Outside the Saltshaker
OUTSIDE THE SALTSHAKER
Gorna Fucha village, Bulgaria, Summer 2002,
A heavy melancholy veiled my heart at the first sight of my native village. Most of the buildings appeared old and worn down, with many windows missing. Some houses were completely abandoned. Trees, bushes and weeds that had been left untrimmed had taken over most of the main square. The doors of a one-time very busy pub were closed; the rotted window shutters were nailed to the wooden frames. Two old women in black dresses and black scarves were sitting on a rusted iron bench in front of a small house, talking. The weary expression on their faces matched the desolate environment of the village. The joy of life with which I grew up in this place appeared to have been long gone.
The next day, my initial melancholy turned into depression. I refused to replace my childhood memories of abundance and peace with the desolation around me. I had left this place forty-five years earlier but always had stayed connected. This time, however, I found my village drastically changed. It seemed that my native place had made a gigantic step overnight that had catapulted it from a state of prosperity into a state of desolation.
With brisk steps, I headed to the fields outside the village. I needed to restore the harmony between the past and the present, and I hoped that the peaceful sight of the fields would bring peace to my heart as well. With my eyes fixed on the folds of the distant hills, I ran from the village towards the land of my fathers. When the last houses were just a shoulder behind me, I halted, puzzled. The wide road that led to the fields was no longer there. I looked back at the village so as to be reassured of my location. No doubt that this was the place where my boyish feet had trotted years ago. Surely, this was the place where the wide country road should have been still weaving through the fields. Now those fields were abandoned and densely overgrown with thorny bushes. Their edges had mingled with the edges of the road and had formed one unrecognizable sight. The tended land of my fathers lay before me desolate.
At that moment, verses from the book of Leviticus 26:22, echoed clearly in my mind:
“If you remain hostile towards me and refuse to listen to me, I will multiply your affliction seven times over, as your sins deserve…. I will make you so few in number that your roads will be deserted”.
Communism ruled in Bulgaria for forty-five years. People rejected God. In their arrogant pride, they made their own roads of prosperity, roads wide and pleasing to the eye, roads mastered according to their own wisdom. God, though, turned those roads into thorny fields.
According to the United Nations World Population Data, my country is listed as one of the last in childbirth rate and has shown a steady tendency of about 1% yearly negative population growth. My village was a living confirmation of that statistic and of the wrath of God.
Deep sorrow settled in my heart. The Lord had put an unbearable burden on my conscience. His Word was in my heart like a fire. I grew weary of holding it in. That day I returned to my small village and related my discernment to the few souls I met there. I went further and brought the news of desolation to the big city, the capital Sofia. I proclaimed to many individuals God’s promises for restoration if we as people chose to return to Him. Some listened with concern but were untouched; others ridiculed me and mocked me. But I couldn’t stop proclaiming, because the Lord had overpowered me with His message.
Since my youth, the Lord had repeatedly spoken to me. At times, His word would come to me as an overpowering desire; at other times, it would settle as a prevailing thought. I heard it as a whispered thunder in my ear, and I experienced it as a catapulting power throwing me away from the path of danger. I had blistered under its burning message. I had cooled off in its fountains of living waters. At this stage of my life, there is nothing more glorious for me than to be overpowered by the living Word of my God.
The Lord first began molding me under unbelievable circumstances. At 18, I was forced to enter a two-year obligatory army service. Carrying a weapon was against my religious beliefs. I stood firmly in the Lord when I refused to obey any of the army’s commands. In a Communist society, this was a despicable precedent. A court marshal prosecuted me, and I was sent to a military labor camp. There, due to my religious convictions, I was treated as a criminal. Along with many other outcast soldiers, I was sent to build mountain roads. During those two years, in the midst of deadly threats on my life, the Lord first overpowered me. He called upon me to be salt among the military men; good salt that does not lose its saltiness. He molded me, and I became salt that no one could keep hidden. I became the salt outside the saltshaker.
Rila village, Bulgaria, Summer 1959
“Private Jordan!” Like stricken by a sharp whip, the voice made my feet jump high off the ground. With a jerk, I dropped the shovel and lifted my arm to salute my sergeant. My heart pounded fast in dreadful anticipation. Each time the sergeant shouted my name it meant trouble. His angry voice was constantly heard throughout the campgrounds scolding and cursing after one or another of us. But everybody knew that when his anger reached an apex, he always turned on me. He hated me.
“Yes, sir.” I straightened and froze in this position to convey my intentions for absolute compliance.
“Jordan!” The sneer in his voice had an icing effect on me. Suddenly, the midday spring sun became as distant as the end of my military service. “Quit that job, soldier; I have something else for you. Follow me. And take the pick ax; you will need it.”
