Hard Nuts – The Story of Moving a Boulder of an Old Man

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.”

“Such as?”

“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:

  1. 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
  2. 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).
  3. 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.

Taken For Granted: The Perspective of Sickness

The other day, I met a woman waiting to die of her stage 4 colon cancer.

Her name is Antonia.

She’s in her 50s, was diagnosed 6 years ago, and initially given just months. Her cancer spread to her kidneys and has caused reoccurring infections. She finds herself making monthly visits to the hospital, and she fights herself each time she does. She’s tired of the medical dance she’s constantly forced to participate in and there doesn’t seem to be anything the doctors can do about her condition.

Antonia is on palliative care at home. She has a pain management routine, though she’s described this as taking her medication in order to feel “half-alive”. She also requires home health to assist her with showers; she has tubes in her body which can’t have water getting in. Not only does this mean she has been without the simple luxury of taking a shower on her own, but she’s also had to stop a favorite hobby of hers: swimming. She laments not being able to take a lap around the pool, not being able to plunge into the ocean from the beach. Her everyday pain has forced her to slow down, to be less active, to be stuck inside the house.

While she does have the support of her children, she finds it hard to talk to them about what she’s feeling and what she’s hoping for. They talk to her about miracles, but she wants to talk to them about not waking up one day. She prays every night for God to take her.

“I’m tired,” she told me.

She’s tired of the hospitals. Tired of the medication. Tired of “not living life” as she reflected on the things everyone else around her enjoy that have been taken away from her by her disease. She seemed to light up as she spoke about the things she misses, about swimming, about eating, about waking up with a fraction of the concerns she wakes up with today.

We spoke about purpose. This is a common and needed theme among those who question why they are still alive, why disease has not taken those who suffer from a marathon of illness. For Antonia, this itch to understand her purpose in living is acute. She recalled a friend of hers diagnosed with colon cancer years ago. The man was initially distraught from the diagnosis, absolutely shocked.

“It’ll be ok,” she recalled telling him, “you’ll learn to live with it.”

The cancer took her friend 6 months after he received his diagnosis. She reflected, 6 years into her own diagnosis, why God still allows her to live in light of how short a time her friend had to live with his diagnosis.

“Why does God still have me hear? What more does He need of me?”

The conversation then ventured towards what things filled Antonia up, what things that brought her joy or peace. She spoke about where she used to live, close to the heart of the city, not far from a homeless shelter. She mentioned her passion for cooking, and she spoke how early into her diagnosis she’d started a practice of making warm meals for the homeless. She’d ask her children to take the warm meal as they went out to work, to find someone on the streets who looked like they could use the sustenance. In a short while, she had many homeless individuals come up to her porch where she didn’t even need her children to deliver the meals. She mentioned at times this would bring her some trouble. A credit card stolen here, medications there, an intruder sneaking into her garage just to find someplace safe to sleep.

Antonia shared all this fondly, warmly, the good with the bad. 

“Even the days where I felt like someone was taking advantage of my kindness, God gave me a blessing.”

She mentioned how she’d get some gift or money in the mail, a random act of generosity from a neighbor, different blessings that would come her way immediately after she extended her kindness even to her own detriment. She had faith in God’s protection over her, that God wouldn’t let her be at a deficit for being generous.

As our conversation continued to circle around the topic of purpose, we revisited something that shifted in her as she spoke about the things other people could enjoy that she couldn’t. We spoke about the new perspective she received with the diagnosis, a kind of cursed gift. She is able to see the blessing of a clean bill of health others are able to enjoy, even if it is squandered or unappreciated. She sees the trivial quarrels of those around her as she lives each day at war with her own body. She lamented how much she has lost to her disease and, more than that, how others struggle to appreciate what they have.

In short, the simple pleasures, comforts, and even means of life should not be assumed or expected. Her wish is for those around her to not take a drink of juice without giving thanksgiving first, for one not to lay their head before they can acknowledge the luxury of rest. In this new perspective, she sees how important it is to pair—even marry—gratitude with every luxury, every action, every basic need. The two cannot, should not, be inseparable.

Antonia seemed to find some possibility in finding purpose by sharing her perspective, through telling her story, with the hope that it would enrich and edify others.

