Twenty years ago I had to make a choice – the CIA or seminary.
During a week in May 1991 Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and the Central Intelligence Agency were both interested in me. I had two days to decide – spy or seminarian? Bond, James or Barth, Karl? Libraries and research or martinis and bikinis? Greek and Hebrew or dead drops and black ops?
I was a kid, not yet 22, so the choice wasn’t exactly a head scratcher. I chose the Agency. I knew I could always go back to seminary. I knew I couldn’t go back to the CIA.
And when I walked in to work there my first morning I was even greeted by a Bible verse on the wall, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” It was from the Gospel of John. I wasn’t turning my back on God to go to the CIA. I was just choosing a different path for living out my faith.
The funny thing is though, not a week has passed in 20 years that I haven’t thought about the decision. It didn’t matter if things were going well or poorly or I was feeling happy or sad or Godly or like a heathen. It just kept coming back. I don’t know how many times I told my wife, Kim, or friends, various, that I’d finally decided to go back to seminary. Dozens? That’s probably too many. At least a dozen.
It didn’t hurt that time and again Gordon Conwell kept coming up. A new friend told me that we would have been classmates had I gone. The pastor who married my wife and I years later said that he’d actually been on the pastoral staff at Gordon Conwell when I would have been there.
But how? We lived and worked in Washington, DC. No other seminary seemed quite right. It felt like GCTS or nothing.
Then a company I was helping build cratered in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. My wife needed a new job. Out of the blue Kim got a call from an old friend who’d just taken over as Chairman and CEO of a company in Charlotte, NC. He desperately needed a new head of marketing. Soon thereafter it was Kim Kuo, CMO.
My new life was going to be as a full-time writer. David Kuo, writer. So in April 2009 we moved south. We arrived in the Queen City glad to be out of the muck of DC politics. We arrived in the Queen City only to find that 20 years earlier, in the spring of 1991, Gordon Conwell opened a new campus there. I hadn’t needed to go to Gordon Conwell after all. It came to me in my new hometown.
Did I enroll right away? No.
Why? Inertia. I’d been away from school for a very long time. What would I do with a seminary degree now? In the intervening years I’d been diagnosed with a brain tumor. I had a small chance at a long life but I was, more likely, faced with an abbreviated one. What sense did seminary make?
Then I was told I was going to die. March 8, 2010. After a second brain surgery in the fall of 2010 and six weeks of radiation and chemo I had an MRI that the docs said looked, “Awful.” A massive new tumor had grown through the treatments. My life was now in the 6-12 month category.
The full details of that journey are for a different time and place.
One detail though is for now. One night in May, with Kim home with a couple ill kids I managed to hobble and drive and hobble my way to church where David Chadwick, the senior pastor of Forest Hill Church, had been doing a series on Jonah. That night, in May, I was alone. One of our kids wasn’t feeling great and Kim was taking care of him. I arrived to a sermon entitled, “Jonah’s Obedience.”
By that time it was no longer clear that I was going to die. Follow-up scans showed the massive tumor disintegrating. Again, another story for another time. But I wasn’t out of the woods. So it wasn’t exactly a stunner when the thought came into my head that, like Jonah, I had been disobedient to a specific call on my life to go to seminary.
The mind always tries to make sense of the senseless. I wasn’t falling for that one. Not this time. So I listened and sang and generally worshipped as I had a small side chat with God that went something like this, “I’m not gonna jump here. Its been 20 years. If I’m some kind of Jonah I’m gonna have to hear a bit more than this random thought in my head.”
After the final songs were sung, I watched from my seat in the balcony as David made his way to the front of the stage for his final thoughts. That night he began by talking about what a joy it was for him to ordain someone, to welcome them into full-time ministry, to set them apart.
He then started talking about this old friend of the church’s. He’d been involved for more than 20 years. He’d been a shepherd – literally and metaphorically. His name was Tim Laniak and he was dean of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte. A seminary that was birthed at Forest Hill.
Perhaps the only thing that could have been clearer for me that night would have been the balcony belched me down in front of the church.
I walked down the aisle after the service, talked to Tim, told him my story as I listened a bit to his and he smiled and nodded knowingly. My story was unique because it was mine. But my story is the same as a lot of people he knows. It seems people regularly get belched into seminary.
As he walked away he stopped and turned and smiled saying, “I’m so glad for your obedience and so sorry about all the tears and pain that it took to get you here.”
The next day as I sorted through books in our bedroom I reached into a back corner I couldn’t see just to check whether I’d nabbed them all. There was one left. I pulled it out and looked at the cover.