Reasons God doesn’t break our legs
Understanding a near-death experience through a Good Friday lens.
When a random intruder left newlywed Jessica Ziakin-Cook with a severed femoral artery and nearly took her life, some people at church said it was a lesson to increase her dependence on God. But Jessica drew theological conclusions from a deeper well.
I met Jessica Ziakin-Cook at the University of Victoria last December, and she told me a story of good and evil and church and healing that gave me shivers.
Jessica grew up in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s. Her father was a lapsed Catholic and didn’t attend Sunday mornings, but her mother was “all in” when it came to church, often the most enthusiastic worshipper in the sanctuary. For Jessica, Vacation Bible School with its macaroni crafts was a highlight.
Her family switched to a new Vineyard Church, which quickly grew from the contagion of the Toronto Blessing and met in a movie theatre in Portland. This was full-on charismatic revival worship, with laying on of hands and speaking in tongues. Jessica describes it as “laughing, groaning, weeping, wailing, shaking and being slayed in the Spirit. It was the height of woo-woo, or maybe mass hysteria.”
She wasn’t just an observer either. “I would get laughter a lot,” she admits. “That’s how my little 12-year-old body responded.” These churches conveyed a promise she later came to understand as Just World Theory: that the world is a fair place; good people prosper, and their prayers are answered. The unrepentant end up with troubled lives and God’s judgement. It sounded sort of Biblical.
The beauty of liturgy
Adolescence was not a smooth ride. Jessica’s family moved several times, and she started partying. Still, as a precocious young woman – she read A Short History of the Universe as a teen – she was accepted to McGill University. Far from her home on the West coast, she struggled with mental health (“undiagnosed anxiety and depression, and some strange psoriasis”). Thinking back to her home church logic, she felt like God was striking her with the equivalent of leprosy as punishment for her wayward life.
“I crashed and burned really hard, and you can hear the high, high sense of promise and achievement and then just being mired in sin.” She moved back to Victoria, took up a life of café and restaurant work, and got involved in social justice activism on Vancouver Island. There she met a young Catholic man named Matthew and fell in love not only with him but with the Anglican Church they began to attend together. She was introduced to the lectionary, to Dorothy Day, and the conviviality of theologian Robert Farrar Capon’s cookbook. “I was evangelical about the Book of Common Prayer,” she laughs. “I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was.”
The charismatic movement had been so focused on the book of Acts, but “now I was learning about the 2,000 years in between Acts and the present day where there’s this whole tradition intact of theology and music and art.”
They got married in 2009. She was back in school at the University of Victoria, with one year to finish her B.A. Professors were taking notice of her, and a new season began.
What happened three weeks after the wedding day is rather horrifying (“Arrest made in Victoria newlywed’s stabbing” CBC News, Sept. 13, 2009). In brief, she heard a noise in the night, went downstairs, and surprised a burglar who stabbed her repeatedly with the new knives that were their wedding gift. Worst of all, her femoral artery was severed in the altercation.
“They didn’t think they could save my life at first, then they weren’t sure they could save my leg or that I would ever walk again.” She was in hospital for weeks, a wheelchair for months and a cast with a brace up to a year later. She walks fine now, but she had to drop out of school, and she lost her student loans. Finances were tight and rent was due.
Word from her charismatic home church community was relayed back to her: “this was God’s redirection of her life.” “I was told that the shepherd sometimes breaks the sheep’s legs so that they learn to depend on him. That things happen for a reason, these sorts of things. Refiner’s fire, the potter reshaping the pot.” Yet something inside herself resisted: “I knew I didn’t deserve what happened to me.”
Her activist community didn’t know how to respond to this tragedy either. “Some showed up, but while they preach solidarity, they don’t really know how to bring chilli dinners or send a card.”
The old network of Anglicans, however, made meals, dropped off cards, and some even sent cheques. The Anglican priest heard about the awkward clichés she was receiving and was “righteously indignant.” He told her, “God does not want anyone to be hurt or harmed. That is not God’s heart.”
Her husband also offered a good word that stuck. “What happened to you was evil, not God. Evil is chaotic and it lashes out.”
