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.

The Journal

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I’ve taken up journaling in recent years. From my teenage years on, I’ve been taught that journaling was an important and valuable spiritual discipline, but it just was not one I ever embraced. I think there were several reasons for this:

  • I did not know how to do it.
  • I’m not sure I really wanted to do it.
  • I have terrible handwriting. I mean really, really bad.
  • I had never done anything like journaling so I was intimidated by the idea.

There are probably a few other reasons, but the above essentially gets to the heart of it.

But for whatever reason, I one day picked up a small black book with blank pages in it that I got from a NAMB conference at some point… and I started writing. Not everyday, but most days. I kept it up for a time and I just kept at it until the present.

 ***

The following is nothing revolutionary but here is what I have learned/discovered from my journaling and how I use the journal.

  1. I keep a prayer list in the back pages. For years, as I have interacted with people, I would often tell them those often repeated words, “I’ll be praying for you.” Easy to say. Hard to do. Unless you write it down. And so my journal is also my prayer book. Anytime I tell someone I am going to pray for them, I have gotten into the habit of writing it down. My prayer life has taken on a robust dimension since doing this. I pray for people daily and record answered prayers. It is very, very cool to see God working in this way. In print. In a journal.
  1. My journaling is mostly prayers to God. I have found that I talk to God in a more focused, succinct, way when I write my prayers. I am able to take my personal burdens, struggles, and victories before God in a very pointed manner through written media. No time is wasted. No fluff. Just gut –level honesty. My mind is sharper when I write.
  1. It’s not about my handwriting. Yes, I have bad handwriting, as I’ve noted. But it’s not really about the beauty of the script. I’m not publishing anything in this journal and it’s not for anyone else’s eyes but my own and God’s. I guess you could say that the more unintelligible my writing is, the more it is like a “private prayer language”!
  1. The journal is becoming a record of God’s activity in my life. Just like the prayer pages demonstrate God’s moving hand, so do the chronicled pages of my spiritual life. I’ve documented enough “history” now that it becomes it’s own spiritual experience to thumb back through entries from months past and see the movement of God in my life.

I’m not a legalist about the journal. I don’t write in it necessarily every day. But I write in it enough that it has helped me. Grown me. Shaped me. It has drawn me closer to my Maker.

Venezuela – a forgotten land of Christian persecution

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Images and stories of Christian persecution have dominated our newsfeeds and televisions the past year with the rise of ISIS and radical Islam in the Middle East. Open Doors is a ministry that does an excellent job of monitoring Christian persecution around the world and they have reported that 2014 was the worst year for Christians around the world in the modern era.

In the United States we tend to talk about the shifting of the culture in terms of “persecution.” And certainly there are legitimate concerns regarding religious liberty today. But what we currently experience in this country does not compare to life as a Christian in so many other places.

There is one country where life as a Christian is growing more difficult all the time, approaching and crossing over at times into what would be categorized as legitimate Christian persecution. A country that does not get much exposure in the news and is thus easily forgotten.

Venezuela.

Chances are, when you think of Venezuela, you think of cheap oil and the now deceased communist dictator, Hugo Chavez. But there is so much more to Venezuela than these two alone.

I had the opportunity to travel to Venezuela 18 months ago for the first time. It is a quick four-hour flight from Miami and life there runs only a half hour ahead of Central Standard Time. Basically, you can eat breakfast in Atlanta and lunch in Caracas. This is not some place that is half way around the world.

***

I’ve had the good fortune to travel quite a bit through South America: Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil. South America is a beautiful continent and all of these countries are spectacular in their own way. But I will tell you that Venezuela captured me in a way these other countries have not.

The people are so very lovely and hospitable. I was there leading a mission trip and working with a Baptist Church in a town located in the central part of the nation.

I am choosing to keep places and names anonymous for reasons that will become obvious as you continue to read.

I can tell you that in all my travels around the world, I have never been more embraced, loved, and well taken care of anywhere like I was in Venezuela. We were fed, showered with gifts, and truly blessed by the warm people of this fine country.

The land of Venezuela is beautiful beyond compare. We took one day to drive the mountains of the Venezuelan Andes and my, on my, what views. I will never ever forget the splendor of God’s creation in Venezuela.

 ***

And now the tragedy of Venezuela.

