Way back in 2003, when people still left voicemails and Mark Zuckerberg’s “Facesmash” was just a mildly sexist college experiment, I was chosen by my classmates to deliver a commencement address at graduation ceremonies for our conservative Christian university.
I took the honor seriously, prepping for weeks amidst all the final exams and senior parties, working through multiple drafts and soliciting feedback from my parents and professors.
And I did okay, (though, to this day I still have nightmares about approaching that podium only to look down and realize I left my notes…or my pants… in my dorm room). I admonished my classmates the way any other 21-year-old evangelical would admonish her peers:
I told them to go out and change the world.
I told them that as Christians, fresh off four years of apologetics training, we were uniquely equipped to speak the truth in love—
that the world is dark, and we are the light,
that the world is sick, and we have the medicine,
that the world is lost, and we know the way.
Granted, it was a different time. The ash of 9-11 still clouded the air. American forces had just unleashed “shock and awe” upon Baghdad and we were sure to be out of there in a matter of months. Evangelicals elected presidents and Pluto was a planet.
It was easy to be overconfident.
So I try to give my younger self some grace, especially since “go out and change the world” is a perfectly suitable message for a commencement address—it’s given all the time.
But if I had it to do over, if I could somehow transport 34-year-old Rachel back to that sunny morning when things were simpler and I thought myself so much smarter, I would add:
Class of 2003, let the world change you too.
Because that’s exactly what happened after I descended that platform and walked into a world inhabited not by the straw figures I’d been taught to defeat and convert, but by flesh-and-blood human beings who didn’t stick to the atheist/Muslim/feminist/gay/liberal/poor/skeptic/foreigner script, a world less characterized by black and white certainties than by mile after mile and year after year of thick, impenetrable gray.
I thought I was called to challenge the atheists, but the atheists ended up challenging me.
I thought God wanted to use me to show gay people how to be straight. Instead God used gay people to show me how to be Christian.
I thought the world needed my answers, but as it turns out, I needed the world’s questions. I needed to learn how to doubt well, listen better, and be humbled by how little I know. I needed to discover that evangelicalism is just one table in Christ’s banquet hall, the Great Cloud of Witnesses far more sprawling and diverse than I’d ever imagined.
The world, it turns out, is not all weeds. There is evil growing, certainly, and fear and hate and prejudice. But I’ve found life sprouting out of all sorts of unlikely soil, wheat enough for a lifetime of harvests.
I am so thankful for the feminist coworker who mothered me through my first reporting job, for the library where I discovered Richard Rohr and Marilynne Robinson, for the physicist who helped me embrace evolution, for trips to India and Bolivia, for conversations lasting until 2 a.m., for the foul-mouthed and tattooed Lutheran pastor who gave me permission to love the church again.
These people and these things changed me for the better. They challenged everything I thought I knew, and I’m glad.
Oh I resisted at first. Worried about compromising my beliefs, I clenched them more tightly and dug in my heels. So convinced it was my job to be Jesus to others, I nearly missed the chance to let others be Jesus to me—to teach me, heal me, love me, and call me to repentance.
And lest you think I count myself finished, know this: When I was a Bible-thumping, church-going, know-it-all Republican, God used bleeding-heart, politically-correct, question-everything liberals to teach me to be human, to challenge my notions of who the enemy is. But now that I’m a bleeding-heart, politically-correct, question-everything liberal, God insists on using Bible-thumping, church-going, know-it-all Republicans to teach me to be human, to challenge my notions of who the enemy is.
God, it seems, is rather stubbornly committed to extracting me from the notion that this is all about being right.
Now, the 21-year-old me would point out that Scripture warns against “conforming to the patterns of this world.” Indeed, the world of the early Christians and the world of today tends to favor the destructive patterns of power over humility, materialism over generosity, retribution over forgiveness.
But even the first apostles allowed themselves to be changed by goodness in the world. When the law-abiding, kosher-eating, Roman-hating Peter encountered a Roman centurion who feared God and gave to the poor, Peter—to his own astonishment—says, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.” He even goes so far as to share a meal with his new friend. “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile,” he tells Cornelius. “But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”
What a delight it is to be surprised!
So if I had it to do over again, I would tell my classmates:
Before you can make your mark on the world, let the world make its mark on you. Be curious. Stay open. Nurture the humility it takes to admit you can get it wrong.
And I would tell myself:
“Rachel, in a few years, you’re going to doubt everything you said in your speech just now, and—guess what— you’re going to be okay.”