Archives For December 2016

Keep Christmas alive

ib2newseditor —  December 29, 2016

pouring-teaIt feels so wonderful! The spirit of Christmas adds oomph to life. We live in anticipation and we’re even nice to strangers. We become very intentional about giving to others.

But as we turned the calendar page to December 26, did that Christmas spirit fade? As you pack up those Christmas decorations, consider these five simple reminders to help keep that spirit of joy and generosity at the forefront all year.

1. Live expectantly. Anticipation is at a high during Christmas, but a sense of expectancy is a good thing all year long. It keeps us on our toes, helps us use time wisely, and reminds us to lean on God. So, live with enthusiasm every day of the year. “Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant” (Romans 12:11-12a MSG).

2. Be extra nice to strangers. Are you kinder to total strangers at Christmas? Your job as a Christian is to be God’s ambassador, representing him with your every word and deed. Take your ambassador job seriously all year long. Be nice to strangers.

3. Practice a “shoebox continuum.” Wasn’t it awesome to stuff gifts in shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child or backpacks for Appalachian children? Don’t stop. Each month this year, gift a carefully prepared backpack or box to a local child in extraordinary need. Include a “God loves you” note.

4. Engage in better benevolence. Use Christmas ministry projects as a springboard to yearlong generosity. For example, instead of a give-and-run delivery of gifts or dinner for a local needy family, make a plan to show God’s love to them all year. Get to know them. Listen to their story. Invite them to church and welcome them. Pray with them. Introduce them to Jesus.

5. Smile freely. The Christmas season lends itself to joy. Joy isn’t seasonal for a Christian. It radiates from inside, and it’s there on happy days and desperate days, on New Year’s Day and Groundhog Day and every other day of the year. Radiate the joy of Jesus in non-December months.

The “spirit of Christmas” is not a December event. It’s a Christian’s lifestyle and mission. It’s our everyday marching orders from Christ. Exude the true Christmas spirit—God’s Spirit—as you live with joy, expectancy, love, and generosity.

© Diana Davis, dianadavis.org

Especially for leaders, new years require fresh vision. And for Christian leaders, fresh vision requires prayer. But quality prayer takes time and, for me at least, finding that time is one of the biggest challenges I face.

Time is so precious. I often feel I don’t have enough of it simply to do well with my family, my job, my church. So I end up giving almost all my time to those things, and telling myself that God will understand.

He understands, I’m sure. But he can’t be pleased.

shortage-of-prayerIt’s been well said that you spell love: T-I-M-E. And since prayer is an expression of my love for God, and I need quality time with God to gain fresh vision for the future and power for daily living, then I must spell prayer the same way. Prayer deserves my time.

I’m convinced I’m not alone in this struggle. Many of today’s well-intentioned pastors and Christian leaders are so pressed for time. And prayer can become one of the earliest casualties of a busy schedule. Yet the shortage of serious time for prayer becomes quickly evident in a leader’s life, and in the fruit of his or her ministry. I know they are in mine.

That’s why I struggled recently when I was asked to bring a devotional word to a national gathering of SBC prayer leaders in Chicago. With some difficulty, I decided to be vulnerable. I admitted to them that I am ashamed of how little I rely on prayer compared to my own efforts. I too rarely engage God in a way that invites him to override my desires or plans. Mostly, I quickly ask him to bless what I’m rushing off to do. I told them I see this happening with Christian leaders everywhere, and that we as leaders need their help reprioritizing prayer in our lives.

Then we looked at Gideon’s experience in Judges 6-7. Like this timid, reluctant, and frustrated leader, we often toil away in our own strength at things that don’t really help much, rather than inviting God into our challenges, and letting him empower our leadership.

But one life-changing day Gideon and God, as “the Angel of the Lord,” had a conversation that has deeply challenged me about my own prayer life. Here’s a summary of what I said about it in my devotion for those prayer leaders:

Gideon was weak when his extended conversation with God began, but God loves to use weak people. Though God initiated the conversation, Gideon did most of the talking, at first. Then, after questions and fleeces, there was a moment of surrender, when Gideon gave his fears, desires, and plans over to God. After that, God did most of the talking, and acting. Gideon never had to say, “God said obey me…” to the people he led. He simply acted with a new boldness that came out of his personal conversation with God. And the people gladly followed him in his obedience to God, with a powerful result that brought God glory and his people victory.

