About Grant Snyder

My Father's son, and devoted follower of Jesus Christ

The Awful Grace of God

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lightstock_204918_full_grantScripture Reading

If only my ways were committed to keeping Your statutes!Then I would not be ashamed when I think about all Your commands. Psalm 119:5-6

My little children, I am writing you these things so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ the Righteous One.  He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world. 1 John 2:1

Prayer

Heavenly Father, my sins are heavy, but You already know that.  I would ask that you would lift the burden that I feel beneath their weight, but You’ve already done that.  Your grace is real, even though I don’t feel it. In fact, Your grace is as real as it gets.  It’s the anchor of my life, the foundation of my eternity.  Still, though I can see the spaces its fills, and the distension of its presence, I don’t really know it.  How hard it is to feel Your grace with my human heart.

Lord, I’ve wrestle with Your grace.  I wrestle with how to exist as a child who is both saved and remains disobedient.  A man who though elect, though touched by You, keeps on sinning.  You’ve given me an eternity I could never earn, and an inheritance I could never imagine.  It’s difficult to receive gifts, knowing all along that I’m undeserving.  It’s harder from You, because You alone are perfect, and love in a way that swallows me completely.  You know all my secrets, all my embarrassments, all my fondling’s with sin.  Maybe that’s what William meant when he referred to the “awful grace of God.”  I’ll have to ask him.

God, Your grace makes me bow my head, harder and further than I imagine a head can bow.  I bow before you, God, reaching as far as I can until my neck strains and my back aches, because I don’t know how to receive Your grace, or how to face tomorrow with sin.  I trick myself to believe that somewhere, down far enough in the contorted, wretched pain of regret, I’ll hear You say, “Stop.  That’s far enough.  I see your regret.”  At least then I could be worthy…but of what?  Certainly, not You.  Certainly, not grace. Your grace cost more than I have in all the hidden purses where I store treasures of regret, or suffering, or self-denial.  And there, on my knees, face down in the dirt, drenched with tears and sorrow, I realize finally, with equal measure of agony and relief that I got nothing.  But you already know that.  I imagine It’s the one thing that’s difficult about following Your ways.  That, and everything else.  You made me in human flesh, which dies a bit more every day.  You gifted me with a heart that feels so much love for You, Your Christ, and Your creation, yet is fickle and distracted by worldly passions—in a big way.  I long for that which kills me, and I love it, if only for a moment or two.

In quiet moments I see Your image reflected in my thoughts, and I can read Your law on my troubled heart.  It remains an echo, still, a whisper of Your divine presence that runs through my humanity.  But I can hear it.  I don’t have to understand, or feel, or even know to believe.  You have now, and always have had my faith.  That’s the surest sign of Your grace every day, I think:  That no matter what happens around me or to me, no matter how great my disobedience, my struggle, my uncertainty, I don’t doubt You.  I trust completely in Your realness, Your love, Your faithfulness.  Who am I not to trust You?  Who am I to imagine anything about You but so much majesty and greatness and beauty?  I need that place of assurance, God, that place where You cast the biggest shadow.  I hide there, in the embrace of your shadow.  And I trust in your promises and in the eternity that You have prepared in Christ, without any skepticism.  Thank you for that, Lord.  Thank you for the wilderness of my heart, where the wild things live and die.  Thank you that it has never been, nor will ever be beyond the boundaries of Your grace.  In the holy and blessed name of Christ Jesus, Amen.

Reflection

“As I walked through the wilderness of this world…”[1]

It sucks here.    And by here, I refer both to that personal space inside my head and skin, and in the world.  Smart and enlightened people have figured that out throughout history.  It’s hard to get along, and I never seem to have enough…anything.  I’m left wanting.  My desire, my urge, my hunger grows, and precious little seems to touch it.  It’s a revelation that God seems intent to remind me each time I turn on the news, or go to work, or reflect on the decay of sin in my life.  It’s a painful reality when I look at the untidy spaces in my heart that I clear for God’s presence, and have to face hard facts: He doesn’t fit there.  And I ask myself that same question that Augustine lamented famously in Confessions: “What room is there within me, where God can come…” (Bk 1, Ch 2).

My answer shakes the foundations of my life, and rattles lose my tenuous grip on self-righteousness:  I make room for things that bring me instant joy.  I stock the shelves and stuff the drawers.  Boxes of momentary gratification, some bought and some stolen clutch the walls of my room.  I’m a hoarder of experiences, sensations and feelings.  Where do I invite God?  Seriously, where does He fit?

Make no mistake, I know God could force His way in.  He is the landlord of this space, and He could reclaim it upon His most mundane desire.  But He is a patient landlord, and besides, God doesn’t work like that.  He waits for me to ask, to invite.  So I’ll do that—I’ll invite God.  But I’ve got to clean first.  Guests never come in when my life looks like this, and after all, this is an important guest.  The most important Guest, who created, sustains and rules eternity.  Quite a resume.

These boxes over here, filled with memories of passion and despair, they gotta go.  I’ll miss those delights; they kept me warm and distracted and…thrilled.  But I’ll miss the despair too:  That bleeding, ejaculating, defining box of moans and groans that I have all bound up with a sturdy twine of self-pity.  That stuff was sure useful—everyone needs to feel important sometimes, but I’m gladly exchange that for attention, or sympathy. Most days I can convince myself that being loved and being pitied are the same thing.

There’s more to do, lots more.  God’s coming and He needs big and tidy place to do His work.  You don’t invite the Master of everything into this.  That closet over there with all the padlocks and no door, that’s where I keep the bad stuff.  Oh, yeah, it’s all stuff I like, if only for an instant.  That’s why I keep those sins around.  I don’t like them but I love them.  But they are not befitting a Christian, a husband, dad, best friend and all around good guy.  They’re gone.  But that could take a bit so I’ll do that later.  It just means God can come tomorrow.

Ok that shelf needs to stay right where it is!  That’s my collection of awards and God will probably want to see those.  I earned one every time I did His will.  I fed the poor, gave money, and passed women with down-turned eyes.  I don’t watch porn, or cheat on my wife.  I read the Bible and prayed (mostly) every day.  I fasted once, and I totally gave up alcohol (not because I have a problem, mind you)!  I probably should have gotten another shelf, because this one’s a bit crowded.  You know what, though, I’m gonna clear one of the shelves.  Don’t want to seem to prideful when God gets here.

