Sometimes someone will ask you and important question unexpectedly and you are lost for an answer. This was almost the case one evening when I was working on the three to eleven shift in the big factory. The man who worked in the next machining centre to mine came up to me towards the end of the shift and asked me this question, “Do you believe that you can get right with God just before you die”? The question took me by surprise, I sensed that the answer I would give would for some reason prove to be of vital importance to this man but I did not know why at that time.
The question took me by surprise because we had not been talking about God and the man had never showed any interest in God as far as I was concerned. I simply said a very short silent prayer and asked God to give me the right answer for this man. Instantly in my mind I was looking at three crosses, it was the scene at Calvary where Jesus was crucified between two other men. I knew the background to this scene and I shared the story with the man. I told him of how the two men conversed with Jesus as they were dying an agonising death.
I told him how one man mocked Jesus but the other one asked Jesus to remember him. Luke 23:42-43. “Then he said, Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise”. I told the man that based on this scripture and also Romans 10:13, “For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” I believed that a person could get right with God just before they died. The man’s reply to me was, “I’m not sure if I can believe that Jim”. I explained to him that I did not think it wise for anyone to wait until they were dying before getting right with God as not everyone has time to make that call to God.
That was the end of the conversation and in the following days the subject was never mentioned again. Some weeks later we were back again on the three to eleven shift it was the fourteenth of November 1991 to be precise. Three of us travelled together regularly and shared the expenses between us, the man who had asked me the question was one of the three. At the end of the shift I was the first one out to the car park, I am not sure if the car was open or if I waited for the driver to open it but I can remember distinctly going to get into the front seat and something inside me telling me not to but to get into the back seat. I wanted to sit in the front because the man who had asked me the question about God was a lot taller than me and I usually let him sit in the front seat, I knew that he would give off if he had to sit in the back seat and I wanted to mess with him a bit.
As I was about to open the front door of the car and get in the feeling inside me was so strong against getting into the front seat that I gave in to it and got into the back seat. I had no idea why the feeling not to get into the front seat was so powerful but a few minutes later that decision saved my life. I will not go into all of the details but our car along with the car in front of us got caught up in a terrorist ambush and two men in the car in front were shot and killed, one died immediately and the other a few hours later.
The man sitting in the seat in front of me was also shot and died a few hours later, I think four or five bullets came into the car but only one of us was hit. I held his head as the driver of our car raced as quickly as he could to the nearby hospital. I was in shock and comforted the man as best I could before he became unconscious. A few days after the ambush my mind went back to the time when the deceased man asked me the question about whether it was possible or not to get right with God just before you died? I hoped with all my heart that he did get right with God before he died.
For weeks after the ambush I was well and truly messed up in my mind. At first I struggled with believing that I had cheated death by not sitting in the front of the car, I felt guilty that I had survived and my friend had not because of my decision where to sit. To make things worse the man’s wife had a baby shortly before the tragedy of his death. When I met her coming out of a shop I did not know what to say to her and believed that she probably blamed me for his death even though she knew nothing about me changing my mind as where to sit in the car.
I went from believing I had cheated death to not being sure if I was really alive and not just imagining that I was. Probably the best way I can describe how I felt is to say that I thought I was in the state that Patrick Swayze was in the film Ghost. I would sometimes sit and watch my family go about their lives and think that I was there with them but I was part of a different world, the world of the departed. I seemed to go into myself and I did not really want to engage with people.
As far as I know I was the first one who was involved in the ambush who went back to work. I could not sleep at night as I would constantly see vivid pictures of the event unfolding in my mind. I could not face going back to church for some reason, I had lost my desire to seek God and have fellowship with his people. I could not stop believing that if I had survived the shooting I had no right to be alive, somehow I had changed my destiny and the other mans as well.
I was tired and irritable from lack of sleep and just wanted to be left alone. It was during one of my early morning TV sessions that I had an emotional break through from an unlikely source. I was flicking through the channels when I stumbled on a documentary about the NYPD in America. A huge policeman was being interviewed and he suddenly broke down in floods of tears. What had happened was he and his partner were called to a robbery in progress and they decided between them who would take the back door and who would take the front door into the premises.
The police man who went through the front door was shot dead by the robber. The robber got away and the other police man survived, but the surviving police man believed that he had cheated death by choosing the back door and not the front door. The interviewer then proceeded to tell the survivor that what he was suffering from was something called survivors guilt. I had never in my life heard this term before but it felt as if something inside me embrace it and I found a strange comfort from it. As I listened on it became more and more clear to me that this was something that I was suffering from. I was not responsible for my friends death, the gunman was. It would have made no difference where I sat if he had not fired into our car. This may sound very simple but it was the beginning of a slow recovery for me.
Piece by piece my shattered emotions began to come back together again. I knew my friends in church were praying for me but I was still not ready to engage with them in fellowship. One of my closest friends in the church called me one Sunday morning and asked me if I was going to church, I replied no without hesitating. He then asked me if I would like to go to the Mourne Mountains with him for a walk, without hesitating I said yes.
He had faithfully guided me up and down most of the Mourne Mountains over a period of time and we enjoyed each other’s company. The weather was cloudy but dry as we ascended one of the smaller mountains. When we reached the top the visibility was very poor and we proceeded to eat our light lunch. Suddenly one of the most spectacular scenes that I had ever witnessed in the Mourne’s appeared before us on the top of the mountain. The valley below us was very dim and dreary when suddenly it seemed that a giant hand had reached down from the sky and plucked a large hole out of the clouds and the valley below us was filled with glorious sunshine. What had been dim and dreary became filled with a great beam of beautiful sunshine.
In that moment God spoke into my heart and assured me that he was going to do that inside me, he was going to shine his wonderful light into the darkness inside me and clear away the clouds that had been hanging over me for weeks. The sad part of that story is that my friend broke his ankle on the way down the mountain. It was around Christmas time and he would be off work for around six weeks without pay. I can remember telling him not to worry about buying a turkey as I would provide one for him but I did not think he took me serious.
The garage where I got my petrol had a weekly draw coming up to Christmas and they gave out raffle tickets when you bought a certain amount of petrol. Friday was usually the day they put the winning ticket numbers in the window. I needed petrol and called in, going through the door I looked to see the ticket numbers from the draw and low and behold there was one of my numbers. I put the turkey into the car and went straight round to my friends house, I put the turkey at the side of the house and rang the door bell.
He came to the door on his crutches and I asked him if he had bought a turkey yet, he said no he hadn’t because I had promised him that I would get him one. By the look on his face I think he thought that I had changed my mind. I disappeared around the corner, grabbed the turkey and presented it to him; there was a different look on his face now. It did my heart good to be able to do something for him as he had done something good for me. Praise God for thoughtful friends.