Growing up in rural northwest Pennsylvania, I was exposed to a strong work ethic. For most of my childhood my father had axle grease permanently pressed into the creases of his fingerprints and most folks I knew needed Lava soap to wash off a day’s wage. I’m deeply grateful for the satisfaction that was reflected in the faces of these industrious friends and family. However, even though my community taught me much about the dignity of hard work, my idea of participating in “God’s work” was limited to missionaries, pastors, doctors, mothers and teachers.
So as an earnest young believer, I went off to college to pursue a degree in elementary education. I was bursting with creativity and desire to be a part of meaningful work and to do it well. When I began my student teaching in a Florida public school, it was a baptism by fire. I transformed my 3rd grade portable into a floor to ceiling rainforest experience. I constructed a waterfall that descended from a bookshelf using a kiddy pool and a fountain pump. Paper trees and branches canopied the ceiling and a CD of rainforest birds played quietly in the background as our class hosted a guided tour to the entire 3rd grade. However, my creative efforts were quickly overshadowed by the frustration and heart breaking realities that my students and coworkers were facing. I had a student who was repeatedly restrained because he threw desks and books. Another student confided in me that a neighbor had sexually assaulted her. Yet another wrote in his journal that a shadow had followed him to school that day. All this while my supervising teacher was “checked out” leaving me to figure things out on my own. I prayed over desks and made every effort to do my best, but I was incredibly discouraged and wasn’t sure I had what I needed to continue in the field of education. More plainly said, I wasn’t sure where God was in this work.
Shortly thereafter, when I moved to Nashville, teaching degree in hand, my heart lacked the motivation to get back into the classroom. So when I became engaged and had the opportunity to travel with my husband’s band, I took it.
Over the past seventeen years, I have been exposed to a broader theology of vocation which revealed my understanding of faith and work had room to grow. For a decade we sat under the teaching of Scotty Smith at Christ Community Church where I received the invitation to live in the full inheritance of Christ’s work on the Cross. I have pondered with vivid imagination, a God who created and worked in a garden, thereby giving dignity to work. He then invited me to press the dust into the creases on my fingerprints, not just to work for the sake of work but to partner with Him—deeming all work an act of worship. I have considered over the years the larger story being told from Genesis to Revelation, and have begun to see my work as a “pushing back the effects of the Fall,” anchoring my hope to His work which began in a Garden and leads me to a great City. When I think back on my early twenties, I see a young woman trying so hard to make a difference, wanting to do good work for God. What I have found is a God who cares about me, cares about my work and invites me into a redemptive work that is ultimately His to accomplish.
It was not until this year, nearly two decades later, that I stepped back into the halls of a school. My family is part of a new neighborhood church that meets in the elementary school where my eldest son began kindergarten this August. With the return to this environment, old feelings are rising to the surface. One of the questions on my son’s school registration form asked: “Is there a restraining order filed for a biological parent of your child?” My first thought was, “Oh my, there’s a lot for administrators to keep track of in a school of 800 students.” Then I signed up to volunteer in the lunchroom during the first week of school. I had no idea that helping twenty kids open their milk cartons and NASA sealed lunch-a-thingies would be such frantic work. During that thirty minute lunch period one student ran out of the cafeteria three times while another child told me that her mom forgot to pack her a lunch. My heart ping-ponged between panic and sadness, as I tried to keep an eye on the escape artist and the potentially neglected daughter. When my son’s teacher returned to pick up her class, I nearly kissed her feet. All those feelings from so long ago came rushing back to me: I was overwhelmed by this impossible task of caring for these children well.
