“Tenderly Cradled in Freefall:” Celebrating the faith of Kayla Mueller

I noticed a friend and seminary colleague of mine who is the former Wesley Foundation director at Arizona State University had posted a sorrowful message on his page that alluded to the fact that Kayla Mueller, a young global humanitarian, had been killed in the custody of the organization of terrorists who call themselves the Islamic State. My friend Rob Rynders mentioned that Kayla had been an active member of the United Christian Ministry at Northern Arizona University, an ecumenical campus ministry supported by the United Methodist Church. I vaguely remember hearing about her before because I had made note that she had been captured by the terrorists on my birthday in 2013…which admittedly is a fairly banal reason to make note of someone, but still, I had remembered that she had been described as a young, compassionate person with a real sense of justice who had been with Doctors Without Borders—an organization that impresses me tremendously.

After her death, the profiles of her character released by every news outlet indicate a person whom President Obama described by saying, “The more people learn about her, the more they appreciate what she stood for — and how it stands in contrast with the barbaric organization that held her captive.” What she stood for should make the entire United Methodist Church proud, as her too short life was a distillation of so many of the virtues that we try to proclaim. Kayla was motivated primarily by the kind of faith in action that Jesus proclaims in the 25th chapter of Matthew verses 21-36, which Kayla seemed to echo when she said, “I will always seek God. Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”

According to a blog that serves as a critique on the press’s general confusion in reporting about religion called “Get Religion,” Kayla presents a hard case, because her faith, (like everyone’s) is complex. The press likes to be able to pin a label on someone, and church membership helps (although it shouldn’t) in that endeavor. If what seems to have been a formative experience in a United Methodist affiliated campus ministry makes her “A Methodist,” then I’d be happy to claim her. The memorial website her friend set up after her death has a section taking quotes from her on the subject of her faith in a section called “Engaged Spirituality.” Here, one mostly finds references to her experience at Plum Village, the monastery in France where Vietnamese Zen master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh (whom Martin Luther King Jr. nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967) attracts an international community of visitors and residents. (I was trying to reach Plum Village myself in 1999 at the end of my studies at Oxford when I ran into Brother Aidan, a Greek Orthodox hermit monk who took me west (ironically) to Shropshire for a retreat instead. I would uplift the “Methodist spirit” in this ecumenical and interreligious appreciation evident in Kayla as well. And the notion of “Engaged Spirituality,” while ringing of Hahn’s well known brand of “Engaged Buddhism,” is also a good adaptation of what we proclaim. A college friend of Mueller’s, Andrew Shepherd, now a Disciples of Christ Pastor in Portland, Oregon, commented “Mueller was unwavering in her faith,” Shepherd said, but he learned that she struggled with the concept of organized religion and dogma.”She saw God in a bigger sense than that. God was something that you met in the world. I think she was the authentic seeker. She was still trying to figure out who God was all of the time.” One of the drawbacks of dogma is that it tends to settle the soul.  Many religious people like dogma because it gives the sense that we have things figured out and settled……so we can put it to rest. But that’s the thing–faith is the component of our life that should never be “settled” or “put to rest.” It should always be vibrant and active–so I always celebrate this “seeker” mentality.

In the coverage of Kayla Mueller’s death, there is swirling speculation about her cause of death (whether she was killed by Jordanian airstrikes, as ISIS claims) or in some other way. What I would focus more on is her “cause in life.” Scott Pelley gave the best summary of that “cause” in a beautiful memorial segment on CBS news.

I can’t improve upon his words, so I just join the Desert Southwest Bishop Bob Hoshibata in praying for her family, and also echoing Elisha’s prayer of admiration for Elijah, “Lord, give us a double portion of her Spirit!”