December 2009

Couple befriend orphan after tsunami

December 23 2009 by Shawn Hendricks, Baptist Press

Dec. 26 marks the fifth anniversary since a series of devastating tsunamis hit the Indian Ocean in 2004. One of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history, the storm struck 11 countries and left more than 225,000 people dead. Southern Baptists gave more than $17 million in tsunami relief funds. These  articles share the journey of an Indian couple, Paramesvaran and Choodamani, in finding hope again, underscoring the help Southern Baptists were able to provide through International Mission Board representative Cole Elbridge* and Baptists’ giving through the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.

TAMIL NADU, India — “Daddy, what’s that?” Paramesvaran looked toward the ocean.

Curiosity turned to horror as a 30-foot wave bore down on him and 5-year-old son Kirubasan. He grabbed the boy and ran. But it was too late.

BP photo

Paramesvaran lost his three children in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.


The wave lifted them off the ground and tossed them back down. Paramesvaran’s son slipped from his grasp. The water swept Paramesvaran along until he could grab hold of a palm tree. Clinging tightly against the force of the waves, he felt the rough trunk rip into his arms, leaving gaping wounds.

Almost five years later, one glance at the jagged scars stretching along his arms like tattoos can transport him back to that day — Dec. 26, 2004.

The Indian Ocean earthquake, which triggered a series of devastating tsunamis, was one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. As the tsunami waters receded, Paramesvaran stumbled home in shock.

He found his wife Choodamani sitting on the second floor of their house. The waves had topped the retaining wall around their house, located less than five minutes from the beach, and flooded the first floor.

What about Kirubasan and daughters Rakshanya, 12, and Karunya, 9?

They and seven out-of-town relatives who had come to visit for Paramesvaran’s 40th birthday had gone to the beach with Paramesvaran that day. Paramesvaran had not seen any of them.

The rest of the day he searched the beach for his children, joined by panic-stricken neighbors also searching for loved ones.

They later learned that more than 225,000 people had been killed by the tsunami that struck India, Indonesia and 10 other countries. By midnight Paramesvaran had found his children’s bodies and the bodies of most of his relatives.

He found Kirubasan “lying like a stone statue” on the beach. Rakshanya was floating face down in the ocean. The waves left Karunya’s body entangled in a thorn bush.

The next morning he buried his children together in a grave he dug by hand. Local Hindus said he and Choodamani were being punished for converting years ago to Christianity. His own brother taunted him, “Where is your Jesus?”

Reeling with grief, the couple considered a suicide pact. Paramesvaran was haunted by thoughts of letting go of his son’s hand. Choodamani was angry that her husband had taken the children to the beach so early that day.

It was Sunday, and they should have been getting ready for church. God began to comfort Choodamani in those first few days following the tsunami. She realized how blessed she was to still have her husband and to be alive.

“God talked to me in a very crystal-clear voice,” she says. “(God said,) ‘Don’t be upset. So many people died, and yet your husband is alive.... I have some purpose in your life.’ “It’s why we are still alive,” she realized.

Paramesvaran, however, continued to sink deeper into depression and thoughts of suicide. “I went to my wife and asked her, ‘Can I drink any poison?’” he recounts. “‘Can I commit suicide? I don’t want to live.’”

Choodamani attempted to comfort her husband by sharing what God had revealed to her. Instead, he became angry. He didn’t feel God’s comfort; he couldn’t hear His voice. Paramesvaran pushed his wife out of the room, locked the door and collapsed to his knees.

“I was beating my hands saying, ‘Oh, Jesus, speak to me,’” he says. “I asked God why He hadn’t given me a word.”

Grasping photos of his children and caressing their faces, Paramesvaran suddenly could hear them comforting him.

“They said they were safe with Jesus,” he says. “They said, ‘Daddy, don’t cry. We are OK, Daddy.’”

That day, Paramesvaran says, he felt “enormous strength” from God. He also began to feel a deep burden for the orphans in a nearby village.

A new burden
More than 60 children in the village lost their parents in the tsunami. With no one responsible for them, they wandered from house to house, relative to relative, begging for food and living under blue tarps as temporary shelters.

“If we would have died,” Paramesvaran says, “I could have seen my children in this group.”

The couple initially took four children into their home. Over time the number has grown to 20 — six girls and 14 boys.

“(God said) you were a mother for three, but now you can be a mother for so many,” says Choodamani, who has given birth to two sons — Shemaiah, 2, and Micaiah, 1 — since losing her first three children. “Without God we’d never (have) made it through this.”

The financial burden on the couple, however, took its toll in the beginning. Though Paramesvaran works for a gas company and Choodamani is an accountant, they struggled to make ends meet.

They turned to Cole Elbridge*, an International Mission Board (IMB) representative who was leading relief efforts along the coast. Southern Baptists gave more than $17 million to help tsunami victims.

From a portion of those gifts, Elbridge was able to provide the couple with kitchen appliances, beds, clothing, books and school supplies, in addition to meeting other needs for the children. The funds also provided food, shelter, boats, nets and supplies to the community. Elbridge was there, thanks to Southern Baptists’ support of the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.

“There were so many needs that Southern Baptists helped us with,” Paramesvaran says. “Through that (support) we were able to spread the gospel. Many people came to Christ.”

