Saturday, December 27, 2014

The 3 - December 28, 2014

This week's edition of The 3, my week-in-review feature, highlights a movie depicting the life of a former Olympian and prisoner of war, who actually gave his life to Christ following World War II. Also, the shooting deaths of 2 New York City police officers has become a cause for concern as the national conversation on race relations continues.  Plus, the top story involves the celebration of the birth of Christ.

3 - Story of Louis Zamperini's life tops box office, Graham ministry tells rest of story

The story of former Olympian Louis Zamperini's survival at sea for over a month, followed by his imprisonment in a Japanese prison camp, was the top movie at the box office on Christmas Day, according to Box Office Mojo, which reported;
Unbroken took first place yesterday with an estimated $15.6 million, which ranks third all-time among Christmas Day debuts, behind Sherlock Holmes and Les Miserables. That's pretty remarkable considering the movie lacks any recognizable on-screen talent: credit this to the popularity of Laura Hillenbrand's book, curiosity about Jolie's directing, and the movie's inspirational true story (which appears to have some faith-friendly elements).
Louis Zamperini experienced a dramatic life change at a Billy Graham crusade in 1949.  After the war, he suffered from PTSD and abused alcohol.  After his conversion, he was able to forgive his captors.  CNN reported following his death in July of 2014:
He also forgave his wartime tormenters, some of them in person during a 1950 visit to a Tokyo prison where they were serving sentences for war crimes. He was willing to forgive the Bird, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, though Watanabe refused to meet with Zamperini when he had the chance, in 1998, when Zamperini returned to Japan to carry the torch at the Nagano Winter Games.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has put together a special film called, Louis Zamperini: Captured By Grace, which the Association says "tells the story of life after returning home a hero. Through the power of the Gospel—and his experience at the 1949 Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles—Zamperini overcame alcoholism, night terrors and a failing marriage to live a full and joyous Christ-centered life until his passing at age 97, inspiring millions along the way." Learn more at

2 - Faith element comes to light after NYC police shootings

The national conversation on issues surrounding race and violence, in which Christian leaders have been actively engaged, acquired another flashpoint the weekend before Christmas when two New York City officers were slain in their patrol car.

The family of one of the officers, according to the U.K. Daily Mail, has forgiven his murderer, a relative revealed.

Rafael Ramos' cousin, Ronnie Gonzalez, insists their focus is on remembering the 40-year-old officer, father of two boys, rather than gunman Ismaaiyl Brinsley.

"[Brinsley] in the hands of God now," Gonzalez told Pix11. "We don't believe in vengeance, we just forgive."

He added that Ramos was due to graduate as a chaplain this weekend.

The Daily Mail story quotes Gonzalez as saying to the Wall Street Journal, "My cousin had a couple of priorities in his life..."  He added, "One was God, because he was a God-loving man..."

The STAND organization, headed by Bishop E.W. Jackson, has launched a "Pray for Our Police" campaign.   A press release on the Christian Newswire website quotes the prayer:
When the job is hard.
When the pressure is great.
When you wonder,
"Does anyone appreciate?"
Just know that for all the work you do,
Someone is praying and thinking of you.
For your duty and honor in difficult times,
God in heaven makes His face shine.
He looks upon you from above.
To inspire you with courage and love.
May He give you the strength
To make one more round.
At the end of your shift,
To go home safe and sound.
May you fight the good fight,
And live by His grace.
When your work here is done,
You'll see His loving face.
(Copyright 2014 Bishop E.W. Jackson)

Also, Christian Newswire has a press release stating that the family of Rafael Ramos was given a letter from the President of Faith Evangelical College and Seminary in Tacoma, WA, Dr. Michael Adams, during the first of two funerals held on December 26. Officer Ramos was working towards a BA in Religion as a distance student so he could qualify to be a police chaplain.

1 - Christmas commemorate birth of Christ, #ChristmasMeans campaign tops Twitter

This past Thursday, people around the world joined in the celebration of Christmas.  For those who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, Christmas can become an opportunity to worship God for sending His Son into the world to bring salvation for all of us.

