Frederick DouglassNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
by Frederick Douglass

He wrote this when he had never written a book before. It blows me away, thinking about that. He didn’t struggle to find words.  His words came direct and straight and honest, and they had the power of truth.

We grew up reading about this man. Just think, one of the heroes of America lived an important part of his life right here in our hometown. A genius here among us, one of history’s great journalists, great speakers, and great crusaders. And somehow, with all the greatness of his later life, I’m still always most moved by this first short book he wrote.

What struck me particularly, reading it this time, was this point: We don’t have to wait to begin our mission. We don’t have to postpone our work until every preparation is over with. We don’t have to be settled and perfect ourselves in order to dive into our calling.

I think of all the discouraging postponements that life urges on us. “The time isn’t right.You need to finish your education first.You need to raise your children first. You can do that later, after you are more financially stable, when the kids are through college. Right now you need to make a living, but when you retire you can pursue your passion.”

Somewhere in my mental attic is an image of an ideal life, a neat simple little cottage, an orderly quiet routine of chores perfectly done, hospitality offered in an atmosphere of cleanliness, flowers and books and homemade treats, prayers offered and received in serenity and trust. In reality, my  life is a mess. I’ve never managed to find the time or the money to sort out this house that’s falling apart around me, to clean up the jungle of the yard which the neighbors frown at. I haven’t sorted out my turbulent relationships with God and the church. My prayer life fluctuates between desperate searching and weary dryness. I’ve got so much unresolved confusion in relationships with family and other loved ones. I start so many projects that falter and stumble along endlessly unfinished. What makes me think it’s even worth trying to start anything?

Let me look at the lives of my heroes. Let me look, for example, at Frederick Douglass. Here was a teenager, still secretly teaching himself to read and write, yet already he began teaching others as far as he could. Here was a young man, still looking forward to an opportunity to escape slavery, already organizing a secret school for other slaves. Here was a newly-escaped fugitive, still struggling to make a living, finding the initiative to stand up and speak at abolitionist gatherings. Here was a man who might yet be arrested and returned to bondage, daring to publish a book with his name on the cover, telling the truth of his own story.

In the turmoil of a messy life-in-progress, still working towards what he might eventually become, he had already begun living out his calling. He didn’t think, “Someday, after I’ve secured freedom and financial stability and safety from pursuit, after I’ve educated myself fully, after my family duties are taken care of, then I hope to be in a position to do something for the cause.”  He was already being a teacher while he was still a learner, already being a liberator while he was still a prisoner, already being a citizen while he was still a slave.