A Call to Action

It usually seems appropriate to start a blog post with some kind of witty anecdote or deep, meaningful quotation. But no amount of wit or mask of implied depth would be an appropriate introduction to the topic of slavery.

It has been fairly easy up until the past few months to a year to believe the false assumption that slavery in the United States died with the thirteenth amendment. I mean, we all learn about the Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and the abolition of slavery.

If you're like me, whenever you heard the word "slavery" you immediately conjured up mental images of ships full of African natives, reminiscent of scenes from Amistad. And yes, those scenes did happen. There were hundreds of thousands of innocent people ripped away from their homes and families and sold to the highest bidders, only to find themselves in a strange land with strange people, strange language and strange customs. Not to mention the horrible ways they were treated, being beaten, raped, and even killed for not pleasing their masters.

But slavery runs so much deeper than merely being an issue of black and white. And despite the best efforts of our forefathers, slavery is still very much alive today, in America and around the world.

I knew this, of course, in a vague, distant sort of way. The sort of way that doesn't really touch me if I don't look at it.

How many people have suffered because I turned away?

God sent me an eye-opener this week in the form of a film called Trade of Innocents. The university I attended for my freshman and sophomore years hosted an event on Monday night in which they held an exclusive screening of the film as well as a question & answer time with the screenwriter/director Christopher Bessette afterward. Not to mention the fact that they had tables set up in the lobby for their social justice department and several organizations that fight human trafficking here in Tennessee, including End Slavery Tennessee and Abolition International. I scooped up several pamphlets, information sheets, and even purchased a bracelet from To Be Free, an extension of Abolition International that sets up and supports after-care for women and girls who have been rescued from sex slavery.

And this was all before I saw the film.

I found my movie buddy and we sat down on the bleachers in the campus church's gym. After some brief introductions of students who worked on marketing the film, the movie started.

Aesthetically the film was beautifully made. The scenery is lush, the music is lovely, the actors are phenomenal.

But beyond that, it tells the heart-wrenching story of girls - some as young as five - who are stolen from their homes and off the streets of Cambodia and sold as sex slaves to "sex tourists." I cried for probably half of the movie.

At the end of the credits, the director of the university's social justice department introduced Christopher Bessette, the film's screenwriter and executive director. He answered questions as to his motives behind the film, why he did certain things creatively, and resources for more information on human trafficking today.

One of the things that struck me most was his description of the moment he knew he had to make this film. He said he had gone to Cambodia and visited a former-brothel-now-safe-house and stood in what used to be called "The Virgin Room," looking down through a barred window at children playing in the street below. He thought, "Sometime, not too long ago, a little girl might have stood at this very window, looking down at children playing, and thinking to herself, 'Why can't I be down there too?'" And he said he got chills and breathed the prayer, "Oh, God, help me tell her story."

That is what he did with this film.

And the only way we can hope to abolish human trafficking - slavery of any kind - whether it is sex trafficking, labor trafficking, or something else, is by telling the victims' stories. There are so many people in the world right now who are like I was a year ago - untouched by this issue because they fear to get a good enough glimpse at it.

But we can't afford to turn away any longer.

According to End Slavery Tennessee:

*Every minute, two children are trafficked (worldwide).

*There are currently around 27 million slaves in the world. Of those, half are minors and 80% are female.

*The average age of entry into prostitution in the United States is between 12 and 14 years old.

*One-third of runaways will be sexually exploited within 48 hours of leaving home; 90% will end up in commercial sex trade.

These children are in our neighborhoods, on our doorstep, in our back yards. You don't have to go to Cambodia to find human trafficking. It's happening right here, right now. When will we stop looking away and finally do something?

God lit the fire under me this week, and the wheels have been turning as I've been trying to discover how I can best use the gifts and talents God has given me to help put a stop to this horrific monster we call slavery and human trafficking. I have some ideas.

What about you? What will you do? Will you look into the eyes of the Innocents and reach out your hand to help?

Or will you turn away?

Now


O to grace how great a debtor 
daily I'm constrained to be! 
Let thy goodness, like a fetter, 
bind my wandering heart to thee. 
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, 
prone to leave the God I love; 
here's my heart, O take and seal it, 
seal it for thy courts above. 

("Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing," Robert Robinson)

The giving of one's testimony - or the story of how Christ saved a person - is an important part of most Christian circles. It is common to give one's testimony in a church service, or to share it with a group of friends in some kind of bible study setting. Usually it refers to the story of how a person came to know Christ - commonly, the events leading up to that particular incident which, in much of Christendom, is the end-all/be-all event of one's life.

