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Loving When It Hurts

February 6, 2017 — 2 Comments

Have you ever purchased furniture that comes in a box? Our office is full of IKEA desks and bookshelves from the Swedish furniture titan.  As I begin each assembly, I open the manual, look at the simple pictures, and review the short list of required tools. Filled with unbridled but unfounded optimism, I naively dive into the assembly.

However, as each project unfolds, my frustration inevitably grows.  The simple pictures are never simple to follow. In fact, I’ve never reached the end of a project and thought, “That was easy!”  Each piece takes far more time to assemble than anticipated, eroding my patience to pitiful levels and causing me to mutter Swedish words.

This doesn’t just apply to furniture assembly. For many of us, when we first stepped out into the work of loving and serving others, we had a simplistic (and perhaps naïve) vision of just how easy it was going to be. Turns out, loving others is far more complicated and difficult than we originally imagined.

Several years ago, my wife and I attended a summit designed for families walking through adoption and foster care. I imagine that most of the attendees found themselves in the same place that I did: armed with the ardent conviction of our call to love and care for orphans, widows, and vulnerable children. God has been unmistakably clear in His charge to the Church to care for them. To Laurel and I, our next step seemed obvious: Kids in crisis were in need of a safe place to live, and we had room in our hearts and our home. The math was simple, and love rooted in the Gospel compelled us to respond.

But cheerful brochures with smiling children hide the reality that between those moments of giggles are a lot of tears.

Our family took a deep breath, and plunged head-first into a world of addiction, hurt, and pain. We opened up our home to provide respite care, knowing that loving people is an inherently dangerous thing to do. We genuinely believed that we were ready.

Nothing could have prepared us for what was coming.

Our experience in welcoming a child turned into the single most painful season of our lives. I experienced fear like I’ve never felt it before. Pain and resentment became constant companions—and the most wrenching pain that I experienced was watching the people that I love the most become deeply wounded.

Here is what I’ve come to believe: There are no simple ways to love others. Love is costly. Indeed, as people invited to incarnate Christ in a broken world, if our love looks anything like Jesus’ love, it could cost us everything that we’ve got. Faithfully loving others like Jesus loves them inevitably means that you will experience hurt.

Stepping out to welcome the foreigner, protect the widow, defend the fatherless, and love our brothers and sisters living on the fringes of society isn’t comfortable or safe. Empowered by the Holy Spirit and motivated by the same wild, scandalous love that once rescued us, we are called to step into the good works that God has prepared in advance for us. If you have embarked on a journey to love the vulnerable and found it to be more difficult than you imagined, do not lose heart!

How are we to respond to the pain that accompanies living lives marked by costly love?

 1. Expect that loving others is going to be hard.

Don’t believe the IKEA manual claim that the task ahead of you will be simple, or that trite explanations and simple solutions are going to fix all the problems. Real life rarely presents itself in a sanitized, comfortable way.

Instead, lean into the truth that the world is broken. We know that Jesus has won the war—but the battle rages on. We shouldn’t be surprised when life is painful. We shouldn’t be surprised when relationships are difficult. We shouldn’t be surprised when hurt people hurt us.

We are to go into our service with our eyes wide open that “in this world you will have troubles” (John 16:33).

What’s the benefit of expecting it? It helps us to more fully enter into the beautiful moments of life—the hugs, the smiles, the “I love you’s.” Enjoy these moments. Savor them. But don’t be surprised when they’re intertwined with heartbreak.

When we expect challenges, we increase our ability to savor the moments of joy and cling firmly to the second part of the verse from John’s gospel: “Take heart, for I have overcome the world.”

 2. Call for help.

IKEA manuals always have the same last picture: Call someone.

Pierre, a friend of mine, told me that in rural Rwanda, it’s common knowledge that you always need at least four close friends, people you can call at any time, day or night. It’s four, because that’s the number of people it takes to carry a stretcher.

Strong lifelong friendships don’t just happen; they take intentionality and commitment. Invest in the relationships that matter, and they will sustain you in all seasons of life.

When we reached out to a friend in the midst of the pain of adoption, she responded, “We are going to walk this together, and while we don’t know God’s big picture or the end result, I believe many lives will be changed and hearts will be saturated with the reality of true Kingdom loving. Don’t look ahead. Just do the next thing. Trust and obey. One loving act at a time.” In that moment, it was exactly what we needed to hear.

3. Look up. Constantly.

In moments of incredible trial, where do we fix our eyes?

