Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Desires of My Heart

The stack of untold stories in my brain is getting so tall it's about to topple, but as always, I only have time for one. So I'm going to share the story that is burning in my heart....

My pastor has a saying that kind of makes me shiver: "All of us are always in one of three phases. We're either in the middle of a trial, coming out of a trial, or about to go back into a trial."

When I was in the middle of my very painful divorce, that saying brought me comfort. I knew the trial had to come to an end eventually. And I knew that I was learning valuable lessons in trusting God that couldn't be learned any other way.

But now that life seems sweeter than ever before, I've started to wonder about the next trial. What will it be? How long can this calm last? What if my life is torn in two again?

At the same time, I've felt wistful about the amazing closeness I developed with God during the worst of my trials. When life is going smoothly, it's a sad fact that I get busy and distracted, and sometimes I forget to commune with my Beloved. Oh, He's always there, and I talk to Him, but somehow it's not quite as sweet as all those times when I cried my heart out with Him in my prayer closet.

That doesn't mean God isn't working on me. Oh no. Over the last few weeks, He's been doing something utterly miraculous in my heart. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Best start at the beginning.

Way back in 2012, when I was telling you about Allyson's Kindergarten graduation, I mentioned in passing that I'd been feeling a tug in my heart to return to teaching. I was so moved by Mrs. C's love for her students, and it reminded me of the ideals that had led me into teaching middle school when I was a girl of 23. I quickly shrugged that off, though, because it also reminded me of what a miserable failure I had been.

What was I thinking, wearing those dogs?
Can you believe I'm showing you this? 

My last homeroom class. Can you spot me?
I looked like a student myself!

Broken Dream
I had such high hopes when I started teaching seventh-grade English and Reading in an inner-city school. I was going to share my love of literature and teach them to share their inmost thoughts and dreams in their writing. I was going to love them with all my heart and maybe impact some of their lives forever.

Oh, the reality was harsh. I couldn't get those kids to read, let alone write. I couldn't even fathom their loathing for literature, let alone overcome it. And nothing could have prepared me for the discipline problems that are inevitable when you put 30 plus pubescents in a room with a girl who has no parenting experience.

Although there were shining moments when I thought it might just be worth it all, for the most part I  felt like an absolute failure. Still, this was my dream, my calling. I was determined to stick it out... until baby Ethan came along. The only thing harder than managing 150 students over the course of five class periods is doing it on very little sleep. I found that I could no longer keep up with all the work I'd been accustomed to bringing home with me--grading 150 essays, planning the next week's lessons, and calling parents. There was just no way to do that and take care of a newborn.

I was so desperate to get out that I somehow managed to complete a correspondence course on medical transcription. I found a job quickly and ended up leaving after the fall semester, just three and a half years into my fledgling teaching career.

My relief mostly outweighed my regret, but I definitely felt a deep sense of loss over my failed dream. Since then, I've had a passionate admiration and appreciation for teachers. I'm grateful that some people have what it takes to do what must be the hardest job in the world.

But nothing could have made me step back into a classroom again. Do you know, after 17 years out of the classroom, I still have the occasional teaching nightmare? If you're a teacher, I'm sure you'll recognize it: It's Monday morning, and I forgot to do my lesson plans. I have no idea how to occupy these teenagers who are bouncing off the walls. And here comes the principal to do my evaluation.

Called... Again
So when I felt God tugging my heart back in 2012, my initial response was... NO. Maybe I didn't word it quite that way, but I certainly refused to consider it.

It happened when I drove past Ethan's high school on the way to church one evening, saying a fervent prayer for the teachers there, as I frequently did. I prayed for their strength, wisdom, and encouragement. I prayed that they would be a light in the darkness, and that God would fill their hearts with love for their students.

I distinctly heard a still, small voice that literally interrupted my prayer. "You could be a teacher again."

I shook my head in the empty car. No, I could never do that! I'd been a total failure as a teacher. I went back to my prayers for those other saintly teachers.

But the subject was not closed. That evening, I went to a dinner to hear an African minister speak about the orphanage he and his wife had founded in Uganda, called God Cares School. Our church had been supporting this ministry, and we were sponsoring one of the children.

