The Trafficker Next Door (guest post by Heidi Carlson)

Warning: this post will be convicting, and uncomfortable, and shocking. It’s for an important cause: human trafficking awareness month. It is a modern-day injustice we want to turn a blind eye from because it feels easier to have the ostrich posture of “bury my head in the sand” rather than sit with the powerlessness and horror inevitable when facing its reality.

Allow me to introduce my friend, fellow Wheaton alum, and gifted writer-blogger, Heidi Carlson. On a play date with our exuberant (wild) kids a few months ago, we discussed what it could mean to be missional in our writing and our blogging. In the ensuing time, she went with our church on a mission trip to India where they helped to run a camp for women who had been rescued from the sex trade. I prayed for this team, and began researching local opportunities to get involved (later post to come on that). I also read Diane Langberg’s devotional which concludes with a call for Christian counselors and psychologists to be on the front lines of this modern-day injustice. And I knew I needed (am called) to be more involved.

Today is a beginning. I give you the gift and challenge of Heidi’s words now.

Born near the front range of the Rockies, Heidi grew up in Portugal, Mozambique, Kenya and a few other places here and there.  A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy with a Masters in African Security Affairs, Heidi served as an officer in the U.S. Air Force for five years, including a tour of duty in Iraq.  With a lifestyle that includes moving every 18-36 months, she enjoys making home and putting down roots wherever the family goes.  She currently resides in Virginia with her husband and three children, ages five and under, where she enjoys exploring the history of the local area, educating her children and roasting coffee at home.  The issue of sex trafficking became very personal for Heidi when she volunteered at a camp for sex trafficking victims in southwest India in 2014.  She regularly writes at www.willtravelwithkids.wordpress.com.

image from stockarch.com

image from stockarch.com

It’s Trafficking Awareness month. . . or something like that.  That’s right up there with Domestic Violence Prevention month, Child Abuse Prevention Month and whatever other month the government decides to tell us about.  The slavery and human trafficking issue, like so many other issues raised by the news, the government, Facebook shares or forwarded emails, make us gasp and wish the morally abhorrent practices would naturally work themselves into oblivion without us – you, me – getting involved.  But slavery and human trafficking, compared to those other issues, seem far more removed from our everyday lives.  I know a  police officer stops at the house down the street to respond to a domestic violence case.  I know children are in foster care in my neighborhood because of parental abuse or neglect.  But slavery or trafficking, in my neighborhood?  My social circle? My city? Surely that activity does not take place around here.  After all, a society that turns a blind eye to human bondage, for whatever purpose, is not my society.

Or is it?

Consider this:

– As of 2012, human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world, surpassing drugs and arms in its rate of growth.*

– 80 % of human trafficking cases in the United States occurred for the purposes of sexual exploitation, including forced engagement in sexual acts for the purposes of creating pornography**

– Four of every five sex trafficking victims in the United States are American citizens**

– Nearly 90% of victims in the United States are under the age of 25

– Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, California have the highest rates of trafficking in the nation.

You don’t have to live in the slums of Thailand to be a stone’s throw away from a trafficker or trafficking-enabler or trafficking client.  These individuals work with you, live on your street and sit next to you in church.  You know them.  Maybe you are one of them.  A sex trafficking client. A user of pornography.

Consider this:***

– In the United States, 1 in 8 online search queries is for erotic material.  The odds increase to 1 in 5 on personal mobile devices.

– 9 out of 10 internet porn users only access free material. [I’m not paying for it, so it’s not hurting anyone, right?]

Nevertheless, the U.S. porn industry generates $13 billion a year

– Nearly 70% of young men view online porn at least once a week (nearly 20% for women)

– “There are higher percentages of subscriptions to porn sites in zip codes that are. . . more urban, have higher than average household income, have a high proportion of people with undergraduate degrees and have higher measures of social capital (i.e. more people who donate blood, engage in volunteer activities or participate in community projects).”

Sounds like the same kind of people who might run a 5k to raise funds to combat sex trafficking are the same people who, after checking their race time on their personal mobile device will, 5 seconds later, view porn.

Sounds like the same average, middle-class urbanite who has a blogroll is the same kind of person who plans to view porn as part of their daily “checking my websites” routine.

Sounds like this is something common, considered almost normal, that no one wants to talk about.

