Forty-eight years ago, in late September 1973 – maybe on this day, September 29 – I was stopped cold on Campanile Way. I can take you to the exact location: in the shadow of the iconic bell-tower on the Berkeley campus of the University of California.
I had a destination in mind: Sproul Hall, the administration building. But I never made it there, thanks to a casual conversation with Greg Best, a family friend that I hadn’t seen in about ten years. Greg didn’t realize – and neither did I at first – that our “coincidental” encounter was a divine appointment.
But Greg didn’t stop me cold. God did.
I’ll bet you just raised your eyebrows. Whether in wonder or in skepticism, either reaction is understandable. But I hope you’ll draw your own conclusions after reading the whole story.
Allow me to take you back a few months. The conversation between Greg and myself is best seen as the third in a series of four – two of them earlier in May, and one on Thanksgiving Day, two months later.
The first exchange began one evening with my dad’s sincere and thoughtful question: Have you decided on a career? He had long encouraged me to be a doctor, but it only took two quarters at Cal for me to drop out of the pre-medicine major. He was disappointed, but was also concerned, for I didn’t drop into anything. Finishing up my first year of college, my major was “undeclared” and the path before me was unclear. The conversation ended just like the previous ones: Sorry, but I have no idea, Dad.
The second conversation began about an hour later the same evening. I have long called it my draft notice from God because there was no voice – angelic or otherwise. Nothing. But a specific Bible reference – 2 Timothy 4 – popped into my consciousness as I was sitting on my bed. After briefly ignoring the incident, I found my Bible and read this:
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. (2 Timothy 4:1-2)
I’d like to share with you that I got down on my knees and thanked God for giving me my marching orders. Nope. The light went off, and the evening ended.
But what began the next morning was four months of confusion. Huh? Who me? Ridiculous. Why me? Absurd. I don’t recall settling upon a fitting adjective, but my sentiments were very clear:
I had never thought about becoming a Pastor.
I did not want to be a Pastor.
I could not be a Pastor, because I almost passed out the one time I spoke in public.
End of story. Or so I thought.
Up to that point the second conversation had been a four-month-monologue in which I told God what I didn’t want to do or be. But forty-eight years ago this week, on the fifth floor of the Moffitt Undergraduate Library, I finally gave in and said Yes to God’s claim upon my identity and my vocation. A frustrated yes, one that sounded more like fine. A resigned and reluctant yes. But yes.
Berkeley, the haven of free thinking and free speech, was a great place to study other subjects, including civil disobedience. But training for ministry? That only happens at a nice, safe Christian college, right? Thus, my surrender was followed quickly by a prayer that made sense to me: OK, God, I’m heading to the registrar’s office today to start the process of transferring. If you don’t want me to do this, then you’ll have to stop me.
That ended the second conversation, which ten minutes later was followed by the third, the fateful one with Greg Best on Campanile Way. He just happened to be walking across campus and recognized me. Naturally, he asked about my life. To that point, I had not shared with anyone the events of the past four months. But it seemed natural to tell him my plans to bolt from Berkeley, as I had “recently” decided to go into vocational ministry.
Greg shared with me his experience. He had earned a bachelor’s degree from Stanford, went to seminary, and was back at Berkeley doing doctoral work. Arriving at seminary, whatever he was lacking in theology he made up quickly. But in terms of practical knowledge of people and their needs – especially those outside the church – the students who had come from Christian colleges had been too insulated, and had no opportunity to catch up. I’ll never forget his next statement: If my opinion means anything to you, you should stay right here at Berkeley.
I never took a step further to transfer out of Berkeley, because God stopped me cold on Campanile Way. Think about it, as I have for forty-eight years. I asked God to stop me if I was making a foolish decision … and not ten minutes later I just happened to run into the one person could give me some godly counsel on where to study for ministry. Coincidence? I didn’t believe it then, and still don’t.
In May God held out his hand and invited me to serve him for life. In September he gently
directed me to stay on a path that I thought I should leave. And the fourth conversation in November revealed that his hand had been directing me for years without my knowledge.
Our family’s Thanksgiving Dinner was held at my Aunt and Uncle’s home. That year it included my cousin and her husband, who was serving in Christian ministry. I found a chance to talk with him alone and asked what his college major had been. He said his major was Psychology, but admitted that he wished he had majored in Communications. His next statement was memorable: the best major to prepare for ministry would be one that combined the two. Nice idea, I thought, but not likely.
Later that evening at home I found the UC Berkeley Catalog, which summarized the specifics and the requirements of each major field of study. Surprise! I discovered an interdisciplinary major in the Rhetoric Department, “Communications and Public Policy” – studying … you guessed it … understanding people and how to communicate with them.
But my momentary excitement was quickly tempered when I saw an asterisk next to the title. The explanatory note said that this major was now closed; it was being phased out in two and a half years. Applicants to enroll in this major would have to have already taken certain courses, such as Cultural Anthropology, Introduction to Psychology, and Public Speaking. Hmmm… In my four quarters at Berkeley I had already taken as electives all of the required prerequisites, was eligible to apply, and would be part of the last group to graduate with that major. And that’s exactly what happened, one of sixteen people.
God stopped me cold on Campanile Way and sent me forth on Thanksgiving. Stunned, but in a way that prodded me forward with an awareness of his power and of his presence in my daily life. It also gave me a sense of mission that I’ve never been able to set aside.
Why is this story included in the Blue Spigot? Good question. As noted on the home page, one of the regular dimensions of my blog will be selections from what I call my “Book of Stones”. This story of my call to ministry is the first entry.
I have written them down them for me, to remember specific events when God has shown up and often surprised me. But I record them for you also. I hope they will be reminders of his character and provision, and his desire to be active in your life.
As you can imagine, I’ve been reflecting on these conversations for forty-eight years. But this post is long enough. Next week I will share some of them with you.
Benediction of Blessing
May God surprise you – yes, stun you – with the reality of his presence in your life and his deep love for you.
May you be given an unshakeable awareness of his guiding and providing hand through the events of your days.
May you be careful to write down what you have experienced so that others may be blessed also.