You Are Going To Die

graveYou might have hours left. You might be around for several more decades. But you will die. You will kick the bucket, go toes up, become worm food, start pushing up daisies. You will reach room temperature, give up the ghost, etc.. There are lots of ways to say it, but one way or another we all give up the fight, our heart will cease to beat, and our life on this world will end. When that happens (and you live in the US) the people in your life will arrange to have you put in a box, a week or so later people will put on dark clothes (weird) and will gather. Someone will say a few words by your grave, and people you’ve never met will stick you in the ground. Following this little ritual, people will get together somewhere, eat potato salad, and talk about you. Our life comes down to a plastic bucket of potato salad from Costco. (and maybe a nice sandwich platter.)

In Mexico, funerals are handled differently. When someone dies everything snaps into action in time-honored rituals. The body is placed in a box and positioned in either the home or a public location for the wake to start, all within a few hours of someone passing on. The wake is not a polite, reserved affair. People are up all night hanging out, crying, sharing, talking, eating, maybe sharing a few beers, but it goes on ALL NIGHT. It’s quite the send-off. What goes on in the background is something else. Friends and some family are out digging the hole. Digging a grave is much harder than it looks like on TV or in the movies, it takes many back-breaking hours. Once the wake is winding down, everyone loads the casket into a truck and heads to the grave site. Once again, very different than in the US: in Mexico, to “bury your loved one” actually means that. You, your friends, and the family use some rope and lower the casket into the ground. Then you grab the shovels. It takes a LONG time to bury someone. People are crying, maybe some wailing, and it takes hours. But when it’s done, there is a real sense of closure, everyone has said “goodbye,” and people start to move on. One of the many upsides to this time-honored tradition is it makes death very real to everyone involved. This is a good thing; we should all face death from time to time. We need to be reminded that our time here is a temporary gig. There is something genuine about “burying your loved one.” The sweat and dirt and blood of broken knuckles as you dig through the hard ground to make a hole to place the body is not to be taken lightly. It’s real. It makes the line between life and death very clear – there is an end.

It’s important to be reminded from time to time that there might not be a tomorrow for us. The reason I wrote the 500 or so words on funerals you just read is to remind you that you will be the center of one of these rituals eventually. What are you going to do between now and then? How will you use this precious and limited time you have?

Too many people go through the motions of life, without living life in line with the tremendous calling we each have. We need to be living our lives to the fullest, living in such a way that we will hear upon our arrival in heaven, “Well done my good and faithful servant.” We should slide into heaven out of breath, worn out from seeking to share with others, give to others, and be representing our Father well. I’m not sure who said it, but I love the quote “It’s sad to reach the end of one’s life and realize you’ve never lived.”

I work with a lot of young adults from the US who visit our ministry. Sadly, I know most of them will follow the tedious path that society lays out for them. They will attend college while they figure out what to do, they will leave college with too much debt, they will marry too young, and spend much of their lives paying back student loans. I’m not sure this is what God intended for us.

At whatever stage of life you find yourself, young adult, old fart, or somewhere in between; take a risk. Do something out of your comfort zone. I know one older female retired doctor (80ish) who still drives herself to Mexico every week to volunteer at various clinics. I know a young family that is currently looking for property to open a new orphanage. I have a friend who just got back from Guatemala where he helped with volcano relief. These are people who are actively working to bless others but are also growing in ways that are hard to imagine. They are sucking everything they can out of the time they have on this earth.

I know not everyone is called to serve internationally, but we are all called to serve. Don’t let fear of the unknown, fear of looking foolish, or any other fear keep you from trying something out of your norm. You might find a calling that will change your life, you might learn about the people in your community, it might shape you in ways you could never envision.

Take a chance, do something great with your life. Always remember: In the end, no one gets out alive.

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It’s a Person, Not a Problem

childHow many people label the recipient of their help, and then the label is all they see: homeless person, orphan, addict, etc. It’s so important in orphan care, and in ministry in general, to see the person and not the problem. We need to move beyond seeing the circumstances and see them as individual people with their own hopes, fears, and histories. God only sees the person; it’s a good model.

