Monday, August 25, 2014

Bad news, Good News


 
The cascade of grim global headlines overwhelmed a friend of mine recently. He announced that he couldn’t take it anymore — at least until tomorrow.

“I don’t know why I care,” he wrote. “I don’t know why I bother. I check the news. Bad. All bad. Unless the news is horrible, it’s bad. Why care? Why bother? Why not just play ‘Angry Birds’ and pretend it doesn’t affect me? It sounds easier.”

Perhaps you can relate. I know I do. Violence and hatred rage everywhere. Wars, skirmishes and suffering flare up where we don’t expect them, and where we do. Ukraine and Russia. Syria. Iraq. Israel and Gaza. West Africa. Death and disease abound. Innocents are infected, blown out of the sky, kidnapped, driven from their homes, shot in the crossfire. In some places, the bad guys seem to be winning — if we can even figure out who the bad guys are. It’s too complicated, too confusing, too depressing. It’s tempting to tune it out.

Most people do.

Not my friend, however. Despite his frustration and discouragement, I know he won’t stop reading, watching, caring and praying. He’s an intelligent and compassionate young man, for one thing. He’s concerned about world affairs. He makes a point of keeping up with what’s happening and tries to understand it, unlike many others.

Most important, as a child of God, he’s in touch with the mind and heart of God, who so loved the world that He gave His only Son to redeem it. If He loved even those who hated Him, we must do likewise.

“The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love,” the Apostle John teaches. “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world” (1 John 4:8-14, NASB).

It’s only His love, through His Spirit, that changes a broken world. By His grace, He chooses to use us, if we submit to Him. His love is more than enough to make up for our lack of it.

Another young person I know returned recently from a youth mission trip to Amsterdam, the Dutch capital. She and the group arrived there the same week in July that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew. Two-thirds of the passengers were Dutch. People on the streets of Amsterdam were just beginning to experience the shock of the tragedy as the youth team walked through the city and distributed more than 6,000 copies of the Gospel of John.

Some people they encountered rejected the small gifts of truth. Like many Europeans, the Dutch consider themselves secular and post-Christian. But many accepted it— many more than the Amsterdam-based Christian worker helping the young people expected — and they began reading it. Perhaps they were looking for something to hold onto, something to hope in.

While interacting with them, my young acquaintance learned some things about herself. She realized she wasn’t as tolerant, as patient or as loving as she thought she was.

“But through learning all these ‘I am nots,’ I learned who God is,” she said. Distributing the Gospel, “even if they were going to reject it a second later, is so much more important than my comfort. … I learned to really care for and love the Dutch people.”

So it is with all who seek to follow Him. It’s not who we are; it’s who He is. And He has overcome the world.

(Explore ways to follow Him into the world at http://going.imb.org/ )

The ‘idiotic’ call to go

                                                                   

A pair of media blowhards fired off some harsh comments as Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, the American medical missionaries who contracted Ebola in West Africa while treating the sick, were being flown to the United States for treatment in recent days.

“Idiotic,” sneered pundit Ann Coulter. What were they doing “slinking off” to a Third World “cesspool” in the first place when we have so many problems at home? It’s pointless, selfish and expensive, Coulter declared. Aren’t there needy people right here? Can’t you serve Christ in America?

If these two missionaries chose to go someplace that dangerous, chimed in rich guy Donald Trump, let them deal with the consequences. Don’t endanger people here by allowing them back into our country with a deadly virus.

So much for centuries of Christian medical missions. So much for a tradition of healing bodies and souls that goes back to Christ Himself. Let ’em die — the sick and the healers.

Others have commented eloquently in defense of the two missionaries and their motivations. I especially appreciate the words of Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: “American Christians are not ‘slinking off’ to foreign countries in order to escape the United States; they are going in obedience to the command of Christ. True Gospel missionaries — those faithful to the command of Jesus Christ — are not driven by ‘narcissism,’ to use Ann Coulter’s word, they are indeed heroic. More than heroic, they are simply faithful.”

The good news: A positive witness for Christ has spread far and wide as news organizations have covered the faithfulness of these two missionaries. Millions have been inspired by their commitment.

Many times over the years, however, I’ve heard sincere church folks express essentially the same opinions as Coulter and Trump about cross-cultural missions — perhaps with a softer edge. “Why do we have to send missionaries way over there?” they ask. “We have lost and needy people right here. Times are hard. We need to take care of our own first.”

