A Day In the Life

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Beth, one of our UnFinished kids, outside her home in the village.

Recently, I was upstairs in the office, working on about ten different projects at one time. I have been blessed to take my work home during this quarantine, and along with my dissertation, taking a course through the college that employs me to become certified to teach fully online, and running UnFinished. I’ve been busier than ever. Not to mention sharing the office with Christine as she too works from home and also on her various projects.

On this particular day, I was deep into dissertation work, when Christian, our five-year-old, came upstairs and crawled up into my lap. This is not an uncommon occurrence. He’s a bit of daddy’s boy. However, this time, as he wrapped his arms around my neck, he began to cry.

This is an uncommon occurrence. Christian prides himself on being pretty tough and being able to handle situations. He’s a five-year-old attempting to function on a 30-year-old’s operating system. (The WWE is not going to let cry babies main event Wrestlemania).

I asked him what was wrong and, letting the tears flow, he told me he missed his friends. He said he missed his friends from church, and he missed his friends from school. While I’ve tried to be cognizant of him being under quarantine as an only child, I’d not really thought about how hard it is on him. He’s an only child. I try to recognize that, and I play with him as much as my 46-year-old body will let me. We’ve let him FaceTime his cousins, my mother, my brother, and he’s had Zoom calls with his classmates and Sunday School meetings.

However, Christian, like his mother, is a social butterfly. He longs to be with his friends. He tells me almost every day that he wants to go back to church and school. While he does not let on very much, it became clear to me that day, this has been harder on him than I realized. I never thought about the fact that his mother and I can escape a little. We will make quick runs to H.E.B., the bank, the post office, and other places we simply have to go. However, other than walks around the neighborhood, Christian has not left the house in over a month.

This caused me to think – if being locked up in a nice home, with Netflix, Disney+, all the other streaming services, an iPad, PlayStation, and more toys than he should have, what is life really like for the children of UnFinished? I’ve been to their homes, I’ve seen what life is like for them. They live in mud huts with no internet, no T.V., no running water, and many – no electricity. How stressful and lonely must it be for them, already living with a disability, back home again, locked away after months or years of finding freedom through the support you’ve given them? It must be heartbreakingly sad.

We continue to do welfare checks on the kids. But much like we all do, the caregivers tell us they are “fine” and “doing well.” It’s been our mission to restore hope to our children and their families, and we find ourselves now dealing with the effects of the Coronavirus. I’m sure our kids are more ready than Christian to return to their schools, their friends, and once again escape life in the village.

Please continue to pray for our kids. Honestly, they are safer from COVID-19 deep in the village than they are pack into schools. It is also reassuring to know they all have medical insurance should the need arise.

So, please pray. Also, it has been amazing to see our child sponsor continue their faithful sponsorships. We still have ten children who need sponsors. We have committed to refrain from bringing on new children until all of our current kids have dedicated, reliable support in their endeavors. I can attest to the joy of being personally involved in the life of a child in UnFinished programs.

We have incredible potential for growth. We have a proven plan that works and produces results. If your church or business is looking to impact the world through a federal 501(c)3 program, we would love the chance to talk (at a socially respectable distance, of course).

Thank you for your continued love, prayers, and support.

Christianity: The Next Generation

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According to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, religion is waning in America, including Christianity. The data shows that no age group is walking away from God than Millenials (data for Gen Z was not available). While more than three-quarters of Baby Boomers (76%)  describe themselves as Christians, only about half of Millennials (49%), do with four-in-ten identifying with no religious affiliation and one-in-ten Millennials naming non-Christian faiths as their belief system.

The report goes on to identify many reasons for the decline in religious affiliations by young Americans. While all of them are valid, vetted rationalizations for Millenials’ lack of faith in their parents’ dedication to the Christian faith, I feel the real problem is much simpler, yet far more dangerous.

We live in an “I want it now” time. To be fair, my generation, Generation X, kind of kicked off this mentality. We were the “microwave generation.” We were the first group of kids who could record our favorite shows and “fast-forward” the commercials. As the Latchkey Kids, we often found ourselves taking care of ourselves, which lead us to believe we were all that mattered. As time went on, this got worse. Now, our little brothers and sisters, the Millenials, are walking into middle age carrying the full brunt of the Internet, social media, and streaming.

Millennials grew up in the age of entertainment. Hundreds of cable channels, then streaming of TV, movies, and music, came to pass. Their need for instant gratification came as a product of entertainment evolution and younger Baby Boomers’ need for TV babysitters. As the world became more complicated, our parents, often single mothers, had to work more and be home far less frequently. This situation often led to guilt and a bit of spoiling on the younger child to make up as us Gen Xer were now old enough to ignore it all and do what we had always done – take care of ourselves.

What does all of this have to do with the decline of Christianity in America? I believe churches have attempted to take over the role of the parent for the Millennials in our current day. They look at the Millenials, and on to Gen Z, and see a crowd that needs to be entertained and reinforced with words of affirmation.  Attend any worship service in a church geared toward these age brackets, and you will most likely encounter strobe light shows, smoke machines, and high-energy entertainment. I am not at all saying these are in themselves bad things. I, too, enjoy a spirit-filled worship service. But is church really supposed to be about what I enjoy?

Once you move on to the message, it is more of the same. It has been years since I have heard a message on sin and its consequences. Church messages these days are all about how God wants to shower us with blessings – that having God in your life means prosperity and well-being. A quick search of the scriptures shows that most of the greats in the Hall of Faith did not experience a comfortable life. However, pastors in fear of congregates, or boards, feeling offended, will sidestep the hard messages for feel-good inspiration. I once sat in a service where the pastor paused before reading a section of scripture to apologize for what he was about to read in the case it offended anyone. “I don’t know what you believe, and I’m not trying to offend anyone. I’m just reading the words as they are written,” he said.