Grabbing the instrument I ran to catch up with the sergeant. My mind was flipping through different scenarios trying to figure out what his evil mind had in store for me this time. However, his sick imagination had always exceeded my expectations. His hatred towards me had escalated to such a degree that it was obvious to everyone at the base that he was consumed with the thought of my physical destruction.
With wide steps, he led me away from the road. My fears deepened when the road disappeared completely from sight.
Was he now taking advantage of the situation to proceed with his evil plans? He could do anything. There were no witnesses.
“Lord,” I prayed, “keep watch over me.”
In front of a large rock, the sergeant stopped. Without turning to face me he commanded:
“Jordan, this rock needs to go. Start hitting the rock at its base until is completely gone. This is your job for today. Understood?”
“Yes, sir,” I answered mechanically.
Still with his back towards me, he patted the ragged surface of the rock and looked up so as to get a final satisfaction of its extreme size. A sarcastic laugh escaped his lips when he walked away into the woods.
The task was impossible. A rock with a size 10ft x 10ft x 12ft was sitting on a steep slope. Its base was slanted in almost a 90-degree angle. Its height seemed much wider than the base. If I were to cut very far into the base, that huge rock would surely roll over crushing me under its enormous weight.
I bit my lip in speechless recognition of the evil mind of my sergeant. I knew he was watching me from his hidden place high up on the slope.
“Lord, keep me safe,” I paused in prayer. In that split second, my soul turned inward searching for protection in the heart of my God. The woods, always full of life and sounds, seemed to stand still in tense expectation.
With my feet firm on the ground, I swayed the pick ax high above my head. Small rocks began crumbling under the first two hits. I was about to hit the rock for a third time with full force of my arms when… A strong voice from above shouted: “Get away!”
In the periphery of my sight, I saw the rock leaning towards me. Dense dust began sifting from the unbalanced rock, covering my bare neck and arms. My lungs clogged; I struggled for air. I squeezed my eyes to escape the thick cloud of penetrating dust. My muscles convulsed in an effort to push my body away from the danger. With lightening speed, though, my mind processed that there was not enough time to outrun the collapsing rock.
The next thing I remember was being swiftly thrown away from the path of the downward rolling solid mass. A thunderous roaring shook the ground; and a river of stones slid alongside, following the huge rock down the steep slope. I remained low on the ground, terrified by the violent dragging of my body by the sweeping mass all around me. The distant mountaintops echoed the roaring until it dissolved in the thin, transparent air.
When the silence of the woods was restored, I rose to my feet. The landscape that I had known from just a few minutes earlier had completely changed. An enormous mass of earth was moved from one height to another. Dust was still falling in thick layers over the disfigured surface. The signs of the disaster spoke of the tremendous power that had just swept over my head.
“You…?! Alive?!” It was my sergeant. Was I supposed to feel guilty for not pleasing him by remaining alive? His voice, with unhidden traces of annoyed disappointment, snatched me from the reality of the physical disaster I had just experienced and placed me again in a much more painful reality of an ongoing spiritual battle with my sergeant.
That summer the Lord repeatedly displayed His might before the eyes of my sergeant by miraculously saving my life. Three times, the sergeant ordered me to perform impossible tasks. Three times, a voice from above shouted warnings. Three times, a supernatural power speedily removed me away from the danger.
Instead of recognizing God’s ultimate power, my sergeant continued seeking my life. The more the Lord prevailed in preserving my life, the craftier my sergeant became in finding new ways to destroy it. My life was in the hands of my God, to whom I had entrusted it upon entering the military service. The evil mind of my sergeant was powerless against the ultimate Word of my Lord.
That God was the keeper of my life was a recognized fact on the military base. That God was the keeper of the life of other soldiers through me was an experience that all my fellow soldiers were about to witness. Before the eyes of those who sought my, life the Lord extended His love to touch and change the lives of others.
Rila village, Bulgaria, Summer, 1960
Moods were high that Saturday morning, especially for those second-year soldiers who excitedly anticipated their permission to go to the city for the weekend. The huge barracks was suddenly too small to contain the ever-expanding excitement of the soldiers’ hearts.
The soldiers around me were laughing and teasing each other about the sweethearts they had found and the broken hearts they had left during previous outings.
“Anybody waiting for you, Jordan?” someone asked.
“Jesus does,” somebody else replied.
“Oh, who is taking who out? Are you taking Jesus out or Jesus is taking you out?” Bursts of laughter of some of the soldiers joined the whistling of others, and the noise of them all rose so high that it became painful to my ear. “Forgive them, Lord for they don’t know what they are saying,” I prayed in my heart, the offence was too ugly to swallow.
