"If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." - C.S. Lewis
I remember being in gym class when I was about eleven years old. I said something or did something. I don't really remember what. But I do remember what she said. I remember a girl looking at me and saying, "You're weird".
And at that moment I thought, she's right. I am. I'm not normal. But it's like I didn't care - or I didn't know I was supposed to care. I mean, I wasn't a social outcast. In fact, I was well-liked, receiving high school superlative and homecoming queen crowns, but I seemed to be cut from a different cloth.
Not much has changed. And now it seems that the more I pray for spiritual eyes, the more God changes my lens and the more uncomfortable normal becomes. It is a peaceful wrestling. But in my wrestling, I sometimes feel a deep disconnection. Like now.
I am lying an a beach chair, on my stomach, by myself, in the middle of downtown Nashville -reading a book and writing in my journal. I am surrounded by chatter about the latest parties, celebrity gossip and fashion -- people talking about how to make more money and climb more ladders. I have a cute hat on my head and black sunglasses covering my eyes. And I am crying, crying after reading these words from Shane Claiborne upon his return from Iraq:
"I grew especially close to one of the "shoeshine boys" -- a homeless boy around ten-years-old named Mussel (in Baghdad) ... Day after day ... we grew on each other. We went on walks, turned somersaults and yelled at airplanes "salaam" (peace) ... Mussel began internalizing what was happening. Nothing I could do made him smiles ... he mimicked with his hands the falling of bombs and made the sound of explosions, as tears welled up in his eyes. Suddenly he turned and latched onto my neck. He began to weep and his body shook as he grasped for each breath of air. I begin to cry ... we wept as friends, as brothers, not as a peacemaker and a victim."
And I wept with them. Lying in my chair a world away. Longing to be in the dirt with Mussel. Craving to be in the street with him. Dirty. There in Iraq. Who is with him now? He is not a name in a book. He is somewhere. He is somebody.
Some words should not go together: children, bombs, guns, war, slave. Just to name a few.
I close my eyes. By choice, I have become transparent. I've spent too many years wearing masks and hiding behind locked doors. Life is meant to be lived together and out loud. Not in the shadows with hidden tears. These days, I talk often about my fall from the pedestal. I talk openly abut past struggles and am candid about poor choices that God has patiently used to teach me. He has taught me much, and there is no place I would rather be than at the foot of the Rabbi. Living. Learning. Loving. Even when it hurts. No, life has not been easy and I am weary of many things. I am weary of coming home to an empty bed and an uncertain future. But I am not weary of Love. I am not weary of the heartache that comes from loving God's children. The deeper I go into His heart, the more I find the broken and the beautiful. In every letter from a child across the ocean, in every story I hear from the sofa in my counseling office, in every insight of wisdom I hear from the suffering.
I once believed a reflection of Jesus had to be pretty -- even perfect. I believed that if I could not be pretty and perfect, then I could not reflect Him. Even worse, I could not be close to Him, and He definitely would not wish to be close to me. But I have come to know that God loves scars. And Jesus, while walking with the righteous, also surrounded Himself with people who could win awards for immorality. In His human form, Jesus Himself loved perfectly and lived perfectly - but He bore the scare of suffering, scars He did not hide from others.
Imagining I am walking through the heart of the Savior, I do not see only the pretty. I do not merely see neat. I do not see married, 2.5 kids, and a picket fence. I do not see pretty faces and plastic smiles. I see the lonely. I see the deserted. I see the depressed. I feel the pain of those who are dying alone. I hear the heartbeat of the homeless child who is shaken at night by bombs. I feel the soft hand of the mother who longs to hold the baby she has aborted. I taste the salt in the tears of the father who was forced to say good-bye to his son too soon. No, I do not see the pretty, the perfect, the nice, or the neat.
Not in the broken heart of Jesus.
I see the woman at the well. Many men had known her body, but only One knew her soul. I see Paul, who persecuted christians. I see the woman caught in adultery. Condemned to be stoned, she stood accused.
And He said, "No."
No. I do not see you as they do. I do not see you as you do. Not in my heart.
You are not who you were or what was done to you, you are not what you have seen or what you have done. That is not what I seen when I look at you.
I see Me. In you. I am there. In the street. In the shadows. In the nights of silence tears. In the mirror and the feeling of inadequacy. In the bombs. In the thinking you can't go on. In the hoping you won't. In the fear. In the silence. In the dirt. In the loneliness. In the hiding. I am there. And I see you. And I love you. Scars and all.
I am amazed. I am bewildered. I am dizzy and I am drowning in something fathomless.
But I am not blind. I am not blind to this calling, and I will not look away.
These past few months have been an adventure, to say the least. I have traveled to three different countries that have been wounded by war: Congo, Uganda, Sudan.