Every January in the United States is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention month, as authorized by the President.  The month is intended to not only raise awareness, but action.  Slavery and human trafficking are complex issues that could be crassly distilled into economic terms – supply and demand.  Eighty percent of human trafficking takes place for the sole purpose of sexual exploitation, including forcing victims to participate in creating pornography.  The demand for pornography is insatiable, thus suppliers continue to find ways to create and distribute their ‘product.’  Suppliers want even more individuals, including me, to desire their product.  I did some research online for this short piece and quickly became concerned that my very carefully worded research terms and emails to others concerning this issue would generate unwanted advertisements on my email and search engine sidebars.   A friend who studies and speaks on the topic of pornography has been targeted by advertisers as a result of what he types on his personal computer.  Suppliers are seeking you out.  They want to create more demand.

I remember the first time I was exposed to pornography.  I was in elementary school and a friend said, “Hey, look what I found in my dad’s closet.”  I looked.  My young mind never imagined something like that would be photographed and distributed in print.  Twenty-five years later, the pervasiveness, accessibility and social acceptance of pornography has risen to new levels.  Forget magazines.  The demand exists because we simply click buttons on our screens. We may not even pay a dime, but someone pays with their freedom.

We can rail on law enforcement for not intervening.  We can condemn law-makers for loopholes in the Communications Decency Act that has the side effect “of rendering law enforcement ineffective at identifying and interdicting ads and solicitations for illicit sex” (24).*  Like the drug trade, we arrest the dealers, though we all know the dealers/suppliers wouldn’t exist without the demand.  We are the demand. 

Pornography is not a victimless affair.  This month, don’t just talk about the evils of human trafficking, but talk about the realities of pornography – in your home, your social circle, your work and your neighborhood.  Those who campaigned against the explicit slavery of centuries ago counted the social cost of their beliefs and outspokenness.  Are we willing to do the same for the slaves of today?

Recommended Resources

  1. Chester, Tim (2012-06-11). Closing the Window: Steps to Living Porn Free (Kindle Locations 299-304). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. The Connection Between Pornography and Sex Trafficking.  7 Sep 2011. Covenant Eyes Internet Accountability and Filtering.
  3. ***Covenanteyes.com. Pornography Statistics.
  4. Human Trafficking Facts. National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
  5. *Kuzma, Abigail. The Communications Decency Acts Promotes Human Trafficking. 2012. Originally published in the Children’s Legal Rights Journal, Vol 34:1.
  6. ** U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Characteristics of Suspected Human Trafficking Incidents, 2008-2010. 

white space

She lost her mom last night after an unexpected heart attack two days ago. You are never ready to say the most permanent of earthly farewells to such a beloved parent, but particularly not when it’s so sudden. I remember this close friend’s mom as being gracious, caring, kind, compassionate. And now she is Home with the Savior she loved and worshiped, seeing face-to-face what we know by faith. We who are left behind grieve her physical presence with us.

Another friend is waiting along with the rest of Philadelphia and now the nation on any sign of Shane Montgomery who went missing in the early hours of Thanksgiving morning. Vanished without a trace. She grew up with him and their family ties go back three generations. She has participated in search and rescue efforts; she sat with Shane’s mom for a few hours the day after he disappeared. There are no words.

A friend from my community group at church asked simply for “good days” for her dad who is dying of cancer. And that he would make it to February 5th, when he and his beloved wife will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. She is glad for the good moments they share, and she prays that they will continue to savor the present.

White space. How we need it in our lives! Tragedy’s disruption will always force us to make room for it. It is in the white space that we can grieve, and pray, and be present. The white space is needed because the dark spaces will come.

In visiting Anne Smith’s opening of “Corner Gallery” last weekend, it was the backdrop of the white space that gave the paintings their full effect.

Image from Anne Smith's Corner Gallery [December hours Wed - Sat 10am-2pm]

Image from Anne Smith’s Corner Gallery [December hours Wed – Sat 10am-2pm]

In the white space of our lives, we cease from rushing around helter-skelter. I take time to sit and watch my daughters’ impromptu ballet show in our living room. (I may even join in, only if the blinds are closed.) I look the cashier in the eye instead of ruffling through coupons or checking text messages. I purposely leave margin in my life, under-planning instead of over-planning.