That support also allowed the orphaned children, all from Hindu backgrounds, to hear about Jesus for the first time. Today, all of them have a relationship with Christ. Some are sharing the gospel alongside Paramesvaran in the community.

Healing in India
Residents along much of India’s eastern coast still have scars and pain from that tragic December day. A faint waterline is still visible around the perimeter of the couple’s house. Here and there, collapsed buildings block the beachfront.

A rusty barge rests in the sand where the tsunami waves abandoned it. There are now lakes and ponds where there were none. While most of the wreckage and damage has been removed or repaired, broken hearts aren’t as easy to mend.

But the love of Christ shown by Indian Christians such as Paramesvaran and Choodamani has brought the Good News into areas that were once unreceptive to Christians.

Since tsunami relief began in India and into Bangladesh, more than 1,400 house churches have been planted, 12,000 people have accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior and 4,000 have been baptized.

With training and support from Elbridge, Paramesvaran has started two churches and vocational training centers in his community. Paramesvaran and Choodamani can see God’s faithfulness through all they have experienced. Some have compared their story to that of Job — a man who suffered great loss yet remained faithful to God.

“I read (in the Bible) that Job lost everything on the same day,” Paramesvaran says. “I used to wonder how it was possible. Now I understand that it is true because it happened to me.” “When we think about our children, now, I can see the grace of God,” he says. “God has given us a second life.”

*Name changed.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Shawn Hendricks is a writer for the International Mission Board. Hear more of Paramesvaran’s story at commissionstories.com/tsunami.)


Help tsunami victims

North Carolina Baptist Men has been sending teams to Sri Lanka since the tsunami hit in 2004. The partnership continues and still has needs to serve that hard-hit area. Most teams go to build simple homes.

The basic cost (airfare, lodging, meals, in-country transportation and insurance) is $2,100. Teams should have at least five people but no more than 15, and two members should have strong construction skills.

Visit www.baptistsonmission.org or contact (800) 395-5102, ext. 5599, to find out specifics. Baptist Men coordinates numerous other partnerships and mission trips.

Related stories
Orphans gain a new family
Compassion stirs Hindus
12/23/2009 2:33:00 PM by Shawn Hendricks, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



Orphans gain a new family

December 23 2009 by Baptist Press

TAMIL NADU, India — Life as Sangeedhas knew it was gone. Her home was destroyed. Her mother was dead.

Only 8 years old, Sangeedhas was one of thousands of children left homeless by the catastrophic tsunami that hit southern Asia in 2004.

BP photo

Sangeedhas prays with her family before breakfast. The girl’s mother, along with more than 225,000 others, died in the catastrophic tsunami that struck southern Asia in 2004. Since then, a Christian couple has adopted Sangeedhas and other tsunami orphans.


Most of these children were left vulnerable to poverty, child trafficking, prostitution and hopelessness. Sangeedhas’ father survived the tsunami, but he sent her away after he married her mother’s sister.

Her stepmother refused to care for a girl who was not her natural child — a situation that happens all too often in India to children of a widowed father.

“When his wife has died and (the widower) remarries, his previous children are usually discarded,” says Cole Elbridge*, an International Mission Board (IMB) representative. The stepmother does this because she “doesn’t want previous children to have inheritance when it comes time for that and dowries. She wants it simple for her children.”

Sangeedhas, however, was one of the fortunate ones. She was taken in by Paramesvaran and Choodamani, a Christian couple who lost their three children and seven other relatives in the tsunami.

The couple welcomed Sangeedhas and other orphaned children into their home. They provided for them with the help of Southern Baptist tsunami relief funds. Since the tsunami, the couple has provided a loving home for 20 orphaned children — six girls and 14 boys. Sangeedhas had been raised in a Hindu home.

After she came to live with the couple, she heard about Jesus Christ for the first time. “This changed my life,” she says.

“I also want to be a great blessing to others in the days to come, like my parents are now. “Jesus told me ... ‘Be here. Stay here. I will comfort you.’”

Today, all of the children have accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior. Before dawn each morning, the children gather for worship to sing praises to Jesus. With Bibles sprawled on the floor in front of them, they listen to the daily message. On one morning, Sangeedhas’ 14-year-old brother Saravan leads the service.

He tells his family to never give up praying “big prayers.” He speaks from experience. Saravan’s father died when he was 2 years old. Eventually his mother was unable to care for him.

The boy often cried himself to sleep after arriving at the couple’s home two years ago.

“Paramesvaran told me I could go to God’s feet and cry,” Saravan says. Now one of his life goals is to preach the gospel to a lost world and impact those who haven’t heard about Jesus. “Jesus is my mother and my father,” Saravan says. “(He) is everything to me.”

*Name changed.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Hendricks is a writer for the International Mission Board.)

Related story
Couple befriend orphan after tsunami
Compassion stirs Hindus

12/23/2009 2:29:00 PM by Baptist Press | with 0 comments



Compassion stirs Hindus

December 23 2009 by Shawn Hendricks, Baptist Press

TAMIL NADU, India — A charred body lies in the rubble of a church. Hindu extremists had blocked the doors and burned the church to the ground.

It’s a disturbing picture — one that International Mission Board (IMB) representative Cole Elbridge* has carried with him on his laptop computer. He uses the image to remind himself and others of the cost of sharing the gospel.

