In June of 2019, I had the honor of delivering the commencement speech to graduating seniors at my former elementary and high school in Tacoma. Here is its text:
Concordia Christian Academy, Class of 2019, I first want to offer my congratulations to you all. Getting to graduation is hard, and it takes a long time, and you did it. It’s an honor to be with you this morning. My name is Chelsea Greenwood, and I’m an alum of this school. I attended what was then Concordia Lutheran School and Mount Rainier Lutheran High from kindergarten through twelfth grade and graduated ten years ago.
Five years ago–almost exactly five years ago–I was in Eastern Europe, in the country of Albania, and I was upset.
I was halfway through an 11-month, 11-country, round-the-world mission trip. I had embarked on this mission trip after graduating from college. I wanted to learn about the world beyond America. I wanted to defend the dignity of the poor and heal the brokenhearted. I wanted to know God more deeply and become more like Christ and live in tune with the Holy Spirit, and also get a tan and buy some cool clothes. So after college, I decided to become a missionary. I ventured out of the Pacific Northwest with a backpack, a tent, a lifelong but faltering Christian faith, and a lifetime of quality education, and I set out to turn the world upside down.
These aspirations fell flat on that balmy spring day in Albania. I was on the outskirts of a small town, at a pig farm. I had woken up looking forward to a free day at the nearby beach eating my body weight in ice cream. Instead, I was standing behind the animal enclosures with a dozen other people. It was a hot day, the first hot day of the month.
I was wearing rubber boots a few sizes too small. They came up to my ankles, which was a problem. The mucky pen of two-year-old, liquified pig poop I was standing in came to my knees.
What we were trying to do was dig a channel in the pig poop deep enough to set a pipe that would send the poop of future pigs directly into the river behind the property. I found this both disgusting and environmentally irresponsible, but we had been ordered by the property owner to do it. So my teammates and I shoveled the poop away from the pipe, into wheelbarrows, directly into the river.
We did this for 10 hours.
The poop oozed in between my toes with every miserable step. The crusty black rubber blistered my shins. I was sweaty. The longer I half-heartedly shoveled the poop into the river, the quieter and more angry I became. This wasn’t fair. This wasn’t cool. This wasn’t right. This wasn’t pleasant. This wasn’t fun.
I decided that I didn’t like pigs. I decided that I didn’t like Albania. I decided that I didn’t like being a missionary. I decided that I didn’t like being a Christian. I decided that I had made a horrible choice, going on this mission trip. I should have stayed home and got a paid internship and a cute boyfriend. I should have done something more important with my time than splashing around in pig poop. Because this was not what I’d envisioned when I’d signed up to go on a mission trip.
I didn’t get my act together that day and cheer up, either. I stayed sweaty and mad and gross until I stumbled into the shower and straight to bed.
And that wasn’t the only time I felt like that on that 11-month mission trip. When being a missionary meant that I had to teach preschool in Guatemala without a translator, and burn trash in Honduras, and mix cement with my hands in Mozambique, and deliver hour-long sermons with no time to prepare in Zambia, I thought the same things: This isn’t for me. This isn’t what I thought it would be. I shouldn’t be here. Sure, there were days on that trip where everything felt great and where I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be… but there were far more days I questioned the point of it all, traveling all over the place when I didn’t like doing the work part of mission work, and sharing my faith when sometimes, it was hard for me to believe that God even existed.
I bring up this memory to illustrate that no matter how great our lives are, we’re all going to have times where it feels like we’re standing in pig crap. I’m sure you’ve already experienced it. Maybe your dreams don’t live up to themselves, or you aren’t as successful at that audition as you’d hoped, or that dream job you landed turns out to be the wrong fit.
Graduating from high school is awesome. It’s exciting. But it is also intimidating, because once you’re done with high school, there’s not a script for how to continue. You can head any direction now. That means life can get more thrilling than ever. It also means it can get harder than ever.
I don’t know how to avoid hard times. I don’t think you can. So for the coming uncertain times, for the times you fear you’ve made a wrong turn, for the times you feel stuck, I want to offer you not words of advice, but Bible verses.
