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The Right Place at the Right Time

The old man was alone and dying. But someone loved him and saw his need—the very Creator he rejected.

Rarely, if ever in my life, have I felt like an evangelist. Today was no exception. The dry snow crunched under my tires as I pulled into the parking lot of the palliative care facility. The Moog and Friends Hospice House is a modern rancher-style building built under the shadows of the Penticton, B.C. Regional Hospital. Its tastefully decorated interior and expert nursing care provide an intimate, quiet place for terminally ill patients to spend their last days. As I removed my winter boots in the entryway, I thought about Wally, the man I had come to visit—and about how I came to be the one visiting him. After all, I barely knew him.

… there were not many who liked to bear the brunt of his verbal rampages on God …

Wally was a friend of a friend, a 72-year-old bachelor who'd spent his summers in an RV park in my town of Summerland, B.C., and his winters travelling around the southern US in his motorhome. But his travelling days were over. In a phone call from Needles, California, Wally had told my friend Will that he was dying of liver cancer. Will was about to leave with his family for two weeks in Florida, so I volunteered to look in on Wally if and when he arrived back in Canada. Three days later, Wally phoned me from his bank in town. He had driven day and night to get home. He had been to the lawyer and seen his banker, but now his strength had run out. He was being driven to the hospital. I promised to come by later and see him.

I had briefly met Wally and spoken with him only once or twice over the past five years, but the moment I walked into his room, I could tell he was glad to see me. Wally didn't have many friends. He was a confirmed agnostic and a vehement debater, and there were not many who liked to bear the brunt of his verbal rampages on God and Christians. So, Wally had spent much of his life alone.

Over the next couple of weeks, I visited Wally almost every day, sitting silently as he went into great detail about his search for God and his disappointment with what he'd found. "How could a loving God sit by and let so much evil go on? How could a friendly God let children starve to death? I want nothing to do with a God like that!" His favourite author was Charles Templeton. "You go to my motorhome," he'd demand, "and bring me his book, Farewell to God. You read it; then we'll have a good debate!"

But I was reading another book at the time, a recent work by Lee Strobel entitled A Case for Faith. In it, the same questions Wally was raising are discussed by some of the greatest minds in Christianity today. Lee starts his book by detailing a recent interview he had with Charles Templeton in his Toronto penthouse. I showed Wally the part where Templeton revealed that he is dying of Alzheimer's. It shook him up for a short while, but that was as far as it went.

… as soon as I would start to talk about God, he would end the conversation abruptly.

As his condition deteriorated, Wally was moved to the hospice shortly before Christmas. I continued my visits, but two things were at the front of my thoughts. The first was how amazing it was that I was even doing this. Having recently sold my business and become a freelance writer, I suddenly had time available to do things that I hadn't been able to do before—things like sitting with people who were on their deathbeds. The other thing was more troubling. What good was I doing? Wally never seemed to want to hear any of my thoughts on the subject of God. He was happy enough to have me visit, and he certainly didn't mind bending my ear hour after hour, but as soon as I would start to talk about God, he would end the conversation abruptly. "I'm not going to change my mind now," he said. "I'm not one to chicken out in a foxhole."

Then one day, when he was feeling particularly low, he practically ordered me out of his room, telling me not to come back. "I just want to die! I don't want anybody here. They're no help to me. You're no help to me. You don't have any answers either, so you might as well leave me alone."

I'd had enough. "Wally," I said firmly, "I have some answers, but you never want to hear them. If you'll shut up for a while, I'll give you my side of the story."

Wally stared at me for a minute, waved a hand dismissively and shrugged. "Okay, go ahead."

I told him some of the personal experiences I'd had in my life that had shown me the reality of God. "The truth of the matter," I said, "is that God is God, and He makes the rules. Like it or not, that's the way it is. A dish has no right to tell the potter he's made a mistake. The real question is, are we going to work within the rules, or make our lives miserable by ignoring them?" He was quiet. "What it comes down to, Wally, is our pride."

That was a few days ago. Yesterday when I came, Wally was starting to slip into a coma. I couldn't rouse him, and I left after half an hour. Later that evening, my mother called to tell me that her pastor, Dave Esau, had stopped in to see Wally and talk with him. He didn't know Wally, but had heard me mention him when I had spoken at the Christmas banquet at his church, Grace Mennonite Brethren in Penticton, a few weeks previously. Though Wally didn't respond much, he was awake, and when Pastor Dave asked if he could pray with him, Wally nodded. Never before would he have allowed this.

Today I called the hospice to see how Wally was, and the nurse indicated that he was slipping away. On the way into town, I prayed that God would allow me to be there when Wally died. I made my way down the hallway, wondering what I would find.

I came into the room to the sound of someone quietly singing a hymn. There lay Wally on his bed, a vacant stare in his jaundiced eyes, his open mouth gasping for breath. He looked very old and very tired. Standing beside him was Pastor Dave. He smiled and greeted me. "I've just been here praying and singing," he explained. "I don't think Wally can hear me, but I'm not sure."

I went over to the bedside and called Wally's name, but he didn't respond. His laboured breathing filled the darkened room. I picked up Wally's emaciated hand and gripped it. "I'm here, Wally," I said.

Pastor Dave went to the other side of the bed, and, picking up Wally's other hand, began to pray. He prayed that even at this moment, Wally would find rest in the Saviour he had run from for so long.

As he finished, I took up the prayer, asking out loud that somehow Wally could see that God's love was available for him, no matter what the past had been. Suddenly I noticed that the room was still; Wally's laboured breathing had grown quieter. I opened my eyes and found Wally's stare no longer vacant, but focused on me. Could he really hear us, and had he understood what we'd said? Slowly his eyes turned back to stare straight ahead of him again, and, after a couple of great sighs, Wally passed from this world into the next.

"Wouldn't it be great if we get to meet him again in Glory?"

I laid Wally's hand down on the bed as Pastor Dave reached over to close his eyelids. We stood there for a while not saying much. Then Dave said, "Wouldn't it be great if we get to meet him again in Glory?"

I agreed. "I hope he's one of the first ones to shake my hand when I arrive," I replied.

Consider: For the first time in my working life, I had time to sit with a dying man for days on end. Almost the day before Wally burst into my life, I had read about Lee Strobel's book that deals with the exact issues Wally would raise. Through a fleeting reference in a banquet address, someone else's pastor visited a man who was now ready to be prayed for. Within minutes of hearing the prayers of two sinners saved by grace, that man breathed his last, seeming, at least to us, to be at peace.

We may not all be evangelists, but, with a God like this, we can all be at the right place at the right time.

Rick Cogbill is a freelance writer based in Summerland, B.C.

Originally published in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, May 11, 2001.




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