BP photo

Indian believers raise their hands in worship as they gather for a Sunday morning service near the eastern coast of India. As a result of 2004 tsunami relief and ministry work, this church grew from 12 members to more than 100.


In some areas of southern Asia, the risks of telling others about Jesus are great, even deadly. The message of Jesus Christ, however, is penetrating those barriers. Since the 2004 tsunami, Southern Baptists have found opportunities to meet both physical and spiritual needs of those who survived the disaster.

More than 4,000 people along the coast of India and into Bangladesh have professed faith in Christ and more than 1,400 churches have been started. But the danger that comes with being a Christian in some areas of India remains high.

One of Elbridge’s friends, Vikash*, knows those risks all too well. Vikash was a fisherman in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu more than a decade ago when he converted from Hinduism to Christianity.

When word got out about his decision, Hindu extremists stormed his house. They beat him and dragged him to a nearby pond where they tried to drown him.

“After all of the persecution,” Vikash recalls, “it’s by the mere grace of God that I’m standing here.”

Fearing for his family’s life, Vikash and his family fled to China. After the tsunami, he returned to his home along the coast to help the same people who had tried to kill him. Most of those hit hardest were in the fishing community.

“Their houses were gone,” Elbridge says. “Their money was gone. “They had been brought to their knees and broken. They were asking for help, and the help came from Christians.”

In the months following the tsunami, Elbridge remembers Vikash unexpectedly showing up one night — accompanied by men who once had wanted him dead but, since the tsunami, had sought him out for help. Vikash turned to Elbridge.

Through the help Elbridge was able to offer from Southern Baptists, more than 900 families in Vikash’s community received food, shelter, boats, fishing nets, boat motors and other supplies.

But that’s not all.

More than 100 people accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, 35 were baptized and about 12 house churches were started. Pravin* is one of those whose life was transformed by Christ.

BP photo

An International Mission Board representative lifts Indian believers up in prayer at a Sunday morning worship service along India’s eastern coast. Strong friendships were formed after the 2004 tsunami when this worker brought needed supplies to the people.


Growing up worshipping idols as a Hindu, Pravin says his life was empty.

“Before the tsunami I was struggling for life,” he says. “I was facing a lot of problems. I didn’t have a real peace.”

Witnessing the love of Christ expressed through tsunami relief helped turn his life around. On the day of the tsunami, six of Pravin’s nieces and nephews drowned. Pravin was looking for answers, and Christians got his attention by reaching out to his community.

“When I came to the church, I found a real peace, which I wanted,” he says. “I came to know the taste of Jesus Christ.”

Though Pravin still deals with threats and persecution, he describes himself as a “free man.”

‘Just beginning’
In another village — located down a long road, past watermelon fields, roaming cows and roadside temples — five generations of churches have started and local Christians regularly supply new believers with Bibles.

Before the tsunami, Christians were not welcome in that same village. At a Hindu temple that is the centerpiece of the community, villagers gather in the evening to dance as they worship their gods. But because of relief efforts here, tensions between the two groups have eased.

“This is a village where you started with zero believers,” Elbridge says. Because of Christians “coming and opening up relationships, you have believers here.”

“The work is not done,” he says. “It’s just beginning.”

Elbridge is one of more than 5,500 Southern Baptist representatives serving overseas, thanks to Southern Baptists’ support through the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.

*Name changed.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Hendricks is a writer for the International Mission Board.)


Related story

Couple befriend orphan after tsunami
Orphans gain a new family
12/23/2009 2:18:00 PM by Shawn Hendricks, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



Quick answers to some giving questions

December 23 2009 by Baptist Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The end of the year is drawing close, and churches are thinking about end-of-the-year giving campaigns. Ben Stroup, is a marketing coordinator in LifeWay’s Christian Stores division, but he calls himself the “chief broker of opportunity” because he helps pastors change the conversation from “What do we have to cut to survive?” to “What does God want us to do next?”

Stroup agreed to answer a few questions related to giving in churches and some of the trends he’s seen in 2009.

Q: In light of the current economic situation, is giving different this year than it has been in the past? For instance, are people giving more to benevolence, Good Samaritan, or other “good will” funds that go to individuals and social works than they are to the general church budget?

A:
Charitable giving, on a whole, is expected to be off by about 10 percent. People, on a whole, believe they have “less.” Whether that’s true, perception is reality. In times of failing economies, people tend to direct their available funds first to human services that address things like hunger and homelessness because the need appears more pressing and the result seems more tangible. Within the life of the church, there is a shift taking place that threatens “general giving” as we know it. The shift was already taking place; the economy simply accelerated it. I believe it stems from a lack of trust.

The traditional message is “You give to God, and the church will decide what to do with it.” Where this fails is that the church often provides nothing in the way of a quantified report showing the measurable ministry impact that resulted from its spending.

Contrast this to many other nonprofits that do this well. We tend to measure churches by how well they stay within their budgets, not whether they achieve results like we might be more inclined to do with businesses.

Thus, the level of trust needed to capture the heart of the giver is eroded.

People want to be involved in co-creating an “investment portfolio” that defines what Kingdom ventures will be funded with the resources God has entrusted to us and provides a metric by which to judge the effectiveness or return on investment. If the church does not adapt to this shift, it risks losing the dollar of the person in the pew who may decide to fund another organization’s budget.

