That Thursday night my husband, Pat and I felt lucky. We’d been given the use of a beach apartment to work on our writing projects. The first evening in our comfortable abode, we were happily concentrated on watching a Tom Cruise movie in the living room when out of the blue a man’s quiet, controlled voice made our hearts stop: "I’m not going to hurt you if you cooperate with me. I just want your money."
I looked up to see a young man in baggy sweat pants and jacket standing a couple of yards away, a dark blue cap planted backwards on his head. He appeared to be about 25 years of age, his coffee-colored face pitted by acne. He had materialized out of nowhere, just like Jesus in the upper room after the resurrection, even though our door and windows were locked, and now I knew that the disciples’ collective heart must have pounded like a million African drums, draining the blood from their faces when they looked up and saw Jesus standing quietly in the room. But this man wasn’t Jesus and he didn’t say, “Peace be with you.” He flashed a knife. For a split second the scene seemed surreal, but in the next second harsh reality crashed through my consciousness, and a torrent of fear and adrenalin raced through me like a runaway freight train… and then an inexplicable calm settled over me.
"Here’s my wallet," Pat said to our intruder, grimly handing it over. Discovering we were unarmed, he eagerly grabbed Pat’s wallet, holding his hands close to his face as his fingers rapidly flipped through the bills. He then scattered Pat’s credit cards on the table saying he didn’t want them, but took our cell phones. Quickly he moved toward the refrigerator, found a bottle of coke and gulped it down, then abruptly turned to me and asked if I had any money. I reluctantly admitted I did and he ordered me to get it.
He moved nervously about the room like a tiger stalking his prey, eyes darting in all directions. Suddenly he said, "Do you have a car?" Pat replied in the affirmative. "I want you to take me away from here in your car." Pat balked. Suddenly he seized our laptop case, throwing out the papers that were inside, picked up both our laptops, pulling the cords from the outlets and began stuffing them in the case. "Listen, man,” Pat argued, “We’re missionaries and our work is in those computers. Please, don’t take them." The robber paused to reconsider. Now he could negotiate. "If you take me away in your car, I won’t take your computers." It was a hard bargain. Slowly Pat got up from the couch looking like he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. I looked at my husband, admiring his strength and courage to consent to this indecent proposal. Pat would have to ride down the elevator with this armed person, walk together with him into the dark garage and drive off into the black night. And the apartment building was all but empty. But it was settled. They headed toward the door, but abruptly the robber turned around, taking large steps toward the kitchen, opened the silverware drawer and pulled out two serrated table knives. "Hey, man!" Pat chided him, "Why do you need those?" He didn’t reply.
Armed now with three knives, he and Pat walked calmly together out the front door of the apartment as if he’d been our evening guest, and then abruptly he stuck his head back in the room, as if he’d forgotten something, looked at me and said, "Don’t worry about your husband. He’ll be back in five minutes." He sounded so sincere, but why should I trust him? I didn’t know how to respond and surprised myself as the words tumbled unbidden out of my mouth, "God bless you," I said quietly as I closed the door. The key turned in the lock and I was suddenly all alone.
I had no phone and I was locked in. What should I do? Afraid a quick response from the police might provoke a violent reaction from the robber, I crouched down to peek out the window that opened to the street. In a few minutes, the garage door opened slowly and my eyes remained riveted on our dark blue Fiat Palio as it slowly exited, turned down the street and out of sight into the night. The garage door closed silently behind them. Where was he taking my husband? "Oh, God! Oh, God!" I cried, unable to formulate a prayer. My heart pounded in my ears as my mind played out several imaginary scenes: he might make Pat drive him to another town, or to a deserted road, dump him off and take the car, or worse still, he might sink a knife into his heart if things turned ugly. "Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!”
The angry cry of an unjustly-treated child rose within me, “Where were you, God? Where were you? The Bible says your angels were supposed to be camping round about us, so WHERE WERE THEY?” My words hit the ceiling, bouncing back to me in silent confusion and hurt. As the ugly night wrapped its cold arms around me, it felt like God had left the scene of an accident.