One of the best ways to understand someone is to put yourself in their place mentally. To “walk a mile in their shoes.” Most of us (hopefully) have no idea what an orphaned or abandoned child is going through, but it’s so important to try and understand. Before we can reach anyone, they need to know we know them, understand them and have their best interest at heart. In our experience, the most effective staff in our orphanage are the ones with the worst backgrounds. They understand our children. They’ve been there, they know the fear.

If a child is coming into an orphanage or foster care situation, it’s not like anything most people have ever experienced. Think about the times you’ve seen people interviewed after a major fire or tornado. “I’ve lost everything.” is a common response. But have they lost everything? They might have lost their home and belongings but they still have a church, a job, friends, their family is probably still around. And yet, at that moment, “everything is gone.” That is a lot to deal with.

Now, imagine what a child is going through. They actually have lost everything. Their home is gone, it’s likely they won’t see friends or family ever again, they will never go back to their school, odds are all they have in the world is the clothes on their backs. On top of the obvious loss in their lives, they are still very young, so everything is magnified in their minds. When you’re six a week might as well be a year. Any event, good or bad, is seen as huge through a child’s eyes. A child’s reactions haven’t aged to understand that life changes, that peaks and valleys will happen. To a child, something we might brush off becomes the end of the world. Layer that with the fact that children winding up in the system probably never had good role models in their lives to learn how to deal with trials, hardships, and loss in a healthy way. Most of us kind of freak out if we lose our keys or cell phone, imagine what a child is going through who has lost everything.

Recently we took in a group of three siblings. It’s not uncommon for the oldest in a group to be the “parent” if the real parents were either physically or emotionally absent. The ten-year-old was REALLY in charge of his siblings emotionally, and he was in a panic and on the edge of tears. “What if my mom is looking for us?” (We calmly explained that the social worker knows where they are.) “This is an orphanage, what if we get adopted, and our mom wants us back?” (We don’t do that, adoptions are pretty rare with older kids, and sibling groups are almost NEVER adopted.) He didn’t have the name of his community but tried to describe it to us so we could take him home. (His descriptions could have been any one of hundreds of communities around Tijuana.) We slowly and calmly did everything we could to assure him that he and his sibling would be OK.

I’m sharing this to help you put yourself into the mind of a child in the system. Some people respond to the worries and fears of a child by minimizing it. “You’ll be fine.” “Others have gone through this.” “Don’t worry about it.” This type of response does not help. We need to speak to them at their level and give their worries the attention they deserve in their mind.

The problems in our lives are frequently huge in our eyes and seem insurmountable. To God, our problems are tiny. He sees the big picture. He’s seen all this before. But He still hurts for us, listens to us, is there for us. Jesus came to die on the cross but to also walk as man, putting Himself in our place. He knows our trials, our fears, our questions that, in His mind, are simple worries. In His eyes, our problems are passing trivia, but to the children we are, they are crushing stresses in our lives. He hurts for us. He wants to be that loving, encouraging voice telling us we’re going to be OK.

If you work in childcare or any ministry, you need to be that calming voice, that attentive ear to the pains and fears people are going through. In a very real way, we are representing God. We need to be that anchor, that safe place, that understanding ear for the people we are ministering to. See the person, not the problem; walk in Christ’s example.

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Voluntourism Isn’t So Bad.

travelOver the last few years, the term “voluntourism” has come into the missions vernacular. It’s generally used as a derogatory term for people combining vacations, with serving, with a dash of poverty tourism thrown in. It’s a simple term, but it’s more complicated than the black and white way most people present it.

I’ve you’ve watched cable news or visited any social media website in the last few years you’ve seen a widening divide. Whether it’s Democrat vs. Republican, opinions on gun control, or any one of dozens of topics, the reasonable middle ground can be hard to find. The problem is, in most cases, that middle ground is where logical solutions are found. The calm voice of reason has been silenced by the shouting from both sides in too many discussions.

I, along with my team, host a LOT of short-term mission groups in Mexico every year. Are some of these trip more about tourism wrapped in projects? Sure, it happens, it’s actually a sliding scale with any group. Some people come for purely educational or recreational purposes, some come who only want to serve, most come with a mixed agenda and we’re OK with that. As long as the groups coming down are respectful of our home, and the people we serve in the community, we want the groups here. We want bigger groups, and we want them to tell their friends to come.

