Monday, June 21, 2010

God's Protection

My friend Terry and I were finishing up a long Saturday in La Ceiba.  We were fueling the truck just before leaving town for the hour and a quarter ride home to Loma de Luz.  We always fill up last because we want the fullest tank possible as we cross over the plancha (dry river bed) and into the campo (the country).  

We’ve known that we live in a very dangerous place here in Honduras.  I’ve often said that the murder rate here is one of the highest in the world.  It is one thing to know this fact in your head – it is quite another thing to see this horrible statistic played out in front of you.  Today, as Terry and I were finishing up fueling at the Texaco station a motorcycle pulled up to the next row of gas pumps and the driver of the motorcycle pulled out a pistol and murdered one of the gas station employees.  In less time than it took for you to read that last sentence, shots were fired, a man was killed, and Terry and I both came under God’s incredible protection.

You realize that it is happening after it has already happened.  I heard the shots, saw the victim fall, saw the whole thing.  In only a second or two – after my reactions kicked in – the man in front of me was already dead.  A man on a motorcycle had pulled up, pulled a gun out, and killed him brutally and thoroughly.  Even as it was happening, my mind told me “this is not a hold up – this is an assassination.” Multiple gunshots into the man as he lay on the ground told me that a point was being made here.  This poor fellow had made the wrong person mad.  After that, the killer shot four or five times out into the crowd – aimlessly – just trying to scare everyone away.  I was in the truck waiting for Terry to finish paying.  He was even closer than I was when it happened.  I looked over to see where Terry was and saw him crouched down behind some good solid steel and yet – very close to the killer.  The killer was walking / running right towards my truck.  I didn’t want to leave Terry – but felt like I had to move.  Something inside of me – very calm – said “He’s not trying to hurt you; he’s just trying to get away.  Get out of his way and let him get out of here.” I moved the truck a little ways ahead and watched him walk right behind my truck in my rear view mirror.  45 cal semi auto my mind told me as I saw the gun in his hand.  Not good.  I leaned over and laid down on the seats until he had passed by – rose up again in time to see Terry running for cover.  I opened the door and yelled to Terry “get in!” and Terry ran to the truck.  As I watched, the killer ran on towards the Congrejal bridge and then Terry was in the truck next to me.  I whipped the truck around and we drove a ways down the street – in the opposite direction of the killer.  Terry was running his hands all over his body, checking for leaks, and so I gave him a quick pat down with the hand that wasn’t on the wheel and assured him that he appeared to be completely intact.  After we had gone a few hundred yards, we realized that it was over and that the killer was gone.  I presumed that he had jumped over the bridge and down onto the river bank below.  We knew that we were out of danger and unharmed.  I asked Terry what he wanted to do and he said “I didn’t get my change from that guy – he still owes me 300 lemps!  I said “are you sure it is worth it?” To which he replied “heck yes, it’s worth it – turn around.”  So I turned around and we went back to the gas station!

I need to pause here and say that this type of thing happens all the time here in Honduras.  The newspapers show headlines (and often gruesome pictures) of the most recent assassinations/ killings almost every day. Somewhere in Honduras - this is always happening.  Given this, it is absolutely astounding how quickly things get back to normal after something like this happens.  It couldn’t have been five minutes after the murder when we got back to the gas pumps.  A huge crowd had gathered   around the body and cars were already maneuvering for space at the gas pumps.  It was absolutely amazing the sense of normalcy that pervaded the atmosphere. I checked the victim to see if there was anything I could do for the poor man (the firefighter in me demanded that I at least check on him) and there most clearly wasn’t anything anyone could do for him.  Terry was discussing basic math with the poor gas attendant who was trying to make change but just couldn’t seem to get the math right.  No one was crying.  People were crowding around the victim and many were taking pictures with their cell phones.  There was a sense of excitement about it all – but not a sense of shock or a sense of tragedy at all.  I’ve been around lots of tragedies in the states just after they happened – when I was in the Fire Service – and the common factor in all of them is a profound sense of shock.  Not here.  There was no shock – it was business as usual inside of 10 minutes. 

