Empathy > Judgement

November 8, 2016 — 2 Comments

“Dad, is that you?” my daughter joked, hearing the click-clunk from my crutches as I walked towards her. Everywhere I go, I announce my presence with the sound of crutches banging on the floor. It feels like a major accomplishment to make it to the next room and a cause for celebration when I’m able to hop up a flight of stairs. Last month, while playing soccer in an over-40 league, I collided with the goalie. He won the ball, and I lost my ankle, as it bent into a horribly unnatural position. The result is a cast, some crutches, and a temporary end to my independence.

As I’ve hobbled along over the past few weeks, I’m suddenly noticing that not all buildings are friendly to people with crutches. In some places, there aren’t ramps or elevators, and some restrooms have such low sinks that they require a one-footed Pilates position to use. Other walkways are like obstacle courses, cluttered with hazards eager to make you sprawl awkwardly on the floor.

I’ve never thought much about buildings and disability access—until now. In fact, years ago I served on a church building committee. Due to a building code, we were required to install a ramp, and I distinctly remember wondering, “Is this really necessary?” when seeing the additional expense.

With disturbing ease, I would have unintentionally put up an obstacle to someone with a physical challenge entering a building and (even worse) a place of worship. Why? Because the issue didn’t directly impact me or anyone I knew. The deeper issue, I was severely lacking in empathy.

Empathy for others with physical challenges is growing as quickly as the callouses on my hands. Not that there is ever perfect understanding; the fact that I should be back on my feet in six weeks makes my situation pointedly different from friends who have longer-term challenges. But I hope that my current situation affords me a short-term glimpse of the world, and long-term empathy as a result.

In our fractured world, what might happen if we all started with a little more empathy? If we slowed down to try to understand before rushing to judgment? If we truly listened to others, especially those with whom we disagree? If we forcefully muzzled our critique and actively opened ourselves up to understanding?

James, the half-brother of Jesus, encouraged, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…”

If we took time to imagine what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes (or with their crutches), I’m convinced the world would be a much more gracious place. And as I’m learning, that’s where true healing begins.

Photo courtesy of CNN

Photo courtesy of CNN

A couple days ago, I received a call from Port Salut, Haiti. My friend Ralph was clearly shaken as he shared about the devastating effects of the recent hurricane. “There is no place to sleep,” he reported. “Our homes have been absolutely destroyed. If we do sleep, we sleep standing up.”

He added that the bridge on a major road had also been leveled, meaning that no one—and no aid—could get in or out.

My heart once again broke at the reality of devastation in Haiti left in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. Recent reports about rebuilding efforts following the 2010 earthquake had been encouraging, but we are coming to the sobering realization that the new devastation in Haiti’s southwest will inevitably cause massive setbacks. There are troubling reports about cholera, food supply, and more.

I work for a nonprofit, HOPE International, which serves in Haiti. I’m committed to the nation of Haiti and its people—friends like Ralph mean my connection to the country is not only professional, but also personal. Further, we have been and will continue to be fully devoted to the long-term rebuilding process there.

But what will you not see right now is a fundraising appeal from HOPE to raise support for Haiti, and I want to tell you why.

1. Relief is necessary—but it’s not our area of expertise.

As Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett point out in When Helping Hurts, there is a difference between relief work and development. At HOPE, we specialize in Church-strengthening microenterprise development; we simply do not have the expertise to lead relief efforts. That’s not to say we aren’t remaining involved. Our country director in Haiti, Lesly Jules, is working with churches to coordinate efforts on the ground. We are committed to praying for those affected by the storm. But as an organization, relief is not our area of focus.

2. We want to partner with those who do specialize in relief work.

After having the eye-opening experience of serving in a refugee camp during a crisis situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I can tell you, relief work is a different skill set, mindset, and approach from long-term rebuilding. I am so thankful for the Church in Haiti, as well as our friends at 410 Bridge, World ReliefWorld VisionFood for the Hungry, and other organizations with dedicated teams that are experts in strategic relief efforts. Already, these groups have all mobilized to provide food, water, clothing, and shelter in response to the hurricane. We want to point people to these groups as they use their God-given gifts to bring comfort and care to our Haitian friends.

3. We want to remain focused on what we do, so that when the time comes, we’re ready to step back in.

The outpouring of generosity that flows into hurting communities that have experienced a disaster can easily entice well-meaning organizations to step into areas of need that they’re simply not equipped to meet. These well-intentioned efforts often leads to long-term damage, and it’s never been our approach. Instead, we remain focused on the future. The long-term work of rebuilding in Haiti is going to begin again—and when it does, we will be there. Until then, we remain committed to standing with our Haitian brothers and sisters and our church partners, as well as to pointing people to the organizations equipped to meet the immense immediate needs in affected communities.

It may be the end of summer, but already, ’tis the season for planning Christmas compassion projects. From filling shoeboxes to setting up angel trees, churches and organizations around the world are thinking about how to launch these elegantly simple ways of caring for others during the most wonderful time of the year.

There is so much that is right and beautiful about these annual giving traditions.

I love that they offer a way for whole families to practice generosity together. I love that they’re an invitation to think beyond our me-centered, consumeristic desires and recognize that there are significant material needs in the world. I love that they invite us to share some of what we’ve received. And most of all, I love how they provide a glimpse into sacrificial love and service, reminding us of the story of Jesus.

