt Julie- partly in thanks to all the quilts she made for the ones she loved – has definitely made the world a warmer place for us all.


  1. Every quilt contains a little bit of cotton batting (or “stuffing”) in it to give it a little “poof”. 
  2. Apparently, this is known as a “meander” design. 
  3. Though the summer was indeed hot, the guys I was living with liked to keep the A/C in our room turned on “High” at all hours of the day, so it turns out that my decision to bring the quilt along was well worth it. 
  4. You read that right – I slept in the Abdo family’s shed overnight. 

The Vulgarity of God, Part 2: Food and Drink

A few weeks ago, drawing on some inspiration from C.S. Lewis, I began by stating what I meant by “The Vulgarity of God”. By way of reminder, I defined God’s “vulgarity” as his “lavish, unblushing, and almost excessive provisions of joy for the human being, especially as expressed in the created order (though not limited thereto)”.1 This week, we’ll be looking at God’s “vulgarity” in food and drink. To do so, we have throw it back – way back.

Vulgar from the get-go

Most of us are familiar with the creation story laid out in Genesis. In fact, there’s two creation stories.2 Here’s a highlight from the latter of the two:

[7] then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. [8] And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. [9] And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:7-9)

There’s a couple observations to be made. First, where did he put the man? In a garden. When you think of a garden, do you imagine a place that is lifeless, or vibrant? Is it cold, or is it warm and inviting? And what else did God put in the garden? Did he leave Adam only with Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and some legumes? No, he gave him “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (emphasis mine). To be sure, there had to have been Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and legumes there, (as they are all “good for food”,) but think about it: there was also watermelon and pineapple and green beans and, well, insert your favorite plant food here.

We should also take note of the fact that God has created all these foods and given them to Adam before the Fall. Providing food was not a necessary evil meant for the continuance of the human race; it was a part of God’s plan from the beginning. So, we should not be like the Gnostics, who believed that the material world was inherently evil or shameful and that the spiritual realm only provided good. Rather, we should believe the biblical witness that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4).

But then notice that God doesn’t say, “OK Adam, I made all these good foods but now you can only eat the healthy ones that I made. Stay away from that sugary mango!” Instead, it goes down like this:

[16] And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, [17] but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)

Read those words: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden”. As if creating a world full of different kinds of plants and animals wasn’t enough, he actually tells the man that he may participate in and enjoy the things in the creation that God has made. There’s just one caveat: “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat”.

“Aha!” some might say, “so he is holding out on us after all!” You missed the first part; there is only one “no” in a world full of “yes”. Everything that God has created (including Adam and even the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) he has created good. Nothing in this creation (yet) is fundamentally bad or evil. It’s all good and it’s all “yes”, with but one “no”.

The first lie: God is fundamentally prohibitive

We know that the story takes a drastic turn for the worse. But it starts with an illustrative dialogue.

[1] Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” [2] And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, [3] but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” [4] But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. [5] For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” [6] So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:1-6)

Notice first that the serpent (i.e., Satan) is described as “crafty”; that word could also be translated as “subtle” in more archaic English or sútil in modern Spanish. The first words out of his mouth come in the form of a question: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” (emphasis mine). You see what happened there? The serpent’s question turns God’s design on its head. In the words of Joe Rigney, he’s taken God’s one “no” in a world full of “yes” and blown it out of proportion. The serpent’s lie is that all God does is say “no”. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

The serpent’s lie has penetrated and permeated our consciousness perhaps more than we’d care to admit. We’ve all had moments when we thought that it was God’s main prerogative to squelch our joy and ruin our fun. And while there are prohibitions in the Bible (more on that later), I think that we are much more apt to believe that God cares less about what we do than what we don’t do. For example, many who would subscribe to Christian morality would agree that premarital promiscuity (that is, sex before marriage) is inherently sinful and wrong (Hebrews 13:4). But do we also recognize that God is the author of sex and gave it as a gift to husband and wife not only for procreation, but also for mutual enjoyment (Proverbs 5:18-19)? Yes, sex itself, in its proper context, is an act of worship and should be celebrated as such.3

At the end of the day, God cares a great deal that we enjoy the creation he has made. Why? Because when we enjoy the good things that he has made and trace it back to its origin in him, the enjoyment becomes an act of worship. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.”

