Day 29: Prevention or Intervention

From time to time I hear someone state a preference for prevention work with children over rescue and recovery with adults. E.g. something like, “It’s better to help children before it’s too late.” It is a very understandable perspective. And of course prevention is right and all-important. But is it better?

Say you commit to sponsor a child, age two. You plan on staying with that child until adulthood, in other words 16 years. Now, if it also takes years and significant money to help an adult to health, one who was never properly parented or taught, is that not just as worthwhile?

Ultimately, we would rather look at this question another way. Ministry like Jesus is best managed by incarnation, not issues. As Jesus became flesh, we believe it is best to move into a community and seek to be like our neighbors, learning to enjoy their food, their music, and understand their jokes. We invite our neighbors into our homes.

We meet children who are being poorly parented, and get to know their parents, or sometimes grandparents. We seek to love and bless them in any possible way to earn their trust. Some, drawn to God’s unconditional love, begin to trust Him and change. They begin learning about raising their children safely and positively.

If the children are clearly unsafe, we take steps to move them to another setting, but without dropping the parents. Recognize their shame in being unable to parent, usually because of addictions, we work to keep letting those parents know their value.

Right now The Well is moving to more and more of a community focus, so we are excited about seeing this happen in a bigger way, Lord willing. The principal of a local school has agreed to start a partnership where we visit families of kids having trouble in school or dropping out.

Day 28: Learning to Wait 5: Relapse is ok.

I have written a few posts this month called “Learning to Wait”, which mostly have to deal with getting used to the fact that it often takes years for people to change. But I haven’t addressed the dynamics of why it takes so long, and why that’s ok.

I just got a message from “Boon”. He sent photos of his 3 sons and photos of gifts he is taking to them this week. The boys are in a boarding school in northern Thailand, and we have helped him earn enough income to go visit.

Boon is one of those nice guys that rocks when he is clean, but has trouble staying on the wagon. He can do very well for months at a time, then fall apart. Each time we have been able to help him and his wife and mother of his three sons reunite. But after a hard relapse this year, the marriage appears to be over.

Sometimes I like to call Boon “teacher”, only half joking. He is intelligent, and has good insight when studying the Bible.

But Boon’s is another one of those stories of the nearly inevitable slide to destruction that we see repeated so often. After his parents died at a young age, Boon was “raised” by his older brother, who according to Boon mostly led him into delinquency. Without a healthy role model anywhere, he never really had a chance.

One of my favorite paradigm words in looking at mental health and recovery is ‘self-regulation’. We begin as infants with none, and when all goes well, we are able to take care of our own needs by adulthood. We can solve problems in steps, even when under pressure. But getting to that point requires a combination of safety and challenge. A growing mind needs to feel safe, and it needs stimulation, including by coercion as necessary. With kids like Pon, these are either absent or unbalanced.

I remember very well the transition as a teen from dreading hard farm work to enjoying it. It was the same with physical conditioning and studying. You get there through doing it, plain and simple. But teens who lack healthy environments that are introduced to drugs and risky, addictive behaviors never arrive at that point. Their brains never develop far enough to get the cleansing feeling that comes from a difficult job well done. Instead their brains learn to calm stress with addictions.

So just as the process to healthy self-regulation takes time in a growing teen, it will also take time in the recovering addict, only with the added handicap of relapse triggers. Their brains will scream for calmness in the ways they know how, and it is only normal that they should sometimes give in.

Given this understanding, I no longer consider relapse a setback. Each month that someone is clean and sober is a month that he learns to handle stress. And indeed we do see progression. Boon has been clean for a couple months now, and is showing extra diligence in his life and work. I still believe God has a plan for him to teach others.

One day at a time.

Day 27: Women First

One of our priorities (see our Core Values), following the life of Jesus, is the elevation of women. Our intent therefore at The Well is not simply to provide safety and healing for women, but opportunity limited only by their ability. I get a laugh when I tell women that if they want to go to Harvard we will do anything we can to help them get there, but I mean it. Of course they have to be realistic and willing to work long and hard, I also remind them.

We find it thrilling to dream of women out of The Well becoming transformational leaders, in whatever field of work. Most had long given up any thought of completing high school, let alone entering a professional career. Next year we’re looking at helping Dao, Junie, Kay and Cream start university studies. Others are doing high school equivalency with hopes for higher learning after that. Granted, many live with the practical reality of motherhood. Their priority for the time being needs to be parenting, but in my mind that simply provides a delay that allows them to continue growing and gaining experience.

God’s ethical paradigm is, quite simply, lift up the vulnerable. It is stated no more strongly than in Mary’s song, “He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” In God’s reality (which of course means we can drop “God’s” and just say “In reality…”), we win when we bless others.

Lifting up women then, not only protecting them but giving them opportunity to follow their own gifts and call, blesses men. One advantage is simply diversity, the fact that different types of people leading produce strength, whether in an organization or a society. But living to elevate others strengthens our character and gives us joy.

