Grief


A number of friends of mine, all fellow alumnae of my university, have been posting this video today. Anderson Cooper asks Jennifer (another alumna) and Matt Hubbard, who attend St. Rose of Lima Church in Newtown, Connecticut, how they are dealing with the death of their six year-old daughter, Catherine Violet.

I wanted to share it as well. Though it doesn’t relate directly to persecution, it does deal with how we process unexpected and senseless death. Personally, I can relate to the decision to honor a loved one by choosing to remember them with joy. I have also heard similar sentiments expressed again and again over the years from people who have seen loved ones murdered for their faith.

Pray for this family and others like them, thanking God for their faith and testimony. Their hope and joy is evident, and in some ways they make it sound easy, but as they say at the beginning, their life has changed irrevocably and can only, at times, be handled hour by hour or minute by minute.

Click this link to watch the Hubbards tell Anderson Cooper why they have hope.

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Updated to share that I’ve just come across an open letter written by Catherine’s mother which is worth reading as well.

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I wrote something! I really, really wrote something!

Please excuse my giddiness… after a couple of rather long years (longer than they should have been) I am finally able to announce the publication in electronic version of the biography of my good friend, Julio Cusihuaman Ccorahua.

Julio was my first ever “case” at CSW; a case which turned quickly into a life long friend, and gave me a new Peruvian family. He and his wife call me sister and named me goddaughter to their beautiful daughter Candy, an honor which still overwhelms me.

I met Julio in a remote Peruvian prison more than ten years ago. He was innocent of the charges against him and we were sure he’d be getting out, but a year later I returned to only to find him still inside. We toured the maximum security prison with him as he introduced us to brother after brother… all members of the church he’d planted during his time as a prisoner. We laughed together, prayed together, sang together and I still clearly remember the emotional disconnect it was to walk out of that place, heavy metal doors slamming shut behind us, leaving him behind. I carry an image in my memory of his face, behind dark metal bars in a tiny window, smiling at us, as he called to us to remind us to pray for him, his family and his ministry.

He is without a doubt one of the most impressive and at the same time, most humble, people I’ve ever met.

If you want to be inspired, need a story to help you put your own life in perspective, are looking for a good (cheap) gift for a friend or yourself, please consider buying this book. We’ve kept the price low in the hopes that more people will read it; for the same reason, it’s also available for free rental if you are a member of Amazon Prime. All proceeds will go to support Julio’s ministry. If you’re wondering, yes, they’re still poor and living at or below the poverty line, yet he and his wife are dedicated to this taxing but rewarding work, so everything helps.

*Please note that this is a true story, and as such deals with some difficult themes. There are scenes involving torture and other severe human rights atrocities. They aren’t gratuitous but they are honest – so it’s probably a good idea to exercise some caution when sharing with younger readers. I’m not necessarily of the mind that teenagers shouldn’t read it (quite the opposite, as I think it might challenge them to think about some of the injustices in the world and what they can do about it), but I do think it might be a good idea for the adult in their life to read it first in order to be able to discuss some of these issues and events with them.

The link and the book description are below – please read, review, recommend. Thank you and a very very Merry Christmas to you!

A Light in the Darkest Corner

The extraordinary and inspiring story of a young man raised in poverty and violence in the highlands of Peru, A Light in the Darkest Corner, is the testimony of Julio Cusihuaman Ccorahua. After his father died from complications related to alcoholism and his mother spiraled into addiction, Julio and his chronically ill sister were left to fend for themselves in the town of Ayacucho, the epicenter of Shining Path terrorist violence. As a teenager he was falsely accused of terrorism, tortured and imprisoned but after a miraculous escape, Julio fled to the city of Lima where he followed his parents’ example, immersing himself in alcohol and parties to bury his pain and anger. A young woman helped lead him to Christ and later became his wife. The pair started a family and a vibrant new ministry only to be hit by a series of tragedies. In 1999, Julio found himself in prison again facing the same false charges as before but this time with a wife, two small children and mounting debts. Instead of succumbing to bitterness, Julio realized God had brought him to a new mission field. Putting aside agonizing questions about his future and the welfare of his family, he began to share Christ’s love with the most despised and rejected of all society, working to transform a nation from the bottom up by bringing God’s light to some of the darkest places on earth.

