PUBLISHED Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

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      Amazing Grace. That’s all she wanted to hear. Just that one song, “Amazing Grace.” Karen didn’t even know how she knew it was a Christian song or why she wanted to hear it so badly. But she had asked this so called “God” to play her this one song for five weeks now.
      Church had been surprisingly nice. She was glad to have tried it out. It made sense why her boss and mentor, Bobby, committed so much time to this. But Karen was busy. This was New York, after all - everyone always had better things to do. Between working full time and sculpting, she didn’t really have any extra time to spare trying to understand what might be nothing more than a nice myth.
      So either this God was going to get the praise team to play this “Amazing Grace” song, or she was going to write church off as a brief and pleasant period of cultural exploration, to re-focus on other things. Sitting next to her in the pew, Bobby tensed up a bit. Karen had mentioned her skepticism and desire for God to prove Himself with a clear sign. Bobby knew that God was the God of the universe and that miracles happened and that people could be healed and mountains moved. But he also knew that he had been coming to Times Square Church (TSC) for a year now and the choir had not sung Amazing Grace once. It just wasn’t in the praise repertoire.
      The praise team sang five songs. After the fifth, the music started to wind down. One of the lead pastors made his way to the stage, a signal that praise was ending.
      Karen’s shoulders sank with disappointment. There was something inside of her that desperately yearned for it all to be true. She was so tired of not knowing. So tired of being alone.
      She looked up as the lead pastor stepped onto the stage. Thousands of attentive congregants paused, and the room was still.

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attentive congregants paused, and the room was still. In her despair, she couldn’t help but bitterly think, Ugh, not him again. He was the pastor that always spoke.
      But then, in a clear, crisp voice, the pastor began singing a cappella. He began singing “Amazing Grace,” a cappella.

***
      Prior to her experience at TSC, Karen had explored countless other belief systems. She was always searching. Searching for truth, searching for meaning, searching for love. She searched in relationships, work, New Age beliefs, Tibetan meditation, Buddhism, tarot cards, and astrology. But she never ended up digging too deeply because, at the end of the day, none of those things satisfied the deep yearning in her heart for something greater. At the age of 32, she came to realize that, no matter how many great people one has in life, everyone is ultimately alone.
      The realization of aloneness was more like a small, dense stone that she carried around with her everywhere. Its weight generally faded into the other burdens of life that she carried. But, in the stillness of her sculpting studio, Karen would occasionally take the stone out and play with it. Turning it over and over in her hand, she felt its cold surface, noticing the polychromatic shades of blue and gray that blended under and over each other. A trick of the light would reveal her own reflection, another turn would show nothing but shadow. In her studio, Karen was able to face this melancholy and mold it. Her studio was her one sacred space, where she could explore these feelings without fear of what she might uncover. But she always tucked the stone away when she went back out into the real world.

