Random Affection in Orphanages

orphanchildOne of the realities of orphan care is that everybody considers themselves an authority. Just like parenting styles in a traditional family, opinions on orphanage styles tend to shift frequently on how to “do it better.” These opinions change depending on what’s trending in any given year. In the last few years, there’s been a lot written on the potentially harmful effects of too many visitors on the children in an orphanage. After working full-time in orphan care for over 25 years, I could not disagree more.

The current theory states that having visitors in orphanages on a regular basis leads to attachment disorder problems later in life because the children are bonding with random, different strangers every week. In my experience, children raised in dysfunctional orphanages will have a wide range of emotional problems later in life, just as anyone raised in a dysfunctional family. If the children are bonding with random strangers every week, this means there are many underlying problems in the orphanage already. The bonding issue is just a symptom.

Let’s look at two scenarios:

Scenario 1) In our orphanage we have more visitors than almost any orphanage in the world. In a typical year, we host around 280 groups and have other “drop by” visitors on a regular basis. We enjoy hosting the groups, we enjoy leading them into service and short-term missions, and we believe when well-managed, these visits are healthy for everyone. So how do we avoid the random attachment? First, we have solid, consistent staff and plenty of them. Our children do bond with adults, but it’s with consistent adults in their lives. We have excellent child to staff ratios (about 4 to 1) and minimal staff turnover. Second, although we have a tremendous amount of visitors we intentionally limit the time they have with our children. We limit the visiting hours with our infants and toddlers, but more importantly, we encourage all of our groups to stay with us but travel out daily to serve in the community or with other ministries in the area. Our children see the “visitors” as just that, visitors dropping by to see our family. The majority of children who grow up in our home go on to have healthy marriages and families. In spite of all the visitors, most of our children turn out okay.

Scenario 2) In an orphanage that is understaffed and overcrowded, the children will seek random affection from any visitor that comes through. You can see this when you first arrive in a home. If children above the age of five are running over to hang on you and ask to be held, they’re starved for affection. A normal, well-adjusted 10-year-old doesn’t just walk up to a random stranger seeking physical contact; this is a symptom of much deeper issues in an orphanage. The children are not bonding with the staff and are severely lacking affection. They WILL have problems bonding later in life without a tremendous amount of healing. Most children raised in poorly run orphanages eventually produce children that wind up back in the system and have a tough time with healthy relationships. (Just like too many children from foster care.)

So how does someone, or a mission team, respond to these two examples? If you’re dealing with a healthy orphanage, one that has well-adjusted kids and is well run, continue to back their work. Find out what their needs are and keep supporting a healthy situation. Help them to continue to provide what their children need.

If you’re working with a home that’s not so great, it gets complicated quickly. A few years ago we were helping an orphanage near us that was a pit. The orphanage was overcrowded, filthy, and the children were deeply starved for affection. We were praying for a change in that home but did not have a lot of hope with the current management. With eyes wide open to the situation, we continued to send teams to that orphanage on day trips. The teams would clean, prepare meals, and spend time with the children in need of attention. I would encourage the teams by telling them “This home will probably never change, but for one memorable day, those children can know someone cares about them.” With these “hit and run” trips it was far from perfect, but it was giving these children something.

Everyone knows that eating junk food all the time makes for a lousy diet. In a perfect world, we would all have access to regular, healthy, balanced meals. If someone is starving, the standards drop, and junk food is better than no food. If a child was starving, and all we had to give them was a candy bar, that candy bar would mean the world to them. Long term, you would hope that the situation would change, but I don’t think anyone would withhold the candy bar because it’s not the ideal, healthy option. “Junk food” affection, when it’s the only real option, is better than no affection at all. People not visiting an orphanage to avoid this attachment and bonding problem does not suddenly make healthy bonding occur if the orphanage is understaffed and poorly run.

Caring for orphaned and abandoned children is obviously a complicated issue. It’s an issue that has been around for thousands of years and will not be going away soon. To believe that not visiting orphanages will help the situation is like saying not providing services and meals to homeless will end the homeless situation across America. I wish orphanages didn’t exist, but if they have to exist, they should be great, and they need our help.

