December 2012

Vietnam vet treasures church’s Christmas card

December 28 2012 by Joe Westbury, Baptist Press

COLEMAN, Ga. – It was a Christmas season that the 18-year-old Marine would rather not experience. Slogging through the mud in the drizzling, never-ending rain was beginning to wear on the enlisted man’s spirit.

Sleeping on the ground without a bath for months with a stubbly beard growing from not shaving in the winter cold was not his idea of a holiday. He had fond recent memories of Christmas in Greenville, S.C., still fresh from his boyhood days. His grandmother’s Christmas ham and visits with family and friends are what he missed the most.

There would be none of that this year. In fact, he was grateful just to be alive.

What made it worse was being part of a squadron chosen to provide security for the annual USO Christmas program. It just didn’t seem fair.

While thousands enjoyed plenty of Christmas cheer and entertainment, he and his buddies silently guarded a nearly 12-mile arc around Da Nang in South Vietnam.

Their mission was crucial to the enjoyment of fellow soldiers. Several thousand troops enjoying a holiday celebration would be an easy target for North Vietnamese troops slipping through the jungles.

For the teenage soldier, this day was just another in a string of cold, overcast winter days. The day is a memory now. A story he tells. For this telling, he prefers to be known only by his first name, Jack

“We were angry, hungry, wet and scared most of the time,” he said. “Our job was to stay alert and patrol to keep the enemy from infiltrating the area and disrupting the show. Needless to say, we weren’t very happy.”

Jack said he and his fellow soldiers spent most of their time “griping, as young Marines are prone to do, about our bad luck. It had rained for what seemed like weeks and was constantly low overcast.”

Dark and gray and miserable. Not an ideal Christmas. Certainly not when it was going to be his first Christmas away from home.
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Photo courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Two battle-weary Leathernecks of the 26th Marine Regiment take a break in the rain during Operation Bold Mariner in Vietnam in 1969. It was in these conditions a year later that a young man named Jack would receive a Christmas card from a Southern Baptist church.


Stop the story there for a minute and back up about six weeks to mid-November. Thanksgiving in South Georgia is just around the corner, the fall cotton and peanut harvests are over, and thoughts are turning to turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie.

One Saturday evening a light switch is turned on, signaling someone has arrived at a small country church outside of Coleman, sandwiched between Albany and Alabama.

A few pickup trucks and an occasional car pull onto the gravel parking lot of Vilulah Baptist Church, their tires crunching under the gravel.

A small group of the church’s Brotherhood, possibly as many as 14, begin to gather at the white frame church for their monthly meeting. This year the men would spend about an hour writing personal notes on cards that would be distributed to soldiers – total strangers – serving in a controversial war on the other side of the world.

Vilulah at the time was 107 years old and the backbone of the farming community. Founded in 1867 in a brush arbor – just two years after the Civil War – it had weathered many national crises of war and economic hard times. Now in 1970, as the nation struggled to make sense of a war that seemingly had no end, the Brotherhood wanted to be part of the healing that must come and voice its support for those serving in the rice paddies and jungles.

Though no list exists of those who joined the group that night, it likely included Jack Torbert, J.T. Bruner, J.R. Johnson, Jimmy Agan, Marcus Ragan, Herbert Blackburn and others who were active in the fellowship. The notes they wrote were short and to the point but conveyed the essence of brotherly love and prayerful support.

In neat cursive handwriting, the cards, after a brief note, were signed simply “Brotherhood, Vilulah Baptist Church, Coleman, Georgia.” Sealed in their individual envelopes marked “A Fellow American, Vietnam Mail Call,” the cards were mailed the next morning to a central processing center that would forward the notes to Southeast Asia.

As far as is known, there was never any response from those who received the cards, but that wasn’t expected. In the middle of a war, the purpose was simply to communicate a note of love and understanding to a stranger who struggled to stay alive one more day.

Now, fast-forward six weeks ahead to that gray scene that was void of most color, certainly of any Christmas cheer.

“The overcast was so low that resupply by helicopter was always a problem,” Jack said.

But on this particular day the weather changed slightly and the thump-thump-thump of a chopper’s rotor blades signaled the arrival of supplies. It may not have been Santa Claus coming from the sky, but the scene of the massive dual rotor CH-46 noisily descending was just as welcomed.

“Anyhow, on Christmas Day of 1970 the weather improved enough for the helicopter to fly and they brought us ammo, water, food and mail. My platoon sergeant came around later in the day and gave each of us a card inside an envelope.”

Jack read the card, thought it was a nice gesture, then stuffed it in his pocket and went back on patrol. However, in the coming days as he had a moment he found himself pulling the card out, looking at the cover of the three wise men and the Christmas star and reading the note once again.

The young soldier already was a believer and a member of a Southern Baptist church in South Carolina, so he knew about the Brotherhood organization. What he didn’t expect was to be on the receiving end of one of its ministries.

The months dragged on and Jack’s tour of duty finally ended. He stayed in the Marines on active duty after his Vietnam tour and retired in 1990. He never forgot that small church in South Georgia and the generosity of those men who took the time to send a stranger a Christmas card.

Earlier this year, around the time when the cotton harvest was beginning to start, Vilulah pastor David Murphy found a letter from a stranger in the church mailbox addressed simply, “Pastor, Vilulah Baptist Church” and the church address. In neat black ink Jack detailed his encounter with the church Brotherhood four decades earlier and expressed his appreciation.

