I plan to write a series of theological reflections. It is my observation that most people think theologically; by that I mean we all think about God and the impact of God in our lives. So I would like to more formally engage some of that thinking. Why me? I ask that everyday. The answer lies someplace in the fact that I am formally trained in theology and teach a doctrine class each semester at Rehoboth Christian High School and that doctrine class entertains any and all questions and has, as its primary purpose, helping kids think theologically. The answer also lies in the fact that my theology is very inclusive of other religious traditions rather then exclusive . . . some would say it’s heresy. You can decide.
I met Mr. M when he was on his deathbed in the hospital. Mr. M had never set foot in the church I was pastoring at the time; in fact, I doubt he ever set foot in any church. His niece had asked for prayer for him one Sunday and I figured that since I was praying for him, I should probably go and visit him. Mr. M was in intensive care with wires and monitors everywhere; he was dying of cirrhosis of the liver.
Mr. M knew almost no English and I knew only enough Navajo to make a fool of myself. Fortunately for both of us, his niece was there and she could speak both languages. She explained to her uncle that I was the pastor of her church and that I had come to visit him and pray with him. I will never forget his reaction. He looked up at me with a longing in his eyes and reached out both of his hands and took my hands into his and held them. Total strangers somehow connected. Sometimes communication goes way beyond words and this was one of those times. My interpretation of his response was that he was reaching out empty to whatever God I represented. With nothing to offer except his helplessness, emptiness and his need for somebody to do something to save him, he held on to my hands. The image of his hands wrapped around mine is vividly imprinted in my mind: unkempt, yellow from his liver’s limited functioning, fingernails that had not been cut for a long time curling around towards his fingers. So, I did what I had come to do; I prayed for him and left.
Later that week, I thought of Mr. M again and thought it would be a good idea to visit him to see what had transpired. When I got to the hospital, I knew that Mr. M was in trouble. The whole family was there – wife, brothers, sisters, kids, nieces and nephews, you name it. I went into his room and he was in a coma with a heart monitor and other monitors on him. It did not look good.
I bribed the nurses – the hospital had a two-visitors-at-a-time rule – and asked the niece to call the whole family into his room to pray, because that is what a pastor does. So, picture about 30 people gathered in an intensive care room around Mr. M’s bed, holding his hands, touching him where they could and me in the background getting ready to pray. So, I prayed. What do you pray in a situation like this? The man is dying! There was no hope for him, humanly speaking, and I, honestly, had no hope that my prayers would make any difference whatsoever! So, I prayed what I could.
(I am sure that most of you reading this fear that at this point I will tell you how my prayers were answered and they healed Mr. M and I am now going to sell you on my branch of religion. Not even close!)
So I prayed. At some point in the prayer, realizing I did not have an ounce of hope of Mr. M improving, I said that if this was Mr. M’s time to go that God would take Mr. M to be with Him. At that very moment, Mr. M flat-lined and died. The monitor made that awful sound, I had to truncate my prayer in a big hurry, nurses and doctors came rushing in and chased all of us out. But Mr. M was gone.
To this day, I think that Mr. M’s family thinks I am a miserable failure; the man died while I was praying for him. His niece still attended our church, but the rest of the family never talked to me again and did not ask me to participate in his funeral; after all what more damage was I capable of?
I, however, left with a totally different view of the event. I think Mr. M passing away at that very instant during the prayer, when I was asking God to take him to be with Him, was a sign that God did take Mr. M to be with Him. All God needed from Mr. M was emptiness; empty and in need of what only God can do.
This event changed my life. I have been taught that a person has to know Jesus and commit themselves to God through Jesus in order to inherit eternal life. The criteria is faith and eternal life is a gift and one has to consciously realize it and, in faith, ask for it. But here was a modern-day thief on the cross, who at the very final moments of his life pointed himself toward God and was accepted. Mr. M had no concept of theology or knowledge of doctrine, no church background, nothing religious to my knowledge to fall back on. What he did have was emptiness and need and the rest was up to God. At the end of his life when he turned his face to God, God responded, yes! “Seek and you will find.”