Aokigahara forest, Japan
I found myself struggling to follow the compelling stories of Panama and India in our two previous weeks of Lent Remixed with my chosen country, Japan.

How does one follow child abuse and basic human rights for women with a country that is considered a first world country in terms of economic output and general lifestyle of its citizens?

I pondered this until I ran across an article from the New York Times written this past fall about the Aokigahara forest and the suicide rate in Japan. 

This week my family and I are at Disney World. We came with my sister and her family, my parents and my husband’s parents. It’s been a dream come true for my kids to experience this with so many family members, one we’ll remember for years to come. I keep saying, “Get the camera out, we don’t want to miss anything!” Taking pictures on rides, eating treats, meeting Disney characters and watching fireworks, this place is one for making memories.

Jasmine and her cousin Elise all ready for a day at Disney.
My daughter especially is treated with extra attention. Everywhere we go, anytime we enter a park, a ride, or are even getting ready to leave, the attendant will say, “Hello, Princess!” or “Goodbye, Princess!” My daughter looked at me shyly yesterday with a grin on her face: “Everyone calls me princess here, mom.” I could tell she felt so special, so loved. And I told her, “I know, honey. You are so special.” In fact, my sister and I brought princess outfits, tiaras, and accessories for our girls to wear while we are here. Just yesterday morning, we laid them out with care and told our daughters that the fairy godmother must have came to our house during the night, knowing just what they would like. We spent the day at the park, my daughter dancing in her pink dress and tiara throughout the day. I videotaped her, not wanting to miss any of it. This childhood. This innocence. No one else may love her like I do; to me she is a princess. Priceless. 

I go to bed with thoughts of the day’s memories still lingering in my mind. 

Panama is a beautiful country with beautiful people and a rich history. Panama City, unlike some South American cities and countries, has many modern amenities including skyscrapers and a solid banking system that uses the U.S. dollar for currency, making travel there for Americans convenient. The Panama Canal also brings in an annual revenue for the country that helps fund the country's infrastructure and offers jobs to many Panamanians.

But with all the beauty there is in Panama - in the landscape, the culture, the very people themselves - there is another side that is hidden. Left unseen. Panama, like a number of South American countries, has a high rate of child abuse. In fact, one article I found published by UNICEF stated that “Latin America and the Caribbean – with a population of more than 190 million children – has the highest rate of violence affecting women and children.” It continued: “In this region violence against children and adolescents in the family is manifested mainly through physical punishment – as a form of discipline – sexual abuse, neglect and economic exploitation.” A modest number the study gave for the percentage of children abused was 50 percent, and in 90 percent of cases children were abused by a family member, someone they knew. Since abuse happens within the family, it is often not only hidden, but perpetuates a cycle that continues from one generation to the next.

I became interested in Panama last year while preparing for a missions trip to the country. I first heard about Panama from missionaries Gerritt and Tara Kenyon, who spoke at a Women’s Conference, explaining the things they had seen, heard, and experienced the past few years in Panama. The Kenyons are missionaries to Panama, specifically reaching out to the youth there. They told us how one of the main ways that they reach teenagers is by going into the schools, putting on assemblies, meeting with kids, getting to know them. A common theme they began to hear from girls after these assemblies was the abuse, specifically sexual abuse, they were experiencing at the hands of their fathers, brothers, uncles, or other family members. And these girls' stories are seen in the statistics from the same article I quoted earlier: “Girls have a much greater risk of becoming victims of sexual abuse by family members or strangers. Studies in the region show that for every boy that is sexually abused, three or four girls are victims of the same crime.” Over and over again they would hear these stories from girls, until finally, they could stand it no longer. They decided something needed to be done. As they talked with other friends who had been in Panama longer than they had and asked them specifically about this issue, they would hear, “Oh yeah, we know it’s happening. It’s Panama’s dirty little secret that no one talks about. We just don’t know what to do about it.”

And this is the reason that I and about 160 other people from Minnesota and around the United States traveled to Panama last year. We put on the first girls conference in Panama, "Ilumina," and invited girls to come for free. We offered them meals, gifts, photo booths, and nail and hair stations,while also speaking truth into their lives: That they were beautiful. Wanted. Created with a purpose. Things many of them had never heard before. We prayed for them and then offered hope. You see, the mission of the Kenyons is not just to put on a girls conference or go into schools, their ultimate goal is to have a place for girls who are being abused to go to. A place a safety. A refuge. And they are in the process of making that dream a reality in the middle of Panama City.

Jenn Uitto graciously allowed me to use her photos from the missions trip last year. She and her husband Neil are now planning to move to Panama full time to help the Kenyons in reaching girls and opening El Refuge. You can read more about their story here.

What can we do this week? How will we help?

