Westmont Magazine Deepening Your Conversations with God
There were about five hundred college students in the auditorium on that muggy August night at Forest Home Christian Conference in Southern California. I have no idea what the other four hundred and ninety-nine were doing, but I know I was transfixed. An Oxford Ph.D., Dr. J. Edwin Orr, was delivering a lecture on the history of spiritual awakenings in North America and the role students, particularly praying students, had played in them.
Vivid in my memory was the story of the so-called 1806 Haystack Revival at Williams College in Massachusetts. It was so named because the little band of five students who wanted to pray that night were afraid to pray on campus. The hostility toward Christians was so intense that they even kept the minutes of their meetings hidden. So they went off campus to a nearby farm to pray for revival at their school. When a storm broke out, they burrowed under a haystack for protection. But their prayers were answered; revival came to Williams College not long afterward, and with it a powerful world missions movement. The youthful leader of that prayer group, Samuel Mills, would later become one of the founders of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and the American Bible Society. Today there is a plaque on the site with the inscription: The Birthplace of Foreign Missions.
What impressed me most was that these people were just kids, my age or younger. Already, at age nineteen, in the early ’60s, I could identify with the statement of a somewhat disillusioned pastor: “Wherever Paul went there were riots. Wherever I go, they serve tea.” Was it possible that God could use me that way, if I prayed?
Williams College was not unusual for that period, both in its corruption and in its revival. Regarding college dormitories, one historian likened them to “secret nurseries of vice and the cages of unclean birds.” At one college, a hole was cut in the center of the president’s Bible, so when he opened it, a deck of playing cards fell out. At another college, a drinking society named itself H.E.O.T.T., a parody of the words of Isaiah 55:1, “Ho, everyone that thirsteth.”1 And yet, as little bands of students prayed for God to do what mere humans could manifestly not do, things changed radically. Schools like Amherst, Dartmouth, Princeton, and Yale saw the conversion of a third to a half of their student bodies. And the changes were not limited to colleges. From top to bottom, American culture and morals were profoundly affected by these awakenings.
Still, as gripping as these stories were, it was an audacious thing for Orr to do what he did, lecturing for nearly two hours to five hundred students packed into a large room on a warm August evening. But Ben Patterson left the hall that night burning with a desire to see God do again what he did then. Since the tumultuous decade of the ’60s was just beginning, I had no idea how relevant that yearning would become in the years ahead.
Nor could I anticipate how thoroughly that passion would be leached out of me before that decade was over. I say this with tears of regret. I can sum up those years of my life with the title of Malcolm Muggeridge’s autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time. The academic study of religion, the seminary experience, the emergence of psychology and sociology as alternative faiths, and my work in a mainline church — none of these were friendly to the vision of my naïve youth. They need not have been that way, but they were in my experience. Intellectual pride, religious professionalism, and the hubris of that most arrogant and narcissistic of decades in American history conspired to damage my soul.
I emerged from the ’60s angry and confident. Like so many of that generation, I was captivated by the idea of institutional evil. I saw it everywhere: in politics, business, education, and religion — especially religion. Where my earlier piety saw the evil of institutions as the evil of the human heart writ large, my more secularized piety tended to see institutions as doing most of the writing. Fix the institutions, and you’ll fix a lot of what’s wrong with humans. My institutional field was the church. The church was pretty screwed up, I thought, thus the anger. I knew just what it needed: it needed me, thus the confidence. If only I could get my hands on the church for a while, I could fix it.
Life’s two great tragedies
George Bernard Shaw wrote that there are two tragedies in life: one is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it. I’ve suffered both calamities. If only I could get my hands on the church for a while, I could fix it. And so in 1975, God gave me my heart’s desire: he called me to start a new church in Irvine, California. I could start from the ground floor without the mistakes of predecessors to hamstring my creativity. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I was more than a little scared at the prospect, but I believed. This thing could be done! With some help from God, of course, and from a few friends with like vision, it could happen! We could build the church that would be the pinnacle to which two thousand years of Christian history had struggled to reach.
It took nearly seven years for me to lose confidence in myself. It came by way of two ruptured discs in the lumbar region of my back. The doctor had prescribed six weeks of total rest, just to determine whether surgery would be needed. My first thought was OK, I guess I’ll get a lot of reading done. But due to the pain, the pain-killers, the muscle relaxants, and lying on my back, my eyes didn’t focus well. I read one book in six weeks. And I couldn’t lie in bed, either; it was too soft. So the six weeks were spent on the floor. The pain was horrible, and humiliating. A trip to the bathroom was a race between my bladder and my capacity for pain. Sometimes I had to lie down on the bathroom floor to recover from the trip before I could do what the trip was for.
I was of no use to the church, so I thought. I couldn’t preach, I couldn’t lead meetings, I couldn’t make calls. I couldn’t do anything but pray. So I asked my wife to bring me the new church directory with the pictures of all the church members in it. I decided I would pray for every member every day I was on the floor. It took nearly two hours for me to do this. Don’t misunderstand: this wasn’t great piety. Mainly I was bored and frustrated. But very quickly these times of prayer became sweet.
