A Prayer for Ray and All the Rest of Us
“If you could go back,” I asked Ray, “would you change anything?”
I can’t remember where the question came from or how the conversation started. We were driving to Dollar General, where he was going to pick up five bags of starlight peppermints.
“When I was a teenager,” he said, “I would never have started with drugs or alcohol or cigarettes. I would have paid attention in school and graduated.”
I chipped in: “Oh, and you wouldn’t have gotten married that first time, right?”
“No, I would’ve run all the way to Oklahoma in the same pair of sneakers.”
Ray comes out with great lines like this, but his flat affect can make you forget his brain has zip. He is a trippy character. Years ago I mentioned that I would like to write about him.
“Write whatever you want,” he said. He hopes his story can speak to others, as it does to me.
Ray’s life is short on plot, but long on complication. Mental illness and heavy-duty meds blur his days. He could be content with a routine built on filterless roll-your-owns, plugs of wintergreen snuff and old Pink Floyd albums, but tobacco fills him with guilt. For decades he figured God would send him to hell, but not anymore. What remains is a soul scarred by damnation’s abuse.
Ray’s latest trouble is a persistent cough, so this morning after the peppermint run I took him to the doctor.
In the waiting room, as we engaged in our usual salty repartee, he sagged in his chair.
“Pastor,” he said out of the blue, “I wish somebody would tell me I’m going to die.”
No cause for alarm. Ray has been ready to die for years, but his belief that suicide is unforgivable keeps him alive.
“Really,” I said, inviting him into the valley we’ve walked before. “Why do you want to die?”
Ray knows my truth. I’ve never been suicidal, but a few times I’ve been miserable enough that if God had called me home, I would have gone without an argument.
My old friend confessed his truth: “I’m so tired of being tired and afraid.”
Ray’s medicine causes crushing fatigue, but it’s also supposed to keep him ahead of paranoia and panic. In fact, few days pass without him choking on their dust.
He calls constantly to ask for prayer. I take him to the doctor’s office, Smoker Friendly and the used record store. We get coffee. Wherever we are, he’s apt to say, “Lord, I’m so tired,” and he’s not talking to me.
I have no solutions, but figure that the only thing worse than suffering is suffering alone.
A few months ago Kathy and I traveled to Ireland and visited attractions both popular and inconspicuous. Of course, we toured Saint Colman’s Cathedral, whose spire keeps watch over the city of Cobh.
My last stop was quiet room off the narthex, which glowed with votive candles. Kneelers waited below a towering poster of Jesus for believers with intercessions. I slipped a few Euros into the offering box, knelt and prayed for family, friends and my folks at St. John’s Lutheran in Oniontown.
Ray got his own candle. I imagined him dozing in his recliner, obsessing about somebody breaking into his house and stealing his things.
“Peace,” was all I said, “give him some peace.” Then I snapped a photograph to show my friend where I remembered him to God.
This morning before taking Ray to the doctor, I finally got around to having the print framed. On the back I taped a prayer, the one that I offered in abbreviated form in Ireland: “Dear Lord, please fill Ray’s heart with peace about his salvation, compassion toward himself and love for you. Amen.”
The day is not yet over, and he has called me several times, twice to say how much he loves the picture. And moments ago, this update: “I just wanted to let you know I woke up from a nap and don’t feel sick.”
“So you’re not afraid?” I asked.
“No, Pastor, I feel normal,” he said with a chuckle.
A normal day—no panic, sorrow or tragedy—deserves a celebration, maybe a phone call to a friend. Now there’s a lesson I can stand to remember.
Folks assume I take of Ray, but I add this confession to my personal story: If I keep my heart open, sometimes Ray takes care of me.