How An Orphan Saved Me

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I’d like to tell you that I have a pure heart and consequently, our pursuit of children through adoption was from a motive of pure religion.

I’d like to tell you that adoption is always beautiful and inspirational as Romans 8 says it is.

I’d like to tell you all to adopt one of the millions orphans around the world

But I can’t. I can only tell you my story.

Laura and I had been married for several years when we tried to start a family. By 2007, it wasn’t happening and we heard the dreaded word from the dreaded doctor: infertility.

We had been exposed to this heartache through a couple that had mentored us in college and some after college when we had lived as missionaries in Russia. We had even changed they way we talked about kids – “if we have kids” instead of “when we have kids.” But, you’re never prepared for this type of punch to the gut. As a woman who longs to be a mother, you’re never prepared for your dreams to be shattered. As a man who longs to provide, you’re never prepared to feel so helpless.

In March 2008, we experienced yet another failure in trying to get pregnant, so we decided to stop trying and spend the summer praying about next steps – specifically international adoption. International adoption was always something we had thought about pursuing, and had seen up close through the same couple that had mentored us, so it was a natural next step for us to consider. At the end of the summer, we didn’t have any Damascus-road-blinding-light-in-the-sky epiphanies that made the decision easy. It was a simple September night in 2008 when I walked downstairs with the credit card and said to Laura, “Let’s do it.” So we paid the $300 registration fee and set off.

What followed was one of the most overwhelming and exhausting seasons of my life – and that was before we brought our son home! International adoption paperwork, especially in the former Soviet Union, is no joke. It was a second full-time job to get all of the right paperwork figured out, sorted, filled out, notarized, certified, sealed with an apostille (something only adoptive parents and foreign emissaries have ever heard of!) both with the country of adoption (Russia) and our own government (to get a visa for our son to enter the USA). We had lived in Russia, and understood the deep scrutiny over the smallest details such as the placement of a staple, creases in the paper and the continuity of our personal signatures.

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The paperwork process itself can take several years, but God blessed us in that by February 2009, we had submitted everything. The waiting game had begun. Who would be our child? A boy? A girl? How old? We were expecting at least eight months to go by before we found out the answers, so we made preparations to head to Colorado for our summer assignment with our mission agency. Then came the phone call – four months early. After the phone call came the picture – the most beautiful picture we had ever seen – the face of our son. We then made a mad dash from the Four Corners of the US back to where we lived in Tennessee to get our passports, get visas and travel to meet our son.

I couldn’t tell you then, but I can tell you now that up until that point, I hadn’t realized my own expectations and desires that were wrapped up in bringing this boy home. I was being a typical man – solving a problem. Can’t get pregnant? Want a baby? Millions of orphans in the world? Let’s adopt! Problem solved. Of course, I recognized God’s heart for the orphan, but if I am honest, at that time, this whole thing was about me and what I wanted: to give my wife a child, to look amazing to friends, family and ministry partners, to SAVE this little boy. How amazing and gracious of me!

My world began to unravel as I met my son for the first time. I had expected a glorious moment, but instead I was afraid and unsure. He was so small, so fragile, so sickly, so delayed. It took me an hour to feel comfortable enough to hold him, but soon enough, I warmed up and we began to connect. We had some good moments on that trip, but the time flew by and we had to leave to fly back to the US to wait for our court date and prepare even more paperwork.

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As we left our son behind without knowing when we would return, evening turned to twilight. We rode the bumpy road through the Russian countryside and were talking about how in the world we were going to have enough money to do this, we looked in the sky and saw a double rainbow (yes, a double rainbow). We reflected on the promise of God to Noah, and while we didn’t have a direct promise of fulfillment of our ensuing adoption, we felt comforted to know that our God is the God who loves the orphan and is the God who keeps promises.

We came back in October 2009 for our court date. I guess God was preparing me even more for preaching because I had to give a speech to the judge about why we should be allowed to adopt this child. I got inspirational and passionate, and meant what I said, but once again, there was a slight undercurrent of selfishness and pride. I still kept thinking that this was about us getting a child and saving an orphan. We were declared the parents of Liam Samuel Jones on October 1st, 2009 and we were finally able to get him out of the orphanage on October 13, 2009 – Gotcha Day. As he crossed into the US on October 22, 2009, he became a legal US citizen. Thus ended the legal portion of Liam’s adoption. I kind of thought that the hard part of the adoption was over. Oh, how I was wrong.

