I Failed Him
One of the unexpected blessings of writing this blog is that it sets in stone things that that have happened in the past or even just things I’ve been thinking about months or years before. I use the blog, in some ways, as a record of spiritual development. I return quite often to articles I’ve written in the past to challenge myself anew or to recount God’s grace in my life. Sometimes I just flip through the archives over a period of time and I am reminded what was happening then, what I was thinking then, how I was growing.
Several years ago now, a friend of mine who was a former co-worker and manager, succumbed to leukemia. It had actually been a few years since Mike and I had worked together and we had seen each other only occasionally since the company we had both worked for had shut down. I found out about the leukemia through his wife who included me in the updates she would send out every week or two in order to keep friends and family updated on his condition. I read these with increasing delight as he began to show positive signs of recovery, and with horror as the disease rallied and began to destroy him. I went to his home once to fix his wife’s’ computer. Mike was in the hospital at that time and his wife was nearly overwhelmed. “You know God, right? Tim, you’ve got to pray for us!” she cried out at one point. And of course I did.
I got in to the hospital to see Mike just once. Because of his weakened condition only visitors who were very healthy were allowed to visit him. We sat and talked and recounted old times, chatting and enjoying one another’s company. I wanted to know about Mike’s spiritual condition. It was obvious by that point that he was unlikely to survive his illness and I was concerned to know about his standing with the Lord. But before I could really ask him, a nurse swept into the room and made it obvious that the visit was over—Mike had to have some kind of awful but all-too-regular procedure. Mike soon took a turn for the worse and, after ten days in the palliative ward, he died. The day after I received the notice from his wife that he had been admitted to the palliative ward I sat down and wrote an article that continues to haunt me. It went like this:
How does a man say goodbye to his little girls, knowing that he will never see them again? And how does he do so without letting them know that this is the last time they will see their daddy? Does he look them straight in the eyes and affirm his undying love for them, or do words fail him so that he can do little more than hug and kiss them for the last time and then send them on their way? Does he still hold out hope that he will see them again? Or does he know in his heart of hearts that this is the end? Maybe he is so worn down from his long fight with cancer that he can barely feel or express emotion anymore. Maybe he just wants to be gone.
Yesterday I heard from the wife of my friend Mike that he has been accepted into the Palliative ward of a local hospital. It was almost exactly one year ago that he was diagnosed with leukemia and since that time all treatments have failed. At this point all they can do is attempt to relieve his suffering as he succumbs to the disease. His body will probably not hold out for another week. Soon he will leave his wife and his little girls on their own.
Those little girls are five and three—the same as my children. Mike has been married as long as I’ve been married and is around the same age. A couple of years older, I guess. But he isn’t all that much different than me. I guess that’s why his approaching death is so real; so vivid.
I wonder if the girls knew. Sometimes we do not give children enough credit. Maybe their intuition told them that something was happening. Probably not. Hopefully not. I hope all they know is that daddy is going back to the hospital and that they are going to spend a week with grandma. How are they supposed to guess, after the hundreds of times daddy has gone to the hospital, that this is his last time? How can they know that they have given daddy their final kiss? Will they even remember him when they are all grown up? Or will daddy be only a face in photographs who brings a lump to the throat, even after so many years?
As far as I know, Mike does not know the Lord. We had plenty of opportunities to talk about spiritual matters when we worked for the same company and I don’t think Mike ever understood the value of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. If anything I’d say Mike was more a follower of Dr. Phil than of Jesus. There is not much I wouldn’t give at this point to be able to go and and ask him exactly what he believes. The imminence of death would surely give me the boldness I lacked even a couple of months ago when I last sat with him.
So now I sit here at the time when it is too late, wondering why I did not do more. Sure I told the family that I was praying for them and asked if I could pray with them. And sure I tried to get Mike to think about preparing for eternity. But I did so in such a pathetic way. Such a half-hearted way. I burn with shame as I write these words thinking of all I didn’t do and didn’t say. I feel burdened with guilt that Mike is days or maybe even hours away from standing before God, and that I did not make one clear, strong presentation of the gospel. I failed him. And I failed God.
Do you know what may be even worse? The likelihood that I’ll get over it. Two days from now I probably won’t even think of Mike. I’ll get busy with my life and the guilt will ease away. In a week or two I guess I’ll attend his funeral and feel this guilt again, but a few days after that I’ll conveniently put Mike out of my mind and go back to life. But you know what? I don’t want to get over it!
Truly I don’t.
This burden I feel right now—why can’t I feel this same burden for the lost all the time? Why is it a burden birthed from guilt rather than from a desire to see the lost be saved? I’ve asked God to tell me why. The only answer I find is the hardness of my own heart.
Still, with hope in my heart I pray for Mike, that maybe, just maybe, there will be someone in that hospital who can reach out to him with the message I failed to bring. Maybe God will bring to Mike’s mind some fragment of Scripture he heard as a child, or some words I shared with him years ago. Maybe. Hopefully.
With hopeful sadness I pray for Mike’s family, that somehow God would use this awful situation to draw them to Himself. That somehow God would make His presence felt and provide meaning through the pain.
And then with tears I pray for myself, that God would not allow this burden to disappear, but that he would use my shortcomings to teach me how I can do better next time, not simply to avoid this crushing, burning guilt, but to use the opportunities He provides.
Because I just don’t want to get over it. Oh God, please don’t let me get over it!
In the Old Testament God commanded the Israelites to erect pillars, monuments that would remind them of his great deeds. This article is one I return to quite often, one I haul out of storage and post every few years, because it stands as a reminder to me of my own misdeeds. It reminds me of a time that I did not take an opportunity that was given to me and a time that I feared men more than God. It allows me to remember the crushing guilt and the burning shame. It allows me to remember that I cried out to God not to let me commit the same sin again.
But it is also an opportunity to cast myself at the foot of the cross and to remember that Christ died to forgive even a sin like this. It is an opportunity to hope that someone, anyone, reached Mike with the gospel before he was called to account. And it is an opportunity to reaffirm that God is sovereign and that if Mike was to be counted among the people of God, the Lord would have used any means to reach out to one of His children. Despite my faithlessness, He is faithful.