And so it goes, until the floor is empty, the shelves and drawers are tidy, and the clutter is gone.  Then I’m finally ready for God.  There’s finally room and a space worthy of The Father.  In all the hasty, industrious preparation, I forgot one thing: I just moved the mess.  Right there!  I can see it out my window.  I still own it, and it still owns me.  And the space I made for God is all filled up again with boxes of pride and justification, and buckets of independence—man, that stuff tastes great!  Now I have twice the stuff, and the same cluttered room.

Then I realize that God never wanted me to clean my room, because that’s what He does.  And I remember that it sucks here.  And I can’t make it better.

[1] John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come

“The awful grace of God” comes from a wonderful book by William Kent Krueger, Ordinary Grace, published 2013 by Atria.  Widely available

My Broken Calculus of Praise

kneeling in reverence

After much reflection and prayer (and quite a bit of thoughtful and coherent help from several authors whom I love) I realized how mechanical and devoid of joy my praise of God has become.  It’s alarmingly easy to stumble into a place like that:  bowed head, bent knee.  Eyes and hands clenched tightly as I stammer words so painfully self-deprecating that God can’t help but notice how infinitesimally small I am, and most importantly that He knows that I know.  I’m practiced at it, you see.  Natural.  It’s my own calculus for praise.

I would that I could bleed here, in that lowly place.  That I could diminish endlessly before Him, dry up, crumble and settle into dusty nothingness. It’s an offering, to be sure, for the Magnificent Father who has given me so much.  It says, “God, I’ve broken myself before You; I’ve killed the wicked flesh.  I never was any good.” And I imagine myself in that place at His feet, my body wracked and my soul contorted in self-mortification.  As if to say that His greatness is somehow recognized in proportion to my smallness.  To praise Him, I must first be in such painful regret of my own condition that the tears flow and the body aches. “Are you watching, God?  Do you see how great I think You are because of how miserable I am?”  This is that place where God finally delights in my…what? Agony? Nothingness? Homily of self-condemnation and self-mortification?  Can such be His delight?

This has been my go-to place when I want to praise Him.  I destroy myself first, as if God’s radiance is somehow more brilliant when fed by the fires of my own burning self-contempt.

And then I praise Him.  With feeble words muttered on tear stained lips.  Carefully chosen phrases that at the same time announce His magnificence and my own depravity.  His greatness is proportional to my smallness.  “Are you watching, God?”

No wonder people flee the practice of praise.  Struggle with it; grow weary of it.  It becomes mechanical because you can only break something once.  Then it must be restored.  Otherwise you are just stepping through ruins.  That’s why Christ went to the cross.  Because our broken and condemned state could not be restored but by the Holy hand of God.  Christ called to us as He hung there, His flesh pierced and bleeding.  He called us to drag ourselves to Him, broken limbs, sullied lives, our hearts twisted and cold.

As I lay there in the dirt of Calvary, I turn my eyes up to see what?  Christ’s gaze upon me, looking through ribbons of blood to see if I’ve injured myself enough?  No.

I see a Savior God become man, straining against His human fragility.  Agonizing over our collective desperation with a grace and love so immense, that our redemption, and consequently our joy has been His only aim from eternity past.   Remember the dying words of Christ, because they say it all.  His last breaths were spent for the love of others: Those that drove nails through His body; the thief dying beside Him.  His mother.  How could I have ever thought that my own self-destruction somehow elevated the act of the Cross?  How could I have thought to begin my praise of a God capable of such extraordinary love, with self-loathing.

Because there’s an idol there, in that place that I go and prepare myself to praise.  Something that until today has remained invisible to me.  Something that I cherish more than God.  What I am really sacrificing to in this place is my own need to ruin myself in His sight.  Not out of obedience, surrender, or humility.  But out of a purposeful act of contrition that says, “I’m bad.  So I tore my flesh and twisted my soul.  You can like me now.

“Are you watching, God?”

I can’t see the cross from here, in that place I go to ready myself for praise.  The idol of my own self-hatred blocks the view.  Don’t misunderstand.  God wants us to surrender, to die in our flesh, as I think Paul would say.  Christ’s act on the cross demands it.  But the hatred of my own flesh must be an act of celebration in Christ, rather than a substitution of His atonement at Calvary.  It must be a rejection of anything that I would cherish more than God, and a process of seeking the true joy and delight we find only in God.  It hasn’t been that at all.

In this place where I prepare to praise, I erected idols, practiced rituals, and sought my own path into God’s grace.  “Hate yourself, and God will notice.”  I think that’s what the subconscious loop in my head has been playing.

So it’s time for a new place.  A new practice.  Destroy the idols, crush the flesh, and abandon all hope of atoning for myself because Christ did that.  Alone.  He didn’t need me, and he certainly didn’t need my self-loathing.  That’s the beauty of grace.  We get to bring ourselves broken and bleeding-out to the dirt of Calvary knowing that any and all debts are painfully, awfully, beautifully paid.  Our money’s no good here.

lightstock_200707_medium_grant_

And I can reject myself—despise myself.  Because I know I’m bad.  But here, in the bloody dirt beneath the cross, that’s not an act of payment.  It’s not a sacrifice to gain favor with God, as if to look skyward and see Jesus giving me a Holy thumbs up.  “Good job.  You did it.”  No.  He did it.

Despising myself here, at the cross, is a response to the gift of salvation, available through God’s grace by which I get to let go.  I get to surrender all those painful slivers of self-fulfillment, self-worship, and yes, self-loathing in exchange for the truest, most complete joy imaginable:  Celebration of God.  That’s what I think praise is supposed to be.  The Bible tells us that’s what our natural, eternal state in heaven is:

“No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.” (Revelations 22:3)

Finding true joy, in praise of God.  So in my new place, where I go to prepare myself for praise, joy should be overwhelming.  There is an understanding of my eternal desperation for the blood of Christ, but it’s celebration rather than a mortification.  That God did something of eternal, timeless significance in Christ that I could not do myself.  There’s peace here.  And I get to celebrate that, because I must.  The imperative act of joy overflows and become unrestrainable.

And so I try to become the “Christian hedonist” as John Piper would describe it—A person so focused on Heaven, and on God’s radiance that he can scarcely be interrupted by the trifling’s of this world.  One whose desires are so attuned to the will of God, that the only joy worth feeling is in Him.  All else is a fading whisper.  Like the Scripture says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4)

This is where my praise must begin.  This is where my journey to true delight begins.  Because an obedient, uncontainable heart, overflowing with joy is the only real offering any of us have which is worthy of giving.  John Piper writes, “Worship is a way of gladly reflecting back to God the radiance of His worth.”  I think he’s right.  The reflection in my own worship and praise has been woefully inadequate, and I see that now.  So I clear away the idols, look to the cross, and seek joy in the only place it has ever truly been:  In the arms of Our Father.

