Thursday, December 15, 2011

Home for Christmas

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Mom died 10 years ago.

Can it be that long? I still hear her voice, smell her perfume, smile at her throaty laugh. Surely we talked just the other day.

I would give almost anything to talk to her again.

“Don’t forget to call your momma; I wish I could call mine,” counseled the late, great Southern writer and humorist Lewis Grizzard when his mother was long gone. I never understood the ache behind those words until I couldn’t call Mom anymore.

Home is what I’m talking about. Rick Bragg, another Southern writer, put it this way: “You wake up in your momma’s house and you smell the best bacon you’ve ever had. But more than anything you hear her footsteps. You hear her moving around. And you know that everything’s all right … as long as you can hear that sound.”

At Christmas, thoughts turn homeward, even if the home you once knew no longer exists. It lives on in a place beyond time.

“Christmas Eve will find me where the love light beams,” goes the song. “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

Home. Even folks who never had a happy one long for it. No matter how far we may have wandered, we search for home like the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).

How amazing, then, that Jesus left His home at Christmas, quietly entering this dark world. While we search for home, He searches for us.

Missionaries — or anyone who leaves the comforts of home and crosses cultures to seek wandering souls — follow in His footsteps. They give up the light and warmth of the familiar to share something eternal with those in search of God. They leave home to remind people where they came from.

“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting,” William Wordsworth wrote. “The soul that rises with us, our life’s star, hath had elsewhere its setting, and cometh from afar: not in entire forgetfulness, and not in utter nakedness, but trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home. …”

In recent years, the impact of ongoing violence, political turmoil and family breakdown has driven many young people in India’s Kashmir region to drugs in any form they can find them: over-the-counter medicines, glue, pills — or for the wealthier, LSD or heroin. More than a third of Kashmiris ages 15 to 35 have become drug addicts, according to unofficial estimates. But a few Muslim-background followers of Christ are reminding them of what they really need.

“I used to drink bottles of codeine every night in order to go to sleep,” said a tall, clean-shaven student in the traditional woolen cloak worn to beat back Kashmiri winters. “I was causing so much pain to my family and living the life of an addict, until I found Christ and was taken in by a group of believers.”

In East Asia, a team of believers traveled five hours on a winding, rocky road before reaching a village overshadowed by a huge monastery. They met a shop owner and one of the team members began sharing Christ with her. She looked stunned as she said, “You are in a village of monks. We are all Buddhists.”

The Christian smiled and said, “We know. That is why we came.” He introduced another team member who had lived as a Buddhist monk in a monastery for 18 years. The former monk said, “I prayed, chanted and meditated for hours every single day, but I did not have peace.” Then he asked the shop owner, “Do you have peace?”

Elsewhere in Asia, a man filled with resentment and hatred over past hurts prepared to buy a gun on the black market to murder his father and stepmother. His sister — unaware of his plan — invited him for a visit. He was amazed to observe how his sister had changed since she had accepted Christ a few years earlier. He abandoned his plan for vengeance, embraced Christ and was baptized.

Soon after, he received a call from his father, who was seriously ill. The new believer forgave his father, told him about Jesus and prayed for him. He used the money he had saved for a gun to help pay for his father’s medical treatment. His father recovered and now attends a church, seeking to learn the ways of God.

Our true home is with God, and Christ is the way to get there. Let’s go home for Christmas.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thankful for small things

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God works through big events that shake the world. He also works through little, life-changing moments that transform individual lives.

There’s been plenty of big stuff this year: global economic turmoil, revolutions reshaping the Arab world, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and fires. It’s some of the “small” stories that return to my mind, though, as Thanksgiving approaches. Here are a few from my annual thankful list, as told by International Mission Board writers around the world:

* Kiyoshi Sugioka entered a busy Tokyo train station with a single purpose in mind — to end his life by jumping in front of a train. The former high-powered investment manager had lost his job, his money, his family, his home and his honor in a financial scandal. “It wasn’t that I wanted to die,” Sugioka recalled. “It was that I didn’t want to live anymore. I wanted to erase my existence.”

He stood at the edge of the platform, looking left and right for approaching trains. Then he remembered a man he had met a year before — IMB missionary Josh Park. He fished Park’s phone number out of his pocket and called him. They met. “I just listened to him talk,” Park said. “I remembered that he wasn’t interested in hearing the Gospel. Then he said, ‘Tell me about God.’” After Park shared the message of salvation, Sugioka prayed to receive Christ.

Today, he works as an accountant, a job he found through a church friend. But he has higher priorities than money. “The people of Japan are very affluent, but their hearts are in poverty,” he says. “The people of Japan need restructuring of their hearts.” (See his story in this video:

* April marked a time of annual remembrance in Rwanda as the nation reflected on the 1994 Hutu-led genocide, when more than 800,000 mostly Tutsi people were slaughtered. While unity is slowly returning, genuine forgiveness is difficult. Many still suffer from the emotional trauma of seeing their families killed.

Georgina Nkubito lost several relatives during the genocide and often sees the Hutu extremists who killed her family. “During April it is hard because of what we have experienced,” she said. “However, we try to be patient when we meet those who wanted to kill us. We remember that the Bible says if you don’t forgive, you won’t be forgiven.” (See the story of Nkubito and her husband at

* On a night like so many others in this South Asian country, multiple sirens blared — ambulances taking the ill and the injured to local hospitals. But no siren sounded for Solomon.

A frail bundle of infected wounds, Solomon lay covered by a white tarp, left on the street next to a trash heap to die. Few noticed him. Such bundles are a common sight in a place where dying on the street is a way of life. But a missionary passing by saw Solomon and wept. She called her husband, who discovered the young man was still alive. He called a missionary doctor friend who spent the afternoon trying to convince a local hospital to admit the broken, emaciated man.
Solomon, perhaps 18, still had the strength to raise his head and look at the strangers. He smiled as he gripped a missionary’s hand. Probably for the first time, he heard the name of Isa (Jesus). He heard that Isa loves him, that he could call upon Isa. He died the next day in the hospital. “Though Solomon has passed from this life, we can praise the Lord that he heard His name before death,” the missionary said. “We hope that Solomon called upon Isa, the One who cares for every overlooked bundle in this world.”

* IMB missionaries Abbey Hammond and Jessica Burke sat on the floor of the Roma grandmother’s house in Macedonia, sipping juice while their hostess explained to relatives on a Skype video call why Americans were in the background.

It’s intriguing to them. Puzzling, even. Roma gypsies — about 200,000 strong in Macedonia — tend to be a cast-off people in Europe. They’re known in Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, for driving horse or pedal carts in traffic and rummaging through trash bins for plastic, metal and cardboard to sell.

But several times a week, Hammond and Burke walk the dirt roads of Roma neighborhoods in Skopje, greeting people by name, drinking coffee in their homes, talking about life and about Jesus Christ.

It’s not easy; Roma in Macedonia are, for the most part, nominally Muslim. They may not know much about their religion, but they know Jesus isn’t part of it. Still, a Bible study begun by missionaries has slowly grown into a church of Roma believers. It surprises Roma when they meet other Roma who are Christians — it doesn’t add up with what they know.

God is surprising like that, Hammond said. Recently, while visiting a Roma family in their home, she gave them a Bible. The father made the women of the family give it back to her. But when a family member was sick soon after, Hammond wrote a card to the wife saying she was praying for them and penned Scripture verses on the card.

“She was so touched she cried — she said it meant a lot to her, and she kept it,” Hammond said. “God got His Word into their home anyway, in a different way than I expected.”

What am I most thankful for? A surprising, unexpected, creative Lord, who brings hope to those in despair, who brings mercy in the midst of unthinkable evil, who reaches out to touch the forgotten, who seeks the cast-offs. And I’m thankful for the people He uses to deliver His love.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Being and doing

At the ripe old age of 18, I was already a total failure — in my own mind, at least.

Lingering insecurities of youth mingled with anxiety about the future. College was hard. The Christian life was harder. And as a relatively new believer, I wasn’t leading crowds of people to Christ — my results-based definition of spiritual success. The more I prayed through my lists of “prospects,” the fewer believed. I couldn’t make a sale, so to speak.

I remember sitting on my bed near tears one night, telling my visiting grandmother that I didn’t really love anyone. If I did, why wouldn’t they give their lives to Christ? She hugged me first, then tried to talk some spiritual sense into me. But I was convinced I had failed God.

What I had actually failed was one of the first lessons of the Gospel: Christ draws people unto Himself as He is lifted up. Salvation is His gift, accomplished by His power and grace, not by our paltry efforts. Our first and highest calling is to love Him, to worship Him, to serve Him — as He reminded frazzled Martha long ago. Martha was angry that her sister, Mary, sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha rushed around preparing to serve the crowd gathered in her home to listen to the Master. “But the Lord answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her’” (Luke 10:38-42, NASB).

