I attended a recent funeral in memory of a former local pastor, about my age, who graduated from Seminary with me in 1961. The person reading his biography alluded to his clear call to the ministry during his college years. I reflected on my life, trying to determine when my call to the ministry came. My surprising realization is that I’M STILL WAITING!
I went to college because I was expected to. My parents were children of the Depression from limited-income families for whom a college education had not been an option, but they did all they could to make it possible for their four boys. I was a good student, so I received a tuition scholarship to attend Rutgers University. Choosing a major was pretty easy, because I was fascinated by animals and couldn’t learn enough about them. As I began classes, I soon realized that just about all the other students who were majoring in Biological Sciences were struggling to get into Med School to become doctors. I had no ambition at all to become a physician. So, I just enjoyed all the new knowledge I was gaining, without thinking much about a future career.
In my junior year, two things happened that affected my direction in life. First, friends and family began asking what I planned to do after graduation. One option I thought of was that I could become a Biology teacher in a high school. I actually took a couple of elective courses that would prepare me for that kind of career. I slept through them and learned that wasn’t me.
The second important development in my junior year of college was my emergence as a leader in the Rutgers InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which I had been part of since I arrived on campus. At the end of my sophomore year, all of the officers of the group graduated at the same time. I was elected as President. I felt totally inadequate and unworthy, but I served in that role for the next two years. At one point, I was leading three different weekly dorm Bible Study groups. This forced me into more in-depth personal Bible study. Being “cornered” into that leadership position forced me to get serious about my own spiritual journey.
As I began my senior year in college, I heard a lot of advice about what I should do after graduation. My favorite Zoology professor strongly encouraged me to continue in that field by pursuing a graduate degree. This could ultimately lead to a life career as a college-level teacher and/or research scientist. He even had me investigating graduate programs at various colleges and universities. I could be looking through a microscope right now, if I had followed that path.
It was 1958, and though the Korean War was over, the military service draft was still in place. I had friends who received a draft notice shortly after their graduation ended their student deferment. I didn’t want to spend the next two years of my life in a military uniform, and that was definitely a factor in my decision to go into some graduate program. It seemed to come down to a choice between Zoology and Theology, between studying about animals’ relationships with their environment and studying about people’s relationships with their God. I chose the people/God option. A couple of my friends were attending Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, so I went west to join them. You’ll notice that I still hadn’t received a call to the ministry; it was more that there were other things I definitely did not feel called to — like being a school teacher, a medical doctor, an absent-minded professor, a private in the U.S. Army.
My seminary experience followed a familiar pattern: I didn’t think of myself as preparing for a career; it was the studying itself that drew me in. I became fascinated with the Biblical languages, especially Old Testament Hebrew. I wanted to know as much as possible about the language itself, but also about the faith, the culture, the people out of which our Bible emerged. Once again, I found myself being pushed by respected faculty members to make a career of scholarship. Maybe I was moving toward a lifetime of scholarly study of the background of our Christian faith.
At the end of my third year at Fuller, I was volunteering in the Youth Ministry of Altadena Baptist Church. I had to decide what courses I would be taking in my last year of seminary. Sometime, somewhere, somehow a light went on and I realized I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with test tubes, or laboratory frogs, or ancient manuscripts, or archeological discoveries. I wanted to work with people; people like those teens and college kids at ABC.
As a result, the courses I chose for my final year were ones that would help improve my ability to understand and give spiritual guidance to people. In 1961, I graduated and began a life (sixty years and counting) as a pastor in two Baptist churches.
Was I called? I didn’t experience any particular vision, or “word,” or prophecy. I guess my call was the people themselves. God seemed to systematically close every other door. That’s how he speaks to some of us.
– – Pastor George Van Alstine