An incident took place a few years ago that has acquired the force of a parable for me. I had a minor operation on my nose and was in my hospital room recovering. Even though the surgery was minor, the pain was great and I was full of misery. Late in the afternoon a man was assigned to the other bed in my room. He was to have a tonsillectomy the next day. He was young, about twenty-two years old, good-looking and friendly. He came over to me, put out his hand and said, “Hi, my name is Kelly. What happened to you?”

I was in no mood for friendly conversation, did not return the handshake, grunted my name and said that I had gotten my nose broken. He got the message that I did not want to talk, pulled the curtain between our beds and let me alone. Later in the evening his friends were visiting, and I heard him say, “There’s a man in the next bed who is a prizefighter; he got his nose broken in a championship fight.” He went on to embellish the story for the benefit of his friends.

Later in the evening, as I was feeling better, I said, “Kelly, you misunderstood what I said. I’m not a prizefighter. The nose was broken years ago in a basketball game, and I am just now getting it fixed.”

“Well, what do you do then?”

“I’m a pastor.”

“Oh,” he said and turned away; I was no longer an interesting subject.

In the morning he woke me: “Peterson, Peterson—wake up.” I groggily came awake and asked what he wanted. “I want you to pray for me; I’m scared.” And so, before he was taken to surgery, I went to his bedside and prayed for him.

When he was brought back a couple of hours later, a nurse came and said, “Kelly, I am going to give you an injection that should take care of any pain that you might have.”

In twenty minutes or so he began to groan, “I hurt. I can’t stand it. I’m going to die.”

I rang for the nurse and, when she came, said, “Nurse, I don’t think that shot did any good; why don’t you give him another one?” She didn’t acknowledge my credentials for making such a suggestion, told me curtly that she would oversee the medical care of the patient, turned on her heel and, a little abruptly I thought, left. Meanwhile Kelly continued to vent his agony.

After another half an hour he began to hallucinate, and having lost touch with reality began to shout, “Peterson, pray for me; can’t you see I’m dying! Peterson, pray for me!” His shouts brought nurses and doctors and orderlies running. They held him down and quieted him with the injection that I had prescribed earlier.

The parabolic force of the incident is this: when the man was scared he wanted me to pray for him, and when the man was crazy he wanted me to pray for him, but in between, during the hours of so-called normalcy, he didn’t want anything to do with a pastor. What Kelly betrayed in extremis is all many people know of religion: a religion to help them with their fears but that is forgotten when the fears are taken care of; a religion made of moments of craziness but that is remote and shadowy in the clear light of the sun and the routines of every day. The most religious places in the world, as a matter of fact, are not churches but battlefields and mental hospitals. You are much more likely to find passionate prayer in a foxhole than in a church pew; and you will certainly find more otherworldly visions and supernatural voices in a mental hospital than you will in a church.

Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society (Westmont, IL: IVP Books, 2012).

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