The natural result of a close relationship with Christ is to love others, to joyfully obey His command to tell the world about Him, to make disciples. Teacher and preacher Ron Dunn called evangelism the “overflow” of our walk with the Lord.

Eventually I got those priorities in order, though I still need regular reminders from God’s Word and some of His wiser servants. A spiritual classic I discovered in that first year of college helped greatly: “No Man is an Island” by Thomas Merton, the former skeptic who became a renowned Christian mystic. A single chapter in that book, titled “Being and Doing,” revolutionized my spiritual life.

“We are warmed by the fire, not the smoke of the fire. We are carried over the sea by a ship, not by the wake of a ship. So too, what we are is to be sought in the invisible depths of our own being, not in outward reflection in our own acts,” Merton wrote. “Our soul only finds itself when it acts. We must act. Stagnation brings death. … [B]ut I must not plunge my whole self into what I think and do, or seek always to find myself in the work I have done. …When we constantly look in the mirror of our own acts, our spiritual double-vision splits us into two people. We strain to see and we forget which image is real. … We can never be real enough or active enough. The less we are able to be the more we must do. … In order to find God in ourselves, we must stop looking at ourselves, stop checking and verifying ourselves in the mirror of our own futility, and be content to be in God and to do whatever God wills, according to our limitations, judging our acts not in the light of our own illusions, but in the light of God’s reality. …”

If that didn’t quite make sense the first time through, read it again. Read it a hundred times if necessary. It might change your life, too.

Be warned, however: Being before doing is extremely difficult in a culture (perhaps even a church or mission ministry?) that puts a premium on ceaseless movement and activity. It has become nearly impossible to be still in our day. Yet if I understand Psalm 46:10 correctly, stillness is a prerequisite for fulfilling the mission of God: “He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.’”

An alternate translation for “be still” is “cease striving.” Try putting this in your next monthly report: “I ceased striving and was still.” It might not go over too well. But if you’re reporting to God, it ought to come at the top of the list.

“If being precedes doing, then isn’t it true that being with Jesus should precede doing for Jesus?” International Mission Board President Tom Elliff asked a gathering several years ago. “The essence of lordship is intimacy with Him. A person who does not walk intimately with Christ cannot expect God’s blessing … leadership or protection. How arrogant it is for us to believe that we can be and do anything empowered by the Spirit, unless we develop intimacy with Jesus.”

New missionaries sometimes rush into different cultures and places of spiritual darkness with that kind of arrogance, whether they admit it or not. They inevitably crash and burn. Some never recover from the experience. Others learn the wisdom of building deep intimacy with God before attempting to make an impact on others.

Randy Rains, IMB’s leader for spiritual life and formation, calls that process the “two journeys.”

“Jesus constantly reminds us to pay attention to the relationship, to the inner journey of the soul,” Rains observes. “We certainly need to attempt great things in Jesus’ name and exercise the authority and power He has given us in sharing the Gospel of the kingdom. Yet we must be ever mindful of our inner journey, of who we are becoming in our relationship with God in Christ. What is happening in the inner journey of our soul is of eternal consequence. The question is how and to what extent are we being transformed by God’s Spirit into the image of Christ for the sake of others to God’s glory? We must let the words of our Lord be a constant reminder: ‘Apart from me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5, ESV).”

Missionaries need that reminder. So do the rest of us.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Immigration reshaping U.S. cities

Immigrants flowing into urban America live mostly in the inner cities of huge metro areas, form tight ethnic enclaves and stick together, right?

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

Yesterday, cities were in the nations. Today, the nations are in the cities, urban ministry pioneer Ray Bakke has observed. But to reach those nations, or peoples, for Christ, we need to understand who they are, where they are and how they are moving and changing.

“The epicenter of the urban wave in North America is ethnic minorities,” Troy Bush told pastors, lay church leaders and others during a session of “ethnéCITY: Reaching the Unreached in the Urban Center,” held Oct. 20-22 at Park Slope Community Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. “How are we going to tap into this, not only to reach them with the Gospel, but to mobilize them so that they will be the ones reaching people groups? … We must recognize what God is doing in our cities and seize the day.”

Bush, a former missionary to Moscow, leads the Dehoney Center for Urban Ministry Training at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. He also directs The Rebuild Initiative, a national urban leadership and church-planting network based in Atlanta, one of the most ethnically diverse communities in America. While working with the North American Mission Board, he directed church planting in Baltimore, another city undergoing major ethnic change.

Using new data about urban immigrants in America from the Brookings Institution, Bush examined some key changes in the decade between 2000 and 2010. The number of foreign-born people in the United States reached 40 million in 2010, a 28 percent increase since 2000 — and about 13 percent of the nation’s total population. More than a third of new immigrants during the decade came from Asia, while the fastest-growing group came from Africa.

Immigrants living in the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas increased 27 percent during the period. The five cities with the largest foreign-born populations: New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Houston. But the top five’s share of the total immigrant population dipped from 43 percent to 38 percent during the decade. The fastest growth came in smaller and mid-sized cities.

The Brookings study reports: “A swath of metro areas from Scranton (Pa.) stretching southwest to Indianapolis and Little Rock and sweeping east to encompass most of the Southeast and lower mid-Atlantic — including states and localities that have been flashpoints in the immigration debate — saw growth rates on the order of three times that of the 100-largest-metro-areas rate. These include Charlotte, Raleigh, Nashville and Indianapolis, all of which passed the 100,000 mark for total foreign-born population by 2010.”

“These aren’t your Chicagos, L.A.’s, New Yorks, your normal gateway cities for immigrants,” Bush said. “These are medium-size cities. … Many [immigrants and refugees] coming from places like Somalia are only passing through LaGuardia or JFK [airports in New York] as they go straight to Louisville, straight to Kansas City, straight to Memphis. They’re bypassing these large cities right from the start.”

Similarly, the state with the fastest-growing immigrant population isn’t California or New York, but North Carolina. Number two: Georgia — followed by Arkansas, Nevada and Tennessee.

“So when we think strategically about where we’re going to engage unreached people groups, it’s OK to think about coming to Atlanta,” Bush said. “It really is. Why? Because they’re coming there! The largest Hindu temple in the entire U.S. is in Atlanta, in Gwinnett County.”

Another key trend: New immigrants are increasingly settling in the suburbs of metro areas rather than traditional inner-city ethnic enclaves as they seek better neighborhoods, jobs and schools. By 2010, slightly more than half of all immigrants could be found in suburbs.

“The younger generations that are moving in today, almost regardless of where they are coming from, are skipping completely over the center city. They’re actually starting in the suburbs,” said Bush. “They’re not going into ethnic enclaves that once made up the cores of those cities.”

Perhaps even more significant is the increase of second-generation immigrants in the cities and the nation at large. More than half of the children in Los Angeles, Miami and San Francisco are second-generation — i.e., U.S.-born but with at least one foreign-born parent. They now account for more than 11 percent of the national population.

“This is a wave that we’ve really, really got to get on the radar,” Bush urged. “But here’s the thing to watch: Second-generation immigrant children represent 25 percent of all of the children under 18 in the United States. It is an enormous wave that is beginning to crash down on us.”

Second-gens often leave their parents’ homes, neighborhoods and ethnic communities. They move around (a trait that also typifies many new immigrants). They change. Their worldviews change. They create new patterns and cultures. In some cases, they actually form new people groups. “New American ethnic groups are forming more quickly than ever before [and they are] the children and grandchildren of today’s immigrants,” write Alejandro Portes and Ruben G. Rumbaut, authors of Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation.

Bottom line: There’s no simple formula for reaching the “nations in the cities.” But any number of creative ministries can meet specific needs. Bush cited 11 different church-planting models that work effectively in different contexts. There surely are more.

“No one church can get its arms completely around any metro, especially a larger metro,” Bush said. “So what I encourage churches to do is begin in their own neighborhoods, geographically and relationally. Because in many cases, through their work and their play, they’re encountering many of the different ethnic groups that are coming into their communities. The census is certainly a good starting point, but relief agencies and especially immigration agencies are actively looking for church partners who will come alongside as they’re bringing in peoples — many of whom are coming from closed countries and unreached people groups.”

What ultimately works, regardless of location or context, is Jesus Christ’s model of disciple-making.

“There are no two cities that are exactly the same, but when it comes down to it, the heart of everything we need to do comes back to proclaiming the Gospel, displaying the Gospel and making disciples that congregate into reproducing, multiplying churches. That core is central whether we’re in Moscow or we’re in Mumbai,” Bush said.

“We need to model how to live as believers with immigrants. We need to share meals with them. We need to share life together. Our homes need to be places where we invite them not to come for a meal but to come for a month. … They see how you cling to Christ when there’s nothing else to cling to. It’s not just something you talk about in a Bible study. It’s who you are as a disciple.”

