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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You’re Only As Big As Your World

pexels-photo-1008155I know an older person (not really old) who lives on their own in Southern California. For many reasons, mainly their own decisions, they’re not as active as they once were. Their only real excursions out of their home are for church, weekly grocery shopping, and an occasional doctor appointment. They’re not a big reader, and they don’t watch the news, they just kind of exist. Their world, over time, has become small. There is one aspect of the way they live their lives that’s interesting: anything that goes on in their world is HUGE. If the mailman is 20 minutes late, it throws off their whole day. If the cat sleeps in a different spot they don’t know what to do. Their world has become so small, the weight of any detail can bring it crashing down. We need to keep our world big.

Any of us can get into a rut, doing the same thing over and over again. Work, home, church, repeat. There is nothing wrong with this, but if we never break up the normal rhythm of our lives it’s hard to grow, its hard to keep a healthy perspective, it’s hard to see the bigger world. We need to get out of our comfortable routines and stretch a little. This is even truer when it comes to our faith and our Christian walk. Routine is the death of passion; suddenly we lose the enthusiasm and wind up going through the motions. Any small test or trial at that point can bring us crashing down.

We’ve all seen the effects of people living in their own small world. How many of us have witnessed truly trivial decisions at a church become massive drama when they’re being discussed by people who don’t see the bigger picture. People with small worlds get very upset when the font is changed in the bulletin; they threaten to leave the church if the service is moved 30 minutes later, they don’t understand why the donuts table doesn’t have maple bars anymore. This sounds silly because it is. These are silly, stupid, trivial trials when you look at the bigger world of faith, our Christian walk, and the challenges of the body of Christ around the world.

I’ve gone through seasons like this in my own life. Several years ago, my world had gotten smaller. I had been helping to run an orphanage in Mexico for a very long time. In spite of the ever-changing challenges, I found myself walking in a routine. My life revolved around working with the kids, raising money, helping to facilitate short-term missions, etc. There’s nothing wrong with that but our orphanage, the kids in our care, and the people who came by had become the bulk of my world. One day a regular visitor approached me and shared how she was helping a small orphanage in Africa. She asked if I’d be interested in going with her to visit that home for ten days and help with some training. I went and it rocked my world.

Our small team spent the bulk of our time at a poor orphanage in one of the poorest countries in the world. It brought into focus what was important, what children in those types of situations need, and how much need there was in the world. We spent one day visiting another orphanage that was incredible: well run, beautiful, great education for the children in their care, etc. Visiting that home was profoundly humbling and showed us how far we still had to go to improve our own orphanage. Even the travel through several airports and countries to get to our destination worked to give me a bigger perspective on the world around us. I hope we made a difference in the orphanage we went to help, I know my life was changed through the experience.

Expanding people’s worlds is why short-term mission trips are so important. There are needs around the world, but short-term missions changes and expands the people who go on these trips. At any age, we need to be constantly looking for ways to see a bigger world, to experience life through the eyes of someone in another culture. We need to hear, smell, and experience life far from what we’re used to. Short-term missions can be kind of a selfish experience. Yes, we’re going to work hard and try to make a difference, but short-term missions change us at a fundamental level for the better. It keeps our eyes open to the bigger world around us, and it lets our own vision grow; it helps us attack life and our Christian walk from a much larger and healthier perspective.

Take a short-term mission trip. If your church doesn’t have a trip scheduled, organize one. It will help to make a difference in the world, it will help your church, and your world will expand. The problems we will encounter in life shrink in direct proportion to how big our world is. Make your world huge.

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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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Voluntourism Isn’t So Bad.

travelOver the last few years, the term “voluntourism” has come into the missions vernacular. It’s generally used as a derogatory term for people combining vacations, with serving, with a dash of poverty tourism thrown in. It’s a simple term, but it’s more complicated than the black and white way most people present it.

I’ve you’ve watched cable news or visited any social media website in the last few years you’ve seen a widening divide. Whether it’s Democrat vs. Republican, opinions on gun control, or any one of dozens of topics, the reasonable middle ground can be hard to find. The problem is, in most cases, that middle ground is where logical solutions are found. The calm voice of reason has been silenced by the shouting from both sides in too many discussions.

