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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
In this moment.
But I'm going to just focus on one. It usually goes something like this:
"Wow, that's amazing that (so-and-so) survived (such-and-such)! God must really have a special plan for that person!"
I'm sure you've come across this at some point in your life (whether you were the one speaking it or receiving it.) But today, I want to just break this down for you, piece by piece. Let's look at what this is actually saying.
First, I'll give you the context behind this post. Somebody on facebook had posted something about a little girl who had survived the Sandy Hook shooting by playing dead. As I was scrolling down through the comments, the following two struck me:
"That child has purpose, a calling on her life."
1. We could no longer live forever. I mean, we were messed up.
2. We now had the ability to always choose between right and wrong and understand our decisions.
La Pieta. The Pity. One of Michelangelo's most famous works. And why not? It's a beautiful, intricate sculpture. But beyond that, it captures something that is simultaneously so often glossed over and yet so difficult to really understand: the emotions of a parent upon the death of a child.
We tend to look at the Christmas story in light of our religious knowledge of the event: Jesus, son of God, was born of a virgin, blah blah blah. We know the story so well, I think that, oftentimes, the deeper meaning is lost to us. You can't talk about the birth of Jesus without talking about the death of Jesus. The one leads to the other.
But what did this mean for Mary, who was, first and foremost, not "the chosen one of God" or "the blessed virgin," but simply a mother?
I'm really not sure that, thirty-four-ish years earlier, when Mary told the angel, "May it be unto me as you say," this picture popped into her head as she thought of her future with this child of God. Sure, the angel mentioned something about Jesus being the savior of the world. But what did that really mean? And anyway, that was so far away. Right now, he would just be a baby. And babies are cute.
But of course, the pregnancy didn't come without its hitches. I mean, Joseph kind of wasn't sure at first if he could really trust Mary. God is the father of your child? Really? And then the looks people gave her... But Joseph had a visit from an angel also. And so then he was cool. He protected her, watched out for her and for this unborn baby who was supposed to somehow save the world.
I can't imagine that, on that night when Jesus was born, messy and covered in birth fluids and squirming and screaming and trying to find Mary's breast because he was a hungry newborn, Mary thought that one day she would hold her son, this son, God's son, in her arms, and that his body would be cold and lifeless. When you hold this beautiful, amazing, wriggling new life, you're not thinking about the end of it. You're thinking about all the possibilities. You're thinking about what he's going to be like as a toddler, bringing you sticks and mudpies and bugs with broken wings. You're thinking about what he's going to be like when he goes to school, the kinds of friends he'll have, what you'll say when he talks back to you, how he'll get good marks on his assignments and garner compliments from his teachers for being such a good student. You're thinking about what he's going to be like as a teenager, which girls he might like, how strong he will be, how he will learn good work ethic from his father and build good, sturdy tables and wagons and houses. You're thinking about all the things that he will do in his life. You're thinking about his life.
I wonder if, as she held the limp body of her son, Mary thought back on all those hopes for him, if she thought back on all of those moments that had seemed, at the time, to not really matter. Did she kiss his cold forehead and remember the first time she kissed his warm, tiny baby forehead? Did she weep silently and watch her tears fall on his pale cheeks that used to be so rosy and had pulled up just so in the corner when he smiled at her? Did she brush the rumpled, matted hair from his brow and think back to how he had run around as a child with his hair all disheveled and he didn't even care?
Did she think back to that rush as she pulled his freshly-born body up to her chest, think back and remember that in that moment she had vowed to protect him with her life, because that's what mothers do? And now, as she looked down at his unmoving eyes, did she remember that vow and regret that this was the one thing she couldn't protect him from?
As a mother who has also experienced the loss of a child (though under very different circumstances), I can identify with the look on Mary's face in this sculpture. Her eyes are puffy and swollen from having cried out all her tears. Her lips are taut, unsmiling and unfrowning, because there is not a facial expression that could possibly convey the emotions in her heart. Her left hand is uplifted as if in question, speaking for her the only word she could probably think coherently:
Tonight, a lot of mothers and fathers are sitting in living rooms, hospital rooms, police stations, with this look on their faces, with their hands uplifted, asking the same question of "Why? Oh, dear God why?"
