Recently, I met a patient sitting on the edge of his bed, hunched over his considerable stomach, studying the floor tiles.
"Hello," I called as I walked into his darkened room. "I'm Norris, the hospital chaplain."
He dialed a smile onto his liver-spotted face and replied with an upturned tone of recognition. "Hello, Norris!"
I took study of his expressive blue eyes and the swirling tumbleweed of hair atop a balding head but felt no flash of recognition.
Still, with a lingering air of familiarity, he invited me onto the bedside chair like an old friend who'd come to visit.
"I'm so glad you came, Chaplain," he said. "I'm a pastor, too."
It turned out I didn't know him, but I knew the pastoral pitch and ministerial mannerisms. I knew him. I was looking at myself 25 years from now.
"Are you retired now?" I asked, an uncomfortable reference to his weighty encumbrance.
"Are we ever really retired?" His mention of "we" felt like a club handshake.
"I guess not," I said. "We definitely signed up for the duration."
"That's right. Ours is a lifelong service."
During the next half-hour he unfolded 50 years, beginning with his marriage to his college sweetheart. Together they started a church as well as a family. She birthed a baby girl one year and a son the next. However, not long after birth, their son started turning blue. They called for an ambulance, but it came too late.
"It was congenital," he told me.
The tears were now leaking from his reddened eyes, taking their evacuation route over bulging cheeks. A problem in the baby's heart shattered the heart of his parents.
"It was all so long ago," he said. His tone became apologetic, as if mystified by the source of his tears.
"You cry because it happened out of order. You're grieving the loss of potential, for what could have been."
"There's an old Chinese proverb," I said. "True happiness is: Grandfather dies. Father dies. Son dies. Grandson dies."
Yet, even as I spoke, he was waving a dismissive hand. It seemed likely he'd heard this before and even more likely he'd said it to himself.
Then, as if announcing another chapter of his autobiography, he said, "There's more.
"The cancer. My firstborn," he stuttered. "She died when she was just 39."
"You lost two children?" Mine was half-question and half-hearted indictment toward our celestial employer for expecting a man to remain in ministry after such tragedy.
I guess he caught my meaning because he said, "I'll be in heaven 10,000 years before I'll ever understand why."
I sat in silence with that observation. The old preacher knew the answers were so complex that 10,000 years of deliberation couldn't bring any real understanding.
I suppose I could have reminded him that God "... causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45), but he likely knew that. He didn't need more verses; he needed to know that God still heard his pain.
I reached for his hand, asked if we could tell this to God. He nodded. We prayed. We cried.
Just as he was wiping his last tear, his wife came into the room. He concluded his story by adding that he was now serving as pastor emeritus and advising the younger pastors.
I guess he was right, serving God is an endless calling. Doing so with such a gaping wound to the soul brings to mind nothing short of the divine.
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of "No Small Miracles." He is an Air National Guard chaplain. You may leave recorded comments at 843-608-9715, or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send comments to P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759.
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