The Blind Leading the Seeing

Three sentences. That’s all it took to know Reyna was extraordinary. I met her just a few days ago. Reyna’s spirit reverberated in her Dominican home and into the heart of this American visitor. And she unsettled me in profound ways with her unassuming heroism.

Reyna’s modest home fronts a dirt alleyway in the town of El Seibo, a busy city in the heart of the Dominican Republic. Life isn’t easy in her neighborhood. Deficient infrastructure, education, and sanitation shackle her community. But Reyna’s smile wasn’t lacking. She approaches life like an eager Coloradan advances on a challenging hike—with vigor, optimism and confidence. Her enthusiasm is surprising because of poverty’s grip on her city. But it is remarkable because of her impairment. Reyna was blinded at the start of her adult life. At the age of 20, Reyna lost her sight.

“God has given me so much. My job is to give back to others.”

An embarrassing lump grew in my throat when she voiced those words. Reyna was a charity case poster child. She could have starred in a Sally Struthers infomercial. Dirty water. Substandard hospitals. Single woman. Blind. But Reyna didn’t see it that way. Her impairment didn’t cloud her identity. Reyna knew she was a strong, purposeful and capable woman. She could see she was designed in the very image of her Creator.

Reyna has unhampered ambition. She launched a business and it grew dramatically. The corner Target, her store provides it all: Rice, flour, cooking oil, toiletries and more. She trusts her faithful clients to pay in full. When new customers stop in, however, she keeps their payments separate till a faithful client stops in to verify. She treats her customers with class and only sells the best products. And her business has grown enormously profitable.

Dominican-Republic-Reyna

And that’s a good story: The rags-to-riches blind entrepreneur. But Reyna’s story was just beginning. She’s since taken in her sister’s two children and raised them. Her nephew now studies at the Dominican Air Force academy. Her teenage niece aspires to medical school. She is a leader at her church. While she answered my many questions, she interrupted our conversation with a phone call. That might have been rude, but in a very “that’s Reyna” sort of way, the caller was a young woman in her church who was preparing for a surgery and looking for her counsel. Reyna refuses to succumb to, or even acknowledge, low societal expectations.

“God says that, ‘Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord,’ she recounted. “We’re called to be openhanded in our success and that’s what I try to do.”

It’s as if she doesn’t get it. Reyna, I see you as the poor in this proverbYou’re the blind woman in the developing country. She deflects what I might assume about her because she knows what her Father thinks about her. And she’s chosen to share in her success. She extolls everyone to embrace the gifts God’s given them.

“There a many blind people in my city that are not working. Why? They are more than capable. This is a big problem for us.”

Reyna captivated my imagination for the hour I stood in her home. She, of course, had prepared a patented dulce de leche dessert for us. And, of course, she cried several times in gratefulness for all God had given her. It’s what heroes do. Nothing fabricated and no veneers. Reyna was created to create and gifted to gift. No barrier was going to keep her from seeing that.

Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.

The Fall of Giants: The Lost Art of Learning From Our Past

The decline and fall of civilizations throughout history was nearly always man-made, and most often came in the disguise of social justice, unaccountable welfare, perceived protection, and undefined fairness. If modern society continues to duplicate the failed ideological actions of civilizations past, why should they expect a different outcome? Just because you have more money in modern times to throw at the failed ideas of celebrity politicians doesn't mean they will work any better. Those ideas will now only cost more, do more damage, and quicken the decline and fall.

Socialism, Progressivism, Communism, Marxism… all failed ideologies that resulted in the eventual demise of every society they infiltrated. So why are these ideologies embraced so readily by the youth and misguided of today's America? Simple really, they are no longer taught the lessons of history that where so fondly embraced by our forefathers. They where not shown, or refuse to accept, the shortcomings of those ideologies. Convinced somehow that this time the result will be different, and that the reason it will be is because they are not the same people that tried these same things before. All the while not realizing that they are in fact an identical reflection of those that tried and failed before them, who thought themselves somehow different than those that preceded them.

