Take a gander over to yojgracey.wordpress.com for my current adventure with Venture Expeditions as I cycle ACROSS AMERICA!
I prefer to be outside in the dirt & hitting the trails. I sometimes don’t like brushing my hair. More than once, I’ve went almost two weeks without showering in the mountains of Bulgaria and living in the glorious wilderness of Africa. I am covered in freckles and have NEVER been a size 6. Social graces for me include inappropriate nervous laughter, relishing in awkward moments for my own sentiments, and having quirky habits I can call my own. To me, these characteristics define beauty.
However, I constantly wonder about the tension of defining beauty by an array of standards. I’ve had countless hours of conversations talking with women - young, old and in between about what they believe is beautiful. Often, my heart aches for how closely the definition of beauty is linked to how these women view themselves. I’ve spent hours praying for these women (and myself) to define themselves not by the world’s standards, but of the One who has created them.
I’ve always desired to be seen as a woman of purpose. A woman of a pure faith and a genuine outlook on life. My definitions of beauty were sometimes things that I so deeply desired to believe, but somehow fell short of what I viewed and what I felt. I know I am not alone in this. So, I have had this season where I earnestly sought the Lord to reveal in any way He could, what was beautiful to Him. The Lord is faithful to reveal what we ask of Him. In this case, it was dealing with the vision of what the Lord sees in me as beautiful. My answered prayers came in the form of a gift from a friend.
Recently, I had the honor to help sit and model for my friend Katie and her photography studio. Her new outlook and mantra for business was to be able to showcase all different types of beauty.
Katie sat me down and asked me what I wanted to communicate when people saw the photos. I had such an emotional response - through small tears I found myself deeply moved and overwhelmed at what I wanted to explain. I was never thought I was the type of woman to be considered ultra feminine. I wanted to open myself up to be shown that I was. Vulnerable even.
I admit I was skeptical. The issue of seeing myself as “beautiful” has plagued many prayers for many years. However, awkward I felt, I am glad I did it. A sweet friend commented, “Jess, these photos remind YOU of what others see all the time.”
So, let’s recap.
While I often think I look like THIS (Thanks, Ethiopia):
And during the photoshoot, I felt like THIS (Gracias, Uncle Rico!):
I really should believe I look like THIS (Thanks Gardner Photography):
I am still prayerfully seeking ways that the Lord reminds me how to fight this type of insecurity, but also seeking ways I am able to be good steward by encouraging others to view themselves in a new way.
The king is enthralled by your beauty; honor him, for He is your lord. Psalm 45:11
Day 4. Thursday. Staff Devotions
Today I am about to lead devotions. I am not sure really what to share for a long time but last night at about 11pm - I remembered I’d written pages upon pages on Ephesians 5. Amen!
This is based on a prayer I’ve had over the last year - to be present in what God is doing NOW, moment by moment in my life. I try not to get focused on the task ahead and behind me, but to be fully present.
I’d written some thoughts on it prior in another blog post HERE. Hope you can glean something and the Lord will speak to you.
Ephesians 5:11-17 “Don’t waste your time on useless work, mere busywork, the barren pursuits of darkness. Expose these things for the sham they are. It’s a scandal when people waste their lives on things they must do in the darkness where no one will see. Rip the cover off those frauds and see how attractive they look in the light of Christ. Wake up from your sleep, Climb out of your coffins; Christ will show you the light! So watch your step. Use your head. Make the most of every chance you get. These are desperate times! Don’t live carelessly, unthinkingly. Make sure you understand what the Master wants.”
Thomas Merton (No Man Is An Island)
“Most of the world is either asleep or dead. Those who are asleep are divided into two classes, like the Virgins in the parable, waiting for the Bridegroom’s coming. The wise have oil in their lamps. That is to say they are detached from themselves and from the cares of the world, and they are full of charity. They are indeed waiting for the Bridegroom, and they desire nothing else but His coming, even though they may fall asleep while waiting for Him to appear. But the others are not only asleep; they are full of other dreams and other desires. Their lamps are empty because they have burned themselves out in the wisdom of the flesh and in their own vanity. When he comes, it is too late for them to buy oil. They light their lamps only after He has gone. So they fall asleep again, with useless lamps, and when they wake up they trim them to investigate, once again, the matters of a dying world.”
My devotion was based on a quote from Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island. He writes, “Most of the world is asleep or dead.”He goes on to describe the different types of people. The “religious” people are considered asleep and the irreligious are “dead.”
God has had me on this journey to know his heart more. In this season, He has opened me up to a new perspective. He will reveal and we need to respond. I am aware that I need to be obedient to what He is calling me to do. I need to be willing to approach God humbly and honestly and READY to see what He has to show me.
Where are you in this - asleep or dead? Or fully aware?
What are some things that might be stopping us from being fully aware?
What can we identify as some “useless” things we are distracted with?
What do we think God is wanting to reveal to us?
How will we try and be open to it?
Day 3. Wednesday.
It’s the morning before we start our day. For the past few days my heart and spirit are heavy. My heart is prayerful over these girls. I’ve spent days listening to their countless stories. We have listened to the things they worry about, what gives them heart aches, and how they live their lives now.