The government is in shambles. It is oppressive and the people suffer. I could see it when I was there 18 months ago. Poverty abounds and the communist government asserts more and more control on people’s lives all the time. Yes, gasoline is cheap. When I say cheap, I mean almost FREE. One day we stopped to fill the bus we were riding in and it took less than $1 to do it. That’s right, you can fill up a BUS using only pocket change. Cheap gas is the ONE carrot the government throws at the people to keep them in order. Everything else is falling apart. When we were in country, the government had just announced price controls on all electronics sold in stores. This meant the government was going to set the price on televisions, cell phones, etc. They do this in order to LOWER prices so people can afford these items. BUT the downside is that the local store owner does not make a profit and very quickly goes out of business.

 ***

Our time in Venezuela was spent working with and helping the local Baptist church I mentioned. This is a great church with a great pastor who is now my dear and close friend. This is no small church either. They have around 600 members who all show up on Sunday and their worship services are HIGH octane! It is awesome to worship with these people!

I was told during our visit that popular unrest was growing and that the people were demanding change. One college student in the church told me, “Change is coming,” with a glean in his eye.

 ***

Two months after arriving home from the mission trip, riots broke out in Caracas. Maybe you saw this on the news, maybe not. It didn’t get a whole lot of attention. For some reason, not much of anything going on in Venezuela, only four short hours from our shore, gets much attention.

The decline is now accelerating. Two weeks ago the government announced the nationalization of food distribution. And just last week they announced rationing of electricity. The country is literally falling apart. And I grieve for them.

 ***

I reached out to my pastor friend and received some of the most heart breaking news from him regarding the government’s turning on the churches of Venezuela.

This is an excerpt from my brother pastor translated from Spanish,

We have serious problems of insecurity, police can not control any crime. The government has waged a war against everything private. As you know, our church has a school … But the government does not allow us to charge enough to cover costs. We are thinking of closing the doors of our school, but very afraid because the government has threatened to seize all private property that does not open it’s doors. It’s very complicated.

Now, all the churches in Venezuela must pay taxes to the government. We even have information that the community of unbelievers who live around our churches will have access to money management, and use of churches for community expenses is possible.

Our church currently meets about 600 people each week. Pastors of churches like ours, we are watched by the secret police who work for the government. I was recently informed that my phones are tapped. But I do not fear for me, I’m clean before the Lord. But my friend, I fear for my family, my two young daughters. Afraid I cannot provide a better future in our own country.

Earlier this year, a Baptist pastor friend in our state, was taken prisoner by the government to be investigated by the police because his church is growing a lot and has shown not to be in favor of the government.”

 ***

I cried when I read this last weekend upon receiving it. As I said, I grieve for this pastor and my friend. I grieve for this wonderful church. And I grieve for the nation of Venezuela as a whole.

Please join me today in saying a prayer for Venezuela.

I may be in the verge of breaking the law…

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All of a sudden the same-sex marriage debate has become personal. Last week’s oral arguments before the United States Supreme Court were very revealing as to where we are going next. Religious freedom is directly in the crosshairs. To be more specific, my religious freedom as a pastor seems to now be up for debate.

We were told all along the way that the Church has nothing to worry about as it relates to the same-sex marriage issue.

Individual pastors would never be forced to perform weddings that violate their religious convictions.   But it seems we may have been sold a bill-of-goods, so to speak.

Justice Antonin Scalia asked this as part of the oral arguments before the Supreme Court: “is it conceivable that a minister who is authorized by the State to conduct marriage can decline to marry two men if indeed this Court holds that they have a constitutional right to marry?”

Scalia is drawing a distinction between same-sex marriage being legalized on a state-by-state level as is currently the case, versus it being legalized by the high court of the land. As a state issue, exceptions can be made to exempt pastors from being forced to perform same-sex weddings. But if the Supreme Court rules that the right to same-sex marriage is a Constitutionally protected civil right, then religious freedom protections may fall. And Scalia as much as said so in answering his own question, “if it’s (same-sex marriage) a constitutional requirement, I don’t see how you can (decline to marry two men).”