That’s the kind of prayer encounter I need. Gideon was a small man and a reluctant, fearful leader.But all that changed when he engaged God in extended, serious prayer.

In this coming new year, I have concluded that I must do whatever it takes to meet God like that. And I must encourage and facilitate that in the lives of those I lead and influence. I look around me, in Southern Baptist life and elsewhere, and I see that there are others sensing the same need. By God’s grace, a new year gives us more time. Let’s be leaders who give a great deal of that time to God in prayer.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.

The BriefingMoore clarifies comments on Trump supporters
Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore has clarified that he never intended to criticize all evangelical supporters of President-elect Donald Trump, noting many were motivated by “biblical convictions” and “voted their conscience.”

National Geographic features trans girl, 9, on cover
Avery Jackson, a Kansas City fourth-grader, is the first transgender individual to grace the cover of the 128-year-old National Geographic magazine, which is rolling out to subscribers this week in a special edition devoted solely to gender issues around the globe. Growing up, “I really just wanted to be myself,” Avery told USA Today. “I’m just a girl.”

Movement for third gender option ‘exploding’
Since Jamie Shupe became the first legally non-binary U.S. citizen six months ago, the amount of people petitioning courts for third gender designations has increased exponentially. Some were born intersex (with female and male sex characteristics), while others identify on a spectrum of gender that doesn’t fit neatly into either of the categories currently available on identity documents.

U.S. citizen & pastor in Turkey jailed for faith
Andrew Brunson, formerly of Black Mountain, N.C., was reportedly detained 63 days without charges at the Harmandali Detention Center in Izmir, Turkey, before being imprisoned Dec. 9 at nearby Sakran Prison. He’s being held on false charges of being a member of an armed terrorist organization, World Watch Monitor reported.

Burmese Christians ministering in Mosul
As Iraqi coalition forces claw their way into Mosul, the retreating ISIS fighters have booby trapped streets, sent suicide bombers against the liberating army, and used civilians as human shields. The civilians left in their wake are hungry, thirsty, terrified, and exhausted. One of the first humanitarian groups to aid Iraq’s once second-largest city, moving in even as ISIS moves out, has been a group of persecuted Christians from Burma.

Sources: Baptist Press, USA Today, NBC News, Baptist Press, Christianity Today

Prince of Peace

ib2newseditor —  December 19, 2016
12-5-16-statehouse-nativity

In the crèche at the Illinois Capitol building, a baby Jesus figurine reaches out with the promise of hope to passersby who mostly keep moving to get their business done.

In a world of chaos, we need peace to reign again. How is it possible?

Henry was despondent. His country was divided. His countrymen were at odds. Angry arguments had led to all-out war. And his son had joined the Army.

“In despair I bowed my head,” he wrote, describing the depth of his anguish. “There is no peace on earth,” he said, “For hate is strong, and mocks the song Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Perhaps it wasn’t unusual at the time for a man to express himself in verse, but with a son in battle and his wife recently deceased, it seems an odd time to opine on peace. But that’s what Henry did.

“It was as if an earthquake rent The hearth-stones of a continent,” he wrote of the breadth of the national suffering. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, not in his America. This great angry gash “made forlorn the households born Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

So much for the forefathers’ intended peace.

Loyal to the Union, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow ascribed this national violation to Southern aggression in a verse not included in our hymnals today:

“Then from each black, accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Longfellow’s poem, written at Christmas in 1863, became an anthem for people who desperately needed an understanding of their wartime devastation. Was it to be to be attributed to human failure? Unbridged aggression? The natural consequence of sin? Or was it the judgment of God? The people took sides, brother against brother, and a nation at war with itself, in the middle of moral downfall, wondered, Where is this peace we were promised—our constitutional commitment and our biblical hope? Where is God in this unrestrained, unprecedented mess?

The poet drew images in sharp contrast: the ringing of cast-iron bells in church belfreys and the roaring of cast-iron cannons on farms-turned-battlefields. If the poem ended there, there would be no hope, for Longfellow or for us.

An uneasy peace
Thanksgiving 2016 may go down as the holiday that almost wasn’t (and similarly we fear for Christmas). Psychologists were advising families to avoid discussion of politics after the tumultuous and divisive election. The foment that was reported from workplaces and universities and city streets was likely to spill over into family gatherings as political debate became festering, destructive argument. Every family has at least one person who voted for the “wrong” candidate. Those who managed to keep their mouths shut at work would have little reason to hold back with their relatives. “Just don’t talk about it,” the Dr. Phil’s warned, for the sake of the peace.