More than plants

It’s convenient (for my sake) that the biblical texts I chose dealt with food – plant food in particular. But the principles I have laid out go far beyond just raw plant food. Listen to what the psalmist has to say:

You cause the grass to grow for the livestock

and plants for man to cultivate,

that he may bring forth food from the earth

and wine to gladden the heart of man,

oil to make his face shine

and bread to strengthen man’s heart. (Psalm 104:14-15)

We’re now into the realm of bread, meat, and virtually anything else you could cultivate and turn into a product. We’re into the realm of cheeseburgers, pastas, brownies, buttered lobster, blueberry pancakes, philly cheesesteaks, apple crisp, and – oh yes – bacon. And as far as drinks are concerned, we have sweet tea, coconut water,  smoothies, apple juice, chocolate milk, and coffee.

Conclusion

With all this in view, should we not have a fuller picture of what we mean by God’s “vulgarity”? As some of the most tangible of goods we can consume as humans, God has created food and drink to be visible expressions of his goodness. Even apart from God’s saving grace in the gospel, his common grace expressed in the gifts of food and drink are enough to make one blush. And while we should certainly stray from gluttony and overindulgence, we should also thankfully leverage these gifts as means for worship and enjoyment of our exuberantly generous Father.

 


  1. I apologize for the wordiness of this definition. 
  2. Hermeneutically, I don’t have that one figured out yet. I’ll let you know when I do. 
  3. I hope to broach this subject later. For further reading in the meantime, see John Piper’s book, Sex and the Supremacy of Christ

Pure vs. Applied

“So, what’s the difference between pure math and applied math?”

“Tyler and I are in the same program, but he’s pure and I’m applied.”

I’ve said this exact sentence (or something to its effect) countless times to others, but usually it raises confusion from non-math folks. (Tyler, by the way, is one of my close friends in the department, and we’ll be rooming together next year.)

“So, what’s the difference between pure math and applied math?”

That’s the question I’m going to answer for all of you non-math folks out there. Some of it will probably end up sounding like gibberish, but I’ll try to limit that to a minimum.

The basic distinction

At the end of the day, pure math could be described as “math for math’s sake”. It doesn’t mean it’s not applicable to real-world scenarios or irrelevant; it just means that the work being done is more abstract in nature and is meant to advance the study of mathematics in and of itself. On the other hand, applied math has the application of mathematics to real-world problems or scenarios as its end goal. This doesn’t mean that applied math can’t be abstract or theoretical nor contribute to the study of mathematics in and of itself; it just means that applied mathematicians are motivated primarily by real-world applications.

Every applied mathematician needs to learn some pure math before they can start doing the work of applied mathematics. The converse, however, is not always true; the pure mathematician could have his or her nose in books on pure mathematics their whole education and still contribute to the field. However, they could suffer from one or two disadvantages. The first is that they could lack motivation for doing their research and might not see how it actually matters. Perhaps an algebraist1 would get more excited about his research if he learned that his studies would be benefiting knot theory, a branch of mathematics that (in its applied side) is currently working on ways to identify protein chains in the human body. The second is that they might lack intuition as to how to go about solving the types of problems that are placed in front of them. (Think about how much easier it was in high school to work math problems once you had seen an example or two!) Far more often than you might think, methods or techniques from one area of mathematics often get borrowed in another area, and the pure mathematician who has seen “living, breathing” problems worked out in the everyday might be better equipped to tackle his or her own problems.

In short, applied math needs pure math, but to say that pure math needs applied math would be an overstatement, but perhaps not a grave one.

Practical Implications

The way it works at the University of Iowa, every math student is either enrolled in the Department of Mathematics or the division of Applied Mathematical and Computational Sciences (AMCS). The former is pure and the latter is obviously applied. However, the first-year pure and applied students share some of the same courses. At least, they usually share Real and Complex Analysis – two classes that attempt to generalize and make rigorous some of the results seen in undergraduate Calculus. They will also share Differential Equations (which builds on undergraduate Calculus) and Topology (an abstract study of spaces and their properties).

Now, the pure math students (those who want to do research and pursue a PhD) must select an adviser from within the Department of Mathematics, while AMCS students may pick an adviser from either inside or outside the department. And following the basic distinction given between pure and applied math above, the pure students will be studying “math for math’s sake”, while the applied math students may choose to tackle problems that are perhaps more tractable or “real-world”.

