The Snake Oil of Charity

September 23, 2015 — 2 Comments

If anyone tells you there are easy answers to poverty, brokenness, and injustice, they’re probably selling you snake oil.










Snake oil gained wild popularity among 19th-century laborers working on the U.S.’s First Transcontinental Railroad and desperate for relief from their muscle and joint pain. While there is legitimate evidence indicating that oil from certain sea snakes in Asia are actually effective in relieving pain, it’s highly unlikely that the kinds sold to those unsuspecting railroad workers contained it. Despite this, convincing (but negligent) traveling salesmen jumped on the bandwagon, peddling knock-off elixirs and miraculous remedies—claiming to heal everything from hiccups to hearing loss—without disclosure of what they contained or why they worked. An entire industry, based on bottled, over-hyped solutions, was born.

It might feel easy to blame these slippery salesmen. How could they possibly think that something as complex as a person’s health could be trusted to a single solution?

But the truth is, we become peddlers of our own version of snake oil when we claim that a single approach or organization offers a universal remedy to the world’s brokenness.

I discovered this anew, not through my international work in poverty alleviation, but as my family has become involved in Safe Families, a ministry providing respite care for children. The program serves as a safety net, offering parents dealing with the challenges of drug addiction, domestic abuse, incarceration, or illness, an alternative to foster care for their children.

It’s a powerful program, and through it, we’ve gotten to know courageous parents and precious children. It’s also given us a glimpse into just how complex and difficult these situations are.

Addiction is strong.

Poverty is real.

Violence is crushing.

Sin is pervasive.

We love these kids, and when they return to their families, the current crisis might have abated yet very significant challenges remain. Our hearts have broken, and we find ourselves longing for lasting solutions.

But seeing these situations firsthand, we’ve also learned just how crazy it would be to assume there is one simple fix to all of them. When you’re up close and the problems become personal, you see the shades and the nuance. You see how sometimes there is real progress, and sometimes situations don’t seem to change. You get glimpses of hope and moments of despair. Life is complicated, and you realize there are no easy answers. That’s why we support the respite program we’re a part of, and we recognize how essential it is for there to also be detox programs, job placement training, housing assistance, local church support, and other aspects of help.

I’m passionate about Safe Families and equipping churches to serve as havens of rest for families in crisis. I’m also passionate about microenterprise development and helping families start or expand businesses to provide for their own needs. But seeing the brokenness and complexity, it’s clear that neither are perfect or complete solutions.

There are no “Three Easy Steps” to the significant problems of our world, and the complexity of the situations makes me realize how thankful I am for a hope that is secure. We trust that God is at work bringing healing and wholeness—and we celebrate the glimpses of grace breaking into even the most challenging situations. We leap even more fully into the brokenness, as imperfect people loving and serving others through imperfect solutions, but guided by our perfect Savior.

Charlie Tremendous Jones not only has a great name, he also has a great quote: “You will be the same person in five years as you are today, except for the people you meet and the books you read.” We can’t always control the people we meet, but we can control the books we read.

Over the past few years, I’ve post a couple lists of a few of my favorite books. If you’ve finished your summer reading and are looking for some new books to add to your list, here are my recommendations:








  • The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. The most enjoyable book I’ve read in the past year, this tells the fascinating story of the nine members of an American crew team and their quest for gold at 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Their humble beginnings, work ethic, and team commitment, all with the backdrop of Hitler’s rise to power, make this book hard to put down. The writing is outstanding, with details and descriptions that make you like you’re literally in the boat.
  • Think Like a Freak by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. In the follow-up to Freakanomics, Levitt and Dubner use gripping storytelling to challenge our core assumptions and to reveal the power of asking the right questions.
  • The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes by Bryan Burrough. I’ve grown to love Texas, and the stories captured in this book have helped me better understand the unique culture and identity of Texans. Reading about the burden of wealth and the negative impact on each family also made me pray, “Give me neither poverty nor riches…”
  • United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity by Trillia J. Newbell. This book beautifully articulates the need for diversity in the Church. Using her own experience as a black member of a predominantly white church, Trillia provides Scriptural and experiential arguments for the importance of multi-racial churches.
  • Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem by Jay W. Richards. Before debating with Shane Claiborne earlier this year, I reread this book. Jay combines clear communication with clear thinking to make a draw clear conclusions about what really makes a community and nation flourish.
  • Clearing Obstacles to Work: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Fostering Self-Reliance by David Bass. With so much talk about how traditional charity doesn’t solve the problems of poverty, this book refreshingly focuses on solutions. Looking at case studies and examples of ways to promote human flourishing, Clearing Obstacles to Work takes an uplifting look at solutions to poverty.
  • Half a Piece of Cloth: The Courage of Africa’s Countless Widows by Jane L. Crane. By capturing the daily realities and experiences of women living in poverty, this book reminded me to not allow distance to develop between me and the people we serve at HOPE. May we never grow cold to the realities of so many in our world.
  • From Dependence to Dignity: How to Alleviate Poverty Through Christ-Centered Microfinance by Brian Fikkert and Russ Mask. We all remember how When Helping Hurts stopped us in our tracks, forcing us to confront our most fundamental misconceptions about what it means to serve others well. Now, in this follow-up of sorts, Brian takes a closer look at the effect of Christ-centered microenterprise development and even shares some incredible generous things about HOPE. I’m so thankful for the friendship and partnership of Brian and the Chalmers Center.
  • Look and Live: Discover the Soul-Thrilling, Sin-Destroying Glory of Christ by Matt Papa. Written by a worship leader, this book talks about how right behavior comes not from trying harder but from focusing more on Christ. Such a good book, especially for us “older brother” types.
  • A Resilient Life: You Can Move Ahead No Matter What by Gordon MacDonald. Gordon writes about what it takes to sustain a life of service. The message of this excellent book profoundly shaped our thinking on 40/40 Vision.
  • Dangerous Passions, Deadly Sins: Learning from the Psychology of Ancient Monks by Dennis Okholm. Lately, I’ve been fascinated by the seven deadly sins and historic understanding of our frailty. Details how pride is the root of all vices.
  • Real Christian: Bearing the Marks of Authentic Faith by Todd Wilson. Real Christian describes markers of Christ-followers that might surprise those of us in the American Church: broken-hearted joy, a humble disposition, a readiness to acknowledge sin, an ability to live balanced and avoid legalism, a deep spiritual hunger that drives growth, and most of all―love.

Next books I’m planning to read are Five Gears: How to be Present and Productive When There is Never Enough Time by Jeremie Kubicek, and For the Love by Jen Hatmaker. What else should I add to my list? 

On my recent flight back from Haiti, the plane was full of short-term trippers. It was the matching t-shirts and sunburned skin that gave them away (no judgement from me… my skin color matched theirs, and I’ve worn my share of matching t-shirts).

I wasn’t trying to be nosy, but I overheard one enthusiastic high school-er comment, “I’ll never be the same.” And I sincerely hope she’s right.

Long-term impact of short-term trips

Like few other experiences, short-term trips have the potential to help us see our own materialism, grow in our appreciation for other cultures, form paradigm-shifting friendships, and experience the Gospel outside of our cultural blinders.

As ease of travel, income, and global awareness have increased, the number of short-term trip participants in the U.S. has increased from 540 trippers in 1965 to an estimated 1.5 million annually today. And unlike some who are calling for an end to short-term trips, I think the radical jump in those who’ve had these experiences has much positive potential. In fact, I’d be thrilled if, as a modest goal, the number of short-term service trippers matched the number of Americans who go on cruises every year (currently over 20 million).

For short-term service trips to make a lasting impact on our lives, though, it’s crucial for us to ensure we go with greater humility, we serve in a way that doesn’t perpetuate paternalism or dependency, we listen and support local leaders who continue to serve after we leave, and we give thought and attention to our experience after we return. Ironically, what happens after a trip typically receives the least thought and attention, yet it’s an essential part of every experience.

Here are five suggestions for ways to ensure that your short-term trip makes a long-term impact:

 1.       Love your neighborsthe ones next door.
Sometimes, it’s easy to love people who are far away or to give generously and selflessly to others on a short-term basis, while missing the need and hurt that surround us every day. While a week-long service trip in another part of the world can absolutely make a difference, we can often have an even greater impact on those we see every day—our family members, friends, and neighbors. Love your neighbor.

2.       Suspend judgment of others.
I consider myself a pretty peaceful person, but when I returned from Cambodia on my first longer-term cross-cultural experience, I almost erupted in a grocery store. Having just spent time living with those in poverty, I entered the store and was overwhelmed by the excess of America. I hit my breaking point in the cereal aisle, where I saw a child complaining about wanting a different kind of cereal than her mom was unwilling to buy. People were starving. And she was a selfish, wealthy, and entitled spoiled brat.