Hearing those excuses for ignoring Christ’s command to go into all the world, rehashed yet again, reminded me of another medical missionary: Bill Wallace. He never made it home. 

Wallace, a young physician from Tennessee, went to China as a Southern Baptist missionary in 1935. Those were hard times, too — maybe harder, since America was in the depths of the Great Depression. Plenty of Tennesseans had little or no medical care, but Wallace up and went about as far away from home as he could go. 

Why? The tall, shy Knoxville native wasn’t much for words. If a Depression-era Ann Coulter had challenged him, he probably would have shrugged and grinned.

The son of a doctor, he tagged along with his father on patient rounds. At age 17, while working on a car in the family garage, he heard God’s call to medical missions. He recorded his commitment on the back leaf of his New Testament and never turned back. After college, medical school and a surgical residency at Knoxville's General Hospital, Wallace was appointed a missionary 10 years to the month after he made his garage commitment.

He went to Wuchow (now Wuzhou) in southern China, where overworked missionaries at the Baptist-run Stout Memorial Hospital were praying for a surgeon. Wallace immediately gained a reputation as a quiet and tireless worker, a gifted surgeon and a committed servant of Christ. A colleague once advised that anyone looking for Wallace should seek out the sickest patient in the hospital; Wallace would be there.

War came. Wallace worked through Japanese bombing raids as the stretchers of the wounded lined the halls, once finishing an operation after the hospital took a direct hit. He refused to leave Wuchow as the invading Japanese closed in. To urgent appeals that he flee Wuchow, he responded, “I will stay as long as I am able to serve.” He evacuated the entire hospital in 1944, only a few days ahead of Japanese forces — transporting patients, staff and equipment by boat hundreds of miles upriver. There they tended the sick and suffering of the surrounding countryside until the advancing Japanese army forced them to move again.

Wallace and his band of healers endured incredible hardships, but came back to Wuchow in 1945 when the tide of war turned. He repaired the badly damaged Stout hospital and got back to work. He nearly died from typhoid fever in 1948. After recovering, he worked in Wuchow after the communist defeat of the Nationalist Chinese in 1949, earning even the grudging respect of communist soldiers as he treated their wounds.

But missionaries were no longer welcome in China, and the start of the Korean War in 1950 sparked an intense anti-American propaganda campaign. Wallace was arrested after local authorities “found” a gun under his mattress during a search and accused him of being a spy. “Go on back and take care of the hospital,” he told co-workers after his arrest. “I am ready to give my life if necessary.”

Few believed the official story that the 43-year-old doctor had committed suicide after he was found hanging from a beam in his cell the morning of Feb. 10, 1951. He was quickly buried by friends under the close watch of an armed escort; no religious service was allowed. His remains were not returned to the United States until 1985.

Yes, Bill Wallace “was a martyr,” acknowledged the late Everley Hayes, the missionary nurse who worked with him in his last years and identified his body. “Many think of martyrs as those long-faced people. But I knew a Dr. Wallace who was very much interested in everything around him. He was a martyr not because he died in service but because he so identified with the Chinese people that they considered him one of them. And they loved him.”

After Wallace’s arrest, a commissar summoned many Wuchow citizens to a public meeting and demanded they step forward to denounce the missionary. Not a single person did. The only charge they could make stick, reflected a Roman Catholic missionary who knew Wallace, was that “he went about doing good.” Chinese friends risked punishment to put up a monument on his unmarked grave with these words from the apostle Paul: “For to me to live is Christ.”

Coulter and Trump might not understand those words — or the reality that God’s love encompasses the world, not just the United States. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol understand. I pray that many more of us will.

(Order “Bill Wallace of China,” the classic biography by Jesse C. Fletcher, at http://www.lifeway.com/Product/bill-wallace-of-china-P005253406)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Amid the storm, a quiet wind in ‘House of Islam’

                                                   
 
The Arab Spring movement for freedom, which brought so much hope and expectation to the Middle East just three years ago, is stone-cold dead — hijacked by Islamic extremists, brutalized by repressive governments, trampled into the dust by factional power struggles.

That’s the consensus in the Arab world, now torn apart by civil war, insurgencies, chaos, political crackdowns and a widening confrontation between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. The Syrian war has produced unimaginable suffering and millions of refugees. Iraq might be on the verge of breaking into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish pieces. A well-armed — and murderous — Islamist “caliphate” has emerged, straddling the crumbling borders between Syria and Iraq and threatening both. Egypt has returned to autocracy after rejecting the brief and disastrous rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Next door, yet another round of fighting is crushing the already-fading hopes for peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

Tunisia, where the protests for freedom that led to the Arab Spring began in late 2010, is the only Arab country where real political reforms have taken hold. The more than 400 million mostly Muslim people living elsewhere in the region will have to wait until the desire for change once again overcomes the forces arrayed against change. Like sheep without a shepherd, they wonder if a better future will ever come.

