This was no ordinary first week at school.
I was trying to explain that to the lovely nuns I work with. I knew they would get it. This return to school was a significant landmark on the Road for me.
It meant that the call of God on my life and His goodness were as real as I suspected they were all along.
This isn’t supposed to be news, but for three years, I have felt stranded in a sort of interim—stuck in the now and not-yet—the way that we are between the first and second coming of Jesus.
I saw /heard God the first time 3 or 4 years ago. Then radio silence.
I left my last job at Montverde, 3 years ago, with a new set of permanent markings: the work of “Teacher” was tattooed to the rest of my days. Stumbling into teaching for lack of something else to do, I acquired this ink over time. I had seen the face of Christ in my students, and I had discovered a special capacity to see the face of Christ in students.
Then I set out, marked by God, to California. Believing He sent me, and believing that I had received my task to teach, I arrived looking to do just that.
But the road led me through a desert of discouragement and heartbreak. Far from a classroom, not knowing how to get one again (in a state with complicated credentialing procedures), I did whatever work came my way.
You see, “receiving” your vocation from God makes things both harder and easier.
This is easy because the process of self-definition many of us encounter in our work is done for me. When we receive our vocation from God, we can say with authority, “I was made to do THIS.” And when we are doing it we know it—we witness a kind of transfiguration and we see that we are children of God. It’s easy to know who we are.
But if we define ourselves in response to what we receive, then whatever we receive and how we respond to it seems to have the power to define who we are. This is bad news for those of us who confuse “profession” for holy vocation—a paycheck confused for work as a kind of prayer.
When what we receive doesn’t match what we thought we knew, not only do we wonder what to do professionally, but we wonder who we are.
Am I a teacher? Am I a minister? Am I a file clerk?
I spent three years in a profession whose actual work—file management—was not very meaningful to me. I was spoiled by teaching—where work is meaning and meaning is work—and it was hard for me to feel like what I did mattered. Oh, there was meaning in that job, but it was in the place and the people, not the actual work.
I started to wonder, “Is this all there is? Is this, file management and database reporting, what you brought me here to do? I found meaningful work in my ministry, but as I struggled for resources and to find the help I needed, as it went unacknowledged, as I got really tired, I wondered, is this all there is?
Many days I thought, “I left my life’s work for this??”
I default to the desert Hebrews, “Lord! Did you bring me out here to die?”
Remembering how I felt in a season is different from remembering how it actually was. Yes, I was weary and thirsty. Yes, the path was dry and dusty. The grime from it covered the marks of vocation that that once shone clear on my skin. Feeling lost, frustrated, and discouraged, I was far from “home.”
But I was still here, in Marin.
When I drove here from Florida, I was most afraid of the desolation of West Texas. I dreaded that day-and-a-half most on our route.
But that was because NO ONE PREPARED ME for the burning abyss that is between Phoenix and Los Angeles in August.
I spent THAT day terrified that the road was so hot, my tires would explode, and we’d either lose control of the car and crash and burst into flames, or we’d only lose one tire and not be able to drive and no one would come along for days and we’d just miserably die of heat and dehydration in the barren wasteland. That was a desert.
So even I know, “desert,” here, in this story, is a stretch. If I’m honest, I’ll say that the three years on that road was more like walking in those golden California hills in the summer—which are lovely and safe, but still hot and scratchy and dusty in the afternoon—the hills that green up for 4-5 months of the year and dazzle us with their evening splendor in the sunset. And I walked them for a long time.
I say Desert, but the landscape was Marin. And at any point, the landscape itself reminded me that God was with me. The beautiful, fruitful work in ministry I was able to do were some of the greener months. Moments of love and celebration were as common as those vibrant sunsets. Recalling Western Arizona, I want to acknowledge the kind of desert where the landscape can’t do that. Especially to be fair to those real deserts and the people walking through them.
But it was still enough to wonder whether I had actually heard God when I took the marks of a teacher. If I’m a teacher, then what am I doing here?
Maybe I had heard God wrong. And if I had heard God wrong, then maybe I can’t hear Him at all. Maybe none of this is real. I understand people say God is good, and I understand all things are possible with Him, but I just don’t think He’ll do that for me. He isn’t doing that for me. He might not ever. Maybe He is training me with difficulty, but just maybe He is the kind of God who abandons His children after all.
This is the place where the desert overtakes a lush landscape.
But when I went to school on Monday—when we took our faculty spiritual retreat with Mass in the redwoods—the landscape was so different I had to take a new survey.
As I looked around, I saw this is the goodness of God.
These redwoods are the goodness of God. These new co-workers are the goodness of God.
This school bears the marks of the goodness of God.
The new Dominican Sisters I met just shine the goodness of God.
My return to the classroom—work that I recognize as mine—is the goodness of God.
Confirmation that I heard Him after all, confirmation that He spoke to me in the first place—all this is the goodness of God. It’s the Second Coming.
On the first day of New Teacher training, the school president read from Isaiah 43 to express his excitement about the newness of the school year, but it ran deeper than that for me. I know that passage well.
“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”
This week, in grace and various mercies, I watched the goodness of God stream through each day.
And I’ll be watching for those streams to widen to rivers, and for those rivers to flood the plain.
Because ankle-deep, knee-deep—drowning—in the goodness of God is where the landscape changes.
Wading in the goodness of God, it’s different when you ask yourself the question, “What am I here to do?”
We get a deeper answer. We are here to love God and glorify Him forever.
Am I here to teach? Am I here to minister?
I’m up to my neck in both.