A man in our congregation suffered a stroke two months ago. As far as we know, it has rendered his physical condition very poor, and at this point we should probably not expect him to regain any semblance of his former active life. I've been visiting him about twice a week since it happened, and I've seen his health ebb and flow like a tide against the pneumonia that threatens to form in his lungs. That's pretty much what's keeping him down, and nowadays the mere sight of me by his bedside can send him into severe coughing fits. Formerly, this man had been a great singer. The sight of him hooked to an oxygen tank now is heartbreaking. Yet, miraculously, his distinct dignity and affability shine through it all.
I have noticed that his eyes fill with water when I mention words like "prayer" and "psalms." Otherwise, his expressions are hard to read. His eyebrows move up and down a little bit, but he is unable to form words or sounds anymore. The effects of the stroke and the trach tube have prevented that. But the tears at least tell me something. He grips my hand tightly and knows to shut his eyes before I start saying "Dear Lord..." As he is now, he is unable to go many places—not even the bathroom—on his own, but he can still go to the Lord in prayer. He still knows it is better to "rely on the LORD than to put any trust in flesh." Even his own.
As I stare over him, struggling to understand his condition, I try to remind myself that God has been here before. This territory may be forsaken, but, because of Christ, it's also primarily not forsaken. I find it harder to remember the latter, and then to know what to do with it. Can I give a pat answer (even a theologically pat one would be nice) about what's happening to him? Can I search my limited pool of life experience for some rule of thumb about how we can faithfully respond to someone in such pain and torment? What can we say about such things other than offer our hope for a better night’s rest and another shot at things tomorrow? What can we do but sigh?
Back to his breathing, labored and painful: is it oxygen we need? Or is it the Spirit, God's breath, whom we should hope would fill our lungs, our lives? This noble man certainly has this. I think, however, of all kinds of people, healthy and in their prime, active and full of determination, who go about with so-called “quality of life,” yet whose life is empty of the Breath that could truly animate them. Their eyes probably would not tear up at words like "prayer" and "psalms."
Therefore, before I’m driven simply to sigh, I open the psalter and read to him at his tears’ request. My voice speaks verses that articulate faith much more profound than I could ever muster. And, feeling the grip of his hand, I trust without a doubt he is singing these Easter words with me:
"The right hand of the LORD has triumphed!
The right hand of the LORD is exalted!
The right hand of the LORD has triumphed!
I shall not die, but live,and declare the works of the LORD."