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

A Poem Laughing at Satan and Death Arguing

Ephrem the Syrian writes this poem as a fictional argument between Satan and Death, where each bicker about who is strongest. Ephrem, like many in church history, advocates laughing at our spiritual enemies as one important piece of spiritual warfare. Martin Luther agrees, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” This poem is a call to confidently laugh today at evil, thereby echoing the victorious laughter of the coming resurrection.

Nisibene Hymns, no. 52

I heard Satan and death loudly disputing
which was the strongest of the two amongst men. 

Refrain: Praise to You, Son of the Shepherd of all, who has saved his flock
                from the hidden wolves, the Evil One and Death, who had swallowed it up. 

Death has shown his power in that he conquers all men,  
Satan has shown his guile in that he makes all men sin. 

Death: Only those who want to, O Evil One, listen to you,
             but to me they come, whether they will it or not. 

Satan: You just employ brute force, O Death,
            whereas I use traps and cunning snares. 

Death: Listen, Evil One, a cunning man can break your yoke,
             but there is none who can escape from mine.   

Satan: You, Death, exercise your strength on the sick,
            but I am the stronger with those who are well. 

Death: The Evil One has no control over the person who reviles him,
             but all who have cursed me, in the past or now, still come to me. 

Satan: You, Death, received your power from God,
            but when I make men sin I do it without any outside help. 

Death: You, Evil One, lay snares like a coward,
             but I use my power like a king. 

Satan: You are too stupid, Death, to recognize how great I am,
            seeing that I can capture free will.

Death: You, Evil One, go around like a hooligan,
             whereas I am like a lion, fearlessly crushing my prey. 

Satan: You have no one who serves or worships you, O Death, 
            but me, kings honor with sacrifices, like a god. 

Death: But many address Death as a benefactor, 
             whereas no one ever has or shall call on you as such, O Evil One. 

Satan: Do you not realize, Death, how many 
            call on me in one way or another, and offer me libations? 

Death: Your name is hated, Satan, you cannot remedy it;
             everyone curses your name. Hide your shame. 

Satan: Your ear is dull, Death, for you fail to hear
            how everyone howls out against you. Go, hide yourself. 

Death: I go open-faced among creation, and do not use deceit like you:
            you do not pass a single night without some kind of deceit. 

Satan: You have not found a better lot for all your truth:
            men hate you just as much as they do me. 

Death: Everyone fears me as a master, 
             but you they hate as the evil one. 

Satan: People hate your name and your deeds, O Death;
            my name may be hated, but my pleasures are loved. 

Death: Your sweet taste ends in setting the teeth on edge:
             remorse always accompanies those pleasures of yours. 

Satan: Sheol is hated for there is no chance of remorse there:
            it is a pit which swallows up and suppresses every impulse. 

Death: Sheol is a whirlpool, and everyone who falls in it is resurrected,
             but sin is hated because it cuts off a man's hope. 

Satan: Although it grieves me, I allow for repentance;
            You cut off a sinner's hopes if he dies in his sins. 

Death: With you his hope was cut off long ago; 
             if you had never made him sin, he would have made a good end. 

Chorus: Blessed is he who set the accursed slaves against each other
              so that we can laugh at them just as they laughed at us. 

Our laughing at them now, my brethren, is a pledge 
that we will again be able to laugh, at the resurrection. 

-Ephrem the Syrian, translated by Brock, The Harp of the Spirit: Poems of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, p. 104-107

Photo by Godfrey Nyangechi on Unsplash

A Fight Song on Killing Sin

“Demons” by Gable Price and Friends

We are in need of regular reminders to make war on our sin. My kids and I have been enjoying this particular song’s challenge to do just that, wrapped in its catchy Indie Rock style. A serious message and music that grabs you – one of my favorite combinations. “You can’t kill your demons if you make ’em your home.”

A Fight Song to Resist the Enemy

This is one of our new favorite songs as a family. Listen to that harmonica!