“You will lose someone you can’t live without,and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
― Anne Lamott

Two weeks ago we celebrated Veteran’s Day. I woke up thinking of my Uncle S. I went to church thinking of him, cried, went home and thought of him some more. Uncle S was a veteran of Vietnam, an experience that contributed to his untimely and ugly death in 2006.

He was also one of those people who had never not been there – a constant through my childhood and into my grown up life. He had no children. He had two nieces and a nephew and for my brother, sister and me, he was our beloved uncle. He was gentle, kind, patient and encouraging. He always listened, no matter how inane our chatter or obnoxious our questions. He treated everything we had to say as if it was important and deserved thought (even if it didn’t).

His home in the mountains was always open to us: for family breaks, holidays, and when we needed to get away on our own. He dared us to dip into the icy water of the creek that ran through his property (and paid handsomely when we took him up on the dare), led us on off-trail hikes in search of old gold mines, and taught us how to map the stars and spot satellites moving across the night sky. I can still see his slow smile and hear his easy drawl.

So when he died, while it wasn’t wholly unexpected, it was devastating. It was and is painful. But I learned something through his death, as I watched as one of the solid looking pillars that I thought held my life together crumbled and disappeared. Although I could no longer see it, he was still there. None of the love he poured into me and into my life over thirty years went anywhere. It was still there, and so was he.

And the pain never goes away. I’m not even sure it diminishes. But even so, something else increases. I know I have a choice to make: to be thankful for what I’ve been given, or to embrace bitterness over what will not be. In choosing thankfulness, I also choose the pain – “the broken heart that doesn’t seal back up”. I also choose the joy of memory and of faith – of being sure of what I hope for and certain of what I cannot see.

I am thankful for my past. I am thankful for the love I’ve known – bound as it is to pain. I am thankful for friends who love me and for a church that supports me. I am thankful for the shipwrecks that have deposited me on unexpected shores and sent me down new paths. I am thankful for my work and those I know through my work, which constantly remind me to keep my own struggles and sorrows in perspective.

I’m so thankful for Uncle S. I am so thankful for all the others who I have loved who have gone on before me but who I will see again. I am thankful for a Maker who gave His life to give me a hope and a future.

As many of those reading this will know, 2011 was rough. I had known death in personal and painful ways in previous years, but nothing like what I experienced last year.

Before dawn on a dark February morning, I received the news that my boyfriend had drowned in a kayaking accident. Three months later, just as I was starting to re-enter life at a more normal operating level, my beloved grandmother died, also relatively unexpectedly. Although very different, in some ways the grief in the second round was harder to bear – it ripped open what had just started to heal and added the additional loss of person who had never not been in my life. In August, my boyfriend’s mother died – her death was not so unexpected but it added to the weight of pain. As the rest of the year went by, it seemed that the shadow of death was all around me as healthy, life-filled, beloved brothers, nephews, and children of people very close to me died abruptly and without warning.

So it was a hard year. Paradoxically, it was also one of the best years of my life. That might seem a strange thing to say – but it was a year in which I learned that in the same heart profound joy and peace can co-exist alongside profound pain and grief without contradiction. It was a year in which I was forced to confront eternity and everything I believe or don’t believe about the “forever and ever” of the Lord’s Prayer. It was a year in which I was challenged to either allow doubt and bitterness to torture me or to embrace my faith and to cling to that hope with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind and all my strength. It was a year in which I learned to live in God’s terrible and tender love. It was a year in which I chose to believe over and over again that all things do work together for the good of those who love the Lord – whether we ever understand them or not.

