Open Up the Cages

While I was preparing to leave for the Philippines, I got this question a few times: what sparked your passion for fighting against sex trafficking?  Well to be honest, there are number of reasons, yet when I was amidst my preparations to come to the Philippines to live out that passion, I was reminded of a dream I had a few years ago that I believe foreshadowed this current chapter of my story.

The setting of my dream began at church, where I was attending a women’s conference.  I was standing at the entrance of the building, and the guest speaker came out to meet me underneath a big overhang that leads up to the door.  Attached to the ceiling of this overhang were half a dozen cages—rusty, black cages so filthy that even the air inside looked dank, polluted, and grim.  And inside these cages were young girls, nearly unidentifiable with weathered faces that had seen three or four lifetimes in the span of the years they had walked this earth.  Their figures were more shadow and less flesh.  Their eyes were sunken and terrified.

The women in these cages were exploited.  Their bodies were sold for sex.  They had no choice in the matter; they were victims to poverty, poor circumstance, and the ugly things that sin can cause one human to do to another human being.

I felt every muscle in my body tense up at the horror of the sight, and all I wanted to do was unsee.  Just then, the guest speaker of the conference approached me.  She pointed at the cages and said,

“These girls are trapped.  Are you going to help them?”

“Yes!—”

And then I awoke.  I am awake.

Years later I am waking up again.  Upon my first visit to the Philippines, I learned that my dream was real, and that the cages are more atrocious than I had expected.  During my first experience on Filipino soil, I discovered that these iron capsules are actually entrapping hotel rooms, massage parlors, or run-down bars.  Sometimes they are even disguised as shiny night clubs, and those are always the trickiest because everyone seems happy and full of life there.  But you can always tell by the air.  Something is not right about the atmosphere.  The oxygen is undeniably soiled my monstrous cruelty.  How can one breathe freely in a place where souls are stolen and bodies, human bodies, are bought and sold with pocket change?  With one inhale of that poison, I knew that I had to do something about it.

So here I am in the Philippines, not as a hero or an answer to human trafficking as a whole.  To be honest, I am just one ordinary girl from Boise, Idaho with brown hair, green eyes, and freckles on her nose.  I’m not especially talented by my own right.  I’m sure there are more passionate, gifted, experienced, and knowledgeable people in the world who could do this job a whole lot better than me, but it’s me God chose and sometimes I cannot make sense of it.  And I don’t say that as false modesty; I’m not searching for compliments, because whenever someone tells me how brave I am for moving halfway across the world to live in a developing nation and work for an organization that is on the front lines of fighting sex trafficking in the Philippines, well sure I’m flattered, but I don’t necessarily feel brave.

When I think about the word “brave,” I think of the girls in our care who used to once identify with their prisons and are now are identifying with hope!  With love!  With the relish of materializing dreams!  With the trust that Christ knows them and sees them as daughters!  They are free now, but they first had to have the courage to leave their cages.  Some people will ask why they didn’t just leave in the first place, or choose another profession and avoid the whole tragedy altogether.  What is so crucial to remember is that prisons don’t lock from the inside, and once the door is closed, it often takes another person to unlock it.  These women have been pushed into their jail cells by poverty and lies.  They are all victims in one way or another.  These girls were so broken that they believed that captivity was their only purpose.  So yes, for leaving and saying “no” to the enemy’s lies, these girls are very, very brave.

These women inspire me.  Many of them are so thrilled at the joy of freedom that they come back to the bars with us to tell their old coworkers, their friends, and their sisters that there is more.  They choose to spread the joy that they found instead of being continually victimized by their pasts.  There is freedom, hope, and a future available in the arms of Jesus.

I love these girls so much.  And I am thrilled that God chose me to join them in their fight to find restoration and achieve their dreams.  It was not my ability, my charisma, or even my religion that got me here.  It was my ‘yes’ to God’s call, and the vision that God gave me that broke my heart and reformed it to look more like the Father’s.  My passion for human trafficking was sparked by God’s perspective when I wasn’t even really looking for it and by his effort to pave every single step of the way.  However, she is what ultimately ignited the flame.  “She” personified is the dozens of women I know personally who have new lives of freedom because of Jesus and his work through Wipe Every Tear.  She is worth it.  She is the reason we do what we do.

And there’s nothing quite like the moment of walking up to that dirty cage, turning the key inside the wretched lock, and swinging the door wide open.  To reach in and sit with her for a while, to remind her of the sunlight, to tell her that her dreams can come true.  To take her by the hand and spend time with her in the moment that everything about her life starts to change.  To lead her out of the prison with a glorious sunrise on the horizon.  To watch the light return to her eyes at the sound of the word…

Freedom.

 

 

Learn more about Wipe Every Tear and how you can #refusetodonothing about sex trafficking at wipeeverytear.org.

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The Lion’s Battle

Before I left for the Philippines, I was sitting with the US staff for Wipe Every Tear retreat in the Idaho mountains when our founder, Coach Kenny, read us a text from our Filipino director that broke my heart.  The message detailed that one of our girls left our care that morning, with very little of an explanation except for her insistence that this was all too hard for her.  School had been challenging, and she had struggled to find the motivation to push through it.  Tearful, our director explained her sorrow over the loss of this girl, because she and all of us know the reality of leaving Wipe Every Tear’s care.  Sure, there are less rules and more freedom, but that soon proves to be deceptive without a well-formed plan of how she can make it on her own.  Without education or livelihood opportunities–which are difficult to attain if you’re even remotely poor or don’t have a network built for you–it is very likely that the girl will return to the bar scene.  It’s not an “always thing,” but we don’t deny the very enormous likelihood of it.