“I just wanted you to know how much that [card] meant to me to receive it. It humbled me to think that someone took the time to write that short note and to pray for my safety,” Jack, now a resident of Easley, S.C., wrote.

“I carried that card with me everywhere I have ever been and it remains one of my most prized possessions. I have looked at it many times over the years.”

Then he closed the letter simply, “I expect the good folks that wrote the card are no longer with you. If they are, please thank them for me and tell them they made a difference in this Marine’s life.”

The war has long been over but Jack continues to cherish the card. While he did send a copy to the church, he prefers to keep the original for fear of it being lost.

“It is one of the few mementos of the war that I have kept,” he said in his soft-spoken manner.

The lesson, Jack says after receiving that Christmas gift 42 years ago, “is that people continue to do those kind of things. You never know where those cards will go or the lives they will change.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE ­– Joe Westbury is managing editor of The Christian Index, newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention.)
12/28/2012 1:08:00 PM by Joe Westbury, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



School shootings & spiritual warfare

December 27 2012 by Russell Moore, Baptist Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The nation is watching, with horror and disgust, news reports out of Connecticut of a horrific act of violence against an elementary school filled with defenseless children.

While every act of murder ought to provoke outrage, there’s something especially condemnable about the murder of children. I think there’s a reason for that.

In the hours after the shooting, Jewish political and cultural commentator John Podhoretz called attention to a concept most Americans don’t like to think about at Christmastime, if ever: hell.

Podhoretz noted the heightened iniquity of child sacrifice in the Hebrew Scriptures’ denunciation of the god Moloch. Moloch, of course, was a blood-thirsty deity who demanded his followers to pour out the lives of their children. The valley of this atrocity was called Gehenna. Jesus pointed to Gehenna when he told us about hell.

Throughout the history of the universe, evil has manifested a dark form of violence specifically toward children. Not only did the Canaanite nations demand the blood of babies, but the Bible shows where at points of redemptive crisis, the powers of evil have lashed out at children.

Pharaoh saw God’s blessing of Israelite children as a curse and demanded they be snuffed out by the power of his armed thugs. And, of course, the Christmas narrative we read together this time of year is overshadowed by an act of horrific mass murder of children. King Herod, seeing his throne threatened, demands the slaughter of innocent children.

Jesus was not born into a gauzy, sentimental winter wonderland of sweetly-singing angels and cute reindeer nuzzling one another at the side of his manger. He was born into a war zone. And at the very rumor of His coming, Herod vowed to see Him dead, right along with thousands of His brothers. History in Bethlehem, as before and as now, is riddled with the bodies of murdered children.

Why?

There are more factors at work here than just impersonal psychology and sociology. “The course of this world,” we’re told, is driven along by “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2). And behind all of that is a bloody skirmish.

Satan is, Jesus tells us, a “murderer from the beginning” because he hates life itself. And he hates the life of children, particularly, because they picture something true about Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus showed His disciple John that behind the particulars of history there’s another, darker, story going on. Jesus showed the picture of a woman giving birth to a child, with a dragon crouching before her to devour the baby (Revelation 12:4). When the woman and her child escaped, the dragon “became furious with the woman and went out to make war on the rest of her offspring” (Revelation 12:17), and has done so ever since.

Satan hates children because he hates Jesus. When evil destroys “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40, 45), the most vulnerable among us, it destroys a picture of Jesus Himself, of the child delivered by the woman who crushes the head of our reptilian overlord (Genesis 3:15). The demonic powers know that the human race is saved, and they’re vanquished, by a child born of woman (Galatians 4:4; 1 Timothy 2:15). And so they hate the children who bear His nature.

Violence against children is also peculiarly satanic because it destroys the very picture of newness of life and dependent trust that characterizes life in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 18:4). Children are a blessing, and that enrages the horrifying nature of those who seek only to kill and to destroy (John 10:10).

The satanic powers want the kingdoms of the universe, and a child uproots their reign.

Let’s not offer pat, easy answers to the grieving parents and communities in Connecticut. We don’t fully understand the mystery of iniquity. We don’t know why God didn’t stop this from happening. But we do know what this act is: It’s satanic, and we should say so.

Let’s grieve for the innocent. Let’s demand justice for the guilty. And let’s rage against the Reptile behind it all.

As we do so, let’s remember that Bethlehem was an act of war. Let’s remember that the One born there is a prince of peace who will crush the skull of the ancient murderer of Eden. Let’s pray for the Second Coming of Mary’s son. And, as we sing our Christmas carols, let's look into the slitted eyes of Satan as we promise him the threat of his coming crushed skull.

The mystery of evil is a declaration of war on the peace of God's creation. The war goes on, but not for long. And sometimes the most warlike thing we can say, in an inhuman murderous age like this one, is “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Russell D. Moore is dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.)
12/27/2012 1:31:51 PM by Russell Moore, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



‘Les Mis’ is year’s ‘most gut–wrenching, yet profound film’

December 21 2012 by Phil Boatwright, Baptist Press

KANSAS CITY, Kan. –– Before I saw the press screening for the film adaptation of the stage musical “Les Miserables,” I read two articles that tied the production together with the politically provocative Wall Street occupiers. Victor Hugo’s central story revolves around the morality tale of an escaped prisoner named Jean Valjean, who undergoes a life–altering experience while the obsessive Inspector Javert hunts him down. But these journalists exploited the political and social revolt, which only served as a backdrop to the main story. Like the film’s antagonist, they missed the point of Les Miserables’ biblical parable.

