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Missionary Spotlight-Within a bullet’s breadth of hell

June 2003 | by Manfred Koehler

Tall and gangly, Ernesto had a quick smile – especially for the ladies. His light skin was the envy of every Pima girl.

Isidra, Ernesto’s wife, was the first female believer of the indigenous Pima people, and mother of his four children. She loved him dearly, but Ernesto felt he needed several women to fill his cup. More than once, Isidra found him in the company of yet another mistress.

Late one night, a Mexican dance band drowning out the noise of drunken laughter and shuffling shoes, Isidra searched for her man.

She had walked six miles from her ranch, suspecting the worst. She sensed she should pray but was too angry to care. Isidra found him, his arm around the waist of a mini-skirted man-thief.

Remorse

Her brewing emotions overflowed in blind wrath. Striding towards the couple, Isidra grabbed the other woman by the hair and dragged her screaming from the dance floor. Well liquored, Ernesto laughed at the prospect of two women fighting for his affections.

Three hours later, Isidra succeeded in getting her husband back to their ranch, a pack of six beers under his arm. Rather than going to sleep, he kept drinking. With every can of beer, Ernesto became more morose.

‘I’m not worth anything. I’m a bad husband. You should just throw me away’.

Isidra listened silently to his ramblings, sorting out the feelings still churning in her own soul.

Suddenly, Ernesto had a .357 Magnum gun in his hand.

‘I’m going to kill myself,’ he promised her. ‘Then you can get yourself a better man.’

Isidra threw herself at her husband, wrestling for the pistol that pointed dangerously at his chin.

‘Let me go!’ he insisted. ‘One bullet will kill all your problems.’ Isidra refused to listen and fought for his life.

Sovereign grace

The gun erupted. Blood splattered in Isidra’s face. Ernesto fell like a corpse. Their youngest child, Miriam, screamed in horror. By some mercy, Ernesto stumbled back to his feet. Isidra wiped her neck in wild-eyed shock.

‘I’m going to die’, was all he could mumble, his jaw and mouth a pulpy mess.

Three hours before dawn, Steve Lloyd helped get Ernesto to a hospital, then spent the next afternoon cleaning the blood out of his truck.

Lying elevated to slow the bleeding, Ernesto could not sleep. The hospital bed was comfortable, but visions of snakes, guns, and wild laughter haunted his thoughts. Then something caught his eye.

Ernesto remembers it being very white. A shaft of sunlight? An angel? A doctor’s smock? He’s not sure just what, but God used it to focus him on eternity. All the truth he had heard from the missionaries who worked among the Pima people came flashing through his heart.

‘I think well of you, Father’, his mind shouted. ‘I think well of the truth!’ And with that, Ernesto entered into the kingdom of heaven through Jesus Christ the door.

God’s discipline

Moments later, some Christians dropped by and offered to pray for him. He nodded his glad consent. While they prayed, he fell into a long sleep, free of nightmares.

In the months since his brush with death, Ernesto has evidenced a hungry faith that blesses the souls of everyone he meets, especially those of us who instruct him.

Facing five reconstructive surgeries – his X-rays revealing a mass of wires and shattered bone, his jaw leaking with infection – Ernesto bears the ongoing consequences of his foolishness with quiet grace.

‘God had to spank me’, is what he will tell you. ‘That’s the only way I would believe.’

His appreciation of God’s goodness in snatching him from the very gates of hell is unbounded. ‘When I think how God allowed me to live so Jesus could save me, I start crying.’ Tears are rare in Pima culture.

Soon after Ernesto’s return from his first stay at the hospital, I opened a believer’s meeting for anyone who wished to pray.

After a long silence, Ernesto spoke up, his garbled words falling off a tongue that is half gone and over teeth that no longer exist. ‘Father, I can’t talk well, but I want to speak with you anyway…’

Faith

Ernesto and Isidra now help me as Bible translators. Their newfound unity as a couple in Christ is a prize to behold.

Once, while I wearily worked with them on translating into Pima the apostle John’s first letter, Ernesto said, ‘Keep going, Manfred. I’m learning so much from this, I could go all day’. I smiled and kept going.

It is Ernesto’s simple faith that has me most impressed. Recently, he and two brothers-in-law were cutting down a large pine. The wind blew in the wrong direction, pinching the chainsaw’s bar as the tree began to fall.

When pushing failed to stop the tree’s descent, the three men stepped away, convinced the chainsaw would be crushed. Before the worst could happen, Ernesto said in a loud voice, ‘O, that God would use one finger to push that tree in the opposite direction’.

No sooner were the words out of his deformed mouth when God did just that.

All three insist the wind was still blowing the wrong way when the tree dropped. God uses the wind, but he does not have to.

In the same way, when it came to a crucial moment of eternal decision, God could have used his servants alongside – but he did not have to. Ernesto is a living proof of that.

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