I leave you with three quotes from great men, whose pens more aptly relate the concepts of joy in praise than I can:

“God is not worshipped where He is not treasured and enjoyed.  Praise in not an alternative to joy, but the expression of Joy.”  John Piper, Desiring God:  Meditations of a Christian Hedonist

“He that testifies the idea of God’s glory [doesn’t] glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it.” Johnathan Edwards, Miscellanies

“I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.”  C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms

God bless.

Reflections: Part 1

ReflectionA good friend, recently told me the burden of his friendship: “I reflect you back.  People don’t like that.  It makes it hard to be my friend.” (I could be paraphrasing, but I think that’s what he said).

Though I immediately understood what the words meant, I understood the man who spoke them a few days later, when the din of conversation had ended, and the fragrance of the Thai restaurant at which we met was then a pleasant memory.  He’s right, of course, not just about himself, but about the process of social reflection—real, discomforting, reflection.

You see, it’s easy to love someone who can wield the gift of social insight like a surgeon’s scalpel, applying razor perspective and understanding to our lives.  It’s liberating, like breathing free for the first time.  That’s a dizzying, euphoric feeling:  to be so immediately and completely understood, vulnerable, under a knowing gaze.  The burdensome weight of lies drops at our feet, the walls of pretense crumble.  We no longer are preoccupied first with worrying what someone one sees in us, and instead, just let them see.  I think that’s remarkably rare, and when it happens it’s a gift, the beauty of which is not in its giving, but in its taking away.  It’s easy to love that person.  It’s easy to love my friend.

But it’s hard to like the process of loving him.

You see, I carry a bag of faces with me, just like you do.  Some are beautiful and some are not, and we put them on like armor to soften our appearance in the world.  To hide, I guess.  Sometimes, we think if we wear them long enough, the contours of that face will become our own, but they never do.

I brought my bag to the Thai restaurant that day, with all my faces. It’s almost like an offering, I guess.  I held them out, “Pick one.  I can wear them all.”  My friend emptied the bag on the table between us.  He looked briefly, sipped his diet Coke, then reflected back a man without a face from the bag.  Honest.  Frightened.  “You don’t need them.”  He said.  “Not here.”  And he brushed them away.  Discarded.  That’s what loving him is like.  Exposed.  Like that dream of going to the pep fest with no pants.  And that’s why the process of loving him is hard, and that’s what he meant about the burden of his friendship.paper bag face

And so he saw me that day.  Just me.  That’s not easy to do, for any of us.  It’s uncomfortable, invasive, and penetrates the armor that we all thought was impenetrable.  So instead, we don’t see.  We look.  Briefly, superficially, and certainly without a conscience of obligation to know each other.  A brief smile, a genial, affirming nod, and a responsive chortle hold us clinging precariously to a conversation without consequence.  It ends, as it ends.  Then we reflect the face from the bag and move into the day, unknowing and unknown.

But not Mark.  He sees.  And that’s good, but it’s the reflection that’s remarkable.  The honest, awful, gracious reflection of I am, not who I want you to think I am.  When, on that rare occasion in life, we look in the mirror of friendship with a face from our bag, and the reflection that is returned is simply, completely us.  And the face is gone.  That’s when you know its friendship.  That’s a rare heart that can do that.  That’s a heart shaped and touched by God.  Run from it, or don’t but it doesn’t change the honesty of that reflection, or that fact that you saw it.

So on that day, he reflected me.  Thai food is great, though my friend had never tried it before.  But even the familiar tinge of curry and Thai pepper couldn’t distract from the process of being seen.  He’s good at it, practiced.  Naturally, intuitive about what hurts and what doesn’t.  He’s gentle, too, though I suspect he would argue that point.  And he assures frequently.  But also sets boundaries.  “No lies.”  He said.  “Not between us.”

Can that be done?  I mean when you cut away the lies we use to soften our walk in the world, to ease our appearance in the face of others, and avoid the impossible-to-ignore confrontations we face every day, how can we function in the company of others?

He believes it can.  His life is walking testament to that belief, and his relationship to God is premised on foundations of personal honesty so weighty that they would drown a lesser man.  At least that’s what I see.

“Ok”.  I said.  “Agreed”.  A pause.  Maybe understood would have been a better choice.  Dear God, it is hard to like loving this man.

(Coming:  Reflections, Part 2:  What He Showed Me)

Pornography Through the Eyes of the Other

tearsI wandered onto the “Church Leaders” Facebook page today to see what people were commenting about on the anti-porn link they had posted.  Their post read:  “Too many Christians think that porn is harmless.”  A lot of people had commented, and I read them all, along with the replies.  You see, I really am interested in what people see as the “harm” of pornography.  As a detective who has investigated pornography cases, and their link to sex trafficking, I want to see what the world sees.

After reading through the posts and replies, I realized that I am much more the “other” than I ever thought I was.  You see, I understand that porn is first and foremost an offense to God, as it attacks the body, which as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6, is kind of a big deal:

“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.” (v 19-20)

But I realized I’m the other when I read through the comments and saw that the vast majority–and I mean but for maybe 1 comment–were focused on the “harm” to the viewer, his family, and the church.  You can’t argue that it’s not true, but when I think of victims, when I think of harm, I think first of the exploited body of the man or woman who is used for another’s entertainment, who is being filmed, and posted, and watched over and over to satisfy a depraved fantasy not their own.  Their suffering, or at least the harm to them eclipses everything else so that I don’t even imagine the harm to the viewer in terms of regret, struggle, or sin.  I can’t see past the feigned consent, and mock enthusiasm in the faces of the abused, to see the broken heart of a wife, or the confusion, and disgust of a teenage girl who just learned that her father watches porn.

It wasn’t always this way for me.  There was a time when I saw the persons in the smallish rectangle on the computer or smart phone, who lingered in suspended animation behind a red “play” icon as one dimensional human characters.  They existed only now.  Not in the past.  Not in the future.  Their life was suspended between ends of a gray line that gradually filled from left to right with red as the video played.  I always knew there was harm there, I just didn’t consider their’s.

