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