However, I have come to realize in recent years that a testimony is not - and SHOULD not be - limited to a single life event, but rather is something that should be lived out daily.

When I was baptized in the Nazarene church, I had to publicly answer a series of questions regarding my faith in Christ, including this one:
     "Do you acknowledge Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, and do you realize that He saves you now?"
"...saves you now" it says.

Now.

As in, in this very moment. In every moment, Jesus saves you, is saving you, continually. I of course responded with "I do." But I did not fully understand at that time what it meant that Jesus "saves me now."

When we talk about Jesus saving us, we tend to refer to a particular frozen moment in time - a moment that seems wistfully and distantly removed from where we are now. There always seems to be a zeal and a spark connected to that moment of saving grace that somehow never made it to this present moment. I used to hear people's testimonies of how Jesus saved them from lives of alcohol, drug, or sex addiction, how they had been in prison, on the streets, at rock bottom, and Jesus swept in and rescued them, removing the need for anything but Him.

I secretly used to wish that I could have a rock bottom.

I know. You're probably thinking, "Are you insane? Really?"

But I did. Because those people always seemed to have so much energy and abounding love and gratitude when it came to Christ. And I, having grown up knowing Christ from the time I was a child, had the monotony of one who knew all the right answers but for whom they held no depth of meaning.

There is a phrase in Chris Daughtry's song "Home" that goes "Be careful what you wish for, 'cause you just might get it all, you just might get it all, and then some you don't want."

It started back in 2003. I was just about to start my first year back at college when my parents announced they would be getting divorced. This struck me hard. Divorce went against everything my parents had said they believed, and so it was difficult to reconcile the whys with belief. I became, for a time, a go-between messenger, hearing "you tell your father blah blah blah" and "next time you talk to you mother tell her blah blah blah." It was emotionally exhausting, and eventually I had to remove myself from that situation.

During the same time, my husband was going through some stuff that made our marriage more of a hostile
desert environment than a blossoming oasis. The gravity of this combined with the emotional stress of my parents' divorce wore me down, and I ended up on a trial of anti-depressants for a while.

One evening, after getting off the phone with one of my parents, I was in tears. My husband began arguing with me, saying that their divorce wasn't even my concern, and I shouldn't have to bear the weight of it. His parents had at that point been married for 42 years. I yelled at him that he had no idea what it was to go through his parents separation and divorce. And he yelled at me that I shouldn't even be upset about it.

This was the beginning of the emotional rift.

At that time, there was a certain young man who had been a decent acquaintance. When I disclosed to him that my parents were getting divorced and how it was shaking me emotionally, he immediately offered comfort, saying he understood exactly what it was like as his parents had also divorced while he was in college. He offered me a shoulder to lean on at a time when I most needed my husband, who had offered me nothing but bitterness and anger.

I toed the door open ever so slightly.

Over the next two or so years, I entertained lively fantasies in my head of this man, while simultaneously sowing bitterness toward my husband, who continued to battle his own demons. Instead of trying to support one another and grow closer, our lives seemed to be pulling us apart.

I recognized for a long time that I was suffering from depression and I realized that I had allowed my heart to grow so distant from my husband that I was ready to leave him if this other man were to give me any indication that there was a reason to leave.

I also knew that this was not what God wanted for my life. I still loved my husband, deep down. But that love was buried beneath layers and layers of hurt and anger. I knew that in the emotional state I was in, I would not be able to dig myself out of that. But I wanted to be free of it.

I felt so tiny, so small, buried inside myself. There was this huge swirling mess of tangled emotions, depression, lust, heartache, fear. And somewhere deep inside was that little spark that was still me. And that little spark knew that the only way out of this mess was by giving it all over to Jesus.

And so I prayed.

Anytime my thoughts or emotions felt bigger than me.
Anytime I really wanted to give into those fantasies.
Anytime I wanted to yell and scream at my husband.
Anytime I thought about taking the whole bottle of pills.

I prayed.

And little by little, the darkness grew less.
Little by little, my burdens got lighter.

I slowly, steadily made progress, learning to forgive, learning to heal. Learning to stop blaming other people for the mess I had become.

And learning to stop hiding.

