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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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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Why There Will Always Be Orphan Care

poorchildI recently had a conversation with someone who follows orphan care, and he made a statement that led to an interesting discussion. He claimed orphanages were ending in parts of the world. That many of the children were moving into foster care or larger care facilities. “So…into an orphanage?” I responded. “No, they are homes for children without other options.” He enthusiastically clarified. “So…orphanages?” “No no no,” he protested, “just big houses to care for children.” “So…orphanages?” We did not get far in the conversation. Calling an orphanage something different does not change the fact that it’s a system to care for kids who are abused, abandoned, or orphaned. If it looks like a duck, sounds like a duck, and has feathers, calling it a banana does not change the fact that it’s a duck.

I wish orphanages did not exist. The fact that society needs a place for children born into horrible situations, who are abused, who have parents on drugs, is terrible. That wars, aids, and natural disasters happen every day leaving children to fend for themselves, is a fact that needs to be addressed. We live in a broken world. We, as a society, fail children way too often. Until we live in a perfect world, kids will be victims, and they need to be rescued and cared for.

To say that we should close all orphanages because children should be with families is a worthy goal, but it’s not living in reality. It’s like saying let’s close all the hospitals in the US because the billing system is a nightmare. “But if everyone worked out, lost weight, and quit smoking, we wouldn’t need hospitals!” If you could get everyone to look after their health more, we could cut down on hospitals, but cancer, accidents, etc. would still make hospitals a necessity for many people. Even the healthiest people age and eventually wind up in the hospital. You could make inroads, but ending hospitals because you don’t like hospitals makes no sense. It just isn’t reality. The idea of ending orphanages is just as crazy.

There has been a tremendous push in the last few years for the church to take up the biblical call to care for orphans through adoption and quality foster care. This is fantastic. Everyone who can, should be caring for the less fortunate, the marginalized, those who can’t care for themselves. The problem is, even if adoption doubled or tripled in most countries it would just begin to address the problem. Inroads could be made to address the issue, but to eliminate orphanages does not take into account the many situations where adoption or other placement is very difficult or impossible.

The latest estimates say there are 150 million orphaned or abandoned children in the world. If a child is in a system, orphanage or foster care, they have a 2% chance of being adopted. Adoption is not a reality for most children who need it. Adoption, when done right, is a beautiful, biblical, life-changing event. But adoptions are just too rare to make any real impact on the vast majority of children who need a home.

Orphanages should be the last resort after healthy family reunification, adoption, or some style of foster care. But countless children still need attention after all other options are exhausted. Severe special needs children, children with multiple siblings, or children with extreme behavior issues are complicated to place. There are also many children left in limbo because the parents are still in the picture in some way but can not (or should not) care for their children. Parents in prison or parents dealing with substance abuse might take their children back when or if healing does take place.

So given that orphanages need to exist, they should be outstanding. Back to the hospital analogy; I’m not crazy about hospitals, but if I’m in one, I want it to be the best hospital possible. Orphanages should be beautiful, inviting places. Orphanages should give the children as much stability, attention, and love as they possibly can. Around the world, so many children are left in systems that, due to lack of funding or lack of caring, are horrific places to grow up. We need to do better.

If you’ve adopted or have worked in foster care, THANK YOU. Keep up the difficult work you’ve been called to do. If you work in orphan care, thank you for being the last line of defense before children wind up on the streets. It’s a worthy calling.

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Migrant Caravans and a Missions Response

migrant.jpgIt’s been interesting to see the response to the migrant caravan moving through Mexico and landing at the US border. From both countries and every political persuasion, there are strong opinions and emotional reactions. Usually, this blog is not used as a platform to discuss current events, but this topic is (quite literally) in my backyard. I’ve spoken with ministry leaders serving the migrants, some of the US border guards, and politicians here in Mexico. I’ve had churches contact me in fear, and other churches contact me asking how to help. I’ve also had the profound privilege of spending time with the migrants themselves, serving with others, and serving alongside some great people in the “caravan.”

Within the group assembled in Tijuana are families, some young teens traveling alone, some single men, etc. They’re a cross-section of any society in the world. Are there some scary people? Not as many as the media would lead you to believe. Generally, this is a large group of people who left a horrible situation hoping to make a better life. They were mistaken or misled into believing it would be simpler than it is. Now they’re stuck; some are going home, some are finding jobs and settling in Mexico, some are still holding out hope for the golden ticket into the US. All are scared, tired, cold and hungry. They are like any of us, looking for a secure future and a place to raise a family.

The topic of the migrants is a hot-button issue. People have been VERY clear on social media and elsewhere about their specific opinions. Even here in Mexico, the response is very divided; many people are stepping up to help feed and care for people in the camps, others are protesting and complaining about their presence here in Baja.

So what should our response be to the migrant caravan? Politics and agendas aside, there are clear biblical directions as to what our response needs to be.

“I was naked, and you clothed me, I was sick, and you visited me, I was in prison, and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Matthew 25:36-40

It’s interesting to see that Jesus mentioned, “I was in prison, and you visited Me.” Well…this seems kind of extreme. Jesus never specified whether or not the person made bad decisions to wind up in prison, He never said the person in prison deserved it, He was just pointing out that we need to visit and help those who need help. Period. There is not a lot of wiggle room here. It doesn’t matter if we agree with why they’re in the position they’re in, it doesn’t even matter if we are put at risk or not, we are called to help.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:43-44

Hmmm, “pray for our enemies?”, This also seems kind of extreme. But our faith is also called to be extreme. Even if we disagree with why people are in the caravan, even if we feel they should just go home, even if we know from our gut they should never be permitted into the US, we are still called to pray for them. We are called to show grace and shower blessings on them as God has blessed us.

