It started one September morning while having breakfast with my women’s Christian formation studies group. In discussing the potential trip, they encouraged me to apply for funding and a work leave, and to make the trek with the Monarch Teacher’s Network.
I was moved deeply that such a journey might be possible for me, but I was also terrified. My usual thought with big projects is that I can’t get organized or rise above circumstances enough to pull them off. I thought it was about me and my abilities, but my friends pointed me to something deeper. It wasn’t about me at all, it was about God. I was learning that God’s kingdom is about abundance and great mercy; I saw their encouragement for me to go pointed beyond myself to taking a step in this kingdom.
In February I found myself in Mexico. The next time I heard the “It’s not about me” refrain was when I stood at the entrance to a monarch sanctuary. After an hour-long walk up the mountain slope 9,000 feet above sea level, we came upon an open field where we first saw the monarchs flitting around. The sight was stunning. I had wondered what I would feel upon seeing this vista, and what came to me was surprising. “It’s not about me at all,” was what I heard as I witnessed this miracle. What mattered here were not my individual feelings. This was a marvel of nature – these millions of monarchs surviving a long journey and a harsh winter in the mountains, the circle of life that is sustained despite all the odds against it. Far more authoritative than my feelings, the miracle of resilience in God’s tiny creatures was what I saw that afternoon. They were ambassadors to me, witnessing to something beyond myself.
From Vacation to Journey
This moment stood out from all others on the trip, and began to ring like an echo even after I arrived home. A friend encouraged me to see that refrain as resonating in more than the week in Mexico. I had another “aha” moment as my friend told me this, and the whole journey began to filter itself through this grid.
Around every corner, I saw that the trip wasn’t about me. This truth did not come without a battle, however, because at first me was all I saw. Hungry for approval, I worried when my school administration seemed to frown on my plans. But as I reflected on my motive for going, I saw that the trip was not about me at all. It was about something deeper. My friends helped me see that it was about passing on the miracle of the monarch’s story to my students. This is what I hung onto as I pushed for the trip – that somehow it would benefit others.
This was when my trek shifted from being a vacation to a journey. Journeys are not about having a good time or enjoying pleasant weather. They are about a purpose deeper than oneself. This thought of “journey” became central in my preparations. Prone to a self-centered outlook on life, I began to be challenged at every turn. When I worried whether I would be sick on the trip, I kept remembering that a journey looks beyond the human ego to its purpose. Didn’t every hero meet with limitations and discomfort on the quest? It was like I had a months-long corrective to an old way of being. How much of my life had I spent in insecurely wanting everyone to notice me? Indeed, had I ever really wanted anything else? Without even being fully aware of it, I was already hearing the refrain, “It’s not about me.” My metamorphosis, my healing had begun.
Life began to look different as I made preparations, but the worries that began about my health increased, and I faltered in my faith. I felt like a failure in looking beyond myself as my worries threatened to take centre stage. But even here I received God’s forgiveness through my church community as I confessed my self-absorption. Instead of meeting with harsh judgment, I heard encouragement to refocus on my intent. God’s calling was more authoritative than my sin. Like the caterpillar dying to its former identity as it split open to form a chrysalis, God was using this journey to help me die to the old self.
Continue The Journey
This was confirmed for me at the airport. In casual talk with a fellow traveler, I told the story of why I was going to Mexico. In jest, the man rocked with laughter. “Your school board is helping to pay for this? So my taxes are going towards you having a vacation in Mexico?” he laughed. “Wait until I write to my MLA (political rep.) about this one!” I laughed along with him, knowing he was kidding, but inwardly I couldn’t help noticing this was one of the exact thoughts I had worried about. “It’s not about me and my comfort,” I could have told him. “The story of the monarchs is not about me.”
The day after I stood in the field of monarchs and heard the refrain consciously, I met up with another challenge. My greatest fear came true as I woke up with a pounding headache. I went into self-talk mode as I remembered that the trip wasn’t about my comfort, but I couldn’t shake the irritation about having it disturbed. “Why now?” I moaned. I saw many miracles that day as we travelled to the second colony and saw more forests filled with monarchs as they readied themselves for their spring migration north. But my eyes were clouded by my annoyance at having to put up with limitation. I saw what was happening but couldn’t shake the feeling.
Then an elderly lady on the trip fell and broke her arm. The group moved into action as they tended to her in a remote village. I was asked to give up my jacket as a pillow for her as she lay in the back of the truck; it was with shame that I recognized my first response as selfish. I didn’t want to give it up. Of course I gave the jacket quickly but I saw with horror what my first thought had been.
In bed that night I prayed for forgiveness that I had failed yet again to see beyond my own comfort. I know God is a God of mercy because as the new day unfolded, I felt the peace of being forgiven. I was still sick, but underneath it was no longer irritation as though I was a pampered queen who wasn’t getting her way. Instead, I felt gratitude at being given a second chance to see rightly. Our group visited a school on a tiny island, and it was as though the Kingdom of God unfolded before me. The school put on a feast for us. I saw each hospitable person there as God’s ambassadors, welcoming all of us into a realm of generosity and friendship. Once again my failures were not the last word. Like the transforming butterfly in a tight chrysalis, I had been in cramped quarters when I saw my failings. But like the freed butterfly, God birthed me into a new creation. It wasn’t about me, it was about God’s greater power.
God's Unfolding Power
It’s been months now since I returned from Mexico. The offspring of the monarchs I saw in Mexico are presently headed north; every day I search my garden for the milkweed shoots that will be food for their grandchildren. Like the past 15 summers, I’ll watch the cycle of life as the monarchs lay eggs and undergo the transformation I never tire of seeing.
I still battle everyday with the old self, but I am never without the gift the journey gave me. Just as monarch are protected on their journey, carried thousands of miles on the wind, I too am guided by Someone greater than the old self with all its fragilities. And as my school plans for gardens that will host milkweed for the coming monarchs, I hope my students will be given hope beyond themselves in the monarchs' story too.