It was in my final year of university that I was called to the town hospital. The ride was brief and I struggled for composure. Waiting for me was a man who had been told by his oncologist minutes earlier that he was going to die soon.
I entered by the back way, thankful for the extra minute it took for me to find his room.
His name was Roy. Sixties, white- haired, propped up in bed at a 45-degree angle, naked to the waist. His narrow chest was misshapen by the cancer, as if it threatened to push free from beneath. When he breathed in, his spine bowed and lifted under the strain. The sound of it was the worst thing I have ever heard.
I crossed to him quickly and stood close, acknowledging the family with a tight-lipped nod, locking eyes with him as he fought.
“My name is Lee. I’m from the church. I understand the doctor was in to talk to you.”
A nod and that hideous, bubbling gasp on each word.
“He told me I was going to die.”
“Am I…going to…die?”
Silence does fall. Like a noiseless bomb losing nothing in its concussive force. Oh, the temptation I knew then. An easy outset, right before me. The family behind me, hoping wordlessly I would jam my foot in the door their surgeon had just slammed shut, to allow back in the merest sliver of hope. This was why I was here. This was why I had been called. I was their last ditch before oblivion.
I forced myself to speak.
“Yes, Roy, yes you are. Do you want to talk about that?”
“How dare you!” cried a woman from the back of the church hall where I stood three years later, relating this story. The 30 or so people who had gathered-nurses, palliative care workers, pastoral care volunteers-froze, as did I.
“What about prayer? What about miraculous intervention?” she demanded. “We’re there to offer God’s promise of salvation and healing, which you didn’t do. How do you know he was going to die?”
She was right, of course. But I think, too, that she was not right. And I will tell you what I told her so you may decide how you might have answered that question.
Lazarus was dead before Christ called him forth from his tomb and gave him back to his family. He was alive again, and his humanity guaranteed that a month, a year, or 50 years later, he would again die.
I did tell Roy the truth. I was sure that I had a responsibility to help him prepare to meet his Lord. My purpose was to help him discover the peace that would bear him through this world and into the next. The peace that only God can provide is the miracle we can always count upon when we pray, whether it is our time to die or not. Ω
The Rev. Lee Lambert has been a military chaplain for seven years and is rector of
St. Mary’s Anglican Church in Russell, Ont. At the recent annual meeting of the Associated Church Press and Canadian Church Press in Chicago, Lambert’s reflection, The Dreaded Knock [Sept. 2010, p. 5] received a first-place Award of Excellence.