As Coach read the entirety of the text message, I remember feeling extremely discouraged.  I sat in quiet thought, and deeply wondered about this next season.  After a few minutes of allowing my heart to turn the situation over and examine it from every angle, I cried out to God, “Oh Lord, how can I do this next season?  How can I handle these battles on the front lines when I’m in the States right now, 7,000 miles away, and I can hardly keep myself together?  How will I walk day-to-day in the Philippines and find the grace to choose joy in the midst of very harsh realities?  How can I carry the burden of motivating our girls to press forward when all they want to do is give up?”

His response was perfect.  He said this:

“Dear daughter, this is not your battle to fight.  I may include you in this army that I’m assembling against the injustices of sex trafficking, but this is still my battle.  And I already won the victory.  Your job is to live in that promise and not give in to the lies of the enemy that try to trap you and cause you to feel defeated.  I will fight for you, and I will definitely fight for these girls.  They are my daughters, too, and I am pursuing them relentlessly.”

That response gave me a better handle on the situation, but then God revealed an imagery to me that overwhelmed me with a peace beyond my understanding (which is another promise of God, as stated in Philippians 4:6-7).  The vision was this:

I was reminded of a story that resonates in my heart very deeply.  I thought of C.S. Lewis’ book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  There’s a point in the story where Peter and Edmund are fighting the battle against the Witch and her army,  while Aslan—the perfect Lion who stood in place of Edmund to pay the consequence of his betrayal—is resurrecting from his sacrificial death on the Stone Table.  Lucy and Susan had been near him since his execution the previous evening, and are relishing the un-capped joy of watching their hero come back to life.  Aslan knows about the battle that is occurring only a short distance away, but before he joins the fight, he builds his army.  Lucy and Susan climb on his back, and he gallops away to the Witch’s castle, so he can breathe life onto all the creatures who had been turned to stone by the Witch’s wicked power.  One by one, he awakens his troop.  He sends them into a functional formation, and this is the part that stands out to me.  Aslan commands,

Those who are good with their noses must come in the front with us lions to smell out where the battle is.  Look lively and sort yourselves.

And with a great deal of bustle and cheering they did.  The most pleased of the lot was the other lion, who kept running about everywhere pretending to be very busy but really in order to say to everyone he met, ‘Did you hear what he said? Us lions. That means him and me.  Us lions.  That’s what I like about Aslan.  No side, no stand-off-ishness.  Us lions. That meant him and me.’  At least he went on saying this till Aslan had loaded him up with three dwarfs, one Dryad, two rabbits, and a hedgehog.  That steadied him a bit.

I love this passage.  It shows that when God breathes on us, he gives us a new identity.  He calls us to stand alongside him in this battle.  He doesn’t see our flighty, easily excitable characters as a weakness, he sees us as lions.  He simply uses our passionate energy to carry those who do not have the strength to charge into battle, but are nevertheless needed.  He doesn’t name himself the greatest warrior, though he undeniably is.  It’s as if he takes us by the shoulders and says “You, dear child are a lion!”  Then he takes another, and another.  “And you, are a lion!  And you, and you, and you too, are indeed a lion!  And you are meant to fight this battle.  I’m strengthening you for this Kingdom work.  I’m empowering you for this war.  The same power that is in me is in you as well!”

(At this point in this post, I have to issue a spoiler alert, though if you are picking up the metaphor that Lewis brilliantly displays and if you know the Bible’s ultimate resolution, you’ll know the end of this story.)  By the time the second troop of warriors arrives on the battlefield, the first of the soldiers along with Peter and Edmund are tired and nearing defeat.  Many have mortal wounds.  Some already seem past the point of no return.  The situation appears bleak, but then Aslan roars, and oh, does he roar.  He shakes the ground with his thunderous growl and every creature—good and evil—stops in their tracks.  Swords silence their clashing, and hearts melt in terrific awe.  Aslan leaps from his mountainy ledge onto the Witch and finishes her, once and for all.  He uses his breath to soften the bodies of the warriors turned to stone, and sends Lucy on a quest to use her cordial to heal those with wounds.  The entire troop of evil is completely eradicated, whether killed or far off in retreat.  Aslan could have done it all in one mighty act of power, but instead he used those he called with his life-filled breath.  The dogs exercise their teeth, the giants squash enemies with their feet, and every single creature is using their divinely-created ability to be instrumentally victorious in the way they do best.  Aslan uses the ordinary, the broken, and even the traitor to defeat the greatest enemy of Narnia.

And like Aslan, God is doing the very same thing in the Philippines.  He is using simple, ordinary people in their unique abilities to conquer the evil here.  Revival is spreading as God breathes life into his army.  Sure, the struggle is very much present, and there are moments where it appears that our heads will not stay above water.  But I know that the Lion is coming.  I know that he is constantly feeding his troops.  He is empowering us to say a resounding “no” to the face of extreme evil.  And though I’ve only been here a week so far, I know in my core that my God will never, ever fail his children.  So even though there are days when our hearts break in seemingly endless routines for these girls, I trust that the Lion will breathe into us and build us back up and strengthen me again for another day.

So, we as Wipe Every Tear are not afraid.  This will never be our battle, but because of the Lion, we will always be able to claim the victory.  We advocate for the victory of freedom, hope, and a future even when we don’t feel like we are gaining any ground.  Disappointments don’t set us back, and hardships don’t leave us staggering.  God is strengthening our feeble knees and reinforcing us with an abundance of provision, even if it comes at the very last minute.  He is roaring confidence into our bones.  We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is so for these girls that he will continue to fight for them and pursue them relentlessly.  We believe in the Lion of Judah, the one who never tires, the one who never fails, the one who was, the one who is, and the one who is yet to come.

