The Last King of Ireland
Jason* pulls up in an old white pick-up truck. It’s cold outside and he’s wearing a big black jacket and oversized camo hunting pants. A worn-out toque is pulled down tight over a baseball cap. His face is weathered and worn. Long strands of blonde hair spill out underneath his headwear. His grin has plenty of gaps. There are the by-now familiar COVID greetings. We instinctively reach to shake hands, but then don’t. We ponder touching elbows, but don’t. We laugh at how awkward and forced it all feels. We make our way into the meeting room. The smell of stale smoke wafts across two meters of distance across the table.
“I need some help with prayer,” he says, his eyes burrowing into mine. Quite an opening line, that one. The message he had left to set up the meeting was confusing, and rambling and I was unsure what to expect. A request for money or groceries (like many churches, ours has seen an uptick in these requests lately)? Help finding counselling or treatment resources? I had no idea. But it’s safe to say I wasn’t expecting a request for advice on prayer. “I’d love to try to help,” I replied. Why don’t you tell me a bit of your story?
What followed was quite easily one of the most bizarre stories I have ever heard—and I’ve heard some strange stories over the years. There were UFOs and alien twins and angelic beings. The Irish mafia made an appearance as well as the special forces of the US Army. There were conspiracy theories and stories of friends who had been personally involved in bringing down the Twin Towers on 9/11 or who owned 55% stake in Apple and were waiting to cash in. Another friend was apparently the last legitimate king of Ireland. Jason felt he was in danger because he knew that the government was poisoning people with cancer and they were on to him.
All of this was interspersed with more mundane injustices of girlfriends who didn’t understand him and friends who had betrayed him (at one point, he spoke about trying to help his girlfriend’s husband… I wondered if this might have been the source of some of the misunderstanding and/or betrayal, but we were already on to other things). He spoke of being bullied as a kid and not finishing school. It all came pouring out, a veritable fire hydrant of conspiracy and suspicion and grievance and wild speculation about religious texts and spiritual secrets.
“I asked God to show himself to me once,” Jason said at one point in our conversation. “I wasn’t sure if I even believed so I asked for a sign. He gave me a premonition, told me something bad was gonna happen.” I leaned forward and glanced at my watch. “Oh? What happened next?” Jason fixed his gaze on me for a few uncomfortable seconds before going on. “I was in a bad accident and was in a coma for a few days. I came to the throne room of God. There were these white beings and a big blank screen behind, well, you know, the big guy. And God told me he was giving me a second chance. Told me to help people and spread the light. So that’s what I been doing ever since.”
I had just finished reading this week’s gospel text from Matthew 25, which also involves a throne room:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats…
We know the rest, right? The sheep and the goats are separated according to how they treated “the least of these”—the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. The “blessed” are those who step into the ugly and forsaken places of the world and insert a bit of goodness, a bit of care and concern, a bit of tangible help. I thought of Jason’s near-death experience, of his vision of the throne room of God almighty, about his wild story, of his conviction that he had seen things that nobody else had seen, of his frustration that everyone seemed to think he was crazy, and no one believed him. I thought about his belief that God had spared him so that he could help others.
One of Jason’s friends had recently died. The last king of Ireland, as it happens. Jason was quite concerned about a missing safe and a trove of secret documents establishing the legitimacy of his friend’s bloodlines and the nature of his various holdings. “Tell me about your friend’s last days,” I said. “Well,” Jason said, “he didn’t really have anyone at the end, so I took care of him. He was in a wheelchair so I put stuff in his apartment where he could reach it. I was there with him four times a day when he was dying in the hospital. I was with him at the end. Well, almost the end. When he started, you know, the “last gurgle of death,” I had to leave. I can’t watch that stuff.”
I thought of Jesus’ words about sheep and goats and the least of these, and about Jason being there as the last king of Ireland took his last breath. I smiled. I recalled that Jason had begun our conversation by asking for help with prayer so I asked him if I could pray for him. He agreed. I thanked God for revealing himself to Jason and asked him to protect him in the days ahead, to give him comfort and clarity and hope. I thanked the risen Christ for strengthening Jason to be his hands and feet for his dying friend. “Whatever you did for the least of these,” the King said in response, “You did it for me.”
*Not his real name