“You have a story to tell. I can tell it’s important to you to tell it, and I believe God sees it as important for you to share it with others. I think people can really benefit from your perspective. You have a story to tell, and I hope you’ll continue to tell it.”

“I will.” She said.

“Can you tell it too?” She asked me.

So often I think we are quick to dismiss our own troubles and circumstances as misery, to snowball all our small issues into something bloated. It’s unclear the exact reason why we do this, but I wonder if it’s done because we think we are Antonia, because we think we have a disease that warrants pity or curative measures. And yet Antonia seeks neither pity nor curative measures. Yes she receives pain management as she reconciles with the fact that her disease is actively killing her body, but she sought no pity from me in our conversation but rather wanted to share with me her new cursed gift, the gift of perspective, in order to enrich the lives of others.

Antonia is like salt in this regard. She is pure, stinging yet curative to our superficial wounds, but most of all drawing out the flavor of our own lives, enhancing the blessings we possess but sometimes do not acknowledge. This is her cursed gift, but it is a profoundly purposeful one.

As a daily exercise, let us totally join gratitude—a mere acknowledgment of something we have that others cannot—with all that we do, with all that we enjoy, with all that we have. Let not a single person in our lives, a single gesture of our healthy bodies, a single crumb of food or drop of drink go unacknowledged, unappreciated.

Let us marry thanksgiving to everything we have, and more than that, let us act charitably as though we have everything. Because we do in fact have everything if only we stopped to count our blessings.

Blind Man Part I: Sins, Suffering, Purpose

AN: I recently reread the Gospel reading of Jesus healing the man born blind. I was struck this particular time by all its implications and spiritual meat that it offers. I’ll be writing a few blog entries on this periscope, unpacking as much as this lesson presents to me. I pray that this is a particularly edifying series and appropriate for this Paschal season.

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:1-5)

We begin the Gospel reading of the Young Man born blind with a snapshot of the ancient idea of sin and malady.

We begin to see this precedent as we page through the Old Testament and find more than a handful of correlations of how sin can lead to suffering or death. King David is perhaps the most memorable case, having committed a double sin of fornication and murder and then having lost his first child. Recently Fr. Stephen DeYoung expounded on this relationship in his Lord of Spirits podcast, as he unpacked how the actual word of blessing means “things being in proper order” as we align our spiritual posture and personal will to God’s purposes, whereas a curse is when things are out of order, out of God’s order/design due to our falling. This relationship with sin and suffering is even addressed in the Gospel of Matthew, when we see that the Paralyzed man is healed specifically by Christ forgiving the sin; Christ forgiving the man’s sin was not merely a public declaration of His Grace and divine nature, but an illustration that forgiveness of sins is too often the root of our suffering with disease being merely a symptom of it.

That being said, we see how suffering in the Old Testament seemingly has no correlation to sin. Such is the case of Job. He is a righteous man, charitable, and even at the first sight of calamity doesn’t even begin to question God dispute his wife’s jadedness. The man suffers terribly, more so than David even, but to no fault of his own. The snapshot of Job that we receive is that the devil is looking to test Job, but he does so with God’s permission. At first glance, Job’s case seems to propose an inextricable nature of suffering, how cruel and unfair life’s circumstances can be and sometimes without a particular point.

A similar case of this testing by the devil is echoed in the life of St. Anthony when he is assaulted by animals (demons) in a cave, left for dead, found and restored by a friend, and thereby goes to return to the cave to fight again. After the second encounter, St. Anthony is not assaulted again, but asks God why God didn’t fight for him the first time, wherein God answers that He wanted to see St. Anthony contest on his own first, that God was there in the gauntlet, and after his perseverance and courage would make St. Anthony’s name great across the world.

