A New England Journey

Church and Autumn Leaves

Last week my wife and I had the opportunity to visit New England. It was our first ever trip to this part of the United States. I was officially on task to do two things: 1) Visit and speak in chapel at a new Baptist college in Vermont, and 2) visit and preach on Sunday at a new church plant in Maine.

My wife rarely travels with me but this time things fell into place for her to join me and I was so glad. Packaged around these two official engagements was time to explore New England as we moved across the region. Over the course of five days we visited six states: New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maine. For a pastor from the Southeast this was fantastic. Where I am from the states are larger and it just takes longer to get to places. Not so in New England.

The trip was marked by several highlights:

  • Northeastern Baptist College is a three-year-old school in Bennington, Vermont. President Mark Ballard has done an unbelievable job of planting and growing an evangelical training ground for young men and women in New England.   I thoroughly enjoyed my time on campus meeting students, faculty, and preaching in chapel. New England is a godless land. NEBC is committed to piercing the lostness of our nation from New England, where 20% of our nation’s population resides.
  • Thirteen miles from Bennington on the campus of Williams College in Massachusetts, is the site of the 1806 Haystack Prayer Meeting. It was a holy moment when the librarian of NEBTS, Jim Mancuso, took me to visit the birthplace of North American Foreign Missions. All missions endeavors in the United States can be traced back to this spot where five young college students in the summer of 1806 dove for cover in a stack of hay to seek shelter from a strange summer storm. While in this haystack, the Holy Spirit moved them to found efforts to take the Gospel to the nations. The monument was erected in 1867. It was lost and forgotten on the campus of Williams College and by the 1980s was so overgrown with brush it could not be easily located. Due to outside pressure the college eventually cleared the area and formed a small park.

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  • On Friday, we headed to visit my brother and his family in Connecticut. He’s a professor at Quinnipiac University and we were able to enjoy a tour of the campus with him. On our way there we passed through Northampton, Massachusetts, and we just had to stop and see one very special place. The site of the church of one of America’s greatest preachers – Jonathan Edwards. I’ve read and studied Edwards’ works my entire academic career. It was a thrill to stand on an original paving step to the church where he ministered and preached the First Great Awakening. Edwards pastored this church at the time he preached his most famous sermon, Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God. I was also profoundly saddened. On this site today is another church, The First Churches. An “open and affirming” church, where on their website, they publish a sermon that nearly laments the theology and preaching of Jonathan Edwards. Oh, how quickly, a people can turn from God and holiness, while clinging to a “form of godliness.”

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  • Nearby The First Churches is the Bridge Street Cemetery where missionary David Brainard and his fiancée, Jerusha Edwards (the daughter of Jonathan Edwards) are buried. I’ve never been one to cemetery hop, but the history in New England was to rich and easily located to skip. We also visited the grave of poet Robert Frost in Bennington along with the schoolhouse of Grandma Moses. Yes, so very, very cool.
  • We finally ended up in Portland, Maine. Church planters, Aaron and Kathy Werner, are dear friends. Portland boasts the highest per capita percentage of atheists in the United States. Cross Church Maine launched nearly two years ago. Another light shining in the darkness. On the day of my visit, this church was humming with youth, excitement, and energy on the campus of the University of Southern Maine. It was a highlight of my ministry to preach in this setting to a new body of believers and others seeking the truth that can only be found in Jesus Christ.

Putting all this together, here is my closing thought:

God uses the most ordinary of people and the most ordinary of settings to do the most extraordinary things. It is so important, so critical, that we remember. For when people forget, we are but one generation away from darkness. But darkness is never so dark that a single Light cannot but easily pierce it.

May it be so, not only in New England, but all across this fruited plain that we call the United States of America.

Starting Points

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My recent lunch with my new friend, Donald, has had me thinking about how we as Christians approach those who don’t believe the things we believe. You see, Donald doesn’t believe in God yet we found much that we had in common.   We spent a portion of our time together talking about starting points.