An Apology From My Mind to My Body

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You know I don’t tell you “I love you” enough. Instead, I’ve terrified you of mirrors and compliments.

I’ve covered you up, done you up, and shut you up until you believed that you weren’t quite you without a mask.

I’ve lied to you

And I’ve listened more to the words of others

Before I took a good long look at you

And decided to love all of you.

I should’ve been the one reminding you that who you are is ok.

Instead I was your main assailant.

I was the one who most terrified you.

I was your worst enemy.

I should’ve treated you more

Valued you more

And said way more than I ever did.

And here’s why.

 

I cannot speak without you.

I need the mountains and valleys of your mouth

to form the sentences that I’ve never been equipped to convey.

I need your laugh, your cry, your scream.

I need you to say

“It will all be alright.”

 

I cannot walk without you.

I need your strong legs to carry me through the day

To take us to places we’ve never been

And venture into the great unknown

I need your steps so I can look back and shout

“Look at how far we’ve come!”

 

I cannot see without you

You help me to perceive and re-perceive

Oh, how many times I get it wrong

And I ask you again, just one more look

The sunsets would be colorless

The stars would lack their shine

I wouldn’t know the face of beauty

Without you

 

I cannot hear without you

Though I’ve covered you up time and time again,

I’m unstuffing these ears of yours

So that if you get the chance,

You can hear about the good things in this broken world

And maybe begin to heal

Without you, I cannot listen and cannot begin to understand.

 

I cannot reach without you

And oh, I love your arms

You never ceased to reach for those who needed you

Even when I tried to dissuade.

You pull the broken close

And hold up the sky

For those whose dreams simply must carry on below.

 

I can’t breathe without you.

I love the way you toss your hair.

When your eyelashes bat, the world swoons.

Your smile is my smile.

Your laugh is my laugh.

Your sob is mine too,

And my heart belongs to you.

 

And I love your heart.

It’s just so brave.

The reason we’ve made it this far

Is because it is so courageous.

It has braved my insults.

It has loved in spite of pain.

Though it has staggered under the weight of this world

It has never quite fallen.

It’s like a wave

Its compassion doesn’t relent

No matter who and what and how and how many

Try to dry its waters

The tide of you comes in

Just when we need it most

And you love, oh how you love.

 

You see,

I’m so sorry

I’ll probably never stop saying it

I must’ve prided myself in my intelligence so much

That I thought you away.

I am learning to be content

With your exactness–

Your exact perfection and imperfection.

You never failed me

You never quite gave up.

So thank you for carrying on,

When I was determined to beat you down.

I am sorry, my dear.

I am so, so sorry.

I love you, and I can’t do this life without you.

Renovation of Me

My life was like a run-down house when you found me—a paled shack, really.  My paint was peeling, revealing my aged soul.  The windows were dimmed by the dust and grime of weathering circumstances.  They fogged oustiders’ view of seeing who I really was, and what I could offer if only I was given a chance.  My grayed door barely hung on its hinges, made fragile by one-too-many slams to my heart, and useless in its job to prevent trespassers.  My roof was missing shingles as the winds of many years howled at me, threatening me with every breath. Inside, the once radiant furniture and wall-hangings were covered by filthy sheets of legalism.  These beautiful pieces once offered rest, peace, and joy.  But over time, they only took up space, slowly decaying with complacency.  Outside, the flowers browned and withered, planted in dry dirt.  Thistles and brambles climbed up the railings and walls, as if to menacingly drive away anyone who dared approach me.  There were cracks in my foundation, deep gashes in the cement caused by greed, lust, pride, shame, and bitterness.  These cracks caused me to simply exist as a staggering frame of a home.

This residency now resembled a ghost.  People used to enter the structure of me and leave refreshed, knowing that there was something about me, something that exuded a life and life abundant.  But over time, I had forgotten about upkeep.  I’d forgotten to clean, to polish, to renovate, remove, and replenish.  I’d neglected to consult the Grand Architect on how I should keep my space up-to-date and ready for use.  The result was messy, broken, and unlivable.

Finally, when I couldn’t take much more, I cried out to the Master Builder.  My words woke up my heart and filled it with the relish of newness, with the joy of coming transformation.

“God!”  I cried.  “I’ve had enough!  My life is in shambles; You once called me a resting place and now my life is ashes!  Make me new again!”

So He did.  He tore me down.  In times, it felt dangerous, but I never once felt harmed.  And in times, it was gentle.  But it was never sugar-coated.  Through His entire process of transforming my life, He did exactly what He needed to do with enough authority, determination, and intention to set me back up with strength.

Plank by plank, brick by brick, my old and shameful frame came tumbling.  He ripped my life from its broken foundation.  He filled my cracks and mounted His work upon the characteristics of Himself.  My once deteriorating structure was now composed of love, kindness, patience, gentleness, goodness, peace, joy, and self-control.  He formed me with his blueprints, and determined where each piece should go.  My home began to grow, my life gained height, depth and breadth.  My walls were made of Him, my floors, made of Him, my ceiling, yes, made of Him.

He smashed out the old windows, and installed panes that were clear as a desert sky at midnight.  Those who passed by could see the transformation happening.  Windows once darkened by painful and shameful experiences now offered light and hope.  They gleamed like bright flames despite how cold the weather was around me.  They offered the evidence that something miraculous was happening within the place where they once claimed “nothing good will come from that life.”

