Changing the Memories

pexels-photo-1596882We all have childhood memories that stand out. It might be a specific Christmas, a family vacation, maybe it’s just a moment from your childhood where the smells, sights, and emotions are still vivid in your mind. That time you sang karaoke with your dad, or when you made cookies with your mom. I hope these memories bring joy when they appear at those random moments. For children in orphanages or foster care, many of the memories they carry do not bring joy. It is our responsibility to tip the balance of good to bad memories in the right direction.

For most people caring for children at risk, the focus is on the basics. They might not have the know-how or resources to work on anything past keeping the children alive. In many areas of the world, orphanages struggle to stay open. It’s a day-to-day challenge to keep food on the table and the lights on. If the absolute basics are covered, you can start the next level of healing and restoration. As with anyone, the hierarchy of needs kicks in. The basics first, then the extras.

When a child first comes into a home, even if it is a stable, well-run home, the fear of uncertainty can take a long time to overcome. Food hoarding is very common with new children; they aren’t sure when they will be fed again because they weren’t fed where they were before. It takes time and consistency to bring a child to the point of moving forward. They also have a hierarchy of needs. If they don’t feel secure in the basics, they can not begin the healing process.

Once you’ve reached the level of providing the foundational needs, and a child knows at a profound level that they are in a safe place, the long process of healing can commence. A new chapter in their story can be written.

Joyful childhood memories are not created in a moment or an event; they are built over time. Childhood memories are a rich tapestry of intertwining threads brought together to create an overall image. It should be an image of joy, security, a connectedness that we all need. Only by consistently blending in the bright colors can you begin to soften the dark tapestry that has been the assembled experiences of a wounded child. You can never fully cover the darkness that exists, but you can brighten the edges, you can lighten the right areas. The darkness of the past, when handled correctly, can ultimately bring a greater depth to the child’s image of life. With God’s healing touch, those dark areas can be richly used down the road. God can use the dark experiences to bring empathy and understanding. But this healing doesn’t happen easily, or quickly, it takes years of security to bring perspective as a child matures.

It’s the collective details that matter. Not that we have all of the answers, but in our home, we have found that consistency and traditions go a long way to bring a sense of security into a child’s life.

One of the first things the other children tell a new child in our home is how OUR tooth fair works. I have a large ceramic jar on my desk, when a child loses a tooth, they know to bring it to my office, drop the tooth in the jar, and get the cash. (Yes, I know it’s disgusting, but I have decades of teeth in that jar.) Occasionally a child will come over with a convincing tooth-like rock to trick me; I’ve learned to ask to see the hole where the tooth came out. While writing this, two different children came over to show me their loose teeth, so I know to be prepared. We’ve had adults, raised in our home, come back years later and casually reach over to shake the jar to see how full it is. It’s a memory they’ve carried forward and blended into their tapestry.

My wife hates the backend of what we do, the fundraising, the paperwork. The public side of our work makes her crazy. She wants to be mom; she wants to create those memories. She gives every single hair cut; it’s an automatic one-on-one time with every child. They can talk, spend time together, and experience the moment. My wife also makes the birthday cakes, in a BIG way. Every child gets an elaborate custom cake on their birthday. Some of the older kids have started to help, learning baking and cake decorating, frequently decorating cakes for their own siblings. To most kids in ordinary families, a birthday cake is expected, usually picked up from Costco or the grocery store. For a child in a care situation, a cake means the world. It’s not uncommon for their first cake here to be the first cake of their lives. Also, to have that level of attention in a crowd of children in a home shows them that they are unique and deserving of honor. A cake to an orphan is not just eggs, flour, and sugar; it’s healing.

If you work in foster care or with orphans, thank you. Working with children as risk is hard work and not for the faint of heart. I hope that you’ve moved past the basics and are working to create new, better, richer memories for the children in your care. Whether it’s the tooth fairy, a birthday cake, or any other detail that creates special memories, always remember how important it is. It might not seem like it at the time, but you are working to create a new tapestry for a child, you are tipping the balance of memories in the right direction. The details you create bring healing to a child.