So, people sit in these church services and hear messages about how much God wants to bless them, and nothing can go wrong in their lives as long as they tithe and believe. Then, tragedy strikes. They lose their job, the one they love leaves, a parent dies, or a pandemic occurs. Some horrible things happen, they are not spiritually prepared to handle, and they bounce. They’ve been told all their life that God wants nothing but to bless them, that God is basically a vending machine to bend to their will, and they find themselves in a situation that does not line up with what they’ve been taught.

The enemy is prime to jump all over this situation. He begins to whisper in their ear, “See, God is not real. If God were real, He would not have allowed this to happen. If God loved you, He would fill your wallet. He would give you that job. He would have saved the one you love.” They have not been adequately prepared to understand that a life of belief is often a life of hardship. When the touchy-feely sermons don’t match up with the reality that is life, it comes off weak and fake, and people cast it aside.

None of this is to say that God is not loving, hates to see us suffer, or wants to see us suffer. He is none of those things. However, more times than not, our decisions get us into situations that are less than ideal. There are consequences attached to the actions and decisions we make. There are also ramifications from the actions and decisions of others that we have nothing to do with. This is a part of life. We are currently experiencing a pandemic. I’ve seen post after post on social media about this being a punishment from God. That is not how He works.

We now have an entire generation of people who have not been prepared spiritually to deal with misfortune, bad situations, and attacks from the enemy. I mean, churches do not even teach about an enemy, spiritual attacks, or spiritual warfare anymore. How can we expect the younger generations to believe in, much less stick with, a faith they are inadequately prepared to understand?

So, what is the answer? Barna group cites a need for churches to focus on “vocational discipleship.” One where faith and occupation are integrated. I feel this is an essential step for all Christians, as too many are prepared to defend and support their beliefs at work. However, I think it is more important to get younger generations plugged into churches that are preaching messages that need to be taught, and not only ones people want to hear.

I work in the college environment, and I can tell you most college students are ill-prepared to handle the stress that happens in life. This coronavirus has only revealed this fact to me more. I have students who are scared and looking for answers. While I cannot in my current capacity evangelize to them, I can be like Christ to them in my attempts to lead them through the rest of the semester. There is a need for messages that give us hope and let us know that God will be there through the hard times. But they need to be tempered with messages to prepare them for those hard times when they occur.

This does not only apply to younger people. Spiritual warfare is real, and we need to be prepared to fight for our family, friends, and souls when the time comes. These are perilous times we currently live in, and outreach to college, prison, homeless, and other vulnerable people should begin and continue with life application messages and not just the ones that will fill the seats and the collection plate.

Five Things…

I recently finished reading the YouVersion Bible plan, “Praying For Vulnerable Children – Human Trafficking.” It was a fascinating devotional by Compassion International that discussed five things that, when present, better protect children from people trying to hurt them. I was moved by the publication of this plan as it addresses many of the activities that make up the bulk of the work we do at UnFinished. I wanted to share some of what is covered by Compassion in this plan as it applies directly to working with children with disabilities.

With Giving Tuesday just around the corner, giving you a better idea of what UnFinished does seemed appropriate. Since most of what is written below was lifted directly from the devotional by Compassion International, I am obligated to give them writing credit. Very little of what comes was written by me. The italicized portions are from the Compassion International devotional. Below is the link to the plan. I encourage you to read it. There is much more to the devotional than I include here, and I believe you will be blessed by participating in the actual plan. Compassion International is a fantastic organization doing an incredible work of God.

https://www.bible.com/en/reading-plans/15664

A Tight-Knit Community

“A tight-knit community can keep watch over those who are most vulnerable and speak up when they see injustice. God calls us to rescue the weak and the needy and deliver them from the hand of the wicked. He challenges us to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves and defend the rights of the poor and needy. God has put each of us in a community, and we are called to speak up and defend those who are being treated unfairly.”

The children in UnFinished programs are often hidden away, either in homes or institutions. They live lives of abandonment and abuse. UnFinished enrolls them into schools where they begin to make friends and find out they are not alone. Also, we work to bring the caregivers together into a supportive community. This helps the mostly grandmothers also feel they are part of a community and not alone.

A Loving Family

“There are always those who are pros at deceiving families. They tell caregivers they can offer their children with a special need a better life. Instead, the children are used or often sold into child labor. Children work for little to no pay, far from their home, completely hopeless.”

We’ve met many families who’ve been swindled of what little money they have with promises of help. “Organizations” that tell grandmothers if they pay a fee, the organization will evaluate the child and determine eligibility. These people take the only money the family may have and offer false hope. We include the family in every aspect of our process, never charge a fee, and do what we can, within organizational protocols, to help the entire family along with the child. Supporting a family environment, providing a home, only enhances the life of the child and helps to restore real hope.

Education for the Community

“Be devoted to one another in love. That’s the challenge Paul gives us in Romans 12:9-13. These verses are paired with a list of commands that, when taken together, paint a picture of a Christian life fully sacrificed to God. The unifying theme shares that we’re to set ourselves aside in order to effectively love and serve the Lord”

Our mission involves more than just educated children with special needs. We seek to change social stigmas related to the abuse and oppression of these kids. We involve the schools, teachers, administrators, churches, pastors, and government officials to change values and laws to prepare a better future for individuals with disabilities.

