“Lillian’s Story – Beauty from Ashes”
“and provide for those who grieve in Zion— to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.” Isaiah 61:3
It is 3 AM and I’m laying in my bed tossing and turning. Trying so hard to sleep and get myself back to a normal schedule. I keep telling myself that it’s just the jet lag, my body is still on African time, that I just need to force myself to sleep. But I know deep down inside that it is more than that.
Something is haunting me, something is calling me to tell her story. My mind has not been able to escape the powerful words that I heard just a few days ago. Her words haunted me as she was telling them.
I keep hearing the word undone in messages and conversations. A friend I made on the trip to Uganda used them in her writing. My wife used the word yesterday to describe how she is feeling. And it keeps reverberating in my mind, over and over… I feel as if I don’t write this down I may never sleep again.
The only way I know to tell her story is to start from the beginning, but that isn’t really where the story starts for me. You have to understand who Lillian is today, who she has become in spite of all that had come against her.
The woman standing before me telling us her story is a beautiful, vibrant African woman. So full of life and an effervescent energy. A smile and a laugh that I can only describe as a burst of sunshine. She laughed hard and loud and often. She spoke with the confidence of a queen, like royalty, like a diplomat.
And she is all of those things to me and more.
I met Lillian only ten days before, coming in from a red eye flight from Amsterdam. A flight that had already been delayed by four hours. We arrived so tired from our flight that all any of us wanted to do was to get to our hotel and sleep. We were running on empty but Lillian’s smile and her warm greeting seemed to energize us all a little. Even this early in the morning after flying all night, Lillian managed to make us laugh. Our burden seemed just a little bit lighter.
I knew in an instant that I would enjoy Lillian. When I arrived at the bus, everyone had already boarded. I asked if she was Lillian and she said with the straightest face, “no I’m not”. And then the warmest laugh followed.
She set me at ease so quickly and I knew from that moment that we would work together wonderfully the next ten days.
Lillian loved to tease us. She took every opportunity to see how far she could make us believe a thing. Her statements were usually followed by a lightly accented “Is it not so?” Or “is it not true?” She would tell us with a straight face to do the oddest things and then immediately her infectious laugh would fill the air.
We spent the next ten days falling in love with this Ugandan princess, each and every one of us.
It was our last morning of the trip and most of us knew that we had been walking on holy ground throughout our time in Uganda. So many times God had shared a sacred moment with us. Our emotions were raw by this point. We had cried many tears by now. We had laughed ourselves to tears too. We were coming to the end of a lifetime experience and most of us weren’t sure that we could let it go. I was at that place in a trip where I had come to love the people I was with and had served alongside. At that place where my heart had been wrecked once again. And also at that place that I was ready to be home, to be near family, to hold my wife in my arms. To share these experiences with her.
What I wasn’t prepared for, was to have my heart ravished that morning by Lillian and by God.
We have to go back now to a place that is very hard for Lillian to go to. A place that is so unlike where she is today. A place that no child, no person should ever have to go to or ever have to come from. We have to go back a few decades now to a time when Lillian was just a little girl.
We have to go to a place where the struggles of life make love disappear.
She was born into a family that already had too many mouths to feed. An unwanted baby girl and a burden for her mom and dad. A precious little child that was treated more like an unwanted piece of furniture than a creation of God. Maybe even worse, because she was told that she was worthless from a very early age.
Her mother died when she was three months old and her father was killed just a few months later. Less than a year old and already made an orphan.
She was shuffled amongst the many wives of her father. No one wanted her, no one could afford to care for her. After all, they had nothing to give their own children, let alone a child that did not belong to them.
Lillian scratched and clawed her way through her early years. She became a servant to the women of her father’s family, a slave really; to her own half-sisters. She picked through the garbage to find anything she could eat. Some of the women that were supposed to be raising her took better care of their pigs than they did of her. Lillian would spend her days rummaging through trash and rubbish to find food for the pigs. When she found something that someone else had deemed unfit for consumption she would gather it for the pigs. The pieces that she could clean off and eat she kept for herself. And this is how she survived for many years. Granted less dignity than a common farm animal.
Lillian fought to survive. She offered to work, to clean, to care for other unwanted children in the homes. And so they tolerated her existence.
At the age of eight she found the slightest glimmer of hope. She found her way into a program at a local church. A safe place for her to go where she was given a hot meal and basic attention. A place where she learned that she had worth. A place that began to restore a little piece of dignity one tiny bite at a time. The only place she felt safe and loved. A place that took her away from the abuse and the threats and the deep hurt.
Lillian began to love this magical place and the people that nurtured her. People that told her that she was valuable. It was here that she learned that God did love her after all. Love was a foreign language to her but she began to learn how to hear it and to speak it.
Life was still very difficult for this little girl. She woke up early every day to chores that were handed out to her by stepsisters and half-sisters. The women that cursed her very existence.
She managed to fall in love with learning and made school a priority in spite of the curses. She tried to never miss a class. Her mind was sharp and she was tenacious in her studies. She would dash off to school with a tired body but an excited spirit. Her heart was coming alive.
She would have to hurry home to clean the house and prepare meals for the family. She gathered firewood and she gathered water but most of all she began to gather confidence.
Lillian survived this way for a few more years, being kicked out of house after house. Never did anyone in the family see the slightest value in this hard-working, industrious girl. She suffered more disappointment when she would hurry to get to school only to be called out in front of the other children and told that her school fees were not paid and she would have to leave.