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If I had thought that the paperwork season was overwhelming, it was nothing compared to becoming an instant parent, especially a parent of a malnourished and severely delayed child with special needs that we had only begun to understand. If getting him out of the orphanage was the rescuing, bringing him home was the saving. We saw doctor upon doctor and therapist upon therapist. God’s grace was evident along the way to provide resource after resource. He couldn’t eat solid food or drink thin liquids for more than a year after we brought him home – only baby oatmeal and pureed baby food. He was 16 pounds at 18 months. He couldn’t walk or crawl and could barely sit up straight. By the end of 2010, after much blood, sweat and tears, he came through some really tough times and had advanced physically to the point where we could consider moving back overseas with our missions agency. Again, I thought to myself, “The hard part is over. It took two years but we got our child, problem solved and I can now turn my attention back to ministry, specifically overseas missions like we had always planned.” Oh, how I was wrong.

We spent the next year preparing, moving and serving overseas and Liam’s needs kind of got lost in the shuffle. He had made so much progress that we weren’t as focused on seeing his needs. Our overseas assignment was particularly hard, and by the time we returned we were all burned out and in need of direction. We began to notice behaviors and things that we had not noticed before. His physical delays seemed to be mostly gone, but he still wasn’t emotionally where we thought he should be for his age. He got over stimulated and had much difficulty in regulating himself. He had trouble navigating age appropriate situations. We began to see that there was another layer of issues to deal with and it made me angry – even livid. I had poured out my life for almost three years and it felt like one step forward, five steps back.

I was still seeing this adoption through the lens of self – He was child to be fixed, a problem to be solved, a burden to be lifted. I am disgusted even writing those words, but they accurately described my state of mind at the time. What was happening was that I was coming face-to-face with my greatest idol – control. I could not control Liam. I couldn’t fix him with logic or the right techniques or right therapies. I didn’t have the resources, or the energy, or the time or even the right perspective to do all and be all that he needed for me to save him.

For. Me. To. Save. Him. Do you get it? I had to be the savior. I had to be the one in control. I didn’t trust God to do what I thought needed to be done and I wanted the glory and the praise for this amazing thing we had done.

I began to see that one acting like an orphan was me.

How gracious of God to crush me. How gracious of God to bring a little boy into my life that I could not fix. He took a weak baby boy and made me weaker. He took a strong-willed former orphan to break down a strong-willed former orphan.

Paul says in Romans 8 that we ourselves, along with creation, groan inwardly as we await our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. Surely in Christ, we are declared sons and daughters by grace through faith – we are united with Christ. But that is our legal adoption. Just as we legally adopted Liam into our family, so I had been legally adopted into God’s family when he saved me.

There is another aspect of adoption that I have learned in the trenches of life: there is a forming and confirming of our legal adoption every day. Liam was decreed to be my son, and without a doubt he is my son. Not a moment goes by that I don’t see him as a deeply loved son – yet this does not always lead him to act like a son. He still had effects from his former life. And so it is with us and our sonship in God’s family. Not a moment goes by that God doesn’t look at you in Christ and see deeply loved son or a deeply loved daughter. But we don’t always act like sons and daughters. We have all of the right information and techniques and therapies, right? We have his Word. We know how sons and daughters are supposed to act. But just as that does not work as I parent Liam, it doesn’t work for us – our former lives effect us! Sin distorts our growth as sons and daughters.

Any good father will discipline his son to train him to be he way he wants him to be, and as the writer of Hebrews tells us, any discipline at the time seems unpleasant. Yet, it is for our good.

That is why I can look back at my life and see why God has allowed me to walk through infertility. That is why I can look back and see the pain and suffering of bringing this boy along. I’m not in control. Never have been and never will be. I needed to learn that, and am still learning that every day. As I eagerly wait the completion of my adoption in Christ, I don’t want to just have the status of son – I want to live as a son.

How gracious of God to use an orphan to save me.

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Ten Years

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Ten Years!

Ten years of love. Ten years of grace. Ten years of enduring. Ten years of growing. Ten years of covenant. Ten years of commitment. Ten years of mistakes. Ten years of forgiveness. Ten years of reconciliation. Ten years of tears. Ten years of laughs. Ten years that I am grateful for. Ten years that I wouldn’t change a thing about. Ten years that I did not expect.

2003: North Augusta. Charlotte. Jamaica. Columbia (Brooke’s apartment, the Hunt’s house, our apartment in Five Points).