Please, continue to follow the fundamental teaching of our Christian faith in regards to orphan care:

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. James 1:27

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Service Muscle Memory

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Most people have heard of muscle memory. It’s our body’s way of learning repeated actions so deeply that we can react or move with little or no thought. A trained soccer player doesn’t have to analyze every kick. The player instinctively knows the optimal way to impact the ball and send it in the right direction. Bigger game strategies are worked out, but the instinctive reactions during a game flow from thousands of hours of dedicated, consistent practice. We do this every day with actions that we repeat over and over again: brushing our teeth, starting our car, etc. Whenever we drive somewhere daily and automatically take the same route without thinking about it, it’s muscle memory in action.

Studies show that to create a habit takes about 30 days. The longer we do anything consistently in our lives, the patterns build, and it’s easier to continue those patterns. If you’re quitting smoking the first few days can be gruesome, but eventually, after a few weeks, it becomes easier. If we’re starting an exercise program, those first few days can be hard, but if we keep at it for four weeks, six weeks, eight weeks it becomes ingrained and a regular part of our lives. That’s not saying that we won’t occasionally slip up, but the slip-ups become less frequent if we’re consistent with any habit over time.

So how does this apply to our spiritual walk? It’s important to evaluate our spiritual muscle memory. How do we immediately react to whatever situation comes up? When we suffer a loss in our life, do we react with anger? Or do we trust that God sees a bigger picture? When we feel we’ve been wronged by another person, do we lash out? Or do we forgive, seek to heal, and have grace for others? When we encounter someone in need, do we seek how to help? Or do we avoid eye contact and move on with our lives? Our first reaction to any situation is a good indication of our spiritual health and an example of our spiritual muscle memory in action.

We need to develop and train our spiritual, service muscle memory daily. Only with ongoing, faithful practice of healthy spiritual reactions will we grow in the perfect image of Christ. We need to embrace good service habits and allow them to grow into muscle memory.

One of the many attributes of Christ is service. Jesus spent the bulk of his time focused on those around Him. He spent His time healing, teaching, encouraging, feeding, blessing whenever He came into contact with others. During the last supper, the last night he had with the apostles, Jesus could have taught on anything. He chose foot washing, an example of service with profound symbolism at that time; it was the lowest servants who would perform this act for others. Jesus felt it was important to close out his training with the apostles by giving them this deep, powerful example of service. If we call ourselves a “follower of Christ,” and we are not actively, humbly, serving others in our day-to-day lives, we are hypocrites.

So how do we develop our service muscle memory? Practice, practice, practice. Service doesn’t have to be a huge, dramatic, sacrificial act. We are given thousands of opportunities every day to serve others if we keep our eyes open to them. A kind word to a stranger in a store, providing an open ear to somebody going through difficulties, just sending someone an encouraging message on Facebook, these are all acts of service. Jesus always had His eyes open to those hurting and in need around Him. Daily service to others should be our goal also.

A few years ago my wife and I were traveling on a missions trip to a very small, impoverished country in the middle of Africa. We landed in the tiny rundown airport and inside we faced an overwhelming crush of humanity. We had been warned beforehand to avoid “the people in the orange vests” who would try to grab our luggage to help us move it to the taxis to get tips. After collecting our team and luggage, I turned around, and my wife was gone. After what seemed like a long time, and me having a mild panic attack, I see my wife walking out of the restroom arm in arm with a frail teenage girl wearing an orange vest. My wife had gone to use the restroom and shared a kind word with this girl she noticed at the counter. This young girl needed those words, at that moment in her life. My wife’s service muscle memory kicked in, and she reached out to this girl in need. She didn’t cure cancer, she didn’t end world hunger, but she shared an example of Christ’s love to a scared teenage girl.

Who can you serve today? Go and practice that service muscle memory. Let your life follow in that perfect example of service we see in Jesus Christ.

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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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Who Will Guide You Into Missions?

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We all need people in our lives to guide us, to teach us, to keep us from making a mess of things. Without a guide, we stumble along and we MIGHT find our way to whatever goal we’re seeking, but the odds are against us. We need someone to shine the light on our path and show us what to do, and just as important, what to avoid.