(ethnéCITY, co-sponsored by IMB and the North American Mission Board, reflects the reality that national borders no longer define the task of missions in a globalized world. Two more ethnéCITY conferences are set for Nov. 17-19 in Houston and May 3-5 in Vancouver. To find out more or register, visit

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Somebody's got it harder than you do

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Checked my retirement fund the other day. Nearly choked. Guess I’ll be working a little longer than I had anticipated — like, forever.

I’m not complaining, though. I’ve still got a job. I know plenty of people who’ve lost their jobs and their homes, who can’t find work anywhere, who wonder how long they’ll be able to provide for their families. You know some, too, I’m sure. You might be one of them.

The great economic recovery-that-wasn’t seems to be settling in for the long haul. Maybe years. It’s global in scale, and even a coordinated international response — which world leaders seem to be stumbling toward in agonizingly slow motion — will take time to produce results.

One thing is for sure: No matter how bad you’ve got it, somebody else has it worse. While many struggle to pay bills, others are fighting to stave off hunger. In places where hunger was already a daily reality, the ongoing global economic crisis has made survival even more tenuous.

A national survey a few years ago revealed that lower-income folks give more generously to help the needy than the rich do. Maybe they give more because they know what it’s like to need a helping hand themselves. It reminded me of the Apostle Paul’s tribute to the selfless givers of the early Macedonian churches. They looked past their own struggles with poverty and anti-Christian persecution to give a sacrificial offering for the desperately needy Jewish followers of Christ in Jerusalem:

“In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us” (2 Corinthians 8:2-5).

Paul shared that motivational nudge with the relatively affluent believers in the church at Corinth, whom he also hoped would contribute to the offering for the poor in Jerusalem. It’s a timely message for us, too, as Southern Baptists observe World Hunger Day Oct. 9. (For more information, visit or Regardless of the harder times Americans now face, this is no time for us to forget people in far greater need.

People such as Najia Khatun,* age 17. Najia and her 14-year-old sister, Amila,* began studying at the Light of Hope Center in Bangladesh when it opened in 2006. Today the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund helps support the center. Najia, Amila and the other 12 girls who come to the center live in slum shacks, but the landlords expect rent. Najia’s father comes and goes; her mother doesn’t work. One older sister is sick. Najia and Amila are expected to bring home money, however they can get it.

Some of the girls at the center were raised by beggars to become beggars. Others have mothers who work as prostitutes. But inside the center, they eat a healthy breakfast, take showers, put on clean school uniforms, hear Bible teaching and sing Christian songs, then begin their studies. Before they go to their places of work as paid apprentices or trainees in jobs arranged by the center, the girls eat a lunch of rice and lentils with vegetables, eggs, fish or meat.

“Before there were a lot of problems in my family. There was no money for food,” Najia said. “Now I have a job, and I am able to help my family. I am the main breadwinner in my family.” (Read Najia’s story at starting Oct. 10).

She also loves and serves Christ. That’s effective ministry. Southern Baptist world hunger giving helped fund such projects in some 70 countries in 2008. Yet Southern Baptists donated just $4.3 million to the World Hunger Fund in 2010 — less than half of what they gave during a 12-month span a decade earlier.

“We are now at a ‘red alert’ time for our human needs funding,” said Jeff Palmer, executive director of Baptist Global Response, an international relief and development organization, in July. “The overseas hunger relief fund is down to $4.1 million — enough to meet the needs of Southern Baptist international hunger projects for six months. These projects help the poorest of the poor, the most neglected and marginalized and some of the most lost people groups in the world. We are approaching a baseline where we are going to have to start denying funds to critical projects.

“Last year was the lowest donations to the World Hunger Fund have been in 20 years. This is very disturbing, seeing the huge need of the crisis looming in the Horn of Africa [where millions face famine]. Our Southern Baptist avenue of seeing the lost, last and least be helped both physically and spiritually is about to dry up.”

Hunger and malnutrition remain the top risks to health worldwide, according to the World Food Programme. Every day, nearly 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes. Right here in America, 49 million people struggle with chronic hunger and malnutrition, including 17 million children, reports the Feeding America relief agency. An estimated 35 percent of poor American families are forced to choose between buying food and paying their rent or mortgage.

Twenty cents of every dollar given to the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund goes to the North American Mission Board to support hunger projects in the United States. Eighty cents of every dollar goes to the International Mission Board to support direct hunger ministry, well drilling, agricultural education, water purification and other efforts that help create independence from reliance on food aid. Every cent goes toward ministry. Mission personnel are already in place; administrative and promotional costs are paid by other budgets.

The Good News of salvation through Christ is shared whenever possible.

The Macedonian believers in Paul’s day had it a lot harder than we do. Yet in “their extreme poverty … they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability” for the hungry brethren in Jerusalem. Let’s do the same for hungry people all over the world today.

(Watch a short video about global hunger and the ministries made possible by the World Hunger Fund:

*Names changed

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Crossing the line

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Years ago, a missionary sat in the dirt with some pastors in post-revolution Zimbabwe.

The newly independent African nation was a dangerous place at the time. Chaos ruled in some areas. The missionary, Tom Elliff (now International Mission Board president), had found a spiritually responsive group of people in one such place.

“Who will pastor those people?” Elliff asked the church leaders. They looked at each other. Eyes clouded. Heads shook.

“We’re not going,” one pastor finally replied, speaking for the group. “People get shot down there. Just last week, someone was shot off the top of a bus.”

Another pastor reported that a missionary had been killed in the area recently.

“Well, at least we can pray,” Elliff said. So they prayed to the Lord of the harvest to send someone.

The meeting dismissed. Everyone left — except one young pastor, barely out of his teens. He limped slowly over to Elliff and said, “I’ll go.”

“Wait a minute,” Elliff cautioned, stealing a glance at the pastor’s thin legs. “You heard what they said about the danger, didn’t you?”

“I’ll go,” the young man repeated firmly. “But you’ve got to promise to bring me a bicycle. I had polio and I can’t walk very well. I’m about eight miles away, so walking out there is going to be tough.”

Elliff promised to bring the bicycle as soon as possible. He returned a few weeks later with a two-wheeler in tow.

“Where have you been?” the pastor demanded. “I’ve been walking out there and back on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Several people are awaiting baptism.”

Dumbfounded, Elliff stammered, “What about those stories of people getting shot?”

The young man smiled. “Brother,” he said, “if God could stop the mouths of the lions for Daniel, he can stop the muzzles of the guns for me.”

Elliff told that story at a recent appointment service for new missionaries. It illustrated the Apostle Paul’s case for missions:

“For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; for ‘Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!’” (Romans 10:12-15, NASB)

Even hobbled feet are beautiful when they bring good news. The young pastor answered the mission call when other “stronger” men refused. He also embodied Paul’s other point: In the age of Christ, all distinctions between Jews and Greeks, differing people groups, friends and enemies, family and strangers must fall. The Gospel invitation to God’s kingdom is for all. Paul himself learned that truth as he read the Scriptures with new spiritual eyes following his encounter with Christ. Once he grasped God’s mission, the one-time Jewish zealot and persecutor of believers became the missionary to the Gentiles, launching the Christian church as a global enterprise.

Missions, in contrast to sharing your faith with someone who looks, talks and thinks like you, involves crossing lines, some of which aren’t visible. They might be national borders, cultural and language barriers, racial and ethnic differences, religious divisions, sometimes physical danger zones like the one crossed by that young African pastor. Even in the barrier-blasting age of broadcast and social media, transmitting the Gospel to a previously untouched people usually requires personal, face-to-face, potentially risky contact.

But not everyone, even in evangelical circles, buys into that concept.

“People have different views of missions, religious people,” Elliff observed during the missionary appointment service. “Not everybody is for it. Well, they’re ‘for it,’ but they’re not for it. … When it comes down to saying it involves your being His hands, being His heart, being His voice, that’s a little costly.” Especially if it costs you your home, your culture, possibly your life.

He reminded listeners of William Carey, another young man who nervously stood up during a meeting of older, wiser pastors in England in 1789. When Carey asked whether Christ’s command to make disciples among all nations still applied — and whether they were, in fact, obligated to follow it — one leading minister replied: “Sit down, young man. … When God wants to convert the world, he can do it without your help.”

Undaunted, Carey persisted. His revolutionary 1792 call to obedience, “An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens,” laid the foundation for the evangelical mission movement. Words like “conversion” and “heathens” might sound uncomfortable to our contemporary ears, but this document is as fresh and relevant today as it was then (read it at Remember, also, that Carey personally obeyed his own call to “use means” to extend the Gospel where it was unknown. He lived, taught and preached the Good News among the Bengali people of India for four decades, serving in countless practical ways where others sought to exploit.

I was bemused recently by a journalist who cautioned his readers about folks who embrace a “literal reading” of Matthew 28:19-20, Christ’s call to make disciples among all nations. Please. What other coherent reading is there for this passage? Either Jesus said it or He didn’t. If He said it, He clearly intended it as an action plan for the spread of His church among all peoples. It flows seamlessly from God’s promise — 2,000 years before Christ — to bless “all the families of the earth” through Abraham’s seed (Genesis 12:3b).

