The autumn of 2005 turned into 2006, which drug into 2007, and we still had not found a Teaching Pastor, even though the resumes were coming in from around the country. Gideon continued to preach on a temporary basis. After more than a year of driving to Waco from Austin every Sunday, I think he began to get restless and ready for the church to expedite the search process. Increasingly Ben and John Mark would preach as well, along with seminary students and other friends of the church. Ben, like Kyle before him, had started as a subpar preacher, but was beginning to show glimmers of promise. None of our ministers, though, aside from Gideon, were as proficient and gifted with the task of preaching as Kyle had become.
Much of what I know about the behind-the-scenes conversations concerning how to fill the preaching role left vacant by Kyle’s death, including this story, was learned secondhand. (And probably, in some cases, third and fourth hand.) I have been told that one preacher who had filled in at UBC frequently was approached by David and others in leadership about becoming our permanent teaching pastor. I, and just about everyone else at UBC who heard him preach, would have loved to have had him with us. He was dynamic and grounded, and we loved him, but he had turned down the opportunity on multiple occasions. During one such conversation he was taken to the house of a famous Christian singer, in an apparent last-ditch attempt to woo him to UBC. He was, apparently, unimpressed. The Congregation he was leading was his community. He felt a strong connection to them and wasn’t interested in leaving.
But it should have been obvious that he would remain where he was. The sermons we heard him preach were rooted in finding a place, planting roots , and in being a part of God’s work in the world as it is happening on the ground that is currently underneath your feet. He preached about being a community of radical grace that extends hospitality to its city, echoing Eugene Peterson’s translation of 1 John 1:14 describing Jesus’ work as “becoming flesh and blood, moving into the neighborhood.”
He and his wife, and others in their community, had recently made a conscious decision to move into the area where their church was meeting and plant themselves there for a long period of time. After hearing him preach about this often, we should have all known he was serious about it, and that coming to preach at a church that was struggling to choose whether to embrace an identity rooted in a particular place, or an identity that would have a global reach, was not a proposition that he was likely to consider.
The irony is that this preacher, and others who ministered to us, planted seeds in some of our imaginations about what a church firmly rooted in its neighborhood, without any desire for a platform or to be seen by the masses, could look like. And he was so good at, and faithful to, what he was preaching, that we wanted him to be a part of our platform, and he was having none of it. Regardless of whether he was with us or not, some of us were actually wanting to become the type of community that he was challenging us to imagine.
Since both of their beginnings, UBC and Baylor’s Truett Seminary have had close ties. Kyle was a part of the school’s inaugural graduating class, and we often had its students choose UBC to be their church home while in Waco. In training young ministers, part of the curriculum at Truett is for students to take a semester to work under a mentor, either a pastor or minister who has some level of experience in the field that the student feels called into. Students choose their mentor, with very few parameters, and are encouraged to dream big about where they spend that semester. Because of this, many students travel all over the country and even globally to take advantage of the opportunity to cultivate experience. Others, though, for various reasons choose to stay and work in Waco. These are typically students who are grounded to Waco by virtue of having a family, career, or other strings that are keeping them tethered here.
Josh, who had become one of my closest friends, was one such student and decided to do his mentoring with Ben at UBC during the summer of 2007. The mentoring semester is usually toward the end of Truett’s degree program, during a time when students are preparing for what is next and casting their resumes far and wide. This was true for Josh. He was from Wisconsin, went to college in Minnesota, and was comfortable with the idea of returning home. His wife, Lindsey, taught school in Waco while Josh was in seminary, and they had also become comfortable with the idea of remaining in Texas.
From the moment I met him, I found Josh to be engaging and warm, yet quirky. When he is introduced to someone, his modus operandi was (and is) to pepper his new acquaintance with the most outrageously personal questions related to politics, theology, and other social issues. The experience of meeting him can feel so off-the-wall that you think that this guy must be a comedian, working on an Andy Kaufman impersonation. Then after a while, you realize that is just Josh being Josh. He was homeschooled for a large portion of his childhood, and admits that this formed him socially in ways that can come across as humorously aloof. If first impressions are high on your values list, then you may be put off by Josh in the beginning. But for those who can handle the quirkiness, Josh is incredibly endearing from the moment you first meet him.
From the moment he arrived at UBC Josh was also deeply immersed in serious theological reflection that was uncommon and advanced for the average seminary student. He was pastored in college by Greg Boyd, a well-known Open Theist, and attended a school closely associated with John Piper, a famous Calvinist pastor. He didn’t major in theology in college, but developed a keen interest in the subject. During most of his time in seminary everyone, including himself, assumed he was destined for academic work in theology or biblical studies. But toward the end of his time at Truett he began to show a much greater inclination, and exhibited a giftedness, toward pastoral ministry.