2004: Five Points. Craziest spring break trip ever to Russia. My parent’s house. STINT: Germany. Perm and Moscow, Russia

2005: Nice, France. Rome, Italy. Hungary. Perm and St. Pete, Russia. Finland. Krasnodar and Sochi, Russia. North Augusta – My parent’s house and Palmetto Ave. house.

2006: Joining staff. Daytona Beach, FL. North Augusta – Palmetto Ave. House.

2007: Memphis, TN. Yekaterinburg, Russia. Pusan, Korea. Back to Memphis.

2008: Memphis, TN. Daytona Beach, FL. Johnson City, TN.

2009: Johnson City. Our trip West: Oklahoma, Sedona, Grand Canyon, New Mexico.

The call that changed our lives. Atlanta to Frankfurt to St. Pete to Pskov to Pechoriy, Russia and back. Then Johnson City to Charlotte to Munich to St. Pete to Pskov to Pechoriy.

Now +1. Pechoriy to Pskov to Moscow to Munich to Charlotte to Johnson City.

2010: Johnson City. The only year in one place. 🙂

2011: Johnson City. Fastest move across town ever. Things to storage in three places in North Augusta. Ft. Collins, Colorado. Chicago.

To Kazakhstan. And back.

2012: My parent’s house. Columbia. Park Street. Finishing an era.

2013: Starting a new chapter. Our first home – Dinwood Circle.

Ten years around the world. Ten years that I never knew would be. Ten years that I have called YOU home. Ten years, you and me.

Here’s to the next 10. I love you.

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Words of Warning

When reading through the entire Bible, the place I always get bogged down is in Isaiah and Jeremiah, and never really get to the rest of the prophets. Recently, when it was getting hard to keep up with all the reading through transitioning jobs and buying a home, I decided to put off the “tougher” section of the prophets and finish the other portions of my reading plan first.

Now that I only have the prophets left and I have “more time,” My goal is to make it all the way through. So, this morning I picked back up in Jeremiah 12. (I had already made it through Isaiah, praise the Lord!)

While I am not technically a pastor (yet) I have functioned as one who leads and watched over people in the context of campus ministry and now within our church. I teach and disciple young men who aspire to pastor and lead people in the Church. So, what I read this morning was like a splash of cold water.

Waking Up to Words of Warning:

In chapter 12, Jeremiah is complaining to God about how hard ministry is for him. Rightfully, so, as people were seeking his life for speaking the truth that God had given him to speak! But, in his complaint, he seemed to act as if God did not understand what it was like to suffer and that it didn’t seem fair that the wicked would prosper. He says this in verse 2-3:

“You plant them, and they take root; they grow and produce fruit; you are near in their mouth and far from their heart. But you, O LORD, know me; you see me and my heart toward you, Pull them out like sheep for the slaughter, and set them apart for the day of slaughter.”

That shook me awake for two reasons:

1) In ministry, how often I have struggled with (and seen others struggle with) having the name of Jesus near on my lips, and yet He is far from my heart. I teach and and proclaim Jesus and the Bible, but almost as if a commodity or a market that I need to know well so that I can prosper as a minister. There is a tension between actually caring and then doing a “job.” It is an ugly thing to see in yourself. When I read about Jeremiah holding these people up to God as examples of hypocrites who use the prosperity God gives them for personal gain (through reputation, etc.), I find it helpful to see “if there be any hurtful way in me” like this.

2) After holding that up to God, Jeremiah rightly wonders how long God will allow this because it causes Jeremiah suffering. He then tells God of his own righteousness. He seems to be saying, “These people are terrible hypocrites but you know me and I am not like them, so why won’t you do anything about this yet!?”

Once again, there is truth here. The desire for God to justly deal with people who profane His name and His people is a good desire, but Jeremiah seems impatient and seems to think he knows a better way and plan that God Himself. That comes out in the desire to compare and contrast himself with those other people. From what we read in Jeremiah, we know that Jeremiah was not one who had God “near in his mouth but far from his heart.” So, while he is right, it still gives me pause. It brings to mind how Job questions God and how he and Jeremiah act as if their better position before God gives them the right to question God’s timing of justice.

Anyone see themselves in that? 

What Scared Me and Broke My Heart:

I kept reading further and what I read, broke my heart in a way that my heart had not been broken before. I actually felt God’s pain over his people. God responds to Jeremiah something essentially like, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” He is angry at His people’s idolatry and uses words like hate, forsake, and abandon. Hard words that don’t get much airplay on the radio or pulpit.

Then in verse 10, I read what broke my heart:

“Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard; they have trampled down my portion; they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness.”

