Of Providence, Car Bombs, and Appointments With Death

...it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment. - Hebrews 9:27, ESV

On a pleasant spring evening twelve years ago, *Hama and I should have died, with Hama’s sister dying shortly thereafter. But it was not yet our appointed time. In that sense, even though death brushed past us in alarming proximity, we were invincible. Not because of any power of ours. No, but because God is on his throne, appointing for each man his time of passing into eternity. God keeps us from premature death through the mysterious workings of his providence. Seemingly random decisions and the prayers of believers become the means by which the great king and author works out his grand narrative and reveals his glory.

Hama and I were walking down one of main avenues of the bazaar, one named after a famous poet, like so many other streets in our mountain city. We were on our way to the cafe of a nearby hotel to study English together. Hama was thrilled to have a native English speaker for a friend again as he was worried his language, picked up while a refugee in the UK, was beginning to slip.

The spring weather was lovely on that late afternoon and I soaked in the sights and smells of the bazaar as we walked and talked together. The smell of tea on charcoal, shwarma sandwiches, and shops full of spices wafted up and down the busy street in the spring breeze.

Suddenly Hama stopped. “I think I’ve changed my mind. Maybe we should go to my house for supper first, then after that we can go to the cafe to study.”

I glanced ahead. You could already see the upper floors of the hotel looming above the shops, maybe five hundred meters ahead of us. We were nearly there. At the same time, Hama’s family lived in a neighborhood almost within the bazaar itself, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. It wouldn’t be a long walk back in the other direction to his house.

“Sure, bro,” I said, “Whatever you want to do is good with me.”

We turned around and made our way back up the street and after ten minutes or so took a right into the winding alleyways that represented the fusion of the bazaar with Hama’s neighborhood. Streets just big enough for one car were framed by cement, brick and mudbrick courtyard walls, some crumbling. Others, in fading design work, still showed evidence of a bygone glory. I loved the sense of history in this neighborhood, a sense often lost in the construction boom of the rest of the city. As we walked I asked Hama what he had been reading in the gospel of Matthew since we had last spent time together.

“It’s amazing, bro, there’s no one like Jesus. Everyone who comes to Jesus gets healed!”

I smiled as Hama talked. There’s nothing quite like hearing a friend encounter scripture for the very first time.

“The lepers, the crippled, the sick, the ones with the evil spirits in them – Jesus is powerful to heal all of them! Our religion teaches us that Jesus performed miracles and healed people, but I didn’t know it was like this. Jesus is special, bro. He is different.”

We walked along as Hama shared some more and then walked in silence for a bit. A note of concern was in Hama’s voice when he began speaking again.

“Bro, my sister is about to die. You know, the disabled one, *Sharon?”

I had only seen Sharon briefly one or two times, but Hama had told me about her. She had been born with dark purplish markings all over body, but in spite of this had seemed to be a normal infant. However, when she was three years old she had gotten deathly ill. Somehow the illness had arrested her mental development and she had remained with the mental capacity of a small child as she grew into an adult. The other children in the neighborhood had mocked her mercilessly, so her family had learned to keep her hidden away indoors, as so many families in our area do if they have a family member who is physically or mentally handicapped. Sharon had learned the names of some family members and childhood friends, but after her illness was never able to learn another person’s name. Even though her condition made her an object of shame in local culture, nevertheless her family adored Sharon and doted on her, giving her generous amounts of sugary chai whenever she asked.

“Hama, what happened?”

“Sharon’s become very sick in the past few weeks. She was already really thin, but now she’s just bones. She hasn’t eaten anything in days. She’s lost her ability to speak, even to us, and her good eye has clouded over. A doctor came yesterday… He says she’ll be dead within the week. He said there’s nothing we can do.”

“I’m so sorry to hear this, bro,” I replied.

We walked on in silence for a little longer. Then Hama, seemingly without realizing it, began recounting once again how Jesus had healed the crippled, the blind, the mute. As he spoke I felt an urge, a thought, growing more and more powerful and clear in my mind and in my chest.

You need to ask to pray for Sharon tonight.

Doubt and anxiety rose up in me parallel to the strength of this impression. Nevertheless, the thought grew stronger.

You need to ask to pray for Sharon tonight.

