You Are Going To Die

graveYou might have hours left. You might be around for several more decades. But you will die. You will kick the bucket, go toes up, become worm food, start pushing up daisies. You will reach room temperature, give up the ghost, etc.. There are lots of ways to say it, but one way or another we all give up the fight, our heart will cease to beat, and our life on this world will end. When that happens (and you live in the US) the people in your life will arrange to have you put in a box, a week or so later people will put on dark clothes (weird) and will gather. Someone will say a few words by your grave, and people you’ve never met will stick you in the ground. Following this little ritual, people will get together somewhere, eat potato salad, and talk about you. Our life comes down to a plastic bucket of potato salad from Costco. (and maybe a nice sandwich platter.)

In Mexico, funerals are handled differently. When someone dies everything snaps into action in time-honored rituals. The body is placed in a box and positioned in either the home or a public location for the wake to start, all within a few hours of someone passing on. The wake is not a polite, reserved affair. People are up all night hanging out, crying, sharing, talking, eating, maybe sharing a few beers, but it goes on ALL NIGHT. It’s quite the send-off. What goes on in the background is something else. Friends and some family are out digging the hole. Digging a grave is much harder than it looks like on TV or in the movies, it takes many back-breaking hours. Once the wake is winding down, everyone loads the casket into a truck and heads to the grave site. Once again, very different than in the US: in Mexico, to “bury your loved one” actually means that. You, your friends, and the family use some rope and lower the casket into the ground. Then you grab the shovels. It takes a LONG time to bury someone. People are crying, maybe some wailing, and it takes hours. But when it’s done, there is a real sense of closure, everyone has said “goodbye,” and people start to move on. One of the many upsides to this time-honored tradition is it makes death very real to everyone involved. This is a good thing; we should all face death from time to time. We need to be reminded that our time here is a temporary gig. There is something genuine about “burying your loved one.” The sweat and dirt and blood of broken knuckles as you dig through the hard ground to make a hole to place the body is not to be taken lightly. It’s real. It makes the line between life and death very clear – there is an end.

It’s important to be reminded from time to time that there might not be a tomorrow for us. The reason I wrote the 500 or so words on funerals you just read is to remind you that you will be the center of one of these rituals eventually. What are you going to do between now and then? How will you use this precious and limited time you have?

Too many people go through the motions of life, without living life in line with the tremendous calling we each have. We need to be living our lives to the fullest, living in such a way that we will hear upon our arrival in heaven, “Well done my good and faithful servant.” We should slide into heaven out of breath, worn out from seeking to share with others, give to others, and be representing our Father well. I’m not sure who said it, but I love the quote “It’s sad to reach the end of one’s life and realize you’ve never lived.”

I work with a lot of young adults from the US who visit our ministry. Sadly, I know most of them will follow the tedious path that society lays out for them. They will attend college while they figure out what to do, they will leave college with too much debt, they will marry too young, and spend much of their lives paying back student loans. I’m not sure this is what God intended for us.

At whatever stage of life you find yourself, young adult, old fart, or somewhere in between; take a risk. Do something out of your comfort zone. I know one older female retired doctor (80ish) who still drives herself to Mexico every week to volunteer at various clinics. I know a young family that is currently looking for property to open a new orphanage. I have a friend who just got back from Guatemala where he helped with volcano relief. These are people who are actively working to bless others but are also growing in ways that are hard to imagine. They are sucking everything they can out of the time they have on this earth.

I know not everyone is called to serve internationally, but we are all called to serve. Don’t let fear of the unknown, fear of looking foolish, or any other fear keep you from trying something out of your norm. You might find a calling that will change your life, you might learn about the people in your community, it might shape you in ways you could never envision.

Take a chance, do something great with your life. Always remember: In the end, no one gets out alive.

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Embrace the Storms

treeThis last week at our ministry we had to have some incredibly difficult meetings. One of our larger donors is having their own financial issues, and it’s trickled down to us, cutting our ministry income dramatically. The cuts we’ve had to make are difficult and painful, but they are cuts that need to be made for the ministry to survive and move forward. I know the pain we’re going through is ultimately a good thing. The idea that this is a positive season took some convincing for the other people in the meetings, but we know God will use this.

