Simple, Sweet Freedom

The other day, someone looked at a group of our girls for the first time and asked “are these all the girls you’ve saved?” 

My friend, Ebie, replied sweetly “Oh no.  We don’t save anyone, it’s all Jesus.”

It’s true, friends.  We don’t save a single soul.  Sure, we work for an organization that helps women and ladyboys leave the sex trade through the opportunity to pursue an education.  But freedom, rescue, salvation?  That’s all a deeper, greater, more miraculous story than any human can manufacture.

Working in this kind of a ministry is honestly pretty stylish right now.  We are on the edge of an anti-modern slavery movement that is tackling this dark issue through the lens and strength of the Christian faith.  We see regular, tangible results from our efforts to talk to girls about freedom, hope, and a future, and that makes it extremely tempting to jump on the bandwagon.

And I’m not saying that everyone who desires to partner with Wipe Every Tear is here simply because it’s sexy.  I’m saying that it’s a short step over the line between passion and pride.  I’ve definitely been guilty of confusing the two. But to think that we, the employees and volunteers of Wipe Every Tear, are responsible for any one of these girls’ freedom is well, pretty silly.

Think of the odds a girl faces by leaving the bar.  To start, it takes enormous courage to even believe that our programs are true.  I mean really, a college education, room and board, and all supplies and personal needs offered for free?  Livelihood opportunities to make extra money?  Child support for her two kids?  Seems way too good to be true.  Often, she believes she is going to get trafficked again, because the last offer that seemed like a dream turned into a nightmare.

When she daringly says yes to our programs, she agrees to the long-term commitment of pursuing a college degree.  The commitment is even lengthier if the has to finish high school first.  She has to go from the ability to live a lifestyle however and whenever she desires, and moves into a home filled with other girls with just as complicated of stories, and has to learn the systems in our houses.  She now can’t just coast in her coping mechanisms.  Walking in true freedom here means facing the dark memories that haunt her.

These obstacles such as fear of hardship, the lies of potential failure, and the incorrect interpretation of her God-given identity scream into her ears.  Silencing those voices is not a task for human ability.  We can operate in the power granted by the Holy Spirit inside of us, and that moves us to do astronomical things.  Nevertheless, it takes the love of the Father, the pursuit of the Savior, the kindness of the King to calm the storm that rages in her heart for her to first believe that freedom is an option.

So then she leaves the bar.  And it’s beautiful.  It’s like she jumped into a white abyss, a trifecta of fear, hope, and opportunity, and she’s free-falling with the sweet trust that Jesus will catch her.  And even if she doesn’t really know His name yet, it takes enormous faith for her to make that leap.  Her boldness inspires me, and she doesn’t even realize how incredibly brave she is.

The freedom that comes from her leaving the bar is a literal liberation.  What comes next is something that many don’t often get to witness.  It’s the emotional and spiritual jail break that occurs in these girls’ souls as they determine to walk in freedom day by day.

When I see our girls in the houses, they seem like the strangers I pass on the street.  They all have intricate, quiet lives.  None without hardship, but still, so normal.  I’d never guess that they were the ones that once worked in a bar.  Our houses are filled with music as their freedom translates into picking up a guitar for the first time.  Our walls are covered with their artwork, adorned with flowers and mindful phrases like “just love” and “you are beautiful.”  These colorful reminders shower truth on the girls when an argument breaks out in the house.  Things are so normal here, and sometimes it takes the intentional remembrance of what the Lord is doing through these simple things to realize how incredible this all is.

Like the other night, we took the girls to see a Bethel worship concert.  Fifty of our girls got dressed up, put on their makeup, and pulled out their favorite pairs of shoes.  They took scores of selfies and giggled incessantly as they waited in line to enter the concert arena.  It was beautiful, the miracle of their freedom disguised as a 20-year-old girl waiting for her favorite band to play.

The phenomenal part wasn’t the donation of the tickets, though it was an enormous blessing.  The miracle was that three hours earlier, Ebie drew on one of our girls’ eyebrows in preparation for the concert.  It was no big feat (though any woman will concur that the perfect eyebrow creation is a true work of art).  Yet in conversation with Ebie and her husband, Zac, later that evening, we talked about the subtle act of drawing on someone’s eyebrows.  Before Jesus rescued her, we still might have done her makeup, but perhaps in preparation for her next shift at the bar, not a worship concert.  And that’s what gives me chills.

It’s just doing life together.  I learn more from them than I feel I could ever teach.  Jesus does all the hard work; he speaks to the hearts and heals the minds. Personally, I am blessed by every opportunity that enters my hands to paint a girl’s nails, or go on a walk with her, or see her for the first time in her school uniform. 

These 65 incredible lives have unknowingly stolen my heart and I’ll never forget them.  They don’t know it, but they change me for the better every time I encounter them. We at Wipe Every Tear are absolutely not saviors.  Instead, Jesus uses ordinary humans and regular, every day tasks to do the impossible.  It’s simple, sweet freedom.

Here’s the equation:  Jesus brings the power, the grace, the freedom.

And we just love.

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The Mathematics of Life in the Philippines

Well friends, it’s been five weeks since I landed in the Philippines, and so much has happened.  I haven’t spoken up as much about my experiences here in a blog format because honestly, I’m just spending this time learning myself and how to function in this new world full of Filipino sounds, sights, tastes, and all the emotions that come from working here with Wipe Every Tear.  There has been so much joy, and a decent amount of trying experiences if I’m being honest, and all of it has been so good.

At this point in time, I can say a few solid statements about life here so far.

