It’s OK to Say “No” to Someone in Need.

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We live in a broken world. Unless you’re living in a cave, it’s impossible not to be aware of people all around us struggling with difficulties in life. We see suffering in the news from countries far away, we read about war and injustice in so many places. If we haven’t become too calloused, we see struggling people in our towns, in our churches, and maybe even in our own homes. It can be overwhelming. We almost have to maintain a certain level of denial, or we would curl up into a ball to give up hope. BUT, sometimes, with God’s guidance, we can maintain hope and make a difference in someone’s life. We CAN make a difference. Hang on to that. Seek God’s will with who you should help.

In my line of work, caring for orphaned and abandoned children, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the staggering numbers of children in need. Depending on how you define “orphan,” there are around 150 million orphaned or abandoned children worldwide. If the international numbers aren’t discouraging enough, even the numbers of a single city can be overwhelming. In Tijuana, the city closest to where I work, the figure that’s used is roughly 5,000 children living on the streets. You can’t save everyone, no one can.

Yesterday I was contacted about a single mom with four kids. She will likely die in the next few months from an ongoing battle with cancer. There is no extended family and dad abandoned the family long ago. Someone helping her reached out to us about taking her four children into our home. The details are still being worked out, and we’re doing what we can to help. The four siblings will probably wind up moving into our home at some point. It’s making the best of a heartbreaking situation. BUT, for every child we’re able to help, there are 60, 80, 100 children that we need to turn away. The team here has to make Solomon like decisions every day: Who do you help? And who do you turn away? You can’t save everyone.

Anyone working full-time (or even part-time) in a service focused ministry needs to make hard decisions every day. For every homeless individual you serve, there are 20 more people outside the door. For every family a food bank helps with a box of groceries, there are 30 more families needing assistance. For every child rescued, there are dozens more in danger on the streets.

If we try to help everyone in our sphere of influence, we might wind up helping no one. I work with orphanages from many different countries. I’ve found that just like people, orphanages tend to land into personality types. One type of orphanage that I understand, but dread walking into, is what I call the “crazy cat lady orphanage.” Occasionally an orphanage is run by someone who is so overwhelmed by the hurting children around them that they take in any child in need. That might sound very noble: “I never turn away a child in need,” but it sets up a horrible situation. If the home has space, resources, and staffing to do a good job for 30 children, it can be a beautiful thing. If that same home, with the same resources, grows to 50, 70, 90 children it can be horrible. Lack of food, hygiene, and general attention can make some orphanages a filthy, lice and rat infested nightmare. Last year, one home I visited staggered me, my first thought was “these children would be better off on the streets.” I really liked the director. I think her heart truly was to help the kids, but she was so overwhelmed she became ineffective in reaching her end goal. Where do we find the balance?

There’s a topic that most people don’t talk about. Jesus, in the three years that he minstered on this earth, didn’t help everyone. For every cripple he healed there were hundreds he didn’t. For every injustice he confronted there were dozens he walked past. For every person He taught, there were thousands that never heard Him speak. Jesus fed the 5,000, but there were many others that went hungry. No one would call Jesus a failure, He found a balance and did the will of his Father. That’s all He was required to do, that’s all any of us are called to do. Jesus spent a tremendous amount of time in prayer, He spent time alone, and then went and did what He was called to do. It’s a pretty good model, one more of us should follow.

Whether we realize it or not, we all make decisions every day about who we can help, and who we turn our back on. How many homeless people do we walk past on the way to Starbucks? Are there people in our church, school, or office that just need someone to listen to them? It’s ok to say “no” to someone in need IF our hearts are open and sensitive to serving those in need when we are called. We need to seek to understand God’s will. We need to be seeking His eyes and heart for the suffering around us, and the wisdom to represent Him well.

