Expectations in Marriage and Missions

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The church in America is an interesting animal. Over the years, the church has done some incredibly positive work, and at the same time, if we’re honest, the church has done a lot of damage. One ongoing and problematic issue the church has is that it tends to have a pack mentality. The church tends to embrace whatever the current trend is. Whether it’s calling for the prohibition of alcohol one hundred years ago, the rabid opposition to secular music about 30 years ago, or the spike in end-time studies that seems to come around every 10 or 15 years, the church follows trends. 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

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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It’s a Scary World

Screen Shot 2019-08-18 at 10.28.19 AMBulletproof backpacks are selling out right now across America as the school year is getting ready to start. This is directly due to the multiple mass shootings over the last few weeks. So many shootings took place in Chicago during one recent weekend, some hospitals stopped taking in new patients. Perceived gun violence has gotten bad enough that many other countries have issued a travel warning for people visiting the US. It is a scary time, but our reaction needs to be balanced, needs to be wise, and needs to look at the bigger picture.

The key word in that last paragraph was “perceived” gun violence. With multiple 24-hour cable news channels competing with countless news websites, it’s a race to see who can make today’s news more scary, more threatening, more personal. If you were to believe everything you see or read, you would never feel safe, anywhere. But, if you step back and look at the real numbers, the reality is, we have never been safer. Murder rates in the US have dropped by almost half since 1990. Violent crime overall has seen a considerable decrease in the last two decades (see footnote). The one cause of death that is increasing across all age groups is suicide. We, as a country, and more importantly, as a church, are doing something very wrong. We are focusing on the wrong things.

For magicians, one of the most essential tools of the trade is misdirection. A magician will create a distraction, a burst of smoke, a flourish of a scarf, etc. to draw you away from what they are actually doing. You focus on the distraction and miss the real action, the real issue at hand. The enemy is very good at this. He can get us to focus on trendy or scary things that, in the end, don’t matter. We end up worrying about things that we have no control over, or things that have no lasting importance. The enemy has used misdirection to the fullest.

We can see how the enemy uses the misdirection of fear in so many areas. “I want to give to that great charity, but I need to plan for my future.” “I want to help that homeless lady over there but what it if she takes advantage of me?” “I want to help with the Sunday school class, but I’m afraid the kids won’t like me.” Fear is a crippling factor in so many decisions, and the enemy just stands in the corner and smiles, knowing he has done his job of misdirecting us.

Living in Mexico, I spend a lot of my time discussing the perceived fears that so many people have. “Isn’t Mexico dangerous?” No, not really. Many places in the US are dangerous, but the country overall isn’t, you need to have some common sense and be aware. Mexico is the same as the US, a vast country with incredible people. Mexico does have some rough areas, just like the US. The perceived fear that so many people have about Mexico is working to prevent them from experiencing the joys and growth that come from serving in short-term missions. The enemy is smiling over in the corner.

The point of this is, fear is sin. There are many sins the church generally doesn’t like to talk about and almost embraces: gluttony, greed, etc. The one sin many churches are outright celebrating is fear. Fear sells. Fear gives a rallying point. “We need to be afraid of those people, that politician, this trend.” Fear is used very effectively by the world to sell us things and to keep us engaged. Too many churches are using this marketing approach (fear) to run their ministries. We are not of this world, and we should not embrace its techniques to reach people.

It’s the unspoken sins that sneak in and slowly destroy. Fear is a slow, insidious sin that destroys our faith. If we trust in God and know that all things work together for good, why are we so afraid? If we believe we have an all-powerful Father in heaven who only wants great things for his children, why can’t we trust Him?

Every time we say “I’m afraid,” what we’re actually saying is, “I don’t trust God. God isn’t big enough to know what’s best. God doesn’t love me enough to take care of me.” “Fear not” is a significant theme in both the old and new testament. Why do we glaze over these verses like they don’t apply to us? The story of David and Goliath we’ve read since childhood is all about fear versus trusting in God. The enemy wants us to be afraid, maybe we should avoid that.

Go back up to the picture at the top; you probably wondered why the guy has gunk in his teeth, but you didn’t notice the six fingers on her hand. Misdirection works. Don’t let the enemy misdirect you and lead you away from what you need to see and do. Fear not.

Footnote:  www.pewresearch.org/facts-about-crime-in-the-u-s/

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Random Affection in Orphanages

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One of the realities of orphan care is that everybody considers themselves an authority. Just like parenting styles in a traditional family, opinions on orphanage styles tend to shift frequently on how to “do it better.” These opinions change depending on what’s trending in any given year. In the last few years, there’s been a lot written on the potentially harmful effects of too many visitors on the children in an orphanage. After working full-time in orphan care for over 25 years, I could not disagree more.

The current theory states that having visitors in orphanages on a regular basis leads to attachment disorder problems later in life because the children are bonding with random, different strangers every week. In my experience, children raised in dysfunctional orphanages will have a wide range of emotional problems later in life, just as anyone raised in a dysfunctional family. If the children are bonding with random strangers every week, this means there are many underlying problems in the orphanage already. The bonding issue is just a symptom.