There is a curious omission of the word “and” in the Greek text of James 1:27. The NIV reads, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world,” (emphasis mine). Most English translations insert the “and”. But I believe it points to the fact that the activity of helping others helps keep us morally clean as well.

Occasionally a male visitor has asked how I avoid sexual temptation while doing this work. I tell them that, interestingly enough, when we do outreach in bar areas populated by hundreds of beautiful sexily dressed young women, I have never had the slightest thought of sexual temptation. My masculine instinct to protect and rescue completely pushes out any other thought. I only see vulnerable but precious ones needing help, and that anything else would be just wrong.

Day 26: Serving Works

In Bangkok the only houses without perimeter walls are slum shacks. Even the houses of the wealthy, in gated communities heavily populated by security guards, have high walls isolating each from the others. As foreigners we cannot own land, but if we could I would buy a home and tear out the yard walls, just to make a statement.

In classic urban style, those gated communities are quiet oases, peaceful islands set apart from the noise and dirt of the city, often adjacent to low-income neighborhoods. Their entrances are like portals to other worlds, where guards take your i.d., write down your license number and dismiss you with a snappy heel-clicking salute.

I am wired to think idealistically, and find everything from social injustice to environmental disrepair frustratingly unnecessary. For instance, there is massive wealth in Thailand; the latest megamall was recently opened, at a cost of US$ 1.5 billion. there is no reason why our daughters should have to resort to prostitution, or why the canal behind our apartment should smell like a sewer.

There are two ways to exist in this world: to withdraw from it or to stay in order to change it. Most people with means try to do both: living mostly withdrawn but with forays outside–perhaps to church, volunteering or politics, then retreat back to our forts. And indeed anyone who does charitable work will agree that every small bit helps. But we also know that if everyone jumped completely in rather than only part time, the world would be turned upside down.

As followers of Jesus withdrawal is not an option. We are to be the ones who jump in whether or not others join us. I wrote yesterday about Kay’s insight that “Jesus didn’t need to be God,” from Philippians 2:5-11. That text simply illustrates the only way God wants us to think: trust first, reward later. Give, and you will get. It’s counterintuitive even though everyone knows it actually works in principle. Kids are mean to each other until they get old enough to figure out that being nice to others brings reward. Back when we lived in Chicago, I never met a property owner wishing to not pay the large portion of property tax that went to the city’s extensive park system. When we take care of others, our needs get met.

Getting this principle across is one of the hardest obstacles we have had in working with the poor and broken. Poverty culture turns people into survivors, who often lie and manipulate in order to meet their needs, and who are able to very unkind to others. We have worked hard all year to make The Well a safer place, with fewer hurt people hurting each other, and have seen a lot of success.

We have noted though that many of those who have been most healed are ones that have seen our own sacrifice for them over the long term. Some have lived in our home; had us visit theirs when they were struggling. They’ve seen us work hard for others and know we live on only what we need. I don’t say this to say that we are special; it’s just so clear that this is what works. These who have seen our sacrifice and become healthy now tirelessly work by our side.

Maybe one day we’ll have a clean canal.

Day 25: Giving up God

This title is maybe a little click bait, but now that I have your attention….

When my friend Kevin Kane was in town a month ago, I invited him to interview a couple of women at The Well and write something about it. He interviewed Kay and Cream, two lovely women who have both been through a lot but are in a really good place.

Kevin told me that in his conversation with Kay he brought up Philippians 2, for a reason I don’t remember. That chapter has an amazing poetic summary of Paul’s understanding of Jesus, written to encourage his readers to similarly selfless thinking.

Paul’s language in verse 6 is a bit idiomatic so awkward to translate, but something like, “Who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped….” Kay read in Thai and then summarized it perfectly in English:

“Jesus didn’t need to be God.”

In monotheism the main idea that God is all-this and all-that leads people to think of bigness. And obviously the immensity of the universe and the count of hair strands on seven billion heads is staggering. But it is clear throughout the Bible that God is far more interested in our understanding the small part of his “omni-ness” more than the big. Not only are we unable to conceptually handle the big, but we turn it into a power issue, using monotheistic religious systems to control people.

In Jesus, God sets things straight. Power used to control others is meaningless, and that includes the display of power so great that simply by its use it demands allegiance. John, who spent about three years with Jesus and tells us he got a pretty good idea of His message, simply says, “God is love.” Power is simply a non-starter in John’s Gospel; in fact he rather shows Jesus as almost frustrated at the problem of not wanting attention due to power, only wanting people to know love.

This reality is very practical for we who focus on caring for people in need. The more we have worked with folks the slower we are to fix their problems. They see the power of our education, our high status as Americans with access to money, no different than the people who chased down Jesus in John 6, asking how to make free food.

Jesus didn’t need to be God. He wanted love. And the end of the story, Paul says in Philippians 2:10-11, is that He gets it, with every single living being acknowledging His bigness. But don’t think for a moment that He will ever be done with being small.

Merry Christmas!