But then I met a woman.  A woman who told me a story about being forced by people she had never met to make “sex” videos.  This woman, who by all accounts was as independent and intelligent as any of us are, had fallen to a ruse that played out in social media.  She was lured by feigned friendship–actually not just friendship, companionship!  Of the kind that doesn’t come along very often.  Her  trafficker, her abuser, was known to her only by a Facebook username, the sum total of their communicative history captured on nearly 70,000 lines of Facebook messenger.

“You’re so pretty.” Her Abuser said, early on.  “You’re such a good person.  I think we’re meant to be friends.”

Those are words we’ve all longed to hear at one time or another.

One day, Her Abuser sent her a pic of her in a bra and underwear.  “I think this makes me look fat.”

“Lol!  Are you kidding!  U are beautiful.”  The woman responded.

“Aw.  UR sweet.  Send me one of you.”

The woman blushed as she told me she really didn’t want to.  She said no.  At first.  Eventually she sent the photo, because that’s what friends, real friends do.

This woman told Her Abuser–who actually posed as two different people, but was in fact, only one–all the things that you tell a friend.  Her hurt, her joy.  The love of her children.  The problems with the ex.  One day, she told her she was on backpage, turning “tricks” as she called it.  “Just trying to make ends meet.”  She said.  “I can’t afford to live without making some extra bucks.”  She wasn’t proud of it.  She hated it.  But the woman told Her Abuser.  Maybe she told because the burden was too heavy to bear alone.  Maybe it was because she wanted to hear someone tell her to stop.  Or that it was ok.  “I understand.”  Something she needed to hear.

“That’s hot.”  Her Abuser remarked.

“Really!?”  The woman shot back.  “I thought you’d be disgusted.”  But this was a real friend.

“Naw…it’s cool.”  And then:  “Send me a video of you with one of the guys.”

Of course the woman protested.  “Why would you want to see that. It’s weird.”

“Come on!” Again and again.  And again.

Finally the woman sent the video, and you can imagine what happened next.

Enter Abuser #2.  Another unknown Facebook friend request.  This time with a message:  “I saw your sexy video.  I posted it online at XXXvideos.  Send me more.”

The woman, understandably frantic, messaged Her Abuser.

“Just do what this guy says.  He’s dangerous.”  Her Abuser said.

Threats of exposing the woman, sending the video to her ex, who could use them in an ongoing custody battle, and posting them on her Facebook page followed.  Relentlessly.  Then more threats, and eventually, a message to a family member.

The woman was beaten.  This was too much to imagine.  Who could help her?  Who would?  “Just stop!”  She pleaded.  “I’ve never hurt either of you!”

“You know what you have to do.  Stop playin’ and do it.”

Desperation eventually defeats all of us in this life, it’s just a matter of degrees.  This woman did what she was told and went to a downtown Minneapolis hotel where she was raped in a pornographic movie with 4 men, filmed by a 5th.  If she did the movie, Her Abusers promised, they would be out of her life.

In the aftermath, of course they weren’t.

“You didn’t do the positions I told you too!  You didn’t look like you were enjoying it enough!  You have to look like you really want this!”  Abuser #2 wrote in a profanity ridden message the next day.  “I’ll never be out of your life.”

So this woman  who would have never trusted a cop, let alone one who was a middle aged, fat white guy like most of her johns, took a chance on me.  She was desperate, afraid, depleted of any measure of human dignity by the malice of those she had never harmed.  To do nothing was risky.  But to trust me was riskier still, I suppose.   I honestly don’t know why she trusted me, but there I was across a small table, the din of her words falling like icy slivers, as she ran through the narrative.

Finally, she paused and waited.  I still remember the weight of that single moment.  I fought back tears and muttered the only thing I could think to say, “I’ll make them stop.”  Nothing had ever impacted me as a man and a Christian like her story did, and I’ve worked some tough cases with victims who remind me of my daughters.  And yours.

Four months, a wiretap, nearly 70,000 pieces of discovery, 400 hours of surveillance, 200 hours of overtime, 17 undercover operations, and over 120 legal demands later I handcuffed a man in a hallway in suburban St. Paul.  He was small, shorter than my victim.  And quiet.  He was smart too.  And arrogant, but also endearing.

In the interview that followed, which by the way garnered a confession owing, I think, to the multitude of evidence I’d assembled against him, I asked the only question I knew the woman cared about:  “Why.”

“I guess I was bored.”

That’s it?  That’s what destroys lives?  It destroyed hers.  Try to soften that one.  I almost felt like making something up.

While preparing for trial, I watched the movies made that day in the hotel room.  I can see the woman in my mind:  Alone and naked, pushed from one position to another and violated in ways that I try to forget.  She smiled, and feigned enjoyment.  I watched the movies to identify the 5 men.  Through tattoos, scars, that name that slipped.  And so that I could describe what happened when called to testify.  In that time, I was in the room with my victim.  I was there, among them, locked into the “now” that previously had only existed inside a smartphone or computer.  And in that room, I became “the other.”

The other who can’t seem to remember that porn hurts men.  Or maybe has stopped caring.  The other who can’t remember the wives.  And families.  The Church, that is morally “bleeding out” when over 50% of men who attend church, also report viewing pornography regularly.  I can’t see any of that anymore.  The woman eclipses it all.  She’s all I can see.  And her smile frozen on the screen that literally makes me sick with hatred for the evil that did that to her.  That made her smile.  I could probably forgive everything else.  Not that.

In the end, I found all 5 men.  That’s what I do.  I identified them, printed their pictures. Called my victim.  There was no doubt it was them.

On a brisk July morning, with impatient faces crowding the street and sidewalk, and just enough chill in the air to make you wish you’d brought a sweatshirt, I met her for coffee.   I was elated, proud even, and showed her the photos one by one.  I may have grinned expectantly.  As the line lurched slowly, and folks waited for their morning coffee, she looked pensive.  Then she said, “Nope.  None of them.”

“Umm.”  I was shocked.  Silent.  I wanted to correct her.   I wanted to say it really was them.  I knew it.  But I didn’t.  She looked at me with wet eyes, pleading.  As if to say, please just let this end.  No more.

I paused, staring at her.  Finally, “I’m sorry.  I must have made a mistake.”  It was the last time we would ever discuss the room, or the men.  With so much else for her to painfully recall, who and what am I, if I place my own priority of locking handcuffs on these men, above her need to forget, or let it go, or whatever she wanted that day.  If she ever changes her mind, I’ll be here and she knows that.  But I doubt she will.  She’s moved on.  But she left me in that room.

