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In the Nick of Time

There are moments when we must act decisively

I’ll confess I was always a little afraid of Leslie’s dad. Al was the rough-hewn product of Cicero, Illinois (Capone’s old stomping grounds, he would remind me), a stout, brusque, and fiercely opinionated barber who found his niche later in life shearing off hair at a military base. When you got through his tough-as-nails exterior, you’d find a heart of gold, but it wasn’t always easy to bore through the crust!

Still we did enjoy one thing in common: we were both satisfied atheists — until Leslie became a follower of Jesus… and then, two years later, I did as well. One of the first things I said to Leslie after I became a Christian was, “We should tell Al about this!”

The very next time we got together, in a burst of naive enthusiasm, I excitedly told Al the story of my spiritual journey. My unstated implication was, Hey, Al, you should become a Christian, too!

Al’s expression remained stoic. “Look, that’s fine for you, but don’t ever bring up Jesus to me again, okay?” he said, jabbing a finger at me to punctuate his point.

To his credit, through the following years Al never criticized or tried to impede or inhibit my faith in any way. In fact, when I later told him with great trepidation that I was going to leave my newspaper career and take a sixty percent pay cut to work at a church, he surprised me by being supportive. “If that’s what you feel you want to do with your life,” he said, “then you should do it.”

For the next twenty years, all Leslie and I could do for Al was to authentically live out our faith and to consistently pray for him. Yet through it all, we saw not one glimmer of interest in spiritual matters. His language remained just as coarse; his skepticism toward church never softened; and his indifference toward God was always complete.

Then one day Al suffered a stroke. Leslie and I huddled with his doctor at the nurse’s station outside Al’s hospital room. After going through an elaborate medical explanation that neither of us quite understood, the doctor gave this ominous prognosis: “Al is going to have a series of these strokes over the next several months until one of them is fatal.”

When Al was released from the hospital, Leslie and I moved him and his wife Helen, who was a Christian, to a house that was close to ours. Al’s mind was sharp but he became increasingly lethargic. We avoided the uncomfortable topic of his diagnosis, never coming out and explicitly discussing his condition with him. It was simply understood that Al was slowly fading away.

Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. My usual evangelistic style is testimonial — in other words, I tend to tell the story of my journey to faith as a way of engaging spiritually curious people. I also use an intellectual approach, discussing questions or objections with seekers over time. Other Christians tend to be more direct in their evangelistic efforts, which is fine if it fits their personality. As for me, I’m generally uncomfortable with personal confrontations and try to avoid them.

But in the case of my father-in-law, I couldn’t wait it any longer. One day I encouraged Leslie and Helen to go out shopping so Al and I could be alone. After they left I pulled up a chair to face Al, who was seated in a recliner in his living room.

“Al,” I said with intensity. “Do you realize you’re dying? Do you understand that you don’t have much longer in this world?” Al looked at me with sadness in his eyes, but he didn’t say anything. “I don’t want to be in heaven without you. Leslie and Helen and the grandkids — none of us wants to be in heaven without you. Please, Al,” I pleaded. Still, there was no response.

“Al, you can be in heaven with all of us. Jesus paid the price for your sins. If you admit your wrongdoing — and, Al, you know you haven’t always lived the way you should — then you can receive Christ’s forgiveness for everything you’ve ever done wrong. He will wipe your slate clean and open the door to heaven for you. It’s a free gift, Al. Why wouldn’t you want to receive it?”

I could tell Al was tracking my every word, but he remained silent. I didn’t know what else to say — and that’s when I did something I had never done before but which seemed so very necessary at the moment.

I sat back in my chair and whispered under my breath so that Al, who was hard of hearing, couldn’t make out what I was saying: “Satan, unhand him! Let him go! He is not yours!” I felt like the evil one actually had him in his grasp and was going to drag him away.

I turned back to Al and continued to implore him to receive Jesus. I explained repentance as best I could. I emphasized that despite his best intentions to live a good life, he was a sinner who needed God’s grace. And slowly I began to see a crack in Al’s facade. Something in his face told me that his heart was opening.

“Al, you want to confess your sins and receive Christ right now, don’t you?” I asked — and then I held my breath.

Instantly, tears filled his eyes and Al slowly nodded. I breathed a sigh of relief, then lead him, sentence by sentence, through a simple prayer of repentance and faith. The whole time, my heart felt like it was going to explode!

At the end, a smile played at the corner of Al’s mouth. I went over and hugged him like never before. “Welcome home, Al!” I declared. “Welcome home.”

Almost on cue, Leslie and Helen returned from shopping and I told them the news. They erupted in celebration, and Al beamed as they hugged and kissed him.

This was time for a party! Leslie started to cook a special dinner — but after a little while we noticed that something was wrong with Al. His right side was suddenly weak. “He’s having another stroke!” Leslie screamed.

We called 9-1-1 and the paramedics loaded him onto the ambulance. Leslie climbed inside, while I drove with Helen in our car to the hospital. The ambulance arrived first. As they began wheeling Al into the emergency room, he looked up at Leslie and said softly, “Tell Lee thanks.”

It turns out that this stroke was the one that would destroy Al’s mind. He was left in a state of constant confusion. Al ended up lingering for several weeks — and then he finally went Home.

So in the last cogent conversation of his life, after more than eight decades of ardent atheism, Al Hirdler — one of the last persons I ever thought would receive Jesus — had finally opened his heart to God’s outrageous gift of grace. Just in the nick of time.

The lesson to me was clear. All of us have a style of evangelism that syncs up well with our personality, yet there are circumstances where we need to move beyond our usual approach in order to reach someone who’s in urgent need of Christ. Yes, it may make us feel a bit awkward — but our discomfort isn’t nearly as important as their eternity.

Sometimes we have no choice: we have to act — and fast. I remember when my friend Mark Mittelberg and I were in the church basement and he got a large pill caught in his windpipe. His airflow blocked, he looked at me in a wide-eyed panic.

I had no experience with medical emergencies. I had never taken a first-aid course. I could dial 911, but he would have suffocated by the time the paramedics got there. So I performed the Heimlich maneuver on Mark and fortunately it worked on the second try — just in the nick of time.

When I was fourteen years old, I became trapped in a fire in the basement of our family’s suburban Chicago home. A police officer arrived before the firefighters, who are trained and experienced in rescuing victims in these dangerous situations. But the policeman knew he had to act immediately and so he entered into the fiery and smoke-filled basement and led me to safety — just in the nick of time.

And there are instances when God might use you to rescue someone from an even worse fate. You may know that the person has only a short time to live, or she is departing on a dangerous mission that could jeopardize her safety, or you know you will probably never get a chance to see this person again and he has no other Christian influences in his life.

At times like that, merely planting a spiritual seed isn’t enough. We have to cast aside our own discomfort and usual approaches to evangelism and adopt some of the apostle Peter’s direct or confrontational style even though it may not be our own.

But have confidence: when those circumstances arise, you won’t be alone. As I found while I was desperately trying to rescue Al from an unthinkable eternity apart from God, there is Someone who loves him even more than I did. The Holy Spirit showed up to thwart Satan and drive my otherwise ineffective words deep into Al’s heart — just in the nick of time.

You can trust that at the right time, when you’ve pushed yourself as far as you can in the adventure of evangelism, he is going to show up for you, too.

“See to it that no one misses the grace of God.”Hebrews 12:15

For a six-week devotional full of stories that will raise your motivation to share Christ with others, check out The Unexpected Adventure: Taking Everyday Risks to Talk With People About Jesus, which I co-authored with Mark Mittelberg. It’s also available in e-book or audio.