Seven years. It’s been seven years since I crossed the threshold into that classroom, feeling like a little girl slipping arms into a coat that was far too big for her. You took me off guard when you stood up, synchronized, that sign of Russian respect that this 22-year-old novice certainly didn’t feel she deserved. You all looked at me with expectation, but it wasn’t the intimidating kind, the challenging kind that I’d feared. No, your eyes were all kindness and curiosity. And looking at you, though I was still shaking, I knew I was where I was supposed to be.
I always told my Dad I’d never be a teacher. Again and again, he told me he could see it—but my answer remained a firm NO. It wasn’t me. Not by a long shot. So why did I end up standing before you all, textbook in hand, trying my best to answer your questions about this crazy language called English?
Why? Because you are a poem.
These are some of my favorite words from the Bible: “For you are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so we would walk in them.” That word, workmanship, in Greek, the language this part of the Bible was written in, is “poema.” This is where we get the English word for poem (this is one of the reasons English is so hard—we like to steal from other languages :-).
What does it mean that you are a poem? A poem is the weaving of words into a unique tone and story that reveals a powerful beauty that cannot be replicated. As a Christian, I believe that we are all created in the image of God—that he created us each uniquely to reflect aspects of who he is. When I say you are a poem, I mean that each of you lives a unique, God-given beauty—everything about you—your laugh, your smile, your talents, passions, quirks and personality form a creation that no one can copy.
And this God, the all-powerful one who created you in his image, he loves you.
I never planned to be a teacher, but that’s the beautiful thing about poetry, it surprises you.
Most of you know how closely I hold my faith, my belief in this Jesus who I talk about whenever I have the chance. But do you know that I believe he speaks to us?
I heard him those two faraway summers as a young teen in a magical forest in Russia. He took his finger and engraved your names, yet unknown to me, into my heart. I didn’t know you yet, but I knew you were a poem.
I used to think that you were all Russian, that the poem would be penned in Cyrillic.
But God said, “no, this poem is going to be vaster than you thought.” And when I returned from Russia, he kept writing you into my life: China, Korea, the United Arab Emirates, Ivory Coast, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Colombia….
I loved your laughs, I loved your questions, I loved your senses of humor and your stories of home. My twenties have been hard, but you have been one of the joyful constants. The poetry of your lives has painted even my darkest days with meaning. I’ve longed to bless you, but do you know how much you have blessed me?
Your words strengthened me in the years I doubted myself. My first class in Yelabuga—when you made me queen for a day on my birthday, my Tatar girls, when you gifted me that beautiful photo album—I hold those memories close. A—you brought a smile to my face with every mischievous nod of your head, saying “good teacher.” Y—when you told me I had truly helped you with your writing, you brightened my tired eyes.
You made me laugh, J—when your man bun got caught in the shade pull you were twisting around it and I told you, “you got what you deserved!” W—when you wore that wolf mask during your presentation. It was Halloween, I know, but do you know how hard it is to grade when you can’t keep a straight face!? L—I’ll never forget how you cared about me so much that you scouted out the teller at Wells Fargo as a potential suitor.
You also kept me humble, J—when you looked at me and said matter-of-factly, “you are improving in your teaching of me.” L—you never failed to stump me with your advanced grammar questions. M—I remember how, having just arrived in the U.S., you looked at my long skirt and bun (it was summer! My hair is frizzy!), and asked in all seriousness, “Are you Amish?” At SCAD, I’ll never forget the fashion tips and comments on my appearance, “Miss Hope, why don’t you wear high heels, they would look good on you!” “I like it better when you wear your hair down, not up like that,” “Are you Russian? We were talking about your nose and thought you might be.”
It has been a crazy journey, but I want you to know that it hasn’t been love of English that has kept me on; it’s been love for you. After seven years, I’ve decided that it’s time to try something new. And as the exclamation point at the end of this seven-year epic, I want to tell you something that is vastly more important than anything I’ve taught you before:
You have the opportunity to take hold of a love that is so vast it will carry you into eternity, a love that is so intimate that it will understand and comfort the deepest places of your heart.
You know I follow Jesus Christ, but what does that mean?
It means this:
There is a God. He exists. And if you were to look him up in the dictionary, the first word you would see is “love.”
He created us. He made you in his image, your laugh, your smile, your talents, and they all reflect something of him. He knit you together in your mother’s womb. He knows you, and he loves you.
We are not good people. We have done bad things, and doing those things has brought us shame. Maybe we haven’t killed, but we have hated others. Maybe we haven’t cheated on our spouse, but we’ve lusted and looked at others as objects, not people. Maybe we haven’t stolen, but we have been greedy for money and things. Even when we do good things, we usually have a selfish reason for doing them. And because God is perfectly good and can’t be in the presence of sin (any action that is not perfectly good), we are separated from him.
If you’ve sensed anything good or kind in me, believe me, it’s not because I’m a good person. As Msimangu says in Cry the Beloved Country, “I am not kind. I am a selfish and sinful man, but God put his hands on me; that is all.”
None of us are truly good, but God loves us so much that he made an amazing sacrifice so we wouldn’t be separated from him. He decided to send his son to earth as a person to save us. It’s a crazy mystery, but he is 100% God and 100% man! His son, Jesus was murdered for us, and in doing so, he took all our sins on himself. Then he rose from the dead, showing how he was greater than even death.
When we say, “God, I believe that this is true, and I want to follow Jesus,” he rejoices, and he does not count your sin against you. Your shame is gone, and you can now be so close to this God who is all powerful, so vast, yet knows and loves you personally.
This is the mission of my life: to tell others about this beautiful truth, this good news, in the hope that you would know his amazing love that will transform your life into the greatest meaning that you have ever known.
Deciding to follow Jesus doesn’t make life easy. Life is still hard. Because of all the bad things people do on earth, we will have to experience tragedy and difficulties. But with Jesus, we have hope for the future, an eternity with him, and the security that whatever happens, he loves us and knows us.
Many of you are Muslim—have you thought about how there are 99 words for Allah, but none of them is love?
The God I know, though is love (1 John 4:16).
Many of you don’t believe there is a God. But have any of your achievements or relationships ever completely brought you peace and satisfaction? Consider the words of C.S. Lewis, “If we find in ourselves a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
Many of you believe that we can each choose our own path, that as long as we are sincere, we will be okay. But Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). And if you study Jesus, really study him, you’ll find that he is so full of love and truth that no one and nothing can compare to him.
So I have a request of you, as a teacher who loves you dearly. If what I’ve said is tugging on your heart, or if you’re the least curious to find out who this Jesus is, will you do something for me?
Will you read one of the books below. If you want to read one, send me a message, and I will send you a copy. If you are in the U.S., I’ll mail you a hard copy. If you’re not in the U.S., I’ll make sure you get an ebook.
The Gospel of John: This is a book of the Bible that tells the story of Jesus, who he is, and what he did. It’s pretty short, and at this website, you can read it in your language. Click the search bar that says “New International Version,” and scroll to find your language.
Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi: The story of a devout Muslim with a brilliant mind who decided to follow Jesus.
The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel: An atheist journalist seeks to disprove Christianity, but based on the evidence, he ends up believing instead.
Again, I’ll send you a copy if you would like to read any of these books. I’ll try to find it in your language if possible.
Don’t forget this: you are a poem. No matter how unseen you feel, he sees you. No matter how unloved you feel, he loves you.
You are a poem, and he has so many beautiful lines he wants to write with your life. You have already written so many beautiful lines in mine. I love you dearly, and I hope that you will know and understand how much God does too.
Blessings and love,