The stranger in the road

The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) calls us to minister in love and compassion to those suffering strangers who lie in our pathway. My father was once one of these. Here is his story.

Born in Croatia, in the former Yugoslavia, my father's mother brought him to the United States as a boy. All his life he had wanted to return to his homeland, and now, with ticket in hand, he was set to go.

The departure date was approaching when he called me one morning. I was a teacher at Andrews University at the time. He told me he had experienced something like an explosion in his head the night before, and now felt weak and could not walk a straight line. I surmised that my father had suffered a mini-stroke. I urgently admonished him, "Do not go to Yugoslavia, Father, but to a doctor." He was a very strong-willed person, but acceded to my appeal. The physician examined him, took tests, and released him with instructions to return in a couple of days to discuss his test results. The time came but, instead of returning, my father announced, "I feel O.K. I'm going to Yugoslavia." And he did.

While he was there, I received a postcard from him. He was in Split, a city on the coast of the Adriatic. He described the area as being beautiful beyond words. But, he said, the pace was fast--he was traveling with friends--and he felt so...The sentence was not completed. There was only a drooping line where his pen had run down the card. This unsettled me.

The date came when he was to return home. My brother waited for him at the airport in Detroit. A long line of people got off the plane, but Dad was not among them. My brother called me right away. Two words flashed before my mind, "Heart attack." I assumed I would receive some word about my father, but no word came until two days had elapsed! Then a telegram arrived with a very short message, "Father in hospital. Heart attack." Nothing was said about how or where he was. I thought I would surely receive another message telling me more, but no further word came.

Finally I decided to call the United States embassy in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. A soft-spoken Yugoslavian woman came on the line. She kindly responded to my story with the promise to look for my father and telephone me. The next day she called. "I am so sorry, Mr. Blazen. Your father has had a massive heart attack and is in the hospital critically ill." She spoke tender words of comfort to me.

I realized my father was going to die and fervently desired to be with him before that happened. I had never been to Yugoslavia and needed some advice on staying there, perhaps for an extended time. I procured a substantial list of Yugoslav students studying at Andrews. My fingers ran down the list, and I randomly picked the name of a married seminary student. During my visit, he gave me many good tips and said he would make certain preparations for me. In a short time, I was on a plane to Yugoslavia. Would I get there in time?

I later learned what had happened to my father. On the day before he was to return, he visited the birthplace of Marshal Tito, the former president of Yugoslavia. My father had admired Tito very much because of his fight against the Nazi invaders during World War II. The birthplace was at the foot of a very high, steep hill. At the top was a souvenir shop and restaurant. My father was about two-thirds of the way up the hill when he felt a massive pain in his chest. It was a heart attack. Nevertheless, he climbed the last third of the hill. Staggering to the top, he collapsed.

It was then that unanticipated things began to take place. I had grown up in a Catholic family. When, as a teenager, I became an Adventist, much to the consternation of my parents, this inaugurated an extremely difficult time with my father. He was angry beyond measure and rejected me as his son.

Little did I know that from the time of his collapse on that Croatian hill to the end of his life he would be very much involved with Adventists. From the hilltop, my father was rushed to a clinic seven kilometers away. There a Seventh-day Adventist doctor gave him a shot in the heart that kept him alive until he got to the hospital in Zagreb. Her sister, also an Adventist physician, worked in that very hospital. She began to visit my father, as did an Adventist nurse on staff.

Unbelievably, the parents of the wife of the Yugoslav seminarian I had called upon for help lived next door to the hospital! This Adventist couple visited my father every day. They brought him food, which he was too weak to eat, and juice, some of which he could drink. They touched his very pained body. They turned him one way and then another. They lifted him up and put him down. Above all, they talked to him about Jesus. One day, in light of their conversations with him, they asked if he had given his heart to the Lord. In full sincerity he said,"Yes." He came close to the Lord because, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, someone came close to him, a stranger in the road, in care and compassion.

All this was taking place before I arrived in Yugoslavia. It was beyond anything I could have imagined. But more was to happen. Getting off the plane in Zagreb, I was unexpectedly met by a tall, well-groomed man who announced he would take me to the hospital. This undoubtedly was due to the "preparations" the seminary student said he would make for me. As we drove to the hospital I said to my generous host, "I suppose you are a minister here in town." He responded, "You might say that I am something like that." In fact he was the conference president! What an honor. Here I was, just a stranger in the road, and the conference president came to help me. What a contrast to the two ministers of religion in the parable, the priest and the Levite, who refused to minister to a wounded stranger.

It was an incredible moment when I walked into my dad's hospital room. He had no idea I was coming. He was sitting up on the edge of the bed with the nurse supporting him. When our eyes met, I saw the look of unbelieving joy in my dad's face. A torrent of emotion swept through me. I had made it. My father was still alive. God's blessing was clear.