He installed a new door, attached fresh hinges on its frame, and polished the handle.  No longer was it a testimony of hurt and loneliness, but of strength and protection.  It stood bright in pigment, washed by the crimson that came from the Cross, and welcomed those seeking refuge inside.  At the same time, it remained as a barrier of conviction, shouting a firm “no” to those people and things that threatened the genuineness of my soul and the atmosphere of this home.

Once the structure was replenished, He wasted no time in refreshing the insides.  He tossed off the sheets of religion from my furniture, and polished up the filthy and worn pieces of my life.  With each new chair, He added to my calling.  Every wall hanging and picture frame served as memories and reminders of how my life had added to His Kingdom.  There wasn’t a scent or trace of phony legalism or heavy burdens.  I asked Him, “why are you so generous in adding to my life?  Isn’t the renovation enough?  Why have you furnished my life with your goodness?  Why have you adorned my home with the dreams of my heart?”

He replied so beautifully that it brought me to my knees.  “Your life is a home in my Kingdom.  I will not only transform you and make you a place for me and my people, but I will equip you to draw others in to me.  Your life will be a place to find rest, hope, and love.  Others will know that when they come to you, they find me always inhabiting this space.  I am generous in my renovations because I care.  I care about you, and I care about those around you.  I am passionate about making you a place of praise.  I desire you to be built on a healthy foundation, with renewed joy and enthusiasm, and the fullness of an abundant life.  I don’t simply change what’s wrong about you.  I am never stingy in my plans.”

“Oh, my dear Jesus,” I said simply. “What else could you possibly add now?  You’ve done it all.  You’ve broken me down and built me back up.  You’ve strengthened me, perfected me, and unraveled me all at once.  You’ve put purpose back into me.  You’ve put life in my walls.  You’ve brightened me to my core.  What more could I ask?”

And then he added color.  Splashes of paint!  Bright lines of trim!  Flowers of red, blue, and purple hung along the railings and in the yard, luscious, verdant grass covered the soil.  Sprawling trees gave shade and life, while the sunshine poured its light down as it traveled through each day’s sky.  From the top, down and from the inside, out, vibrancy filled me and covered me and sprung forth from me.  The grayness of me was washed away and the dirt was scrubbed off.  All that could be seen was adorned by the abundance of the Master Builder, the once who makes beautiful things from dust.

Now when people come here, I am happy.  My life used to turn people away, and now it’s a place that attracts individuals with a spectrum of stories.  They will ask me, “how did you get your house to look this way?”  I just smile and say, “you know, it wasn’t always like this.  But thank God for coming along and remodeling my life.  Do you want to meet Him?  He lives here now.  He couldn’t stay away from His work.  He never leaves a job undone, and He never lets His plans go to waste.  And He never leaves the ones He loves.”

Yes, he really does live here.  He inhabits the space of my life.  I need him for the upkeep.  He continually fills the cracks in my foundation, and adds photos to the walls of all the things we do together.  And He’s more hospitable than me.  Whenever I want to keep His creation to myself, He invites someone new inside, and soon I realize how silly I am.  And each person who stumbles upon this place becomes a pleasure as I watch Him remodel their places and spaces with newness and color.  What’s more, I want Him.  I want Him to be part of everything I do now.  He keeps my life full with joy, humor, and expectancy.

I could go on and on, I really could.  But I’ll just say this one thing: let Him in.  Sometimes the transformation is painful, especially when He breaks down your life and cleans it.  But He never leaves you that way.  He always brings His unique purpose to your space and makes it something radiant.  So let Him in, let Him in, let Him in.  Give Him permission him wreck you, build you, and adorn you with all that is good.  Allow Him to bring abundance into your life and I promise, you’ll never want Him to leave.

Broken Beauty

sat down on a bunk bed that was scooted to the side of the living room where our team gathered. The sweltering Filipino heat and the scarcity of air-conditioning in nearly every structure defeated my legs. I told myself “I’ll only sit down for a minute.” It was day two of my time in the Philippines, and though it was considered winter and Christmas had just passed, I marveled at how two different geographies can have such opposite ideas of the cold.

Our team listened to Coach Kenny as he talked about the girls living in the safe house. Most of the Filipina girls took the tour of their own home with us, beaming with pride over their adorable DIY decorations (which really impressed me, as these precious ornaments adorned the home with beauty and intricacy that radiates from the girls themselves). As beads of sweat assumed formation along my hairline, I remember feeling a soft presence at my shoulder. I looked to find one of the girls resting her head on me, assuming the intimacy of friendship before I had the chance to ask her for her name. We exchanged that small detail as she proceeded to speak one short sentence that broke me. “I can’t wait to be happy again.”

These gorgeous girls. You walk in the doors of their homes and the sense of dignity and elegance that they carry is a mark of their freedom. They accept you with warm hugs or shy giggles and they play with your hair as if running their fingers through new, spring grass. They are goofy and spunky and witty and intelligent, and you never would guess that they had a life any different. But their battles don’t simply end at the bar. They fight daily to remember the worth that they have in Christ Jesus and that He is madly in love with every stitch and seam of their expertly woven existence.