Because when you grow up Christian, and your life falls apart, it's hard to let other people see you as you are. I had been trying so hard to put on a brave face, to make everything seem okay when it really wasn't okay.

I found that I still had friends who cared about me, people who took the time to pray with and for me. And they didn't think I was a horrible, terrible person for all the things that had been going on in my head and my heart. They thought I was human.

I was finally making headway, coming out of that dark place in my life. My husband was making progress as well, coming out of his dark place.

And then, in 2008, we discovered that I was pregnant.

We were ecstatic! Joyous! Thrilled!

Now that we were together again in spirit, we would finally have a living testament to our oneness in the form of a beautiful baby.

Everything was going well.

Until my water broke at 5 months.

I remember the car ride to the hospital, my lungs heaving, trying to find air, as my entire body was wracked with uncontrollable chills from the adrenaline rush that told me I was losing my baby. I watched the midnight city lights rush past my window in a blur of color, not paying attention to anything but what my body was telling me as my husband slammed on the gas, veering around slow-moving traffic to get me to the hospital as quickly as possible.

As the nurses attached monitors to my body and probed my womb with ultrasound scanners, they told me that I had no amniotic fluid left. My baby was okay for now, but without the amniotic fluid, her lungs would not develop properly.

After a while, I was alone, in a dark room surrounded by the beeping of heart rate monitors for the baby and blood pressure and contraction monitors for me. My bed was slightly inclined at the foot to try to counteract any evil plot gravity may have had for pulling my baby from my body.

The uncontrollable shaking had still not stopped. My jaw quivered as I gasped out the only prayer I could think of: "God, I just want my baby to be safe, whether that's in my arms or in yours."

The shaking stopped and for the first time in hours, I felt a warm peace creep through my body. And I was somehow able to sleep.

Days went by and not much changed. I clung to the hope that my life would continue thus for the next few months, boring and dull as it was to be trapped in a hospital bed. I hoped that my sweet baby girl would stay safely tucked away in my womb until her lungs were developed enough that she could breathe on her own - or at least with the help of a machine.

But she had other plans.

After two weeks in the hospital, it became obvious that our sweet Genna's birth was imminent. With nothing to keep her in my womb (the amniotic sac having been compromised when my water broke), Genna's little feet began pushing through my cervix. It would only be a matter of hours before I would have to birth her.

I never went into labor, never had contractions with her. She just gradually made her way out until I was forced to push her fully into the world.

Upon the last push, there was no loud baby cry, no joyous intake of breath at her baby cuteness. Rather, there was a quiet and focused determination as my doctor snipped the cord and the neonatologists rushed her across the room to try to get her hooked up to an oxygen machine.

And as she came out of my body, I shuddered a gut-wrenching sob that forced all the air out of my lungs. I knew she was going to die.

My doctor came over and just stood next to me, holding my hand as I cried up to the ceiling.

It was only a few moments before my husband came over to me and told me that the neonatologists had done all they could do for our sweet little girl. And so they wrapped her up in a receiving blanket - which was so huge around her tiny, one-pound-three-point-nine-ounce body - and we held her.

She was so tiny that her eyes were still fused shut - she never got to see me. But I know with certainty that she knew who I was. At one point, as I cradled her miniscule body close to mine, I reached down and touched her spindly, fork-prong-sized fingers with my seemingly gigantic pinky finger. And with those tiny, spindly fingers, she gripped my pinky with all the strength she could muster.

It was the only hug I ever got from my first child.

And I will never forget it.

In the months that followed, I spoke all the right answers, but I did not feel them. I grew cynical and distant. I stopped answering phone calls - partly because I kept getting calls from a healthy pregnancy program through my insurance company, who kept leaving me messages asking about my due date and cheerily stating they hoped all was well.

I hated them. I hated a lot of things. And, okay, probably a lot of people. But I buried it. I tried not to show it.

It was desperately difficult to go to church, where my husband was youth pastoring a youth group in which there were two pregnant teenagers, both of whom had uncomplicated pregnancies.

I asked God why. Why had I done everything right, and my baby died? Why were these girls "living in sin" and yet their babies were fine? It wasn't fair. None of it was fair at all.

I ended up stepping down from my position at work, which was the Children's Department Lead at a bookstore. It was too difficult coming into work and reading stories to groups of happy toddlers, helping mothers with tiny, healthy babies find books on parenting, and seeing young families laugh and play together. I just couldn't do it anymore.

