erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

Nobody expects anything miraculous or beautiful to come from a gas station. Aside from the way the candy is arranged and the different colored liquids that pour out of the soda machines, there isn’t much to leave a customer impressed. Barns aren’t much to look at either. A farmer might find an exceptionally built cow standing in the hay somewhat interesting. Maybe the occasional photographer will take a picture of an old barn against a sunset, but most people barely notice them. My school is much like that barn and gas station. It was built in the 70s. It’s a somewhat square, brick building surrounded by parking lots. People pass it every day on their way to work, and except to avoid hitting the kids crossing the road, nobody feels compelled to stop and stare. These are all ordinary places, but they are all settings God has chosen to give me a front row seat to see His beauty unveiled. I love that about Him.

Lately, I’ve been working on a chapter in my book about the settings of our lives, and it fascinates me that God continues to use ordinary, uncomfortable, and even messy settings of life to do some of His best work. When the very uncommon happens in common places, it stands out more.

It’s almost Christmas, which means, just like at our house, people are setting up little barns filled with little people and little animals on coffee tables and in front yards all around the world. When Jesus was born, God chose a barn built to house animals as the setting for His grand entrance. He stepped into our lives in a manger filled with the smells of fresh poop, sounds of mice scurrying through the hay and cows mooing as they chewed their cud. God chose a mess of a place to prove He really is Emmanuel, God with us. He chose the ordinary.

Fifteen years ago, my wife came running out of a gas station bathroom holding a stick in her hand. She was holding the evidence that, despite what doctors said, God was giving us a baby. I came out of the bathroom after her, and as I checked to make sure I closed the “barn door”, I saw her through the gas station windows. She was running around the pumps outside holding that stick up like Lady Liberty. God chose a very ordinary place to reveal one of the greatest miracles of our married life together.

Every day, I park my car on the East side of an old brick building, one that has now been torched by fire and ravished by a recent flood. It’s an ordinary place, and depending on who you ask, I go there to do an ordinary job, one that doesn’t pay a whole lot. Kids squeeze into desks in front of me to learn about Steinbeck and prepositional phrases under incandescent lights and a rattling air conditioner. It’s not a place that attracts crowds, and it’s certainly not a place anyone would go to find beauty, but that’s exactly the kind of setting God loves. Just like that barn and gas station, God likes to use my school, even my windowless classroom, as a place to show me things that leave me in absolute awestruck wonder.

It’s where God used a mouse to teach me to be brave. It’s where students rushed from their seats to hug a crying student who was willing, for a moment, to take off her mask,and it’s where a rough 7thperiod class overwhelmed a broken young man with love. My classroom is a place full of laughter and even tears; it’s a place full of glimpses into the hearts of kids and tiny glimpses of Heaven; it’s not the perfect setting, but it’s the canvas God likes to use.

Speaking of canvasses, you may have noticed the artwork on the pages of this blog post. This is the work of the students who fill my ordinary classroom every day. The assignment was to copy the style of a sentence from Lorraine Hansberry or John Steinbeck. They could write about whatever they wanted as long as they followed the same format as the sentence. When the background is created to match the content of the sentence, the result is often very impressive, even beautiful!

A few weeks ago, my school hosted a night for the community to come and see the work students have done in their classes. It’s a celebration of students who don’t often get celebrated. Most of them are not varsity football players or top tier socialites. To some, they might even be considered ordinary, but they’re not, and what they put on display that night proved it. There were physics presentations and engineering models. There were kids singing and reading poetry on open mics. And in glass cases, windows, and in some parts of the library, I put on display the beautifully decorated sentences of my students.

I watched as people walked by each sentence displayed on the canvasses and poster boards. They were whispering and pointing, lingering in the beauty as they sipped their lemonade. Parents and students walked up to me, desperate to talk about what they were seeing.

“The color in that one is incredible!”

“Did you read that sentence?!!”

I saw the wonder in their eyes. In a very ordinary place, they were awestruck by beauty. It’s those surprises that make Christmas and life so profound.

Who knows what ordinary or messy setting might bring the next glimpse of wonder? I know God does; He’s the author of it all, and I have a feeling that just like a kid about to open a Christmas gift, fidgety and bouncing with excitement, He can’t wait to unwrap your next glimpse of wonder. It might not be in a manger filled with hay, a greasy gas station, or a public school. Maybe it will be in an Uber car or in line at Starbucks, but if we keep our eyes and hearts open, we’ll see it. There is beauty in the ordinary. It’s in those places of our lives, the places we least expect, that we see the greatest evidence that God is near, and that’s definitely something worth celebrating. Merry Christmas!

Watch the slideshow to see more great work!