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‘I wanted to show them something more’


Mennonite mission worker Cliff Dueck has served in Ukraine since 2002, working as the pastor of a small congregation. In addition, he administers a revolving-loan fund for Anabaptist entrepreneurs.

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October 18, 2005
-by Ann Graham Price

So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them. (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

Kherson, Ukraine — On a recent morning, in a small village in this predominantly Orthodox nation, a Mennonite pastor stood to offer simple words of comfort at the funeral service of an alcoholic suicide who had rejected God.

Despite the tragedy of the occasion, the pastor’s presence there represented a small sign of hope in a culture where hope all too often proves elusive. And although change comes slowly in the lives of a people wearied by a host of hardships, one man’s loving response to another man’s act of hate has planted seeds of hope that may, in time, flourish and produce fruit.

The two men were neighbors. No one, not even Viktor*, knew exactly why he smashed the window of mission worker Cliff Dueck’s car, tore off the side mirror, and released the parking brake to send the car careening into the gate.

Maybe it was the alcohol. Viktor was often drunk.

Maybe it was the rage he carried inside him, a rage that seethed at everything in his world: God, life, other people. Himself perhaps most of all.

More than likely, it was some combination of the two.

Whatever it was, the last thing he expected from Dueck in response was love and forgiveness. But that’s exactly what he got.

Dueck, who since 2002 has served in the Ukraine under Mennonite Church Canada Witness and Mennonite Mission Network, set his own feelings aside when he thought of Viktor’s wife and two teenage children.

“I thought, ‘It’s just a car. His family is suffering from his violence a lot more than I am. Why wouldn’t I want to stand with them in their suffering?’” Dueck said. “So I prayed for him.

“I had peace, and they did not. I think they noticed that.”

Dueck didn’t file a police report. Instead, he made time for Viktor whenever he needed to talk, sometimes calming him down in the middle of a drunken rampage.

But in a part of the world that still struggles after decades of Soviet occupation, changes in individual lives happen slowly. Generally, Dueck said, many such incidents of forgiveness are required to make a difference.

With a little more than 29 suicides per 100,000 people every year, Ukraine has the eighth highest suicide rate in the world, according to British Broadcasting Corp. figures. Countries with higher rates are primarily other Eastern-bloc nations, such as Russia and Belarus.

Ukraine’s problems with alcoholism are equally well-documented. The World Health Organization has called alcoholism “the single greatest public health crisis in modern Ukrainian history – unprecedented in this century.” It is generally assumed in the Ukraine that alcoholism will sooner or later lead to death, one way or another.

Outwardly, therefore, Viktor’s behavior changed little. But one day he suddenly announced that Dueck was going to conduct his funeral service.

“I am going to go away for a very long time,” he told Dueck. “Take care of my wife and children for me.”

A few days later, Viktor hanged himself in the family garage.

For Dueck, Viktor’s funeral service presented another opportunity to demonstrate love and peace.

“I selected Scripture texts that would be especially meaningful in that culture,” he said. “I wanted to show them that there is something different about the Christian life. They think everybody goes to heaven, and it matters not at all what they do. It makes absolutely no difference what this person’s life was. Belief in God means merely that he exists.”

In Ukraine, when people have funerals, they buy a piece of paper that is affixed to the deceased person’s forehead.

“It’s like their ticket into heaven,” Dueck said.

Dueck wanted to show them that the Christian life means more. He selected a passage from Deuteronomy 30 because of its emphasis on the importance of making the right choices in life. Passages from the New Testament (2 Corinthians 5:10 and Romans 14: 11-12) supported the idea that every person will give an accounting of his or her life in the hereafter.

“Your life has to show that you believe in God,” he said. “Several people said, ‘I need to do something different. I need to think about that.' People took note. It touched them.

“I feel encouraged when I hear that,” Dueck said. “It was one more act of love that I could show them.”

*Viktor is a pseudonym.

Sidebar: “Choose life that you may live,”

Kherson, Ukraine — According to Orthodox Christian practice, the predominant religion in Ukraine, a person who has died by suicide cannot be recognized with a church funeral. Because Mennonite Church Canada Witness pastor Cliff Dueck is not Orthodox, he could conduct the funeral service for Viktor,* the neighbor who committed suicide, without being judged.

“My sermon is very practical in the culture where I serve,” Dueck said. “It was thought-provoking but did not offend anyone in this culture. Many were moved by my words. More were moved by my presence.”

After the sermon, everyone present at the service stood in silence for nearly an hour.

Following is the complete text of Dueck’s remarks at Viktor’s funeral:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. He created man in His image and in His likeness. God gave man authority over His creation. God created man for fellowship with Himself. God created man that we might give Him glory. God created us for Himself.

Every person searches for happiness and joy in life and God according to His great mercy allows us to witness sparks of happiness and joy. However eternal and true joy can be found only when we commit ourselves to fulfilling the purpose for which God created us – Praise and worship him. God who created us gave our souls eternal life, and although life starts here in heaven, life does not end here on earth but continues in the afterlife. If on this earth a person lived worshiping God, then in the afterlife he will be with God. If a person lived and wanted to be with God, after his body dies he will continue to live with God. If a person here on earth did not want to be with God, then after his body dies he will not be with God. The purpose of life is to love God and people, whom He has created. God is love, and if anyone knows God, that person will be given (by God) the love to love as God loves. God gave us life and life is wonderful. God gives us a choice to make between life and death, and He recommends that we choose life.

See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, and death and adversity; in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His judgments, that you may live and multiply, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land where you are entering to possess it. But if your heart turns away and you will not obey, but are drawn away and worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall surely perish. You will not prolong {your} days in the land where you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess it. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the Lord your God, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days, that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)

Every once in a while a person chooses death instead of choosing life. When this happens it is extremely difficult for those of us who have chosen life to understand. We who choose to live wail and cry. We can’t understand why a person would choose death. It is, in any case, difficult to accept death, yet even more difficult when it is the death of a person who did not want to live. Your suffering and sadness, your tears and your bitterness are more than I can describe using words. Not I nor you, nor another person can describe your suffering and sadness with words or gestures. However, we want you to know that we feel your suffering and sadness and we cry with you and our hands are reaching out to you to offer help.

God’s hands are spread out to help you overcome your suffering and sadness. The Bible says, My soul weeps because of grief; Strengthen me according to Your word. (Psalm 119:28)

Turn to me and be gracious to me, After Your manner with those who love Your name. (Psalm 119:132)

Death is the division between the body and soul. Death is the door through which we all must go. On the last day we will all see Jesus Christ.

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)

God, who created us in order that we might worship him, has said that each and every person will bow down before him.

For it is written, "As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God." So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God. (Romans 14:11-12)

The difference is that some people make the choice to bow down to God while alive on the earth. Others will bow down in the afterlife when they see God face to face.

Live worthy of God’s calling. Live worthy of love. Live worthy of life.

We must love each other and help each other, because the day is coming when it will be too late.

Today, the day has come when all we are left with is grief, suffering, and sadness, because a person has left and will never be with us again.

We sympathize with your suffering, grief, unhappiness. Your tears are sincere and we are crying with you.

*Viktor is a pseudonym.