Toward the end of my convalescence, I had taken a walk and was back on the floor resting and thinking about going back to work. I said to the Lord, “You know, these times of prayer have been sweet. It’s too bad I don’t have time to do this when I’m at work.” Then the Lord spoke. He addressed me: “Stupid.” That was his word. He said it in a pleasant tone of voice, though. He said, “Stupid, you have the same twenty-four hours each day when you’re sick as when you’re well. The trouble with you, Ben, is when you’re well, you think you’re in charge; when you’re sick, you know you’re not.”
He was right. That led me to consider how well I had been doing while I was in charge. The church I had hoped would be special, set apart, a city set on a hill for other churches to pattern themselves after, was turning out like all the others. By God’s mercy it was and is a good church. The people are precious. But it’s not special — or at least any more special than any number of other churches. Every mistake I swore I’d never make as a pastor I had made by then, and then some. Everything I swore would never happen in my church had happened by then, and then some. And most important: the world was still going to hell, and we appeared to be impotent to do anything about it, much less to stop it.
In many ways we were no different than the rest of the churches in North America. We had an abundance of resources. By any international standard, we were rich in education, land, money, media, technology, and programs. But was the city of Irvine appreciably different because we and the other churches in town were there? Not much, it seemed.
I had lost my confidence. But I was learning to pray again. My haystack was my living room floor. My Williams College was my city. Irvine Presbyterian Church was but a little flock unequal to the task of building the kingdom of God. But it was to a little flock that Jesus said, “Fear not, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). We don’t build the kingdom, Christ does. It isn’t an acquisition, it’s a gift. And I was coming to the conviction that if I can build a church, it isn’t worth building. I’m in my mid-fifties as I write this. I feel about my age as Lou Holtz said he felt about coaching at the University of Minnesota: It isn’t the end of the world, but you can see it from here. Perhaps I have several good, productive years of ministry left in me. God only knows. But whatever the time I have left, I want only to do the things I can’t do unless God does it. I want there to be an abundance of what Bob Pierce called “God room” in all my endeavors. For Pierce, “God room” was the gap between what we can do by ourselves and what can only happen if God steps in. Yes. That’s it. That’s what I want.
I shudder at my capacity for presumption. Did I really think I could do this thing called ministry on my own, or with only a little help from my Friend? P. T. Forsyth said, “Prayerlessness is the worst sin, because it bespeaks as nothing else does, that root of all sin: ’For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him’” (Rom. 1:21).2
I must confess my prayerlessness the way Kierkegaard confessed his sins:
Father in heaven! Hold not our sins up against us but hold us up against our sins, so that the thought of Thee when it wakens in our soul, and each time it wakens, should not remind us of what we have committed but of what Thou didst forgive, not of how we went astray but of how Thou didst save us!3
Have mercy, Lord. Hold me up, indeed.
I was in great need of being held up the night I was ordained into the ministry. It was another balmy night, in May this time, in La Jolla, California. I was decked out in a black robe, sweating profusely as I knelt on the carpet of the church’s sanctuary, and about twenty elders laid their hands on me to pray. I typically don’t ever kneel to pray; it hurts my knees and my legs tend to cramp. Both were happening that evening. The combined weight of all those hands was pressing me into that carpet and bending me over. And the prayers! Long and sonorous. I needed air! I needed to stand up! I needed to run outside and tear off that infernal robe! It was altogether prophetic of what was to come in the ministry in the years ahead.
And so was what followed. I was on the verge of struggling to my feet and making the first official act of my ministry — the closing of the meeting — when my senior pastor began to pray, “Lord, as Ben feels the weight of these hands . . .” I was listening. He continued, “May he also feel the weight of responsibility that is his.” I groaned, and prepared again to get up. Then he prayed, “But may he also feel the strength of your everlasting arms holding him up.” I stayed on my knees and murmured an amen.
Staying on my knees. It was hard that night, it’s been hard ever since. Mary Slessor was right about prayer: “Praying is harder work than doing . . . but the dynamic lies that way to advance the kingdom.”4 The weight of all those hands, the heat and the pressure, my weakness and rebelliousness — all these make ministry an impossibility, unless there are everlasting arms to hold me up.
Not into prayer
I’m not “into” prayer. I seem to have missed the religious gene or whatever it is that makes people enjoy the act of praying. It’s not my nature to pray. I’m not into prayer, I am into God! I thirst and hunger for God, I ache for God. Without his everlasting arms holding me up, I will fall. So I must pray. I must daily and moment by moment pray in one way or another the words of Luther’s sacristy prayer:
Lord God, thou has appointed me to be a bishop and pastor in thy church. Thou seest how unfit I am to undertake this great and difficult office, and were it not for thy help, I would long since have ruined it all. Therefore I cry unto thee; I will assuredly apply my mouth and my heart to thy service. I desire to teach the people, and I myself would learn and ever more diligently meditate on thy Word. Use thou me as thy instrument, only do not though forsake me, for if I am left alone I shall easily bring it all to destruction. Amen.5
Used with permission from Deepening Your Conversation with God by Ben Patterson, 1999, Bethany House Publishers.