I wish I could say when I became a minister, that I periodically heard these loud, clear voices from the heavens, booming their approval. But that’s not the way it happened. Let me explain.
I was born in Hong Kong believe it or not, the second son of a pastor, missionary, and nurse. My great Norwegian grandfather, Mikael, was the first in my mom’s family to become an Adventist Christian. He became a lay preacher and an influence in his small town of Flekkejiord. Eventually baptizing his entire family. My parents wanted to honor his commitment and faithfulness to Jesus so they named me Michael after him. But if you were to have asked my parents at any point growing up who they thought might become a preacher, they would undoubtedly have said my older and more vocal brother Mark. In fact, it used to annoy him to death when church members would come up to him and basically say so. As if he had no say in it at all. Nobody thought the shy little guy Michael, who turned around and said his memory verses with his back to the people in church because he was afraid to look at the people in church would later be a pastor of it.
You should see my birth certificate. It’s huge. It has all these Chinese letters I can’t read on it. For all I know, it could actually be a recipe for egg foo young. I don’t speak Chinese and I don’t remember Hong Kong. I was only there a little while before my parents moved back to the United States. It was then that I received another birth certificate from the US Embassy in Washington DC validating in English that I was born a US citizen from my US mother. Since my father was born and raised in England, their rule is any of his children, wherever they’re born, are also British. So I was born in Hong Kong, but to this day have American and British citizenship.
Anyway, having grown up a PK or pastor’s kid, I have moved around a bit. When my folks moved back to the United States shortly after I was born, my father started pastoring in Virginia. In addition to Virginia, I have lived in Maryland, Florida, and Michigan and in some of those places more than once. I’m a product of the world’s largest Protestant school system, having attended Adventist church school for every grade except kindergarten. I didn’t realize how lucky I was at the time, but Jesus was always a part of our family, a member around our family table. We had devotionals in the morning and prayers in the evening. It seemed natural by the time I turned 10 years old to be baptized. So I asked my dad about it. We studied the Bible. He asked me some questions. I must have gotten them right cause a few weeks later, he baptized me.
After living in Florida, the family moved back to the Maryland area for a second tour. It was there I met some of my closest friends to this day. But then, before my junior year in academy, my parents rocked my world. They had promised me I would be able to attend academy for 4 years straight so I could graduate with my friends, but in the middle of my high school academy, they changed their minds. I didn’t want to go. So I didn’t pack one box that summer. I was so mad. And stubborn. And still am about some things. I’m not exactly sure how all my stuff ended up on the truck. But it did. And I moved to Michigan. To a Christian boarding school called Great Lakes Adventist Academy in Cedar Lake Michigan in the middle of nowhere. Jackie’s grandparents are Seventh-day Adventist Christians and like my father, they worked extra hard to provide an opportunity for their children and grandchildren to attend Adventist church schools. When I got up there, Jackie was in the midst of a custody battle with her parents and she may have been in need of a friend more than me. I think God put us there, together, at just the right times. We became best friends and have been to this day.
Toward the end of my junior year, after I had met Jackie and decided Michigan wasn’t so bad after all, many of my friends had decided what to major in at college. But I finally found an issue my friends or parents could not decide for me and I was stuck. About this time, out of desperation more than anything else, I started my own personal relationship with Jesus. I did not talk to Him constantly or even frequently. But when I did, I always ended my prayers with, “God I am trying. Please do not give up on me.” I had decided I wanted to work with people, not behind a desk, or stuck in a cubicle, but in a healing capacity. And I wanted to make some money too, but not necessarily in that order. Apparently, the odds were not in my favor. According to the Strong–Campbell Interest Test, the circles I filled in with my number 2 lead pencil indicated I would be a natural bus driver. Mortician. Or park ranger.
But I wanted to make money. So ignoring my guidance counselors and the voice inside my head, I enrolled at Andrews University, purchased some lab goggles, a manly plastic apron, and a massive General Chemistry textbook that was 6 inches thick. Two broken beakers, one small fire, and a diving letter grade helped me realize the sciences were not for me. So I devoted my time to more important things like General College Math, Introduction to Aviation, and Racquetball.