I have read Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Both reveal the evil that men can do to one another, but both also offer an insightful pathway to salvation, both spiritually and socially.

First things first: How’s the film? The highly anticipated movie opens Christmas Day, and in my view, it is the best film of the year.

Mr. Hugo’s 1,200–page novel addresses some of the most inspiring subjects ever placed on paper: Man can find redemption and he can replace anger and fear with compassion and faith. The most powerful component of the book, the plays and past movie versions has always been Jean Valjean’s conversion once he experienced God’s mercy. Great news –– this same spiritual truth remains intact in this new, rather extraordinary rendition.

The bedeviled Inspector Javert lives by the letter of the law in hope of salvation, whereas Jean Valjean has been transformed by mercy shown him and lives the rest of his life governed by this newfound compassion. This change takes root once a man of God shows a kindness Valjean has never known. He is then transfigured by God’s love (which even changes his outer countenance, as evidenced in the film when Javert doesn’t recognize the very man he has been hunting).

Les Miserables is a parable that clearly conveys the difference between the Bible’s Old Testament, where man is dependent upon the laws of God in order to find deliverance, and the New Testament’s revelation of God’s sacrifice that paid our sin debt. This message is successfully and most passionately brought to this screen production.

It may be impossible to single out one talent, as no one associated with the film missed a step or musical cue (all the numbers were recorded during the filming, no lip–syncing). Both cast and crew took on the challenge of this screen adaptation respectfully, fully aware of the significance of the book’s theme. The vigilant director, Tom Hooper, used his camera to spellbind us and perfectly cast his two male leads. Javert (Russell Crowe) and Valjean (Hugh Jackman) are a symbolic yin and yang that represent what mankind is and what we can become.

Crowe’s Javert is not a villain. He’s an honorable man. But he has no comprehension of a love that can forgive all. He conducts his life by a code of honor, unable to accept weakness in others or himself. Javert just doesn’t get grace or forgiveness. The Oscar–winning actor gives dimension to a role that could have been stilted and pantomime villainous. Jackman as Valjean gives a pitch–perfect portrayal of a man who has felt God’s love. His character may not understand God’s charity, but his soul is reborn by it.

I said it may be impossible to single out one person from the production. I stand corrected. Anne Hathaway’s Oscar–worthy performance as Fantine, a degraded woman struggling to support her child, may be the best–written, best–acted female role ever. It is difficult to sit through her ordeals, as the little she has (her hair, her teeth, her virtue) are systematically taken from her in order that she might raise money to keep her child alive. Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” was a shared audience moment I’ll never forget. As the song ended, everyone in attendance applauded as if they were attending live theater. Indeed, there were several instances when the audience clapped as if needing to release their emotion and appreciation. The empathy in the movie theater was palpable. Her song delivery is the most powerful screen moment from this year and I would have to struggle to remember a finer performance from an actress.

At the end of a press conference that featured most of the cast, the producers and its director Hooper, I went up to Mr. Hooper as he was exiting the room and asked, “Mr. Hooper, how many takes did Anne need on that song?”

He said, “Eight. She had it in four, but she felt she could do more. And she did. I was only a few feet away from her and I felt the anguish of any human who has undergone such cruelty. The feeling on the set was electric, unlike anything I had ever felt at the end of a take.”

The weakest element of the production, for me, is the student revolution backdrop. While timely, as evidenced by the uprising seen by the have–nots toward the haves throughout the world, the film’s subplot fails to tell us just exactly what the disenfranchised expect. The uprisers kill soldiers and soldiers kill them, but nothing changes the establishment. Perhaps that’s the point. Fairness and justice don’t come by war or even law. They come from a change of heart. Don’t misread me; there is a time for war and a need for law. But as the film’s director wisely noted, “Real change starts with love for those we see around us.”

I recently contacted an actor who has been associated with the musical play for years. I wanted his input concerning Victor Hugo’s agenda.

Actor J. Mark McVey played the role of Valjean in Les Miserables more times than any other performer – 2,800 times or more. He’s traveled the world with the show. Mark is a devout believer in Christ and speaks eloquently of the rich Christian symbolism in the story of “Les Mis.” I asked Mark the following: Was Mr. Hugo saying a spiritual love is needed in order to change our world? Or did he also advocate a violent overthrow of corrupted political governing?

“I think he was doing a bit of both,” Mark said. “He certainly was an advocate for the power of spiritual love to move or shift the human heart to new understanding if not outright acceptance of grace. In the case of Valjean, Hugo showed the awakening of an animal that had clearly, at some point in his life, closed his heart to anything that resembled love or compassion.

“As for the political statement, Hugo was an advocate for human rights and could not help himself from commenting on his times. It might be unfair to say he advocated violence, but he certainly brought social issues to light and may even have gotten the ball rolling, as did others –– Dickens for example –– by giving a voice to the unheard masses.”

I’m sure Mark is correct concerning the author’s intent. But it is unmistakably the love aspect that affects everyone in the play. The revolt is ineffectual, whereas it is the spiritual love that eventually motivates every main character. Deeds of sacrifice and charity change everyone’s heart, except Javert, who becomes symbolic of the stalemate that results when the heart refuses to accept God’s grace.

So, how can we get compassion to change the deeds of those who rule over our political, social and economic wellbeing?

We can’t.

But God can.