Holistic Child Development

“(UnFinished) also chose to care for the neediest using a holistic model. Our method develops minds, bodies, and spirits to help children with special needs. All of our programs provide opportunities that encourage healthy development in four areas—spiritual, physical, social and economic. That means we don’t focus entirely on physical needs. Instead, all aspects of poverty are addressed in an effort to break the cycle of poverty and stigma for that child. Children are lifted out of the stigma that entraps them and makes them vulnerable to exploitation.

Prayer

“God is aware of stigma and oppression and He cares about the suffering of His children. He has not turned a blind eye. Instead, He stirs compassion in our hearts when we hear stories like the ones of children with disabilities in Kenya. As a result, our compassion moves us into action, which creates change.”

This year, Giving Tuesday is December 3rd. You have the unique opportunity to provide these five things into the lives of children with disabilities in Kenya. Again, I encourage you to read the Compassion devotional, be in prayer and support for that organization, and follow the link below to learn more about UnFinished International and the work we do.

http://www.unfinishedinternational.org

Your Nonprofit Should Mean Business

In my time walking with one foot in the business world and the other in the nonprofit environment, I’ve seen a few things. My experience and education in business and nonprofit leadership has shown me some repeated problems in many nonprofits I’ve studied. While nothing is ever as simple as a black and white list of principles (I’m looking at you, business world) I’ve noticed some trends over the years that cause nonprofits, in particular, small ones, to struggle. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but I’ve put together what I’ve seen as the primary offenders if you will.

Lack of Understanding

A common thread through many nonprofit organizations is lack of comprehension regarding the fact that while their mission and methods may differ from the business world, they are indeed a business. Too many times, those who lead, operate, and volunteer for a nonprofit organization get so caught up in either the idea of “nonprofitness,” or so mission-focused, they either lack the ability or refuse to understand the fact they are also a business. This mindset sets up many of the other problems on this list – not realizing that operating not for profit does not mean working outside of core business principles. Without a grasp on this concept, nonprofit boards and executive leadership teams look for and hire the wrong people for the job.

This is especially true for Christian nonprofit organizations. These types of organizations many times not only lack the understanding to see the business side of the industry, but they also latch onto this idea that they are a “church.” Many Christian nonprofit organizations are founded either from within a church or by well-meaning, mission-minded Christians. They then set out to run the organization as if it is a church. While churches also need a business focus (that is another discussion) running a church is not the same as running a business. To be successful, nonprofit organizations have to run themselves in much the same manner as any other for-profit business.

Lack of a Strong Leader

The lack of business understanding often, but not always, leads to this problem. Too often, when nonprofit organizations on are the search for a leader, they are looking in the wrong places. Most of the time, the primary concern centers around fundraising. Organization boards and leadership are looking for the person who can bring in the most money. There are many problems with this, but we will only look at a few.

First, let’s address the rebuttal. Yes, a nonprofit organization needs to hire a leader that can get in front of individuals and groups and convince them to give money. That is a vital component of the job. However, the problem I’ve seen in my time within the nonprofit environment is not money, its leadership. Too many nonprofit organizations are worried about hiring someone who can fundraise when fundraising is not their problem. I’ve seen nonprofit organizations that have full-time, professional fundraisers on staff bringing in more than enough money. However, the inner workings of the organization are all over the place. The organization is not growing, there is too much drama between the staff/volunteers, the programs are outdated or ineffective, or the mission just needs to be more focused.

In these cases, fundraising is not the problem. I personally know of nonprofit organizations bringing in plenty of money, but their use of that money is anything but efficient. The problem is not cash flow. The problem is the person at the top. Too often, nonprofit boards and leadership look over people who have not worked in the nonprofit field or lacks “adequate” fundraising experience because they’ve spent their careers in for-profit businesses. Often, this is the exact person those organizations need. They need someone who can come in and straighten out messes, put out fires, balance budgets, better allocate funding, and exercise strong leadership.

This situation is many times exponentially worse, again, in a Christian nonprofit organization. These organizations often take and even further step. I’ve seen too many times Christian nonprofit organizations looking for an Executive Director and INSIST this person must be a pastor. Required qualifications often look like, “a seminary degree and fifteen years in the pulpit.” I am not here to speak ill of pastors. However, pastors are called to do one thing, pastor. I try not to stereotype anyone, but few full-time pastors make excellent businessmen. That is not to say there are none, but they are rare. If you look at any thriving large church, you will almost always find an executive of some type running the operations side of the church.

Pastors are called to shepherd. I can give you real-life examples of nonprofit organizations that have gone under almost solely on the fact that they refused to hire someone who was not a pastor. There are more than enough Christian business people in the world who can lead businesses. In my retail days, I knew a lot of managers who would only hire people with retail experience. They did not want to add the extra work of training people on cash registers and such. This was a mistake. When I hired, I looked for someone who was a good fit on our team, could fill the role I had vacant and could move the mission of the organization. I could train a monkey to run the cash register (from the systems I often had it would seem as they were designed by monkeys so getting them to run them didn’t seem too much of a stretch) Secular and religious organizations alike need to get out of this cookie-cutter leadership mindset.

Lack of a Strong Foundation

Most nonprofit organizations start off small – it’s the nature, and the beauty, of the beast. An individual or small group of people see a wrong in the world, and they set out to right it. Many times, none of them have any experience in the nonprofit, or even business, environments. Sometimes, none of them even  possess any business experience. However, they get together and decide, “You’re going to be the Executive Director, you can be the Business Manager, you can handle communications,” so forth and so on. You have a group of friends on fire to change the world and its awesome.