In this “the most wonderful time of the year,” how can you and I make white space for the beauty of the Advent to dawn anew in our hearts? For us to rejoice that our King came to us, and for us to long for His next coming when He will heal our broken world forever? No more death, no more cancer, no more missing persons vanishing without a trace. Until then, I cry with the words of this hymn –

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirit by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
*Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.*

the rescue of an angry mom

Two years ago I wrote a three-part series entitled, “Confessions of an angry mom.” [you can read those here: part 1, 2, and 3] Last week, at the invitation of a good friend from Philly days, I spoke about my struggle with anger to a group of moms in Hershey, PA. And as I prepared for this discussion, I realized that in the ensuing two years, what I am proclaiming now is God’s rescue of an angry mom. It’s a rescue that’s still very much in process, but there is a hope and confidence in my Rescuer now because of the intervening time between first identifying the struggle and watching God rescue me again and again and again. And so I am writing again about being an angry mom – this time through the lens of a backward glance of mercy and grace that’s rescued me from myself, and a more confident hope that HE who began a good work in me will carry it to completion (Philippians 1).

***** [excerpts from my talk – thanks to all of the women who were incredibly engaging and kind listeners who let me know that I am not alone in this struggle!] *****

photo from goodenoughmother.com

photo from goodenoughmother.com

It’s been a long journey for me in my struggle with anger as a mom, and to be honest, I’m still on it. My willful toddlers have become energetic 4-year-old preschoolers. They do not run in opposite directions in Target (usually) and the tantrums have dramatically decreased. And it’s not because I’ve discovered a secret parenting secret. So much of it is developmental on their part. AND YET I will give credit to God for rescuing me from being an angry mom. If anything I share with you will speak into your heart and tell you that there is hope, that you don’t have to be stuck in an endless anger cycle, then my prayers for this morning are answered. I am going to share what’s helped me, and it’s been multifaceted. Your own “anger plan” will be as individual as you are.

(1) What I hope to do is first of all, to let you know that you are not alone! Anger as a mom is so shaming that it keeps us silent, especially in Christian circles. But every time I’ve brought up my struggles with anger, there is always another woman in the room/group/retreat who says, “me too!” We need to walk into the light and be honest with God and one another about our struggles. So I hope that you will reach out and talk to someone about your struggle with anger, whether it’s big or small or somewhere in between.

(2) And secondly, I hope that you will be able to understand what your anger is saying – about you, your life, your heart, your kids, your parenting. Anger has many messages.

(3) Finally, I want you to leave with hope that God loves you in the middle of your anger and that as a Christian, God is even now working to free you from your destructive anger.

 Understanding what your anger is saying

I noticed the many ways that anger can manifest itself – not only the loud yelling or outbursts, but also criticism, sarcasm, a lingering bitterness or resentment. The object of my anger was not always the one(s) I was acting angry towards. Sometimes I was angry at myself for getting angry; other times I was feeling resentful towards my husband and directing it towards my kids; and yet other times I was upset with my kids but taking it out in an angry resentment towards my husband. Ultimately, I was angry with a God I viewed as controlling yet distant. Far from caring, compassionate, and intimately involved in my day-to-day battles as a mom to twins. 

Some of the messages of my anger were:

  • “I don’t deserve this. I deserve better treatment, more respect, kids who listen to me, etc.”
  • “I feel so emotionally overwhelmed that I don’t know what else to do.”
  • “I need a break.”
  • “You’re getting in the way of what I want.”
  • “You are not meeting my expectations.”
  • “I feel helpless to gain control of you.”
  • “I must have control.”
  • “Life should be perfect. You should behave perfectly.”
  • “CALM ME DOWN!” This last one I am indebted to Hal Runkel’s book, ScreamFree Parenting for, in which he discusses the need to take responsibility for my reactions toward my kids. Saying “you make me angry” just isn’t true. I get angry when others get in the way of what I want/think I deserve/expect in the moment.
  • “You’re wrong, and I’m going to make you pay.”
  • “God has left the building/house/Target store.” [and it’s up to me to provide for myself what I need.]

I have unmet expectations, desires that have become demands, and I need to reexamine those desires as well as readjust my expectations. Maybe I’m expecting more of my child than is developmentally appropriate. Maybe I have turned a good desire into a controlling (idolatrous) demand.

Your anger is ALWAYS saying that something is going on inside you. You need to stop, pause, take a deep breath, and take time to reflect. Your anger should get your attention – it’s like a warning light on the dashboard of your car indicating something is amiss inside.

The message of your anger that you’re reflecting to those around you (husband, kids, friends, parents, in-laws) is always a picture of the message you’re giving God. Every emotion is ultimately directed towards God.

