Author Archive

Serving with Dignity

February 14, 2015

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Serving is the most dignified of human enterprises. It engages us in God’s economy – where humans are helped. God is Helper, Servant, and Friend – the standard bearer of servant-ness. He serves us by graciously giving us gifts. And we honor Him by graciously giving and receiving these gifts with others. Serving is dynamic; it is a rich discourse, a dialogue, and an opportunity. It is more than a one way flow of resources – that’s just giving. Giving is an important aspect of serving but not the whole of it. Giving is made whole when it is fully dignified – genuine, godly, purposeful and interdependent. In this way, giving and receiving become serving and serving is how humans are helped. That means you and me and everyone else. And thank God, because we all can use the help.

The most fundamental of God’s gifts is dignity. This is why people matter, why you matter. And it comes from the fact that you and I and everyone else were created in God’s image. Dignity essentially means value. All people have dignity. All people have value. This means that everyone has something to offer, an asset that can be engaged for the benefit of others. When we engage these assets that we all possess in the context of a dignified relationship and for a good purpose, then we have the makings of a new and impactful paradigm of service – Serving with Dignity.

But this not how we tend to think of the words ‘dignity’ or ‘service.’ We don’t see service as a dignified human enterprise. We tend to think of dignity as something of a high-brow affair and service as a particularly lowly endeavor. But both of these words are in need of some clarification and Dignity Serves aims to do just that. Its purpose is to help you appreciate the dignity you and others possess to such a deep extent that you are eager to both give and receive with joy; that you are eager to embrace your dependence on God – the most universally true aspect of what it means to be human.

If you learn to more deeply enjoy your dependence on God, you will learn what serving with dignity is all about. Serving with dignity is all about actively participating in God’s economy of serving – recognizing his gifts, receiving his gifts, sharing his gifts. He has all the resources. He has all the assets. Thankfully, he dispenses his assets with mindboggling graciousness. Humans are the recipients of his grace, the sharers of his gifts. Serving with dignity is first about receiving these gifts, which are usually dispensed through the agency other people. And then it is about sharing these gifts in kind – with empathy, compassion, and generosity.

You Cannot Die with Dignity

October 24, 2014

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My girlfriend moved in with Chris in the fall of 1999. Chris was dying of cancer. And she decided to live out her days at home. In addition to the nursing care that she was receiving, she wanted the regular company of someone she knew well that could also help her take care of day-to-day things. Jennie, who is now my wife, was that person. She had known Chris all of her life.

One night that fall, I was staying over. I was drunk. Sick drunk. As the evening’s mistakes were launching from my guts, I heard what I thought was an echo. But I soon realized that it was Chris in another restroom. She was throwing up too but for a very different reason.

The next morning, I felt awful. I went into the kitchen to get some coffee and was greeted by Chris with a smile and an embrace. “It’s nice to see you. I’m so glad you are here.” I have to admit that the first thought that went through my mind was unkind – what the hell is wrong with this woman? How could she be so pleasant when she is so sick?

Two months later Chris was dead. In spite of the pain, the loss, and the concern for those who would remain – she lived with dignity until her last breath. Her faith in God not only survived the attack of her illness, it strengthened. Her kindness not only endured but seemed to emanate effortlessly. She did not grow bitter. And she also did not become fake. She had an infant grandson and it grieved her deeply that she would miss so much and that Lucas would live without personally knowing his grandmother.

When I heard the story of Brittany Maynard’s decision to end her life on November 1st, 2014 and her decision to leverage this choice to champion the ‘dying with dignity’ cause, my thoughts immediately went to Chris and my heart sunk. What if she had decided to end her life earlier? What if she had concluded that her sickness and pain would so diminish her dignity that dying would be preferable? It’s hard to say, of course, but I’m certain the impact that she had on me and many of others would not have been so complete.