Our Constitution was drafted specifically to take note of the failings of past societies, and capitalize on the successes. Great men debated laboriously over every detail and word. The words of the Constitution where not made for "interpretation", but for application. And as times and needs changed, it was meant to be added to, and refined, not disregarded and replaced by regulation and rules set by soft-tyranical politicians. Contentious issues of the day, such as slavery, where carefully considered by those who hoped that the great Republic they where building would have the tools necessary to end such a deplorable matter of owning the life of another man. These men did not seek to make a perfect Republic, but instead sought to create one that would always be in a state of perfecting. Always improving, always expanding liberty, freedom, and honor. 

Until as a society we embrace the lessons of our past, and the wisdom of those who sought to protect us from it, we are simply following the same script that so many civilizations before us have followed. Our fall and demise will be no less dramatic, or significant. Simply another failed society that future generations will look upon and wonder how a giant such as we were could have fallen so far and left so little in the matters of freedom and liberty for those to come after us.

The Zero Network

In hushed voices, a swath of national leaders orchestrated the Rwandan genocide. Labeling themselves the Zero Network, Rwandan powerbrokers crafted their "final solution" to reduce the number of Rwandan Tutsis to zero. I've always assumed some sort of horrific groupthink or terror contagion struck Rwanda in 1994. I've believed that a few bad guys escalated an ethnic conflict into a catastrophe.

But I couldn't have been more wrong. There was nothing haphazard, surprising, or accidental about the Rwandan genocide. It didn't slowly evolve and wasn't a civil-war-turned-ugly. The genocidaires murdered one million humans with the precision that a builder constructs to a blueprint:

It was a careful and long-prepared plan to destroy a people. Press reports at the end of 1994 were still talking about a country losing its sanity, but that is too simplistic an analysis. What happened in Rwanda was premeditated murder. – Hugh McCullum in A Thousand Hills

Théoneste Bagosora, popularly known as "the colonel of death," led a group of government and military leaders that planned–down to every last hut (really)–how they would exterminate the Tutsi people. They trained thousands of  Hutu boys how to chop people to death with pangas (machetes they ordered from the French). They lulled international superpowers like the UN and the United States into believing they were working toward peace.

But when the genocide started, it was evident that Bagosara's ominous forewarning of a "second apocalypse" was understated. The radio announcers stoked the lethal rage, evidencing just how very un-accidental this event was.

Our enemy is one! We know him, he is the Tutsi! …Kill Tutsi in their homes, their parents and their children–and don't forget the unborn fetuses!

In the end, the Zero Network accomplished 80% of their plan of killing all 1.2 million Tutsis. And just 18 years later, astoundingly, Rwanda is one of the most hopeful countries on the planet.

Hôtel des Mille Collines (aka Hotel Rwanda)

It's my first visit to Rwanda and I'm stuck. I'm stuck between the horrors of the genocide and the optimism of an upstart nation. I can't seem to reconcile the tragedy of the past with the promise of the future. This morning, I reflected on this tension while a group of eight Rwandan orphans led us in song. In their eyes I saw both pain and resolve. And as I worshiped with them, I came to a sense of peace about being stuck. They were too. Harrowed, but moving forward. Wounded, but not fatally. Pained, but steadied. Out of their deep affliction, the people of Rwanda carve a new path.

Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.

The Fuzziness of Being Faith-Based

Breakout sessions typically make me want to break out my smartphone or break out of the room. Rarely does the side stage stack up with the main act. But at a recent conference for human resources professionals, one breakout session was full of fireworks about a controversial subject—what it means to be a faith-based organization.

What the speaker shared, however, left me disheartened. There is no more imprecise label than faith-based. It holds a hundred meanings, each of them different than the next. For nonprofit organizations that wear this label, our interpretation of its implications varies even more. And these differences became clear in the session.

The presenter—let’s call her Sharon—hailed from a widely-known faith-based organization, one of the largest in the world. Her organization is consistently platformed at major evangelical churches and conferences across the country as an organization fulfilling Christ’s call to bring hope to the least and the lost. Sharon directed their global hiring efforts across 50 countries. As a member of the executive team and as “final say” on all senior leadership positions, her stamp carried significant credence. Sharon led a breakout session on recruitment and hiring, her domains of expertise.

