We are all poor (a book review of When Helping Hurts)

Have you ever been on a mission trip? You know, the kind where a group of middle-class Americans goes to Mexico or Africa and works for a week or two, usually in very poor neighborhoods? Mission trips like these often have some kind of project the team can accomplish—building a house, digging a well, delivering clothing, food, or other resources. It’s a tangible, measurable problem we can solve in a short amount of time, and we are thrilled to be able to help.

Have you ever stopped to think about what it feels like to be on the receiving end of this kind of project? I mean, we generally assume that the people we’re helping are grateful, relieved, appreciative. After all, we’ve fixed their problem! We’ve done something for them they couldn’t do themselves. Isn’t that wonderful?

The problem with poverty

Imagine it though. Imagine being on the receiving end of all that kindness. How would you feel? Really.

American mission trips tend to focus on alleviating some kind of material poverty. We are materially rich, and we assume that the rest of the world needs what we have.

But there are other kinds of poverty. And people who are materially rich are often completely unaware of their deep needs in other areas.

Role reversal

Imagine a group of Africans visiting your town for a week. The purpose of their mission trip is similar to mission trips you’ve been on, but they are focused on alleviating relational poverty rather than material poverty. They visit your home, and they’re very polite, but they decide that your TV is too loud, so they shut it off and tell you that conversation is a better use of time. You smile and go along with them, not wanting to be rude. They bring out some kind of bead game and teach it to your kids, who are intrigued enough to stay home rather than heading out to soccer practice or dance lessons. When you invite the Africans to stay for dinner, they insist on cooking for you, because they want to teach you how to eat healthier. They make a fascinating meal, but it takes four hours, and you don’t get to finish the report your boss is expecting tomorrow morning. When you put your kids to bed that night, they ask if the Africans are coming back tomorrow because they want to play the bead game again.

The Africans do come back the next morning. You have grabbed an Eggo out of the toaster and are on your way to work, but they insist on sitting down with you and your children over hot bulgur and fresh fruit. You miss your train, but the Africans believe they’ve really “made a difference” because this is the first time in years you’ve had breakfast together as a family. You can hear them praising God for the work He’s already begun in your life.

One wonderful week

Interruptions and “teachable moments” like this go on all week, and the Africans rejoice each time your family eats together or plays a game together or serves in a soup kitchen rather than turning on the TV. You never tell them that the late reports and the missed trains cost you a bonus at work that you had been counting on. You never mention that you’re intensely allergic to strawberries. You never let anyone know how much it hurts when your kids would rather be with them than with you.

Finally it’s time for the Africans to go home. They gather around your family and thank God for the way He’s opened your eyes, for the healing he’s brought to your poor, mixed-up values. They praise God for lost sheep who have returned to the fold. And you can tell they feel fulfilled and uplifted. They believe their mission trip was a success.

And, you agree, in some ways it was. They were right about relationships, and you did enjoy spending more time with your family. But you also know that you need more than a bead game and some healthy recipes to overcome your relational poverty. Come Monday morning, you’ll be back on the early train, trying to make up for lost time at work. You’ll stop at home for a power bar and a Diet Coke before rushing out to your next meeting. By the time you return again, your kids will be asleep already. A week with the Africans won’t have changed anything. They’ve shown you how poor you are, and they’ve made you feel guilty for being that poor, but you know you don’t have what it takes to keep up that kind of change long-term.

Is this what our mission trips do to the people whose material poverty we want to alleviate?

How poor are you? And how are you poor?

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s book, When Helping Hurts, got me thinking about poverty. And relationships. The authors make the point that we are all poor, but in different ways. And until we recognize our own poverty, we will have limited success in alleviating anyone else’s. In fact, we’ll only end up hurting ourselves as well as the people we’re trying to help.

And I think Corbett and Fikkert’s principles apply to the cross-cultural relationships we try to develop here in America, too. We are much more likely to build real friendships when we respect other people’s cultural strengths and confess our own cultural weaknesses. When those strengths and weaknesses complement each other—when we admit we need each other—relationships grow. We need each other.

The book is a rich resource of information, exercises, and discussion questions. It’s available at www.whenhelpinghurts.org, which also offers webinars, self-study courses, and tips on getting the most out of the book.

If you want to defend the way we typically do mission trips, I dare you to read When Helping Hurts first! Then come back and leave a comment.

I’m also interested to hear from those who read the book and glean specific ideas about how blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians can enrich their relationships with each other—is it possible?

Book review:
The Gospel According to Lost

The Gospel According to Lost - coverI’ll admit, I gave up on Lost a while ago. I am the type of person who likes resolution, closure, answers—and Lost is all about mystery, questions, and complications. I thoroughly enjoyed the first few seasons I watched—the storytelling was excellent and the characters intriguing—but I grew frustrated that the mysteries were never solved! In fact, they became more complex as each new layer was revealed. And the amount of time in between seasons made it difficult for me to remember the threads of all the story lines.

