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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Finding Bromance

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Everyone loves a deep, solid bromance: Turk and J.D. from Scrubs, Wyatt Earp & Doc Holiday from Tombstone, Joey and Chandler from Friends, Captain Kirk and Spock from 26 different movies, you get the idea. The definition is pretty simple:

bro·mance / ˈbrōˌmans / noun; a close but nonsexual relationship between two men.

Women cannot have a bromance, females just function differently, not better or worse, just differently. (I know I’m going to get complaints about this last politically incorrect comment.) You can and should be best friends with your spouse, but it’s still very different than a guy friendship. Two women might be close, wonderful, supportive friends; but it’s just not a bromance.

Bromance involves a lot of hanging out and giving each other a hard time. Bromance will include a few practical jokes, and almost always involve some type of competition. It will involve not so subtle put-downs or ribbing, (My wife does NOT understand this part at all). The definition might seem simple, but the nuances and impact can be dramatic. Guys need this bonding with other guys. We need it for accountability, for support, and to know that the other guy will be there no matter what. Job loss, marriage problems, the death of loved ones, financial hardship, a solid bromance will remain as the one thing to count on outside of God.

The idea of bromance is actually a biblical principle.

Jesus did everything with a purpose; He sent the apostles out in twos for a reason. Two can keep each other accountable, two can encourage, two can support each other through the trials that will come into anyone’s life.

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17

“Iron sharpening iron” is very specific. Iron against something soft just becomes dull; it doesn’t say “As aluminum sharpens iron.” When iron does sharpen iron, it involves friction, sparks, and bumping against one another. But if sharpening is done correctly, all that friction creates something very sharp, something ready to be used, something much better than before.

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their work; If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10)

We live in a broken world, and the battle is very real. We are at war. In the last few years, I know two men who’ve committed suicide, a few who’ve fallen into sexual sin, some who battle substance abuse, and others who fight other issues. I know many people in ministry who are tired and worn thin from the battle. I’ve had my own struggles over the last few years. As we struggle and fight in this ongoing war, we need others around us to hold us up when we can’t stand on our own. We need others who understand the struggles we are going through, people who we know will be there for us. We also need to be the one holding others up, supporting others, giving a non-judgmental ear.

I’ve been richly blessed in my life with several very solid male friends. Way more blessed than I deserve. Some of these friends have come into my life in just the last few years, some go back decades. Many times I’ve been able to be there for them through their trials, and they have been a steady force while I’ve gone through my own battles. I am here today thanks to the small group of men in my life that I have the privilege to call my brothers. They have helped shape me and kept me going, I hope I’ve been a blessing in their lives.

Choose your friends carefully. This sounds like obvious advice but who you spend time with has a considerable influence over every aspect of your life. No one is perfect, but choose people who have character, who have vision, who are seeking God on a daily bases and not just on Sundays. Have people in your life who stretch you and help you be the best version of yourself. Once you have those people in your life, protect them, cherish them, be there for them. You will be better for your efforts, and it will help you survive the inevitable battles that will come into your life.

In the movie Gladiator, Maximus says to the other slaves at the start of the Barbarian hoard scene, “Whatever comes out of these gates, we stand a better chance of survival if we stick together, do you understand? If we stay together, we survive.” There is a lot of truth in that line. We never know what will be coming out of the gates to attack us. We need to stick together.

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Giving Bacon to Vegans

Screen Shot 2018-12-14 at 8.35.23 PMI like bacon. A lot. Bacon is the meat candy of the food world. Bacon is compelling proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Few things are not made better by adding wonderful, crispy bacon to them. I once made bacon chocolate chip cookies, and the salty, sweet, gooey combination was life-changing. I want everyone to experience the joy that is this greasy aromatic gift from God, but some people just don’t appreciate it.

I have some vegan friends. I don’t understand why they don’t want joy in their lives, but hey, that’s their decision. Maybe they don’t feel worthy of bacon? Who can answer such odd mysteries as why people would give up this tasty joy? There are many decisions I don’t understand, but I do understand people have the right to make these types of decisions. I would never force people to eat bacon. I would never give people bacon knowing they would throw it away. It makes no sense to give bacon to vegans. It would offend the vegans, and it’s a horrible waste of bacon resources. Unfortunately, people in short-term missions do the equivalent thing every day.

I’m not actually talking about people getting on planes with loads of bacon to be given out to underprivileged people (not that this is a bad idea). I’m talking about serving people and giving things away to people, who have different priorities and goals than us without taking their opinions and desires into consideration. Just because something makes sense in our eyes, does not mean it’s important to others, or even wanted.

A few years ago, after a severe volcanic event in Guatemala, a very well-meaning celebrity stepped up and did something very cool. He bought a substantial tract of land, divided it up, and built five very nice houses for five families who had lost everything in the volcanic explosion. On almost every level, this was a cool event. The families graciously accepted this incredible generosity. There were a lot of tearful photo ops and articles written about it. What could go wrong?

Over the next ninety days, four of the five families sold their new houses, took the money, and headed back to the burned out shells of their old property to start over. The new houses were nice, and clean, and new, and they hated them. The new houses were a couple of miles from their old homes, and they missed the old neighborhood (even though it was mainly gone). The kids missed the old schools. The parents had a history in the old area; the old area was home. No one had asked the families what they really wanted; assumptions were made, time and money were wasted. Bacon had been given to vegans.

We had to learn the importance of considering the recipient the hard way in our own ministry. One of the ministries we run is building homes for needy families in our area. Years ago, we would build fairly humble “shelter housing.” One big, kind of unfinished room, and then give it to a family. The families were always thankful and gracious, but we noticed that within a few months they would either take down the house and use the wood to build what they really wanted, or they would abandon the house and move on. It took us a while to realize that we were doing it all wrong. We started working with the families, building alongside the families, and helping them construct what they really wanted. Today, we visit the families months and years later, and they have pride of ownership, they add on to the houses, remodel, and create a home, not just a shelter.

I speak with orphanage directors all the time who ask me how to educate their donors to do a better job. Most people bring piñatas, candy, and toys to an orphanage. I can guarantee, what any orphanage really needs is food, cleaning supplies, and other day-to-day supplies. The candy and toys make the donors feel good, there are some great photo ops, but most children in orphanages get plenty of candy. As I was writing this an orphanage director came by, he shared that he’s asking groups to bring food instead of Christmas gifts this year. The kids will still get something for Christmas but “The $20 toy will be broken in two days, $20 of food can feed the whole orphanage a meal.” He’s hoping his donors understand.

When giving to others, whether it’s an orphanage, food bank, needy family, or even people in your own life: consider the recipient. Is what you’re doing honestly about blessing others in a way that makes a difference, or is it about you feeling good? Are you assuming what is important to you, HAS to be important to those on the receiving end? In any relationship, communication is critical to understanding needs and expectations. We should all ask, listen, and seek to understand more about those around us.

Please stop giving bacon to vegans. Save the bacon for those of us who appreciate it.

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