Christmas Lights, Bubble Lights, Spotlights–My Call Story

In this past week’s issue of the Oklahoma Contact Unit-ed Methodist Newspaper, I noticed an article declaring May a month in which clergy are encouraged to share the stories of their call to ministry. Nothing inspires like hear-ing, and I was impressed by our own Nathan Oney’s inter-view with our staff-parish relations committee this past month. That committee has recommended to our Church Council that in May we have a called charge conference to recommend him to the next step in his exploration of or-dained ministry, which including seminary is a 6 year pro-cess. I began the same process in 2001 in Bartlesville, where I was serving as a youth minister, but the “call” was a more organic outgrowth of my own upbringing, experi-ences, and convictions.
I was led into ministry by a “Christmas light strand” of sparkling call experiences throughout my life as a preach-er’s kid, and this “light strand” continues into the present day with things as simple as conversations with colleagues and grace-filled moments of life. The “lynchpin” that I have typically identified as a critical moment in my call was the night I spent with my father in a hotel room in Dallas. I was there for a youth ministry training school at SMU, and he was at a black-preacher’s summit on behalf of the Arkansas Conference. I had been setting my sights on a career in academia, but was also impressed with the new experience of being in ministry with youth. My father simply mentioned there were ministry contexts in university settings that might offer the best of both worlds. Something about that suggestion glowed especially—and I recall that experience as an effervescent “bubble light” on the strand of Christmas lights of other conversa-tions, relationships, feelings, thoughts, and experiences, because something about it rung in my ears with an unu-sual clarity.
That being said, the call into ministry was an amalgam of interest, opportunity to teach and have a career doing something worthwhile with my life, a desire for the church to be more open-minded and open-hearted than it was combined with the realization that I needed to be present to help achieve that goal, and an awareness of unusual signs and sense that God was pulling me toward this voca-tion. Though my training and interests were leading me toward academia, I took a job as a youth minister since it was something I could do “in the meantime” as my plans immediately after college included getting married to a woman who was pursuing an undergraduate degree in Tulsa. God is an expert at “meantime.” In fact, perhaps that’s the whole point of the Sabbath. In this case, the “meantime” gave me the “on the job” experience that min-istry would be a way to fulfill some of the desires I had in a career in the academic world without losing touch with the practice of faith. During a “second stint” with the pull toward academia while working at Occidental College in Los Angeles during seminary, I noted that in many aca-demic environments, professors of religion were expected to be somewhat atheistic in their personal lives as to not “muddy the waters” of their academic insight. I thought to myself that this would not be a very fulfilling path for me.
A “Christmas light strand” of a sense of call into minis-try can fill the room with a pleasant and substantial light, and would have probably been sufficient to discern a call into ministry on their own, but I have also experienced the “spotlight” of a sudden and dramatic revelation. One such “spotlight” is when I was driving a busload of youth back to Bartlesville from a day at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. As we drove, I began to notice the weather turning foul, and soon the tornado warning signals started sound-ing on the radio. With no place to really turn over for shel-ter, I decided to rely on the wisdom of the truckers and followed their lead in plunging on ahead, since I was un-sure of the path of the tornados that were being reported, and figured they were a little more informed with their cb radios. The wind buffeted the shell-top conversion van, and I sweated bullets, but the youth in the back of the van seemed unfazed by the experience. The pounding rain had already slowed us down by an hour, and so I thought if I could get to the southbound highway into Bartlesville, we would be out of the path of the storms, and we would be on our way—but I was deathly afraid of making the wrong decision. My prayer was somewhat demanding (and one reason I have a soft spot in my heart for Thomas): “Look God, these are your children here, and I’m all you’ve got to protect them—so I need to know you’re with me. Show me something, because I’m afraid!” Moments after praying that shaken fist of a prayer to God, a lighting bolt struck a tree in a field just 50-100 yards right outside my driver’s window. In the split second of glancing at the tree, I could see the whole tree light up in flames. Though I couldn’t quite take off my shoes while I was driving, my hands did slacken from a white-knuckle grip on the wheel. The wind and rain didn’t let up, but I went forward in confidence that God was with me. That experience of ap-pealing to God’s presence and being met with it “charged up” a call into ministry and a desire to do something with my life that would be a conduit for the power of God in a real and substantial way.