The following is the transcript of the speech I gave at the commissioning ceremony for the cohorts graduating from the Eastern University School of Leadership and Development on June 12, 2009.
WHAT ABOUT US?
A commissioning speech containing humor, theology, economics inside jokes, and all the wisdom a twenty six year old dude can possibly offer his peers (and in some cases his superiors)
Occasionally throughout the past year in class I’ve referenced my time in Cambodia and I’m pretty sure my deep insights from that experience are what earned me my spot at this microphone here tonight. So I want to tell a story from that time in my life. I was out in Seattle for a family reunion a few weeks before leaving for Cambodia when I saw in a bookstore a book that caught my eye. It was a Penguin paperback, which I am a sucker for, and it had a mostly white cover with a bright green plant reaching up towards Bono’s endorsement. I admit that I judge a book by its cover so as soon as I got home I ordered it on Amazon.
Those of you who’ve been to Asia know that the trip over there takes about a week, so during that time I read a big chunk of this book, which was basically about economics, which I had never cared about before. But I could hardly put it down because the writer was making the case that it was completely possible to eliminate extreme poverty by 2025, and he was explaining how. This struck me as exciting, important news.
Things like economics are simple when you base everything you know on just one book, so when my brother came to visit me in Cambodia a couple of months later, I was telling him all about this book called The End of Poverty by this amazing economist named Jeffrey Sachs and how poverty would be history if we just pumped more money into the structures already in place. My brother is sometimes frustrating because he’s a computer engineer who had a GPA of about seven and knows stuff about everything. So when he suggested I read a book called White Man’s Burden I shrugged it off, and mostly forgot about it because even though I had come to live on the other side of the world with a Cambodian family in a Buddhist country and was eating fried tarantulas and doing interviews with micro-entrepreneurs and AIDS patients, I wasn’t interested in broadening my perspectives in this way. After all, as far as I was concerned, a computer engineer who lives in New York shouldn’t know more about poverty than me, the guy working with the development organization among the poor.
Fast forward a couple of years and of course I wish I would’ve taken him up on that book suggestion sooner. I could have come into this program with a bit more nuanced perspective on global economics, and who knows what else. But we learn life lessons through experiences like these, and I think it’s safe to say that this year, for all the learning we did, taught us just how much we have yet to learn.
I know that’s been the case for me. It was a few weeks ago and we were on break during one of our microfinance classes when I was first told there was a “grassroots movement” underway to elect me as our cohort’s speaker for tonight’s commissioning. This took me by surprise, when I considered the sorts of brilliant and passionate people I’ve been in class with and how much better everyone else would have been for this role than me. But when the votes were counted and I was informed that I’d been chosen, I just had to remind myself that while the planner in me didn’t fully understand their rationale, at the same time I didn’t want to get in the way of a bottom-up solution to a problem as important as choosing a speaker. But I will just say that as the only Caucasian male in our cohort, I’m thinking that “white man’s burden” might be taking on a whole new meaning.
Anyway, I tell that story from Cambodia because the lesson I learned is one that I think all of us need to be learning and re-learning for the rest of our lives. We really don’t know everything, and we’ll always have plenty to learn from those around us, even when it seems to them or us that our credentials, being MAs and MBAs and all, are more impressive than theirs. For one thing, the world is changing so rapidly that there’s no way anyone can keep up with it all so we need all the help we can get from as many sources as possible. It is encouraging to me that while this group of us here is just a tiny sliver of the pie in terms of those who are committing their lives to “walking with the poor” as an expression of the love of Christ, there are so many gifts, talents, experiences, and passions represented here. No two of us will end up doing exactly the same sort of work in the Kingdom, and that should be seen as a good thing. I believe that God has a niche for each of us and if we’re committed to doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with him, God will take care of the details.
There are three great people I know of with the first name Frederick. The first is Frederick David Bronkema, who has been such an amazing teacher and director of this program, and no matter how crazy his schedule gets he always seems to have time for us, and never ends a personal meeting without prayer. The second is Frederick Douglass, who Wikipedia describes as an American abolitionist, women’s suffragist, editor, orator, author, statesman and reformer, and whose autobiography is sitting on my shelf, waiting for me to eventually read once I have time again. But for now, I can’t really say much about him. The third Frederick I know about is a novelist and pastor, named Frederick Buechner. After coming back from Cambodia I read one of his books and went on to read about ten more that year. Since then one of his quotes in particular has been a compass as I, like you, try to make sense of my calling in life, which has always been a pretty nebulous concept for me. He says that the place God calls you to is the place where the world’s deep hunger and your own deep gladness meet. I want to focus on that idea a little bit.
It’s not just a matter of figuring out some way to spend your life that makes you happy, as so many try to do. But it’s not necessarily about finding the most depressing place in the world and pouring yourself out there, with some sort of a martyr complex, either. It’s about taking the best of both, without the pitfalls of either. If you just follow your heart and pursue happiness at all costs, you might gain the whole world but lose your soul. On the other hand, if you just pour yourself out but try to do so without the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace – you’re not going to last and eventually you’ll end up self-absorbed and miserable.
Because of the culture we live in, we’re all at risk of just seeking pleasure and happiness without considering the long-term cost. And pursuing a career in international development with the immensity of the challenges we’ll encounter, we also run the risk of burning out and getting pretty disillusioned. But it doesn’t have to be that way for any of us, I don’t think. I entered this program last year, and I enter the “real world” once again now, banking on the belief that there really is a place where the world’s deep hunger and my deep gladness meet, and that God, in his faithfulness and love, will reveal it to me one step at a time as I follow him. I believe the same is true of each of you.
But I also want to come back to what I mentioned earlier about being open to learning things from others, because in addition to those we’ll work with directly wherever we end up, I think that friendships were formed this year and bonds were established even in our deep and sometimes heated classroom discussions that we’d be foolish to throw away. As we all scatter in the weeks and months to come in search of the place God is calling us to, I hope we find ways to stay connected, to keep learning from each other, to keep challenging each other, to keep encouraging each other, to keep cracking Easterly-Sachs jokes or whatever jokes we discover down the road.
I want to thank all of you in the international cohort, as well as our MBA and urban peeps, for a great year. There have been a few times this year that I just had to stop and thank God for blessing me with the privilege of knowing all of you and being part of this group at this time. We laughed together, we cried together, and we ate taco salad together. I look forward to seeing what the future holds for all of us.
When we were in Costa Rica a month ago, up at the volcano overlooking the crater lake having our group devotional, we closed our time with a reading of the Prayer of St Francis. It would be equally fitting for right now, but I am going to resist the urge to be redundant and instead I want to close with a Franciscan Benediction, which could have been written for precisely this occasion:
May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.
May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.