If you saw a lion trying to hurt someone you love
You’d find him with your hand or shoot him with a gun
If you saw a robber trying to break into your home
You’d hit him on the head with a hammer or a phone

We take care of our bodies
We take care of our things
But what about these hearts
That we’ve given to the king

Don’t let the enemy in

If you heard a fox telling you a lie
You would not believe him
cuz you’d know that he was sly
If you saw a serpent biting at your heals
You’d crush him with your foot
cuz he’s only come to steal

We take care of our bodies
We take care of our things
But what about these hearts
That we’ve given to the king

Don’t let the enemy in

If you met man who had a kingdom and a treasure
And he gave it all to you just for your good and for your pleasure
In it there was peace and joy and freedom from your strife
Wouldn’t you receive it and guard it with your life

You know this really happened
You’ve been given every blessing
Don’t believe the devil’s lies
No matter what he’s dressed in

Don’t let the enemy in

I won’t let the enemy in

“Don’t Let the Enemy In” by Land of Color

The Sheikh’s Spells

“You see those peacock doors?” my friend asked as we drove along a major road in our new neighborhood. “That’s where The Sheikh lives. He is super rich from all the people that come to him for – what do you call it in English? You know, when someone uses paper and verses from the Qur’an to curse someone’s enemies?”

“You mean spells?”

“Yes! Spells. He charges $35 for a basic spell – and dozens of people come to him every day. So many women come to curse families that they are fighting with. And he’s been doing it for decades.”

“Is that legal? Does the whole city know about him?” I asked.

“Ha! Yes, the government won’t stop it. And he’s super famous. Everyone knows what he does.”

“So do people come to him for blessing spells as well? Like if they want their child to recover from an illness?”

“Oh yes, that too. Spells for cursing and for blessing. And $35 is only for the most basic ones. He charges a lot more for the bigger jobs.”

“It’s just like Melanesia,” I said, shaking my head. “Every village had a man called a sangumaman, and he was basically the village witch doctor, cursing and blessing (for the right price), helping people try to manipulate the spirits.”

We drove along and passed a shiny new shopping mall, a place seemingly proclaiming the triumph of globalized commercialism over the superstitions of the past. It felt a world away from the strange peacock doors we had passed just a few minutes beforehand. I remembered again the subtle trap of believing that modernization in terms of businesses and other external infrastructure was actually changing the inner worldview of the culture. It isn’t – or at least it isn’t any time soon. What do they do when their child is deathly sick? That was always an important test in Melanesia for locals and professing believers. I didn’t expect it to have such a direct parallel here in Central Asia. Apparently folk Islam is still alive and well and running a profit right under our noses.

“You know,” I said to my friend, “someday one of us believers might need to challenge The Sheikh, and tell him that his most powerful spells can’t affect a faithful believer who’s got the Holy Spirit living inside of them. Now that would be an interesting contest. And when his curse failed, then I bet the whole city would know about it.”

“I’m down bro, when do we do it? He has destroyed so many families. Let’s take him down!”

I smiled at my friend’s enthusiasm. That day could very well come. But we certainly won’t go searching out that kind of confrontation. If the Lord clearly asked us to confront him, we would. I’ve read enough missionary biographies to know that the witch doctor has real power – but that he doesn’t stand a chance against the Holy Spirit. And though we are planning for a subtler route for gospel impact, sometimes that kind of direct confrontation is exactly what is needed for breakthrough.

I am reminded one of the main points of Sinclair Ferguson’s book, The Holy Spirit. That point is simply that over and over again when the Holy Spirit appears in the Old Testament, it it for this purpose: to go to war. Sooner or later, He will come for The Sheikh. And on that day all The Sheikh’s little spells will fail him.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

I Now Believe in Demons

One of my refugee friends had come to faith. In the rough and tumble season of his early years as a believer, he had a very hard time believing the Bible in some of its teachings about the spiritual realm. This friend had a mixed religious and philosophical background, with Central Asian communism being one of his main influences. Hence the skepticism about angels and demons. At one point of crisis he lost his housing and moved in with another Central Asian refugee, S., an Iranian man who had claimed to be a Christian and who had been granted religious asylum in the US. My friend had only been there a few weeks when he called me up, sounding very disturbed.

“Brother, let’s go for a drive. I really have to talk to you about something,” he said.

“Sure thing, I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

At that point we lived in an apartment complex full of Americans living in near-poverty and refugees who had been resettled from several dozen nations. I drove over to the complex next door, where my friend lived. This one was mostly full of Nepalese refugees, but had a few Central Asian residents like S. My friend came out and hopped in the passenger seat of my little ’95 Honda Civic, which my Iraqi friends had dubbed “baby camel” because of its amazing gas mileage.