Death makes people do funny things – and while I received huge encouragement and support from friends and strangers alike, some very well-meaning people also said some horribly insensitive and sometimes offensive things. For the most part I was able to shrug it off and even laugh – not at them, of course, but with other friends who’d experienced similar loss and who shared the similarly insane things people had said to them. We joked about writing a manual for people on What Not to Say to Someone Who is Grieving.

For those who are interested, the advice really boiled down to a couple of things: don’t give advice (at best it’s obnoxious and at worst offensive), don’t try to explain to the person why it happened (you don’t know), and don’t tell them how they should be feeling (just don’t). In reference to those who have lost partners or children – don’t ask when they’re going to start dating again or trying for another child (just don’t even). Do listen, do affirm, do pray, do send letters and messages of encouragement, and do be there when they need you.

Ironically, it was because of some of the strangest things said to me (with much goodwill but great ignorance) by fellow Christians that I came to two realizations about death. These specific comments and advice, which focused on praying for my “liberation” from pain and/or the spirit of death, challenged me to think about why I didn’t agree with them and led me to the following conclusions:

  1. This world is bound by death. I am going to die. Every living thing around me, every person I know, is going to die. I don’t know when it will happen or how but it will. I may experience and witness healing and miracles over the course of my lifetime but the end will come just the same. This isn’t morbid – it’s just a fact of this life, a fact that may be more difficult to deal with for many of us living in the modern first-world where death has been banished to the periphery. If I can’t learn to live with this fact, however, I am going to be in for a rough ride from here on out.
  1. I may have to live with it but I don’t have to accept it. Death is not natural. It is not what we were created for. It is right that everything in me rebels and protests at the very concept and that its advent provokes searing, gut-wrenching pain. Our nature, given to us by God, is to live. And as those who believe and are called children of God, Life is our inheritance.

These two realizations, and learning that it is possible to believe both at the same time, not only helped me to cope and process what was happening to me and around me but also led me to understand Christ, the Cross, the Resurrection, Redemption and Eternity in new and more deeply personal ways. It helped me to see how simultaneously insignificant and important our lives are. It allowed me to experience a tiny fraction of that profound grief God must have felt when humanity chose to allow death to enter into His perfect creation. It challenges me to move my focus from the here and now to the life everlasting – and to remember that that is where my treasure is.

Psalm 84

How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
I long, yes, I faint with longing
to enter the courts of the Lord.
With my whole being, body and soul,
I will shout joyfully to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow builds her nest and raises her young
at a place near your altar,
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, my King and my God!
What joy for those who can live in your house,
always singing your praises. Interlude

What joy for those whose strength comes from the Lord,
who have set their minds on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
When they walk through the Valley of Weeping,
it will become a place of refreshing springs.
The autumn rains will clothe it with blessings.
They will continue to grow stronger,
and each of them will appear before God in Jerusalem.

O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies, hear my prayer.
Listen, O God of Jacob. Interlude

O God, look with favor upon the king, our shield!
Show favor to the one you have anointed.

A single day in your courts
is better than a thousand anywhere else!
I would rather be a gatekeeper in the house of my God
than live the good life in the homes of the wicked.
For the Lord God is our sun and our shield.
He gives us grace and glory.
The Lord will withhold no good thing
from those who do what is right.
O Lord of Heaven’s Armies,
what joy for those who trust in you.

I’ve been inspired by many things this week: the faith of two friends as they deal with the sudden death of their daughter and wait to learn about the results of the husband’s surgery (he may have cancer); the faith of another friend who last month was diagnosed with a debilitating and incurable disease and then a few weeks ago told she may have been misdiagnosed and is still living in uncertainty; reading the story of Adoniram Judson – (who turned out to be a distant relative of mine!) – who was largely responsible for bring Christianity to the Karen and Karenni and the translation of the Bible into Burmese but who only saw real results after a lifetime of work that appeared to bear very little fruit, the loss of two wives and an infant child and almost two years in prison; reading through the words of Ezekiel and Jeremiah who lived their lives faithful to what God called them to do even though it appeared that no one took any notice of what they said (and frequently did the opposite).

