I just listened to a story that I will remember for a long time. It’s one of those stories that you just cannot get out of your head, for a variety of reasons. This story scares the crap out of me, but at the same time it strengthens and encourages me. Ever heard a story like that? If not, here you go:
Our friend, we’ll call him Roger, helps run a school that trains Nicaraguans how to be effective pastors. Anyway, he was leading some classes this week, when one of the pastoral students was the unfortunate victim of theft. So Roger and some other guys took the student, we’ll call him Eric, to the phone company to report the theft. As they were waiting in line, Roger remarked how frustrating and disappointing it must be to have lost his phone, recognizing that the stolen Samsung Galaxy phone was literally the most expensive item Eric owned.
It was at that moment that Roger’s world tilted a bit. You see, the phone was actually the least of Eric’s worries and he was about to explain why. It was that explanation that would leave its mark on Roger, and everyone else who heard the tale.
To all who know him, Eric is considered one of the nicest, most genuine men in the pastoral program. He leads a church about two hours outside of the capital city of Managua, where he is breathing new life into his community through innovative programs seeking to reach some of the toughest and unlikeliest converts. Within the past few months, he started reaching out to the large population of gang members in his city, and had seen 13 young gang members leave the gang to follow Jesus. He met regularly with those guys for Bible study and encouragement. Everyone was thrilled at the change in those young lives.
Well, not exactly everyone.
While the three men waited for news about the stolen phone, Eric proceeded to share how his week had started.
Last Sunday afternoon, a stranger came into Eric’s church asking to speak to the pastor. He seemed quite upset, and his request carried such a heightened sense of urgency that Eric suggested they move to a more private location to speak. As they walked out of sight (and sound), I suspect both men prayed and contemplated what would happen over the next few minutes, but neither could have fully expected the outcome.
After reaching the secluded space, the stranger didn’t waste any time with pleasantries. “I came here today to kill you.”
[Pause here to just consider how you would respond to such a statement. Me, I think first I would have been cursing my decision to find a private place to talk!]
“I’ve actually come here two other times to kill you, but each time I haven’t been able to do it. You’ve made some people pretty angry recently, and they want you dead. My daughter is sick and needs medicine to live. They told me I would receive enough money to buy her medicine for a long time, if only I would kill three people. You see, I would do anything to save my daughter… so I’ve already killed the first. That was easy.”
At that point, the stranger laid a stack of US dollars on the table, saying it was his compensation for killing the first person on the gang’s list. Next to the money, he placed his loaded gun, then looked up at the pastor with forlorn eyes.
“But for some reason, I just can’t kill you. And yet, if I don’t kill you, the gang will kill me. And then my daughter will die too. Please, I beg you, please tell me why I cannot kill you!”
I don’t know about you, but when Roger told me this story, I was sitting on the edge of my seat (or hammock), incredulous. My husband kept saying he felt like he was hearing the storyline of some movie. Instead, we were coming face to face with the very real danger facing Christians all over the world. Wyeth and I sat dumbfounded, staring at Roger.
Stories like this make us squirm in our seats, wishing we were watching a make-believe movie with well-paid actors instead of a real-life tale about a poor pastor and a hopeless father. Light versus dark. Good versus evil.
The thing is, stories like this do play out in every part of the world, every day of the year. So the question becomes: what is our response?
Well, Eric didn’t quite know how to respond either. He told the gunman as much, and did the only thing he could think of: he prayed. Out loud. Expectantly. For them both. He prayed desperate prayers for wisdom and safety, guidance and protection. The man eventually decided to flee the country — with his family — because he just couldn’t make the next hit on his list.
But where does that leave Eric, and his family? Do we really believe the gang will stop just because the first person they hired skipped town? And what about Roger? He feels guilty because his classes have enabled and encouraged Eric to start his ministry with the gang members. He knows his guilt is pointless, but he feels it nevertheless. What if the gang succeeds in killing this humble, gentle man? And his wife? Their kids?
Guilt… fear… worry… each fuels a seemingly limitless list of what-ifs, but not one reveals the truth.
Three times a man entered the church with a gun and every intention of extinguishing the light of its pastor. On each occasion, God prevented that man from pulling the trigger. He never left Pastor Eric alone. Not once. Even now. Even if another gunman comes tomorrow.
The Old Testament’s Joseph had a ton of really horrible stuff happened to him, including attempted murder (by a gang of his very own brothers, no less!). And yet he later said to those same brothers, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t you see, you planned evil against me but God used those same plans for my good, as you see all around you right now—life for many people.” (from Genesis 50:19-20 The Message)
My response is two-fold. First, I felt absolutely compelled to share this story with you. I believe it is through the retelling of these real-life stories that some can come to know the power of faith in Christ. Even as others plan evil, God uses it for good. Second, I invite you to join me in praying for Pastor Eric — and those like him throughout the world — as he bravely and unashamedly shares the Truth with those in his life: villagers, children, parents, farmers, thieves, gang members, and yes, even murderers.