Christmas becomes a relevant time for ministry, as churches and ministry organizations engage in sharing the compassion of Christ.  One example is found on The Christian Post website, which reports that:
More than 12,000 bags of cookies along with a note and voucher for free hot meals at a local eatery were given to residents and workers on Christmas Eve near the four locations of the New Jersey-based Liquid Church. The gift bags were distributed by more than 5,000 people who attended one of 12 services at the church in what was called a "spiritual flash mob."
Church pastor Tim Lucas is quoted as saying, "It's exciting to see the enthusiasm to go out and share God's love after each service." He added, "And we just heard from some police officers in Times Square sharing that they just received a bag from a Liquid Church family. It made their day to know that they matter, especially on a day like today. Now that's what we call putting our faith into action."

Those who attended Christmas Eve services at the church throughout the day were given the bags of cookies and vouchers with instructions from Lucas to "fan out" and show God's love after the services.

And, reported that the hashtag #ChristmasMeans was prompting thousands of Christians to share the true meaning of Christmas -- Jesus Christ.

It stated that, "Many Christian leaders have joined the chorus, including Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Archbishop of York John Sentamu."

Welby tweeted, “#ChristmasMeans that in Jesus, God has given us the most precious gifts of all: forgiveness and hope.”

Sentamu wrote, "#ChristmasMeans God is at work amongst us. He is closer than you think. Praise Him!"

The piece said that "Christian Today reports that the hashtag began trending when the Church of England headquarters told its clergy to encourage church members to get out their smartphones and post the true meaning of Christmas."   A similar campaign under the hashtag #EasterMeans reached 29 million people last April. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The 3 - December 21, 2014

On this week's edition of The 3, my week-in-review feature, I highlight some news that has emerged from the nation of Iran, where 3 pastors had charges against them dropped recently.  Plus, there were several religious components surrounding the announcement this week of some changes in the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. Also, a significant discussion on race was conducted this week by a number of evangelical church leaders.

3 - Three Iranian Christians cleared of charges

There is a cause for celebration with the news spreading this week about charges being dropped against three Iranian church leaders.

In 2006, Iranian pastor Behnam Irani was initially detained while holding a Bible study and sentence to prison five years later for “action against the state,” according to a report on the website. In June of this year, he was interrogated on five occasions, and authorities then added 18 new charges against the 41-year-old pastor, including Mofsed fel-Arz or “spreading corruption on Earth,” which carries the death penalty. Another translation of the charge is “enemies of God on Earth.”

However, in October, the charges were reduced and Irani instead faced accusations of “action against national security” and “creating a network to overthrow the system.” Two other leaders with the Church of Iran, Abdolreza Ali-Haghnejad and Reza Rabbani, were charged as well. All three were declared guilty by Judge Asel Al-Hosseyn, and were sentenced to six years behind bars.

During an appeal hearing last month, Moshkani Farahani, an attorney for the pastors argued that the charges were baseless.  Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports that Farahani "...contended that people cannot be sentenced on political charges for simply belonging to a religious fellowship; in this case, a Christian community: ‘It is normal for members of minorities to be in touch with each other; Jews are in touch with others, Zoroastrians are in touch with each other. It is the same for Assyrians, Orthodoxes and Evangelicals. Such connections cannot be perceived as a penal crime."

During a follow-up hearing on Dec. 9, an appeals court overturned the convictions of all three men.   Haghnejad and Rabbani were released, but Irani still faces another two years behind bars from his previous five year sentence.

