There was a gentleman I spoke to not long ago who had trouble with a lot of hardships in his life, mostly of medical issues growing more complicated as he got older. He was already into his 80s, goes to dialysis three times a week, and each time he goes he’s drained of his energy. He told me that he’s pretty sure he slept non-stop for three days, though I’m sure he was disoriented by his stay in the hospital.
I spoke to him because his sister was concerned about his mood, about his attitude. She had become her brother’s keeper though this task had been wearing her down. From the sister, to the nurse, to even what I observed, the patient was short-tempered, bitter, negative, and angry. He absolutely had the right to be too. His life had become this dance of going to the hospital and going back home, of being treated for one thing just for another thing to pop up. He goes to clean his body through dialysis just to spend his body’s energy for the rest of the day.
I’d been tasked by the nurse and the sister to address the depression, to provide some special kind of blessing through either prayer or conversation. Again, from the outright, the old man hardly gave me the time of day. He said he was fine, but if you asked him about the competency of the staff, the quality of the hospital, or anything else he’d tell you what was wrong with the system. Nonetheless, he’d settle down, say everything was fine, say he’d get on with it.
I do my best to avoid small talk, to get to some big talk, even get people to open up about their history so that people will feel trusting to share more. I asked him where he was from, he said Michigan, and basically left it at that, commenting briefly only on the change of weather but how people were “smarter” up north and how everyone was a bigot in the south. Then we talked about work. He mentioned working for Nasa for a few years, and despite how interesting I remarked that was he said “it was just a job, nothing special, humanity comes up with new stuff, what’s new.” Then i asked about recreation, he bitterly said there wasn’t much for him to do in the hospital and he was resistant to reading. I asked what he’d done for recreation before the hospital, he said “everything you can think of” though when I asked about the most common retirement hobbies (fishing and golf) he spoke negatively of both. Lastly we got to God. He did mention believing in God, and that one HAD to believe in God, but that wasn’t sufficient for me.
“What’s your belief in God look like?”
“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Him.”
“So you’re grateful?”
“I am grateful. For a lot of things, for a lot of blessings.”
“Well, to be alive. I keep having health problems, and I keep getting back up, all becaues of Him.”
“That must fill you with a sense of purpose.”
“What do you mean?”
“Most people, when they recover or find themselves coping with health struggles, usually ask about a sense of purpose: why does God keep me alive.”
“All I know is that He keeps me alive, and i’m happy about that.”
“Okay, and what about your relationship with God? Do you pray?’
“Sure, here and there, not like three hours at a time.”
“What’s that look like for you?”
“I thank Him for my blessings.”
I didn’t push it. I knew he’d keep me in circles with his vagueness.
We ended the conversation with him saying his room was too cold, though I was sweating as I spoke to him about nothin in particular for just under half an hour. I told him I’d ask the nurse if we could raise the room temp or get warm blankets.
“Young man, you don’t understand. They can’t get me anything. Their damn hands are tied. You’re not going to get me a blanket. They’re not going to do shit for me. They don’t do anything, they’re so inept.”
We talked a little about his frustration about how miserable it is to be stuck in the hospital, but then he bounced back to his common answer, “but I’m fine, and i’ll be fine. I’m okay,” as though he hadn’t raised his voice or cussed at all.
I asked if I could pray for him, he limply said that would be okay if I did. I can’t remember what intentions I lifted up, but I think I asked for the Lord’s peace and joy to visit him. Then I left the room, and the nurse and the sister looking up at me expectantly.
“Did you give him a special blessing?” The sister asked me.
“We prayed and we talked,” I answered.
The sister happened to also be a medium. Though I disagreed with her sense of spirituality I was grateful that she was transparent of her own difficulty with her brother as well as being transparent about their upbringing. She mentioned that there was verbal and physical abuse growing up and that she felt spirits had led her to find healers in her life. I asked if her brother felt his emotions and voice had been “quashed” in their home environment. She said he kept all his anger inside, always did, and became a bitter person throughout. The sister asked me if I could stop by agian later to check in on him. I hadn’t a whole lot of time that day for an especially hard nut to crack, but I told her I’d try if I had time. I left just as the nurse braved going back into the room again as she said with a belabored look, “here I go to get beat up again.” The sister and I were silent. We’d all been given quiet a bit of grief from him.
I did end up circling back, but this gentleman was fast asleep. The nurse noticed me, looking particularly refreshed.
“Whatever you did in there, it worked.”
I was stunned.
“What do you mean? He hardly gave me the time of day. I worked so hard to get him to share about himself.”
“Well, the three days I’ve had him, he’s been nothing but unpleasant to me. But when i walked in after you talked to him, he was a totally new person. Thanks for giving him the time.”
The nurse and I spoke again about the background the patient came from. Not only did we converse about what the sister said about the hard home they came from, but I learned the patient’s parents came from Communist Romania under an iron fist of a government. The man’s behavior began making sense.
I write this because crochety old men are not individuals in our society we can afford to ignore. I’ve met dozens in my life and my vocation, and in some way I feel as though most are testing us, to see which of us put up with them and can listen without retort why things are miserable. I also mention this because I sometimes find myself challenged to pray, unsure at times how to give petitions before God and wonder/fear how/when God might respond.
This interaction served as a reminder of a few things:
- God does all the work. We may be beset with an impossible task or person, and we might feel as though our efforts were in vain. Only by giving the matter to God may we see His goodness, His work, and His intention in our cooperation in that act. For those of us who place all the work and expectations on ourselves and forget to include or consider God as part of whatever work/ministry/vocation we do, He will remind us through the impossible that He will accomplish the great task
- We dont always get to see the fruit of our work. it was a total fluke that I got to return to the nurse, a lull in my day that allowed me to hear what the nurse had mentioned about this old man’s attitude totally changing. i’ve often been told my clergy that “God makes us the sower, but seldom gives the sower the pleasure of reaping the harvest…that’s usually for someone else.” Even if we don’t get a glimpse in the rear-view mirror, consider that God will still use our prayer and our efforts for HIS glory (and not our own).
- There’s always a story behind the bitter resentment. And it’s our job to listen to it, to hear it out. Unfortunately I didn’t mine deep enough as to the center of this man’s hurt. Next time I point-blank address his frustration and disposition, see where it stemmed from. Maybe he’d tell me eventually, maybe it’d only come through the sister. Either way, sometimes it takes for us to be curious or imaginative to discern a story behind the hurt. By that discernment, we can grow in our capacity of reaching others who otherwise seem unreachable.
The path of least resistance against a boulder is to go around it, ignore it. That being said I believe sometimes the boulder is waiting for us to press long enough and just hard enough—gently really—for it to move somewhere new, for a river to decide to dislodge it from its stagnation. My brothers and sisters, let us allow Christ who is the living water to flow through us that we may be vessels and tributaries of His life giving stream.