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when she went back out into the real world.
      One day, Karen ventured to express her sentiments to Bobby, her friend at work. Not quite sure what to expect, Karen braced herself for pity, maybe judgment, hopefully empathy. Instead, Bobby responded, “I’m not alone.”
      Taken aback, Karen asked, “How?”
      “I have God.”
      A strange answer, thought Karen. But it piqued her curiosity. So she started going to TSC with Bobby. Why not? She had tried everything else.
      Which is how she found herself that Sunday at Times Square Church, mesmerized by an old Christian hymn and captivated by a sneaky feeling that, perhaps, she had finally found what she was looking for.
      Karen started reading the Bible and seeking the deeper answers that none of the other trendy belief systems could provide. On long walks during lunch and over steaming cups of bitter coffee, Bobby helped Karen address her questions one by one. Karen still had her doubts about the historical truth of the Bible and whether such a story was possible. But as the leaves on the honey locust trees at Central Park changed from an unripe green to a deep gold, those doubts ceased to be insurmountable compared to the greater truth she found herself embracing.
      Ultimately, the Bible tells a love story. As with art, love is not perfectly rational or consistent or unfalsifiable. She slipped into love with Jesus slowly. He became a person to her, someone that she could relate to. He was more than just a belief system, or a values code, or a lifestyle. The point wasn’t to focus on her own happiness or peace like all of the other systems advocated. The point was to understand true love so that she could be truly loved and, in turn, truly love others.
      While her heart ached to be known in this way, there was still a small wall, or maybe a voice, that held her back. She felt that she was too damaged and that He wouldn’t want to save her. She was afraid to even ask. What if He said no? She shuddered at the thought, afraid to even approach the possibility. Instead, she continued to read and grow intellectually in her faith. But it wasn’t until one seemingly inconsequential day in her apartment when, while finishing off a bowl of soggy cereal, she heard a barely audible voice whisper in her ear, “Karen, I love you.”
      In that moment, her faith came to life. No lightning split the sky, no earth shook, but the power of Jesus overtook her heart. From that moment, Karen knew that He loved her. She did not feel good enough to come to Him and be loved by Him. So He did not ask her to. Instead, He came to her. She was no better or worse than before, but now she was redeemed.
      “What’s so amazing about God is that he knows exactly how to speak to us,” Karen says. “One person needs to see him as father, another as holy Lord, another as lover. For me initially He was first the lover. It was specifically Jesus as the lover of my soul.”

***
      Karen has been in New York City since 1988. While she still loves the city, her relationship with it is more complicated. The concrete jungle started to lose its allure for her after 9/11, when people started retreating into their own worlds.
      “I blame the whole iWorld – iPhone, iPod, whatever,” Karen explains.
      Her bright smiles on the subway stopped being reciprocated, until they were flat out rejected.

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were flat out rejected. On a few occasions, she would offer her seat on the subway to an elderly or pregnant person, only to have another aggressive passenger snatch it up. The loneliness of the city became more palpable. The arrogance of the city became less tolerable.
      Still, she felt a calling from God to stay in the city to pursue her graduate studies. In 2008, a major surgery left Karen pleading, “God, either take me home or make me a superhero for You. I want to do more. My life has been good, but there’s got to be more.”
      God directed her to an International Arts Ministry (IAM) screening of the documentary “Branded.” The documentary’s graphic portrayals of the brutal sex trade unnerved her. How could slavery still exist in this modern world, in our very own communities? Innocent children from desperate families were being kidnapped and traded, then chained to a brutal lifestyle where sadistic pimps would drug and beat them. These were children who dreamt of being teachers and doctors, of taking care of their younger siblings and making their parents proud.
      “That whole week was event after event and talk after talk about trafficking in a way only God could arrange,” Karen says. “So supernatural.”
      It didn’t take much for her to seize this opportunity to serve a marginalized group. God challenged her to get an art therapy degree, to build a toolkit of counseling knowledge. While the next steps weren’t exactly clear, she knew that she would have to focus on getting ready first. The call to action would come after.
      In 2009, Karen enrolled in a Master’s program at the School of Visual Arts to gain expertise in art therapy. After graduating in 2011, she first traipsed off to a cafe in Norway and started working with drug addicts, alcoholics, asylum seekers, and refugees.

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seekers, and refugees. She used her natural talents and newly refined skills to bring art, healing, and the Lord to an unlikely gaggle of misfits.
      Daily, she helped aloof teenagers with sunken cheeks whisper their pain through tumbling seascapes. Her hands guided the calloused fingers of menacing bouncers shape clay figurines. People who hung their pain from their shoulders and people who buried it deep in the shadow of their upright chin held their pain together, their interwoven fingers eventually gripping more tightly in mutual trust and healing.
      The impact Karen had on her community was bumpy but tangible, like the roughened edges of an untreated slab of limestone. She imagined herself settling down, marrying a Norwegian man, and building a life there. From Norway, she could work in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, etc. But God had other plans. Her visa eventually expired, and she came back to the United States to find alternative opportunities that would allow her to return to Norway. Those opportunities didn’t quite pan out, and the door that opened instead was an opportunity to volunteer at a safe house in Mexico. The center cared for adolescent girls who were rescued from sex trafficking.
      To this day, no one in Karen’s life knows where that safe house is.
      “It was amazing,” Karen remembers. “I got to work with the psychiatrist on staff. She was awesome and I got to teach her tools about using the creative arts as a vessel for communication, skills-building, and increasing self-esteem. God uses creativity and the arts so much to heal us and to bring us back to Him.”
      Going to Mexico City stood at odds with what Karen had originally hoped for her future. But the security she felt in her identity as His daughter now helped her face difficult or uncertain times.