The term voluntourism paints all service trips with a broad negative brush. It claims that service trips are all about the people going on the trips, and those people looking good on social media. We’ve all seen the pictures of American teens surrounded by poor children. The thing is, for this current generation, everything is documented to social media. Whether it’s dining out, giving birth, or the Pinterest wedding, everything is now photographed for online publication. Is it odd that service trips are also so well photographed and shared? As long as the people being photographed have given permission, and the local culture is respected, is this a problem? Or does showing people the need in various areas of the world actually help to promote aid to those areas? Few would argue that’s it’s better to keep needs hidden. When these trips are healthy and respectful, everybody wins.

People attacking voluntourism without knowing the desires and goals of the people receiving the groups are actually showing incredible arrogance. “I know what’s better for them than they do.” This attitude of well-meaning American’s determining the wants and desires of people groups and cultures they know very little about is actually hugely condescending. Passing judgment on people without knowing them, their needs, and their wishes, is exactly the wrong thing to do. By going and visiting people where they are, talking to them, and getting to know them, real progress can be made. Call it voluntourism if you want to, but it’s a good thing.

Across the board, people in our area want more groups to come down. Even though some groups give just a half-hearted nod to a service project, they still bring huge benefits to our community. There is a reason every city in the US promotes tourism: people who visit buy food, supplies, and create jobs in the local community. Between the several ministries in our area, over 500 missions groups are hosted in our town of 4,000 people every year. These short-term mission teams and their projects are the economic engines that have brought our town from poverty to middle class in the last 15 years. Some groups have been less than great, but the overall effect has changed local lives for the better.

So how do you change the shape of voluntourism? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Respect the people and culture of wherever you are visiting. Always remember that the people you’re visiting aren’t there for your entertainment, they are just like you but from a different culture and background. Get to know them, talk to them, ask before you take a picture (or don’t take a picture at all). Treat them as you would want to be treated.
  2. Work on real, productive projects. The best way to do this is to find on-the-ground organizations who you can partner with. There are people in any area who know the needs that need to be addressed and how best to focus your efforts and resources. If you’re working on a project, by partnering with local organizations, you’re much better prepared to help, and not cause unintentional damage.
  3. Be honest with your funders. If you call your trip “missions” and have raised money under that title, be honest with yourself and your donors. Is this really just about missions or is it about tourism? If it’s just about you taking a trip, get a job and pay for it yourself. If it’s really about serving others and meeting needs, let people know how they can help. Taking an educational and touristy trip is fine, just be honest about it.

It comes down to respect for the people in the countries being visited. Travel is a good thing, it breaks down walls, changes opinions, and works against racism. If we can learn more about our world, our fellow man, and help others while we’re at it, it’s a good thing. Voluntourism suddenly doesn’t sound so bad.

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What is an Orphan?

Armenian_orphans_in_Aleppo_collected_from_Arabs_by_Karen_Jeppe

What is the definition of orphan? I know this sounds pretty straightforward but depending on who you talk to the definition of what an orphan is can vary widely. Most people assume that an orphan is a child that has no parents. But orphan can also define many other situations where the child might have a parent or two; they just aren’t around to care for the child. Both UNICEF and World Vision define an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents.

I, along with an exceptional team, run a large orphanage. We care for about 120 children from newborn up through adulthood in a family like setting. The bulk of our children are not technically orphans in the traditional sense; this sometimes surprises people. “If they’re not an orphan, why are they in your home?” Well, it gets complicated.

If a parent or parents are in prison, rehab, or some other institutional situation where they can’t care for their child, the child needs to go somewhere. Frequently there is no extended family available or willing to care for the thousands of children whose parents are no longer in their lives. These children are technically not “orphans” but still need a home. Of the children in our care, 70% will never see blood relatives again. The parents might be out there somewhere; it’s just that reunification is impossible. We are big fans of adoption, but it’s not a reality for most children. Because there are still parents somewhere, the children are older, or there are siblings in the picture, adoptions are pretty rare.

Some children are brought to us due to severe abuse or neglect. Some have gone through things that would rip your heart out if I were to detail them here. Even though they have been removed from a home situation for their protection, they still technically have parents and are not “orphans.” They need to be cared for, counseled, and brought to a place of healing.