Our response to the needs around us, and more importantly the people in need around us, says a great deal about the maturity of our faith. Are we responding like spoiled children defending our toys? Or are we showing grace and generosity to those around us? Our response in challenging times and circumstances means more than we can possibly understand. Our response is a stronger testimony than a thousand sermons. It matters how you respond to an enemy, perceived or otherwise.

Are we more loyal to our politics? Or to God and our faith in Him? We have a guidebook to tell us how we are to respond. We have a faith that directs us. Political parties come and go. Men will always fail us eventually. Stick with the only cause that is truly worth fighting for.

The migrant problem will eventually fade away; our response might be brought up later on: “I was hungry in the migrant camp, and you fed Me.”
If you have questions or would like to know how to donate to help migrant families in need, please contact me at my e-mail. My team and I will point you in the right direction.

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Best Orphanage Ever

When visiting orphanages, you never know what you’re going to find. There are some incredible orphanages. There are more than a few horrible orphanages, most land in the fuzzy middle doing the best they can with the skills and resources at hand. Every now and then I come across an orphanage that shifts my perception of what an orphanage can be.

Several years ago I was asked to go and evaluate an orphanage in Tijuana. This happens from time to time, a US group wants to help an orphanage, but they would like an outside opinion first. My wife and I made an appointment with the director and hit the road to do an evaluation.

As we followed the directions and got closer and closer to the location, we kept turning to each other and saying “This can’t be right. Please tell me this is not the right location.” We were driving through twisting dusty hills into one of the worst areas in Tijuana. We finally found the “street,” it was just a very rocky dirt alley leading up to a ramshackle two-story apartment building with a couple of mangy dogs asleep outside. As we stepped out of our car we were hit by the stew of smells that are produced when too many people are living in too small an area: a mix of burning trash, poorly built septic systems, greasy food, and spilled motor oil. The sounds matched the smells: dogs barking, a rooster crowing nearby, some loud ranchero music playing down the street with too much bass, you get the idea.

The director met us and brought us inside. The orphanage cared for about 12 children in a tiny two bedroom apartment downstairs from a drug dealer. There was so little room inside that they had set up a homework and play area in a 20ft x20ft dirt yard with a tarp strung across to create some shade. Their only van had been stolen two days before we got there. The furniture and flooring were well-worn, many years past what most people would use. What happened in the next 20 minutes would shift my perception and priorities when it comes to orphanage management. It also shifted my understanding and definition of what poverty is, versus a poverty mentality, and what it means to bloom in whatever situation you land.

I encountered joy.

Although the apartment was tiny and overcrowded, it was immaculate and welcoming. The children each came over to shake my hand and thanked me for coming. We heard about their focus on education as a few of the children showed off their homework. They laughed as they shared of the ways they found to stretch their rice and beans diet. While I was there, one of the girls was carefully ironing each school uniform so they would be presentable and polished for the following school day. Although they might have been poor in a material sense, the had a dignity about them that showed a wealth beyond what most people experience.

In that home, we met a healthy, enjoyable, inspiring group of people. You could feel the affection the children had for the directors, and see the love and caring attitude the directors had for the children. Through the leadership of that home, the challenges of living in those circumstances forged an incredible family from the wounded children brought to them. It was deeply inspiring.

As we got back in the car, I turned to my wife and said, “That is the best home in Baja, including ours.” As we drove away, I called the group in California who had asked for the evaluation, and I surprised them with the strength of my opinions. My exact words were, “Throw money at this couple, give them anything they want.”

There are countless ways to judge an orphanage. Most people will look at programs, nutrition, maybe the quality of buildings or staff ratios. All of these things are important, but the most essential part of an orphanage is the heart and passion of the people running it. The same thing that makes a family healthy makes an orphanage healthy, the parents.

Frequently, the American mindset is: if there is a problem with an orphanage (or almost any situation) give more money to the problem. This does not help long-term in many cases. Yes, money is needed to run an orphanage, but if the leadership is dysfunctional or is leading from the wrong motivations, it will just be a dysfunctional orphanage that eats and dresses better. A dysfunctional church with a lot of money is still a dysfunctional church. A dysfunctional family with money is still a dysfunctional family.

Think of the families in your circles. My guess is there is very little correlation between material wealth and an emotionally healthy family. In most families, once the basics are covered, adding more “stuff” really doesn’t add quality of life. We all know happy, close, poorer families. We probably know some fairly dysfunctional families who have a great deal of money. The reverse can also be true, having money doesn’t make you dysfunctional, it just doesn’t guarantee functional either. Orphanages are just big families, it all comes down to mom and dad. Do they have a handle on things? Do they see the big picture? Are they healthy emotionally? Money can’t buy this.

You’re probably asking, “Whatever happened to that small orphanage? Today, many years later, they’ve moved to a much better location and the last I checked that have about 50 fortunate children in their care.

In orphanage work, or any ministry, always back solid leadership. Everything else is fluff.

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