My first exposure to speech and debate was six or seven years ago. My dad judged Lincoln Douglas debate while my ten-year-old self and my little brother huddled in a corner, awed by the big kids in suits. They possessed so much more swag than me. As they discussed weighty concepts, wrestled with philosophical objections, and tried to persuade my dad to vote for their side, I said to myself: this is so boring! At least the hospitality food’s good.
In April I completed my four-year tenure in speech and debate, and while I can honestly say the food is still good, I have enjoyed, grown, and experienced so much during my competitive years. I’ve had some successes, and God has grown me through them. However, God has sanctified me even more through failure, even when there was no second chance.
My junior year, I was only one slot away from reaching the National Championship in a Persuasive speech on sharing the Gospel. After the award ceremony was over and everyone had gone home, I was disappointed, but I knew I had next season. I’ve always had “next season.”
This year was different…
I arrived at Regionals qualified in four speech categories (Apologetics, Impromptu, Biblical Presentation, and Persuasive) and Lincoln Douglas debate. Though I didn’t have enough at-large points to pre-qualify, I was confident I would succeed. I hoped my Persuasive would qualify to Nationals – it had received good feedback at club and at qualifiers and I had enjoyed writing and delivering it.
Semi-final announcements came swiftly. “In Apologetics … Matthew Harper.” One speech. “In Biblical Presentation … Matthew Harper.” Two speeches. Impromptu was announced and I didn’t qualify, but that was okay.
Then came Persuasive. “In Persuasive…” Name after name was listed. I still didn’t hear “Matthew Harper.” As our regional coordinator kept going down the list, I became more anxious. Where was my name? Then the tournament moved onward.
I was excited to have qualified to semi-finals in two categories but devastated that my Persuasive would remain in the preliminaries. I had worked hard on that speech. I had been passionate about the topic. I had spent many long nights refining it, practicing it, reworking it. Now I would never again give a Persuasive speech in competition.
I gave my two speeches and then watched debate (in which I had also not qualified). Soon after, the speech finalists were announced. I quivered in my seat. Would I finally go to Nationals?
“In Apologetics…” Eight names, but mine wasn’t among them. Biblical Presentation? Once again, eight names. Mine must have been written in invisible ink.
I stared numbly at the floor, trying to process the strange sense of grief that overwhelmed me. I had qualified in nothing. I wasn’t going to Nationals. My season was over. My speech and debate career was over.
Everyone goes through seasons. Whether they are spring, summer, fall, and winter, sports seasons, speech and debate seasons, or parenting seasons, everyone knows that once a season starts, it will inevitably end. Often, once a season ends, it will never occur again.
I hadn’t experienced before this sense of finality, of done-ness. All my aspirations of going to Nationals faded into the harsh reality of: well, you’ll be an alumnus next year.
The Lord knew this was my final season. Didn’t He know and care that I wanted to win, I wanted to succeed?
Trophies are made of metal (I think.) They should not be diminished – they are tangible representations of hard work, dedication, and the will to win. Award-winners put in the effort and should be applauded. Those who win earthly accolades often gain eternal rewards, if they are Christians and approach competition with the desire to glorify the Lord and love His people. But to be honest, after the regional championship, I wanted nothing less than a ticket to Nationals.
God quickly and graciously reminded me that what I deemed as failure, He looked at as part of His sovereign will. Those who qualified to Nationals were going because God had a special purpose for them. He had a different, yet equally special purpose for my final speech and debate competitive season. Everything, from the peak to the valley, is contained in His master plan.
This final season, I gave a Persuasive speech on how adults could positively affect teenagers through mentorship, encouraging us to righteousness, and praying for us. I was (and still am) passionate about it. During the first qualifier I gave that speech, a mom came up to me while I was obtaining my complimentary hotel breakfast. She had been one of my judges the day before.
Without any prompting, she thanked me for giving my speech. She said that she would find teenagers she could encourage toward Jesus Christ, and that my speech had profoundly affected her. I thanked her, overwhelmed at God’s goodness.
I looked through my ballots at the end of that first tournament, and immediately plucked one out. Another judge had written that they would try to help teens as well. This final season, I’ve gotten encouragement from judges, friends, and coaches. I’ve grown closer to Jesus Christ. Speech and debate has given me skills I couldn’t have cultivated as well elsewhere.
My time in speech and debate competition was good. My long nights of practicing speeches, researching debate, and parental coaching were all worth it. My final season was well spent.
Treasure your seasons. Whether you win Nationals or win nothing, God uses every moment as an opportunity to show His glory. It’s all part of His sovereign will. Write well, practice hard, make friends, do well at tournaments, and most importantly, use your platform well. Speech and debate competition has helped prepare me for this new season in life, and for all my new seasons yet to come.
Matthew Harper competed in speech and debate for four years. He is currently enrolled in Boyce College’s Seminary Track degree program, where he will be pursuing a B.A. in Biblical and Theological Studies and a Master of Divinity, with the goal of becoming a pastor and/or a missionary.