I am reading Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline at the moment and adding to all the examples above, have had it reinforced that faith is a discipline. Many Christians have been taught to believe that faith is some kind of magical thing that you just have; that it’s somehow bestowed on us with no other action on our part than the initial decision to accept Christ. I’ve also been reading a book on the Great Awakening in the mid 18th century in the American colonies and have been struck by how people at the time deeply agonised over the assurance of their salvation. I think we’d have considered most of them Christians (and “saved”) but many seemed to be convinced that faith was something external that could be given or withdrawn at the apparent whim of God.

Faith is a funny thing and something we should never take for granted. I think many of those with whom I work would agree, that while there are times when our strength runs out and God miraculously refreshes us with faith and hope, most often faith is a decision. It is something we have to choose, sometimes over and over again, when faced with the impossible situations and cases we deal with every day in our professional lives and uncertainty, tragedy and daunting challenges in our personal lives. We are called to pray for our faith to increase, but so must we choose daily to believe.

How brittle are the Piers
On which our Faith doth tread —
No Bridge below doth totter so —
Yet none hath such a Crowd.

It is as old as God —
Indeed — ’twas built by him —
He sent his Son to test the Plank,
And he pronounced it firm.
Emily Dickinson

915

Faith—is the Pierless Bridge
Supporting what We see
Unto the Scene that We do not—
Too slender for the eye

It bears the Soul as bold
As it were rocked in Steel
With Arms of Steel at either side—
It joins—behind the Veil

To what, could We presume
The Bridge would cease to be
To Our far, vacillating Feet
A first Necessity.
Emily Dickinson

I met a little girl today and asked if she had any prayer requests. She nodded. We sat there for a moment, in silence, while her face grew stony and then crumbled and she began to cry. She buried her face in the shoulder of the pastor at her side but managed to get the words out, “Pray that everything will be alright.”

She is nine years old. When she was seven she saw her father, a church leader and local community leader, gunned down by members of an illegal armed group. Her parents were forced to flee their homes in 1996 because of violence from the armed groups and once again it had encroached on their lives. It reached its arm into their home and took her father right before her eyes.

Her mother, only 28 years old, did not yield. She carried on the work her husband had been doing, standing up against the armed groups that killed her husband and threatened to forcibly displace the community once again. She offered public testimony at regional and national hearings about what was happening on their land and what had happened to her husband.

In January the threats started. She carried on. Then she was physically attacked by men from the armed group, but she stayed. Then it became clear that she and her family were going to be killed.

She left the community with her two daughters and the clothes on their backs – escorted by Christians from other parts of Colombia and other parts of the world as a measure of protection. She was resettled in a nearby city but then she learned that the armed group was still looking for her and would not rest until she was dead.

She was sent into hiding in another part of the country, to a big city, and left to fend for herself. She has lived all her life in the countryside, working as a small scale farmer and didn’t know how to survive in the city. Christians from our partner organization decided she and her family would be better off in a smaller city where she could receive constant support from a local church.

She and her two daughters live there now, sharing one room. They have few possessions. The little girl studies hard and was promoted to the fifth grade, a year above her age group. But there was no room for another fifth grader at her school so she was transferred to the only school that had room, a school infested by gangs where she is bullied and threatened by the older girls in her class. Her mother wants to put her in a different school, a Christian school, but has no money with which to do so. She can’t even afford to buy her a uniform.

Her mother works in the evening selling arepas, a kind of corn based flatbread, on the street. She can’t work during the day because she can’t afford childcare for her younger daughter who just turned four. She doesn’t want to leave her locked up in the room alone while she goes out to work like some other single mothers do. Childcare would cost about $56 dollars a month. She has a place to work if she could find a way to care for her little girl.