Though there is some PG–13 content in the film, it is not there to be exploitive, but rather is used to give credence to the story and to viscerally work on our emotions. Bring hankies as you will be wounded by the injustices. Gratefully, you will also be uplifted by the film’s spiritual resonance. Les Miserables is the most gut–wrenching, yet profound film of the year.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Phil Boatwright is celebrating 25 years of writing about Hollywood from a Christian perspective. In addition to writing for Baptist Press, he reviews films for http://www.previewonline.org and is a regular contributor to “The World and Everything In it,” a weekly radio program from WORLD News Group. To visit the website of veteran “Les Miserables” actor J. Mark McVey, go to www.jmarkmcvey.com.)
12/21/2012 2:14:14 PM by Phil Boatwright, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



The tears of America

December 21 2012 by Ronnie Floyd, Baptist Press

SPRINGDALE, Ark. – “You keep track of all my sorrows,” Scripture says in Psalm 56:8 (New Living Translation). “You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.”

Tears are flowing from the eyes of America. The deep grief and sorrow we feel as a nation is incomparable to the loss experienced by the families who are burying one of the 20 children or one of the six educators who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Friday, Dec. 14.

Even more than we count our money, God keeps track of our sorrows. Our sovereign God knows in detail the losses we feel and the overwhelming sorrow we experience. Our tears do not roll down our face alone, but are accompanied with prayers appealing for peace from God. God stores our prayers and our tears in His unlimited bottle. Our tearful response in defining moments such as the massacre in Connecticut is remembered by the Lord. When God sees these moments and our tears, He thinks about us.

As our hearts are moved and our tears flow, here are a few thoughts for consideration:


On personal grief

  • Grief is unbearable for the families who will bury their dead. In reality, as long as they are on this earth, grief will exist.
  • Unless one has ever lost a child, they cannot relate. Whether it be like my friends, Buster and Martha Pray in northwest Arkansas who lost their 30-year-old son Andrew in a tragic accident on the day before Thanksgiving or whether it be the parent of one of the educators or one of the innocent children in Connecticut, their community is one that none of them would have ever joined voluntarily. This community shares one major common denominator, the loss of a child. Unless we have experienced this, we cannot pretend to know the depths of their loss and sorrow.

On America

  • As a nation, we need to begin to connect the dots. When the killing of the unborn is acceptable and the deplorable abuse of children is rampant, THEN the destruction of innocent children will more likely occur repeatedly. The present American generation needs to develop a much more healthy commitment to human life and the dignity of all human beings. Until we do, the value of human life to some will be minimal to nonexistent.
  • While gun control may not be the ultimate answer to the threatening epidemic of mass murders in our nation, I personally hope some changes can be made. I am not an authority on this issue, but I am one American who is highly concerned with the path we are on. Surely, something can be done.
  • As a nation, we have created a culture that has become so tolerant of excessive violence in movies, on television and in video games that our children and students have become desensitized. Until we make some serious changes in our culture to become friendlier to safety and life than violence and death, these horrific acts of violence will continue to happen.
  • Families in our nation need to know that productive help is on the way for the members of their family who may be dealing with some level of mental illness. The help must not only come from the government, but from private companies and churches that step up with support for families. We should all care about mental health not just to prevent violence, but also because those who suffer are human beings who need help and support.


On the church

For 36 years I have served as the lead pastor of local churches, the last 26 years serving in the same church. My church and the churches of America need to be awakened by the tears of America.

We need to consider the following:
  • The church must learn to weep with those who weep. Our nation is weeping. We need to be like the Lord who stores the tears of those who grieve. We need to point people to the Lord, who remembers the deepest moments of our trouble and pain.
  • The church must be at its greatest in crises like these. If we are, then the testimony of our Lord, His name and His church will prosper and the gospel will travel on the relational tracks necessary in order for it to advance.
  • The church must plan for possible crises like this, especially in this day when the church is coming more under the persecuting hand of Satan and society. Awareness, alertness and action must become words in our vocabulary, not only regarding the advance of the gospel but also for the safety of our own children.
  • The church must remind the powers in Washington, D.C., that on the days and evenings following the horrific tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, people did not go to the buildings of government for comfort, strength, community and peace. No, they went to houses of worship, in gatherings of community called churches and synagogues. It was in these settings of worship that they have found comfort, strength, community and peace. Keeping this in mind, discussion should immediately cease related to moderating or terminating tax benefits given to people for supporting their houses of faith that rise up to help in times like these.
  • The church must step up and take action to care for special needs children and youth as well as their families. We have learned again and again that their islands of isolationism do not end well. They need community. We, the church, must somehow go the extra mile and create ministries that will rise up to care for those with special needs. They need help. Their families need encouragement and, just like anyone else, they need the gospel of Jesus Christ.
  • The church must be faithful to our highest and greatest message, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the singular and most absolute answer to the problem of sin.
Yes, all sin.

As the tears of America flow, the church needs to weep. While we weep, we need to rise up in God’s power, knowing the Lord alone is our strength. As our own tears flow, we need to pray for those who are most deeply grieved and for those who lead us in our great nation called America. As hearts are softened and tears flow, optimism is rising within me again that, as Americans, our greatest days are ahead of us.

