Friday, March 13, 2015

You are Mine

Part Eight
(start with Part one here)

"Fear not, for I have redeemed you; 
                        I have called you by name, you are mine." 
                                                                      Isaiah, 43:1b

I'm taking a brief break while mourning Igor's misfortunes and processing all that has gone on so far in 2015. Perhaps this post ties in some way to the continuing story that God is revealing . . .

In March of 2000, fifteen years ago this month, I was just beginning the surprising and agonizing journey of having my very immature faith tested. While trying to convince God of His error in choosing me for adoption, God showed up to state His case. The story is documented in my book, But the Greatest of These is Love.

Yes, I was stubborn, but God was relentless. He pulled out all the stops because He had a boy who needed a family, ASAP. God had chosen my family, but I had all the kids I wanted.

During that period of troublesome angst, I also experienced an awareness of God I had never known before, On two occasions during that period of God drawing me closer to Himself, I was wakened by hearing someone call my name. Out of a dead sleep I heard a loud whisper calling "Debbie."  It was so clear, I sat straight up in bed with a racing heart, and answered, "What?'

Michelangelo, God giving life to Adam
It reminded me of the story of Samuel. In First Samuel 3, we learn that in this period of Biblical history,  words and visions from the Lord were rare. When young Samuel heard his name being called, three times, at first he basically answered like I did. But there the similarity ends, for Samuel finally answered, with his master Eli's prompting, "Speak, for your servant is listening." I'm still working on that servant part!

The Lord's response to Samuel? "See, I'm about to do something that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle."

I recall a memorable incident that happened shortly after God had His way and Roma arrived in our family. I had picked up my precious little bundle of energy from a birthday party. He was babbling on in his broken English about the fun he had experienced at the party, likely his first ever. His new vocabulary was insufficient to describe his joy, so he used loud sound effects and wild arm motions.

My attention was suddenly and unexpectedly diverted as I noticed a street sign at an intersection in an area of town I rarely visited. I had an instant fastback to a murder that happened on that street many years earlier. A man had returned home in the middle of his night shift to shoot his wife as their young children slept. I rolled past the sign in silence. But as I turned to see why Roma had become quiet all of a sudden, he was watching me, his green eyes narrowed. He simply said, "Killing is a terrible thing." I was startled. It was as if he had heard my thoughts.

"What made you say that, Roma?" I asked, trying to be nonchalant.

He just shrugged, and said in his husky, thick accent, "Ah dunno."

I have never forgotten that incident. Most of us have had experienced something like this. It isn't that rare. We say the same words at the same time as a friend, or think of someone, and they call. Even science backs up this mysterious phenomenon. God designed the human brain with such magnificent intricacies, we do not have a human hope in comprehending its depth.

Last summer when I had another period of intimate closeness with God, documented in the Hound of Heaven Winks (most-read post ever) series, I would go into my dark closet, drop to my knees, and plead my case for my lost boy.

I prayed, "Lord, let him hear you call his name." I remembered how powerful that experience had been for me. As I prayed, often I would envision what that would look like. Sometimes in my attempts to help God answer my fervent prayer, I would even call out Roma's name in a loud whisper envisioning  I was right by his ear as he slept. I trusted that God could connect my brain with his, even from a distance as far as Maryland to Atlanta, in a powerful, transforming moment.

Recently, just after I posted  The Applause of Heaven, I was sharing the story with Roma, the story he will read when he is ready, about the lights going on.

"That would have freaked me out if I'd been home when that happened," Roma confessed. But he was not resistant to talking about it, or even believing such an outrageous story could happen. So I continued.

"Roma, have you ever had an experience you would call, um . . . 'spiritual'"?

He didn't pause for long.

"Well." he started slowly, gauging whether he should continue with his own crazy-sounding story. "Sometimes, when I am sleeping . . ."

He paused as chill bumps covered my arms and I willed my eyes to stay dry because tears are a instant barrier to Roma's vulnerable honesty. I knew what his next words would be.

"I hear a voice calling my name." Having admitted that strange part, he gained momentum. He put his fingertips together and held them close to his ear. "It is like a loud whisper  right in my ear." He smiled at his story that seemed to happen on another universe. "And it's annoying."

I laughed,  "Yes, Roma, it is annoying. I understand. I've been there!"

I confessed that has been my exact prayer. Roma told me to stop praying that prayer.

I know what it is like to resist that "Call," a call that is annoying, from our human standpoint. That Call that asks the impossible of us, to leave our gods of Comfort and Ease and head  down an alternate Road less traveled. I know what it is like to surrender to the Call, if only once in a while, and encounter Supreme JOY.