I’m going to remind you of three Bible verses you might be sick of. I bet all these are verses you’ve had to memorize over the years, or read over and over in class, or heard in chapel. I’m gonna throw them at you again, for those poopy moments when you’re not sure you’re on the right track.
First of all, Romans 12:2. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
We all know that the world gives us messages about what we’re supposed to do with our lives, how we’re supposed to look, what we’re supposed to study, how much money we’re supposed to have. Those expectations seep into our souls and rob us of living with our minds tuned into what God wants for us. And I can tell you, what God wants for us is always going to be bigger and better and wilder than what the world expects of us.
On my mission trip, I got down on myself when I felt I couldn’t conform to my idea of a missionary. I thought a missionary was supposed to have strong faith and never doubt, and be able to heal people by praying, and enjoy hanging out with small children.
I was none of those things. It took a while to learn that that was okay. I learned that actually, one of my biggest strengths was writing. It was the most random thing, but I loved blogging about our trip to the people back home. I wrote about our ministry and our travels and what we ate and what we saw and learned. That passion for writing solidified, and now, I am publishing a book about that trip. If I had spent that year fretting about the ways I came up short of my expectations, I might not have seen that God had a different plan for me, and while it was not what I expected it to be, it was good and acceptable and perfect.
You, my friends, are not meant to conform. Also, you can’t. God is always doing a new thing in you. Surrender your expectations over and over. Don’t worry if you think you’re not normal. Don’t worry about it at all. God is crafting a stunning story with your life that will not be what you expect, so do not force yourself to fit into the flimsy dreams of a broken world.
Second, Luke 16:10: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.
This is something I wish had occured in the pig poop. I was so frustrated to be there, I started zooming out on my circumstances and thinking big, general things like “What have I done to end up here? What will I do with my life? What’s the point of all this?
What I should have done was zoom in and focus on the task at hand. I wish I could go back and tell myself: “I know you aren’t happy now and I know you don’t plan to work with pig poop for the rest of your life. But stay here anyway. Do this grimy work with all the integrity you can muster, because this is the same integrity you’ll use when you’re doing things that are up your alley.”
Class of 2019: when things are shaky, root yourself in the moment. Get down to earth. Work with honesty, even if your coworkers don’t. Complete your assignments on time, even if you hate the class. Cite your sources—seriously. Finish your workouts. Tell people how you really feel. Be true and faithful and strong in the details of life, because they matter, and because it will enable to you to be true and faithful and strong when it’s time to make big decisions and conquer big obstacles.
And last, Proverbs 3:5-6. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
I didn’t complete my mission trip wanting to be a missionary in some far-off country for the rest of my life. But that didn’t matter. The trip was pivotal for other reasons. It taught me how to live with people. It taught me how to travel. It taught me how to work hard. It taught me how to live through hard times. It taught me how to pack light. It taught me to write. Even in the pig poop, where I was failing to trust God, God knew what to do with that.
This whole “trust God” message is kind of infuriating, because it’s one of those things that we hear all the time, and it’s easier said than done, and the mechanics of it kind of don’t make sense. But I’m reminding you of it anyway, because it holds true as long as we live.
When I didn’t know what college to choose, God knew what to do with that. When I didn’t know what to major in, God knew what to do with that. When I was a musician in the theatre community and felt overshadowed by more talented people, God knew what to do with that. When I took a low paying job at a coffee shop so I could focus on my writing, God knew what to do with that. I wish I could go back to all those points and tell myself, “I know you don’t know what to do with your life. I know you’re worried about never amounting to anything. But God is directing your path, so keep going. Make bold choices. You don’t have to know everything, because God knows what to do.” (Actually, that’s something I need to tell myself now.)
So, Class of 2019, when you have pig poop days, or even when you’re just feeling unsteady and unsure, remember these three verses. Chew on their messages.
- Don’t measure your life’s success by how much you conform to expectations.
- Whatever is going on, be faithful in the details of your life. Invest in your current situation and work with integrity there.
- And trust God. God has got you.If you suck at trusting God, God has still got you.
Take today to remember all that you have gone through to arrive here. Have a great weekend celebrating. Stay up late and wear clothes you love and don’t do any homework for once and eat lots of cake and nachos.
And then, keep going. It’s going to be so hard. It’s going to be so good. God is with you.