In the Philippines, I worked with an organization called Wipe Every Tear. Being a part of their remarkable team is a true honor because I can see tangible evidence of their influence in the Philippines.  Wipe Every Tear is a non-profit organization started out of Boise, Idaho by a man named Kenny Sacht, or more endearingly known as “Coach.”  A journey that started in 2012 has produced the fruit of a fully functioning organization which cares for close to 80 girls in 5 homes in the Philippines and Thailand.  Once a girl is received into WET’s care, they receive aid in finishing their education, whether that be graduating from high school first before pursuing a degree, or finishing up any amount of higher education a girl received prior to entering the bar scene.  These girls are received into a supportive, non-judgmental environment where they are fed three meals a day and are provided an allowance to help fund their transportation or even send home to their families.  Any of the girls’ medical needs are met as they enter the homes, and some even receive orthodontic care. Some have been permitted to bring their precious children to live in the home with them.  Worship, prayer, and devotion time is offered daily to the girls, and nearly all of them find a relationship with Christ to be the most comfort and peace they can find as they rehabilitate into their life outside of the sex trade.  The purpose of all this is to give these girls a chance at their dreams and the opportunity to work hard to achieve them.  As I write this, one girl in particular has recently turned in her thesis to graduate from college, an opportunity that would have been impossible without God moving through Wipe Every Tear’s work.  Coach’s motivation for beginning this ministry wasn’t out of a desire to do something fulfilling or “good” for the world, but rather, out of his true love and brokenness for these girls enslaved in Filipino bars.

Something that Coach engrains in his volunteers and employees is a proper vocabulary.  He never allows the girls we interact with to be identified as “prostitutes,” “whores,” or any other derogative term that puts a restrictive label on them.  He sees them as God’s daughters who are ensnared in the ropes of injustice, and he implores all who are on his team to adopt that mindset.  And after interacting with these beautiful sisters, it is impossible to perceive them as less than my friends who are unconditionally loved by Christ and covered by His unfathomable and endless grace.  They may work or have worked in a bar, but they deserve just as much of a chance at life as I do, and that’s why what Wipe Every Tear does is so important.  Though entering a Filipino bar is tiring and terrifying, when I remember that a girl’s life could change with one conversation, it all becomes worth it.

The first time I ventured down Walking Street, the red light district of Angeles City, I quaked like a daisy in the wind. My freckled nose and green eyes met face after face of deep brown eyes and radiant smiles. But their eyes didn’t smile. They tugged on my arms, pleading me to come in to their bar and “join the fun,” but I almost felt as if they were begging me to lead them out.

My team of Americans and Filipinas sat down in the first bar we could decide on, a scummy place in the corner of an alley pooled with freshly fallen rain. You could still smell the cigarette smoke through the Filipino storm. We took our seats as Taylor Swift screamed through a grainy sound system, and I paused to take in my surroundings. Girls who appeared younger than me wore almost nothing on their bodies. Some of them eyed potential customers while most avoided eye contact with anyone, seeming all too ready for their shift to end, as if morning couldn’t come quickly enough. I tried to appear as if I was having a good time in attempt to shake off any suspicion of my intent for being there, but I was ready for my plastered smile to crumble off my face at any minute.

Bar after bar, we took our seats and scouted for any girl who looked desperate for a way out.  The girls would most often be corralled on a stage or dance floor, wearing hardly anything except maybe a bikini, short shorts, tape, and of course a number or name tag that clearly was used to say “I am just a number.”  With the air-conditioning on full blast, the girls would rub their bare arms to warm themselves as they danced half-heartedly in their stilettos. Once we determined what girl we wanted to talk to, we would tell the waitress or mama-san, and she would shine her laser on the girl’s stomach, the girl’s command to come down.  It was as if that tiny light was a leash made out of the strongest chains.  It tattooed this label on the girls of being merely a piece of property.  The terrified girl would do her best the march off the stage with pride, all the while trying to hide her darting eyes which seem to beg “please, don’t pick me.”  She would sit down, tell us her name, and we would order her something to drink.  We would always tell her that she didn’t have to order alcohol.  Though some girls still resorted to a beer, others gratefully requested juice or even chocolate milk.  Most of the time, the girls aren’t allowed to eat while they work so that they will be weaker and more intoxicated for their customers.

When we would talk to the girls, we would invite them to our Christmas party held at the church down the road where we would have the chance to love them, celebrate them, and offer them a way out.  We would ask them about their lives back home and about their families. Nearly every girl was from the province, or the poor countryside, and a member of a family with more brothers and sisters than there was enough food on the table to nourish them regularly. College was a distant dream forgotten about as they woke up to the harsh reality that without an education, life at a bar was the only shot at a job. So many of the girls were providing for their families at home, or even working to feed the children they’d had on their own.

We would also talk about their dreams. This is the part that really got me. I take my career for granted.  I am treated well, receive paid time off, have solid friendships with my coworkers and superiors, and my physical and mental safety is always a priority in my workplace.  I strive to do my best at my job here in America, and it pays off. These girls want to travel, heal the sick, serve others, or work in the technical field, but without getting out of the bar, working hard only drives them deeper into their prison.  Without an education, they have to dream from inside the jail cell of the sex trade.

After four, taxing nights in the bars of screaming over loud music and breathing in clouds of smoke, your voice is shot.  Your mind is stretched in every way.  You try to come up with more creative ways to invite the girls to our gatherings to talk about Wipe Every Tear and the freedom that this organization brings.  You scavenge your mind for the perfect questions to ask the girls and the perfect responses to every heartbreaking response and story you hear.  You suppress the agonizing, burning urge to scream at their customers—most of whom are middle aged to elderly white men from first-world countries—that use the red light district as a twisted tourist attraction.  You try to stifle the daunting fact that you are one person, trying to fight for justice in an ocean of atrocity and you wonder if the sex-trade will ever reach extinction.  You struggle to remember that God is using your life in these moments to talk about freedom, even if only to a few girls.  You choke down tears at least 50 percent of the time you swallow.  Your heart feels like it’s been trampled.  And yet at the end of your time in the bars for the day, when you come back to the hotel in the early hours of the morning, you sit back to reflect and think Wow.  I have it so good.