Q: What are churches doing to encourage people to continue to give in spite of the difficult economic times for many members?

A:
Sermon series. Small group or Sunday school studies. Classes related to personal money management. Encouraging faithful giving through personal testimonies and specific, direct challenges. Ministering to high-capacity givers. Use of systematic giving tools such as online giving, offering envelopes, contribution statements and special appeals.

These are just a few of the strategies churches employ to ensure that funding levels exist to accomplish the ministry. The church leader has to talk about it and must make “the ask.” If he doesn’t, the local hospital or university will.

Chances are those places already have. 

The churches that are thriving in today’s economic climate are those casting a vision that is larger than life, connecting with the passion of the people in the pews, and helping those people accomplish something they couldn’t do on their own. People tend to give to organizations that embody their core values and are staffed with leaders they know, like and trust. 

What the economy did to many churches was expose a lack of conversation and strategic disciple-making efforts in the areas of stewardship and generosity.

Q: What are some ways churches (and/or parents) can help establish habits of giving among younger generations?

A:
There are three ways parents and church leaders can influence the next generation in the area of giving. One, talk about it. It needs to come from the pulpit, church teachers and parents. If the church is silent, then the only source shaping the mind and habits of the next generation is the culture. Two, practice it. This is especially true for parents in how they influence their children. Your children need to hear you talk about why you give, and they need to see you do it. It reinforces what you are telling them. Three, utilize some type of visual participation. Place a penny jar in a high traffic area in the home, use offering envelopes, whatever. Children, especially younger children, are not usually abstract in their thinking.

Any visual representation — something they can touch, feel or do — opens their minds and further explains what you are saying and, hopefully, doing. As children become youth, the opportunity arises to talk about things like biblical money management, so they can see God has a plan for 100 percent of the time, talent and treasure he has given us – not just a 10 percent tax.

Q: Why is giving important in the life of a Christian? 

A:
Giving is an outward sign of an inward commitment. Thus, a giving problem is really a spiritual problem. “Passing the plate” describes the average American Christian’s view toward giving as “discretionary obligation.”

We hear from the pulpit and read in our Bibles that “Jesus is Lord,” but we are reluctant to give up the rights to what we think we possess. I think it goes even further than that. Built into the ethos of America is the “rags to riches” story telling us we can become anything we want if we are willing to work for it. This poses a problem for Christians who subscribe to this idea, in that when they do achieve, they believe they have ownership of what they have achieved.

This is in stark contrast to the profession and practice of the Lordship of Christ. Church leaders have the responsibility to cultivate a generous spirit in the lives of the people they serve by moving them along the spiritual continuum from “all that I have, am and will ever become is mine, and I’ll decide what God gets” to “all that I have, am and will ever become is a gift from God, to be invested into building the Kingdom.” Giving is important because it holds us accountable in the practice of what we profess to believe.

Q: Is the method that people use to give changing? Is the offering plate still the primary way people give or are you noticing a rise in online giving to churches?

A:
Online giving is growing faster than any other channel. While it is the fastest growing channel, people who gave online only represented 9 percent of all charitable donors, which represented 11 percent of total charitable giving in 2008.

It is clear that technology and the acceptance of technology is driving the use and practice of online giving. Further, the regularity of church attendance and the way people are paid is shifting. Thus, the idea that we can fund our churches through weekly tithes and offerings is quickly fading as a singular strategy to achieve sustainable funding.

Many churches are looking for alternative or supplemental ways to fund the ministry God has called them to accomplish.

Q: What should people know about giving and taxes?

A:
Well, I’m not a tax adviser, but I do know that all donations must be received by Dec. 31 to be deductible from the current year’s tax liability. Online giving helps keep the “window of giving opportunity” open as long as possible, allowing the member to make the donation even if no one is available to receive the donation on Dec. 31.

I encourage churches to put a notice on their Web sites with a link to the place members may donate online. That information should also be included in printed publications such as bulletins, newsletters, etc.

December is a big month for giving in most churches, especially those ministering to a high-net worth demographic as many of those givers are receiving year-end bonuses, quarterly dividends, commissions, etc. 

For more information about stewardship, visit Stroup’s blog at churchgivingmatters.com.
12/23/2009 2:12:00 PM by Baptist Press | with 0 comments



70 percent of nations face religious restrictions

December 23 2009 by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service

WASHINGTON — About one-third of the countries in the world have high restrictions on religion, exposing almost 70 percent of the globe’s population to limitations on their faith, new research shows.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life based its analysis, released Dec. 16, on 16 sources of information, including reports from the U.S. State Department and human rights groups as well as national constitutions.

Overall, one-third of the countries were found to have high or very high restrictions on religion as a result of government rules or hostile acts by individuals and groups. Religious minorities often feel the brunt of hostilities because they are perceived as a threat to the culture, politics or economy of a country’s majority population, the 72-page report said.

“The highest overall levels of restrictions are found in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran, where both the government and society at large impose numerous limits on religious beliefs and practices,” the Pew Forum concluded.

In some countries, such as China and Vietnam, government restrictions on religion were high, compared to moderate or low social hostilities. In contrast, nations such as Bangladesh and Nigeria had moderate level of government restrictions but ranked high in social hostilities. Three-quarters of the countries affirm religious freedom in their laws or constitutions, and an additional 20 percent protect some religious practices.

