Teaching and Discipleship: Work of Faith, Labor of Love, and Endurance in Hope

teach-for-americaI was recently asked to facilitate a retreat for a local Catholic high school’s faculty. Honored and humbled by the request, I began brainstorming potential themes that would inspire and refocus them as they begin a new year as a school community. After flipping through a several books and playing (and praying) with a few scriptural images, I turned to the Lectionary to see if the readings of the day offered any helpful insights. The first reading on Monday August 26, the day of the retreat, just so happened to offer a perfectly fitting passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians:

“We give thanks to God always for all of you, remembering you in our prayers, unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ, before God and Father, knowing, brothers and sisters loved by God, how you were chosen…”

For those of us who are teachers and/or have witnessed exceptional teaching, we know that it is certainly a work of faith, a labor of love, and requires much endurance in hope. For many teachers and students, the Tuesday following Labor Day marks the official end of summer and the beginning of a new school year. Therefore, in honor of all teachers entering a new academic year, I offer a few reflections on how the teaching vocation can present a powerful witness of how to embody Christian faith, love, and hope.

Teaching as a Work of Faith: My parents are both recently retired elementary school teachers. Between the two of them they share a little over sixty years of exceptional teaching experience. While many former students have stayed in touch, it is safe to say that neither one of my parents can come close to imagining the impact they have had on thousands of people’s lives throughout their long years of dedicated service.

Teachers rarely get to see the outcome of their work with and for others. This can be one of the most frustrating and liberating aspects of teaching. It calls for a deep faith that the seeds planted will one day come to fruition. For Christians, this is the faith that our loving God sustains all that we do and all that we are—whether or not we fully comprehend the significance of our work. As Amanda Osheim said so beautifully in her post yesterday, regardless of whether or not we see the fruits of our labor and no matter how small, insignificant, or incomplete our actions may seem, our labor becomes holy when we honor and trust God’s promise that we have the capacity and responsibility to be co-creators with God. A famous Oscar Romero Memorial Prayer put it this way:

“We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing this. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”

Teaching as a Labor of Love: It wasn’t until I began teaching high school that I really began to understand the call to teach as a call to authentic love. I learned quickly that if I was to truly teach and empower the young women entrusted to my care, I had to try to abandon my selfish needs and desires and change my self-centered expectations of “success.” I slowly learned to love and appreciate each student as a human person created in God’s image and to see their need for my respect and compassion. This was not an easy task, and I failed at it time and again. So often through our distorted notions of love (and dare I say ministry?) we get lost in our own abstract, romantic, and unrealistic idealism. We fail to understand that love asks us to let go of our insatiable need for control. It demands that we give up something of ourselves. We forget that love requires immersing ourselves in the messy realities of human experience and the suffering of others. Through this dangerous and selfish distortion, we try to force others to fit our own “ideal” expectations of who we think they should be, unintentionally inflicting violence upon them.

However, when we open ourselves to encounter another human being the way Christ the master teacher did, we begin to turn towards the other, seeing and valuing them for who they truly are. As Stephen Okey reminded us a few days ago, “Love, understood as one’s willing the good of the other, is not twisted in on itself but directed outwards towards the other.” This is the love for which we all yearn to both give and receive. No one does this perfectly, but I know many teachers who live out of this love to the best of their ability.

Teaching As Endurance in Hope: There is nothing quite like the excitement experienced the night before the first day of school. A principal I know told me what she loves about teaching was that it was a career full of new beginnings. There is always a new school year, a new semester, a new quarter just right around the corner. No matter how poorly a student may be doing in a class or how badly a lesson plan crashes and burns, there is hope that somehow, with hard work, creativity and patience, it can get better. Teaching can be one of most concrete signs that  someone is living in the hope that this world is redeemable. Many good, dedicated teachers I know live out of a deep-seeded hope in the human capacity to be better than what we are today without losing their ability to recognize and name the dark realities of the human condition.

We are in desperate need of hope. War wages on in countless regions. Our culture continues to gorge itself on vacuous and dehumanizing “entertainment.” Like a conniving snake in the grass, the media (run by deceptive, greedy adults) convinces adolescents that human sexuality is a mere commodity and human beings are expendable. The gap between the haves and have-nots widens exponentially. In our unacknowledged, arrogant anthropocentricism, we wreak havoc upon God’s creation. We seem to be standing on the precipice of self-annihilation.

But if the saints (our tradition’s great teachers) show us anything, we cannot despair. Rather in honest humility, we must continuously hope in God’s promise of new life. This hope is not passive.  It compels us to discipline ourselves and challenge one another to say “yes” to God’s redeeming grace while repeatedly daring to say “no” to all that dehumanizes and denies goodness and truth. Perhaps the greatest way to give witness to the hope our world so desperately needs is to try to do what Christ did and what so many teachers will do today: rise before dawn, pray for God’s grace, and open ourselves to love and empower those we are called to serve. (Mark 1:35-39)

As teachers, students, school administrators and others working in education enter a new school year, we pray they know the value and holy potential of their work. May their efforts inspire us to see our work as a work of faith, our labor as a labor of love, and may we be sustained with enduring hope in Christ Jesus.

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