Meanwhile, wave after wave of attacks on Christians appear to threaten the very existence of the church in the Middle East. Prospects for expansion of the Gospel among Arabs would seem bleak at best.

Or are they?

“Could there be more to this current mess than meets the eye?” asks IMB global mission strategist David Garrison. “Could the Muslim world’s agonizing labor pains be leading to some new expression of life that is yet to be revealed?”

The Arab region is only one of nine “rooms” in the Dar al-Islam the global “House of Islam” that encompasses 1.6 billion Muslims, Garrison writes in his new book, A Wind in the House of Islam (WIGTake Resources, 2014). The wider Islamic “house” includes other “rooms” throughout Africa, the Persian world, greater Turkestan (Central Asia), South Asia and Indo-Malaysia.

Garrison is the author of Church Planting Movements: How God is Redeeming a Lost World, which helped revolutionize how evangelicals spread the Gospel among unreached peoples. I highlighted A Wind in the House of Islam in a column last year, before it was published. Now it’s available; I highly recommend it if you want to learn about what God is doing behind the scenes in the Muslim world (order at http://www.WindintheHouse.org).

Over a period of three years, Garrison traveled a quarter of a million miles throughout the Islamic world, conducting interviews with more than 1,000 Muslims who have decided to follow Christ as Lord and Savior.

“Today, in more than 70 separate locations in 29 nations, new movements of Muslim-background followers of Christ are taking place,” he reports. “Each of these movements has crossed the threshold of at least 100 new church starts or 1,000 baptized believers, all of whom have come to Christ over the past two decades. In some countries the numbers within these movements have grown to tens of thousands.

“Though the total number of new Christ followers, between 2 million to 7 million, may be a statistically small drop in the vast sea of Islam, they are not insignificant,” Garrison continues. “Not limited to a remote corner of the Muslim world, these new communities of believers are widespread, from West Africa’s Sahel to the teeming islands of Indonesia — and everywhere in between. ... And these religious renegades are paying an incalculable price [in persecution and rejection] for their spiritual migration to Christ. Yet they continue to come. What began as a few scattered expressions of dissent is now growing more substantial. Historically unprecedented numbers of Muslim men and women are wading against the current of their societies to follow Jesus Christ. And it is only beginning.”

Why historically unprecedented? Because very few such movements occurred during the first 14 centuries of Muslim-Christian interaction. In his research, Garrison identifies 82 instances throughout history of Muslim movements to Christ (defined as the occurrence of at least 1,000 voluntary Muslim baptisms into the Christian faith over a two-decade time span). Of these 82 movements, 69 are occurring today — and began within the past 20 years.

“These 21st-century movements are not isolated to one or two corners of the world,” Garrison says. “They are taking place across the Muslim world, including sub-Saharan Africa, the Persian world, the Arab world, in Turkestan, in South Asia and in Southeast Asia.”

Specific locations include Iran, heart of the Shiite revival; Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world; Algeria, where a struggle between Islamists and the military saw more than 100,000 civilians killed in the 1990s; Central Asia, ruled for generations by Soviet communism and, for centuries before that, by rigid forms of Islam; and Bangladesh, born in the blood of a war for independence from Pakistan in 1971, ravaged by poverty and natural disasters. Garrison includes actual testimonies from Muslim-background Christ followers — Islamic sheikhs and imams in the Horn of Africa, jihadi warriors from the Afghan frontier, Sufi mullahs from Bengali villages. 

One of them, a 50-year-old Arab Muslim named Sabri,* became a follower of Christ after hearing the Gospel from Nasr,* another Muslim-background believer. Raised in a strong Islamic environment, Sabri says he “began to see the truth from a lie, and I wanted to follow the truth.” He led his family to faith and now leads a network of 400 believers in his area, including 25 disciple group leaders.

“We keep the groups really small because it causes a problem when the groups get large,” he explains. They also use caution in their contacts with traditional Arab Christian churches, which often fear self-identified Muslim converts to Christ will bring persecution — or suspect they might be agents of the secret police. Still, Muslim-background believer groups are growing in the area.