I am overwhelmed at the lack of love for themselves and by those who have influenced their life. Their lives have been filled with lies and warped views of love. Somewhere along the way something has messed up their definition of love. Their identity was tampered with and I am meeting them somewhere in the middle of getting lost. It seems like they are unsure of which way is up or to the Truth.
I relate to some of their worries and heartaches. From relationships, failures, heartaches, and doubts. I listen and realize there is such a lack of anyone stable teaching them and showing them love in a safe, tangible, and real way.
Wednesday, Day 3 is spent sitting in a small room at a drop in shelter for women who are free to drop in off the street and “working” to have a place to sleep. Their rules are pretty lenient as it is a drop in center, but some of the girls have stayed for longer than a 24 hour period and are considering leaving their current “jobs.”
The circle is made up of young girls to older women. The girls share their stories of working at a young age for survival of their family. The older women share their stories of leaving their jobs and giving back to girls who are selling themselves. Their stories are filled with a hardness, but I pray as I listen for God to open my heart and to enter into their stories with them. They are filled with pain, grief, and suffering - but they are also filled with an equal if not more, measure of hope.
I am somewhat startled by the frankness of their descriptions and stories, but amazed at how human they are. My feelings of anger at their situations and stories of all that seems unfair is weakened to nothing as I get to know the women who run this organization. The women who help run this drop in center are beyond amazing. They wear their hearts on their sleeves. They are open, caring, funny and you can see their genuine and authentic care for these women who are living there. This gives me hope that at these women who find themselves having to live at this drop in center have advocates in all shapes and sizes fighting for them, when they themselves cannot.
I’m sitting here at night now. Still wrestling and angry at the reality that many women who are selling themselves into a life that was never intended for them. I am praying over their views of love. I am believing I can help be an advocate for them just as much as anyone else. I’m believing that they can discover to redefine love in in terms of the One who authored it.
I ask God what the heck do you want me to even do about this? He’s still continuing to answer me.
God is slowly revealing the fact that if I want to continue to love as He loves, I need to be willing to risk more, wrestle more, and give up control more. I was reminded of one of my favorite days in Cebu. It was the first time we visited the women’s prison. I’m still thinking about it.
Day 2 - Continued.
We found our afternoon rolling through the steep hills of Cebu mountains. We were on our way to a women’s prison to help facilitate a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. I was not really sure what to expect at this prison. I had no experience facilitating this type of meeting and I had never been at any type of prison or facility for an extended period of time and I did not really have any time to be anxious or think about much to expect from the women and staff here.
I was more concerned about the people we were with. We were with three young girls who regularly attend these meetings, but have friends who are currently serving at this particular woman’s prison. They were recovering addicts that could add a voice to their experience and helped to facilitate it as well. These girls could not have been more than 20 years old.
We arrived and it was a celebration! It was an extreme difference from what I would typically think a women’s prison would be. The first thing I noticed was that it was visiting day. Women were being reunited with their family members and with their children. There was a lot of commotion going on. We sat outside for the meeting in a large circle of about 50 women and the guests.
They broke out in song. I had no idea what they were singing but I felt like I wanted to sing along with them. All I could do is clap and observe. These women did not seem dangers to society or to themselves, but I also had no idea what those “dangers” even were. Something inside me stirred as I listened to the meeting and the stories and the guests sharing. My heart slowly started to open up and I felt a sweet peace as I sat and looked at every single person sitting around in a circle. I watched as they interacted with each other and I observed their words as they spoke. My heart started to feel full and I prayed that I would see them as Jesus saw them - in the midst of healing and redemption.
A breeze started blowing and the stories kept coming. After a while, the meeting concluded and I got to experience one amazing Filipino afternoon I’d never forget.
The crowd came around us as the team passed out soap and shampoo to the guests of the meeting as a gift and the karaoke machine was fired up! We all took turns, but mostly watched these women sing 80s ballads like they were on American Idol. Celine & Journey were huge hits and My Heart Will Go On will never get old. Especially, when sung by an 8 year old.
We left on a high note. We left with great karaoke memories. We left with snacks and sodas in our bellies and necklaces around our necks.
As we sat in the van processing through our afternoon, Kim shared with us that she knew many of the women that were in our meeting. They were the women who had enslaved the girls that they have worked with. They were the Mammas that were in charge of keeping them enslaved and often, were ones that owned the bars that kept these girls trapped.
I had no idea what to think at that moment. I believe at this moment God smacked my stupid assumptions with His Truth. I had no choice but to have my eyes opened to these stories and truths about trafficking. It is complex. It is not black and white. There is much evil but it is always overshadowed by hope. These women, who were once enslaved themselves into making others lives misery, were now serving a sentence, but having hope instilled in their lives. They were getting healing and dignity was being restored to their lives, even thought others may not think them as worthy.
My judgement passed on them was inexcusable. I wrestle a lot with injustice because I want it to be easy decisions of right vs. wrong. I am beginning to understand that it is complex for a reason and I admit, sometimes it still keeps me up at night because I can’t stop thinking about it and how complex it is. It is those kind of nights that you stay awake because you are too excited and freaked out to sleep.
I am still wrestling. However, despite all this wrestling I feel my heart is opening more. Hold me to this: To keep asking what Compassion looks like in God’s eyes. I know I am about to discover more and I am looking forward to it!