I have only one memory from my Presbyterian confirmation class. It is an image of my sweet mother – also the pastor of the church – exhorting a room full of sixth graders: “Grace is a gift that you get, but that you do not deserve! YOU. DO. NOT. DESERVE. IT.” This was the takeaway lesson, meant to sink in and frame every moment of our lives.
I have been asked to reflect about what it means to me to be the 2014 HDS Commencement speaker, and I feel like the ten-year-old trying to understand reformed theology. Being the graduation speaker is a gift that I do not deserve.
This is not a statement of self-deprecation. It underscores reality at HDS: There are so many transfixing orators and brilliant minds – destined for podiums, pulpits, classrooms, and spotlights – who could occupy that platform. The speaker could have been picked at random. This is about the sting of too little time and not enough collective attention span to hear from everyone.
My statement also comes from more personal reflections about my time at HDS – reflections about being formed by and within this community. Find me at almost any point during the last three years, and I am the last person one would want to be the graduation speaker.
When I found out I was nominated, I had questions: Are my peers aware that every. single. sermon. that I preached at my church internship site last year –the same church where the diploma ceremony is held – was written to induce guilt in the congregation? And who thought my practiced snark, opportune for satirizing HDS institutional life, could translate into an address appropriate for our weeping grandparents? Aren’t graduation speakers supposed to be inspiring or, at least, nicer than I am?
And, joking aside, would any of this have happened if anyone knew how resistant I have been to this place for the first half of my time here?
My transition to HDS was rocky. Whereas I saw my peers diving into HDS life – running for the Student Association, sinking into their field education sites, organizing potlucks and parties, making all of it look easy – my first two years felt slow and hard. I never regretted my decision to come – I looked forward to seeing people on campus, I loved what I was learning, I knew that what irritated me could be grist for my intellectual mill, and I made a point of participating in events – but I spent too much time wishing to be somewhere else. Where, I didn’t know. I held back from being fully present and felt jealous of those who seemed cooler, more relaxed, more hopeful, than I thought possible.
Some of this began to change as I began research for my senior paper, which was partly about the history of activism at HDS and the radical dreaming of HDS students over the years. That work began to shift the way I experienced this place. I began to feel less guarded, more embedded in relationships that had been here all along, and sorry that I had held back before.
All of this was on my mind as I wrote a commencement address. On one level, the speech is a reflection on the HDS capital campaign video and the research I did for my thesis: it’s about how we occupy our institutional histories and about how our desires – especially our desires to be needed in this world – are always politically loaded.
But, in this midst of all this, it’s also reflection about how my own desires have been challenged and rearranged at HDS. I’ve learned that alternative ways of being in the world, even ways of being that may seem impossible, are in our reach, if we would risk living into them. It’s my HDS colleagues and friends who show me this with their lives – and what a huge gift this is.
What do we do when we receive a gift which we did nothing to earn?
We say thank you. We do our best to live up to the highest ideals of the communities that have offered us so much. In some small way, this is what I tried to do in my commencement speech. And, more to the point, this is my hope for the Harvard Divinity School Class of 2014.