Don’t Sign Away Your Life

library-la-trobe-study-students-159775Indentured servitude was a system in the early 1800s where people would sign a contract to work free for a certain number of years in exchange for something, historically transportation to America or some other great dream held out as the powerful incentive. Once people were “employed” it would be almost impossible to work off the debt and become free. People would basically sign away their lives and become voluntary slaves for an extended period of time. As ridiculous as this sounds today, the exact same thing is happening to people all around us. You, or someone you know, might be in this exact situation and not even realize it yet.

Currently, a considerable portion of young adults in America are willingly placing themselves into a form of indentured servitude. They see a goal and believe the only way they can attain this goal is to sign away large chunks of their future in the hopes that it will be worth it. Student loans are today’s version of indentured servitude. The cost of a degree is quickly tipping to the point where it is almost impossible to justify the debt load required.

Recently, I took part in a round table discussion on missions at a large California Christian university. Many of the standard questions came up, but one student asked a question that shut down the discussion. There was no great answer to his question, just a dark gloom in the room as if someone shared that they had stage four cancer. “I feel called, and want to be in the missions field, but how do I do that with huge student loan debt?”

Think this question through; this young man is attending a major Christian university to learn ministry, and how to be an effective missionary.  When he graduates he will be so far in debt that he will be unlikely to use his degree for decades, he might never make it to the missions field because of the debt. He unintentionally entered into indentured servitude. His life is no longer his own. He has become an indentured servant to his student debt load.

The young man discussed above is not unusual; he is the norm. Over the last few years, I’ve seen many passionate people who feel called to missions “put it off” until their student loans are paid down. Much of the time, by the time they’re debt free decades later, life has moved on and they never take that step. The other frustrating situation is people who can defer their loans and go into missions, only needing to return to the US for the sole purpose of paying off their loans. Either way, their loans dictate their futures; their lives are not their own.

If you’re in the position of having massive student debt hanging over you, it can be a weight that hangs over everything you do. I have no great answers for you, talk to someone brighter than me. (They’re not hard to find.)

If you are a young adult, and you don’t have any student debt yet, please continue reading. I want to share a little secret that your parents and others might not want you to know. You don’t have to go to college. (Parents, school counselors, and loan providers are now hyperventilating after reading that last sentence.)

The typical teen in the US will take the same boring yet dangerous path that all their friends are taking. Graduate from high-school, head to college, accumulate HUGE student debt studying something they’re not passionate about, get married too soon (to someone else with student debt), eventually buy a house, and spend the rest of their lives working to pay off loans. They will be indentured servants to a bank, for decades. Today, some retirees have yet to pay off their student loans. One of the few debts that can NOT be wiped clean through bankruptcy is a student loan. Modern-day indentured servitude does exist. It might be time to look at a new model.

“But, but, but, I HAVE to go to college.” If you’re going to medical school, law school, or studying something that needs very specific training, yes, you have to go to college. If you feel called into missions, or have passions in other areas, you might have other options. There might be options that don’t lead you down the path of enormous student loan debt. Trade schools, apprenticeship programs, short-term mission organizations, etc. are all good options.

A gap year after high-school, when used wisely, can be an outstanding chance to explore your passions and learn more about the world than you will in four years locked on a campus somewhere. Go volunteer with an organization in Ghana serving aids orphans, drive a bus for an orphanage in Mexico, answer the phone for a free clinic in some inner-city area in the US. Take some time to explore the world and find your passions.

If, after a year or so, you still feel you HAVE to go to college, please do it with great care to avoid as much debt as possible.

You can accumulate huge student debt, or you can accumulate experiences, stories, and the joy of touching other’s lives. What you decide to accumulate when you’re young will be with you for the rest of your life. Choose wisely.

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What is your spiritual temperature

sick-flu-BC9098-002One of the first things a doctor does to diagnose someone is to take their temperature. If it’s within a degree or so of 98, it rules out a lot of things and points the doctor in the right direction. If your temperature is too high, it means something is wrong, and your body is fighting back. Accurate information on your health comes from just checking your temperature. You are breathing so you’re still alive, but you MIGHT be sick. When it comes to your spiritual health, the amount you give, and the amount you serve, is a direct and reliable indication of your spiritual health. Giving is your spiritual temperature.

It needs to be made very clear, giving to others and serving others does nothing to change the status of your salvation. Jesus handled our salvation on the cross, if you’ve accepted Christ and repented you’re saved. So if you’re saved, and you’re secure in that, why is there a need to serve others? Most non-believers think that it’s the works part that gets us into heaven, but grace doesn’t function like that. We give to others and serve others because we are grateful for the incredible gift of grace that God has given us, but there is so much more to it than that.

Once our salvation is secure, it’s secure; it’s a state of being. Being saved is like being married. I’m married, many years ago my wife and I went to the courthouse and then a church and made a legal commitment and a public commitment in front of friends and family. We are married, she’s not always happy about it, but it’s not in question or a gray area. Our marriage is a state of being, and there is a legal document stating we are married.