In 1953 Sir Edmond Hillary was just a man from New Zealand with a very ambitious goal. He wanted to be the first to climb Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. He was in great shape, he was bright, he had deep funding, but he didn’t have what it would ultimately take to climb that mountain. He needed a guide. He needed someone who knew the area, the way around the obstacles, what to watch out for. He needed someone with on-the-ground experience with all the pitfalls and shortcuts. He found that guide in a local sherpa named Tenzing Norgay. Working together, Sir Edmond and Tenzing accomplished what no one had done before; they climbed that mountain. What is your missions “mountain?” What kind of guide do you need to reach your mountain top?

You might already have a great relationship with an organization, missionary, or pastor in whatever country you’re traveling to. If you feel good about who you’re serving alongside, fantastic, stay with them. Finding a stable, trustworthy ministry partner is rarer than you might think. Continue to work with them, back them, and continue to build that relationship. But, if you’re just starting out, or want to look around at other options for short-term missions, here are a few things to think about.

You need someone to guide you into a productive short-term missions trip where your team has a real impact, and your team has a deep, real, life changing experience. Ministry is all about the relationships. You need to find someone, or some organization, in a healthy place that you feel good about. Someone you can build a relationship with. Like any relationship, nothing is perfect, but there are signs when it’s the right connection. You make judgments like this all the time with friends, church involvement, when finding a spouse, etc.

The following are not in any order; it’s not a complete list, OR are all qualities required to do a good job. These are just some things to consider.

Is the hosting ministry bearing fruit? This can be hard to determine without building a relationship first, but it’s a basic sign of good spiritual health. Are they just surviving, or are they growing? Are people drawn to their ministry, or do people leave and not come back? Honestly, your team probably won’t make a significant impact on your own in a few days. But if you’re backing, and building up, a healthy established ministry, you will help them to continue the work long after you’re gone.

Are they building THE Kingdom or their kingdom? If any ministry is healthy, it’s working together with others in the community and seeking ways to reach beyond their walls to serve others. Does your host organization have good working relationships with other ministries in the area? Are they excited about sending groups out to serve in the community or with other ministries? Or do they have the groups they host paint the same wall over and over again as long as it’s their wall? These sound like some fundamental issues but, as in a healthy church, a healthy missions hosting team is looking to build up anyone doing God’s work, not just their own ministry. We should all be rooting for other’s success in ministry. It’s not a competition, and we really do all serve the same boss.

Do they have good “customer service?” I know this sounds odd, but a good indication of how they’ll host you is how they respond to emails. If it seems like getting information from them to help you along is a battle, odds are it will be the same when you’re standing in front of them. A professionally run ministry is, sadly, kind of rare. Good communication is the basic building block of all relationships; it needs to happen in healthy ministry also. That being said, please have some grace for those serving, most people serving in missions are overworked and exhausted. Emails can slip by, but it is something to take note of.

The BIG question to ask your self is: Why are they hosting us? The motivation to receive and host groups can have MANY different answers, and that’s OK. Mixed motivations are the norm in any situation. Almost nothing is 100%. Do they want to help lead you in your vision to serve? Do they want you to partner with them in what they see God doing? Do they want this trip to be life changing and meaningful for your team? There is also the question that nobody talks about: Do they host groups ONLY for the money and as a way to build their financial support? There is nothing wrong with having groups support the ministry, it’s part of the deal and expected, but it shouldn’t be the priority when a group is being hosted. A pastor wants to lead his flock and minister to their needs; he still needs to pay the bills. If a pastor’s only motivation is financial, it’s a problem. We all have mixed motivations, but with hosting organizations, as in church, the priorities are important. This relationship you want to build goes both ways, examining expectations and motivations are important in any relationship.

No one is perfect. No ministry, missionary, or church is perfect. But we need to come along healthy people to guide us. None of us can do it on our own, none of us can climb that mountain without our sherpa. Go and find your Tenzing Norgay and let him help you climb your mountain.

