A gunshot startled John from turbulent sleep. Heart pounding in his ears, he immediately ran to his parents’ side. Where were they? Confused and trembling, John hurried outside where he saw his parents standing in front of two soldiers wearing the hateful colors of North Sudan. In the dim light, John saw blood dripping down his father’s leg.
“That was a warning,” the taller soldier stated. “Now convert to Islam or you shall both be bleeding. I will aim higher this time.” John could hear the contempt that filled the man’s voice. He stood there, numb. What were his mother and father thinking? All they had to say was that they believed that Islam was the true religion and that Allah was god. What held them back?
Wide eyed, John watched in terror as his father released his hand that had clutched his bloody leg. He stood tall, as he faithfully responded, “Never. You can kill me and take away my life. I have freedom in Christ. You cannot take that away.” John clamped his teeth down on the side of his cheek to keep from crying out. Another loud gunshot rang out. His father crumpled to the ground, dead.
John wanted to run to his side, but he couldn’t make his legs move. Instead, he darted out the back of the hut, into the forest.
Unaware of the eerie noises that surrounded him, he thought of his father. Tears streamed down his dark face. He hated his father for what he had said, he hated the soldiers, and he hated himself for just standing there and not saying a word.
Something in the brush nearby rustled. If it was a lion, ready to pounce, John didn’t care. He might as well die now. He closed his eyes and sank to the ground. He was startled by a hand on his shoulder. Looking up, he met the dark eyes of a young boy. He beckoned with his hand, and John got up. In the moonlight, John studied the other boy. He looked to be about 11, his own age, and certainly no richer than himself. Dressed in ragged clothes that hung on his emaciated frame, the boy looked as if he hadn’t had a meal in months. John sighed, neither had he.
Suddenly, the boy began running. Not sure why, John followed. They stopped suddenly and John looked up to see himself in a large crowd of boys. Their haunted eyes pierced him.
Many exhausting days later on the dusty road, John was ready to give up. The hate he held inside ate at him like leprosy. He despised everything and everyone he encountered. He looked at the world through angry eyes.
“Here, eat this,” a voice interrupted John’s buffer thoughts. He looked up into the face of James, the boy who had led him on this hateful trail. John grabbed the few berries that lay in his open hand. Eagerly, he gobbled them down, his hunger worsened by the scrap of nourishment.
The sun beat down on his burnt skin. He wiped his cracked hand across his face to rid it of the salty sweat. His feet were pierced by sharp rocks and blistered by ceaseless walking. Would they ever reach Ethiopia?
A cry pierced the air. John looked up, startled. He ran over to the young man who had shouted out. Tears were streaming down the boy’s filthy face. “M-m-my brother. He’s not here anymore…he went to find berries. I was going to look for them, but he insisted he could…” The boy’s voice trailed off as heart wracking sobs tore through his body. John peered over someone’s head to see blood staining the rocky ground. A single scrap of cloth lay there.
“Lions.” James’ face was grim. He breathed deep and addressed the crowd. Faces turned expectantly towards their leader. “We must keep going. Who knows if the whole pack is still around? Help the boy up and carry him. Let’s keep going.”
John looked at James with horror. The boy had just lost his brother and he was going to keep walking? Without taking any proper time to mourn? He was about to tell him just that, when James looked him squarely in the eye. “We must keep going,” he said as if reading his mind. “One life is lost, and I don’t want to waste others. It hurts me just as much as it hurts you every time someone dies. But with every life lost, we must continue to save the rest. We need to rely on our Lord for deliverance, and He will save us. It was His will to have this one die, as well as the others. We have no way of knowing why, but it was. Now, please,” the boy was seemingly pleading for John to agree, “We must go.”
John shook his head in anger; he had no choice but to follow. Without warning, the image of his father’s limp body flashed in his head. Closing his eyes in pain, he shook the image away and began to walk. He joined James and they trudged in silence.
John’s eyes didn’t see the harsh land surrounding him. He ignored the fact that tiny rocks were slicing his feet. He didn’t watch the vultures circling around. He took no notice of the stifling heat. His ears did not hearken to the distant cry of a howler monkey. All he could think of was the dead boy.
Without any notice John turned to James and shouted. “Why did your God make this happen? It’s not right or fair. If he is so merciful then why are we still on this hateful road walking on? Why did He make my parents die? They lived their whole life devoted to him and then he kills them with the gun of a soldier. I will not serve one who is as cruel as that.” John emitted a harsh laugh, “You’ll probably wind up like my parents did. Dead.”
