Embrace the Mess That is Short-Term Missions

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Most people are a complicated jumble of conflicting priorities, values, and reactions. Anyone who has worked with a homeless outreach, done marriage counseling, or worked with teenagers will tell you that the vast majority of people are messy. In a perfect world, things wouldn’t be so difficult. It’s not a perfect world. Not even close. Until we embrace the “messy,” ministry will be an unending exercise in frustration. Continue reading

Expectations in Marriage and Missions

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The church in America is an interesting animal. Over the years, the church has done some incredibly positive work, and at the same time, if we’re honest, the church has done a lot of damage. One ongoing and problematic issue the church has is that it tends to have a pack mentality. The church tends to embrace whatever the current trend is. Whether it’s calling for the prohibition of alcohol one hundred years ago, the rabid opposition to secular music about 30 years ago, or the spike in end-time studies that seems to come around every 10 or 15 years, the church follows trends. Continue reading

The Loss of Family in Orphan Care

This is an updated post from about two years ago, new posts should return next Monday.  Blessings

pexels-photo-262075Recently one of the boys we raised, who is now an adult and on his own, stopped by my office and asked if we could talk about a few things. He and his brother were dropped off at our home by their father over 20 years ago. Their father visited once but then disappeared. Sadly this happens way too often.

Frequently, for one reason or another, a child or a group of siblings are brought to an orphanage and the family is never heard from again. Hopefully, whatever orphanage they’re left at has the resources and skills to help move that child from the pain of abandonment through the long journey to healing. Adoption is always a good option. But the reality is that once a child is over the age of about five, they won’t be adopted, especially if they have siblings. The orphanage will become their home; the orphanage staff will become their family.

When a child is dropped off, and they are old enough to know what’s going on, they begin the grieving process just as anyone who has lost a loved one. They have lost their family and life as they knew it. They begin to go through the various stages of mourning: grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These can vary from person to person, but less than you might think. We humans are very predictable creatures.

Whether a child was abandoned or removed due to abuse or neglect, their first reaction is always denial. “No, really, my parents are going to come back for me.” or “My mom is in rehab, this time, I know it’s going to work.” We hope that the child can eventually go back to a healthy family situation, but the painful reality is it’s not the norm. More often than not, if the family cares enough to visit, they sometimes make the situation harder by making false promises, to the child and maybe to themselves. “It will just be a few weeks, I really am coming back for you.” or “Your dad and I are getting back together, then we can take you home.” These types of promises rip the wounds open again leaving the child stuck in the denial stage, living in false hope.

The next stage in the healing process is anger. If a child reaches the point of being pissed off at their parents, we are thrilled, this means they’re moving forward in the process. I remember one 11-year-old boy who had been with us for about three months. He was here with two younger siblings and was starting to settle in. One Sunday, his mother showed up to visit. He was seriously angry; wanting nothing to do with her, he ran to hide behind one of the buildings on our property. I walked back to talk with him, and as I approached, I could see he was so angry he was trembling. I sat down with him and told him he could do whatever he wanted, “If you don’t want to visit your mom, you don’t have to. Go hang out with your friends or spend time in my office; I don’t care.” I just confirmed to him what he already knew about his mom, that she’d done nothing to earn a visit and it was OK to be angry at her. I believe my response did two things. First, it shocked the heck out of him. Second, it showed him he was in a safe place and that we would be here for him. It turned out to be a pivotal day in his healing process.

I could write about the different levels of mourning, but I’m sure you get the idea at this point. The healing process is slow, painful, and depending on the person can take weeks, months, or sadly sometimes years. We hope that every child moves through the process and reaches acceptance as soon as they are able. Until an abandoned child (or anyone who has experienced tremendous loss) can reach that point of acceptance, it is incredibly difficult to begin to rebuild their lives.