Let’s look at two scenarios:

Scenario 1) In our orphanage, we have more visitors than almost any orphanage in the world. In a typical year, we host around 280 groups and have other “drop by” visitors on a regular basis. We enjoy hosting the groups, we enjoy leading them into service and short-term missions, and we believe when well-managed, these visits are healthy for everyone. So how do we avoid the random attachment? First, we have reliable, consistent staff and plenty of them. Our children do bond with adults, but it’s with consistent adults in their lives. We have an excellent child to staff ratios (about 4 to 1) and minimal staff turnover. Second, although we have a tremendous amount of visitors we intentionally limit the time they have with our children. We limit the visiting hours with our infants and toddlers, but more importantly, we encourage all of our groups to stay with us but travel out daily to serve in the community or with other ministries in the area. Our children see the “visitors” as just that, visitors dropping by to see our family. The majority of children who grow up in our home go on to have healthy marriages and families. In spite of all the visitors, most of our children turn out okay.

Scenario 2) In an orphanage that is understaffed and overcrowded, the children will seek random affection from any visitor that comes through. You can see this when you first arrive in a home. If children above the age of five are running over to hang on you and ask to be held, they’re starved for affection. A normal, well-adjusted 10-year-old doesn’t just walk up to a random stranger seeking physical contact; this is a symptom of much deeper issues in an orphanage. The children are not bonding with the staff and are severely lacking affection. They WILL have problems bonding later in life without a tremendous amount of healing. Most children raised in poorly run orphanages eventually produce children that wind up back in the system and have a tough time with healthy relationships. (Just like too many children from foster care.)

So how does someone, or a mission team, respond to these two examples? If you’re dealing with a healthy orphanage, one that has well-adjusted kids and is well run, continue to back their work. Find out what their needs are and keep supporting a healthy situation. Help them to continue to provide what their children need.

If you’re working with a home that’s not so great, it gets complicated quickly. A few years ago, we were helping an orphanage near us that was a pit. The orphanage was overcrowded, filthy, and the children were deeply starved for affection. We were praying for a change in that home but did not have a lot of hope with the current management. With eyes wide open to the situation, we continued to send teams to that orphanage on day trips. The teams would clean, prepare meals, and spend time with the children in need of attention. I would encourage the teams by telling them, “This home will probably never change, but for one memorable day, those children can know someone cares about them.” With these “hit and run” trips, it was far from perfect, but it was giving these children something.

Everyone knows that eating junk food all the time makes for a lousy diet. In a perfect world, we would all have access to regular, healthy, balanced meals. If someone is starving, the standards drop, and junk food is better than no food. If a child was starving, and all we had to give them was a candy bar, that candy bar would mean the world to them. Long term, you would hope that the situation would change, but I don’t think anyone would withhold the candy bar because it’s not the ideal, healthy option. “Junk food” affection, when it’s the only real option, is better than no affection at all. People not visiting an orphanage to avoid this attachment and bonding problem does not suddenly make healthy bonding occur if the orphanage is understaffed and poorly run.

Caring for orphaned and abandoned children is obviously a complicated issue. It’s an issue that has been around for thousands of years and will not be going away soon. To believe that not visiting orphanages will help the situation is like saying not providing services and meals to homeless will end the homeless situation across America. I wish orphanages didn’t exist, but if they have to exist, they should be great, and they need our help.

Please, continue to follow the fundamental teaching of our Christian faith in regards to orphan care:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. James 1:27

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No Regrets

IMG_0355Everyone is playing with the “Faceapp” right now, the app that shows what you will look like when you’re older. Time killer? Yes. Creepy? Absolutely. Are they harvesting your data? Probably. But the one good thing that might be coming out of the Faceapp fad is it’s forcing people to think about getting old and eventually dying off. Most people are in denial; they believe they will be around forever. People believe that they will take that mission trip to Cuba “someday.” They will work with children at risk “eventually.” They’ll help others “once my loans are paid off.” It’s good to remember we might not have that many tomorrows. The time we have is a precious gift that is slipping away faster every year. Don’t reach the end with regrets.

This last week was one of the busiest weeks of our summer here in Mexico. We coordinated three large teams and their efforts to build four homes for needy families in our community. Well over 150 people from multiple states across the US, spending a week of their summer on a short-term mission trip. They all came down with the hope of changing lives. It worked, but I can guarantee it worked in ways almost none of them could have anticipated or might have noticed.

Obviously, the families who received these houses were blessed, and their lives were changed. The homes built aren’t just shelter. The teams, working alongside the family, build a home where they can be proud to live. These are semi-finished three bedroom, one bath homes that would have taken them years to construct without the help of the missions groups. This is why the groups come down, to have a profound and long term positive impact on the families they are seeking to bless. But something else went on in the background beyond the expressed agendas and motivations.

These projects help to provide desperately needed jobs in our community. Almost all the materials are purchased locally. Over the summer, our homes and other projects account for about half of all the local hardware store’s sales. The local skilled laborers hired to help out were able to feed their families. The local glass shop guy always does a little “happy dance” when we walk in to place a window order. These homes impact so many local lives in ways that are impossible to count.

