Nighttime was the most difficult for the missionary. From deep inside his pit, he could hear wild animals prowling around above him. Small, crawling creatures moved beneath his body where he crouched in a tight ball in an effort to stay warm. He leaned hard against the earthy walls of his prison to steady himself.
He had known martyrdom was a possibility when he signed on for this trip. In his mind, he recalled the thick volume of release forms he had carefully penned with his signature. One had even been titled Notification of Death. Why, then, did he feel so unprepared to meet his end in this godforsaken hole deep inside the bowels of the earth?
He surmised that before being thrown into the pit he had an almost romantic notion of martyrdom. Sure, he might step on a landmine. He could even be beheaded by masked militants with horrified people watching over the internet a world away. But, in his mind, it was always a single gory event. Not this slow, protracted ending.
Night after night he cried out to Jesus. He waited for his eyes to be opened so he could see his Savior sitting at the right hand of God in a spectacular vision just as Stephen had during his stoning. But, it never came.
The missionary sat alone, trembling in the darkness, surrounded by the smells of the earth. He had been asleep for only moments when he was startled into consciousness by the sound of flapping wings. A bird descended into his pit and settled very close by.
“Are you a vulture? Have you come to tear me apart?”
The bird shifted and ruffled its feathers. It didn’t sound large enough to be a vulture.
“What are you then? A crow looking for worms?” His words were met by silence.
The missionary assumed the bird would peck the ground for a while and then fly away. He was wrong. The bird sat very near him all night. He was looking forward to the morning so he could see what kind of bird it was. But, right before sunrise, he heard the flapping of wings again and it was gone. The missionary was alone again.
But the next night, the bird returned. And the night after that. Every time, it would depart immediately before dawn. The missionary was grateful for the company of another living being and found himself wishing it would stay during the daylight as well.
On its fourth visit, the bird fluttered into the pit and walked right up to where the missionary sat. In the shadows, he could hear the bird’s feet scratching against the soil. Then he felt the bird deposit something in his hand. It felt like a twig.
The missionary rolled the twig between his fingers and felt something smooth and round. Berries. The bird had brought him berries. Tears streamed down his face.
“Thank you, friend.” As he greedily ate the bird’s offering, the missionary remembered the biblical story of Elijah being fed by ravens in 1 Kings. He decided the bird must be a raven.
“Yes, that’s what you are. A raven.” Once again, the bird remained with the missionary throughout the night.
The days began to pass by quickly and the missionary welcomed the darkness because he knew it would bring with it a visit from his friend. To his great delight, the raven continued to look after him night after night. Sometimes they sat silently together at the bottom of the pit. Occasionally, the missionary spoke to the raven and told it stories of his home far away.
Despite the raven’s nightly visits, the missionary grew very weak. The trembling became constant and soon his body was wracked with fever and chills.
“I fear the end is near, my friend,” the missionary whispered to the raven. The moon was falling and soon the sun would take its place in the sky. “Please stay with me.”
As if it understood, the bird did stay and continue its vigil beside the missionary. The sun rose up to meet the clouds and a small ray of light spread across the pit. At long last, the missionary opened his eyes and saw the face of his friend. It wasn’t a raven after all; before him sat a delicate dove with feathers of purest white.
“My Lord, it’s been you all this time.” A smile of peace came to his lips and the martyr finally breathed his last.
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