“For God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to Jesus”
The little leather door on the advent calendar was a bit sticky as I tried to peel it open.
I don’t know if it was always like this or if maybe the humid heat from the radiators in the house made it swell a bit. But for whatever reason it was sticky and difficult.
I pried on it with my jagged fingernail, (I have been a chewer since I was four years old) and finally it swung out. It was getting late and I was tired, and for whatever reason I didn’t pay much attention to the picture behind the door.
Just a moon and a star, or a couple of stars. I thought “Hmmm…Silent Night, Holy Night, and to be honest, I wrestled with a twinge of disappointment.
This had become a real adventure for me and opening the doors was as much an anticipated move as the story they told. But this door held no noticeable surprise and it wasn’t long before I felt my eyes growing heavy.
I was awakened with a start by a dark-complected young man who was poking me gently on my forearm. I rubbed my eyes and it took me a second to get my bearings. By now, being in this cave was no longer a surprise. The intrigue always came when I met the latest guest. And I was being introduced to a new one this very moment.
“My name is Frank”, he said, “Can you help me…I am lost” I instantly recognized an accent. “Frank?” I asked, wiping sleep from my eyes, “Where are you from, Frank?” The young man looked the tiniest bit startled, but then quickly controlled his surprise, as if he was accustomed to hiding his emotions. “I…I am from a place you’ve never heard of. A tiny town in the Anbar province of Iraq.”
Frank was fidgety and repeated his initial question, this time more earnestly, “Please sir, I am lost. Can you help me?” Something in his urgency tore through a veil in my heart and I felt like he was my own son and he was trying to find his way back home. “Certainly I can, Farouk…” I said. I don’t know why I called him that. Maybe it was some prompting of the Spirit of God, maybe just a bit of intuition. For whatever reason, it took him totally by surprise. He looked at me a long time and the slightest look of fear came across his dark features. “How did you know…?” he stammered. I smiled and answered,” One of my best friends is Persian. His name is Mohammad but he goes by Mark in order to fit in better. I know a couple of “Franks” and they are all named “Farouk” so I took a guess.”
Frank was relieved, then he was almost childlike when he asked me; “You have Arab friends and Persian friends?” “Sure!” I responded “In fact Mark is so dear to me that my daughter calls him “Uncle Mark,” even though we are not related, he is one of my dearest friends on Earth.” Frank looked startled but a smile began to slowly awaken. Quickly his looked turned to puzzlement, “But…you are Christian, are you not?” “Of course, I am” I replied, “but I have many friends who are not.”
Frank seemed to linger on this point for a split second, and then he snapped to attention as if hearing an internal command. “I am lost,” he said, this time more slowly and with an almost desperate plea to his words. “I don’t know how I got here…I was on my way…” Frank trailed off and grew thoughtful. A frown displaced his calm and for a minute he seemed irritated. He looked around the cave, toward Mary and Joseph and the sleeping child in the dirty manger.
I noticed a tiny bead of sweat on his brow even though it was a bitterly cold night and even in the shelter of the cave it was cold. His hands trembled a bit and he reached out to me again, quite suddenly. “Come!” he said, “Come outside with me please!” I was shocked, “But Frank, it’s freezing out there, we should stay here...” “No!” he said…this time very insistent, and with urgency that could not be mistaken. “I need to talk with you…but outside.
My heart was pierced. There was full fledged anguish in his voice and his hand shook just a tiny bit more. “Okay, let me grab my jacket…” I threw on my coat and crawled out the tiny door after Frank. The night air stole my breath and my hands instantly ached. “Frank, please, let’s go inside...” Frank turned toward me and waved his hand at eye level. “Please,” he said, “Please stay here with me. I need to talk to you. I need to find my way. I’m lost, and I…I am afraid.”
I don’t know where the tears came from but they came. Frank was only barely misty-eyed but my heart had somehow caught his urgent cry full-force and it shattered my fraudulent machismo with a single blow. I reached out and put a hand on his shoulder and gripped it tightly. “Okay Frank, I’m here and here I’ll stay. Now what’s wrong?”