It’s easy to spout the platitudes that God can use all things, that all things work together for good, etc. It’s very different when you’re going through trials, attacks, and challenges many people never anticipate. It helps to look through the lens of history to see trials and tribulations that are not only survived, but cause a ministry or individual to strengthen and to flourish. We do need the storms in our lives to toughen us, to grow us, and to cause us to depend on God once again.

Several years ago there was an experiment in Arizona where scientists created a biosphere (not Bio-Dome, the horrible 90s movie with Pauly Shore, but the same idea). A biosphere is a complete ecosystem within an enclosed space. It’s helpful in research due to the ability of the people running it to control all the variables. Scientists built a HUGE biosphere with everything needed for the plants, animals, etc. to survive. After a while something started to happen, the trees were growing well but had very little bark. Soon all the trees began to topple over, one by one, under their own weight. No one could figure out why. They had good soil, the right amount of water, the temperature was right, there was no disease or pests, but the trees were dying anyway. It took a while, but they finally figured it out. There was no wind. A typical tree from a young age is buffeted by breezes, winds, and storms. A tree bends back and forth, sometimes dramatically, sometimes subtly, but a tree is almost always in motion. The action of the wind makes the tree stronger; it causes bark to grow to protect the tree, it causes roots to dig down deep to build a solid foundation. The daily struggles against and with the wind prepare the tree for the storms that inevitably come. Without wind, a tree withers and dies.

Many years ago, our home cared for several young men with spinal cord injuries. One young man in his late teens was paraplegic, but it never got him down. Carlos was very bright, friendly, and had become fully bilingual while in our home. Over time the other children in our care, the staff, and many of the visitors came to love Carlos and the way he carried himself. He was a powerful example and an encouragement to everyone he encountered. One day, while he was preparing to leave for two weeks of treatments at a medical center in California, he made a point to say a real “goodbye” to a lot of the kids and staff – I think he somehow knew he would not be back. In route to the hospital, he had an adverse reaction to some prescription meds and passed away. Carlos’s death was obviously a very difficult time for our large family. We spent a great deal of time with the kids in our care to help them through the grieving process, while we were also grieving.

A few months after Carlos passed we were talking about the experience and what came of it. Carlos was now waking in heaven, he died too soon in our eyes, but there is nothing we can do. It sounds odd, but children in an orphanage never deal with actual death. They aren’t around grandparents who die. Most of the children in our care, if they remember parents at all, they remember them as alive and younger – most of our kids are with us do to abandonment or abuse, very few from the death of parents. Death just doesn’t come up too often in an orphanage. Carlos was the first death in our big family in over ten years. Along with many other lessons learned from the passing of Carlos, it opened the doors to some great conversations with our many children about how fragile life is, about the need to use the time we do have here well, about appreciating those around us while we can. It also opened up the conversation about preparing for eternity into sharp focus. Don’t get me wrong, Carlos’s death was tragic, but it caused huge growth in our children, our staff, and the ministry as a whole. Would I want to go through that again? Of course not, but it did bring many hidden blessing only seen in hindsight.

No one goes looking for trials and hardship. No one enjoys suffering loss or being hurt by others. We don’t need to look for difficult times because life tends to bring them to our door. Difficult times are part of the fallen world we live in. It’s so important to realize that as believers, our Heavenly Father is more powerful than any trials or hardships that come into our lives. He can take the pain and cause growth; He can use the winds of this world to make us stronger, to build us up to be mighty oaks against the powerful storms that, with time, come into everyone’s life.

Embrace the storms in your life, dare to spread your arms and catch the brunt of the winds that blow against you. God will not only keep you upright; He’ll use it to make you stronger if you allow Him.

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It’s a Person, Not a Problem

childHow many people label the recipient of their help, and then the label is all they see: homeless person, orphan, addict, etc. It’s so important in orphan care, and in ministry in general, to see the person and not the problem. We need to move beyond seeing the circumstances and see them as individual people with their own hopes, fears, and histories. God only sees the person; it’s a good model.

One of the best ways to understand someone is to put yourself in their place mentally. To “walk a mile in their shoes.” Most of us (hopefully) have no idea what an orphaned or abandoned child is going through, but it’s so important to try and understand. Before we can reach anyone, they need to know we know them, understand them and have their best interest at heart. In our experience, the most effective staff in our orphanage are the ones with the worst backgrounds. They understand our children. They’ve been there, they know the fear.