Once a child reaches acceptance, they can start over. They can start taking school a little more seriously knowing they’re not ever going back to their old school. They can start making real friends knowing they probably won’t be leaving in a few weeks. Most importantly, if they’ve landed in a healthy orphanage or care situation, they can begin to bond with healthy adults who are committed long-term in the child’s life.

Even if a child reaches acceptance and begins to move on with their lives, it doesn’t mean the pain has gone away; the pain just softens over time. For most children, as they move into adulthood, they reach a point where they will try and find their biological family. If years later, reunions can be arranged, it’s not always the Hallmark moment we envision. Occasionally they can rebuild a relationship with their family, sometimes they’re rejected all over again. People are messy and messed up.

I opened up by sharing about the young man who came into my office. I’m incredibly proud of both him and his brother as they’ve grown into healthy, incredible men of God. The older brother is married with two children and has demonstrated an incredible commitment to his wife and caring for his family. It was the younger brother who came into my office. He wanted to talk over the situation that, after twenty years, he and his brother had recently found family in another state. He had just talked with his “biological” mother. He has no memory of her, but they’re planning on visiting her next summer. The draw to know your biological family is strong and we’re tremendously happy for them both. (I’m tearing up as I write this)

The second thing he wanted to talk with me about was also life-changing. We were planning a get-together with many of the children raised in our home, and he was asking permission to propose to his long-term girlfriend in front of his true family at the party. (She was also raised in our home.) I think he’s reached a good place, a place of wholeness; God has restored this abandoned child.

There is hope for an emotionally wounded child, if they are lead to the master healer, and allowed to grieve in His arms.

Update on the young men in the story: The brothers visited thier mother, it went well but she is still a stranger to them. They are getting to know each other. Since this was first published two years ago, the young man who came to my office is now married and they are expecting thier first child in Dec. My pride of this young man runs deep.

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We Become Our Parents

fatherhoodWith all the mass shootings lately, people are quick to express opinions on gun control and gun regulations. As horrific as the mass shootings are, they are a symptom of a much larger problem. The mental health of shooters often comes up, in the vast majority of the cases, the shooters have used some type of behavioral medication. The one common thread through almost every shooter’s background is the lack of a strong male figure in their lives. Dad was not there.

It’s human nature to emulate the people who are closest to us. Whether we want to or not, we take on the attitudes and characteristics of the people with whom we spend the most time. As much as our friends influence us, the people who care for us when we are in our formative years ultimately have the most significant impact on our lives. 

The people parenting us when we are very young are the people who determine who we become. These are the people we want to make proud, and we remember at key moments in our lives. They shape how we approach experiences and relationships. Our parents shape our reactions to the blessings and challenges that we encounter. Although change is always possible, it gets harder to change our basic personality as we get older, the patterns have been set. The early examples in our lives manifest themselves later on, whether we want them to or not.

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. 
Proverbs 22:6

Over the last few years, while I wasn’t paying attention, I turned into my dad. While I was growing up, “consistent” is the word that would best describe him. He worked the same job for years, home by 5:10, dinner at 5:15, recliner and evening news at 6:00. We were at church EVERY Sunday at 8 am. As my dad aged and then retired, he started looking after his health more, focused more on gardening, and his woodworking (he was a true artist). My life pretty much mirrors this, although I’m not the level of woodworker he was. I’ve kept the same schedule every day for years. In the last few years, I’ve gotten more into gardening, and I’ve set up a wood-shop. As I was arranging my tools recently, I realized again how much I miss my dad and how much I’ve turned into him. Those generational examples can be broken, but it’s complicated. We generally become the people who raise us. I was blessed with an incredible dad, but what about children without that father figure in their lives?

Running a large orphanage, or even being involved in orphan care, you spend a lot of time thinking about parenthood, and the impact it has on a child. Too often long term childcare situations, whether it be foster care or orphanages, focus on the basics. This is entirely understandable, there is a hierarchy of needs, and we need to have the basics covered. Food, shelter, medical needs, education, etc. are all critical in raising children. These basics will keep a child alive, but do they create emotionally healthy adults? Children will not mature in a healthy way without consistent positive examples that they can learn from, and emulate, as they grow into adulthood.