In the video that Brittany and her family posted on YouTube, her mother describes Brittany as “a very autonomous, bright, well-read, well-traveled person who loves adventure.” The implication of this phrase is that as Brittany’s cancer robs her of these attributes, it will also steal her dignity. And so the appeal is made to allow anyone in her situation the right to die with as many ‘dignified’ attributes as possible.

Since Brittany moved to Oregon, she has the opportunity to legally carry out her intentions. The video is a promotion to raise awareness and funds so that more states will adopt similar ‘dying with dignity’ laws. The thing is: you cannot die with dignity by hastening your demise to avoid losing attributes that never determined your dignity in the first place.

Human dignity is not contingent on health, self-reliance, intelligence, or beauty. It does not fly away in the face of pain or loss. Dignity is an intrinsic part of what it means to be a human being. And it is arguably the most important aspect of our humanity. It is not self-generated. Dignity is 100% a gift from God. Our task in life is to embrace our deep value, to live fully with our dignity, and to bring honor to the one who gave us this precious, unmerited gift.

Brittany’s choice is not merely personal. Her well-produced video has been viewed millions of times. The video promotes a view of human dignity to which I am adamantly opposed. It is simply those views that I stand against – not Brittany or her family. I pray for peace and comfort for all of them. But I do hope that she changes her mind and receives the palliative care that she needs as she lives out the wealth of her days with dignity.

The illusion of autonomy (or ‘self-law’) has so permeated our psyche that we have become ashamed of our weakness, embarrassed of our humanity. And so we pretend – to be stronger than we are, to not need God. This pretense is not serving us well. And it is grossly undermining our efforts to serve one another. We look down on the dependent, the dim-witted, and the fearful, believing that these attributes have made them less valuable and unworthy. But our intrinsic value, our dignity, was granted us when God chose to create us in his image. Though tarnished by sin, our dignity can never be fully erased and should always be protected.

The way Chris lived her last days changed my life. By the time she died, I was sober and a small ember of faith was kindling in my heart. And it wasn’t just me. Everyone that came into contact with Chris during her life, all of it, was deeply impacted. And many of us were particularly humbled by the way Chris lived during her last months.

Chris accepted that her life had value, a value that transcended her circumstances. I am deeply grateful that she taught me how to live with dignity. And I pray that her story and the millions of others who have made similar choices for similar reasons will prove to be a convincing testament that you can live with dignity through the most harrowing of circumstances. And that this will provide the hope necessary for Brittany and others in her situation to choose to live out the full extent of their days.

Phil Hissom

Phil Hissom is the Founder of the POLIS Insitute and the primary author of Dignity Serves. He can be reached at phil@polisinstitute.org.

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-lesson course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.

How the Church’s Charity Became Toxic

October 8, 2014

Who needs mercy?
The Church’s charity became toxic through a fundamental misunderstanding of the world’s most famous story about helping others – the “Parable of the Good Samaritan.” The prevailing summary of the story recorded in Luke 10:25-37 is “be helpful to people in need, like the Good Samaritan.” While the parable does teach that, this is absolutely not the central lesson that Jesus sought to convey. Making this lesser point the main point has placed its hearers in the role of being or becoming a hero – the ugly seed of our toxicity.***

Interpreting parables is aided by emplacing the initial audience in the story. Who are they? What happens to them? What should be learned from their experience? Answers to these questions tell us what the parable is fundamentally about and how to apply its teaching to our lives.

The initial audience was a lawyer who wanted to justify himself. Jesus would not have taught him anything had he simply said, “be nice to strangers.” This man’s specialty was Jewish law. He knew that one already. And Jesus was smarter than that.

The hero of the story that Jesus tells happens to be a Samaritan. If Jesus wanted to emplace the lawyer in the story as the Samaritan, it would have stretched the lawyer some. Generally speaking, first century Jews hated Samaritans and vice versa. But, at least he would have been the hero in the story. Certainly that would have softened the blow a little.

But the lawyer is not the Samaritan. Jesus tells the parable in response to the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” And after Jesus tells the story, he repeats the lawyer’s question but he flips it around by asking, “So who was a neighbor to the man?” This is the key to understanding the parable.