Not for the last time, my friend and I went on a meandering drive together, working our way around the roads of south Louisville while discussing something of deep spiritual import.

“Brother, I now believe in demons!” my friend started off.

“Really?” I said as I turned to glance at him. “Well… good. They’re biblical, you know. What happened?”

I remembered back to the numerous conversations we had had about the spiritual realm, where my friend had stubbornly refused to believe in demons as the Bible presented them. It was not that I was so very experienced in this area myself, but I had grown up on the mission field (in an animistic culture) and my parents had been involved in at least one direct encounter with the demonic. Then there’s all the sober accounts from missionary biographies and church history, which present quite a strong case to even the most skeptical Christian. Beyond all these, there’s the Scriptures themselves, which talk about the demonic as a quite literal fact of life in this fallen world and an enemy particularly exposed through the ministry of Jesus Christ. The Bible also presents demons as an enemy still occasionally dealt with by Christ’s followers in the beginning of the Church, without any indication that they would disappear entirely in this age.

“Brother,” my friend continued, “Since moving in with S., I’ve been sleeping on the couch. It’s only a one bedroom apartment. Well, last night I fell asleep while reading my Bible. But I was woken up in the middle of the night by the television turning on and off by itself.”

As usually happens when friends describe things like this to me, the hair on the back of my neck stood up.

“It was flickering on and off all by itself, then other lights started flickering on and off by themselves also!”

“So what did you do?” I asked.

“Well, I was laying there under my blanket, afraid to move. Then I heard S. laughing and I saw a glimpse of him running up and down the hallway. When I got up to see what he was doing, I looked in his bedroom and saw that he was still in bed, fast asleep! But then at the same time I whirled around, hearing him laughing hysterically and running around the kitchen! He was somehow, impossibly, in two places at once – fast asleep yet running around the apartment laughing. This was when I became truly terrified.”

We sat still at a traffic light, somewhere on Dixie highway, my eyes open wide in astonishment. My formerly materialist friend had no motive to be making up this story about his new roommate who had just graciously given him a place to live. He continued.

“I went back to the living room, turned on all the lights, and started reading my Bible out loud. I didn’t dare stop for the rest of the night. Nothing else happened, but I was too afraid to go back to sleep. Then this morning at breakfast, I confronted S. about it.”

“Wow. What in the world did he say?”

“S. confessed to me that he’s always had this problem. He said, ‘They follow me wherever I go. So I move houses a lot. Whenever I move, it seems to get better for a while, but then they always come back. Whatever you do, don’t try to talk to them or stop them,’ he said. ‘One of my former roommates tried. They got angry with him and hit him in the head, and he lost his hearing.'”

My friend was clearly shaken up by this terrifying night. He continued, “I don’t know what to do. But I now know they are real, just like the Bible says. I was a fool to remain a materialist in this matter.”

“Well,” I responded, “I’m sorry this happened. But I’m glad you believe what the Bible says now about this. S. probably thinks they follow him, but the Bible seems to teach that they are somehow within him. Demons are almost always connected to people in the Scriptures. That’s probably why he can’t get rid of them when he moves houses. Let’s make a plan, you and me. The next time you see S., ask him if we can pray for him. Together with maybe a couple other believing brothers, we’ll gather and lay hands on him and pray. I’ve never done this before, but I believe that we can help S. if we gather, pray over him, read scripture, and trust in the power of Jesus over whatever is going on with him spiritually. There’s some phony stuff that some churches get into, but Jesus’ followers have done this sort of thing quietly for 2,000 years.”

“I’ll ask him,” my friend agreed.

“Bro,” I said, unable to avoid feeling a little vindicated. “You should have believed the Bible! What a terrible way to find out the demonic is real!”

“I know!” my friend said, laughing and shaking his head, “I know. I have been thoroughly convinced.”

We both shivered, trying to shake off the creepiness of the whole affair.

Our plan set in place, I dropped my friend off and sent out a text for prayer. Strangely, right after this, S. disappeared, abandoning his apartment and never coming into contact with us again. I can only speculate as to why he ran off, but it probably had something to do with the fact that we were ready to pray for him. Perhaps the spirits tormenting him got wind of this plan and caused him to flee. Years later I heard from other refugees that they had seen him, that he no longer professed to be a Christian, and that he had gotten deeply involved in drugs. I pray that wherever he ends up, there will eventually be a community of believers who will be able to befriend him and pray over him, that he might experience the freedom from the demonic that Jesus gives.