  • We might look back and obsess over our past. Previous failures and “if-only” scenarios can crush us, if we let them.
  • We might look forward and fret over our future. This is especially easy when we still have questions about what is going to come in the next moment, let alone the next month or next year.
  • We might look inward and become paralyzed by our hurt.
  • We might look side-to-side and ask why other people seem to have it infinitely easier than we do.

Yet we are to be a people of hope who look up. This is not a cliché. These are true words. When life feels impossibly hard, we remember that we have nowhere else to go. As we read in Psalms 121, “I lift my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, Maker of Heaven and earth.” Look to Jesus, the One who perfectly shows us what wild, scandalous, costly, fearless love looks like in practice.

Friends, as you step out in the significant work of loving others, do it empowered by the Spirit and saturated in grace. Do it surrounded by a community of people cheering you on and supporting you. Do it knowing that God has promised to use all things, both the moments of great success and moments of heart-wrenching pain, for our good and His glory.

My hope is that we will be known as people who run to the suffering and the hurting, instead of running away. That we will stop to make time to respond to the needs all around us—even though doing so will bring both beauty and pain. That we would be prepared to live fearlessly and love boldly. And that we will continue to press into the dangerous work of loving like Jesus.

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?


 

 

Disarming the Ugly American

November 7, 2014 — 4 Comments

Despite what Ann Coulter says, I am convinced that compassion is one of America’s greatest exports. I see evidence of it every summer, as droves of men and women—stirred by dreams of radical service and love—leave their sanitized, suburban lives behind and board planes bound for the ends of the earth. That desire is a hallmark of the Imago Dei, the God who left the splendor of heaven to come to us. It reflects the Creator to His beloved creation, and there is immense beauty in that.

plane window

While I celebrate the heart behind these short-term trips, I am also deeply convinced that we can do better.

If you want a serious treatment of how to help without hurting on short-term trips, you must read Brian Fikkert’s excellent new book, Helping without Hurting in Short-Term Missions. But if you want a very quick list of some things to ensure that you don’t perpetuate the well-deserved stereotype of the ugly American, here you go:

  1. Don’t be pejorative. On the plane on a recent trip, I overheard a man describing how he was going to work with “my refugees.” While he had sponsored a village, I think we can all agree that the refugees were not “his.” No pejorative ownership of people, people.
  2. Ask before taking pictures. It’s simple, but it’s common courtesy. How would you feel if a stranger began taking your picture? What if a stranger began taking pictures of your child? Your home? It would feel invasive at best, if not threatening and dangerous. We have a word for people who do this: stalkers. Let’s not be good-hearted stalkers and agree to extend the same courtesy that we would wish to be shown.
  3. Don’t go if you suffer from extreme Mysophobia. I’ve watched some people reflexively reach for their Costco-sized bottles of Purell after any sort of direct contact with the people they came to serve. When you reach for your hand-sanitizer immediately after shaking someone’s hand or sharing a meal, the message speaks clearly across cultures and continents: You are dirty. Friends, I’m all for Purell (indeed, I’ll probably use it after shaking YOUR hand!) but please be more discreet. If you feel you need a HAZMAT suit before going over “there,” then you probably shouldn’t go.
  4. This is not a zoo. Don’t throw candy or peanuts at people. It’s offensive. Seriously.
  5. Relax if things don’t immediately work. Breathe deeply and see what God might be trying to teach you in the moment. It might simply be a time to unclench your American fist from around the clock we all love so much, and detox from your own adrenaline.
  6. Don’t complain about cold showers. You have water! Be wildly grateful for that.
  7. Don’t  immediately go into problem-solving mode. First, become obsessed with simply trying to understand.
  8. Think about long-term relationships. A mission trip should never be a one-week stand. One of the most valuable outcomes of the trip is not the wall that you painted, but the people you worked alongside. Relationships and learning are the goal.
  9. Follow up. Don’t promise that you’ll do something if you won’t. There already is a well-worn path of unmet expectations. Don’t contribute to it.
  10. Don’t freak out if you are unable to get half-caf soy iced venti mocha latte. The trip that you’re on? The gift is that it’s not about you. And surprisingly, the majority of the world gets by beautifully without a Starbucks. Leave your expectations, routines, and creature comforts on the plane—a little flexibility goes a long way.

Again, please hear me—I LOVE the heart of compassion behind short-term trips, and I’ve personally been profoundly impacted by these experiences. With a few attitude adjustments, we can continue to see short-term trips provide significant impact on the friends who go and the friends who graciously receive us.