I can't even put into words the impact this passionate Christ follower made on me that evening, and in the other times I've seen him since then. He told how God had led him and his wife to take in one orphan, and then another, and another. The orphanage school started in their church basement, but it very quickly outgrew that space. Pastor Dongo's dark face positively glowed as he described how they had to rely on God to meet seemingly insurmountable needs. Even though they had very little money, they just couldn't turn away any child in need. "I knew that my God would take care of it," Dongo recalled.

Bethuel and Florence Dongo

Oh, how God rewarded that bold faith. In 13 years, with the support of churches across the globe, they have built multiple buildings and are now housing and educating over 1500 students from primary school to high school. I've seen perhaps hundreds of pictures of those children, and the joy of God so evident in their smiling faces never fails to move me to tears.

I had the privilege to shake Dongo's hand after that meeting, and I can only describe that contact as electric. I've never felt such anointing before. He looked in my eyes and saw me, and he loved me. In that moment, he made me believe that my God could take care of anything.

On the drive home, I thought about Pastor Dongo's joy in bringing hope and a future to so many children. Again, I felt that little voice telling me I could do that. I could love children in a public school classroom again.

But I pushed the thought down.

The seed of a desire persisted, and I started thinking it might not be such a bad thing to return to the classroom in my retirement, once I was old and wise and patient. Yes, that's what I would do. I'd keep my cushy job for another decade or two, and then I might consider teaching again. Maybe.

But God wouldn't leave me alone. After a few weeks, my resistance began to wear thin. I'd been feeling dissatisfied with my spiritual walk, and I felt called to fast and pray about God's direction for my life.

I very rarely fast, but when I do, it's so powerful. There's something about denying what my flesh wants and pressing closer to God. Somehow the physical hunger eclipses the other distractions, and those hunger pains remind me of my hunger for God.

On my knees in my prayer closet one June morning, I gave everything over to God. "Okay," I said. "If you want me to teach, I'll teach. Not my will, but your will. But you will have to make a way. I would have to go back to college! I would have to take a pay cut. I don't think Bill would understand.

"But I am yours, God. I promise that if you open the door, I will do what you call me to do."

My prayer wasn't only about my career. In that time of fasting, I felt a tearing away of my will. I knew that I was His, and I let Him have all of me. I could feel something big coming.

Just a week or so later, my marriage--and my world--fell apart. I could feel somehow that this was not a coincidence. I had given my life to God, and He was taking me somewhere I needed to go. I'm not implying that God caused the problems in my marriage; fractures had been growing under the surface that we'd ignored for years. But God definitely used those terrible times to help me grow.

Now it seemed utterly impossible that I should return to teaching. My budget was tight and my schedule was tighter. And I was worn out all the time from the never-ending chores and errands of a single mom.

I still believed that I would teach again, far in the future. I knew God had called me, and that He had a plan. I laughed over the idea that maybe He would send me a rich husband so I could quit work and go back to school and have help with all the housework that saps my energy.

But that's not what God did. No, that would be way too obvious.

What He did was speak to me through a Bible study, just as He has done so many times before. It was Priscilla Shirer's Armor of God, which I cannot recommend highly enough.

In the video on the shield of faith, Priscilla reminded us that faith without works is dead. She asked, "What has God called you to that you've been afraid to do?"

I thought first of my novel. Nope. I've already taken the plunge and put it out there on the Internet for all to see.

"What's that thing that seems absolutely crazy?" she asked. "What is the thing that would force you to completely rely on God?"

Teaching, I thought. But I shrugged that thought off. Teaching was something I would do when I retired from my real job. What else do you want me to do, God? 

Around that same time, our beloved Pastor Dongo passed away from cancer. I grieved with 1500 African children and with churches all across the country. I thought of all the lives he had touched, all around the world, and I felt very small.

At church, we watched a slide show celebrating his life. In literally every photo, he wore the same wide grin that I remembered seeing in person. He absolutely overflowed with joy because he was doing what God had called him to do. I heard again his favorite sayings: "Don't worry, Daddy's got this.... I know my God can do it."

Tears streamed down my cheeks as I saw the children he had loved so well. They were tears for this dear man and his gigantic family, but they were also tears for me. I wondered what difference my  own life has made, and whether anyone's life is richer because of me.

On the way home from church, I prayed silently. "I want to make a difference like he did." I heard God's answer very plainly. "Dongo was available."

"I can be available," I answered.