That’s what porn looks like.

Written with the explicit permission of the woman.

Career Criminal

“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”  Galatians 6:2

I recall a presentation I did recently at a fundraiser for the Source in Minneapolis—a wonderful and faithful organization with a tremendous mission for service and spreading the love of Christ to those in the community. After I spoke, a man approached me, his wind worn face stretched around a gripping smile, a tangle of gray hair set atop his head.  We shared an engaged handshake and he introduced himself in the most striking way, “I’m a career criminal.”  He said.

He offered nothing by way of justification or explanation, but held my gaze as if he knew I’d wrestle with it.  He had gentle eyes, the kind you remember your grandfather had.  His warming smile betrayed a missing tooth, or two, and he chuckled as if to say, “It’s alright.  I am who I am.”

Now, understand that I’ve spent a career in the company of “career criminals.”  I’ve tracked them, watched them, hunted them.  I’ve built extensive cases around nicknames, and tattoos, and grainy video clips where the nuances in how they moved, how they lived, and how they thought were known to me long before I knew their name.  Most had no idea I existed until after I arrested them, and I had assembled a startlingly complete idea of who they were.

People offend.  They do horrible and unthinkable things to one another.  Some stumble along the way through life and run afoul of the law without much forethought or intent.  Others seek the vulnerable among us:  They work their own secret calculus each day to spot vulnerability, and posture themselves to exploit it for their own gain.  I’ve seen how they carefully strip the identity and resistance of a victim.  How a charismatic elixir of kindness, distraction, and of course, violence is applied with such skill so as to empty the last resolve of the victim, and make them fully, and hopelessly slaves to criminal ambitions.

I’ve known many of them.

Two lives changed yesterday, and I witnessed them both. Actually, to be truthful, God put me on a path to influence both of them—to play a role in a very big process that would change forever the direction of these two lives.  This morning, as my family sleeps and a warm sun breaks, my hands are both dirty and clean.

In one case, we worked to recover a missing girl who was being exploited. But the term, “Exploited”, though it’s the preferred term of the anti sex trafficking movement doesn’t come close to describing her experiences.  Choose any of the words reserved for the most painful experiences life can bring and they would apply:  enslaved, raped, abused, abandoned, shamed…used.  You get the idea.

I found her on backpage.com in the morning.  Prayers were quickly said, and then quickly answered as everything fell into place:  Phones were tracked, undercover communication was established, and surveillance assets were set in place.  All with startling urgency and effectiveness.  I’ve looked for her before, you see.  I pursued her across five states, and multiple traffickers. The path to recover her has been impeded along the way by a crushing workload of new cases, a bureaucracy that has forgotten why we seek the vulnerable and injured in the first place, and the indifference of people who wear a title obliging them to help and serve.  Things don’t always work the way they should; and neither do we.

She was always one step ahead of where I was.  In her wake was left a series of hotel rooms with soiled sheets and condom wrappers, and a chronicle of escort ads with degrading photos of this young girl.  Her state of undress, pose, and strained smile all aimed at the nameless man sitting at his computer, or on his smartphone.  His eyes don’t see a child.  He doesn’t see past the lingerie to the carefully masked scars—some physical and some not.  He can’t see a history of child abuse at the hands of someone who watched her birth, witnessed her first steps, and even called her his “Angel.”  He won’t know that she will vomit after he leaves—she thinks it’s a hangover, but it could be because the taste of semen has always made her do that.  None of that matters, because it’s invisible and unadvertised.  It makes me wonder if the ad bore those facts in a “small print” disclaimer if he would still call the number, send a text, go to the hotel room, and rape her.

When I recovered her yesterday, she told me about that man.  She didn’t know his name, but she remembered that he was rough.  “He hurt me,” she said.  “I told him, but he kept going.”  Then he paid, $120.00 in folded bills dropped on a desk and he left.  And there were others like him.  I asked her how many and her only response was, “a lot.”

And so, I hunt him:  The man who hurt her, and the others.  I love this kid, you see.  I don’t like her, but I love her.  She swore at me, called me names, she tried to hit me in the hotel, but a 53 I’ve still got some moves.  I can’t even imagine what it would like to parent this kid.  She lied to me, and even told me I’m making things worse for her.  She doesn’t want to go home.  Home sucks.  But she doesn’t want to be in placement.  Kids are crazy there.  She’s not crazy, she tells me. She likes to run away, and this is just what she has to do.  I, didn’t address it at the time, what’s the point.  Argue with your child and see how that goes.

I can’t solve her many problems. I can’t predict her future.  I can’t stop her self-destructive behavior, and convince her that the world is not her enemy.  She knows all too well that the world is her enemy.  The world hurts people. It hurt her, and it will do so again.  It’s filled with people that want to make her do things.  Sometimes she says “no”.  Sometimes she says “no” and she has to do them anyway.  Today she’s safe.  It’s a consolation, though a small one. Today her face and body won’t be seen by the nameless man on backpage.  Today she won’t be raped.  She’ll sleep, eat, cry, and sleep some more.

And so, I hunt him:  The nameless man with the computer, or the smart phone that saw her picture, called a number, and hurt her.

Many times, I’ve found him.  His life is the other one that changed yesterday.  You see, a while ago, I met a man.  First I hunted him.  I knew he was out there, though I had no idea who or where he was.  So I case wide my net; I stepped into the world where the predator stalks young girls. It is a world where money literally buys bodies, or at least rents them.  “It’s so easy.”  Many have told me that.  “You pick a girl, call a number and she’ll do what you want.  No consequences.  No lasting impositions.  No effort.”  This, friends, is the bloody thumbprint of consumerism on the lives of the vulnerable in our society today, and its killing all of us.  You want, you buy.  No waiting.  But that’s a discussion for another day.

I hired models, I took photos, and I made ads.  I carefully crafted just the right wording to let him know that this young woman was “ready and available”—willing has nothing to do with it, but I knew that he didn’t care.  She just needs to do “it”, whatever that means.  I’ve read thousands of ads over my career, and talked to hundreds of victims.  I know how they write, and that’s my particular expertise:  I know what attracts.  I know what tempts.  But I’m also a man–though I tell myself I’m nothing like the man I’m hunting.  I know what he wants to see and hear.

He never had a chance, really. You see, I played on his vulnerability.  His desire betrayed his weakness, and my words, the photos, the possibilities and nuances of what is left unsaid were too much to resist and he texted the number.  “I love your photos.  I’d love to see you.”