I, along with my team, host a LOT of short-term mission groups in Mexico every year. Are some of these trip more about tourism wrapped in projects? Sure, it happens, it’s actually a sliding scale with any group. Some people come for purely educational or recreational purposes, some come who only want to serve, most come with a mixed agenda and we’re OK with that. As long as the groups coming down are respectful of our home, and the people we serve in the community, we want the groups here. We want bigger groups, and we want them to tell their friends to come.

The term voluntourism paints all service trips with a broad negative brush. It claims that service trips are all about the people going on the trips, and those people looking good on social media. We’ve all seen the pictures of American teens surrounded by poor children. The thing is, for this current generation, everything is documented to social media. Whether it’s dining out, giving birth, or the Pinterest wedding, everything is now photographed for online publication. Is it odd that service trips are also so well photographed and shared? As long as the people being photographed have given permission, and the local culture is respected, is this a problem? Or does showing people the need in various areas of the world actually help to promote aid to those areas? Few would argue that’s it’s better to keep needs hidden. When these trips are healthy and respectful, everybody wins.

People attacking voluntourism without knowing the desires and goals of the people receiving the groups are actually showing incredible arrogance. “I know what’s better for them than they do.” This attitude of well-meaning American’s determining the wants and desires of people groups and cultures they know very little about is actually hugely condescending. Passing judgment on people without knowing them, their needs, and their wishes, is exactly the wrong thing to do. By going and visiting people where they are, talking to them, and getting to know them, real progress can be made. Call it voluntourism if you want to, but it’s a good thing.

Across the board, people in our area want more groups to come down. Even though some groups give just a half-hearted nod to a service project, they still bring huge benefits to our community. There is a reason every city in the US promotes tourism: people who visit buy food, supplies, and create jobs in the local community. Between the several ministries in our area, over 500 missions groups are hosted in our town of 4,000 people every year. These short-term mission teams and their projects are the economic engines that have brought our town from poverty to middle class in the last 15 years. Some groups have been less than great, but the overall effect has changed local lives for the better.

So how do you change the shape of voluntourism? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Respect the people and culture of wherever you are visiting. Always remember that the people you’re visiting aren’t there for your entertainment, they are just like you but from a different culture and background. Get to know them, talk to them, ask before you take a picture (or don’t take a picture at all). Treat them as you would want to be treated.
  2. Work on real, productive projects. The best way to do this is to find on-the-ground organizations who you can partner with. There are people in any area who know the needs that need to be addressed and how best to focus your efforts and resources. If you’re working on a project, by partnering with local organizations, you’re much better prepared to help, and not cause unintentional damage.
  3. Be honest with your funders. If you call your trip “missions” and have raised money under that title, be honest with yourself and your donors. Is this really just about missions or is it about tourism? If it’s just about you taking a trip, get a job and pay for it yourself. If it’s really about serving others and meeting needs, let people know how they can help. Taking an educational and touristy trip is fine, just be honest about it.

It comes down to respect for the people in the countries being visited. Travel is a good thing, it breaks down walls, changes opinions, and works against racism. If we can learn more about our world, our fellow man, and help others while we’re at it, it’s a good thing. Voluntourism suddenly doesn’t sound so bad.

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Avoid Turkeys In Your Life

TurkeysSeveral years ago there was a popular bumper sticker that said: “It’s hard to soar with eagles when you’re surrounded by turkeys.” Although it was meant as a joke, there is actually a great deal of truth in those few words. Who you surround yourself with has a significant impact on everything you do. Choose carefully who you spend your time with, and who is on your team. In missions, in orphan care, and in life, quality people make the difference.

I run a large orphanage in Baja Mexico together with an exceptional team. Everyone on our team gets one day off a week to get out and do whatever they want. Shopping, beach, whatever they feel they need to recharge their batteries for the non-stop work around here. Recently, a young man on our team, who typically never took his day off, started to disappear every Monday. Him going away isn’t a problem, but it became VERY regular for the exact same hours. I got kind of curious and asked him about it. It turns out, on his one day off from the work at our orphanage, he found a second orphanage caring for children rescued out of sex trafficking in Tijuana. So, on his one day off, he chose to help even more kids, in even rougher situations. I LOVE the quality and character of the members of our team. Every single one of them are humble servants.