If you’ve become overwhelmed with the challenges and suffering around you, and don’t help others because you can’t save everyone, please step out and help just one person this week. It will matter greatly to them, and your life will be better for walking in the example of Jesus. If you’re the one overworking, killing yourself trying to save everyone, please have some grace for yourself and take a break. You can also walk in the example of Jesus: say “no” to someone, say yes to helping the ones God is calling you to help, and in all things: seek the Father’s will.

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Find People Who Inspire

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There is no greater influence in our lives than the people we surround ourselves with and those we encounter who inspire us. We spend so much time following social media, or seeing how much stuff we’ve accumulated, like cats chasing after a laser that is bright and shiny but means nothing. Ultimately, what matters are the relationships in our lives. We need to make sure that we have quality relationships with people who inspire us to reach for greatness in all we attempt.

A few years back I was on a small team putting together the curriculum for a 30-day missions training program. We were assembling themes, speakers, and activities for a group of fifteen or so college students joining us for the program. Someone on the planning team made a comment that stuck with me: “The topics are important, but what the students will remember are the inspirational people they get to spend time with.” We all have (I hope) people beyond our own families that have influenced our lives. It might be a teacher, a coach, a boss, or just someone we encountered that inspired us to be a better version of ourselves. We should seek out people that challenge us to be better.

I’ve made many stupendously bad decisions in my life. When I was in my early 20s, I made one correct decision that had an enormous, positive impact on my life. I made a conscious decision to surround myself with people who were better than I was. People who were dedicated to God, people who were going somewhere with their lives, people who just seemed to have a clue. It’s an old saying but it still holds true: “We become the five people we hang out with.” If we spend time with people that eat right and exercise, we will start to become healthier. If we spend time with people who are seeking God and focused on their walk with Him, we will become better Christians. If we spend time with people with no direction in their lives, we won’t go anywhere. You get the idea. Thirty years later I’m still friends with several of those quality guys I chose to allow to impact my life. We still influence each other and keep each other accountable. They are all dedicated to their families, to God, and to seeing His kingdom expanded. I’m better today because of those men in my life. Who we surround ourselves with has a huge impact on our growth and who we become as people.

Obviously, if we look for them, we can find people who inspire us and provide great examples in many different areas. I’m not entirely sure why, but the dynamic of traveling on short-term missions trips seems to create those opportunities to be inspired by others. Once we leave our home country, it’s easier to spend time with people who’ve experienced a defining moment that changed their lives. They’ve had that calling or experience that caused them to work for something bigger than themselves. Missionaries, nurses, doctors, construction workers, people from wide ranging backgrounds who’ve decided to dedicate a period of their lives to the neediest and the most hurting.

I want to tell you about “Dave in the canyon.” In 2009 Dave was just another normal middle aged man from northern California. He had no ministry training, had never worked full time with a ministry; he was just an average guy who took a chance on a short-term missions trip. I don’t think Dave was expecting a whole lot when he signed up. He met some people in Baja Mexico serving the poorest of the poor in the dump area of Tijuana. Those “chance” encounters would alter his life profoundly. Six months after his missions trip, he walked away from what he had in the US and found his new life serving the children and families living in pallet houses in Tijuana. Today, this guy glows, glows with a joy that few people ever experience. He was inspired by God through his interaction with a few people doing great things, and now Dave is that inspiration to others.

I love sending people to “help” Dave. Dave doesn’t need any help. The people I send to him are the ones that need inspiration, that need their lives changed, they need their worlds rocked. The people I send need to bump up against greatness. Dave isn’t perfect, but he serves humbly in very challenging conditions. He never complains, never loses hope, and trusts completely in God. I’m honored to be called Dave’s friend and have his influence in my life. The world needs more Daves.

What’s great is, if we seek them out, there are a tremendous number of Daves in the world. We have the privilege of meeting them and being impacted by them. Inspiring people can be found almost anywhere, but in my limited experience, they’re easier to find where life is harder, where life is much more of a struggle than we typically experience in the US. In Ghana, Peru, Mexico, etc. you can encounter people serving at a level that is beyond “normal.” Remember, it might be easier to encounter giants of the faith in the missions field, but they’re all around us if we look.