The Gospel’s most powerful foes, however, aren’t skeptical journalists, hostile cultures or persecution. They are believers who don’t take the message seriously enough to share it across any and every barrier. The Good News isn’t good news if it never arrives.

I don’t know about you. But if someone hadn’t “used means” to share Jesus with a wretch like me, I’d still be lost — and probably dead. God help me not to ignore others in similar circumstances.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Genessa Wells: a brief, passionate life for God

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Everybody remembers where they were on Sept. 11, 2001.

Stan Aaron* remembers even more clearly where he was one day before the 9/11 attacks — awakened with the news that his 24-year-old friend, Genessa Wells, had died in a bus accident in the Egyptian desert. “I wept deeply,” he says, “And I still get overwhelmed with emotion thinking about her.”

Remembering Wells, a Southern Baptist teacher and musician who served in Egypt for nearly two years, has that effect on the people who knew her. Tears, then joy.

“Everyone wanted to be around her,” recalls another of her many American and Arab friends. They couldn’t get enough of her laugh, her goofy comedy routines, the trademark shuffle in her step folks kidded her about.

And her voice. The voice of an angel.

“She sang all the time,” recounts another friend. “Not always praise songs, but most of the time.”
It wasn’t really about music for Wells, though she was a gifted musician. It was about worship. “One of the last times I saw her, we went on a retreat to the beach,” says the friend. “She gave me voice lessons on the beach and made me practice letting my voice go — just allowing myself to praise God and not be timid about it. She pushed me to do it.”

Another colleague learned a lot about worship just by watching and listening to Wells sing: “The Graham Kendrick song, Knowing You, came alive for me as Genessa led us in singing it — beautiful voice, tears streaming down her face, as she sang those lyrics to the Lord.”

Wells, a Houston native and graduate of East Texas Baptist University in Marshall, planned to pursue her study of music in seminary after she came home from Egypt in October 2001. She never made it back. But she packed enough passion for several lifetimes into her brief life. Shortly before she moved to the Middle East in 1999, she wrote:

“I could give up (on overseas service) and get married and become a music teacher. All of this is very noble and to be quite honest, sounds good to me! But in my heart, I want to change my world — more than I want a husband and more than I want comfort. I need this opportunity to grow and to tell others about Jesus. One of my favorite praise songs says, ‘I will never be the same again, I can never return, I’ve closed the door.’”

Two years later, in her last email home, she quoted another praise song:

“‘Open the eyes of my heart, Lord, open the eyes of my heart, I want to see you … shining in the light of your glory …’ It seems that everything we do comes down to one thing: His glory,” she said. “I pray that all our lives reflect that. … It seems like a floodgate has been opened in my heart [to share God’s love]. I have a passion for it I never knew God had given me. He’s given it to me for His glory.”

She struggled with doubts, fears and anxieties like everyone else. But she found God even more real in the depths of her despair, and her strength was renewed: “If we never step on the rock in front of us, we go through life at the same shallow level where we started,” she said.

She shared her passion for God with Egyptians, with Palestinians in refugee camps in Jordan, with Muslims in France, with Bedouin in the desert.

“The desert is becoming one of my favorite places,” she wrote six months before her death. One night under the stars, “the Bedouin prepared a meal for us, even made bread for us over a fire. We ate with our hands and washed the stickiness off by rubbing them in the sand. We told riddles in Arabic and English. … I honestly would not want to be anywhere else but here, where God has put me. He gives me more than I can imagine.”

The world-shaking horror of 9/11 overwhelmed the news of a young woman’s solitary death in the desert, at least at first. Yet the story of Wells’ short, luminous life began to be told again and again. The following year, at a camp in Michigan, Southern Baptist “Acteen” girls studying Wells’ life decided to hold a memorial service for her. They included quotes from her letters and emails, words from her favorite songs, sand and camel cutouts to represent her beloved desert.

It was “the most moving presentation ever shared in our times at camp,” said camp leader Karen Villalpando. “The girls will never forget Genessa. I will never forget their simple service and the young woman who inspired it.”

Tom Hovies, who was tutoring middle schoolers at the time, shared Wells’ story with them and asked them to respond. One of them wrote: “Not many people nowadays are willing to give their life to serving God. I think it was incredible for that girl to use her life for the Lord our God.”

More recently, pastor/author David Platt profiled Wells in his bestselling book, Radical.

“Most people in our culture look upon this story as a tragedy,” he wrote. “A young woman spending the last days of her life in the remote Egyptian desert, only to die in a bus accident. Think of all the potential she had. Think of all she could have accomplished. Think of all she could have done if she had not gone there.”

Yet from the perspective of Christ, it is a story of reward.

“Rest assured, Genessa does not regret missing one moment of the American dream in light of the reward she now experiences,” Platt declared. “This, we remember, is the great reward of the Gospel: God Himself. When we risk our lives to run after Christ, we discover the safety that is found only in His sovereignty, the security that is found only in His love, and the satisfaction that is found only in His presence. … [W]e would be foolish to settle for anything less.”

When Genessa Wells’ belongings were returned to her family in Texas, her grieving older sister, June, found a Scripture passage folded into Genessa’s Bible: Philippians 1:3-12. The Apostle Paul wrote that letter under difficult circumstances, to say the least —imprisonment in Rome for the sake of Christ, to be followed by eventual execution.

The last verse in the passage immediately grabbed June: “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the Gospel” (Philippians 1:12).

“I knew [then] that she was where she was supposed to be,” June said. “I strive to be the person my sister was at only 24 years of age. To have that legacy, to know that you did what God placed you on earth to do, to serve Him. I miss my sister, but I have no doubt in my mind, heart and soul that we will be rejoicing when we reunite. And when I see her again, she will shuffle toward me, smile that silly grin and squeal, ‘Yay! You’ve come home!’”

*(Name changed)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Things fall apart

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Feeling a little unstable lately?

I’m not talking about the earthquake that rattled America’s East Coast the other day — though it symbolizes other forces currently shaking things up.

Financial markets lurch up and down with the latest bit of hopeful or gloomy news, while a dazed global economy hangs on for dear life. Once-stable governments in the so-called developed world, including our own, struggle to contain deep social and economic divisions tearing at the foundations of their nations. Flash mobs randomly assault people on the streets for fun and profit.

Long-term regimes have fallen — or are falling — in the Middle East, but no one is sure what will follow them. Perhaps something worse? Scenarios range from a new dawn of freedom and democracy to the rise of Islamist theocracies across the region.

“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” W.B. Yeats wrote in “The Second Coming,” one of the most-quoted poems of modern times. “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. …”

We can hope “mere anarchy” holds off for a while, but things sure seem to be falling apart, for better or worse. Of course, things always seem to be falling apart. That’s the problem with supposedly indestructible human institutions: They aren’t.

A recent newspaper editorial discussing U.S. defense requirements argued that many military bases overseas “serve little purpose in a post-Soviet world.” The writer thoughtfully added an explanation for those who might be puzzled by the word “Soviet”: “The Soviet Union was an empire of communist states in Eastern Europe, led by Russia, that constituted the principal enemy of the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century.”

Here was an imperial colossus that bestrode half the world for generations — and periodically threatened the rest with nuclear extinction. It crumbled only 20 years ago. Yet the editorialist feared, probably with good reason, that some readers are so historically uninformed or forgetful that they wouldn’t know the Soviet Union had ever existed. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” thundered King Ozymandias of old — long forgotten except for his shattered statue, half-buried in the desert sands.

Even the seemingly eternal institution of bribery in India, as predictable as tea and the rising sun, trembles before the protests of one man, Anna (“elder brother”) Hazare. An ascetic who has galvanized the nation in recent days through his Gandhian tactic of fasting for change, Hazare calls for a “second revolution” to rid Indian society of corruption.

“Graft has long wracked India’s public life and society, running the gamut from small-scale bribes to the police in exchange for dispensing with traffic tickets to massive payoffs to politicians and political parties to acquire complex weapons systems,” reports the journal, Foreign Affairs. “The country’s citizens have frequently complained about this malaise but have rarely, if ever, resorted to organized public protest to register their frustration and anger about this pervasive phenomenon.” This time, many are joining Hazare to demand real change.

Nothing is permanent in human affairs. Changing an institution is pointless, however, without changing hearts. The new institution inevitably sinks into the same swamp as the old.

No wonder Jesus Christ refused to be pressured into leading a political or revolutionary movement to liberate the Jewish nation from the Roman Empire, as some misunderstood his Messianic mission to be.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said when He stood before Pontius Pilate, Rome’s military prefect, before His crucifixion (John 18:36a).

“So you are a king?” Pilate asked.

Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (John 18:37, NASB).

