One of my favorite instructors from academic days was a wise, old professor who had taught numerous generations of students and prepared them for ministry or grad/postgraduate work. And while I would not characterize him as jaded, he did have that wry wit of one who “has been around”. I recall that on several occasions he remarked that over the years students would come through from time to time and fancy themselves prophets. To any of us young people giving him a listening ear, he suggested that if we were real prophets (not just self-styled and fashionable), we should be prepared to earn a prophet’s wage.
Of course the old man was referring to the fact that prophets suffer the message they bring from God. Prophets largely go unheeded, at least during their own lifetimes, and when taken seriously, often punished in various ways – up to and including death (even death on a cross, as one famous prophet can attest!). Thus the professor would have us students take such a calling with all seriousness and not think it to be somehow academically fashionable.
I took his remarks to heart and purposefully avoided an embrace of prophetic vocation. Only through subsequent years of NOT earning any money for my ministry, as well as largely being ignored and/or shunned, AND dealing more and more with apocalyptic symbols, have I begun to accept even the idea that I might, after all, be called to prophetic ministry. Yes, though I resisted the notion for years, it seems to me that I have worked very hard to earn the prophet’s wage – at least in being shunned.
But recent days have revealed another kind of wage to me, one the old professor did not speak of – one I had never expected or dared to dream. In order to explain it, I must tell a brief story about my experience in life and ministry – a story that depicts one very important layer in the foundation of my life and calling of which its importance has only just begun to take shape for me.
Getting Admitted To School
I first went to Bible College with a dark cloud over my head. I really must keep the details of that part of the story private, because in subsequent years, I have made peace with those who opposed me. So with no details I will say this, I found myself embroiled in a church conflict over the course of about a year just prior to admission. While at first, my part in that conflict helped a fellow minister (a much older and well established career minister), he eventually opposed me, and upon discovering that I planned to enter the academy, he wrote a letter to the dean (who was a personal friend), and those in charge of handling my admission, outlining for them what a bad idea it would be for me to get admitted.
To be fair (and again without going into detail), I was guilty of sin. In the course of that conflict, I had behaved poorly and hot-headed. To this day, I believe firmly in the cause I stood for, but if I could change some of my own behavior at that time, I would. I had lashed out inappropriately. I will not deny that fact. But I will insist that my bad behavior played a small part in a larger conflict where everyone else’s behavior was bad too – and I was the young one needing guidance and not getting it. Thus, I take responsibility, but only for my sinful part.
The whole thing caused me to have a “bad” reference. Matters grew worse yet, though. I reached out to other established ministers for help, but these people did not know me very well. In all honesty, they could not vouch for me – not with any depth. And when I look back, I recall how another young man, about my age, had turned his life around from drug and alcohol abuse and gained broad support from our church, the year before. He had obtained good references and went off to a sister school only to run aground as a sex scandal broke out. Only a year into school, and this young man was out to the shame of all who had endorsed him. Here I was, not too dissimilar except I had made a mess of my reputation being a troubler of the church before I even tried to get into the academy.
I felt desperate. I needed someone to write me a reference that I could trust. Someone who could and would tell another side of my story.
A Second Opinion
Well, it so happened that in the two years leading up to this moment, I had befriended an adolescent, young man at church, who like me had an enthusiasm for Heavy Metal music. Yes, I don’t hide it, I am an old metal head. But at the time, I was a young man finding Jesus, and I was finding that more important than my musical tastes. Meanwhile, there was this family at church who had a couple teenage sons who they felt were somewhat “at risk” and who, like me, were into metal music. That family hoped I might be a positive influence on their boys. So I made an effort, and sure enough the younger boy took to me. We became unlikely friends.
We will call him “Agent Metal Head”.
So, Agent Metal Head and I worshipped together every weekend. I became close with his family, and we spent lots of time doing other things as well. But at least two or three times, Agent Metal Head and I also went to major rock festivals in the city. We saw Oz Fest and Lollapalooza, among other shows. It was clear to us that most, if not all, of the “artists” who made music to our liking were not Christian and did not promote Christian values. There were, of course, Christian rock bands, and we explored them too, but somehow, by the grace of God, we managed to navigate these cultural pitfalls while developing an ever deepening love for Jesus. And that seemed quite clear to me even then.