Early in my ministry I spent seven years teaching worldview philosophy to high school seniors. Everyone has a worldview, a way they see the world. A person’s worldview is sort of like a jigsaw puzzle. There are lots and lots of pieces, but they all fit together to create a complete picture – hopefully! Our family began work on a new puzzle over the Thanksgiving holiday. We began as we always do with any puzzle – with the corners and the border.   These are the starting points. I think everyone starts the same way with a puzzle, first the corners, then the borders. A person’s worldview works the same way. Everyone has corners and borders and these important starting points frame the rest of the picture.

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So here’s where I think we can go wrong when interacting with anyone who does not share our beliefs – we focus on the wrong pieces of the puzzle.

Let me give you an example: consider the hot button issue of abortion. Evangelical Christians are passionate about the sanctity of human life, and rightfully so. We view life as beginning at conception and we believe all life is an expression of the image of God. Thus we oppose strongly the taking of that life through abortion. And when we meet someone who is pro-choice, it becomes easy to demonize them and to draw battle lines. I suspect it’s the same for those on the other side of the debate. They probably view pro-lifers as fundamentalists who have zero respect for a woman’s right to choose and for the sovereignty over her own body. And what follows on both sides is name-calling, false characterizations, and a general lack of civility. Very little conversion in either direction happens.

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But the issue of abortion is just one piece in an individual’s whole worldview. And it’s not even a corner piece. Now, I’m not saying it’s not an important piece, it’s just not the correct starting point when engaging who someone is and what they really believe about things. So let’s consider for a moment a different starting point, or corner piece. Let’s say that the first corner piece in an individual’s worldview is the belief that there is no God. Well, that tells us much. There will be all kinds of other puzzle pieces that will naturally fit onto and flow out of that corner of the puzzle picture of a person’s life. If someone truly believes that there is no god, and another corner piece is the belief that all life in the universe and on our earth is the result of a Darwinian form of evolution, then given all of this, it follows that there is no afterlife. That this life is all that there is. Another piece still would be the belief that no “life” is more special than any other life. And yet, another piece would be that there is no such thing as a soul. Now, given all of these pieces of the puzzle that all flow naturally from the one corner piece of a non-belief in god. It actually makes perfect sense that such a person would see no moral violation in terminating an unwanted pregnancy. The puzzle piece of abortion fits very nicely into the tapestry of such a worldview. In fact, I would be hard pressed to see how someone who did not believe in a god could not be pro-choice out of necessity and consistency to the worldview demanded by such a corner piece or starting point.

Now, on the other hand, if my corner piece is the belief in God, and the next corner piece is the belief in the God of the Bible, and the next corner is the belief in what the Bible says about Jesus, and the final corner piece is a call to a biblical lifestyle, then this begins to frame very nicely the additional puzzle pieces that humans are a special creation of God above animal life, and that we are created in the image of God and here for a purpose, and as such, all life is precious to God. Given all of this, how could I not be pro-life.

So when I fall into the trap of sitting around and arguing with someone about abortion, I am really focusing on the wrong pieces. I need to look at the full mosaic of that person’s life and trace back the puzzle pieces to the borders and then the corners. What good is it to swap out the pro-choice puzzle piece for the pro-life puzzle piece if they still don’t believe in God, or believe in my God and in His son Jesus who, I believe, physically came to earth to live and die and live again, to save them for an eternity in paradise?

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So much more could be said on all this talk of puzzle pieces, worldviews, and starting points.

We haven’t even touched on other religions and the menagerie of other issue-driven topics that push our buttons and divide us one from another.

But I am convinced of this: We need much less law and much more grace when it comes to seeing our neighbors for who they are in total. And we need to thoughtfully engage them on the borders and corners of what they believe and why they believe it.

Jeff Goes To Lunch With An Atheist

I “met” Donald several years ago while pastoring in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Donald had come across one of my sermons on the Internet and had chosen to respond on his blog. That began a series of good-natured, although pointed interactions, all via his blog, my blog, and the comment sections on each.

