But What Did You DO on Your Missions Trip?

housebuild1.jpgI recently had an interesting conversation with a visitor to our orphanage. She was on a mission trip to spend some time with our kids, learn about our ministry, and just see what missions was all about. She shared that several people from her church were disappointed that she wasn’t working on a “project.” She wasn’t building a house for a family; she wasn’t drilling a well, she was just being “present”, seeking God, and seeking how she could bless those she encountered. I told her she had the right idea. Jesus never built a house, never painted a wall, never passed out clothing. Jesus did encourage people, occasionally broke bread with people, He asked people a lot of questions. He was (and is) present in their lives. It’s a good model.

Most people, when planning a missions trip focus on a “project.” “We’re going to build a school.” “We’re going to organize an outreach/concert.” “We’re painting a local church.” There is nothing wrong with projects. Missions projects change communities, impact families, and help on the ground ministries, and missionaries do the long term work. But, when it’s all said and done, it’s just bricks, wood, and paint. What matters is the people, the growth, and the understanding that should flow from ministry.

One ministry that operates from our orphanage is a home building program. We coordinate homes built and funded by visiting mission teams for underprivileged families in our area. The groups receive a picture and information on the families well in advance of their trip so they can see who they’re serving and be praying for the family. We’ve already screened the families to make sure the need is real, and it will be a positive impact. Once the team arrives, they meet the family, and they work alongside them to build the home. The critical point of this is, the family is what matters, the house is irrelevant.

You just read that last line and might have thought, “The house is irrelevant? The house is the whole point!” The problem is the house isn’t the whole point. The house is good, it’s a huge blessing for the receiving family, but the project needs to be about the people and the relationships built between them.

We had one home building group who came for years, and they were VERY focused. They planned and coordinated the construction like a military invasion: organized, timed perfectly, well funded, and high quality. The problem was, it was ALL about the house. The family receiving the house was irrelevant. The team was kind of stressed the whole time under their own self-imposed pressure. The house was completed, there were some great photos for social media, but in the end, it felt empty. The house was built FOR the family, and not WITH the family.

Our best home builds are rarely the “nicest” house. The best home builds are the ones where long-term reciprocal relationships are formed; where the family and team spend real time together eating, working, and sharing together. We have teams that stay in touch with the families and come back months and years later for quinceañeras, weddings, and other family events. Most families receiving homes will prepare meals, help out, and bring what they can to the relationship. It’s people growing together; it’s not one group just giving shelter to another.

Missions and ministry need to be about the relationships. This seems like an obvious statement, but it’s so easy to go off track and focus on something important, and not what is MOST important. How many worship leaders make sure the performance is perfect but worshiping God is kind of an add-on? How many weddings focus on the party and details, but the actual commitment becomes just another detail after the cake, dress, and decorations are organized? It’s so easy, and way too common, to be distracted by details and miss the bigger, most important picture.

Do we actively listen and seek to understand others? Do we attempt to have a positive influence on other’s lives? Do we respect those around us and seek to not only share our perceived wisdom but actively look for what we can learn from those around us? Are we seeking to understand other people, cultures, and beliefs? It’s not about what we can do for others; it’s about what we can do together.

When on a mission trip, or in any ministry really, it’s so important to remain focused on what’s important. Jesus was, and is, about relationships, spending time with people, and seeking to grow closer to the people He met. The next time someone asks you what you did on your mission trip, tell them, “Not much, I just followed Jesus’ example.”

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The Call to Inaction

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In the classic book by CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, a senior demon (Screwtape) is writing letters to his nephew explaining how to break down Christians and the church. It’s obviously fiction, but the letters Screwtape writes point to so many of the subtle attacks the enemy uses to chip away at our faith. The battles discussed are eternal, the book is old (written during World War 2), but the idea of a slow wearing down of the faithful is very real today. We are in the midst of this battle.

Society today, and sadly, the church, seems to be embracing practices and attitudes in some areas that go directly against the teachings of Jesus. A slow and subtle shift from Biblical principles to a world view might be taking place. The enemy is doing a good job; he has a lot of experience with this. The following examples are going to piss some people off as these are hot-button issues. I could be wrong on some of this, but hey, it’s not the first time I’ve been wrong. Comment or e-mail if you want to fight with and/or correct me. I enjoy a good discussion on this stuff.

