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Linking Together

Linking Together

“A person’s coming to Christ is like a chain with many links…. There are many influences and conversations that precede a person’s decision to convert to Christ. I know the joy of being the first link at times, a middle link usually, and occasionally the last link. God has not called me to only be the last link. He has called me to be faithful and to love all people.” – evangelist Cliffe Knechtle

Vicky Armel didn’t look the part. She was an attractive blonde mother of two with a contagious smile and warm personality, but she also had a reputation as being an aggressive and street-toughened detective for the Fairfax County Police Department in Virginia.

A spiritual skeptic, Vicky had little patience when Christians tried to talk to her about Jesus. She would put up her hand and say, “Back up! I don’t want to hear it.” If they persisted, she would explain that she had investigated many suicides and homicides. “Never once did that dead person get up in three days,” she would say.

Then she became partners on a series of cases with Detective Mike “Mo” Motafches, who is a committed Christian [Link #1 in the chain.] For a year, he periodically offered to talk to her about Jesus, but she rebuffed him like she had all the others. Yet somehow Mo’s persistence made an impression on her. “He never gave up on me,” she recalled later.

One day they were sent on an investigation to Maryland, which meant they would be in the car together for five hours. “Okay, this is your time,” Vicky said to Mo. “You can talk to me about Jesus all you want, under one circumstance: when we get back to Virginia, I don’t want you to talk to me about Jesus anymore.”

Mo grabbed the opportunity. He encouraged her to pray and ask God to reveal himself to her. “I guarantee he will answer you if you seek him,” he said. Mo talked about the reliability of the Gospels and the fulfillment of ancient prophecies in the life of Jesus against all mathematical odds. And he explained the Bible’s central message of redemption through the death of the Son of God.

“Suppose a serial killer is found guilty of his crimes,” Mo said. “Then suppose the judge gives him a fifty dollar fine and no jail time. How would you feel about that?” Vicky said she would be outraged.

Mo continued. “The payment for the penalty of our sin is so high that only the death of God in the flesh could wipe out the consequences of our sin,” he explained. “Imagine the judge found the criminal guilty and sentenced him to death, but then got off the bench, sat in the electric chair, and died in the place of the guilty man. Vicky, God paid the penalty for your sin as Jesus was executed on the cross.”

Vicky listened intently but made no commitment. As a trained detective, she needed time to investigate what Mo had explained to her. The very next day she listened to the Bible on CD in her office [Link #2 in the chain]. Mo gave her tapes from his pastor, Lon Solomon, [Link #3] and Christian books [Link #4]. She began listening to Christian radio as well [Link #5].  ”I had never seen anyone so anxious to learn more about God and the Bible,” Mo said.

Another friend of Vicky’s, Tim Perkins, invited her to Mountain View Community Church on Easter of 2004 [Link #6], where people warmly welcomed her [Link #7] and she heard the gospel from pastor Mark Jenkins [Link #8]. The church also gave her a copy of my book The Case for Easter [Link #9], which discusses my examination of the resurrection of Jesus – an event that was the major stumbling block for Vicky. It turned out to be the perfect gift for an evidence-minded detective.

“I read it and read it,” Vicky said. “Everything I needed to prove the case for Jesus I found in this book.”

Virtually none of the people who were links in the chain of influence in Vicky’s spiritual journey knew each other or knowingly worked together to reach her. But each one of them was an influence that God orchestrated to pull her slowly toward the Cross. Eventually, overwhelmed by the facts, Vicky prayed to receive Christ as her forgiver and leader.

Mo was there to see her baptized. “What a joy it was for me to watch Vicky publicly dedicate her life to God – a God she once swore didn’t exist,” he said.

The following year Vicky got up in front of her church to tell the story of her spiritual journey. She began by saying, “My name is Vicky Armel, and if you told me last year that I would be standing in front of hundreds of people talking about Jesus Christ, I would have said you were crazy.”

Just one later, on May 18, 2006, Vicky was working at the Sully District Police Station when she got word there had been a couple of carjackings in the area. She rushed out of the police station to investigate; Mo had been in the midst of addressing an envelope and was just 15 seconds behind her. When she and another officer emerged from the station, they were instantly shot to death by a crazed teenage gunman brandishing an AK-47 assault rifle.

The senseless slayings stunned the community. Mo was grief-stricken. “I will miss my partner, my friend, my hero, and my sister in Christ,” he said.

But that’s not the end of Vicky’s story. Nearly ten thousand people – many of them police officers – paid their respects at Vicky’s funeral. I’m sure that none of them came expecting to hear from her personally. Yet at the funeral, Jenkins played the tape of the testimony Vicky had given at the church the previous year, in which she described her journey from skepticism to faith.

“I know there’s probably a Vicky or Victor out there who is searching for God,” she said on tape to the hushed crowd. “I hope that my story might help you find God.”

And it has. Incredibly, even in death Vicky has become a link in the chain of influence helping to lead many people to Christ. After the funeral, the church received emails and phone calls from spiritually interested inquirers all over Northern Virginia. “Some people just walked in off the street,” Jenkins said. “They said, ‘We want what Vicky had.’”

One person told Jenkins: “It made me rethink my whole life over. I know I’ve made many mistakes and hurt some people. I want to be saved. I want the Lord in my life. I want him to know that I love him. I’m not sure how to go about doing this. Can you help?”

The unusual nature of Vicky speaking at her own funeral even brought media attention, which spread her story – and the story of her Savior – all over the globe. Who knows how many people will be encouraged to seek Jesus as a result? A church member by the name of Dwayne Higdon summed it up best. “Vicky didn’t just save lives,” he told a reporter. “She also saved souls.”

So remember that all the links in the chain – the beginning, middle, and end – are vital in leading a person to Christ. Most of the time, God uses us as an initial or middle link. Even your smallest gestures – an invitation to church, the gift of a book, an act of kindness in the name of Jesus – can become one of many Christian influences that will accumulate over time in that person’s life, hopefully bringing him or her to faith in the end.

All too often Christians feel that they have failed if they’ve never actually prayed with someone to receive Christ. They mistakenly believe that the unexpected adventure of evangelism is confined to that single moment of a person’s conversion. Unfortunately, they forget that generally it takes a variety of experiences and conversations with numerous people over time before a person decides to become a Christian.

I can think of many people whose spiritual input encouraged me to investigate Christianity. There was the authenticity of my Christian neighbors; the transformation of my newly converted wife; the prayers of my mother; the kindness of a Christian who offered to serve us during our child’s illness; the authors of the books I read; the faithful preaching of the gospel at the church I visited; and even the testimony of a convicted street gang leader who shared his newfound faith with me. I’m sure you, too, can think of numerous links that eventually led you to Christ.

There are opportunities for adventure all along the chain! Our role is to be faithful to God’s command to be his ambassadors in a spiritually perplexed world. You may never know how many times God has used you as a beginning or middle link until you get to heaven – and then you will be eternally thankful that you reached out in so many seemingly simple ways to people in your life.

In her testimony played at her own funeral, Vicky Armel had a message for Christians like you and me. “Don’t give up on your friends,” she said. “Be there for them. Just always talk about Jesus.”

And trust that God will use you as one more important link long the way.

“So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor.”  – 1 Corinthians 3: 7-8

For a six-week devotional full of stories that will raise your motivation to share Christ with others, check out The Unexpected Adventure: Taking Everyday Risks to Talk With People About Jesus, which I co-authored with my ministry associate Mark Mittelberg. It’s also available in e-book or audio.