Our mission as His followers, then, is to proclaim His truth in every culture and give every searching heart the opportunity to hear His voice. The millions who search for something permanent in this ever-changing world deserve to know there is a kingdom that will outlast the stars.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ramadan and the summer of discontent

In Syria, Muslims seeking to pray in some cities are dodging shells lobbed at their mosques by the military.

In other Muslim-majority nations swept by recent political change, the hopes raised by the “Arab Spring” are sagging in this summer of doubt and fear about what will happen next as factions struggle for power. “Now Yemen, Libya, Syria, Egypt and Tunisia are all [attempting] similar transitions — at once — but without a neutral arbiter to referee,” observes Thomas Friedman. “It is unprecedented in this region, and we can already see just how hard this will be. … [T]he new dawn will take time to appear.”

In Somalia and its neighbors, meanwhile, masses of Somali Muslim refugees are unwillingly observing a grim Ramadan fast: famine-induced starvation.

Ramadan, the annual month of dawn-to-dusk fasting observed throughout the Muslim world, began Aug. 1. This year, it found millions of Muslims struggling for political freedom, for a better future — or for basic survival.

But Ramadan itself calls Muslims to higher things, things beyond this material world. “Ramadan helps us become conscious of our souls,” explains one Muslim. “Fasting helps us to separate ourselves temporarily from our worldly needs and pursuits so as to become aware of higher needs and pursuits.”

So why should Christians care about a Muslim observance? Because Ramadan is a priceless opportunity to lift Muslims in prayer to God — and to love them in action by His grace — whether they live across the globe or right next door.

The month of fasting isn’t easy, even for Muslims who don’t face political turmoil or life-threatening hunger.

“It is a time when Muslims try to spend more time focusing on [Allah] and learning about patience and humility,” says a Christian worker in South Asia. “We have seen the opposite effect as the month wears on for the millions around us. There are often fights in the traffic jams as people’s patience is frazzled by lack of food and water. There is also the feeling by many that they just are unable to keep the fast and are therefore unable to please [Allah]. Pray that Muslims … will realize their deep need for a Savior. Pray that they will experience the grace and love of God that will forever replace the rules and works of man.”

Make no mistake: Many Muslims eagerly want to know more about Jesus.

A college student from my church has spent the summer ministering to Iraqi Muslim refugees in the Atlanta area. In the course of providing practical help, she’s had many opportunities to share stories from the Bible about Jesus and His Lordship. Nearly everyone listens; several have decided to follow Jesus as Lord.

One 22-year-old Muslim “jumped into this spiritual discussion with us the first time we met him,” my college friend related. “I told him the story about when Jesus calmed the storm. He listened very quietly and was very curious. Once I was done, he said something we’ve kept in our minds: ‘Why do Christians only tell other Christians about Jesus? They should teach the followers of Islam these things, because the Christians already know.’”

Good question. Whether believers assist Him or not, however, God is moving among Muslims.

In Washington, D.C., a group of Christians regularly visits shopping malls to share the Gospel with Muslims. Yet after years of ministry, they “have yet to find a church, of any denomination, who will partner with them,” says a long-time worker among Arab Muslim peoples. “Without a doubt, there have been more people incited to pray, and they are praying. The net result is that, in the absence of Christian obedience to go and make disciples, God is still working and calling Arab Muslims to follow Him in greater numbers than at any other time in history.”

He speaks through His followers when they are faithful to lift Him up. He speaks through His Word. And He speaks through dreams and visions, as countless testimonies from throughout the Muslim world continue to confirm. Here is an account of one such dream from a Kashmiri Muslim woman in India who now follows Christ:

“I was in a beautiful garden, and an old woman dressed in white came up to me and said, ‘Come with me.’ She then took me to a place where I saw Him … Jesus … dressed in white and glowing with love for me. He hugged me and took me in His arms. He set a crimson rose in my lap and then said to me, ‘You are my daughter.’ And all I could do was cry. Then I turned around and saw a huge crowd of hundreds, thousands, all coming to be baptized.”

During the closing days of Ramadan, and particularly on the “Night of Power,” (Aug. 26 this year), many spiritually hungry Muslims will stay up all night, seeking divine forgiveness and praying for a vision. Ask God to answer their prayer with a vision of Jesus, the “man in white” so many other Muslim seekers have encountered. Pray that they will hear His unmistakable voice calling them to Himself — and that they, too, will follow Him.

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For videos, stories and other resources exploring how to love and pray for Muslims, visit

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Churches as generational mission labs

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You’re just entering your prime, baby.

You’re not older; you’re better. You hit the gym with a vengeance. Aches and pains? If you’ve got ’em, you’re not admitting it to yourself or anyone else. You’ve got big plans for the future. Sixty is the new 40. “Retirement” is not part of your vocabulary (you probably won’t be able to afford it, anyway).

You’re a boomer, of course. You and your generational comrades have been turning the world upside down since you were pimply teens. So you’re not going to let little things like age, gravity or mortality slow you down.

Of five emerging trends in American churches cited by LifeWay Christian Resources President Thom Rainer in the Summer 2011 issue of Facts and Trends (, this one struck me:

“Senior adult ministries in churches will experience steep declines.”

Wait a minute. The U.S. population is aging, right? Senior adult ministry ought to be a growth industry. To the contrary: Boomers don’t do “senior.”

“As the large baby boomer generation moves into their older years, they will resist any suggestion that they are senior adults, no matter how senior they may be,” Rainer explains. “Unfortunately, many churches are slow to adapt to new realities. If they do senior adult ministry the way they’ve always done it, it will be headed for failure.”

It makes perfect sense if you understand the boomer psyche. As a generation, we are deep in denial about aging. In our minds, we’re still hip, young and wrinkle-free. And to be fair, medical science has added quite a few years to our potential life spans. In many cases, we really do have more energy and vitality than our parents had when they hit 50 or 60. So we don’t need no stinkin’ shuffleboard. We’re just getting started.

In a recent column I quoted New York Times writer David Brooks, who lamented that so many young college grads are being “sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. … [They] are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.”

It sounds good, but encourages boomeristic self-involvement at the expense of service to others — and to God. Here’s a thought: Instead of passing on our worst trait, what if we boomers reinvented “senior adult ministry” in the years to come? Rather than waiting for churches to minister to us, what if we turned them into laboratories where boomers mentor our successors, the Millennials, to reach our communities and the nations with the love of Christ?

Another trend Rainer highlights: “Our nation will see the emergence of the largest generational mission field in more than a century. According to our current research, the Millennial generation, those born between 1980 and 2000, will have a very low Christian representation. Our estimates now are that only 15 percent are Christian. With a huge population of nearly 80 million, that means that nearly 70 million young people are not Christians. … They are not angry at churches and Christians. They simply ignore us because they do not deem us as meaningful or relevant.”

In this sea of spiritual lostness, churches are floundering to stay afloat.

“The facts are, evangelical Christianity, not to mention mainline Christianity, is declining in America,” Rainer commented in a Baptist Press story earlier this year. “Why? One of the primary reasons is the church — many local churches, I should say — have become more about what we can do for our members than what we can do to reach out beyond.”

But Christian Millennials are asking, “What can we do to become incarnational in our communities? What can we do to reach the nations?”

Christian boomers, who have actively participated in the historic expansion of the Gospel across the globe in the last generation, can help them answer those questions. As a group, Millennials respect their parents and other elders and value relationships with them. That goes double for Millennials in the church — if churches make the effort to nurture that influence.

“They have learned from older people all their lives, and they don’t want to stop now,” Rainer writes. “They want to be led and taught in their places of work, in their churches and in their families. They particularly want to learn from couples who have had long and successful marriages. Many Millennials see such examples as heroes to emulate.”

That’s right, boomers. We can be mentors, even heroes, to Millennials who are searching for godly models of missional servanthood. I can’t think of a better way to defy aging.

It sure beats denial.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Strategy for victory: failure

Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic won 43 straight matches over a period of six months before losing to Roger Federer in the French Open in June.

This amazing series of wins, against the best players in the world, rocked the sport of tennis. But it was the loss, and a string of bitter defeats last year during a self-described personal “crisis,” that set the stage for Djokovic’s greatest triumph to date: his first Wimbledon championship. He beat defending champion Rafael Nadal July 3 in convincing style on the sport’s biggest stage.

“[L]osing that really epic semifinal against Federer — a great match — I managed to recover and to come back … and to win Wimbledon for the first time in my life,” Djokovic told reporters.

Winning is great, but losing helps you get better — if you learn from your mistakes. Any good athlete or coach will tell you the same. Compete with bigger, faster, better players, they advise. Pay the price of losing repeatedly in order to gain the skills to win.

Wise parents and teachers instill the same approach to life in children. “Helicopter parents” who anxiously hover, terrified their kids will stub their toes or not get into the school play, are only ensuring greater failure down the road. If you don’t fail once in a while, you don’t grow. And you fear taking on something really challenging.

Churches, ministry organizations and mission teams often make the same mistake. They stick to the script, the proven program, the best practice. But some brave soul has to discover for the first time what works, usually by repeated failures.

