I was walking the beach one day, a pastime of mine. Living in Florida, it’s common to talk to a fellow Floridian who confesses they rarely walk the beach. I find that a travesty, akin to working in the Louvre and looking past the art or working backstage at an Elvis concert wearing headphones to keep out the noise. However, I find great solace in the beach walk experience. I’m not sure why; however, the sense I get looking out at the ocean’s horizon and experiencing a sense of wonder is addicting. Too much of my life is void of wonder, and I have a strong sense that God has created us with an appetite for wonder. I see so much while I walk. I see loners like me, retirees doing their crossword puzzles, pods of teens experimenting with life, a few couples exploring life together, the hopeful fisherman alongside the frustrated sandcastle builder. The ocean’s edge teems with life and its experiences. I love my beach walks.
I remember one particular day walking along a narrow stretch of beach. The day was particularly pleasant, yet the beach was somewhat desolate – a few beach goers scattered with their chairs and umbrellas here and there. My eyes focused on the sand wiped fresh from the most recent waves. I looked up to see out of the corner of my eye an unusual site. Laying flat on a beach chair was what appeared to be a severely handicapped young man accompanied by an elderly woman sitting upright in a beach chair next to him. A strategically placed umbrella was placed to provide the much needed shade.
My glance was quick; however, I was struck by the scene. Who was this man? What was wrong with him? Who was sitting next to him? Were they related? Did they live here or were they visiting? I kept walking pondering this site, much like I often would as one simply “people watches.” However, something lingered. God impressed upon me to leave my path and walk toward this couple and pray for them. I was uncomfortable with that, though I did sense they were deserving of my prayers, so I simply said to God that I would pray for them as I continued to walk on my way.
However, God continued insisting…that simple stirring in your mind and heart. I compromised and said, “Ok, I’ll pray for them as instructed but from my chair not too far away.” I could, in fact strategically face my chair toward them and, with laser beam focus, pray for them. God didn’t give up. No more negotiating. God said, “Go pray for them.” I relented with a simple, “fine.” I was simply responding out of sheer obedience with very little sense of empathy, joy or compassion.
I turned around and began walking toward this young man and his caregiver. My heart began to pound, and I was acutely aware that I was more concerned about how I felt and would appear than the scene unfolding before my very eyes. My every step brought me closer to the inevitable moment where I would have to say something. My mind racing as I approached them, I blurted out, “do you speak French?” However, I said this in my broken French. I was wondering why I had decided to start my introduction in another language but quickly realized nothing about this had made sense so far, so why start now. The elderly woman, the assumed caregiver, answered in French. She did not speak English.
I proceeded to introduce myself and explain in my broken French that I was there to pray for them and was that ok? The caregiver, doing all the speaking for the young man, was surprisingly gracious and overwhelmed that I would be willing to pray for them. I was somewhat surprised since I seemed to have barged into their world of serenity as a total stranger.
She introduced the young man as Philip. He stared at me. I wondered if he was as gracious about this as his caregiver. He had no expression. Was he appreciative? Was he upset? Was he embarrassed? What was his story? Was he born this way or did he become this way? I prayed for Philip and his caregiver and simply asked God to heal him. I asked God to also heal his soul. I said amen and then my goodbyes and restarted my beach walk.
Once again, the sand wiped by waves gave me a sense of newness and redemption. God has a way of introducing do overs. God did say one more thing to me as I departed Philip and his caregiver. He simply asked me to now go and pray for my grandfather. God did not congratulate me or give me a sense of accomplishment but a simple assignment. I was perplexed by this but noted His timing and His how.
My grandfather was an elderly man, living mostly alone in a large waterfront home in Miami. He was a wealthy man but also a lonely man. I knew my grandfather fairly well, though he remained a mystery in so many ways. He was born and raised in Armenia but fled during the invasion of Turkey into Armenia in the early twentieth century. He experienced significant tragedy in his most formative years and never spoke of it. He eventually made his way to Switzerland where he sought to bring some stability to his life.
He was an intelligent man, but also a complex man. He went to seminary in his quest to find God, but did not find Him. He devoted himself to education and was successful in establishing a renowned boarding school in Switzerland. He married and began a family. His quest for purpose and peace continued to haunt him. His multiple affairs led to fathering eight children from three different women. He became wealthy yet unsatisfied. He was given a book, by his butler at the time, written by a young up and coming American preacher. He was not interested in this book and found the preacher’s style not amiable to his curiosity. However, a sleepless night drew him to the waste bin to retrieve the book to which he began to read. The book, though simple, began to unveil to him some answers to questions that had eluded him for most of his lifetime. He came to realize that God was real and God did love Him. He asked God to be a part of his life and his journey with God began that evening.
