"The Lord is close to the broken hearted, and saves those who are crushed in spirit."
~ Psalm 34:18
I could see that the door was very worn as I approached the front steps of a concrete porch yesterday. The apartments, with a sign, "Under New Management," clearly posted to make people think that "something," might be changing, worn down and broken, are a place where people with little to no income live. I knocked on the door, and as I did, the door moved back and forth, as the latch no longer was able to keep the door closed.
As I stood there waiting, I could hear the sound of feet shuffling from the other side. The door opened, and there stood a man, connected to a lifeline of oxygen, holding a feeding bag in one hand. He smiled as he shook my hand with his left hand. I had to adjust my outreached hand so that I could appropriately shake his. "You must be the minister I heard about. You got the bow tie on that the nurse said you would be wearing. I've been waiting for you. I have some questions."
Before we managed to make it back to where his bedroom is located, he began to ask me questions about "forgiveness," and "how do we know there is a heaven?"
I noticed the flooring changed from a worn carpet to a torn linoleum, and passed a door that was missing a door knob. He sat on the side of the hospital bed that had been delivered recently. I noticed a mattress against the wall that the man had previously been sleeping on prior to the bed arriving. "This is so nice, isn't it? If I knew dying was going to get me a new bed, I might have told people I was dying sooner."
He smiled again. I noticed missing teeth. "Not really," he said, as if to see whether I was laughing or not.
"The priest already came, and I told him what I thought he wanted to hear," he shared, "but now I want to know what you think about the things I wouldn't even think of asking him."
Inwardly I cringed to think what might come out of his mouth next. His voice strained from scars left by radiation treatment for the cancer that was now throughout his body. "How do I know that God will be there to welcome me into heaven? I really haven't been that great of a person. In fact I know I haven't. The priest that I saw in the hospital was the first one I spoke to in over twenty years. I really am wondering."
I sat for a moment and suddenly realized that this man is living our Lenten journey in his question. Lent is filled with moments where we recognize our own failures, turning inward, while also asking and wondering about our relationship with God, and when we do, we are suddenly faced with so many questions and feelings.
This man wasn't just asking the eternal question that we all seem to wonder. He was needing some kind of proof as well.
In the church we are quick to describe streets of gold, gates made of pearl, and the presence of God, while the sound of eternal choirs singing overwhelm the question of, "How will I know that I will get there?"
I have sat and listened to people who have shared of their stories of salvation and being born again, but for this man, who's context consisted of his own understanding of heaven and God was where I would meet him. So many times people ask me, "Well, was he saved? Did you pray the sinners' prayer with him? What did you do to lead him to Christ?"
My role of "chaplain," is about meeting people where they are. He wasn't looking for something to remind him of his "sinfulness," he wanted to know more about God's promises.
I can tell that some of the people I know who have read what I have written so far are beginning to worry and become uncomfortable with how I'm handling the situation because of their own belief systems. If there is one thing that I can relate is that, "It will be okay."
If we are honest in our thinking about heaven and God, then we must admit that we all have "thought," about what this man was expressing.
Years ago I realized that none of us are capable of "fixing," someone's theology, because our relationship with God is both personal and unique. What we can do though, it try to live out our beliefs in how we love ourselves and love those around us. He was being completely vulnerable with me, and in turn, it was okay for me to relate that there is not one person who has lived who has not contemplated the same thing.
What I did share with him was this, "I'm grateful for stories from the Bible that remind us that we are all alike, and that we will, and do find, that at some point in our life we are faced with the same questions. To answer your question, I remember the man who hung on a cross near Jesus on the day of crucifixion who simply said, 'Remember me when you come into your kingdom,' and Jesus telling him, 'Today you will be with me in paradise.'"
No great explanation. No great theological quest. A simple promise, and a simple answer for someone who admitted that he had not lived the most perfect life. He is US.
The man smiled and shared that he needed to rest. "Do you mind saying a prayer for me?"
He closed his eyes, and drifted off to sleep as I prayed. At the end of the prayer I thanked him for letting me visit and for sharing. He awoke just long enough to say "good bye" and "thanks for helping me to have peace."
It is not being unfaithful to ask these questions. That is what Lent is all about.
Stay in God's grip!
G. Todd Williams (c) 2019
Rev. G. Todd Williams lives in the Houston metro area and is a Hospice Chaplain and ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor.