A nurse spoke to a chaplain quietly in the hospital hallway. “Chaplain, I want you to see Mr. O’Brien in bed 6. His mood is not consistent with what he is dealing with. I think he may be in major denial. Would you see him and give me your impression?”
As the chaplain entered Mr. O’Brien’s room, he saw a pleasant-looking man in his 70’s reading a Bible. The stump of his amputated leg stuck out from under the sheets. A picture of a young man in military uniform was sitting on the bedside table. Next to that was a picture of an older, attractive woman. Next to that picture was a single cut flower in a transparent vase. There was the distinct but faint scent of aftershave lotion in the air.
“Yes, how may I help you?”
“Hello, I am Chaplain Hortez, and I came by to introduce myself and get acquainted, if you have a few moments.”
“Well, I can always make time for a chaplain. I was just reading my daily devotions.” As the patient laid down his Bible, the chaplain noticed the patient’s left hand was missing several fingers and his left arm appeared to have scarring from a severe burn.
“Thank you. I appreciate your courtesy. Actually, I am coming by because your nurse asked me to see you. What brings you here to the hospital?”
“Well, I like my nurse, though to tell you the truth, she seems a little stern, but nevertheless well intended. I have cancer. They say they can’t operate. The cancer is too advanced and my heart wouldn’t take the surgery anyway.”
“Goodness, it sounds like you have been dealing with a lot.”
“Yes, I have, ever since my lovely wife died,” the patient pointed toward the picture on the bedside table, “five years ago. She was the best wife anyone could have, a jewel, a woman of faith and a faithful woman. I still miss her, but I am grateful that she is now with God and I hope to see her again someday. Not that I am in any hurry, mind you, I’ve got three adult children and five grandchildren that I want to see grow up.”
“And what are the prospects for that?”
“Not good, according to the doctor. They say I have less than four months to live. I’ve signed my advance directive, I have my will in order, and I’ve told my children that I want to be cremated and buried next to my wife. Reverend Lunden will do the service. Do you know her?”
“No, I don’t believe I do.”
“Well, she is a fine pastor. I’ve learned a lot from her. That’s why I can say I am one of the most blessed people alive. I was able to serve my country in the military. As you can see,” pointing to his leg and then lifting his left hand, “I came out of that with a few scratches. They thought I was going to die, I lost so much blood, but God has always been good to me. He brought me through. My girlfriend left me when she saw what shape I was in, but that was fortunate too, because then I met the love of my life. We had four children.”
“Wait a minute, I thought you said you had three children.”
“We do, now. One child was killed in a car accident as a teenager. That was a horrible day.” There was a pause and Mr. O’Brien’s eyes filled. “That was a horrible day,” he repeated. “I will never forget it. You never expect to lose a child. I remember saying to God how unfair that was. He was hit by a drunk driver. I was angry with God and the world. I was bitter. I retreated into my own world. That was when my wife asked Pastor Lunden to come see me. When she came, I refused to see her. She said that was O.K., that she understood I was in a ‘dark time’ and that she would be back. I really didn’t think she would come back, but she did. It took three times before I said I would talk with her. Once I started talking, all the anger and bitterness flooded out of me. She came back many times, over months. She said very little for the first three months. I said a lot. I talked about how much I missed my son, how guilty I felt for letting him drive, and then I was surprised because I started talking about how much I resented losing my leg and fingers during the war. I said over and over again how unfair life had been to me.”
“It’s hard to imagine what you were going through.”
“I had given up. I had lost any sense of hope for the future. I felt I was the victim of other people’s deliberate and irresponsible behaviors. Inside I was seething with anger and resentment.”
“There is something I don’t understand, Mr. O’Brien.”
“Today, you don’t seem to be that angry, bitter person. What happened?”
“Pastor Lunden happened. She listened for the longest time and after she listened, she would always ask if she could pray with me. At first I refused. I was too angry with God to want to pray. But one day I said O.K. and to my surprise, she said a prayer that went something like this:
Your son, Jack, is very angry with you. He resents your not protecting his son. He is angry because you did not step in to rescue his son from a drunk driver. He is angry because he offered to serve his country and came back home missing a leg and some fingers. Dear God, would you please listen to how angry Jack is and help him begin to hope again, so that he can come to feel better sometime soon. Amen.’ ”
“Wow, that was a very honest prayer.”