Terry and I left just as the police showed up.  As we drove off Terry told me that someone had said that the killer was picked up by another man on a motorcycle on the bridge and that they sped off.   As we drove onward, we just kept looking at each other and saying, “My God that was close!”  We kept telling each other the story – over and over again, each of us getting clarity from the other’s perspective.  We both realized how incredibly close we had been to this thing and we were so thankful that neither was hurt.  I told  Terry how terrible I felt for leaving him and pulling away in the truck when I did and he told me how much he thought I did exactly the right thing and how thankful he was that as he ran away I was still close enough to call to him to get in the truck.  I replayed the scene a thousand times in my mind and with Terry trying to think if there was something that I could have done differently – or better.  We both knew that the first 5 shots were meant for the victim alone and that we could have been standing right next to the victim and never really been in danger from those first shots.  There were about four or five other shots though, a second round of shots that we knew could have killed us.  The killer seemed to fire them randomly as if he were just trying to scare everyone off – which he did with great effectiveness.  Everyone ran – I pulled my truck ahead and watched him run around behind my truck and then Terry and all of the crew from the gas pumps ran parallel to me.  It seemed like a miracle to us that no one else was hurt from that second round of four or five shots.  We wouldn't know just how much of a miracle it was until later. 

For me, the drive home was a study in what happens when the adrenaline runs out of you.  Not five minutes later, my phone started ringing and it was Marinajo calling me.  Should I answer it? Should I tell her?  No, don’t tell her yet, it is too fresh and she’ll just worry and fret all the time we’re driving home.  What if she heard about it and is calling to check on me (the absurdity of this particular argument didn’t’ hit me until later)?  Ok, answer it.  HihoneyYeahwerefineWe’rejustleavingandwe’llbehomesoonTalktoyoulaterbye. Click.  No room for any questions.  Perfect. Now pull yourself together and you can tell her when you get home, in person. The realization quickly hit me that essentially every time I have made this trip to La CeibaMarinajo and Benny were with me and that even today, the plan had been to take Benny with me.  Oh God, thank you that my family wasn’t in the car with me!  Thank you that Benny didn’t have to see that, to hear that, to experience that!   I sighed these deep deep sighs over and over again as the adrenaline left and the reality sunk it.  I prayed thank you over and over again – thank you Lord that you protected us and thank you that my family wasn’t there. 

When we got home, we agreed that we wouldn’t speak of it right away – but that we would each take time to tell our wives in the most comforting way possible and then later – we would speak of it in their presence.  I had managed to compose myself pretty well until I walked around the truck.  There, staring at me from the right rear fender, just behind the door to the fuel cap, was a nice big bullet hole.  Wow, I knew it was close, but I didn’t know it was that close!  I called Terry over and we just stood there and stared at it.  Upon further inspection, two things became very clear 1) the angle of entry was such that    the bullet was heading very much in my direction and 2) that there was no exit – the right rear fender of the truck had stopped that bullet.  To me, this seems miraculous.  The fender on my truck is very light sheet metal and doesn’t have any business stopping any bullets.  It might slow them down, but shouldn’t stop them.  The reality of it sunk in anew, and deeper.  Oh God, thank you!  Thank you for your protection! 

Later, after the groceries were unloaded and I sat down quietly with Marinajo to “break the news to here”, she quickly grabbed my hands and immediately started praying.  “God, thank you that you are who you say you are”, she prayed.  “Thank you that you cover us with your hands and that you protect us.”  Amen.  I realized that just last night, I had been discussing with Suzanne Rumbaugh that “we are all terminal” as we spoke of her mother’s cancer and that none of us here on Earth knows the number of days that we will live.  Dear reader, do you know the number of days that you will live?  If it was you in the car at the gas station when the gunman opened fire, would you be ready to die and meet God?  Here is Suzanne’s reflection on her mother’s cancer:

I am so glad to know that our Lord God is sovereign over this universe, yet intimate with our deepest thoughts and need. My mom's prognosis is not stellar by worldly standards, yet The Great Physician holds the trump card in any deck. And we're all terminal, are we not? Most of us just deny it. Let's live like we know it!
"Every day ordained for me was written in your book before one of them came to be." -Psalm 139:16

Tonight, as I contemplate my own mortality, I am absolutely certain that God holds me in His hands and that nothing can take me from Him.  The Bible tells me that neither death nor life can separate me from His love for me in Christ Jesus.  I’m ready.  I don’t want to go yet, but I’m ready.  How about you friend?  Is today the day to get right with God and be “ready”?  I offer this in complete humility – not wishing to sound pious or proud.  I just pray that you would hear God’s voice today and know that you are “ready.” And that if you are “ready” – that we would all live like we know it, every day.  Thanks for reading and thanks for your prayers for protection in this dangerous place that we live.

1As God's fellow workers we urge you not to receive God's grace in vain.2For he says, "In the time of my favor I heard you,  and in the day of salvation I helped you." I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation.  
2nd Corinthians chapter 6