But researchers found that about a quarter of the governments “fully respected” the religious rights included in their laws. The findings were based on an investigation of 198 countries and territories, which represent 99.5 percent of the world’s population, from 2006 to 2008.  
12/23/2009 2:10:00 PM by Adelle M. Banks, Religion News Service | with 0 comments



Bible tells truth about Christ's birth

December 23 2009 by Kelly Shrout

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--The Gospel of John poetically declares, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

 

"The Word" refers to the Son, who since eternity past has lived in heaven. The Word for a brief 33 years also "tabernacled" among us.

 

John explains, "The Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We observed His glory, the glory as the One and Only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth."

 

During the Christmas season, Christians around the world read the Gospel narrative recounting how Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem where Christ, the Messiah, was born in a humble stable some 2,000 years ago.

 

Christians accept, by faith, the truths recorded in the birth account. Jeremy Howard, editor of Bibles and reference books for the B&H Publishing Group of LifeWay Christian Resources and Ph.D. graduate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, points to many reasons Christians can be sure the Christmas story is true.

 

CHRIST & THE OLD TESTAMENT

 

The Old Testament contains verses that point directly to Christ's virgin birth, Howard noted.

 

The strongest evidence comes from Isaiah 7-9: The Immanuel prophecy begins in Isaiah 7:14 when the Lord speaks to Ahaz through Isaiah and says, "Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign; The virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel."

 

Micah 5:2 also points to Christ's birth, Howard continued. The verse reads, "Bethlehem Ephrathah, you are small among the clans of Judah; One will come from you to be ruler over Israel for Me. His origin is from antiquity, from eternity."

 

"God is speaking about His future plans to bring peace and righteous rule to His people," Howard said. "This is how He's going to do it: A ruler is going to come from Bethlehem. What is peculiar about this verse is that it says, 'His origin is from antiquity, from eternity.' Clearly, this birth is pointing beyond the natural. It extends to the supernatural. The evidence shows that the Messiah will be more than a mere man."

 

MESSIANIC EXPECTATIONS

 

Christ's birth was not just a random event, Howard said; in fact, first-century Jews were looking for Messiah, literally "the anointed one."

 

"We see evidences of the expectation of Christ in several extra-biblical resources," Howard said. The first evidence is the Dead Sea Scrolls, documents that originated about 100 B.C. "Throughout the Dead Sea Scrolls, you see references to the coming Messiah," Howard said.

 

The second set of evidence, Howard said, comes from the writings of Josephus and Philo, first-century scholars who discuss the expectation of Messiah.

 

Finally, the rabbinic literature from the second century A.D. onward reveals that Jews were waiting for Messiah.

 

"The first-century Jews mostly seem to be awaiting a political figure," Howard said. "The 400 years before Christ's birth, Israel was a subjected nation, so Jews were looking for a political kingdom."

 

By and large, Jesus did not fulfill the expectations of the Jewish people, Howard said. "Mostly, they had the wrong expectations," he said. "We see that even the disciples did not have a clear perception of Jesus. They struggled when Jesus accepted the faith of Gentiles and associated with sinners. These were expectations that confused the disciples and onlookers."

 

CHRIST & THE NEW TESTAMENT

 

The early date of the Gospels and the eyewitnesses to the events of Jesus are both key to validating the birth narrative, Howard said.

 

"We know that the Book of Mark was written 20 years after the ascension of Christ, and Luke might have followed about 10 years later," Howard said. "So 30 years from the time Christ was crucified, resurrected and ascended to heaven we have at least two of the Gospels written and starting to circulate. That puts the disciples at about 60 years of age, assuming they were contemporary with Jesus."

 

Living and intact memory, Howard explained, confirms the validity of the birth account.

 

"Intact memory means that from the time Jesus ascended into heaven, guys such as Matthew, Mark, Luke and Peter devoted themselves to spreading the message of Christ," Howard said. "They did not have the opportunity to forget what happened. They told the stories day in and day out."

 

Living memory refers to the eyewitnesses of the events of Christ.

 

"If the Gospel writers tried to fabricate the stories of Christ, there would have been many eyewitnesses who would have called them into account," Howard said. "The fact that the Gospels were penned and helped spread Christianity so quickly is proof that the writers were telling the truth."

 

CHRIST & THE 21ST CENTURY

 

Faith is substantial and sustainable, Howard said, concerning the reliability of the birth narrative.

 

"I've spent many years studying Scripture and asking the hard questions of the faith," he said. "What I've discovered, time after time and case after case, is that there is no criticism, no fact or reality that calls into question what we believe. We stand firmly on the Word of God. It has survived many criticisms for many centuries and in this day and age, I think more than ever before, we are equipped with solid answers for the challenging questions that come against us."


 

Kelly Shrout is the employee communications editor at LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

12/23/2009 8:33:00 AM by Kelly Shrout | with 0 comments



Boo! God scares away ghosts, draws people in

December 17 2009 by Tess Rivers, Baptist Press

KBAL TAOL, Cambodia — David* never imagined he’d use ghosts as a way to share the gospel.

A Christian worker in Cambodia, David was surveying Vietnamese floating villages on Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and needed a boat and driver. Andrew,* whom David had led to Christ 18 months earlier, agreed to take the job.