She flipped through PowerPoint slides with ease, articulating how she screened job candidates and recruited for positions in remote countries. Sharon concluded her talk, and the audience thanked her with a round of gentle applause. And that’s when things got interesting.

The conference included folks of a swath of religious beliefs—apathetics, atheists, evangelicals, Muslims and everyone in between. One questioner, based on his tone, was likely a practicing antagonist, if you can call that a religion. I remember their exchange vividly.

 

Antagonist: You say you’re a Christian faith-based organization. Does that mean you only hire Christians?

Sharon: Well, we hire Christians for our senior leadership positions in the countries where we work, but let me state with absolute clarity: We have a strict non-evangelism policy and hire people of all faiths for entry and mid-level positions. We’re about helping people, not about telling them what they should believe.

Antagonist: So you do discriminate in your leadership roles. Well, how do you know if someone is a Christian?

Sharon: We don’t discriminate. When I say “Christian,” I mean we aim to hire leaders that exhibit the Golden Rule—that love their neighbors like themselves. Good people that exhibit kindness and humility. We look for those traits in interviewees.

Antagonist: OK, so say you do hire a Muslim or Hindu for a mid-level position: Could that person be promoted to a senior leadership role?

Sharon: Absolutely. We have numerous Muslims and Hindus, in fact, that serve as country directors for us across the globe.

 

The conversation continued for some time, the Antagonist and Sharon each feeling each other out, like boxers at the weigh-in ceremony. After their brief exchange, I replayed Sharon’s responses over and over again, attempting to reconcile what she said with the assumptions I had about her organization. Some might read that exchange and be encouraged by it. I felt betrayed.

I was certain she wouldn’t have repeated this to the Christian churches that support her organization. In fact, I’ve consistently heard a message from her colleagues that sharply contrasted it. But there she was, one of the organization’s senior leaders, castigating evangelism and repudiating efforts of other faith-based organizations that place importance on the beliefs of those they hire.

What I expected would be a blah breakout session became a personal watershed moment. The “faith-based” label was not one size fits all. Our world is better because of Sharon's organization, but they are not who I thought they were. And they are not who they set out to be. In our pluralist culture, the gravitational pull of secularism can feel irresistible. But there is fresh momentum building among many faith-based organizations that believe it's not.

This fresh momentum surfaces in surprising places. Even an adamant atheist pleaded for faith-based organizations to remain anchored to our faith. To hold fast to our foundation. Though many disagree with the message of Jesus, we all agree that a light under a basket is no light at all.

 

Photo: Marcos Fernandez Diaz (vj catmac)

A Carpet Confession

It was a moment when personal convenience trumped common decency. Desmond, our six month old, was in his cheery post-feeding bliss. And, as I moved him through our hotel room, Desmond performed a response not uncommon for full babies: He spit-up. And the carpet caught the brunt of his act.

It was in this moment where I miserably failed a test of honor. I simply and soullessly watched as the spit-up pooled on the hotel’s beautiful carpet. Without any ethical reservations, I smushed the spit-up into the carpet fibers with the sole of my shoe. With just a few spineless swipes, Desmond’s deposit disappeared. I can’t even pretend I waffled with the decision. The whole sequence lasted just seconds.

Since that regrettable moment, I have attempted to identify what motivated me to do it. Despite its incivility, there have to be at least meager grounds for what I did. This is what I know: I would never have done that in my own house. In fact, I recounted a number of home floor-scrubbing memories, moments where I busted out specialized cleaning products and bristle brushes to clean even minor blemishes, exhausting my arm and back muscles in the process.

Ownership was the difference between these Mr. Clean moments and the hotel room villainousness. I am deeply committed to maintaining my home. It’s a place where I have invested personal energy, money and time. The hotel room, however, was just rented space. I knew I would never see that room again, so I was unconcerned about the long-term cleanliness and vibrancy of the hotel’s carpet.