Pastor/author Rick Warren reminds leaders at his church “that they have my permission to make at least one mistake a week,” he wrote in a 2004 Baptist Press column. “I don’t want [them] to fall into sloppy habits, but I do want them to feel free to fail because that means they’ll also feel free to take risks! My point is that if you’re not making mistakes, then you’re probably not trying anything new. And if you’re not trying anything new, then you’re not learning, and if you’re not learning, then you and your ministry will quickly be out of date, perhaps even irrelevant. The secret to being innovative is not being afraid to fail.”

It’s also the secret of faith, Warren added. The unprofitable servant in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-29) was also the unfaithful one. He took no risks with the money his master gave him. Peter, on the other hand, recklessly stepped out of the boat to walk toward Jesus on the stormy sea (Matthew 14:22-31). He began to fail, to sink. His faith was small. But it was greater than that of the other terrified disciples huddling in the boat.

Every business and management book published in the last 25 years probably has a chapter titled “Freedom to fail” or something similar. It sounded great — until the U.S. economy failed spectacularly in 2008 because of foolish risks taken in Washington and on Wall Street. Now investors fear spending their money on new ventures. Businesses hesitate to hire new workers. The economy will never truly recover, however, until people in a position to change things risk failure and show some faith in the future.

“At this point, freedom to fail probably ranks right around freedom to remove your own appendix,” observed business writer Megan McArdle in a recent article for TIME magazine (“In Defense of Failure”).

“That’s a pity, because failure is one of the most economically important tools we have,” McArdle wrote. “The goal shouldn’t be to eliminate failure; it should be to build a system resilient enough to withstand it. … The real secret of our success is that we learn from the past, and then we forget it. Unfortunately, we’re dangerously close to forgetting the most important lessons of our own history: how to fail gracefully and how to get back on our feet with equal grace.”

Too many organizations, however, insist on punishing failure.

“I once taught a workshop in a large organization and included an activity where I asked the delegates to think of the ‘second right answer’ to a problem,” says Mark McGuinness, who coaches organizational creativity. “They looked like rabbits caught in the headlights. When I asked them what was wrong, they told me they were always expected to come up with the right answer and were severely punished for making mistakes. No prizes for guessing how creative they were. And yet — when they relaxed a little — they showed me they were perfectly capable of thinking creatively. It was the fear of punishment that stopped them from using this ability at work.

“People and companies that succeed through innovation take a very different approach to failure. They accept it, or even encourage it, because they know that failure holds the key to success. … Encourage people to try new things and learn from their inevitable mistakes. Reward them for being open and honest about mistakes and failures — so that these are not swept under the carpet, causing even more problems. If you’re going to punish anything, punish failure to learn. If you don’t, the market will.”

Are you listening, ministry leaders? Disciple makers model how to follow the Lord, just as Christ did with the Twelve. He sent them out two by two, let them learn the hard way (see Peter and the boat) and patiently taught them day by day. I’ve lost count of the number of Christian leaders I’ve seen sabotage their own ministries by refusing to allow their followers to grow through failure.

If you want hundreds of examples of victory coming through failure, defeat, loss and despair, read the Bible. The ultimate “failure” of all time was the shameful death of Jesus at the hands of those who misunderstood and rejected Him.

It resulted in eternal victory over death itself.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Cold welcome for international students

A foreign student preparing to return home after several years at an American university left behind a full suitcase with his roommate.

“What’s this?” the roommate asked.

“It’s full of the gifts I brought to give Americans when they invited me to their homes,” the student replied, a tinge of sadness in his voice. “No one invited me.”

The student, incidentally, was from Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps you’ve heard similar stories. The cold “welcome” frequently shown to foreign students who come to America isn’t exactly news — except to the bewildered students themselves, who struggle with isolation and loneliness far from home. Many of them come from families and cultures where hospitality to visitors is prized and the opposite is considered shameful — families more similar, when you think about it, to the ones we read about in the Bible than the hyper-private collections of individuals we exalt these days. Foreign students don’t understand that many Americans no longer open their homes to their next-door neighbors, much less strangers.

“Most of our people who study in the U.S. are amazed they can live there for four or five years and never enter an American home, much less a believing one,” says a mission worker serving in North Africa and the Middle East. “Why is it that God delivers the lost Muslim to our doorstep, and we treat them as if they are not there?”

I suspect a more sinister force than suspicion, fear or prejudice is at work: apathy. Too often, we don’t know they are among us. If we do know, we don’t care.

“We spend a lot of time reaching out to the rich, the famous, the cool, the successful, the powerful, the influential, the ones with the right style of glasses,” observes mission strategist Justin Long. “I could be wrong, but it seems to me Jesus didn’t spend a whole lot of time with people who rejected Him. He didn’t spend years trying to persuade them. So why is it we spend years trying to persuade the stubbornly, rebelliously atheistic cousin (or nephew or uncle or whatever) and never reach out to the foreign exchange student?”

Long asks another, related question: “Why is it that so many Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists (85 percent, to be somewhat precise) do not have a personal relationship with a Christian? … Somehow I doubt it is the fault of most of those Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.”

Don’t stop telling your cousin and your uncle about Christ. Maybe one day they’ll listen. But take a look around and notice some of the strangers in your midst.

More than 671,000 international students were enrolled in American colleges and universities during the 2008-2009 academic year, according to a report funded by the U.S. Department of State. The leading nations of origin: India (83,833 students), China (67,723) and South Korea (62,392). China and India account for more than 45 percent of all foreign students enrolled in American graduate schools. Other top 20 student senders include Saudi Arabia, Nepal and Vietnam.

“Thanks to a push by their government to make secondary education universal, more Chinese students are seeking college degrees, but there are not enough (Chinese) colleges, and too few high-quality institutions, to meet the need,” reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. “A decline in the value of the dollar has put an American education in reach of middle-class Chinese families — who probably had already been salting away much of their disposable income to pay for education.”

One top Chinese student interviewed by the Chronicle was so eager to study at an American liberal arts college that she applied to 28 of them before enrolling in an elite institution. “They really value education and develop you to be a full person,” she said. “They give you a lot of attention.”

I wonder if this young woman, who is likely to become a leader and influencer when she gets home to China, is getting any attention from Christians in the community where she attends school. It would be a tragedy if she, too, leaves behind a suitcase of unopened gifts.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Rejecting the cult of self

Our daughter graduated from high school a few weeks ago, marching down the aisle with her classmates to the strains of Pomp and Circumstance as we parents swelled with pride.

Then we had to listen to the obligatory commencement address.

As commencement speakers go, our guy wasn’t bad. A local radio talk show host, he was humorous and engaging. He delivered a speech that was part pep talk, part political diatribe. The pep was fine, the politics unnecessary considering the occasion. To his credit, he admitted that he didn’t remember a single word uttered at his own high school graduation many years ago (I could relate to that). He assured the assembled grads they would forget his words, too.

It wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was the Gettysburg Address compared to the typical commencement speech — particularly the ones heard these days at major universities. Often delivered by media types or celebrities, such speeches usually consist of clichés, platitudes and outright insults to the young minds and hearts they’re supposed to inspire.

“Worst of all, [students] are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears,” writes New York Times columnist and social critic David Brooks. “[M]any graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture.

“But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front.”

Misleads how? For one thing, it promotes absurdly unrealistic expectations among graduates entering today’s tough job market. On a deeper level, however, it glorifies the self-worship that has come to define so much of American life. Too many boomers have yet to notice the destruction this mindset has wrought on our culture, so we pass the all-consuming idol of self on to the generation now coming into its own. We tell our children, “It’s all about you, kid. You’re the god of your little world, which you create and which exists only to make you happy. Go forth and fulfill yourself!”

This is a perversion of the American ideal of liberty, which certainly includes individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness, but not to the exclusion of shared responsibility and voluntary, possibly sacrificial service to others.

“The successful young adult is beginning to make sacred commitments — to a spouse, a community and a calling — yet mostly hears about freedom and autonomy,” Brooks observes. “Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. … Fulfillment is a byproduct of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly. Most of us are egotistical and most are self-concerned most of the time, but it’s nonetheless true that life comes to a point only in those moments when the self dissolves into some task. The purpose of life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.”

Sound familiar? It should; it’s a secular echo of the words of Jesus Christ: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:24, 25, NASB).

Following Christ is the antithesis of the pagan cult of self. Indeed, He demands the ruthless, daily execution of self. The Apostle Paul describes such a life:

“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant …” — to the point of death upon a cross (Philippians 2:3-7, NASB).

Personal fulfillment — happiness, if you will, though joy is a better word — comes in the daily act of loving and serving Jesus and others. “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever,” as the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1647 summarized it.

That once was the guiding principle of the education offered by great Western universities. Now it seems to be: “Man’s chief end is to glorify himself, and to party forever.” Nothing new in that; the prophet Isaiah heard people shouting, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we may die” seven centuries before Christ. It was an ancient philosophy even then.

