Donkeys, Fireballs, and Other Near-Death Experiences

Balaam wasn’t saved by an angel. He was saved from an angel. This reversal of the expected formula is made even stranger in that his repeated deliverer is a donkey – one who can not only see the invisible angel, but who can also speak. And Balaam, at least for his first two near-death experiences, was utterly ignorant of the fact that he was being delivered from death by means of his remarkable long-eared servant (Numbers 22).

This is so often the way it goes. Death misses us by a hair and we are completely unaware of it, or at least unaware of what was going on behind the scenes once we do realize the great danger we just escaped. Just the other day we found a copperhead coiled up at the bottom of a rock we had been climbing and sitting on. I and several of my kids had apparently stepped around and right over him, busy admiring the view beyond of a Virginia river valley, taking pictures and peering over the cliff edge, completely unaware that the far greater danger was coiled up at our toes.

What had directed our feet so that they never stepped on the poisonous snake? What had directed the snake so that he stayed still, opting for freezing rather than fighting? Had it all been normal providence, aligning our days and choices just so in order to turn a potentially deadly encounter into a merely interesting one? Or was there direct involvement in that moment, a little nudge to the four-year-old’s foot by an invisible protector here, a word of warning inaudibly spoken to the snake there? Traditional Christian culture has angels invisibly intervening for us on the regular, saving us from calamity just in the nick of time, and often without us ever being aware.

If such guardians do function in this way, perhaps one activity in eternity will be watching one another’s Your Many Near-Deaths: Greatest Hits compilations. I can see it now, chilling with Darius* and Reza* in my room in the Father’s house as we watch one particular nail-biting act of deliverance. They rise to their feet, hand on their heads, yelling, “Bro!!! That was so close! How did you not die?! Look at you, just sitting there, sipping your chai like a complete donkey!”

Occasionally we do realize that something was definitely amiss in a given near-scrape. Something potentially deadly has happened, yet we were rescued, unharmed, in a way that doesn’t completely make sense. People don’t act they way they normally would. Train schedules are inexplicably off. For some reason we make a choice that we would not typically make. Natural elements behave abnormally. Fireballs burn an arc around us yet leave us completely alone.

One year ago I almost blew myself up in our kitchen. I did manage to blow up the kitchen, especially the stove. But I escaped unscathed, with the exception of some jumpiness every time I lit a gas burner for the next six months.

It all went back to to the difficulty of staying warm during the worst part of our Central Asian winters. The nights up in our mountain area often go below freezing, and the government makes its most severe cuts to the electricity during this season also. Two winters ago also proved to be one of the coldest snaps in decades. Add to the cold and the lack of electricity a natural gas shortage as well. All this meant not enough electricity to heat water for showers, dwindling supplies of LPG for cooking and portable heating, and one very cold family who couldn’t stop coughing. As a dad, I decided that it was time to pursue the nuclear option, something I had been chewing on for many a cold Central Asian winter.

With the help of a partner church, we purchased a 3,000 liter LPG tank for our roof and got a gas-powered water heater, a couple of LPG fireplace-type heaters, and all the necessary piping installed. This would mean that even if we had no electricity for days on end, we would have constant hot water, heating for at least two rooms during the day, and gas for cooking and hot drinks. The local workmen who installed all of this for us in the worst part of winter were great guys, and they even showed me what to do if the huge tank ever ran out. Conveniently, I could attach one of our smaller fifteen liter tanks to the gas lines and – voila – have gas in the lines until I could get the big one refilled. But, they stressed, it’s not good to let the tank completely empty. Refill it at twenty percent.

Well, Central Asia being what it is, the next few months were full of lots of ministry drama and various crises, and the big gas tank on our roof ran out without me noticing. It was late at night when this happened. My kids were already asleep and my wife was reading in our bedroom. I recalled what the workmen had told me several months before about how to temporarily refill the gas lines. So I went out back, attached a hose and nozzle to one of our small grill-style LPG tanks, and hooked it up to the house gas lines. But before I turned it on I made sure all the gas appliances were shut off. The gas nozzle I was using was one I was less familiar with, the kind that twisted open rather than a simple on/off lever. Figuring I needed to fill up many meters of lines for this to work, I turned the nozzle as far open as it could go, and heard a loud hiss as the gas rushed into the lines. So far, so good.

