I remember my high school’s Friday morning chapel as uninspiring, for the most part. The services typically featured student council/homecoming court types– upperclassmen who were “cool” but generally nice enough that it was hard to resent that. We’d all sing a little, and talk about being better people, and go back to class. Most people complained halfheartedly that only the popular kids ever got to speak, or sing, though they didn’t volunteer to participate themselves.
But it seemed like everyone wanted to take part in the Class of 2010’s “senior chapel.” The planning meeting spilled out of the chaplain’s office. The service turned into a bit of a free for all—I remember a five minute Lord of the Rings/gospel allegory, and also possibly some gymnastics. My part was small, near the end. I’d never spoken in chapel before (I fell more toward the middle of the social pyramid), but I had signed up early, resolved that for the last chapel of the year, at least, I would do what I could to make it meaningful. Two friends sang a song I’d picked, and then I said a few words about it. I focused on the final verse, and specifically the three lines in italics below:
Speak, O Lord, and renew our minds
Help us grasp the heights of Your plans for us—
Truths unchanged from the dawn of time
That will echo down through eternity.
And by grace we’ll stand on Your promises,
And by faith we’ll walk as You walk with us.
Blinking under the stage lights, I unfolded a now-smudged sheet of paper on which I’d typed up my speech. I said that this was what I hoped for my classmates, that they would grasp the heights of God’s plans for them. And that by grace and faith, we could move forward into that future. I remember being embarrassed by my sincerity—I’ve never been comfortable talking about my faith, nor my feelings—and I remember being relieved when it was over. My friends said I’d done a good job, and I blushed and cringed. I felt important. I felt uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable about feeling important. But I had told the truth.
Just before lunch, I got an envelope. I don’t remember who handed it to me, but I still have the card inside. My youth group leader, also a Spanish teacher at my high school, had sent a note: “You’ve achieved a lot in high school, but I’ve never been prouder of you than I was today.”
A few weeks later, I fidgeted with the blue and black tassel on my graduation hat and felt like I didn’t have much to be proud of. Passing my high school classes didn’t feel like much of a feat. Anyone with my resources and opportunities could have done what I’d done, I mused. What was there to be congratulated for?
I didn’t feel like I’d worked hard enough to earn praise. I didn’t think I deserved congratulations for what I’d done. But speaking in chapel wasn’t an achievement. It was too late to change my position in the social pyramid; it didn’t affect my GPA or my college acceptances. My words embarrassed me, but they were true, and I said them. My youth group leader was proud of me not for what I’d achieved, but for who I was. I’ve held on to her words for more than seven years, and I’m remembering them now, after another graduation. And I’m remembering my own words, too: for my high school classmates, for my college friends, for my Masters cohort, and for myself. I hope we grasp the heights of God’s plans for us. I hope remember that who we are matters more than any achievement we’ve gathered along the way.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.