Yes, when the tears flow, our sovereign God keeps track of all of our sorrows with great detail. He collects all of our tears in His bottle. He remembers us. He remembers you.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Ronnie Floyd is senior pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas, with campuses in Springdale, Pinnacle Hills and Fayetteville, and the author of “Our Last Great Hope” (2011).)
12/21/2012 2:11:29 PM by Ronnie Floyd, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



The power of a moment: Newtown & Christmas

December 21 2012 by Jim Veneman, Baptist Press

JACKSON, Tenn. – Over the next couple of weeks there is a good chance that more photographs will be taken than any other time of the year. With the Christmas season come some of the most powerful photo opportunities we will ever see: moments.

From the first day of photography classes here at Union University, students hear me talk about capturing moments. In order to make a photograph of something so elusive, one needs to be very aware and have an ability to anticipate. Strategically linked to awareness and anticipation also will be the capacity to concentrate completely for a few brief seconds, blocking out all the other things that are happening.
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Photo by Erick Ogren/Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

A photographer’s image amid the sorrows in Newtown, Conn., illustrates the power of a moment.


When a great moment is about to occur, the temptation that most controls us is a desire to be involved. We want to clap and cheer too, or provide a needed hug. Sometimes what could have been a wonderful photograph turns into a group photo of smiling faces, all looking at the camera. Only our memory can recount what had happened seconds earlier. The moment had passed.

Over the last few days we’ve all seen powerful moments that are hard to forget. Images of children being led to a safer place, and the faces of those lost amid the tragedy. Moments indeed can be sad and sometimes very hard. Although photographs like these can take us to emotional depths, they can also be a starting point for change. The photograph of a moment can have tremendous power by simply making us more aware.

Although our nation has been hurt deeply, in this season we also have reason to celebrate. We celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We can push back the darkness that engulfs us and experience a God-given moment if we choose to see it. A photograph of such a moment can be a reminder of hope and can help lead us forward.

My encouragement to anyone reading this is to pull out that little camera or camera phone and be ready. Be ready to capture the moment that might help remind us of God’s love for us and the joy we can have through Him.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Jim Veneman is director of visual communication and assistant professor at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.)
12/21/2012 2:02:03 PM by Jim Veneman, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



An obedient heart

December 20 2012 by Tom Elliff, Baptist Press

RICHMOND, Va. – During a recent trip to Japan, I sat with IMB [International Mission Board] personnel as we listened intently to missionary Tak Oue translate the story of an 82-year-old Japanese pastor. Tak and his wife, Lana, were taking several of us to view the encouraging results of disaster response to the earthquake and tsunami that ravaged the eastern coast of Japan on March 11, 2011.
 
Nearing the coastal area, we had stopped to meet the humble, self-effacing pastor. His story powerfully refreshed my thinking about our call to share the gospel to the very ends of the earth and the importance of unquestioning obedience.

Trained at the age of 15 to be a kamikaze pilot in World War II, then despondent because the war had ended before he could give his life in service to his country, the pastor had wandered the streets searching for food. There, the young man’s attention had been drawn to a street preacher loudly proclaiming the gospel.
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Tom Elliff, right, prays with an 82-year-old Japanese pastor who survived World War II and the tsunami that devastated his village.


Using his food money, he purchased a Bible from which he read for the next two years before meeting a Southern Baptist missionary. Our missionary first led him to Christ then offered sustained guidance and help.

It was a simple statement by the old preacher that reminded me of every believer’s call to share the gospel.

“We were trained to listen to coded instructions as we flew the planes,” he said. “But we were never trained to respond.”

I thought of the sign on the wall of a lifeboat station urging rescuers to remember that while there is the command to “go out,” there is no command to “return.” Now, here I was sitting in the presence of a man who had been trained to “take off” in an airplane but not trained to land. He had been trained to listen but not to protest.

We are blessed to have a Lord who not only commands us to “go out” but eagerly listens to our hearts throughout the journey, then safely guides us home. Still, there is something so stirring about unquestioning obedience.

I desire an obedient heart like my pastor friend in Japan. It will be through an obedient heart that I become Christ’s heart, hands and voice in this world that so desperately needs Him.

For this world to be mightily changed by the grace of God, we will need a generation that is willing to “take off” and let God handle the landing and to “listen” to His commands without protest. Will you join me in giving sacrificially to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering so the next generation of missionaries can fulfill their calling?

Just as the pastor prayed for me, I am praying for you. Join me in being His heart, His hands and His voice!

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Elliff is president of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and through the Cooperative Program help Southern Baptist missionaries around the world share the gospel. Gifts for the offering are received at Southern Baptist churches across the country or can be made online at www.imb.org/offering where there are resources for church leaders to promote the offering. Download related videos at www.imb.org/lmcovideo. This year’s theme of “BE His heart, His hands, His voice” comes from Matthew 16:24-25. This year’s offering goal is $175 million.)

12/20/2012 2:35:28 PM by Tom Elliff, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



Newtown raises age-old question

December 20 2012 by Jerry Sutton, Baptist Press

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The unspeakable tragedy in Newtown, Conn., brings to the forefront an age-old question/dilemma. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing (and He is), and He is all good (and He is), why did He not prevent this senseless act of violent carnage (and He could have)?

First, this tragedy did not catch God by surprise. God did not cause it, but He did permit it. He is powerful enough to have stopped it.

Second, this tragedy is a symptom that something is incredibly wrong with the human race. In biblical terms, we live in a fallen world which is marked by sin in its manifold manifestations. To make matters worse, an evil presence in the world drives this entire enterprise. Jesus identified him as the “thief [who] comes to kill, steal and destroy.”

