It is one of those nights where someone should take the computer away from me, shut the internet down, and relieve me of all rights to this blog. Maybe there will be a miraculous advent and this post, after I hit submit, will vanish into the netherlands of cyberspace lost forever. Then I will just say phooey, and go back to sleep. (That has happened many times before).
I remember when I was twelve years old, God peeked out of the shroud of experiential darkness. This is going to sound silly to a lot of you, but it was special to me nevertheless. I was at the Quail Creek Elementary School Carnival. All the kids went back to it after “graduating” elementary school for years (to show how cool the “post-grads” were). Each year they had a cake-walk. You know . . . where you walked around a circle of 36 numbers while music played. When the music stopped, you stopped. If you were on the number that they called, you won a cake. At that point in my life, I had never won anything that I can remember, but I wanted to win this cake so bad. So I prayed. “Dear God, if you are listening, please show me by allowing me to win this cake. Amen.” Music played. I walked. Music stopped. I stopped. They called out “32.” I looked down. I was on 32. Wow! It was something special. God made me win the cake walk. He really did care! He really was there. The next year, same time, same place, same prayer. And you know what? I won again. It was unbelievable to this now 13 year old kid. God was on my side!
I once heard someone say that God is often more evidently present in your life when you are a young Christian. I don’t have any biblical reason to believe that is true at all. However, recently it seems that God does often hide and he is hard to find.
God first seemed to be AWOL the day my sister died. Our family had yet to be touched with any significant grief. I was always the optimist, being the first to see the good in everything. I changed my life in the mid-nineties. It stuck. I was on a spiritual high through seminary. When things seemed to be going south in any way for anyone, I was the go-to guy because I knew God was present, even in evil. Everything in my life and career seemed as if God’s providential guidance was so present that if you took a picture of me and looked at the negative, you would see a clear picture of God’s hand over my head.
Immediately, after Angie died, I still took the road less traveled. When my mother had her aneurysm and stroke and lay in a nearly total incapacitated state, I became a bit confused. The miracle of her life being spared soon turned into a curse of pain, suffering, and heart-ache beyond anything her death could have hoped for.
It was very hard to see God in this. It is still hard to see God in it four years later. The change I had hoped it would bring about in dad has not been realized. In fact, I think he is worse off than anyone and it hurts to think about. So much so, I can barely stand to call him anymore. There are many other terrible details that follow here that I will not mention due to confidence. Suffice it to say that there has been a snowball effect of trouble that does not relent.
However, as I wrote at this time, I was still optimistic: it was raining in the front yard and sunny in the back. In short, while things in my family were very tough and God seemed to be hiding, things in the ministry could not be better. I took heart at what God was doing.
In ministry, it was so easy to see God’s movements. From the unlikely success in seminary, to my seamless hiring at the church of my hero, God was present. It was a cakewalk! The birth and growth of The Theology Program was amazing. I just sat back and watched as it turned into a ministry that simply could not have been more exciting to me. Everything I was touching was turning to gold (or at least the best kind of silver).
When did God start vanished from here? It is hard to say. (Sheesh…I am beginning to feel like this very blog post is a manipulative cry to him). Maybe it was when (and I am not going to mention particulars) a few groups of Christians attempted to legally pry The Theology Program away from the me. That was very discouraging. Maybe it was when I had to move back to Oklahoma to help with my mother and Rhome and I were separated. Maybe I felt that God was moving us to Norman in order to invest some time in a peripheral supportive ministry. I envisioned a software piece that would facilitate our online classes and it was really cool. However, I was forced out of the company through circumstances that left me scratching my head (that is all I will say about that). Now we are stuck in Norman and our house has been on the market for over 2 years.
My own exhaustion is a definite result of God’s hiding. Specifically, my exhaustion in raising funds for our ministry. This is the worst part of my job, hands down. Living every two weeks not knowing whether you or your employees are going to get paid the next takes it toll after a while. I simply cannot sit on my hands. I am fueled by vision. I see so many things that can happen and I open the doors for their realization, often finding myself second guessing my call to see that vision through due to financial shortfalls. Sheesh God…is it really that hard for you to cover our budget? It is not that big.
(As an aside: I don’t know if anything affects a man more than the prospects of not being able to take care of his family.)
I live in two worlds now. In one world with the ever present realization that the funds are going to dry up anytime. The one where God, for some reason, does not seem to want me here anymore. The world where my drive continually produces hope that things are going to change. The world that keeps me begging for money in humiliation. And the other world with the newspaper opened to the jobs section wondering “what on earth else am I qualified to do besides this.” In both, God is silent.
Where did I go wrong? Where did I fail to get off the highway? When did you completely shroud yourself in darkness? Why did you do that? I am tired. I have already called “uncle.” Am I less devoted to you now? Whatever it is that I’m supposed to be learning, I plead with you to give me a hall pass. Better: how about a raincheck? Can’t I just learn it in Heaven?
It is not as though I am walking away from God. It simply feels as though he is walking away from me.
Those of you atheists and former Christians who suspect that they are about to have another Christian cross over to the dark side, put up your party hats, blowouts, and (ahem) cake. I am not close. One thing that I have learned, believe, and teach with great conviction is that my circumstances do not have a vote in truth. Nothing that I go through can alter or affect the cardinal issues of my faith. Jesus Christ either died and rose from the grave or he did not. It is upon this that the entirety of my faith rests. It is not on my sister, my mother, my kids, my finances, my emotional ups and downs, the success or failure of my ministry, or my cakewalks. It is on the historical person and work of Christ alone.
In fact, these times give me more passion for what I do: instilling a strong theological foundation. I am motivated by the reality that all I have described here in this blog is not unique to me. I know that you all have your stories as well. I know that many of them will be much more tragic, desperate, and exhausting. My thoughts and prayers are with you. I don’t just say that. I often lay my head down in my own pain praying that people don’t let their pain dictate the truth of God’s reality, love, and plan.
God is not real only when I win a cake. I don’t know God loves me because I can pay bills. God is not active only when I find myself and my family in good spirits and health. God is real, active, and loving because of the reality of Christ and his work for me (and you) on the cross. Nothing can change that.
I know that there are those times when you look to heaven and all you see is the reflection of your own troubles, with no sign of help or hope. But we have to believe that God is on the other side, looking through a two-way mirror being intimately acquainted with our direness, full of love and concern, and guiding us through. He will pull us out of the mire one day.
Lord, though I have not won a cakewalk lately, I thank you that my faith is not resting in such things, but is grounded in the death, burial, and resurrection of your Son. This is precious to me. Let it be to all. But I still cry “uncle” once again.
(Follow-up): Ironically, while I was finishing up this post a 3am, my computer shut off automatically for updates. This was not much of a problem since I had a copy of most of it in an open word doc and because WordPress automatically saves every minute or so. However, when I opened back up my computer, it said the Word doc was corrupted. Then I noticed that the internet was down and I did not know how long it had been down. I spent the next two hours trying to find this post. I attempted to hitchhike on my neighbor’s internet and for the first time, it was not working either. I called my ISP and learned that the internet was down. I thought to myself, “typical.” Finally I checked this blog through my iPhone and saw that it was saved, but some was lost. But my iPhone would not let me edit. Finally I went back to bed and tried to say “phooey,” but could not. Laid there for an hour arguing with God. Just now got back up (it is now 6 am) and checked again and the neighbor’s internet was working. I have done the first edit and wrote this. Now I am going to try to hit submit.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]