Occasionally a woman will give birth and for any number of reasons decide to abandon that child. The mother might be too young, they might have hidden the pregnancy, or they don’t want to acknowledge it, they might be going through some deep psychological issues. For whatever reason, in any society, a percentage of infants are abandoned by their parents. Once again these children are not technically orphans, they have parents somewhere. These abandoned children need to be cared for and raised in a way to show them how valuable they are. They need to be shown that they are not a mistake or just something to be thrown away. Being abandoned at that level leaves some deep scars.

The work of orphan care is rarely black-and-white, there are a vast amount of gray areas that we work in every day. Many people accuse orphanages of breaking up families just for the sake of filling their dorms. I’m not saying some orphanages haven’t done this, or even continue to do this, but in my experience, it’s less frequent than some people would lead you to believe.

Most of our children are referred to us by social workers just like they would be assigned to foster care families in the US, but occasionally a child will be brought to us by a parent asking us to take their child. We will do everything in our power to keep the family together. Whether it’s counseling, short-term financial help, housing, etc. we fight to keep families together. We’ve even gone so far as hiring qualified single mothers so that they could stay here with their children in a safe place. We feel a healthy family is without a doubt the very best option for a child. Unfortunately, for many children, the family option is not on the table.

So why this rambling explanation of the difficulties of defining an orphan? I just wanted to bring up the idea that orphan care can be very nuanced, complicated, and it can be hard to peg down solid answers. Orphaned and abandoned children don’t fit into our preconceived boxes. In any ministry, there are Solomon like judgment calls made frequently. What is your definition of homeless? What is your definition of a “special needs” child? Words and definitions matter a great deal, but the realities are people are messy, and we need to meet them where they are. We are all on a sliding scale of messed up. Just because a child doesn’t fit our exact definition of orphan, doesn’t mean they don’t have needs. Too many children in this world are desperate for a place to call home, filled with people who genuinely care about them.

In orphan care, we need to see each child as God sees us. God sees each one of us as individuals with needs, desires, and profound pains that are uniquely our own. Psalm 68:5 says, “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows, is God in his holy habitation.” God cares deeply for each one of his children. He cares so deeply for us; we should also care for those lost children all around us, whether it’s a true orphan, an abandoned child, or the lonely child next door or in our church. There are more “orphans” among us than we might realize: act accordingly.

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You Have a Greater Impact Than You Think

Africa3When you’re traveling on a short-term mission trip, how you’re perceived might be very different than you might imagine. Being accurately self-aware is difficult and very few people get it right. You have an image of yourself and who you are, other people have an entirely different image of you, and what you can do. Until we come to a closer understanding of how people actually see us, it’s hard to build relationships and move past the polite niceties of life.

Years ago, I was visiting West Africa with my wife and a small team helping with staff training at an orphanage in Ghana. About an hour from the orphanage was a small grade school that had been, in large part, funded by a friend of ours from the United States. Our friend had asked us to stop by the school to say “Hi”, and to see how they were doing. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal. As is often the case in short-term missions, what we envisioned or intended turned out to be vastly different than what happened.

We had scheduled our “down day” from the work at the orphanage and had called the school to ask permission to come by in the morning to visit. Not a big deal, we thought we would meet with a teacher or two, maybe shake hands with the director, and hit the road. Yikes, were we wrong. When we pulled up, it looked like they had some traditional festival going on. We quickly found out that the “festival” was because some FRIENDS of the guy who funded the place were dropping by. They had suspended classes and put together a program with a few speeches honoring our visit; then each class performed a traditional dance for the benefit of our small team. After the dances they brought out some cookies and a few cokes for us as refreshments. It was a heart-warming, special time. It was also wildly awkward. We were nobody, we hadn’t done anything, but they shut the school down for us for the day. Afterward, it led to some great discussions and a lot of soul-searching among our team.