The lawyer answered that the one who showed him mercy was his neighbor. This answer reveals who the lawyer is in the story and unveils its central teaching. He’s the battered traveler lying by the side of the road half dead. He’s not the Samaritan. He’s the guy the Samaritan helps. He’s not the hero. He’s not the one who has it all together and is able to show mercy. He’s the one who needs mercy.

The central teaching of the parable is, “You need mercy, brother. You are lying half dead by the side of the road. But God, in his mercy, will send you some help. You just may not like who he sends your way.”

The battered traveler gets the help he needs. And the help that God provides is through the efforts and means of someone the lawyer surely looked down on. While it might be difficult to give help to someone you look down on, that can also just reinforce the sense of superiority. It’s an entirely different experience altogether to receive help from those you look down on. No greater path to humility has ever been laid out. And it sets the stage for us to embrace the deepest implication of the story.

Jesus is the Good Samaritan. He’s the hero. Which means we don’t get to be the hero. Ever. Our over zealous applications of the Good Samaritan parable have led the Church to embrace the role of hero. We have played God for others and encouraged a type of dependence on us that should be reserved for God alone. We have refused to receive help and learn from those in distress, trumping their skills and hopes with our resources and plans. Our efforts have led to a toxic codependence which has resulted in tragic cases of burnout, resentment, and shame.

We like to play God. We like to be the hero. But Jesus came saying, “Good news: You can stop playing God. It’s killing you. I AM HERE. I will pick you up off the side of the road and take care of you. I am the hero.” We killed him for that. Now we just ignore him. And we do so at our peril. For he alone can meet our deepest need.

None of us want to need mercy. But we do. We all desperately need mercy. Whatever has you half dead, don’t let it stop you from accepting the mercies of Christ and the help of those he sends to be a neighbor to you.

[***The term “Toxic Charity” comes from a book by Bob Lupton. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s time. It’ll help you understand this phenomenon more broadly. This post outlines what I believe to be the source of the problem in the Christian Church – arguably the world’s most charitable organization.]

Phil Hissom

Phil Hissom is the Founder of the POLIS Insitute and the primary author of Dignity Serves. He can be reached at phil@polisinstitute.org.

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-lesson course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.

Celebrating the Possible

March 18, 2014

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Is it possible for a stadium redevelopment project to truly benefit the urban neighborhood in which it resides? This question is burning in the hearts and minds of residents who live near Orlando Florida’s Citrus Bowl.

In 2013, hundreds of them participated in a survey that assessed their interest in being a part of the next generation of the Bowl’s history. In short, they are very interested. The survey revealed eight key ideas for initiatives that residents believe will improve quality of life in the neighborhood. Nearly 200 residents are signed-up to be involved in specific initiatives and about 40 residents have emerged to help lead the way.

Steve Hogan, the CEO of Florida Citrus Sports (FCS), has expressed his commitment to work with the community. FCS is a non-profit that has been using the proceeds of its events to benefit children in the region for decades. Now, as the new stadium becomes a reality, they want to work with the neighborhood in which the stadium resides to focus this positive impact while still creating opportunities for children throughout the area.

Steve is part of a larger group of business leaders now known as LIFT Orlando who are making the same promise – to partner with residents to improve quality of life in the neighborhoods immediately adjacent to the stadium.

One of the last events held at the stadium before much of it was demolished was a Family Fun Day. Residents were invited out to be the first to see the results of the survey and to hear Steve Hogan’s pledge to meet the neighborhood half-way in order to make positive things happen. Children played and danced. Adults laughed and talked. Inspiring art work from the children depicting their hopes and dreams were on display for all to see. It truly was a celebration of what’s possible.

Now the work begins. Meetings have been taking place. Leaders are emerging. Ideas are taking shape. Here are the initiatives that are being discussed, some of which are underway.