When we began to talk, my father said things I will never forget. He, for whom I had such longing for years that he come to know his Lord and the Adventist faith, said to me, "If they make people like this, then I want to be a part of this people. You are a righteous people." The "people like this" were the Seventh-day Adventists who had been visiting and caring for him, a stranger in their road.

A little later, my father said, "If I live to get out of here, I want to be baptized into this people." Unbelievable! What had led him to this place? Not doctrine, but Adventist people radiating the love of Christ.

This accords with something that happened several weeks before my father made the journey to his homeland. Each year at Andrews University, Yugoslavs from all over North America come together for a few days of camp meeting. It dawned on me that I ought to invite my dad to these meetings where he would hear his native language spoken and music played on instruments he himself played. He accepted the invitation and thoroughly enjoyed all that took place.

At the church service on Sabbath, Theodore Carcich, the big, strapping Croatian vice-president of the General Conference, then retired, was speaking. At one point in his sermon, he began to talk about the mark of the beast. This worried me with my Catholic father right next to me. He wasn't ready for this. I began to pray, "Dear Lord, help Elder Carcich talk about something else." Suddenly Elder Carcich switched thoughts and said: "In the area of the state of Washington where I live are many Catholics. You know, the only way to win a Catholic to the Adventist Church is to love him." Elder Carcich was even more right than he knew at the time! After the sermon, as my father stood conversing with people, I asked Elder Carcich if he would be willing to meet my father. He burst forth with an enthusiastic, "Oh, yes," and moved swiftly toward my father like a Yugoslavian tank. Whomp, he threw his arms around my dad and gave him a gigantic hug. My father was a big man, but the good elder was even bigger, and all that was left showing of my dad was his stunned face. This expression of Adventist love and acceptance was extremely moving. Elder Carcich's words and actions were a prophecy and preparation for what was to come in Yugoslavia.

One day my father said to me and the conference president standing near in his hospital room, "Put one of your hands up to the hand of the other." Our palms and upward pointing fingers came together. Then my father placed his hands around ours, looked me straight in the eye, and said, "You are my son," turned to the president and said, "And you are my friend." His words were a complete reversal of his long-ago declaration: "You are no longer my son. You have no place in this home!" Now, in my father's final hours of life, he solemnly asserted that I was his son. At that very moment, I believe, the heavenly Father was bowing low to my father's bed saying, "And you are My son."

None of the medications given so far had been effective in relieving my father's pain. As I learned later, two-thirds of his heart muscle had been destroyed in the attack, and his circulation was so poor that gangrene began to develop on his toes. His pain and feeling of cold were unbearable. I pled with the doctor to give him an even more potent painkiller. After hesitation and reflection--he was worried that a stronger medication might cause my dad's heart to stop--he agreed. He decided upon morphine which put my father into a relaxed and peaceful sleep. He stayed that way all day. Late in the evening, two people I had gotten to know convinced me to accept a dinner invitation. With my father resting comfortably, we set off by car to a distant restaurant. Upon our return it was past midnight, and I thought they were going to take me right to my hotel. Instead they asked if I would like to visit my father. I said yes, and before long I was in the critical-care unit of the hospital. In the quiet of the moment, with not even the nurse present, I approached my father's bed. He was propped up on his pillow asleep, just as I had left him. I put my hand upon him and prayed, "Dear heavenly Father, forgive my father his sins and receive him into Your everlasting kingdom." About an hour and a half later, my father died. What a privilege that I could put a benediction upon the one who had made my introduction to the world possible.

When I was just a kid, my father told me that one night he had had a dream in which he was instructed to give ten days to God. Throughout my life, I would periodically ask him if he had given God those ten days. Repeatedly he told me, "Not yet, but I will." Strikingly, I spent ten days with my father in the hospital. He died on the tenth day, a day that Catholics call "All Saints Day." I believe that my father, Catholic as he was, Adventist as he became, is now listed among the saints, and that the ten days I was with him at the close of his life were the ten days he was commissioned to give. No one should ever give up on the salvation of another. God's grace can come any time, even in circumstances of suffering, and even at the end of life.

Previous to my father's death, the night nurse made a memorable statement: "God is not good. I am good." This was not a blasphemous remark. She meant that she was doing everything she could for the comfort and healing of her patients, but God did not seem to be doing anything. Where was the evidence of His presence? But I believe God was there. His unseen presence was working through my father's suffering. God did not take away his suffering, though his death brought a halt to his pain, but His providence guided my dad to a heartfelt conversion experience, not merely to Adventism, but to God as loving Savior and Lord. When my father awakes, he will find himself in the loving arms of God.

Elder Carcich, you were right. The love Adventists showed led my father to the God of love. And Ellen White, you were right when you wrote, "The last message of mercy to be given to the world is a revelation of His [God's] character of love" (Christ's Object Lessons, p. 415). That can only happen through us, God's servants, as we extend love and care to every stranger lying in our road.

Ivan T. Blazen (Ph.D., Princeton Theological Seminary) is a professor of religion at Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California, U.S.A.