That means that if the Court rules this summer that same-sex marriage is a civil right on the federal level, then I may be breaking the law if I, as a pastor, refuse to perform a same-sex wedding. This is serious business. And, as I said, it’s intensely personal now.   Violating someone’s civil right is no small thing. It could cost me financially. Just reference the recent $135,000 fine levied against a cake baker in Oregon. It could even cost me jail time. Oh, I am certain there are those who will say I am overreacting. But I’m not so sure. When it’s you facing jail time or burdensome fines, one is not so dismissive.

 ***

Here’s how marriage works in the State of Arkansas where I am a pastor. It is a criminal offense to perform a wedding in Arkansas unless your credentials, as a minister, are on file at any county courthouse in the state. So when I moved to Arkansas after seminary, I went down to the Washington County courthouse with my Certificate of Ordination.   I went to the office where marriage licenses are issued. They made a copy of my ordination credentials and I signed “the book.” Any pastor in Arkansas knows what I mean when I say “the book.” So now, every time I do a wedding and I sign the marriage license, there is a place at the bottom that I fill in. It says something like, “My credentials are on file in _______________ County, in book ________, page _________.” So I dutifully, as an officer of the court, fill in Washington as the county and denote that I am listed in book H on page 345.

This is the most important part of the discussion and how all of this talk about marriage and the Constitution and violation of the law fits together. As I stated, because my credentials are recorded in the Washington County courthouse, when I do a wedding, I am acting as an officer of the Court. Or in other words, as an officer of the State.  That means I have bound myself to what the government defines as marriage. So just like a clerk in the courthouse can be fired or worse for refusing to issue a marriage license to two men or two women, I may, depending on how the federal ruling goes, be on the verge of failing to perform my role as an officer of the State if I refuse a same-sex wedding. I will be breaking the law and will face the penalty that comes with such.

So this is where we may very well be headed.

 ***

I’m a solution guy. So what’s the answer to this for me and thousands of other pastors in the United States who hold a religious objection to same-sex weddings based on our belief in the biblical definition of marriage?

I see a day coming where we will necessarily separate civil marriage from Christian marriage. This means I will go back to the Washington County courthouse and have my name stricken from “the book.” I will surrender my credentials to perform civil marriage ceremonies in the State of Arkansas. I will no longer put myself under the tyranny of State on this issue.

Well, what about Christian couples who want to get married? What do we tell them?

Good question…

This is what we will begin to tell our Christian men and women in our churches. When they are ready to get married, they need to go down to the local courthouse, pay the fee for the marriage license, and have the Justice of the Peace perform a civil ceremony right there in the courthouse. Then we tell the couple to come back to the church for their Christian wedding. I will be happy to perform any Christian wedding and bless the union before God and the witnesses present. It means that the Church will begin to issue it’s own marriage licenses separate from the State. With no civil meaning but with great biblical meaning.

***

And is this really so bad? It would be new to this country but what I have described above has been the norm around the world in many countries for as long as people can remember.   In fact, I was told that such was the case in this country long ago, but it made more sense to “marry” together civil and religious weddings the way we have it today. But that was during a time when the civil and the sacred were on the same page.

That is no longer the case in this nation. I actually think that a separation of civil marriage from Christian marriage would be good thing. It would, I believe, add new and important meaning to what Christian marriage truly is. Something I think we lost way before the same-sex marriage debate took hold.

The Analog Revolution

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A curious thing is happening with the next generation. Digital is out and Analog is in. I see it with my own teenagers and their friends. Not long ago my daughter had a friend over and when they showed up at my house, they had, of all things, a turn-table with them and a set of….get this…vinyl records! For Christmas, one of my kids ordered a vinyl album from Amazon for a friend of theirs.

Analog is popping up in other areas too. I recently heard a news story while driving in the car that spoke of the revival in the popularity of board games. Kids are (re)discovering the joy of playing a game that has real pieces and cards, and boards that you can touch and feel. So for all the attention that video games still garner in our culture, analog is alive and thriving.

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For some of us, analog has never quite gone out of style. Yes, in my office I have a “record player” and sometimes will play my own vinyl albums while I work. It’s true that I have a virtual scholar’s library on my computer, but my office is also loaded with good ol’ fashioned print books that you can touch and feel. So while I read like crazy on my Kindle, I will admit there is nothing like the feel and smell of a real book. Even at my own house, we have a slew of board games to go with our Nintendo Wii and X-Box One. Monopoly, Life, Risk, Uno, etc. But our favorite family game is Settlers of Catan.