You see Donald is an atheist.

As such, it would seem that he and I have very little in common. But through our back-and-forth we found, maybe not a classic friendship, but at least a respect for one another. At one point, I suggested that I needed to drive to Bentonville and that we should and grab lunch. He agreed. And that was the end of it. Time passed and Bentonville is a hour and half drive from The Fort.

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Jump ahead to this fall. I have since moved to Northwest Arkansas (three years now) and rejoined the pastoral staff of Cross Church. My role has me preaching from time-to-time on any one of our five campuses. A few weeks ago, one of those sermons caught the eye of a fringe online media outlet and a mini-firestorm erupted; all around comments I made regarding women (and men) as being made in the Image of God and all that means for how we live our lives and treat our bodies. Anyway, the brouhaha over it all caught Donald’s attention on Twitter. He reached out via a Tweet. I responded. And we both decided that it was time to make good on our plans for lunch.

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So a few weeks ago, I “met” Donald in real life for the first time.

A Christian.

An Atheist.

And lunch.

What could we / would we possibly talk about? Would it come to blows? Food-fight anyone?

The whole encounter began in the parking lot…with a handshake and a “nice to finally meet you.” We proceeded into the restaurant. Our chosen site for the great encounter…Whole Hog Café.

We ordered, sat down in a booth…and then talked. It was, in fact, amazing all we talked about and all we found in common. We talked about family – my wife and four kids, and his wife and two girls. We talked about work – what I do and what he does. It was crazy to discover that Donald and his wife grew up in the same hometown as me. His wife even went to the same schools as me. So we talked hometown stuff. There were smiles, good-natured jabs, and some really, really good barbeque.

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The topic of conversation eventually and obviously turned to matters of belief and faith.

Donald doesn’t really like the term “atheist.” He believes it has a negative connotation and his experience growing up in Arkansas is that when people find out he’s an atheist they assume that he worships Satan and all kinds of other crazy things. In Donald’s words, “I’m not anti-god. I just don’t believe.”

Donald is a deep thinker. And he’s a searcher. He has searched out various faith systems during his life. Even at times practicing some. But so far he has found them wanting and on an intellectual level he has just found it irrational to believe in the supernatural.

And this is where Donald and I found more common ground.

I fancy myself an intellectual guy as well. I studied philosophy for four years in college and earned my Bachelor’s in the field. Donald and I both agreed that the starting points of one’s worldview effect how they see everything. We journeyed down this path together, me trying to understand him and he trying to understand me.

Well, all good things must come to an end and after a quick hour or so, we both had to get back to work. We shook hands and parted ways.

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I’ve spent some time in the weeks since thinking back on that lunch with Donald the atheist. I’ve unpacked these thoughts with my wife and son. I’d like to unpack just a few of them here for you:

  • I like Donald. In fact, I now call him a friend. Not a Facebook kind of friend, but a real friend. We had a really good time over lunch. He’s a great guy. Loves his job. Loves his family. And loves ribs. What’s not to like about that?
  • I’ve discovered that when you genuinely like another person, it’s a lot harder to be mean and cruel when it comes to their ideas. The depersonalization of our culture has led to all sorts of demonization of people that don’t see things the way we see them. I’ve been the victim of this and so has Donald.
  • Eating food with someone not like you is a great way to find out that they are more like you than you ever thought. Enough said.
  • I thought about Donald’s words, “I just don’t believe.” Those are powerful words. Do I want Donald to believe? You bet! Did I try to “convert” him over a one-hour lunch? Not exactly. But we did talk about WHY I do believe. At least as much as you can get into that in an hour. And for the record, he shared a bit on WHY he doesn’t believe. The whole thing is probably a start…for both of us.