Suddenly, from the far end of the building, a wave of silence glided above the soldiers’ heads. Noise and laughter ceased. Fast moving feet tapped on the wooden floors, busy to find their spots in an imaginary line. There was nothing magical about the sudden change in arrangements. Standing in the doorway, our sergeant was casting angry looks at the now perfectly lined up and silent multitude. Like a wild beast, he paced madly back and forth in front of us. For a long time he blasted condemnation against our “loose” behavior. Before he left the barracks, he turned once again, his eyes flashing fire at us. In a much lower, but determined, voice he announced:
”No weekend passes this Saturday. No exceptions!” He walked away in a fury. A silent sigh of protest helplessly hung in the air. A moment later, a violent burst of frustration exploded among the soldiers: cursing, throwing things at each other, and flexing muscles in anger.
That morning, my emotions remained even during the sudden turn of events. I had not shared the same excitement as my fellow soldiers did. Neither did I share the same degree of disappointment. I was faced, though, with a long weekend, confined among angry soldiers for whom I would be a likely desirable target for their entertainment, a target of further sarcasm and humiliation.
Not even ten minutes after the sergeant had issued the order, I was faced with a serious problem. Rising within me was an inexplicable determination to go and request a pass for the day. I had an urge to leave the camp immediately. This inner desire grew so demanding that I suddenly felt physically burdened. The heavy load in my heart, though, stood against my reasoning. The task was absolutely impossible under the current circumstances. To disobey an order was against my nature. To face the still-boiling madness of my sergeant was against any common sense. There was no way I could obtain permission to leave the base.
The urge, though, continued to settle into my heart with such an immense power that I was not able to resist its crashing load anymore.
“Lord, what is happening with me now?”
I searched for an answer, but there was none. I knew that the Lord was calling me for something, but I did not have the slightest idea what that was. With each passing minute, the burden in my chest was steadily increasing. An acute sense of a heavy obligation was building up fast. Overpowered by the urgency of the call, I headed for the quarters of my sergeant.
“What are you doing here?” His anger had not yet subsided.
“Sir, the Lord is pressing me to leave the camp.” I told him as calmly as I could.
He threw me out. I could hear his loud cursing behind his closed door.
The further-expanding load in my chest irresistibly steered my feet back to his office; and a few minutes later, I was knocking on his door again.
At the sight of me, the sergeant just shut the door in my face. “How could I, Lord, convince this man that you are urging me to leave?”
I headed back to my quarters but was soon overpowered by the escalating heaviness inside. I ran to the sergeant for a third time.
“Don’t you get it, Jordan? That order is for you to obey it also.” His jabbing voice did not scare me. Instead, I found myself engaged in a humble explanation.
“Sir, the Lord has put this burden on me and is urging me to leave camp. The Lord wants me out for something, sir.” I explained in a low voice. For a moment, I felt detached from the ongoing dialog, marveling over the astonishing courage I found in my heart.
“Get out of here with your God, crazy man!” He waved his arms above my head.
I must have appeared to him as an annoying little boy whom he wanted to give a good spanking and get rid of forever. His face reddened, then quickly changed to blue. The flashes in his eyes increased as his rage continued to escalate. Incredibly calm, I observed how this inner fury choked his ability to talk. He could not believe that someone would disobey his order. He could not comprehend that I, the lowest of the low in his eyes, would dare to even appear before him at that moment when he was in the mood to tear someone apart and certainly not to show mercy. When the sergeant finally spoke, his face was pale-white and his eyes frozen into a stony expression. With a disgust that was coming out of his hateful heart he yelled to his adjutant:
“Give this lowly creature a pass!”
Then he turned to me yelling: “I don’t want to see you again. Don’t ever come close to my sight!” The door slammed again.
A few minutes later, the heavy iron door of the army base shut closed behind my back. “There is nothing impossible for God,” I reminded myself in my heart. The troubles with my sergeant were behind me, but I was still faced with the heavy urge that was unbearably pressing on my heart. I did not know how to respond to it.
“Where to go, Lord? Where are you leading me?”
My eyes caught the sight of the hills beyond the army base. Without searching for a path, I headed straight towards those bare slopes. I hoped that the fresh air would clear my mind and somehow would relieve the heaviness in my heart. My feet led me away from the base, away from the village. The burden continued to increase. In growing expectancy I was waiting for the moment when the Lord would finally make known to me the mystery of my burden.
At the top of the hill, I stopped to examine a railroad track that was crossing my path. My eyes caught two figures that appeared to be walking or standing on the railroad just a short distance away from me. I did not need anybody else’s company at that moment. I still had to figure out the task I was supposed to carry out. I was about to dismiss the silhouettes in front of me and turn the other way when the burden in my chest was suddenly lifted. The Lord had caught my attention! The two figures held the answer!