The very people that should know better and know the LORD the best, the leaders and spiritual shepherds of the nation, have instead “destroyed” His people by leading them astray!

This SCARED me. As I mentioned above, as one who serves and has served a shepherd-like function in ministry, and as one who aspires to that leadership role, the thought of leading God’s people astray, and so breaking His heart, sobered me up. As in verse 2 above, how easy it is to play the ministry game and talk a bunch of Jesus but not from my heart. Those type of people are hypocrites, break God’s heart, hurt His people and (keep reading in Jeremiah) incur God’s rightful and just judgment. He says in verse 13:

“They have sown wheat and reaped thorns; they have tired themselves out but profit nothing. They shall be ashamed of their harvests because of the fierce anger of the LORD.”

Two more things stood out to me:

1) “They tire themselves out but profit nothing.”

Whether this in context of agricultural harvesting of the land, or the moral and spiritual harvest, the truth remains the same. If you sow the wrong things, you will tire yourself out and profit nothing. Jesus put it like this, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” Those of you who have labored in ministry for any length of time will know that there are seasons where this seems to happen. There is a temptation to be the best teacher, or discipler, or blogger, or become famous, or write the best book, or have the biggest impact, or have the most conversions or best stories, or have your little corner of the world singing your praises rather than the praises of God.

2) “They shall be ashamed of their harvests..”

Will I look back at my years in ministry and be ashamed? Will I see true fruit in my life and the life of those I have led and shepherded? Will I see a bunch of activity “for Jesus” and hear a bunch of praises that really are hollow? Will I look back and say, “Look what I did” and so try to steal glory from God? Will I build the church or a person but on the pillar of me and not Jesus? I hope not.

Resting on Words of Warning:

These words of warning were meant for a specific people in a specific place in a specific time, but the lesson behind them is timeless:

God is gracious and right in his timing and patience to deal justice. His words of warning serve as the slap in the face we need to examine our hearts, see the twisted, evil things in them and so turn away from them back to God. The hard words in the prophets are not to be avoided, but instead pursued and cherished. There will come a time where there is no more warning. May we all learn the lesson of Jeremiah, but particularly those of us who think ourselves leaders in ministry, lest we hear the LORD say “You trampled me people. All of your labor was in vain and profits nothing.”

May we listen to the rebuke of God and find rest in His grace to relentlessly change us from ones who would trample his temple to ones who serve with gladness and joy.

 

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No Time to Create

I have been wanting to write about a million things in the last few weeks, but there is no “good” time. If I have time, I am exhausted. I guess a blog isn’t the first priority, but as I had written previously, I wanted to use this blog as a place to process my thoughts about life and what is going on. 

My thought right now is that my 30s are going to be an insane amount of work as a budding pastor, a husband, a father, a homeowner and on and on!

More later. Whenever that is.

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Changing Themes

I chose the previous theme (Book Lite) because it was 1) Free and 2) Allowed me to have the picture I wanted in a very large format. (That picture of a tree was from a hike I took in Central Asia by the way. So beautiful!)

But then I realized the purpose of a blog is it to be read, so I decided to change to a theme that didn’t look as pretty but made it easier to read.

Thoughts?

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PDP, Tim Keller and the Gospel

When I was on Cru staff, there was this thing we did before each semester called a PDP: Personal Development Plan. It was this specific material for Cru staff that I HATED. I thought it was so dumb, but the funny thing was, like so many other things I HATED early in ministry, I began to see its value. I’ve since come to really enjoy putting on paper what is already in my head. Now, I don’t have to fill one out for my job any more, but I actually pulled it out today to put some things on paper that I want to be working on.

There are several areas to think through: Spiritual, Relational, Financial, Physical, Personal, Ministry. The idea is to identify 2-3 goals for each area to cover in a six month period.

Some examples:

  • Read through the Bible this year (Spiritual)
  • Run 5 miles, 3 times a week (Physical)
  • Take my wife on nice date every other week (Relational)

I’m still working through it but one thing I want for sure I have written down is under personal: Read more!

I really enjoy reading but don’t read as much as I used to. I have a bad habit of getting books but not reading them. It got really bad when I got my Kindle which allowed me to get cheap books but not see them pile up!

So, my goal from now through the summer is to read up the books (both e-books and paper books) that I have bought during the last couple of years before I buy anything new (that isn’t required for my job or preaching or something).

First up is Tim Keller’s book: Every Good Endeavor. I have enjoyed most of his books, but I especially have been enjoying this one since work is something I enjoy.

