This year at Beeson Divinity School we had a bumper crop of seminarians. As diverse as the churches they will one day be called to serve, the students came from near and far. There they sat, willing to listen to a word from the dean, but really wanting a word from God.

As I spoke to our new students, I told them of another student I had taught during my first year as a professor. He had not done well on his examinations; there were family and financial pressures. As he was describing all of this, he stopped and asked, “When you were a student, did you ever feel like quitting? And did it ever seem that things would never get any better?”

My answer was yes. Brought up in buckle-belt fundamentalism, I was a boy preacher, a fiery youth evangelist, and a student pastor of a small-time, milltown church. Then I decided to study theology at Harvard Divinity School, a thousand miles and a million world-views from my Bible-believing home in Tennessee.

Appointed to serve an old inner-city Boston congregation with a Gothic sanctuary seating over eight hundred, I was greeted on my first Sunday with an attendance of six—including my wife and me! Struggling with strange theologies by day and wrestling with demons of discouragement by night, there were indeed many moments when it seemed things would never get any better. Long ago, Jeremiah cried out, “O Lord, we are called by thy name; leave us not” (Jer. 14:9). That prayer was often on my heart—if not my lips.

Renegade preacher Will Campbell tells about a Southern Baptist pastor he once knew named Thad Garner. Despite his affable smile and trips to the Holy Land, he was not a model pastor. One day Campbell cornered him with the question, “Thad, why did you ever decide to be a Baptist preacher?” ...

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