Myself: Mathematical Mutt

As for me, while I am in fact an AMCS student (and hence applied), I have almost always straddled the line between pure and applied math. For example, my undergraduate degree2 was in applied, but I had also fulfilled the requirements to graduate with a degree in pure math (including two semesters of abstract algebra).  Similarly, this past year I took Numerical Analysis with AMCS students, Topology with the pure students, and Analysis with both. One area of research I am looking into doing (but not committed to yet) is called Topological Data Analysis (TDA), which both pure and applied students are working on.3

Conclusion

Sometimes, pure math people can exhibit a (perhaps feigned) sense of smug superiority for inhabiting the rarefied domain of abstract truth, not recognizing that applied mathematics is making great contributions to the field and is more necessary today than perhaps at any time in history. On the other hand, aspiring applied mathematicians can fall into the trap of viewing pure mathematics as a necessary evil which can be discarded in their future, not realizing that pure mathematics gives them both a foundation for study and methods of thought for solving problems.

I’m thankful that I often get to do both.

 

Still confused? Feel free to leave your questions in the comments section below!


  1. An algebraist is someone who studies abstract algebra, one of the core divisions of pure mathematics. 
  2.  University of St. Thomas ’16 – Go Tommies! 
  3. Ironically, the professor I am currently reading with on TDA has told me that her pure students are doing the most applied work while her applied students are doing the most pure work. 

The Vulgarity of God, Part 1: Introduction

One of the most helpful quotes I’ve ever read from any work of C.S. Lewis comes from The Screwtape Letters1:

He’s a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a façade. Or only like foam on the sea shore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are “pleasures for evermore”. Ugh! … He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working—Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us.

The phrase in quotes above, “pleasures for evermore” comes from Psalm 16:11, in which David prays, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” But is this reality? Is the God of the Bible really a “hedonist at heart”? Is he truly as “vulgar” as Wormwood says he is?

At this point, some would say “no”.  Perhaps their experience of Christianity or the church has been “[a]ll those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses” and couldn’t possibly see how a God who calls for such things could actually be considered joyful. Or perhaps others would point at human suffering and question whether a God in whose right hand are “pleasures forevermore” would also ordain pain and suffering. Perhaps others see the prohibitions – the “no”s of the Bible – and wonder why a God who is supposedly a God of “yes” would also at times say “no” to certain things. Or perhaps it all seems just too good to be true—wishful, sentimental thinking that doesn’t line up with reality.

To be sure, all of these reasons for saying “no” to the questions I posed have some legitimacy to them. I’m not here to negate anyone’s experience with the church or the world. But I would like to address what Lewis is saying and ask whether his claims line up with what the Bible teaches about the character of God.

Disclaimers and Definitions

But before I get going too far, let me set your expectations low. I’m not a writer by trade, nor have I done any sort of public writing besides my last post. Moreover, I’m not an accomplished theologian, much less an excellent communicator of theology. Furthermore, none of my thoughts are all that original; I’ve quoted from C.S. Lewis and the Bible, but I’m also greatly influenced by the thought lives of John Piper2 and Joe Rigney3. If you’re at all familiar with their work, you’ll probably hear echoes of their writing in my own.

I titled this post “The Vulgarity of God”. Obviously, the inspiration for this title comes from Screwtape’s exclamation, “He’s vulgar, Wormwood!” And perhaps it would be helpful if I define what I mean when I use the term “vulgar”. Merriam-Webster defines “vulgar” in a number of ways, but there are two (from Screwtape’s vantage) that make sense in this context:

  • ostentatious or excessive in expenditure or display, or
  • lewdly or profanely indecent.

Thus, Screwtape looks at the “world full of pleasures” that God has created and sees it, in sum, as ostentatious gesture to the creature (that is, to humans). It’s excessive (more on that word later), and far more than he is obligated to (or even should) offer. Lastly, it’s indecent of him, as an omnipotent and infinite being, to stoop to such small creatures to offer them such great joys.

So, when I speak of “The Vulgarity of God”, I am referring to God’s lavish, unblushing, and almost excessive provisions of joy for the human being, especially as expressed in the created order (though not limited thereto).

Now that definitions are out of the way, next time we can get to the fun stuff. We’ll start by examining “The Vulgarity of God in Food and Drink”


  1. The Screwtape Letters, for those who are unfamiliar, is stylized as a series of letters written from an older and more experienced demon (Screwtape) to his nephew and apprentice (Wormwood) concerning “the patient”, a man who they are trying to ensure will end up in hell. 
  2. John Piper was the Pastor for Preaching and Vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, MN, where I attended church for roughly two years. He was so influenced by the work of C.S. Lewis that DesiringGod (Piper’s own ministry) put on a conference in honor of C.S. Lewis back in 2013 entitled, “The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis”. 
  3. A self-proclaimed Narnian and student of John Piper’s, Joe Rigney is an avid Lewis fan and is “convinced that he’s descended from King Lune of Archenland on his father’s side”. He is one of the pastors at Cities Church in Mineapolis, MN, where I attended for just under a year during my senior year of college. 