However, this strange thing happens – the organization takes off. Before you know it, this ragtag group of friends has a significantly sized and thriving organization on their hands. However, that same group of friends who were having fun and figuring things out, now find themselves working for an up and coming business in roles they are not qualified to hold. They don’t know anything about finance, or budgeting, or planning, or implementation of strategic goals. This is a big problem. But the more significant issue is they don’t know that they don’t know. So, instead of hiring people with experience in these areas, they trudge along. When they do need to hire someone, they look for individuals who will meet friendship goals instead of those that can help develop and push the mission to the next level. There is not a clear understanding as to what is required in the roles, and qualified business-minded people are passed over. This becomes particularly problematic when new leadership is needed due to people moving on.

Lack of Accountability

All of the above issues lead into this one and, again, Christian nonprofits are the main offenders. Let me start off by saying holding people accountable is tough, especially firing people, and that’s what I am talking about here. While they are so many levels of accountability or should be, before firing, for brevity’s sake, I am cutting to the chase. That being said, most people I know, including myself, who have spent time in the business world hate doing it. Sure, people like to act all tough and tell horror stories about making people cry and kicking people out, but inside, they hate it (or they should). I get more worked up inside waiting for that person coming to the office to be fired than they do, I promise you. However, it has to be, must be, done.

Do any sort of Google search on the topic, and you will find article after article on the necessity of firing people. I don’t need to rehash that here. However, too many nonprofit organizations, and for-profits ones also if we are going to be completely honest, fail in this area. It flows from what we’ve looked at above – weak leadership, the “friendship factor,” and just a general lack of business principles within the organization, particularly the leadership.

Now, I’ve always said that I have never fired anyone. Individuals have decided to terminate their tenure with the organization due to their actions or inactions. However, when push comes to shove, someone has to have the gumption to pull the trigger. That is not to say one needs to be cold, or mean, or rude. I’ve always tried to send someone out the door as gracefully and respectfully as I would want to be sent walking. But the fact is, too many nonprofit organizations, by their nature of heart and help, don’t believe in letting people go.

Again, when you get into the Christian nonprofit world, it’s worse. Not only do you have that caring and loving nature of the nonprofit environment in general, but you also have the issues of grace and forgiveness. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for grace, mercy, and forgiveness. No one on earth needs both more than me. However, Jesus was also all about accountability, tough love, and flipping tables when they needed to be flipped. When looking for leadership, nonprofits need someone who can fundraise, but also internally handle the best interest of the organization and the team when that time comes.

It is necessary for the leadership, the Executive Director in particular, of a nonprofit to understand that while it is crucial to have a passion for the heart and mission of the organization, it is just as vital to operate under the leadership and principals that drive successful for-profit businesses. Missing this will cost you at the least growth and at the most your organization as a whole. These two are not opposed to each other, but like a good marriage, bring the best of each to a successful and organic unit.

Stacy’s Story

I love being a parent. There is nothing quite like the joy my son brings to my life. Growing up without a father, I do all I can to be ever-present in all aspects of his life. One could probably make the case that I over-parent at times, and I would likely plead guilty. I know the effect a missing or absent parent has on the mind of a child attempting to learn his way through life somewhat alone. I do all I can to ensure my son feels loved, accepted, and secure when it comes to his family life.

He is also blessed to have an incredible mother in his life. If my wife is better at being anything than a wife, it is a mother. As much as I know my presence in his life is needed, I can take some solace in knowing if anything ever happened to me, his mother would do all she could to make sure she filled that void in his life. Most of you reading this are in a somewhat similar situation. You take some solace in knowing if God were to call you home tonight, mechanisms are in place to ensure your children are consoled, loved, cared, and provided for in your absence.

However, what if that were not the case? What if you didn’t know what would come of your child should something unexpected suddenly happen to you? How would you feel if you were the only one out there to protect, defend, and fight for your child, and once you were gone, they were all alone? Would you not want peace of mind knowing that your son or daughter would be safe if they were left in this world without you? If your answer to any of those questions is yes, then I ask you to read Stacy’s story.

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Stacy was born to a single mother in a small village in rural Western Kenya. Stacy was born with a deformity in her arms called, Phocomelia, an extremely rare congenital disorder involving malformation of the limbs. Her father left when he realized she was born with a disability. In the villages of Kenya, a child born with disabilities is often viewed as a curse on the family. Also, the child is seen as a burden to many, and parents will abandon often abandon them.

Stacy was fortunate in that her mother kept Stacy and life went on with her brothers and sisters. However, Stacy’s mother was a victim of alcoholism and worked as bartender outside the village. Even with a mother in the home, her presences was rare, and Stacy and her siblings never knew the love and acceptance most children experience. But what was to come was even worse.

In December of 2017, late in the midnight hours, Stacy’s mother left work bartending, was struck by a car, and killed. With the father gone, Stacy and her brothers and sister would wake up in the morning orphans. However, the story continues to get worse. Once news of their mother’s death was learned, Stacy’s aunts and uncle came to collect the children. The various family members picked up all of the children and took them home. All of the children, that is, except Stacy.

The family decided that bringing Stacy into the home would not create an economic opportunity to support herself. Since she had a disability in her arms, the family did not feel they would see a return on the investment they would incur in raising her. So Stacy, at 8 years old, was left in her home to grieve her mother and miss her brothers and sisters.

