On Kayla Mueller and Faith
Nearly lost in our collective horror over this week’s confirmation that American hostage Kayla Mueller died in Islamic State captivity is a quiet story of courage and beauty: the letter she wrote to her family last spring, delivered by other prisoners after their release. Press accounts have called the letter heart-wrenching, but a better word is inspiring. Such is the power of her words that they are worth considering in detail.
The letter begins with Kayla’s assurance that she has been treated well, and is “in a safe location, completely unharmed + healthy” -- points, obviously, that we outsiders hope are true but have no way to confirm. The 26-year-old aid worker goes on to apologize touchingly to her family for the suffering that she has put them through because of her captivity. Then comes her central proposition:
“I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else.”
Kayla, who was involved in the campus ministry at Northern Arizona University, goes on to relate how “by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.” She adds: “I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it.”
Having told her family that her faith is strong, she goes on to pray that theirs is, too: “I pray each each day that if nothing else, you have felt a certain closeness + surrender to God as well + have formed a bond of love + support amongst one another…”
The product of this prayer, she says, is personal strength: “None of us could have known it would be this long but know I am also fighting from my side in the ways I am able + I have a lot of fight left inside of me. I am not breaking down + I will not give in no matter how long it takes.”
“Please be patient, give your pain to God. I know you would want me to remain strong. That is exactly what I am doing. Do not fear for me, continue to pray as will I + by God’s will we will be together soon.”
The references to God shouldn’t be casually dismissed. They show evidence of her upbringing. In tone and style, the letter carries what Christians will recognize as a distinctively Pauline flavor. Paul the Apostle, in his letters to the Christian communities of his day, repeatedly assured his audiences that his sufferings were strengthening him, and expressed the hope that their faith, too, might be strengthened, even when he was in chains.
Thus in Philippians 1 (NIV) Paul writes from prison: “It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.”
One need not be a Christian, or a believer at all, to marvel at the parallels. Whatever Kayla’s family did in raising her -- whatever her friends and community supported -- they planted in her a seed of belief that gave her a remarkable courage in the most dire situation most of us could possibly imagine.
Too often, when we think about the role of religious faith in the struggle against Islamic State, we spend our time arguing over who started the war of which the First Crusade formed, or about the nature of Islam (a topic on which we might profitably, instead of consulting politicians and pundits, pay attention to serious Muslim scholars).
It’s easy to neglect the role of faith in the life of the individual believer. Kayla Mueller, in her last weeks, was comforted by her faith, and by her certainty that others were praying for her. Whatever our particular views about one religion or another -- or about religion as a whole -- let’s not forget, to borrow Kayla’s own words, that even in the midst of darkness, faith in God can help the believer to find the light.
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To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at email@example.com