I am finally getting used to the noise.  Compared to the quiet suburbs of Meridian, Idaho, our neighborhood is filled with sounds at almost every hour of the day.  From the crow of roosters (morning and evening), to the regular disturbance of the neighborhood dogs causing them all to chime in with barking and howling, to the rumble and clamor of the engines of trikes hauling down the street, all work together to create this Filipino symphony.  And it doesn’t really wake me up anymore, either.  It mostly makes me laugh and marvel and how different life can be, one place to another.

The food is wonderful.  Rice is served at nearly every meal, and I’m amazed at how I actually enjoy the consumption of it more and more.  At breakfast, rice is mixed with eggs and savory meat.  At lunch and dinner, it’s the substantial side dish to chicken, fish, or roasted vegetables.  It’s even made into a pudding or paste for dessert.  Despite the mass amount of this white grain, I’m not tired of it—at least not just yet.

The people are incredibly friendly.  Whenever we travel to the two safe houses that reside in a separate neighborhood, we take a trike (a motorcycle and cart vehicle).  Upon approaching the trike station at the end of our street, a couple of the drivers will jump up and proudly announce our destination to the rest of the street corner.  I’m not sure if they do it as a guessing game or because we are quite the scene of two tall American women trying to fit ourselves into a trike cart, but whatever the reason, it makes me laugh every time.  Nearly every person I’ve encountered here is extremely kind, hospitable, and welcoming of us into their culture.  Strangers have helped us learn the language, our cab drivers have helped us navigate to our own neighborhood, and the staff here at Wipe Every Tear has made this transition to Filipino life here so easy that I almost feel I’ve lived here quite a bit longer—that is until I begin fumbling over my limited Tagolog.

I am learning a lot about myself.  Not just things like how I handle the extermination and disposal of the all-too-menacing cockroach or how to order my exercise regiment around the warmer and cooler parts of the day.  I’m also discovering that I really enjoy teaching, as I spend time helping tutor the ladies in our care.  I never knew how much I’d love zumba until I was dancing right along with my new friends here.  I’ve uncovered fears, anxieties, and insecurities that I’ve tried to bury for years, and I’m finally learning how to deal with them, because well, it’s awfully hard to hide those kinds of things here.  I’m learning that true humility doesn’t come from denying my talents or accomplishments, but from celebrating the achievements and qualities of others at the same magnitude as I would celebrate my own.  I’m admitting to myself that it’s okay to be very vulnerable sometimes, and that transparency is one of the best and quickest ways to experience healing.  I’m navigating the emotions of missing my friends and family at home, and the adventure of a long-distance relationship.  I’m defining elements of my personality that I didn’t know were there, and realizing the unique way that I build friendships.  I’m deepening my relationship with the Father God each day as he teaches me about life and about myself.  I’m so thankful for this personal expedition of mapping out myself because to be honest, I didn’t realize that there was so much about me that I didn’t know.

I’m also discovering God in a new dimension.  It’s really hard to let the scenes of filthy children sleeping at bus stops and starving bellies protruding from skeleton figures not hit my heart.  With the world pitched in this kind of light, and the harshness of sin and chaos flooding the setting, it’s hard not to wonder, where is God in all of this?  But I am realizing that God is not in the origin of all this pain.  He is a good Father, who I’ve personally witnessed rescuing young women out of the darkness of modern-day slavery.  I may not have all the answers to why tragedies happen to these remarkable people, but I do know the goodness of God in my own life, and in the lives of the people around me.  Despite the sadness, our lives stand together as a choir of souls that praise the Lord regardless of what we witness or experience.  And everyone is on that journey to being a part of that chorus.  And it’s okay that some people don’t believe in all of this.  I know that I do, and that’s something I cling to when times get hard—and they’ve barely even touched true difficulty yet.

Finally, I can say this one thing above all: the women, ladyboys, and children in Wipe Every Tear’s care are quite definitely some of the most incredible, brave, and inspiring people I have ever met and ever will meet in my entire life.  Whether we are doing something as lighthearted as zumba or eating ice cream, or something as nitty-gritty as opening the wounds of the past and beginning the process of true healing, all our activities and moments together are riddled with the love of Jesus.  I can’t get over the idea of what it must be like to have your life change so drastically on a dime.  One night, a girl may be fighting for her safety in a dark and slimy bar while trying to put food on the table.  The next night, she is experiencing the freedom of a safe house and the opportunity of an education with the rising of the sun.  She can learn guitar, paint, exercise, or pursue any other passion that once remained dormant in her as she simply survived each day.  Today, we read a chapter of a philosophy textbook together, and yet the magic of learning about human rights and heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. was almost tastable.  Watching these women, ladyboys, and children rise up out of the dust is one of my absolute favorite things in the world and I feel deeply honored to witness it.  This unique and divinely intentional assortment of human beings is going to change this planet with their kindness, intelligence, and courage.  How wonderful to be in this exact corner of the earth, during this specific time, participating in such an extraordinary story.

So yes, I would say that amounted to a few solid statements, and maybe a few more.  Life here isn’t exactly rainbows and fireworks in the sky—although Filipinos holiday celebrations very seriously here and will be lighting fireworks until a couple weeks after the New Year.  Instead, life here is the arithmetic of a lot of ordinary days full of sweat and simple joy added with a few sparkling moments of profound healing or meaningful conversations.  The sum equals this: in all my attempts to help build the futures of my friends, I realize that they are simultaneously and unknowingly changing my world.  Life here is absolutely beautiful, and I wouldn’t change a minute of it.

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.