They are thinking back over all those little moments they might have missed, but are now forever lodged in their memories. They are remembering all the hopes and dreams they had for their children that will now never happen, all the possibilities that, in one moment of terror, have been forever lost.
In the coming days, their eyes will be swollen and puffy, their faces blank, because how can you really express that kind of grief and suffering? They will try to pull the remaining pieces of their lives back together, try to make some semblance of normal. But it will never be the same.
On that night, when Mary held her son, her precious little boy all grown up, in her arms, the world changed. Mary's world changed. But so did ours.
Because on that night that the Son of God died a tragic, horrific and humiliating death, we gained the possibility of the most beautiful life imaginable, one that transcends the normalcy of the every day, that goes beyond our finite understanding of life and death, and gives us a glorious freedom that we will not fully taste on this side of the curtain.
So while we come alongside these parents and family members and friends who have suffered such terrible loss, let us not lose touch with that deep vibration of expectancy. Because in the coming days, we will celebrate the birth of the Hope of the World, the Deliverance of Mankind. The one who conquered the power of death and brings us hope of a life to come.
To the families, friends, and loved ones of the victims of the tragedy in Newtown, CT today, I offer you my deepest sympathies, and please know that my most heartfelt prayers are being lifted to the King of Heaven for you this day and in the coming days. May your hearts find peace and wholeness in the inexplicable Love who comes down to sit with you and weep.
I don't really know who I am anymore. My life now is so different than it was three, four, five years ago, I almost don't recognize myself. It's like I've been broken, or lost. And I have been both of those things. And it's taking a long, long time to find myself again.
When I'm lucky enough to get a shower, it's usually so rushed that I barely get my clothes on (usually frumpy pj's or their equivalent), let alone getting my hair brushed. Which means that it ends up a knotted mass stuffed into a ponytail of sorts. Usually it stays that way for several days before I even get a chance to do my hair, and by then I have to dig out the ponytail holder from my matted mass of hair, slowly and painstakingly pulling single strands of hair from the dreaded knots as I go.
My house is a mess. I feel like I am constantly at war with it, trying to keep the floor clean. And forget about dishes! Any attempt at having the cupboards full is quickly foiled by the cries of my fussy children who are either having a meltdown or ready for a nap.
With the little bit of brain I find at the end of the day, the only functions it's good for are checking facebook and reading short, meaningless clips of writing. I used to read voraciously. I would devour books by Lewis and Tolkein. I wanted to study everything having anything to do with the Middle Ages and Renaissance. I even wanted to dress like a medieval fairy. For every day things.
I was fanciful, whimsical. Positive. I saw the good in people more than the bad. I enjoyed sitting by brooks and listening to the water fall over the stones. And I made time to do it.
Now, I am harried, forgetful, probably inconsiderate at times, but that's due mostly to being forgetful. I can't remember if I already told you a story. I'm often frustrated, negative. Sometimes so worn out I look around at the mess and just don't care, because I know it will just look like this again tomorrow if I clean it now.
Every once in a while, though, in the midst of the chaos of my life, I perceive a glimpse of God. It's like entering an abandoned house cluttered with old, dusty things, and as you take a step, your eyes are pierced by the blinding brightness of some glimmering object. Suddenly the wreck of a house takes on new meaning with the knowledge that there may be something deeper to the mess around you - somewhere in here is a story waiting to be excavated.
I know that there are stories waiting in the dark places of my chaos and clutter. I find pieces here and there, and as I find them - as God reveals them - I store them away in some file drawer in my brain. Eventually - perhaps not until the other side of life - my story will be excavated, and the Archaeologist will piece together this broken mess, carefully and painstakingly gluing together each shining, reflective piece of glass, until my story stands again, whole, complete.
I may not see how all my pieces come together. But I know that even the little things - these moments I'm living in, now, these broken, messy, chaotic moments - are part of something bigger than myself. I may not be able to make sense of them now. But one day, perhaps, I will look back on this time, and see a glimmering piece of something, reflecting a blinding Light into my eyes, and I will stop, and bend down, and pick up the piece.
And I will smile.