Sometimes when I need encouragement, think of someone who, although he never knew it, greatly strengthened my faith in ministry. I would like to share Wally's story with you.
It was at his funeral that his story really began to unfold, when John, my husband, began the service by saying, “I loved Wally. He was my friend.”
An audible ripple of amazement rolled around that little country church, and tears welled up in Otto's eyes as sad memories of his brother whisked him away back down the years. He, better than anyone, knew what the town's people had always thought of Wally.
As early settlers from northern Europe, Carl, their cruel, overbearing father, had made their lives unbearable. Meela, their poor gentle mother, who never had been strong, attempted to cope with the strict regime he imposed upon them. But despite her determination, the sheer overwork of the farm drove her to an early grave while the boys were still in their teens.
Shortly after, their remaining parent was lost in a logging accident. But Wally, without a backward glance, stepped determinedly into his father's boots and took over management of the farm. He seemed to thrive on long hours and actually appeared to enjoy inflicting pain on the farm animals. Otto, by contrast, found these cruelties abhorrent and was only too happy when Wally sold the farm.
The inheritance was divided, and the brothers went their separate ways.
Wally found employment in the town's hardware store and quickly became its manager. With the advent of more sophisticated agriculture machinery, Wally realized his future lay elsewhere, and soon he had established himself in a profitable equipment franchise. In a few years, he had found financial security.
But not so for the valley farmers who struggled through severe drought. That's when many discovered the “easy repayments” Wally had talked them into were impossible to make. They watched helplessly as he repossessed their farm implements.
Wally had always enjoyed good health and had little patience with anyone who didn't. He rarely left the valley except to attend sales promotions for his lucrative business.
As the years rolled on, people began making bets about how long Wally would keep working. “You can't take it with you, Wal,” jibed someone good-naturedly. “Why not take a holiday?” One day, much to the surprise of everyone, he did, in the form of a Pacific cruise.
On board ship he made himself surprisingly affable to a lady considerably younger than himself. Wally recognized Sylvia as someone who was obviously quite comfortable herself, and he made no secret of his interest in her, as the dollar signs danced before his eyes.
Sylvia, kindly, gentle soul that she was, felt sorry for this lonely, rather brusque man and agreed to his offer of marriage. She thought her love might sweeten his disposition. They soon returned to his modest house in the valley.
Now that Wally was secure, back on home ground, he soon returned to his old ways, and before long, he had reduced the life of his sweet little wife to one of abject misery.
Weeks stretched into months, and Sylvia found herself unable to cope with his bullying tactics. Finally she succumbed to a complete breakdown from which she never fully recovered.
The district nurse, who knew about most things that went on in the valley, organized caring ladies to call in and do little things for Sylvia, in an attempt to make her life more bearable. But when Wally discovered this, he became exceedingly angry and refused them entry.
After that Sylvia became somewhat of a recluse and was seen only occasionally, seated woodenly beside her husband when he drove about the valley inspecting his properties.
The years rolled on and it was rare that anyone received more than a grunt from Wally in reply to a greeting.
One morning, late in autumn, he was heard complaining loudly about doctors and their new-fangled ideas of medicine. “I only wanted something for indigestion, and he tells me I should have some tests.” He stalked off angrily.
Several more weeks elapsed before his pain drove him back to the doctor. This time he was admitted to the hospital.
It was there that John, my husband, met him for the first time. Wally, a tall, well-built man with a shock of short, white hair, appeared in remarkably good condition for a man of 80, even dressed in hospital attire.
Gazing out of the window, Wally swung ‘round when he heard John's cheery greeting. “And who the _____,” he began, not bothering to delete his expletives, “do you think you are, sounding so cheerful?” He sat heavily on his bed. “You're that parson feller.” He eyed John suspiciously. “Well, don't bring any of your parsoning in here!” He turned his back, clutching his side, obviously in pain. “Never had any time for it. Never did anybody any good,” he gasped angrily.
John, realizing Wally was in no mood to talk, gently touched his shoulder, promising to return the next day.
“I won't be here,” he snapped. “They're shipping me down the track,” which was the locals’ way of describing treatment in the city.
“Well, I’ll look forward to seeing you later on. I’ll be thinking of you while you're away.”
John stopped by the hospital every day, but it was more than a week before one of the Sisters told him that although Wally was back in his room, he had been diagnosed as terminal. But she didn’t prepare him for the sight of Wally lying hunched against the pillows with a kidney dish propped in the crook of his arm. His face was now yellow, his sunken eyes leaden in watery sockets. Gone was the bluster and bravado and in their place lay a very sick old man.
“Well, did yer?” Wally began. “I bet yer never thought of me once,” he said, curling his lip.
John pulled up a chair and sat down quietly. “Yes, I did, Wal, you have been in my prayers continually.”
But his assurances were brushed aside. “Fat lot of good your prayers did. Oh, where is that nurse?” He groped for the buzzer. “Well, yer prayers never did anything for the pain, and they operated and everything, but it was not good!”
Tears coursed uncontrollably down his hollow cheeks. He hid his face under his arm as a nurse administered a hypodermic.
John waited for him to settle down before continuing. Placing the tissues where Wally could reach them, he pulled his chair closer and frantically prayed for a line of communication. “Are you a fisherman? Any trout in the head streams?”