Again Frank restated the thing he’d been saying since he arrived, “I’m lost…can you please help me?” “Of course,” I said, “Sure, I…I’d be glad to help you Frank, Just tell me where it is you are trying to get to?”
This question raked Frank’s heart like coals. He stumbled, he glared, and then after a long time his lip quivered almost imperceptibly. He began his slowed, pained answer. “I was heading into town…into Jerusalem,
I was going to town to see a movie. I grabbed my coat and my backpack…”
I froze. I gasped and I swallowed hard only to discover a sand-dry mouth. I did not even try to form the words I was thinking. I was virtually detached form my body. No sound would escape.
Before I could regain my composure and ask the obvious “What?” Farouk swung a backpack off his shoulder and set it down in front of me. My thoughts were cloudy. I felt like the scene in Saving Private Ryan when Captain Miller gets knocked silly from the explosions on the beach and his hearing gets fuzzy and his movements slow down and become staggered and difficult… “Funny,” I thought, “I never even noticed he was carrying a backpack. And now I am going to be killed by it…”
Maybe Frank knew my thoughts. Or maybe he was just worried that he’d scared me more than my face showed. Whatever the reason, he spoke slowly and said “First I couldn’t find my way to the theater and then…I wandered around looking for my cousin and I couldn’t find him so I started for home. I let out a slow, silent breath. I didn’t speak but did manage a smile. Frank continued;
“I was so weary from wandering around that I sat down about a mile from here and I guess I fell asleep, and that’s when it happened.” “What happened Frank?” I asked in a hoarse whisper, my throat barely relaxed from the fear that gripped it only moments before “What…tell me”
Frank drew a breath and the moonlight caught his face. It occurred to me how young he really was. I was guessing he was maybe 18 or 19…caught between a man and a boy.
He could be my son. Frank looked at me solemnly and said “The dream came again.” His face was that of mild fear and incredible questioning. I knew instantly that this dream had troubled him. “What dream, Frank?” I whispered, my anxiety now at least a bit assuaged. “The dream of the man on the horse. He has come to me in my dreams for eight nights now. Tonight it was different, but he came as he had done seven nights before. The dream lead me here, but I don’t know where this is…” Frank’s voice trailed off in urgency “I must find him!” he said impatiently,
“Please…please help me!”
“Okay, Frank, I will do what I can. Why don’t you tell me about this dream, maybe that’s why you are here in this place?” Frank seemed to relax a bit at my offer and he began to convey his story to me… “Eight nights ago I was in my home in Anbar. I have been restless. Restless because I have been angry and upset. My brother Tewfik was killed in the war. He was playing in the fields with some other boys and he exploded a bomb that was left by the fighters…”
Frank began to sob. It was barely perceptible under the heavy coat he was wearing but I could tell. His voice broke as he continued, “Tewfik was only 6. He was just a baby. We never found enough of him to even properly say goodbye. It was horrible. The other boys were badly injured, some of them so badly that maybe death would have been better…” My family could not bear with the pain of living in our home anymore after losing Tewfik, so we crossed through Syria and came here. We live outside of town with my cousins. Sometimes I miss our home, and sometimes, often, I am very angry at what happened to my brother. But it makes me think about what happens after…after we die.” He continued...
“Since I was a little boy I wondered about what happens after this life. I have seen many people die but nobody told me what became of them.
Allah is hard to please…I need to be sure. I fear the scales won’t favor me. I wish I could be sure…”
Frank seemed to drift from this point for a moment. Then he looked up at me and continued; “Eight days ago I went back into Syria to look for work.”
“The first day I was in Syria I had the first dream. I was in the great desert and off in the distance I saw a man on a beautiful horse riding at me. I thought he was going to run me over he was riding so fast and he was looking in the distance beyond me. The first dream…he stopped about a stones throw from me and said nothing. He just stared at me. I felt like I knew him but I wasn’t sure. Then he stood in his saddle and said “Come find me!” His voice sounded like thunder…so much so that I fell down. When I looked up he was gone.” Frank paused and drew a breath. I was awestruck. I was hanging on Frank’s words so heavily that I didn’t realize he wasn’t going to continue.