  1. Youth Recreational Programming
  2. Neighborhood Advisory Board to Citrus Bowl
  3. Farmer’s Market
  4. Community Computer Center
  5. Walking Trail/Walking Clubs
  6. Housing Redevelopment
  7. Lake Lorna Doone Park Improvements
  8. West Downtown Business Association

If you are interested in more information or would like to be involved, please contact POLIS at info@polisinstitute.org. If you are interested in reading the summary report distributed at the event, it is available here.

Phil Hissom

Phil Hissom is the Founder of the POLIS Insitute and the primary author of Dignity Serves. He can be reached at phil@polisinstitute.org.

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-lesson course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.

More Like Heaven

July 24, 2013
Kids playing at Palms Trailer Park

Kids playing at Palms Trailer Park

By Phil Hissom

A while back we went around Palms Trailer Park in Orlando and asked, “How could this place be more like heaven?” The number one answer by far was, “When people drive by, they’d see kids playing.” The Palms is well known for lots of things but kids playing is not one of them. The answer was imaginative and hopeful and today it came to pass. While kids in the park do play in the back of the park, today they took ownership of a little plot of ground along Orange Blossom Trail. That’s a lot of people driving by and seeing a place that’s a bit more like heaven. The vision is becoming reality.

POLIS, who offices in the park, hosted some kids from Summit Church for a service project day. The kids were welcomed by residents and joined by several children from the park to do the work. Together, we did some painting in the community center, tended the grounds around the community gardens (left side of picture), and demolished a concrete structure that was in the grassy lot. After the work was done, the kids played a rousing game of soccer and had a blast. Everyone did an excellent job.

At the end of the day, we all gathered in the Palms Chapel (far end of the picture) to wrap things up and Maurice, one of the kids that lives in the park, took command of the podium. He got everyone’s attention and said, “I’m going to speak for the community today and say, ‘Thanks a lot. You guys are pretty cool. Come back if you can.'” He owned the room for a few minutes. The park is his home and he was glad to have shared it with some kids from elsewhere in the city and his friends from the park. We all smiled and couldn’t help but applaud Maurice for his kind words and blessing. He was delighted to speak for the community and did a tremendous job. No one asked him to do it. In fact, I was really not sure what he was going to say. He led us all into gratitude and joy – a perfect conclusion to a great day together.

We intend to build on this and create regular opportunities for recreation and believe this vision – more like heaven – will continue to guide us. Lord willing, we’ll be putting in some playground equipment in the next couple of months and partnering with Collins Recreation to roll out consistent, safe, and fun activities. We got a little closer today by moving out some debris and quite a bit closer by taking the time to really enjoy ourselves. Join us if you can. Pray for us if you can’t.

Phil Hissom

Phil Hissom

Phil Hissom is the Founder of the POLIS Institute and the author of Dignity Serves. He can be reached at phil@polisinstitute.org.

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-lesson course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.

You Are the Light

June 16, 2012

Brian Carlson photography

By Phil Hissom

John has lived in Palms Trailer Park for three years. He has seen a lot of rough stuff go down, but he’s also seen the positive changes in the park. I had the opportunity to spend some time with him the other day, and I asked him why he thought things have gotten better.

His answer surprised me: “It’s you guys; you are the light.”

I was taken aback. I believe Jesus when he said, “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). But when John said it, sincerely and to my face, my mind raced for a way to correct him – “oh no, we just help out,” or “Jesus is the light,” or “there have been so many people involved, we’re nothing special” – true enough, but I’m glad that what actually came out of my mouth was, “Thanks John, that’s a very kind thing to say.”

John went on to share about his life and his own budding relationship with God.

“You know,” he said, “I’m all about the facts. When people say ‘God did this’ and ‘God did that’ after I’ve just seen them do it themselves … well, that makes me suspicious.” He continued, “There’s usually a perfectly reasonable, scientific explanation for things and that’s the way I think.”

So he decided to test God, scientifically, by the facts.

