Friday, July 27, 2012

A letter to someone who took me seriously

Dear Tiffany,
    I have never forgotten the words you gave me, but until today I had forgotten your name. It would be lost, except that I kept a startlingly detailed diary when I was in middle school. Most of what I recorded now seems painfully trivial, but your name was worth saving.

I never knew you well. You were a college student from another campus, and we met because my parents were taking their students to same tri-state conference your group was attending. I was thirteen, shy and self-conscious. You had quirky clothes and a ready laugh.

The conference was the sort I had attended all my life: a weekend-long retreat and revival for college students, featuring topical break-out sessions and daily worship services. I spent my childhood reading and playing through these conferences. The sessions didn't really interest me, and I was also terrified of people (and most other things). By the time we met, I was quite adept at entertaining myself and staying out of the way, and I spent most of that weekend doing homework in my parents' hotel room.

The only session I attended was the closing worship service on Sunday morning. I'm sure I paid at least moderate attention to the sermon, and I probably sang along with whatever praise choruses were popular in 1997. All I really remember from that morning, however, is you. The preacher had asked for all of the campus ministers to stand and receive prayers for their ministries. My parents stood, but I remained seated, edging away to make room for the students who were gathering and laying hands upon my mother and father. I intended to pray, too, but you interrupted me, walking right past my parents and sitting down next to me. "May I pray for you?" you asked. Bewildered, but too shy to refuse, I nodded.

This is what I recorded in my messy, eighth-grade cursive:
As [Tiffany] was praying, I nearly cried, I had never heard anyone pray so specifically for me. She said that my being here at ISU is no accident, and she prayed that God would give me strength to question tradition and seek the Lord. She prayed like she truly cared." 

You thanked God for making me my parents' daughter, and for giving me a role in their ministry to college students. You challenged me not to surrender to conventional roles for girls in life or in ministry. You asked God to fill me with love and to show me what work I was meant to do among college students. You showed that me that I did not need to wait--for college, for adulthood, for a more outgoing personality--before doing something with eternal value.

Looking back, it would be easy for me to say that your prayer helped prepare me for my career as a college professor. Like my parents, I have chosen to work in higher education because I want to help build God's kingdom on university campuses. And yet, when you prayed for me fifteen years ago, you didn't mention the future. You interceded in the present tense, and that was what really shocked me. I had never considered that there was already some good work (other than homework) that I could do, much less work among the college men and women I adored.

You hardly knew me, Tiffany, but you took me far more seriously than I took myself, and you radiated with a love for God's kingdom that I could hardly fathom.
The change was slow but real. In the years that followed I remained shy, but I grew discontent with my self-imposed forms of isolation. By the time I reached high school, your prayer had ruined me for youth groups. For the rest of my teen years, I had no patience for camp games or dating advice or "girls just want to have fun"-themed Bible studies; I craved mentorship and holy adventures and substance. Instead of playing the perpetual kid sister, I began to ask what it meant to befriend college students. Instead of assuming that all college kids were half rock-star, half-superhero, I started to watch the ways they grew or floundered into adulthood. I listened to the things that excited them, troubled them, challenged them, changed them.

The next time I went to a conference with my parents and their students, I left the hotel room. Thank you for pushing me out of that door.

Ever yours,