MONROE, La. -- Jonah didn't want to go to Nineveh... but I did. My Nineveh was Iraq. I've always dreamed of ministering to our troops in Iraq. Little did I know that it would include a Muslim guide, government contractors and private security specialists! This is my Easter story.

I have had some special Easter services in my lifetime, but none so memorable as my recent trip to Iraq. I served the local church as a pastor for 22 years. Then in 1995, I was commissioned by my past pastorate (First Baptist Church, West Monroe, La.) to become "America's Minister of Encouragement." I love encouraging people with laughter and a view of life on the lighter side. Literally thousands of times I have exhorted people to "Loosen up, Laugh and Live." Never did I realize I would get to do exactly that in Iraq. By the way, Iraqis laugh, too!

Dr. Steve Cretin -- friend, previous associate staff member and now mission strategist -- organized our trip to Amman, Jordan, and Erbil, Iraq. I wanted to assist Steve in encouraging national pastors and church planters "now that His day is drawing near" (Hebrews 10:25). We realized that the doors might not always be open in these regions of the Middle East. The priority on my heart was to encourage the soldiers in Iraq. Now was my time. I had worked for months with our military contacts, and the plan was for me to encourage, entertain and inspire our troops in the Kirkuk region of northern Iraq. I was ready to use my impressions of John Wayne, Billy Graham, Ronald Reagan and Muhammad Ali to refresh our troops with humor and hope. 

Then, the day before Easter, all of my months of preparation were undone. I was notified that my clearance was not in order, and I wouldn't be allowed on the base in Kirkuk. I was devastated. All of the wind went right out of The Swan's Sails. I couldn't believe it. I finally resolved myself to assist Steve. I would be his Barnabas! God had to remind me that it was not about me but about Him and His work.

The next day we went to Easter services in Erbil, Iraq. (I sat next to four American security commando agents that had muscles on top of muscles and Uzis under their shirttails.) After the service, Steve and I went to lunch and met with an American woman (I will call her Mary) who ministers to Muslim women. She told us that she was going to two additional Easter services at a nearby military base. She had great connections with military leadership. "Must be nice," I thought. I was envious! "Lord, what about me?" 

All of a sudden, our lunch was interrupted by Mary's cell phone ringing. She took the call. It was a major at the base. It sounded like the services were being cancelled. I thought, "Lord, why are the doors closing on Easter?" Then Mary lowered her phone and said, "Dennis, the Episcopalian chaplain can't make it to the base. Would you do the services?" I was stunned, humbled and amazed. Steve's eyes met mine with an expression that said "God is up to something." I said, "Let me pray about it -- YES!" Mary told the major, "Dennis is a Christian humorist/impressionist and former pastor, and he will do it." The major responded, "Bring the preacher comedian!" I was overwhelmed; it was Easter, and God had rolled away a stone for me. What I couldn't do in months of planning God did in one minute. We rejoiced over our meal of chicken, vegetables and lamb, and I was praising The Lamb of God. I was reminded that "He is Alive" -- alive and well in Iraq.

One of the themes I spoke about in the Easter service was "planting shade trees that you may never sit under" (Jeremiah 32). I told them they are planting shade trees for our country and for our Lord Jesus. Only heaven will reveal the fruit of their labor.

At the close of the service, I passed out my newest book, "The ManCode," sharing how we can develop a more authentic and intimate relationship with God when we develop authentic relationships with others. For men this is especially challenging, and just as true for those in military service. I was amazed at their response. Fully armed soldiers and security specialists lined up to have their book signed. 

I was so humbled and reminded of God's resurrection power. Easter has always been a day of surprises, as it was 2000 years ago. And this year was no different.

Dennis Swanberg is a Christian comedian. For information about his ministry and his latest book, visit www.DennisSwanberg.com or www.TheManCode.net, where a free chapter can be downloaded.
© Copyright 2009 Baptist Press

Original publication date: June 9, 2009