Calling, Life Stories, Fears, and Learning

I do not usually get this personal on my blog, but something tells me that now is the time to share this story and struggle with you. What I am about to share with you is a story about calling, and I share it because I believe that stories, purpose, meaning, and calling are all important parts of our life and learning. When we stop thinking about these topics, education turns into something less interesting. It is in the absence of meaning, purpose, and calling for each learner that we start to see people use comparisons like school as a factory, school as a jail, or school as glorified babysitting. Or, we let it turn into a political battleground, a money tree, or a club that we can use to force our ideological opponents into submission. School can be so much more than that. It can be a place that helps young people learn about, shape, and live out their unique stories in life.

I believe that our lives are heavily influences by the stories that we live, learn, and tell ourselves, and I am going to tell you part of my story. This is not something that I share very often, but as you read it, I invite you to think about your own story and the story of the learners with whom you interact.

When I was twelve years old, only a week or two after our family moved to Laredo, Texas to be closer to some of my father’s new business clients, my life changed. It was one of our first days in this new home when my mother woke me up in the middle of the night. My father, suffering from a longstanding heart condition, needed immediate medical care. Within an hour, at less than fifty years old, my dad died of a massive heart attack, and I sat there, physically trembling as if I were sitting unclothed in an ice storm.

My dad was the definition of an entrepreneur: determined, driven, confident, quick to take responsibility for the outcome instead of blaming others, a bit stubborn but deeply curious, constantly looking for the third option when everyone else only saw two, unswerving amid risk, persuasive, and always ready to pick himself up after a failed effort. He also neglected his health, worked too many hours given his condition, and did not seem to listen to the advice of doctors.

Before my birth, my dad applied these same traits to a very different career as a Southern Baptist minister. He planted a church and worked long days in service to that church while also working a second job to make enough money to feed his family. My brother tells me that the elders of this church promised him a living wage once attendance at this church “startup” reached a viable number, but when that number came and passed, the elders changed their mind. My dad’s long work days were even longer, and it became increasingly difficult to feed and care for his growing family (a son and two daughters at the time). At one point my dad had enough. Bitter and burned out, he left the ministry, and headed into the business world, eventually becoming a broker, determined to never allow his family to be in want again. He delivered on that promise tenfold, but it caught up with him.

As an entrepreneur, my dad faced failures. He also celebrated plenty of financial wins and successes along the way. I do not know what happened to any of his assets at the time of death, but a modest life insurance policy provided my mother and me enough money to get by afterward (all of my siblings were grown and married by this time). Eventually, my mother married a widower who lost his wife around the same time that my dad died, and this man turned out to be an incredible anchor and mentor in my life. My stepfather, a farmer in Southern Illinois, lived a very different lifestyle than that to which I was accustomed. I soon learned to bail hay, shovel manure, load livestock, paint tin roofs of sheds and barns in one-hundred degree heat and almost equal humidity. I came to know my stepfather as a wise, compassionate, innovative, and incredibly hardworking man. He exemplifies a commitment to steady, focused, hard work in one direction for decades. He is a loyal family man, husband, father, and neighbor. He is the type of man who is quick to sacrifice for the needs of others. During his working years he showed no drive to change the world in some grand or global scale. For him, it was and is all about doing what is right, working hard, and caring for your family.

It probably became most apparent during my college years that I inherited a few traits and learned even more lessons from my dad.  Even with years of practice and effort, I do not know if I could muzzle the entrepreneurial drive that I saw in my father and I see in myself. However, most of my life, as much as I have incredible love and respect for my father, I found myself interpreting his life as a tragedy, a Hero’s Journey cut short, a little like Hercules dying in an unfortunate car accident on the way home from his fourth labor, never to finish the other six or the adventure.

If I am honest with you, I embraced this story as the defining narrative for much of my life, and it includes a series of lessons, ones that I do not necessarily suggest for others. I will mention some of them below and share how they shaped my past and present.

“You must keep that entrepreneurial spirit in check or it will be your undoing.”

Like my father, I am wired to look for the third way. The idea of being the first in the world to try something is stirring and inspiring, especially when it is something that I believe can have a positive impact in the world. Yet, I have spent my adult life in learning organizations because they have clear boundaries, are steeped in tradition, and they are slow to change. That is not the only reason, but I have begun to suspect that this is indeed one reason. As much as  I know that starting something new gives greater opportunity for some of my ideas to grow and flourish, I have admittedly kept that entrepreneurial drive in check by staying in safe and stable organizations that do not let me “take things too far.” This is rarely a conscious decision, but it is nonetheless something that I began to discover about myself.

This persistent tension is what shaped me into who I am and what I do today. Admittedly, I often wonder what would happen if I were to let loose of the restraints, venturing out on my own. However, unlike a true entrepreneur, I have a tragic story that keeps me from doing anything too “risky.” Ironically, some in education find it hard to imagine that I could become more risky or extreme in my ideas or actions. If only they knew.

“You must make sure that your family is taken care of financially in the case of your untimely death, but you must also be suspicious of wealth and its negative impact in your life.”

I spent a decade studying and learning about the role of entrepreneurship in education and, while I appreciate accountability and oversight, I celebrate the work of the educational entrepreneur. In fact, I suspect that some of the most important learning innovations will come from outside of the highly regulated confines of modern learning organizations. There are so many times when I want to found that next education startup, but I will confess a persistent fear of success that, too often, keeps me from taking the plunge.

