erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

There are days, especially recently, when I look at the roles I feel “called” to fill, and I’m overwhelmed. Parenting doesn’t get easier. I thought that once the poopy diapers and late nights were done, I’d be home free, but nope; it’s still hard. And teaching? Let’s just say that those areas of my life that I’d describe as “callings” aren’t exactly as easy as I thought they’d be.

Should a real calling feel this hard? Should I feel overwhelmed? Those questions almost kept me from teaching. In college, I’d dream about walking the aisles of desks as a teacher, and I’d get excited, but along with that dream came this nagging anxiety that wouldn’t go away.

I spent a year and a half observing high school teachers and taking education courses, but a classroom of desks filled with teenagers still terrified me. Every morning, I’d drive to Wheaton Warrenville South High School on my way to student-teach, and I imagined those kids wearing their tiger-orange letter jackets, ready to pounce and eat me alive.

That’s what drove me one morning to the Wheaton College Education Department. I was ready to hang up the dry erase marker and red pen before I even got the chance to use them. Sitting in a chair, waiting for a professor, I rehearsed my sad speech. Butterflies fluttered like bats through my stomach over a simple exit speech to one professor. How could I possibly speak every day in front of 5 classes of 30 high school students? There was no way. In the middle of my storm, a certain Professor Gallien saw me slumped over in a chair and asked if he could help. I walked into his office, dropping my heavy speech with my heart right there on his office floor. He listened, and when I was done unloading, I waited for the somber nod of agreement, but it never came. Instead, he leaned back in his chair and relaxed, as if to open a window to my stuffiness. Then came the smile and the words I’ll never forget: “Erin, if you came in here spouting off reasons why you’re going to be every students favorite teacher, I’d be concerned, but your anxiety means you know you can’t do it on your own.” He leaned forward, looking me right in the eyes. “And when you experience success with those kids, rather than thumping your chest, you’ll give God the credit.”

“That’s it?!” I asked. I was shocked. “You don’t think being anxious is a problem?” He wasn’t concerned at all. In fact, he suggested the struggle seemed to be almost, gulp, a confirmation that teaching was exactly where I needed to be. He didn’t even know me, but somewhere, past all the curtains of fear in my heart, I knew he was right.

Almost 30 years later, I’m still teaching. There’s no doubt God has been my help and put me where I’m meant to be. Creating a skit out of grammar rules, laughing with one of my students about his kazoo band, and offering hope to kids who feel like giving up all stir my heart and make me feel alive, but like everything else in my life, it still gets hard.

Last week, on my way to school, another song hit me with perfect timing.

Ginny Owens is blind, but she sings to God, “If all of these trials bring me closer to you, I will walk through the fire if you want me to.” Every time I hear that song, I get goose bumps. There’s something so powerful about a person who accepts difficulty, even welcomes it, all because she trusts the God who knows better. As I pulled into the same parking lot that I’ve pulled into for the last 16 years, the words of that song took on new meaning.

Sitting in my car, letting the song finish, I was facing another day of fighting to keep my online classroom from crashing while trying to inspire sleepy students with rhetorical devices and independent clauses. There are still days when I feel like that scared college student again, wondering if maybe this whole teaching thing is a little much. Ginny’s song, like that conversation with Dr. Gallien, proved the Author of my story could see me, but without the “fire”, I might not have seen Him.

A few days ago, the word “overwhelmed” jumped out from my Bible (Ezekiel 3:15) and a huge wave of relief washed over me. It’s a word Ezekiel used to describe how he felt after God called him to be a prophet. It felt like permission, like God was saying it’s okay to feel that way.

But here’s what’s even more beautiful. Right after Ezekiel describes himself as being overwhelmed, God tells him, “I have made you a watchman.” It’s in the overwhelming moments of our callings that we see ourselves the way God sees us. It’s when we’re wondering what to do with a WebEx screen full of teenagers or what to say to a daughter with tears in her eyes, that we begin to come to the end of ourselves and reach out for a God who wants to help. That’s when we see Him seeing us. Dr. Gallien was right. Maybe feeling overwhelmed with a calling isn’t so bad.

Last Sunday at church, my family and I were facing some hard questions. We carried heavy hearts to our seats as the worship band started to play. The whole family was standing when we sang, “Lord, I need you, oh, I need you. Every hour, I need you,” and then I noticed my wife wiping her eyes. Deb was crying. The calling we knew God had given us was too much to carry on our own, so we sang and cried together. I’m not a big fan of being overwhelmed, but I’m beginning to see the beauty in it. We can pretend like we have it all together, like we got this “call” handled, but until we come to the end of ourselves, until we’re willing to walk through the fire, we’ll miss our chance to experience the closeness and the help of the One who gave us the call in the first place.