Choose wisely who will be in your life, who will influence you, who you want to become more like. Surround yourself with excellence. Bump up against inspiring people. Your life will be better for it.

For more information on Dave’s work, please see: Life in the Canyon

The Fear Factor

pexels-photo-471470“Isn’t Mexico dangerous?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to respond to this question over the last 20 years. I honestly believe this is more of a statement on the church in America today than any perceived danger in Mexico.

What keeps us up at night worrying almost never happens. In 2016 there were a total of 4 deaths by shark attack, 67 people died from taking selfies. If you ask a cross section of people, fear of sharks would probably rate higher than fear of smart phones. Way too many people live lives wrapped in fear of things that don’t happen or don’t matter. American culture feeds and encourages fear: fear of the “other” political party, of terrorism, of people from different countries or cultures. Fear has become the new American way.

A few years ago I got a phone call from a concerned father who was looking at sending his daughter with their church missions team to serve with our orphanage in Mexico. After talking to him for a while, he asked me straight out “Can you 100% guarantee the safety of my daughter?” I think I surprised him with my answer: “Absolutely not.” I asked him if he could 100% guarantee the safety of his daughter when she was driving to school, out shopping, or even in their home. There are almost no 100% guarantees in this life other than the fact that we will all eventually die. If we lived our lives looking for 100% guarantees, we would never do anything, that’s not why we’re on this earth.

At what point did the church collectively decide that we need complete security at all times? Why are we so afraid? Jesus never taught that we should only go and share the gospel if our safety could be guaranteed, that we should only help others if there is zero risk involved. I’m not saying we should take unnecessary chances, but what should we be willing to risk to share the Gospel?

“Fear not” comes up a lot in the bible, “You need to avoid risk” not so much. If we believe we have an all powerful, loving Father in heaven who only wants what’s best for us why are we so afraid? If we believe that God can use ALL things for our good and the good of His kingdom, why can’t we rest in that? The Apostle Paul did some of his best work sitting in prison. Paul was completely convinced this was just a temp job; he was on his way to heaven. Paul doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who was afraid of what might happen. The world needs more Pauls.

A good friend of mine has been a missionary in a Muslim country for a few years. (for his safety I can’t share his name or what country). This guy is fearless. Recently he sent me an e-mail asking an IT question, not a big deal. He went on to share about the struggles they were having going to print with a new bible recently translated into a dialect for that area. One print shop was burned down, one printer who wanted to help was sent to prison, my friend’s family was threatened, and he was arrested and held for several days. Yikes. I would have hit the road long before this. Rather than running, giving up, or even complaining, he was rejoicing. Through the entire E-mail, you could feel the joy he was experiencing; he had found the “joy in all things” that Paul wrote about while in prison.

In 2014 my wife and I were scheduled to travel with the team of about 20 to Ghana in west Africa. We had our tickets, we had our visas, and about 30 days before we were scheduled to leave the Ebola outbreak hit West Africa. You couldn’t pick up a paper, turn on the radio, or watch the news without being told how dangerous Ebola was and how we were all going to die. Not the best time to travel to West Africa. Over the course of a few weeks most of the team dropped out and, to be honest, we thought about it. We made a few calls to people on the ground to get accurate information and had some LONG talks. Any sane person would have canceled. (we’ve never been grouped in with sane people). We decided to go. The team was just five people, and EVERYONE said we were crazy. We went, had an incredible trip, and I believe we had a real impact at the orphanage where we were serving. West Africa is a BIG place, where we were serving we were over 1000 miles from the nearest Ebola case. At no time were we in any danger other than malaria and the other normal issue from that area.

