Fifty years ago I graduated from high school in a small town in Montana. There were 48 of us in the class of ‘66. Seven have died. Of the 41 remaining, 22 came to the 50th reunion. The one who came the farthest came from China. Many stayed in the Montana or the Northwest, but some came from North Carolina, Indiana, Minnesota, Nevada, California, and Missouri (me).
I had not seen several of these people in 50 years. So I had to answer a question that does not come up much with people who know me now. But I know it puzzled people who have lost track of me since high school. Why did I go into the ministry? They remembered me as active on the debate team and as the author of a column in the school paper. According to the class prophecy I was supposed to go into politics.
Most of my friends were Catholics or Mormons. Although I was involved in the church, my classmates did not know me in that context.
Frankly, why I went into the ministry is a bit of a mystery to me, too. So I had a hard time answering. I think people expected me to give an evangelical-style testimony. But I do not have one.
I ended up telling a story that is personal and confusing to me, but also ironic and humorous. When I was born, I nearly did not survive the first week. I had internal bleeding and a collapsed lung. Depending on which family member is telling the story, doctors gave me either a 10% chance or a 50% chance of survival. They put me in an incubator with enhanced oxygen and they gave me vitamin K, which was a new treatment then. I lived.
Of course, I have no memory of this. But I was often told the story.
My grandmother had a particularly odd and disturbing story. She thought I was at the point of death, so she made a bargain with God based on the Bible story of Samuel. Hannah prayed for a son and promised God that she would “give him to the LORD all the days of his life” (1 Samuel 1:11). So my grandmother promised to give me to God if he would let me live.
I was never sure what this meant to her. Her spiritual interests were all over the place. In her spiritualist phase, she may have thought that I would become a psychic or medium. But sometimes she thought I would be a preacher or missionary.
She had no right to do this! That was my position. I had no intention of having anything but a normal career. I thought her story was just weird.
Eventually I put it out of my mind. But at some point I decided that my other vocational options, such as law or journalism, were not fulfilling or suited to me. I ended up in the ministry. From time to time I thought about teaching or some kind of financial work instead. But it never happened.
It is not that I doubted the existence of God or the healing and saving power of the Christian gospel. What I have come to doubt is the individual autonomy and choice we all think we have. We are small and our lives get shuffled around by something bigger. I refuse, though, to put this belief into the logical box of Calvinism. I don’t believe in fate or an arbitrary God.
I would fit this more into what I know about family systems theory. We do not operate as autonomous individuals, but as parts of the families and communities we belong to. We feel the pressure of intergenerational obligations. The transaction my grandmother made may have worked in our family for various reasons.
When asked why I went into the ministry, I did not go into all of this. I just told the story of what grandma had done, how I resented it, and how I mysteriously ended up becoming a minister anyway. Then I smiled and shrugged my shoulders.