Hello.  I’ve been looking for you.

After enough small talk, he got down to business.

How much, where, when.  “Is this full service?”

“Of course, though I’m brand new at this.  I’m a little nervous.”

I can imagine him shudder and giggle with delight.  “You know ‘full service’ means sex, right?”  He asked.

“Yeah.  I know.”  I really do know.  I’ve responded to so many of these ads over the years, looking for missing girls that this is nearly automatic.

When he talks about meeting during the day, I protest.  “I’m in school until three.  Then I play volleyball.”  I can see you on spring break next week.”

“College?”  He asks.

“Not yet.”

He pauses.

“How old are you.”

“Please don’t tell anyone, but I’m 16.”  He can walk away right now if he wants to.  I even hope he does.  Actually, I do and I don’t.  That’s the conflict here:  I want someone, but not just anyone. I’m hunting the man who says, “Yes, I know you’re a child.  I don’t care.  I’m coming.”  I’m hunting the predator that hides among us, that gives sideways glances to our daughters at the mall.

On this day, from this ad, whoever and wherever he is, I’ve found him.

“That’s sexy.”

I have him.  He’s coming.  He will bring with him all the vile expectations and fantasies and proclivities that have caused the pain, and suffering, and abuse of the young girl I’ve just recovered.  He is her enemy, and at least for now, that makes him mine.  I will meet him.  Eventually.

We communicated for two weeks.   Actually, he and Cass—a 16 year old high school junior, volley ball player, typical girl next door—communicated.  But I’m her.

He told me what he wanted, how he wanted it, and said he was kind, generous and experienced.  I told him that Cass was scared, inexperienced, apprehensive, but “ready.”  He talked about things he wanted to do to me.  Things I told him I’d never done.  But if he paid me, and he was nice, I’d do them.  But he would have to show me how.  I can imagine his grip instantly tightening on the mouse, him shifting uncomfortably in his chair.

We talked about money.  Not a problem, he indicated.  After all, he had plenty, and would give me some.

Weeks later we met:  At a hotel, in Bloomington, I approached a 60 something male in the lobby, and said his name as he expected.  He wore a brown knee length coat.  His hair was neatly kept, and he’d put on cologne.  But I wasn’t Cass.  I put him in handcuffs and walked him out to where my partners waited.

Hours later, in a sterile interview room in City Hall, he lamented his decision to come to the hotel.  He had offered all manner of excuses, explanations, and challenges.  “I knew this was set up.”  Really?  And you still came.  That one never goes very far.

“I knew she wasn’t 16.”

“I wasn’t really going to do anything…probably.”

Over the course of a number of hours I learned a lot about him, this nameless man, finally named, exposed and called to account.  He represented for me embodiment of every man, faceless and unknown that has bought the body of any of the young girls I’ve interviewed.  He raped her.  He raped them all.  Abused them without remorse, repentance, or concern. And then left them to the next man.  His semen is dried to her sheets, his stench is on her hair.  His vile desire will forever scar her memory, and the world will forever see her in the context of him, with all his sickness and depravity.  In an instant, all the men from so many stories, men I’ve sought, but never met suddenly bear his face.  His arrogance offends me.

I don’t raise my voice.  I don’t get angry.  A history of great bosses have taught me that interrogation is a subtle art, one where the many dimensions blend softly and creatively to generate an unexpected rapport, however out of place.  Exposing this man is a process which demands a scalpel, not a sledge hammer.

He confesses, to most of it.  Some things he refuses to admit, but they are irrelevant because of the mountain of evidence I’ve built against him.  But he admits to the most important:  “Yes, I knew she was 16; yes, I came here to meet her and pay her for sex.” His burden is now laid bare, in front of me.  And it’s just beginning.

I’m worried about him, though.  He seems agitated.

As I walked him into the front door of Hennepin County Jail, it didn’t escape my notice that this man has never been to jail, never heard the Miranda warning.  Never been in handcuffs.  I don’t dwell on it, but I acknowledge it:  He’s not ready for what’s ahead.  This is going to be a burden he can’t yet imagine.

I’m glad I got him, and I’m sorry at the same time.  That’s the neurotic, paradoxical, crazy-making life of a detective who seeks the predators hiding among us and in us, but I can’t imagine doing this job any other way.  What we do has an impact.  A big one.  For some it’s positive, for some it’s negative.  It’s clear to me that for him it will be negative.  Accountability hurts–however well deserved, however inevitable, however just…it still does, and often we can’t make it softer.  I’m the beginning of an official process that doesn’t care who he is, just what he did.  It’s a process that’s not friendly, not concerned about collateral damage to families, friends, and lives.  But the process is often times inevitable and unstoppable.

He called me the next day.  He felt terrible about what had happened.  This was not who he was. He was an executive.  He served the community.  He had a family, and a wife of so many years.  This would kill her.  His child would stop talking to him.  He would lose everything.  He wanted to know if I was going to charge him.

I told him I could promise nothing.  I explained that I regretted his uneasiness, and uncertainty, but that there was a trajectory in this process that I could not forestall.  It had to run its course.  I offered to connect him with a pastor, with a counselor, and encouraged him to seek support.  I told him that he could get through it, though he would likely need help.  I assured him I thought he was a good man in every other area of his life.  I really didn’t know, but I felt that’s what he needed to hear.

I talked to him about Jesus and he admitted that he hadn’t been to church in a long time.  He thought he needed to go back.  I offered to pray for him, and I meant it.  I offered to help carry this burden as much as I could.  I don’t think either of us knew fully what that meant at the time.

Before we hung up, I told him I was worried about him, and I didn’t want him to hurt himself.  I felt, like he did, unsettled, and I invited him to call me if it ever got close to that.  He assured me he wouldn’t hurt himself, but agreed to call if he needed help.  It was the last time I would talk to him.  As we hung up the phone, I remember feeling very uneasy, and I meant to pray for him.  Honestly, I don’t recall if I did, but I meant to.

He died by his own hand yesterday.  It took a year to charge him, over questions about venue and the appropriate statute.  I never called him again, though I thought about him often.  He had an attorney, and it would have been imprudent for me to call.  I think I prayed for him.

In the end, he was right:  He lost everything.  Somethings were taken from him; some he threw away himself.  When we found out he was missing, and the worst expected, many people joined me in praying for him.