Concerning Qualifying Exams

Let’s just get this all out on the table. Yes, I’m staying in Iowa City for the summer and doing math the whole time, but to what purpose? Two words: Qualifying Exams. It seems that few people outside of academia understand what I mean by “Qualifying Exams” (or “quals” for short), so hopefully this entry will be a good reference point for what I’m to undergo and how it will be affecting my summer in Iowa City.

The first year: Pre-qualifying

When you enter graduate school in Math (at Iowa at least), your first year is kind of like a super-college rigmarole in which you’re taking classes that should be mostly review (but usually they aren’t) so that you can be brought up-to-speed on the mathematical foundations you’ll need to continue on in your program, start researching, get some results, write them down, and get a PhD in anywhere from 4 to 6 years. The best adjective I’ve used to describe this year is “whirlwind-ish” – at least that’s how it was for most of us. There’s five two-semester courses you could take in your first year:

  • Abstract Algebra,
  • Topology,
  • Analysis,
  • Differential Equations, and
  • Numerical Analysis.

Every graduate student in math, whether they’re pure or applied (I’ll make a post about pure math vs. applied later and then hyperlink it here) has to take three of these in their first year. Taking four at once is possible but not recommended. Five would be suicide. If you’re one of those “poor unfortunate souls” in the pure program, you usually take the first three in your first year and then take Differential Equations your second year. If you’re one of those impertinent folks the AMCS track, you usually take the bottom three your first year and then Topology your second year. If, however, you’re in the AMCS track (AMCS itself merits its own blog post) and your name is either Alex Bates or Rajinda Wickrama, you ended up taking Topology, Analysis, and Numerical Analysis your first year and then must take Differential Equations your second year.

This first year is, on the whole, not the most pleasant experience in the world. One of my colleagues wrote an excellent article on her experiences in her first semester of graduate school in math, much of which I would echo. I would not, however, say that things improved much for me during second semester, other than a greater emotional, mental, and spiritual stability gained mostly through having a daily routine and being a part of my church community. On the whole, things seemed to be a little tougher academically even though we had mostly transitioned to the pace of graduate life. And being a TA wasn’t getting any easier. (Being a TA also merits a post.)

Quals

But now, mercifully, I am writing from the other side. I finished my finals and am done with that first year. But now a darker and more ominous challenge lay on the horizon: the aforementioned Qualifying Exams. So what are quals, exactly? And, as the name suggests, what do they qualify you for?

In short, quals are exams that you as a graduate student must pass by the end of your second year to continue on in the program, pick an adviser, start researching, etc. They are offered every Fall and Spring, and usually students take the qualifying exams at the beginning of their second year (for me, August 2017) and in the three subjects that they studied during their first year of graduate school (for me, Topology, Analysis, and Numerical Analysis). There are three “grades” given for performance on the qualifying exams: PhD pass, Master’s pass, or fail. You need to get a “PhD pass” on the three that you take to qualify yourself to continue on in the PhD program. Since I’m in the PhD program, that’s my goal- pass all three at the PhD level. However, there’s a convenient exception if you take them all in August after your first year: it suffices then to PhD pass only two of them and Master’s pass the third.

Moving forward

So, this is essentially what I will be doing all summer: studying for the qualifying exams. At the time of this post’s writing, I have 79 days to go before my first qualifying exam, but it’s not as if I don’t know the material yet – I studied it all this past year. Nor will I be like one running aimlessly or like a boxer beating the air (1 Cor 9:26), but my TA’s from my courses this past year will be holding preparation classes for the qualifying exams during the summer. And the folks in AMCS have generously awarded me with a summer fellowship so I can singlemindedly pursue my studies without having to worry [too much] about money.

So that’s why I’m in Iowa City this summer. And that’s what I’ll be spending my time working on most hours of most days from now until August. But since Iowa City is (apparently) a wonderful place in the summertime, when I’m not indoors studying for 50+ hours a week, you’ll probably be able to catch me outside at the various farmers’ markets, movies on the Pentacrest, or random events I’ll do with folks from my church.

So if you’re someone who knows me personally, please cut me some grace if I ever seem frazzled this summer or “out of it”. If you’re a person of faith, I’d ask you to pray for me that I would do my work with God-glorifying diligence, competence, and creativity. If you’re someone in my program, feel total freedom to and by all means push me this summer to be a better mathematician; I will do my best to reciprocate such efforts. And if you’re not a mathematician, enjoy your summer of not having to do math!