A few times in my life, I received incredibly generous job offers. Taking any one of those jobs for ten years in my early adulthood could have set me up for spending the rest of my adult like taking some of those entrepreneurial risks without stress on my family. It took me a long time to realize that I was afraid of making too much money. It felt too similar to my father’s path.

“If you abandon or run away from your first calling, you will suffer an equal or worse outcome.”

There are many ways to look at my father’s story. You could see it as a story of a man who sacrificed his calling as a minister so that he could be faithful to the calling of a father and husband. You could also see it as a story of a man who abandoned his calling and experienced constant torment that affected all aspects of his life, eventually leading to his untimely death. You could also see it as the story of a man whose calling took him many directions, first as a minister, second as an entrepreneur, but it was a journey with a sudden and unexpected ending. Or you can just look at it as the story of a husband, father and friend who lived on his own terms while expressing a deep love for and loyalty to his family.

As much as I can intellectually see his story in different ways, I sometimes live in fear of running away from my callings. If I step out and take this risk, will it lead me down the same path as my father? It might seem foolish or unrealistic, but this is the fear that I sometimes find myself facing. I sometimes even risk undermining my own successes. If I do not reach some great success, then I do not have to face the difficult decisions, I reason to myself.

In fact, when I first graduated from college, I received two job offers on the same day. Not knowing what to do, I weighed the options. Then I chose the one that I wanted the least because I thought that would protect me from hubris. It did not, but I give myself a couple of points for a novel, albeit foolish, approach to decision-making.

Then there are two other stories that I have come to associate with my father and myself for one reason or another. On the one hand, there is the story of the prophet who ran away from his calling only to find himself in the belly of a great fish. This brought Jonah back to his calling, but what would have happened if he still kept running? Is that the story of my dad? Would that be my story if I uncaged the entrepreneurial side of my personality? How do I avoid living the same story? The other is The Parable of the Talents, namely the man who, afraid of the master, hid his talent instead of investing it. To that man, the master replied:

You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.

These stories conjure a persistent fear of not following my calling, wasting my gifts, and accordingly facing the earthly consequences. If such fears are not kept under control or overcome, they have a way of haunting a person. You are afraid to act and afraid to stand still, so you try to do a little of both. Some say that is certain pathway to mediocrity and perpetual discontent. Others say that it is a way of blending your passions, gifts, and interests; perhaps even preparing for some future but presently unknown adventure.

This is also probably part of why, throughout my life, I find myself working two or three jobs. When I worked on my doctorate, I had a full-time job in a Christian middle and high school, a 20-hour-per week graduate assistantship at the university, a part-time job at a church, and a part-time job at a college. Even today, I have a full-time leadership position that actually includes three distinct roles, maintain a teaching load, spend enough time on writing and related projects to count for a second full-time job, and I do other projects on top of that. Why? Part of it is because of my insatiable curiosity and love of learning. I enjoy all this. From another perspective, it might also be that I can feed the entrepreneurial spirit without giving in to it. I hold on to what I think is that “first calling” while embracing these other areas that sometimes feel like a “deep gladness” intersecting a “great hunger” in the world (ala Buechner).

This is part of my story. You have your own. So do each of the students in our schools. New events add to our stories each day, and they play a role in who we are and who we become. As I think about what I believe about education, reflecting on this very personal part of my own story reminds me about one of my core convictions when it comes to education. A good education is one that binds us together but also one that helps us go on a very personal journey, one that is unique to each of us.

Many students already come to school with stories very much like the one that I just shared with you: stories of loss and fear. Each day that a student is in school, that student is in the process of creating new parts of his or her life story.  These can be forgotten and ineffectual experiences. They can also be stories that inspire them, help them make sense of their lives, help them learn to persevere, empower them to discover and develop their gifts and abilities, help them tap into their passions, guide them on the path of discovering current and future callings, help them face and overcome their fears, and equip them for the challenges and opportunities of the future. School occupies too much of our lives to simply be about standards and tests even if that is what most people measure today. School is part of something much more significant, it is part of our life story.

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3 thoughts on “Calling, Life Stories, Fears, and Learning

  1. You put into words what I have been feeling as an English instructor at a small community college in North Carolina. Thank you so much for this post, which inspires me to stay true to my calling as a writer and a writing teacher.

    1. I share your thought that “our lives are heavily influenced by the stories that we live, learn, and tell ourselves…” I’ve been telling people for many years that I’m writing a book. I think I am. I’m keeping notes and laying out chapters. I’ve got a title and a design for the cover. When I’m without thoughts, thoughts for my book fill my mind – including the Scripture passages that are shaping it. I’m not sure if I’ll ever publish the book, but that’s not exactly my intent. My book is my story. Writing it keeps me on the plot. Taking notes is a continual exercise in defining myself (and my faith), which has come in handy when opportunities to explain myself to others arise. In my book, at the moment, the Preface will begin with, “What book are you writing?”. It kind of sounds like keeping a diary.

      Regarding fathers… My father died 27 years ago at age 52. This week I purchased a new book that was just published – because in it my father is described as an “unsung hero” regarding an incident that happened in 1967. Whether we write our story or not, our stories are known to those we live and work among. Imagine being considered “unsung”, yet written about 50 years on.

  2. Thanks for sharing this part of your story, Bernard. You have amazing and unique gifts and I am encouraged at the way you use them in so many arenas. I love that you make a difference in Lutheran education presenting a voice that is seldom heard. Blessings on your sabbatical! It sounds like you are having time to learn, reflect, and write!

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