“Don’t help the poor as it creates dependency.” This can be read and heard in many circles today, and although at some levels it makes sense, this goes counter to some key teachings of Jesus. The wisdom of this world almost always goes counter to the things of God, but the things of God work. When the rich young ruler asked what he needed to do, he was told, “Sell what you have and give it to the poor.” It was not taught with a footnote, “Only give to them if they are deserving, be careful or they might ask for more help, and ask the poor why they got in that position.” When the Good Samaritan helped the man by the side of the road, there was no warning about unintended consequences; it was just a pure servant’s heart in action. Help the poor to move out of their situation in a healthy way, give them what they need in their situation. Biblically, we are commanded to help. When someone asks for our jacket, we’re told to offer our shirt also. It’s better to be taken advantage of one hundred times than turn away someone honestly in need.

“Don’t go on mission trips, it’s a waste of money, and it’s toxic.” There are a couple of popular books out that really seem to push this, and they tend to get a lot of attention. The problem is, although mission trips CAN cause harm, they don’t HAVE to. Most of what we do can cause damage when done in the wrong way. Weight gain, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, etc., are all caused by poor eating habits, but I don’t think anyone would advocate the idea of giving up eating. When done in the right way, not only is eating healthy for us, it’s essential for us to survive. People get injured every day working out or participating in sports; this does not mean we should never leave the couch. Almost anything we do, when done in the wrong way or to an extreme, is harmful. Obedience, even if it’s risky, is always the best way to go.

Is missions a waste of money? It can be, but there are worse ways that we waste money every day. The funds spent on service projects and backing local ministries, when done correctly, are world changing. Also, the money spent locally by visiting groups on short-term trips, aside from service projects, changes lives. In our small town the mission teams that come through keep the restaurants, minimarts, hardware stores, and other small businesses open. Short-term missions are the economic engine that keeps our town alive. No one in this area considers this a waste of money. Has a dependence on groups been established in our town? Absolutely, just like a restaurant is dependent on customers, a church is dependent on its members, or any situation where people depend on each other. Dependency depends on the situation. We are all dependant on someone or something. We all need to depend on God more.

“Be afraid.” At some point in the last few years, the church shifted from trusting in God to being afraid of doing anything that might be risky or offend someone. The phrase “fear not” is a common theme throughout the Bible, yet the church today frequently uses fear to influence people, not unlike most politicians. Paul gives us a great example of living fearlessly for the Gospel. At no point are we taught only to preach the Gospel if it’s prudent, to only serve if our safety can be guaranteed. We are not told to be afraid of foreigners, unbelievers, or the future. If we actually believe we serve an all-powerful God, and we are only visiting here anyway, what are we so afraid of?

The common thread in all of this is the call to inaction. “Don’t help.” “Don’t go.” “Don’t take a risk.” “Don’t do anything.” The problem is, ours is a faith of action, “Go into all the world.” “Give what you have to the poor.” “Visit widows and orphans.” The inaction of the bulk of the church is not working. In the US, churches are shrinking at a rapid pace. Young adults are leaving the church in record numbers. The church is doing something wrong. Maybe the problem is, as a whole, the church doesn’t do as much as it used to. The call to in-action has been heeded. Screwtape would be pleased.

 

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The Missing Alleys of New York

pexels-photo-917372Whenever we see New York in movies or TV shows, the plot winds up in an alley. Drug deals, dead bodies, etc., always wind up in an alley. Law and Order spent a LOT of time in New York alleys. There is just one problem with this: New York doesn’t really have alleys, it was designed in such a way as to not need them. But every director wants an alley to create that dark, dramatic scene. So the ONE alley in New York that works for filming is in everything. From this single alley, most people assume New York is just a weird maze of back alleys of red brick, fire-escapes, and overflowing trashcans. Our assumptions are frequently wrong.