Third, the whole purpose of God coming in Christ was to redeem us from this fallen world with its symptoms and consequences. In this present age, we live in a world in revolt against God who, in His patience, is permitting the revolt all the while holding out His hands and beckoning humanity to return to Him. In God’s timing, this world as we know it will come to an end, either with God’s ultimate intervention (the time is unknown) or our personal departure (which is certain). Then, the God of the universe will right all wrongs.

Fourth, in the meantime, God stands ready to comfort, heal, forgive, restore and intervene when invited. Humanity must still deal with the consequences of sin, yet every act of sin with its painful consequences is one more invitation from God, “return to Me!” Only God can bind up broken hearts. Only God can heal this severe hurt. Only God can assuage this incredible grief.

Finally, if nothing else, this senseless tragedy is a wakeup call to how desperately the world needs its Savior who alone can free us from the “law of sin and death” and who alone can bring good out of such profound evil.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Jerry Sutton is vice president for academic development at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.)
12/20/2012 2:34:06 PM by Jerry Sutton, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ gets edited

December 19 2012 by Kelly Boggs, Baptist Press

ALEXANDRIA, La. – A Canadian anti-smoking activist, who is also a self-published author, has leapt into the Christmas wars by producing an updated version of the classic holiday poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (better known as “Twas The Night Before Christmas”). The new version edits out two lines that reference Santa Claus smoking a pipe.

Pamela McColl of Vancouver, B.C., began selling her book this fall under the title “Twas The Night Before Christmas: Edited by Santa Claus.” As the title implies, McColl has St. Nicholas himself editing out his smoking, because he has now, after 189 years (the poem was first published in 1823), finally kicked the tobacco habit.

Though I know the origin of the jolly ol’ elf is found in St. Nicholas, a 4th century Greek bishop who was known for his anonymous generosity, I still do not care much for the modern Santa. The main reason for my lack of good will is that popular culture allows him to upstage the birth of Jesus, the real reason for the season.

I also do not like smoking in any shape, form or fashion. It is a nasty and unhealthy habit and should be discouraged.

So why am I writing about someone who has edited a poem about Santa so as to portray him as stopping an unhealthy habit? I write because the sanitizing of “Twas The Night Before Christmas” reveals the inconsistency of the entertainment elite.

In the mid-2000s, several companies were selling sanitized versions of movies, both current and past. The leading company at the time was CleanFlicks. The company would sell DVDs with objectionable content like foul language, violence and nudity removed. Along with the edited version the company would sell the original, unedited version of the film.

The reason for selling the original along with the sanitized version was to comply with copyright law. The thought was that if a consumer could purchase an original version and then have it edited, the company would save them time and trouble and offer the edited product upfront along with the authorized version.

Conservative consumers who wanted films free of filth bought the concept even though purchasing the original and edited versions together cost a little more. Companies like CleanFlicks, CleanFilms, Play It Clean Video and Family Flix did very well. Hollywood was a winner as well. People who would have never purchased movies rife with objectionable content now were a new source of revenue for filmmakers.

Hollywood, however, was not pleased. It seems directors of the films fraught with gratuitous sex, nudity, profanity and violence did not like the idea of consumers choosing to not watch their perverted artistic expression. So the Directors Guild of America sued, and won. A federal court ruled in the summer of 2006 ruled that companies offering sanitized versions of movie releases on DVD must cease and desist production, sale and rentals of edited discs. Additionally, the judge ordered the companies to turn over all existing copies of their edited films to the studios’ lawyers for destruction within five days of the ruling.

The Directors Guild claimed the suit was about protecting the integrity of its members’ original productions. “So we have a great passion about protecting our work, which is our signature and brand identification, against unauthorized editing,” then-DGA President Michael Apted told Reuters news service.

Apted’s argument rings hollow when you understand that the DGA also is opposed to ClearPlay, a company that sells a DVD player that works with the original DVD to mute or skip over objectionable content. With ClearPlay, the original production is unaltered.

Congress passed the 2005 Family Movie Act that protects ClearPlay and other software-based filtering companies. In its statement concerning the win against editing companies, the DGA indicated it “remained concerned about this exception to copyright protection” represented by ClearPlay.

What does the Directors Guild lawsuit against companies that sanitized movies have to do with the editing of a classic holiday poem? In both instances you have the desire to remove offending material from an original work.

On one hand, the entertainment elites rallied to protect offensive content, in essence saying to consumers if you want to watch our films, you must take them unaltered, filth and all. On the other, an age-old classic removes an incident of smoking and a protest is, at best, nominal.

While I understand that “A Visit From St. Nicholas” is in the public domain for copyright purposes, I wonder how its author, Clement Clarke Moore, would feel about his work being tampered with? When in doubt, perhaps we should assume he would want it untouched.

It is a bit disconcerting when the tentacles of political correctness can even squeeze content from what is deemed a holiday classic; all the while the popular culture and the entertainment elite ignore the censorship.

The politically correct are consistently inconsistent in the stands they take.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press, director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s office of public affairs, and editor of the Baptist Message, newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.)
12/19/2012 1:36:39 PM by Kelly Boggs, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



Newtown – should we be surprised?

December 19 2012 by Trevin Wax, Baptist Press

NASHVILLE – The search for a scapegoat has begun.

Now that the initial shock of the Newtown massacre is wearing off, our society is looking for something to do and someone to blame.