Over the years we’ve had a considerable number of people join our staff for an extended time of six months or longer (usually much longer). We always make a focused effort to carefully get to know the person and have them spend some time here so we can watch them. We also perform several background checks before anyone gets the privilege of being part of what we do. This surprises a lot of people since these are volunteer positions. Think about that. We ask people to find their own support, and give up their plans for a chunk of their lives, to serve the children in our care. Most people assume we’ll take whoever we can get, but we turn away a lot of people.

“Wait a minute, you depend on volunteers, but you turn volunteers away?” Absolutely, some people bring more headaches than blessings. There is nothing more costly and stress-inducing than a bad volunteer. I have what I refer to as my “caller ID scale”: When a name pops up on my caller ID, and my first response is “cool,” that’s someone I want in my life. If caller ID pops up of someone I work with, and my first thought is “oh cr-p, what now,” is that person bringing blessing or stress? The minute you read the last sentence I’m sure a few people in your life came to mind. Our lives are better if most of the people we work and serve with are quality people who bring joy.

So who should you surround yourself with? Who should be on your team? Here are a few things to consider:

Do they accept when they’ve been wrong, or do they shift the blame to someone else? If someone owns their mistakes and learns from them, they bring peace to a situation and not drama. Adam in the garden was the first human to shift the blame: “She made me do it.” Man has been shifting blame (and blaming women) for all their problems ever since that day.

Do they have a servants heart? Jesus was the perfect servant, always looking to bless and encourage those around Him. We need more people in our lives that are ready to serve just because it’s the right thing to do, it honors God, and it brings joy.

Do they have a positive attitude? God is in control. God can use all things. If a person is always negative, always pointing out flaws, always expecting the worst, they do not have an accurate idea of who God is. They are also hard to be around.

The bottom line is are they humble. Humble is not putting yourself down, it’s not thinking of yourself at all. Humility focuses on building others up, serving others, and seeking to give God all the glory. Humility is not expecting anything in return for service and finding joy in other people receiving the blessing. Humility is a big deal, none of us get it right, but we need people in our lives who try.

Jesus spent time selecting the twelve that he would work with. He spent a great deal of time in prayer and knew who He was looking for. He worked with and taught everyone who came along but His inner circle was different, select, just the right ones. The twelve He selected weren’t perfect (some far from perfect) but He knew who He wanted on His team. Not a single apostle was an accident or just the first who showed up.

In missions, ministry, or almost any area of life, your team is a big deal. Yes, God can use anyone, but if you have the privilege of selecting your team, please do so with care. Nothing will impact your success or failure more in missions, and in life, than who you’re working with. You are only as good as the people you are partnering with, in any endeavor. Choose wisely, fly with eagles, avoid the turkeys.

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Reciprocal Missions – The Book

Screen Shot 2018-04-28 at 4.53.28 PMYou’ll notice this blog is a LITTLE different than my normal ramblings so I hope I don’t scare off my normal followers. (thanks for following by the way) This week marks what I hope is a milestone for the work I feel I’ve been called to. After more than a year of partnering with Phil Steiner, a fellow missionary with a heart for short-term missions, our book is available on Amazon. Reciprocal Missions – Short-term Missions that Serve Everyone (paperback or Kindle)

For anyone who’s met me, or read my blog, you know I’m passionate about short-term missions. Like many opinions I hold dear, not everyone agrees with me on this topic. There has been a great deal written in the last few years questioning the value of short-term mission projects. Some circles are condemning them as useless, damaging, or a waste of money. I get that, I’ve seen my share of mission trips that should have never happened. But, I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life hosting short-term mission teams here at our orphanage, and I can tell you without a doubt, short-term missions can change lives.

In Missions the idea of unintended consequences is nothing new. Well-meaning people trying to fix a problem can sometimes create a whole new set of problems. The fight against human trafficking has had a detrimental effect on international adoptions, the worthy effort to protect vulnerable children is causing unintended consequences or preventing adoptions. The consequences of people pointing out the many problems of short-term missions is that, unfortunately, many people have given up on short-term missions altogether. There is a lot to criticize, but that’s true of just about any human endeavor. We need to take a nuanced look at whatever we do and work to improve when we can. If we stopped doing everything that was challenging, we would be sitting on the couch the rest of our lives. God wants us to be challenged; He wants us to stretch and try new things, this is how we grow into the people we’re intended to be.