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      “Knowing who He is has changed me,” Karen says. “I am more accepting of who I am. It allowed me to go to places like Mexico and work in dark areas, with a population that is just entrenched in evil because I was able to see. I would tell the enemy, ‘Hey, you can’t touch me. I am God’s daughter, and He is my father.’”

***
      Art has been a common theme in Karen’s life before and after she was saved. It was always the place that God met her, whether she recognized His presence or not.
      “Sculpting was the only place in my life that I felt secure,” Karen says. “You could say anything about my sculpture, and it did not matter to me. I knew that it was good. Not in an egotistical way, but in the sense that it had meaning and purpose.”
      When she was sculpting, Karen’s heart yearned for the truth, for what was real. When her heart was in that place, God gladly met her there. It was in the sculpting studio that she learned about relationships through the connections she had with her tools, materials, and space. Everything from the dialogue between the negative space around the stone and the piece itself, to the conversations among the pieces of an exhibit, or to the relationships of the audience walking through the gallery spoke truth to her.
      “Now that I can recognize who God is and His voice, I know that He was always speaking to me,” Karen explains.
      While it may seem like Karen has a very clear ministry and skill set, she too has her moments of doubt just like everyone else. For the past three years, she has been committing a significant amount of time to caring for her parents. Her father struggled with stomach cancer for a long time. He recently passed away in November.
      “I had a chance to look at my life again, and all I could see was that I had no idea what to do,” Karen says. “I wasn’t getting any direction from God. I felt like I had no dreams or hopes, that there was no reason for me to be here.”
      But her faith carried her through and contextualized her uncertainty in the backdrop of a greater horizon.
      On January 15th, Karen announced that she would be going to India for 3 weeks in February to service Asha ministry. (“Asha” means “hope” in Hindi.) Having depleted her savings caring for her family over the past three years, she requested a modest $3,000 from her family and friends to cover her visa, flight, and one-month stay. She would work pro bono in the red light district of Pune, mentoring and counseling children born into brothels through her art therapy.
      “A couple of days before she left, Karen texted me asking about the culture there,” says Bobby. “And that is Karen for you - she obeys first. And then she asks questions about the culture there.”

***
      On the rooftop of her studio, the setting sun casts a warm glow over Karen, and the various stone pieces she has on display. Some have been refined and shined, the glossy finish spraying the orange light in a million directions. Others are rough and rustic, their corrugated edges creating a labyrinth of grooves and knobs.
      Karen runs her hands over them delicately, petting the surface, as she explains their significance.

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explains their significance. There’s the two-part piece of a small spherical stone and a larger oblong shape that looks like Pacman eating a ball. She can’t decide whether she’s the one eating or being eaten. There’s the purple and gray one with thick curves that tumble into each other, representing how she wishes people could just fall into each other comfortably, with no walls to hold them back. The smooth, black stone series all speak to each other, like choir singers standing in a circle.
      “When I first met her, she was this spunky girl with a chainsaw,” recalls Bobby. “And her art was beautiful. It had depth and presence. But it was wandering. It was a series of open questions.”
      She retreats into herself a bit, up here on this rooftop. Or perhaps she is transcending into a quiet, sacred space. But there is peace in her presence here, amidst her creation. It is the restless peace of one with infinite questions and infinite faith that all of those questions will be answered. Have already been answered.
      Her work does not wander anymore, for Karen has found her story in Christ.
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