All this time, off and on, I kept praying, “God, I am trying. Please do not give up on me.” And He didn’t. Ever since my junior year of academy, when I really started wanting answers, when I really began searching, with at least some of my heart, it would happen. A voice would quietly whisper, “You could be a pastor.” And that voice wouldn’t go away. It wasn’t audible. But I could hear it. That probably doesn’t make any sense, but that’s what it was. Anyway, this got old after a while and I was becoming frustrated. So I started yelling back at God. “Quit bugging me! I am not going to be a pastor. I have known about you all my life, but I do not know you well enough. Besides, I am not good enough. I’ve tried and tried and tried to obey and be good, but I can’t. I have never won a Bible sword drill in my entire life. I want more money than what pastor’s earn. I will probably run out of things to say. I do not like attention. I am not a good speaker.”
“Besides Lord, you do not want me. I have not lived in the real world with experience in sex, drugs, or violence. I have the most boring testimony in the world. I cannot say I have come from gangs to God, like Ron Halverson. I have not lived in a cave or run around naked like Doug Batchelor. I haven’t played in the NBA, received a vision, walked on water, been on TV, moved any mountain, healed any blindman or followed any star.” “God”, I’m thinking, “I am just a shy, confused, pastor’s kid. What on Earth can I do?” I felt so unqualified. And in many ways, still do.
Fortunately, somewhere along the line, God reminded me with the words of Jeremiah. Let me read those to you now. Jeremiah 1:4-9 [NIV]. God through His word said to me, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” So I reminded God, in case He forgot, “I do not know how to preach. I am only a shy, confused, pastor’s kid.” But God replied, “Do not say I am only a child. You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you. See, I have put my words in your mouth.” To this day, Jeremiah 1:5-9, is one of my favorite passages in the Bible.
But despite God’s promises, I continued to ignore God. I don’t think I told anyone about what I was really thinking except Jackie. And even in high school, she made it clear she didn’t like what I was thinking either! I think she was hoping I’d stick with medicine! Or physical therapy. But God wouldn’t leave me alone. Even in England. Where I had run off my sophomore year of college with my friend Marty and my older brother Mark to see if I really loved Jackie as much as I thought I did. Within 2 weeks, I had that completely figured out and was miserable. But Marty dragged me all over the place moping and looking at famous stuff like Stonehenge and the Magna Carta and Windsor Castle until I eventually decided to make the most of it since I had 8 ½ month before coming home. So while I was waiting and studying at Newbold College, an Adventist university 45 minutes west of London, I decided I might as well, for the sake of efficiency, start studying theology. I figured if this annoying little voice hadn’t shut up in nearly 3 years, it probably wasn’t going to in the next two! Not wanting to finish 4 years of college and then have to do another 4 to actually follow God’s plan, I enrolled in Greek my sophomore year thinking, “Even if I drop theology, at least I’ll have my foreign language requirement out of the way for my Bachelors degree.”
Immediately, I wondered if the voice I had heard was really real. Because there I was, a unilingual American, the first to study theology at Newbold College in years, trying to follow God’s plan, and the first class I take is Greek from a German teacher who gives examples in Norwegian! I don’t know how, but by God’s grace, I survived that year of Greek. And in the process, with the essay only methods of the English school system, I learned how to write, who I loved, and what I wanted to do about it.
When I returned from my year abroad, I asked Jackie to take me back. Which she did. Time passed and eventually I proposed. On bended knee. And in response, you know what she did? She laughed! Which I gotta say, was a little unnerving. Eventually, she said yes. The Ohio Conference offered me a job. Jackie and I graduated. Got married December 22, 1996. And after that, we moved to Columbus where I interned for a year under Pastor Bill Jackson who remains a close friend and mentor to this day.
Somebody once said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” Well, I think that’s true because in the fall of 1997 we moved back to Berrien Springs, MI where I studied for 3 years at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary eventually earning my Masters of Divinity. One day near the end of class called “Salvation” taught by Jon Paulien, while kneeling down in prayer with the entire class of 90 students as was his custom, I remember thinking “How did I not know?” How did I not know that I was not just a forgiven shy pastors kid, but a justified one? Who, after following Christ, never was disobedient. Never was rebellious. Never was imperfect. Why didn’t I know that my “standing with God is not subject to the ups and downs of my daily obedience, but to the ongoing nature of Jesus’ perfect righteousness!” Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned.” But what I learned is in present continuous Greek, that means “All have sinned and we still will.” 1 John 1:10 (NKJV) says it this way. “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.”