Many orphanages worldwide operate like most families in that they need to focus on the basics first. Out of necessity, anything beyond the basics of keeping children alive doesn’t happen often. In families, the hope is that by default, one or two reliable parental figures are there to provide an example, a pattern to follow in life. In orphanages and long term care situations, the father figure can be elusive. No child belongs in a system, but there are children in long-term care situations in almost every culture in the world. How do we do better? How do we provide more than the basics to keep them alive?

Although I’m a huge advocate of short-term missions, short-term teams do almost nothing to provide long term examples for the children who need it. What short-term mission teams do offer, is the support the long-term staff and missionaries need to stay the course, to remain in the child’s life for the long-term. Orphanage staff need the support and encouragement of teams and individuals behind them and praying for them.

If you work in orphan care, please know your work matters. I know from experience, there are many days you ask yourself why you’re doing what you do, and if it makes a difference. It does. You won’t reach every child; you won’t always have the opportunity to touch a child’s life long term. But when it works, it can make all the difference in a child’s life. Please keep it up; it’s worth it. You might be the only example a child has to model their life after. Do it well.

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And don’t forget to order your copy of Reciprocal Missions from Amazon.com.

Just Say No

pexels-photo-271897A few years ago, I was at a leadership conference and heard a comment that floored me. “Jesus didn’t help everyone.” “But, but, but…He was JESUS, of course He helped everyone!” I screamed silently to myself. But it was pointed out that Jesus didn’t heal everyone, feed everyone, or fix every injustice He encountered. He walked past many people who could have used His help. He found balance; He helped who He could. The most important thing is, He did the will of His Father in Heaven.

This is a very specific blog, written to those who can’t say “no” when they see a need. Most people don’t have any problem saying no and use the word way more than they should. They are skilled at avoiding those around them who need help. This is written to the people in full-time ministry who cannot find balance, who cannot say “no” to the countless needs they observe. Stop. Stop now. If you’re following Jesus’ example is important, remember, He learned to say “no” when it was needed. By not finding the balance, we are doing damage to ourselves, and to those around us. We cannot help everyone.

We all know people who are working long hours, without taking a day off, and want everything to be perfect. It’s exhausting to be around them. They are working “for the ministry” or “for the Lord,” but their relationships are suffering, their health is suffering, their marriages suffer, and they can suck the joy out of most situations. The joy that comes from serving with a peaceful heart is lost in the battle. I can write about this from first-hand experience. I used to be that guy.

I work alongside someone right now that’s in that place, he does excellent work, but anyone can see him heading directly at a brick wall by not taking time to breathe. We had one volunteer in our orphanage, who was a CRAZY perfectionist. She would work for weeks, 18 hours a day, only to collapse and be useless for a week or two while she recovered. That is not how life should be.

Early on, about six months after my wife and I moved in to help run the orphanage, we had a visitor. Agnes, the lady who ran the home for decades, was coming by. We had never met Agnes, and I was terrified. Everything we did was held up against her work. Every day I heard, “Well, Agnes never did it that way.” She was coming in to check on us and our work. Yikes. My fears turned out to be unfounded. She was the perfect example of grace and support. She did have one piece of very direct advice, “Get out.” she told us in no uncertain terms. She said it was OK to take time away, to recharge, to put our marriage first. That there would never be a perfect day; there would always be emergencies; we needed to practice self-care. We needed to learn to say, “No.”

There are many orphanages in our area of Mexico run by people who cannot say “No.” They take in any child who needs help, which sounds nice, but if they only have resources to help and care for 30 children, they are not doing a good job if they are caring for 80 children. Everyone suffers; no one is helped. Saying “no” is not in them, and people suffer. 

Jesus found balance. He spent time alone. The apostles often found Him alone praying, alone in the desert, asleep in the boat, early in the morning spending time with His Father. Even at the last supper, He was teaching, but it was also time breaking bread and hanging out with those He was closest to. He spent time with friends.