The analog experience provides a depth of experience that digital cannot reproduce.

Which is why, I believe, we are seeing a re-discovery of this too quickly buried medium. And of course this has exciting implications for the church.

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The Analog Church – Last month I wrote on this blog about the deficiencies of “virtual church.” The return of analog is good news for the church. Nothing can replace the tactile experience of driving to a location where God’s people physically meet. Where you shake someone’s hand, and worship to LIVE praise music. Where the Lord’s Supper is taken, engaging the senses of taste and smell. Where you literally hear and taste and see that the Lord is good. The church is not perfect, but it is real…just like life.

The Analog Bible – I have the Bible on my iPhone, tablet, and computer. I’ve never been one to have a problem with people who use their devices to access God’s Word. In fact, I think anything that helps to perpetuate the spread and the digestion of God’s Word is a good thing. But I also think that the virtual Bible is inferior to the analog Bible. By analog, I mean a standard, paper and ink, print Bible – preferable bound in cowhide. You cannot duplicate the feeling of carrying an “old friend” around with you. There is a familiarity with the Book that is non-existent with digital copies of the Bible. Notes and highlights are better retained. “Scrolling” is actually quicker in a print Bible than on a device once you know your way around the Bible.   And that’s an important point – using a print Bible actually facilitates knowledge of how the Bible is organized and fits together. In short, an analog Bible provides for a more intimate encounter with the Word of God.

Analog Jesus – One of the ancient heresies of the early centuries following Christ was the belief that he did not physically rise from the dead. But he did. Jesus even went out of his way to highlight the analog nature of his resurrection. He challenged Thomas to touch his wounds from the crucifixion.   He asked the disciples to give him some food so he could eat in from of them (Luke 24) thus demonstrating his physical, post-resurrection nature. Jesus was born in the flesh. He lived in the flesh. He died in the flesh. He was resurrected in the flesh. And he ascended in the flesh. This is critical because Jesus promised he would return in the flesh. We do not worship a God only of spirit but one who took on a flesh and bone body. This separates our God from all others.

The Analog Resurrection – And all this leads to our own promised resurrection. I agree with N.T. Wright that we too often don’t get it quite right in the way we talk about what happens after we die. Yes, we are more than flesh. We are also a spirit. And our spirit indeed goes to heaven when we die. But that is not the sum of it. When we talk about dying and going to heaven, we have told only half the story. The digital half. The best half is yet to come. The analog half. The part about how we will one day be resurrected just as Jesus was resurrected – in the flesh! Our eternal promise is not one of a perpetual disembodied experience of floating on clouds and playing harps. Can anyone really get excited about that? The eternal promise is that we will come back to life. In all our analog/fleshly glory. Better then before. Perfected. And our new analog bodies will reside on a physical and very analog New Earth, all set to enjoy God’s good creation forever and ever.

Can I get an analog “Amen”?

For The City

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Beginning today, I will be leading a mission team to New York City to assist church planter, Pastor Drew Griffin. Pastor Drew lives in the upper East Side neighborhood of Yorkville where he will be planting Cross Church NYC as part of the North American Mission Board, SEND strategy. This strategy targets the 32 largest and most unreached cities of North America.

It’s really a simple concept. The vast majority of people in our country and around the world live in a large city.

If we can win the cities we can win the world for the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

But cities are hard ground. History has proven that when vast numbers of people gather together in one place (a city), they collectively reject God and the things of God. The first and prime example of this is the ancient city of Babel, led by the pagan ruler, Nimrod. The philosophy of Babel was to “build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, less we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” – Genesis 11:4.

Much is in that little statement. First, God had commanded that it is the place of mankind to spread out and have dominion over the whole earth. Instead, our tendency is to clump together and have dominion over our own “kingdom” or city. Second, cities have identities. Just like Babel sought to make a name for itself, cities have personalities that they proudly promote and market. Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love (unless you’re a Cowboy fan!), Denver is the Mile High City, Chicago is the Windy City, and on and on. Third, cities are marked by towers. Consider that every major city in USAmerica has it’s own distinct skyline of towers. The skyline itself becomes part of the identity of the city as well.