Meanwhile, American pastor Saeed Abedini continues to serve his prison sentence in Iran.  On its website, Mission Network News has a story about a letter that he has recently released.  It states:
American Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen imprisoned in Iran for his Christian faith, has written a heartbreaking letter from his prison cell.
He talks about both the difficulty of spending Christmas trapped in a cold dark prison cell and how his faith in Christ is carrying him through this difficult time.
The letter was released by the American Center for Law and Justice.  The pastor wrote:
Some of my fellow prisoners don’t like me because I am a convert and a pastor. They look at me with shame as someone who has betrayed his former religion. The guards can’t even stand the paper cross that I have made and hung next to me as a sign of my faith and in anticipation of celebrating my Savior’s birth. They have threatened me and forced me to remove it. This is the first Christmas that I am completely without my family; all of my family is presently outside of the country. These conditions have made this upcoming Christmas season very hard, cold, and shattering for me. It appears that I am alone with no one left beside me.
He also wrote about what Christmas means to him. Pastor Saeed said that, "Christmas means that God came so that He would enter your hearts today and transform your lives and to replace your pain with indescribable joy." He added, "The same way that the heat from the earth’s core melts the hard stones in itself and produces lava, the fiery love of God, Jesus Christ, through the virgin Mary’s womb came to earth on Christmas to melt the hard heart of sin and wickedness of the world and removes them from our life."

2 - Religious leaders respond to greater normalization of  US-Cuba relations

The announcement of steps toward greater normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba had religious components surrounding it, including the release of a prisoner apparently motivated by his Jewish faith and the involvement of the Pope. And, a leading Hispanic religious leader offered a strong response

On Wednesday, a Jewish international aid worker held for five years in Cuba on charges of spying was freed, according to, which, concerning the release of Alan Gross said, "some are calling a Hanukkah miracle on the first day of the holiday that celebrates religious freedom."

Gross has always claimed that he only went to Cuba to bring communications equipment to the small Jewish community left in Havana. However, the Castro government said he was part of a spy network attempting to set up a secret network for Cuban Jews. Gross was serving a 15-year sentence.

President Obama chose Wednesday’s release as a springboard to announce a massive historic “normalization” of U.S.-Cuba relations. Religion News reports that the President particularly credited the “moral example of Pope Francis,” who actively encouraged Gross’ release. Francis, who held private meetings at the Vatican to secure the deal, praised the move, sending “his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.”

Meanwhile, according to a report on the website, Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Leadership Council, the largest Hispanic Christian organization said that as a Christian, the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba prompts both concern and hopeful expectations for him.  He said that, "First, I am concerned that normalizing diplomatic ties without addressing the horrendous human rights record of the Castro regime serves as a defacto endorsement of one of the most oppressive regimes in recent history." He notes that as a result of Castro's totalitarian rule, millions live in poverty and thousands lie in prisons while others lost their lives. What's more, he continues, people live with their God given rights held hostage to governmental persecution.

Rodriguez concludes, "Nevertheless, if this controversial step results in the alleviation of hunger and opens the door for God-given freedoms to flourish, then I pray that this decision will serve as a prophetic step in unleashing the church of Jesus to be the church both inside and outside of the island nation addressing the spiritual and physical needs of the Cuban people."

Baptist Press featured a story on the viewpoints of some Southern Baptist leaders regarding this announcement.

1 - "A Time to Speak" online event brings together church leaders to address racial issues

"Where are the conservative evangelical voices?"  That was a question asked by Fellowship Memphis pastor Bryan Loritts in his opening remarks in an online event called, "A Time to Speak," held at the historic Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum. According to a report on the Baptist Press website, the discussion this past week was intended to focus on race relations, in light of the recent deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, served as moderator. He began by presenting new research about Americans' views on race. He said that a survey of 1,000 Americans found many (75 percent) say the country has come a long way on race relations. But, more than 8 in 10 (81 percent) agree with the statement "We've got so far to go on racial relations."

Loritts said whites and African Americans remain largely disconnected in churches and society, so they can't hear one another's stories.

"At the end of the day, we don't know each other," Loritts said. "We don't know each other's story."

Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church in Texas, said his views on race have changed because of his friendships with African American Christians, which have contributed to his concerns about racial injustice.  John Piper of Desiring God Ministries encouraged pastors of all ethnicities to "start from the Bible, end with the Bible" to confirm multiethnic relationships.