Of course, in God’s timing, that Sunday I found myself standing in that same cafeteria in front of my small neighborhood congregation leading us in a corporate prayer for those in the field of education. For over a year and a half, my pastor and several other lay people like myself have reflected on how to incorporate the work that is done 40+ hours of the week into our worship service. In the end it was rather simple. I asked those who work in the field of education to raise their hands, then a couple of people within our congregation prayed aloud for the work to be done in this coming school year. We prayed for as many areas of work as we could think of: administrators, support staff, School Boards, the PTA and, of course, teachers. Interestingly we also prayed a prayer of repentance, asking God and those in this work to forgive us, their community, for placing the expectation of “a good education and therefore the promise of my child’s future” on the backs of our teachers and administrators. It was a healing time for all of us.
I offer my story because, in my opinion, it is quite common. Regardless of exactly what you do, we all need to be reminded and encouraged that what we do throughout the week matters to God. Interwoven in the story is a longing to do good work and do it well, and even more so to do it with someone.
As the school year begins perhaps you may be led to pray for those in the work of education. Perhaps you may be led to consider how you see yourself partnering with God in your daily chores or executive decisions. My hope and prayer for each of us is that we slow the pace, talk to God and listen; for this is prayer, this is discernment and intimacy with God.
Creator God, You have spoken order into chaos and thus we ask you to bring your presence into the administrative work of our school systems. May your glory and Light be made known there as it was in the darkness.
Father, you have given us your son as a Servant Teacher, as one who has come to serve, not to be served. Lavish your goodness on those who direct a classroom of students. May they not be abandoned but know your mercy and wisdom by a loving community and supportive administration.
Father, you draw near to the broken hearted and promise that the last shall be first. Make holy the tears of your people as we grieve the many wounds and worries represented by each child’s face. Comfort and strengthen the counselors and supportive staff as they nurture and tend to so many broken homes.
Father, forgive us when we place our idols and unfair expectations on the backs of our teachers and principals. Grant us the faith we need to put our hope in your promises rather than what the world has to offer.
After you worked, you deemed it good to rest. May we follow you as you lead your children beside still waters. Prompt us to slow down and listen to your whisper. Draw our eyes toward your eternal wonders both those we can see now and those yet to come.
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:1-5)
Kristen Odmark lives in Nashville, TN with her husband, Matt Odmark, and their three young boys. Kristen finds that her work as a Spiritual Director and Mother are often drawing from the same source, which is why she spends much of her life on vocational and spiritual discernment.
As Kristin stood before the Midtown Fellowship congregation in Nashville, meeting in an elementary school cafeteria, and spoke of praying as a community for people in different vocations, the words were familiar as they echoed conversations my husband and I had shared. They were conversations about weaving faith and vocation together, about seeing your work as your calling. But the prayer that followed, voiced by Kristin and others in attendance, struck a place deep inside me. As a former teacher, there were days when my simple prayer was for survival. Occasionally, on a really good day, I would see my work as truly touching lives, but that was an exception. So the prayers for the hearts of teachers, administrators and guidance counselors, those who are on the front lines, reminded me of what a high calling it is. As the words, softly spoken, echoed through the room, praying for the parents and teachers as we battle for the hearts of our children, “fighting against the effects of the Fall,” I could feel the community jointly sharing the weight of that burden, trusting God together in the war. We know that teachers today do so much more than teach reading, writing and arithmetic. They wipe tears, tie shoes and share their lunch with the child that forgot his. They teach kindness, respect and peace making along with handwriting and long division. They are experts at time and crisis management. They work long days, long nights, and spend their “summers off” working on professional development. Some work part time jobs to make ends meet and earn extra money, much of which is spent on supplies for their classroom. Many days they feel over worked and under appreciated. Such was not the case that on day, as the body of Christ lifted them up on the shoulders of the saints to the cheers of angels. We were reminded to pray for them without ceasing, because the job they do for our youth never does.
Laura Lankford lives in Birmingham, AL with her family (one husband and some combination of their three children). She is currently a Project Director for The Parnassus Group and has invested much of her life as teacher and culture leader within her children’s various schools. She sees so much of Christ’s call playing out in the midst of a school community and has an ever-deepening respect for those leaders that pour themselves into the creation of lifetime learners.