What will rescue you from anger

Rescue from your anger as a mom comes as you realize:

  • you need to be rescued (you can’t manage your way out of this)
  • God is powerful enough to rescue you and loving enough to rescue you
  • You are loved right now, right here, in the very middle of your ugliest mom moment that you would never share with anyone. God knows you intimately (Psalm 139) and loves you completely.

Rest here. You are loved. You – YOU – are loved. God knows you. He compassionately stands with me, not as a judge from afar. Because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, there is no judgment left for you in Christ. Only love. God is with you. Always. His resurrection power is at work to give you what you need to endure with patience.

Colossians 1:11-12 –

“May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

Cry out for rescue. Expect rescue. Celebrate past deliverance. This is the example of the Psalms.

Pray and then call someone. A trusted friend/etc. You can’t do this alone.

Accept your limitations, physically and emotionally. You may need medication for a season, or counseling, or preschool, or a weekly babysitter or housecleaner, etc. There is no shame in your limits, but relief can come as you live within them.

Make a plan for how to remember and live out of the reality of your rescue from being an angry mom. Your freedom/rescue plan. Because you are already rescued forever, how can you live free?

Galatians 5:1 –

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Freedom from …

  • Guilt and shame
  • Isolation
  • Judgment and condemnation
  • Hiding your struggles
  • Trying harder
  • Being controlled by your children
  • Drudgery and duty
  • Following a certain parenting method
  • Depression

Freedom to …

  • Live forgiven and ask for forgiveness
  • Engage in community
  • Receive and show grace
  • Be honest and vulnerable
  • Stop trying
  • Be the parental authority
  • Enjoy your children as the gift they are
  • Be the expert on your child
  • Walk out of depression

Practical suggestions for making your freedom plan

1. Cry out for rescue. Expect rescue. Celebrate past deliverance. This is the example of the Psalms.

2. Pray and then call someone. A trusted friend, small group leader, mentor, pastor, or counselor (or all of the above! I’ve certainly done that.) You can’t do this alone.

3. Accept your limitations, physically and emotionally. You may need medication for a season, or counseling, or preschool, or a weekly babysitter or housecleaner, etc. There is no shame in your limits, and relief can come as you live within them.

4. Make a plan for how to remember and live out of the reality of your rescue from being an angry mom. Your freedom/rescue plan. Because you are already rescued forever, how can you live free?

Further resources

anger

Unglued: Making Wise Choices in the Midst of Raw Emotions by Lysa TerKeurst
She’s Gonna Blow!: Real Help for Moms Dealing with Anger by Julie Barnhill
Depression: Looking Up from the Stubborn Darkness by Ed Welch
“How Do I Stop Losing It With My Kids?” by William P. Smith (CCEF, New Growth Press, 2008)
ScreamFree Parenting by Hal Edward Runkel
“The Healing of Anger” audio sermon by Dr. Timothy Keller (Redeemer Presbyterian Church, October 17, 2004)

child development
Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel
How Toddlers Thrive by Tovah Klein
Ilg & Ames child development series
Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne

realistic motherhood memoirs
What It Is Is Beautiful by Sarah Dunning Parker – a poetry book on being a mom of young kids
Surprised by Motherhood by Lisa-Jo Baker
Sparkly Green Earrings by Melanie Shankle
Carry On, Warrior by Glennon Melton

freedom in Christ looks like love

After an incredible sermon yesterday on the topic of freedom in Christ and love and limits and knowing the limits of your story and the compulsion of Christ’s love for me, I was reminded of this piece I wrote a couple months ago that I have not yet shared here. So – here you go! And I will return to provide a link to yesterday’s sermon by my pastor once it’s uploaded.

***

When thinking about freedom in Christ, there is no better topic. Who doesn’t want to live free, with wild abandon and throwing caution and reserve to the wind? I think of my 4-year-old daughters running gleefully up and down the beach or dancing in our living room. There is a conspicuous absence of shame that is envious to us “grown-ups” who obsess too much about our appearance and what’s appropriate. Freedom in Christ is our inheritance and our identity as ones redeemed through faith, and yet so often I do not live free but fettered.

I am fettered to your opinions of me, and so I hesitate before speaking truth in love.

I am fettered to freedom of self ,and so I become enslaved to “me time” and my pursuits.

I am fettered to my idols, and so I give time, energy, and attention to the latest fashion or the next material possession on my list.