I hurried towards the lonely silhouettes, knowing that the Lord was sending me to them. Soon the images in front of me began growing and revealing puzzling details. These were two soldiers like me, but their appearance spoke of a tremendous distress. Layers of dry mud caked on the surface of their boots. Large pieces of their army uniforms hung torn, revealing freshly-injured flesh underneath. Hunger had visibly ravaged their bodies. Bearded and dirty, their faces spoke of long-time deprivation from food, water, and other basic human needs. Their eyes were filled with wild fear. The closer I got to them the more fearful they seemed to become. They clung to each other physically so as to find ultimate protection. I was viewed as an invader rather than a rescuer.
The sight of their devastation burdened again my newly enlightened heart, but this time with compassion.
“What is going on, boys?” I approached them in a friendly manner, trying to indicate my willingness to help them.
“Go away, man. Go your way!” They yelled at me defensively.
“Listen boys, I see that you are in a some kind of trouble. I don’t know what is the matter but I am here to help you,” I began softly.
“We don’t need your help! Go away! We are just fine,” one of the young men hastily shouted in my face.
“I am not going anywhere,” I insisted. My voice was low but firm, “The Lord has sent me to help you. Now, just tell me what is the problem?”
“What are you talking about? God sending you? You are crazy! Go away!” The mention of God evoked their antagonistic response. For most people in my country, the reality of God was as far and foreign as was the existence of the furthest star on the night sky. These soldiers’ hearts did not hold the understanding of God.
Without aggravation I repeated, “I see that you are in big distress. I am not going anywhere. I am a believer in the living God, and today the Lord led me to you. This morning, He put a heavy burden on my heart and got me out of the camp. He directed me towards these hills. When I saw you on the railroad tracks the burden that I carried was suddenly lifted. So, I know that the Lord has sent me to help you. Now, tell me what is the problem.”
The more I talked the more their resistance seemed to lessen. Soon the young soldiers stood before me stripped of their protective gear. Their faces still displayed extreme anxiety, but their body language conveyed some willingness to listen. Encouraged by the first signs of cooperation, I assured them that their problems were now in the hands of God. Whether because my statement convinced them, or because they had come to a state of complete physical exhaustion, they began telling me their story.
The two young men were deserters. They had fled their army base a month earlier with the intention of crossing the Bulgarian-Greece border but had found themselves trapped in the high mountains. The border was heavily guarded. The soldiers made many unsuccessful attempts to escape. They hid in the woods during the day and looked for roots to eat during the night. As the time passed they felt more depressed so they grew increasingly feebler. The soldiers sobbed and gestured excessively throughout their talk. The horrified grimaces on their faces revealed much more pain than their words could express.
My compassion deepened when I heard the actual reason for their desertion.
“Our sergeant…” The taller man began but stopped suddenly overwhelmed by emotion, “We ran from him. You don’t know what went through our heads.” He paused again, his eyes wild with fear. “He beat me… He… threw me in the solitary confinement… for… I don’t know how many days… without food and water…” The man’s face contorted and he gave out a spasmodic cry.
Carried along by his friend’s emotions, the other soldier also began bringing more details into the picture of their suffering. The living conditions they described were unbelievable. More stunning, though, were the details about the tremendous physical and emotional abuse they had been subjected to for a long time. Because of my own terrifying experience with my sergeant, I was able to relate to their horror.
The recalling of the painful experiences had a devastating effect on the soldiers. Their anxiety turned into panic. Their eyes began trailing away in terror at the mentioning of their sergeant’s name. Their bodies began shaking in violent convulsions. It was obvious that the terrifying abuse and the mere memories of it had brought them to a state of a complete psychological collapse.
“We have been in the woods for a month now,” The soldier continued, “We can’t cross beyond… we can’t go back… we are stuck…” The young man burst into tears. His body jerked in frantic spasms.
“Today …. we wanted … to throw… ourselves under… the train… but… you…,” His friend added through a breathless hiccup, his tears smeared across the dried mud on his face.
The train?! To commit suicide?! Oh, Lord! They had intended to do it! They had planned to do it! They were about to carry that plan out! But… you, Lord, sent me to them right before that train passed.
My mind rushed through the past few moments. I recalled noticing how their aggravation grew when they could not get rid of me as fast as they had wanted. I recalled how they impatiently looked at their watches. I remembered seeing their confused looks when the train passed by. The three of us were still standing close to the railroad tracks. A mind-blowing realization made me shiver: the moment of the miraculous delivery was terrifyingly close to the moment of the planned suicide. The mountaintops still carried the echo of the train’s piercing whistling.
