The dying sun was casting a few sparse rays through the bars of the solitary window of the cold cell. The prisoner, an erect and dignified man whose garb revealed him to be a clergyman, gazed thoughtfully at what he knew would be his last sunset. The day is dying, he thought, and before tomorrow is really begun, I must die too. He trembled slightly at the thought but remained calm. Often he had preached sincerely that death was not to be feared and his faith did not fail him now. Yet he seemed somewhat perplexed.
Why, he asked himself again, why must I die? Why must I die now? My best years, I always thought, lie ahead. I’m young and strong, have barely begun to preach. Does not the Lord sorely need laborers in His vineyard? What will happen to my parish? With the shepherd gone, will persecution scatter the sheep?
He knew the real answers and knew that the question “Why?” was not his to ask. He recalled what old Hans Scharman, an elder in his consistory, had told him the day before his trial. “Reverend, I can only tell you what you have told us so many time. We are in the Lord’s hands. His will be done. He knows how to deliver the godly. His purpose, if unseen, is surely wise.” The minister smiled to himself, shook his head in agreement, and knelt to pray.
When he rose he turned again to the window and discovered the peering face of a young boy, perhaps ten or twelve years old. “Hello! What’s your name? What are you doing here?” he inquired.
“Hello”, responded the lad. “I’m John and I’m just watching. What are you doing here? Why did they lock you up?”
The clergyman paused. Conspiracy against the State – hadn’t that been the charge? Preach the Word, and the vices of the rulers stand condemned. And then you stand condemned as a traitor. To the boy he replied, “I’m here for preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For that I am to be shot.” For that I am to be shot.” He noticed a semi-sympathetic look cross the boy’s face. “Do you know about Christ?” he wondered.
“My grandfather used to talk about it before he died,” answered John. “But in school they told me it was a fairy tale. Grandpa didn’t think so, though.”
“Did you love your grandpa?” asked the pastor, and, seeing the affirmative nod, went on, “Will you help me? For his sake, for his memory?”
John wrinkled his forehead thoughtfully. “Well, maybe. I don’t want to get into trouble. What do you want me to do?”
“I want to write a letter to my congregation. I want them to know I die gladly for His name. I want to encourage them to stand fast and believe. I want them to have my testimony that God is wise, good, and ever faithful. That’s my last wish and it means more to me than I can tell you; my peace will be complete if I can do this. Please, will you,” he entreated earnestly, “deliver that letter?”
“I guess so. Where must I bring it?”
“I’ll have the name written on the outside. I’ll write the letter tonight and slip it in this crack by the window. You can get it tomorrow morning.”
“All right,” replied John. “I’ll do it. It shouldn’t be hard not to get caught.”
“God bless you, son,” said the man. “Be faithful, for my hopes go with you.”
The lad left and with a thankful heart the pastor slipped a paper and a small pencil from his pocket. The dim glow of a small bulb in the hall shone through the door and give him barely enough light for writing. He wrote slowly and carefully, feeling his troubled spirit grow lighter with each word. Finished, he folded the paper and cautiously slipped it into its hiding place. Then he sat down, and quietly awaited the new day.
The blackness of the sky began to lift, announcing the dawn of day and death. Soon there was the sound of approaching footsteps and the commissioner entered his cell.
“Good morning, Pastor.” He spoke curtly, yet politely. “Dawn is almost here. Please come with me.”
“Yes,” replied the man, “it’s time.” He rose slowly to his feet and calmly and resolutely marched from his cell.
With a guard on each side, the prisoner followed the commissioner down the passage and out into the cool and crisp air of his last morning. Two more guards met them outside and the procession advanced to the open field behind the jail. When they stopped, one of the guards tied the minister’s hands behind him. The commissioner led him to a gnarled old tree a short distance away and asked him to stand there.
The pastor stood stiffly, scrutinizing the official. The commissioner turned to him, made as if to speak, but said nothing. From his pocket he drew a clean black handkerchief and began to fold it. He stepped up and proffered the blindfold. The clergyman shook his head.
“No,” he said, breaking the stony silence, “I want to see the murderers.”
“Very well, sir,” replied the commissioner, his face beginning to redden with rage. “You may see what happens to those who trouble the State.” He turned to walk away and noticed a small figure running madly across the field toward them. He paused and stared, and the pastor too turned and looked.
It was John. He approached, puffing and panting, rushed past the guards, and ran to the commissioner.
“What are you doing here,” demanded the official. “What do you want?”
“I want to help the State,” answered the lad. “I want to show that I’m a good citizen and loyal to our country, like the teacher said we had to be.” He reached into his pocket, grasped a piece of paper, and handed it to the man. The clergyman gaped as he recognized his letter.
“And what is this?” asked the commissioner.
“He wanted me to deliver it. He left it is a crack by the window, but I brought it to you,” John said.
The commissioner read it slowly and began clenching his fists. Suddenly he turned to the prisoner and shook it in his face.
“So, beloved pastor, you never learn. You still would incite against the government. All you want to do is make trouble, even when you die. Well, you won’t have the opportunity to trouble us again. And this will not trouble us either.”
He smiled unpleasantly, clenched his teeth, and in fury began tearing the letter up shreds. He threw the pieces at his feet and stamped and ground them into the dirt.
The pastor gazed at John who stood proudly before him with an impish grin. He took a step forward, tense and angered. The commissioner pushed him back. The pastor looked at the man and then at the boy again. His gaze reflected a burning hatred, then sorrow and despair, then pity. The lad’s aspect changed also. His insolence vanished and he hung his head in a sort of embarrassed shame. But quickly he recovered, his bravado returned, and once more he faced the pastor coldly.
The pastor sadly shook his head. Between grit teeth he whispered, “May God forgive you.”
John stood motionless and silent. Then suddenly he burst into tears, turned quickly and began to run again, furiously and vigorously, apparently wanting to leave faster than he had come. He was still dashing down the road as the crack of four rifle shots shattered the stillness of the new dawn.