But I don’t know how to do that! I protested inwardly. Sure, I had read lots of missionary biographies and even heard some first-hand accounts in Melanesia of God’s power to heal when believers pray for the sick. But I had never seen it modeled. And I was feeling reluctant to go out on a limb like this when my friend seemed so close to following Jesus. What if nothing happens and he comes to doubt Jesus’ power? What if I just make myself look like a fool? What if they get offended when I pray in the name of Jesus?

But the leading was irresistible now. I had to yield.

“Hama, do you believe that Jesus really did all those miracles that you’re reading about?”

“Yes, of course I do!” Hama replied.

“Do you believe that Jesus is alive and powerful in heaven now?”

“Yes, both of our religions teach that Jesus is alive in heaven and powerful.”

“Well,” I swallowed, “Do you believe that Jesus is powerful to heal your sister if we ask him to?”

“Bro… I, I don’t know…” Hama responded with a sigh.

“If it’s OK with you, can you ask your family if I can pray for her tonight? Jesus asks us as his followers to pray for the sick and sometimes he answers our prayers for healing.”

“I can ask bro, but I’m not sure what they’ll say.”

Shortly afterward we arrived at Hama’s family’s home. He and his newlywed wife lived in the upper floor and his mother and three sisters, including Sharon, lived on the ground floor. Hama’s father had been killed by a previous dictator when Hama was just a boy. Even though he was the youngest brother, he had the strongest leadership skills and often functioned as a leader in the household, depending on the day and his mother’s moods.

Hama’s family shouted some greetings to us as we went up the external staircase to the upstairs. As customary, they were full of polite greetings and hospitality in spite of the grief they were feeling inwardly. Hama’s wife, Tara, looked genuinely happy to see us. She was pregnant, probably early second trimester, and terrified of losing the baby after a previous miscarriage. Though I didn’t know it yet, a fear was growing inside of her that they would lose this second child because her husband was angering Allah by studying the Christian Bible. But on this night she just seemed happy and relieved that we had come for dinner.

Tara took out a spray bottle and sprayed a mist over some flat bread she had stored (to make it tender) and put the pile of bread in the middle of the table cloth she had placed on the floor. As we sat down, cross-legged at the edges of the cloth, Tara placed bowls in front of us, full of chicken broth, tomato/okra soup, and lightly fried rice. We began tearing off bits of flatbread and scooping the rice into our mouths. I was not regretting our decision to come back for this home-cooked dinner.

About twenty minutes into our meal all of our mobile phones started ringing at once and getting inundated with text messages. We pulled out our simple Nokia phones and started reading the texts and answering the calls. A tense and nervous air had descended on the house. Clearly some kind of emergency was going on. As we processed what we were reading and hearing, Tara quickly turned on the TV.

There had been a car bomb. It had detonated at the front of a main hotel in the city. It was the very same hotel where Hama and I had been planning to study. The entire front facade of the hotel was shattered, including the cafe where we would have been sitting. Tragically, a security guard had died. He, along with the suicide bomber proved to be the only casualties.

After reassuring various friends, family, and coworkers that we were OK, and finding out that they were OK too, Hama and I looked soberly at one another. We very well could have died had we not decided to turn around and gone to his house for dinner instead.

Shaking our heads at the craziness of the whole situation, I leaned forward toward Hama.

“My friend, we could have died tonight. You should be dead right now. You’re not. That tells me God has a reason for saving your life tonight. He has a purpose for you, something that needs to happen before you die.”

Hama nodded his head in agreement, watching the flashing news reports with a glazed expression.

“I think you’re right, bro… I think you’re right.”

The evening wore on as the entire city took stock in the wake of the car bomb. Locals were furious that a Palestinian youth had been the bomber. What was he doing all the way over here in our corner of Central Asia? For our part, we were totally engrossed in the phone calls, texts, and news reports. Tara was shocked to hear that we had narrowly escaped being victims of the bomb ourselves and lots of wide-eyed rapid conversation took place between her and Hama which I wasn’t able to follow. She was of course happy that her husband had not been blown up, but she was also understandably angry that he had almost gotten himself blown up. Nevertheless, she put some chai on for us and soon had served it.

While we were sipping our chai I was reminded of our plans earlier in the evening to pray for Sharon. The evening was wearing on.

“Hama, do you think we could still pray for your sister tonight?”