"The Gospel mandates reconciliation, in terms of when two people are brought to Jesus, they're brought to each other, period," Piper said. "That is the most important relationship on the planet ... more important than any of their blood relationships."

Other speakers included Voddie Baucham, Thabiti Anyabwile, and Trillia Newbell.  The Baptist Press report stated that, "Perhaps the most pointed moments of the discussion focused on systematic injustice, white privilege and the death of Michael Brown, stemming from a controversial piece Voddie Baucham, pastor of Grace Family Baptist Church in Spring, Texas, had written in late November saying Brown reaped what he had sown."  The article goes on to say that Anyabwile, an assistant pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, "acknowledged that many African Americans have overcome adversity. But he also said churches have to face the reality of systematic injustice."  This was a continuation of the sharing of opinions that had been posted online by the two gentlemen following the grand jury's announcement that it would not indict the Ferguson police officer involved in Michael Brown's death.

About the event and its significance, Loritts said, ""The world heard us speak."

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The 3 - December 14, 2014

In this edition of my week-in-review feature, The 3, a report has been released concerning abuse involving students at a notable Christian university.  Also, the state of Kentucky has reversed a multi-million dollar tax break afforded to a new Noah's Ark theme park under construction there.  And, a major newsmagazine has named its annual person of the year, acutally multiple persons, and there is a religious element to it.

3 - Report: Christian university responded poorly to abuse victims 

While sexual abuse on college campuses continues to be a significant topic, a famous Christian university has been taken to task for its response to students to claimed to suffer sexual abuse on campus or who found that their past experience with abuse was not handled properly by university staff.

Religion News Service reported this week on the release of a 300-page report conducted by the organization GRACE, which concluded that Bob Jones University, a conservative Christian school, responded poorly to many students who were victims of sexual assault or abuse.

Bob Jones commissioned GRACE, which stands for Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, in November 2012 to investigate claims about sexual assualt. During its two-year investigation, GRACE interviewed 50 individuals who self-identified as victims of sexual abuse.The executive director of GRACE, is Boz Tchividjian, who is a grandson of Billy Graham, who had parted ways with the leadership of BJU due to the university's fundamentalism.  The famed evangelist had attended BJU briefly.

The school still sees itself as fundamentalist, though it describes itself in its promotional materials more broadly as nondenominationally Christian.

The school decided in 2011 to hire GRACE to investigate claims of mishandling of sexual abuse after national media reports surfaced. Earlier this year, the school fired, and then rehired, GRACE to investigate allegations. A representative for the university said both parties agreed not to discuss concerns during that time.

According to Religion News Service, Bob Jones highlighted findings from the report:
  • BJU officials were not adequately prepared or trained to counsel victims appropriately.
  • Staff were seen by some victims as insensitive to their suffering.
  • Some victims reported that the school’s counseling was inadequate, insensitive and counterproductive.
  • Some felt staff tended to blame victims for the abuse or sexual assault.
  • Counseling sometimes overlapped with disciplinary actions.
  • Several victims reported that their abuse was not reported to legal authorities by campus counselors.
In a statement, university president Steve Pettit said, “On behalf of Bob Jones University, I would like to sincerely and humbly apologize to those who felt they did not receive from us genuine love, compassion, understanding, and support after suffering sexual abuse or assault..."

He added: “I promise the victims who felt we failed them that the GRACE report is an extremely high priority that has our immediate and full attention.”

In a statement, Tchividjian said, “Though much in this report will understandably cause readers to grieve, GRACE is encouraged by the willingness of Bob Jones University to take the unprecedented step to voluntarily request this independent investigation and to make these difficult findings public” He stated, "Such institutional transparency is too rare and will hopefully set a positive precedent for Christendom and the watching world.”

Pettit will appoint a committee to review the report findings and recommendations during the next 90 days. He said the school has taken steps to respond to sex abuse. Every faculty and staff must promptly notify law enforcement officials of child sexual abuse. School staff encourage adult victims of sexual assault to report their experience to the police.