While I am deserving of scorn, don’t furrow your brow at me just yet. You’re no different from me. I’m betting you’ve Andretti’d more than one Hertz rental in your lifetime. Or, perhaps you’ve left a bathroom stall in a condition which your mother would not approve. The principle applies beyond carpet stains. It’s the reason dormitory bathrooms teem with innumerable bacterial varieties. It’s why my fellow Coloradoans feel no shame in abusing their rental skis while shredding the mountain. It’s why old Soviet apartment buildings look worse with each passing month.

At HOPE, we are committed to not dictating to our entrepreneurs the type of businesses they should start and run. We avoid coaching them into specific ideas for the same reason I vigorously scrub our home’s soiled carpets. If we conceive it, they don’t own it. Business challenges become as dismissible as hotel room infractions. When our clients pursue their own dreams, no stain—a rough sales month or tough weather—is uncleanable.

Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.

Are Charities Lying To You At Christmas?

It’s Christmas time and charitable giving is at a yearly high, but are your really buying a heifer?

No, not really. I realize this might be a Santa’s-not-real moment, but don’t rush to label me a charitable Scrooge. I love Christmas and the wreath of generosity that surrounds the season.

You aren’t buying a heifer, but this isn’t hush-hush. Heifer Internationalthe heifer-distributing marvel, even tells you so. When you make your purchase, they note that “every gift to Heifer International represents a gift to our total mission.” In other words, when you “gift a heifer,” you grow the general fund. Nearly every donated dollar (94%) is an unrestricted, no-strings-attached general fund contribution.

Heifers are certainly bought by Heifer International. Over 40,000 of them in 2010! But your gift of one heifer isn’t directly buying one heifer. So, are they lying to us? I’ll make the question more personal: Am I lying to you? Because here’s the truth: My organization does it too.

While Heifer pioneered the approach, most charities followed closely behind them—World VisionThe Red Cross and even my employer, HOPE. While we all state something like “the gifts depicted in this catalog symbolically represent our work,” most people assume they’re really buying heifers, goats, sewing machines, honeybees, trees and art classes. The catalog phenomenon, at its core, is beautiful. I laud efforts to inspire generosity and cultivate significance in the giving process. But, are we swindling you, the generous Christmas giver?

[divider]

It’s an interesting ethical case study. I’ll offer the following considerations:

Integrity in the Means: We can’t raise millions by making this appeal: Make a general, undesignated gift to help us cover our overhead costs this Christmas season! Do charitable ends justify ethically cloudy means? I don’t think so. Swindling is never good, even for the noblest of causes. Small adjustments can ensure no one is tricked by the process.

HOPE, for example, directs all catalog purchases directly to the featured country. While “buying a sewing machine for a Congolese entrepreneur” doesn’t mean your funding will directly buy a sewing machine, your donation does benefit our work in Congo. World Vision does a great job of forthrightly describing their process (pictured below). Hold your charity to a high standard and call us out if you spot duping. Compassion, experts in donor-to-beneficiary connections through their child sponsorship model, has developed the best system I’ve seen to actually connect gift purchase to the end use.

Focus on the Ends: Compelling marketing and heartfelt appeals should never trump your belief in the organizations you support. Will “the heifer” be a meal or a business? Do Kenyan families need heifers? Will the heifers be given in dignifying ways? Does the heifer-giver share my faith and values? What percentage of my gift will go to buying the heifer and what percentage to overhead? These questions–––questions of implementation and effectiveness–––should drive Christmas giving. It is the heifer beneficiary, after all, whose opinion matters most. Knowing that opinion demands investigation of the ends.

Heifers are big business at Christmastime. And for many reasons, this is exciting. This season is about connections among people. Jesus connecting with humanity as an infant. Families connecting with one another. Friends connecting over spiced cider. And this is what endears me to gift catalogs: Givers connecting with receivers–––and ultimately beneficiaries–––in meaningful, tangible ways. Not a donation into the abyss, but a shared moment between people. As organizations, we need to respect the significance of these moments by elevating our integrity in how we create them.

[alert style=”note”] Sound Off: How do you handle your giving? Do you need to know precisely where it’s going? Let us know in the comments below. [/alert]

Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.

Ignoring the Lies Makes a World of Difference

Ed. note: Today’s guest post is from Nate Cousineau, the founder and executive director of World Aid Now, a non-profit that exists to help in aiding a world in need. You can email Nate here or follow him on twitter: @nate_cousineau.

