With one final gasp of the acrid air, Martin hurried into the burning building to the screams of the onlookers below. The window gave in to his weight as he stumbled into the smoldering room. In the smoky interior he winced as his eyes watered, his nostrils stinging, heat searing his skin. It was hell.
“Help!” The scream came from downstairs. “Somebody! Please! I don’t want to die!” There was more, but it was swallowed up by the roar of the fire and the crackling of burnt wood.
The staircase was gone. Getting down there would be close to impossible. The fire was everywhere, and that breath that still lingered in his lungs would soon give out. Never before had he missed fresh air so.
But Abigail could not die. Not now. Not ever.
Dear God … what do I do now? His shirt stuck to his back, his face matted with sweat. He coughed, desperate for more air. With nothing to hold, he sank to his knees.
“Abigail!” he called. “Where are you?”
“I’m here!” The faint cry reached him. Now that he thought about, maybe she really wasn’t downstairs. What if…?
He bounded towards the toilet, stopping short at the door. It had the profile of a girl on it.
Really, Marvin? Still wondering if it’s OK to enter a girl’s bathroom at a time like this?
He pushed the door in and it shriveled into bits under the heat. There, in the ceramic-walled –and hot— bathroom, curled in a corner, was the most beautiful person he knew. Wide-eyed. Scared.
Abigail. Even with soot on her face, she still looked amazing.
Marvin thrust his hand out. “Come with me if you want to live!”
She just stared at him for a moment, heaving in shock. “Seriously? Like, are you … a firefighter?”
“What … me? No, I’m … Marvin. Marvin Bishop. We’re in the same class. Same school—“
“I don’t know you.” She looked genuinely wary.
“Look, that’s the thing. I figured you wouldn’t remember me. So I came here, to rescue you so you can know me … and I can finally show you how I … how I feel about y—“
“Look, I’m sorry, I’d really love to hear what you’ve got to say, but it’d probably be more interesting if there wasn’t a BURNING ROOM BEHIND YOU! We’re gonna DIE!”
Marvin squinted. “Th-that’s what I said. I came to rescue you and get you out of that window over there, risking life and limb, ‘cause I lov—“
“Through that fire? How’ll we get there? I’ll get burnt!”
“Y-you don’t have to. See, I’ll carry you. I’ll protect you—”
“This all just sounds like a really bad script.”
Marvin was stunned. “Do you want to get rescued or not?”
He never got to hear her answer because a burning log dropped from the ceiling and knocked him out.
At least that’s what his friend, Bob’s knock on his head felt like as he woke up from his latest daydream.
“What?” he yelled at Bob, back in their classroom. “What was that for?”
“You daydreaming about rescuing Abigail from a burning building again?” Bob asked, a smirk on his face.
“No!” Marvin turned to stare at her across the classroom. As usual, Abigail was laughing with her friends, oblivious to his very presence. He sighed. “Yeah.”
“Dude … that’s just —“
“Don’t say ‘romantic’,” Marvin interrupted. “The word makes me sick.”
“I was going to say ‘disturbing’.” Marvin shot him a double-take. “Seriously? It’s sick! You want to set a building on fire and put some girl in it just so you can tell her that you … like her?”
“I wouldn’t set a building on fire. That’s crazy.”
“What, you think burning buildings grow on trees?”
Marvin waved him off. “Let’s just forget about this, OK? And I never said I was thinking about that. You did.” He picked a book to start reading. “And I wouldn’t put her in a burning building. I’d rescue her from one. That’s the point.”
“I thought you wanted to forget about this.”
“Right, right, yeah … let’s … forget about it.” He returned to pretending to read. “Never happened.”
PRIVATE KEN YOUNG stared at the landscape around as their Humvee bounded across the Northern Afghanistan landscape. The howling winds around them kept reminding him that winter was approaching. It wouldn’t be too soon for his platoon. There was little to look forward to here.
Vasquez nudged him in the side and showed him a picture. “That’s my li’l Whitney.” The joy in his voice only barely masked the choke behind it. “She’s already crawlin’. Should be walkin’ by Christmas, I reckon.”
Ken smiled. It was probably the twentieth time that Vasquez had shown him the picture of his newborn baby girl, a daughter he had not seen since his tour in Afghanistan had begun. Ken could only imagine the pain the man was going through in their separation, so he allowed him his bragging rights.
“It’s awesome, man,” Ken said.
“Should be ropin’ cattle by the time I get back. Just like her Pa.”