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How to Melt a Snowflake

Snowman with a blank placard on the snowSome good friends of mine run a ministry coordinating short-term mission trips to an inspiring orphanage in Ghana (see links below). Some of the students and adults they bring to Ghana are from affluent areas of California and have been protected from the bulk of reality most of their lives. You know the type, people quickly offended by anything and easily “triggered.” I once joked with the leaders that they’re the first people to transport snowflakes into Ghana. Yes, it’s a corny joke. But to push the joke further, the best way to melt a snowflake is to apply heat. These trips are exceptional at melting snowflakes.

More and more, American society is easily offended. Many comedians now refuse to work the college circuit because anything they joke about offends everyone in the room. Politicians need to check every word and phrase before they speak. People are afraid to hear from others who they do not agree with, as if they might bruise if they hear or see something that doesn’t confirm their own beliefs. It’s harder and harder to have intelligent discussions on any topic without it becoming a polarizing issue. Try bringing up vaccinations, gun control, immigration, veganism, or any other topic and wait for the reactions to begin. The idea that other people might have beliefs different than ours and still be functioning intelligent people, in no small degree, has been lost.

So how do we, and others, begin to lose the snowflake mentality? By leaving our sheltered routine and meeting people outside our circle. We change and grow by exposing ourselves to new cultures, new experiences, and new people. Our world becomes bigger, as we realize how big the world is. We grow when we stop and listen, to really pay attention, to what the other person is saying.

There’s something powerful and life-changing about stepping out of our normal routine. Wherever you are in life, odds are your routine is fairly set. You have the same job, working with the same people. You probably attend a church with people who look a lot like you and from the same income bracket. When you eat out, you probably rotate the same restaurants over and over: burgers, Italian, Mexican, repeat. This is not a judgment; it’s just an observation. People naturally fall into a routine in their lives. Sometimes, it’s good to mix things up a little. God generally speaks to us on the mountaintop, not in line at our regular Starbucks.

Before my wife and I moved to Mexico, semi-regular short term mission trips were an essential part of our lives. The trips we took both as individuals before we met, and later traveling together were life-changing and broadening experiences for both of us. These short-term trips are where we first felt the call to full-time missions. Once we were living in Mexico and actively involved in orphan care, people assumed our days of short-term missions work were over. My wife continues to take frequent trips with our local church to mainland Mexico, and we’ve both been to Africa several times. Our lives, and our faith, require that we break up the routine. We all need to take a chance and serve alongside people outside our usual circle of influence.

My first trip to Africa had a profound impact on my approach to ministry and orphan care. We had already been caring for orphans in Mexico for many years, and I thought I had a handle on it. I was (and still am) an idiot. In Malawi, I was exposed to a level of financial poverty that was life-altering. It’s one thing to read about or watch documentaries on extreme poverty, it’s an entirely other thing to experience life with people living in those situations. We saw deep pain, as a mother begged us to take her four-year-old son so he could have a better life. We also experienced people with a depth of faith that put ours to shame. It was two weeks of an emotional workout, and we were stronger for it.

As the years of ministry pass by, I’ve become a passionate advocate of short-term missions. Yes, when short-term teams are managed correctly, they can have a powerful and positive impact, but the individuals on the teams are also impacted. Horizons are broadened, minds are opened, and the seeds of empathy are planted or expanded as people experience new cultures.

If you, or people in your influence, seem to be a little too easily offended, you might have a snowflake issue going on. Think about spending some time serving others for a week or so. Let the cold, self-righteous attitude of the snowflake melt away as it’s exposed to warmth.

To plan a trip to Ghana or to Mexico, please contact Be2live, or contact me directly through this blog.