“That’s why I remember it, Chaplain. She prayed exactly what I was feeling. I didn’t realize it until she prayed it. But I had given up all hope that I could ever enjoy life again, that I could ever laugh without feeling like I was betraying my son, that I could ever find meaning in my life again. But that prayer started me thinking about letting myself hope again.
“Later, the pastor gave me some Scriptures to read that helped me see that other people have suffered too; they have struggled to ask God for the courage to reestablish their hope.”
“Well, Mr. O’Brien, I see you now not only as hopeful, even in the midst of your cancer diagnosis, but also as grateful.”
“You are very perceptive. The thankfulness came later. I am not quite sure how it happened. I do remember being so focused on how unfair life had been to me. Then I was reading an assignment from Pastor Lunden, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the book of Isaiah. That changed my life.”
“Do you remember what it was that spoke to you?”
“Of course, it was Isaiah 44.24. Here, I will read it to you,” said Mr. O’Brien, picking up his Bible. The chaplain noticed that there was a marker in the Bible that let the patient turn directly to the passage that he was about to read.
Looking the chaplain in the eye, and only occasionally looking at his Bible, as if he had nearly memorized the Scripture, Mr. O’Brien said:
“I am the LORD, your savior;
I am the one who created you.
I am the LORD, the Creator of all things.
I alone stretched out the heavens;
when I made the earth,
no one helped me.”
“That is a beautiful passage. Tell me how it helped you open yourself to an attitude of thanksgiving.”
“Don’t you see, Chaplain; I had been so self-absorbed, so pre-occupied with how unfair life had been to me that I didn’t see how gracious God is to me. Just think of it, before I was born, God was caring for me, he formed me in my mother’s womb… even before I knew what was happening. Isn’t that miraculous? He made all things, the stars, the sky, the air I breathe, the doctors and nurses who help me, my wonderful wife of 50 plus years, my children and grandchildren, my body capable of healing from a lost leg and fingers. I never saw it. God’s grace is everywhere and I was blinded by my sense of injustice. Well, God has been more than just to me. He has poured out goodness upon goodness on me. Does that mean that there are times that I have to let go of feeling that life is unfair? Of course. Sometimes I still get caught in how unfair life seems, like being told I am going to die in four months. Then I take some time to feel sad, sometimes daily, but then I remind myself of how God is so gracious, and of how much goodness surrounds me if I just let myself see it.
“Sometimes I take a few moments to see how many things I can feel thankful for, I even write them down. And you know what happens when I do that?”
“Please tell me.”
“It’s like a window opening. When I start creating a list of what I can be thankful for, it’s like pulling open the shades to let the light in. I keep thinking of more and more ways I am blessed. My sense of resentment grows less and less. I feel like I am the luckiest, or I should say the most blessed man on earth. And my sense of hope comes flooding back into my life. I can feel the presence of God again and I feel safe even in the midst of life’s unfairness.”
“All I can say, Mr. O’Brien, is that you have blessed me today. Thank you so much for this time together.”
“Aren’t you going to say a prayer?”
“I would be honored to.
I thank you for Mr. O’Brien and his discovery of the power of hope and thanksgiving in the midst of the many losses he has had. We celebrate his love for his wife and all four children and five grandchildren. Thank you for reaching out to him through his pastor, through prayer, and through Scripture. Now, as he is dealing with cancer, guide his physicians, nurses and this chaplain to know how to be most helpful to him. Lighten each day by your gracious presence and through the window of thanksgiving. Amen.”
“Thank you Chaplain, that was just right.”
“You’re welcome, Mr. O’Brien. Thank you for blessing my day. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye,” said Mr. O’Brien as he waved with his left hand.
Consider the following Scripture passages and ask yourself if you are able to allow hope and thanksgiving to be two resources you can use to deal with times when life has been unfair to you.