The love of the Lord filled my heart. My eyes met the soldiers’ eyes. At that moment we all knew that God’s great love and mercy had been delivered for them. Heartbroken, the soldiers leaned on each other for support and then dropped on the ground, shaken by overwhelming emotions.
“Brothers,” I addressed them when the numb of the shock began to wane. “Let us go to the pub to get something to eat. The village is not that far. It is on me today.”
While watching them gobbling up the hot soup, at once I felt encumbered with a great responsibility for these soldiers’ well being. After this morning’s experience they, had put their complete trust in me like I was a responsible adult. Like them, I was just a teenager; but at that moment their weakness needed a much stronger support. I had to grow up fast. And I did, then and there. I had to lead them to safety.
Having just experienced a miraculous delivery, they were now more openly tuned into the words I had to say about the Lord.
“Do you feel OK enough now to go to the base?” I offered this solution hoping that they were ready to accept it.
“We are not going anywhere!” They both jumped with a shout. The wild fear in their eyes that I had seen that morning flashed again renewed.
“The Lord delivered you from certain death. He surely has prepared the hearts of the sergeant in charge of the base.” I tried to calm their troubled minds, but I myself needed assurance that my words would prove true.
There were no arguments from my side to convince them to surrender. After much talk, we came to a consensus; we planned it differently: I was to go back to the base and try to negotiate their voluntary surrender with the army authorities at the base. If I did not return by noon, they were to disappear and find safety away from the base. While waiting, the soldiers hid in a freshly-piled haystack.
For me, the clock began ticking fast. I rushed breathlessly towards the base, racing against time. For my friends in the haystack the time must have made a painful turn towards their past not future, thus increasing their fears and diminishing their hopes.
As the on-duty soldier opened the heavy iron gate, his eyes widened in disbelief at my sudden return. Drawn by his growing curiosity, he pulled himself half way out from his observation window. His stunned gaze followed me all the way until I entered the sergeant’s office.
A deafening volcano of vulgar epithets met me when I appeared before the sergeant. I remained motionless at the cracked-open door. With my head lifted high, I stood face up towards him, but my eyes avoided his look. I did not have time to prepare myself for this much higher level of rage, but I was determined to endure it. The room suddenly became too small to contain his soaring emotions. The air around him grew toxic as scorching fumes spilled out of his decaying heart.
For a moment, it appeared that he had run out of words that he thought were deadly enough to kill me. He continued pacing, though - inhaling nosily, his wide nostrils stretched, grasping for more air, his mouth frozen into a hateful curve. He must have been searching through his evil mind for a suitable punishment for me, but I interrupted him shouting:
“Sir, there are two deserters who want to surrender voluntarily, Sir!” The volume of my voice rose up to that of his. With my eyes now intensely focused on his, I stood my ground.
Was it because he was still in the process of restoring his exhausted air supply? Or was it because he needed time to switch off his mind from being preoccupied with me and divert it to a completely different matter? But for a few long moments the sergeant remained in the same position in which the delivery of my news found him.
“Sir, two soldiers, sir. They deserted a month ago. Sir, they are from the Kashik base. Sir!” I pounded more information. His expression continued to convey an obvious confusion and perplexity.
“Sir, they are hungry, sir, and very afraid. They want to surrender. Sir. They need food. Sir.” I continued encouraged by his silence.
With a loud throaty yell, the sergeant took out his revolver and menacingly waved it above his head.
“Food? No food. Stones for them. I’ll kill them. Were are those…? Give them to me. I’ll kill them!” The sergeant grabbed the folds of my uniform and with full force pulled me towards his face. His hot spit splashed my face. He drew his face so close to mine that I could see how the large black oily pores on his skin were distorting under the fierce twisting of his face.
“He surely would have killed them, Lord.” I acknowledged in my heart.
I refused to disclose the soldiers’ hideout. The following hour I became again the main target of the sergeant’s rage. In an instant, I wished to be with the two soldiers taking cover in the haystack but quickly regretted my momentary weakness. I shook, but I did not fall. The heavy verbal bombardment threatened to escalate into physical violence. His revolver was now flying over my head. I still found courage to stand firm. Recognizing my determination, he changed his tactic. The sergeant repeatedly threatened me with court a martial and with life in prison. I did not budge. There was no way out but to continue my mission.
“Sir, they agreed to surrender.” I took advantage of his momentary shortness of breath and shouted again, repeating my statement. Noon was approaching, and very soon the boys would be on the run again. Their life would be in jeopardy again. Time was running out.
“Where are they? Let them come here…,” His annoyance mixed with his rage in a dangerously explosive burst.
“Sir, if I don’t go back by noon they will flee. Sir!”
“Go! Get them!” he blasted in my face.