There is evil in this world. There is pain, suffering, and injustice. Sometimes it’s overwhelming. Sometimes we simply block it out. Sometimes we convince ourselves that acknowledging it is pointless, since we can do nothing about it. Since the problems are so massive, and so far-reaching, any effort by us will just be wasted time. Sometimes…  Most times, we believe these lies.

For me personally, I wasted too much time believing these lies; accepting that the injustices around the world were for others to handle. For people with more money, more influence, more power. That was until the summer of 2010, when my ability to ignore the hurt was overwhelmed by the reality of that hurt. Pakistan was being ravaged by massive monsoons. Twenty million people were affected and approximately 2,000 killed. I watched as a world, fatigued by natural disasters (see: Haiti earthquake), did next to nothing as people died.

By the middle of August I had reached my breaking point. I contacted water manufacturers in the Middle East, got pricing on MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), emailed churches, and did everything I could think of to try and help. I was repeatedly told to just send money to the Red Cross or another similar organization. I couldn’t. Something kept telling me that mailing a check was the easy way out. That it wasn’t enough. I knew I had to do more. Through all the rejections and the “no’s” I just kept telling myself, “If opportunity doesn’t come knocking, build a door!” Finally, after weeks of dead ends, I got in contact with a missionary in Pakistan – we were in business! By this point I had brought a few others into the fold and we began asking everyone we knew for money to support the relief efforts. We quickly realized that we needed to incorporate as well as obtain our 501c3 status. We chose the name World Aid Now, incorporated, and began the paperwork for the 501c3.

As we shaped our vision for World Aid Now we knew a few things. We knew we wanted to be committed to relief efforts – not to simply put a Band-Aid on the problem and leave. We knew that those in need must play the primary role in defining and designing the relief efforts – not us in our comfortable living rooms. We knew that everyone can make a difference – even those without money. Whether it was through a retweet, repost, volunteering their time, or telling a friend, everyone could contribute. We knew that those with money want one-hundred pennies out of every dollar they donate to go to those in need – not just a portion of it. We took what we knew and used it as the foundation for our efforts.

In January of 2011 we began a sustainable project in Pakistan helping families who lost everything rebuild their homes. By the end of 2011 we had built 30 new homes! That summer we also responded to the massive tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, sending nearly $6,000 in relief funds.

We were riding an amazing high, but it didn’t last. We hit a wall. Communication was always a challenge with those on the ground in Pakistan, but it was becoming increasingly worse. We were also finding that small organizations are poorly suited for disaster relief. The time and resources required to develop relationships and projects prohibit a timely response to the disaster. We started to wrestle with this reality and began to dream about the future of World Aid Now. After much discussion, deliberation, and prayer we decided we would expand our mission to encompass more people and more projects. We would not simply do disaster relief, but would become a more general humanitarian aid organization, with projects such as clean drinking water, orphan care, economic empowerment, and more.

 

That brings us to today. Over the course of 2012 we reshaped our mission and worked to develop new projects with numerous organizations. Today, we are launching World Aid Now 2.0. Our first project will be in partnership with Kirabo Seeds, an orphanage in Uganda. We will be working with them to build a piggery (a pig farm). The piggery will be able to house 6-8 pigs at a time, with a full grown pig (approximately 1 year old) selling for $200. This project will provide Kirabo Seeds with a predictable and consistent source of revenue, moving them closer to self-sustainability!

Not everyone is called to start a nonprofit, but believing you cannot make a difference is believing a lie. There is pain and suffering all around the world. Whether you choose to help those in China, Africa, or next door, choose to help. Choose to silence the lie that your money, your abilities, your time, or you are not enough. They are. You are.


Learn more about our cause.
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4 Tips for Angel Tree Giving

Tis’ the season to display angel trees. I love the spirit of generosity that characterizes Christmastime. But, if our compassion goes awry, we can do more harm than good (like in this instance, when I totally missed the mark). Here are four tips to make your Christmas gift giveaway both compassionate and dignifying to those you serve:

 

1. Affirm parents as providers

Ensure the giveaway affirms God’s designed role for parents as providers. Children need to view their parents as the gift purchasers and givers.  It undermines healthy family dynamics for volunteers to give the gifts directly to the children (unless the children do not have parents). Fight for the dignity of these families.