In my self-righteousness, I forgot that not everyone had seen what I saw, felt what I felt, experienced what I was privileged to experience with my Cambodian neighbors. As Christ said, “Take the plank out of your own eye”—before judging people in the cereal aisle.

3.       Look for ways to stay connected.
There are many downsides to social media—but one of its greatest advantages is offering an incredibly easy way of staying in touch with people far away. When you return from a trip, become Facebook friends with the people you met on your trip. Share photos and messages about your time and nurture those new relationships. And make sure your friends globally would be proud of the way you are talking about their country, their friends, and your experience with them. Enter into long-term relationship, and continue to learn through the gift of global friendships.

4.       Simply fast.
As much as we promise “we’ll never be the same,” the reality is that we will quickly forget the experience unless it’s combined with habits to help us remember. An uncomplicated but powerful way is to start fasting, committing to a complete fast or to eating a simple meal like rice and beans one day a week. Globally and historically, we are living in unparalleled opulence; we must be intentional about remembering just how much we’ve been given.

5.       Share, pray, and give before you go again.
It sounds modest, but after a trip, invite friends over for a night of sharing about your time, commit to praying daily for those you met, and grow into greater generosity. Don’t allow yourself to go on another short-term trip, if you haven’t spent your time and your money supporting the people and causes you experienced. Become a friend and ambassador to the people and projects which stir your heart and move you to action.

Want more resources on short-term trips? Here are four excellent resources I recommend:

What else do you do to make sure that your international service experiences make a lasting impact?




August 10, 2015 — 7 Comments

It wasn’t the first time that I’ve felt raw fear course through my veins. I’ve been attacked by a gorilla in Rwanda, and held at gunpoint by bandits in Haiti. But never have I felt the sort of crippling fear that I felt this weekend as I watched my son be dragged into the ocean by a relentless riptide in Delaware.

The whipping wind and overcast skies made for a less than ideal beach day, but our kids didn’t seem to mind, energized by the towering waves crashing on the beach. Oversized waves seemed like the perfect challenge to our adventuresome 10 year old Keith. With his neon boogie board tightly clutched in his arms, he excitedly raced across the wet sand and into the ocean.


It happened in the space of a heartbeat. One minute we were laughing in the crashing waves and the next, I saw a look of pure terror on his eyes as the churning waters began to violently drag him out into the ocean. A nearby lifeguard began frantically blowing his whistle, but we all already knew that Keith was in trouble as massive waves pummeled him and like a cruel, unrelenting opponent, dragged him out further. Separated from his boogie board, he kept submerging under each wave. I began to desperately swim towards my son, but the distance between us only grew. Panic surged as I realized that the ocean was winning.

The lifeguard reached him first. Holding him tightly, he pulled Keith under each wave and slowly made his way back to shore.

Meeting him in the surf, I grabbed his hand and we walked up to shore as people applauded the lifeguard. In short order, lifeguards made three similar rescues until all swimmers had cleared out of the churning waves.

Safely back on the sandy beach, Keith and I went for a walk. Both trembling as we processed what had just happened, we had one of the most precious conversations we’ve ever had. It’s amazing how a shocking reminder of the brevity of life can bring clarity to the things that truly matter.

There’s a startling line in Ecclesiastes which states, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting…” (Ecclesiastes 7:2). How is weeping in sorrow better than laughing in joy? How does this make any sense?

It’s because any experience close to death brings clarity and has a unique way of bringing life into sharp focus. Almost everyone walks away from a funeral or a near-death experience a bit more thankful for life and loved ones. We feel a little more love, a little more gratitude, and a little more urgency to make our days matter. We have no dominion over death, but we do have dominion over our daily decisions. We can make better, more purposeful choices.

When we are reminded that our days are numbered, we spend less time arguing about politics and more time loving people. We spend less time complaining about trivial inconveniences, and more time sharing the substantial matters of life. We become less consumed with building our portfolios, and far more interested in building up the people around us.

I am deeply thankful to God and a Delaware lifeguard with a compass tattoo on his back. And I’m also thankful for one more reminder of what really matters.

Today is a gift. And it’s one that I’m not taking for granted.