My mother tells me that when I was five years old she asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. After listing several of the typical things little boys aspire to–a superhero, a policy officer, a fireman, etc.–I suddenly grew quite.
“You know what Mommy,” I said, evidently in the most serious tone, “what I really want to be is a pastor.”
When I was twelve I remember, during a time of private prayer and reflection, feeling very strongly that God was calling me to be a pastor and this filled my heart with joy. It gave me something to look forward to and to prepare for; a goal in life. But, then, something changed.
When I got to high school I began to challenge this calling (big surprise I know). I became enamoured with art and music and spent all of my free time drawing, making independent films, and playing music. Leading up to graduation I became obsessed with being a professional rock star and dedicated every waking hour, outside of school, to an alternative/punk band I played the drums for. Touring the world and playing music was the only future I could imagine. The idea of being a pastor seemed increasingly irrelevant and positively boring.
This obsession carried on after high school as well. I moved back to my home town in Texas and began writing and recording my own music. Soon I befriended another young aspiring musician and we formed a band that played in venues all over Dallas and Fort Worth. Much to the consternation of my beautiful new bride, my friend and I spent nearly every waking hour rehearsing, writing, recording, and even choreographing our show.
Over time we began to see success. We performed at a local ‘battle of the bands’ and, within minutes of starting our set, had nearly half the auditorium crowding the stage and screaming. We lost the competition because we hadn’t brought enough people (part of your score was based on how many people bought tickets specifically to see your band play); yet, were swarmed by throngs of ‘fans’ asking for our autographs after the show. Even the band that won praised our performance. Soon we were offered a regular spot at a club in Deep Ellum Dallas and receiving invitations to play at other popular clubs as well.
In spite of this apparent success, I was a failure. I was neglecting my wife, neglecting my school work (yes, somehow I managed to stay enrolled at Tarrant County College), and performing poorly at work (surprisingly, playing in a band didn’t bring home the bacon). Most importantly, I was ignoring God.
For in the midst of everything I knew, deep down, that I was not meant to be a rock star and that, in truth, I was simply running away from vocational ministry. Music had become a false god in my life. You see, there is nothing wrong with music, or art, or working hard at doing these things well. In fact, these things are GREAT goods that MUST be pursued to the best of our abilities for the glory of God. No, the problem wasn’t music; the problem was me. I was behaving like Jonah; I was fighting the Lord, running away from His direction, and had made an idol out of my song writing.
When this finally sunk in, I begrudgingly quite the band and began to focus on my studies at seminary. I had enrolled before the band broke up in a somewhat half hearted gesture at obeying the Lord.
While my experience at seminary was enriching and instilled in me a love for learning, it also opened up a new temptation. I began to obsess over philosophy and theology. Again, these things are GREAT goods and MUST be pursued. The problem was not with academics or learning; it was with me. I was still only half-heartedly serving the Lord and trying to find anything more interesting and important than fully embracing vocational ministry. Soon all I spoke about was philosophy and I began to obsess over the idea of earning postgraduate degrees and becoming a professor.
After graduating with a bachelor of arts in humanities I determined to apply to the University of Dallas to pursue a masters degree in philosophy. During this time my family and I (we now had two beautiful girls!) lived in a run down apartment and I worked as a manager at a homeless shelter in one of the most dangerous streets in the US. My wife was not comfortable with my decision to pursue further studies at that time, reminding me of my calling to vocational ministry. I knew she was right, but was too stubborn and selfish to admit it. Something was holding me back; something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I believe it was partly because I had a distorted view of what being a pastor actually entailed. I thought it meant abandoning my love for music and my love for learning and scholarship; and being someone I wasn’t.
Two incredible things happened that changed my life.
First, I literally lost my ability to write. I had visited the campus at UD, gotten references from former professors, and filled out most of the application. All that remained was a personal statement, expressing why I wanted to study philosophy, and containing a brief intellectual history. Only a few short paragraphs; easy right? Except that every time I sat down to write nothing happened. This went on for several weeks and I began to get stressed (as did my wife, who wondered why I hadn’t completed my application with the deadline quickly approaching). I remember spending six hours at a Starbucks and only typing one sentence. Something was desperately wrong.
The second thing involved alcohol . . . lots of alcohol.
At the homeless shelter I worked at the residents and guests were required to attend chapel before each meal. Most of the time local pastors would lead the service but, on occasion, someone would cancel or a spot would go unfilled. In the case of a vacancy I would often step in to preach the sermon and lead a prayer. Accordingly, I was known as being a preacher among many of the homeless men and women we served.
One evening, just before the sun went down, I walked from the main building to a storage facility directly across the street. Suddenly I heard a voice screaming my name, “Joshua! Joshua!” I turned and saw one of our regulars stumbling down the street, obviously inebriated, and headed in my direction. “Joshua!” he cried again as he came up to me and grabbed my shirt, “Don’t fight God’s calling! Don’t fight being a preacher! You must preach!” I put my hand on his shoulder and thanked him. Soon he drifted off, stumbling down the street and shouting random things at passers by.
The next evening at precisely the same time, as I crossed the street to go to our storage facility, I once again heard a voice shouting my name, “Joshua! Hey, Joshua!” I looked up and, to my great surprise, saw the same inebriated homeless man stumbling down the street in my direction. He caught up to me and grabbed me by the shirt again, the smell of alcohol nearly overwhelming, and stared at me in the eyes, “You must not fight God’s calling! You must be a preacher!” he shouted in a raspy voice. Once again, only this time somewhat shaken, I put my hand on his shoulder and thanked him. This time tears streamed down my cheeks. He then carried on down the street in his drunken stupor.
The following evening . . . you guessed it! . . . it happened again, only it was a completely different man. Just as drunk and smelly, but delivering the same message, at the same time and in the same place as the other two incidents.
That night I cried. The tears I shed not out of sadness or fear or anger but from the overwhelming feeling of love. The love of a God who cared so much for me that He took time to speak directly to me; and through the most unlikely people in the most unlikely of places. I also felt extremely humbled. I told my wife what had happened and we agreed that I should stop pursuing an MA in philosophy at that time. Instead, I was going to apply to become an ordained minister in the C&MA*.
I contacted the District Superintendent (i.e., bishop) and went for an interview a few weeks later. After that I submitted a formal application. In the application I had to write several pages explaining why I wanted to become a pastor and provide a brief account of my spiritual history. Astoundingly, after months of writers block, I wrote everything with ease.
This, however, is only the beginning of my story. It has been five years from the day I was accepted into the C&MA’s ordination program but I am not yet a fully ordained minister. I am now living in the UK and about to begin my studies to become ordained as a deacon in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. So, what’s up with that?
I’ll explain in part two . . .
*C&MA does not stand for ‘Country Music Awards’, or ‘Christian Mormon Association’, and is not some kind of cult. It stands for ‘Christian & Missionary Alliance’-an evangelical denomination which originated in New York in the 1800’s after a Presbyterian minister broke from his church to reach out to Italian doc workers.