“Sir, they said they wouldn’t come unless they have your word that you would not beat them. Sir! Give me your word, Sir. No beating! Sir?” Up to this time, during the entire hour of interrogation, I had remained erect before my sergeant. He was pacing around me, but I had stood in my position holding onto the little piece of stable ground under my feet. Now, I sharply turned on my feet to face him. My eyes penetrated deep into his eyes, pressing him for an answer.
Like a doomed shuttle, his mind orbited through its depths in a search for another way out. The dark in his eyes darkened further, betraying the unsatisfying results of his mental struggle.
“Tell them they have my word!” He finally hissed. Giving his word was like volunteering to be caged. He could only show his teeth growling, not bite with them.
On my way back to the haystack, I again took a shortcut through the barren hills. This time, not my chest but my mind was heavy with though.
“Lord, make the sergeant keep his word! Lord, work in the soldiers’ heart and give them your assurance! Oh, Lord!”
I trusted the Lord. Before my eyes He had saved these young men from certain death a few hours earlier. He had just tied up the wild beast in my sergeant behind its self-built cage. He was surely going to preserve their lives from the unpredictable evil that was still to come. I had no other irrefutable evidence to bring to the agitated minds of my friends but this consistency of grace and mercy that my God had already repeatedly shown them.
At the sight of the base, the young men almost deserted again. A multitude of soldiers were milling over one another, tightly pressed around the barbed wire fence. Everyone wanted to get a peek at the deserters. With the restrictive order having been issued that Saturday, the Lord surely had provided many witnesses to His power. With the new arrivals on the base, the attention shifted from me to the two young men. Everyone on the base was filled with curiosity and did not want to miss out on any further developments. The two soldiers clung to me and refused to respond to anything if I was not with them. For the following few hours, I did not leave their side. My very presence appeared to have given them the assurance that the Lord was still with them.
Miraculously they were spared from the sergeant’s wrath. Even more, they were given hot meals and assured that their troubles were over. An hour later we were still in the canteen, when …
Suddenly, the double iron gate opened again. Its sharp screeching sound scratched painfully the extremely sensitive nerves of my friends. Jumping, they glanced at each other and intensely focused their eyes on me as if I was holding the answer. Many of the soldiers who were still hanging close to the gate quickly moved away, saluting the person inside the hooded jeep. An authority of high rank had arrived at the base. At the sergeant’s office, the jeep made a sharp stop stirring the dried mud underneath into a cloud of dust. The vehicle’s door flew open; and the major emerged through the swirling cloud. He had been called for an immediate investigation. From a distance, we watched how with an urgent rush the major pushed himself into the sergeant’s office, dragging gulfs of dusty air along. This was exactly how I remembered him from a year ago. Then, he also had arrived at the base riding on eddies of thunders. He had scrutinized me almost to the point of my fainting, pressing me to verbally deny my beliefs. Then I went through his hell but had come out unscathed. Would now the Lord provide the same for these soldiers?
My friends were called in first. In amazement, my eyes followed my sergeant in disbelief. The two soldiers now were entrusting their fate into his hands? These were not hands of a growling beast, but what now appeared to be a wholehearted counselor. He himself accompanied them to the place of interrogation; words of assurance and safety, no roaring was coming from his mouth, that same mouth that earlier had blasted arrogant threats. It was not the miserable sight of the young men that evoked his compassion; it was Lord’s miraculous transformation that had taken place right in the heart of that heartless man.
“Jordan,” my sergeant’s voice cut my thoughts short, “appear before the major for questioning!” he ordered.
It was my turn. I ran to the office. But only a minute later, I returned to the sergeant again. “Why are you here, Jordan?” my sergeant’s brows wrinkled. “The major said he did not have questions for me, Sir. I told him that I was the witness but he threw me out. Sir.” I reported.
“No wonder,” my sergeant murmured under his breath,“ I could not believe it either.”
Silently, he marched his way back towards the office. I followed him but halted just outside the open door, waiting for further instructions.
“Sir, this is the soldier who found the defectors and brought them to the base.” With waving motion of his head, my sergeant pointed towards me.
Half-hidden behind a large wooden desk, the major lifted himself half way up. His huge, baldhead shook in disbelief. He pushed off the surface underneath and rolled his chair away from the desk. With visible annoyance, he impatiently gestured me to approach closer.
“Him?” he questioned. His appraising look jabbed into my intestines as he circled around me. A deep frown dug a wrinkle through his small forehead. His army-built, communism-shaped value system was now struggling to reconcile two completely incompatible things: the weak man in front of him and the bravery that same man had just displayed. For him it was impossible that I, who had refused to carry a weapon just a few months earlier, was capable of such a noble act as to capture and bring in two deserters.