Prayer. First, we will start by praying. We will pray for the girls and for protection against further abuse. We will pray for the men who perpetuate that kind of behavior, that they would experience conviction and a realization that further abuse must end. We will pray for the Kenyons, the Uittos and El Refuge. Finally, we will pray for the girls conference, Ilumina, being put on again this year - that girls will come and that lives will be touched and changed. We will also pray for more light to be shed on this issue in Panama, for laws to be created to protect girls and children and for honesty and a passion for justice in those who would carry out those laws.

Fasting. This week we will give up between 15 and 30 minutes, everyday, of social media time (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace) and instead spend that time praying for Panama, the children, the missionaries, and lawmakers.

Giving. We will partner with the Kenyons and Uittios by supporting El Refuge so that it becomes a reality. Kyle and I also plan on being a part of the missions trip again this year to Panama and helping with the girls conference. If you would like more information about the trip this summer, you'll find it here.

We would love for you to join us in praying for Panama this week and in giving up 15 to 30 minutes of social media time everyday to instead pray for Panama.

Well, we're midway through week one of Lent Remixed. We're fasting from wheat and rice while we pray for the plight of women in India. We thought we'd share a few observations:

Photo by jayneandd on Flickr
I haven't died, yet. I thought I might. The first day was the hardest. When I opened my cupboards the morning of the first day, it felt as though everything I owned contained wheat! I silently despaired, shook a fist at my friend Kristin for conning me into giving up both pasta and bread...and said a prayer for India.

I was hungry that first afternoon as I made my kids a mid-afternoon snack. As my three-year-old snuggled on my lap, watching an episode of Diego, I enviously eyed those animal crackers. As he obliviously waved that little morsel of wheat-y goodness three inches under my nose, I found myself seriously considering snatching a cracker from his pile. They smelled SO GOOD (says the woman who doesn't particularly care for animal crackers any other day of the year). I silently shook myself out of my animal cracker trance...and prayed for India.

At work on day two, I found it easy to share what we were doing with others. Most women understand cravings and food -- and so a longing look at the Triscuit box on the lunch table during the morning break opened the door for a funny story about this crazy adventure of Lent Remixed and then opened the door to statistics and information about India. As I walked back down the hallway toward my office, I prayed for India.

Interesting thing I've learned about fasting: It never gets easier. Kyle and I have done a number of fasts over the years and you would think my body would be used to it by now. Nope. Every time I feel like my body and mind are screaming, "What is this? Give something up? I can't do it!" It's never without a fight.

I started our fast off well, made it through breakfast and lunch on Monday without a hitch. Then supper came. I decided we'd have breakfast foods: scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, sausage, and french toast. I, of course, would eat everything but the french toast. But as we sat down to eat: Did I enjoy my eggs? No. Did I enjoy my sausage or fruit? No. All I could focus on was the french toast and how wonderful it smelled. That's what I wanted, only because I couldn't have it. I know, I'm terribly fickle, and slightly embarrassed to admit it.

After dinner, I went back and read Kristin's blog post on India, how 100,000 women were burned last year, and I prayed: Lord, take my focus off my own silliness, my own selfishness, and remind me what's truly important: Protect the women of India. May a generation of people, both men and women, come forth to change what is happening there. Bring peace and unity and equality to India. Change people's hearts. And change my heart while you're at it. Amen.

The rest of this week has been moving along easier than the first day. I am reminded every time my body or mind complains about what it can't have to pray for India. And that is a good thing. Now if I can just get through the next three days of traveling with my family to Florida without eating rice or wheat...

Ok, I admit it. I ate something that contained wheat. Whoops! I was making my kids mac & cheese, which they love, and I put a noodle in my mouth to test its doneness. Then I debated with myself - do I need to spit this out? Seriously? I didn't, even though it didn't even taste good. Too bad I haven't had to test the doneness of oh, say, a triple-chocolate piece of cake.

But it has been a bit of a struggle. Last month, my husband and I gave up refined sugar for the WHOLE month - which basically included most processed foods, including bread. And yet I've found that this is the week where I bemoan my lack of toast (my homemade raspberry jam is so tempting...) and pb&j (another opportunity to eat the jam...).

And then I take a look around my cozy kitchen, my children happily playing nearby, and I think - seriously? I'm sad about wheat and rice? I'm sad that I have to wait until next week to eat toast? What about women in India who don't have that luxury? In the grand scheme of things, my momentary discomfort is so much less than their very great pain. Their longing for freedom. Their longing for a voice. And it is in that moment, when I feel very small in the face of these big problems, that I pray.