And I know from experience God is relentless in His Pursuit of  His Called. That reassurance gives me a peace that goes beyond human understanding.

I pray. God shows up. He reveals just how much He wants to be close to me, how delighted He is for the moments I have my eyes on Him and "get it." He shows me how powerful our prayers are. So I
will keep praying—more so than before, until I forget and become lazy, again. I pray I will not retreat into the god of ME so far this time.

I wonder if Igor was praying for his young son in March of 2000, as five-year-old Roma was torn from his family and delivered to an orphanage at the same time God began hounding me about adoption. Perhaps God heard the desperate pleas of a devastated and helpless father. Maybe God took a quick look around the world and He chose my family as the best possible match. He could see the big picture of the healing and redemption, and ultimately, JOY, of this divine story.

Yes, I was a project, no doubt. I was a very self-centered lover of comfort, an unwilling participant in the divine drama God drew me to. But God is God. I am no match. I am His. He has called me by name.

And now He has Called Roma.

Continue with Part Eight here.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Praying for the dead

Igor, age 17
Part seven,  (Begin with Part One of the Family Connection series here)

The tears I shed for Igor, and they were many, took me by surprise. Dead eight years. Why could I not get him off my mind? Why did I cry and cry for days over him, and still do? And why did I have an overwhelming desire to pray for him?

In my Protestant tradition, I have never prayed for the dead. I called my daughter, Kellie, who is a Catholic convert, and a wise and Godly young woman. We talked and she sent me some readings. 

I also checked the internet. "Opinions" on praying for the dead run the gamut. I say "opinions" because how can anyone really know for sure? How can "experts" speak with such authority, and be in complete opposition to one another? In any case, I don't know the truth. I'll admit it. I don't think anyone else knows either. Not for sure. The people I trust the least are the ones who are most confident they are right. Even God tells us that His thoughts and ways are not like ours, and His ways are higher than our our own. (Is 55:8-9) Thank God, for who could trust a god who thinks like we do? People who claim to know it all start to sound sanctimonious to me. 

People are referred to as "grasshoppers" in Isaiah 40:22. Maybe that means we cannot know the mysterious ways of God. We can't see the BIG picture, like God can. We only see the grass and dirt in our little, isolated part of the world. 

In my research, some people called it an "abomination" to pray for the dead. But there is also that verse that keeps resounded, 1 Peter, 4:6, "the Gospel was preached even to those who are already dead, so that they might be judged according to human standard in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit." I pray God will open my eyes to His ways and His thoughts, as best I can understand, as a grasshopper. 

It is a mystery. It was not as if I was going to conduct a seance, but I felt a connection with the father of my son that went beyond curiosity. So I will pray for Igor. And I will "hold him in the Light," as Lia said she would do also for my deceased mother. 

It was easy to agree to hold beautiful, tragic Igor in the Light. Before I even knew the story I am sharing, I felt an otherworldly connection with this man when the likeness of his son starred back at me. His photos captured a boy and young man who rarely smiled. Had he known so little joy in his short life? 

First photo faxed from Russia
I thought back over  the photos of his son, even the first cherished one I ever saw of  him. What surprised me from the very  beginning was  Roma's joyful smile. I had not expected it.  Not from a boy from  an Eastern European  orphanage, who was old enough to know his family, then be torn from it. But there was a twinkle, a knowledge of joy. And when I met him, I was taken back by his belly laugh. The small, wiry boy laughed with such a force and exuberance, he brought us all into his excited happiness. Where did his joy come from?

                              *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *   

The year, 1994, had begun with such hope for twenty-nine year old Igor. He finally had a job as an artist that suited him. He had never been trained as a painter, but he looked forward to more practice and perhaps instruction. He would soon have enough money saved to be able to bring pregnant Marina and their two daughters to Georgia, if he could find a way to get them across the closed border. 

The news of the death of his five-year-old daughter, Diana, was a devastating blow for Igor. Making a terrible situation even worse, he was unable cross the border back into Chechnya to grieve with his family or attend her funeral. He withdrew into himself, and would not even allow Lia, his most loved and trusted confidant, to comfort him. 

Back in Chechnya, Liana, ten years old, must have thought the world was coming to an end. She had adored little Diana. Her sister, her best friend was gone. 

