Friday, January 22, 2010

But take heart, because I have overcome the world.

Elizabeth grew up in a Christian home in southern Asia, graduated from school, and wanted to earn money for her family before continuing her education. Tricked by her aunt, she was sold into a brothel and starved for three months in a cell before she gave into her owner's demands. She began to pray on her knees for God to rescue her, and the other girls laughed. "God can't hear you in a place like this," they said. When International Justice Mission rescued Elizabeth and 21 other girls from the brothel and brought their perpetrators to justice, they found this writing on Elizabeth's cell wall:

"Psalm 27:1-3. The Lord is my light and my salvation--whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, when my enemies and my foes attack me, they will stumble and fall. Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident."

I've been researching human trafficking for a few months, but each time I hear the facts, I'm surprised. Tonight I heard Jim Martin from IJM speak at Kuyper College's Global Issues Summit.

Here were the facts, again, which surprised me, again:

- Human trafficking is the third most lucrative trafficking industry (following drugs and arms), and the fastest growing criminal industry.

- Human Trafficking is a $32 Billion industry.

- There are 27 million slaves in the world today, which means that slavery is a greater issue today than it ever has been in the past.

Some common misunderstandings:

- "Human trafficking only happens far away." (In fact, it's happening in rural America and in our cities.)

- "The problem is too overwhelming--we can't do anything about it." (In fact, people are rescuing victims and bringing criminals to justice.)

- "As sad as these statistics are, this cause can only distract the church from it's true mission, which is saving souls." (Among many others, Jeremiah 22:16: "He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. "Is that not what it means to know me?" declares the Lord.)

Some complicating factors:

- There is a lack of social demand. We take every opportunity to look away and remain ignorant, or we deny what we see.

- This issue is different than poverty, AIDS or natural disaster relief in that there are people committed to fighting back against our advances.

- The church in large branches has abdicated its responsibility.

At the beginning of Jim's lecture he presented a short documentary film, and after it ended, he asked us for one-word responses that described what we were feeling.


Members of the crowd named about 10 more, and then I shared mine:


When confronted with injustice and evil, timidity has always been my response. My tears of compassion have always been mixed with tears of fear; a heartbeat of excitement over serving in missions has always been followed with a beat of anxiety. And I felt fearful again as I watched the film and heard the stories of young girls who were forced to have sex with 30 men a day, or children whose hands were beaten if they didn't meet their quota at the end of a 13 hour work day. But after I listened to Elizabeth's story, after Jim walked us through scripture that covered each of our one-word responses, after I got in my car and asked the Lord to speak to my heart, I realized that my fear was gone.

My fear was gone, and in its place I felt commissioned, empowered, and like nothing will ever satisfy me unless I get to deliver good news to the poor. I felt bravery, compassion and love, and at the same moment that I felt each of those things, I realized that they were indistinguishable from one another, because perfect love casts out all fear. I felt Jesus asking me to stop holding back with my questions, and to stop joining David Bazaon as he "ponders the weight of the apple/compared to the trouble we're in." I've pondered the weight and the trouble and I haven't discovered any satisfactory answers, but God is restoring his creation and Jesus is building his kingdom, and I'd really just rather be doing that stuff.

Psalm 27:1-3 has long been a favorite passage, but I used to read it like this, "The Lord is my light and my salvation--whom shall I fear? (The murderers, the rapists, the persecutors, and the drunk drivers.)" The Lord is my Light has long been a favorite worship song, but I had only heard it sung at youth rallies with a couple thousand American teenagers raising their hands under strobe lights. Seeing a photograph of Psalm 27 written in a foreign language on Elizabeth's cell changed the entire passage for me. The Lord is my light and my salvation--whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evil men advance against me to devour my flesh, when my enemies and my foes attack me, they will stumble and fall. Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

fall is here, hear the yell

My first conversation with Dugan was in September of 2003 around a campfire in Green Lake, Wisconsin. I passed the guitar to someone else, and suddenly he was sitting on the bench next to me. He said, "I was in that tree over there, watching you sing. You're good." I tilted my head to the side, raised one eyebrow, and turned to face him.