It was on one of these survey trips to the village of Kbal Taol that David met Tim.* The two began to talk of spiritual things, and David gave Tim a Bible. After several more visits, Tim invited David and Andrew to dinner in his home. Before they arrived, Andrew gave David some advice.

“The way you talk about God is good, but it would be better to start differently,” Andrew said.

“How should I start?” David asked.

“You need to talk about ghosts,” he replied.

“Ghosts? Why ghosts?”

“Because,” Andrew explained, “the people here are afraid of ghosts. They need to know that this Creator God is more powerful than ghosts.”

IMB photo

Young boys, all recent believers, visit on top of a boat while the sun sets in the background on Tonle Sap Lake, near Siem Reap, Cambodia.


The close-knit community of Kbal Taol is home to approximately 350 Vietnamese families and 450 Khmer (Cambodian) families. It is two hours by boat from the nearest town — Siem Reap in northern Cambodia. Although some residents may claim Buddhism as the predominant religion, most live in fear of spirits who they believe can cause them harm.

It is difficult for Vietnamese to get land rights in Cambodia, so most choose to live on the water. Since the majority of the men are fishermen, living on the water means they are closer to their work. They go out at night to drop their nets and collect them early the next morning. The women spend their days harvesting fish from the nets.

The fish then are taken to Siem Reap to sell.

“The Vietnamese who live on the water are different from those who live on the land,” David explained. “They are more community and family oriented. If a mother dies in childbirth, the entire community will take care of the baby. They will share their food with each other when food is scarce.”

The children attend school, which Tim teaches, or help with fishing during peak season. Instead of riding their bicycle to visit a neighborhood friend, children as young as 6 or 7 hop in a boat and paddle next door or down the “street” to see their friends.

Until 2008, no one in this village had ever heard the story of Jesus.

But that changed the night David and Andrew arrived at Tim’s house for dinner.

Tim had invited a few neighbors to join them, including Andrew’s father, who lived next door.

After dinner, the talk turned to spiritual things. Tim had begun reading the Bible David gave him and had many questions.

“Tim and I had been talking for about three hours, and the other men were falling asleep,” David said. “Then about 9 o’clock Andrew pulled me aside.”

“Now is the time to talk about ghosts,” Andrew told him.

So David began a discussion about ghosts by sharing the story of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke 16. He explained that ghosts are not spirits of the dead but rather fallen angels and evil spirits sent out from Satan.

“The men woke up,” David laughed. “(Now) they were paying close attention.”

At midnight, however, the visitors left to get some sleep before their early morning fishing trip. But Tim still had questions.

Finally, Tim asked David, “Now, tell me how someone can become a child of God.”

David explained the gospel, and Tim prayed to receive Christ. It was 3 a.m.

“That is the longest visitation I’ve ever had,” David said with a smile.

Tim says life is better since he trusted in Christ. “I (still) teach children … (but now) every day I pray and ask God to help me. …”

*Names changed 

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Rivers is a writer for IMB. Every penny given to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering is used to support more than 5,600 Southern Baptist missionaries as they share the gospel overseas. This year’s offering goal is $175 million. The 2009 Lottie Moon offering theme is “Who’s Missing, Whose Mission?”)
12/17/2009 11:10:00 AM by Tess Rivers, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



Clergy unite on message: Thou Shalt Be Civil

December 17 2009 by Bruce Nolan, Religion News Service

NEW ORLEANS — It’s gotten ugly out there in the public square — on television, at public meetings, on the Internet.

Whether it’s health care reform specifically, or politics generally, people seem to demonize each other, shout each other down and gleefully circulate vicious e-mail messages distorting the other side.

So much so that Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy here recently found common ground about one, clear thing. They’ve decided to give their congregations a message: Get ahold of yourself!

“The whole atmosphere has been getting just nasty,” said Rabbi Robert Loewy of Congregation Gates of Prayer. “We’re not going to change the world, but we’ve decided we need to raise people’s awareness — that this is just not right. It’s wrong.”

A standing group of about two dozen New Orleans-area clergy recently drafted and began circulating a “Faith Statement on Public Discourse.” It urges members of their congregations and the public to show basic respect to those with whom they disagree.

Some of the two dozen or so priests, ministers, rabbis and an imam have agreed to raise the admonition from their pulpits — and some, like Loewy, already have.

At his congregation’s Yom Kippur service earlier this fall, he pronounced himself “disgusted” with the “obnoxiously partisan” tone of the national debate around health care reform.

Some clergy have handed it over to their church communication networks, and the civility statement has begun circulating among regional Episcopal and United Church of Christ clergy. Copies are going to local, state and federal politicians urging them, too, to keep a civil tongue.

The statement is founded on the shared Christian, Jewish and Islamic premise that “since we regard all human beings as God’s children ... we regard an offense against our neighbor as an offense to God.”

“Violence begets violence,” the statement says, “in speech and in action.”

It calls on people to display respect for those with whom they disagree; to debate issues, not demonize opponents; to stop misrepresenting opponents’ views; and to stop circulating e-mail messages that “demonize or humiliate persons or groups.”

The initiative comes from an interfaith group that was born last year in response to hateful intolerance, when somebody burned “KKK” into the lawn of a black couple in a predominantly white neighborhood in suburban Metairie.