“Wow!” I said, “Frank what happened…this was the first night, yes? What came next?” Frank smiled a tiny smile, perhaps happy that an older man was listening to him. “The next night I had the exact same dream again, and again, the night after that. Each night he came closer than the last. Each night his voice was louder when he said “Come find me!” and each night I woke up in a sweat and angry that I didn’t know who he was or where I was to find him.
Frank took a sip from a water bottle he had with him. He looked into the night sky and drew a long breath. I somehow knew he was going to continue without my prompting so I didn’t disturb him with so much as a sound. He cleared his throat and resumed his story; “Two nights ago he came charging at me again in my sleep. Only this time he was dressed differently he had a crown and he wore a sash on across his chest that said words I could not understand. He rode right up to me and stopped. I was so afraid! His horse was brilliant white and he reared up on his hind legs and the man opened his mouth and when I thought I would hear his booming voice once more, he simply smiled…and he said it again; “Come find me” …only this time he whispered it softly, and he had tears in his eyes. He reached down and handed me a book and touched my face. I blinked and he was gone.”
My heart leapt inside my chest. It was better than any suspense story I had ever read. I didn’t want to speak at all but I had questions. “Frank…this was two nights ago, you said. So he appeared again?” I asked. Frank looked at me with a look that ranged from happy to confused to bewildered. “Yes” he said softly. “Yes he came to me tonight. I was walking to Jerusalem and I saw a star in the sky. A star I had never seen before. It was beautiful and it seemed so low in the horizon that it seemed as if it was near the ground. I guess I wandered off the road because of the distraction and I sat down to check my map and call my cousin. But my cell phone had no signal out here and I had no flashlight to read the map by.”
Frank looked off in the distance for just a minute, as if he was reliving the next events again. “Then I guess I fell asleep. I don’t think I was asleep long, but I had the dream again. The man was a long way off again and he looked different. He was riding fast, but not as fast as before and the horse was different too. He was brown, not white like the other seven nights. As he got closer I saw that this wasn’t the same man at all. I fell to my face and was afraid to look up because of the rider!” Frank’s voice grew to an excited tone. He was trembling. “Who was it, Frank? The rider…he was different this time, who was he?” I asked
Frank swallowed hard and his eyes grew large, “Abraham!” he whispered. It was father Abraham and he was holding a baby. He spoke to me by name. Abraham called my name!” Frank was so excited now that it was as if the rider was here with us. He continued; “He said to me “Farouk…look up my son! So I looked up at him and he was smiling. He held the baby out so I could see him, then he said to me “Come find Him. Find the child…” and just like that he was gone. I woke up and I was outside this cave…and I came in and found you.”
I waited a long time before speaking. I was trying to digest this all at once and it was a lot. I felt in my heart I knew the characters in the dream but I was wondering how to talk to Farouk about them. What if he asked me questions I didn’t have answers for? Would I end up making his situation worse? I was silent for a long few minutes. Finally I asked him; “Frank you said the man in the first dreams gave you a book…what book?”
Frank seemed startled…like he’d forgotten that part. He reached for his backpack and drew out a black book…a
“This is the book the man on the horse gave me…he gave it to me the night he drew close to me and touched my face.” Frank handed me the book. “Have you read any of it?” I asked. Frank looked down in sadness. When he raised his eyes again to me he had tears in them. “No…I cannot read. No one I know can read except the Imams and my cousin. I have no way of knowing what this book says and yet the man on the horse gave it to me to read…” “Wait! I said, interrupting Frank mid-sentence, “This is the book the man in your dream gave you? This very book?” Frank looked a bit embarrassed when he said “Yes…the night I dreamed that he handed this book to me, I awoke and it was in my hand. I was sleeping in an abandoned hut on a farm in Syria. There was no one for miles around…yet when I woke up this book was in my hands. I had to believe it was a Holy book somehow. If only I could read it…”
Frank suddenly grew very animated and put his hand on my shoulder, “Please sir! You can read it to me. I know enough to recognize English writing…it’s English. Please sir…does this book tell of the baby, or the man in my dreams? Can this book help me find him?” Frank was desperate. I made no effort to hide my tears. I was 49 years old and had never even considered that a man on this planet could hold a bible in his hand and not know who or what it was about…the thought simply never occurred to me. Frank could not comprehend my tears but he was patient while I cried them. “Yes Farouk…I will read to you from this book.”