I am fettered to my rights, and so I refuse to forgive you for how you’ve wronged me.

I am fettered to fear and cannot move beyond what feels comfortable or manageable to me.

I am fettered to pleasure, and so I use you to get what I want (companionship, adulation, social position).

the-broken-chain1What will set me free? And how can I know when I am free? The words of our freedom proclamation in Galatians 5:1 come to mind:

“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

How many yokes of slavery are you lugging behind you today? Do you realize you have been set free (past tense)? All Christ asks of you is to stay in your freedom.

How can you stand firm in your freedom? Does it mean that you stop attending church, or serving, or spending time with people who drain you? It seems for me that to stay free requires that I remember what I am free to do. Which is to love. The church of Galatia must have been thinking the same thing, for Paul writes just a few verses later in 5:13

“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

Paul knows that too often we who try to pursue freedom can quickly become indulgent. I’ve said it myself – “I’m free not to commit to that ministry/those difficult people/that task, so I am going to say no.” There is certainly a place for setting limits – and I’ve had to learn not to be fettered to pleasing people (and leaders in my church) by saying “yes” to more than I could handle. Yet too often, I think of freedom as freedom to do what I want to do.

Quite the opposite of what freedom in Christ offers. His is a freedom to love. A freedom to “walk by the Spirit” and “not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). This is a freedom that looks like the fruit of the Spirit being produced in your life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 2:23). To stand firm in my freedom in Christ is to stand firm in the truth that sin is dead to me in the cross, and the life that I live is lived by faith in my risen Savior – his righteousness that frees me to say “no” to the flesh and “yes” to Christ. Freedom in Christ is “faith working through love” as Paul describes in verse 6 of Galatians 5. If you want to know how free you are, ask yourself how loving you are. When I am set free from slavery to myself and the idols I make out of relationships and possessions, I am set free to love with abandon and delight – with no strings attached. Freedom in Christ looks like freedom to love as we have been loved.

day 10: care {& five minute Friday}

Ten days into the 31 day writing challenge, and I’ve got to admit I’m feeling a bit weary of it. But it’s like training for anything worthwhile, writing takes effort and it’s right when you most want to give up that you’ve got to keep on going – because now you’re growing. (That’s also what my barre instructor says and often I ignore her advice and put the weights down, for goodness’ sake because I can’t do it any longer.)

So I pause today, on this Friday, even for five minutes to write my heart out. Thank you, kind readers, for reading along and encouraging me that this pursuit is worthwhile.

***

Care – I should know a lot about “caring” for I am in a profession called categorized as a “caring profession.” During the other 75% of my week, caring is what I do full-time for my twin 4-year-old daughters. But just exactly what is meant by “care”? 

Care is a burden and a relief lifted. A burden of mine and a relief given when you care about my cares. Just to get a little more complex, let’s think about all the various forms care can take. It’s not only what is cared for (noun), it’s what you do in reaching out to someone else with cares (verb), and it is the way a person, profession, or organization is described when it’s characterized by those who excel at interest attuned to the needs of others (adjective). And I haven’t even started thinking about all the ways we use care casually and flippantly about topics or people we are only mildly interested in or invested in but feel pressured to care about because, well, it’s part of being human to care about global warming and poverty and going green and saving the environment and performing random acts of kindness for strangers. (But care divorced from action – is it visible? I guess at least it’s a start.)

No discussion about care can be complete without speaking of the one from which all caring derives its source, whether aware or unaware. The one who says, “Cast all your cares on me, for I care for you.” (my very rough paraphrase of 1 Peter 5:7) To know that HE cares for me – the one who carries the entire world – I visibly relax and exhale. And I am released to go and do the same for you. To really care for you in a way that carries the burdens you’re carrying to make them lighter and to remind you of this One who Cares for you always.

***

photo by paintermommy.com

photo by paintermommy.com

in the aftermath of tragedy

I have been at a loss for words. Understandable, after what we have all mourned as a community. And yet problematic as one who processes through writing, and one who seeks to give comfort through words of the same. It’s almost been two weeks since tragedy struck our community through the unexpected death of a mother and daughter. I think what feels both haunting and comforting is that life goes on. We have returned to our routines, and this feels wrong, for how can we ever really return to a “before” when tragedy interrupted our lives so forcefully and so permanently? Yet in all of the grief research, this very routine normalcy is part of how we grieve and process. Life has to have a rhythm, and it continues to roll on despite the times when I feel it should stop for awhile. Pause, let us catch our breaths and be able to absorb how life has now changed. It feels like a betrayal to grief that I should return to weekly grocery shopping and breakfast/lunch/dinner and reading stories and work-outs at the gym. All of this should be different. And it is, but it isn’t.