 

2. Host a store

A number of innovating churches and ministries, such as Mile High Ministries in Denver, transitioned from person-to-person sponsorship to hosting a “store” for families unable to afford full-cost Christmas gifts for their children. Charge something (even if its highly subsidized) rather than charging nothing as it protects dignity. Finding a “great bargain” resonates deeper than awaiting a handout. Parents experience the joy of shopping (and giving to their kids). Volunteers experience the joy of creating a welcoming, festive and enjoyable environment for the families. Make it fun! Feature live music, gift wrapping stations, hot beverages, and elf-costume-wearing childcare staff.

 

3. Avoid “knight on white horse” syndrome

We give horn-tooting a free pass during this season. Celebrate generosity, but do so with humility. As James reminds us, “Every good and perfect gift comes from above.”  Our ability to give is not a privilege we have earned; it too is a gift. As givers, we come as friends, not as rescuers, standing firmly on our common ground. This sets the table for our benevolence. Leaders who affirm this will position their gift giveaways for success.

 

4. Employ sensitivity with pictures and video

How would you want to be portrayed if you were a recipient? Let that be your guide.

 

[alert style=”info”] Sound Off: Did we miss anything? Do you have any successful examples or models of churches or groups that have done Christmas gift campaigns well? Let us know in the comments below. [/alert]

Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.

The Case of the Vanishing Orphanage

“You are the first American group to ever visit our community.” Simon’s words sent chills through the missions team that had ventured to his remote Kenyan village. It was a risk to come to such an isolated place, but its undiscovered magnetism was also its allure. Their arrival was a momentous step in a long journey.

Several years earlier, Simon* met these Colorado church leaders at a John Piper conference. They had an immediate kinship. It was hard not to love Simon: He was eminently likeable, oozing charisma with each handshake and smile. Now in Kenya, after months of careful planning, they had finally arrived. As their bus labored up the dusty driveway, the orphanage they knew only by pictures came to life.

The orphanage looked like many like it in Africa: A fenced-in compound with simply-constructed dormitories and classrooms. The zenith of the complex wasn’t its buildings, however. It was the 200 smiling children which greeted the visitors with hoots of delight when their bus arrived. The trip unfolded in typical fashion. The Coloradans spent their days playing with orphans, seizing photo opps, and dreaming with Simon about ways their church could help the orphanage flourish.

“The Vanishing Orphanage”

 The trip rattled stereotypes and collided cultures. Simon orchestrated the trip with clockwork precision, his robust leadership skills firing on all cylinders throughout the week.  As the trip came to a close, the bus drove the team away.  The children chased their bus, wrenching the emotions of even the group’s most stoic members. Hearts full, the team flew home, now well-equipped to share their stories of helping orphaned children and exploring uncharted places.

Despite the many positive moments throughout the week, there were unnerving whisperings among the group. It was strange the teachers didn’t know many of the orphans’ names. It seemed overly-controlling when Simon prohibited them from visiting the neighboring village unaccompanied. Also odd, the orphanage lacked a garden, which is like an Alaskan lacking a snow shovel: The fertile soil can give anyone a green thumb. These quiet whisperings slowly unfolded into loud gasps, and then into protests, and then into many tears, when the group returned to visit Simon’s orphanage just one year later.

On their return trip—one which almost mirrored their previous trip—a team member, Dan, stayed around after the team departed for the States. On his own, Dan journeyed from the Nairobi airport back to the orphanage on a scout mission to investigate the team’s concerns. As he arrived in the village and walked toward the orphanage, a woman approached him, grabbed his arm, and amplified the whisperings.

“Just so you know,” she shared solemnly, “the orphanage is not real.”

Dan, panged with a haunting feeling of betrayal, trekked from the village to the orphanage, hoping to disprove her. He arrived at the place where he played with smiling children just one day earlier. His eyes confirmed the woman’s words: The place was deserted. The yard where the children used to run and play? Nothing remained apart from the lonely debris which bounced with the wind across the red clay earth. The sleeping quarters? Empty. The cafeteria? Vacant. No workers, no orphans, no supplies, no anything. The orphanage had vanished. It was all a mirage.