The impact of a well run short-term mission trip is life-changing for everyone involved. For the vast majority of the people who traveled down to help recently, it was a week they will remember the rest of there lives. The teams that came down built relationships with each other, and worked together with fellow church members in ways they’ve never been able to before. I listened to one father, working alongside his wife and three kids, as he shared with tears in his eyes about the bonding time with his teen girls. They spent the week hanging drywall together and learned how to tape and mud the drywall panels. Ask any dad; it takes some effort to find quality relationship time with teen girls.

I was witness to the tearful home dedications as keys, hugs, and blessings were shared all around. The families, teams, and individuals who worked together this week will be sharing stories about the trip for years to come. If they hadn’t taken a chance, spent the time and money to come down, they would always wonder, “what if?” They would carry those regrets for years.

Too many people reach the end of their life and wonder if they’ve ever made a difference. They regret not taking a chance. They wonder if they’ve made some mark or impact that will be remembered. People who serve where the need is greatest never have to worry about this. I’ve never met anybody who regretted caring for orphans, widows or those less fortunate around them. The life we build has nothing to do with the stuff we usually focus on, a life well lived is one focused on having a positive impact on other people’s lives.

On your grave, between your birth date and death date, there will be two dashes: – – representing your life. What will those two simple dashed represent? What did you do between those two dates? You might not change the world, but you can change someone’s life. Don’t end your life with regrets.

 

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The Toilet Paper Police

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Years ago, our ministry had “the toilet paper police.” A gentleman on our staff was in charge of all the soap and cleaning supply distribution to our very large orphanage. This is actually a tremendous job when you think about it: all the soap, TP, shampoo, pine cleaner, diapers, toothpaste, etc. for 120 children, plus the staff, plus the many visiting teams we host. Human beings just go through a LOT of supplies. This gentleman (we’ll call him Bob) was very detailed. Bob would keep lists, track everything, look for patterns in supply usage, etc. Although it was all with the best of intentions, he was kind of a pain. He eventually got the nickname of “the toilet paper police.” He was trying to do the best job possible, and he might have saved us some money, but what was the real cost? What damage was he doing to relationships by stalking people over one extra roll of TP? Kids get sick, people fall in the mud, things change. Sometimes it’s just better to let some things slide for the greater good.

The toilet paper thing might seem odd, but the same controlling attitude can easily flow into other areas of ministry. Some people make a plan or agenda and can get VERY upset if things need to change. When we have a flu outbreak, and most of our kids are throwing up, it’s hard to force them to participate in the great vacation bible school program you had planned. If your group was scheduled to paint a building, I understand it’s frustrating if it rains that day, but that is not in my control. Sometimes things change. When you have a large team, traveling to a foreign country, things changing is the norm.

This week we had a group working hard to prepare lunch for our large family. We occasionally have government inspections (always a lot of fun by the way). Once the group had the spaghetti in the boiling water and cookies in the oven for dessert, we all had to participate in a mandatory government fire drill. I’m sure the group wasn’t expecting or planning on this, but they flowed perfectly and actually saw the humor in the whole situation. The group standing around with our kids while a head count was done turned into kind of a cool experience.

Occasionally, something happens that completely derails the best-laid plans. It’s so critical to realize, God might have a plan that is very different than our schedule or agenda. If we’re focused on our frustration of missed flights, miscommunication about transportation, or people getting sick, we might miss out on a very different opportunity. How we respond in the midst of changes, challenges, and frustrations shows everyone around us who we honestly see as being in charge. Are these our plans, or God’s plans?

Now and then, plans change entirely. In two weeks, we have a fantastic group coming from the Midwest to build a house for a needy family in our town. The planning has been going on for months. Blueprints have been finalized, and materials have been purchased, pictures of the family have been sent to the group, etc. This young family has four children, one of their sons is special needs. The details were in place, and everyone was expecting a fantastic week of service and relationship building. This week, everything changed in a way that no one would have expected. Due to what we believe is a reaction to some medication she was on, the mother of this family of four passed away two nights ago. Understandably, the husband and the four children are devastated. We are helping with funeral arrangements and doing what we can to support the family. It seems trivial in the face of death, but what do we do with the home build project? As of the writing of this blog, the group is planning on moving forward with the home build, but the changes are bringing phenomenal challenges and opportunities to minister at a vastly more profound level. Flexibility on the part of the group will be essential for everyone even remotely involved with this project.

Obviously, this is an extreme example. But unexpected changes are the norm with life in general, and international missions especially. Part of it is the bizarreness of international travel; part of it is different cultures and systems than most groups are used to. But part of it is also a spiritual dynamic. There will always be challenges and barriers to effective ministry. The key to getting through those challenges and barriers is to see them differently. The changes we encounter, the disruptions to our plans, can lead to incredible opportunities for service and ministry as long as our hearts are in the right place and we keep our eyes open to those divine appointments that God has laid out for us.

Be organized, plan well, but always remember to allow for the unexpected. Allow for God to set things in motion in ways that we didn’t prepare for. Please don’t be the toilet paper police.

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