This morning, I went to a Bible study in which the discussion kept turning, over and over, to a letter that was written by Kayla Mueller, the young American woman who died recently in the custody of Isis. It is a beautiful letter, the last words we have from a person who gave herself into a place of peril in order to assist people — strangers — who were in acute need. She writes, in part,
“I remember Mom telling me always that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in my experience where in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no one else…+ by God + your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.” (Published today in the Washington Post)
Her words recalled to me another set of parting words, these from Etty Hillesum who tossed them from the window of a train that was taking her to her end in the German death camps: “Tell them we left singing.”
The Bible study got into a discussion about whether Kayla’s letter gave us hope or made us feel even more deeply the sadness of her death. For me, the answer is both.
But the hope in it, and there is real hope, is in hearing the voice of a spirit that has faced horror and loneliness and fear and isolation, and that has not been broken. Voices like Kayla’s, like Etty’s, remind us that there is more in our souls than we ordinarily know is there, that if the bottom falls out of our world, we may fall into our best self, not our worst. That if we had to face unspeakable adversity, we might be proud of the person we were shown to be.
I see it so many times in my life as a pastor: A person gets diagnosed with cancer, or loses a loved one to death or to prison, or else their spouse runs off and leaves them with three young children, and they stand there in the wreckage of their lives and they reach more deeply into their souls than they’d ever had to before, and what comes out is courage and graciousness and kindness and wisdom. What comes out is the Spirit of God, planted there the day we were made.
It’s not so, unfortunately, in the small adversities: the punctured tire, the snarky child, the endless workday, the disappointed hope. In the press of the daily grind, we are rarely desperate enough to reach — really to reach — deeply into our selves. Too often, we respond with the dregs of our usual spirit, not with the glory that smolders within.
And yet, it is there. In each of us. Waiting until we need it. Waiting for us to ask. Waiting to break forth in singing.
Tell them we left singing.
What would it take for you to be able to write, Tell them I lived singing? Or, even, Tell them I lived.