On the first Sunday of the month, I gathered with the other middle schoolers early in the morning before church and piled into the motley assortment of cars driven by our church’s college leaders. I worshipped those undergraduates and would have gladly tagged along wherever they drove. Plus, you got to wear your t-shirt and jeans. Having arrived downtown in the shadow of tall buildings, all you had to do was help unfold tables and unload boxes of donations. When people came to look over the clothes, you smiled politely. Maybe said God bless you but, mainly, just don’t be a jerk. Don’t wrinkle your nose. Don’t stare, even if there was brown rot where you would expect bright teeth. When the hour was over, you circled up and one of your college idols strummed a guitar: Yes, they’ll knoooooow we are Christians by our love. You stopped at the Golden Arches on the way back to your life.

This one Sunday, she walked over to the table where I was idling. She reeked of cigarette smoke and I focused on her dirty flip-flops so as to avoid her eyes. Two small children ducked behind her tattered jeans. She selected a men’s flannel and immediately put it on, even though the morning was humid enough to break a sweat just loafing around.

I assumed she was leaving: “God bless you,” I mumbled.

She caught my eye: “You got any money?” Her dark eyes were like smoldering coals.

I did have a fiver, which was for my two bacon-egg-and-cheese biscuits. My mom was a vegetarian, so I didn’t get that food at home.

I shook my head, No.

“You lie,” she said matter-of-factly like I might have commented on the weather, It’s hot.

Over two decades later, my face still burns at the memory of her piercing look. I can still see the greasy hair on the tops of her children’s heads, their faces buried into her ruined jeans.

Late last Tuesday afternoon, I was discussing the Lord’s Prayer at a certain fast food chain with a visitor from Sunday’s service. On his way out the door, he’d paused to take my hand in his calloused grip. Turns out he’d been impressed by how hard the youth volunteers worked at our weekly food pantry. Said he had some questions but didn’t dare come to my office “because your church might be struck by lightning if I darkened the door twice in one week!” His cowboy hat cast a shadow across his face rendering the look in his eyes difficult to read.

The following Tuesday he wore the same hat and his questions about the Our Father began with why Presbyterians say “debts and debtors” and then ranged from first-century Palestinian agriculture (How much bread is a daily amount?) to twenty-first-century astrophysics (Just where is the heaven toward which we pray?). I bought him a coffee and a baked apple pie. We shared lots of laughs, including over how my five-year-old son prays Good bread, good meat; Good God, let’s eat!

But this man got serious when he quoted the comedian Lenny Bruce: Show me a Christian with two coats, and I’ll show you a liar. No wonder Bob Dylan sang of the same Lenny Bruce that he once shared a cab with the man for a mile and a half … and it felt like a couple of months! Time is not linear, the man in the cowboy hat agreed.

It was getting toward supper and I needed to return home to my family. But I had to double-back inside the Golden Arches because I realized my phone had slipped from my pocket. After retrieving my device from the booth, I happened to catch a glance of a cowboy hat by the registers. With a brown leather wallet in one hand, he was motioning toward the young woman with a toddler clamped to each leg. I realized he was paying for their meal. That young mother burst into tears and hugged his neck.

I started in youth ministry when I was not much older than the students. I’d gone to a Lutheran college to practice the religion of baseball. By the end of my freshman year, I’d quit with an injured knee and joined a fraternity. I wasn’t dating anyone and a fraternity brother from her hometown introduced us. She fancied herself a surfer girl and I tried in vain to learn some Weezer tunes on my guitar. She laughed easily and the freckles across her nose were cute.

Thanks to her influence, I quit smoking cigarettes—mostly. I did find it nothing short of miraculous that I wanted to get up early on Saturday morning. We would go to a McDonald’s near campus and slide into the same cracked red vinyl booth in the back. We always had coffees (she added a little cream and sugar), egg-and-cheese biscuits (she was a vegetarian), and hash browns (she doused hers with ketchup). She always began her prayers with “Hey God” which I started copying when it was my turn to return thanks. I’d always thought you were supposed to pray to Our Father.

