When I was four years old, I wanted to be an oceanographer. Well, either that or a marine biologist.
I wasn’t too picky as a preschooler. By the time I had entered first grade, I could name over twenty species of sharks (Lemon, Leopard, White-tip, Reef, Nurse, Grey, White, Blue, Bull, Woebegone, Thrasher, Port Jackson, Whale, Basking, Greenland, Black-tip, Hammerhead, Tiger, Mako, Dogfish.) Thirty years later, without looking, I can still do it. I recite those names for two reasons. One, to see if I could, and two, to let you know that I really wanted to be a marine biologist. This was not a passing fascination, not a fireman/policeman/pro football player kind of thing. I was committed to studying the waters of the world. I read everything I could get my hands on. I snorkeled for hours along the south shore of Lake Ontario, where I grew up. Not necessarily an area teeming with exotic undersea plants and fishes, actually mostly all I saw was bright green seaweed, but I did manage to follow a few carp and salmon around. In our farm ponds I found bass and bluegill. In the rivers I would watch the trout run and small mouth bass dart from the cover of the bank.
I loved to be on the water, canoeing, sailing, and swimming. I was born to be a marine biologist.
This obsession did not wane as I grew. In fact, it only deepened. From the time I was four, until my junior year in high school, if you had asked me what I wanted to be, my answer would not have wavered. Thirteen years, without one change in desired occupation. That may not be a record, but it could be in the running.
In high school I aced biology. I studied like my future depended on it. I think I had a 99% average for the year. I couldn’t get enough. I read and re-read every book on the subject. I studied my notes, I re-ran experiments on my own.
I took the College Board achievement test in biology and aced that, after long study sessions on the lakeshore. I signed up for an independent study in Marine Biology, in addition to taking Chemistry and Physics. I was about to recognize my goal. I received a personal, hand signed letter from the dean of the biology department from my first choice of colleges, Boston University. Not only did it have the top ranked marine biology department in the nation at the time, but also it was in Boston, my favorite city, being a huge Celtic and Red Sox fan.
I was ready. My entire life had lead up to this point. My junior year I began the admissions process. I gathered the necessary material, started filling out forms and writing essays. Not too difficult for me, having thought about this for the past thirteen years. Boston, here I come.
So how did I end up applying to a small Bible college I had never visited (or even heard of) in a city I had never been to, to study international ministry? Well, the short answer is that God told me to. The long answer? A little more involved.
It began early in my junior year. Nothing overt, no huge happenings, just a small, creeping feeling that God was going to change the direction of my life. I felt, for some strange reason, that He wanted me to work in ministry. And, like any good Christian who had first trusted Christ at age five, I resisted. I could feel the prompting of the Spirit growing and I tried to fight it. I said that I would do that later, after a successful career as a world-renown expert on shark behavior. Just let me go to Boston, let me study for a while. I could get a full ride, which would have been a huge benefit to my family. I argued with God – how could he expect me to change now? Why did he allow me to go my entire life with a dream, only to dash it within months of it beginning? It felt like a waste of time, all those hours studying, swimming, and reading. Plus, I would have to tell everyone that, despite all the years of telling them that I would be a Marine biologist, I was actually going to be a missionary. I did not like to change my mind, especially with no “good” reason. Why was I going into ministry? Because God told me to. To a scientific mind, that did not seem to work. Everything in my life to that point seemed to lead to my inevitable publication in National Geographic and a yearly feature on “Shark Week”.
I was not ministry material. I did not particularly enjoy telling others about Christ at that point in my life. I wanted a Porsche and a sailboat.
I wanted to work on a tricked-out research vessel, anchored off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. I did not want to end up in some small European town, struggling to learn the language.
Nor did I want to contract a rare and deadly tropical disease while trekking through the Amazon basin (though I would have enjoyed the wildlife). I wanted the life I had planned for the past fourteen years. I was a little upset.
So now it is November, my junior year. Applications half filled out, still hoping that the dream can continue. And then God pulled out the big guns, along with a little, rather unfair, coercion. It is time for the annual missions festival at my home church. OK, I can hold out, I can make it through this. The first weekend was fine, a couple of very nice people with amazing stories of how God was working in Central America. Great, I am very appreciative of their hard work. Thanks for coming. However, the closing weekend, it happens. The speaker is a missionary that works in France. OK, I like France, no problem. Then they tell what they do in France. Now, before I divulge this last bit of information, it is important to reveal that next to being on the water, my favorite activity was skiing. Loved it, couldn’t get enough. So when I tell you that the missionaries in France ran a ski camp in the Alps, you can see why I was more than a bit miffed that God would pull such a dirty trick. But he did, and I fell for it.
The thing is, once I let it go, once I told God “OK, you win,” it was incredible. It was like I had been freed. All the wrestling and doubt, the struggle to keep the dream alive, it all melted away.
I was ready to do whatever God asked of me, and I found great joy in that. Greater joy than I had ever experienced studying or snorkeling or sailing. It was indescribable. From that moment, the rest of the details are a blur. I talked with the missionary after the service. He told me that he had studied at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. It was supposedly one of the top ministry schools in the country. I had never heard of it. Our pastor had a five-year-old catalog from them. I took it, sent in the application, and a year and a half later, I watched as my family pulled out of the parking lot for the eleven-hour drive back to New York. I was in Chicago, ready to start down an entirely new path.