katrinadestruction.com

katrinadestruction.com

The analogy that comes to mind is walking through New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated that city. I was there with a team from my church to contribute to the ongoing rebuilding efforts. And four years later, there was still ample evidence of the destruction. Shops boarded up; homes crumbling in disrepair; areas of Ward 9 barely touched because of insufficient resources to rebuild. We began that week of rebuilding with a tour of the devastation. That helped us to have a context for our work, and motivation to work, and compassion as we worked. Could it be similar as we walk through the aftermath of this tragedy as a community? That now is a time for surveying what’s broken as we pray and grieve and ask about what and how we can begin to rebuild. 

We will do this in very apparently ordinary ways. Like bringing a meal to provide immediate relief to the surviving father and daughter, and not being afraid to reach out and call or email to say, “I’m praying for you. What do you need today?” I remember the words from my counseling professor Ed Welch in a class on how to enter into the suffering of others, and he said simply,

You show up. And you continue to show up. You aren’t afraid to reach out and to contact the person [grieving or suffering an unspeakable tragedy].

If you were impacted by this tragedy, how is it changing you? What’s the damage that will need to be repaired? Such as theological questions that came unhinged that will now need deeper foundations. Or categories of “how life should work” that seem to be obliterated. Even personal questions of how to support friends in need and how to know whether or not someone is in a desperate place and how to ask for help when I need it. All of these are part of the communal story of grief and response to tragedy. Let’s discuss them together and be changed for the good by such a tragedy. Couldn’t that begin to be part of the redemption story God promises to write, even (especially) here?

…For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted. (Isaiah 49:13)

When Father’s Day hurts

I was blessed to be raised by a dad who loved me well as his daughter. He cherished me, led me to Jesus over and over again, and proudly gave me away to the man I married almost eight years ago. This man has been a father for four years to our twin daughters, and I daily thank God that my girls have such a father to call “Daddy.”

This isn’t an article about my pain, but it’s an article about the pain so many of you carry on this day. God calls us to bear one another’s burdens, and in my calling as a counselor and friend, I have heard your stories, and I hurt for you today. I wanted you to know that someone notices, sees, and acknowledges today’s pain.

Today may be painful because you’re grieving the father you never knew. The father you wish you had known, but whose absence leaves a hole in your heart and your life. A hole that you’ve tried to fill a thousand other ways.

Pain may show up in many different ways. …

Read more  here at The Gospel Coalition Blog where this article is published today.

when tragedy strikes, where is God?

I awoke to a clear blue sky sunny with the cheery light of early summer. I texted my friend, “What a beautiful day for your wedding!” We slowly woke up on this Saturday morning in June.

And then peace was shattered as I heard of a shooting from the evening prior that left a 17-year-old and a Norfolk police officer dead. What chilled me was both how close it happened to our home (ten minutes away), and that the boy who died, Mark Rodriguez, was the son of acquaintances – a fellow pastor and his counselor-wife, Carlos and Leigh Ellen. Carlos pastors Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Virginia Beach, a church planted by the church where my husband is one of the associate pastors. We’ve often prayed for the Rodriguez family and their young church. And now. How to process?

Empathy is helpful to me as a counselor, yet it also means I can feel the emotional impact of an event that does not personally affect me. And I can be weighed down by it. Such as a national tragedy or the nightly news. And this. Well, it’s shaken me. I wonder how on earth I would ever get through such a tragic loss as a parent. And I feel angry at a world in which a high school rising senior would be killed while driving home to make it in time for his 11:00pm curfew. How did his parents get the news? In an extended interview, Carlos talks about retracing his son’s route when his son did not get home in time despite a text to his mom saying he’d dropped off his friend and was headed straight home. He speaks of seeing the car, the ambulance, the police and sirens and flashing lights. He speaks of crying out, “Where is my son?!” And finally getting the answer from the detective, “He’s deceased.” Then of calling his wife … and their stunned disbelief. A car accident with some injuries is what he first thought – but this. It’s a thousand times worse. More tragic, more apparently senseless, more awful. To be randomly shot by a madman with a gun from inside his car. That’s losing your son to the very worst and most irreversible brokenness of this world: murder.