“There are a large number of secret believers,” Nasr says. “We need to say to the masses, ‘Come.’”

If Garrison’s findings are accurate, many more will come.

“Something is happening — something historic, something unprecedented,” he writes. “A wind is blowing through the House of Islam.”

*(Name changed)

Monday, July 7, 2014

Retreat and return

                                                    
No matter how long the school year dragged on, I knew that once summer came, I’d get to go to my grandmother’s beach house.

Once there, I could count on her good cooking and unconditional love. We fished in the surf or from the boardwalk. We watched the sun go down beyond the horizon as the ocean wind cooled our faces. We talked, but silence was just as good. Being together sufficed.

I think about those summers as the July heat begins to bake. Grandma is long gone, and I miss her. But my spirit still yearns for beaches, rivers, mountains and other places that offer respite from the daily routine.

It’s a desire common to humanity. It predates by millennia the idea of vacation, which is a modern phenomenon. We long for a break — however brief — from the day to day, a pause from the familiar. We crave rest and renewal. A “separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power and a life-enhancing return,” the folklorist Arnold van Gennep described it. 

Church folks call it retreat. Modern-day retreats have become scheduled events with programs, speakers, themes and such. But the older concept of Christian spiritual retreat harks back to the holy men and women of the early church who went into the desert to seek the Lord. They followed the example of Christ, who sought out the wilderness to pray and be alone with His Father before returning to minister to the needy crowds.

The craving for retreat is never stronger than when the world seems to be falling apart. Wars that were supposed to be over aren’t. Old enemies remain and new ones emerge. Political and cultural disputes become more hateful by the day. People refuse to make peace with God — or each other — and hold onto their evil ways. Those closest to us let us down. We let them down. We disappoint the Lord. It’s time for a rest and a fresh start.  

These are times for a retreat in the old sense. Jesus beckons us to come away with Him to a quiet place, there to rest with Him and renew our spirits. Vacation is OK, but it’s a poor imitation of walking with Jesus in the wilderness.

The other great thing about true retreat is returning to the world. Vacations these days tend to be rushed, expensive, over-planned, more tiring than the demands they’re supposed to relieve. When you get home, you’re ready for a vacation from your vacation. But you return from a retreat with the Lord refreshed, renewed and ready to follow Him back into the fray.  

And that’s the real point of retreat: being with God, then returning to the world. He needs servants who have met with Him before they enter the global struggle for souls. If we try to serve Him in our own puny power, we’ll make no impact.

Seek Him in the wilderness and quiet, and renew yourself in His Spirit. Return to the world to shine His light into its darkness.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

‘Pray for my friends,’ 8-year-old asks

                                                
                                                    

Jacob,* age 8, probably isn’t up to speed on the cultural and spiritual struggles going on in America.

He’s a kid, for one thing. He doesn’t live in the United States most of the time, for another. His parents are Southern Baptist workers in North Africa and the Middle East.

He doesn’t understand why far more violent conflicts are exploding around him and his family, either. He just knows that he misses his friends.

See, Jacob is sort of a refugee. His family had to leave the country where they were serving because of potential threats. They’re serving in another place for now, but leaving the home and people they love has been hard on all of them — especially Jacob.

“This past year I have had to move around a lot,” Jacob wrote in a recent prayer message to American kids. “I love playing sports and meet lots of friends by playing sports at clubs. I have lived in three different countries in [North Africa and the Middle East]. In each of those countries I have friends that I have made by playing sports. 

 “These friends are just like me,” Jacob said. “But they don’t know about Jesus. Please pray that these friends of mine would come to know Jesus. Also pray for them to be safe, as they all live in very unsafe countries where there are wars and bombs and really bad people. Pray that these bad people would come to know Jesus, too. Pray that it would be safer in these countries, so I can go back to them and see my friends.”

I could leave it there, since Jacob’s words are more powerful than anything I might add. But I read his simple plea for prayer as Southern Baptists, at their 2014 annual meeting in Baltimore June 10-11, were doing some soul-searching about struggling churches, declining baptism rates and the lack of evangelism in an increasingly secular culture.

 “God, please forgive us for not being obedient and sharing the Good News of the Gospel with those in our community,” outgoing Southern Baptist Convention President Fred Luter prayed during the meeting, after noting that 80 percent of Southern Baptist churches baptize only one person per year between the ages of 18 and 29.

“America is rapidly … turning into a pagan nation,” Luter said, and the cure — the only cure — is the name of Jesus.

