"Would It Be Okay If You Hugged Me?"

houstonThis weekend I flew to Houston to speak at the Conspire Conference.  I stood on a stage looking out over a few hundred students who were in grades 6-12, telling them my story of having breast cancer in my 20’s.

I talked to them about what a dark season of life it was for me.  The chemo and radiation were difficult, but on top of that I also lost a good friend to cancer, I was out of work for seven months, my car got hit by a truck in the parking lot of my apartment building, and my boyfriend broke up with me.  After all of that, I ended up in the hospital with a raging lung infection and a good chance that I would die.

On the nights I spent in the hospital, I’d lie awake and stare at the ceiling and wonder where God was.  Do you see me?  Do you love me?  Do you care about what’s happening in my life?  I prayed.  And if you see me and love me and care about my life, why don’t you come down and make this all go away?

I told them how I eventually got better and moved from Connecticut to Oregon to start over.  And every Sunday, I’d go to church and pray for God to find me because I felt so lost.  For six months I prayed that same prayer, and finally one Sunday I realized that the love of God is higher and longer and wider and deeper than anything that happens in this world.  And so not only am I now found by God, but never -- even for a single second -- had I ever been lost.

Around that time, I also met a Somali refugee woman and her girls on the MAX train one afternoon.  I ended up getting involved74525_461368584763_3176864_n (1) with their family, writing a blog about the adventure of helping them adjust to life in America, and turning the blog into a book called The Invisible Girls that’s going towards a college fund for the girls.

I told the students how God worked everything for good -- because I never would’ve been in Portland if my life on the east coast hadn’t fallen apart.  And I never would’ve recognized the desperate look in the Somali woman’s eyes except that it was exactly the same look I’d had in my eyes when I landed in Portland after losing everything but my life.

God had seemed absent, hiding in the shadows of painful circumstances, but it turns out He was with me all the time, and was taking each horrible, painful detail and working it for good.

At the close of the talk, I looked at the students and said, “I promise you that at some point in your life, something will happen that is difficult and painful.  Something that you don’t understand, that you don’t want, that you don’t like.  And in that moment, you’re going to think that God doesn’t love you, that He’s abandoned you and forgotten all about you.

“And some of you are there right now -- you’ve lost someone you loved, or a relationship ended badly, or you’re getting bullied mercilessly.  And maybe it seems so bad that the best way out is to end your life.

“But you are here tonight just to hear me tell you this: God. Loves. You.

“He sees you, He cares about you, and even when you don’t feel Him near you, He’s holding onto you every step of the way.  And He’s going to work this all out for good.”

Thebarge-The Invisible GirlsAfter I prayed for the students, I left the stage and the worship band began to play.  One of the organizers met me backstage and led me to a table in the lobby where I was going to do a book signing.

When the kids were dismissed from the session, they got in line to buy a copy of The Invisible Girls and get it signed.  A small girl, who was barely four feet tall, waited in line until it was her turn to come up to the table.  “I don’t have the money to buy your book,” she said quietly.  “But could you sign my name tag?”

One of the youth leaders ran and grabbed a permanent marker, and I signed her laminated name tag.  Several other kids saw what was going on, and came over to get their name tags signed, too.  Others came over and asked to take a picture with me.

After twenty minutes, everyone had come through the line, and the lobby emptied as the kids went to their next session.

And then an overweight teenage boy with thick glasses came up to the table clutching a copy of my book to his chest.  He handed it to me to sign, which I did, and then I gave it back to him. Instead of walking away, he stood there in front of me without saying anything, and tears welled up in his eyes.

Finally, he broke the silence.  “Would it be okay if you hugged me?” he asked.

I walked around the table and held my arms out.  He wrapped his arms around my waist and clung to me.

“God sees you, God loves you, God cares about you,” I whispered. And I could feel his shoulders shaking as he cried.

During Advent, I’ve been thinking a lot about Immanuel, God With Us.  And I’ve been thinking a lot about how, as His followers, we get to live out the incarnation for each other. We get to be the tangible presence of Jesus in this world -- a presence that shines light and makes peace and whispers love.

We get to be His feet that walk the extra mile; His eyes that look on even the most messy, marginalized people with love; and His arms that wrap around self-conscious, bullied, lonely teenage boys.

We get to whisper into the aching ears of this world, “God sees you. God loves you.  God cares about you. Yes -- even you.”