"I mean," he continued, "I wasn't WATCHING you from a tree. I was just in a tree. Watching... You." He lurched into an imitation of a creep who sits in trees and watches girls, which was intended to assure me that he himself was not a creep who sits in trees and watches girls. It worked.

"Hi, I'm Dugan," he said.

"I know," I said. "We've met before. On my birthday, actually."

"Really? I have no memory of that."

"That's okay. You wished me a happy birthday at the time."

"Good," he said. "I'm glad to hear it."

"Why were you in a tree?" I asked.

The next evening, in the middle of a small field surrounded by tents and campers, I had my second conversation with Dugan Sherbondy. I had mentioned at the campfire that I had never seen a shooting star, so we were staking out the sky until I spotted one. We talked for hours about everything. I guessed his middle name on the first try, with only the letter "E" as a clue: Earl. (He's still impressed, six years later, or at least pretends to be when I ask, "Hey, remember how I guessed your middle name on the first try?")

That night I returned to my cabin convinced that Dugan and I would simply nod to each other across the church auditorium, or else fall in love and spend the rest of our lives together. So when he called me two days after the retreat, I assumed it was the latter.

After about a week of phone calls, coffee shops and movies, I felt a pang of confusion. I was was crazy about him, sure. But instead of the fun tension that usually accompanies that era of a relationship, there was just... fun. One evening I started what was doomed to be the first of many mental debates with myself over what he was thinking and feeling, when--out of nowhere--he interrupted my thoughts to tell me what he was thinking and feeling. I was totally off-guard.

"Listen, I've been thinking," he said, putting the car into park. "I'm really enjoying hanging out with you, and I want to keep hanging out with you, but I'm not interested in dating you. How, uh... how do you feel about that? Where are you at? What do you think?"

Still surprised, I started to nod. "I... think... that's great. Really. Thanks for telling me. I think we're on the same page."

"Okay, good. I hope I didn't make things uncomfortable? I just prefer to over-communicate whenever possible."

"Really, I appreciate it," I said. "I'm not used to it, but it's good."

And it was good. I had never had any guy address our friendship so straight-forwardly. I continued to fall head-over-platonic-heels for Dugan, and a while later I reconnected with someone else who had a flair for open communication: Pete Neal. He asked if he could walk me to my car and then said, "I like you, and I'd like to spend time with you. What do you think? How do you feel about me?" Having had my eye on him for years, I responded with a demure translation of, "Hell yeah." Two weeks later we were dating--fun tension and all--and two Septembers later we were married. Dugan emceed our reception and introduced us as Pete and Joy Neal, and this past October I stood for Dugan as he married Lindsay.

Mystery in a new relationship is fun, but mystery shouldn't be confused with confusion, clever deceit, or misunderstandings, all of which are the key ingredients in the romantic comedy plot line. Nearly every romantic comedy would be rolling credits within 20 minutes if the main characters had a real conversation at the right time, but we'd ask for a refund on our way out of the theater. ("Everyone stated their feelings clearly, no one sobbed to her best friend, no one made a fool of herself--preferably on stage or at a crucial moment in her career--roughly 15 minutes before the explosive yet finally honest conversation that solved everything. What kind of crap entertainment was that?")

Dating and marriage is hard work sometimes, and meaningful friendships with the opposite sex usually require "over-communicating whenever possible." But when I meet someone who I know I want to ally myself with for the rest of my life, (whether it's someone who came down from a tree to talk with me, or someone I want to sit in a tree with while k-i-s-s-i-n-g), it's worth the effort and the honesty it requires.

Dugan picking me up at my house.
2004, maybe?
An improvement, definitely.
This was the first time I met Lindsay, and within half an hour I had sent Dugan a text message from across the room: Marry her. I once told Lindsay that I had kept Dugan around in hopes of meeting her; which, now that I know her, would have been a totally decent ulterior motive.
= 1,000 words.
Pete and Dugan reindeer humping.

One of D & L's visits to Grand Rapids