This is the story of many children with disabilities in Kenya. They are often abandoned by their parents. The lucky ones are raised by a grandmother. However, once the grandmother is gone, they are left to fend for themselves. This is a reality every day in places like Kenya. Children with disabilities are left to die either through abandonment or death. When I tell about you how vital the work UnFinished is doing, these are the stories I am describing. We are not always just trying to give a child a better way of life. Often, we are quite literally asking you to help us save the life of a child who has done nothing wrong.

This was the case for Stacy as all hope for her was not lost. Stacy is a child in UnFinished International programs. Once VhdyojMHRxKLT2MwUjYeeg_thumb_e322Stacy’s situation was discovered, teams returned to her village to resolve the situation. Stacy was found with a neighbor. Due to Stacy’s already broken relationship with her mother, this neighbor played a crucial role in raising Stacy. The team took Stacy back to school where she had teachers and counselors that cared for her, friends to play with, a bed to sleep in, and meals to eat. We also worked as a mediator with one of her aunts. That aunt eventually took her in, and Stacy now has a family to join during school breaks.

The work we do is real. It is a calling that we believe in wholeheartedly. However, we cannot do it alone. Our programs do not just improve living conditions – they literally save the lives of children. You would want that for your child. You would want someone to step in during a time of need and save them. Why would you not want that for a child elsewhere? Kids in developing countries not only face stigma and challenges, but they also face life-threatening situations daily.

In the coming weeks, I plan to share more stories of children that are in UnFinished programs. I hope to paint a picture for you of what life for these kids is really like and spur you to action. We’ve made a difference in the lives of 17 kids over the past 5 years. However, we are faced daily with the cries of so many more. Unfortunately, we can only help so many with what we currently bring you. You can change that.

I pray that over the next few weeks, these stories of these children will touch you in a way that moves you to action. 100% of anything given goes to support the children. UnFinished International is a place you can effectively and efficiently be the Hands and Feet to truly the least of these.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Evolution of Iron Man

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*Warning – This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Endgame – starting in the first paragraph.* (You really should have seen it by now).

With the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the story of these heroes we have followed for the past 11 years comes full circle. But none so much as that of Iron Man. While not technically the first movie in this massive franchise (That would be The Incredible Hulk), Iron Man is the film that set it all in motion. Being the excellent storytellers they are, the writers at Marvel brought the series to an emotional close in this chapter – from the birth of Iron Man to, sadly, his death.

I grew up a Marvel kid. However, Iron Man was not really on the top of my hero list growing up. Tony Stark has always been more of a “grown-up” character. His struggles with daddy issues, women, and alcohol, thankfully, did not appeal to me as a child (well, maybe the daddy issues – but that’s a different post). My go-to, “good-over-evil” hero was Spider-Man. A superhero kid himself in brilliant colors and fun bad guys had me hooked.

Conversely, when I needed real action and some comic-friendly violence, Wolverine was my man. I subscribed to many of the different threads of each one of those guys and filled my room with their action figures, bookshelves, sheets, and everything else I could get my hands on. Iron Man was cool, he was still a key character in the greater Marvel Universe, and I’d pick up comics with him as a player often enough, but he was never my main guy.

Then 2008 came along and not only did Marvel change but so did my life. I lost everything after a very long fight to save that which I loved most in the world. It was a terrible conflict that cost me just about everything a person can lose. To say I nearly died fighting this battle is not overselling it. The trial that was this time of my life still haunts me to this day. (More on this in another post). I learned through this experience that loss can birth new life – if you are willing to learn from experiences. This transformation is precisely what created such a huge Iron Man fan in me. It was the evolution of Tony Stark, the change in his life that loss brought on, that revealed some needed truth in my life and changed the way I see myself.

2008’s Iron Man introduces us to Tony Stark, an arrogant, self-absorbed, careless, conceited, billionaire weapons developer and arms dealer on tour in Afghanistan to showcase his latest creations for the U.S. military stationed in the country. On his way, he finds himself escorted by a threesome of young, starstruck members of the military. However, their convoy is attacked, and Stark watches all three of these all-but teenagers die, and himself nearly with them, at the hands of his own technology by terrorists who were specifically targeting him.

One might think a scenario such as this alone would be enough to change a man. However, Tony is not finished watching people die at the hands of his weaponry. Stark is escorted to a cave where he meets fellow prisoner and scientist, Yinsen, who also loses his life as an indirect result of Tony’s life and choices. These deaths, up close and personal, set Tony Stark on a transformative journey unlike any other in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, all the characters throughout the 22 movies grow and change, but none like Tony Stark.

The opening scenes of Iron Man give way to Tony giving up the profits-over-everything mentality and changing everything about himself and Stark Industries. The company becomes a producer of clean energy and Tony begins to use his tech to fight the bad guys he once armed. At the same time, he must deal with his own mortality as the technology keeping him alive is also killing him. His attempts to ignore these issues reveal to him his need for others and force him to confront his father’s legacy that has been killing him spiritually as much as the palladium has physically.

From here he is denied “membership” to the Avengers by Nick Fury. Once things get bad enough that he’s allowed to help, he gets an ego check through accepting he is not the leader of the Avengers. This acceptance does not come easy as he repeated knocks heads with Captian America along with the rest of the team. Tony had been a supplier of war all his life, but it took him actually being in one to make him realize he did not deserve to be the leader. Here he began to understand that others had things to offer he did not.

But these revelations are of no consolation when Tony finds himself alone, dealing with PTSD, and the only help he can find is a young boy with daddy issues of his own. Growing through this scenario sees Tony finally give up control, destroy his suits, and throw his arc reactor into the sea. However, Tony Stark is an addict, and giving up one addiction often leads to finding a new one. Now that he has given up protecting the world, he lets fear fully manifest itself, and he bullies Bruce Banner into creating Ultron to defend the earth.

