A reflection shared by David J. Reed – Willis’ grandson.
My grandfather represented the very best of his generation. He worked hard without ever complaining. He held fast to high ideals, and he glowed with joy and optimism. He was a wellspring of memorable quotes and timeless proverbs.
As I was entering my first year of full-time ministry, I felt as if I needed a mentor, an old master who was an expert in his craft. At the time, Grandpa was growing more forgetful, and he was doing very little ministry. So, I asked him if I could take him to two of our local hospitals so that he could once again visit the sick at their bedside. This, of course, was Grandpa’s “calling card,” he was a legendary, “unofficial” hospital chaplain who bounced from room to room like a honey bee pollinating daisies. No hospital room was a stranger to Dr. Reed. And so, we scheduled to do hospital visits together two mornings a week. It was an honor to watch him work.
In one hospital he entered the doctor’s lounge as if he belonged there, hanging up his heavy, black trench coat as if he had a hook reserved especially for him. He would then make his way to a room full of cubicles where secretaries and administrative assistants busily typed and answered phones. He would greet them warmly. “Good to see ya!” He would say. It never sounded disingenuous or forced. He may have been unable to recall someone’s name, or even read their name tag, but he really was happy to see you. Slips of paper with names and room numbers were handed to him, and we’d be off, buzzing from room to room, spending no more than 10 minutes by a bedside. Each visit began with a two-handed grip, a wide smile, and a series of encouraging words and memorable phrases. Some of his favorites were pre-printed on a business cards which he handed out liberally. His favorite was a quote by Oswald Chambers:
“If you are going to be used by God, He will take you through a multitude of experiences that are not meant for you at all; they are meant to make you useful in His hands, and to enable you to understand what happens in other souls so you will never be surprised at what you come across.”
He moved with such purpose, such urgency. He was never rushed or frantic. But he knew he only had a few moments, and that this moment could be the last. This, I believe, was a discipline he learned from the battlefield with soldiers who asked him to pray for them because this moment may be his last. He learned that he may never have another opportunity to share the love of Christ or utter a comforting word of wisdom. I believe this was the reason he rarely said, “No.” He was conditioned by trembling men, imminent disaster, and the profound uncertainty associated with war. It was an instinct that was born during his service as a chaplain in the army and it carried over into his ministry in the church, the community and in the hospitals.
One morning, a nurse asked my grandfather to visit a man who had just lost his wife. She wanted Grandpa to offer words of comfort to him as he grieved. I specifically remember walking into the room and seeing the man’s silhouette against the bright hospital window, his back to his recently deceased wife who was still lying on the bed with her mouth frozen wide open. Without hesitating, Grandpa walked over to the man and held out his hand. The grieving widower took his hand and they stood there in the bright light while Grandpa bowed his head and prayed. I watched as I stood on holy ground.
On certain mornings, my grandfather walked slower, and I, as usual, was impatient. So, I walked ahead of Grandpa, racing to the next room, hoping my speed would somehow encourage him to pick up the pace. During one visit, I remember hearing a squeak followed by a thump. As I turned, the nurses stationed along the hallway leapt into action. Grandpa had slipped on a wet spot on the slick hallway floor, and he now was lying on his back. He looked old and helpless, while I felt ashamed. The nursing staff helped Grandpa to his feet and then one RN turned to me and stuck her finger in my chest saying, “Don’t you leave him like that again!” Lesson learned.
The letters in this blog curated by my brother contain stories that have, until recently, been a mystery to me. Grandpa had a set of “war stories” he shared with us – a “greatest hits” album of favorites that he often shared with us. But these letters give us rare glimpses into the soul of a man I had the privilege of walking beside as he made his way down the waxed hospital halls with gracious urgency to let people know that someone cares. Truthfully, he was always “A Chaplain at War.”