When I learned that I couldn’t perfectly obey from my perspective, that the best Christians, as Ellen White says in Steps to Christ chapter 7 continue to fall and fail, like the prophets of old like Daniel, no matter how hard I tried, no matter how hard I prayed, and instead asked Jesus, right there in that classroom, to give me Christ’s perfect life lived for me, I wanted to jump for joy. Which is what I did as soon as I wiped my eyes and ran out the door and into the parking lot. And the funny thing is, after I began to understand what righteousness by faith was really all about, He installed in me an undying love and loyalty to Jesus. One that nobody can scare out of me by critiquing my freedom in Christ. One that nobody can change in me by criticizing my denomination that introduced Jesus to me. One that instead, motivates me to just get to know Him a little better each day. One that turns issues of obedience into joy.
Near the end of seminary, before my final quarter of school, 5 days late, on August 6 1999, 1 year to the day of my dad’s unexpected stroke, our son Joshua Scott Fortune was born. I tell people I think God had Joshua arrive 5 days late on August 6 to remind my mom and family, who was struggling with major life changes, that this life is not about securing God’s blessings, sincerely desired or supposedly deserved, but is about getting to know Jesus better. He took a date my family dreaded and turned it into a date we eagerly look forward to with anticipation. As Christians, we are not immune to questions and doubt, problems and hardship. But at the same time, we need not forget, that our God still saves and sanctifies, which is what Joshua’s name means. And every time I call his name or tuck him in at night, I remember that. We can all sleep well at night if we remember Philippians 1:6 and 2:13 which reads, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” “For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
Lee Iacoca said, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” What’s our main thing? Knowing Jesus Christ. Matthew 7:22-25. And the good news is that can be done! Why? Because the weakest of us Christians can fall out of bed and spend time getting to know Him. Even if we don’t know Him now. If we ask Him to, Jesus can rekindle or start for the first a relationship with Him. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have Jesus than Leno or Letterman at night. I’d rather have Jesus than Matt Lauer in the morning. Which curiously, after my dad’s stroke, is what I think my family was desperate enough to realize. That we all need Him more now than ever before. Maybe that’s why we’re told in Desire of Ages pages 224-225 that “God never leads His children otherwise than they would choose to be led, if they could see the end from the beginning, and discern the glory of the purpose which they are fulfilling as co-workers with Him” (Desire of Ages 224,225).
Three months later, right before Y2K remember that, I told my sister I finally finished the 19 th grade and in January 2000, Jackie, Joshua and I moved back to Ohio looking forward to the challenges and rewards ministry has to offer. Since then, our family grew again. Lydia Kay was born February 13, 2002 at Mercy Medical Center. It is our prayer that, like her namesake in Acts 16:14, that she will be a Christian businesswoman, who was as active in the marketplace selling fine purple cloth as she was with her entire family who were baptized and served Jesus too. And for the last 7 years, that what the Fortune family has been doing in the Canton and Wooster Adventist churches in Northeast Ohio where we met all kinds of friends both inside and outside the church many of whom promised to visit us up here and have been downloading the sermons from our website online.
Personally, I have never regretted choosing ministry over physical therapy or medicine. I have come to peace with myself the way God made me. I may never preach like E.E. Cleveland or sing like Mac Powell from Third Day. I may never be as deep as Jon Paulien or as outgoing as Shirley Hiney. But I will be as authentic and real as I can 24/7. And I will continue to filter everything we do and say through Ephesians 4:15-21 which encourages us to “tell the truth” but to do so “as it is in Jesus.” It reads, “21Surely you heard of Him and were taught in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.15Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Him who is the Head, that is, Christ.”
So let’s keep our eyes on Jesus. The author and perfector of our faith. Have you heard His voice from heaven? Do you recognize His call? Will you trust Him? AND try following Him? Never perfectly from our perspective, but sincerely, faithfully, and cheerfully until that day Jesus returns. For THIS is my story. THIS is my song. Praising my Savior all the day long. Let’s sing “Blessed Assurance” #462.