James looked at him, with sadness. “You have no peace in what your father did, do you? He gave up his life here on earth, but now he is with our Lord. He is filled with joy and does not have the troubles of this world. He really didn’t give much up compared to the life which he will live in eternity. My God is merciful, but he is also just.” James stopped walking and evenly met John’s gaze. “We all deserve to die. But we don’t all go to the same place afterwards. If you are one of his chosen, you shall one day understand. Until that day, I pray for you.”
John shook his head. James looked as if he had such peace when he said those words. How could he be at peace with a God who is so cruel? But we don’t all go to the same place afterwards. Those words sent a shiver down his spine. He felt cold all over. His parents had taught him about God, and for a while he had thought he believed them. But now only hatred ruled his world.
Many days later, James voice was heard praising God, “Oh Lord thank you, thank you.” John ran to where James stood, although he guessed what James had found. The group of boys stood at the edge of a sparkling river. “Water.” The magical word was murmured by the crowd. The moment seemed too wonderful to be true. After almost a month of eating mud to get liquid, a whole river of water was miraculous.
John couldn’t believe it. He sank under the water time and time again, delighting in the feel of the coolness around him. He tilted his head back; no longer minding the harsh sun, for the water provided cool relief.
Something rough brushed against the back of his legs. Stunned, John raised his head expecting to see one of the other boys. He propelled his body around in circles. No one. He felt it again. In the water he saw a dark shadow rising to the surface. It was a few inches from John’s face before he realized what it was. Screaming, he tried to swim away, but couldn’t go fast enough.
A searing pain ripped through his leg as his muscles were ripped from the bone. He felt the blood gushing from his leg. John began to splash wildly around in the water causing the other boys to turn his way. All he could think about was escape.
Without warning, his head plunged under the water. He tried to propel himself to the surface, his lungs burning. He surfaced just as he realized that he could no longer use his left leg, as it was barely attached to his body. Blood filled the water around him.
It’s no use. I might as well die now, John thought. Resigned, he allowed himself to slip under the water’s deathly grasp. Blackness surrounded him.
Harsh sunlight awakened John from his deep sleep. His eyes groaning in protest, he shielded them with his hand as he looked up into the face of James. Confused he looked down at where his leg should be. It was no longer there. His brain registered the fact, and he clamped his teeth down on his lip to keep from crying out in pain. Voice trembling he asked, “What happened? Why am I alive?” His memory slowly returned, “I should be dead…” his voice drifted. He had no strength to talk.
James’ eyes filled with compassion as he kneeled beside John. “There was a croc in the water. You fought as hard as you could, and lost. You should have died out there, but as soon as I saw you slip under…” James’ voice trailed off.
I knew you had given up. I couldn’t let that happen, knowing where you would be going.” James paused to look John in the eyes. “You would have been in hell.”
James’ words stunned John. Never before had someone been that abrupt with him. But there was still something missing. “I don’t understand. Why am I here?”
“I swam out as fast as I could,” continued James, “…when I reached where you sank under, the croc was gone. I had seen it, I was sure of it, but for some reason, he left.” James shrugged his shoulders, “I pulled you up onto the shore, and here you are. I have no doubt, God saved you.”
John was about to protest, but James held up his hand to silence him. “There is no way that you would still be here if the croc hadn’t left you. He had no reason to leave. But you are here! Only someone as powerful as God could have intervened. You cannot deny it.”
John looked down at his wet shirt. He fingered the cloth around the edges, and then looked at the area where his leg should have been. He squeezed his eyes to shut out the pain. God saved you. He thought of James’ words. He must be right. The croc should have taken me and eaten me, and yet he didn’t. God must have intervened, but if he is real, then why are my parents not here anymore? His thoughts darted, never resting on a logical explanation. The hate he felt still burned inside him, though not as strong.
He raised up his eyes to see James still standing over him. “I…I’m not sure what happened. I am convinced that a merciful God would not have let my parents die, but on the other hand I am still here. I don’t know how to stop hating,” he admitted, “though if what you say is true, then maybe I will listen.”
As James spoke there was a smile in his voice, “If you will listen, then I will speak. C’mon, let me carry you,” James extended his hand. “We will get there someday.”