Shoppers bustled about the fine candies, wine decanters, cookies and jams, their fur coats and high tech winter jackets filling every aisle on the day before Christmas. I had filled my hand basket with last minute stocking stuffers and odd gifts for my grown children, waiting for the aisles to clear enough to move on to the wine racks. I was hoping God would lead me to some great gift for my family.
A voice I barely recognized as familiar rang through the high-end wine and food shop. As I turned to search the customers crowding around me for a familiar face, a carefully dressed, balding man in his sixties stepped out from between two chatting women and held out his hand.
“Karl, how are you?”
It was my old life insurance agent. One I hadn’t seen for three years. I tensed and waited for the pitch.
“How are you? It’s Paul. Paul Baranowski.”
The man’s eternally pleasant voice seemed as excited as if he had just run into his long lost brother.
I sighed, and realized I wasn’t getting to that wine rack for another fifteen minutes; if then.
“I’m OK. Keeping on keeping on. How about you?”
I hated to ask the question and open a conversation, but it was Christmas Eve. “Maybe,” I thought, “he’ll say something interesting.” I immediately put that nonsense out of my mind.
“Not well, not well. I have metastatic kidney cancer and I’m dying.” His bright chirpy voice never missed a beat. The smile on his face wavered not a bit. I stared at Paul Baranowski’s mouth and slowly held out my hand.
“Sorry to hear that. There are new advances, you know, in cancer research. I read…”
“No,” the man in the neat blue dress shirt interrupted. “I’m dying. It spread to my liver and they stopped treatment. I was going to undergo an experimental procedure, but my Doctor told me last week that I’ m not well enough to survive it. I’m going to die… soon.”
I let go of his hand. Paul’s voice wavered just barely.
“This is my last Christmas. I’m telling my family goodbye and putting my affairs in order.”
The dignified businessman, who had entered my life at the meticulous direction of his Infusion sales software, every three months like clockwork, allowed his lip to tremble.
“I’m not ready. I don’t want to die.”
The other shoppers crowded around us, struggling through the aisle, pushing ever forward towards the sweet Chardonnay and soft red California wines. The swarm of well-to-do men and women clutched expensive trinkets and chocolates, as their chatter filled the posh store like a flock of starlings.
Horror welled up as I opened my mouth with nothing to say. Paul, the forever appropriate insurance man, always upbeat in the face of my unbroken wave of disinterest; dressed impeccably, it seemed, from the moment he awoke, burst into tears; bawling a foot from me as I, and half a dozen others, stared at him.
Something in the invisible shattered, and from another world a wave of love flooded through my bewildered heart. The broken, hopeless man drowning in despair, unable to resist the dark evil thing that was swallowing him whole became, in that instant, my brother. I could almost see an invisible power dragging him to his untimely death in front of me.
“Can I pray for you?” I quietly asked. I was ready to cry.
Through his sobs, a weak and broken “yes” emerged.
“Please remember me in your prayers.”
“No,” my voice grew louder and stronger, “I mean, can I pray for you now?” I sensed something dark and powerful begin to rear up from within him.
Paul’s tearful head shook up and down, as snot began to run down his red face. Other shoppers were obviously horrified, pressing against one another, desperate to put some distance between us, struggling in the mob of shoppers to escape this madness and return to the safety of their world of Christmas busyness.
“Can I put my hand on your shoulder?”
Paul’s head continued to nod.
As a few customers looked on, confused and somewhat concerned for their safety, I laid my hand on my friend’s shoulder. I began to pray out loud.
“LORD God, I come to you in the name of Jesus.” My voice grew louder and I could feel the weight of Paul’s body as he began to lean against me. “Father, I ask you to comfort Paul. I ask you to deliver him from this disease in Jesus’ name. I curse every cancer cell in his body.”
As my voice grew louder, out of the corner of my eye I could see people turning to stare, no longer trying to move forward through the aisle.
“I bind you, Satan, in Jesus’ name!” I was almost yelling. “I destroy your works through the blood of Messiah! I command you to leave Paul Baranowski alone, in the name of Jesus!”
I could feel Paul sag against me, his chest heaving with every breath and sob. I had no idea whether anyone else was still in the aisle.
“Lord God, Yahweh, I thank you for delivering your people, Israel. I thank you that you are a God of mercy and grace and that you are a God of new beginnings. There is only you. There is no other god. Oh, LORD, you alone came to give men beauty for ashes. I ask you to heal Paul now, to change the course of his life. Thank you, Father, for healing him.”
I was shouting now, my head back, one arm raised in the air, the other embracing an aging pale man in a business suit. The entire store was silent. Tears ran down my face, as I struggled to keep my runny nose under control. I removed my hand from Paul’s shoulder.
“Thank you,” he whispered; so softly I could barely hear him.
The flow of traffic once again filled every conceivable nook and cranny in the busy store, as the sound of a hundred conversations rose above the clatter of glass and metal.
“I’ve got to go.” Paul’s voice was quiet but steady. “Thank you so much.”
Almost magically, Paul Baranowski was transformed into the same nondescript businessman he had been when he stepped out of the crowd to greet me, only a few minutes before.
I grabbed his hand with both of mine, muttered “God bless you,” and watched as Paul turned and slowly walked away. He never looked back as he disappeared into the teeming crowd of shoppers.
After a few moments, I picked up my basket, haltingly made my way to the wine racks, finished shopping and went home to my family.
I have never been one to pray for people on a daily basis, but the following afternoon I was again moved to plead with God for Paul’s healing. The next day as well. And the day after that and the day after that. Every day for six months I asked the LORD to remember Paul and heal him. I bound and cursed and prayed each and every day, and was sure that something was happening.
After six months, however, it occurred to me that I might be praying for a dead man. It seemed like either God had healed Paul or he must have already died. Although I decided to get in contact with him, the problem was that I had no idea how to spell Paul’s name or where he lived. For almost a month, I tried various databases and spellings of Baranowski, all to no avail. So I continued to pray.
Another month passed. I was meeting with a friend at a small breakfast cafe, when I heard someone call out.
As I turned around, I saw Paul Baranowski bounding across the room, his arm extended, his face beaming with joy.
“The scan was clear! No cancer!”
I grabbed ahold of Paul’s hand and let the news sink in. He had heard me! The living God of Israel, the God of this Universe; Yahweh, who spread out the heavens like a curtain, had responded to me; had given me the desire of my heart. He had taken mercy on a dying, hopeless man because He is a faithful God of mercy and grace.
After brief congratulations, Paul, meticulously dressed, returned to his business meeting; no doubt carefully orchestrated by his Infusion client contact software. I sat at the table with my friend, thinking about what had happened. I realized, as I turned my attention to the eggs and english muffin before me, that God had given me the best Christmas gift that I had ever received.