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The Loss of Family in Orphan Care

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Where Do Babies Come From?

pexels-photo-2760338Part of the job when running a large orphanage is answering a LOT of questions from people you meet. There is something about orphan care that brings out the curiosity in just about anyone. People hear stories or make assumptions about this type of work all the time. Don’t you get government funding? (No) Do you handle a lot of adoptions? (No) Do you ever get threatened by family members? (No) Can you use my old clothing? (Maybe) The questions seem to come from anyone we meet. We get it; there is something about orphan care that affects people at a different level than your average job. No offense to accountants or plumbers, but these jobs, while needed, don’t inspire deep, life-altering questions too often. 

There’s a reason almost every superhero is an orphan: Batman, Superman, Spiderman, etc. There is just something about the story of a child alone in the world that brings up emotions and reactions in anyone. It’s part of our collective human experience to be drawn to the orphan story.

One of the top five questions we get is, “Where do the children come from?” I sometimes respond with, “Soooo, you’re asking me where babies come from?” This usually gets an awkward laugh. I find a little humor helps to soften the harsh realities of what we do. The question of why children wind up in orphanages is never pleasant. This is complicated work. When you’re dealing with young children, often coming from traumatic circumstances, the realities are not what most people want to think about.

The question of why children come to an orphanage is, like any social work, profoundly complicated. Every case is different and tragic. The family unit is the ideal and ordained place for a child to be. No child belongs in a system. Unfortunately, we live in a deeply broken world made up of people who are frequently struggling with complicated and deep issues. Some people, unfortunately, should never have children or should never be let near children. With our home, most of our children are referred to us by Mexico’s version of Child Protective Service (DIF). Why they are brought to our home varies wildly.

The first assumption from people is that the many children in our home are orphans. The truth is, actual orphans, where both parents have died and there is no extended family to step in, are pretty rare. Unless you’re dealing with AIDS, war, or some catastrophic natural event, the odds of both parents of a young child dying are pretty slim. Children wind up in orphanages for much darker and varied reasons. I know that sounds odd: darker than dead parents? The truth is, this is a dark and sad world in which we live. The short answer to why children are in orphanages is: sin.

Parents unavailable to care for a child is one reason children are placed in orphanages or foster care. They might care about their child but are dealing with their own issues: prison, re-hab, etc. Often they can barely care for themselves, much less small children who need loving attention. They might be released from prison or overcome their addictions, but it takes time if it happens at all. These children need a safe place to wait and see if their parents ever recover.

Some children wind up in orphanages due to severe neglect or abuse. After twenty-five years in this line of work, you can imagine the nightmarish stories we’ve seen. Acts of neglect and abuse cut across all social and economic situations. There are just a lot of profoundly messed up people in this world. Unfortunately, broken people frequently take out their issue on the most vulnerable members of society, children. Many children wind up in orphanages coming directly from some horrific situations.

Oddly, the parents of children in our home I appreciate most are the ones who abandon their children. Dropping off infants in hospitals or other areas, or bringing older children directly to organizations like ours, people sometimes just leave their children. At least in the majority of cases, these people are self-aware enough to know that they would make horrible parents or can not give their child what they need. In most cases, they want what is best for their child, and they know they cannot provide that.

Some people assume that children wind up in orphanages due to financial hardship. In our experience, this is actually pretty rare. If we do believe it’s a straight economic issue, we will do everything in our power to keep those families together.

As you can see, why children come to an orphanage is a complicated question. The only constant is that it should never happen. No child belongs in a system or institution. Unfortunately, in every country in the world, children are born into circumstances that require long-term care where a family is not in the picture. Orphans are near to the heart of God, and we as a church and a society need to do better when it comes to orphan care.

Everyone knows where babies come from. The complicated question is, what do you do with them once they arrive?