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So all of this together makes church planting in a city very, very difficult. But God has not forsaken the city. In fact, God loves the city because the city is full of millions of people the He has died for through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

As we consider our mission strategy to win the world for Jesus Christ, we must consider the city. And so we come to Pastor Drew and his fledgling church on the upper East Side of Manhattan. I am very much looking forward to being there for a week with six of my brothers from the Cross Church School of Ministry. Men, who are God-called and training for ministry. Men who will be future pastors working their own strategy to fulfill the Great Commission.

I invite you to follow me via Twitter beginning today as we go on mission…to the city!

The Discipline of Rest

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This past week, my wife and I took our annual spring trip away – just the two of us. We’ve been fleeing the pressures of life and ministry every spring for the last 10+ years. This year the destination was Santa Fe. Just a “short” 11 hour drive from our home in Northwest Arkansas. We spent four days hiking the wonderful trail system around Santa Fe. Atalaya Mountain kicked our collective rear ends. Bandalier we’ve been to in the past, but this year we trekked the upper falls trail – spectacular. We even tried our hand at some mountain biking for the first time. In the past, we’ve spent time at a dude ranch in Colorado, the high desert of Moab, Utah, the beaches of the Florida panhandle, and one year we even hit the NASCAR races at Talladega!

But the destination is not what’s important. It’s the simple act of getting away with my spouse.

Ministry has it’s own particular stress points. I’ve seen too many of my brothers in ministry fall out because they lost their family. They lost because they committed adultery. They lost because they could not balance ministry and family. They lost because their kids grew up to hate the church. They lost because they did not take care of themselves and they hit a wall of burnout. Loss of ministry can come in many forms.

While not claiming perfection, I’ve been very intentional about taking care of my family while taking care of my ministry. I have an operating principle that guides me in this…

 If you lose you family, you lose your ministry. Period.

I’ve taught this for years to young pastors and those aspiring to ministry. Yes, it is true. If you don’t have your family, then you don’t have your ministry. In order to practice this in my own marriage and family, I’ve made the following a priority…

  1. “My kids come before ministry.” Here’s what this means: If I have to choose between a game or even a practice that my son/daughter is participating in and a deacon’s meeting, I choose my kid. My ministry will endure beyond the season I raise my kids, but my kids will grow up and eventually leave (hopefully). I’ve never known a pastor who wished he spent less time with his kids.
  1. “I take my day off.” It sounds simple but it has not always been that simple. Early in my ministry I worked for pastors who never took a day off. They said it was fine for the rest of the staff to take their day off, but I noticed quickly that my peers followed the example of the pastor. So the pressure to just work and never take a Sabbath was real. Friday is my day off right now in my life. And I take my day off. Period. My wife counts on it and we plan our day around each other. I tell people that on Friday, “Julie owns me!”
  1. “My wife and I indulge in a spring fling.” As mentioned above, we take 4-6 days every spring just to get away. No kids. Just us. It’s marriage-building time. Wherever we may end up, it’s about living life together and adding memories to our life-vault. Let me say that this week away never “just happens.” It has to be intentionally planned for. Put on the calendar, usually 6 or more months out. If it’s not calendared it won’t happen.
  1. “Family vacation is a staple.” Every year, we load up the ol’ family vehicle, pack more stuff than will fit (thus the car-topper), pile in, and hit the road. This is the family version of the spring fling mentioned in #3, except the kids come along. It’s “our time.”  Family time.  After 23 years of marriage, we have hundreds of pics of family vacations, chronicling our lives together.

A couple of notes regarding the above. As much as possible, I endeavor to NOT check my email on my day off, and our get-aways. This is hard for me. I have to really work to unplug and get away from the digital tether. But it is SO important that this happens, especially on family and spousal getaways…or it’s not a getaway. Nothing is worse than my kids seeing Daddy consumed with church issues while trying to hang out on a beach.

And finally, when it is not my day off or I am not away on a family outing…I work as hard as I can.

This needs to me said. There can be a lot of laziness in ministry. As easily as it is to slip into workaholic mode in ministry, it is just as easy to swing to the other end of the spectrum and for a guy to use his family as an excuse to not work hard or consistently. So, I work when it’s time to work. And when it’s time to be off, I am off. This is what is called balance. And it is critical in the life of a pastor. And for that matter, all of us!

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