The results are, disastrous and Tony’s guilt gets the best of him. For maybe the first time, Tony learns that actions have consequences. So, to clear his conscience, the man who once told the government they’d never have his tech becomes their poster boy. Turning his back on his friends to calm his own demons, Tony tries to mitigate this newly created guilt by mentoring young Peter Parker. Still struggling to admit his wrongs, he, like many of us, just moves on. Tony makes amends with Pepper Potts and, with Captian America out of the way, becomes the face of the Avengers once again. However, I would go out on a limb and say that Tony saw Peter as a possible way to rebuild the burned bridges between him and the friends he turned into fugitives one day.

By the time we get to Infinity War, Tony’s sentiments reveal that time has allowed him to get past the civil war between Steve Rogers and himself. He seems to be genuinely sad that he and Steve, “fell out hard.” While his relationship with Peter has grown, Peter’s rejection of Tony’s offer to join the Avengers may have been another wake-up call for Tony. Learning that his friends don’t need him as much as Tony needs them is part of his final transformation. Tony, once the ultimate loner who lived on the outskirts of life, now only desires to be surrounded by his friends.

Tony Stark began his journey believing everything began and ended with him, and if something happened to not fit that mold, he ignored it. Gaining a family, then losing it, helped Tony to realize how wrong he was about things – it tends to do that. Following the life of Tony Stark, his, “arc” if you will, we watch a self-centered man evolve from believing his life was the only one that mattered to sacrificing that life to literally save the world. While all the characters in the MCU change and grow over this Three-Phase adventure, none experience the transformation that Tony Stark encounters. Many of the Avengers began their journey as heroes. Tony had to suffer and experience loss, many times at his own hands, to understand that sometimes not wanting to be a hero is what makes a hero.

The evolution of Iron Man teaches us that it’s a long, and challenging, journey from child-like attitudes to being a hero. That Tony Stark’s walk through life mirrored Robert Downey Jr.’s so closely only made the character more relatable. It took Tony Stark 10 years to come out on the other side and RDJ even longer. There were ups and downs, and for every two steps he took forward, he sometimes took ten back. I think that gives us hope that maybe being a hero is about more than just saving the day and fighting bad guys. Sometimes is about just getting through the day and fighting your own demons. But if an alcoholic, self-entitled, jerk with daddy issues like Tony Stark can become the hero we got and the end of Endgame, perhaps there is hope for us too.

Maybe, I am Iron Man.

A True Story of Change

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I know you’ve seen posts all over social media about this #GivingTuesday thing. It’s overwhelming at times; I get it. However, it’s so important. I don’t usually share the darker sides of what we do in a public forum. However, I wanted to give you just one of the stories of why this is so meaningful to us and show you a real kid whose life was changed powerfully through donations that were given to UnFinished International on a #GivingTuesday.

I’ve left her name out and any details that could narrow her down from pictures we post. But this is the story of a child in our program. A real little girl your giving has pulled out of the darkness and into the light of Jesus.

We have a girl in our program who was identified as a special child when she was three years old. Her nursery teacher recognized she was not able to read and write and found she was a very slow learner. Therefore, the teacher referred her to a special school in their area

However, the child’s parents were illiterate and steeped in poverty. As such, they were unable to transfer her to the special school. Financially, they could not pay the school fees, and they didn’t understand the reasoning in moving her from public school. They decided instead to keep her at home to help them with housework and chores. The little girl’s days went from school work to collecting firewood, digging, getting water from the general spring, and cleaning.

One day she had gone to fetch water from the spring. On her way back home, she was raped by an old man in the neighborhood. She became ashamed and lost hope since no action was taken by the parents. She was not taken to the hospital, nor was the incident reported to the police. The man started threatening her, and she began a life living in fear. She withdrew inside herself and did not speak or associate with other children.

However, one day, God brought you into her life. Through your giving to UnFinished, she was placed into a boarding school for special children, which moved her more permanently from the area, her attacker, and the constant reminders. Her new teachers report she is now a happy and smart girl in school. She is receiving treatment for both her physical disabilities and psychological trauma, and she is doing exceptionally well with her education. She also now communicates well with other students and teacher not like before. She is hardworking and promising and learning to be happy again.

This story is just one of many. For instance, we have two children who were born with HIV on top of disabilities. Because of your giving, they are not only in school; they get regular treatments for their HIV because they now have medical insurance. Your giving has literally saved their lives. What you do on Tuesday actually saves the lives of real kids. There are so many more stories I would love to tell you should you ever want to sit down and hear them.

Thank you for all you have done in the past. I look forward to seeing what God does through you on Tuesday.

May God bless all you do.

Nairobi – The Green City in the Sun

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Nairobi from atop KICC

I’ve spent a little more than the last three weeks in Kenya. While we spend the majority of our time in the Western side of the country, our time here begins and ends in Nairobi. Nairobi is the capital city of Kenya and, like most international cities, is a microcosm of the world. The city is home to nationalities and races from all corners of the earth. Kenya is now on the more developed end of the developing countries spectrum, and Nairobi is leading the nation in that shift.

Our arrival brings us into Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Named after the first president of Kenya, the airport has been both the victim of turmoil and the recipient modernization over recent years. The airport has seen renovations related to former president Mwai Kibaki’s Kenya Vision 2030, which dreamed of seeing the airport upgraded to World Class standards. A massive fire in 2013 severely damaged the airport and has shifted some of the upgrades and renovations to accommodate air traffic and passengers.