Many beliefs are just assumed to be true. “Smoothies are always healthy.” (not true) “A college degree will guarantee your future.” (not true) “The more money you pay for an item, the higher the quality.” (not always true) There are countless “beliefs” that we pick up every day that are not necessarily true. It’s good to question our assumptions, to confirm or change our beliefs, to learn what reality is. This applies to missions, but also at every level of our lives.

I once hosted an orphanage director from Kenya on a visit to our orphanage in Mexico. Driving through Baja Mexico, he was amazed at the new high-rises, beautiful homes, and modern highways. He was surprised to see Costco, Walmart, McDonald’s and many other major retail chains. From everything he knew to be true, he thought Mexico was all adobe huts and dusty roads like he had seen in The Three Amigos and every other movie cliche about Mexico. He was also pleasantly surprised to find out how safe Mexico is, compared to what he assumed. To be honest, when I visited Africa I was kind of amazed at how modern the capital of Ghana was. “Hey, look, KFC!” “Is that a mall?” We all have assumptions or preconceived ideas about the world. Frequently we’re wrong.

If we’re going to be effective in short-term missions, or any area of life, we need to be working from accurate information. When we travel to foreign countries, we need to do our research, so we know what to expect, what the needs are, and how to make a positive impact. We also need accurate details, so we don’t create unintentional harm.

So how do we learn what reality is when we’re planning a mission trip? We can’t know everything about where we are going, but here are a few tips to be as prepared as possible.

1) Talk to people who’ve been where you’re going. Ask them about surprises they had, changes they had to make mid-trip or things they would do differently. Anyone who goes on a trip learns something, we can learn so much from the mistakes and profound experiences of the countless people who have gone before us. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel.

2) Talk to your host or host organization from your destination, and really listen to them. Odds are, your host has helped facilitate many groups and teams before yours, and has seen the best and worst of what well-meaning people try to do. “Yes, dress appropriately.” “No, you don’t need to worry about translation.” “Yes, you are welcome to attend this church service or outreach, but this is what would be culturally helpful.” If your host is serious about directing you in the right direction, they can be a huge help. It’s also SO important to know what the actual needs are, and how to address them. Whether you’re going to spread the Gospel, help with construction, or something else, you need to know what the real needs are and how you can fit in with goals of the local church.

3) Read about your destination from a wide range of knowledgable sources, but read through everything with a filter of what you’ve heard from actual people with experience. Years ago, I was all set to visit Ghana in West Africa just as an Ebola outbreak spiked. EVERYONE here in the US said I should cancel; all the news media made it sound like the world was ending. I called people in Ghana, and their response was, “What Ebola outbreak? That’s two countries away.” If we had just listened to the accepted wisdom and stayed home, we would have missed out on a life-changing, impactful trip.

So much of what we think we know might be a little “off.” We all view the world through our filters or the filters of those around us. Take a mission trip, but go with as few preconceived ideas as you can. By going with your eyes open to whatever God has to show you, you might be surprised by the people, experiences, and opportunities God might open up for you. Avoid walking down those alleys that don’t exist anyway.

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The Red Phone to Joy

dreamlink_big-ideas_popsicle-hotline-1024-x-768In the Hollywood area of LA, there is a smallish hotel that is completely unorthodox. The Magic Castle Hotel was built a long time ago. The architecture is dated, the pool is right out of the 60s, to call it a hotel is kind of stretching the term. This place is really a glorified old-school motel. But, it is consistently ranked as one of the top five places to stay in Southern California. Five-star reviews across every website and rating group. They’ve taken a boring, run-of-the-mill motel, and turned it into one of the hottest places in town, by finding moments of joy.

The staff of the Magic Castle does things that, by everyone else’s standards, make no sense. They have free candy bars and snacks all day at the front desk, free soda fountain and soft serve ice cream for anyone who wants it, they just give a lot of things away. But the service everyone talks about, the thing everyone remembers, is even weirder. By the pool is a tacky, bright red phone that is the “Popsicle Hotline” Pick it up, and the white-gloved wait staff will bring popsicles on a silver tray to where you’re seated, all free of charge. Popsicles are not expensive, they’re frozen, flavored, sugar water. But when they’re presented in this whimsical way, it is so surprising; everyone is enthralled by the experience. The team at the Magic Castle has taken something ordinary and, by creating these little moments of joy, have created something extraordinary. God wants to do the same thing in our lives.

