How did this book come about?
This book tells the story about what happened to me when I was teaching in Harlem. That's a crazy story, but it's not the real story. The real story is about significance, and so this book really is for everybody. Everyone wants their lives to matter.
You didn’t start out as a teacher. Why did you decide to try teaching in the inner city?
I'm not sure I can explain it. I think it's kind of like how some people are just drawn to the ocean. You know it can be dangerous, but you just have to go. I was a pastor at a great church, and my wife and I felt drawn to New York City for a variety of reasons, among them a desire to plant a new church. But we knew we had to live here first, before we decided what kind of ministry would be appropriate. I really wanted to do something significant. When I heard about the opportunity to teach in academically at-risk schools, something in my heart leapt.
Can you describe a typical day teaching at a school like that?
Not really, because there weren't many typical days! Of course, a lot of days it was just hard work. Teaching and re-teaching, scrubbing graffiti off desks, tracking down whoever took care of my students-- parents, grandparents, aunts, older sisters, foster parents, you name it-- to enlist their help. Teaching is a very difficult job, and teaching in the inner city is a whole different thing.
Sometimes you just had to laugh. I had too many strange experiences to fit into one book. Here's one I didn't include in inSignificant: One day as I was teaching, a milk carton suddenly exploded against the chalkboard and sprayed the first couple of rows of desks. There were several moments of chaos, but for whatever reason, I didn't even flinch. I calmly said, “Whoever threw that, please clean it up. We won't go to lunch until you do.” Then I went and stood by the door. I overheard a student say, “Man, he so calm! He must be doin' some mad yoga!” I laughed out loud.
What does teaching at an inner city school have to do with “significance”?
For me, everything. Those two years for the two most difficult years of my life. I found out that I wasn't as good of a person as I liked to think. And honestly, I wasn't doing very well at first. My students didn't like me and they weren't learning much. God stripped away all the things I had been relying on to feel significant. What could be more insignificant than a math teacher who was failing to teach students at a tiny, failing middle-school? Feeling insignificant can be very painful, and it was for me. But therein lies the paradox. Because those two years teaching in Harlem turned out to be the two most significant years of my life.
Explain what you mean by that. How were those years the most significant years of your life?
I learned first hand things the Bible teaches about significance. God doesn't see things the way we do. The small, weak, vulnerable things in this world matter a great deal to him. And the things we think are so significant, often don't matter to him at all. It wasn't easy, but God gradually helped me to see things a little more as he does. And I never would have dared dream the freedom and joy this new perspective would give me. There are a lot of good things in the world, but nothing compares to significance. It's worth way more than gold.
We may not realize it, but our souls are hungry for meaning. The Bible has a lot to say about significance. When you begin to grasp the surprising, counter-cultural way that God is changing the world, it's exhilarating to realize how significant we can be
What's surprising about how God is changing the world?
He isn't working at all how we would, if we were God. I imagine that we'd use a lot more power than he tends to do. He's humble and gentle, usually working quietly behind the scenes. And he uses the tiniest things and seemingly insignificant people to affect massive changes in the world. For example, God used a hug from a little girl in Cambodia to start an organization that helps rescue dozens of women and girls from sex trafficking. A hug. Everyone's lives can matter more than we imagine.
Why is it important for people to understand what matters to God?
So many people run the risk of wasting their lives. That sounds harsh, but the world's view of significance is a siren song, and leads to disappointment. On the other hand, if you catch even a glimpse of what really matters, it can make your whole life matter. Seemingly mundane tasks become important. The daily grind can actually be a part of a grand adventure. And we won't miss the opportunities to make a real difference.