One quote that has stuck out to me is in Chapter Five: “Work Becomes Fruitless.” He makes the point that, due to the fall of man in Genesis 3, things just fall apart and don’t work correctly.

On page 86, he writes:

“Something is wrong, and we may know the effects, but we fall short of understanding the true causes. Contemporary Western culture tries to account for this restlessness without recourse to the biblical doctrine of sin. Psychologists help us understand the part of our early childhoods have played in creating unnecessary shame or a sense of being unloved. Entertainment distracts us from our discomfort. And doing good helps bolster our identity as a good person. But the Bible locates the root issue as our separation from God.”

I underlined this quote because I think that one way that American Christians can be unbiblical is the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps or just-believe-in-yourself ideal. I particularly can be prone to think that if I just plan well and work hard, then it will go well with me. Even in thinking about the PDP I wrote about above, I tend to make a list of things to do and ways I want to change, then go about it, either leaving God out of the equation or sprinkling Him on top like a dash of salt, hoping that he’ll bless me in my hard work. God helps those that help themselves is written in Scripture, right? [Nope]

So, as I embark on setting some goals, I do it lightly, remembering who is sovereignly in control of my life. While I cannot control when my son will get sick or when something happens at work that causes me to miss my runs for the week or reading plan for the day, I can submit my goals and desires to God. I trust that both through the providential circumstances He brings and my God-given design of wise planning, He will refine me to be more like the me I am supposed to be in Jesus. It will take a lot of hard work – not my own, but the hard work of Jesus on the cross – already done for me. It is that hard work that frees me from “having to” but allows me to “get to.”

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Conference Love – #Advance13

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As I alluded to in this post, one of the reasons I started the blog was to fulfill a requirement to help promote the Advance13 conference from March 19 – 21 2013 in Raleigh, NC. I’m really excited about this conference for several reasons:

1) I love conferences.

In December 2000, I started attending the annual winter conference with Cru (known as Campus Crusade back then). Since then, I’ve been to every conference under the sun with Cru (including this gigantic one in South Korea). While most people attend these conferences for the conference speakers they get to hear or the musical worship bands they get to see, I actually enjoy the small things like meeting new people, networking and rubbing shoulders with like-minded people who are on the same mission I am on.

2) I went to Advance11.

A couple of years ago, I went to the last conference these guys put on, mainly because I wanted to hang out with guys from my church and see Tim Keller speak. It was a great conference that gave me a deeper vision for the Church and church-planting in general. It was there that God planted the seed for me to transition to using my gifts in the local church.

3) The topic is something I am extremely passionate about and interested in.

The official overview states:

There is a false dichotomy in the church today, between faithful ministry and effective ministry – depth and width – making disciples and reaching the lost. Most of our churches are good at one or the other. Churches that prioritize faithfulness make mature disciples, but don’t always reach the lost. Churches that prioritize effectiveness reach the lost, but often don’t make mature disciples.

 The gospel calls for both. Faithfulness and effectiveness cannot be separated. Churches that grow wide without growing deep are not producing width that lasts. Churches that grow deep without growing wide are not as deep as they think.

I have been thinking about this for some time. I have seen ministries and churches put so much emphasis on “reaching the lost” that they forget that Jesus said in the Great Commission to go and make disciples, not go and read someone a booklet and get them to pray a prayer. Now, I am not saying that method has not been effective in conversion and starting the road of discipleship, but I am saying that I have seen the focus be more on whether “the gospel was shared” or the person “had a chance to receive Christ” as opposed to the long term view of bringing someone to maturity in Christ through discipleship. Discipleship is harder to measure than the “golden” egg of a PRC (Prayer to Receive Christ). Those look better in prayer letters.

So, I am really eager to hear from a who’s who of speakers on this topic. Speaking of that…

4) The Who’s Who of Speakers (all that is missing is Francis Chan).

John Piper. David Platt. Matt Chandler. In Evangelical idol worship fame, they’re kind of a big deal (in a non-Anchorman kind of way). But seriously, there are some great voices getting together to tackle this topic.

I am actually very excited about two “other” guys: Bryan Loritts and John Bryson. They are pastors at Fellowship Memphis, a racially-diverse church in Memphis, TN where my wife and I were members from 2007-2008. It was there that we grew tremendously in our view of the Church, got fed deeply from preaching of the Word and community through some really difficult times, and learned how anti-gospel racism really is. I’ve gained a love for the Church and racial reconciliation from them that I have never lost.

So, do yourself a favor and get on over to Raleigh and join me!

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