If a child is coming into an orphanage or foster care situation, it’s not like anything most people have ever experienced. Think about the times you’ve seen people interviewed after a major fire or tornado. “I’ve lost everything.” is a common response. But have they lost everything? They might have lost their home and belongings but they still have a church, a job, friends, their family is probably still around. And yet, at that moment, “everything is gone.” That is a lot to deal with.

Now, imagine what a child is going through. They actually have lost everything. Their home is gone, it’s likely they won’t see friends or family ever again, they will never go back to their school, odds are all they have in the world is the clothes on their backs. On top of the obvious loss in their lives, they are still very young, so everything is magnified in their minds. When you’re six a week might as well be a year. Any event, good or bad, is seen as huge through a child’s eyes. A child’s reactions haven’t aged to understand that life changes, that peaks and valleys will happen. To a child, something we might brush off becomes the end of the world. Layer that with the fact that children winding up in the system probably never had good role models in their lives to learn how to deal with trials, hardships, and loss in a healthy way. Most of us kind of freak out if we lose our keys or cell phone, imagine what a child is going through who has lost everything.

Recently we took in a group of three siblings. It’s not uncommon for the oldest in a group to be the “parent” if the real parents were either physically or emotionally absent. The ten-year-old was REALLY in charge of his siblings emotionally, and he was in a panic and on the edge of tears. “What if my mom is looking for us?” (We calmly explained that the social worker knows where they are.) “This is an orphanage, what if we get adopted, and our mom wants us back?” (We don’t do that, adoptions are pretty rare with older kids, and sibling groups are almost NEVER adopted.) He didn’t have the name of his community but tried to describe it to us so we could take him home. (His descriptions could have been any one of hundreds of communities around Tijuana.) We slowly and calmly did everything we could to assure him that he and his sibling would be OK.

I’m sharing this to help you put yourself into the mind of a child in the system. Some people respond to the worries and fears of a child by minimizing it. “You’ll be fine.” “Others have gone through this.” “Don’t worry about it.” This type of response does not help. We need to speak to them at their level and give their worries the attention they deserve in their mind.

The problems in our lives are frequently huge in our eyes and seem insurmountable. To God, our problems are tiny. He sees the big picture. He’s seen all this before. But He still hurts for us, listens to us, is there for us. Jesus came to die on the cross but to also walk as man, putting Himself in our place. He knows our trials, our fears, our questions that, in His mind, are simple worries. In His eyes, our problems are passing trivia, but to the children we are, they are crushing stresses in our lives. He hurts for us. He wants to be that loving, encouraging voice telling us we’re going to be OK.

If you work in childcare or any ministry, you need to be that calming voice, that attentive ear to the pains and fears people are going through. In a very real way, we are representing God. We need to be that anchor, that safe place, that understanding ear for the people we are ministering to. See the person, not the problem; walk in Christ’s example.

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Nobody Cares

childrenOne of the things we all need to learn in ministry is that just because we’re passionate about something, doesn’t mean everyone else has the same passion. We are all seeing the world through a different prism of our own experiences and callings, and everyone reacts to the needs of the world differently. We’re also all at varying levels of generosity and maturity in our faith.

Several years ago when my wife and I first moved to Mexico, we were just starting out in orphan care. We moved to Mexico because we felt a calling and a passion for helping with the tremendous needs of the children we had met. Several people in our circles were also passionate about orphan care, but at different levels, some people just didn’t care. Everyone is coming from a different place in their lives, and they have different passions. That’s normal. However, one experience early in our ministry still sticks out as a point of frustration, and a lesson that I needed.

When you run an orphanage, you tend to have quite a few people who drop by to see what you’re doing. People frequently drop off donations and want to find out how they can help. We depend on our regular supporters and the many drop-by contributions that we receive to care for our huge family. One day, two people came by and dropped off a small bag of used clothing, nothing unusual about this and we appreciate everything that comes in. After we showed them our facility, and we let them meet the kids, we walked back to their car. They then made a comment that I still remember, “You guys are doing some great work, but from here we’re going to go volunteer for the next two days at the animal shelter in Rosarito.” They went on, “If you, or anyone you know, want to help, please let us know.”