The things of God make no sense when looked at through the logical eyes of this world. The first shall be last; you must give away your life to save it, etc. That God would pour out His grace on us as a free gift for the asking makes no sense. But God does not work by the rules that everyone else is expecting; He creates His own rules that run counter to the common sense of this world. He wants to bring joy, on a silver plater, to where we are.

It makes no sense that by serving others, we would find joy, but that is how it works in the things of God. The standard operating mentality of the world says, “Collect more toys, make more money, buy a bigger house, get recognition, these are the things that bring joy, these are the thing that matter.” God has an entirely different take on finding joy in this life. The idea of giving to others, serving others, taking the humble servant’s attitude is crazy when looked at through the harsh eyes of the world, but it works.

The team I work with here in Mexico has the privilege of seeing people experience joy every week. We host short-term missions teams from around the US here in northern Mexico. They come down to serve in home building, medical outreach, ministry construction, or any number of areas where they can give from their talents. Every group is different, every group has different skills, and every group has different expectations. There are a few common denominators though; people are more alike than everyone likes to think. People from different cultures, different incomes, etc. tend to have the same reactions to some things. God’s rules universally apply to everyone.

Almost every group we host has the same responses to a service trip, “I’m leaving with so much more than I came with.” “I’ve experienced such joy.” etc. These are the types of comments we get from everyone. They come to give, they come to serve, they come to bless, and are blessed beyond measure. They find joy in the everyday acts of service they share with others.

God designed us to serve. The last example Jesus showed the apostles was foot-washing. God only wants great things for us, and He knows that serving others brings joy. Representing God’s servant’s heart to others brings those moments of depth that raise our lives to a higher level. Once again, the rules that God works under make no sense when viewed from a worldly perspective, but the rules of God work.

So how do we find joy? How do we experience those moments of surprise that bring depth to our lives? We can create them; we can reach out for that very cool red phone on the wall and order them delivered to us. God has given us the magic red phone to joy; He wants to deliver this to us on a silver platter. By seeking out those small moments of service we can find every day (not just on a mission trip) we can experience a connection with others, we can have an impact on others, we can make a difference.

Service does not need to be huge. A kind word to someone in hurting, helping someone load their groceries, shoveling someone’s sidewalk, are all simple acts that bless others and change us for the better. Live your life in an unorthodox way, live under God’s rules, find those moments of surprising joy.

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Why There Will Always Be Orphan Care

poorchildI recently had a conversation with someone who follows orphan care, and he made a statement that led to an interesting discussion. He claimed orphanages were ending in parts of the world. That many of the children were moving into foster care or larger care facilities. “So…into an orphanage?” I responded. “No, they are homes for children without other options.” He enthusiastically clarified. “So…orphanages?” “No no no,” he protested, “just big houses to care for children.” “So…orphanages?” We did not get far in the conversation. Calling an orphanage something different does not change the fact that it’s a system to care for kids who are abused, abandoned, or orphaned. If it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, and has feathers, calling it a banana does not change the fact that it’s a duck.

I wish orphanages did not exist. The fact that society needs a place for children born into horrible situations, who are abused, who have parents on drugs, is terrible. That wars, aids, and natural disasters happen every day leaving children to fend for themselves, is a fact that needs to be addressed. We live in a broken world. We, as a society, fail children way too often. Until we live in a perfect world, kids will be victims, and they need to be rescued and cared for.

To say that we should close all orphanages because children should be with families is a worthy goal, but it’s not living in reality. It’s like saying let’s close all the hospitals in the US because the billing system is a nightmare. “But if everyone worked out, lost weight, and quit smoking, we wouldn’t need hospitals!” If you could get everyone to look after their health more, we could cut down on hospitals, but cancer, accidents, etc. would still make hospitals a necessity for many people. Even the healthiest people age and eventually wind up in the hospital. You could make inroads, but ending hospitals because you don’t like hospitals makes no sense. It just isn’t reality. The idea of ending orphanages is just as crazy.

