The other day I met an elderly man at the ice cream counter of a local eatery that I sometimes enjoy. His thin frame, his southern appearance, and the hat adorning his head reminded me of my own grandfather who has been gone since I was young boy. We both stood there awkwardly 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 none. 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 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 over there and had died 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 countenance. “How did she die,” I asked, “did she catch what he had?” A film of tears swelled in his eyes. The turmoil on his face melted into 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 have thought about it for a while. 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. 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 can’t say for sure. But I can say with confidence that If I spend more time in daily prayer asking God to help me when these opportunities arise, I will be more prepared because my mind will be better transformed for that kind of work (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 change, it is where our minds are focused.