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I also thought about how we as Christians go about our interactions with lost people. I’m not so sure they are healthy all the time and truly represent Christ. Browbeating and Bible-thumping just aren’t received well. Neither is our silence and Monkish behavior toward those “on the outside.” I am struck in my thoughts by the words of Rosaria Butterfield that I recently heard. In her testimony of her conversion to Christianity, this former lesbian said, “I was saved from my unbelief, then God began to work on a bunch of other stuff.”

And how was she saved from her unbelief? It all began when a Christian couple invited her into their lives…and to their dinner table.

Sort of sounds a lot like Jesus, doesn’t it?

Before…and After Paris

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In May of 2009, I posted a series of blogs on three trends that every Christian in America needs to watch. The first trend I wrote about was the Growth of Islam.   I highlighted the theological intent of Islam toward global saturation, the violence of a radical Islamic minority, and the role of immigration as a means of “conquering” the nations. As an example I pointed the spotlight on France.

This was all before the rise of ISIS. Before the civil war in Syria. Before the chaos that is now Iraq. Before the Syrian refugee crisis. And before the terror in Paris this past Friday.

This is not an “I told you so.” My heart was crushed as I heard the initial reports and watched the events unfold in Paris from my home Friday evening. My deepest and most sincere prayers are directed toward the injured and the families of those killed in Paris.   I pray for all those touched by the sting of pure darkness. I pray for French President Francois Hollande as he now comforts and leads his country forward in response to this act of war. The extent of evil’s saturation in our world right now is truly staggering – most of it driven by radical Islam.

I also find my prayers deepened for those people most centrally located in the menagerie of this conflict. The 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. ALL those who are lost.

Jesus came to seek and to save Muslims of all stripes. Sunni. Shiite. Nominal. Radical. Al-Qaeda. ISIS. The forgiveness of Jesus knows no boundaries because the love of Jesus knows no boundaries.

In a world where the touch of evil is so sharp, surely the world is ready, perhaps in a way it never has been, for this message of Jesus.

I have been reminded in recent days…

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What is common to us as Christians is radical to those on the outside looking in.

I have been reminded of this truth in recent days. The secularization of our USAmerica has made the basic tenants of the Christian message a foreign (and to some a hostile) language.

As a people who take the words of Christ seriously and who take his Great Commission seriously, we must always be re-introducing the world to the message of Christ. But that message will not always be embraced. Christianity has enjoyed extraordinary cultural privilege in our nation’s history. So much so that we became spoiled I think. We even became jaded into thinking it was supposed to be this way, and that anything other than a warm cultural embrace of who we are and what we preach was simply unthinkable. But such is no longer the case.

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Very simple and easy things that we, as Christians, take for granted are not only misunderstood but seen as fringe, strange, and even “bad” for society.

  • The Bible is the authority for the Christian and instructs in a way of living that is beneficial for all people in all times in all places.
  • Jesus really was born of a virgin.
  • Jesus was God in the flesh.
  • Jesus died on a cross and was buried.
  • Jesus was resurrected from the dead.
  • Jesus ascended to heaven where he now resides.
  • Jesus will return to earth in physical form.
  • Jesus is the only path to eternal life.
  • Jesus accomplished this to pay the price of sin for all humanity, but this is realized by all those who accept him.
  • Surrender to Jesus as Lord and Savior means we have been bought with a price. We are no longer our own.
  • The Christian lives to fulfill the will of God on earth.

These very straightforward statements define (at least in part) orthodox Christianity. But not everyone is ready to embrace these statements, which is fine. We all have freewill and God will force Himself on no one.

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The decisions we make during this life have eternal consequences.

In other words, choices matter. For those who say “No” to Jesus and thus “No” to God; who say, “Thank you very much, but no thanks. I think I will do just fine without God,” in the end will get exactly what they have asked for. An eternity separated from God. Christians call this hell. And that, perhaps, is the most offensive message of all to those who seek their own path. “How could an all loving God send billions of people to hell?” But that’s the rub isn’t it? In a very real sense, God doesn’t send anyone to hell. He simply gives them what they ask for.