I went to the Christian school’s memorial service for Mark Rodriguez on Sunday afternoon (two days after his death) to be on hand as a grief counselor. I was, instead, counseled by many who are grieving with hope the life of a remarkable man. I saw a picture of a young man wise beyond his years, with the secret of this wisdom being no secret at all: it was the Lord to whom he was surrendered. The God he loved to lead others to worship. His mom said, “All he ever wanted to be was a worship leader,” and fellow students spoke of his joyful (even goofy at times) way of leading them in worship. His mom, Leigh Ellen, spoke of his blog post about heaven – his last one, written less than two months before he died. She talked about his journal that revealed someone “even better than who we thought he was. The Mark you remember is the real deal.” For the mother of a teenager to speak these words – that alone communicates volumes as to the character and integrity of Mark Rodriguez. I was comforted to hear both parents hold in tension the reality of grieving their son’s death (no minimizing or denying this reality) with a deeper seated hope in resurrection life. His father, Carlos, said that there is no question that Mark is alive and with the Savior he loved. They even asked this Christian community to reach out to the family of the shooter, to offer comfort for their grief. They hold no malice (although I am sure there are questions) because they are resting in God’s sovereign goodness over every detail of their son’s life. Psalm 139 that speaks of every day ordained for us before our lives start – this is how a parent can say, “Mark got exactly what he wanted – to be with the God he loved so much. God took our son home, and he did not live one minute shorter than he was supposed to.”

It raises the question for me – well, so many questions actually. There are the typical ones about why and how come and this is not fair. But the questions I want to live with moving forward are these:

(1)  How could I live a life like Mark’s – completely surrendered, longing for Jesus, true through and through – so that those who know me best could say, “She was even better than you thought she was. Not because of her goodness, but because of her Savior to whom she was surrendered.”?

(2)  When I am cut, will I bleed gospel like Carlos and Leigh Ellen? For that’s what’s so poignant. It is the gospel flowing out in their pain that is so compelling. But don’t take my word for it. Watch their interviews here. It is worth every bit of the 20 minutes for all four parts.

How can I live like Mark? And grieve like Carlos and Leigh Ellen? Through drinking deeply of the gospel. A gospel that shows that God’s in the very middle of the tragedy. He is the God who’s not only sovereign in it, but faithful through it. He is the God intimately acquainted with grief. The God who knows what it is to lose a son to senseless murder. For isn’t that the story of the cross? He is the God who hates death and sin and brokenness so much that he allowed Jesus to be murdered that death and sin and its brokenness might be reversed – eradicated – that love would win through an empty tomb and a stone rolled away. Resurrection. Life after death. Hope amidst tragedy that frees a community to grieve and laugh and hope again. 

 

reflection on “crazy busy”

crazy busyHow many times this month, this year, my lifetime have I answered the question, “how are you?” with a one word response and a glib smile, “Busy!” We wear busy like a badge of honor at times. I’ve worn busy like a shield. It “protects” me from engaging relationships and my heart. Busy is not an answer to how are you. Busy is a status update and a state of mind. Busy has kept me from needful reflection. Busy fills in the gaps I don’t need to fill. I need margin in my life, and so do you. 

Enter in Kevin DeYoung’s brilliant and appropriately titled book, “Crazy Busy.” I think this will be my #bookofthemonth. (or better yet, #bookofmylife) Full of zingers written not from “above” (meaning the place of “here’s my wisdom for all of you down there who struggle with overcommitment and lack of margin in your life”) – but right alongside. I found his honesty refreshing, and his insights convicting. For example, his one sentence diagnosis of the problem of our busy lives:

We are so busy with a million pursuits that we don’t even notice the most important things slipping away.

Not until they’re absent, that is. Like for me most recently as I emerged from a three-month period of time where I had overcommitted to work, and I found that I’d missed so much in terms of connecting with my family and friends, and nurturing physical health, and saw abundant evidence that I’d been running on empty in terms of emotional availability to those I love most. DeYoung speaks to this:

Most of us fall into a predictable pattern. We start to get overwhelmed by one or two big projects. Then we feel crushed by the daily grind. Then we despair of ever feeling at peace again and swear that something has to change. Then two weeks later life is more bearable, and we forget about our oath until the cycle starts all over again. What we don’t realize is that all the while we’ve been a joyless wretch, snapping like a turtle and as personally engaging as a cat. When busyness goes after joy, it goes after everyone’s joy.