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People are Messy

messyWe recently had someone write an extended angry rant in a message to our Facebook page. They were pissed. Thankfully it was a private message. Almost no one likes it when people are mad at them, but sometimes it’s going to happen. If you’re in ministry and you don’t get a few people frustrated now and then you’re doing it wrong. Jesus’ actions and comments had many people upset. We are a long way from Jesus, but it’s nice to know we sometimes get the same reactions as He did. You might be asking, “What did you do that got that person so angry that they would lash out?” We turned down his donation.

We get odd offers and requests from people all the time; frequently, they are great donations or other creative ways people would like to help us in our efforts. We would rarely turn down any contribution, but occasionally, it’s just not a “fit.” This, I believe, well-meaning gentleman offered us a large number of professionally framed paintings. These were, apparently, very valuable paintings. He suggested we could auction them off or use them as a fundraising tool to help our large orphanage. OK, seems fine so far, we always appreciate it when people have creative ways to help, and especially help with fundraising.

Once we expressed interest in the paintings, he sent a large file with pictures of the art. This is where it quickly got awkward. The paintings, although tastefully done, were twelve, over-sized, lifelike paintings of nude females. OK, this was a new one. My wife and I thought at first it might be someone pulling a joke. The idea of us displaying this extensive collection at a silent auction or some other event was just too weird to consider. It was simply not a fit for our ministry or almost any ministry that comes to mind. We, as tactfully as we could, explained our reasoning and turned down the donation. It was the right decision, but that didn’t change how offended he was that we would turn away his prized art.

The above story is one of many I could share of awkward moments in ministry. The time a team set up a full bar in our group housing area, the people who skip out on paying for their housing when they stay on site with us, the people who show up in yoga pants at the orphanage here in a conservative culture. (Yoga pants are just awkward anywhere …it’s never a good look.) So what’s the point of sharing this list of examples? People are messy, and until we embrace this fact, we don’t understand the point of grace. We are all messy.

In hosting many short term missions teams and visitors, we see a broad range of attitudes, agendas, and levels of maturity. With many of our visitors, we are in awe of their generosity and willingness to serve the many children in our care. For some of our groups, we occasionally smile, internally roll our eyes, and just move forward. The important thing is, always remember that none of us get it right. God shows us profoundly deeper grace than we could ever deserve, He loves us unconditionally in our messy condition, and that is what we are called to show to all those that we encounter.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have standards, in the example of the paintings, it was right for us to turn them down. Jesus has standards. He flipped the money changer’s tables, He was not afraid to call out sin. Jesus also knows that the vast majority of people are wounded; they need to be shown love; they need to be shown grace. We are called to represent a higher level of grace and love than most of us ever consider. We need to show the grace to others that the Lord has shown to us.

It’s been said that one of the keys to a happy marriage is remembering that we’re no great prize ourselves. I’ve found this to be true. Personally, I don’t know how my wife puts up with me. When we encounter people that we would like to get frustrated with, it’s always good to remember that we can also be a pain sometimes. We get it wrong a lot. We all have an excess of baggage, false ideas, and bad attitudes. Sometimes we don’t know any better.

I was once sitting in my office and looked up. A new boy in our home, about ten years old, had walked over and was peeing into the planter outside my window. Once he finished, I pulled him aside and explained that this was not appropriate, that he should probably use the bathrooms. I could have gotten upset, but I realized that he had been brought to us from an impoverished area, in his world indoor plumbing was rare, he had been peeing outside his whole life. Messy, but that is all he knew.

If you’re in ministry, and if we’re believers we’re all in ministry, we need to embrace the messy people all around us. Remember, we are all messy. Sometimes we don’t want to admit it, but we all come from an impoverished place. We all have our version of peeing in other people’s planters. We need to show the same grace to others that we need ourselves.

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Ministry Purgatory

pexels-photo-262391On my first trip to Ghana, I experienced a wide range of emotions and experiences. One of the many unusual experiences was being the “elder.” I’m in my fifties, in the US today this still counts as middle-aged. (Or at least I keep telling myself that.) Statistically I have about 30 years of life left. In Ghana the life expectancy is much shorter; you just don’t see a lot of older people. The youth of Ghana, out of respect, wouldn’t let me do anything physical. Every time I tried to help set up chairs, move a bag, or even carry my plate to be washed, some teen would jump in and grab whatever I was carrying. It was like they were expecting me to keel over from a heart attack, or at least fall and break a hip at any moment.