Ken smirked. Yeah, right. “You sending her anything for Christmas?”
The man nodded. “Making an Afghan with her name on it.”
Ken nodded. It’d been six months since he’d left the States. He was already missing home, his friends, the life he had been used to. He wondered if he’d ever stop missing it all. Or if he’d ever get back at all.
“You know,” Vasquez added. “She probably doesn’t know me. Has never set eyes on me. Sally put to bed just days after I reported in.” He smiled despite himself. “Gonna take a while for her to accept me as her dad.”
“You’re gonna be a great father, Vasquez.”
He arched a brow. “I think I already am a father.”
“I meant … you know what I mean.”
“Yeah, just foolin’ with you, kid.”
Vasquez chuckled, and then he sobered after a while. He tapped the photograph. “This here … it’s what makes it all make sense.” Ken was going to ask, but he knew it was best to listen when this guy needed an ear. “When this crapfest gets in my head and I wonder why I’m here, why 9/11 brought us to Afghanistan of all places … I think of her. Whitney, Sally … everyone I care about. They deserve to live without fear. And these Arabs do too. And if my toting a peashooter around till kingdom come is going to make that happen … then I sure as heck will tote my peashooter the best I can.”
Ken smiled weakly with a shrug. He’d never seen a purpose to this. He’d always wished he did. Perhaps it’d make it all make sense. Maybe if he was here for someone … somehow it’d all make more sense. “Keeps everything in focus.”
“Thanks for the rousing speech, Vasquez,” Kirk said from the opposite row. “Should get you an Oscar.”
“Oscars are for movies, doofus,” Vasquez said.
“Yeah, whatever, man.” Kirk said. “But you’re wrong. We’re not here because of some honourable piece of—“
“Easy there,” another private said.
“No, he’s gotta hear this. We’re gonna die out here ‘cause we’re messing with something that wants to be left alone.”
“We’re trying to help them—“
“What if they don’t wanna be helped? Al Qaeda is just the beginning, man. It’s not going to end anytime soon. You just wait and see. Soon the body bags would be lined up on the ground, and BOOM! It’s all over. Hastalavista, baby.”
“Well, aren’t you full of goodwill today,” Ken said.
“Wait,” Vasquez cocked his head. “What do you know?”
Kirk stared at him for a moment, then shrugged and spread out his hands in front of him the way he did anytime he wanted to share something. “ ‘Kay, there’s this guy that supplies the base with merch and stuff. Ali? We’ve been talking lately. Told me there’s this group of crazies, a deviant sect, developing within Al Qaeda, destined to take over if Bin Laden dies.”
“How does he know that?”
“Rumors travel fast out here.”
“Bin Laden dead? Yeah, like that’ll ever happen,” another officer added.
“Let’s just say it will. These guys are more brutal, and they’ve got it in their thick skulls that they can model the world after their own brutal image. They’ve already got a name. It’s weird, I know, but I hear they call themselves ‘ISIS‘. “
He never got a response to that because, in a second, it was all over. The Humvee hit a mine, and the resulting explosion reverberated for miles. No one survived. Not Ken, not Vasquez, not Kirk – no one.
It was another statistic in the casualties of war on the news that year.
I’m sorry that story ended quite abruptly. I hope it’s not too dark for you. If it is, then this part is for you; a light little intermission before the final story, where I explain what all this is about.
The thing is we know we’re not going to be on this planet forever. We know that the only way we’re leaving is either by dying, or in the Rapture, or perhaps on a trip on a rocket from NASA (OK, that one would be temporary, but still…). Death has been a sure part of the human cycle since Eden. It’s like a game that resets over and over again, with new players at each reset: Live, Die, Reset…Live, Die, Reset…Live, Die, Reset…
Over and over again.
But we don’t want to just … die. We know we’re leaving here soon, yes. But if we’re leaving at all, some of us want to leave with a bang! To make a real difference. And it seems the only way to leave with a bang is to die for a cause. For someone or something.
When people die for reasons beyond themselves, they are remembered as heroes. It doesn’t matter how much their lives may have sucked. As long as they had a selfless heroic death, they are hailed for generations.
In stories, sometimes a man may risk his life to rescue the typical ‘damsel-in-distress’. In some tragic stories, this heroic character dies (and I wonder why such stories ever bothered being written, except in some cases where it contributes the story or its central theme). We leave that story remembering them this way.
