Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Late for Christmas

I’m way late getting ready for Christmas this year.

 I haven’t started shopping for gifts. Guys typically don’t start until the last minute, anyhow, but I haven’t even made a list. Can’t seem to get motivated.

 Maybe it’s because our kids are more or less grown up — and, therefore, too cool to act excited about the big day — but have yet to produce grandchildren we can shower with gifts and hugs.  

Maybe it was the spectacle of predatory bargain hunters pummeling each other to claim the latest gizmos before Thanksgiving Day even ended — a symbol of the pagan orgy of consumption the “holiday season” has become.

 Maybe I’ve just become my father. After I reached the approximate age my kids are now, he used to grumble, “Can we just cancel Christmas this year?” At the time, I chided him for being such a Scrooge. Now I understand his weariness with the whole giving-getting business, if all it means is a boost for retail sales.

 Or … maybe I have yet to prepare a place in the “guest room” of my life for Jesus, the promised Messiah. 

 “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn,” reads the Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2:7, KJV). However, as Ben Witherington III noted in Christianity Today several years ago, the Greek word for “inn” Luke used in his account of Jesus’ birth, kataluma, also can be translated “guest room.”

 Bethlehem was a “one-stoplight town,” Witherington wrote, and might not have had a separate inn for travelers — even during the time of Caesar Augustus’ great census. “Archeology shows that houses in Bethlehem and its vicinity often had caves [at] the back of the house where they kept their prized ox or beast of burden, lest it be stolen,” he reported. “The guest room was in the front of the house, the animal shelter in the back, and Joseph and Mary had come too late to get the guest room, so the [residents] did the best they could by putting them in the back of the house.”

 Is that the best we can do today? Giving a quick nod toward the “true meaning of Christmas” while gorging ourselves on holiday diversions doesn’t even rise to the level of putting Jesus in the back room with the livestock, spiritually speaking. 

 Nothing brings me back to the truth of the first Christmas like reading the Gospel accounts of that silent, holy night, when the Lord entered space and time via the portal of a “one-stoplight town.” And nothing reminds me of the living truth of Christmas like accounts from missionaries and followers of Christ about ways Jesus is revealing Himself around the world today.

n   “Last year on December 25, my friend told me she was going to church for Christmas,” writes a new believer in Vietnam. “I didn’t really understand and thought it was a bit strange. I’d heard of the holiday before but thought it foreign. Why didn’t my friend just go to the temple like everyone else? But now I know the truth. Now I know that Jesus was born for me. Jesus was born for everyone. Last summer someone shared a Bible with me. I read it and knew in my heart that I needed God. Now I can’t wait to celebrate my first Christmas as a believer in Jesus Christ. I’m excited to tell everyone around me about Jesus, born as their Savior.”

n  “Christmas is a time of giving, sharing and remembering the Christ Child who came to give the greatest gift of all: His life as a sacrifice so that we might live,” reflects a missionary in Africa. “When I look at the pastors in Zimbabwe, I see this same kind of sacrifice. Many don’t receive a steady monthly salary. They have difficulty paying their rent and putting enough food on the table so their families won’t go hungry. Yet they spend their days out among their people, witnessing to the lost, praying for them, visiting the sick and helping to bury the dead. Often people come to the house of a pastor, looking for help with money or food. Our pastors give to those in need, even though they themselves could be classified as the needy ones! These dear, faithful ones aren’t giving out of the overflow of their wealth, but out of great poverty.”

n  Another missionary in Africa writes: “The truth is … life on the field isn’t as glamorous as one might imagine when first stepping off the plane. We aren’t camped under a mango tree every day, bringing the Gospel to masses who’ve never heard it before or distributing food to starving people on a daily basis. There are plenty of mountaintop experiences like that when we just look at each other in awe because we get to do this for a living. But the truth is … life happens, and ministry sometimes takes a back seat when it does. Sometimes we find ourselves broken down on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. On our way to the capital to collect a volunteer team one month, the engine of our SUV exploded. Lottie Moon Christmas Offering dollars rebuilt our engine and provided a loaner car in the meantime. Sometimes we find ourselves scooping rainwater off the kitchen floor. Our recently renovated roof cracked in two during a rainstorm one night, flooding our house. Lottie Moon dollars paid for our rent and for the necessary repairs. The truth is … we need you and ask you to pray that people will give sacrificially to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering this year so we can stay on the field, doing what we came to do — glamorous or not.”

OK, that last one was a plug for Lottie Moon giving. But what better Christmas gift can there be than one that helps deliver the Good News of Christ to every “one-stoplight town” on the planet that has yet to hear of Him?

(Visit www.imb.org/offering to discover ways you can participate in the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.)




Monday, December 9, 2013

Mandela and the power of forgiveness


Revenge. Retribution. Rivers of blood.

That nightmare scenario was feared by many South Africans as the 1994 national elections unfolded. Generations of harsh white control were finally ending, decades of violent racial apartheid had been overturned and multiracial, democratic rule had arrived. But would the long-oppressed black majority demand a terrible day of reckoning? 