For centuries, the span of working years for a person’s life was 20, 25, maybe 30 years. People just didn’t last that long. There was a natural rhythm to life with predictable shared seasons that everyone went through. Growing into an adult, working till your late 50s or early 60s, and then either coasting a little or just dying off. There are always exceptions to this cycle, but as we all live longer, the question that isn’t discussed enough is: what does one do with this new found season at the end of our lives? There are a lot of lost people wandering around out there.

This rambling blog is a letter to a very specific crowd, but even if you aren’t part of this crowd, I can guarantee you know someone who is. In the last few years, I seem to be bumping up against a large group of men in their fifties, who’ve been involved in ministry most of their lives, who are lost in ministry purgatory. They are stuck in a weird no man’s land. Much too young to be considered an elder statesman, but too old to pull off skinny jeans, worship leader cool. Think of it as being a middle-aged junior higher, caught between two worlds and awkwardly stumbling along waiting for something to happen. Many middle-aged ministers are not even aware that they are stuck.

Whenever I comment that we all know somebody still in the pulpit who should have stepped down ten years ago, the reaction is always a knowing smirk. One, two, or three pastors always come to mind. It can be incredibly challenging to maintain enthusiasm and passion after fifteen or twenty years. At some point, for most men, the shift is subtle, slow, and dangerous. If we’re not careful, ministry can slide from a passion and the call from God, into just a job where we’re going through the motions. We suffer, the people in our ministry suffer, and no one is happy in the situation.

In the last year, I’ve had three different pastors, all in their fifties, come to spend time at our ministry for short sabbaticals. I’ve talked to many more. The patterns are all the same. A lot of life left but not sure where they are going and what they are going to be doing. They might be comfortable in their ministries, but are we meant to be just “comfortable?” Some know they are going through the motions, their church knows that they are just going through the motions, but nobody is brave enough to change. Ministry purgatory. Coasting along, waiting for something, anything, to happen.

If you’re a little uncomfortable reading this, if this rambling blog is describing you, please know you are not alone. Please find someone you trust that you can talk to, and who will be honest with you. Along with seeking counsel, I don’t have any magic answer, but I do have one word of advice: flip the table.

If what you’ve been doing isn’t working anymore, stop doing it. This can be a hard concept for some people to get. We won’t experience change doing the same things, in the same way, in the same place. If we don’t like the way the table is set, we can move a few things around, but it really won’t change anything meaningful. Sometimes we need to flip the table over, let things fly, and start over.

I know many men who have left full-time ministry, who have found real peace, and a more significant ministry, in other professions. One good friend says he’s better now that he is no longer a “professional Christian,” he prefers the amateur status. I know insurance salesmen, electricians, etc. who used to be pastors but are now in another season, ministering more now than when they did it as their profession. If we’re serving for the right reasons, we should know that the most important place to be is in God’s will. The only title that matters is Child of God.

One other suggestion: Pray about where you should be headed but do it from a different place. This is one of the many reasons short-term missions are so important. Missions are needed for the people going. Sometimes we need to get out of the space where we’re comfortable and figuratively (or literally) travel to the mountain top to hear from God. Sometimes we need to visit other ministries, missionaries, or churches to find our passion again, or find a new passion. By traveling to new places and connecting with people in new ways it can give us a new perspective. Things look different from the mountain top; we can see more, we can see the bigger picture.

People say, “Write what you know.” This week’s blog describes me. Personally, although I’m still assisting at the orphanage, I’ve found new passions to feed my soul. I’m still stumbling along, but by finding new areas to serve, and handing off most of my old responsibilities, I’m slowly moving out of purgatory into the light. I’m also encouraging the next generation to shine.