A container for grief
It was a spiritually rocky season. “I felt betrayed by God,” said Jessica. “I wanted to pull God out by the roots. I tried to weed him out of my heart.” Such efforts were in vain, however, as unconscious prayers leaked from her constantly.
At this time her husband left a library copy of Reason, Faith and Revolution (2009) by literary theorist Terry Eagleton on an end table. It’s a socialist’s critique of the New Atheists, and he gets much of the gospel right. In the first chapter, entitled “Scum of the Earth,” he writes: “The only authentic image of this violently loving God is a tortured and executed political criminal, who dies in an act of solidarity with the what the Bible calls the anawim, meaning the destitute and dispossessed . . . His death and descent into hell is a voyage into madness, terror, absurdity and self-dispossession, since only a revolution that cuts that deep can answer to our dismal condition.” This struck her as an epiphany. “Jesus gets in the trenches with us,” she said. “Jesus, on the cross is God coming as near as he can, even to the point of suffering unjustly so that he can relate to us all the better.”
Then spring came, and Lent flowed into Passion Week. “There I found a container for my grief. It was big enough and deep enough: the approach to Good Friday, the Easter vigil, it, that experience of the Holy Week liturgy is what really converted me to the liturgical church.”
Few truly understood what she was going through. She remembers talking to one retired United Church pastor in the congregation who listened to her recall the nightmare of her near-death experience, and her anxiety about the upcoming sentencing trial.
“Jesus will be there,” the pastor promised.
Jessica had to give her victim-impact statement at the sentencing trial months later. She vividly remembers she arrived with her family and supporters, and across the aisle on the other side of the court was her assailant. He was a young Indigenous man, 18 years old, raised in foster care, pleading “not guilty” due to inebriation.
Jessica recalled his profuse apologies immediately after stabbing her, and she paused. “He was sitting there alone in the courtroom, so lonely and yet so patient while everyone was against him in that courtroom. I just felt like, here’s a kid who never had a chance and now he’s here and he’s just being thrown away.”
Then it suddenly struck her: “Oh my gosh. Christ is sitting there. Jesus is here.”
Coincidentally, her husband Matthew had a job as a social worker at the Salvation Army, monitoring people on parole. “He was working with people who had been in this revolving door of the criminal justice system – people who had made a mistake as a kid and then basically developed in the prison system. He saw people who would be 24 hours from finishing parole go and commit a crime just because it was so terrifying to leave that system.”
“We knew we needed to forgive him. For our own healing, too. It would be exhausting to continue to hold this against him.” So in the victim impact statement, along with descriptions of the consequences of his actions, she forgave him. This was her journey, which reflected the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Right, briefly defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
A Sacramental Life
Now, 14 years after the attack, she feels she has found her calling: theology and art. She is finishing an M.A. in Art History and teaches art, art history and creative development at the Vancouver Island School of Art. She’s also a campus pastor for St. Barnabas Anglican Church, leading a group called Theology on Tap. She preaches, too. Her spiritual director? An Indigenous pastor.
Early in her recovery, she led in the children’s ministry at her church – “not plastic and macaroni, but wood and wool and shells.” A new sacramentality framed her sensibilities. “We don’t want to teach the children that their faith is insignificant or just play. We’re going to have incense and singing and worship in the beauty of holiness because it’s our senses through which we apprehend God’s world.”
A pivotal moment was when she discovered she was pregnant. “Having the kids became the way I turned the page on my recovery from the burglary and stepped out in this new trusting and new hope in God.”
Art is no mere diversion. “As I teach art, I help people open up their creativity, and I feel the healing power of the Spirit. It feels like gospel work. People are being freed, freed from accusations they carry within their own heads or hearts.”
Reflecting on the burglary now, she sees an idealism in her early faith, a faith that missed the agony of crucifixion. She says, “One of the things I’ve been thinking about the last few years is that Jesus died; he didn’t get close to death and then was whisked out and saved at the last minute. That’s not what we celebrate. It’s not an empty cross.”
This article first appeared in our March 2023 issue under the title “Jesus in the trenches.” If you like that title better, maybe you should consider subscribing to CC in print!