Hama suddenly remembered our earlier conversation and took a moment to think over my question.

“Yes, let me go downstairs and see what they say.”

“Hama, please tell them that I have to pray for her in the name of Jesus. I mean no disrespect, but I am a follower of Jesus and I must pray for her in the way that he asks his followers to do so.”

Hama nodded and went downstairs. Some lively discussion ensued, but he soon emerged again and told me that the family had agreed, and that they were very thankful that I would consider doing something like this for them.

We went downstairs and into the room where Sharon was laid out on a foam mattress on the floor. If they had not told me otherwise I would have assumed that she had already died. Her body was skeletal. Her skin, the parts that were not the purplish color, was a lifeless grey. She stared up at the ceiling with unseeing eyes and clutched a blanket to her chest with bony hands. She was in her early forties, but I could have been looking at a deathly ill ninety-year-old.

I asked Hama to translate some more for family, who had already begun crying as I knelt down next to Sharon.

“Please tell them that I’ll just put my hand on her hand and simply ask Jesus to heal her.”

I prayed quietly in English to myself, holding onto Sharon’s bony hand. The first time nothing happened. I began crying as well. The second time nothing happened. I prayed a short, third prayer and looked up. My heart sunk. Nothing had happened.

“Hama, please tell your family that sometimes God says yes, sometimes he says no, and sometimes he wants us to keep asking. Maybe this is not a no. Maybe he wants us to keep asking. I’ll keep praying tonight and ask some of my friends to pray also. All we can do is ask and wait for God.”

We went back upstairs and I sat, confused and disappointed. I heard some more commotion downstairs. When I asked what it was I became even more discouraged. The family, desperate as they were, had invited the local Islamic mullah to come and also pray over Sharon. Then I heard shouting and doors slamming. The mullah had attempted to beat Sharon with his cane in an attempt to drive out a demon. The women of the family, not about to put up with that nonsense, had in turn driven him from the home.

“Well,” I thought, “at least they’ll see that contrast tonight.”

Later that night when we said goodbye, Hama’s family thanked me profusely. They could see that my tears and prayers for Sharon had been genuine, even if they were ineffectual. The contrast with the mullah’s cane had clearly left an impression on them. Perhaps that was God’s only purpose in this strange encounter, a chance to show Christian compassion?

After I made it back home I sent out an email to some prayer supporters, updating them on the situation with Sharon and asking them to join in praying for Jesus’ power to be displayed, whatever that would look like. Then I went to my room and opened my Bible. For the next couple hours I worked through the gospels, pausing on each account of Jesus healing someone.

“Lord, you did for that person, would you do it again for Sharon?”

Around 1:00 a.m. I had a strong urge to focus on praying for Sharon to be able to speak again. Shortly after that I fell asleep.

When I awoke, the first thing I did was reach for my trusty little Nokia phone, hoping to see a message from Hama. There was nothing. I spent all day distracted in my work, chewing on the mysteries of God’s providence and human suffering. I kept checking my phone in hopes that I had somehow missed a call. But I had resigned myself. God had said no and Sharon would die.

Around 7 pm, I noticed something flashing in the bottom corner of the phone’s small screen. When I looked into what kind of notification it was, I was informed that my phone was out of memory and that I had a new text message waiting once I cleared up some more space. Frantically, I deleted other messages and opened the new one. It was from Hama, sent early in the morning.

“Bro, Jesus healed my sister! Please call as soon as you can.”

I called up Hama right away and asked what was going on.

“Hama, why didn’t you call me? I just saw your message now.”

“I had no credit, ha! Bro,” Hama said, “Jesus healed my sister!”

“What?! How?!”

“Around 1:00 in the morning, all of the sudden she sat up and asked for some chai! We all jumped out of bed. We couldn’t believe what was happening. She’s been eating and drinking all day and we are just laughing and talking about what happened! Bro, you prayed and Jesus healed my sister! When can you come and see her? You have to see her!”

I was taking a trip out of town that evening, but a couple days later I returned to Hama’s home to see Sharon. The family was ecstatic and Sharon was sitting up in bed, eating and drinking and talking in her unique, child-like way.

“Ever since that night, she hasn’t stopped talking! She talks all night long and now we can’t sleep!” laughed one of Hama’s sisters. “Would you please pray again to Jesus to get her to shut up?”

