A few years ago, I was making my daily rounds as a chaplain in a Sacramento hospital when I met an alert, and very friendly, octogenarian.
His present situation wasn’t serious, but he was nearing 90 years old, so the likelihood of a “heavenly discharge” was becoming more likely with each passing year. With a balding head and a small frame, he had a Gandhi look about him and maybe even a touch of Gandhi’s spirit.
At the end of our visit, I offered the aging Episcopalian a prayer for himself and his family. After my prayer, he offered me something that I’ve never forgotten.
“Does anyone ever offer to pray for you, chaplain?” His question, rare for a patient, told me he was looking outside himself at a time when most patients look, understandably so, inside themselves.
“Well, uh …” I stumbled, embarrassed that his attention was on my needs, “Occasionally.”
“But have you ever had a patient pray for you?” he asked specifically.
“I guess not,” I told him in a tone that may have implied I don’t need prayer.
“Then it’s about time, don’t you think?” he declared with a wink in his voice.
Perhaps he recognized that from my position as a pastoral caregiver, I had come to imagine myself above receiving pastoral care from others. Perhaps, he saw an attitude in me that said, “I’m here to help people, but I don’t need any help.”
As he prayed for my work, my family and my health, I recalled the words of an old spiritual, “It’s not my brother, it’s not my sister, but it’s me, O’ Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” His prayerful plea multiplied my efforts to pay the blessings forward to the remaining patients on my rounds.
This past month, I witnessed a similar incident when I saw my best friend, Roger Williams, pray for someone. Like me, Roger is a hospital chaplain, but he is also a third-time cancer patient being treated at the hospital where he’s employed.
During a return visit to the hospital, he stopped a fellow employee to ask him how he was doing. His seemingly casual question had real purpose. The employee had lost a family member to a violent crime a few years back, and the subsequent trial was sensationalized by every news agency from here to Tajikistan
I don’t believe the man realized how recent Roger’s surgery was, since Roger’s new incision was made over his old incision scar. Now, you should know that it’s at this point I would have probably started talking about my own misfortune.
Not Roger. Roger promised the man with a calming reassurance that he was praying for him often. The employee heard Roger, heard his heart and heard his intent. Like the octogenarian, Roger deflated his own needs and deferred to the needs of another.
In his question to the man, Roger knew that God’s economy doesn’t work like ours. Jesus said it best when he said, “If your first concern is to look after yourself, you'll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you'll find both yourself and me.”
My friend and the octogenarian found that while facing their own mortality, other people mattered even more. And most importantly, they learned that the prayers they offered to others could boomerang and become a part of their own healing.