But as soon as I walked back inside I knew that something was not right. Another hissing sound was coming from the kitchen. I ran into the kitchen and could tell that gas was rushing out of the front right burner of the stove. I was confused. The burner was not on. But I figured that I’d better make sure. I made a panicky attempt to turn the burners off, forgetting that this stove had an electric lighter function. And in trying to make sure the burner was off, I accidentally triggered the lighter function. That’s when it happened.

A fireball filled the kitchen. Warm air wrapped around me, a shock wave hit my eardrums and rocked me backward, and the entire house shook. When this had passed I saw that the stove was on fire. What had been the front right burner area was now a geyser of flame, smoke, and melting plastic. Somehow I had the presence of mind to run outside and shut off the valve connecting the small LPG tank the the lines.

I ran back inside and was intercepted by my wife who has just run into the kitchen, wide-eyed. She thought our city was being bombed. I must have mumbled some kind of explanation to her that no, it was me. No enemies or terrorists bombing. I had managed to bomb the kitchen.

The next most important thing was to shut off the valve from the pipes to the stove and to grab the fire extinguisher. Both of these were back against the wall, right next to the side of the stove that was on fire. Not the best place for a fire extinguisher, I thought to myself as I strategized how to safely get past the flames. I managed to do it by draping a dish cloth over my head, ducking past the flaming corner, and shutting off the gas line. I also grabbed the fire extinguisher while I was down there and soon the stove and most of the kitchen was covered in a fine grey dust.

My wife went and grabbed the vacuum while I stood there, shocked and surveying the damage. What had gone wrong? Did I turn up the pressure too high on the unfamiliar nozzle? Did some kind of safety mechanism in the stove break, allowing gas to rush out when the burner wasn’t on? This was when I figured out that it was me who had lit the fireball by means of the lighter function in my haste to make sure the burners were actually off.

“Do I still have my eyebrows?” I asked my wife as she walked back in. I was very surprised when she answered in the affirmative. I had learned from friends in Melanesia that when facing down a fireball, the eyebrows usually don’t make it. I looked down for the first time at the hair on my arm and hands. Not singed at all. My clothes weren’t either. Wait, the tips of my thermal socks were crispy. And all around me, a semicircle was melted into the grey kitchen carpet. Other parts of the kitchen also evidenced contact with the explosion. Strangely, the exposed part of the trash bag had reversed itself, wrapping itself up tight around the lid of the bin when it had previously been wrapped over the sides.

We spent the next hour or so cleaning up all the extinguisher dust, and marveling that nothing worse had happened. What accounted for the fact that I was almost untouched by the giant fireball? Why had the carpet all around me melted while even my hair had gone unsinged? Was I protected by the normal flow of providence, or had there been some kind of abnormal intervention which stood between me and the flames? Is that even a valid distinction to make?

It’s unlikely I’ll ever know the answers to these questions in this life. “The secret things belong to the Lord,” as it says in Deuteronomy 29:29. And included in those secret things are many of the workings of providence in both our tragedies and our deliverances. No, unlike Balaam, ours is not usually to see behind the curtain when it comes to our close calls, but to learn from them and to be grateful for them. There’s wisdom there – like how not to nearly blow yourself up next time your LPG tank is empty. And gratitude – like prayers of thanks for the only real loss being a melted stove, and for the surprising bonus of not even one melted eyebrow.

Balaam was saved from an angel by a donkey. Could I have been saved by an angel from the consequences of being a donkey? Perhaps. A few more seconds of that gas rushing out and it could have been a much bigger bomb. But however it went down in the invisible realm, I am thankful for God’s kindness to me when I almost blew myself up a year ago. As I am thankful for his protection this week with the copperhead – and for all those other times that I don’t even know about, included on my tape of Your Many Near Deaths: Greatest Hits.

*Names changed for security

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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