As soon as I heard they were going to an animal rescue center from our orphanage, I mentally rolled my eyes; I might have literally rolled my eyes a little also. I thought to myself, “So, dogs and cats are more important than orphaned and abandoned children. Got it.” I held my tongue with what I wanted to say and told them to have a great time.

It took me a few days of mashing that around to come to terms with someone choosing animals over children, but it was a revelation. Just because you or I am passionate about something doesn’t mean everyone else shares our passion. This sounds obvious but pick any topic, need, or pastime and someone is going to feel it’s important, and that everyone else should feel the same way. Orphan care, homeless people, surfing, or Ohio State football, everyone is passionate about different issues or causes. It’s important to remember that it’s OK, even good, to have different passions. Just because you see a need, doesn’t mean everyone else has to, or can, see the same need. It’s about finding YOUR calling and moving forward with it.

If you’re in missions or run any ministry, the title of this article can really strike home when you’re fundraising: nobody cares. It’s so important to remember that everyone is different, everyone has a different opinion on giving, and everyone is living in their own experience. Not everyone you encounter will give to your mission or cause the way you feel they should. We all need to find those few people who get what we’re working on, and who want to partner with us. Let everyone else find their passion and causes that have nothing to do with us.

Someone asked me recently if it was hard to see someone drive up in an $80,000 car and drop off a few used toys as their only donation. It’s taken me a while to realize that if that’s all they’re doing, it’s still more than most people. The more significant issue is, I can not judge them, I don’t know them, I don’t know their story. I don’t know their passions. They might be giving and sacrificing tremendously in other areas. Most of the time, we just don’t know. That one bag of worn-out clothing or old toys might be the first thing they’ve ever given away in their lives; we need to treat it like gold and thank them for their efforts. If a young child brings you a horrible drawing, you still praise it and appreciate it for what it is, their first effort. We need to encourage people to support and share whenever we see people trying to step out and give or serve. Even if they are giving to, or supporting organizations that we don’t understand or “get.”

It’s not that nobody cares, it’s just that they might care in a way or area that’s different than we do.

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Fear the Goat Guy

goat-animal-horns-black-and-white-86594A famous pastor once said there are exactly three ways to crash in ministry: pride, lust, or greed. The way he put it was: “Avoid the glory, the girls, and the gold.” It’s a great lesson. If you’re in ministry and doing it right, it’s so easy to fall into traps that will slowly damage you, and the ministry, beyond repair. The enemy knows us well and knows how to draw us into areas that will destroy us. Men and women of God better than you and I fall every day. We need to be alert at all times and remember we are broken, messed up people.

It’s impossible to cover the countless ways people in ministry, or people in general, fall into sin. I do want to share one story where God reminded me about the need to stay humble, to avoid the glory. As I am constantly reminded, I have much to be humble about.

A few years after my wife and I moved to Mexico to take over management of a struggling orphanage, things seemed to be coming together. The children in our care were doing well, the staff was learning the ropes, things were flowing along nicely. One day, I had several local leaders and officials scheduled to come in for a string of meetings. My usual “uniform” was flip-flops, shorts, and a t-shirt. Not exactly business attire. With the officials coming in I went all out: dockers and real dress shoes. (there is a point to this clothing detail.)

After a day full of meetings, I felt pretty good about myself. “Look how professional I am”, I thought as the day moved along. About 4 pm, after the meetings had wound down, an older, scruffy looking gentleman came to my door and informed me he was here to kill a goat. We had a few goats on site, and I knew we were planning on butchering one, so this wasn’t a big surprise. Usually, our maintenance guy would take the local goat butcher back to the pens, and point out which unlucky goat was on the menu the next day. For some reason, our guy wasn’t around so I told the “goat guy” that I would show him. Now, being raised in Southern California, the idea of raising and butchering your own meat was still new to me. But I thought “Sure; I can handle this, how hard could it be.”