But peace, by definition, demands reconciliation. A truce only promises a cessation of aggression, but that may not necessarily produce long-lasting, attitude-transforming, life-preserving peace.

Can there be peace after Clinton, peace past Trump? And beyond American politics, in this troubled year will there be peace in Latin America after Castro’s half-century grip on his nation (and ours)? For Aleppo divided down the middle by a narrow demilitarized zone that draws fire from both sides? For Syrian refugees still fleeing ISIS and Assad and for war zones in West Africa? And for persecuted believers in China, North Korea, Indonesia, and all corners of the world?

The fabled Christmas truce of 1914 seems so attractive right now.

Pope Benedict XV recommended in early December of that year that fighting be stopped to observe Christmas. Though the Great War was only five months old, French and German soldiers on both sides laid down their weapons and at many locations, it is told, entered the no-man’s land between their battle lines calling “Merry Christmas!”

“First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours,” British rifleman William Graham later wrote, “until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful,’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing—two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”

Enemy soldiers swapped packets of cigarettes and plum puddings, played soccer together in at least one location, and generally enjoyed a day of peace. In all, up to 100,000 troops, about two-thirds of the battle forces, participated in this “short peace in a terrible war” as summarized in a Time magazine account. Some troops used the day to retrieve the bodies of their fallen comrades and give them a proper burial.

The next day, the shooting resumed.

If we may borrow Longfellow’s words, “The world revolved from night to day…” in the stanza that precedes the poet’s headlong plunge into desolation, but there was no voice, no chime, no chant sublime, only the tinny rat-a-tat of gunfire—in cities across France a century ago, as in Paris and elsewhere with recent terrorist attacks, as in Mosul, Chicago, Englewood, Urbana, and Springfield.

So much for a cease fire.

Come, Lord Jesus
The world Jesus entered as a baby experienced a false peace. It was enforced by dictatorship and military oppression. It was threatened by zealots, terror cells, and constant fear of revolt by the masses. And yet, the era was called Peace.

The Peace of Rome. The Pax Romana lasted for about 200 years, but it came at a high price. The Caesars were cruel and nervous men, as were their henchmen, the regional governors such as the paranoid Herods. Herod the Great would do anything to keep peace with Rome, and thereby keep his throne, even if it meant slaughtering a town’s entire population of boy babies.

The prophets predicted the coming of young king who would specialize in peace,

“…one who is to be ruler in Israel…..

And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great

to the ends of the earth.

And he shall be their peace” (Micah 5:2, 4-5a).

But the people who read the prophets understood how this peaceful monarchy would (of necessity) follow turmoil. Micah opened his sweet messianic prophecy with this arch salutation:

“Now, daughter who is under attack,

you slash yourself in grief;

a siege is set against us!” (Micah 5:1).

Even Isaiah, who gave the reassuring pronouncement that a Prince of Peace would be born, said honestly that saving the world is bloody business.

“For the yoke of his burden,

and the staff for his shoulder,

the rod of his oppressor,

you have broken as on the day of Midian.

For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult

and every garment rolled in blood

will be burned as fuel for the fire” (Isaiah 9:4-5).

All this talk of peace comes with this honest admission: The Prince of Peace enters a world in chaos and bring his own chaos with him. The emergence of the Kingdom of God at the natal moment is not peaceful. Birth is not peaceful. It is bloody—and loud and painful. Birth brings its own chaos.

And the One born does not sleep in heavenly peace for long. “The cattle are lowing, the Baby awakes…” and the carol writer Anonymous assures us “no crying he makes.”

Dream on, Anonymous.

That Baby cried in his first minute of existence outside his mother’s womb. His birth announcement was a plaintive wail, and nothing has been the same since. Kingdom burst into existence and crashed into conflict with this sin-stained world. It should not surprise us that we still long for peace, we still wait for peace, even after the Prince of Peace has come. His transforming work is not done.

Our American culture in its religious naivety loves Jesus as a baby, treating him as an amulet against bad things—like Annelle, the misguided hair stylist in Steel Magnolias, who decorated her front door with a score of tiny mangers.