But do we really believe that? Do we really believe that Jesus is the only way to reconciliation and personal relationship with God? Beyond all the debate about the best evangelism tools and strategies and approaches to employ in a rapidly changing culture, that is the fundamental question: Do we still believe it ourselves?

In an aggressively “inclusive” environment, perhaps the most countercultural words in the Bible come from Jesus Himself, shortly before His death and resurrection:

“Thomas said to Him, ‘Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.  If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him’” (John 14:5-7, NASB).

This is the heart of the Gospel of Christ, according to the New Testament. There are any number of ways to communicate it and demonstrate it effectively, lovingly and redemptively. You can accept it, reject it or ignore it. But there is no way around it. Jesus is the way to the Father.

Several years ago, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, observed that the American evangelical church was “losing its voice” just as the opportunity to declare the Gospel worldwide is greater than ever. The issue, he said, is a “failure of theological nerve — a devastating loss of biblical and doctrinal conviction. Put bluntly, many who claim to be Christians simply do not believe that anyone is actually lost.”

The death of missions inevitably follows such a loss of nerve and conviction, since there is no reason to preach the Gospel among all nations if preaching it and hearing it aren’t life-or-death matters.

That brings me back to young Jacob in North Africa and the Middle East. He might not have all the theological arguments and explanations worked out, but he loves his friends. He’s also concerned about the “bad people” setting off bombs and hurting others, even though he’s been forced to move because of the havoc they are causing in the region. He knows they are lost, friends and enemies alike, and that it is indeed a life-or-death matter.

He knows Jesus is Lord and wants them to know it, too. That’s all the theology Jacob needs to obey Christ’s command.

*(Name changed)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Break the rules, grads

                                                
 
Graduation season is a time for pithy quotations. Here are three of my favorites:

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

 “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” — Winston Churchill

“If at first you don’t succeed, do it like your mother told you.” — author unknown

 I especially like that last one. But doing it your way is better no matter what, say many commencement speakers.
 
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life,” the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, told the 2005 graduating class at Stanford University. “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

Be your own person, in other words. Blaze your own trail. Break all the rules.

Ironic, since “a graduation ceremony is an event where the commencement speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that ‘individuality’ is the key to success,” humorist Robert Orben once observed.

If you really want to break the rules in our culture of hyper-individualism, surrender your future to the will of another — God’s will, to be specific.

“What is the Lord’s invitation?” IMB President Tom Elliff asked a group of recent “graduates” – 59 new missionaries appointed in May to serve around the world. “We read in Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 11, beginning in verse 28, ‘Come to Me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.’”

Of the three commands in the passage — come, take and learn — the second one might be the hardest for us, because it involves voluntary submission. For folks unfamiliar with farm life, a yoke is a wooden crosspiece laid over the necks of oxen or other work animals to haul a heavy load. God’s yoke is light, but it is still a yoke, and we must willingly submit to wearing it.

As modern free agents, we like options, choices, negotiating the best deal, haggling for the best salary or price. There is no negotiation with God. He is gentle, but He is Lord. You obey Him or reject Him.

Jesus’ offer is “an invitation to surrender,” Elliff explained. “Sometimes we talk about the importance of the fear of God. It doesn’t mean to cower before Him as a slave would cower before a master. What does it mean? It means to have such a big idea of God that you just surrender. … Jesus is saying, ‘Surrender. Give up. My way is best. Just surrender to Me.’”

And it’s not a one-time thing. You must surrender daily to follow Him.

But joy comes in obedience. One of the new missionaries appointed in May, a physician, could barely contain his exuberance.

“When I was in high school, God instilled in me two desires: to preach His Word where it has never been heard and to pursue a career in medicine,” he said. “After many years of training and preparation, now is the time! I’m excited to be ‘His hands,’ bringing physical healing and spreading seeds of the Gospel.”

When you surrender to God, others see Jesus in you. They begin to surrender to Him, too. Lives change. Communities change. The world changes.

Graduates, that’s an infinitely better way to live your life than doing it your way.

(Explore the possibilities for surrendering to God in missions at  www.going.imb.org.)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

New Americans


                                                    

 
The scene unfolded in the seventh-floor courtroom of the United States District Court, Eastern District of Virginia, imposing and a little intimidating in its dark-paneled solemnity.

But the mood was anything but solemn on a beautiful spring day as 72 immigrants crowded into the chamber to take the oath of U.S. citizenship, accompanied by throngs of family members, friends and assorted crying babies. “Cries of freedom,” the judge wryly observed later in the ceremony.

