“We run the place yu know” said the gunman, casually revealing his semi-automatic weapon. The midnight air (pregnant with tension and the smell of weed) wrapped darkness around both he and my husband on the deserted road leading down into Majesty Gardens.
David drew a breath, “Actually, God runs the place” he said calmly, his eyes carefully reading every flicker on the gunman’s face. As he spoke two more men emerged from the shadows, one close, one farther off.
“So can God save your life?”, the gunman glared menacingly, drawing closer.
“Yes” David said, meeting his gaze, “He can”.
Did he believe those words in that moment? He said he did, but did I, soon after when he arrived home to tell me what had happened?
As the words left his mouth another car turned into the road further ahead, it’s headlights draping light over the darkness. The bright light seemed to confuse the gunman, he didn’t know where to look, he and his friends grew visibly agitated.
“Squeeze it now man, squeeze it” urged one of his friends referring to the trigger on his gun, but the gunman had already taken a step back from my husband and raised his weapon towards the oncoming car, confused by the lights and the amount of weed he’d been smoking.
My husband, seeing his opportunity calmly put the engine into gear and drove off past the oncoming car. He knew he was still an easy target until he reached the corner. How long it took him to cover that stretch of road he wasn’t sure. He was praying all the way.
It was after he was around the corner and on the main road that he began to shake all over.
When he returned home to our one room flat in Trench town and told me his news calm had almost returned to his body, but in me the storms were just beginning.
I had left my family half a planet away and come here to work alongside my new husband in Trench Town, Jamaica. What if Jesus didn’t have our backs? That night lead me on a long journey with God, trying to find reassurance against a backdrop of violence, crime and fear. Ten years later we are still here and I am still on this journey.
Violence has a long history and a short fuse here in Jamaica, especially in the inner city communities where we work. Despite a population of just 2.9 million people, Jamaica has one of the highest (per capita) homicide rates in the world. In 2015 alone there were 1,205 murders (more than three each day), 1069 shootings, 589 aggravated assaults, 577 rapes, 1,904 robberies and 1,777 break-ins. In 2013 there were ten thousand cases of reported child abuse. My husband David has been caught in crossfire twice (once with an armoured vehicle) held up at gunpoint twice, witnessed a beheading, carried victims of abduction and rape to counsellors, lost friends to violence, spoken at the funerals of the youth he was working with and counselled gunmen against retaliation in heated situations.
‘Can God save your life?’ is a very real question for us as a family and one that I have faced again and again over the last ten years. Recently, as I was preparing to write this piece I asked my husband this question again and without hesitation his emphatic answer was “yes!”. He can say this so confidently because his experience so far has proven God’s faithfulness in this area. God can save his life because He already has. Other missionary friends we work alongside of have reported bullets ‘pinging’ off away from them as they were caught in gun fire, as though an invisible shield was protecting them. After my husband was caught in cross fire between an armoured police vehicle and gunmen one evening a friend overheard some young men in the community saying “Bwoy, ‘dat white man must really a’serve God, because so many bullets a’fly and not even one catch ‘im!”
So, if we work for God does that mean we are invincible to human violence?
I wish I could tell you that I could confidently say that God will always protect us from everything we fear, from all pain and violence. But I can’t. It is true that he has. I and my husband and many other missionaries we know can retell many stories of Gods protection; Bullets missing, gunmen avoided, lives saved. But it doesn’t always end this way.
In April of this year two American missionaries, Randy Wentzel and Harold Nichols, were violently murdered here in Jamaica. Despite the fact that Jamaica is in the top five nations for homicide rates in the world, their deaths shocked Jamaicans. Last year in Haiti another missionary, Roberta Edwards was shot and killed as she sat behind the wheel of her car. July this year, trainee missionaries Jamison and Kathryn Pals and their three very young children were killed in a car accident on their way to language school in preparation for the mission-field.
Does this mean that somehow God let them down? Did Jesus not have their backs just as my deepest fears suspect?
The truth is actually much larger than either of these answers tell us.
God doesn’t promise to save our life. He can save our life. But the Bible does not promise safety, comfort or stressless living. What it does promise is God’s presence with us.
Daniel walked through the lions den, Shadrach, Meshach and Abedneigo went through the furnace. God was with them, walking closely alongside them, strengthening them and encouraging them. In these cases God did save their lives, but yet the prophet Isaiah was cut in two, James was killed while Peter walked miraculously out of Jail. There were many cases of lives miraculously spared among the early Christians, but all but one of the disciples would eventually suffer a violent death. In the first 200 years of Christianity four million christians were killed under the Roman empire. Had God saved just a few miraculously only to neglect four million others?
No. In all these cases God kept his promise, the promise of his presence with us.
Jesus knows what pain and suffering feels like, intimately from inside the frail shell of human existence. He has done it and when each one of us walks through white waters of any kind, he is walking with us, walking in us, walking us through, out into either every day life or eternal life.
Randy Wentzel, Harold Nichols, Roberta Edwards and the Pals family were not alone when they were taken violently from this world, Jesus was with them, there, in their last moments, walking closely alongside them, strengthening them and encouraging them just as he had been throughout every other day of their entire life and ministry. They were never alone.
The gunman’s question ‘Can God Save Your life?’ holds within it an assumption. His question assumes that life is all we have to lose and that he and his gun ultimately have power over this. This gunman and his friends lived in the reality of the darkness of this world, a choice which ultimately led to their demise less than a year after their interaction with my husband. But we live in another reality.
In that moment, when the gunman asked that question, gun in hand, David had to choose which reality he would live in. He had to choose where his eyes fell and what his heart believed. Which was more real in that moment, the barrel of a gun or the face of Jesus?
Where does real power lie? We often live, like the gunman’s words imply, feeling like our lives are the most important thing we have to lose. We feel like suffering is wrong. Like Jesus somehow should prevent us ever experiencing pain or loss. Fear has a power that can easily drown out God’s voice. It is our enemy’s greatest weapon against us.
This year we have seen as never before that we are in a world rocked by violence, a world torn apart by war, pain and fear. An estimated 115-250 people a day have lost their lives in the Syrian conflict, 80 died in France under the wheels of a terrorists truck, 49 shot dead in Orlando. Teenage gunmen, terrorist rampages, racial violence, police shootings; Our world is braced, waiting for the next suicide bomber to blow themselves up for religious extremism, to mow down their victims in the name of prejudice and hate.
Theologian Tom Wright writes,
‘The Christian Vocation is to be in prayer, in the Spirit, at the place where the world is in pain, and as we embrace that vocation, we discover it to be the way of following Christ, shaped according to his messianic vocation to the cross, with arms outstretched, holding on simultaneously to the pain of the world and the love of God’.
Jesus is no stranger to suffering. What can we say to a suffering world if we flee from suffering ourselves? We are called, like Jesus to give our lives for love. Not in comfortable Christendom, reading books about faith, but in the gritty, messy, sometimes violent battleground of human life, living in the reality where God is King, no matter what the outcome of the battle in front of us may be. The war is already won.
So can God save your life? He has. Jesus is with us; The son of God who laid the foundation of the universe. A gunman with a pistol looks pretty small from that perspective. No bullet will take you without God already having prepared that moment from the beginning of time to be your home-coming to Him, with Him and in Him. Jesus is with us. He can save our life, and he can walk alongside us as we live and as we die (as he did) for love.
If we are brave, We are not brave because we presume we are invincible. We are brave because we live in a reality where God is King and Jesus is walking with us all the way.
‘For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God’.
2 Timothy 1:7-8 (New International Version – UK)