Listen To Article
I met Mr. M when he was in intensive care. His niece had asked for prayer for him one Sunday and I figured that since we prayed for him, it would be a good idea to visit him. Mr. M was dying of cirrhosis of the liver.
Mr. M knew almost no English and I knew only enough Navajo to make a fool of myself. Fortunately for both of us, his niece was there and she, like so many Navajos, was fluent in both languages.
She explained to her uncle that I was from her church and that I had come to visit him and pray with him. I will never forget his reaction. He looked up at me with a longing in his eyes and reached out both of his hands embracing my hands holding them tight.
The image of his hands wrapped around mine is still vividly imprinted in my mind. Unkempt. Yellow from his liver’s limited functioning. Fingernails that had not been cut for a long time curling around the ends of his fingers. So, I did what I had come to do. I prayed for him and left.
Later that week, I thought it would be a good idea to visit him again to see what had transpired. When I got to the hospital, I knew that he was in trouble. The whole family was there — wife, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, you name it. I went into his room and he was in a coma. It did not look good.
I bribed the nurses – the hospital had a ”two visitors at a time” rule — and asked his niece to call the whole family into his room to pray. They complied. Picture about 30 people crowded in an intensive care room around Mr. M’s bed, holding his hands, touching him where they could and me in the background getting ready to pray.
So, I prayed. What do you pray in a situation like this? The man is dying! There was no hope for him humanly speaking. So, I prayed what I could.
At some point in the prayer, realizing Mr. M was most likely going to die, I said that if this was his time to go that God would have mercy and take Mr. M to be with him for eternity. At that very moment, he flatlined and died. The monitor made that awful sound. I had to truncate my prayer in a big hurry. Nurses and doctors came rushing in and chased all of us out. But Mr. M was gone.
I am pretty sure that Mr. M’s family thinks I am a miserable failure. After all, the man died while I was praying for him. Mr. M’s niece still attended our church for a time but I never saw the rest of the family again. They were all quite traditional and traditionally a medicine man would be called to do a healing ceremony, a medicine man known for his effectiveness. If this did not seem to work and it was still likely the person was on death’s doorstep, they would bring him or her to the hospital to die.
I, however, left with a totally different take. I think his passing away at that very instant was God’s ultimate “Yes” to Mr M. All God needed from him was emptiness — empty and in need of what only God can do. Here was a modern day thief on the cross, who at the very final moments of his life pointed himself toward God, empty. He had no concept of theology or knowledge of doctrine, no church background, nor the wherewithal to go through any particular formula that I could offer. However, what he did have was emptiness and need and the rest was up to God. At the end of his life when he turned his face to God, God responded, yes!
It is interesting that not only were traditional people critical of my lack of power and influence. Many of the more conservative pastors in our area were critical of, what I can only guess was, my lack of orthodoxy in interpreting this event. At one point, since I was teaching Bible at a Christian school, I had to meet with the school board along with two pastors from the area in order to determine if my teachings were heresy (actually if I was a “Universalist”) not in part because of writing concerning this event.
One of the pastors pointed out how inappropriate it was for me to assume that through my encounter with Mr. M, he could receive assurance of God’s salvation. Because Mr. M made no conscious verbal affirmation of faith in Jesus Christ, I could at best only presume on God’s graciousness. Fortunately, I did not need to respond at this point. One of the board members, who I think had just heard enough, halted the conversation and asked this pastor if his God could save this man in the way I told the story. The pastor answered “No” and his reason was because God has limited himself by his Word.
I am not sure exactly what this pastor meant by this, but I could not believe what I had just heard. It was clear that further discussion was futile. The meeting ended with the board voting that I could continue teaching and that I was not a heretic!
My response was more about how can your God be so small, so parochial, so limited. God is bigger than our understanding! Yes, my God is (unapologetically) bigger than this! As CS Lewis so rightly said, “He’s not a tame lion.”
Beautiful story, and, no, you are not a heretic! Part of our continuing problem is that we try to confine our great God to the boxes of our understanding. Who of us knows the mind of the God who created the heavens, the earth, and all we who dwell therein? It is not ours to determine whether Mr. M was welcomed, as the thief; it is ours to believe that God, in his infinite grace and mercy, took his hand and welcomed him home.
Yes, God IS bigger than this. None will forget your invitation. Come in, you said, and witness one of the most sacred events – life moving into the mystery of life beyond. While gratitude might be slow or even absent, the invitation IN will not be forgotten.
Thank you, it is another reminder of God’s grace, and that we humans are not heaven’s gatekeepers.
The photo reminds me of the iconic Shiprock photo that adorned my grandparents’ home in Grand Rapids, where they retired after my grandfather served as pastor in Shiprock from 1940-1968 (https://archives.calvin.edu/?p=creators/creator&id=191). This photo is slightly different than the one they had, but no less beautiful, and brings back many childhood memories. Thanks for sharing your story.
Thank you for you reflections on an eternal event. We do not know and “ eye has not seen” God’s grace in it’s many marvels. I only wish that your use of the letter “I” had been less obvious.
I reflect on my father’s reflections on similar circumstance where he put the emphasis on God’s Grace”.
Our life in Christ is all about grace,.
Don, I guess that T didn”t understand how Mr M was a modern day thief on the cross as you stated. The thief could acknowledge that he himself was guilty and that Jesus was sinless. Jesus then verbally accepted the thief’s statement as repentance. We don’t know that Mr. M was even alert when you prayed. Mr. M, therefore, did not repent. so these two cases are a false equivalent.
Thanks, Don, for sharing these reflections. My sense was that Mr M’s grasping of your hands was, at the very least, a statement of his felt need for the Christ to whom you prayed. Beyond that it is not our business to judge was communication was going on between Mr M and God. I remind myself often that God is more gracious than I am.grace and peace to you. From another Mr M in desperate need of God’s grace. Al
A very compelling dilemma, well presented and thought- provoking. Most pastors and chaplains have probably wondered about their own responses in similar situations. You handled it as well as anyone might have. The fact that you gave yourself the space to wonder about the magnitude of God’s grace is nothing less than an act of worship!
We reformation people love our grace theology, but only so far as it remains subservient to our election/reprobation theology. A sovereign, justice-demanding God should really require a bullet-proof verbal affirmation. But then ww are faced with that thief-on-the-cross story. Why is that story included in our Bible? Talk about a forced confession! We do not know how non-delusional, conscious, or genuine he was. And his “sinner’s prayer” did not even closely follow the Romans 10:9 formula! If you or I had asserted such a scandalous declaration as Jesus did, we would certainly be guilty of the heresy of Universalism. But Jesus said it! Hmmm. Why oh why is that story in our Bible? What is the question this story seeks to answer? I am intrigued by our intense fear of God’s leniency (aka grace). The sin of Universalism seems to rank right up there with ax-murdering, mass-shootings and torture. If God turns out to be more forgiving than we had imagined, that hardly qualifies as bad news!
Thanks again for the question raised. The question of whom and how God saves will always be mysterious. If your pastor friend is correct in asserting that God restrains his own sovereignty by the assertion of his own word, then, it seems he might similarly weight a human’s free- will response in any direction he wishes. In this case, THE WORD has spoken.
As for me, I would not call myself a Universalist. And I would not call myself not-a-Universalist.