As for my friend and me, it was a good but hard lesson in believing the Bible, even when it contradicts our experience. Whatever our “enlightened” cultures might claim, the demonic is real. We need not be fixated on it, but I pray that if we ever get another chance to directly pray for a demonized person, that we will be ready, and that we will see the delivering power of Jesus displayed in that unique and merciful way.

Photo by Matthew Ansley on Unsplash

A Song For Those Fed Up With Satan’s Lies

Make sure you listen until the song takes a defiant turn just after the 3:20 mark. What a difference is made by knowing the identity of Wormwood and one’s own identity.

I have always known you
You have always been there in my mind
Now I understand you
And I will not be part of your designs

I know who I am now
And all that you made of me
I know who you are now
And I name you my enemy

I know who I am now
I know who I wanna be
I want to be more than
This devil inside of me

“Dear Wormwood” by the Oh Hellos.

When the Enemy Sends a Dream

It’s becoming somewhat well-known that many Muslims have a dream about Jesus as a part of their journey to faith. These dreams don’t save them, but they are often full of biblical language and imagery. They function as an important piece of how a Muslim comes to realize the gospel is true.

This dynamic might seem strange or suspicious to Westerners. But when we step back and take the big view of biblical history and church history, we see that God has regularly used dreams to advance his purposes. Among the faithful, spiritual dreams have not served to undermine God’s inerrant written word, which many believers are rightly concerned about.

It’s really only in the last couple hundred years in the West that spiritual dreams have become abnormal. Apparently, even the Southern Baptist Convention has a history linked to dreams. During the first Great Awakening, Shubal Stearns became the founder of the Sandy Creek Association, the Baptist church-planting movement in North Carolina that sparked the planting of Baptist churches all over the southern United States. Why did Shubal Stearns leave New England to plant churches in the South? According to the Baptist historian Gregory Wills, he had a dream where Jesus told him to. So he went to North Carolina and got to work. Church history overflows with these kinds of stories. Stearns’ story may be obscure, but Patrick’s is definitely not. Neither is the testimony of the late Nabeel Qureshi.

If God can use dreams to advance his purposes, it shouldn’t surprise us that the enemy would also seek to use dreams. It’s clear from scriptural example that God and angels have access to the dreams of believers and unbelievers (Gen 20:3, Gen 31:24, 1 Kings 3:5, Dan 2:28, Joel 2:28, Matt 2:12-13, Acts 16:9). It’s not quite as clear from scripture that the enemy has access to dreams (Deut 13, Jer 29:8), but if we remember that Satan and his demons are simply fallen angels, then by inference there is a case to be made that they also can have access to dreams. Many have certainly experienced this on the mission field.

Here is a prayer update from one of our teammates last week:

Pray for my friend. He has heard the gospel for many years and has always claimed to not care about spiritual things or eternity. Recently, he’s been straying from Islam and his mother received a dream warning her that her son was distancing himself from their faith. She confronted him, asked that he return to their faith, and he came back, more devout then ever. However, he confessed to me he is not satisfied and was disturbed by this dream. After sharing the gospel with him he now seems more open to following Jesus than ever.

What is going on when something like this happens? This young man has very close friends who are followers of Jesus who have been regularly sharing the gospel with him. Someone or something is playing serious defense. The enemy apparently sent a dream to this man’s mother, hoping that it would have the powerful effect of scaring them all back into a stricter Islam. Why would God allow this? Interestingly, it looks like this disturbing event might be used by God to make this young man even more open to Jesus than he was before. In other words, it may backfire.

Pray that it does.

We shouldn’t be overly fixated on dreams. Yet an honest survey of the scriptures, church history, and even contemporary evangelical missionaries makes a good case that we should probably find spiritual dreams somewhat normal – though always subject to testing by the word of God. Honestly, the modern propensity to make it merely psychological seems to be the outlier here.

What do we do when God or the enemy sends our friends a dream? Same as always – make a beeline to the Scriptures, share the gospel, and recommit to earnest prayer. Dreams do not save. But God does use them powerfully, and the enemy attempts to also.

Photo by Kasper Rasmussen on Unsplash