In truth, the Colorado church was not the first American group to visit Simon’s community. In fact, many churches from across the US and Canada were privy to Simon’s deceitful wooing over the years. His highly-sophisticated web of lies featured faux staff, rented children (he pitched it to their parents as a day camp), and staged arrests (always resulting in generous bail outs by the visitors). All told, this Madoffesque charity scheme collectively defrauded these churches of tens of thousands of dollars. More disappointing, it tainted many wonderful memories and fertilized the unhealthy seeds of cynicism and close-heartedness.

 

My first response to Simon’s elaborate scam was eye-rolling distrust.

This type of story can cultivate skepticism, prompting us to pull back. But it doesn’t have to. It does not mandate that we retreat. In the face of even unbearable trials, Jesus prods us to advance, but to do so with eyes wide open:

Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.
–Matthew 10: 16

Jesus’ instructions to his disciples preceded their harrowing journey to bring the good news to the world. He knew their path would be lined with hardship. Still, he sent them out, charging them to be as shrewd as they were innocent. Abounding in compassion, but not the undiscerning kind. Go to Kenya, but send back a scout if you sense something is amiss. Pour out generosity, but do so discriminately, taking Jesus’ instructions as your marching orders. Love abundantly, but always ask hard questions.

Jesus sends us out. No retreat. No close fists. No bitterness. Go boldly, shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.

*Names changed to protect confidentiality.

Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.

Snapshots of Suffering

Lush vegetation creeps onto the roads wherever it’s permitted to do so. Tired political posters adorn the street signs, interrupting the brightly-painted buildings which line the crowded streetscape. Our bus darts through the tight thoroughfares in San Pedro, avoiding overtaxed motorcycles with nearly impossible precision. The streets teem with Dominican culture: Venders peddling just-picked-from-the-field sugarcane, scads of Chihuahuas scampering behind their owners and uniformed school kids winding through the bustle toward their classrooms.

I like it here.

There is richness in the culture and authenticity in the people. My work has been the impetus for my recent travels here. Traveling with groups of HOPE donors, we visit the courageous Dominican entrepreneurs we serve throughout the country.  Each trip looks different. The donors, entrepreneurs, and communities we visit are unique. I see new places and experience fresh stories. There is one theme, however, which connects all these trips. I’m not proud of it, but I’ve committed one regrettable act on every trip I’ve taken here, an act I’ve only recently even identified.

While navigating through the DR, we always stumble upon a sad neighborhood. These communities, normally labeled shanty towns, usually border sugarcane plantations and they reflect a much cloudier image of the spirited Caribbean culture. Like a dandelion-rich lawn on a well-manicured suburban street, these poor communities stick out. The evident material poverty is jarring. And it’s in these places—on every trip—where it happens: I slip out my camera and capture the misery. I find an especially forlorn-looking mom or a cobbled-together home (preferably both) and snap away.

These snapshots, illuminating the most desperate scenes I can find, become like trip trophies. They’re the type of pictures which make me feel guilty about complaining. About anything. They remind me of how nice my house is and how full my closets are and of just how very much I have. The pictures hold just a glimmer of redemptive value in this convicting power. But, when I snap these candids, I define those communities by what they lack. With each flicker of my camera lens, I make one more strike against those places, stamping them by their deficiencies.

Our charity is often the same. When given the option between defining people by what they have or by what they lack, we normally choose the latter. It’s easier to meet needs than it is to unlock potential. It’s quicker to heal wounds than to train doctors. It’s simpler to raise money to give stuff than for training to make stuff. But, I know I’d sure rather be known for what I do well than by what I lack.

The LORD your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.
–Zephaniah 3:17 (ESV)

I’m thrilled to serve a God who truly knows me. A God who does not define me by my weaknesses. A Creator who made me in his image. A Father who “exults” over me, his child. These truths convince me that If God and I sojourned across the Dominican together, his pictures would look strikingly different than mine.

Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.