Appointment at Samarra: Thoughts on Fate, Fear, and Life

“Living in fear is just another way

Of dying before your time.”

-“Shut Up and Get On the Plane.”

Drive By Truckers song

The Dinka Cattle Culture is a key part of South Sudan.
The Dinka Cattle Culture is a key part of South Sudan.


I first read the following short story as a teen. It’s still a favorite and very pertinent for the unrest going on in Africa. I’ve added a few comments afterwards.

The Appointment in Samarra

Years ago in Bagdad, a merchant sent his servant to buy supplies. The servant returned, shaking and out of breath.

The merchant asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Master, I was in the market and I was jostled by a woman in the crowd. When she turned around, it was Death who had bumped me. She looked me in the eye and made a threatening gesture.”

The servant begged, “Master, lend me your horse and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I’ll go to Samarra and there Death won’t find me.”

The Master concurred and the servant rode away in a cloud of dust.  Later that day, the Master went to the market and encountered Death.  “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?”

Death spoke, “It wasn’t a threatening gesture but a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

(W. Somerset Maugham retold this story. I first saw it in a book of sermons by Peter Marshall.)

African Hut

From the moment DeDe and I decided to go to Africa, well-meaning friends worried about our safety and well-being.  “What if something happens to y’all?”


Now, as churches pray about coming to Uganda and South Sudan, they honestly ask,  “Is it safe?”


Something can happen to any of us.





I’ve spent many wonderful Saturdays at the Westgate Mall in Kenya.  Just as couples and families did Saturday, we’d say,  “I’ll meet you back here in an hour.”

Something can happen anywhere.  Anytime.


We should have contingency plans, go bags, emergency numbers.  We avoid certain places and don’t go out at night.  These are common sense things.

But none of us came to Africa to stay safely behind our compound walls topped with barbed wire and electric fences, armed guards and barking dogs.

We came to be among the people.

And that cannot always be safe.


For DeDe and I to have neglected what we felt was the call of God to stay “safe and secure in the good ol’ US of A” would have been a sin. I don’t need to judge anyone else but must be honest with myself.


By the way, the United States (land I love) ain’t much safer than Kenya’s Westgate Mall or the Juba Road in South Sudan.

Death can find us in a Colorado theatre or a military base, be it in Texas or the Navy Yard in our nation’s capital.


It seems to find folks at places that should be havens of safety: Our Schools.

A high school in a Denver suburb

A university in the Blue Ridge Mountains

A well-run elementary school in Connecticut.

Schools. In the early 90’s I was involved in two school gun incidents that thankfully ended peaceably.  This was at the rural school where I’d attended, taught, and was then an administrator.

It can happen anywhere.


Even in places where life should be sacred.  Churches.

A youth service in Fort Worth.

A Synagogue in New York City.


Our country is a great country, but it’s not a safe country.

My greatest fear has never been dying.  It’s a fear of missing out on the best God has waiting.

If DeDe and I had let fear keep us home, we would have missed out on an amazing year of stepping out on the edge of the limb with the Lord.

It’s not a safe place, but it’s the best place to be. Both the view and fruit are something!

Being in His will (with Him) is the best place to be, but it’s not an insurance policy against trouble, tragedy, even death.


Ask his followers in the Book of Acts about safety and prosperity in following Jesus.


A favorite passage from C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia involves Peter cringing at his first encounter with Aslan, the great lion.  He turns to his guide, Mr. Beaver and asks,  “But is he safe?’


Beaver’s reply is for the ages.  “No, he’s not safe, but he is wonderful.”

That’s my Jesus.

When it comes down to it, following what we sense to be His will must be our priority, not being safe, comfortable, or content with anything less.



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