2 - State of Kentucky reverses tax breaks for Noah's Ark theme park in KY

The theme park, which, according to its website, is centered around a full-scale replica of Noah's Ark, under construction by Answers in Genesis, has had approximately $18 million in tax incentives for the proposed park in Northern Kentucky retracted by a Kentucky state government official.  The Christian Post has a report.

The Post refers to a report by the The Courier-Journal saying that Answers in Genesis, headed by Ken Ham, is now considering a federal lawsuit challenging the decision.

Answers in Genesis had applied for and was granted preliminary approval to participate in a state tax-incentive program which would have allowed them to keep 25 percent of the sales tax collected at the theme park for 10 years, amounting to more than $18 million.

In a recent letter highlighted by the Journal, however, Kentucky's Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet said the Ark Encounter theme park had changed its hiring policy since it first filed for the incentives in 2010 and plans to discriminate in hiring based on religion.

It also noted that the theme park had shifted from being a tourist attraction to an extension of the Answers in Genesis ministry which teaches a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Tourism Secretary Bob Stewart noted that, in the letter, "State tourism tax incentives cannot be used to fund religious indoctrination or otherwise be used to advance religion...The use of state incentives in this way violates the separation of church and state provisions of the Constitution and is therefore impermissible."

The Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority had granted preliminary approval for the incentives in July and requested written assurances that there would be no discrimination based on religion. Since Stewart does not recommend the project for the incentives, however, it will not get final approval from the authority.

James Parsons, an attorney for Answers in Genesis, said he sent a letter to the cabinet on Monday noting that the state's demands on hiring policies are in violation of both state and federal law.

"If you insist on the newly imposed condition ... it will amount to unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination and my client will have no choice but to seek redress in federal court."

1 - Ebola fighters named TIME's "Person of the Year"

For their “tireless acts of courage and mercy,” TIME magazine has named the Ebola fighters as its 2014 person of the year. reports that a number of people, including medical professionals like Dr. Kent Brantly of Samaritan's Purse and Nancy Writebol of SIM, stepped up to manage the disease when federal governments and international health organizations were dragging their feet, fighting “a war that is waged with bleach and a prayer," according to TIME managing editor Nancy Gibbs in her explanation.

Brantly actually was pictured on one of the covers of the magazine released to coincide with the announcement.  At the Samaritan's Purse website, Dr. Brantly is quoted as saying, “From the community health care volunteers in Liberia, to the dedicated staff of organizations like Samaritan’s Purse and MSF, to the doctors and nurses at Emory University Hospital, Ebola Fighters are mostly anonymous heroes whose diverse faces are largely unknown even to their patients as they wage this war in head-to-toe protective gear...It is these nameless champions that TIME has recognized today.”

The website points out that to date there have been more than 17,000 Ebola cases in this outbreak, leading to more than 6,000 deaths.

“It’s not simply an historic event that we’re looking back on,” Dr. Brantly said in a phone interview on NBC’s Today show. “It’s still happening … they’re still in the trenches fighting that war.”

As the Christianity Today piece highlights, the story of Ebola fighters has a strong religion angle, which TIME makes “abundantly clear” in highlighting the role of Samaritan’s Purse and other missionary doctors and even the Bible, Get Religion columnist Bobby Ross Jr. noted approvingly.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The 3 - December 7, 2014

In this week's edition of The 3, my week-in-review feature, legislation protecting religious freedom has advanced in the state of Michigan.  In Florida, same-sex marriage licenses could be issued just after the first of the year, as the result of Federal court action this week.  And, from Minnesota, transgender athletes can participate on the team of their choice, as the result of a vote this week.

3 - Michigan House takes important step to protect religious freedom

The Michigan House of Representatives has approved a bill that is intended to protect the religious liberties of its citizens.  It's described in a report by as a state version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  It passed the chamber 59-50, and now moves to the Senate for consideration,  If passed there, it will be sent to the desk of Gov. Rick Snyder.