It took me many years of long hours to learn the balance; I’m still figuring it out. I’ve seen too many people in ministry burn out when they can’t find the time to rest, to recharge, to breath. When our crew started taking a dedicated day off each week, I flinched a little. “But that’s not what ministry is about!” I thought to myself. I now see the wisdom in it.

My favorite night of the week is a home fellowship that we host made up of full-time missionaries and ministry leaders in our area. We don’t DO anything other than eat and hangout. No agenda, no pressure, just vast quantities of carbs shared among friends. The official name of this gathering is M.E.A.T. Night. (Missionaries Eating And Talking). Not spiritual by any standard definition, no bible study, no deep prayer, just people hanging out. I feel on many levels it’s some of the best ministry we do.

If you’re in ministry full time, you want to follow the example Jesus sets for ministry. He knew when to say no; He spent time alone. He spent time with friends. He knew how to find balance; He did the will of His Father. You have permission to take a day off. As in all things, follow the example of Jesus.

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No Regrets

IMG_0355Everyone is playing with the “Faceapp” right now, the app that shows what you will look like when you’re older. Time killer? Yes. Creepy? Absolutely. Are they harvesting your data? Probably. But the one good thing that might be coming out of the Faceapp fad is it’s forcing people to think about getting old and eventually dying off. Most people are in denial; they believe they will be around forever. People believe that they will take that mission trip to Cuba “someday.” They will work with children at risk “eventually.” They’ll help others “once my loans are paid off.” It’s good to remember we might not have that many tomorrows. The time we have is a precious gift that is slipping away faster every year. Don’t reach the end with regrets.

This last week was one of the busiest weeks of our summer here in Mexico. We coordinated three large teams and their efforts to build four homes for needy families in our community. Well over 150 people from multiple states across the US, spending a week of their summer on a short-term mission trip. They all came down with the hope of changing lives. It worked, but I can guarantee it worked in ways almost none of them could have anticipated or might have noticed.

Obviously, the families who received these houses were blessed, and their lives were changed. The homes built aren’t just shelter. The teams, working alongside the family, build a home where they can be proud to live. These are semi-finished three bedroom, one bath homes that would have taken them years to construct without the help of the missions groups. This is why the groups come down, to have a profound and long term positive impact on the families they are seeking to bless. But something else went on in the background beyond the expressed agendas and motivations.

These projects help to provide desperately needed jobs in our community. Almost all the materials are purchased locally. Over the summer, our homes and other projects account for about half of all the local hardware store’s sales. The local skilled laborers hired to help out were able to feed their families. The local glass shop guy always does a little “happy dance” when we walk in to place a window order. These homes impact so many local lives in ways that are impossible to count.

The impact of a well run short-term mission trip is life-changing for everyone involved. For the vast majority of the people who traveled down to help recently, it was a week they will remember the rest of there lives. The teams that came down built relationships with each other, and worked together with fellow church members in ways they’ve never been able to before. I listened to one father, working alongside his wife and three kids, as he shared with tears in his eyes about the bonding time with his teen girls. They spent the week hanging drywall together and learned how to tape and mud the drywall panels. Ask any dad; it takes some effort to find quality relationship time with teen girls.

I was witness to the tearful home dedications as keys, hugs, and blessings were shared all around. The families, teams, and individuals who worked together this week will be sharing stories about the trip for years to come. If they hadn’t taken a chance, spent the time and money to come down, they would always wonder, “what if?” They would carry those regrets for years.

Too many people reach the end of their life and wonder if they’ve ever made a difference. They regret not taking a chance. They wonder if they’ve made some mark or impact that will be remembered. People who serve where the need is greatest never have to worry about this. I’ve never met anybody who regretted caring for orphans, widows or those less fortunate around them. The life we build has nothing to do with the stuff we usually focus on, a life well lived is one focused on having a positive impact on other people’s lives.