But Chris Seay’s book, The Gospel According to Lost, has persuaded me to participate in the show again. Seay makes a convincing case that Lost is not only a good story, but it is a rich tapestry of cultural, philosophical, and religious truths, presented in a totally engaging and potentially life-changing way.

Seay’s book devotes a chapter to each of the main characters—Hurley, Sayid, Kate, Sawyer, Jack, Locke, Mr. Eko, Sun and Jin, Ben, and Jacob. In each chapter he compiles all the significant details revealed about that character’s background over five seasons, which I found incredibly helpful! Seay also points out details I would never have noticed on my own—the ways the characters reflect their Biblical namesakes, the Biblical artwork in some of the flashbacks, the fact that so many of the characters have been hurt by their fathers. In comparing the stories of Lost‘s various characters to characters in the Bible, Seay helps me think about them in new ways. I find myself less frustrated by the lack of resolution and more willing to experience Lost as an ongoing story—like life.

Perhaps Seay says it best in the Prologue of his book:

Lost is not just a television show…. The story, which has blossomed into a marathon of cultural, literary, scientific, and religious allusions, offers to its faithful adherents ideas worth pondering, books worth reading, scientific theories worth exploring, and ideas that very nearly burn a hole in our pockets. Lost, in all its illustrative, complex glory, demands that we dialogue, research, meet ourselves in the characters, and share our latest discoveries with one another.

In fact, isn’t that what we dreamed television would do? Early in its history we envisioned families watching quality programs together, laughing together, learning together. How long was it before those lofty goals diminished into the glorified inanity of shows like Two and a Half Men?

Even the best TV show is no replacement for real relationships and real involvement. But Chris Seay’s book makes me wonder if perhaps a show like Lost can equip us to recognize our own demons, to care for complicated people, and to live in harmony with the One who came “to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:10)

What do you think? Is that too much to hope for from a TV show? Or am I only trying to justify my preference for staying on the couch instead of making disciples?

Book review follow-up:
The Shadow of the Wind, audiobook

written by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
translated by Lucia Graves
read by Jonathan Davis

Last week I reviewed The Shadow of the Wind before I had completely finished listening to it, and since closure was something I mentioned I was longing for, I promised I would blog again after finishing the book—so you all can have closure too!

The book ended well, and during those final 90 minutes I thought of one other element that made the audiobook such a rich experience: the background music. Throughout the story there are certain somewhat random moments that are accompanied by a minute or two of piano music that gently fades in and then fades back out again. The music is always perfectly suited to what’s going on in the story at that time, and it enhances the script without ever overpowering it.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that all of these instrumentals are original compositions by the author. In fact, Zafón was a musician before he was a writer. In an interview with Barnes&Noble he says music and books are the two things he can’t live without. I think it’s nice that audiobooks give him a forum for combining these two passions elegantly.

If you’re interested in hearing some of Zafón’s music, there are a few tracks you can download for free from his website. Based on the names of the tracks, I’m assuming these are ones that turn up in the audiobook. Give them a listen and let me know what you think!


Book review:
The Shadow of the Wind, audiobook


written by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
translated by Lucia Graves
read by Jonathan Davis

I started writing this review last week, when I was about half-way through the 19-hour audiobook. At the time, I was so engrossed in the power of the audio version that I couldn’t imagine that reading the words on paper (the old-fashioned way!) would create the same experience for me. Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s story is captivating—a 10-year-old boy becomes the caretaker of an almost-forgotten book, a book that transports him when he reads it and endangers him when he tries to find out more about its author.

But just as important, Jonathan Davis’ reading of the work is, in a word, perfect. Each character comes to life with a different accent or pitch or rhythm, making me feel as if I’m actually meeting them or watching them on-screen. Zafón gives many of them idiosyncratic phrases, and Davis interprets these with humor and charm. I’m not sure I would have noticed them were I simply reading them on my own.

The translation, too, is artful. The story is set in Spain, and that setting affects how the characters relate to each other. Yet Lucia Graves manages to convey the emotions and meanings in English while maintaining the Spanish flavor and charm. Curious Villager also gives a “shout out” to Graves in her April 18, 2009, review of the book.

This book is so well-written, so well-translated, and so well-read, that a week ago I was wishing it wouldn’t end! But I have to confess that tonight, as I began the last section, I was starting to feel impatient. The story drags on just a little bit too long, I think, with just a little too much tragedy. I’m ready for some closure, and I’m hoping the last 90 minutes restore the wonder and anticipation I was feeling at the very beginning and throughout most of the story.

I’ll let you know how it ends for me! In the meantime, you can read other enthusiastic reviews and a more thorough synopsis at Amazon.com, but for the cheapest audiobook download price you may want to use iTunes.