Read an Excerpt From "Butterflies in the Belfry—Serpents in the Cellar"

Thump, thump, thump fell the cards before me and behind me as I—in a zombielike state—boarded the faded green train, which listed to one side because of broken springs, a consequence of chronic overloading.

I collapsed into a well-worn red vinyl seat. I rarely had a seat on this train commuting to and from Arabic classes, when it was standing room only. At peak travel times, I was lucky to get into the interior of the train at all. Once, I’d hung on the outside with my toes on a quarter-inch ledge, the fingers of one hand grasping the window’s chrome flange and my other hand wrapped around terrified Bryan’s neck as the train raced through the crazy maze of Cairo’s streets. One slip on that day, and my son and I would have been crushed beneath the train’s iron wheels. But on this night a new danger seemed far more vicious. I needed a seat. I could barely stand as the foundation beneath my entire existence slowly crumbled.

I hated Rod that night, with the kind of hate I might have harbored the day before I came into the Christian fold. It was a hate as strong as that of the militant Muslim Brotherhood, who I knew wanted me—an American missionary—dead. There were rumors they wanted to kidnap and behead me. I was always looking over my shoulder, trying to avoid them, taking a different route each time I went out. But on this night, I too felt murderous. If I’d heard that Rod’s Egypt Air flight to Damascus had plunged into the Mediterranean, I would have felt some joy. As Jesus in his wisdom noted, murder is hatred’s twin brother. I could pretend sorrow and even shed a Christian tear in public, but I knew in my heart I’d take some measure of delight in his demise. This was the real doubt-inducing dilemma that I faced that night. I could rationalize Rod’s cruelty but the conundrum of my own hatred threatened to overwhelm me.

Thump, thump, thump … the cards continued to fall. What was the meaning of all the spiritual training I had received from great men of faith? What was the significance of the six years I had spent at a DI staff training center prior to meeting Denise and moving to Michigan, probably the most disciplined program in Christendom outside of some ascetic Byzantine monastery of the tenth century? What had all that self-denial, discipline, and study gained me? How could I, the tabula rasa, still carry that evil nature I’d known so well before I met Christ and thought I’d long put behind me? Why was the magic formula for maturity not working? All those serpents, which I thought I had slain and banished in the catacombs of my mind, were once again raising their atrocious heads. Had I only disguised them in party dress rather than crushed them with my heel?

Moreover, I felt something must be wrong with me that I had allowed my own family to suffer so much. In my Christian idealism, I’d always wanted to be the most perfect, loving father and husband, but instead, I was finally realizing that my wife, and especially my son, had suffered tremendously in Egypt under my watch. How could I have allowed that to happen? Why hadn’t I stood up for them earlier?

I gazed out the window, studying the continuous flow of humanity that lined the old tracks. Shiny plate-glass windows of the fancy dress shops of Roxy were accented with homeless bowabs (doormen) that huddled in their dusty galabeyas (long gowns) over a campfire fueled by street-trash, with dinner—a single ear of burnt corn—being stirred in the coals. I saw my own reflection on the inside of the train window—faint, almost ghostlike—superimposed over the alien world beyond. My eyes looked sunken, distant, and estranged from myself; by that time, I felt like only a semitransparent shell.

By the time I was halfway home, all the cards had fallen. The Christian Mike was gone. The stoic faces of kings, disciplined princes, and joyful jokers were in disarray beneath my feet on the dirty floor of the listing metro train. But my fall down the hole didn’t stop there. Head over heels I fell, with nothing to grab hold of to cease my descent or at least to slow it down, as the hole continued to devour me. The muffled thumping had ended, but I began to hear a subtle sound replacing it—an insidious clicking.

Was the clicking real? Maybe it was the noise of the train wheels over the fatigued joints of the old rails. But the sound wasn’t real. Through the haze of my emotions I saw no cards of my persona left to fall, but I did notice that the fabric of the entire Christian world was clicking as it shifted and changed. Tiny threads of that fabric, like a scene from the movie The Matrix (Warner Brothers 1999), were turning to ones and zeroes and running downward. What was this? I was confused and horrified beyond fear as I watched my whole world dissolving before the eyes of my emotions. I was experiencing some kind of emotional breakdown that was as real as anything I had ever known.

4/15/2017 4:00:00 AM
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