I don’t know how long I read. Hours, maybe. Time seemed to stand still but I hardly noticed either way. I read to Farouk about Abraham and Ishmael and explained the link between his people and that story. I read of Nebuchadnezzar his great forefather. I read of Abraham’s lineage, through Isaac, Jacob, to David…and through to Jesus. Frank bristled at this a bit. “Jesus was a prophet, we know this. But you are saying he was more? This is not true!” I explained to Frank that if Jesus was a prophet, as he said, then he was also truly the Son of God. Frank looked at me in disbelief “But that is not true!” “It is true Frank” I replied, “Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. If your Koran says he was a prophet and also says that a Prophet cannot lie, then Jesus must be who he says he is!” Frank looked at me with his eyes wide open. He was a very intelligent and logical young man and this line of reasoning made sense to him. We spent the next hour or so walking through verses about Jesus as Savior, Jesus as Lord of all. I read to Frank from John’s Gospel and from Romans. Frank gobbled it up like a starving child. Then he grew thoughtful.
After a long silent pause, Frank looked at me and said softly; “So what do I have to do now? How do I meet this man? And who is the baby?” I smiled…and once again I understood the reason for this particular visitor. Each night, as each different person managed to find themselves kneeling before the tiny king of kings in his dirty crib, there was always an epiphany moment when I saw why God had brought them here. Frank was no different. “The man and the baby are the same,” I said to Frank. He is Jesus…the Savior of the world. Come, let me show you”
Frank and I re-entered the cave. Frank looked at Joseph and Mary asleep in the corner. “They are Jews?” he whispered to me. His jaw clenched tightly for a second. “Yes Frank, they are his parents.” She is his mother and the man is her husband…the baby’s stepfather” Frank turned and looked at the baby sleeping in the dirty manger. I could almost see his heart beating. “Go to him, Farouk. He has been asking for you in your dreams for eight days. It’s time you met him…”
Frank crawled to the side of the feed trough. The baby was awake and alert and smiling. Frank looked over his shoulder at me and I nodded to him, “It’s okay.” Frank reached in and picked up Jesus. He held him gently against his face. “I remember when Tewfik was just this old” he whispered. Frank was a typical 19 year old in that he did not like to cry publicly, but I saw him blinking back tears as the baby reminded him of his lost brother. But where I thought I would see rage and anger, I saw instead, Jesus doing what He had done so many times this night. He seemed to absorb the hurt and anger and the more he did the more he smiled. The baby was happy.
Frank held him for a long time and whispered something in Arabic that I could not understand. Then he gently lay Jesus back in his makeshift bed and bent over to kiss him.
The baby reached up and touched his face.
Frank crawled over to me and looked me in the eyes for a long time, saying nothing. His eyes were red and he was doing his very best to fight the tears he felt inside. I asked him about the words in Arabic and he said, “I told the baby, “At last we meet. I am here. I found you. Please stay in my heart forever” Do you think he understood me?” I stammered my answer; “Of course he did. And He has made his home in your heart now.”
“I will be killed for this if they find out” he said to me. “Becoming a Christian is a death sentence for me.” I was stunned. I hadn’t considered this. “Then why? Why did you?” I asked him.
Frank was thoughtful for a long time, and then he looked at me. “Because he tried so hard to reach me. Because he came to this place to meet me. Because he gave me the book and he gave me a person to read it to me. How could I say no?” Frank smiled for a long moment, then he gave me a hug that felt as if he didn’t want to let go. He walked over to the sleeping Mary and Joseph and wished them peace…
And crawled out of the door and into the night…and into the uncertainty of his future.
“There is no distance that Jesus will not bridge to find a seeking soul”