Just as I leaned out the window and hollered down to the caretaker that we’d been robbed, I heard voices. It was Pat talking to the caretakers—joy filled my heart. He was back, unharmed, and he was my hero! Strangely, the robber had been true to his word.
At the police’s suggestion, we spent that night in a hotel, and the next morning we had to make a tough decision: should we stay and face our fears or return home defeated? We tossed the options back and forth like tennis players and decided to stay.
It turned out to be a bad choice.
You can be sure that during the following days I obsessively checked window locks and peered out the windows dozens of times a day! When Thursday rolled around—our one week anniversary of the break-in—I felt increasingly uneasy as night approached. Pat went to sleep, but it was one in the morning when my body finally gave in, but before I drifted off, I prayed a very decisive prayer. “Dear God,” I pleaded, “pleeease don't let anyone break into our house tonight,” but before I could say 'amen' a disturbing thought popped into my mind. It was as if the Holy Spirit whispered in my ear, “You should pray, 'Not my will, but thine be done', just as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.” I knew the implications of saying that: it would mean a relinquishing of my request to God for safekeeping that night. It might mean a repeat of last Thursday's break-in. Yet, my heart's immediate response was “Yes, Lord, not my will, but thine be done,” and I shuddered inwardly at the implications of what I'd just said as I drifted off to sleep.
An hour later, I was jarred awake by Pat's anguished cry coming from the living room, “Neeeeedra!!” His constricted vocal chords left his voice strained and unnatural— like a wounded animal—and I jumped out of bed as a wave of terror washed through my entire being. I knew instinctively what had happened. Within seconds Pat appeared in the bedroom, the invader’s knife pressed to his back, ordering him to lie on the bed. We were face-to-face with the same guy who had robbed us a week before.
Empowered by his first successful robbery (we had reported the break-in that same night), he came back to clean out the house, taking one of our suitcases to hold all the loot, besides what he carried in his arms. And this time he took both of our laptops—and armed himself with more kitchen knives! It was déjà vu with Pat riding down the elevator with him—again, entering the dark garage—again and driving him away in the car—again! If the first robbery had left my theology on God’s protection hanging by a thin thread, this second one shattered it into a million tiny pieces.
As a child I remember feeling safe and protected by God while whizzing down the highway with my dad. My childish theology dictated that Christians couldn’t, not just wouldn't, have car accidents. God, our big daddy, wouldn’t allow his kids to get hurt. By the time I was an adolescent, however, I knew that childish idea was a fallacy, and racing over the gravel roads on our way to town in order to meet my dad’s teaching appointments, I no longer felt safe and silently prayed for protection. Maybe that was my problem with this assault: I still felt a little bit like that child in the back seat of my dad’s car, expecting God to give me an easy ride through life.
Recovering from the emotional aftermath of two armed robberies in one week is a lot like recovering from surgery: the gaping wounds have to heal from the inside out. On the outside, our life went on as usual, but on the inside, the wounds in my soul were still raw—exposed. I felt as unprotected as an orphan left to fend for himself. It seemed that God’s protection worked like the lottery—totally chance—you win some and lose some. Unlike my husband who accepted this experience as an unfortunate part of life, my mind demanded to know “the reason” this had happened to us. Did we do something that triggered it? Was it sin? Was it an attack of the devil? Could we have prevented it? I started checking off my list. No sin problem; in fact, my husband said his spiritual life had never been so good. Was it an attack of the enemy? Considering the fact that we were there primarily so Pat could finish his book, it seemed possible that the devil would try to stop the project. What bothered me the most, however, was the feeling that God had abandoned us when we needed him the most—except for the ring.
I brought my special diamond and sapphire ring with us knowing we were going to celebrate our wedding anniversary while there. The night of the second break-in, the robber picked up my perfume from the bathroom counter without seeing the ring box quietly sitting right next to it. Clearly, to me this was significant. Maybe God had been there after all? And there was the robber himself. He’d said the strangest things. During the first robbery he asked Pat, “Didn’t you hear me when I came in?” and “I only want your money.” And he told me “not to worry!” How funny was that? At the second robbery he said to Pat, “You left the window open for me.” (We thought all the windows were locked.) “Why didn’t you go home?” And, “I didn’t want to wake you.”
