Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. Romans 8:26
While blog surfing I ran across several posts concerning prayer that reminded me of something I learned in the early phases of my ministry. These stories took me way back to the time I was engaged in a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (C.P.E.) during which my instructor’s focus for several weeks was the power of prayer.
One particular evening as I was the on-call chaplain in the hospital I was attending, I happened to meet a very interesting fellow. Mr. Savoy, as I shall call him, is an elderly man who lives in an assisted care nursing home. He has no family to speak of; his wife and children are all dead. His only sense of family are the few members of a small rural church where he served as preacher (as he likes to call it) for over forty years. As I was passing by his room, Savoy was just sitting up in his bed staring off into space. He looked like someone who might enjoy a few words of conversation, so I knocked on the door and introduced myself. “So you’re a preacher huh? Well sit down so we can get this over with.” As I pulled up a chair and sat I thought to myself, “Now there’s a warm welcome.”
After a few minutes of light conversation, Mr. Savoy asked me when I was going to get to the prayer so that we can both move on. I asked him, how he knew that I would share a prayer with him. “That’s what you guys do, you come in say hello, talk for a bit, then you pray so you can leave. I didn’t really know how to respond to such brutal honesty, and so living up to his expectations, I stood up and pulled the chair a little closer to his bed and asked him if he would indeed like to pray with me. At that, Mr. Savoy’s eyes lit up. He saw his window of opportunity open wide enough to drive a truck through. “Don’t you mean you’re going to pray for me?” I can still hear his words. “Listen son, you’re not the first person in this hospital that has bothered to stop and talk, all the chaplains do that. Frankly, I’ve had enough talking. But you did something different and the best part is you don’t even know what it is. So let’s talk.”
Mr. Savoy told me of is life and how he came to be preacher for his small church. When he was young, their pastor died and the congregation asked him to preach on Sundays until they found a new pastor. After several months, the small congregation asked Mr. Savoy if he would consider being their minister. It took a little time, but he agreed. For over forty years Mr. Savoy took care of the spiritual needs of the flock. He went to seminary and got his degree, baptized their children, married couples just starting out and conducted funerals for those who passed on. Finally, as he grew older, Savoy’s health began to fail and he moved into an assisted care facility. Soon afterward, the tiny church found a new pastor.
As Mr. Savoy spent day after day in the retirement home, the number of visitors dwindled to a scant few. He outlived all of his immediate family and had no one left to celebrate those big days that occur in everyone’s life. Mr. Savoy realized he was forgotten, and so he decided to give up. He quit eating, quit conversing and basically waited for the end. The thing that bothered him most was that after so many years of ministry, no one from the church came to visit him. Needless to say, he was angry; angry at people, angry with the church and angry with God. Finally, Mr. Savoy told me what I did that lifted his spirits.
“I knew you would eventually get to the prayer, Mr. Savoy said, “you guys always do. But first you sat with me and talked with me. Then you offered to pray with me. I appreciated that. No one just sits and talks any more, especially to cranky old men like me. Now if you really want to pray with me, then you should know that I’m angry (sic) with God. You have to promise that you are going to say to God all of those hard things that no one wants to say. Do you understand?” When I said yes, Mr. Savoy reached out for my hand. I won’t go into the content of our prayer, but after we said amen, Mr. Savoy nodded and that was enough. He looked me in the eye, waved his hand and it was time for me to leave.
Pastors know when people make peace with God, and Mr. Savoy made his peace. God’s grace filled him that day and after a long time he was able to offer thanks to his heavenly Father. I never saw Mr. Savoy again, hospital ministry is like that. But his words will stay with me always. “Say to God all of the hard things that no one wants to say.” Like Mr. Savoy, I believe God is big enough, and strong enough to listen even when we are angry, lost or confused. When we pray, we need to share our feelings with God. We need to discuss those hard to deal with issues that seem to be dragging us down into the pit. God wants nothing less. The lesson this old preacher taught me sticks in my mind every day. He was a minister to so many for so long. Yet, on that day, which I’m sure was one of his last, he was a minister to me.