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There are those who reject this faith casually, without much thought.

There are others who seek earnestly and simply decide following Jesus is too big of an “ask.” Others still will rail against this faith and blaspheme and decry it. They will marginalize and seek the destruction (either in character or in some places physically) of those who preach it. But there are some. A “few” the Bible tells us, who will surrender to this faith. And in so doing discover what it truly means to be alive.

Back to Africa

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Monday I am headed back to a land I have grown to love…Tanzania. Once again I will be reunited with my good friend and brother-in-Christ, Fanuel Kiroka. I made my first trip to Tanzania in 2009. They say once you’ve been to Africa it gets in your blood. That is certainly true for me! The splendor of God’s creation is simply magnificent but the people are what really draw me.

Fanuel is a pastor seeking to reach his tribe, the Pare people, with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He is a tremendous man.

Educated with a master’s degree in theology with command of multiple languages, Pastor Fanuel has successfully planted more than 7 churches among his people in the Pare Mountains. I was privileged to support the birth of Fanuel’s first church at a distance from the United States, but I was even more privileged to help strategize and be on the ground with Fanuel as he launched the second church between 2009 and 2010. What has happened and is happening in the Pare Mountains is a move of God.

Not only is Fanuel a pastor but he is also a discipler. He has brought under him a group of young men who are called to preach. He shepherds them, trains them, sends them to seminary in Arusha, and when the time is right and they are ready he places them as the pastor of a new church in the Pare.

So this time next week I will be with my brother once again, sharing meals in his mud-brick home, singing and worshipping in his church which meets under a tent, training church leaders, and helping Fanuel grow the Kingdom from his corner of Tanzania. And once again, I will be taking with me a group of young future pastors who are with me at Cross Church this year serving a one-year ministry residency in our School of Ministry. I always enjoy seeing Africa for the first time through the eyes of first-timers.

One of our over-arching goals is to serve the church in the Pare Mountains and to encourage the brethren. But it never seems to fail that I am the one that ends up being blessed and encouraged.

Please pray for us and if you want to follow us on our journey, you can follow my Twitter feed or check back here and see the latest Twitter posts on the right-hand column of this page.

Aventura Colombiana – two plus years

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Last week was Gotcha Day at the Crawford House. Two years ago this month, on May 21st, our Marcela came to us from Colombia via international adoption.

Wow, it’s so hard to believe that it’s been two whole years. Within the last 24 months we have:

  • Re-formalized our adoption in the United States (a formality),
  • Completed all our post-placement visits – 18 months worth,
  • Secured a Social Security card for Marcela,
  • Updated vaccines,
  • Been to SO many doctors in order to get a full understanding of her health needs,
  • Graduated eye-therapy and started wearing glasses,
  • Begun work on “braces”,
  • Worked HOURS and HOURS to get her caught up academically,
  • Seen Marcela give her life to Christ and be baptized,
  • And….learn English!

Oh, and that’s the short list. But you get the idea. It’s been a whirlwind of a two-years. There have been so many special moments along the way of this adoption journey, but a really special moment happened today at the end-of-the-year awards at Marcela’s school.

She got the Library Award.

Now, if I had gotten the Library Award when I was a kid I probably would have been disappointed! But I can’t begin to tell you how significant this is for Marcela and our family. You noticed I included learning English on our list of accomplishments since we have had Marcela in our family. Listen, this little girl knew NOTHING when she came to us regarding our language. She didn’t even know “hello.” Those first months were dominated with lots of smiles, tears, and hugs as we relied on LOVE as the universal language.

So to think that this little Colombian Princess has gone from knowing no English to winning the Library Award in 24 months is an amazing marker for her and for us.

So I am one proud Papa today.

Go Marcela! Mom and Dad love you and we are so proud of you. You’ve come so far in so short a period of time. And your future is nothing but bright!

Two years ago we “gotcha”…and we don’t ever intend to let you go.

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