Strange phone call

I had been driving for several hours, and I was finally near enough to my destination that I knew my way without looking at the mapquest.com directions in my hand. My cell phone rang, and I answered it, wondering why my husband felt a need to call me now. He was in the car behind me, with our older son, and even as directionally-impaired as he is, he should have recognized the area leading to his aunt’s house.

How are you doing today?

Well, that certainly wasn’t my husband’s voice, and I couldn’t immediately place it. Someone from work, maybe? (Where I used to work until last Friday, that is – maybe someone wondering how I was handling unemployment, someone who hadn’t yet heard that I was offered a new job on Monday, and that I start work on Sept. 4.)

“Fine,” I answered, somewhat noncommittally since I didn’t know who I was speaking to. I waited for the speaker to identify himself and his reason for calling.

What do you think happens to people when they die?

I can’t say I’ve never been asked that question before, but not on a cell phone from someone I didn’t know. (I was pretty sure anyone who knew me would have identified himself – by allusions to present circumstances if not by name – before asking a question like that.) When my son asked a question like that, it was because of concerns about life after death. Was my unknown caller worried about dying?

“It depends on the person,” I answered. I had a theological explanation in mind, though I also couldn’t help thinking of a young adult fantasy novel I’m in the middle of reading. The Serpent’s Shadow is the third book of Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles, where Sadie and Carter Kane interact with the gods of ancient Egypt to save the world.

I had just read a chapter in which the soul of a man is being judged, and the judgment takes place in the context of ancient Egyptian beliefs because “the afterlife looks different to every soul … depending on what they believe.” “And if someone doesn’t believe in any afterlife?” Sadie asks. “Then that’s what they experience.” I don’t think it works that way, but it’s an interesting way to think of it.

So you think you’re good enough for Heaven?

The question seemed to be said as a challenge, though I hadn’t claimed any such thing. I suppose my answer had implied at least two different sorts of post-death experience, which in our culture would generally mean Heaven and Hell. And there don’t seem to be too many people who think that they personally are headed for Hell. So I suppose his challenge wasn’t all that unreasonable.

“No, it’s a matter of having Jesus Christ as Savior.” By now I surmised that my inquisitor wasn’t really asking questions, but rather checking to see that I knew the right answers.

So you know you deserve to go to Hell?

Well, yes, I would agree with that statement, but I have to admit that I felt a bit uncomfortable having it stated quite so baldly. It’s one thing to admit it to God in prayer. It’s rather different to have a complete stranger asking me to confirm it by cell phone.

“Yes, apart from Jesus Christ.” I was beginning to hope that this person was about done asking questions. Had it occurred to him that I might be driving a car (this was during rush hour), and that this conversation could possibly distract me enough from the task at hand to hasten my entry into said afterlife?

He explained that he was just calling numbers at random (within the same area code – checking the number later showed me that the caller is located some thirty miles or so east of where I live), encouraging people to get right with God. And I explained that I was driving and I really needed to pay attention to traffic because my turn was coming up. We both hung up, and I explained the strange phone call to my younger son, who of course had heard only my side of the conversation.

When I was a teenager, I took classes at church and at Bible school on doing personal evangelism. Whether meeting people by going door to door, handing out tracts on the street, or taking advantage of chance encounters in a public place such as an airport, the idea was to ask the person, “If you were to die tonight, do you know for sure you’d go to Heaven?”

I knew how to proceed in the conversation, depending on the person’s answer, and what Scripture verses to use to steer the conversation through an explanation of how to receive salvation through Jesus Christ. What I didn’t know, because I had never encountered someone asking that question (other than for practice purposes during classes in evangelism), was what answer I would give if I were asked.

The words that I had a problem with were “know for sure.” I’ve sometimes told people that I could be made to doubt my own name if someone pressed me hard enough. How could I possibly say I was absolutely certain of something that depends both on faith in the truth of the Christian Scriptures and on the Evangelical interpretation of them?

But this caller hadn’t used the words “for sure,” so I didn’t have trouble answering him. I just had trouble believing that his approach to evangelism is likely to be much more fruitful than my own attempts as a teenager. (The one person who ever prayed the “sinner’s prayer” with me was a drunk who may have been sincerely repentant and may be living a vibrant Christian life today – or may not have had more than a very hazy notion what I was saying and he was repeating.)

God uses all sorts of people and means to accomplish His purposes. Who am I to say that the man who called me was not led by God to make his “random” phone calls? But based on my own experiences through five decades of life, important life decisions and changes normally come about through interactions between people who know each other, and who interact – primarily, at least – in person.

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