But what about the girl, the damsel that’s left to go through life tormented by traumatic images of the man that loved her and that died instead of her? The therapeutic sessions she’d have to go through? The resistance she’d have to other men because of her perceived devotion to the dead guy?
OK, I almost digressed there. But, at least Shakespeare had the decency to not allow even Romeo and Juliet to end that way…
Soldiers risk their lives for a cause they believe in. A country, a home, an ideal … or, admittedly, the paycheck they’d get (though I doubt that last one is a factor for most). They are trained for the worst, to be the ones to bridge the gap where others never could, to do what’s necessary to secure the country to which they are loyal. And many die in this effort; some forgotten by all except their families and those that loved them.
When I think about these scenarios, I wonder if I’d ever do that. Would I willingly give my life – as in, die – for a person, or a cause? Is it worth it? Sure, there’d be lots of honour and stuff, but I’d never get to enjoy it. My family would miss me. Sure, we’ll meet again in the future, but then they’ll have to endure unnecessary hurt.
Is it worth it?
But, in a sense, it seems exciting. Not to just die and go back into the earth, but to actually die for a reason. It comes with this surge of adrenaline, dying for something bigger and something better.
What would I die for?
I hope I’ve jolted some questions in your mind. What would you die for?
Would you die for anything?
Here’s the last story … and then … I’ll be back (hey, anyone else notice the Terminator references so far?).
Winter’s cold winds washed against the man’s coat as he trudged through the snow that night, a sack lugged over his shoulder. His breath came out in heaves, trailed by short steamy wafts.
Katya’s old bike still stood in the lawn, draped in snow and ice. He decided to carry it in later. It would be good to finally meet his family after so long.
He sneaked a peek behind him. The neighbourhood was quiet. He turned and knocked. He could have tried the secret knock, but he wanted this to be a surprise. Who knew what they could expect in times like these?
After a tad suspicious thirty seconds, he heard a strong female voice call out. “Who’s out there?”
He could not hold it back any longer. “I’m home, my darling.”
It took a moment, and then she hurriedly unbolted the door. She was in a scarf and her characteristic brown blouse, a hand on her chest. The shock and beauty in her face warmed him to his heart as he dropped the bag and held out his arms for an embrace.
“You … didn’t use the secret knock,” she struggled to mutter.
“I wanted this to be a surprise. I’m sorry—”
“Pyotr…” She hurried into his embrace. “You’re back!”
“I love you, Corrie,” he whispered. What was that? He should be hurrying inside in this cold. But that was the only thing left to say in his melted heart after the sight of his beloved. “The Lord has kept me. I’m home.” They kissed.
Man, I’ve missed home!
She pulled back and held his face in her hands. “You’re home…” Her eyes were moist, her smile curving into those beautiful cheeks. “Oh, thank the Lord. Quick, come in, come in! It’s cold out here!”
Pyotr picked the bag. “Really? Cold? Somebody should’ve told me.”
“And don’t think I’m kissing you again until you brush those teeth.”
“I’ve missed you too, Corrie…“
“Pyotr?” It was Ivan, his brother, peeking from a doorway. “It’s you! You’re back! Thank the Lord!”
It was his brother. Faithful Ivan. Pyotr smiled and came over to embrace him, as Corrie hurried in to tell the others.
“You didn’t use the secret knock,” Ivan whispered.
“I know, I’m sorry, but you were all faster this time. I could have been the police. Can’t be too careful, these days.”
“How’d you get past the border?”
“Not now, brother. I just want to have a nice dinner with my family.”
“We’re being followed more and more these days. We have to be careful.”
Pyotr placed the bag by the doorpost and stretched in the warmth.
“Is that it?” Ivan gestured towards the bag.
Pyotr nodded. The stash of Bibles and Christian literature was the result of the contributions of believers in the West, so that Pyotr’s people could have the words of God to live by. In the radical Communist stronghold on their region, uninstitutionalized religious activity was rapidly becoming more illegal in definition. Believers were sequestered to hidden secret gatherings when possible. Without these books, much doctrine was subject to the whim of those that taught it. But it was Pyotr’s dream and the dream of thousands more, to get these into the hands of those that needed it the most.
Ivan palmed through the sack, poring through one book.
“Papa!” Katya bounded out of the dining room and into her father’s arms.
“My, how you’ve grown!” Pyotr exclaimed.
She giggled. “I missed you, Papa!”
“I missed you too, my angel. Let me look at you. My, you’re beautiful as ever.”