A little more than a year later, the group has taken stock of the general level of anger in the public arena.

The new effort was triggered when a relatively new member, Ginger Taylor, interim pastor of Good Shepherd United Church of Christ, came to a clergy meeting, having attended a raucous town hall meeting on health care reform sponsored by Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

“To say they were a bunch of wing nuts would be absolutely inaccurate. They’re the people who go to church, who mow each others’ lawns when they’re sick, who bring a pot of soup over,” Taylor said.

But that evening, she said, they were shouting at each other and so distorting each others’ ideas the event amounted to “bumper sticker discourse.”

Soon after, Omar Suleiman, the imam of a Metairie mosque, Masjid Abu Bakr al Siddiq, told fellow clergy that local Muslims changed venues for a public celebration when they learned that a gun show also was booked into the facility at the same time.

Coming on the heels of the massacre at Fort Hood — allegedly at the hands of a Muslim gunman, Maj. Nidal Hasan — Suleiman said his community has become wary of public reaction, especially the women.

“We’re all on edge. We know when something like this happens, there’s usually some kind of backlash,” Suleiman said.

In that kind of climate, spectators’ passiveness can be seen as implicit consent, so some clergy said the civility resolution was all the more necessary.

“Silence allows more and more incivility to develop. It allows people to develop a culture of incivility, and as clergy people we should make some kind of statement,” said Episcopal Deacon Priscilla Maumus, who drafted the one-page document. “What we’re hoping is it’ll get conversations started. “Not about what your opinion is, or what mine is, but that we both have an opinion, and if we disagree we’ll be civil. Not because we’re polite, but because as people of faith, we’re called on to do that.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Nolan writes for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.)  
 
12/17/2009 11:07:00 AM by Bruce Nolan, Religion News Service | with 2 comments



40,000 Vietnamese gather for Christmas

December 16 2009 by Baptist Press/Compass Direct News

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Christian sources in Vietnam report that some 40,000 people gathered in a hastily constructed venue in Ho Chi Minh City to worship God, celebrate Christmas and hear a gospel message on Dec. 11 — an event of unprecedented magnitude.

A popular Vietnamese Christian website and other reports indicated up to 8,000 people indicated a desire to follow Christ in response to the gospel message, Compass Direct News reported Dec. 14.

For the last two years, authorities surprisingly granted permission to unregistered house churches in Ho Chi Minh City to hold public Christmas rallies, and last year more than 10,000 people participated in one in Tao Dan Stadium, Compass reported.

This year house church leaders approached the government in October and asked for a sports stadium seating 30,000. Authorities denied the request but offered a sports venue holding only 3,000, located 13 kilometers (eight miles) out of the city, Compass reported. This was unacceptable to the organizers, who pressed for another stadium for about 15,000 in the city, and officials gave a verbal promise that they could have it.

The verbal promise did not translate into the written permission that is critical in the country, Compass reported, noting that church leaders say such promises are empty until they we have the permission paper in hand. However, Christian leaders believed that planning for the event had to proceed without permission and sent out invitations far and wide — only to have authorities deny the stadium they had promised.

Led by pastor Ho Tan Khoa, chairman of a large fellowship of house church organizations, organizers were forced to look for alternatives and found a large open field in the Go Vap district of the city. When permission still was not granted five days before the scheduled event, Compass reported that several church leaders literally camped for three days outside city hall, pressing for an answer.

In Ho Chi Minh City, a choir of Vietnamese believers fills a makeshift stage at the outset of a public Christmas worship service led by unregistered churches and attended by an estimated 40,000 people.


Authorities, who often work to sabotage united action among Christians, tried urgently to find ways to talk the leaders out of going ahead, promising future concessions if they would cancel the event, Compass reported. But organizers stood firm, ultimately telling the deputy mayor that refusal to grant permission at that point would have far-ranging negative ramifications in Vietnam as well as internationally.

Finally, at the close of business Dec. 9, just 48 hours before the event, officials granted permission that had required clearance all the way to Hanoi. But the permission was only for 3,000 people, and many more had been invited.

Organizers had less than two days to turn a vacant field into something that would accommodate a stadium-size crowd. According to Compass, they had to bring in ample electricity, construct a giant stage, rent 20,000 chairs and set up the sound and lighting. The extremely short time frame caused contractors to double the prices they would have charged with ample time.

Organizers also rented hundreds of buses to bring Christians and their non-Christian friends from provinces near the city. Thousands of students sacrificed classes to help with last-minute preparations and to join the celebration, Compass reported.

Just after noon on Friday, Dec. 11, word came that police had stopped busses carrying 300 Steing minority people from the west to the event scheduled for that evening. Organizers, fearing all buses would be stopped, put out an emergency worldwide prayer request.

Christian sources told Compass that authorities either did not or could not stop buses from other directions, and that by evening the venue became the biggest “bus station” in all of Vietnam. By 6 p.m. the venue had filled to capacity, and at least 2,000 had to be turned away.

Christians described the event, called “With Our Whole Hearts,” in superlative terms, Compass reported. For house churches, large gatherings are both very rare and very special, and for many this was their first glimpse of the strength of Vietnam’s growing Christian movement. Thousands of Christians joined a choir of more 1,000 singers in joyful praise, Compass reported.