Bar outreach is quite possibly, one of the most heart-wrenching experiences I have ever lived.  Visiting my sisters in the bars was also one of the most exhilarating, remarkable, and life-changing things I’ve ever had the privilege of doing.  Not only that, but I was inspired by the girls who have been rescued already.  These young women who have every right to shut the painful memories of the bars out of their minds instead vigorously led us through the dark pockets of Walking Street, urgently telling their friends and previous coworkers about their miraculous freedom.  Their paintbrush of emotions holds every color, from rage at the customers, to sadness at the sight of injustice and ugly memories, to joy when an imprisoned girl catches the fire of hope in her eyes.  These strong Filipinas fight through it all to tell anyone they can that it’s okay to have hope again.

In the midst of darkness that breeds on Walking Street, there were countless times where I experienced Jesus’ atmosphere-altering presence.  On the third night in the bars, a few members of our team remembered that a young lady in one of the bars had just celebrated a birthday, and they pooled their Filipino pesos together to buy her a delicious cake to bring to her at work.  A bar that once felt like a human zoo where tangible evil put a heavy, metallic taste on your tongue, now hosted a party that celebrated these gorgeous, intelligent, and remarkable women.  We danced and laughed in a war zone.  We talked about dreams and drank chocolate milk, and repeatedly proclaimed the beauty of these sisters in the midst of their brokenness.  Coach said to walk into every bar knowing that Jesus was walking with us, but when I entered the bar that night, I knew Jesus was already there.  He had been working in that bar just as long as every single girl that was imprisoned there.  He had been holding their hands before they knew His name.  He was the real host of the celebration that night, and He was the one that determined their worth before another man ever dared to lay a hand on God’s precious daughters.

That’s why I went to the Philippines. The sex trade is real, it’s hard, and in the Philippines, it screams in your face. It’s un-ignorable to me. I walked down a street the stretch of barely a mile, surrounded by thousands of girls my age trapped by poverty, trickery, and the false idea that their worth is defined by selfish men.  I want to prove to girls that they are much more than an object for someone’s pleasure, but I know that I am not the hero of these girls’ stories, and I never will be.  In perspective, I am just one person and I am not capable of talking to every girl trapped on Walking Street.  But Christ, the real hero, is infinitely capable.  He can touch and break the hearts of those who can make a difference, and open their eyes to the harsh reality of human trafficking.  He revealed to me that these girls’ circumstances have never once tainted their value.  And with that, I pray that these few thoughts and experiences compel you to open your eyes to what God is doing in the Philippines.  He is making beauty from ashes, and showing His daughters that they will be joyful once again.  He does that in every story—in mine, in yours.  Has Christ set you free?  Has he exchanged your pain for joy?  Are the tears that once streaked your face only a memory?  Have your prison doors been flung open by the love and redemptive power of Jesus?  Has your life been changed at the moment of your encounter with the Savior?  Then make your story known; speak up for those who don’t have a voice and fight for the oppressed.  It’s time to live the story of broken beauty that marks the human life.  It’s time for the injustice of human trafficking to become extinct.

The Art of Resting

“In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth…”  Sound familiar?  This initial line of Genesis commences the story of Creation, where all plants, animals, vast oceans and breathtaking sunsets made their debut.  God, the ultimate Creator, spoke Earth into its rotation, commanded it to dance around the Sun, and prompted the other planets to do the same.  He set stars into their exact place in the billions of galaxies that we now know today, and remarkably, knows them all by name without reliance on a complex database.  He orchestrated the intricate, yet incredibly orderly process of photosynthesis.  With the same hand that holds the Universe, He designed the tiny cell with all it’s magnificent detail and built life with trillions upon trillions of these microscopic bricks.  Like an infinite yet precise potter, He designed every element and put them together, creating different rock formations and gases and even the air we breathe.  Uncanny, right?  And Genesis makes it sound so wonderfully simple.  God spoke and things simply existed.

Yet if the reader of Genesis stops at chapter one, a crucial element of God’s unmatched workflow is missed.  Six days—which by saying this does not open the debate of the length of a day in this text; that conversation is definitely for another time—is the span of God’s creation process.  As the reader moves to chapter two, the beginning paragraph states this.  “So the creation of the heavens and the earth and everything in them was completed.  On the seventh day, God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work.  And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation” (Genesis 2:1-3 NLT).  So, though the massive scale of Creation is conveniently condensed on one to two pages in our Bibles, it is clear from the text that the Creation story took work.  God even set aside a period in his seven-day-week to rest from the effort it took to bring about the planets and the animals and well, everything (I mean come on, who can blame him?).

However, I think there is a crucial piece of information that we can miss here, and it’s something that I have been negating from my life for quite a while now.  God intends for us to rest.  No, not all the time; I am definitely not implying that God desires for us to be lazy, scripture even reprimands that kind of behavior (Proverbs 19:15, Proverbs 24:33, Proverbs 31:27).  But for God to set aside a day of rest and even deem it holy means that it deserves some attention, and application, in our lives as well.  The fourth commandment given to Moses and the children of Israel in Exodus 20 states this:

Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  You have six days each week for your ordinary work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath day of rest dedicated to the Lord your God. […]  For in six days, the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea, and everything in them; but on the seventh day he rested.  That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.  (Exodus 20:8-11 NLT).