Like a coroner poking a dead corpse to find the cause of death, Pat and I have played through all the possible scenarios of what we should have or shouldn’t have done, but the “What if?” game has no winners. The unthinkable had happened and now we had to pick up the pieces. Here are the pieces I picked up that brought the ‘healing’ I so desperately needed.
1. We don’t live in Paradise. Adam and Eve’s sin was catastrophic. Just one disobedient act gave the devil what he wanted: a foothold on earth. Sin gave him that space, so when Adam and Eve opened the door, a flood of evil came rushing in. Remember Jesus’ encounter with the devil during his 40 days of temptation in the wilderness? The devil offered to give back the world to Jesus in exchange for his worship. .He couldn’t offer what wasn’t already his, and Jesus never contested the fact.
2. We live in a war zone. Satan hates everyone and lives to steal, kill and destroy—all the time! Like a satisfied animal licking his chops after devouring his prey, the devil is happy every time a disaster occurs, a marriage fails, a child is sick, or two countries go to war. God, however, has given free will to man as well as to angels, demons (those who opted to rebel against God), and the devil. This tension between the Creator’s will and the will of created beings is where we run up against a wall. How does it play out? These many free agents make decisions that have a ripple effect starting from the beginning of time until today, both on earth and in the heavens. One theologian says that in this war, God, the commander-in-chief, is the only one who knows how this interplay between God’s government and created beings unfolds. It is too complex for finite humans to understand.
3. Does God interfere? Yes. Certainly the Bible gives us ample illustrations of God stepping in to restrain evil—this far and no farther—as in the case of Job, yet not interfering in the case of the stoning of Stephen. When and why He does in some instances and apparently doesn’t in others is not for us to know (or perhaps, we are incapable of understanding its complexity like a child not comprehending calculus). This is where faith in God’s character comes in. We trust him even though we don’t understand everything that happens to us. Hebrews 11 gives us an impressive list of believers: some shut the mouths of lions and escaped death by the edge of the sword, others were chained in dungeons and some sawed in half. The writer to the Hebrews closes this chapter by saying that “All of these people… received God’s approval because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised.”
4. We are to pray against evil. Although I’ve been praying the Lord’s Prayer since a child, the phrase, “Deliver us from evil,” has new meaning for me. God is calling us to be actively engaged in war against the designs of the enemy. His calling us to prayer isn’t a childish game to humor us. God is giving us the privilege of helping to shape the outcome of events! He needs our help. He’s asking for it. This is exciting news! The devil also knows the power of prayer and tries to stop it. No wonder Christians find it hard to pray. No wonder we get easily distracted or feel that our feeble prayers won’t make a difference. I constantly fight against these things.
5. We are to be prudent. Trusting in God’s protection doesn’t rule out common sense. No one walks in front of a moving truck—or shouldn’t. We should do everything we can to protect ourselves and our families. Proverbs says “The prudent man sees danger and hides himself; but the simple go on, and suffer for it.” Looking back, we feel we should have gone home after the first robbery.
Where was God when I needed him? I confess my theology hasn’t given me all the answers neatly wrapped up in a box and tied with a bow. Actually, not even the most brilliant theologians can. However, there is one thing I know now more than ever before: if God permits something bad to happen to us, he will walk through it with us, even if we don’t sense his presence at the time. Moses was called to go up the smoking mountain, lit up by occasional lightning, causing the Israelites to fear and tremble for their lives. And as the people watched from afar, “Moses entered into the deep darkness where God was.” Yes, God is light, but he is also in the dark moments of our lives. It’s his promise and he cannot lie. To this truth I cling:
I will never leave you nor forsake you.
Monday, April 04, 2011
For weeks now I've been singing a little tune my granddaughter, Julia, loves to sing: " Oh, Mr. Sun, Sun, Mr. Golden Sun, please shine down on me," to coax that recluse to come out of hiding! It hasn't worked...until today. In late afternoon, Mr. Sun poured shafts of sunbeams right into my office with such strength that I actually closed the curtains! Then, just to tease me, he put on a splendid show, and I grabbed my camera as he was slipping away to bed. He tipped his hat and I was sure I heard him say, " Just so you won't forget!"