We also see in the Gospel of Luke how Jesus addresses blameless suffering using two different examples. In Luke 13, we read how Jesus speaks on the “mingling of blood” that was from Pilate, which according to Fr. DeYoung was an insurrection put down by Pilate by use of crucifying hundreds of random Jews, despite their particular allegiance to said insurrection. We also read about the tower of Siloam that falls and kills so many. In Luke, Jesus shares both accounts because His audience seems to have rationalized, “those that Pilate killed or died by the tower collapsing, probably deserved it.” Jesus uses these examples to break the wholesale assumption that all death and malady are caused by sin, and returns His audience’s attention to the necessity of repentance. While the examples Jesus has here don’t speak about the beauty, sanctification, and purification of perseverance (ie is the case for Job & St. Anthony) it does leave room in interpretation of suffering to not always be caused by sin. This doesn’t dismiss interpreting of suffering, because whatever the “cause” of suffering there is work for the sufferer and the witness to it to make something good and holy from it.

Reading these different stories, we see that there is room for nuance in our exposition of suffering. Jesus doesn’t outright criticize the opinion that someone could be born blind or sick as a result of someone’s sin (again, Matthew shows us Jesus addressing this reality). With the blind young man, Jesus sets the record straight saying that the cause of this case was not sin, but that there is another purpose behind it.

Now we arrive at the crux of our pastoral theology of suffering: suffering ought to serve some purpose. In counseling, I often share Tolkein’s account of the creation of the cosmos. There are divine powers that sing things into being, but also demonic figures (ie Sauron) that add a dissonant chord, a bad malady. The divine beings don’t make Sauron mute, but rather weave his song into the greater melody, providing a cathartic resolve in the ballad. Minor keys and dissonance are powerful tools in music, and they serve well provided there is some resolve at the end of the piece.

Suffering can be like this poor cord struck. It upsets us, but it weaves into a bigger and more beautiful composite. A season of grief and suffering is hard to endure, but it’s woven into something greater and more beautiful. Job’s answer from God is actually just that. God lists so many beautiful and incomprehensible wonders from the farthest reaches of space to the unfathomable nethers of the ocean. It’s a hard answer, but it’s a beautiful one and it’s a sight that so few figures in the Bible are privy to. After Job’s season of suffering, his wrestling with his friends, wrestling with God, he is ultimately restored, and his story is among the famous ones in Scripture.

Conversely, King David’s suffering bears a different kind of fruit. The loss of his child is on one hand the fruit of his sinful heart, revealing how murder and fornication unfolds into destruction. But that’s not the end of that tree’s life or purpose. King David then produces new fruit, the fruit of repentance. He fasts, laments, and ultimately goes to worship God. We even get a taste of David’s contrite heart through his Psalter, producing for the world beautiful psalms and poems for all men to worship God by. King David’s fruit goes from spoiled to sweet, and out of the suffering of his sin, something beautiful is born.

Suffering can be woven into something greater, which is also to say that there is an opportunity for the sufferer to orient their attention and will to God towards this purpose. When the suffering is product of sin, there is an opportunity for repentance and beauty being born from that repentance.

But in this Gospel reading of the man born blind, we see that the suffering will bear a different and even more beautiful fruit…for the glory and manifestation of God’s work and power. The curing of the young man’s blindness is truly remarkable, a miracle that astounds many. But also remarkable (perhaps more remarkable) is God’s work THROUGH the young blind man. As we continue reading, we will see that the young blind man’s testimony and dialog with the uneducated is so very bold and sophisticated. Here we have a young and uneducated man who bests the educated Pharisees and remains steadfast in his testimony, unflinching to public opinion of Jesus.

In the end, the blind man is the one who sees the light in the world that Jesus speaks of in the end of this passage. The light is seen by the one who was physically blind, while the light is too bright to those spiritually blind.

Where I’d like to conclude with this is that there is sometimes a temptation for someone witnessing someone else’s suffering (be it friend, family, or pastor) to immediately rectify and explain the suffering. While the aim of suffering should be to refashion it so something beautiful can be born of it, it really takes the work of the one suffering to come to this epiphany. The witness, however, is called to stand side-by-side in it, to not be so brash or loud like Job’s friends were. Any wisdom we think we might immediately have to share should be tempered first by compassion, a readiness to sit in the suffering with the sufferer, to hear their story, and become a companion in it. Only in this marathon approach can we hope to intercede and provide some small epiphany for them.

But ultimately the sufferer must ask for their sight restored to see such glories, such as the young blind man.