As part of a rather unusual Easter cantata last Sunday at our church, Steve Scheibner told his story. You probably do not recognize the name, but his story revived some old memories for me and the questions he asked resonated with me. In September, 2011, Scheibner was a Navy reservist, a church planter and an active pilot of Boeing 757s and 767s. He has worked as a pilot for American Airlines since 1991 and had 8 years prior to that in active duty in the Navy flying P3s. His story of 9/11 experience and how it affected him is told in the riveting video entitled “In My Seat”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLj4akmncsA (produced by his son). On September 10, 2001, he signed up to fly the ill-fated Flight 11 out of Boston to Los Angeles. He never did. Instead, he was bumped by a First Officer with more seniority - Tom McGuinness. We all know the story of that morning, but Scheibner added something I didn’t know. The pilot and First Officer McGuinness were stabbed and thrown into the first-class section before the plane flew into the building – but Tom McGuinness knew Christ as his Savior and had a vibrant testimony. He graduated to the paradise that escaped his murderers.
Scheibner states he is often asked two questions since 9/11. Does he still like to fly? Yes. For what reason did God spare his life? He had no real answer then and he still doesn’t. He just realizes that he is living on borrowed time – and that his life’s main goal is to someday hear “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
I understood from where he was coming.
It has been a dozen years. Six months after 9/11, on Sunday, March 17, 2002, I was supposed to be preaching the morning sermon in the International Protestant Church in Islamabad, Pakistan. Things were tense in Islamabad after 9/11 and American (and many other) diplomats had just recently returned to live in Pakistan. I had been working with Samaritan’s Purse in Afghanistan near Mazar-i-Sharif and had been asked by a local pastor and his son to preach at the International Church upon my return. For some reasons that I never fully understood but to which I acquiesced, my Pakistani pastor friends changed their mind upon my return to Islamabad and instead they asked me to preach in two slum churches that Sunday. I had enjoyed the experience preaching in the slum churches a few weeks earlier and I was fine with the change. I looked forward to it.
It was a bright sunny morning. After a heart-warming worship service with fellow Pakistani believers in a packed house church, we went to run some errands at the United Nations building before going to the next slum. While there, my companion, Pastor Ishaq, received a call on his cell phone. His face grew ashen and he began running for the car. The International Church had been bombed. His family had been in attendance.
That day was a blur. Stories conflicted as rumors flew. There had been minimal security at the church that morning and the two terrorists had no trouble slipping in during the song service. Exactly how many assailants there actually were (two or more?), how many Russian hand grenades were tossed and whether one wore a suicide vest are all things that are still unclear – but five died that morning. One body was unidentifiable after being torn asunder by an explosion (he was presumed to be one of the assassins) and many others were injured by flying shrapnel. The preacher was badly injured. My notes at the time identified him as “Dr. Christie” but the internet reports of the time do not identify who was preaching. In the list of the injured, there was a Dr. Christe Muneer, a Pakistani, who was treated at one of the hospitals. It may well have been him. Two “Christopher”s, one of whom was Christopher Ali from Illinois, were listed but what I can read, he clearly was not the speaker. I was told at the time that the speaker sustained a severe compound fracture of his leg and that his brachial plexus near the shoulder was damaged, which would leave him with a permanent dysfunction of his arm. I was deeply shaken when I realized that I easily could have been the one torn by the blast – and that metal a few inches in the wrong direction would have ended my life. Why him and why not me? I have never heard what happened to him thereafter but I have prayed for him often. Thankfully, Pastor Ishaq’s family had only minor injuries.
That day, I went to the largest hospital with Pastor Ishaq and talked and prayed with many of the injured. I saw the shrouded dead on gurneys in a side hall. I didn’t have a Pakistani license to practice medicine which frustrated me. I couldn’t help medically. Even at this remote time, I do not know the final outcome of that day. I recently read internet reports that stated the escaped perpetrator was killed and four conspirators were captured in July of that year. Two years later, the master-mind was captured and punished. They belonged to a group called Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and they claimed the attack was in retaliation for the US attack on Afghanistan.
Both then and now, I was and am forced to face the same question that Steve Scheibner still can’t answer well either. For what reason would God spare our lives? We have both come to the same incomplete answer – that we must live out our lives in the most God-honoring way we can do it because Someone actually did die on the cross for us. I am living on borrowed time. I cannot be a someday Christian, but must live each day for Him.
How will God judge my efforts? It is interesting how God has changed my life in the past 20 years. I have now practiced missionary medicine longer than I practiced US medicine. My priorities are no longer the same as they once were. At the recent SAGES (Society of American Gastrointestinal Endoscopic Surgeons) meeting, I saw the OR equipment shown in the picture on the right. Now look at my drawing on the left from twenty years ago. The similarities in design are not accidental. I have somewhere in my files a letter from back then from someone in the company stating that they were using our ideas. At one point, that would have upset me terribly, especially if I had gone ahead with my plans to build such operating rooms by buying the German company with whom I had worked. Now, I only regret that they still haven’t implemented all of our ideas.
We leave for Greece April 26 to participate in the CMDA-CMDE conference. This is the first time for the African and Middle East contingency that entire missionary families have been able to come (we have offered that in Thailand for over a decade). We will have missionaries there from Africa, Asia and S. America – the first trans-world conference of its type. We expect record attendance. That it is in the part of the world where the Gospel first spread is fitting and a wonderful blessing for those who can take some side-trips to enjoy the history of the area. Please pray that God will prepare the hearts of all who attend – both to serve and to learn. Pray for traveling safety, for all the continuing medical education and for the spiritual life speaker. Pray that the missionaries will be rejuvenated and restored.
Please pray for the CMDA-CMDE meeting and the associated travel of all the attendees.
Yours, living on borrowed time,
Bruce, Micky and Sean
P.S. The news of the three murdered Americans (including the one physician) at the Kabul CURE hospital is headline news. As I write this, they still haven’t released the names of the father-son duo at the time or the condition of the woman who was also shot. It makes this newsletter even more relevant, perhaps. Whether we live or die, it must be for Christ. Pray for the families and co-workers – and pray for safety for all the missionaries in this world.