If I’m a lousy husband, if I ignore my wife, disappear for days, etc. we are still married. We would slowly be growing apart and losing any connection, but we’d still be legally married. If I’m a great husband, if I bring her flowers, show her how much I love her, listen to her, spend time with her, support her in her endeavors, it does not change the legal status of our marriage. What being a great husband does change is the quality of our relationship. It’s still the same legal status, but we are closer, I understand her more, we are walking together. We’re not “more married,” but our marriage is deeper, better, healthier.

Our good works are bringing flowers to God. Our walking as servants, as Christ walked, is drawing us closer to Him. Our giving to those in need around us shows God that we understand it’s all His anyway and we want to serve Him with what we’ve been entrusted. Serving and giving does nothing to change our salvation status; we are saved. But serving and giving to others is a direct indication of our spiritual health.

It’s been said that you can tell a lot about a person’s Christian walk by just looking at their checkbook and their calendar. Where do they spend their money? Where do they spend their time? (Time is money in most people’s eyes) This is not a new principle; Jesus shared this idea in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount:

Matthew 6: 19-21 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Read that again: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Where you send your treasure is an indication of where your heart is, Where you send your treasure is your spiritual temperature.

God doesn’t need our money, God doesn’t need our time, but God wants both. He wants us to give because He knows it’s good for us and He only wants great things for us. He wants us to walk closer to Him. Does my wife NEED flowers? No, but my bringing flowers brings joy and draws us closer together.

Years ago, we had a very generous donor who I never met. They would send support to our orphanage every month without fail. One time there was an accounting question. When I contacted them and thanked them for the help they said something profound about the donation, “It’s not our money, we’re just God’s mailman.” Remember, I had never met them, I knew almost nothing about them, but that one comment told me everything about their spiritual health. It was not about them; they did not consider their money as theirs; it was God’s money. From one random e-mail comment, I could tell their spiritual temperature.

This little rant on giving is not meant to guilt anyone into giving or serving more; it’s intended to cause self-evaluation. What is your spiritual temperature? Whose life have you touched today? Where is your heart? If you need a correction, you know what to do. Bring flowers home to God.

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The Prosperity Gospel and Short-term Missions

cash2The Prosperity Gospel is the belief among some Christians that teaches financial blessing, and physical well-being are always the will of God for them. That enough faith, positive attitude, and donations to the right organizations will increase one’s material wealth. The prosperity Gospel reduces God to a cosmic Santa Claus: “If I’m a good boy or girl God will give me what I ask for.” The Gospel isn’t that simple; it is profoundly deeper, richer, and more important than to be just about material wealth. Our faith is not a transaction, “If I give this, I should get this.” Our salvation is a free gift from God, our giving to others and representing Him well is our act of worship. If our personal financial prosperity is our goal, we’ve missed the whole point.

When Jesus was in the desert, Satan offered Jesus material wealth and power if He would only bow down, Jesus was bright enough to pass on the offer. How many of us take the bait and swallow it whole.

Money is always a thorny issue for people. If you want to create an uncomfortable church service, talk about tithing. Jesus spent a great deal of time talking about worldly goods and our reaction to them. It’s a BIG deal, and people understand at a gut level that money is important. Money is the great scorecard the world uses to see who is winning. If we are a follower of Christ, we are not of this world. Our scorecard needs to be very different; we need to work towards different goals. We also need to expect different blessings from God. God does want to bless us, material blessings or physical health are not always in that mix of blessings.

Several years ago, after we had been in Mexico for quite a while, my wife was dealing with some long-term, severe, medical issues. We had been to a LOT of doctors and done countless tests with no solution in sight. Every couple of weeks, a small group from a ministry in our town would come by and pray for her. Prayer is always a good thing; we’ll take all we can get. After a few weeks, as they were finishing praying, one of the leaders indicated that is was my wife’s “lack of faith” that was keeping her from being healed. I was polite and held my tongue, in hindsight I wish I had thrown them out of our house (they were not invited back).

The church has a long history of godly, wonderful people living in poverty or suffering through great physical illness and challenges. No one would question the apostle Paul’s faith or the incredible works of his ministry. God used Paul to build the foundation of the church. Paul suffered greatly both physically and financially through his entire ministry. Maybe he didn’t have enough faith? Probably not. Paul still found immense joy and peace, not only in the midst of trials; Paul found joy because of the trials he was going through. Strong faith does not mean financial blessings; strong faith means joy in whatever situation we find ourselves. Our physical or financial state has no determination in eternal things. Everything here passes away, get used to it.

So how does this apply to short-term missions? Spending time with people of great faith in other countries, giving their all, who are still living in poverty, will kill your belief that doing the right things will automatically mean a big bank account.

If we go into missions with the idea that we know more, or we are more blessed because we have more money than the people we’re visiting, we are wrong, and we will fail. Most people, even if they believe that having more money indicates better people, have never thought it through or even realize they believe that. A person who is racist, never thinks they are racist; it’s just an underlying attitude that others see. Coming from the US culture that passes judgment by financial wherewithal, it’s easy to fall into the trap of judging others by their resources, even more so if we’re not aware that we are judging in this way.

