M.E.A.T. Night

Screen Shot 2019-10-06 at 10.02.36 AMFor almost fifteen years, my wife and I have hosted a weekly “M.E.A.T. Night,” a small gathering of local missionaries. It’s changed locations and names a couple of times, but for the bulk of that time, it’s been at our house. M.E.A.T. Night is an acronym for Missionaries Eating And Talking. We eat, and we talk. That’s about it. No prayer time, no worship, no bible study. Sometimes there are only about ten people, sometimes forty. We talk…and we eat. It’s my favorite night of the week, and not just because it usually involves carbs and bacon. I think it’s some of the best “ministry” that happens in our community. Continue reading

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You Need to Walk Your Pigs

pexels-photo-110820You meet a wide range of people when you run an orphanage. Visitors, donors, mission groups, etc. are all dropping by. Most people are a joy to work with; some are a little more challenging. Around the office, we use the saying: “Everyone brings joy, some when they arrive, some when they leave.” A while back one well-meaning visitor urgently asked to talk with me following a tour. This is not unusual. What he wanted to talk about was a little different. 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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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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Just Say No

pexels-photo-271897A few years ago, I was at a leadership conference and heard a comment that floored me. “Jesus didn’t help everyone.” “But, but, but…He was JESUS, of course He helped everyone!” I screamed silently to myself. But it was pointed out that Jesus didn’t heal everyone, feed everyone, or fix every injustice He encountered. He walked past many people who could have used His help. He found balance; He helped who He could. The most important thing is, He did the will of His Father in Heaven.

This is a very specific blog, written to those who can’t say “no” when they see a need. Most people don’t have any problem saying no and use the word way more than they should. They are skilled at avoiding those around them who need help. This is written to the people in full-time ministry who cannot find balance, who cannot say “no” to the countless needs they observe. Stop. Stop now. If you’re following Jesus’ example is important, remember, He learned to say “no” when it was needed. By not finding the balance, we are doing damage to ourselves, and to those around us. We cannot help everyone.

We all know people who are working long hours, without taking a day off, and want everything to be perfect. It’s exhausting to be around them. They are working “for the ministry” or “for the Lord,” but their relationships are suffering, their health is suffering, their marriages suffer, and they can suck the joy out of most situations. The joy that comes from serving with a peaceful heart is lost in the battle. I can write about this from first-hand experience. I used to be that guy.

I work alongside someone right now that’s in that place, he does excellent work, but anyone can see him heading directly at a brick wall by not taking time to breathe. We had one volunteer in our orphanage, who was a CRAZY perfectionist. She would work for weeks, 18 hours a day, only to collapse and be useless for a week or two while she recovered. That is not how life should be.

Early on, about six months after my wife and I moved in to help run the orphanage, we had a visitor. Agnes, the lady who ran the home for decades, was coming by. We had never met Agnes, and I was terrified. Everything we did was held up against her work. Every day I heard, “Well, Agnes never did it that way.” She was coming in to check on us and our work. Yikes. My fears turned out to be unfounded. She was the perfect example of grace and support. She did have one piece of very direct advice, “Get out.” she told us in no uncertain terms. She said it was OK to take time away, to recharge, to put our marriage first. That there would never be a perfect day; there would always be emergencies; we needed to practice self-care. We needed to learn to say, “No.”

There are many orphanages in our area of Mexico run by people who cannot say “No.” They take in any child who needs help, which sounds nice, but if they only have resources to help and care for 30 children, they are not doing a good job if they are caring for 80 children. Everyone suffers; no one is helped. Saying “no” is not in them, and people suffer. 

Jesus found balance. He spent time alone. The apostles often found Him alone praying, alone in the desert, asleep in the boat, early in the morning spending time with His Father. Even at the last supper, He was teaching, but it was also time breaking bread and hanging out with those He was closest to. He spent time with friends.

It took me many years of long hours to learn the balance; I’m still figuring it out. I’ve seen too many people in ministry burn out when they can’t find the time to rest, to recharge, to breath. When our crew started taking a dedicated day off each week, I flinched a little. “But that’s not what ministry is about!” I thought to myself. I now see the wisdom in it.

My favorite night of the week is a home fellowship that we host made up of full-time missionaries and ministry leaders in our area. We don’t DO anything other than eat and hangout. No agenda, no pressure, just vast quantities of carbs shared among friends. The official name of this gathering is M.E.A.T. Night. (Missionaries Eating And Talking). Not spiritual by any standard definition, no bible study, no deep prayer, just people hanging out. I feel on many levels it’s some of the best ministry we do.

If you’re in ministry full time, you want to follow the example Jesus sets for ministry. He knew when to say no; He spent time alone. He spent time with friends. He knew how to find balance; He did the will of His Father. You have permission to take a day off. As in all things, follow the example of Jesus.