If you see yourself in anything you’ve just read, please seek counsel. If you can’t find anyone better, e-mail me, I don’t have any answers, but I can listen.

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Ending Well

lani.jpgAlmost every time I speak in public, I open up by yelling at the group, “You are all going to die!” It frequently gets a nervous laugh or two and then I go on to explain that we are only on this earth a short time, it is so essential to use our time as the precious commodity that it is. Do not waste a moment. The following is the story of a man who used his last few years well.

Jack was a middle-aged man, raising two young children, who had recently moved to a smallish town in Iowa. He had newly been diagnosed with cancer but had not shared his medical condition with anybody in his new community. He was just focusing on his family and beginning the process of diagnosis and treatment.

One day, his next-door neighbor invited him to go on a short-term mission trip to serve at an orphanage in Mexico. The plan was also to help build a home for a needy family. He was not a member of the church, and his first response was, “Well, I don’t play the guitar or anything, but I am good with a hammer.” He was told he would fit in fine. In spite of everything he was going through, he decided to take a chance and tag along with the group. It was a week that would transform his next few years.

As Jack got on the plane with sixty people that he barely knew, all wearing matching t-shirts, he was not sure what to expect. They traveled about two hours south of San Diego to a small town in Mexico where they would be working. The group set up camp and got started with the construction. The team met the family they were serving, and as the team worked, they experienced the joy and bonding that only comes from serving with others in new and challenging circumstances. Jack spent the first few days quietly working alongside his newfound friends.

Midway through the week, during the evening bonfire, Jack decided to take a chance and share of his recent life struggles and his battle with cancer. The response was powerful. This group of people that he had just recently joined came up around him in every sense of the word. The team spent a great deal of time in prayer, seeking miraculous healing. We’ve all heard the phrase, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” There is something about serving alongside others under challenging circumstances that broadens our faith. Serving in missions forges deep relationships that are almost impossible to find unless we are out of our comfort zone.

Over the next few years, while cancer slowly took its toll, Jack continued to return to Baja every time the church came down. Like so many other people, these short-term mission trips became the focal point of his year, a time of joy among struggles, and transformed his life. His social media feed was filled with stories and photos of his time spent serving in Mexico. As Jack’s faith continued to grow stronger, he heard a message from God: “Builder.” This helped Jack understand how his situation was being used for the kingdom.

Above the orphanage in Baja where Jack served is a large, very distinct cross. It rises powerfully above a large hill and can be seen from all over the valley. This cross has been the sight of many marriage proposals, recommitments of faith, and other life-changing moments over the years. Jack ultimately had a drawing of the cross tattooed on his arm using the cross as the letter “T” for the word” triumph.” These trips had marked his life in every way possible.

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As Jack’s life was winding down, one of the leaders came to the hospital in a nearby city to be there for him. As they talked, a nurse walked in that had been on one of these trips before Jack started, and knew all about it. Out of the hundreds of hospital staff who could have walked through the door, this nurse could understand Jack’s experience of faith through missions. They were able to excitedly share of their common experiences in that small town in Mexico.

One of his last requests to the mission leader was, “Make sure when my son is old enough, that he gets to Mexico. I want him to see the place that changed my life.” His other request is that his ashes be spread at the base of the cross overlooking the orphanage and the homes he helped build.

I share this story as an encouragement, an encouragement to end your life well. Jack’s story is one of the thousands of lives that are changed through short term missions and service trips every year. Most people live their lives without thinking too much about the ever approaching end; they make plans to do something “next year” until there are no more years left. Please use the weeks and years you have left in a way that matters. Don’t waste a day.

Jack passed away on May 3rd, 2019, surrounded by family. He is no longer battling cancer or the fights of this earth. He is now dancing in heaven. Close to five hundred people showed up at his memorial on a chilly Tuesday afternoon in Iowa. His ashes will be spread at the orphanage cross, as he requested.

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