He prayed one day and asked God to give him a sign, and within 24 hours – Bam! – he got it. To him, that was now just a fact, plain as day. He did it a few more times and – Bam! – within 24 hours each time it would happen. “I couldn’t ignore the facts so I started praying every day. I didn’t feel right about testing God so I stopped doing that. I started to just ask him to help me. I have been doing that now for about six months.”

John went on to talk about making something of his life with the skills God has given him. And even though he’s far from home and close friends, he’s moving forward with his plan:

He works full-time and recently enrolled in college. He’s also helping others. He helped a single mother who had been lured into prostitution get back to the safety of her family in another state and into the arms of her daughter. It took a long time to make it happen, but he persisted in doing good because he knew it was right. John’s an awesome young man. He said, “My family is so proud of me now.” I can see why. I’m proud of him, too.

At some point, I had to ask, “So why do you think all these positive changes are happening in your life?”

He thought for a moment and said simply, “God,” while he continued in thought. After a few minutes he added, “But I ain’t about to get all religious or anything; some people get carried away with that stuff. I keep it simple. I know God hears my prayers and helps me and my life is getting better. Failure’s not an option for me anymore.”

Wow, John. Thanks for sharing your story and allowing me to share it on this blog. YOU, my friend, are the light.

Phil Hissom

Phil Hissom is the Founder of the POLIS Insitute and the primary author of Dignity Serves. He can be reached at phil@polisinstitute.org.

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-lesson course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.

From Losing Life to Loving It (Watch the video: Niki’s Story)

May 5, 2011

It has been a joy to get to know Niki over the last couple of years. She is wise and strong. Her story is an awesome example of how we heal by engaging our God-given talents to build others up. The principles taught in Dignity Serves have helped her become a community leader and an inspiration. Listen as she explains how God is using her through her disability and as she describes how she went from losing life to loving it.

God is REEEAAAALLL, man (Alfredo’s Story)

April 23, 2011

Alfredo came to Florida a decade ago with the promise of a new job. Promises were broken. People let him down. He messed up. He ended up on the streets of Orlando and has struggled to get off. He has struggled to sober up. He has struggled to trust people. In midst of his struggles, though, Alfredo has learned to bless others. He has been able to reconnect with his faith and that faith is deepening. “God is REAL man,” Alfredo likes to say. I love it when he says that. It grows my faith. He often repeats it to make sure you feel the weight of a really real God – “God is REEEAAAALLL, man. Do you know what I’m sayin?”

The vision for Dignity Serves is seen most clearly in acts of kindness by the poor. Alfredo is a giving person, a thoughtful and caring servant of God and others. Many would not see him that way because of his current circumstances. They would be missing the full picture. The following story illustrates what I’m talking about. I asked Alfredo if I could share his story on the blog. “Absolutely,” he said. “It’s a testimony that God is real.”

A mutual friend was having a birthday recently and Alfredo really wanted to get her a gift; just a small gift – a card, maybe a CD. Not a stretch for many of us but beyond his means right now. So he did what he does – he prayed. And prayed. For a week, every day, many times a day he asked God to provide the means for him to give his friend a gift. This seemed like a straightforward request and something God would provide. But he didn’t. So Alfredo kept praying.

Two days before her birthday, Alfredo was at Compassion Corner and felt compelled to share his testimony. Afterword, he experienced a peace. He knew that while God may not provide the means for the gift, he knew God had heard his prayers. He felt close to God and glad that he shared his testimony. After all God has kept him sober, safe, and surrounded by friends the last couple years in spite of still being on the streets. He was happy to give God praise for it. He learned through the week of prayer that his testimony is perhaps his greatest gift. He let go of the outcome and felt grateful that he would at least be able to wish her a happy birthday.

God had more in store. When he left Compassion Corner, he was walking down the street and a man approached him. Alfredo was suspicious – “What’s this guy want?” Apparently that guy wanted to give Alfredo some money. He reached out and handed Alfredo a $20 bill and said simply, “Bless you brother.” Alfredo was overjoyed. He hadn’t come across any cash for over a week and needed a few things himself but he decided to reserve half of the money to buy that birthday gift for his friend.

