I believe that reflection and self-awareness are foundational to living a beautiful life. But what are you supposed to do when your journey of self-discovery reveals something ugly in your past?
Recently I discovered an old high school scrap book containing newspaper clippings that described the events of May 26, 1993. That night I was a graduating senior at Houston High School in Germantown, Tennessee. As the Student Government President, I was charged with delivering the welcoming remarks that would open the commencement proceedings, and in front of approximately 3000 peers, parents, teachers, friends, and families gathered together for this once-in-our-lifetime event, I seized the opportunity to say a prayer.
As the yellowed newspaper quotes revealed, my invocation was not just a generic, one-size-fits-all prayer to an unnamed deity. No, with all the sincerity and confidence of an 18-year-old who had been “saved” during an evangelical church camp the preceding summer, I had prayed a full-on, explicitly Christian, “in Jesus’s name” prayer.
The local newspaper and television coverage reported that the crowd’s reaction was enthusiastic and supportive. But what the media missed was a hand-written letter I received a couple of weeks later from the mother of Robert, one of my fellow graduating classmates. Stuck in my scrap book next to the glowing newspaper stories, this letter still haunts me.
After kind introductory comments wishing me well in college and beyond, Robert’s mother wrote: “You can’t imagine how I felt, as I sat in the Mid-South Coliseum during my son’s graduation, when you lapsed into prayer. My heart went out to my son, Robert, and others in the graduating class who are Jewish. Robert has endured many jokes and comments over the years, but luckily he is secure and proud of his heritage. Your sudden lapse into a prayer and reference to Jesus forced those students and guests of a different religion to sit and endure a very uncomfortable few moments at what was supposed to be a joyous occasion. . . . Josh, I sincerely feel that you owe my son, as well as the other Jewish members of your class, an apology.”
Robert, your mom was right. I am sorry I prayed that offensively sectarian prayer. It was insensitive, selfish, and hurtful, and I was wrong to do it. After years of contemplation, I see now that my act of praying that night was more political than pious, more hubris than humility. With sixteen years of hindsight, I now see much more clearly your mother’s perspective, and I am deeply disturbed by my actions on that warm evening in May. I am sorry that I chose to use my time at the podium to incite division rather than to inspire unity.
Since graduating from high school over a decade and a half ago I have become less certain about the details of what dogmas and doctrines I believe. But, I do cling to this one article of faith: It is never too late to say you are sorry.