But young people in search of a worthy calling want more. They’re rejecting the cult of self, even if their parents still buy into it. They want to give their lives to something greater than themselves.

There is no greater calling than the mission of God — that every people, tribe and nation will know and worship Him. See what it looks like:

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Holding their breath in Egypt

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For Sabri,* the daily lurch between excitement and fear has settled into queasy uncertainty about Egypt’s future — and what it holds for followers of Christ.

Sabri, a white-collar worker who lives with his family in Cairo, is an evangelical Christian. When massive demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other cities sparked national demands for freedom in January, he joined many other Egyptians in hoping positive change might be coming after decades of stagnation and dictatorship.

As a member of Egypt’s embattled Christian minority, he also wondered how Islamic extremists would react to the situation.

Hope and concern, however, took a temporary back seat to terror as chaos spread. Longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak first tried to hang on to power, then lost his grip amid bloody clashes on the streets — and behind-the-scenes maneuvering among contending government factions and the military.

“There were no police on the street,” Sabri recalls of the worst moments leading up to Mubarak’s exit. “It was very scary. We had to guard our homes. We would stay up all night in the street with whatever we could carry — a bat or a piece of metal — just to defend ourselves. There were criminals and guns firing all the night. Everything was moving very fast and we didn’t know what would happen tomorrow. We didn’t know what was right or wrong [politically], so our prayer was: ‘God, whatever You think is right, we are asking for Your will to be applied.’”

Mubarak stepped down Feb. 11, unleashing a wave of euphoria among millions of young Egyptians calling for freedom. Political tensions have eased in the months since, or at least moved to other stages, as the military runs the government while the nation prepares for elections in September. World news coverage has shifted to more violent locales — such as Libya, Syria and Yemen — as movements for change continue to shake the Arab world.

Police have returned to the streets of Egypt’s cities, but crime is on the rise.

“Business is not yet back to normal,” Sabri reports. “The police are scared of taking action because they are afraid the people will attack them.”

Everyone is “holding their breath” and waiting for what happens next, adds a recent visitor, as the young reformists, the old power structure, the military, secularists and Islamists jockey for position. Despite the disillusionment of recent days, a deep sense of pride in the change that has been accomplished remains from the early, heady days of the demonstrations.

“They are proud of what they have done, and there seems to be a sense of hope about the future that we haven’t really seen in the past,” says the visitor, who lived in Egypt for many years. “There’s also a great deal of caution, like they’re trying not to get too excited. One man said, ‘It’s going to be five years before we see the results.’”

What about prospects for minority Christians, who continue to suffer attacks by Muslim extremists?

The worst such incident in recent weeks occurred May 7, when a radical Muslim group, the Salafis, assaulted a Coptic Christian area of Cairo. The attack resulted in 12 deaths, at least 200 injuries and the burning of two churches. Enraged, Copts took to the streets to fight back. The Salafi movement, Coptic leaders charge, is trying to foment sectarian civil war between the Muslim majority and Coptic Christians, who comprise about 10 percent of Egypt’s 83 million people.

The conflict illustrates divisions that could sabotage change throughout the Arab world, according to Anthony Shadid and David D. Kirkpatrick of The New York Times.

“The revolutions and revolts in the Arab world, playing out over just a few months across two continents, have proved so inspirational to so many because they offer a new sense of national identity built on the idea of citizenship,” they wrote in a May 21 article examining the fissures confronting reform movements.

“But in the past weeks, the specter of divisions — religion in Egypt, fundamentalism in Tunisia, sect in Syria and Bahrain, clan in Libya — has threatened uprisings that once seemed to promise to resolve questions that have vexed the Arab world since the colonialism era. … [T]he question of identity may help determine whether the Arab Spring flowers or withers. Can the revolts forge alternative ways to cope with the Arab world’s variety of clans, sects, ethnicities and religions?”

The situation is “supremely complicated,” says Sabri, who urges outsiders not to jump to conclusions about where Egypt is headed. “For Mubarak to step down, that’s a miracle. For unity between average Egyptian people in the street — Christians and Muslims together — that’s a miracle that’s still happening now. There are miracles happening from a spiritual point of view.”

The many young, educated people who demonstrated for democracy in Tahrir Square support religious liberty for all Egyptians, he believes. Other forces do not — including the influential Muslim Brotherhood, banned under Mubarak but now allowed to participate in politics.

“I would be very concerned if the Muslim Brotherhood or the extremists get power over the parliament,” Sabri warns. “If they write the new constitution, it will be more tight on us as Christians. They’re not going to do it through violence. They’ll try to do it very smoothly so they don’t lose international support.”

Some Christians don’t intend to stick around to find out which scenario plays out. They’re leaving the country, or considering it. Sabri, however, isn’t going anywhere. He’s using this historic moment to share the hope of Christ with other Egyptians.

“Muslims are asking a lot of direct questions — questions we’re not used to being asked” without years of relationship building, he says. “Now you can meet somebody in the subway and he or she wants to know the truth.”
*(Name changed)

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

After Osama's death: violence or mercy?

Flying into Cairo on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, we heard something terrible was happening in New York and in Washington, D.C., the city we had departed approximately 15 hours earlier.

A photographer and I had come to gather material for a profile of the great Egyptian city. But as we watched the planes fly into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on our hotel-room TVs — and learned who was behind the attacks — we wondered if and when we would be able to leave the hotel, much less the country. How would a couple of nervous Americans fare on the “Arab street” in that moment?

The next morning, we decided to find out.

No sooner did we emerge from a taxi in a Cairo neighborhood than we were surrounded by a crowd of Egyptian Muslims — not to be taunted or threatened, but to be comforted. They led us by the arm to a nearby coffee shop and surrounded our table, offering the passionate expressions of friendship and condolence for which Arabs are famous.

They didn’t want to believe Muslims had participated in the airborne attacks on thousands of innocents. They begged us to convey their grief and deepest sympathies to the victims’ families and to all Americans when we went home.

“We would never do this,” one man urgently repeated, tears in his eyes, as he gripped my hand. And he meant it.

But Osama bin Laden would do it.

A veteran terrorist determined to exact revenge for his many grievances against America and the West, bin Laden was quite willing to plan the attacks, carry them out through his al-Qaida terror network — and proudly claim responsibility for them. And it was only the beginning, he promised. Many more assaults would come and many more innocent people would die until the terrorists’ aims were accomplished.

So began the attacks and counterattacks, the violence and retaliation, the skirmishes and full-scale wars that continue to this day across multiple borders. But Osama bin Laden is dead, shot down May 1 in a U.S. operation after a nearly decade-long manhunt that began in the days following 9/11. Few war-weary people — not just in the West but also in the Muslim-majority nations most affected by his bloody ideology — will mourn him.

Will he become a martyr? An enduring symbol of radical Islamic defiance of the decadent West? An inspiration to new waves of terrorist true believers? Perhaps. Even if al-Qaida has suffered a mortal blow, others will take up its radical cause. The United States and other nations will take the actions they see as necessary to defend themselves and their interests. The cycle of attack and counterattack might continue.

However, the “Arab Spring” now under way in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa suggests an alternative future. Millions of young adults are bravely — and nonviolently — pushing for change and freedom, even in the face of violent repression in some countries. Their aspirations, openly expressed on the streets and through the potent tools of social media, suggest that history might (emphasis on might) have rendered the bin Ladens of the world irrelevant.

These peaceful revolutions will be hijacked by extremists or crushed by dictators in some places, but in others they will take root.

In another generation, young Muslims might even reject radical Islamism altogether. Naïve? Who would have believed that the Soviet empire would collapse in the space of a few years? The pace of change in our era is unprecedented in human history.

Whatever happens in the political realm in the days to come, however, an unseen kingdom is silently spreading across the region: the kingdom of God. It is a kingdom of justice and mercy, and its power comes from divine love, not weapons of war. It is beholden to no earthly nation; it transcends all cultures.

Muslims, like all other people, hunger for God. Millions of Muslims are seeking Him. More and more are finding Him through His Son, Jesus Christ. Persecution of Christians and churches in the Muslim world has increased, along with the exodus of many traditional Christians targeted by extremists. Yet reports of Muslims deciding to follow Christ, regardless of the consequences, continue to emerge from across the world. They continue to tell of dreams and visions of Jesus, of their desire for a close relationship with a God of mercy, of indescribable joy when they meet Him.

As we walked the streets of Cairo that sad day after 9/11, a Muslim man approached us near Al-Azhar University, the intellectual center of Sunni Islam for more than a millennium. Every night for years, he said, when he closed his eyes to sleep, he had seen a bright cross. “What does this mean?” he asked. We told him of the Lord who extends mercy and salvation to all who seek Him.

Don’t be afraid to tell the person who may ask you. The love of Christ is a far more powerful force than hatred, fear, war or vengeance.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Living proof

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Back in the “olden days” — my son’s term for the ancient era when I was his age — a new book hit my high school campus like a meteor.

