For a mostly white congregation in the suburbs, we do a pretty good job celebrating Martin Luther King Day. It starts with a breakfast (we had fifty people this year) where we hear excerpts from King’s speeches and writings, and then a worship centered around issues of peace and social justice. Paul Nickerson, the Associate Conference Minister for Evangelism, Mission, and Justice Ministries for the Mass. Conference of the UCC, was our guest preacher. He used the texts of Abraham’s call and Jesus’ calling of the disciples to become “catchers of people” as a jumping off place for a great question:
What is God calling you to do that takes your breath away?
I’d never thought about it like that. Abraham stood under the night sky while God told him his descendants would outnumber the stars. Peter, James, and John walked away from perhaps they most profitable catch of their careers because their hearts had been captured by Jesus. They spent the rest of their lives following Jesus and trying to catch their breaths.
After church, a few of us went to see Freedom Writers, a movie based on Erin Gruwell and her experience teaching high school English in Long Beach, California. The film is well done and the story is both moving and inspiring. It also took me back to the seven years I spent teaching English in an urban high school. As different characters emerged in the movie, I heard myself saying the names of kids I saw in them. As I watched her work hard to make a relational connection with kids who had already learned from life to trust no one, I thought about some of the things I did and some of the breakthroughs I had with my students.
The problem for me was, even as I was having fun with the kids, the bureaucracy of the Boston Public Schools beat me up like a mugger in a back alley. At the same time, in ways I did not yet know how to recognize, my depression was beginning to beat me down. Then there was the grading, which I hated. Assigning grades often felt like a betrayal of the relationships I was trying to foster. Towards the end of my tenure, I used to describe how I felt by saying, “Every day while I’m in the building, part of me dies. I have from the time I leave until I go back again to resuscitate the part of me that died; the problem is I can never bring it all back to life.” After seven years in Boston and three in a suburban high school, I left teaching – even though I love working with students – because I didn’t know how to do it in a way that didn’t eat me up in the process.
As much as I love reading and writing with kids, the job didn’t take my breath away. It knocked the wind out of me. There’s a difference. And I left the movie this afternoon feeling a little guilty. The message of the movie is right: teaching is a noble calling; working with city kids is hard, meaningful, and rewarding work. On this January night in 2007, I can look back eight or ten years and see my depression had a lot to do with me leaving the classroom. I couldn’t help but think, “Maybe if I had been emotionally healthier I would still be teaching.”
Another way to look at it is to see my life in chapters. For a decade, I taught high school English. I loved those days: I did good work, I helped a lot of kids and learned a lot from them, and I wore myself out. For those years, I felt called to teach. Whatever might have been, I don’t feel called to do that now. I feel called to write and cook. If that sense of calling doesn’t take my breath away, then I have not given the Spirit room to capture my imagination with possibilities. When I let myself dream about how my cooking and writing can build relationships and touch lives – and when I take time to notice the ways they have already done so, leaving me as surprised as Peter with his nets – and I understand what Paul was talking about.
And I’m still uneasy. Maybe a little unrest should inhabit our souls on a daily basis, calling us to question and wonder, not so much about what might have been, but what is. When I moved to the suburban high school, I felt guilty for leaving my kids in the city and I found a whole bunch of other kids who needed just as much care for different reasons. Neither Charlestown High nor Winchester High have closed down since I left. I did important work and life goes on without me.
Part of God’s message to Abraham on that starlight night was he was just one of the stars. His descendants might outnumber all the little lights he saw, but he was only one light that would fade and be forgotten by a fairly substantial number of those descendants. God was saying, “Right now you don’t feel like you matter. Follow my lead and you will leave a trail like a comet.” Abraham only got to see only a small percentage of his progeny, but he trusted the gasp he heard himself make out in the dark.
I had good and meaningful years as a minister and as a teacher. Somehow I breathe easier now that I am not doing either one. Both are essential and important and I’m not called to either, at least for this chapter. I am a writer and a cook. I get a little lightheaded just thinking about the possibilities.