Something to do? Many are lobbying for stricter gun control laws and bans on assault weapons. Others are recommending that teachers and school officials be armed and ready to fight back.

Someone to blame? The talking heads on television have begun a conversation about mental illness that they are woefully ill-prepared for. I shudder to consider what lies ahead for autistic children and adults with Asperger’s syndrome if hearsay and ignorance win the day.

While the tendency in the coming days will be to point our fingers, I recommend we point the finger right back at ourselves. Could it be that we are a violent people? Consider:
  • We are horrified by the slaughter of innocent children in Newtown but we are entertained by children killing children in “The Hunger Games.”
  • We react with disbelief at the gruesomeness of the news reports but then plug in our video game consoles so we can shoot, stab and decapitate lifelike people on the screen.
  • We weep and mourn the stolen innocence of our children but the bestselling books in our country involve violent sexual fantasies and sadism/masochism.
  • We sing carols and hymns in remembrance of the victims of violence but our iPods are filled with explicit lyrics of rage that are particularly degrading to women.
Should we be surprised when reality eventually mirrors our fantasies?

Talk to Christian believers in other parts of the world and you quickly discover that we have a reputation for consuming movies, music and video games that promote a mindset of violence. Whenever I have brought up these concerns with my fellow American friends, I have gotten blank stares and then a quick denial that violence in any way represents us.

I remember when I took my son to see “Wall-E,” only to find kids in kindergarten going to see “Hulk” with their parents. I know church kids who sat in the front row of “The Dark Knight.”

Let me be clear. Even the Bible includes narratives of violence. I’m not opposed to violence as a means of representing evil in books and movies. My concern is that the proliferation of violent depictions has desensitized us to the point that the association of violence with evil is lost within violence itself.

Too often, Christians are so focused on the sexual perversity we see on television or in movies that we forget how a constant stream of media violence also is deadly to our souls.

The latest way for youth groups to attract young men is by setting up video game consoles with violent games like “Halo 4.” Ask evangelical youth pastors if they would ever consider using pornography as a way of attracting young people to church. “Of course not!” would be the answer. But why is it we never give a second thought to the video games that bid us into a world of graphic violence?

“It’s not real. It’s just fantasy,” we say, shrugging aside the violence. But could we not use that line of reasoning for pornography as well?

The truth is, even fantasy shapes who we are and what we believe. We would never allow pornographic fantasy into our youth groups, but the gory bloodiness of video games sneaks in under the mask of “harmlessness.”

We cannot point fingers. We all share in the guilt of allowing ourselves to be desensitized to violent behavior. We need the transformation of the gospel to reach into this tender area and change our hearts.

As heralds of the coming kingdom of peace, we Christians should be naturally resistant to the inherent violence of our culture. We must practice non-retaliation in our personal lives, seek to be at peace in the church and decry the thirst for violence that so often marks our entertainment choices.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project, a Bible study curriculum line developed by LifeWay Christian Resources for all ages. This column first appeared at TrevinWax.com.)
12/19/2012 1:33:58 PM by Trevin Wax, Baptist Press | with 0 comments



Rachel weeping for her children

December 18 2012 by R. Albert Mohler Jr., Baptist Press

NEWTOWN, Conn. – The grief of parents and loved ones of the 20 children and six adults murdered in a school in Newtown, Conn., is beyond words. Yet, even in the face of such an unbearable tragedy, Christians must speak.

We will have to speak in public about this evil, and we will have to speak in private about this horrible crime. How should Christians think and pray in the aftermath of such a colossal crime?

We affirm the sinfulness of sin and the full reality of human evil

First, we must recognize that this tragedy is just as evil, horrible and ugly as it appears. Christianity does not deny the reality and power of evil but instead calls evil by its necessary names – murder, massacre, killing, homicide, slaughter. The closer we look at this tragedy, the more it will appear unfathomable and more grotesque than the human imagination can take in.

What else can we say about the murder of children and their teachers? How can we understand the evil of killing little children one by one, forcing them to watch their little friends die and realizing that they were to be next? How can we bear this?

Resisting our instinct toward a coping mechanism, we cannot accept the inevitable claims that this young murderer is to be understood as merely sick. His heinous acts will be dismissed and minimized by some as the result of psychiatric or psychological causation, or mitigated by cultural, economic, political or emotional factors. His crimes were sick beyond words, and he was undoubtedly unbalanced, but he pulled off a cold, calculated and premeditated crime, monstrous in its design and accomplishment.

Christians know that this is the result of sin and the horrifying effects of The Fall. Every answer for this evil must affirm the reality and power of sin. The sinfulness of sin is never more clearly revealed than when we look into the heart of a crime like this and see the hatred toward God that precedes the murderous hatred the gunman poured out on his little victims.

The 20th century forced us to see the ovens of the Nazi death camps, the killing fields of Cambodia, the inhumanity of the Soviet gulags and the failure of the world to stop such atrocities before they happened. We cannot talk of our times without reference to Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, Pol Pot and Charles Manson, Idi Amin and Ted Bundy. More recently, we see evil in the impassive faces of Osama bin Laden and Anders Behring Brevik. We will now add yet another name to the roll call of mass murderers. His will not be the last.

Beyond this, the Christian must affirm the grace of moral restraint, knowing that the real question is not why some isolated persons commit such crimes but why such massacres are not more common. We must be thankful for the restraint of the law, operating on the human conscience. Such a crime serves to warn us that putting a curve in the law will inevitably produce a curve in the conscience. We must be thankful for the restraining grace of God that limits human evil and, rightly understood, keeps us all from killing each other.