Near the end of Josh’s mentoring summer he was asked to preach at UBC. At this point no one aside from the pastoral staff, two friends of the church from Austin, and prominent emerging church Leaders had been asked to preach since Kyle died, so it was a relatively “lucrative” opportunity. Even though I was a bit envious, those of us close to him were all happy he had the chance to preach before he, possibly, left for a career elsewhere.
I’m not sure what I was expecting from Josh’s sermon, but I imagine it wasn’t much. In conversation about common interests, sports, current affairs, etc., he is extremely affable and engaging. His oddball personality acts as bridge and compels you to meet in the middle of it. And when he talks about theology and Scripture, you can tell that he has an actively engaged mind, capable of absorbing and understanding incredibly complex information. But on the other hand, when he talked about religious matters, the affable and engaging Josh receded into the background and the obscure, academic Josh emerged, and it could be difficult for the untrained ear to translate what he was saying. I was probably expecting from his first sermon one or the other—either the Josh I enjoyed having a conversation with, but with content that normally doesn’t make its way into a sermon, or the Josh who had mastered biblical and theological information , but found it difficult to relate it it in a way that was welcoming and engaging.
By the end of his sermon I was pleasantly surprised. I think we all were. I don’t remember the exact content, but I remember it being an amalgamation of everything we loved about Josh. It was both biblically and theologically solid, AND it was engaging and enjoyable. His strange sense of humor and ability to absorb what the text can mean for followers of Jesus all came through. The only critique was that he talked fast. Way too fast for anyone to catch everything he was trying to say. And he was probably trying to say too much, which is common among young preachers, but everything he was trying to communicate, and the way in which he was communicating it (minus the speed), was exceptional.
Afterwards, I remember thinking that the people who are calling the shots at UBC should really consider what it might look like to have Josh preach more regularly. And, that they probably wouldn’t.
Because of Kyle’s writings, David’s music career, and the “Big Names” that had been guest preachers at UBC, along with the fact that Ben was growing into a better preacher, yet hadn’t been tapped for that role permanently, I think most of us assumed that the decision makers were holding out for someone who already had a reputation. Maybe not a “Christian celebrity” like David had become, but at least someone in the ballpark of the level of reach that Kyle was beginning to have before his death.
I also figured that in giving Josh the opportunity, they were assuming it was a “one and done,” a “thank you” for his service to the church. Since they were so protective of the preaching moment, they were not likely to give seminary students hope of preaching regularly, as Kyle had done.
On the Friday after Josh preached, our Happy Hour crew met at The Elite Café, holding our weekly shoot-the-bull sessions. Our conversations often revolved around what was going on at UBC. It was our time to vent about our frustrations, but also to speak fondly of the faith community that had become our home.
We hung out for about an hour or so before Holly, Britt’s girlfriend showed up. (It was common for Holly or Lindsey, Josh’s wife, to make an appearance after we had been at it for a while, presumably to see if any of us needed help getting home. Jonathan and I were the resident bachelors of the group.) We were at the bar, shoulder-to-shoulder. As is usually the case in this set-up, when there are more than 3 or 4 people in a group, we had paired off into conversation partners. Jonathan, on this particular occasion, was on the far left, Britt to his right, then me and Josh. When Holly, who was on UBC’s Leadership Team, showed up, Jonathan scooted over one to give her space to sit next to Britt.
We all greeted Holly, who responded with, “Don’t worry guys, I won’t be staying long. They called a leadership team meeting at the last minute, so I’ve got to be there soon.”
As conversation picked up on my left, I sat quiet for a moment, Josh next to me. The synapses pinging throughout my mind, connecting dots. Since the Leadership Team rarely met except to discuss big issues, I knew something was up. I drank from my beer and set it down on the bar. I sat up straight, took a deep breath, and looked over at Josh, who was either sensing what I was piecing together, or wondering if he should put it out there before I figured it out. I beat him to the punch.
“So, I’m guessing this meeting Holly is going to is a pretty big deal for you, huh?”
Sheepishly, he said yes. He told me he had been talking to David and Ben over the past few days about possibilities for the future. He didn’t say this, but I knew, because of our close friendship, he was well aware of all the conflicting emotions this would mean for me. Not knowing what to say, I breathed a sigh and a timid, “Good Luck,” and we toasted to whatever may lay ahead.