Still the only bright spot continued to be the little Student Center at the little church in her village. No one ever told her that her fees were not paid here. Here she was loved and told that there was a purpose to her life. Here is where she received a sponsor that wrote her letters of encouragement. It was at this little project at a little church where she first knew that someone else in the world, whom she had never met, loved her.
And so it would go like this for Lillian for a few more years.
She was watching the pages of poverty open in her life, day after day. This was the story of her life. No family to love her, no one to care. Only hard work and disappointment every day. Her only morsel of hope coming from a stranger in a strange land.
Lillian’s life became even more difficult when her uncle, the brother of her father passed away. Now the women had even less reason to care for her.
She was thrown out of house after house at the tender age of 16. No one had any use for her, she was a burden. No one even knew who she belonged to anymore.
She was living in a community without a soul.
So now Lillian was a young woman of sixteen and now she was being told that she had to leave the only family she had ever known. People that abused her and mistreated her. People that despised her because she didn’t belong to anyone. She was told it was time to go, to find a man that would marry her, to go and find her parents because they had no use for her anymore. These were the children of her father that were now telling her to leave and to never come back. She admits that she wasn’t even sure if they were her father’s children because she had never seen her father. But these were the people that were supposed to care for her, to provide for her basic needs.
So she picked up her meager belongings and left the home, wandering through the village. She had nowhere to go, nowhere to turn to. She slept on the street like a stray dog. What little clothes she owned she kept in a bag and hid it in the bushes.
She wandered the streets at night looking for a place to lay her head. This was the point in her life that she began to hate. Hate for everyone. Hate for the people that were supposed to love her. There was no one that she could not hate at this moment in her life. She even hated God for allowing this to happen to her. All God was to her was someone that took from her. Someone that took her parents. Every year another member of her family was taken away from her, a brother or sister, an auntie or an uncle.
She couldn’t even go to the Compassion Project to share her problems. She was determined that no one cared. For her, life had come to a standstill and no one cared what would become of her. Any remnant of security that she possessed had been violently torn from her.
Shame now kept her from sharing her burdens with the only people that had ever shown love to her.
When hunger would overcome her she would sneak to the project to get a bite of food. Now her life was not only void of hope but was now full of shame.
She only wanted to die now. She found poison to take her life. She could only think of one way out of the misery that enveloped her. All she could hear is that she should drink the poison and die. There was no longer any use for her to be alive.
So if she was to die now, her only remaining desire was that she would die happy. But as she looked around there was nothing that could ever make her happy. All she could see is despair.
And then she realized that amongst her meager belongings were her sponsor’s letters. They had become a prized possession to her. And she began to read the letters one by one. This was the only time she had ever experienced joy, these letters were the one thing in her life that brought light into her darkness. They brought her joy. Lillian realized that as she read each letter the love of her sponsor was shining through. She also realized at this moment that her sponsor would not be happy if she found out Lillian had died.
She could not bear the thought of making her sponsor sad. Her sponsor had taught her to pray, to persist, that God had prepared a crown for her.
This dirty, scared little girl picked up her belongings and walked to the only place that had ever shown her any dignity.
Lillian was welcomed into a new family that day. She was taught that day and for the rest of her life that every child has tremendous value and that no child would be lost at the project. She began to believe from that moment that she would not lose her life, she would not lose her future. She finally had someone to share her burdens.
Lillian went on to finish high school and further her education. She attended university and received a degree in Communications. But her story does not end here.
You see, those letters that were so treasured by a little girl were like seeds scattered in the garden of Lillian’s life. And in her own words those seeds grew into trees that brought shelter for her.
She learned what it meant to humble yourself and serve others. She learned to understand the love that Christ has for her. She learned to love the God that at one time she had grown to hate. She could finally see that this God that she had accused of taking from her was actually giving to her. He was still taking from her, but He was taking away the things that He had never intended for her in the first place. He was taking away her pain and her despair. And now He was beginning to take away the bitterness that she had eaten all of her life.
God helped Lillian to embrace the grace that she would need to forgive. To forgive those that had taken everything from her. To forgive those that did not deserve it. To be freed from the locks of her suffering she had to forgive all of the people that had hurt her.
The message was clear…forgive, forgive your family, forgive everyone that has ever hurt you.
And so Lillian did forgive. She wanted to show them what Christ had shown her. The family gathered at Lillian’s request, many of them afraid of what she might tell them. They carried the shame of putting her out, of using her and hating her. Lillian knew what it meant to be given another chance, what it meant to be transformed. She had to show this same grace to her family.
This change in her is what she realized was happening in the lives of so many other sponsored children. In her words, “if you can see me, then you can see the future of another child”.
Those little “seeds” of encouragement from the letters written by a woman in a faraway place to a dirty little girl living in a very dark place on another continent; have become a mighty oak of righteousness. That tree is now spreading it’s branches and providing cool shade from the harshest heat of the day. That tree is now providing rich fruit to give sustenance to those who need it. And we stood beneath that tree that day. A tree that we have found such beauty and refuge under.
A tree named Lillian, whose faith is blinding, whose faith is radiant.
We ended the morning in tears of course. And a beautiful soul shared from the Book of Psalms.
“Blessed is the woman who walks not in the counsel with the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
or sits in the seat of scoffers,
but her delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on His law she meditates day and night.
She is like a tree planted by streams of water,
that yields its fruit in it’s season and it’s leaf does not wither-
and in all she does she prospers”
Psalm 1: 1-3