I couldn't help but think of a parallel. I remembered when my son Taylor was born, five years after Kellie. My oldest, Heather, was seven and a half, and had many outside interests and activities. As expected for that age gap, she was not as interested in a new baby. But Kellie adored her little brother. She mothered him with me. She carried him around and talked baby-talk to him. He reserved his biggest smiles for her. His first word was Kellie, not Mama. He was her baby. When he was five, and she, ten, the ages of Diana and Liana, there was a set-in-stone, unbreakable bond that still exists at ages 25 and 30, If something had happened to adoring Taylor at five years old, it would have been a wound Kellie would have carried for life.  

As Kellie would have been, Liana was lost. Diana was gone forever. Her papa was far away, and her mother convulsed with inconsolable grief.  What would become of them? Would life every be normal again? 

Igor was still living at his aunt's home a few month later. Lia and her husband were living there too at the time while Lia's parents were visiting their son in Greece. They celebrated Lia's birthday in June with a party. After everyone was asleep, Igor went out on the porch to smoke a cigarette. 

The house across the street still alive with a graduation party. Some of the guys in the street came over and asked Igor for a light. When he spoke Russian, they became angry because of the political hostilities between Georgia and Russia. Soon the dispute turned into a fight, with one threatening Igor with a gun. Four men beat Igor severely. 

Wounded, Igor limped back into the house, and found his grandfather's hunting rifle. Back on the porch, he frantically shot into the darkness, just to scare the thugs away and to let them know he had a gun so they wouldn't come back. 

In the darkness, without street lights, a frightened young man, who had had a very bad year, pulled the trigger, without thinking clearly. The bullet struck and killed one of the teens.

I can only imagine the scene, As Lia woke with a terrifying start, the screaming from the neighboring party. Igor's dreams slipped away as blood ran from the dying boy.

Igor just couldn't seem to catch a break.

He was sentenced to fourteen years in prison.

His baby son, Roman Igorevich Sudzhashvili, named for his grandfather and father, as was the Georgian and Russian tradition, was born six weeks later. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Through a Glass, Darkly

Part Six 
(Begin with Part One of the Family Connection series here)

1 Corinthians 13:12: "For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known."

With special thanks and love to my dear new sister, Lia Tsivtsivadze, for sharing
 her loving memory of Igor, and for her family's research
and contribution to this post. I thank God 
our lives are forever linked! 

Igor and Lia, age four

"It seemed he was doomed from the beginning." 

Lia's words describing her beloved cousin Igor, stabbed like a knife in my wounded heart. The
Lia and Igor 
revelation of Igor's unfortunate life and early death was still too fresh a tragedy. The stories and photos gradually filtered in, first from Roma's sister, Liana, then his father's cousin, Lia, and then another of Igor's cousins, Zaur. The puzzle pieces created a story of a beautiful and loved young man who just couldn't seem to catch a break.

We all know people like that, people who hardly have a fair chance in life. By no fault of their own, misfortune ambushes them at every turn.

But where did I get this notion of "fairness" as the standard, as the norm? Because my life has been relatively smooth and easy, I say I am "blessed." But I deserve this blessing no more than Igor deserved his curse, at least that is what it appears from our human viewpoint, a curse. It will remain a mystery, my human concept of fair. God is fair. I trust that truth.

For whatever reason, I wept off and on for days, mourning a man who had been dead for eight years. At first I read private messages about him translated by Lia's daughter Elene. Then Zaur reached out to me, offering what he remembered. Then Lia's mother contributed her cherished memories of a loved nephew she knew so well. Another cousin, an English teacher, also contributed to the translations of the recollections of a boy, then a man, who had endeared himself to so many, and whose tragic life had broken hearts of those who knew and loved him best. They each introduced me to Igor, all in hopes that we would know and understand him better. This knowledge will one day be a gift to his son.

                                               *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Roma's grandfather, Roman Sujashvili, (translated Sudzhashvili in our documents and Roma's legal middle name) was born in Georgia in 1937. He had three sisters and loving parents. A former republic of the Soviet Union, Georgia, (in green) is wedged between the northeastern border of Turkey to the south, and to the north, the Caucus Mountains shared by Eastern European Russian (in pale yellow). Surnames ending in -vili are as traditionally Georgian as names beginning with Mac- are Scottish.

Because jobs were scarce in Georgia, Roman's family moved to Mozdok in North Osettia, Alana, in the scenic Caucus region of Russia, in 1959 or 60.  From Northern Georgia to Mozdok is 90 miles, or 2.5 hour drive across the rugged mountains. Proud and noble nationals, Georgians traditionally chose to marry other Georgians, but Roman met and married a Ukrainian-born Russian woman, Emma. She persuaded Roman to move to Ukraine when their daughter, Eteri, was four, and Igor, two.
Roman  and Emma with Eteri and Igor, 1965

Once settled in Ukraine, Roman joined the Ukrainian Army. He often traveled, sometimes being away from home for as long as a month at a time. One day he returned home to find his family missing. He learned Emma had gone away with her lover, and left the children in the streets. Neighbors had taken the children to an orphanage.