“Private Jordan,” the major cleared his throat, “I am glad to see that the army climate has enlightened your mind. I commend you on your bravery, Jordan. Well done.” His voice carried traces of growing respect towards me. “Now, report what happened.”
His heavy frame swung around me and with an audible sigh crashed on the chair behind the desk. He was waiting for my testimony.
“Sir, this morning my sergeant gave us an order grounding us for this weekend. Sir, I don’t disobey orders, but something incredible happened. Ten minutes after the order was issued, I felt an irresistible desire to leave camp. The burden became so heavy that my chest seemed it would explode if I did not do it. So, I asked my sergeant for a permission slip. Sir, the Lord had put that burden on me. Sir.”
A loud bang cut my talk. The major’s heavy hand struck the desk. The mentioning of God had provoked him to anger.
“Jordan, leave this “God-talk” aside. I am here to listen to what happened today.”
I swallowed the first sign of resistance and continued:
“I did not know where to go, but the Lord led me to the railroad tracks and there I saw the two soldiers. Sir, I knew that the Lord was sending me to them because my burden was suddenly lifted when I saw them.”
The major dropped the pen, pushed his notes away and with increased annoyance rubbed his huge palms across his face. The fast twitching in his eyes betrayed his growing agitation.
I knew that what I had to report further would be no less annoying, but I continued. His anger grew, as were the stinging sensations in my stomach. I ignored both.
“They were about to commit suicide, Sir; they wanted to throw themselves under the train. But the Lord got me to them just on time.”
With a scornful look on his face, the major yelled at me:
“That’s it! I’ve had enough of this nonsense! Here is a pen and paper, Jordan, write your account!” With a powerful push he lurched away from his desk. The floors echoed the banging of his angry steps. In growing dislike he jammed his face against mine; his fierce look shattered any hopes for understanding. Cunningly he added:
“Be careful what you put on that paper, Jordan, because all goes to court. It is a major investigation. I hope you understand the severity of the situation. You are the only witness, soldier, and the court would want to hear you.”
In my written report, I did not spare the evidence of God’s miraculous delivery of the two soldiers. The description demonstrated how God moved people and events in right order as an ultimate expression of His divine power, how by governing space and time He displayed His divine will and love. I also did not spare words in describing the horrible abuse that the soldiers had endured from the hand of their sergeant. I cherished high hopes that my report of the abuse would reach beyond our army base and somehow, someone would do something to stop the inhumane treatment of the higher rank army officers towards us, the regular enlisted soldiers.
Our sergeant was an unscrupulous man. His power on base was almost unlimited. For one year I had been subjected to the devastating perversions of his sick mind. I had survived. How devastating must have been the situation of the two deserters if they chose a death under the wheels of a train rather than under the wrath of their sergeant!
I hoped for another miracle. Surely they would not take my testimony about God’s interference on behalf of those soldiers, but I hoped that they would not ignore the facts of severe army abuse.
I entrusted the destiny of the report into the hands of my God.
It was dark when the two soldiers were taken to an unknown destination. Their fear was evident. Upon boarding a covered army vehicle, I gave them my final assurance that God would finish what He had started; but I felt that my words did not reach their consciousness. Their senses appeared to have been numbed under the steadily-building tension during that treacherous day.
The heavy iron gate closed behind the vehicle that took the two soldiers away. The piercing sound of the rusted hinges dug their metallic prints deep into my heart.
Three Days Later
The iron gate open. Metal scraping broke the silence of the still dark, early morning sky and a black limousine entered in. This time, the arrival was a secret service investigator assigned to my case. At the crack of dawn, the base again became a troubled beehive. The arrival of higher-ranking officer a few days earlier was a rare event, but my fellow soldiers had never before seen a secret service officer at the base. We all knew that when the secret service was involved things were dangerously unpredictable.
The extraordinary visit stirred fears in everyone. It was not out of compassion towards me, but out of fear of getting into the spotlight that kept my fellow soldiers from being mockingly cruel to me again. They all kept away from me. Nobody wanted to attract the secret service officer’s attention by associating in anyway with me, if even by directing sarcastic comments my way. I had suddenly become invisible to them all.
I felt deeply troubled when I headed toward the sergeant’s office to appear for interrogation before the secret service agent. The door was open; and as I was approaching, I saw three men engaged in an intense discussion. Two of them I knew: my sergeant and the youth communist leader from my army base. The third, a skinny middle-aged man with a stooped back, was the secret service officer. His black suit and very wide black tie contrasted with the white of his shirt, and the reddened retinas of his eyes. For a moment, I wondered how this unimpressive and plain man could evoke so much fear.