As Kendra and Kristin and I shared our stories with each other the other day, we discovered that we each CRAVED what we could not have. We found ourselves tempted by foods we wouldn't give a second thought on any other day until it became "forbidden fruit." What is it about human nature that makes us long for what we cannot have, even when we know it isn't particularly delicious or desirable, especially when we can have so many other things that are both delicious and desirable? Do we really remain that vulnerable to the original sin of Adam and Eve in desiring the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, when every other fruit on every other tree was available?

 How's your first week of Lent been going?    
It’s Thursday morning and I’m rushing to get kids out the door for school. My phone rings: It’s dad. For a moment I hesitate before answering, wondering if I should wait until the kids are gone. I choose to pick up:

“Hi Dad.”

“Hi honey.”

We share a little small talk about our service group for church from the night before -- cleaning and prepping a kitchen area at a local shelter we’ll paint the following week -- and how much we both enjoy it. 

Then he casually asks, “You remember last week when I went to the VA for a biopsy of my prostate?”

Last week, we told you about our Lent Remixed project: 7 weeks, 7 countries, 7 causes, 7 items fasted. If you missed it, here's the original post. This week, we chose to focus on India.

I have always dreamed of going to India. My sister-in-law visited the country a few years ago and returned with lush pictures of gorgeous sunsets, historic buildings, and brightly arrayed people. With an estimated 1.2 billion inhabitants, India is the second-most-populated country in the world following China, and has a rich history that has lasted thousands of years (Source: CIA Factbook).

So I was sickened by the reports in mid-December of a woman who was the victim of a horrifying gang rape on a bus in Delhi, India, and later died from the trauma she experienced (see original story and death report). I was further shocked to read that India has been ranked as the worst G20 country in which to be a woman.

While sipping coffee with Kristin and Kendra one Saturday afternoon, our conversation turned to Lent. My childhood church observed Lent. As a child, I remember that Lent meant Wednesday night soup and supper at church. I still love the memory and feelings of those special nights of fellowship and food. It also meant giving up something important until Easter. At 10 years old, I told my mom that I wanted to give up pasta for Lent. As funny as that sounds, pasta was the most important thing I could think of. I loved pasta (and still do, unfortunately). And I loved Jesus. It seemed only right that I gave up something I loved. My mom indulged my extremely inconvenient request, and our family switched to rice as our primary starch until Easter that year.

Since becoming an adult, I've attended a variety of churches, none of which observe Lent in any particular fashion. Every year, I find that I yearn for the Lenten traditions of my childhood. During our coffee-fueled conversation that cold January afternoon, I spoke of my childhood experience with Kendra and Kristin. Because neither Kristin nor Kendra grew up in churches that observed Lent, Kendra naturally asked me what Lent meant. I stammered for a moment before going silent. I had no idea why we met for soup and suppers on Wednesday nights. I didn't know why my ten-year-old self gave up my beloved pasta except that I loved Jesus and wanted to honor him by giving up something I loved...because, well, because that is what we were supposed to do. I began to wonder how many other people observed Lent without really knowing why. And so, being a self-proclaimed nerd, I did the obvious thing and typed "why do we celebrate Lent" into my trusty Google toolbar on my laptop late that night.

Wow. What I discovered was both beautiful and amazing.

Hello friends!  The Ruth Experience is over at Bridging the Gap this morning. I talk about a memorable dinner Aaron and I had with a couple named Emil and Beulah. Because of that dinner, I created Scripture Cards containing a verse and fun questions to help families talk about biblical principles as they apply to everyday life at dinner, in the car, at bedtime...whenever!  And, I'm sharing the cards...for free.  Use them. Gift them. Just don't sell them. Follow us over to Bridging the Gap, the link to the Scripture Cards is toward the bottom.  One last thing...whomever finds the misspelled word (because I can't go back and reedit the article) gets a high-five from me! 
-- Julie  

When my husband and I were newly married and newly committed to following Christ in a way we had only flirted with in college, we were invited to dinner by Emil and Beulah. Emil and Beulah were in their 70s and, after a lifetime of teaching, Emil was a lay pastor in our church.

When my husband and I accepted their invitation, we knew Emil and Beulah only in passing. They were the age of our grandparents and as childless newlyweds, we had nothing in common. We pulled up to their humble home in the country and were greeted with a welcome so sincere and embracing that we immediately felt as though we had been friends for ages. We were invited into their kitchen and helped with final meal preparations. The meal was not fancy, but it was delicious. The table was set simply with their “regular” dishes. There were no special flourishes and no attempts to be anything but Emil and Beulah.

Our conversation was wide-ranging and enjoyable. Emil and Beulah told us how they met, how they fell in love via letters during the war, and how they have loved and served Christ for decades – their entire married life and even before, really. They knew the terrible tragedy of losing a child and the immense joy of seeing their living children love Christ with all of their hearts, minds, and strength. I sensed something as I sat at their table, and I knew I wanted it for my future family, even though I couldn’t exactly put “it” into words.