In Peripheral Visions, cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson said that, when we take-stock of our lives, we can focus either on continuity or discontinuity:
“’Everything I have ever done has been heading me for where I am today’ is one version of the truth, but most adults can say as well ‘It is only after many surprises and choices, interruptions and disappointments, that I have arrived somewhere I could never have anticipated’” [Harper Collins, 1994: 83-84].
My journey certainly includes both.
When I enrolled in Georgia Southern College in the fall of 1975, I didn’t have a career in mind or a calling in my heart. When pressed to respond to the question of vocation, I’d mumble that I was headed to law school, but I really didn’t have a clue,
Earlier, I had been surer. When I was 11 years old, I had felt a call to ministry, though I had only the vaguest impressions of what that might mean. I had even wispier awareness of the emotional needs that tuned my heart to hear such an invitation.
By the time I was 15, I had given up on faith, since I had questions I couldn’t find help in answering, and the lack of both answers and guidance distanced me from the God. When I arrived in Statesboro, I was a reluctant atheist (looking back, I can see that I was more of a disillusioned agnostic than a convinced atheist).
Eventually, I decided to major in history, probably because, in both junior high and high school, social studies teachers, particularly Marlene Holland and Jane Ricketts, had invested themselves in me. Two professors on the history faculty at Georgia Southern—James Jordan and George Shriver—had had theological training. Outside of class, in response to my sometimes obnoxious questions, they helped me find some answers to those long-standing questions I had about God. Along with English professors Delma Presley and Jack McDuffie, they showed me a way to faith that engaged, rather than sacrificed, the mind.
When faith came back to life, so did a call to ministry. This time, though, I felt lured to teaching as ministry—perhaps in a church-related college or in a seminary. I would serve in the classroom more than in the sanctuary. I went to Southern Seminary to prepare to teach religious history or historical theology.
While at Southern, Ernest Campbell, preaching minister of the Riverside Church in the City of New York, gave the Mullins Lectures on Preaching. In one of his lectures, he made a case for pastors as “theologians on the front lines of cultural engagement,” and issued a plea for some of us who were planning to do something else in ministry to reconsider the pastorate. I was sure that he was speaking to me, and, sitting in Alumni Chapel, I committed myself to serving as a pastor.
I continued to feel the tug of the classroom, though. While serving local churches, I scratched the teaching itch by the way I approached the teaching I did in the congregation by serving as an adjunct or visiting professor.
A couple of months before my 57th birthday, I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma. Fatigue, pain, and uncertainty have become nearly constant companions. I couldn’t continue to serve as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Asheville. When I left that role in January of 2015, I didn’t know what kind of work I would do next.
I’ve landed in the classroom at Mars Hill University. Many of my students are, as I was, first-generation college students. And, hopefully, some of the young people I work with can see in me the possibility of one’s having a feeling mind and a thinking heart.
While I still do what I can to help local churches, I’m ending where I thought I would begin.
“Everything I have ever done has been heading me for where I am today.”
“It is only after many surprises and choices, interruptions and disappointments, that I have arrived somewhere I could never have anticipated.”
When we look back, we see that God has been with us. What sometimes felt like wandering has been a pilgrimage.