Sources said the main speaker, Duong Thanh Lam, head of the Assemblies of God house churches, preached with anointing and people responding to his gospel invitation poured to the front of the stage “like a waterfall.” With space in front of the stage insufficient, the sources said, many others in their seats also indicated their desire to receive Christ.

Organizers along with many participants were overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude as the event closed, Compass reported. People spontaneously hugged each other and cried, “Lord, bring revival to all of Vietnam!” Other comments included “Beyond our fondest imagination” and “Nothing could stop the hand of the Lord.”

The event raised more than $3,280 for a charity helping needy children. People were quite surprised to read a positive article on the event in the state-controlled press, which often vilifies Christians.

Compass reported that house churches in the north were hopeful that they could hold a similar event. Organizers in Hanoi have heard encouraging reports that they will get permission to use the national My Dinh sports stadium for a Christmas celebration, though they do not have it in hand. Sources said they have sent out invitations across a broad area to an event scheduled for Dec. 20.

The Dec. 11 gathering in Ho Chi Minh City also made history in that it was streamed live on the Vietnamese web site www.hoithanh.com and viewed by thousands in Vietnam and by Vietnamese people around the world.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Compass Direct News, based in Santa Ana, Calif., provides reports on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith. Used by permission.)
12/16/2009 8:50:00 AM by Baptist Press/Compass Direct News | with 0 comments



Most American pastors: Islam is ‘dangerous’

December 16 2009 by Baptist Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Two-thirds of Protestant pastors believe Islam is a dangerous religion, according to survey results released by LifeWay Research in December. The survey, however, did not explore the issues behind their concern.

While opinions vary widely based on factors such as denominational affiliation and political ideology, the survey of more than 1,000 Protestant pastors found 45 percent strongly agree with the statement “I believe Islam is a dangerous religion,” and 21 percent agree somewhat.

Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, said American Protestant pastors’ agreement that Islam is dangerous could speak to various issues, however, “in one sense, Protestant pastors are a competing religion, so we should not be completely surprised by their concerns about Islam.”

Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research, said LifeWay Research decided to ask the question after European headlines used the phrase “dangerous religion” to describe results drawn from a 2008 study across 21 European countries that found an “overwhelming majority” of people believe immigration from predominantly Muslim countries poses a threat to Europeans’ traditional way of life.

“It appears that Protestant pastors in America are overwhelmingly willing to use that phrase and cite Islam as a ‘dangerous religion,’” McConnell said.

Additionally, a study by the Pew Research Center found that 38 percent of all Americans say Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions. But studies also indicate a need for interaction. For example, data from the Gallup Muslim-West Dialogue Index shows that when given the option of labeling greater interaction between Muslim and Western worlds a threat or a benefit, 70 percent of Americans call it a benefit. 

“It’s important to note,” Stetzer said, “our survey asked whether pastors viewed Islam as ‘dangerous,’ but that does not necessarily mean ‘violent.’ ‘Dangerous’ can be defined in a variety of ways, including from the perspective of spiritual influence. Regardless of the definition, the numbers tell us that Protestant pastors are concerned.”

The LifeWay Research study found six statistically significant differences in the belief about Islam statement among pastors:
  • Mainline denomination pastors are less likely than evangelicals to say Islam is “a dangerous religion.” While 77 percent of evangelical pastors either somewhat or strongly agree Islam is dangerous, only 44 percent of mainline pastors feel the same way, and 38 percent strongly disagree.
  • More educated pastors are less likely to agree than those with less education. While 64 percent of pastors with a bachelor’s degree or less strongly agree Islam is dangerous, only 37 percent with a master’s degree or more feel the same way, and 25 percent of those strongly disagree.
  • The majority of pastors affiliated with the Democratic Party are more likely to strongly disagree than Republicans or Independents. While 61 percent of Republicans and 40 percent of Independents strongly agree Islam is dangerous, only 16 percent of Democrats feel the same way, and 52 percent of Democrats strongly disagree.
  • Older pastors are more likely to strongly agree than any other age group. While overall agreement differs little by age, 58 percent of pastors age 65 and older strongly agree about the danger of Islam, contrasted with 42 percent of pastors ages 50-64, and 44 percent of pastors younger than 50.
  • Rural and smaller city pastors are more likely to agree than pastors in large cities and suburbs. A full 51 percent of rural pastors and 47 percent of small-city pastors agree that Islam is dangerous, while 37 percent of suburban pastors and 39 percent of large-city pastors feel the same way.
  • Politically conservative pastors stood in starkest contrast with politically moderate and liberal pastors. Among very conservative pastors, 78 percent strongly agree about the danger of Islam and 55 percent of conservative pastors feel the same way, contrasted with 69 percent of liberal or very liberal pastors and 38 percent of moderates who strongly disagree.
The Pew study, conducted in August, asked more than 2,000 adults in the United States whether Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other faiths. While 38 percent said yes, views on the subject have fluctuated in recent years. Similar Pew studies found 25 percent answered yes in 2002, 36 percent in 2005 and 45 percent in 2007.

The Gallup study was commissioned for the World Economic Forum, and released as “Islam and the West: Annual Report on the State of Dialogue.”          
12/16/2009 8:47:00 AM by Baptist Press | with 5 comments



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