I prayed a prayer so many years ago - that God would tell me what to do. Just tell me specifically what to do with my whole life. No big deal. Just give me the road map or a grand purpose or something. God sort of did that, but in true God fashion, it wasn't exactly what I wanted. Which, as it happens, is a very good thing.
I'd been meditating on a particular story - this guy wants to know about winning a battle and there's a sign from God. It's very specific. It has to do with the fate of a whole nation. You get the picture, right? So I asked God for my own little sign. And about that time I'd been talking on and off with these missionaries who'd taken a bunch of us to Costa Rica - something I was glad I'd done, but in hindsight . . . well, we'll talk mission work another day. And this missionary used to say that if you let God in, God would "wreck your life." Those were really his words. He said that God would come in and wreck your life. And that this was a good thing.
When I got my sign all those years ago (and I totally DID get a sign), I thought it meant mission work. I thought it meant, specifically, a pathway to seminary and then somehow a pathway overseas with some kind of permanence. I was ready for it.
And then life happened.
Glorious, messy, complicated life.
And I had to eat my words one by one as the story got rewritten. Over and over again.
I still eat my words on a regular basis (that probably made some of you who know me laugh).
If you know me, you know that I'm an elementary school music teacher. Plain and simple. The songwriting and the church music and all that other fun stuff comes in seasons, but elementary school music is always there. Among music education professionals, elementary school music is . . . . how do I say this nicely? It's seen as a few different things . . . . a "fun" job . . . an "easy" job . . . a "textbook" job . . . a job for music teachers who perhaps were failed performers or inadequate conductors.
On behalf of my fabulous colleagues working in elementary school music classrooms everywhere, allow me to set that straight - it's a very difficult, very serious job. It requires every ounce of my creativity most days, all of my enthusiasm, and in order to do my best work, I gave a few rigorous vocal and piano recitals, compiled a massive and well researched folk song collection, and pursued training on a number of North American folk instruments so that I would be the best I could be for my students. And please don't assume that I applied for high school jobs and didn't get them or that I got rejected from a doctoral program. Most good and competent elementary school music teachers have never applied for any of those positions and don't intend to pursue them as a means of promotion. They are not a promotion. That's not how this career path works. What I really want you to understand is this: teaching elementary school music is not a last resort for most of us. It's a first choice.
That's not my story alone. That's a story shared by so many elementary school music teachers, many of whom are doing very good work in such diverse ways. I am daily thankful that when I was sidetracked by the Holy Spirit during my undergraduate degree, I was sent on a Kodaly inspired wild goose chase that landed me in Chattanooga, where I found them - my people.
I'd always been looking for my people.
My people weren't in opera workshop, delightful as those late night rehearsals were.
My people weren't really in the piano studio - although both of my collegiate piano teachers had studios full of excellent human beings.
My people weren't really in the church music arena even though I will always have a deep love for that work and for the hymnal that gave me courage and a way to talk about my faith.
I have some good friends who are songwriters and composers . . . and I do those things, too, but those are my friends . . . not really my people.
My people are music teachers from all over the place meeting together 3 weeks out of every summer trying to figure out the healthiest way to get children a practical start.
And I would love for you, reader, to think about that for a minute - my colleagues and I are teaching young children to sight sing - young children who don't have families that can afford to give them piano lessons. Many of my students have never had a parent or loved one sing a lullaby to them when they walk through my door in their Kindergarten year. But when they're in my class, I can sing to them and teach them games that exalt their rightful experience of childhood. Many of my students have never heard or seen classical music in an authentic context - that is, until we begin sight singing melodic content from great orchestral literature . . . or until Arts Build sends them on a FREE trip downtown to hear a real orchestra and sit in a real concert hall during school hours.
Jesus wanted little children to be unafraid around Him. The folks who were learning from Jesus and living with Jesus on the road were so uncomfortable with this allowance. The cultural context they knew didn't have a whole lot of room for children. And ours doesn't either (in a completely different way, though). So Jesus just brushed past those grown ups. He spoke right over their complaints. He flew right in the face of the social norm. He forced people to see them - whoever was unseen.
This morning during church I had to have a time of confession before God.
I hope you do that sometimes. It's good for your body and your soul. It will lift the pressure off your chest. It will give you strength and courage to face up to natural consequences and difficult realities in your life. It will free you of lots of things.
I'll tell you what I confessed to God.
I'm sorry that I've been spinning my wheels over this whole songwriting success thing. I'm sorry I've gone looking so many places for human confirmation. I'm sorry that I've revisited those fears about measuring up to old classmates or my music never making it to the radio. I'm sorry that I've taken to heart every musical rejection. Every musical failure. And that I've allowed those things to dwell in my heart, where your sanctuary should be. I'm sorry that I've desired recognition more than I've desired to do what is right.
Give me a new heart, God. Make my spirit right. Set me on the path to life again. Help me do what's useful and practical. Show me where the mission field is again. I need your help. I always need your help. I need your grace. I always need your grace.
You guys - I'm not kidding when I say that the answer from God was spoken into my head not two seconds after that. It rushed in and I was immediately on my knees. It's been a long, long time since such a recognizable answer has blasted right into my heart. I'm not talking about an impression. I'm talking about words. Beautiful words.
Here they are.
You've read about children in your study of the Bible for weeks now. That's not an accident. You live where you live and that's not an accident. You've met who you've met . . . and when you have paid attention you've seen that none of this is an accident. Remember what Mark Hogg told you about me - I am the green thing growing from the wreckage of busted human ambition. Little children belong to me. Pay attention to them. Stage lights and fame have nothing to do with me. Don't worship what you've built or what other people have built. If you want to be feet walking on a mission field, then go back to school and sing with your students. If you want to write music that does My work, share it with the people I've actually placed in your life. Be thankful. Pay attention. Stay close to the ground you're walking on - be humble. And I'm there with you. What can you do for teachers? What can you do for students? What can you do for other people writing my words and my music? You know what I've said about servant people. You know what your job is.
I'm serious, y'all. I paraphrased for you - but that's the conversation I had this morning. An answer. And my confession that I shared with you above is really what I did need to confess. I'm blind the way so many people are blind. I go through seasons of wanting other people to congratulate me on my success. It's not mine.
The thing that is mine . . . is the gift that God gave to me when I was born a living thing. God didn't owe me existence, but here I am. Every day since then has been grace. Every day from now on will be grace.
I know again that I need to take my grace back into the classroom on Tuesday morning. I need to take this grace into conversations with children and the other adults who care for them. I need to take this grace into my heart as I'm writing so that ambition isn't my aim . . . so that it's still easy for me to blow all the sand away and begin whatever new painting God's asking for that day.
What will you do with your grace? If you're reading this, you have grace to be the feet walking across a mission field - a family, a job, people you have the power to love.