January 14, 2009

The Last Ask

2009 1502 page28 capor about seven years he had been part of a navy that ensured open shipping lanes for Ghana’s commerce. On any given day he and his comrades were deployed, ensuring all Ghanaians the beneficial avenues of trade in an increasingly global economy.

His mission was not always easy—worthwhile endeavors rarely are. But he knew his country needed him, so he threw himself into his work. “This is all I will live for” was his motto.
Perilous Duty
I was with my mate John in Liberia when we were ordered to cross over into war-torn Sierra Leone. It was a cold midnight. Under the cover of ECOMOG tanks, we rolled over the Liberian border and entered Sierra Leone, altering for the better the lives of terrified millions who were caught up in the mayhem of war.
We were fully aware that life in a peacekeeping force can be full of uncertainties. Nevertheless, duty calls, no matter the uncertainties, and every soldier is used to it.
2009 1502 page28By 4:00 a.m. we were well inside Sierra Leone. We quickly dug defensive positions and took shelter in them. Our ration car was making the circuit, giving every soldier his supplementary ration. The light from the car moved uncertainly down the road until finally the two vague circles of light caught some indistinct objects on the side of the road where it curved out in front.
“Take cover! Take cover!” the driver screamed as he realized the forms he saw were advancing rebel forces. Within seconds we came under heavy rebel fire. The rebels attacked our position with mortars and gunfire and shelled our trenches. John was hit.
“John’s down!” I shouted. I could see that John’s wound was fatal. The fighting was intense along our trench. As I tried to stop the bleeding, I was startled by John’s dying request: “Friend, please, tell me the way to heaven.”
I moved closer and said, “John, I’m sorry, I don’t know. But I’ll ask the 
others.” I ran along the trench asking those nearby for an answer to John’s question.
The request was passed down the line to 11 men. None of them knew the answer. Think of it: 11 young soldiers from a “religious” country could not help a dying friend. We were all facing death, anyone could be hit, and yet none of us knew the answer to life’s most essential question.
When a man is dying on the battlefield, he needs the truth. What we guess, think, or make up just won’t do. Baptism, confirmation, a pilgrimage to Mecca, Communion, penance—nothing was going to help John who was dying in a ditch in Sierra Leone.
The request continued down the line: “John’s dying and he wants to know the way to heaven. Who can tell him?”

Questions for Reflection

1. When you have you been asked to lead someone to Christ? Relate it briefly. Is there anything you would have done differently?

2. How does being in a crisis situation tend to focus our inds on life's most elemental questions?

Why do you think John 3:16 is so often cited in times of spiritual extremity? What other texts might be quoted as well?

Is there a difference between "accepting Christ" and "growing in Christ"? What is it?

Finally, Sergeant Mensah replied, “I know the way, but I can’t leave my position.”

Artillery and mortar shells continued exploding along the front, our armored corps moved into the front of rebel lines, while infantry forces surrounded rebel positions. The balance of power soon shifted to our side and our air force attacked retreating rebels, who were backed up on the few roads through the mountain passes.

As the front shifted to our control, Sergeant Mensah managed to maneuver his way into our trench. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out a small Bible, opened it, and knelt next to John as John’s breathing grew shallower.
“John, I have it,” he said. “Listen carefully; here’s the way to heaven,” he said as he read these life-giving words: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, NKJV).*
John’s eyes opened wide. “Read it again,” he said with tears in his eyes. Mensah repeated those life-giving words. A look of peace came over John’s face as he whispered, “Whoever believes . . .” His breathing grew shallower until it was just little sips of air.

“I think I’m going,” he said as his breathing became even quieter.
After a moment John’s face lit up, as though he was getting together all of life’s light into one very last gaze. His eyes, focused, intent, and piercing in one last look, stared not at me, but at some point away from me. Then he smiled and whispered, “I do believe.”
I Was Changed
I knelt there frozen for more than five minutes. I took a moment to reflect on my life. Like my friend John, I also served my country with all my strength. But the thought of death and judgment kept troubling me. I read religious books, but religious rituals gave me no more satisfaction than did any of my worldly amusements.
I had the conception that our good works in making our nation and the world a better place to live were enough to qualify us to enter heaven. But that night I said to myself, “I will not wait until I’m dying to believe in God or look for the way to heaven. I may not have the chance John had.” On that battlefield I also gave my life to Jesus. 
*Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright ” 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Israel Banini worked as a frontline reporter during several United Nations peacekeeping operations. He holds a degree from the London School of Journalism.