“You didn’t use the secret knock, Papa. We were all scared getting everything out of the way—“
“I know, I know. And I’ve been rightly chewed out for that. I’m sorry.” He stole a glance at Ivan as he ruffled her hair. “Dear God, I’ve missed you.”
“Papa, why are you … smelly?”
He tried to stifle a laugh. “Papa’s been on the road for days, dear.” He leaned in and whispered. “I haven’t had a bath in—“
She pulled away and covered her nose, laughing. Pyotr chased her around, laughing. It was good to be home, with the people he cared about. “I’ll take that bath, don’t worry.”
“Did you bring a present for me?”
“Now, Katya,” Corrie was back. “Let your father have his space. He needs to meet everyone.”
“I actually brought one especially for you, Kat,” he said as he followed them in, Katya on his arm. It was a colouring book of Bible stories. “I’ll give you in a moment. You just wait.”
“Brother Pyotr!” One, and then another, called from the dining room. It was like heaven to him. There was Old Mark, Vlad the baker from Leningrad, the Stefanovichs together, the Groznyys … and many others he did not know, all families united by one faith in one God through Christ.
All he had been through on his trip suddenly felt worthwhile.
It is worthwhile, Pyotr.
After greetings all round, they then settled to pray, thanking God for Pyotr’s safe delivery through the tight security at the borders, for the sake of the Gospel. Never before had he felt so close to heaven.
It couldn’t get any better than this…
As footsteps bounded down the stairs, Pyotr realized that all was not well. They were faster and more resolute as they approached. He opened his eyes and his gaze fell on Katya, her eyes still shut. Corrie was staring at him, worry etched on her features. She knew.
“Run,” he mouthed.
But it was too late. Patric, their lookout stationed in the attic, stumbled in. “They’re coming!”
The next moment, just one moment, that passed among them all dragged for a few seconds. In that time, the enormity of the situation dawned on them all. Pyotr’s eyes were still on Corrie’s. Lord, save us. He realized that he should have been suspicious when he noticed the deserted streets. Who knew how long they had been watched? But now… dear God …
And then the scurry began as everyone tried to hurry to the basement. This was no drill. But that was when the front door burst open with the police officer at the door preceded by an icy cold wintry draft.
“Hold it right there!” the officer yelled. “If anyone moves we will fire!”
To shrieks and screams, more policemen bounded in, weapons trained on them. Pyotr tried to take a headcount. Everyone was still here … right?
The captain walked in, and the other officers surrounded them. Pyotr recognized him from border patrol. Had they followed him since then? Their eyes met. The captain snarled.
Pyotr stood tall. “This is my house. What’s going on here?”
Two officers grabbed him by the arms, to Corrie’s screams. When the Captain raised his hand to slap her Pyotr edged closer but was summarily stomped to the ground by a boot. Corrie covered her mouth, tears trickling down her face.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…
The captain walked around Pyotr, staring him down. He finally stooped and placed his baton under his chin, nudging his face up. “The sack. Where is it?”
Pyotr would not reply. I will fear no evil … for You are with me…
After a moment, the Captain struck him with the baton, cracking his jaw. “Search the house!”
The officers smashed all the windows, flipping furniture over, all in an effort to trash the place. Books toppled to the floor, leaving the room a cluttered mess.
“I know you carried a sack in. If there’s anything incriminating in there, I swear you all –all of you, including that little girl – will never see the light of day ever again.”
Pyotr stared up at his daughter. She looked scared. It had all happened so fast. No child should have had to see this. It’s going to be OK, my dear.
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me…
He sneaked a peak at the doorpost where the bag was supposed to have been. It was gone.
The captain followed his gaze and headed for that area.
“Here,” an officer said, holding up the sack. “Found it.”
The only problem was that the sack was empty. How did—? Pyotr turned and his eyes fell on Ivan’s knowing gaze. He had emptied the bag before the soldiers came in. Good one, brother. But where had he taken the Bibles? Had someone escaped with them? Who wasn’t here? That Patric kid, where was he? Had he taken them?
The captain squeezed the sack in his hands, fuming.
You have prepared a table before me, in the presence of my enemies.
The officers flung the dishes of food against the wall, breaking the table in two.
You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows…
The captain was visibly furious. He wanted to break something … or someone. And Pyotr was unfortunate to be the subject of his anger.
Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life…
“I know you’re all spreading sectarian doctrine, poisoning the minds of our good citizens. You’re a cancer, I swear! I’m of a mind to arrest you right now. But let this be a statement.” He pointed at them all, staring at Pyotr. Then, with pent-up rage released, he kicked his head in, smashing his cranium in.