“I went to the fire sale at the Baptist Book Store in Shreveport last month,” she said in a drawl appropriate to her bayou setting. “They were selling mismatched manger scenes at incredibly low prices, and I cleaned them out of Baby Jesuses…”

If only a score of ‘Baby Jesuses’ could ward off our national ills and personal fears.

A meeting with Jesus this year comes with the realization that the supposedly tow-headed youngster in the cradle is but a hint at the reign of peace to come, and that the coming of the Prince of Peace into this world first creates crisis.

“Don’t assume that I came to bring peace on the earth,” Jesus warned his followers in Matthew 21:34. “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” And in John 14:27, his definition of peace apparently differs from our expectations: “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Your heart must not be troubled or fearful.”

His holiness collides with our sin—and by God’s grace overcomes it at Calvary. His peace confronts our warring—and the victory must first be won in our hearts.

The Prince of Peace himself is confirmation of God’s promise that peace will come to the earth. At his second coming, he will usher in peace forevermore. Until then, his peace will reign in believing hearts, even if peace seems remote in a decidedly unpeaceful world.

“Do not be afraid!” the angel told the shepherds on a green patch outside a farming village. One commentator pointed out recently that statement could rightly be translated, “There’s no reason for you to be afraid.” And the angel choir affirms this good news: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, Peace on earth to people he favors” (Luke 2:9, 14 HCSB).

The peace this year may not be political. It is certainly not pervasive. But it is providential. And it is deeply personal. In a world of chaos, the Prince of Peace reigns first and foremost in the heart.

In this time of uncertainty and unrest, we are reminded like Longfellow, who

“thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along Th’ unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men!”

empty-frame2The period between Thanksgiving and Christmas always ignites the stress of finding just the right gifts for loved ones and friends.

The reality is that Christmas in America is more of a commercial event than a religious holiday. Decrying commercialism won’t change things much, but there are some ideas to make your holiday season a more spiritual experience for your family.

Let me recommend an amazing gift you can give this year that will have long-lasting impact.

I propose that you write your conversion story.
You could print it on parchment paper and perhaps frame it as a gift, or just write it as a letter. OK, so your kids and grandkids will want something more but, in the end, your story will be the greatest gift they receive.

As Christians, we need to leave a legacy of faith to our families. This could be a wonderful way to tell your faith story to your family. Title it your “Legacy of Faith.”
Here is an outline of how you might approach writing your story. It doesn’t have to be complicated; just share your story from your heart. And be sure to sign it when you finish.

Place your life in context.
For me, I can tell my family of the rich spiritual heritage I enjoy because of the faith of their great-grandparents and grandparents. I can tell of the spiritual umbrella that was cast over our home because of the living faith in Christ and unreserved commitment to the church displayed in our home.

Your story may be different. The context of your journey may be filled with brokenness and pain. Share your story with truth while not glorifying your past.

Relate what led to your decision to follow Christ.
I cannot remember a time I did not love Jesus. As a child, I knew the plan of salvation. Yet, one morning in Sunday school, my teacher told us the story of the cross and said, “Boys and girls, someday you will give your heart to Jesus and trust him as your savior.”

At that moment, the Holy Spirit made the reality of my sin and Jesus’ death on the cross for my sin collide. I made the decision then to ask Jesus to forgive me and become my savior. I went forward in the service that morning, but I really decided to follow Jesus in Sunday school.

Share your faith journey since your decision.
What are the ways you have learned to follow Jesus? How has Christ made a difference in your life? What are some of the life situations you have faced when Christ has walked through with you? There may have been times of financial struggle, sickness, or death. How has Christ blessed you and your family throughout your Christian life?

My life is transformed day by day as I follow Jesus. As I learned to feed on his Word and communicate with him through prayer, he became my forever friend. In every circumstance, I know I have a friend who will walk with me. Space will not allow me to elaborate, but you get the picture.

Even if your family members are younger and do not understand the significance of the gift you place in their hands, there will come a day when this gift will mean more than gold.

So give a gift to your children, your children’s children and generations who follow. Leave them a written “Legacy of Faith.”

“These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart. Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up…. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut. 6:6-7, 9).

Anthony L. Jordan is executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. This column is courtesy of Baptist Press.

