By Norris Burkes, July 10, 2022

As a hospice chaplain, the patients I visit aren’t always religious people. However, if I sense that they will be receptive of prayer, I give them “the chaplain’s choice.”

“Would you like me to pray aloud for you now, or put you on my list to pray for you at the end of my day?”

I express it that way when I’m standing in their homes because I don’t want to impose my religious timing on them or put them on the spot before their family.

Most choose an audible prayer in the moment, but I can recall at least two octogenarians who countered my offer with a proposal of their own.

The first patient leaned forward from her pillow to ask, “Chaplain, do you get paid for this job?”

At first, her question seemed to carry the random tone of a dementia patient.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “Hospice pays me for my work.”

“Well, then,” she concluded. “I’ll expect both.”

“I’m sorry — both?” I asked with a confused chuckle that proved me slow on the uptake.

“I’m answering your question,” she said, eye-twinkle firmly in place. “If you’re paid to do this job, you should pray for me now and later.”

I shook a finger toward her in the way one does when admitting that a worthy opponent has the upper ground.

“You got me,” I said. “You definitely got me.” If she wanted two prayers for the price of one, I would certainly oblige her.

The second prayer patient gave a more serious response. His medical condition wasn’t critical, but he was nearing 90 and his “heavenly discharge” was more likely with each passing year.

With a bald head and small frame, this World War II veteran 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, but he counter-offered with something I’ve never forgotten.

“Tell me, Chappie, does anyone ever offer to pray for you?” The nickname reflected his days in the war.

His question told me he was looking outside himself at a time when most patients look, understandably so, inside themselves.

“Well, uh …” I stumbled, embarrassed that he’d focused his attention on my needs.

“Have you ever had a patient pray for you?” he repeated with special emphasis on “ever.”

“I guess not.”

“It’s about time, don’t you think?” he declared with a wink in his voice.

Perhaps he suspected that in my position as a caregiver, I imagined 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.”

The wise elder found that while facing his own mortality, other people mattered that much more. And most importantly, he knew that the prayers he offered for others could boomerang and become a part of his own healing.

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, standin’ in the need of prayer.” His prayerful plea multiplied my efforts and helped pay the blessings forward to the remaining patients on my rounds.

At the end of the day, I couldn’t help but wonder if the old man had found the secret to longevity in Jesus’ words: “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” (Matthew 10:39 MSG).


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