Katya, I’m sorry you had to see this…
The captain waited a couple of seconds more, and then pulled out a pistol. Carrie was barely containing herself now, weeping with all she had.
He trained the gun on Pyotr’s head. Adrenaline washed over his body. “Tell me, Pyotr Konor, are you a follower of the Christian doctrine or are you a citizen in good standing with the community? If you are a good citizen … then renounce this Jesus. Right now.”
They all stared. This was it. The moment of truth.
Pyotr’s eyes could not leave Katya’s. She was scared, her gaze panicky. What’s going on, Papa? She would probably have wanted to ask. Why is this happening to us?
He knew that his choice right then, what she saw, would have its effect on her. Probably for the rest of her life. Lord, keep her…
And Corrie… Dear God, Corrie… How could I have been so blessed to meet a woman like you?
I love you. I really do.
I know you understand.
“You’re trying my patience.” The captain said, his anger grating through his words.
…and I will dwell in the house of the Lord … forever.
The Bibles were out of reach of these men, and that was a good thing. Many would get their hands on those books, and the church would grow. If for that reason alone, Pyotr hoped it was all worth it.
And with that, he leaned forward, eyes shut, and placed his forehead on the nozzle of the pistol.
I grew up reading and listening to stories like that last one. I always wondered what I’d do if I was asked to renounce Jesus or die. Would I give in?
I’d like to say that I’d never give in. I’ve always believed that I would never give in. But, until that day comes, if it comes, I guess I may never know the answer to that.
Or do I?
We’ve come a long way from just ‘leaving with a bang’ now, huh?
Some famous guy once said that something to die for is definitely something worth living for. (You probably need to read that again and think about it. And, while we’re on the subject, I don’t remember the famous guy that said it first. But he said it, and I said it now, so I guess that makes it TWO great guys that have said it now … OK, I was kidding there. But, seriously, you probably need to read that sentence again. Have you?)
So I could go with a bang for something, yes, but would I live for it? If it is worth dying for, then it is probably worth living for too, right?
But living for something is much harder than dying for it, in my opinion. Don’t think so?
Think about this: If I died for something, everyone would know when it happened. I would not need to do anything more, because my statement has been made in my death. It’s done once, and that’s it.
But if I were to LIVE for such a thing, now, no one may know at first. It would show in my lifestyle. I may not get the rewards or any public acclamation immediately … or ever. I would give my every word, my every waking moment, thinking about what more I could for the person or the cause for which I’m alive.
I would lose my identity for that thing. It’s like a living death in itself.
And I would ask myself, “Is it worth it?”
That’s what love is. You love your wife or husband, so you live for them for the rest of your life.
It’s what being a parent is like. You love your children, so you stick with them and raise them. You’re not bothered if they do not appreciate you or not, or if they’re naughty or not. You hang in there, diligent make them better because you love them. Even when it’s not convenient, you hang in there.
It’s what life in the military is. You lose your right to a unique identity for the discipline and uniformity needed to operate as a unit, for a common goal.
It’s what living for Christ is like.
Love is the defining factor in all these examples. Paul knew what he was saying when he wrote that “…if I have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2) We could offer our bodies to be burnt instead of someone else that deserves it, or give all we have away, or win all awards we can, but if it’s not done in love, then all we’ve been doing is making noise. Anything outside this is not life.
We may not all have to decide who we’ll die for at gunpoint, but we can choose who we live for. We may not all have to ‘die’ because we serve God, but we’re all called to live for Him.
In Romans 12:1, we’re encouraged to “…offer our bodies as living sacrifices, holy (separated) and acceptable unto God, which is our reasonable service.” It’s the only reasonable way to live. Every waking moment: our eating, sleeping, breathing, surfing the Net, watching movies, gisting … give it to Him. Let Him define them for you.
Like I like to say, it’s sacrifice, but that’s the only way we’ll ever find true freedom.
And it’s awesome! The good thing is that, He doesn’t leave us to figure out how to please Him. When we believe in Him, He lives through us, working through us to make us want to do what pleases Him, and to actually do what pleases Him. We can decide to get with the programme and allow Him to use us and make us all He wants us to be, ‘cause that’s the best we can ever be … and it’s a bazillion times better than the best we think we could ever be!
Soon, you’ll realize that there’s no better way to live; that there’s no other way to live.
Than to live for Him.
The point has never been who you die for.
It’s who or what you live for.