Alfredo and I went to the Christian bookstore the next day. It was such a joyous experience. I have never been with anyone in my life so eager to get a gift. We walked in the store and when someone came up and said, “Can I help you find something?” Alfredo instantly replied, “YES, you CAN.” He continued, “I am here to buy something really nice for someone who is very special to me. I have exactly ten dollars to spend.” The clerk helped and Alfredo searched for a long time. It was a bit of an adventure but in time he found the perfect card and the perfect CD. It was the most thoughtful search for a gift I’ve seen. Alfredo said, “Man, she is going to love this. God is REEALLL man. God is real.”

It truly is more blessed to give than to receive. Those in distress are often denied the blessing of giving but this is a tragic mistake. After 10 years on the street, Alfredo is a survivor and a servant. He gives most generously. What if you gave half of a week’s income to a friend? What if buying a gift was the highlight of your week? It was for Alfredo and I. Alfredo has taught me that while God sometimes changes circumstances, sometimes he doesn’t. Nonetheless, God remains real and daily presents us with opportunities to serve. Dignity Serves.

Toxic Charity

March 18, 2011


A small group of POLIS partners and friends recently had a Q&A with author and community developer Bob Lupton. He mentioned a new book he is working on called Toxic Charity. At one point he said, “To be a recipient of charity is to sacrifice some human dignity.” Sounds bad. Sounds toxic. It’s the kind of statement that will make many a do-gooder cringe. Those who have received charity may object as well, “I really appreciated the help. I didn’t sacrifice my dignity.”

So what’s the deal? What’s wrong with charity? In a word, nothing. But as it is most commonly practiced, nearly everything. The main problem is that the ‘charity’ that we normally see, isn’t. It’s proud, impatient, self-seeking, and rude when it should be just the opposite. For the real deal check out 1 Corinthians 13 – plain as day. The King James translators well understood the connection between true charity and love and rendered the terms synonymous. Charity is not synonymous with ‘helping people’ because it must be loving – the ends never justify the means in Christianity. This means true charity must include what happens as the result of our help. When the dust clears from a service project how do those helped feel about themselves, others, and God? When we give someone money, what happens next? People should be built up by charity. They should feel and know they are loved.

Our methods and motivations are also going to reveal how loving our charity is – or if it’s toxic, creating more harm than healing. Those we help will certainly sense our motivations and will have to endure our methods. If we are really trying to make ourselves feel better, they’ll know it. If we’re really just trying to make sure they know how it was their poor choices that did them in, they’ll know it. Whatever our motivation, it’ll come through. We should want our motivations to help others to come from a pure heart – which means God will have to change us, cleanse us, renew our hearts so that our only motivation is to extend the absolutely undeserved love that he bestows on us. We won’t need to make ourselves feel better because we will be secure in his love for us. We won’t need to make others feel worse for their choices because we’ll know that God’s love for us was not merited. This will then influence our methods.

I’m not sure what all is in Bob’s new book but I am sure it will be a challenging and helpful resource. I do hope there’s something from the charity, aka love, chapter of the Bible. If not, go to the source, meditate on 1 Corinthians 13 and ask yourself, “How charitable is my love?” And, “How loving is my charity?” Love never fails. It is patient and kind. It keeps no record of wrongs (wow!). Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Oh-oh, sounds like we need God. No way any one of us can do this – Jesus did, God does, God will. He never fails. He is love. Enjoy it. Share it. Have a nice day.

How is Jesus serving you? (pt2)

February 4, 2011

Jesus often serves us through other people. And it certainly helps to clue them in as to what we really need. This vulnerability can be scary. Knowing it is He who ultlimately meets our need gives us the confidence to open up, to look for His agents of mercy as it were. While some will let us down, many will respond with care and we might be surprised at who God uses to bring the love and affection our way. Listen as Rebecca Lujan Loveless shares an answer to the question “How is Jesus serving you?”