We all laughed until we cried.

“But seriously, as a family we did want to ask if you would pray for her again. She is still blind and before she had one good eye. Would you pray that she would be able to see again?”

I agreed. Then I proceeded to pray, this time with a much greater confidence. But just like the previous time, nothing seemed to happen.

“Well,” I said, “Maybe God is again saying that we should keep asking. We will keep praying for her.”

Sure enough, two weeks later I got another phone call from Hama.

“Bro, her cloudy eye has cleared up and she can see again! Jesus did it again!”

God had granted Sharon another season of life. It would prove to be brief. For six more months she ate, drank chai, saw her family through her good eye, and even learned my name, the first name she been able to learn in forty years. Then she died.

Hama hadn’t told me that she had gotten sick again. I was a little upset at him for this. But he responded that the family didn’t feel right about telling me. They knew I would want to pray again. Perhaps they felt like God had already granted them two miracles and it was ungrateful to ask for another.

God had intervened to save Sharon’s life through the prayer of a doubting nervous believer. He had intervened to save Hama’s life and my life through a seemingly random decision to turn around and eat dinner before we studied English. Both of these miracles resulted in death delayed, not death dismissed. It was appointed for Sharon six months later. It will be appointed for Hama and I one of these days as well, though now we look forward to it together as brothers in Christ. God’s providence in these things is beyond me, but I recount these things as they really happened. I haven’t had the same kind of near death experience nor answered prayer for healing in the twelve years since. It was simply God’s mysterious kindness that they should both fall on that particular spring evening.

At the time I thought that this would be the last step in Hama professing faith in Jesus. Surely after such a display of power, alongside of his study of Matthew, Hama would immediately profess faith. But to my surprise, Hama stopped speaking about Jesus altogether for the next six weeks. A battle was going on in his soul. Jesus had revealed his truth and power. But would Hama surrender and risk everything?

*Names have been changed for security

Photo by Jeff Kingma on Unsplash

But What Would Happen to my Family if I Died?

Photo by Kenny Orr on Unsplash

This is a common question Christian men wrestle with when considering cross-cultural missions. It’s not a bad question. God has called us men to protect and provide for our families. Yet might provision and protection look differently for those upon whom the end of the ages has come?

[3] Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, [4] who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well. [5] Greet also the church in their house. -Romans 16:3-5 ESV

Come on, Aquila, you risked your own life and the life of your wife for the sake of Paul? What would have become of Prisca had you died, a widow from a persecuted minority in a pagan society? Is this not a failure of biblical manhood? What about your priorities as one called to be a husband?

Wait a second, Paul is commending these actions… and calling for the global church to give thanks for what Aquila and Prisca have done. Apparently, there is something deeper going on here that makes risking one’s life (and the life of one’s spouse) worth it, if done for the sake of the gospel.

This question hits close to home. My own father died on the mission field when I was a four-year-old, leaving my mom a widow and me and my siblings to be raised without a dad. Was this incredibly hard at times? Yes. A core part of grieving seems to come from the bereaved imagining life without their loved one. I was young enough that I was not able to do much of this at the time of my dad’s death. Instead, the grieving happened slowly over time, one quiet blow after another as the realization landed yet again: this is what it means to not have a dad.

But that was not the only realization that sunk deep into my soul. The other was this: this is how God keeps his promises and takes care of the fatherless. Over and over again I saw God’s faithfulness to take care of my family. It was unmistakeable. His hand to bless us through the suffering and to help us was apparent everywhere. Friends even came to faith because my dad died. Because of this, I was raised with the truth of God’s sovereignty in suffering deeply rooted in my experience and also staring up at me from the pages of Scripture. So when I first stumbled onto Piper sermons in high school, I leaned in. This man preached the God I knew. A God big enough to turn even death for good.

My wife and I now serve in a part of Central Asia that has some serious security concerns. We have three small children. The recurring conversations about whether or not to evacuate our area has led us to joke that our team’s theme song should be The Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go. For now, however, our local area continues to be a pocket of remarkable stability in a very volatile region. Still, there are rumors of terrorist sleeper cells around and I have the same health condition that took my dad’s life. What would happen to my family if I were to die? The very same thing that happened to my mom, my siblings, and myself – God would keep his promises and take care of them.