Honestly, I don’t believe the main purpose of the Ten Commandments listed in Exodus is God’s way of lording His power over us, though He has more right to do so than any other being.  I think God gave us those commandments so that we could have a healthier relationship with Him, and so that our lives can be more full and abundant than they would be if we tried to live without His direction.  I mean, if God is an intimate being, and His word states that He is love (1 John 4:16), and that He’s a good Father (Matthew 7:11), and that every good and perfect gift comes from Him (James 1:17), it’s only fitting that we trust His commandments to be good and true, not mean and dictatorial.

So here’s where I fit into all of this.  I am very thankful to God because He has granted me with a strong work ethic and a desire to do my best in every situation.  I’m also a people-pleaser.  And a perfectionist.  In other words, I have a very difficult time saying “no” to anyone.  I often double and triple book myself, and have learned how to manage every minute of my time.  I have dozens of lists saved in my phone of things I need to do or remember, and once I’m finished with one event, I fast-track it to the next task to complete.  I hold myself to unrealistically high standards, and I take time off only when I have no other obligations. That being said, between working a part-time job, an internship, and being involved in three different ministries at church, free time is something I only dream about.

Until lately.  The last couple months have been a whirlwind of events for me.  One main point on my life timeline is a recent trip to the Philippines, where God opened my eyes, and my life was forever changed.  While in the Philippines, I had the beautiful privilege to work with an organization called Wipe Every Tear, whose primary goal is to bring freedom to girls victimized by the sex trafficking industry.  They provide education, housing, healthcare, and other amenities so that the girls who are under WET’s care are free to go to school and chase after their dreams.  What a brilliant picture of the Kingdom of Heaven, right?  Yet in the time that I’ve been back on American soil, I haven’t allowed myself time to process what I saw and what God did through me and around me, so there have been moments where I feel the rawness of it all again, and I have a hard time containing myself.

I am so thankful that God allowed me to be a part of that experience, and I believe He did just as much in me as He did in the people our group was helping.  But there is a way to be irresponsible when it comes to experiences like that, and it’s by heaping a busy schedule on yourself the minute you step off the plane.  In 24 hours of being home, I was already back at work at a retail job where I was selling items that cost more than what some families make in years.  Though I love my job and I’m confident that God is the sole reason for my employment, it was very tough knowing the fire I felt in the Philippines was being put out by my insatiable need to be busy.  Between processing this journey as well as dealing with a couple other hurdles in my personal life, I was beginning to feel the toll that my lifestyle was taking on my joy.  Causes that used to spark my passion, no longer seemed even worthwhile.  I felt this heavy apathy settle on everything I was involved in, and I had no motivation to make matters any different.  I had neglected my devotional time with God for the excuse that I was “simply too busy.”  I had stopped investing time and energy into the things I cared about because I was “simply too busy.”  Noticing a pattern?  Finally after a couple months of walking through this emotionless, busy, and often joyless season, my health took a tank.

This is where I am right now.  I’m at home, finally taking time off of work and away from my internship.  I am staring at my computer screen with watery eyes and a head full of congestion (gross, I know).  My throat feels like death and walking around my house overexerts me.  I admit it, I haven’t been this sick in a very long time, but in all honesty, I know deep down to my core that this is necessary.  I believe God is good and never intends for His children to hurt or be sick, but the more I look at this situation, I truly think God allowed me to go through this illness so I would finally loosen my grip on my silly obligations and rest in His grace and mercy.  I don’t think I would have made a lifestyle change until I was forced to take a step back and let my unhealthy work habits sink in.  I was driving myself into the ground with a smile on my face, trying to convince everyone that I had it all together and that I could go through life on my own.  I thought I was tough enough, skilled enough, strong enough, and determined enough to respond to God’s calling on my life without his aid.  I couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

I’ve basically been missing the point of God’s commandment.  Turns out that God ordering a regular, planned day of rest was for my benefit.  But the more I sit here in the quiet of my room, the more I realize there is so much more I can do for God’s Kingdom if I allow my body, soul, and spirit to be replenished by the Holy Spirit on a regular basis.  I can’t begin to assume that I can continue to pour into others when my cup is empty.  I’ve been attempting to pull water up from the dry well of myself.

I didn’t understand why this commandment to rest was emphasized so much in the Bible, and how even in many Christians’ lifestyles, the Sabbath, or a regular day of rest, fails to hold much importance.  Perhaps, it is because of this “workaholic” culture that in which we are immersed.  We go to church on Sundays, but we climb the corporate ladder the other six days a week.  We are involved in work, in ministries, in our community, and most importantly, in our friends and families.  All these things are terrific and incredibly important, however, while we claim to understand the concepts of grace and forgiveness, even the best of Christians often traverse through life missing the importance—and the grace—of rest.

I’m starting to learn that resting is an art.  It requires knowing one’s limits and when it’s time to retreat into God’s overflowing grace.  Even Jesus needed time away from His disciples occasionally to be refilled.  Rest is not a selfish thing to desire or need.  We are designed for rest.  We should constantly find rest by retreating into prayer, worship, and devotion in God’s Word.  Resting can take the form of exercising or developing a hobby.  No, rest is not something that fills the majority of our time by any means, but it does play a significant role in what and how we contribute to God’s Kingdom.  Do not get me wrong, work is important.  When you look in the story of Genesis, God worked before He rested.  Adam and Eve were tending the Garden of Eden long before the entrance of sin.  Hard work in one’s calling is designed by the Heavenly Father.  However, busy-work and constant obedience to unnecessary obligation is the cheap parallel of operating in God’s plan.  It definitely fills time and even can be fruitful to an extent, but without God’s initiation and sustaining grace, becomes burdensome and unfulfilling.  The true difference between working hard for God’s cause and becoming a Christian burnout?  One is operated under grace and the other is attempted by human effort.  It’s hilariously backwards to our human thinking, but puts a lot of truth to this scripture: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30 ESV).

