Just Be Quiet!

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There is a new Tom Hanks movie out called “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood“, about the life of Mr. Rogers. There is one scene that’s being mentioned over and over again in reviews. While sitting in a diner during an interview, Mr. Rogers asks a reporter to be silent for one minute. Mr. Rogers doesn’t speak, the reporter doesn’t speak, for one full minute. A full minute to just listen. There are no flashbacks, no inner-dialog, only silence. Two men are just sitting in a restaurant booth. A minute of silence with no action in a movie feels like an eternity. It’s something we all need to practice. Continue reading

Get Off Your Spiritual Butt

workoutThe phrase that hosts of short-term missions hear from every group is, “I’m leaving with so much more than I came with.” People are amazed by their own emotional and spiritual reaction to serving others. This joy might be a new experience for them, but it is familiar to most short-term mission participants. There are some universal truths about people; we are more alike than most people want to believe. One universal truth is that we are designed to serve others. Service is where joy is found, this is where our purpose is found. Service is putting our faith into action. Service is important. So why is this so hard for so many people to embrace? Continue reading

Why Me God?

76751545_2435729773188946_2898917725810196480_oThe orphanage I help run was spared by the recent wildfires that blew through our town. Many people were not so fortunate. In response to one of the many “Praise God” comments on Facebook, one angry gentleman shared a substantial rant, “If God was going to spare you, why did He start the fire? Why did other homes burn? Does God not love them as much?” Obviously, this gentleman has some issues, but it brings up some profound questions that have plagued theologians from the beginning. How does one explain the randomness of suffering? Why are there orphans? Why do some people get cancer? People much wiser than I have struggled to respond to this question. Here are a few thoughts. Continue reading

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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