Like every other student dreaming of the Ivy League and a career in medicine, I spent one summer during high school volunteering at a local hospital. Although the position can be dressed up exponentially for a college application, in reality, it consisted mainly of delivering water to patients, taking out their linens, and rocking the occasional newborn. Because the experience was so basic, it didn’t make a particularly valuable contribution to my goals or the function of the hospital itself. However, in addition to learning how to swaddle a baby, I learned a very important lesson about my faith in a chance encounter with one of the postpartum nurses.
When she asked what career I hoped to pursue, and then what my parents did for a living, I mentioned that my dad was a Methodist pastor, and I thought absolutely nothing of it. Then, while gossiping with another of the nurses a couple of minutes later, she suddenly whipped around to face me and asked, “You love everybody, right?” Caught off guard and not even thinking about the implications of my religion on what my answers should have been, I said no.
The nurse looked at me quizzically. “But you’re Christian, right?”
I was mortified, and stammered through a nonsensical (and theologically incorrect) reply about how Christians can’t hate anyone, but don’t really have to love everyone. That would just be impractical, wouldn’t it?
I spent the rest of my four-hour shift thinking over what I’d said. I couldn’t take back the words, and even if I did, would I have known how to correct them? Having grown up in the Bible Belt where nearly everyone around me knew what it meant to be Christian, at least culturally, this was my first time actually being asked to stand up for my faith, or at least explain it, and I had failed. Luckily, I now see that this failure meant more to me than being correct ever could have. If I had given her the most eloquent answer in the world, or the red letters verbatim from the mouth of Jesus, I would have only felt self-righteous, and the experience would not have grown me as a Christian.
Inserting my own commentary rather than pausing to reflect on what the Lord would have wished for me was fallacious beyond any fallacy I could have imagined. Jesus said explicitly in John 13:34-35, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” This is a lesson I have no excuse for not internalizing, but ultimately, one we must externalize as well. Truly, how will anyone know of our faith if not through our actions, our love, and our grace?
God’s command is simple. We must love our neighbors, and show that love, daily. Unfortunately, I still fail at this elementary lesson often, and it sometimes causes me to feel like I can see God laughing or shaking His head at me. “Silly sheep,” He seems to say, “don’t get so caught up on the little things.” Or, “Wayward sheep, didn’t I raise you better? Shouldn’t you think before you speak?”
Being schooled by God can feel punitive, especially because feeling foolish is something we Harvard students try to control, prevent, and plan around as much as possible. But it’s a beautiful experience, because when you can so tangibly feel God laughing at your follies, you learn to laugh with Him. Defending your faith requires an everyday commitment to walking in God’s word and a prayerful heart, but this allows the experience to be just as transformative for you as it is for the person asking questions of you. But God is more loving than we could ever dream of being, and He forgives us by His grace even when we’re not on our A game. Even better, when you’re in a position to further His kingdom, you need only to go to Him in prayer, and He will give you the answers, the means, and the courage to convey them.
To spread God’s word, and to love your neighbor as yourself, you must maintain an intentional, constant conversation with God. It is way easier said than done, especially in such a high-stress environment as Harvard often becomes, but the inner peace it brings is worth every ounce of patience you struggle to find.
Lily Gulledge ’21 is a freshman in Weld Hall.