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“Do No Harm” in Short-Term Missions

pexels-photo-209235With the flooding in Texas right now many people are jumping up to do what they can. They’re reacting to the horrible images we’ve all seen by heading out to help, this is a great thing. I truly respect anyone willing to step out of their own lives to help others in need, we all need to grow in this, but we need to do it in a mature and wise manner. None of us wants to add to an already difficult, complicated situation.

As an important step in becoming a doctor, medical students must take the Hippocratic Oath. One of the basics of that oath is “first, do no harm” or “primum non nocere,” They need to treat their patient in a way that does not harm them. They can’t experiment, or rush in to “heal” them, if they don’t know that what they’re doing will be beneficial. It might be a good idea for anyone going into short term missions, or serving in an extreme situation, to take this same oath. So often, we rush in with well-meaning intentions but wind up making the situation worse than it already is.

There is an endless list of examples of well-meaning plans that went sidewise once they were put into action. Unintended consequences can have effects way beyond what most people would even consider. There’s a story of how cities across the north east US changed the traffic lights to LED technology. LED lights are cheaper to operate, they last a VERY long time, what could go wrong? Well, LED lights don’t heat up. Once the snows hit, the traffic lights would fill with snow and without the heat from the old-school lights it would just sit there blocking the signals. People had to go around with brooms on long sticks to knock the snow out of the traffic lights. No one saw this coming; no one realized the unintended consequence of this well-intended action.

Often, at first glance, a missions idea to “help” might sound like an excellent idea and an act of generosity. The results of our actions might ripple out in ways we might have never considered.

I know of one local church in our town that hosts a lot of groups. Out of an abundance of hospitality, the pastor feels he needs to offer the visiting leaders the pulpit on Sunday. What winds up happening is the church might go several weeks without hearing their own pastor teach. They hear from a line of well meaning people who they don’t know, in a language that needs to be translated. The visiting pastors don’t know the needs of the congregation or where they are spiritually. These visiting pastors mean well but hold the church back. Unintended consequences.

Here at our orphanage, we’ve had well-meaning people visit and pass out loose change to our kids. They think they’re blessing the kids when they see them light up at receiving this money. Well, if you were visiting a family in the US would you just randomly pass out cash to their kids? It’s just weird. Also, by groups doing this, it teaches our kids to beg or manipulate guests in our home. Before they came to us, many of our children were begging to survive. We try VERY hard to teach our kids how to work for extras in life and not to beg. By people kindly passing out quarters, they’re working directly against some of our goals here with the children in our care.

I’ve seen very well-meaning groups come into a community, find a local pastor, and offer to build a church building from the ground up. On the surface, it might sound great. In a bigger picture, fully funding a church build usually sets up an unhealthy dynamic. Does that Church congregation have emotional ownership of their church if they have no skin in the game? Are they learning to share and give to the church if they think their “widows mite” isn’t needed? It’s incredibly healthy when a congregation comes together to work towards a common goal. I’m not saying we shouldn’t support and help churches in the missions field, but by doing everything for them, we’re not allowing them to grow in a normal healthy fashion.

So how do you go on a missions trip and not do more harm than good? The best way to move forward with any missions trip is to prayerfully consider our impact, both positive and negative, in any community we’re going to serve. Along with prayer, one of the most important things we can do is partner with, and listen to, an on the ground ministry already serving long-term in that area. These are the people who’s ministries are either blessed by your visit, or are left to clean up the rubble. Organizations hosting groups in Mexico, Haiti, or any country in Africa have seen and worked with a lot of groups. They know what works, what doesn’t work, and how to leverage the skills and resources you want to provide. Let them guide you into a productive, helpful trip for all involved.

Here is one example of how subtly shifting a project will bring it from harmful to beneficial. We have teams that want to do food distribution for families in poorer areas. They might hit Walmart in a nearby city, buy lots of groceries in bulk, and bag them up for distribution. Yes, they are providing food and a blessing for families in the community. But what are they doing to the local mini-marts and farmers markets who are losing sales? Most small stores are barely staying open with what little sales they have in poorer areas. The result of this short-term blessing might be people in the community losing jobs. If that same group buys locally, they might pay a little more for the groceries, but along with blessing the families in need they would be pouring money into the local community and help to keep businesses and jobs moving forward.