“Naw! Never had any time for it.”
“What about that car of yours? I heard you rebuilt it.”
Wally's head sank back on the pillow, his eyes far away.
“That really sounds like something,” John began, moving gently into gear. “That’s something I'd love to be able to do. How did you start?”
So their friendship, based on the love of an old car, began. But it wasn’t without its “squalls.”
With much prayer, we continually brought Wally before the Lord, asking that his heart be softened and surrendered to Him while there was still time!
So the daily visits continued, and although there were ups and downs, Wally's eyes lit up now when “that parson feller” arrived.
But the selfish streak was still there, just below the surface and ready to erupt, like the night John was running late. “You took yer time,” Wally pouted angrily. “Thought you were never coming!”
“I’m sorry, but I was caught up with Meals on Wheels today,” John explained as he reached for a seat. “It made me a bit late. Your brother, Otto, was on my list. He's had a bad fall.”
John was totally unprepared for the fury that his news unleashed. “Otto, Otto! That’s all I ever heard as a boy, and it's no different now. Trust him to fall on his feet and have you waiting on him.” His eyes glared resentfully. “He's older than me, you know. He’s the one who should be in here,” he said, thumping his bed weakly. He paused for breath. “I suppose he showed you all his fancy pottery. Always fooling around with that stupid wheel of his. Never did a lick of real work in his whole life.” He fell back, exhausted, his knuckles whitening as he clutched the side rail.
The television news came to John's rescue. “Turn that thing off,” Wally gasped, as the usual trail of death and destruction flickered across the screen. “It's too depressing.”
“You’re right, Wal. Aren’t you glad that we’ve been promised something far better than what this worn-out, old world can give?”
Wally didn't answer, but he listened quietly as John talked about the wonderful life the Bible promises. He repeated John 14:1-3: “Let not your hearts be troubled. . . . I will come again." John talked a little longer and then, seeing that Wally was tired, prepared to leave. "Would you mind if we had a prayer together, asking the Lord to give you a good night's rest?”
Wally didn’t reply, so John prayed aloud, but Wally's eyes remained open, staring hard at the ceiling.
Next evening John was disappointed to find a “No Visitors” sign on Wally's door. Inquiring at the desk, he was quickly assured, “Oh no, Pastor, Wally is so much calmer and more easily managed after your visits.” Breathing silent thanks to heaven, he walked back to Wally's room.
At each visit, John could see the man was sinking away, but not so fast that his cruel tongue hadn’t lost its sting. “Took yer time, didn't you,” he sneered. “I coulda died here and you wouldn't have cared!”
“I do care, very much,” said John. “I won't let you down. We’re friends, aren’t we? And friends trust each other.”
Tears streamed uncontrollably down Wally’s hard, unhappy face as John reached for his hand. He was thrilled to find that Wally didn't resist but tightened his grasp, as if to hold on for dear life.
Quite suddenly Wally became violently ill. And in answer to the buzzer, nurses quickly came to his aid. “I think you might as well go,” one said. “He will be exhausted after this attack.” John was so disappointed. “Just when You were getting somewhere with Wally, Lord!” he said as he drove down the tree-lined hospital drive.
He had driven only a few kilometers when he distinctly heard a voice say, “Go back and tell Wally about Jesus.”
“Not tonight.” John argued with himself. “I’ll try again tomorrow.”
“Go back and tell Wally about Jesus.” There it was again.
Making a U-turn, John thought about how foolish he would appear to the staff after having just said “Good night” so recently.
Passing the deserted nurses’ station, he went back to the room that had become so familiar to him. It was completely dark except for a pinpoint of light, casting its silvery beam on Wally's now-resting form. “I came back, Wally.” John whispered. “I came back to tell you that Jesus loves you.”
Wally turned toward him, peering into the darkness. “Well, wad (sic) yer (sic) know!” he whispered, "I was just thinking about Him.”
John reached through the rail, took Wally's hand, and told him the good news about how Jesus forgives sins and wants to share His heavenly home with His friends.
Wally listened quietly as John repeated the text, “I will come again and receive you unto Myself.” He could see the tears glistening now.
“Would He have me too?” His grip tightened. “I mean, could He ever forgive me?”
“I know He will,” John assured him, “if you ask Him.”
“But I don't know how. Will you help me?”
So there in the darkness, clutching both of John's hands, he followed step by step in prayer, and Wally gave his heart to the Lord. He asked forgiveness for all the wrongs he had done to people and for all his wasted years of life.
“Please go and tell Sylvia what you’ve just told me. She needs to know, too!” Wally begged.
John sang all the way home and was quite sure that both he and the car were floating.
The next day Wally could hardly wait, “Tell me again about Heaven and about the mansions.” His voice quavered. “Tell me again about what you and me are going to do there with Jesus.”
After that, things were different in Wally's room. There was a new joy in his face. The nursing staff noticed it. His visitors noticed it and couldn’t quite believe it. It was true that the Lord really had changed him. But there were not many days left before Wally was gone.
Otto squeezed John's hand as they followed Wally’s casket out of the church. “Thank you for what you did for Wally.” He smiled through his tears. “I loved him, too.”