By going on short-term mission trips and spending time with rock-solid pastors, missionaries, and other believers living on poverty, our false outlook when it comes to money is stripped away. It’s a cliche response from many people on a missions trip to say, “They’re so poor but so happy.” when talking about the people they are visiting. This is really saying, “I thought to have more money was always better, why are they happy?” At the same time, they will say, “I now realize how blessed I am” indicating they think the other people are not as “blessed” because they don’t have hot water, a solid house, the latest I-phone, or any of the things we equate with “blessed.”

We need to go into missions realizing we are all poor, we are all wounded, we are all deficient in many areas, but that is irrelevant to the Gospel. By working alongside pillars of faith in other countries, it strips bare our misguided beliefs about what money is, what it means, and what our attitude about it should be.

Prosperity is not a bad thing, but if our faith is based on prosperity, we are building our lives on a false Gospel.

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Disaster Response in Missions: Do No Harm

firemanThe last few months have been rough around the world, maybe it’s always like this, but it seems as though there are different natural disasters every week. Hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanos, tsunamis, etc. It can be overwhelming. What are we called to do? How can we be as effective as possible? How can we avoid unintentionally adding to the disaster?

We all have (or should have) a natural response to help when we see people in need. Today, more than at any time in history, we can see people in need in real time. We can watch the water rising during a flood on CNN, can watch trees and houses being blown apart during a hurricane on network news, before the dust settles after an earthquake we can watch people huddled in the streets waiting for aftershocks. It’s natural to want to help; it’s part of our collective humanity to reach out in times of crisis. Please do it in the best way possible.

The people and items showing up about two weeks after any major disaster are referred to by the RedCross as the “second wave” of the disaster. People underprepared or undertrained adding to the confusion and not helping anyone. The truckloads of well-intentioned items that are sent that are not really needed, and actually take a tremendous amount of staff-hours and resources to manage. I remember hearing how, after seeing the dogs searching the rubble on 9/11, people sent semi-loads of dog food: a) dogs don’t need that much food. b) the dogs have a special diet. All of that dog food needed to be sorted, stored, managed, and redistributed. After Katrina, there were several large warehouses and thousands of staff-hours required to sort the truckloads of items sent to New Orleans. The sheer volume of used wedding dresses, old TVs, and other items of questionable urgency was overwhelming.

Right after the earthquake in Haiti several years ago, there were hundreds of people landing at the airport to “help” without the infrastructure to manage them. Many people jumped on a plane thinking they could get a hotel and then travel out to help during the day. The hotels were rubble. The transportation they were expecting didn’t exist, many of these well-meaning people just added to the crowds, confusion, and lack of food and drinking water. What was needed was first response teams with their own support, supplies, and the know-how to make a difference. I have two close friends that each hit the road to help with disasters in the last year, one to help with the volcano relief in Guatemala, one to help with the flooding in Texas and then the hurricane in Puerta Rico. They were both only effective because they went with a plan, with the needed supplies, and most importantly they partnered with on-the-ground leaders who knew how to direct them. They were a help, not a burden; they were not people that got in the way, or stretched supplies even thinner.

So what should we do in the face of natural disaster?

1) Almost all relief organizations will tell you, the best thing you can do is send funds. People often feel better offering items but if the items are not exactly what is needed it can add to the problem. Also, I know at our orphanage, we get offered items we can use all the time – if we can pick them up. Often the needed items can cost more to pick up than it would cost to purchase them locally. We appreciate the help, but funding for transportation is a huge need also. I met with one major food relief organization who told me that getting enough food donated is never a problem, the cost of the transportation and distribution is always the biggest challenge.

When you do send funds, send wisely. Do your due diligence and give to established organizations who have a solid track record of good management and effective programs. One thing that isn’t talked about with funding in disasters is: give beyond what you normally give, don’t just shift funding. It surprises most people when I tell them 9/11 almost put our orphanage out of business. We still had children to feed, medicines to purchase, etc. but almost ALL donations for about 90 days went to NewYork.

Along with the crippling drop in donations, most mission groups who make our work possible canceled their trips. We were cut off. Give generously, but continue to donate to your church, your cause, or wherever you give on a regular basis: they need you more than you might realize.

2) If you want to physically go and serve right away, go with a plan. Partnerships matter, in short-term missions, and in disaster relief. Without an on-the-ground host or hosting organization, your effort will not help, you will add to the problems. Find a church, a food bank, or some other established organization who knows the area, knows the people, and most importantly knows what the real needs are. Communicate your willingness to help, what resources you can bring to the area, and any special skills you or your team might have.

3) Plan a trip to serve a few months after the disaster. All the same rules apply about finding an on-the-ground host, but you can now address re-building needs long after the national attention has faded.

We are called to serve, we are called to be the good Samaritan in world affairs, but please do so wisely, with a plan, and partnering with people who know how to lead you to be as effective as possible.

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Phil Steiner, my co-author, has a great blog also. This week, Phil also writes on the correct response to disasters and short-term missions. Check it out: philsteiner.net