“I was in South Africa in the days leading up to the election,” recalls a Southern Baptist missionary. “There was near-certainty that the country would explode in violence and descend into civil war. Those horrors were averted because one man who was intimate with injustice had the wisdom to realize that retribution was fatally poisonous and redemption a healing balm.”

That man was Nelson Mandela.

The former political prisoner, elected president that fateful year, prevented a descent into violence by the moral force of his call for reconciliation. His words could not be ignored, because Mandela had lived them during 27 years of isolation and hard labor as an inmate in the windswept prison at Robben Island. Years before he was released, he had begun negotiating a gradual end to apartheid with the South African regime.

His 1990 release sparked national euphoria and worldwide celebration, but peace in South Africa was anything but assured.

 “Great anxiety existed in the sub-Saharan African region as the first multiracial elections were approaching in South Africa,” says Gordon Fort, a veteran missionary to Africa who now serves as IMB’s senior vice president for prayer mobilization and training. “President F.W. de Klerk, in conjunction with Nelson Mandela, had led in a courageous movement to abolish apartheid. [But] great fear existed that after the elections, a bloodbath of revenge would ensue. When it became clear that Nelson Mandela and the ANC [African National Congress] party had won the election, in the midst of the celebrations the clear, calm voice of the new president set a new tone calling for forgiveness and reconciliation. 

 “While tackling the daunting task of dismantling institutionalized racism, poverty and inequality, [Mandela] gave a clarion call to national unity and religious freedom. This atmosphere led to a season of opportunity for the church and its missionary representatives to advance the Gospel, engage new people groups and play a part in the healing of the deep rifts within the nation. President Mandela was among the first to invite and welcome the role of the church in the new nation he was seeking to build. After retirement from the presidency, he continued to provide leadership and an example of statesmanship that allowed the church to flourish.”

What happened to the young firebrand who, decades before, had embraced armed struggle to change South Africa when civil disobedience failed?

He never renounced the use of violence to overthrow apartheid, but he sought to avoid it. Suffering, solitude and study tempered and deepened Mandela during his long years in prison. Meanwhile, international pressure — and the tide of history — eventually forced the white regime to negotiate. When the moment came, Mandela the savvy politician was ready. He knew times were turning in favor of his cause, but he also knew the nation had to put anger behind, as he had worked to do in his own life behind bars.

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison,” he said upon his release in 1990.

And after serving one historic term as president, he voluntarily stepped down in 1999 — a rarity in a continent of strongmen — and spent his remaining years fighting against AIDS and advocating for freedom and international reconciliation.

“He led a country in transition with grace, forgiveness, humility and dignity,” recalls Kim Davis, a Southern Baptist author and former Africa missionary who witnessed those historic days close up. “I feel privileged and grateful to have lived there, and President Mandela was an inspiration to our family.”

The influence of faith on Mandela’s post-prison philosophy of reconciliation is open to debate. His mother was a strong Christian believer. He was baptized as a Methodist in his teens. Like many African political leaders of the post-colonial era, his early life and education were strongly influenced by the impact of missionary work. “The Church was as concerned with this world as the next: I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church,” he wrote in his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom.

There’s no need to idealize Mandela, as many have done, to appreciate his greatness. The smiling grandfather of later years was once the angry young revolutionary. He helped found the ANC’s military wing, which carried out many bombing attacks against the regime. He once was regarded as a dangerous enemy of the United States. The South African struggle, like many national conflicts, became a proxy in the larger Cold War struggle between East and West. The Soviet Union supported Mandela’s ANC. Like other world leaders, he sometimes made questionable decisions. He unapologetically supported several notorious international tyrants. He failed to solve some of South Africa’s deepest problems, including violence and widespread poverty, which continue to afflict the nation.

Mandela himself was keenly aware of his own humanity. He resisted the secular sainthood many tried to impose upon him.

“We are told that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying to be clean,” he wrote. “One may be a villain for three-quarters of his life and be canonized because he lived a holy life for the remaining quarter of that life. In real life we deal, not with gods, but with ordinary humans like ourselves: men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous, people in whose bloodstream the muckworm battles daily with potent pesticides.”

He was human, but he changed the world through perseverance, forgiveness and a resolute refusal to harbor hatred in his heart. 

“People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite,” he said.

That is a truth the world desperately needs. The church needs it, too, especially in Africa and other places where the fires of persecution are burning.

“The death of Mandela may be the axis for predicting the racial futures for many African countries, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, [which] is a deeply defined racial and tribal-based region,” observes Nik Ripken, a longtime missionary in Africa who has interviewed persecuted Christians in many countries. “Many churches are asking, in relation to [attacks on Christians by Islamic militants in] Nigeria and the Somali fundamentalist bombing of the mall in Kenya, if they will continue to ‘turn the other cheek.’ Pastors and religious leaders have said to me that perhaps it is time to only turn one’s cheek ‘seven times.’ After that it is time that if one bombs a church then a mosque goes, if one kills a Christian then a Muslim life is taken.

“Will African believers follow Jesus, and the example of Mandela, and turn the other cheek ‘77 times’ — or align themselves racially? Will they slaughter pigs and toss them into mosques, or be willing to love their enemies as commanded by Jesus? Mandela chose the high road of forgiving one’s enemies. May his example not be forgotten in all the noise.”