After walking the goat guy back to the pens, and pointing out the future taco meat, he asked me to hold the goat for a minute. “Ummm, OK.” He had to show me what to do. I entered the pen and straddled the goat between my knees like I was going to try to ride it. I then held on to the two horns to keep it still. I assumed as I held the goat he was going to get a rope, or needed to prepare something else so that I could get back to my “important day.” While I waited, I was talking softly to the goat to try to calm it down. (I’m an idiot.) Just then the goat guy walked over and, without warning, slit the goat’s throat causing it to thrash around while it bled out. I was kind of freaking out at this point; the goat guy, on the other hand, was enjoying this little display immensely. I honestly think to watch this “soft American” hold the goat while it went to the great goat beyond was the high point of the goat guy’s week.

After I got out of the pen and my adrenaline dropped a little, I walked back to our house. I had blood splatters on my shirt, my dress pants below the knees and my dress shoes covered in goat blood, and I had bits of straw sticking to me. As I staggered into the house, my wife asked with wide-eyed panic, “what happened to you?” I looked like I had been part of a murder scene. I told her, “I think I’m fine, but I am now marked for Passover.”

The point of this little story is to show how God will give us what we need. I had embraced pride. The ministry was growing, and in my mind, I had more to do with it than I did. In spite of all my “important meetings,” the local goat guy showed me that I was not that important. I needed some humbling, I needed to look foolish, I needed the goat guy in my life at that moment.

The battles we fight in ministry, and in life, don’t stop. We need to be aware of these battles, or we’ve already lost. Even the greatest men and women of God stumble and fall, we all need to seek God’s help and guidance to avoid the subtle snares the enemy has laid out for us. We all need a goat moment now and then.

(For anyone offended by the demise of this poor goat, please know, people eat goat meat in most of the world. I can also personally vouch that this particular goat was delicious.)

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“I’m from the Government; I’m here to help.”

32618985644_dd410eabb0_bIf your child needed to be cared for long-term by someone other than yourself, who would you feel good about? The DMV? The post office? How about the local school board? This is what society, and the church in America, has decided is best for children in need of a home, turn it over to a government agency. It has now become the government’s responsibility to care for widows and orphans.*

One of the questions I get asked all the time is whether the Mexican government helps to fund our orphanage. It surprises most people when they hear that we get no government funding to care for over one hundred children in need. Although we work directly with the government, and we have a lot of oversight, we are funded entirely through private donations. We depend on volunteers and our great donors for the work to continue. This is a system that works. Around one hundred years ago this is how it was in the US: privately funded, privately run, faith-based orphanages to care for the many children who fall through the cracks. Every country has a percentage of children in need of a home, how they approach it varies dramatically. Sadly, very few countries care for orphans well.

A couple of generations ago, the church in the US knew their mission was to care for others and do it with quality. In the past, churches opened hospitals to care for the sick; they built orphanages to care for the abandoned, the church was a place society turned to whenever needs were present. Some churches still understand the mandate to care for widows and orphans, but it’s usually blended into “benevolence” and turning over to a few people to manage while the bulk of the church carries on with the “real” ministry. Social services, as a whole, has been turned over to the government and abandoned by most churches. No wonder so many people are leaving the church. If we aren’t following Jesus’ example of loving and serving the poorest what’s the point? If the true religion of caring for widows and orphans is just a footnote, where are we focusing?

In this rambling rant, I’m not saying there aren’t some great people in any church who understand the call to serve the poorest of the poor; I’m just saying it seems like the church as a whole has shifted from the call to serve, to the call to be entertained. While some churches are great about supporting foster care or encouraging adoption, today, many churches are more likely to focus on opening coffee houses or brew-pubs. Is your church youth group more focused on entertaining activities or finding areas to serve in your town? Sure, service to others is a tough sell, but it’s a big part of living out the Gospel. We need to follow Christ’s path of sacrificial service to the “least of these.”

Jesus gave us a very clear example. He was all about service to others. He was about teaching, encouraging, feeding, healing: we are called to do the same. Not that service does anything to add to our salvation, Jesus handled that for us on the cross. What service does is draw us closer to Him, it helps our relationship with Him, it’s part of us taking on His image. Loving service to others is walking in His footsteps and makes churches come alive.

You might not be able to shift the focus of your church, but you can make a difference. Consider doing something radical with your life. Foster a child, adopt a child. If that’s not an option for you find a foster family you can help support with supplies, prayer, or anything they might need.