Money, or the perception of money, changes everything. In hindsight, we realized us showing up to that school was like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet (two of the richest people in the world) stopping by for dinner. Our team collectively was fairly broke, but in the eyes of the people at the school, we were wealthy beyond their imagination. Just the idea that we could pay to travel halfway around the world was a mind-boggling amount of money for them. We wanted to have a real conversation with the school director, but we could tell right away that it was just too weird all around. She was too intimidated by our perceived wealth and connections; she was too afraid to offend, the relationship was just out of balance. We did everything we could to tell them we were nobodies but it just wasn’t going to work.

We need to think about what our impact is in missions by just being present, for good or bad. We assume just showing up and watching might have no impact, but as we saw happen at the school, our visit might have wildly unintended consequences.

Here at our orphanage, we hold Sunday service on site in our small chapel. The service is kid-focused and a special, set-aside time for our family here in our home. We have a lot of visiting groups, and they’re sometimes surprised when they find out they’re not allowed in our service. “But we just want to watch and experience it.” OK, but if we add 10, 20, 30 Americans to our service, it just becomes a show for the American teams. It shifts the focus from our kids, and God, to a cultural presentation for our visitors. Not our goal.

We love our groups; we love when they visit, but for the good of the children in our home we need to maintain boundaries. If a group wants to experience a local service that’s great, we just send them to one of the many local churches in our area. We know their presence will change the dynamic of the local church service, but we’ve talked to the local pastors, and they’re fine with the groups joining in. The groups are welcome there. But the reality is they will change the “feel” of the service just by being present as foreigners. Foreigners that are perceived as being financially wealthy and well connected.

Short-term missions are important. Organizations around the world need help and want teams to come. I’m a huge advocate for short-term missions, and the powerful changes trips can bring into the lives of all those involved, both the teams going and the teams hosting. But it’s so important to do it in as healthy a way as possible.

We need to serve with humility, to serve with sensitivity, and to serve in a way that has as positive an impact as possible. Place yourself into the minds of the people you will be visiting, imagine the impact. Seek to be self-aware, to understand how people view you and be aware of how you are perceived. To be empathetic to others, to understand what they are experiencing, is one of the first steps to effective ministry.

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Mother’s Day Sucks

pain2Anna Jarvis is credited with “inventing” mothers day back in 1908, and it became an official US holiday in 1914. Shortly thereafter, Anna, realizing what the day had become, spent the rest of her life fighting against what she considered her enormous mistake. (footnote) She fought to abolish the holiday not just because of the pain it brings out in so many people, she realized that it had become just another reason to sell flowers and expensive greeting cards. Mother’s day had turned into another pointless commercial endeavor. I’m all for making a buck; the thorny issue is the agonizing emotional pain this day can bring.

Few holidays elicit such an immediate and emotional response as Mother’s Day. Father’s Day? Yawn. Presidents Day? Big deal. Fourth of July? A BBQ, big whoop. Thanksgiving is bigger than most holidays but not exactly an emotional event. Mother’s Day brings along a tangled string of emotional responses in almost anyone. When one hears the word “mother” it’s part of our shared human experience to have memories ripple through our minds, some loving, some not so loving, but the memories are almost never without deep sentiments.

The mother-child relationship is one of the strongest and most important in our lives, for that reason, it is so celebrated. Because it can be so remarkable, it makes sense that is can also be one of the most painful and damaging of relationships when it goes wrong. For a large percentage of the population, the emotions that this day brings forth are a long way from joy. For anyone involved in ministry, it’s important to be acutely aware of the land-mines this holiday places all around us.

Writing here as one who runs a large orphanage, you can imagine the pain Mother’s Day can bring out in the children in our care. We stopped attending church in our town on Mother’s Day years ago because it was just too agonizing. For our children to attend a service dedicated to honoring mothers, it brought up way too much baggage. They would sit there and listen to how wonderful all the mothers in the church were, they would watch as flowers were passed out to the mothers present, and they would sit quietly holding back the tears. Besides church, every year our kids have to participate in the public school’s Mother’s Day program knowing their biological mothers will never see it. They watch other children being hugged by their mothers and wonder what they did wrong to make their own mothers abandon them. Our staff here does a phenomenal job of loving and caring for the children in our home, but it can still be a very complicated and painful few days around here.