However, a simple prayer does not always erase the years of thinking and bad habits and hurt and pain. Though he now had found God, he remained a complex and conflicted man. My grandfather’s wealth afforded him homes around the world and a family that stayed by his side. His children were never allowed to explore their own lives but simply existed to serve Papa, as he was called. He held court with many influential people and would pontificate for hours, and many listened. He would make promises but often fail to keep them. He was impetuous and unpredictable. He was fun yet evil. He was generous yet controlling. He was kind yet angry.
I loved my grandfather, and he was always loving to me. I was his eldest grandchild and knew him during his “good years.” I rarely saw the part of him that was hidden but knew something was wrong. His years of abuse eventually led to abandonment. His children, as they got older, began to leave him often under a cloud of secrecy and suspicion, fearful of retribution. He was capable of cutting one out of his life with never another thought. The older he became the more lonely his reality. His health failing, his wealth fleeting and most of his family gone, he found himself a prisoner in the world that he created.
A fresh perspective
I shared with Lisa, later on that day, about the unique experience I had during my beach walk. I shared with her how it all came about and especially the last part, the part where God simply said, “now go and pray for your grandfather.” I was perplexed by the association of my prayer for Philip and his caregiver and the immediate post prayer assignment to go and pray for my grandfather. Lisa suggested, in the most discerning way, that perhaps God saw my grandfather the way I saw Philip. Perhaps my grandfather’s soul was indeed alive but he was trapped and bound just as Philip was alive but trapped in his body.
Several months later I find myself in Miami for a lunch meeting and thought that perhaps today would be the day to go and pray for my grandfather. Why not? I had not seen or spoken to him for quite some time and thought that an unannounced visit would not hurt. He was not the kind of grandfather that you would schedule a meeting with anyway; just simply show up. I made my way to his island home, a small area several miles from downtown Miami. The island was gated and several celebrities call it home. The tropical trees lined the island in a manner that did give the visitor a sense of entering into another world, perhaps that world we all imagine when we think of a tropical paradise. The island was beautiful and the homes majestic. I pulled up into the driveway of my grandfather’s home. I was the only car in the driveway, and there was no sign of life. I parked and made my way to the front door and knocked. The door opened, and I was met by an aunt of mine who graciously ushered me in and quietly escorted me up the monumental staircase to the my grandfather’s bedroom.
The scene appeared somewhat staged yet authentic. I found my grandfather sitting in his chair, oxygen tubes connected to his nose, covered in sweaters and blankets. He appeared comfortable and happy to see me. My aunt stayed by his side, a caregiver sitting quietly by in her chair. My mind began to connect the dots. We exchanged pleasant words, and I knew he was genuinely happy to see me. Loneliness, sometimes self-inflicted, does carry its regrets, and when you embrace the genuine heart of someone who loves you, it soothes in ways that you forget. I sensed my grandfather was being soothed.
I shared with him my beach walk story and was honest enough to say that God had told me to come and pray for him as I had for Philip. My grandfather’s demeanor immediately changed, and he responded that he would not accept my prayers because there was division within our family. I was acutely aware that he and my father had had a falling out. My father, a psychologist, had resisted some of my grandfather’s controlling methods, and it had cost our family. I was proud of my father. He led our family in a manner that protected us but at a cost, both financially and relationally. I responded to my grandfather that though I was aware of the differences between he and my father, that I was the father of my own home now and that God had told me to pray for him, and I was going to pray for him. I added, with a degree of renewed courage and conviction, that if he did not allow me to pray for him, I would kindly leave; however, I would pray for him on my way home in the car, and there was nothing he could do to stop me.
He listened to me. He glared at me. He heard me. He began to stand, as feeble as he was. I stood as well. I was not sure what was going to happen next. He looked at me and with his misaligned charm simply said, “good answer,” and he kissed me as the French kiss, both cheeks, and gave me a big hug. He sat down and I prayed for him. I said my good byes, walked down the large staircase and departed the house. I never saw my grandfather again, never spoke to him again.
I received a telephone call from my father months later with the sad news that my father had received a call from an attorney stating that his father, my grandfather had passed away. No funeral, no knowledge of where he was buried, no mementos, just memories. I don’t know why God had me go and pray for him that day. I don’t know what was necessarily accomplished by doing that. I also don’t know if God ever healed Philip. I do know, however, that God had interrupted my life on that pristine beach walk with a chance to interrupt the lives of two very sick people and their caregivers. I learned that God dispatches His people for some very inordinate assignments, not always knowing the who or the what, but knowing that He is up to something more then I will ever see or understand. I must say that my last memory of my grandfather is a sweet one. I do believe that despite the fact that his life was such a disappointment to so many, God loved him. His soul appeared alive though his sickness bound him. He could feel but could not speak. He could hope but could not act. Perhaps his regrets bound him, and perhaps my visit and my prayer gave him a sense of a redo… God is in the business of redo’s.
Stephan N. Tchividjian is the president and founder of the National Christian Foundation South Florida. Visit southflorida.ncfgiving.com to learn more.