I’ve read several blogs over the past few weeks from travelers to and from Nairobi. Many of these posts have been negative in nature. People seem to find the worst in their excursions to the city. One blogger even wrote about being robbed within the town. A common thread I seem to notice in these posts involve travelers going it alone. Trekking out into the unknown to adventure and explore. While there is nothing wrong with that, it helps me to understand their frustration with their time here.

My first trip to Paris was much the same. my wife and I decided to go, and we went. We really didn’t have a plan, and we didn’t know anyone there. While I would not trade the adventure for much of anything, it was not quite the time I’ve had elsewhere. What I have learned over my years of international travel is that the trips are as much about the people as they are the places. Our arrivals into Nairobi are received by terrific friends who, honestly, spoil us while we are there. We have several groups of friends and family in Nairobi who go out of their way to make sure our time arriving or leaving is memorable. The few occasions we have arrived and had to fend for ourselves were much less eventful and memorable than those in which we spent time with friends and family. Travel is just as much, if not more, about people than it is places.

This trip our hosts made sure we returned to one of our kid’s favorite places. The Giraffe Centre in Nairobi is one of our favorite places to visit, especially since we have a three-year-old. It was founded as a rehabilitation endeavor to preserve the Rothschild Giraffe, which had dwindled to 120 in number in Western Kenya. Here you can watch Giraffe graze or ascend to an enclosed platform and look the giraffe eye-to-eye, feed them pellets, and pet them. The house of the center’s founders has been transformed into a boutique called the Giraffe Manor where one can pick up very overpriced giraffe, and Kenyan souvenirs, i.e., a Maasai blanket will cost you more than twice as much there as it will in the marketplace. A sucker mzungu is born every day, I suppose.

The Hub Karen touts itself as, “More Than a Mall.” The Hub Karen is shopping/entertainment center catering to shopping, dining, entertainment, office space, and outdoor park. The facility also contains a medical center and hotel with a conference center. Earlier in the day, the grown ups spent time zip-lining in the Ngong Hills. It was an incredible time zipping through the hills with a majestic view of downtown Nairobi. This trip to The Hub Karen was an opportunity to make it up to the three-year-old that he was not allowed to join the zip lining excursion.

The day was filled with toddler bungee jumping, toddler motorcycle riding, and toddler snacks. The Hub is as much a representation of Nairobi’s international flair as any world-class center. A day there will bring a visitor in contact with people from all over Africa, Europe, America, and other reaches of the world.

The evening was again spent the only way Nairobi should be spent, with friends. Dinner was served at Ole Sereni. Ole Sereni is a world-class resort, spa, restaurant, and business and conference center on the edge of Nairobi national park between Nairobi’s international and regional airports. One can sit on the five-star restaurant balcony and watch lions, giraffe, zebra, and other wildlife graze. Whether one is looking over the park from the infinity pool, or while enjoying seafood flown in from the coast, disappointment is not what one finds here.

We spent the evening dining on local fare while discussing “health and human services” in the form of our organization, UnFinished International. Our host for dinner were European trained medical doctors and lawyers from Kenya. The Ole Sereni staff were a cut above the rest and the darkened fourth-floor dining room overlooking the park was the perfect cap to an adventure-filled day in Nairobi.

We return to Nairobi Monday for a final day of adventure before flying out to another of my favorite cities, Dubai. It will be another great time enjoying international travel as one should, dining and laughing with the best of friends.

“Change the World?”

we-gather-in-small-groupsNowadays, we see the term, “Change the World,” often. While most using it probably have good intentions, the frequency of its use has perhaps weakened its practical application on the broader population’s mindset at this point. I believe most people wearing it on their hoodies, t-shirts, or ball caps genuinely want to be a world-changing force in some way, I also think the general public no longer sees the term as meaningful.

Are Christine and I trying to change the world? I suppose we are. Both of us are visionaries, entrepreneurs, Type-A, nose-to-the-grindstone, types of people with a heart for others. We dream of UnFinished reaching all 192 countries of the world. We aspire to change international legislation and make the world a better place for those with special needs and disabilities. I tell Christine all the time I see the day she is standing before the United Nations, delivering a speech on the need for change in the world of disability.

So “Change the World” is indeed a thing for us. However, it’s not the main thing. At least not right now. Right now, we are more, “Change the Life.” We have children in our program who live with special needs, disabilities, orphan status, stigma, HIV, and poverty. All of our kids experience at least one, if not all of those things. Yes, we have a six-year-old child who is being raised by a grandmother because the parent’s left, is special needs, has a disability, lives in poverty, and has HIV. He is six-years-old.

We are blessed to have people around us who care very little if the world is changed. Yes, I said blessed for that. It is a blessing because they are not worried about what the society as a whole thinks, as Christine and I do most of the time. They are concerned about that little boy. They are worried about the two little girls in our program with mental impairments who go home to sexual abuse during school break that we can do nothing for at this time due to legal entanglements. Our business manager, who is required to worry about nothing except money and numbers, cries and prays daily over these kids. Changing their lives is much more important to her than changing the world right now.

I believe you change the world one life at a time. We started out with two kids. As God has seen our dedication, our hearts, and our stewardship of all He brings our way, He has grown us to fourteen enrolled and several on waiting lists. If the right resources were available, those numbers could be in the hundreds just here in Kenya tomorrow. Through working with kids individually, we are also educating their guardians, their school teachers, their extended family. This is how you change the world – one life at a time.