The reasons for the war differ. The rebel groups that kidnap these children have different names and reputations and vary in size. Each militia group tends to have its own agenda, fueled by power, money, revenge, and evil. But I have seen two consistencies in all three of these countries: children who have lost the innocence of their youth to the desecration of war and an incongruous spiritual richness in the heart of the suffering and the impoverished.
My mind is a spinning top. But when it settles, I return to the same spot, to the same place in the dirt. I’m looking over the shoulder of the Savior as He drew in the sand, pondering before He spoke to the stone-holding crowd that surrounded Him ( John 8:1-11). I am wondering what I should do with all I have found. What should come from all God has allowed me to witness?
As I ponder and draw in my own dirt, clarity comes. All I’ve seen build inside me like a roaring wave, and I pray for Jesus to lead me into His plan.
After my time in Congo, Sudan, and Uganda, I was not the person I used to be. I came back from those initial trips with a new perspective and spiritual clarity. Suddenly things such as cellulite, bank accounts, and letters after my name didn’t mean much. I had stepped into the pain of children who, in their slavery, had endured more horror than we can imagine in our worst nightmares. But as astounding as the extent of the horror was the resilience and strengthen their smiles. How do you dance after the LRA had forced you to kill your mother? How can you sing praises to Jesus with abandon after being tortured in captivity? I thought about a quote by Frank Warren: “It’s the children the world almost breaks who grow up to save it.”
If the world could learn forgiveness, resilience, and joy to this level, the world would change, I thought. And these young survivors could be our greatest teachers.
Who better to become leaders for peace than those children who have been wounded by war? Thinking about powerful life stories of Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr., I envisioned a new generation of leaders - once-broken children who would rise to overcome suffering and step out to lead others in peace.
During the month following my return, I began work on a new program for war-affected children. The art therapy and trauma care workshop I had used with the children was deeply healing for them, but I realized that they also needed weekly group counseling and consistent care to heal from years of war-filled memories. They needed someone to walk with them through the slow process of mending and finding their childhood again. I called the program The Hope Initiative, and it was designed to be led by local African leaders during weekly group meetings. The program would walk former child soldiers and war-affected children throughout three focus areas: (1) trauma-focused art therapy and forgiveness; (2) peace-building and conflict resolution skills; and (3) leadership skills training. My dream was that this program would one day spread through eastern and central Africa, reaching hundreds of thousands of children who had been emotionally wounded by war.
I also started doing something I never dreamed I would do: political activism. Never having had a passion for politics, this was foreign to me - and a bit uncomfortable. My only training was when I took a few policy classes in my master of social work program, but I must confess that I sometimes fell asleep in those classes, finding them quite boring. However, any intimidation I felt was quickly ousted by a laser-focused mission - to do all I could to stop the rebel group and the warlords who were enslaving, maiming, and kidnapping children.
Before leaving Gloria and the other children, I promise myself that I would share their story of survival. The honor of hearing details that wrenched my heart also came with a responsibility. The children could not take their stories to members of the US Congress, but I could. Their stories needed to be shared with influencers who could help stop warlords responsible for torturing them. In order for the cycles of destruction to end, the voice of these survivors had to be heard. Advocacy and awareness become part of our mission. I started connecting with activists and influencers in Washington D.C, and our small team began meeting with members of Congress.
As Gary Haugen, CEO and president of International Justice Mission, stated, “History teaches that struggle for justice is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.” We were ready to run the race.
To change the course of war, I thought, we must stop the bleeding and mend the wounds of trauma. In addition to providing emotional care, we must advocate for these children in Washington D.C. Their stories must be told those with political influence, to those who can help to stop this madness.
Soon exile become much more than a word to me. It encapsulated the stories of hundreds of thousands of children - some who were being held captive by cruel and demanding soldiers; others who were running frantically in the bush, trying to escape their captors; and still others who lived on desolate streets yearning for a home to which they could return.
The ending of their stories can look different from the beginnings I thought. I’ve heard it said that “where there is breath, there is hope,” and they were still breathing, so I knew they were alive.
Doing nothing was no longer an option. Not because I was fearless, but because my hunger to do “something” had become stronger than my fear.
My fear told me that the problems in Congo were too massive - that we couldn’t make a difference in the midst of a violent oppression that had gone on for decades. But my heart told me the true story: the children who had survived war across the word were deeply treasured by God. They were precious and valuable, and it was our responsibility - my responsibility - to make a difference.
Praying for God’s direction and reflecting on the lives I’d encounter, I felt a calling swell deep within my heart. I now know this calling was influenced by all God had walked me through: heart-ache and redemption, trauma and recovery, doubt and faith, naivete and wisdom. I could no longer turn away or pretend I had not seen what I had seen.
Mother Teresa once said, “I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God.” She was changed when she came face-to-face with the dying and the poor of Calcutta. I was changed when I looked into the eyes of children orphaned and hurt by war. I am certainly no Mother Teresa. I am simply someone who had an open heart and open hands.
Yes, God. I can be a tiny pencil. Your pencil, I thought.