Once an atheist convinced that there was no God and that life inevitably ended at the grave, I had fallen in love for the second time in my life. This time, the object of my passion wasn't my wife, but Jesus Christ. I had taken the plunge of faith and experienced that Jesus, once crucified and dead, was alive and ready to be my best friend.
Not long after this new life had begun, my wife and I moved from an apartment into a rental house. We'd been there just a few weeks when I looked out my front door to see an EMS vehicle and a couple of police cars, their lights flashing ominously.
A short time later, I saw police officers and emergency medical personnel come out of the house in front of which they'd parked. They left abruptly.
I didn't really know the neighbors. I'd seen them a few times. They were seventy-somethings whose house and yard were well-kept. We had said, "Hello" to each other as we got into our cars or edged our lawns, but that was all.
After the cruisers and emergency squad vehicle had driven away, lights turned off, eerily silent, I felt a dilemma brewing in my gut. "Should I do something? Should I go over and see if they need help?" I asked my wife. She was as baffled as I was.
I began praying. What should I do?, I asked God. I wasn't really sure whether my neighbors needed or would welcome an offer of help from a stranger. I pictured them looking at me crossly and asking, "Why don't you mind your own business?"
Finally, I told my wife, "I'm going over there. It may be stupid. But we're supposed to love our neighbor, even if the neighbor thinks you're crazy for caring."
Even as I said this, I was thinking that maybe I shouldn't go. Who knows, I thought, maybe they just accidentally brought these emergency vehicles to their place and now, embarrassed, would prefer not to be bothered. After all, nobody had been taken from the house by the EMS.
I didn't listen to my doubts, though. I pulled on a jacket and walked the short distance to the neighbor's house. "God," I prayed, "grant that I won't make a fool of myself...or of You."
It was a good thing I'd thought to pray! After I knocked on the door, the man of the house--I would come to know him as Joe--let me in. His face wore the expression I have since learned is the visage of shock, the look of a person wrestling with a loss so enormous that it bleeds the capacity to emote from a person's face.
"I live across the street," I explained. "I saw the vehicles here and wondered if there might be anything I could do to help?"
With a single motion, Joe let me into his house and pointed to the floor, where the lifeless form of his wife lay, beneath the small arch that separated the living room from the dining area. "My wife just died," he told me.
I had never dealt with death well. When I was fifteen, my father's mother had died. I was incapable of going to the viewing or even the funeral. Seven years after that, my mother's father, the grandfather for whom I was named and with whom I felt a closeness, died. Even though I was at that time closing in on age twenty-three, I found it hard to go through all the funeral stuff. Death frightened me.
But here I was, a brand new Christian, wobbly as a baby doe in my faith, immersed in a situation I felt that I'd prayed myself into, a situation that involved the presence of a dead body on the floor before me and a grieving husband standing next to me.
I prayed again. "God help me," I kept saying from the interior of my being. I must have prayed that prayer a hundred times over the next hour or so.
In the next few moments, Joe haltingly told me that, because it was Friday night and they were good Roman Catholics of the old school, he and his wife had been enjoying a fish dinner. (It's funny, but until that point, I hadn't noticed the smell of fish in the house. But ever since then, I can't smell fish without thinking of Joe and that night.)
There, at the dinner table, Joe's wife had collapsed. He dialed 0 for Operator. (These were the days before 911.) The fire department emergency personnel and the police had gotten there in a flash. But it was still too late. They'd tried to revive her. But she was already dead.
"Why did they leave you here like this?" I asked.
"None of them could certify death. A funeral home will have to pick her up..." his voice trailed off and then he finished, "Only the coroner can certify..."
I felt paralyzed and utterly incompetent. But, competent or not, I felt like I'd been nominated to help this grief-stricken man on a Friday evening when his whole world had come undone.
I asked God to help me again and then I asked Joe, "May I call the funeral home for you?"
I'd never done anything remotely like this before in my life. But the people at the funeral home were professionals. They just needed an address and I could give that.
By now, Joe was sitting in a chair in the living room, staring at the body of his wife. Their phone was in the dining area, next to the stairwell. I had stepped by his wife's body--I hoped, respectfully--to get to the phone. With the completion of the call, I stepped back toward Joe.
"The funeral director is sending a hearse right away," I reported. "Is there anyone else I should call?"
Joe said that his daughter and son should be phoned. So, I picked out the numbers he gave me to dial and then, again praying over every syllable, told these two adult children that their mother had passed away and that their father needed them.
A minute later, Joe asked me if I would call his priest. "What parish do you belong to?" I asked. "Saint Mary Magdalene." I looked up the rectory number in the phone book. "Ask for Father Fred...," Joe told me. "We've always loved Father Fred."
Once the calls were completed, Joe, this neighbor I didn't know, and I sat in his living room. He seemed to have the need to talk about the events of the evening again, a need for repetition I suppose that we all have when we first try to process a cataclysmic change in our lives that seems couldn't possibly have happened.
Occasionally, his wife's body would emit gurgles, the eerie thing that can happen in the first moments after death. I steeled myself and kept praying inside and tried to remember, "This isn't about you, Mark. You're not the one who's lost a loved one here. Keep depending on God so that you can be of some use to this man."
After a time, the funeral director, the grown children and their spouses, some grandchildren, and the priest all came. There were hugs and prayers. After Father Fred led the praying, I left.
It was one of the most incredible and gratifying experiences of my life. At the time, I had no idea that it was a preview of something God has often called me to do in the intevening years: be with the families of those who have just lost loved ones. Within two years, I would be enrolled in seminary and six years later, I would be a pastor. That's been my job for more than twenty years now.
But what I learned that night is that God can use anybody to bring comfort or be of help to people in difficult circumstances. I learned that we can do almost anything that we're willing to do.
I also learned something about genuine prayer, which I would later find convincingly articulated in a book by one of my favorites, Ole Hallesby. The book is called Prayer.
Those of you who have read the book or this blog, where I've mentioned Hallesby's book before, will remember that authentic prayer is composed of two things:
Faith: The belief that, because of the compassionate face God has shown to us through the crucified and risen Jesus, we can trustingly call on God in prayer.Until those two conditions are met, we may utter something that sounds like prayer, but really harbor the illusion that we can get along with God, that He's really just our rabbit's foot.
Desperation: The awareness that we are utterly incapable (or incompetent) to accomplish what we're asking God to do.
The great thing is that God is desperate to help us, just waiting to be invited into our circumstances.
The whole key to understanding prayer, Hallesby suggests, is found in words from the risen Jesus found in the New Testament book of Revelation:
Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. (Revelation 3:20)These words of the risen Jesus were revealed to John and addressed to a church in the ancient city of Laodicea. The Laodicean Christians had become, Jesus says, "lukewarm," tepid in their faith. Jesus was no longer the love of their lives. They weren't as committed to loving God and loving others as they'd once been. They could take or leave Jesus. So, He was saying, "I'm knocking on the door of your wills and hearts. I'll come in to be with you any time you open the door."
That's what we do any time we genuinely pray. We say, "God, I need Your help. I know from Jesus that You're not against me, but for me. So, I'm swinging the door open and I'm begging You to come inside and make Your home with me."
That's certainly what I was telling God that night some twenty-six years ago. And I have found that when I am really praying, it's when faith and desperation once again impel me to let Jesus us into whatever I'm praying about and for whomever I'm praying.
Feel unqualified to pray? If you're desperate enough to sense your need of God, you're more than qualified!
[See also Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 1.]