The BriefingChurches are open for Christmas
Nearly 9 out of 10 Protestant senior pastors say their churches plan to hold services on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, as both fall on a Sunday, according to LifeWay Research. Small churches and large churches are slightly less likely to be open for Christmas. Pastors in the Midwest (92%) and South (89%) are more likely to say their church will be open on Christmas.

Hark! The herald hipster sings
For those that have wondered what it would be like if Jesus was born in 2016 or what a modern day wise man would look like — hint: he wears skinny jeans — the folks at Modern Nativity have the answer. The company has created a hipster version of the classic nativity scene featuring a young Mary and Joseph taking a selfie with baby Jesus in a solar-paneled stable.

Macy’s ends Planned Parenthood gifts
Macy’s Inc.’s latest 990 tax form verifies that the retail giant no longer includes the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in its community contributions, the research group 2ndVote said, describing the news as the latest “miracle on 34th Street.”

Compassion International out of India
Compassion International, a Christian nongovernmental organization (NGO) that aids 145,000 impoverished Indian children, has three weeks left in the country unless officials give it a reprieve. It is the largest humanitarian presence in the second most populated country in the world—providing $50 million in annual relief funds. But India is cracking down on foreign NGOs based on fears that groups are using humanitarian work to mask evangelization efforts.

Graffiti welcomes Muslims in MO
At a time when reports of anti-Muslim sentiment are rising, an Islamic Center in Missouri has received a different message. Kamel Ghozzi, imam at the Islamic Center of Warrensburg, says “Welcome” and “Thank you for choosing our community” were written in chalk on the center’s sidewalk during the weekend.

Sources: Facts and Trends, CNBC, Baptist Press, World Magazine, Fox News

A time for change

ib2newseditor —  December 12, 2016

These final weeks of the year seem to always bring a mixture of emotions, as we gather sentimentally with family and friends for the holidays, and start reflecting on the ups and downs of the past year. Those year-end emotions seem supercharged this year, as the recent election has brought us a dramatic change in Presidential leadership, and with it potential changes in public policy that affect our daily lives.

I won’t go further than that into the politics of our times. Instead, in these days leading up to Christmas, I want to simply observe that this same sense of looming, unknown change that many of us are feeling may have been exactly how many of the faithful felt leading up to that very first Christmas.

I come to the end of this year with a sense that I need Messiah’s presence in a fresh new way.

Those to whom it was revealed that Messiah was near—Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the wise men, eventually the shepherds—all had revelations from God that were fearful, and yet inviting. They were all awestruck with the news that this thing beyond their comprehension or control was about to happen.

And yet these folks all walked forward into the wonder of the incarnation, the wonder of Jesus, the wonder of unpredictable and unprecedented change, with faith-filled obedience and anticipation. They knew things were a mess. They knew that the status quo—Rome and religion and their own sin-sick culture—was not ushering in the Kingdom of God. They knew any discomfort of change under Messiah’s leadership was to be preferred over the best that frail humans had to offer. And so, they walked into the unknown, trusting God.

Of course, not everybody welcomed the change of the first Christmas. King Herod and the religious leaders of Jerusalem were scared to death of whoever Messiah was, and whatever changes he might bring. They held on selfishly and even murderously to their own power and self-determination as long as they could, refusing to know Messiah, much less follow him. Sadly, I did the same until I met Jesus personally.

And so this year, this Christmas, the climate of change and uncertainty and unpredictability that we face—may not be all bad. The people who walked faithfully into that first Christmas knew that change was needed, in their own lives and in their nation, and they knew that trusting God and following his Messiah into the uncertainty was the only path forward. Perhaps we have a similar opportunity.

I leave it to you to determine how this may apply to your own life, or your church’s. Personally, I am coming to the end of this year with a sense that I need Messiah’s presence in my life in a fresh new way, and I need him to bring change. I don’t know what that looks like exactly. But I don’t want things to remain the same. I don’t want to settle for the status quo.

Whoever the President is, whatever shifts are coming in public policy, or in the culture, I want to welcome the changes our sovereign God is bringing, and follow Jesus into them. Some of those changes may come in the form of new challenges, or adversity, or even persecution. I want to follow Jesus there. Some of them may come in the form of new opportunities, or new methods, or a new wave of revival or awakening in our churches, or in our land. I want to follow Jesus there.

The faithful who experienced the first Christmas waited a long time for Messiah to show up in a new way, and to bring change, and to follow him right on through it. I want to be among the faithful this Christmas who will do the same.

Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.