I’m not advocating any glib risk-taking here. I know all too well the painful cost. Any risk for the sake of the gospel needs to be exactly that – risk for the sake of the gospel. Total unity between spouses is also key in deciding what risks to take. Yet I am wanting to exhort my peers, dads of young families, who might struggle with fear as they wrestle with a call to the nations. Surprisingly, and by the grace of God, it is because my dad died that I was freed to take my family to risky places.

Perhaps your death, or merely your willingness to risk for the sake of Jesus, will be what frees your children to also serve Jesus in risky places.

[24] Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. [25] Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. -John 12:24-25 ESV

How To Be Safe Anywhere in the World

Photo by Phượt Cùng Nắng on Unsplash

The part of Melanesia I grew up in could be quite dangerous. Similarly, the areas of American cities I have lived in are also considered not the best neighborhoods around. And the Central Asian region where we currently serve has its own unique dangers – I narrowly missed being blown up by a car bomb some years ago. While different groups have exposed us to some fantastic training and resources, the deepest practical security lessons I have learned came from my single mom.

After my dad passed away, we eventually returned to the mission field as a family of four: my single mom, my two older brothers, and myself. The Melanesian country we lived in was particularly dangerous for single women. Yet my mom moved around with incredible freedom and independence, with barely any security incidents for over seven years. My mom is very short and slender, so it wasn’t that she cut such an imposing figure that the bad guys stayed away. She didn’t carry a handgun on her either. Instead, she simply lived out some good missiological and neighborly principles. I have learned that these several things can mean the ability to live safely almost anywhere in the world.

First, my mom learned the local language well. All missionaries are supposed to do this, but sadly many can’t or won’t learn the language to the point where they would be considered advanced speakers (language learning is very difficult!). Yet the ability to understand what is being spoken around you and to speak yourself quickly and intelligibly is a massive part of situational awareness and staying safe. Learning the language(s) well and continuing to learn for the long-term should be a central part of wisdom for living safely in risky places. Just one well-dropped comment in the local language can alert everyone around that not only do you understand everything that is being said, but also that you are no mere tourist unable to respond and react in the powerful local vernacular.

Together with the language, my mom also learned the culture well. She learned not only what words meant but also what forms meant, things like body language and clothing and honorable conduct. Especially for foreign women, understanding how to dress modestly and interact respectably could mean the difference between a normal trip to the market and a terrifying encounter with a man with a machete. Learning the culture teaches you how to prevent dangerous situations from happening, how to defuse those that do become threatening, and also how to respond once an incident has occurred (Which in Melanesia even meant the possibility of summoning an enraged mob to your defense). Learning culture is harder than learning mere language because so much of it operates below the surface and must be intuited and pieced together. And yet the often invisible culture sets the rules that can mean life and death. In our our current Central Asian context, my wife has learned that respectful greetings to men, such as shop owners, can place her in the category of an honorable sister who should be protected, rather than the category of strange and probably-immoral foreigner, which means she is less likely to be objectified.

Finally, my mom did everything with local friends. Whether we were making a run to town for groceries or going on a village trip or going to church, we almost always had one local “brother” or “sister” or more with us. No matter how good you get at the language and the culture, you will never be able to interpret a situation as quickly and as intuitively as a local can. This extra set of eyes and ears provides a massive boost to freedom and security in a given context. Being accompanied by local friends also makes a powerful visual statement, especially in honor-shame or tribal contexts. It means you’ve got people who will vouch for you and who will defend you, people who are loyal to you. In these cultures this can mean not only that you’re less of an easy target, but also that you are the kind of person who does not deserve to be attacked or robbed. If you have visibly earned the respect of local friends, then other locals are more likely to extend respect you also – even those who might rob you.

My mom knew the language and the culture and she went everywhere with local friends. The honorable conduct of “Mama R” meant that she had freedom to move around safely that surpassed that of most of the other expat women in our context. We now serve in a very different part of the world, but I think of these things when we have the opportunity to visit parts of our region or city that might be more dangerous. These principles are valid anywhere, even in our home country. Sure, we might be fluent in American English, but could we grow in better understanding the various subcultures around us and in befriending those from those cultures? Absolutely. And that would mean greater safety and freedom with which to take the gospel into risky places.

Greater freedom and safety should, after all, be leveraged for greater gospel access. I learned that from my mom.