Christians call evil what it is, never deny its horror and power, and remain ever thankful that evil will not have its full sway, or the last word.

We affirm the cross of Christ as the only adequate remedy for evil

There is one and only one reason that evil does not have the last word, and that is the fact that evil, sin, death and the devil were defeated at the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. There they were defeated conclusively, comprehensively and publicly.

On the cross, Christ bore our sins, dying in our place, offering Himself freely as the perfect sacrifice for sin. The devil delighted in Christ’s agony and death on the cross, realizing too late that Christ’s substitutionary atonement spelled the devil’s own defeat and utter destruction.

Christ’s victory over sin, evil and death was declared by the Father in raising Jesus from the dead. The resurrection of Christ is the ground of our hope and the assurance of the final and total victory of Christ over all powers, principalities and perpetrators.

A tragedy like this cannot be answered with superficial and sentimental Christian emotivism or with glib dismissals of the enormity and transience of this crime. Such a tragedy calls for the most gospel-centered Christian thinking, for the substance of biblical theology and the solace that only the full wealth of Christian conviction can provide.

In the face of such horror, we are driven again and again to the cross and resurrection of Christ, knowing that the reconciling power of God in Christ is the only adequate answer to such a depraved and diabolical power.

We acknowledge the necessity of justice, knowing that perfect justice awaits the Day of the Lord

Charles Manson sits in a California prison, even now – decades after his murderous crimes were committed. Ted Bundy was executed by the state of Florida for multiple murders but escaped both conviction and punishment for others he is suspected of having committed. Anders Behring Brevik shot and killed scores of young people in Norway, but he was sentenced to less than 30 years in prison. Adolf Hitler took his own life, robbing human courts of their justice, and Vladimir Lenin died of natural causes.

The young murderer in Connecticut took his own life after murdering almost 30 people, most of them children. He will never face a human court, never have to face a human accuser, never stand convicted of his crimes and never know the justice of a human sentence.

But even as human society was robbed of the satisfaction of that justice, it would never be enough. Even if executed for his crimes, he could die only once. Even if sentenced to multiple life sentences to prison, he could forfeit only one human lifespan.

Human justice is necessary, but it is woefully incomplete. No human court can hand down an adequate sentence for such a crime, and no human judge can restore life to those who were murdered.

Crimes such as these remind us that we yearn for the total satisfaction that will come only on the Day of the Lord, when all flesh will be judged by the only Judge who will rule with perfect righteousness and justice. On that day, the only escape will be refuge in Christ, for those who knew and confessed Him as Savior and Lord. On that day, those who are in Christ will know the promise that full justice and restoration will mean that every eye is dry and tears are nevermore.

We grieve with those who grieve

For now, even as we yearn for the Day of the Lord, we grieve with those who grieve. We sit with them and pray for them and acknowledge that their loss is truly unspeakable and that their tears are unspeakably true. We pray and look for openings for grace and the hope of the gospel. We do our best to speak words of truth, love, grace and comfort.

What of the eternal destiny of these sweet children? There is no specific text of scripture that gives us a clear and direct answer. We must affirm with the Bible that we are conceived in sin and, as sons and daughters of Adam, will face eternal damnation unless we are found in Christ. So many of these little victims died before reaching any real knowledge of their own sinfulness and need for Christ. They, like those who die in infancy and those who suffer severe mental incapacitation, never really have the opportunity to know their need as sinners and the provision of Christ as Savior.

They are in a categorically different position than that of the person of adult consciousness who never responds in faith to the message of the gospel. In the book of Deuteronomy, God tells the adults among the children of Israel that, due to their sin and rebellion, they would not enter the land of promise. But the Lord then said this: “And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it,” Deuteronomy 1:39.

Many, if not all, of the little children who died in Newtown were so young that they certainly would be included among those who, like the little Israelites, “have no knowledge of good or evil.” God is sovereign, and He was not surprised that these little ones died so soon. There is biblical precedent for believing that the Lord made provision for them in the atonement accomplished by Christ and that they are safe with Jesus.

 

Rachel weeping for her children

The prophet Jeremiah’s reference to Rachel and her lost children is heartbreaking. “Thus says the LORD: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more’” (Jeremiah 31:15). Like Rachel, many parents, grandparents and loved ones are weeping inconsolably even now, refusing to be comforted for their children, because they are no more.

This tragedy is compounded in emotional force by the fact that it comes in such close proximity to Christmas, but let us never forget that there was the mass murder of children in the Christmas story as well. King Herod’s murderous decree that all baby boys under 2 years of age should be killed prompted Matthew to cite this very verse from Jeremiah. Rachel again was weeping for her children.

But this is not where either Jeremiah or Matthew leaves us. By God’s mercy, there is hope and the promise of full restoration in Christ.

The Lord continued to speak through Jeremiah:

Thus says the LORD: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the LORD, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the LORD, and your children shall come back to their own country,” Jeremiah 31:16-17.

God, not the murderer, has the last word. For those in Christ, there is the promise of full restoration. Even in the face of such unmitigated horror, there is hope.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – R. Albert Mohler is president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. A version of this column first appeared at his website, AlbertMohler.com.)
12/18/2012 1:50:04 PM by R. Albert Mohler Jr., Baptist Press | with 0 comments



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