They receive support from the local church but the local church has little resources and many needy people in similar situations. She said to me, as I left, “If I didn’t have God, I don’t know what would have become of me.”

Psalm 57
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by.
I cry out to God Most High,
to God who fulfills his purpose for me.

He will send from heaven and save me;
he will put to shame him who tramples on me. Selah
God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness!
My soul is in the midst of lions;
I lie down amid fiery beasts—
the children of man, whose teeth are spears and arrows,
whose tongues are sharp swords.

Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!

They set a net for my steps;
my soul was bowed down.
They dug a pit in my way,
but they have fallen into it themselves. Selah

My heart is steadfast, O God,
my heart is steadfast!
I will sing and make melody!
Awake, my glory!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn!
I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is great to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Be exalted, O God, above the heavens!
Let your glory be over all the earth!

Mary on the 2nd Day

A number of years ago I attended a religious liberty conference in Bulgaria. I like to try to take advantage of being in countries where I can actually afford art I like, so while I was in Sofia I used a free afternoon to go down near the cathedral to peruse the open air market where Bulgarians sold art, much of it original, and antiques (lots of the expected Soviet memorabilia and the more unexpected Nazi paraphernalia). I was drawn to the art booths that sold icons and searched for one that looked “different”, something that would call out to me. When I saw this icon, though I had no idea who it was, I knew it was the one I wanted. The artist couldn’t speak English but from what he said I gleaned the two words Kata Pia. In my ignorance, I didn’t realise he was telling me what the Greek letters on the icon said, I thought I was buying an icon of St. Kata Pia and quite happily went away.

That afternoon we met with a Bulgarian Orthodox bishop and a number of priests. The bishop was celebrating his birthday and in the midst of boisterous toasts, I pulled out my new icon to show him and asked his opinion, introducing him to St. Kata Pia. This caused great consternation. The bishop and the priests all agreed that the icon was a good one but they did not think there was a saint called Kata Pia. After about fifteen minutes of intense discussion and argument they reached a definitive conclusion.

“The woman is Mary, Jesus’ mother, but it’s a special Mary,” said Bishop Cyril, looking at me intently. “It’s not the Mary we usually see, the Virgin receiving the good news, or Mary in her glory, ascending to Heaven. It’s Mary on the second day. That is why she looks so sad.”

I love this Mary. I keep the icon on my desk where I look at it several times a day. She is a Mary whose son has just been killed. She is a Mary who has just seen her dreams and what she thought were the promises of God crushed. She is a Mary who watched the Light of the world die a horrifying and final death. She is a Mary who doesn’t yet know what will come on the Third Day and doesn’t even know to hope for it. She is a Mary asking “Why?” in agony and pain.

The Church gives a great deal of emphasis to Good Friday and to the Resurrection, but there is rarely any real focus on the Second Day. Yet this is the day in which most of us live. This is the experience of those who are persecuted for their faith, both those who die and those who survive to mourn the loss of their loved ones. This is the experience of my colleagues who receive devastating news day after day from Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Burma, North Korea, and others where Christians suffer horribly and little seems to change. This is the experience of those of us who have seen dreams die along with those we love.

Mary on the Second Day reminds me that we are not alone in our confusion and our despair. We share it with her, with the disciples, and with all of those who throughout time have cried out in pain as what we thought would be is destroyed for no apparent reason. We can bring our grief and our despair before God and know that He understands it.

I read from Hebrews 12:22-24 this week and was reminded of the hope that lies in the Third Day. We live in the Second Day, and while it can be bleak, we have this promise: No, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God himself, who is the judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect. You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness instead of crying out for vengeance like the blood of Abel.

The line, “You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect” particularly stood out to me. That number includes so many: people we have loved, our ancestors who have gone before us in faith, the martyrs whose names, or sometimes just numbers, flood the inboxes of all of us who work on behalf of the persecuted. This is Hope. We have come to them! They have been made perfect! They are part of all we do! They wait for us!