She was already involved with a Tuesday night worship meeting for high school students, an evangelical gathering which met a one-story, prefab building owned by one of those churches with a name like Oasis or Summit. I remember the space was three hundred square feet or so, wide open and free of any columns or stained glass or pews or Communion tables or baptismal fonts. There weren’t even chairs. The students all stood and sang a few secular songs projected onto a screen while somebody strummed along on a guitar. We ended with a song that made Jesus seem like our Boyfriend. I was only there as her boyfriend, but there was a shortage of male college leaders. So, maybe that internship for the law firm could wait.

The ministry’s leadership asked me to show up at a certain fast food joint on Thursday mornings to meet a small group of high school guys. We’d order, pile into a booth or two, then “Hey, God …” Immediately after the collective Amen, those boys would dive into their food, chewing and laughing with their mouths open. As the last dregs of soda were sucked through straws, they’d talk about their baseball practices and chemistry tests and—every now and then—girls. Just before the mad dash to school, I’d offer a Bible passage and a few questions from some devotional. I remember how this one young man would stack the creamers into a pyramid while we were talking about faith. He would balance sugar packets on top of this structure with a far-away look in his eyes and never contribute to our discussion.

This young man is now a pastor.

I am a Presbyterian pastor because of the job I was offered after college graduation. I was hoping to be a youth director and didn’t care which denomination.

There was a seventh-grader named Jeff Gordon. He hated NASCAR. He wanted to play electric guitar and decided I should be his teacher, though he was not at all interested in learning Bob Dylan or anything acoustic I already knew how to play. Still, he lugged his shiny red guitar and Peavey box amp to the church youth room every Tuesday afternoon. The first lesson he thought we would skip tuning his instrument and learn screaming solos instead. Brushing his long hair out of his eyes, he’d plug in and try his best to copy the chords I’d demonstrate. Then, we would go and scarf French fries, which was more or less the same rhythm I’d shared with my first guitar teacher, a fraternity brother who took an interest in me.

We were at McDonald’s when I told Jeff Gordon that I was leaving his church. He was now in high school, his hair was even longer, and he really could make his guitar wail and weep. He used to practice until his fingers bled—a badge of honor he’d display at youth group. When I shared that I was going to seminary, Jeff Gordon wanted to know if God had told me to become a “real pastor.” And he chewed his fries while I fumbled to articulate my sense of call. My words sounded out of tune, and he changed the subject quickly. He was starting a band; maybe he’d be famous one day. We sat in silence for a bit, studying the empty food wrappers on our trays between us. Just before we got up to leave, he looked over my shoulder toward the cash registers while he mumbled: “You think you’ll remember me?”

As part of our conversation about the Our Father, my new friend under the cowboy hat asked about Thy Will, particularly the difference between Luck and Providence. It was getting late, so we agreed to get together again to discuss at length. But his question has prompted these reflections upon all the Golden Arches over the years.

Let’s say, one day, I get special backstage passes: What would I tell Jeff Gordon about my call to ministry? I have not experienced a blinding vision of the Risen Lord. I have never seen fire on the mountain, felt the ground groan beneath my feet, or heard a voice from heaven like a thunder clap. I suppose I may have sensed something like a still, small whisper; or, is that intuition only in hindsight? What I know is that I’ve been in the right place at the right time. I grew up in the church learning the Golden Rule through osmosis; then in college I was just trying to impress a young woman. She is long gone from my life, but opportunities have since fallen into place ever since. I served one amazing congregation and, now, have been graced with another. Is it Luck? Providence? Are they one and the same? Probably not; but how do you know the difference?

Yes, Presbyterians pray “debts and debtors” but we sing Amazing Grace like everybody else. I don’t pretend to know the deep mysteries of the Coherent Mercy in which we live and move and have our being. But, hey God, I know enough to be grateful, for I am indebted to You far more than I could ever repay.