There is something God does in the hearts and lives of His people when they step out of their comfort zone, travel to a new place, and spend time observing and participating in ministry in cultures different from their own. We are part of a rich, dynamic, wonderful collection of believers around the world. It’s impactful and life-changing to go out and build relationships with fellow believers in central America, Africa, Cuba, or any area you might have a chance to serve.

Just like any effective ministry, in missions, relationships are key. Healthy, reciprocal relationships are critical to successful short-term mission trips. Without them, we will continue to do damage and be ineffective. The book we’ve released is a guide to help people navigate short-term missions in a way that honors everyone: the teams going, the ministries hosting, and the local communities.

Our book, Reciprocal Missions, has a slightly different flow than most. Phil (my co-author) and I each work through a section from our perspective—a topic in our particular area of expertise; then the other will briefly chime in, sharing their short take on the topic. I write from the perspective of the mission host; having received and hosted groups for over 25 years. Phil writes from the perspective of the short-term trip facilitator, bringing 20 years of experience leading groups into effective service and educational experiences. Our goal is that the dialogue provides insights into best practices for healthy short-term missions.

Purchase the paperback here               Purchase the Kindle here

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Orphans Are A Big Deal To God

pexels-photo-798096Anyone who works with orphaned or abandoned children can quote James 1:27 by heart: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” It’s the go-to verse whenever one is teaching or sharing about orphan care. But references to orphans, and God’s heart for the orphan, are sprinkled throughout the Bible. If we want to care about the things that are important to God, orphans and orphan care need to be in that mix.

Below are a few biblical themes that come up often regarding orphans:

God has deep compassion for orphans: Hosea 14:3 “For in You the fatherless find compassion.” Psalm 68:5 “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows, is God in his holy habitation.” There are verses throughout the Bible that teach us that God has great compassion for the fatherless. He has profound and endless love for His children. He hurts for those who are hurting and seeks to comfort them. Biblically, it is clear that caring for orphans is close to the heart of God. His heart is with the outcast, those that society looks down on. Our God is one of profound compassion.

God seeks justice for orphans: Isaiah 1:17 “Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” We live in a broken world. There are great injustices in this world and there will be until we die. Different forms of abuse, corruption, and abandoned children are just a few of the many unjust issues that are so common. We are surrounded by so much pain that it’s easy to become blind to it. God is not. As painful as it might be, we cannot live in denial to the vile things that go on all around us. If we are walking with our Lord, we need to be defending those in need, the fatherless, those who can not defend themselves. Justice is a fundamental part of God’s character. He seeks to correct injustices and we are called to do the same. Psalm 82:3-4 “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

God’s people Share Their Resources with Orphans: Deuteronomy 10:18 “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.” Deuteronomy 14:29 “And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.” We are called to give to others. We can not get around this one. Most people reading this have been richly blessed financially, and we need to be acutely aware that all this blessing isn’t ours. The riches we have are God’s, and we have a responsibility to use them for His glory and His work. I’m a big believer in having a “diversified portfolio” of giving. Yes, give to the church, but then spread the funds around to causes that matter to God. There are well-run organizations around the world who know how to use what little they have to create great impact for the Kingdom, and orphan care. Seek out responsible, well run organizations and back them. Money is like cow manure, spread it around and it can do some good, just stack it up and it really stinks.

God has adopted us into His Family, He wants us to do the same for others. John 14:18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” We have the incredible privilege to call God our Father. Through nothing we have done, other than accept this gift, we have been adopted into His family, and the family of believers. We have been given a Heavenly Father and countless brothers and sister in this world. By being adopted into this grand family, we are part of something richer and more profound than anything we can imagine. For an orphan or abandoned child, they know they are alone in this world, and they hurt to belong to a family. We might not think we could ever actually adopt a child, but it is something to consider. There is no greater gift we can give to another person than adopting them into our family. God has done this for us. If we can, we need to pay it forward. If we can’t adopt, we can help those who have or are adopting.

Orphan care is near to the heart of God. As we grow in our relationship with Him, we begin to take on His image. As we grow in our faith, our compassion for those hurting around us needs to grow. Our compassion for the abandoned, and caring for the orphaned and abandoned around us is a natural progression of our faith. Find your way to care for orphans. It’s important to God, it needs to be important to us.

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