This weekend during our Women’s Ministries Retreat out on Sanibel Island, I stood on the beach at sunrise looking at an endless, colorful line on the sand made up of thousands of Fighting Conch shells. Recently the tides out on Sanibel have been some of the lowest ever seen and the result has been an overwhelming amount of sea life delivered onto the beaches and left there. I’ve seen large numbers of shells out on the beaches of Sanibel and Captiva Islands before; this is one of the top shelling locations in the world so it’s not an unusual thing. But I’ve rarely ever seen so many living bright orange Fighting Conchs strewn in lines down the beach. As I walked the sand early on Sunday morning, picking up empty shells to bring home, I turned over living shell after living shell, their sinewy bodies straining toward the possibility of continued life.
It was an oddly distressing thing, in a way, to see that many lives wasted along a beach, stranded without hope of returning to the water unless I actually picked them up and threw them back. But that wasn’t a realistic hope at all, given the sheer number of living conchs. I realized as I was standing there that I could have thrown them back until my arm was weary and never have made a dent.
In her message this weekend, Pastor Connie actually took note of this phenomenon. She talked about seeing the conchs and the sheer magnitude of the living shells there. But, as a seasoned shell collector, she was able to see it in a way I could not. Those conchs, she pointed out, were almost without exception very mature. They had lived their lives in the sea successfully, growing to full maturation and completing the life cycle designed for them from the moment of their creation. That last dying moment on the beach was, for them, a culmination.
As I listened to her, it suddenly struck me that I had seen another row of lives, immeasurably more precious, lost on a beach this week. The world itself stopped to stare as 21 Coptic Christian brothers, wearing orange jumpsuits, were marched down onto the sand by black-clad members of ISIS and beheaded, their lives sacrificed because of their faith in Jesus Christ. Labeled the “People of the Cross” by their captors, these men were chosen to prove the power of ISIS and show the weakness of those who call themselves Christians. 21 bodies stopped breathing that day. 21 families lost their loved ones.
Looked at from a natural perspective, this was a tragic event of incomprehensible proportions. The human mind does not want to even accept the reality of such a thing. Our every sense runs in the other direction when presented with this kind of horror. We mourn the loss of these lives, and beyond our sorrow for these men and their families, we mourn something greater. The taking of one human life by another human is wrong in ways our hearts cannot fully articulate but can only feel deeply and at our very core. And, in the end, our broken world chooses to forget that these things happen, because they do not know how to accept them.
There is, however, another perspective on the death of these martyrs, born in the hearts of those of us who count ourselves the brothers and sisters of these 21 killed. We who share their faith know that from the perspective of their Creator these men, these believers, these People of the Cross did not die in vain. They finished the race that was set before them, ending their lives with the name of Christ on their lips and in their hearts. We read in scripture that the death of His saints is precious in the sight of God (Psalm 116:15), and know that the deaths of these brothers is held dear to the One who formed them in their mothers’ wombs.
There is a strange thing that occurred when the men of ISIS chose to film the death of those 21 captives. They meant, we must assume from their words, to intimidate and create fear in the hearts of all who watched. The video was supposed to indicate their unstoppable power, to convey a threat toward those who would seek to stop them. But somehow what they achieved was the opposite. By labeling these men the People of the Cross, they gave their faith an unintentional validity which couldn’t have been clearer or stronger. It has always been the case that the followers of Christ, when faced with persecution, come together in unity and strength of faith greater than at any other time. Against the dark, the light becomes more noticeable.
Even in the visuals of the film, it is striking that what you notice first is not the black-clad executioners—it is the bright orange jumpsuits of the 21 men. The eye is drawn to their faces, uncovered and astonishingly, blindingly, uniquely human. We see them and our minds recognize immediately that they are fathers, brothers, husbands, sons. The voice of the ISIS captors is heard, but what we are drawn to is the moving mouths of the 21 as they speak the name of their Savior. And despite what might seem logical, they are not silenced until the final blow comes. We are allowed to see what ISIS would have done well to hide. These 21 did not die denying their faith but declaring it. What ISIS intended as a ghastly proof of their own superiority instead stands as proof of their inability to quench the spirit of those who are destined to inherit the Kingdom of God.
The reaction to this event by the followers of Christ – those who would gladly call themselves People of the Cross – around the world has been like nothing I’ve ever seen. The images from that day on the beach have become symbols of our faith like none my generation has ever had. We have lived a long time in a world where our faith has been made fun of as weak, as incompetent, as ridiculous. But there is nothing ridiculous in the stark reality of the deaths of those 21 men, and finally we have seen it with our own eyes. Faith cannot remain trivial when we have grasped the undeniable fact that it is a matter of life and death. We are waking up to truth, recognizing that whatever the culture may think about our faith, it is no joke. It is a way of life and, if it becomes necessary, it is a way of death.
On the list of those slaughtered there is one entry which draws my eye again and again: “Worker from Awr village.” He is the unnamed one of those killed, and the thought reaches out to me as I stare at that line that somehow his anonymity has given all believers a place in this story. We are all of us workers in the Kingdom of God. If we have chosen to follow Christ, to take up His cross and follow His leading into the unknown, then like this man, this “worker from Awr village,” our lives are on a path that is not of our own design. Our days, our moments, our deaths are all in the hands of God. And we must work, together and with unshakeable courage, to be that bright, undeniable line in the sand and declare His name until the end comes.
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.
11 They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.
12 Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows that his time is short.”