Christine and I also heavily involve our three-year-old in our work. I struggle with trying to figure out how to raise him without letting him develop an entitled mindset as is rampant in my American culture. I need him to grow up around poverty, lack, need, disadvantage, and all the things that are prevalent in the world outside our upper-middle-class bubble. He is another one person that is part of the change the life mentality.

My point in all of this is that “changing the world” is not as complicated as people try to make it. Even Jesus did not work on a large scale. He used twelve people, and they are still changing the world to this day. If each one of us would get out and try to change a life, that is billions of people improving the lives of billions of people. That IS world changing. Get to know your neighbor. Do something nice for them. The world continues to become more divided and decisive each and every day. You don’t have to cross the ocean to be a world changer. Just change the world for someone across the street. Have your friend over for dinner. Say something beautiful to the person checking you out in your local retail store (God knows that would be life-changing for them).

Let’s resolve to change the world together.

Unknown Parts

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The news of Anthony Bourdain’s death came to me as I was driving. My wife’s cellphone notified her of a news alert. She gasped as she read the screen and said, “Anthony Bourdain is dead.” I sat there in silent shock. The news did not yet reveal the circumstances of his death, but I suspected what would come next. Suicide.

I knew that would be the report. I did not personally know Bourdain, but I knew his type. A few years ago, my life fell apart. I lost everything that was anything to me, and I did not know how I was going to make it even minute by minute. I was a mess. I was going through counseling at church, but that was only helping me hold onto my faith, not get through the grueling hours of day-to-day life. Don’t get me wrong, I needed that spiritual reinforcement, but it was not enough. A then friend (that’s another story) was a somewhat recovering drug and alcohol addict. He would attend A.A. and N.A. meetings and seemed to get some internal peace through them.

Time went by, and I learned they had these so-called “open meetings.” These were meetings that were open to the public to attend. Most outsiders that joined these hour-long sessions were students and medical types – nurses, psychiatrists, and the like. One day, he invited me along, and I went. What I found there changed my life forever.

I discovered people who were just like me. They were broken, lost, confused, and looking for a way to function, day to day, in life and find their way. Much like Edward Norton’s character in “Fight Club,” I found myself in these meetings. Not only did I find myself, but I also found my relationship with God and people. My church meetings help me to maintain my belief in God, these meetings help me to develop my relationship with Him through my storm. More than that, I learned that these people, this group of outcasts people belittle and condemn, were some of the most loving, accepting, and giving people I’ve ever met.

This company of anonymous train wrecks became my lifeline. They taught me how to build my life back by giving it away. I learned from them that getting out of my own life and helping others is the only way to heal my wounds. The work I do now with UnFinished International was mainly developed within the walls of that little building on Brown Street. I was not an addict or user. I did not suffer from an “ism,” but I was accepted nonetheless because I was broken in other ways, just like they were.

As my life progressed and I began to heal, God started opening not only doors for me, but the world. I met my now wife, and we commenced years of international travel. This is why Anthony Bourdain was somewhat of a mini-hero to me. The guy came from nothing and became a global traveler and raconteur after my own heart. That is not to say I place my rubber stamp on all his beliefs and ideas. I do not, nor do I yours. However, you don’t have to believe what I believe or think like I think for me to respect you. Anthony Bourdain experienced people and places with love and a passion for understanding them. He, at least professionally, was a man after my own heart.

When I heard the news I knew was inevitable, I was heartbroken. That Bourdain took his own life harkened back to my days in those walls with men and women I came to care about who had their lives ravaged by drugs, alcohol, depression, anxiety, and all the other things this world throws at you. My heart went out to a man who lived a life I love to live, and, in the end, it was not enough to save him. He left behind an 11-year-old daughter and many friends who loved him dearly.

Once the news hit, social media did not disappoint in its ability to disappoint. What shocked me the most, and I still do not know why I was shocked, were the comments from people who called themselves Christians. Some of the most horrible remarks about Bourdain’s death came from the posts and comments of fellow Christians. “One less junkie in the world,” “Another liberal blowhard out of the way,” “This guy was a piece of trash,” “Can’t believe people are upset he died,” “He took the coward’s way out.” These are comments from people in the same posts that talked about being a Christian.

I feel there are far too many of us out there that don’t take time to understand what people go through. People just don’t get the “there, but the grace of God go I,” mentality. Mental illness is a real disease. More than that, it is a tool and an attack from our enemy. People want to throw it out there as a gun control tagline or use it to place others in some kind of caste system. This is not how Jesus would handle the broken. Bourdain was an atheist himself, and that too breaks my heart. We as Christians are too often too content to let others suffer and die in their sickness. When I went through my dark place, plenty of Christians came to my aide, but so did a lot of atheists and agnostics.

I am not a proponent of the current level of celebrity worship in our society – even church celebrity worship. But I admired Anthony Bourdain’s desire to make the world a better place by sitting across the table from another person and discussing differences over a meal. As he put it best himself, “You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together.” So many Christians scream about “making America great again,” when they don’t even know their next-door neighbor’s name. It’s time to care about people again. It’s time to stop judging and name-calling and living in your bubble. Jesus went into Samaria and ate with tax collectors. Country Club Christianity is failing. Bourdain may have hated religion and been resolved to die without it, but your neighbor might not.

Anthony Bourdain may not have represented many of my personal or religious convictions, but I am sad he is no longer bringing the world into my life. I suppose I will now resolve to stop living vicariously through him and just get out there and do it myself. Perhaps I can save a few people along the way. Maybe you can too.