The men were seated behind a wide conference table, handing to each other folders of different colors and shapes. Still unnoticed by them, I approached closer. The loose sheets that were scattered on the table were copies of my written report.
“Private Jordan appearing as ordered, Sir.” I reported according to the army code.
My sergeant spoke first; his voice was low and his eyes were subserviently seeking approval from the secret agent. The powerful monster was shockingly transformed into a wiggling house pet. I was disgusted at the degree of conformity exhibited by my sergeant.
”Jordan, you are the only witness on the two deserters’ case. The secret services department has studied your written report, and they have sent a representative to ask further questions. Officer Penev is here for clarification on some of your statements.” With a sheepish smile, he dropped the lead of the interrogation to Officer Penev.
“There are some things, Jordan,” the agent began, his eyes still fixed on the opened folder before him, “There are a few things I need to clarify. First, in your report…,“ he paused, licked his index finger and flipped a page, “you described horrible things that had happened to those soldiers.” He lifted his head and looked at me from behind his gold-framed eyeglasses.
For a long time, Officer Penev asked about details, including timeframes and physical evidence from the time of the surrender. With confidence, I answered his sometime provokingly confusing inquiries. He attacked my statements from different perspectives, looking for evidence that would give him the right to deem my report unreliable. There were none.
Acts of cruelty of army officers towards regular soldiers were known, but nobody had the guts to voice the problem and face those same army officers. I was now bringing charges against some of them on behalf of the two deserters. The Lord’s providence, though, was much greater. At that time, I was not aware that the army officials were not only investigating the actions and morals of the accused officer from the Kashik base but the actions and integrity of all higher ranking officers. The Lord’s hand was graciously extended to many unknown soldiers who, like the two deserters, were probably on the brink of committing suicide.
When the interrogation appeared to have come to an end, Officer Penev changed the topic asking:
“Private Jordan, I see in your file that you have been previously court martialed with charges of refusing to handle weapons. Your God is telling you to do that?” His glasses dropped down to the end of his nose as he looked at me for an answer. Without waiting for one he continued.
“The court is a serious matter, and your report about God doing all the things that you said He did sounds very frivolous. I am urging you that you reconsider your statements and revise them. You can say that on that day you and your Communist party leader went out. Then you saw the two defectors, ran after them, and captured them.” Officer Penev leaned back on his chair and looked at the youth party leader who supported his words with a servile nod of his head. He, then, extended a pointing finger towards me, his voice became sly, “Your membership in the Comsomol, the youth Communist organization, was cut off, yes Jordan? He squeezed his eyes as to penetrate beyond mine. The redness of his retinas had deepened. Completely ignoring my response, he added:
“This will restore your membership, Jordan. Think about it. You will be a hero. You will have your life back. This will erase your past like nothing ever happened.”
For a long moment I stood in front of my inquirers, shocked by their cunning intentions. Encouraged by my silence, the youth party leader began giving me detailed instructions about how to proceed with my new statements.
Self-satisfied smiles were already spreading on their faces, when quietly and humbly, I said:
“Sirs,” I addressed the three of them. My eyes studied for a moment theirs. “You are asking me to lie. I can’t do this. First, the Bible tells me not to lie. Second, I have no desire to join the Youth Communist Organization. It is still against my religious beliefs. Sirs, there is nothing more to add or to change in my testimony.”
My soul despised the treacherous grounds they were pushing me into.
During the following hour, I was subjected to threats that I had repeatedly endured in the past. The tone changed from cunning to menacing. Promises for a good life were quickly replaced with threats of a fast and total destruction.
By the end of the interrogation, the three men appeared dangerously agitated with my stubborn attitude. It was well after noon when they finally ordered me dismissed.
No more investigators came to the base. At the same time there was no news about the fate of the two soldiers.
Nevertheless, the more time passed, the greater relief and hope I got. The fact that I was not called to be a witness meant that there would be no court hearing and no prosecution at all.
It was the day of my discharge from the army. On that day, like many others, I gathered my few belonging and headed to the railroad station. Many parents, relatives, and friends had come to share the soldiers’ excitement. Amidst the colorful crowd, I caught sight of the same two young men. They were in the group of soldiers who was discharged that day. We boarded the same train and had an opportunity to talk.
My suppositions were confirmed: the soldiers had not been prosecuted. There were no charges brought against them, nor any court martial. However, their sergeant was prosecuted and stripped of his army rank. The two soldiers were returned to the Kashik base, where their discharge took place a few months later.
I believe that the Lord in His continuous mercy provided us abundantly with time to talk. For many hours, we shared our common experiences and further encouraged each other. By the power of the Spirit, I testified to the great mercy of God and his saving love. The seeds of the Kingdom of God were planted then and there. It was the much-needed closure that I hoped for.
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