The bill is designed to mirror the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed into law in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton.  It begins by saying, "The free exercise of religion is an inherent, fundamental, and unalienable right secured by Article 1 of the state Constitution of 1963 and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution."  It then uses federal legal standards to mandate that laws cannot be used to substantially burden the religious beliefs of inhabitants, unless the law serves a compelling government interest and is only uses the least restrictive means to further that specific interest.

The article on the website points out that the proposal also allows those who believe that a law violates their religious liberty to bring a legal challenge against it, such as did companies like Hobby Lobby.   House Speaker Jase Bolger declared on Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee: "I support individual liberty and I support religious freedom."  He went on to say, "I have been horrified as some have claimed that a person’s faith should only be practiced while hiding in their home or in their church."

Bolger has faced opposition from those who state that the bill promotes discrimination. Democratic members who spoke against the RFRA specifically cited their disagreement with allowing businesses to decline homosexuals should their request violate the conscience of the owner, or allowing pharmacies to refuse to dispense abortifacients due to their religious beliefs.

Bolger said that the bill is not new at all, since it is only modeled after federal law to also ensure protections on a state level.  He declared prior to the vote, "I am asking you today to give Michigan’s law abiding citizens the same protections as Michigan’s incarcerated felons have.” 

2 - Florida marriage amendment suffers setback

The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals panel in Atlanta announced Wednesday that a judicial stay in Florida’s federal same-sex marriage case will expire on January 5, 2015.  According to the Florida Family Policy Council, this overturns Florida’s marriage amendment likely ensuring that same-sex couples will be allowed to receive marriage licenses in the state the following day.

Florida Family Policy Council President John Stemberger issued a statement, which said, in part:

“The court today is wrong. The court was also wrong years ago in Dred Scott when it ruled that Blacks were not persons. The courts will never have the final word on an institution as fundamental to the human experience as marriage. You simply cannot build a civilization without natural marriage.

Today, we grieve. We grieve for the children who now have no chance of growing up with both a mom and a dad. We mourn the loss of a culture and its ethical foundation. We mourn for a culture that continues to turn its back on timeless principles."

According to, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle had ruled Florida's marriage amendment defining marriage as one man and one woman unconstitutional back in August.  Hinkle said that the Florida amendment violated the "due process" and "equal protection" provisions in the U.S. Constitution. reported that Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel called the decision to allow couples to marry while the appeal is ongoing a travesty. The decision, he said, shows the judges likely are leaning the wrong way.

He said, “There’s no question that the Supreme Court will likely get involved in these decisions now,” adding, “Florida voters have a right to affirm marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and there’s no constitutional rights to same-sex marriage. There are a lot of legitimate reasons why Florida’s affirmation of one man and one woman should be upheld."

1 - Minnesota school sports authority passes new policy allowing students to play on sports team of gender with which they say they identify

We have seen this trend ramp up regarding gender identity, where young people and others are being affirmed in identifying with the opposite gender than their biological one.  This has given rise to policies such as what a sports governing board in Minnesota has just voted to implement.

According to, the new policy that will allow transgender high school students to play on the sports team of the sex in which they identify.

According to the policy, "When there is confirmation of a student's consistent and uniform gender-related identity…the student will be eligible to participate in MSHSL activities consistent with the student's gender identification for the balance of the student’s high school eligibility.”

The article says that the new set of rules has prompted concerns and criticism about safety and privacy from parents and officials.

State law already allows girls to play on boys’ teams, but some are concerned that larger biological males who identify as females could potentially harm smaller girls.

The piece says that critics also have a problem with the part of the policy that says transgender students would share showers and hotel rooms with the sex in which they identify. reported that the vote was approved by the Minnesota State High School League and will go into effect beginning in the 2015-16 school year.   It reported that the league's media specialist tweeted out, "Minnesota will become the 33rd state to implement a policy for transgender high school athletes."