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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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A Fear Factor

pexels-photo-471470

“Isn’t Mexico dangerous?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to respond to this question over the last 20 years. I honestly believe this is more of a statement on the church in America today than any perceived danger in Mexico.

What keeps us up at night worrying seldom happens. In 2016 there were a total of 4 deaths by shark attack, 67 people died from taking selfies. If you ask a cross-section of people, fear of sharks would probably rate higher than fear of smartphones. Way too many people live lives wrapped in fear of things that don’t happen or don’t matter. American culture feeds and encourages fear: fear of the “other” political party, of terrorism, of people from different countries or cultures. Fear has become the new American way.

A few years ago, I got a phone call from a concerned father who was looking at sending his daughter with their church missions team to serve with our orphanage in Mexico. After talking to him for a while, he asked me straight out, “Can you 100% guarantee the safety of my daughter?” I think I surprised him with my answer: “Absolutely not.” I asked him if he could 100% guarantee the safety of his daughter when she was driving to school, out shopping, or even in their home. There are almost no 100% guarantees in this life other than the fact that we will all eventually die. If we lived our lives looking for 100% guarantees, we would never do anything, that’s not why we’re on this earth.

At what point did the church collectively decide that we need complete security at all times? Why are we so afraid? Jesus never taught that we should only go and share the gospel if our safety could be guaranteed, that we should only help others if there is zero risk involved. I’m not saying we should take unnecessary chances, but what should we be willing to risk to share the Gospel?

“Fear not” comes up a lot in the bible, “You need to avoid risk” not so much. If we believe we have an all-powerful, loving Father in heaven who only wants what’s best for us, why are we so afraid? If we believe that God can use ALL things for our good and the good of His kingdom, why can’t we rest in that? The Apostle Paul did some of his best work sitting in prison. Paul was completely convinced this was just a temp job; he was on his way to heaven. Paul doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who was afraid of what might happen. The world needs more Pauls.

A good friend of mine has been a missionary in a Muslim country for a few years. (for his safety I can’t share his name or what country). This guy is fearless. Recently he sent me an e-mail asking an IT question, not a big deal. He went on to share about the struggles they were having going to print with a new bible recently translated into a dialect for that area. One print shop was burned down, one printer who wanted to help was sent to prison, my friend’s family was threatened, and he was arrested and held for several days. Yikes. I would have hit the road long before this. Rather than running, giving up, or even complaining, he was rejoicing. Through the entire E-mail, you could feel the joy he was experiencing; he had found the “joy in all things” that Paul wrote about while in prison.

In 2014 my wife and I were scheduled to travel with the team of about 20 to Ghana in West Africa. We had our tickets, we had our visas, and about 30 days before we were scheduled to leave the Ebola outbreak hit West Africa. You couldn’t pick up a paper, turn on the radio, or watch the news without being told how dangerous Ebola was and how we were all going to die. Not the best time to travel to West Africa. Over the course of a few weeks, most of the team dropped out and, to be honest, we thought about it. We made a few calls to people on the ground to get accurate information and had some LONG talks. Any sane person would have canceled. (we’ve never been grouped in with sane people). We decided to go. The team was just five people, and EVERYONE said we were crazy. We went, had an incredible trip, and I believe we had a real impact at the orphanage where we were serving. West Africa is a BIG place, where we were serving we were over 1000 miles from the nearest Ebola case. At no time were we in any danger other than malaria and the other normal issue from that area.

In looking back at our trip to Ghana, I’m flooded with emotions. One of the emotions I have is regret for the many people who, out of an abundance of caution, chose not to go. They missed out on a life-changing experience. They missed out on the chance to share with others and connect with believers on the other side of the world. The enemy, once again used fear to stop ministry from taking place. How many people weren’t reached? How many lives weren’t changed by this incredible experience? The people who chose to stay back had the perception of safety, but they missed a life-altering experience.

Take a chance. Risk something. Go drill a well in Kenya, go build a house in Baja, go serve (or start) a prison ministry. Step out and see how God might use you or might use the new challenges to change you. Of the people I hang out within the missions field, I never hear them talk about the regret of taking a chance. What I see and hear are people who glow, glow with a joy that few people experience in this life. These are people who have taken and continue to take chances for God. They are not afraid of risk, they embrace it, they have found joy. The only fear we should accept in our lives is the fear of NOT doing what God is calling us to. We should be deathly afraid of wasting our time here on this earth living a mundane, “safe” existence.

To answer the question about Mexico that I started out with: Yes, Mexico CAN be dangerous in certain areas, most of it is really safe, but watch out for those selfies.