Levi Lusko sat on his couch in utter shock, his three young daughters tucked in around him. He held them close as they took in the news coverage of the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It was December 14, 2012.
A gunman, for no apparent reason, walked into Sandy Hook, found two classrooms close to the entrance of the building and began shooting children and teachers. First responders arrived at the school within minutes, but it was too late for those classrooms. The man murdered 20 kindergarten and first-grade students. The heartbreak reverberated well beyond the Newtown community.
Lusko thought about the parents who all of a sudden switched from planning birthday parties to planning funerals. He was dumbfounded, he says, and kept asking himself, “How on earth could you possibly plan a funeral for your kindergartener? There’s no way I could do that.”
But Lusko’s vicarious grief watching TV that night paled in comparison to what he’d experience just a few days later.
The Luskos live in the picturesque skiing village of Whitefish, Montana, where snow-capped mountains fill almost every view. The main street looks like a set from a Hallmark film—worn storefronts, light posts wearing seasonal decorations and a certain kind of bustle most cities never experience. This is where Lusko and his wife, Jennie, built their family and ministry.
Montana provides a familiar backdrop for Lusko, who grew up surrounded by the mountains of Colorado. Mountainscapes have been one of the most consistent parts of his life. That and church.
Lusko became a Christian in high school, after which he sensed what he calls “an irresistible pull toward ministry.” Once he graduated, he enrolled in Calvary Chapel Bible College near Los Angeles for a couple of years, before leaving school to work as a youth pastor at a church in New Mexico.
Later, the Luskos returned to California for a different church job. But it was during that season the couple felt the pull to plant a church. “We wanted to plant a church off the beaten path where there wasn’t a million cranking megachurches you can throw a rock and hit,” Lusko says. “We just really wanted to blaze a trail in more of the unknown, somewhere where if it didn’t exist there wouldn’t be that option at all.”
Montana came into the picture, even though most people they talked to didn’t think Big Sky Country was a good idea. But they couldn’t shake the idea that God wanted them there. So Lusko, his wife and their daughter, Alivia, moved to Whitefish, Montana, and planted a church in nearby Kalispell (population 19,000).
Fast forward to December 2012, just five days after the Newtown shooting. The Lusko family—now a family of five, with three daughters: Alivia, Lenya and Daisy—sat around wrapping Christmas gifts and otherwise doing normal family stuff.
Then Lenya had an asthma attack, which is fairly routine for kids with asthma. But Lenya’s attack didn’t subside.
She didn’t respond to an inhaler, and even a nebulizer treatment didn’t help. Her breathing worsened. Lusko and his wife tried everything they knew, but Lenya passed out from lack of oxygen, and they called an ambulance.
By the time the ambulance arrived, Lenya’s heart had stopped beating and the 5-year-old died in Lusko’s arms.
The Luskos went from wrapping presents and anticipating a Christmas service at their church to picking out a casket for their 5-year-old daughter—all within a few hours.
“It was the absolute, most treacherous thing you could imagine,” Lusko says.
When the doctors pronounced Lenya dead, Lusko couldn’t leave the hospital.
“All of your instincts as a parent are to protect her,” he says. But she was gone.
There’s a bar in Kalispell called the VFW, Glacier Park post 2252. It sits right in the main square of the town, dimly lit, filled with billiard tables. A dingy, stale smoke lingers—you can still smoke indoors most places in Montana—and above the bar is the equivalent of a storage room. That’s the spot where Lusko started Fresh Life Church with 14 people.
That was 2007. It was the same year the Luskos found out they were expecting their second daughter. She arrived September 8 that year, and they named her Lenya, which means “lion” in Russian. Her name turned out to be prophetic.
“It fit her personality,” Lusko says. Lenya grew to be “the most energetic of our daughters, the most ferocious, the most high-strung in terms of needing discipline, just so much fun,” he says.
Lenya was also born with asthma, which is neither cause for much concern or abnormal (some 6 million kids around the United States have asthma).
Almost in tandem with Lenya, Fresh Life Church grew. Those 14 people grew into 100 people in three months, and by the end of the first year the church outgrew the bar and bought a new space to hold the more than 400 people attending the church.
Today, Fresh Life has campuses in Kalispell, Whitefish, Billings, Missoula, Bozeman (near Yellowstone National Park), Polson and Helena, Montana, in addition to an out-of-state campus in Salt Lake City, Utah.
A week and a half after Lenya’s death, Lusko preached Fresh Life’s Christmas service. At the service, three people decided to follow Christ—two paramedics and a respiratory therapist, all three of whom were at the hospital when Lusko lost his daughter.
Through this, Lusko said he and his wife began to sense God had some purpose—however faint—not to waste their loss.
Lusko says, “Even in the midst of the horrors, there were glimpses of beauty, glimpses of knowing God’s going to use this in a ‘When does faith work if not in the fire?’ way.”
Lusko says the loss of Lenya made “tangible what I’ve heard my whole life: that we have an anchor for the soul. It’s one thing to preach that in the sunshine, but you find out what you really believe when pressure is applied.”
He now sees grief as an opportunity to comprehend what God teaches through the suffering itself. Grief and loss, he says, have the power of doing evil or good.
“It’ll either smash you against the rocks, or you will stand on the rocks and be who God’s called you to be through the pain,” he says.
In many respects, Lusko thinks his life and ministry prepared him for this tragedy.
“We’ve not felt destroyed by it; we’ve felt deepened by it,” he says. “We feel honored, privileged that God would allow us to suffer. We felt like he trusted us with this trial, and there was a sense from the beginning that God didn’t grace us with the pain, but He graced us with the power to go through it.”
As he continued to process his loss, Lusko found little to no help in books. Nothing he read, he says, gave him answers or helped him sense “God’s future justice over sin, sorrow and the brokenness of the world.”
Every resource he came across seemed to “point grieving people back to the grief.”
What Lusko knows now, and what he wants others to know, is that grief is normal and good and hope exists. Lusko wrote his own book, both to process his loss for himself and to help other people face grief and move on from it. That writing took the form of a memoir called Through the Eyes of a Lion.
“I was trying to be as open as possible so God can use the pain, but it’s not pretty; it’s a mess,” he says. “Hurting with hope still hurts.”
Through the Eyes of a Lion doesn’t only reference Lenya’s name. After her death, the Luskos agreed to donate her organs.
Later, doctors told the Luskos Lenya’s eyes were transplanted to two elderly blind people, allowing both to see for the first time. This served as another reminder to the Luskos of God’s purposes in loss and tragedy.
But the point isn’t that every story has a happy ending. Lusko would be the last person to tell you that.
“The Bible talks about the peace that surpasses understanding and I really believe God gives you peace like that, but He doesn’t give it to you before you need it,” he says. “He gives you only what you need to get through what you’re going through in the moment.”
Living in the face of devastating loss isn’t about blind optimism or avoiding pain and grief. For Lusko, it’s about facing life—including potential loss—head-on, trusting God to provide both in seasons of gift wrap and funeral plans.
“The worst thing you can do is to turn your back on the waves.”
is a writer and editor living in Louisville, Kentucky. She's on Twitter at @RuthAnneIrvin