All the while, I wondered why. Why, God? I had just finally started to feel healthy and whole inside again. And then you take my baby away? I just couldn't grasp it.

I stoically did not let myself grieve until that September - a whole four months after my sweet Genna left us. I went to a women's retreat with my church, and there, while perusing some books in their bookshop, I saw a couple books about grieving the loss of a child. One of the books specifically dealt with stillbirth, miscarriage, and neonatal loss.

I bought the books and devoured them. It was a little difficult to read through all the tears. But it was cathartic. I finally allowed myself to face my grief head-on.

And I began to realize that God didn't just let my baby die, and God didn't steal my baby away from me. God was grieving right along with me. Every step of the way.

I have never gotten over the loss of my first baby. I don't think it's possible for any parent to "get over" losing a child. Ever. But gradually, the days and weeks get easier to bear. My husband and I have had two healthy living children since then (though we have also experienced three miscarriages besides the loss of our sweet Genna).

And I thank God daily for my beautiful daughter and son, that I can hug them and hold them and cuddle with them. That I can take them to the park and the library. That we can read and sing and play together. That they can breathe with no difficulties. That they are not chronically ill and have no health issues whatsoever.
My life has gotten infinitely better. Sure, my husband and I argue from time to time. (Sometimes several times a day.) But it's not the kind of argument that threatens a marriage. We end up laughing. We have learned to communicate. To forgive. To love fully.

Does that mean that we are without troubles? Without temptations?

Certainly not.

I will freely admit, there are still days when faded memories of a certain young man come drifting into my mind, or when I may feel a bit of attraction for someone rise to the surface, or when I feel depression setting in. But now I am better equipped to swat them away with the swift hand of Christ's purity. Am I always successful? No.

But Jesus saves me now.

Now.

In this moment.

Jumping In


Today, our good friend Nate Pruitt preached the sermon at our church. He read from John 21, about Peter jumping from the boat and swimming to Jesus, because he was so excited to be with his Lord that the boat wasn't fast enough for him to get there.

               Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize
               that it was Jesus.
               He called out to them,“Friends, haven’t you any fish?”
              “No,” they answered.
               He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find
               some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the
               large number of fish.
               Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as
               Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment
               around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other
               disciples followed in the boat, towing the net
               full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards.
                                                                           (John 21:4-8)


I want to jump in the water, wholeheartedly and excitedly, with no concern for who's watching, and swim to my Lord.

But first, I need to become small and weak enough that I can't hold myself back when the Spirit moves me.

See, there was this moment during the sermon when, on hearing about Peter's enthusiasm for returning to Jesus' side, my body wanted to leap up and run into the next room and kneel down and pray. I could feel the excitement in me swell, that wholehearted, unabashed desire to be next to Jesus.

But apparently, I'm a little too strong for my own good.

Because instead of leaping up and running to His side, I sat in my chair.

Yep. I just sat there.

I could feel my blood pulsing through my veins with that adrenaline rush. But I contained myself. I gave no indication of what I was feeling. I controlled my body, rationalized away the impulse.

Somehow, I don't think this is the kind of "self-control" that Paul talks about as being good (Galatians 5:22-23).

Why do we do this to ourselves? I say we, because I'm fairly certain I'm not the only one. I think that it's part of our fallen nature, the self-preservation that we feel. Because we all at some point struggle with what other people think.

I struggled with it immensely growing up. I was always worrying about what other people would think of me - my friends, peers, teachers, leaders - even my own family. I remember having many a stunted worship experience because I was afraid to raise my hands or clap or shout for joy because I was afraid of what my family would think.

Family!

And these are people who should share the journey with us, be joyful when we are joyful, grieve when we grieve.

Like the other members of my church.

Like the disciples with Peter.

Peter didn't care what they thought when he jumped in the water. They weren't like, "Dude. We're like a hundred yards from shore. You could totally just stay dry and wait a minute. We'll be there in like two seconds."

Nope. They just brought the boat in, following Peter.

But by the time they got the boat anchored and got their dry selves off the boat and onto shore, Peter had already been with Jesus.

Even though it was probably only an extra minute or two, Peter had that extra time with Jesus. Just being with Him. Even if Peter spent it catching his breath, he was breathing with Jesus.

I want to be so excited about Jesus that I will go to any lengths - even if I have to look ridiculous doing it - just so I can breathe with Jesus for a few moments before the rest of the crowd catches up.

God, please make me weak enough to run after You before I think about what I'm doing.