With subtle, wise shifting, our efforts can have the desired positive impact that we want to bring. Maybe instead of preaching at a local church, ask to participate and listen to what the local pastor is teaching that week. Maybe instead of passing out loose change to kids in an orphanage, we can find ways to bless the over-worked staff who most people ignore. Whether it’s food or construction materials, maybe we should buy locally whenever possible. Maybe for every person on our team pouring that concrete slab, we commit to hiring a local construction worker to help for the day.

We’re called to serve, and I believe short term missions can and does change lives for all those involved. Go, serve, give, but please: do no harm.

 

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.

On a few occasions, I’ve had the incredible privilege of walking a couple through premarital counseling. Along with the standard bits of wisdom, one of the first things I tell them is not to worry about the wedding itself. The wedding is just a three-hour party. Just as no marriage is perfect, no wedding is perfect. The cake will fall over, the band won’t show up, crazy Aunt Bertha will show up drunk. Invariably more than a few things will go wrong. Weddings are a lot like life, if you expect them to be perfect, then you’re going to be disappointed. We’re better off embracing the messy and flowing with it.

For some reason, many people who organize short term missions, like people who plan weddings, set some fairly unrealistic expectations for what they want to happen. It’s good to work for the best, to have a quality and impactful trip. But more often than not when we go to serve others, it doesn’t always work out the way we planned. Managing our expectations is important. We have a simple choice: We can become frustrated with the difficulties, or we can flow with it and enjoy the mess. We need to realize that God sees a much bigger picture and ultimately very little of what goes on is in our control anyway. Sometimes we’re the mess.

Recently our ministry here in Baja was presented with a special opportunity to serve a local need. A family with three children were living in a small camping trailer with a small shed built next to it. Unfortunately, a small fire turned into a large fire and, although they got out safely, the family lost everything they owned. They are not believers; we saw this as an outstanding opportunity to demonstrate God’s love.

As a side ministry here, we coordinate home construction for needy families in our community. We normally spend months planning a home-build, partnering with groups from the US who help with both funding and labor. The need of this particular family was immediate so we couldn’t follow through with our normal system. We saw it as a wonderful chance for several ministries in our valley to work together to bless this family. At a hastily called meeting with various local ministry leaders, people brought what they could to the table to help this family. One ministry was able to help with some funding, one had some extra doors and windows, several helped with labor. It was inspiring to see everybody step up to help and how the odd mix of ministries worked together. In less than two weeks we were able to build this family a cute little house that was nicer than what had burned down. The body of Christ was working smoothly together to serve those in need. So what could go wrong? Remember, people are messy.

As the teams were finishing as much work on the house as we had resources for, the family realized it wasn’t going to be as nice as they expected. No, we weren’t going to be able to finish out the shower. No, we weren’t going to be able to complete the interior paint or install the doorknobs. The family was given a home that was nicer than what they had before and their reaction was not one of thanksgiving. They were going to complain and push for more. Not exactly the response we expected or wanted. Very messy.

There is a very long history of ministry not turning out the way it’s expected to. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus heals the ten lepers and only one returns to give thanks and glory to God. Jesus knew that was going to happen, we’re not that bright.

The point of all this is that God almost never guarantees the outcome we are expecting or working towards. That’s not the plan. God calls us to go and do the will of our Father and represent Him well. Being pleasing to God is more than enough. People very likely won’t appreciate our efforts; they might not say “thank you.” The “right number” of people might not come forward at an outreach, the family we build a house for might not be happy with our work. If that bothers us too much we might need to examine our motivation: Are we doing this for the approval of men or of God? If we’re doing it for the approval of men, maybe we’re the ones bringing the mess to the party.

In missions, as in life, God sees a much bigger panorama. In looking back at the house we built that wasn’t appreciated, I can see how God used everything for his purposes. We were called to serve, so we served, that should be plenty. We didn’t receive thanks from the family, but we do believe God was pleased. It also lead to some great discussions: How often does God pour out His blessings on us only to have us reject them, complain, or ask for more?

Go and serve, but always remember who you are truly serving. Embrace and enjoy the messiness.

For information on our home builds, please see: Home building program

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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