I was a brand-new Christian — and an ignorant one. Like other young believers at our school, I knew Jesus Christ had come into my heart and transformed my life. I wanted to share that exciting news with others. But I knew little about the Bible, its authenticity and authority, or the powerful historical evidence for its most revolutionary claim: the resurrection of Christ.

Evidence that Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell, one of the most dynamic Christian speakers and writers of the last generation, gave us the basic tools we needed to contend for our faith in a sometimes-hostile environment. It was a short course in Christian apologetics and we ran with it. We didn’t win every debate with skeptics and scoffers at school, but we improved our track record.

My favorite chapter in McDowell’s book is “The Resurrection — Hoax or History?” It presents in detail the case for and against Christ’s physical resurrection from biblical, historical, legal and eyewitness perspectives. The verdict: Jesus rose from the dead and is alive today.

Beyond the many biblical prophecies Christ fulfilled, the reliability of the Gospel accounts, the compelling events surrounding His death and burial and the witness of the empty tomb, there is the evidence of changed lives — from that first Easter until today — beginning with the disciples themselves.

“Perhaps the transformation of the disciples of Jesus is the greatest evidence of all for the resurrection,” John R.W. Stott observed.

McDowell quotes a portrayal of those early Christ-followers after the ignominious death of their leader at the hands of the Romans:

“On the day of the crucifixion they were filled with sadness; on the first day of the week with gladness. At the crucifixion they were hopeless; on the first day of the week their hearts glowed with certainty and hope. When the message of the resurrection first came they were incredulous and hard to be convinced, but once they became assured they never doubted again.

“What could account for the astonishing change in these men in so short a time? The mere removal of the body from the grave could never have transformed their spirits, and characters. … Think of the psychological absurdity of picturing a little band of defeated cowards cowering in an upper room one day and a few days later transformed into a company that no persecution could silence. …”

Absurd indeed, unless the living Christ appeared to them and filled them with His Spirit. They went on to turn the world upside down with their message. Most of them gladly died as martyrs. They and their successors established the Christian church, the most indestructible institution on earth. The more it is persecuted, the faster it grows.

“It was the conviction of the resurrection of Jesus which lifted His followers out of the despair into which His death had cast them and which led to the perpetuation of the movement begun by Him,” wrote Kenneth Scott Latourette, the great historian of Christianity. “But for their profound belief that the crucified had risen from the dead and that they had seen Him and talked with Him, the death of Jesus and even Jesus Himself would probably have been all but forgotten.”

Such is the power of lives changed and redeemed by the risen Christ. Your own life may be the most subjective evidence you can offer for the resurrection of Christ. But if you live in His Spirit and express His love toward others, that evidence cannot be refuted. Rejected, yes, but not refuted.

“The Lord is at work here,” a young missionary in an animist area of West Africa wrote. “He has healed many people in our village after we have prayed with them in the name of Jesus, and now our neighbors thank us for our prayers. Recently when we offered our ‘village father’ and our family chief the monthly payment for our hut in the village, our ‘father’ replied, ‘Your presence here and your prayers for the village are a gift to us.’ They would take nothing [in payment].

“Then we asked permission to celebrate Easter in the village. A large smile came upon our village father’s face as we explained that they were now our family and we wanted to celebrate this important day with them. On Easter morning when we met with the village chief and elders, we were given a goat! A feast was prepared and people from our entire village came to our compound and shared it with us. Later we worshipped under the village ‘meeting tree’ and prayed boldly in the name of Jesus for the villagers.

“Our presence and prayers are unworthy of being called a ‘gift.’ The only real gift we desire for our village is the gift that the Lord offers to them. Pray their eyes will be unveiled to the gift of life that the Lord extends to them with open arms.”

Yet the missionary’s presence is a gift, however imperfect it might be. God chooses to use it to offer His love and mercy to the village.

It is one more evidence for the resurrection — nearly 2,000 years after the event.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Japan: a fourth Gospel opening?

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Throughout their long history, the Japanese people have opened themselves to the Christian Gospel three times.

Each time they eventually rejected it or decided to hold it at arm’s length. Today, Christians comprise barely 1 percent of Japan’s population of 127 million people, despite decades of religious freedom — and powerful Christian movements in neighboring China and South Korea.

Could the national soul-searching resulting from the March earthquake/tsunami and its devastating aftermath — called Japan’s worst crisis since World War II by the nation’s leaders — become a time for the Japanese to reconsider the new life offered by Jesus Christ?

Yes, says Atsuyoshi Fujiwara, a Japanese Christian scholar who has carefully examined the history of the Gospel in his native land. But it will happen, he cautions, only if Christians work together “humbly and lovingly, nationally and internationally” to serve the Japanese during their time of suffering and recovery.

“The disaster has been terrible,” says Fujiwara, professor of theology at Japan’s Seigakuin University and founding pastor of Covenant of Grace Church in Tokyo. “We are talking about more than 25,000 people killed in Japan. Every day we are hearing new, heartbreaking stories of suffering people.

“Yet I deeply believe that God can bring good even from a painful experience like this. … I think that this post-disaster recovery has a chance to become the fourth encounter of Japan with Christianity.”

The first three “encounters,” according to Fujiwara, were the introduction of Christianity to Japan by Roman Catholic missionaries in the 1500s, the opening of Japan to Western powers in the 1850s and the nation’s defeat and rebuilding at the end of World War II. Each time, Japan faced wrenching social and political change: civil war in the 16th century, the end of the shogun era in the 19th, near destruction and despair in the 20th.

“On these three occasions, Japanese people were very open to Christianity in the beginning, yet eventually they rejected it, particularly in the first two periods,” Fujiwara notes. “Postwar Japan accepted full religious freedom and did not clearly say ‘no’ to Christianity. It appeared to be a promising solution to their problems. It also came with Western wealth and civilization, which were attractive to many people.”

As a faith personally embraced by large numbers of people, however, the Gospel of Christ has failed to spread widely in Japan, despite generations of prayers and ministry by missionaries and Japanese believers. Why? Church and mission leaders have been trying to find answers to that question for a long time.

The Japanese are religious people, Fujiwara stresses. They have a millennium-long tradition of Shintoism, Buddhism and Confucianism as their “spiritual backbone.” Christianity initially appealed to many Japanese, but they eventually decided it didn’t fit their psyche or tradition. The pattern of “initial acceptance and gradual rejection” was repeated several times.

“I think that rejection largely came as a nationalistic reaction to the West,” Fujiwara observes. “There was a slogan in the 19th century: ‘Japanese soul and Western technology.’ While accepting Western civilization, they wanted to keep the Japanese soul untouched. They certainly did not want to accept the Western soul — i.e., Christianity.”

People crowded into churches again as Japan boomed after World War II. “But they left like an ocean tide, saying, ‘We graduated Christianity,’ or ‘Christianity was good, but we are done with it,’” says Fujiwara. “They have to be touched by God. Their hearts must be penetrated by the Gospel so that they may start living as disciples.”

Christian institutions are still respected in modern Japan, particularly the many schools and colleges begun by missionaries. But the number of believers remains low as modern Japan has become increasingly secular.

“They really believe that in themselves they have what they need, which makes it very difficult to share the Gospel,” says International Mission Board missionary Gary Fujino. “What we need is for people to be shaken and realize that you need something outside of yourself — God.”

The triple trauma of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis may have accomplished that, according to Fujiwara:

“The foundation of the earth was shaken; the houses we lived in were washed out by the tsunami. The atomic power stations that we were told were safe exploded. Something we trusted was broken down. People are asking, ‘Why has this happened?’ ‘Can we still go on?’ If this could not open people’s hearts, what else could?”

Some cracks in the façade already were appearing before the quake. Japan, an aging society, has struggled for years with economic and social stagnation.

Books and periodicals about Christ have been hot sellers since last year, according to Japanese publishers. One of the top bookstores in Tokyo’s business district dedicated a special section to the topic. Two issues of a national magazine with cover stories headlined “What is Christianity?” and “What is Christianity II” sold out within weeks.

In the quake zone, meanwhile, more than 170,000 displaced people remain in shelters. Thousands more are living in their cars or in damaged homes with no electricity or water. As more of the neediest areas become accessible, Southern Baptist disaster relief teams are working with Japanese Baptist partners and IMB missionaries to provide such services as food and water distribution, blankets and warm clothing for the elderly and grief counseling.

As they join hands with other Christians to serve the hurting, Fujiwara prays their ministry will change Japan forever.

“My father, who died 20 years ago, was baptized by a Southern Baptist missionary in the postwar period,” he recalls. “I am deeply and forever grateful for that. I want you to imagine with me that our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will hear stories like this: ‘The 2011 disaster was terrible, yet God brought good even through that. I remember your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents sacrificed, loved and cared for us at that time. The Gospel was brought to my family then.’”