I recall with heartbreaking clarity peeling my own screaming children's limbs from my neck and legs in their desperate attempt to prevent me from leaving them. I only left them for hours at a time. They were pretty confident I would return for them. I have also known first hand the agony of homesickness, even when I knew I had a home to return to. The image of those abandoned children haunted me, knowing that trauma never goes away for so many institutionalized children.

It was no simple task for Roman to regain custody of his own children. He had to prove he was capable of taking care of two small children while he worked. The court case lasted six months, while the young siblings clung to each other, their bond deepened, as they tried not to lose hope. Roman was finally allowed to take his children from the orphanage in Ukraine back to Mozdok where his parents could help him care for them.

About that time, Emma returned and wanted to take Eteri with her. When Roman refused to allow it, Emma claimed the girl was not Roman's. Before an age of paternity testing, Emma's wishes prevailed. So the children, ages six and four at the time, were separated, and another bonding thread was broken for young Igor.

For two years, Roman's loving parents looked after their grandson while Roman worked. Before long Roman married a Russian woman named Raisa. Igor returned to live with his father and his new wife. With Raisa, Roman had another daughter and son.

Roman, Igor, and Raisa
Having a new mother and another change in his life was difficult for Igor. Perhaps he missed his grandparents' stability.

Lia, who has been so gracious in telling me the story of her family, was always very close to Igor. Born the same year in 1965, Lia and Igor spent a lot of their childhood together. Lia's parents brought Igor to spend summers with their family who lived in neighboring Chechnya. Lia described Igor  as "naughty and stubborn, but at the same time, very clever, kind and understanding." Although Igor loved his new step mother in his own way, he struggled to get used to his new life and he resisted following her rules. Problems escalated, and at times, Igor returned to live with his grandparents.

Igor, high school.3rd from right. 
When Igor was seventeen, he fell in love with Marina. When Marina became pregnant, Igor wanted to do the right thing, so the teens married. Roman was against the marriage, for he did not want his son to repeat the mistakes he himself had made.

At age eighteen, Igor was required to serve in the army. In May, 1984, while he was in the military, Liana was born. The young couple named her after Igor's beloved cousin Lia. Marrying young presented challenges to the young family. Employment after his service in the army was difficult. Marina and Igor struggled financially and in their marriage relationship.
Igor, 18, uncanny resemblance to his son

In 1987, Roman became ill with cancer. Shortly after his fiftieth birthday, he died, and was buried in Tbilisi, Georgia. Roman's house in Mozdok became his wife's property, and she was not willing to allow the struggling family to live there any longer, as she remarried eleven months after her husband's death.

In 1989, a second daughter, Diana, was born. Igor could not afford to support his family, as the early marriage had prevented him for getting a higher education and training for a better job.  At that time, the political strain between Georgia and Russia worsened, and the borders were closed.

As the Soviet Union weakened in early 1991, Soviet Georgia declared independence from the USSR to become the new state of Georgia.

In the spring of 1994, unrest in Mozdok on the border escalated, and, to avoid getting involved in the hostilities, Igor, with a new plan, managed to cross the southern border into Georgia. When he arrived in Tbilisi, his aunt, Lia's mother, was waiting for him. She was determined to help her beloved nephew with his plan to move his pregnant wife and two daughters to Georgia. While living with his aunt and looking for a job, his aunt remarked that he was always willing to help around the house with any needed chore. He finally secured a job with a small company to paint decorations on ceramic vases and ornaments. The opportunity and responsibilities seemed a perfect fit for the eager young man who had always been a talented artist.

(Anyone who knows my family knows that many of us identify ourselves as artists!)

Renewed with hope and ambition, Igor finally looked to a brighter future. In the midst of that hope, Igor got devastating news from home. His second daughter, Diana, had been killed in a car accident traveling to the corner store.

I have wept like Igor was my family member. The tragedies I read seem like they happened today instead of many years ago. I pray for his family members who have dug up old wounds so I might know Igor better. I feel as if I have become part of this story. I pray that Roma will one day feel a part of this story too.

Oh the tears! I didn't cry as much when my dear mother died.

And there is so much more . . .

Continue here