At the same time, there are shadow sides to many of these projects, particularly if they don’t extend beyond one-time charity distributions. 

For those of you who might be exploring what you should participate in this year, here are three questions to ask as your church and family seek to love and care for others well by getting involved this Christmas:

1. Is it a Band-Aid?

Charity-based giving typically addresses a perceived need of the moment—a can of cranberry sauce for a Thanksgiving meal, an action figure for a Christmas stocking, a check to cover the electric bill. But ultimately, these one-time handouts fail to address the underlying issues of poverty. Food gets eaten, toys break, and there’s always a new electric bill coming. The goods that we give over the holidays will be used without a way to replenish them. We should be concerned with immediate needs, but we should be even more concerned with what happens when the tinsel is taken down and the ornaments have been carefully stowed back in the attic. Are families and communities any better off after our projects?

For a one-time initiative to have a more substantial impact, it’s critical that it be coupled with long-term efforts. Is it truly supporting a local church or organization, which will do the harder and less glamorous work, of engaging in long-term relationships throughout the year?

2. Does it truly help?

Providing gifts for people in need is an important activity – and it feels good for those who are doing the giving. But on the ground, free milk donations can put the local dairy farmer out of work, undermine families by keeping parents from providing for their children, foster attitudes of entitlement, or deepen dependency on aid.

Further, if poverty, at its core, is rooted in broken relationships, then how can we ensure we’re also thinking about relational restoration, and deepening long-term relationships?

3. Does it perpetuate false perceptions of poverty?

It’s easy to picture poverty as being an utter and total lack—that, without us, “poor people” would have nothing or would be unable to fix their problems. While God does call His followers to minister to and bless others, God has already given everyone something to give. It’s through recognizing the gifts God has already put in our hands and in the hands of others that we begin to understand how to eliminate poverty.

As you seek out organizations to partner with this year, my hope is that you will explore ways to ensure that your short-term gift is matched with long-term relationships and that the ultimate outcome of your charity will be to empower a family to become independent of their need for it.

Once again this Christmas, let’s find ways of celebrating the hope of Christ by showing compassion in ways that will let His kingdom come.

Fighting Fear

July 6, 2016 — 2 Comments

A few months ago, I reconnected with a colleague from the Netherlands. We both worked in Rwanda but hadn’t seen each other in 15 years.

Over the course of our conversation, he looked at me soberly and stated, “Right now, the overarching narrative in our world, and especially in the USA, is one of fear.”

Fear

Is he right? Is the narrative informing our decision-making and understanding of our world truly driven by fear?

In some form, we are all intimately acquainted with fear. It starts small. When I was a kid, the sounds of our furnace made my young imagination run wild with images of what might be lurking in the dark corners of our basement.

As I got a little older, I valiantly conquered my furnace fears only to succumb to the terror of needles. To this day, I battle a dramatic needle phobia and have made an unfortunate habit of passing out at the sight of them. On not one, not two, but three flights (most recently this past week), simply viewing medical television shows prompted me to pass out right into my food, nearly causing an emergency landing in Germany.

As a young dad, I feared for my kids’ safety and worked to kidproof everything. As they grew, I did my best to ensure every bike ride was accompanied with helmet and kneepads before they ventured out into the dangerous world of concrete cul-de-sacs and slippery sand patches.

More than basements, needles, and bike crashes, this world gives of plenty of reasons to be afraid. We fear cancer. We fear senseless gun violence. We fear the next presidential election. We fear the unknown.

We all battle fear.

If we’re not vigilant, the siren song of fear causes us to orchestrate our lives to become as safe and comfortable as possible.  Fear causes us to protect ourselves more than we trust in God.  Fear tells us to avoid bold risks, give up when motivation wanes, love conveniently, and settle for quiet complacency.

Fear is an agent of paralysis. It’s a powerful tool the enemy employs to debilitate us and keep us from taking risks for what matters most. Fear causes us to:

  • Isolate ourselves. We slip into our numb cocoons, and allow Netflix and a half-gallon of Breyer’s ice cream to become our best friends.
  • Fear causes us to take refuge in ideas. We talk about theories of loving our neighbors instead of putting these ideas into practice. It’s easy to discuss the refugee crisis and use passionate hashtags on twitter, yet never even meet a refugee. It’s easy to quote verses on our Biblical mandate to care for those in poverty, and never to meet our impoverished neighbors minutes from our front doors. Fear allows us to show up at conferences without ever showing up in broken places.
  • Often, fear causes us to distract ourselves with our hobbies – because when we’re really busy training for our next marathon or burying our noses in the latest John Grisham novel, we don’t have time to take the risk of caring for others.

The good news is we can wage war on our fear. There is something that drives out fear – love. Bold, risky, and powerful, this love is not fluffy emotionalism, but gritty and true.

People who understand the power of Christ’s love refuse to give in to fear and drift into indifference. Rather, the love of Christ drives them into places of great risk and immense reliance on God. We step out believing that “God did not give you a spirit of fear, but of power and love and self-discipline” (1 Tim 1:7).

If we are to look anything like the God we claim to follow, giving in to fear is simply not an option. Loving others only when it’s convenient or comfortable isn’t an option. Jesus himself modeled this by entering into our pain. The power of Christ transforms our fearful hearts, and replaces them with His heart. May we refuse to be a people of fear as we love boldly and serve courageously.