There has been a tremendous push in the last few years for the church to take up the biblical call to care for orphans through adoption and quality foster care. This is fantastic. Everyone who can, should be caring for the less fortunate, the marginalized, those who can’t care for themselves. The problem is, even if adoption doubled or tripled in most countries it would just begin to address the problem. Inroads could be made to address the issue, but to eliminate orphanages does not take into account the many situations where adoption or other placement is very difficult or impossible.

The latest estimates say there are 150 million orphaned or abandoned children in the world. If a child is in a system, orphanage or foster care, they have a 2% chance of being adopted. Adoption is not a reality for most children who need it. Adoption, when done right, is a beautiful, biblical, life-changing event. But adoptions are just too rare to make any real impact on the vast majority of children who need a home.

Orphanages should be the last resort after healthy family reunification, adoption, or some style of foster care. But countless children still need attention after all other options are exhausted. Severe special needs children, children with multiple siblings, or children with extreme behavior issues are complicated to place. There are also many children left in limbo because the parents are still in the picture in some way but can not (or should not) care for their children. Parents in prison or parents dealing with substance abuse might take their children back when or if healing does take place.

So given that orphanages need to exist, they should be outstanding. Back to the hospital analogy; I’m not crazy about hospitals, but if I’m in one, I want it to be the best hospital possible. Orphanages should be beautiful, inviting places. Orphanages should give the children as much stability, attention, and love as they possibly can. Around the world, so many children are left in systems that, due to lack of funding or lack of caring, are horrific places to grow up. We need to do better.

If you’ve adopted or have worked in foster care, THANK YOU. Keep up the difficult work you’ve been called to do. If you work in orphan care, thank you for being the last line of defense before children wind up on the streets. It’s a worthy calling.

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Back the Heroes

toiletI’m not a big fan of mission statements and taglines. Mission statements or taglines can serve a purpose, but too often they are written in a way to only make the organization look good. Most of the time, tag-lines are only a vague shadow of what any organization is actually about. Up until very recently, Google’s tagline was “Don’t be evil.”, weird, cool, but it has nothing to do with day-to-day operations or objectives of Google Inc.. (Ironically, I had to “Google” Google’s tagline…)

I’m part of an organization that has a tagline that is actually powerful: “Back the Heroes.” It sounds obvious at first, find someone doing great work and back them. Find the right person and help them. Come alongside someone changing the world and help them work towards the goals they are pursuing. Backing the heroes happens less than you would think, especially in short-term missions.

Too often, people want to build their ministry, not THE ministry. This happens in a lot of churches, not just in missions. People in ministry who are more concerned about being in charge, being the one on the microphone, building their own kingdom of followers. If a pastor doesn’t work with other ministries, it’s a problem. If a worship leader has to lead every song, never giving others the privilege, it’s a problem. We have a local pastor in our town who, although far from perfect, does get one thing right every time. He’s always open to having good teachers take the pulpit for a weekend. Not many pastors are secure enough to do that.

In short-term missions, people often want to do it on their own. They want to build their own kingdom, not THE Kingdom. This can be a problem because, by definition, a short-term mission is SHORT-TERM. Ministry, real ministry, takes time. Time to get to know people, time to build relationships, time to earn trust, etc. The only way to be effective in short-term missions it to come alongside someone, or some organization, that has been on the ground for a while. Someone who knows the people, the needs, and the best way to reach the goals at hand. For effective short-term missions, you need to back the heroes.

Mattew 20: 25-28 “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

When we decide to back the heroes, it means it’s not all about us anymore. It means coming alongside someone and helping them reach their goals, helping them be successful. There is not a lot of glory in being the water-boy, or the sound guy, or the timekeeper at the 5K, but those jobs matter a great deal. The neglected people in the background are the ones who make the difference between success and failure.

“It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.” ― John Wooden.

A team I’m part of recently had the privilege of helping with a great ministry serving in some of the most impoverished areas of Tijuana. A small, underfunded church, led by a great man, is changing the world. Pastor Albert is all glowing energy. He pastors a church with passion and in his spare time has built a powerful ministry feeding and caring for the immigrants who have landed at the border of Mexico and the US. He feeds between 500 and 1,000 people a day and is now housing immigrant families on cots in his church.