Over the past 20 hours, I’ve fought tears for him.  And for his family.  I feel that I owe his wife and child something, though I don’t know what that is.  I pray that God will direct me in that regard, but right now it feels very unsettled.  I was part of a process that destroyed a man, and denied him to his family.  He was too, but he wasn’t alone in it.  The world is a lesser place without him.

Sex trafficking sucks.  It leaves behind it human carnage and suffering that should be unimaginable.  But it’s not.  Some people are affected by it everyday. The victims whose bodies are sold and abused, and the men who trade their lives, freedom and soul for most degrading experiences all live the horror, even if they remain unaware.

And my job sucks, though I thank God for it.  The lengths to which we must go to identify and catch predators involves deception, trickery, and exploitation of weakness—all things that I abhor and fight.  I can’t get it out of my head that on that day over a year ago when I put handcuffs on this man, there was no victim.  There was only me.  And I can’t get Matthew 18:7 out of my head:

“Woe to the world for temptations to sin!  For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!”

On a cold day in February 2014, I brought the temptation to this man.  What do I do with that?

And I remember what I said to the person who introduced himself to me as a “career criminal” on that day not so long ago.  He was right, I didn’t know what to say.  My only response was:  “In the eyes of our Father, we were all career criminals.”

The Little Girl who Celebrates Gutter Balls

I love miracles.  I love the way God weaves them, both big and small into the fabric of our everyday lives.  I love that no matter how small they may seem in the course of our day, they cast a shimmering reflection of God’s magnificence that causes us to stop, look heavenward and marvel at the immensity of God’s innovation, love and playfulness.  I love miracles, so I look for them everywhere.

 Of course, I’ve got an example.  As I sit here this Sunday morning and write, I’m humbled and awestruck by the innocent wisdom of a 4 year old girl who celebrates gutter balls.  It’s true, I’m talking about Mollie.  Yesterday, on a whim, Mel and I took Mollie bowling for the first time.  Though I’m not a frequent bowler, the sport has an anchor deep in my life.  I remember spending a great deal of time in bowling alleys as a kid.  Dad was an avid bowler, as was Grandpa Snyder—at least as far as I can recall.  Bowling alleys were places draped in an abundance of sound and action:  The rumble of the bowling ball on the alley, the frenzied crash of pins, the buzz and ringing of a pinball machine tucked in some corner.  They were all sounds of my childhood and things you just don’t hear anywhere else.

 Bowling has changed.  Hand scrawled scorecards have been replaced by computerized scoring projected on large screen TV’s, amid an animated jumble of dancing pins, snarling balls and frequent rebuff or praise depending on performance.  Gone is the noxious haze pooling at the ceiling from burning cigarettes.  Gone are rows of inky black balls, slick and worn, which are differentiated only by a number designating weight stamped onto them.  In their place are dancing lights, glowing, multicolored pins, a cacophony of popular songs and bright, pastel colored balls in pink, blue, green and purple.  But the base experience, the tremendous, sensory delights are still there.  And even at 51 years old, I’m caught up in the experience and it’s nearly overwhelming.

 But back to miracles:  Bowling alleys may seem odd places to find them, but trust me, they’re there.  Where kids and families gather, where smiles are exchanged, where playful words are bartered for laughter and joy, that’s fertile ground for miracles.  Then there’s the accomodations that have been made to make bowling accessible for children.  For little kids, they now have something called “ramps”—portable plastic chutes in bright colors and molded to look like dinosaurs, lizards and birds.  Ramps allow the kids to aim the ball, give it a push and send it down the alley without the obligatory, walk, swing and release that most of us have to endure.  That’s not the miracle that I’m referring to, but there is probably one to be celebrated in there somewhere. 

 So, on this occasion, we dutifully secured a bright blue dinosaur chute for Mollie, positioned to send the ball right down the middle of the lane.  As she sent the first ball with a push down the chute and toward the other end of the lane, I thought of that delightful sound of pins falling.  I guess some troublesome physical law must be at work on bowling lanes that causes a ball placed straight down the middle to veer toward the side because the ball dropped with a thump into the gutter. 

 I’ll be honest that I was a little heartbroken for her.  Her first ball, and “wham!” a gutter ball.  My initial reaction was placating, “Oh, that’s ok, Baby…I didn’t aim well.”  I turned prepared to embrace a sad little girl, but instead saw Mollie jumping back toward Mel, hands high above her head as she exclaimed, “I did it!  I did it!”  No circus clown ever smiled that big and wide. 

 I know what you’re thinking, “What a wonderful miracle indeed:  A little girl so overcome with joy about the experience that she failed to get caught up in failure of the first ball.”  It’s cute, to be sure, and I think happiness is always miraculous; but again, that’s not the miracle I’m focused on here.

 As the game unfolded, Mollie’s balls hit the mark, or they don’t; they charge deep into the pyramid of pins, causing them to collide, tumble and bounce.  And they dropped, almost urgently into the gutter.  On the buzzing TV screen straddling the lane, her score edged up, and stalled here and there.  Gutter balls.  My heart ached with each one.  But not Mollie.  Her joy was undaunted by something as irrelevant as the score.  Each and every ball, regardless of it’s result at the end of the lane, ended in the same joyful celebration.  Mollie jumped and danceed.  She smiled ear to ear, and raced to my arms where we hugged, exchanged high fives, and offered praise.  What she was celebrating wasn’t immediately clear, and Mel and I exchanged knowing glances, aware that she didn’t really “get” the point of the game.

 But then something truly miraculous happened:  Soon my gutter balls didn’t seem so painful.  Yes, it’s true, I threw a few of them as well.  How many pins fell or didn’t became less important, and my own apologies, pleadings and excuses were lost to the cheers, joy and embrace of a little girl who celebrates gutter balls, both mine and hers.

 That Mollie could spend time unfettered by pride and vanity, and find such joy in the process of bowling, with no concern for the outcome is very cool, and you could easily argue that it’s a miracle.  But the true miracle, the one that caused me to write these thoughts down, is that the perfection of her celebration, her God given elation and joy of “doing” was so powerful and pure that it eclipsed my own hang ups, exposed my worldly and left me with a deep feeling of appreciation and praise.  It was if she drew rainbows on my heart.