A moment later, when I shared my sadness and dissatisfaction with Allyson, she told me what she had learned in Sunday School that morning. "You can't look at what other people do for God and want to be someone else. God has given you something to do right where you are, something only you can do."

"You're right," I said. "If I make myself available to God, He will lead me into His plans for my life."

For the second time in three years, I began to pray seriously about returning to teaching. I asked God to help me hear His voice and to help me obey with a willing heart.

The change in my heart was... miraculous. Within a few days, I went from trembling surrender to wholehearted delight and anticipation. I was so excited, I had a hard time falling asleep at night! I realized something beautiful, something I'd known and then forgotten. When God gives us the desires of our hearts, it's not always that He gives us the object of our desires. No, He gives us the desires themselves, and then He fulfills them.

Although I've continued to have doubts and fears, God answers them all.

The first obstacle to come down was my financial concerns. You may remember a dream I shared of teaching English at the God Cares School one day, after my kids are grown. God reminded me of how ready I'd felt to give up all of my worldly possessions, and perhaps even live in a dorm. When I gave myself over to that dream--which is still my dream--I realized that none of my stuff matters. I'd be more free without it.

So why, God asked, would I hesitate to give up just a few of my luxuries now, when there is a mission field here in my own city? As my brother Rick told me last spring, there are plenty of people right in my neighborhood who need God's love. Kids in Africa aren't the only ones who need love and encouragement.

The bigger obstacle is my fear, my learned helplessness. Priscilla's chapter on the helmet of salvation helped me with that. She vividly outlined the benefits package that comes with my lavish inheritance as a daughter of the king. "You do not need bigger faith," she said. "You just need to realize how big your God is." She admonished us never to forget our inheritance, "because if we do, we'll likely live a lifestyle well below our actual means. We'll live within the meager restraints of our earthly resources instead of cashing in on the wealth of our Father."

Can you wrap your mind around this? How crazy is it that we often live above our financial means and yet so far below our spiritual means? Our God can do anything! And we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength (Philippians 4:13).

I'm only beginning to realize who I am in Christ, and I've never been so excited. How can I think myself incapable when I am God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works which He planned in advance for me to do (Ephesians 2:10)?

The two things I do best, and that I am most passionate about, are teaching and writing. I also greatly enjoy mentoring teenagers, whether they are nieces and nephews or neighbors. What better way to use these gifts than to be a teacher?

Allyson has encouraged me, too. Snuggled up in bed last Friday, she said, "Mommy, you know when you're a teacher that you'll have lots of friends. The other teachers will help you and support you, and maybe some of them will pray with you."

"Oh, you're right, Baby!" I said, squeezing her hand. "When I talked to Mrs. O [her first grade teacher, who has become a dear friend], she told me that the majority of new teachers quit within five years if they don't have a mentor. I didn't have one before, but I know God will send me a mentor to help me. He wouldn't call me to do this without providing the support I need."

I Love Them Already
The other morning when I was walking in the park, I grinned as I talked with God. "I can see myself in the classroom, doing what you've called me to do," I said. Tears gathered in my eyes. "I know that you have picked out these kids especially for me... and that you've picked me out for them." Though I couldn't picture the children, I loved them. And I loved God for putting this crazy desire in my heart.

I'm starting by talking to a few teachers. One of them pointed me to an organization that helps teachers get alternative certification. I won't need that if I return to English, but I'm actually considering math. There's a shortage of math teachers, so finding a job would be easy. I really love tutoring people in math, and I believe I'm pretty good at it.

I think I'm going to follow Mrs. O's advice and get certified to teach both. I will just go wherever God leads me. In a year, or maybe two, I will be in a classroom surrounded by kids that I will grow to love. It will be the hardest job I can imagine, but my God is big enough to help me through it.

In fact, He is already helping me through it. Last week I had another teaching nightmare, a remarkably lucid one. I couldn't get my students to pay attention, and I was on the verge of tears. This is why I was afraid to come back, I thought. The answer came immediately. Yes, I knew this would be hard. That's why I need Jesus. In my sleep, I prayed for peace and strength, and my Father calmed me.

In a way, I feel that I am stepping back into a trial--voluntarily. I believe that putting myself in a position where I'll have to rely on God every single day will open the door for Him to amaze me with His grace and goodness. He has always been faithful, and He always will be.

What an adventure we will have together!

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