The “back the heroes” ministry I mentioned came alongside Pastor Albert to help with a day of outreach. Our short-term team prepared meals, passed out gifts and blankets to families, and helped organize a church service and worship time for those interested (using another local pastor and worship team who know the people well). Although our short-term team did an incredible job, it would have been nothing without Albert and his profound vision for the people in his area. He gave direction leading up to the event, steered us away from some ideas that would not have worked, and lead us with grace and vision. We found a hero and showed up to carry the water (quite literally in this case).

“Don’t be evil.” Google’s tagline, might actually work for a ministry, but take it a step further. Back the heroes.

If you would like to join us in backing the heroes, please contact me or check our website www.strongtowerministries.org

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The Danger of Short-term Missions

Detour1As much as I promote short-term missions, it would be disingenuous not to point out the genuine risk of taking a short-term missions trip. It’s very common for people going on short-term trips to go in with expectations and goals that are suddenly thrown out. Sometimes, something completely unexpected happens. They might be seeking to change other people’s lives, but wind up having their lives upended and transformed in the process. Some people have a defining moment, a revelation that changes the direction of their lives forever. Going on a trip might put the life you know, and are comfortable with, at risk.

Recently, my wife and I helped host a dinner party for a group of local missionaries. We hosted about fifty people representing eleven different ministries: some people serving in orphan care, some in medical outreach, some in education. We had people from a ministry for deaf children, others helping special needs children, and others working in straight up evangelism. One thing every missionary in the group had in common was how they got started. Every missionary I’ve ever met got their first taste of missions and international service while on a short-term missions trip. They had experienced their defining moment.

Aside from getting their start in missions on a short-term trip, the people assembled at this recent dinner party had a few other things in common. Most of them had never even considered themselves missionary material before that first trip, some still don’t see themselves as missionaries, but they have all found a purpose in their lives that is bigger than they’d ever considered. They would not be living in a foreign country, doing something they love, if they had decided to put off a short-term mission trip until, “the timing was right”, “next year”, “when the kids are older”, or any one of dozens of other reasons people give for not going. They took a chance, and it made all the difference in their lives. With unexpected joy, they walked away from the “comfortable life” in the US to serve others for a season. They had found purpose.

Obviously, not everyone who goes on a short-term trip becomes a long-term missionary. Not everyone who walks into a church becomes a pastor, but a few do. Not everyone who plays football in high-school will go pro, but now and then, it becomes their calling. Until we get a taste of something, until we experience something outside of our normal life, we cannot know what it’s all about.

Is there any guarantee that you’ll experience a life-changing revelation on a missions trip? Of course not. What you can expect on a missions trip is to have your world expanded, to have new eyes for the needs of people around the globe, a new understanding of the needs in your own life. Travel expands us in countless ways, even more so if we seek to get to know others at a deep level, to serve alongside others, and experience life in cultures that are entirely new to us.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Mark Twain

I have a friend who was sure he hated fish and seafood in general. Being raised in the mid-west by a mom who was a lousy cook didn’t lend itself to great fish dining experiences. Once he moved to the west coast, he was exposed to fresh fish, prepared by talented chefs. Suddenly his eyes were opened to what great fish, shrimp, and seafood were all about. Until he tasted it first hand, he had no idea what the experience was; he had been living within his limited experiences and missing out on something great. Ultimately, fish became his go-to dining choice whenever possible. His dining world was expanded by traveling to a new location and trying something new.

Should you go on a mission or service trip because there are needs around the world? Yes. Should you go on a trip to make an impact on others, to serve others, and to represent the gospel well? Of course. But, if you take a trip, please be aware of the genuine danger that exists when you step out like this. Your world will be expanded, your understanding of others will grow, and you might have that defining moment that will change you forever.

The life you know and are comfortable with will be put at risk on a trip, but nothing of great value has ever been accomplished without risk. Don’t reach the end of your limited time here on earth with the regret of putting off a mission-trip until it was too late. Go, serve, learn, give, let your life be rocked.

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