Loving Our Enemies

Nine years ago today, the World Trade Center was hit by two planes that had been commandeered by Muslim extremists. Every person in the world has a different memory of their experience of that day. Some remember receiving a phone call from their loved ones who were on one of the planes; some never got to say goodbye. Others watched helplessly as people they knew jumped from the toppling buildings live on tv; some were on the streets at Ground Zero giving out shoes and water to those trying to escape the falling towers. And then some of us were in classes, at work, or, like me, just waking up, when we first heard the news.

I woke up when my mom called me from work. That was the first indicator that something was very wrong. She told me haltingly that I needed to go turn on the tv right now, so I hurried down the hall in my pajamas and flicked on the tv. I think I actually flipped through several channels, but the scenes were the same everywhere: live footage of the World Trade Center with smoke pouring out of it. I hurriedly woke my husband and we went into the living room. The first tower had already fallen, but as we sat on the couch and watched in stunned horror, a second plane crashed into the second tower, and it, too, fell.

I don't remember anything that any of the newscasters said; I don't remember what I did later that day. I just remember watching the towers fall and thinking how incongruous it was that in New York City (and around the world, in the families of those affected) there was this mass devastation, and yet outside my window, the sky was blue, the birds were chirping, and it was a beautiful early autumn day.

I have prayed often that God would bring peace and closure to anyone who was affected by the events of September 11, 2001, whether they be direct victims of the attack, family of victims who died, or even people involved in the planning and implementing of the attacks. Yes, even them. First of all, God calls us to love our enemies and pray for them. This would include those Muslim extremists. That doesn't mean that we have to agree with what they did, or their philosophy on life, or anything. Praying for someone, even forgiving them, never means that you're saying that what they did was okay or right. It just means that God has brought you to a place where you can be at peace - with what happened, with the people involved, with yourself, and with the past and the future.

We don't have to agree. But we do have to love, and pray. Jesus says in Luke 6:

     "But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse  
     you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If
     someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if
     anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to
     you.


     "If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. And
     if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. And if you
     lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,'
     expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting
     to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is
     kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

     "Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive,
     and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken
     together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured
     to you."                      (Luke 6:27-38, NIV)

Now, it may just be me, but I don't read anywhere in these passages where Jesus tells us to retaliate if our enemies do bad stuff to us. He doesn't even say that we should "defend" what's ours (like, say, at the risk of being "blasphemous," our country), but rather, give more of it to those that take it. Someone takes my coat, I should give him my shirt, too. Someone punches me in the face, I shouldn't punch back. Even if he does it again.

This ideology is in direct opposition to patriotism. I've long found it difficult to reconcile following Christ with being an American. And while I am by no means saying that we should hate America, or that America is evil, or that Jesus is anti-America, I am saying that "the American Dream" is not Christian philosophy. In America, we take pride in ourselves, in our country, in the things we do and own, in the power we have to shape our own futures. I agree that we should be grateful that we have such freedom. But the conflict comes when we offer our allegiance to both these ideals and to Christ. "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other" (Matthew 6:24). Whenever we have "two masters" that conflict, we must make sure that the one we choose to constantly follow is Christ.

So even though I love America - the freedoms we have to be who we want to be, to worship as we feel led, and to seek our fame and fortune if we so choose - I cannot live in a duality serving both Christ and America. When it comes right down to it, I will serve Christ, even if that means loving the people that bomb our cities, kill our soldiers, and attempt to displace Christianity with their religion. I must still love them, and serve them, even while they hate me, mock me, destroy the things my country stands for. I must defend them, because they are God's children also. Our families have suffered at their hands, yes. But their families have suffered too. Terrorists are people, too. And even though they may be my "enemies," they are my brothers, because we were all created in the image of God, and because of this, they deserve to be loved.

Also, I just want to be clear that, while I'm not in total agreement with war, I very much appreciate the dedicated soldiers who have left home, family, comfort, and given countless hours - and many, even their lives - to protect us. Even though I may not be in full agreement with what America stands for, I can still appreciate those who serve our country, and on this day, this anniversary of grief and death, I honor you, soldiers, who are voluntarily fighting for justice and dignity all over the world.

And to the families of those who have lost loved ones, whether in acts of terror, or through their loved ones' dedication to serve, I pray that God would give your souls peace, that your hope in humanity may be restored, and that, above all, you may forgive those who have hurt you, even as Christ forgives us.