So for those who are in the same boat as me, for those who are reaching their limits, and for those who seem to be walking through the driest of deserts of their faith—just rest.  Yes, sometimes it is painful and will occasionally require you to inconvenience others as you learn to say “no.”  But coming from someone who is learning this first-hand, there is nothing more refreshing than falling into the arms of Jesus and allowing Him to reposition you for His purposes.  Contrary to how you may feel, the world won’t fall apart if you have to decline to the the third dinner outing this week or if you have to release your death grip on the obligations you once held so dear.  Let go, and let God fill in all your gaps.  Empty yourself of your need to be busy, and tap into the overflow of God’s unmatched grace for your life.  I promise you, dear friend, it is so worth it.

The First.

Well, here we are.  I’m starting a blog.  “Start a blog, Hannah.  You have so much content.  Start a blog, Hannah.  Share what’s on your mind.  Start a blog, Hannah.  The world wants to hear what you have to say.  Start a blog, start a blog, start a blog.”

‘Blog’ is beginning to turn into one of the words that sounds like nonsense after repeating it one too many times.  The word keeps popping up in unexpected avenues of my mind and my heart, and though I’ve been hesitant to put my words and writing in front of a public audience, I can’t seem to chase off the idea.  I guess I really do have a lot I could say.  I am a more quiet and reserved person, and I do a lot of thinking (and sometimes overthinking).  I fill up my journals in just a couple months with thoughts, prayers, notes, and sometimes long and colorful rants, but I’ll try to reserve my better literary moments for this blog.  Underneath my slightly cynical tone, I really do have a more poetic soul.  Writing is the way I create.  It’s the way I talk and think.  More often than not, it’s the way I pray.  Sometimes it’s deeply cultivated, and sometimes it’s undeniably raw.  And after getting over the idea that this gift of writing is reserved for only myself, I’m finally understanding my desire to help and inspire others with this gift that God has given to me.  My prayer is that my words are not simply my own, but instead, syntax, poetry, and prose, with an ebb and flow that resembles a divine nature.  I would rather speak words that come from the Heavenly Father, rather than fumble over my limited rhetoric.

So, at the end of a wearisome day, I sat down with a pen and piece of paper, and God gave me my first post.  It’s not so much my list of reasons for why I’m starting this blog, but rather, it’s more of God awakening my heart to why I should be writing and using my voice for good.  With that, here’s my simple explanation.  Sometimes God lights a fire under my dragging feet, and this is the conversation He had with me when I finally made the jump into this world.

“You have to do it.  You have words inside of you that weren’t made for your heart and your benefit alone.  Believe it or not, scores of the words put on your heart are not your own.  I, God, put them there.  I gave you a poetic, musical, lyrical soul so that you can speak in a way that moves people.  You, through My strength, can move and motivate people to stand for justice, fight for the oppressed, seek righteousness, and pursue growth in themselves and with Me.  You can relate, build, and encourage with speech, yet you also bring an artistic element to the truth and wisdom of My words in your heart.

Please give your tongue access to these words.  Unleash your gift for My purposes.  You may have to give up your control a little for you to truly convey the message I’ve placed inside of you.  Do not let your voice be hindered by fear (Joshua 1:9).  For too long, you’ve only spoken up when you couldn’t stay silent any longer.  You neglected to add words to circumstances that needed their creative power, simply because you preferred the safety of your own mind more than the satisfaction of knowing that I, God, spoke through you.  Sure, it’s easier for your words to undergo the missiles of human opinion when they are out in the open.  And you won’t always say the right thing.  But, my dear child, that is not something I’m concerned with.  I am more given to the potential that you hold in the spaces between your fingertips where the ballpoint rests.  I am more taken with the deep crevasses of your heart where my wisdom has been hibernating.  I am more intrigued by what could change when you finally decide to open your mouth.

Have thoughts like these ever crossed your mind before?  You have the power to build My Kingdom with the words on your tongue and the pen in your hand.  Has a notebook of yours stayed empty?  Have you ever wasted that canvas?  Then cultivate this gift.  Develop it.  And finally, in my good timing, share it.  Let others know that I am for them.  Write.  Speak.  Shout!  Sing!  You were not made to be silent (Jeremiah 20:9)!

And fear not what you will say.  I will develop you to master this gift.  You don’t have to draw from your own efforts.  Let my Spirit be your muse.  Do not let those who will attack your words dissuade you from trusting in the promises I made to you.  Remember that when speaking up for me, I will give you the words to say (Matthew 10:19 NLT).  You will not find this spring of rhetoric in yourself.  You will discover it when you let me in, and let me start fires in the places where your passion has grown cold.  Take down your walls, and allow me to show you how to live—truly live.  May I have your permission, dear child?  Will you allow Me to knock over the dusty, old shelves of your mind?  Will you let me wreck your expectations of the “way it should be?”  Will you let me work dangerously, scandalously, and passionately in your heart?  Please, stop hiding in the safety of silence.  You were made for boldness.  You were made for love.  You were made for this.  SPEAK UP, Hannah.  SPEAK.  UP.”