SINCE LAST SEPTEMBER, I’ve been a discussion leader in the Alpha evangelism program on Thursday nights at our church. It’s an international program that’s been around since 1990. You probably know about it.
Each night participants streamed into the auditorium and made their way to their tables. Well, not all of them streamed-in. There were two people who struggled to swing their legs out of their car and then they’d wrestle with their walkers to get them out of the back seat. Once mobilized, they proceeded to, and I can’t think of a better term, ‘snail’ their way toward the front double doors where they’d noisily wrestle with each of those too. Others would usually come to their aid.
Once inside, their trek across the large room began. As things usually go in life, their table was on the far side of the auditorium, about 125 feet away. It took them quite a while to get there, but they were steadfast in their arduous quest, halting only for rest. Otherwise, the metal ting of two walkers, being periodically raised and replaced a half-step forward, could be heard above the noise of the gathering crowd; if one was listening for it.
I didn’t know this walker couple. At the very least, I could tell that she was afflicted with severe arthritis, and he, for reasons unapparent, had very little use of his legs, and his head, supported only by an inexpensive neck brace, hung heavily upon his chest. His eyes, however, were quite active. This and their faithful Thursday night attendance were all I knew about them. They were the kind of people I tended to avoid at church: old, gray-haired, and disabled.
One night in early November, I announced to the group that just three hours prior, my wife and I learned that I had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. It was a gut-punch. One of the table member’s husband had died from cancer three years before. Her face turned a little ashen remembering when she and her husband first learned of his diagnosis, and what this might mean for me.
Another one of our members was bravely fighting a losing battle with a severe form of leukemia. She missed as many Thursdays as she attended. Just two months later she went home to be with the Lord. She had a warm and delightful personality, a terrific singing voice, and a passionate love for Christ. When she showed up, so did joy. She was a gray-haired hero of the faith. Her name was Suzy.
After I had made my announcement, and after the event had ended, I heard the deep, baritone voice of a man calling me over to him. When I looked, his arm was waving me over as well. It was then that I met the walker couple. His name was Jim. He wanted to pray for my healing. Can you imagine that? He wanted to pray for my healing.
“What kind of cancer is it? What kind of cancer is it?” he excitedly repeated as I sat in the chair next to his walker.
I reported, “It’s bladder cancer.”
“Oh, I’ve had that. The Lord healed me of it. What’s your name?”
“Rob. My name is Rob Oberto. What’s yours?”
“My name’s Jim. C’mon Rob, let’s ask Jesus to heal you, just like He’s healed me!” So, with his legs crumpled-up, his head hanging down, and with a deep voice. Jim prayed with confidence that Jesus was sitting next to me, reaching His hands out to heal me. Just as He had healed Jim of his cancer. “Amen!”
“Now,” he continued, “when the doctors verify that you have been healed. You tell them that Jesus healed you! Okay? Then, come and tell me that Jesus has healed you!”
“You’ve got it Jim,” I agreed with delight. “The doctors say the treatment will last a year. They’ll check and do chemo every three months, and if those checks are negative then they will lower my risk level. I’ll know in a year, but I do believe Jesus has healed me today. I’ve been healed before.”
“Me too,” Jim added enthusiastically. “When I was a teenager my legs were crippled. I couldn’t stand. But one day I was at a prayer meeting, and this guy just looked at me and said, ‘In Jesus name, stand up!’ and I stood up…healed…just like that. In Jesus name!”
“He’s gonna’ heal me again,” he continued. “Just like that. One day Jesus is gonna’ look at me and say: ‘Jim, stand up!’ And I’m gonna’ stand up. Just like that. He will heal me. I know it, and He has healed you too. You tell them that Jesus has healed you! Okay?”
I’ve heard people say that they were trusting the Lord for healing before, but it was frequently more of a hyped-up denial of reality than it was a statement of faith. Jim’s prayer and comments, however, were statements of pure faith in, and love for, Christ. His prayers were requests submitted to God. He didn’t tell God what to do, nor did he claim that his words had any faith-healing power. He was just refreshingly faithful and steadfast in the belief that God is good and gracious.
“The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” James 5:16, NAS
“I will, Jim. I promise. I’ll tell them that Jesus healed me.”
He and I developed a friendship over the following months. We would pray together on most Thursday nights; I for him and he for me.
When Jim prayed in his deep voice and courageous faith, everyone could hear it. I was particularly entertained one night when our assignment was to pray silently for the Spirit’s leading. Well, there was nothing silent about Jim’s prayers. I sat quietly and smiled when a younger man tried, in a whisper, to explain to Jim that we were supposed to be praying silently. Silent prayers weren’t part of his faith experience, and besides, Jim’s hearing, like every other body part, was failing. The only way to pray with Jim was to pray as loudly as he did.
Jim was a hero of the faith. It’s not that he once was a hero. He was a hero in the brokenness of the present. When I was praying with him, I felt as though I was in the company of a giant in the faith. I’ve never met anyone like him before. Nor did I expect to find such great faith in someone so “old” and physically “broken.” Self-pity, yes. Great faith, humility, and love for God, no. He didn’t develop these qualities after he was stricken with illness. No. He had been growing in these Christ-like qualities ever since He was a teenager (see my post Suffering: A Good Opportunity for Spiritual Growth). If Jim hadn’t been sick, if he had just been “old,” I know that he would have still prayed bold, faithful prayers.
Jim died unexpectedly last Thursday, July 26th. He was 75. Just two days prior, he was asking the Alpha team about being a table leader in September. His death took us all by surprise, even himself.
“Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Rev 2:10, NAS
I never suspected that this twisted-up, gray-haired, neck-braced, head-hanging old-guy, who noisily shuffled into church, was a giant and a hero in the faith, but he was. If I hadn’t gotten cancer, if I hadn’t prayed with him, I may never have known him. I probably would have overlooked him, and it would have been my loss.
Those we see with gray hair in the sanctuary were once vibrant, fresh in their faith youth. They have attended church for decades. They have paid for, and perhaps even built, the very buildings we use today. They should be respected and honored. They are heroes for finishing their race of faith well. And there are more who can’t show up for church because they are too weak or sick to do so. They are the absent heroes; potentially, and sadly, they are the forgotten ones. A vibrant faith in Christ isn’t just for the young.
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us… Heb 12:1, NAS
I’m 61, my body is a bit broken. Jim blessed my life in a way no one else could. He gave me an example of what an old, sick believer looks and sounds like. I needed that. We all do. I hope I can be as good at it as he was.
I attended Jim’s funeral on Monday. I then stayed for an hour to pray. I’m both saddened and jubilant for Jim. I’m sad for the tremendous loss his family and friends feel, and I’m sad because I wanted to talk and pray with him more. However, I’m jubilant because last Thursday his prayer was finally answered. Last Thursday, Jesus looked at him and said: “Jim, stand up!” And he did. Just like that.
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Rob Oberto, D.Min., is the award-winning author of “Intimacy With God” available from Amazon. ©2018 Rob Oberto, All Rights Reserved.