He discusses the question of why with seven diagnoses. Why so busy? Why do we (you, me) get into these cycles of crazy busy? And not seem to fully disengage from busy? What gets me so often is the lie of indispensability. That I am irreplaceable, and that if I don’t do [fill-in-the-blank], then it won’t get done – or it won’t get done well. And he rightly says, “the truth is, you’re only indispensable until you say no.” This is under Diagnosis #1 of “You Are Beset with Many Manifestations of Pride.” And in case that doesn’t get you, wait until Diagnosis #5 – “You Are Letting The Screen Strangle Your Soul” and #6 – “You’d Better Rest Yourself before You Wreck Yourself.”

DeYoung presents the quest to let go of “crazy busy” as a community pursuit. And how that resonates with me! I need the example of friends who say “no” graciously and who live joyfully within their limits. I also need to learn to give others space to not reply to my email or text right away. And I need you to remind me of these words I’ve placed before you – a resolution to say “no” to crazy busy and “yes” to life. Real life. I end here:

The antidote to busyness of soul is not sloth and indifference. The antidote is rest, rhythm, death to pride, acceptance of our finitude, and trust in the providence of God. The busyness that’s bad is not the busyness of work, but the busyness that works hard at the wrong things. It’s being busy trying to please people, busy trying to control others, busy trying to do things we haven’t been called to do.

 

beauty in darkness: what’s good about “Good Friday”

I had skimmed over the verse countless times in the 30+ years I’ve read and meditated and studied this familiar account. Good Friday is the time to read the crucifixion story. A story of horror turned beautiful. Yet if you’re like me, too often I jump to the “turned beautiful” part without staying with the horror of what Jesus endured. It’s uncomfortable to sit with the events that culminated in the most gruesome of deaths on a Roman cross. But this week – this Holy Week – asks us to do just that. To sit. To see. To hear. Because in the horror, we are saved. We are deserving of all that the King of Glory endured innocently. And we who bear his name are called to endure similar suffering for the sake of love. Love enters into the messy, the broken, even the so-gruesome-you-can’t-bear-to-hear-it and Love takes it. Love endures. It does not run away. It stays. It shows up.

What feels impossible for you to endure today (and yet you must because of Love)? How can Good Friday become truly “good” for you today? What brokenness do you run from in your own heart and in the lives of those around you?

In my calling as a counselor, I often sit with those who have endured stories of abuse that are too difficult to name. And to think that what I have a hard time hearing is what they lived through. Well, that causes you to pause. To pray. To beg for redemption, for healing, for a Justice to make it all right. 

On Good Friday, we are given just that. Not only in the cross, but in the events leading up to the cross. Here’s the verse that stopped me in my tracks this morning (from Matthew 27:27):

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him.

Do you know how many soldiers are in a battalion? I didn’t either, so I checked the footnote and saw that a battalion is “a tenth of a Roman legion; usually about 600 men.” 600 men. Quite different than movies who portray this portion of the scene with a couple soldiers kicking Jesus around. That’s bad enough, but this has an arena quality to it. 600 soldiers. That’s a very full auditorium hall. And what did they gather to do? Well, read on:

And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him.

Utterly shameful. Shameful if it’s an audience of one, but for these horrors to happen before an arena-size audience of 600? Shame magnified. Shame too great for words. Twice he was stripped of his clothes. In addition to the emotional abuse of this mockery, there was the physical abuse of being “crowned” with thorns and beat on the head with a reed. What is striking is Jesus’ response. Nothing. The one who was God incarnate – who could have called down fire from heaven to devour these fools – stayed still and endured. That is the miracle. The miracle that turns bad into good, abuse into redemption, mockery into honor.

Centuries before, a prophet called Isaiah wrote about this and puts words to the what and the why of all that Jesus endured on “Good” Friday:

Surely he has borne our grief
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed. …
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth …

Because Jesus did not open his mouth when enduring abuse, we can open our mouths and beg for healing and redemption. Healing from our own abuse and from the ways we have abused and oppressed others through our sin – through our brokenness seeking false healings.

In the place of your abuse, there is healing. Because he took the shame for you.

In the place of my sin, there is peace. Because he carried the guilt for me.

In the places where you and I have been silenced, our voice is restored. Because his was silenced this Good Friday.

So go. Walk as one who is healed, who is at peace, who can speak up and speak out and speak of darkness turned beautiful on this most good of Fridays.