It’s not just the orphaned who suffer through this day. For women who have lost children through illness or accidents, Mother’s Day is a vivid, annual reminder of their tragedy and the dull pain that radiates through their lives. While others are celebrating motherhood, they are mourning the graduations, weddings, and all life’s events they will never see their children experience. Along with the many mothers who’ve lost children, are the 20% of women who, for medical and various other reason, will never have children. Society still tells women they are not complete unless they have offspring, for many, this is not within their control.

For many people, Mother’s Day is a painful reminder that the women who gave birth to them failed at motherhood. Not every mother is Mrs. Brady; not every mother is the ideal that we celebrate. Too many mothers abandon their children, too many are mentally or physically abusive. Too many mothers have drug or alcohol problems or just don’t care. For anyone raised by a women who should never have had children, this day is a painful reminder that they never had a normal childhood. They were never held when they were scared; they were never read to at night, the tooth fairy never came. Not a lot to celebrate here, just an aching void where their childhood should be.

So, what are we supposed to do if we have a church, school, or some other organization that needs to acknowledge this upcoming day? Honor all those mothers who get it right, who have sacrificed so much to raise their children in a loving, healthy way. Encourage them, recognize them, shower them with the admiration they deserve. The mother-child relationship can be a profound, wonderful, literally life-changing experience. The mother-child bond is incredible, and it should be celebrated when it’s done right. BUT, please do so in a way that is sensitive to those in the room that dread this Sunday in May every year.

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footnote: http://mentalfloss.com/article/30659/founder-mothers-day-later-fought-have-it-abolished

Reciprocal Missions – The Book

Screen Shot 2018-04-28 at 4.53.28 PMYou’ll notice this blog is a LITTLE different than my normal ramblings so I hope I don’t scare off my normal followers. (thanks for following by the way) This week marks what I hope is a milestone for the work I feel I’ve been called to. After more than a year of partnering with Phil Steiner, a fellow missionary with a heart for short-term missions, our book is available on Amazon. Reciprocal Missions – Short-term Missions that Serve Everyone (paperback or Kindle)

For anyone who’s met me, or read my blog, you know I’m passionate about short-term missions. Like many opinions I hold dear, not everyone agrees with me on this topic. There has been a great deal written in the last few years questioning the value of short-term mission projects. Some circles are condemning them as useless, damaging, or a waste of money. I get that, I’ve seen my share of mission trips that should have never happened. But, I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life hosting short-term mission teams here at our orphanage, and I can tell you without a doubt, short-term missions can change lives.

In Missions the idea of unintended consequences is nothing new. Well-meaning people trying to fix a problem can sometimes create a whole new set of problems. The fight against human trafficking has had a detrimental effect on international adoptions, the worthy effort to protect vulnerable children is causing unintended consequences or preventing adoptions. The consequences of people pointing out the many problems of short-term missions is that, unfortunately, many people have given up on short-term missions altogether. There is a lot to criticize, but that’s true of just about any human endeavor. We need to take a nuanced look at whatever we do and work to improve when we can. If we stopped doing everything that was challenging, we would be sitting on the couch the rest of our lives. God wants us to be challenged; He wants us to stretch and try new things, this is how we grow into the people we’re intended to be.

There is something God does in the hearts and lives of His people when they step out of their comfort zone, travel to a new place, and spend time observing and participating in ministry in cultures different from their own. We are part of a rich, dynamic, wonderful collection of believers around the world. It’s impactful and life-changing to go out and build relationships with fellow believers in central America, Africa, Cuba, or any area you might have a chance to serve.

Just like any effective ministry, in missions, relationships are key. Healthy, reciprocal relationships are critical to successful short-term mission trips. Without them, we will continue to do damage and be ineffective. The book we’ve released is a guide to help people navigate short-term missions in a way that honors everyone: the teams going, the ministries hosting, and the local communities.

Our book, Reciprocal Missions, has a slightly different flow than most. Phil (my co-author) and I each work through a section from our perspective—a topic in our particular area of expertise; then the other will briefly chime in, sharing their short take on the topic. I write from the perspective of the mission host; having received and hosted groups for over 25 years. Phil writes from the perspective of the short-term trip facilitator, bringing 20 years of experience leading groups into effective service and educational experiences. Our goal is that the dialogue provides insights into best practices for healthy short-term missions.

Purchase the paperback here               Purchase the Kindle here

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