Josh McDaniel is just getting his feet wet with ministry. A second-year student at Candler, he is interested in decreasing social fragmentation through church work. He wants to help people gain a better interest in the lives of those around them through Jesus Christ, one day and one person at a time. He is the Trinity Table Supervisor at Trinity UMC and the Executive Associate Assistant Youth Pastor at St. James UMC in Atlanta.
[Below is his story of how overcoming alcoholism helped him overcome fears and doubts he discovered in Seminary.]
I was a familiar face at church as a child, but during my teenage years I had edged away from God. I arrived at college with faint stirrings of faith, wanting to return to the fold. A Bible for Literature class helped me to blow off some of the dust, and a professor told me I ought to go to seminary. This was music to my ears, and I started making plans.
But pride and youth got in the way of these plans. Instead of attending church, I spent a few years drunk on booze and high on marijuana and pills. I spent a few nights in jail for various misdemeanors. With a cold steel clang, the doors to my future slammed shut. I felt for some time that there was nothing left for me in life and getting wasted became a necessity. It was the only thing that was real and pure and honest and I defined myself with self-disgust.
Luckily, Jesus turns the wretchedness of our past into a story that will honor him and I realized this by working a 12-step recovery program with the help of a very supportive sponsor, who emphatically urged me to pursue my lost dream of going to seminary. Though I had completely given up so many times, God never had. Years ago, I had an intellectual understanding of God, but it was only through being brought to the depths of despair by drugs and alcohol that I learned to depend on God and have a true, living faith. I wanted more than ever to help others know this God. Onward I walked with a spring in my step and a song in my heart.
The summer before my first semester in Seminary, I went on a mission trip in Montenegro. Afterwards, I traipsed around Europe for a couple weeks, staying in cheap hostels and eating weird food. I was in Bratislava, Slovakia and stopped in the square to hear a group of art students perform pieces by Frank Zappa and Terry Riley on theremins and squalling electric violins. The mission I had been on had sometimes seemed short-sightedly evangelical (I use this word cautiously, as I identify as evangelical), so it was good to hear this music that was so challengingly far out of left field. (Sometimes you have to put the dial in between the radio stations to hear God.) I was excited to get to Candler and discuss the white-hot impulse that made those kids play their instruments so religiously out of tune. The impulse that didn’t necessarily want to destroy all tradition, but at least make it stand on guard.
But when I got to Candler how little I felt like saying. The first few weeks seemed like a flood of words and faces and a lot of “just-for-the-sake-of” talking. Sometimes I felt very old among all these whippersnappers who had graduated college three months earlier and acting like they were going to save the world, bragging that they’d shifted three paradigms and planted a church while waiting for the bus that morning. I would retreat into self-pity like it was a shrine, sometimes not even realizing I was doing it.
After a few quizzes and exams this attitude did begin to lift as I became more sure-footed and decided I had to get over myself. I also had a conversation with an old friend who, after I explained my woes, reminded me how misguided one’s perceptions can be, and that these people were “just folks.” I had to stop selling myself so short.
One day in my first-semester pastoral care class, Dr. Karen Scheib asked me to say something to the class about honesty. I almost started laughing at the request; how could one give a quick summation of honesty in a moment’s notice. After considering it for a couple seconds, I replied, “Honesty is important.” Some people laughed at my brevity. Any more words would have detracted from the truth. I am alive today because I finally became honest enough to admit to God that I was in dire need of help, and he pointed me towards the help I needed.
Seminary has certainly served to complicate my faith at times, but sometimes even an intricate stained glass window can look like chaotic abstraction until the light shines through it, letting you see the marvelous colors and pictures. But that light never shines unless I am honest in my prayers and in my life about my strengths and my weaknesses. That impulse – that light of truth – moves us forward. I cannot do this alone. There wouldn’t be much point to doing ministry all alone, anyway.
The first year of Seminary went by very quickly! Our final exam in Introduction to Old Testament was focused largely on wisdom literature, with two essay questions on Ecclesiastes, which is preciously called Qoheleth only by people who teach and attend seminary. I found a certain poetic justice in that book’s outlook serving to frame my first year experience. Some years ago, a cop had asked me from the other side of the bars what my college major had been. After I told him I’d majored in religious studies, he asked me to recite a favorite line of scripture. “There is nothing new under the sun,” I told him. With a knowing smirk, I added, “from Proverbs.” If the cop knew better, he did not let on.
If you are a raging alcoholic, it is really easy to relate to Ecclesiastes/Qoheleth. The pessimism of the first few verses is like the taste on the back of the tongue from a 10AM scotch. You never get past those first few verses. You just turn on The Price is Right and pass out, muttering that all is vanity, bitterly trying your damndest to snuff out the delusional flames of optimism and hope. I can still be cynical today, but never to that degree.
The first third is over, and there is still nothing new under the sun, and still all is vanity, but those words sure have a different feeling for me than they once did. God changed my context. It may have all been said before, but I would like to have my turn at saying it. I could speak only ingratitude until, like Isaiah, the burning coal touched my lips and my sins were forgiven, and God calls me to use my voice and not be ashamed at what he has done for me. It is that same impulsive spark that always results from the friction needed for change. Listen to me, I’m sounding like one of those dang whippersnappers.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
— Joshua McDaniel