Someone asked me recently, “What if I’m hurting and not able to serve?” I probably surprised them with my answer: “I don’t care who you are, you can help someone. Everyone is hurting; we begin to heal when we start to focus on the pain and loneliness of others.” God doesn’t need us to help others; He wants us to help others because it’s good for us. God wants His church to help others because it’s good for the church. Maybe, just maybe, if the church learned to take the lead in social services, in serving orphans, in caring for the hurting, the church would become healthier. Maybe instead of people drifting away from the church, they would be drawn to the love and care that they see within the church. In an odd way, service to others is a selfish act. God’s rules are not like the world’s rules. If we learn to give to others, serve others, love others, we will find the joy that God wants us to have in this life.

Stop letting the government corner the market on serving widows and orphans; they’re not as much help as they think they are.

 

*(Covering my butt here: This is in NO way a criticism of the many great people working within the foster care system. Many foster care parents are incredible, it’s the system that’s lacking.)

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There’s Nothing at the Top

light-love-clouds-riverAnyone in missions hears the same one phrase whenever groups are visiting: “They’re poor but so happy.” It’s an interesting observation, and it seems to come from every age group and income level of visiting Americans. What does this say about the culture of US consumerism? Why do we automatically equate our collection of stuff to happiness? If you look at happiness studies (yes, that’s a thing) for the most part, there is no correlation between income and contentment. Once a person’s basic needs are met, more money and more stuff adds nothing to their lives.

Here in Baja Mexico, every year we host a large group that comes down from a very wealthy area in Northern California. This group has been raised with all the worldly goods this life has to offer, and are all on track to ivy league schools. I know many of them are just serving here to add it to their resumes. I’m OK with this because we can still expose them to the “real world,” even if that’s not why they came. With this group, we make it a point to get them out to spend time at various ministries in our area and meet with the leaders. These are ministries working with some of the poorest of the poor and in some of the most challenging areas. Before I send the team, I suggest they watch the leaders who, in most cases, walked away from “successful” lives in America to come and serve the poor. I specifically asked them to watch and see if these leaders seem like they are suffering, or have they found purpose. Are these leaders fighting for a goal that is never within reach? Or have they found profound joy living a life in direct conflict with everything American culture teaches us about what is important? It leads to some great follow-up discussions about what matters in life and what we should be working towards. I want them to see and think about people who have taken a path far different than most of the examples they have in their lives. I want them to experience people of depth and purpose.

Most Americans spend so much time fighting for goals that don’t matter in the bigger scheme of things: the cooler car, the bigger house, more likes or followers on social media. So much of our lives are focused on things that will mean nothing someday when we’re laying on our deathbeds. We need to be working towards impactful, eternal things, goals that move life from drudgery to joy.

This past week many of the news stories have been about two very famous people who both committed suicide. These two people had reached the top of their chosen fields but still did not find enough in this life to keep moving forward. They had attained it all and found it was nothing after all. The default response when these things happen is to blame it on mental illness, that is not always the case. Frequently suicides are triggered by circumstances or events in a person’s life; they reach a point where they can’t deal with what the world is giving, or not giving them. Sometimes people are just worn down by the grind of trying to attain something that is just out of their reach. We will probably never know the real backstory on these two tragic, headline suicides. We do know they both, for whatever reason, had no reason to go on. Once they reached the top and looked around, they found nothing.

Each one of us might attain our own misdirected goals in this life. But whether it’s fame, money, prestige, or titles, they are only an empty, shallow, echo of joy. They might bring some short-term happiness, but it will fill that aching hollow in our lives for a short blip of time. We must find more, we must find purpose, we must find a relationship with our creator.

C.S. Lewis wrote: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” We need to see the world, and our lives, through the eyes of our savior and redeemer. There is depth and joy in walking in Christ’s example. Most people are not called into missions or even full-time ministry, but we are called to follow Christ’s example of service to others. Walking in the shadow of Christ is brighter, warmer, and more fulfilling than standing in the full sunlight of anything this empty world has to offer.

Don’t spend your time climbing the ladder of success only to tragically find out there is nothing at the top. Have your ladder pointed in the right direction.

_____________________________

If you are in that dark place:

I’ve had two people in my social circles take their own lives in the last few years. Suicide is a tragedy for all those involved and echoes on in the lives of those left behind. If you have reached that point, or think someone in your life might, please seek help. There are people available who can help you. Please reach out to someone or call the number below.

National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

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