In looking back at our trip to Ghana, I’m flooded with emotions. One of the emotions I have is regret for the many people who, out of an abundance of caution, chose not to go. They missed out on a life changing experience. They missed out on the chance to share with others and connect with believers on the other side of the world. The enemy once again used fear to stop ministry from taking place. How many people weren’t reached? How many lives weren’t changed by this incredible experience? The people who chose to stay back had the perception of safety, but they missed a life altering experience.

Take a chance. Risk something. Go drill a well in Kenya, go build a house in Baja, go serve (or start) a prison ministry. Step out and see how God might use you or might use the new challenges to change you. Of the people I hang out with in the missions field, I never hear them talk about the regret of taking a chance. What I see and hear are people who glow, glow with a joy that few people experience in this life. These are people who have taken, and continue to take chances for God. They are not afraid of risk, they embrace it, they have found joy. The only fear we should accept in our lives is the fear of NOT doing what God is calling us to. We should be deathly afraid of wasting our time here on this earth living a mundane, “safe” existence.

To answer the question about Mexico that I started out with: Yes, Mexico CAN be dangerous in certain areas, most of it is really safe, but watch out for those selfies.

Short-term missions change us

971174_10200726932789783_914982034_nI have been receiving and hosting short-term mission teams in Baja Mexico for almost twenty-five years. Between the two organizations I lead we hosted 325 groups in 2016. Short-term missions are important but not for the reasons and justifications everyone gives for short-term missions. You think you’re going to put up a building, distribute food, or most importantly share the gospel. God has an entirely different agenda.

God works in ways beyond the ways this world works, His ways don’t make any sense in the eyes of the world: “the first shall be last, whoever would be great must learn to serve, to save our lives we must give it away.” When we raise funds, make plans, sacrifice our time to go and serve others, God has a very different objective than we do. God is always thinking of us and seeking ways to bless us, to shape us, to cause growth in us, to help us take on His image. We might screw it up, but God rejoices when we try, just as any loving parent rejoices when they see their child grow and try new things.

Short-term missions work because it changes the lives of the people who go. God is faithful and unchanging. Almost every individual or group we’ve hosted over the last two decades has the same reaction at some level: “I’m leaving with so much more than I came with.” When we take a chance and step out of our comfort zone, we grow. When we interact and serve with people from other cultures, it expands our world view. When we see how people live in other countries, it gives us, a deeper perspective on the conditions in our own country and humanity as a whole.

When we go and serve others, we’re putting our faith into practice. Jesus was a man of active faith. Jesus encouraged those He encountered, He spent time sharing His heart, He fed, He healed, He focused on those around Him. If we say we are a follower of Christ and we’re not actively serving others, we are hypocrites. Taking the time and resources to go and serve people in other countries changes us as we exercise our faith. People exercise to feel better, look better, and to be healthy. We need to be actively working out, stretching, and exercising our faith.

It is the very rare exception to find a full-time missionary who did not start out in short-term missions. We need to try walking before we run. Not everyone is called into full-time international missions, but some are. Is that calling on your life? Until we go and experience serving at a different level, it’s very hard to hear that voice calling us into something deeper. Today, there are missionaries around the world who got their start with a week serving in Mexico. THIS is why we host short-term missions.

At one point I had been living and serving in Baja for over fifteen years and thought I had a pretty good handle on what it meant to serve in the missions field. I was wrong. A few years ago my wife and I were asked to go with a small team to Malawi, a tiny, very impoverished country in the middle of Africa. Although I live in Mexico, I had never seen that level of poverty. It changed me. My hope is that we had an impact on the orphanage where we were serving, but I left with a greater understanding of what financial poverty looked like and the effect it has on people. At one point a desperate mother begged my wife and me to take her three-year-old child. She knew her child had no future in that country and no chance in life where they were. How scared and hurting must a mother be to give away her child? My life, my walk, my ministry was changed profoundly by my short experiences in Africa.

Short-term missions matter. Send your team, lead your team, go yourself. You will be better for it as you walk in the footsteps of Jesus and allow God to use you and to change you.