erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

Marilyn held Dan’s hand. Her best friend for nearly 60 years was saying goodbye. His breathing was weak. There were no more tubes or beeping monitors, but as the morning sun broke through the hospice curtains, every now and then, he worked up the energy to crack a joke. He smiled, looking for smiles from the people circled around his bed. It was hard. Like the last moments before stepping onto the train, Dan knew his time was short, so in between jokes, he sang with them. It was worship really, songs they sang with tears to the One reaching out to take him home.

Then Dan looked toward the ceiling, his voice filled with joy. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” he said, a smile lighting up his face. “I wish Marilyn was here to see this.” It seemed funny he would say that with Marilyn sitting right there, but when he whispered, “This is the best day of my life!” everyone knew. This wasn’t funny; it was sacred. He wasn’t talking to the people in the room anymore. He could finally see home. Maybe he saw a crowd of familiar faces, applauding and welcoming him. Maybe he saw Jesus smiling with open arms. The foggy glass of this world was suddenly gone (1 Corinthians 13:12), and Dan could see the other side in crystal clear high definition.

Deb and I heard about Dan’s “homecoming” at his funeral on Sunday. We lingered with Marilyn and some old friends, and when we got home, we prepared to meet our students. It was strange to go from conversations about Heaven to lesson planning on Schoology. Those two worlds seemed miles apart, and the foggy glass of this world felt extra foggy as the first week of school got underway. There were online platforms breaking down and hackers breaking in. Teachers were scared and administrators did their best to put out fires. It was hard, but it was also the week my students and I talked about pennies.

In her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard uses pennies as her symbol of the little things in life that should be celebrated instead of ignored. I asked students for some pennies in their lives, and they came pouring into the chat box—a smile, water, sleep, a sunrise. Then I saw Sami raising her hand in the little square on the screen. “Go ahead Sami,” I said.

“What does Dillard mean when she writes, ‘The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand?’” Her question surprised me. Not many students are gutsy enough to ask questions about the text, especially during the first week of school.

“I think that ‘generous hand’ is God’s,” I said. “Dillard believes God puts those pennies out there for us to find.” Sami nodded, and we moved on.

Kay, a co-teacher, was sitting across from me during one of those penny discussions, offering help to struggling kids. Still in a neck brace, she was trying to stay positive. Once everyone was writing a journal, I turned on the timer. We muted our mics, and her eyes lit up. She wanted to tell me something.

“This lesson reminds me of a podcast I just heard. There was this guy who experienced a rags to riches kind of thing.” She was talking quickly, trying to get it all in before the timer was done. “When he was at his lowest, he picked up a penny and read the words, ‘In God we trust.’ That one moment changed his perspective.” She smiled and paused, trying to figure out how to best word what was coming next.

“The beginning of this year has been rough with my neck and teaching online, but on probably the hardest day of this week, I was walking out to the parking lot and found a penny.” We smiled at each other, and I could see tears forming in her eyes. “Erin, after hearing that podcast and finding the penny, I knew God was there.”

Hearing her story got my attention. The “generous hand” is real; it’s not just some nice idea Dillard came up with to sound poetic, and in the midst of our little online storm, Kay was getting a penny right when she needed it.

There were more pennies. Wednesday morning before school, a handful of teachers walked into room 212, screeched desks across the tile floor and dropped tired bodies into seats. I read David’s words to Solomon, “Do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD God, my God, is with you” (1 Chronicles 28:20). We let that truth sink in deep, and then we prayed. Nobody was pretending. We were in a foxhole together, and the prayers were real. Betty thanked God for waking her in the night with memories of when she was a child. “This has been hard for me, Lord,” she prayed, “but thank you for showing me that teaching online can be like learning to play kickball as a little girl.” Heads were nodding, and then Dave prayed. “Father, you know what I’ve been facing this week.” He paused; his words were coming with emotion. “So you gave me the perfect song on my way to school and changed my perspective. Thank you!”

Looking back on a week I’d been dreading all summer, I can see pennies littered beautifully all over it. There’s a “generous hand” sprinkling them on every page of our stories. It’s the same hand that connected a lesson about pennies with a podcast for Kay. The one that gave me a cardinal, Dave a song and Betty a childhood memory. If we prayerfully look, we’ll notice the pennies, but it’s hard. That’s why Dan couldn’t stop saying “Thank you.” It was the best day of his life because, as Marilyn held his hand, there was no more foggy glass. There’s so much to see beyond that glass, and until that day when we see it all with perfect clarity, there’s a God who can help. Like little clues on a trail, He leaves His pennies to lead us home, and each one unveils the beautiful truth that although Heaven may feel far away from this crazy world in which we live, Jesus is right here.