The citizens-to-be filled the jury box and one entire side of the courtroom. The rest of us packed every remaining seat. “Are you sufficiently uncomfortable?” asked the court official who heroically attempted to arrange us. Yes, ma’am.

I was there to cheer Helen, 20, a member of my church who emigrated from Nepal with her family nine years ago (her younger brother would become a citizen two days later). Now a rising junior in college, she’s majoring in social work and wants to serve God by serving the poor and needy. She’s already been doing that for years by helping her mother, who ministers to Nepali refugees resettling in our area.

This being a government function, paperwork and plenty of hurry-up-and-wait came first. This being Virginia — and one of the original court districts established by the Judiciary Act of 1789 — volunteers from the Daughters of the American Revolution assisted. But in the fullness of time, the moment arrived. All rose as Judge David J. Novak entered the court to welcome America’s newest citizens and administer the Oath of Allegiance to the United States. 

 “It’s a fine day to become an American. Whaddaya think?” said Novak, the grandson of Czech immigrants, as he strode to the bench.

“We’re a nation of immigrants,” he added, highlighting some of the great Americans who came from other places. New waves of immigration add vitality to our culture. What makes America different? You can go to other countries but never really become one of their own, Novak said, “but anyone can come here from any corner of the world, and you can be an American.” He outlined the rights and duties of citizenship, and then asked the group of 72 to stand and lift their right hands for the oath.

Following the 140-word pledge, Novak declared, “It is an honor to be the first to welcome you to the United States — my fellow citizens!” Applause. Smiles. Tears and hugs. Novak led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and came down from the bench to shake hands with each new citizen as their names and countries of origin were read aloud. 

Despite the racial and linguistic diversity of the group, I had assumed they came from eight or 10 different countries. After all, Richmond isn’t New York, Washington or Los Angeles. I was wrong. These 72 new Americans, in this single ceremony, came from Italy, India, the Philippines, Egypt, Mexico, Iran, Ghana, Kenya, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Brazil, the Netherlands, Honduras, Ethiopia, Canada, El Salvador, Pakistan, Ecuador, China, Guyana, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Belize, Japan, Trinidad and Tobago, Vietnam, New Zealand, Venezuela, Guatemala, Senegal, Bosnia, Croatia, South Korea, Nepal, Morocco and Jamaica.

That’s 38 countries. Count ‘em, 38. E pluribus unum, reads the Great Seal of the United States: “Out of many, one.”

The scene powerfully reminded me that the nations have come to us. Has any land ever been such a powerful magnet to people yearning for freedom and opportunity as America?

Some folks believe American society is being fragmented by the constant inflow of outsiders and that “out of many, one” is becoming “out of many, chaos.” But I’m with Judge Novak: I believe new Americans bring new energy, creativity and productivity to our culture, as they always have.

The more important question: What are God’s purposes in this historic movement of people from everywhere to a single nation?

“We are living in an unprecedented time in the history of our world,” writes IMB urban strategist Terry Sharp. “More people are living outside their country of birth than any other time; many of them are coming to America. In fact, more than 1 million immigrants come to America each year. That’s not counting more than 750,000 international students who will come to study, nor does it include the 75,000 refugees that are resettled in our country each year. Add the business travelers and tourists who are visiting. When you start adding up the numbers, it doesn’t take long to realize that God desires His people groups to hear the Gospel so much that He’s sending them to us.

“As we ponder the opportunities that God has brought to the shores of North America, it’s important to realize that the vast majority of immigrants, international students and refugees are coming from [areas unreached by the Gospel]. Wow! What an opportunity we have to share the Good News with the nations right here at home. That doesn’t mean we don’t go overseas, but it does mean we shouldn’t miss the wonderful opportunities the Father is giving His church. The nations are literally living next door.”

 What can you do?

 Start small. Smile at the woman at the grocery store who came from somewhere else. Help her find the items she needs from the bewildering array of choices. Invite that new family on your street or in your apartment complex over for a meal. Ask about their lives and experiences.

 Listen. Offer assistance with English practice. Help their kids with homework. Offer advice on starting a bank account, finding a doctor, getting a driver’s license.

 Be a friend. Many immigrants and refugees from community-oriented cultures struggle with the hyper-individualism and isolation of American culture. (Find many more ideas and resources here: http://www.ethnecity.com/.)

The newcomer you welcome might be a high-flying business executive, or a struggling refugee. Either way, they need a friend.

And chances are, they need Jesus.