Thus I asked Agent Metal Head to write a letter of reference for me to send to the dean and those helping with the admissions process. And at fourteen years old, Agent Metal Head was hardly the “qualified” opinion those nice folks were wanting to hear from. The academy has its standards, you know, and this stunt just did not really respect them.
I did not read the letter Agent Metal Head wrote. He tried to show it to me, but I insisted that it should be private between him and them. I did notice that it was written in pencil. I was aware that Agent Metal Head was not strong in – shall we say – grammar skills. But when I prayed about it and looked around, his was the only reference I knew I could trust to share part of my story that would be meaningful AND bright if only the gate-keepers would take it seriously.
To shorten a long story, just a bit, I will say that in subsequent months and years, I did discover that the original bad reference letter did in fact cost me dearly, but that this “stunt” I pulled by having Agent Metal Head also write a letter on my behalf was viewed as very immature. Today, I would call it prophetic or prophet-like. It actually cost me even more than the bad reference. It was beneath the standards of the academy (and I would say beneath contempt). Of course I was never given details on any of that. Admissions decisions are almost always made behind closed doors, and even in this case, they played their cards close to the vest. I was let in, thank God, but only on the conditions of every academic probation the school could foist on me. It was telling, perhaps, when I got my first report card (I still have a copy of it) which showed I made all A’s but also a “U” for UNSATISFACTORY!
Yes, I am likely the only student in the history of my alma mater, no way to know for sure, who made straight A’s and did in UNSATISFACTORY style! Who does that???
So, anyway, this story paints the picture of my calling to prophetic ministry, alright. It is just one layer. I wrote on this blog a while back about my experience at Hogback, New Mexico and how that too played a part in my prophetic call. Yes, there are several layers to that story… that process. But there is more to this one still….
In just the last few days, Agent Metal Head has reached out through the internet and found me again. We have not spoken in ten years. I have not laid eyes on him in twenty. He is grown up now. He is no longer that 14 year old kid I said goodbye to on his grandfather’s driveway as I loaded up and moved to Texas where I would study Bible and ministry. He has his own family now, his own career, his own ministry, even. But I have not kept touch with him.
Revealing Another Kind of Prophetic Wage
It just so happens that a few days before he found me, I was recounting to a friend about that reference letter Agent Metal Head wrote for me. I recounted how that with all the LOVE of God dripping from every misspelled word and mis-punctuated sentence, that letter was said to have cost me in my bid to go to the academy and learn about Jesus. It was just one more layer, I thought, in all that picture of a minister who earns a prophet’s wage instead of a paycheck or ecclesial respect. And in the recounting of it, I felt a bit confirmed all the more in what I do and say and all I stand for.
And then Agent Metal Head finds me.
But as I said above, near the start of this long tale, there is another kind of wage revealed to me in all this. It turns out that in all the years since I have seen or spoken to Agent Metal Head, he too has developed and grown into a life of ministry. He did not go to the academy, but he demonstrated to me very quickly that he reads (voraciously, I might add) both his Bible and the works of many leading Bible scholars. He doesn’t read just the pop-Christian stuff, he gets into some heavy theology as well, and demonstrates some very serious thinking about Jesus and Christian faith. Meanwhile, he devotes his chosen profession (he is a chef) to feeding the homeless. In addition to that, he and his wife are foster parents! I am just blown away by the poetic sense of justice I get in all that.
No. I am not legit in the field of ministry. I lead no church; I am no published scholar; I don’t even have the respect of my peers. But I have jumped through all their hoops with finesse, though still with that label “UNSATISFACTORY”. I earn, at least in a general sense, that prophet’s wage my old professor warned us aspiring ministers about. But I earn another wage too. That strange investment I placed in that adolescent so long ago – even when I was young and struggling to know anything at all – is paying off right where it counts!
Like flowers blooming in the desert as Israel passes by (Isa. 35), so too the path on which God has placed me bears fruit I MIGHT have played a small role in planting. I did not stay in Agent Metal Head’s life and groom him for this. If I had tried, I almost certainly would have jacked it up somehow. But God gives me deep encouragement – perhaps it is even food the disciples don’t know about (John 4:32).
Yes. I am blessed with my wage – a prophet’s wage. And though that might involve suffering a lot of injustice, it always points to (and under God’s care and in his time achieves) true justice and peace.