 How can it be that Mollie, with all her sass and childlike vision, can hit upon the one thing about living that most of us forget:  That the best parts of any pursuit, be it recreational or otherwise, are in the doing.  I guess it’s just a truly sad reality that as we grow, we get so caught up in the world that we erect idols to our own pride:  Performance, success…perfection.  In doing so, we fail to do the most fundamental act of worship:  To praise God for the process of being alive—that lifelong dance of exploration, movement, thought, song and celebration.  And yes, even the tears.  It’s in the “doing” that we spend most of our time on this earth, not the reaping of results.  I think that’s where we should offer the majority of our celebration and worship.

And so, now I celebrate gutter balls.  God told Mollie, and she showed me.

The Consequence of Freedom and Liberty

In common use, the words LIBERTY and FREEDOM are used nearly synonymously to suggest a state of being self-directed, and absent bondage.  It engenders a sense of having the right to choose one’s own beliefs, actions, and path.  The words themselves give a charged idea of being free from the yokes of oppression and control.

Freedom is used in language to describe all manner of escape, however temporary from circumstances which are undesirable:  Freedom from worry; freedom from care; freedom from boredom, or hunger, or oppression.  In fact, the word Freedom has become a mantra  we use when we want  to express our own resistance to practices, or changes in policy and law which have a limiting effect of our choices.

Recent examples include the use of Freedom as an emotional background in debates over gay marriage and the second amendment.  As a result, in the United States, our perspective of Freedom is frequently relegated to discussions of whether we can do, “as we want.”   In that context, Freedom is a posh and elite word, lofty in principle, but anemic in practice.  It all too easily becomes a cloak used by the “haves” and egocentrics who deploy it as a veil or barrier against judgement from others offended by their relentless pursuit of “more”:  more money, more power, more choices, more, more, more.

For example, most people would agree that in a free market economy, the Freedom to compete is a cornerstone for economic health and vitality.  But how quickly such freedom becomes economic despotism when such competition destroys or limits the freedoms of others by stealing opportunity–think Walmart and the effect of huge mega-chain stores on small shops.

Even the 2nd amendment debate provides lively examples of how one person’s cherished freedom can impact, and even limit the freedom of others.  Consider my decision to have firearms in my home.  That decision places a firearm in the midst of not only my family, but other families as well. My neighbors, fellow citizens and even others across the State must now deal with the reality that I possess a tool that can be taken from me, and horribly, tragically misused, even against them.  Now I’m a second amendment supporter, and fully defend those rights.  But those rights come at a cost to my neighbors and fellow citizens.  My freedom can cost other’s theirs.

It’s clear that in our current understanding, Freedom is individual and largely independent of collective principles.  Our Freedom to “do as we want” is a function of several factors including how much money and power we can access, and what geographic latitudes we occupy.  Freedom is typically, and sadly about me, rather than us.

Which is why I like Liberty.  Liberty does not bear the encumbrance of “me”.  Liberty is the collective principle blindly distributed across all those who make up a populace.  It exposes a belief that it is about something great, even transcendent.  It is shared, it’s application is vast, and it is permanent if not as practice at least as a guiding philosophy.  Liberty evinces an enduring status, rather than a circumstantial one.

In Liberty, we imagine life devoid of oppression, not because we were able to escape it, but because we stand collectively above it.  Thus, Liberty is the property and obligation of all.  When the least of us remains in bondage, under the precepts of this collective, transcendent philosophy, we are all in bondage.  We all have Liberty, or none of us do.

The enemies of Liberty are clear:  Hunger, poverty, slavery, social disenfranchisement, exploitation.  When one of us stands outside Liberty’s protective shield, then Liberty itself is  lost since it is, by its nature, all or nothing.

The reasons to include this in an essay about commercial sexual exploitation are probably many, but I have a very particular one.  Among the greatest personal biases that people confront when dealing with victims of trafficking and exploitation are questions of choice.  People want to know how much personal “choice” contributed to their circumstances, and whether they are free to leave, free to escape.  Whether they are free, “not to be trafficked.”

This is a vexing problem for a couple of reasons. First, it neglects the experience of the victim by diminishing it to a set of observed actions that play out on a two dimensional field, devoid of context.  And context, as we’ve seen in countless cases and heard repeatedly from victims, is the key to understanding and combatting trafficking.  An understanding of  context exposes the critical risk factors, allowing us to reach the vulnerable and endangered.  Context allows us to maintain the fight for justice despite a victim’s tragic re-victimization post rescue in that we appreciate how the context that led to the initial tragedy still remains.    And context assures that the targets of our fight–those predators willing to oppress and enslave, those institutions and policies which stand between the victim and their liberty, and the pornification of children in our culture and world will remain squarely and clearly in our sights.

The greatest problem with focusing on the victim’s “choices”, though is the sea of separation it creates between them and us.  It’s an insidious process, and one that can turn even the most well intentioned of us away at the time we are needed most.  As a rule, when I’m teaching about trafficking, I use some focused imagery exercises to get people to imagine–to a very limited extent–what it means to be a victim of trafficking.  At the end of it, they generally come to the conclusion I’ve been hoping for:  We have no earthy idea what such trauma would be like, or how we would fair in similar circumstances.  But wait, I just said that creating separation between us and the victims was a bad thing, right? I did, and I meant it.  But it would be naive to think we can find common experiential ground with the victims, unless we have experienced what they have.    And most of us have not.

Consider this:  As a white, upper middle class man who grew up in the country, was never raped or abused, has never runaway, has never had to trade sex for food, drugs, or shelter, and who has never had a gun put to my head as a means to force me to do something, or been choked into unconsciousness I can never, ever sit across from a victim and say the most tragic words I’ve heard people use in such interactions, “I know what it feels like.”  I don’t know.  And they know I don’t know.

Instead, if I can condition myself to use other words, words so powerful that they can collapse the greatest distance in a moment, I can go from a man separated to an impossible distance by unshared experiences, to a partner with shared purpose.  Those words are, “I care.”  I wish I could tell you the number of times I’ve had an interview with a victim turn 180 degrees from bad to good simply because they understood that I cared.

When I start to care, factors like “choice” are no longer in focus because I am not emphasizing individual actions.  Instead, I am seeking a common purpose.  That’s when I start to seek liberty rather than freedom.  At that moment I finally recognize that I cannot rewrite someone else’s experience in the context of my own life, and I instead cherish others for the beautiful, intricately designed differences they add to the mosaic of liberty.

But most of all, I can finally accomplish what God intended of me, and Jesus so perfectly demonstrated in his time on this earth:  That our hands were designed to be joined together, and that a burden to one is a burden to all.  That’s what liberty is all about.