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Thoughts On Prayer from the Tears of an Elderly Man

A few years ago in early August, I met an elderly man at the ice cream counter of a local eatery that I sometimes enjoy. The encounter moved me enough to write it down. The man’s thin frame, his southern appearance, and the hat adorning his head reminded me of my own grandfather who had been gone since I was a young boy. We both stood there uncomfortably looking at each other and wanting cones for our ice cream. Unfortunately, the cone dispenser was empty and he had been standing there for some time. He seemed polite, but mildly perturbed that there were no cones. He appeared reluctant to ask for help. I called the waiter over and asked him to remedy the problem. While we were waiting for the cones, the man volunteered to tell me that his son had served overseas in the first Gulf War. I asked him what service, and he told me that it was the Army. He then shared that his son had died.

“In the war,” I asked. “No,” he said, and then explained that his son had gotten sick overseas and died sometime after returning home. “I’m sorry to hear that,” I responded. I know that I said it awkwardly. I hadn’t expected his candor, or the conversation, and I could think of no other thing to say, or what level of empathy or feeling I should express when saying it. He told me how his son’s wife had died shortly after. Emotion and turmoil crept across his face. “How did she die,” I asked. “Did she catch what he had?” A film of tears coated his eyes. The turmoil changed to pain. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” he said. His head dropped. He lingered a moment more. I apologized, and expressed my condolences. He walked back to the table where he had family waiting. I don’t think he got his ice cream.

The event threw me for a bit of a loop, and I thought about it for a while afterward. Although he said he didn’t want to talk about it anymore, it was clear to me that he wanted to talk about something. He had, after all, brought up the topic himself to a stranger in front of an ice cream machine. He needed comfort. Perhaps he needed an embrace. Maybe he just needed someone to say, “tell me about your wonderful son and his wife, and the loving things they did in their community.” I don’t really know. But I can say with confidence that if I spend more intentional time in daily prayer asking God to help me when these opportunities arise, I will be more prepared than I was, because I will be less self-centered in my life as my mind is transformed by that prayer for that kind of moment (Romans 12:2). Maybe it is for this kind of transformation that Paul tells us to pray steadfastly (Colossians 4:2) and without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18), because if there is anything that prayer will transform, it is where our minds are focused. Our thoughts and beliefs undeniably determine our behaviors and color our perceptions. Therefore, continual God focused, scripture laden prayer will not only impact what thoughts we are thinking, it will also shape the paths we are walking along as we employ those God-focused thoughts in a world we are inevitably creating with the choices, feelings, and behaviors that naturally flow from them. In effect, it will give us profound insights into the thoughts and intentions of our hearts, allowing us to be continually renewed (Hebrews 4:12).

Maybe that man needed to pray. Maybe I needed to pray for him, right there. Or maybe, just maybe, I needed to be praying before I even met him.

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