Today, the voice from Sojourners Verse and Voice blog:
“If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us. It didn’t make sense, but faith did.” – James Foley, journalist who was executed by Islamic State jihadists this week, on his captivity in Libya in 2011, as written in Marquette Magazine
Again, the prayers of the faithful remind me that when nothing else makes sense, walking with God in faith frees and heals. I will remember James Foley, not for how he died, but for the memory of his life and his witness in a very dark place. May his parents, family and friends find comfort knowing he is in the arms of a loving God. Those left behind who shared space, indeed were shackled, with him tell stories to us of a man of God, a man who encouraged them even as he was singled out for the most harsh treatment.
I never had the chance to meet James Foley, and now I never will. There is another man of God whom I know only through the stories told by others. I will never meet him either, although I hope to walk in the city where he walked and is buried in November.
Father Frans van der Lugt was a Dutch priest, a Jesuit, who lived nearly fifty years in Syria, serving Christians and Muslims alike. He first came to my attention when I heard about him in May, 2013. The Christian community of Homs, Syria, which numbered in the tens of thousands before the war began in 2011, had been decimated. Many had been killed and many, many more had fled. About 75 remained and Fr. van der Lugt stayed with them. None of them were Catholics, but that did not matter to Fr. Frans. He stayed with them through all the days that Homs was under siege: through bombardment, through lack of utilities, through the hunger that ensued. I saw a video of him pleading to the world in Arabic to remember that they were still there. He was a shepherd, caring for his flock, and they knew his voice.
He stayed with them until he was abruptly called home to Jesus on April 7, 2014. He was killed by extremists, the same kind that took James Foley’s life in the middle of the desert this week. It was not the same group, not the same manner, but it was the same hatred, the same lack of humanity. And I know the grief of God above was the same, too.
I don’t know if my faith will ever be tested this way. I pray that it never is. But if it ever is, I want to be found encouraging those with me. I want to be found sharing what I have with those who have less. I want to be raising my voice so others will hear and respond. I want to be a witness to my God, father and creator, savior and redeemer, counselor and guide. I want to be found faithful, faithful as James Foley and Fr. Frans van der Lugt.
There are other models of faith to me in those places, still serving like Fr. Frans: Assis Mikhael in Sidon; Preacher Rula in Tripoli; Assis Ramsey in Zahle; Assis Hadi in Minyara; Joseph, Adeeb, George and Fadi, all pastors in Beirut; Najla and Mary, preachers in Beirut; Assis Boutros in Damascus; Assis Maan in Mahardeh; Assis Saoud in Hesekeh; Assis Firas in Kamischli; Assis Mofid in Homs; Assis Haitham, Assis Magdy, Elder Zuhair, Assis Farouk, Assis Magid, His Grace Patriarch Louis Sako, Saidna Habib, Msgr. Emad, Father Aram, Father Turkum, all in Iraq. These are the ones I know and have worshiped with. These are the models I pray for regularly. They are my friends, my brothers and sisters, my heroes of faith.
Several weeks after Fr. Frans was murdered, the two-year siege of Homs was lifted. My friend Assis (Rev.) Salam Hanna posted this picture at his grave. He also posted a video of the church bell being rung at the Evangelical (Presbyterian) Church of Homs, where his father Samuel had served as pastor for decades. Salam and Samuel were fellow ministers with Fr. Frans in Homs.
That church building, like many others in Homs, suffered damage during the siege, but the church body had returned to start repairing it even before their own homes. With God’s blessing Steve and I will walk in that place in November when we return to Syria with a team of fellow sojourners.
And this will be my prayer (thanks again to Sojourners) that I will pray at Fr. Frans’ grave:
O God our deliverer, we thank you that you have not left us alone. Thank you for the Spirit who intercedes for us. Give us wisdom beyond ourselves that we might see the path you have set before us. Grant us words that bring life to the broken, the suffering, the addicted, the lonely, and those who long for the fulfillment of your kingdom. Amen.– From Common Prayer
And I would add “those who long for the fulfillment of your kingdom, like your faithful sons James and Frans.”