Sunday, May 17, 2009
Ben Patterson introduced his third session in a series on prayer for a group of pastors up at the mountain conference center. He commented that some of his long time friends find it intriguing that the man we knew back in the day would have landed on this devotional topic as his primary focus at this life stage. I’m one of them.
Ben just published a wonderful volume – God’s Prayer Book – the Power and Pleasure of Praying the Psalms. I first met him in the mid seventies just about the time he started a Presbyterian Church in the heart of the OC (Irvine). Since then, he’s been one of my heroes. In those heady days just out of seminary, when Nixon resigned and the Vietnam War weighed heavy on the collective unconscious of a nation in turmoil and evangelicals hadn’t yet celebrated “The Year of…,” Ben and his pals put together “The Wittenburg Door” to keep us young believers entertained. I was a big fan.
In the mid-sixties, he was a football player at Occidental when he first got serious about his Christianity. It was a two-hour lecture by J. Edwin Orr, the Oxford scholar with two doctorates that got him thinking about the power of collective prayer, and its impact in history through student led movements. He organized a dorm-wide prayer vigil, aiming at an entire restless post-war baby-boom generation. He never fit in with the separatist fundamentalism of the fifties and sixties. He knew there was more. But at the heart of it, a powerful, authentic connection with the living God had him anchored.
He would often ascend to this mile-high conference center nestled between steep granite slopes, high rocky peaks and tall pines and a deep blue sky by day and bright stars by night. He even joined the summer staff. He confessed that he was a frequent clandestine visitor to a little stone prayer chapel up the hill from the meeting hall. Not many of his friends knew it. He mostly kept it to himself. The Presbyterian craftsmen who built it added stained glass windows all around, one for each of the twelve apostles and then at the center, Jesus kneeling over a large boulder in the Garden of Gethsemane. Ben would slip into the quiet shelter and talk to God – about his career plans and about a life-mate and a future family and about a troubled generation and how he might play a role in helping others find the good God he addressed there in the stone chapel a mile above sea level. A peace filled him up in that place, along with an inescapable exhilaration about the days to come. He knew it was real.
Ben told the story of bringing his first-born son, Danny, to the mountain when he was in the first grade. When Danny explored the grounds, he stumbled across the little chapel in the trees and ran back to tell his dad about it. The two of them walked up the trail marked with stones along the perimeter of the path and opened the heavy wood door and the two of them, father and son, sat on a bench facing a podium with a big open Bible and Jesus kneeling in stained glass. As Ben recounted the moment for us pastor types, his voice caught with emotion, because sitting next to him on that bench all those years back in the chapel on this very mountain across the valley and up the hill was the answer to the prayers he prayed as a collegian from that very spot. Daniel. And on that day, Ben told his little boy Danny about the prayers of a college guy who asked God for a family and a life.
I’ve always thought of Ben as a man’s man. He knows what it takes to survive the gridiron and to play to win. He’s a thoughtful intellect, widely read. He quotes the great thinkers, secular and sacred. He’s tuned in to the needs of families and professionals and neighborhoods.
So here we are, nearly thirty-five years after our first encounter, and we’ve come full circle. We’ve still got our finger on the Text. We’re still in the company of men and women who want more than a paycheck. We’ve survived the church wars and the temptation to chase after something other than the Kingdom.
Ben has for nearly two decades now been a spiritual director on two major college campuses. He’s written several books and countless articles. His network of colleagues and friends extends around the world. And as he spoke to us, we all noticed it. When he pointed us listeners in the direction of a scripture passage, he would quote it from memory. In three or four messages, he covered it all – the books of Moses, the Psalms and Proverbs, the Gospels, the Epistles. Without fanfare, he simply quoted it, a paragraph at a time, with near thespian quality inflection and diction as though the text were simply an extension of his identity. Coming from somewhere deep inside.
In an open discussion of his new book on the psaltery, we asked him about memorization. He talked about it freely, easily. He realized, as a pastor, that when he brought a passage to his people they would listen more attentively when he quoted from memory. He got hooked. More and more, he would memorize.
Several years ago, at the prior college in the Mid-West, a colleague challenged both Ben and one other. On a Friday night, after a lengthy and concentrated preparation, the three of them stood at the front of the historic Dimnent Memorial Chapel on campus before seven lit candlesticks and repeated the entire book of Revelation from memory without missing a word. Twelve hundred students packed the sanctuary – standing room only. And at the end, the collegians and faculty stood to their feet in amazement – a standing ovation.
A few months later, an encore: The Book of Romans.
And now, Ben, six years older than I, has transformed from a witty, original, thoughtful, non-conformist; an articulate collaborator of the Wittenberg Door to a deeply devotional, authentic brother who draws people in everywhere he goes to genuine conversation with the living God.
He’s a dad. Soon to be grandfather. Lauretta still at his side.
And to this very day – one of my heroes.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009