On your grave, between your birth date and death date, there will be two dashes: – – representing your life. What will those two simple dashed represent? What did you do between those two dates? You might not change the world, but you can change someone’s life. Don’t end your life with regrets.

 

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The Toilet Paper Police

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Years ago, our ministry had “the toilet paper police.” A gentleman on our staff was in charge of all the soap and cleaning supply distribution to our very large orphanage. This is actually a tremendous job when you think about it: all the soap, TP, shampoo, pine cleaner, diapers, toothpaste, etc. for 120 children, plus the staff, plus the many visiting teams we host. Human beings just go through a LOT of supplies. This gentleman (we’ll call him Bob) was very detailed. Bob would keep lists, track everything, look for patterns in supply usage, etc. Although it was all with the best of intentions, he was kind of a pain. He eventually got the nickname of “the toilet paper police.” He was trying to do the best job possible, and he might have saved us some money, but what was the real cost? What damage was he doing to relationships by stalking people over one extra roll of TP? Kids get sick, people fall in the mud, things change. Sometimes it’s just better to let some things slide for the greater good.

The toilet paper thing might seem odd, but the same controlling attitude can easily flow into other areas of ministry. Some people make a plan or agenda and can get VERY upset if things need to change. When we have a flu outbreak, and most of our kids are throwing up, it’s hard to force them to participate in the great vacation bible school program you had planned. If your group was scheduled to paint a building, I understand it’s frustrating if it rains that day, but that is not in my control. Sometimes things change. When you have a large team, traveling to a foreign country, things changing is the norm.

This week we had a group working hard to prepare lunch for our large family. We occasionally have government inspections (always a lot of fun by the way). Once the group had the spaghetti in the boiling water and cookies in the oven for dessert, we all had to participate in a mandatory government fire drill. I’m sure the group wasn’t expecting or planning on this, but they flowed perfectly and actually saw the humor in the whole situation. The group standing around with our kids while a head count was done turned into kind of a cool experience.

Occasionally, something happens that completely derails the best-laid plans. It’s so critical to realize, God might have a plan that is very different than our schedule or agenda. If we’re focused on our frustration of missed flights, miscommunication about transportation, or people getting sick, we might miss out on a very different opportunity. How we respond in the midst of changes, challenges, and frustrations shows everyone around us who we honestly see as being in charge. Are these our plans, or God’s plans?

Now and then, plans change entirely. In two weeks, we have a fantastic group coming from the Midwest to build a house for a needy family in our town. The planning has been going on for months. Blueprints have been finalized, and materials have been purchased, pictures of the family have been sent to the group, etc. This young family has four children, one of their sons is special needs. The details were in place, and everyone was expecting a fantastic week of service and relationship building. This week, everything changed in a way that no one would have expected. Due to what we believe is a reaction to some medication she was on, the mother of this family of four passed away two nights ago. Understandably, the husband and the four children are devastated. We are helping with funeral arrangements and doing what we can to support the family. It seems trivial in the face of death, but what do we do with the home build project? As of the writing of this blog, the group is planning on moving forward with the home build, but the changes are bringing phenomenal challenges and opportunities to minister at a vastly more profound level. Flexibility on the part of the group will be essential for everyone even remotely involved with this project.

Obviously, this is an extreme example. But unexpected changes are the norm with life in general, and international missions especially. Part of it is the bizarreness of international travel; part of it is different cultures and systems than most groups are used to. But part of it is also a spiritual dynamic. There will always be challenges and barriers to effective ministry. The key to getting through those challenges and barriers is to see them differently. The changes we encounter, the disruptions to our plans, can lead to incredible opportunities for service and ministry as long as our hearts are in the right place and we keep our eyes open to those divine appointments that God has laid out for us.

Be organized, plan well, but always remember to allow for the unexpected. Allow for God to set things in motion in ways that we didn’t prepare for. Please don’t be the toilet paper police.

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