2016 In Review

Pondering the events of the past year means revisiting the good, bad, and ugly. Before I attempt to make sense of it, let’s review the history.

Sports are a good place to start. The Chicago Cubs clinched their first World Series title in 108 years.  The Atlanta Braves finished the season well, leaving us optimistic about the first season in SunTrust Park.  The U.S. won the most Olympic medals.

In politics, Donald Trump outpolled Hillary Clinton to become President-Elect. The Presidents of Brazil and South Korea were impeached, but the President of Turkey remained after an attempted coup.  Teresa May became Prime Minister of the UK after the Brexit vote. Taiwan’s first female president Tsai Ing-wen famously called Mr. Trump.

Now for the bad. Targeting police became a thing in 2016.  At least 64 officers were killed, including four Dallas officers ambushed while protecting those protesting against them.

Hurricane Matthew killed hundreds and left thousands homeless in Haiti.  Wildfires raged in Appalachia and California.  Drought contributed to the damage and deaths as Gatlinburg burned. Louisiana and West Virginia flooded.  Earthquakes hit Ecuador, New Zealand, and Italy, killing hundreds.  The Zika virus reared its ugly head.

The “axis of evil” stirred the pot. North Korea became a nuclear power, and Iran rushed to join the club. Iran captured ten U.S. sailors and their boats, and is allied with Russia in Syria.  The U.S. paid $400M to Iran.

The U.S. revealed ISIS killed 19,000 civilians since its beginning.  Terrorists struck an Orlando club, Manhattan’s Chelsea district, a Minnesota mall, and the Ohio State campus. Brussels, Paris, Istanbul, Cairo, and Berlin were attacked.  Over 4000 died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to escape terrorism in North Africa and the Middle East.

God has already accounted for the good and bad that happen. Theologians call this Providence, which is God’s activity to direct a fallen creation to accomplish His divine purpose.  Indeed, His purpose is personal.  Remember the story of Esther, who lived for “such a time as this”?  He knows the world you live in, having determined your appointed times and the boundaries of your habitation, that you would seek Him.  When things happen that make you yearn for the good, the loving, and the merciful, they point to something outside yourself.  Paul concluded that yearning is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.  (Esth. 4:14, Acts 17:26, Phil. 3:10)

With the Christmas story of peace and goodwill fresh on our hearts, we rest assured that God is unsurprised and undaunted. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, especially not the events now inscribed in the history book of 2016.

Christmas Hero

Talking with Johnny Carson in 1987 about “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Jimmy Stewart said, “It’s amazing that it’s become such a Christmas picture.” It should be no surprise since the movie ends in a heart-warming Christmas scene, and a plot theme is full of the Christmas message.

Director Frank Capra’s movie portrays the humble life of George Bailey. Despite his wanderlust of anchor chains, plane motors, train whistles, and his idealistic plans of changing the world, he stayed home.  His father died and left the responsibility for the town building and loan business to George.  In his work, he was admired and respected as he protected the town from the miserly Henry Potter.

George Bailey was a hero. He did not know what he meant to his family and friends until he saw what Bedford Falls might be like had he never been born.  How fitting that they honored their hero at Christmas.

We are attracted to heroes, especially real ones. Just this month two policemen in Americus Georgia sacrificed their lives protecting their community from a lifelong, violent criminal.  It became a national story, with condolences pouring in from around the country.  May God strengthen these hero families in their time of grief and lifelong loss.

To truly understand the Christmas story, you must see the world from God’s perspective. He sees people walking in darkness, living in a dark land, who need light.  He sees people going astray like sheep, turning to our own way, who need a shepherd. (Is. 9, 53)

Into such a world a child was born, and “His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace” (Is. 9:6). This child was from above, as “He was in the beginning with God” (Jn. 1:2). He was also from below, as his mother Mary “wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger” (Lk. 2:7).  He is God in the flesh, God with us, the God who saves.

Jesus is our hero. His mission on earth was to be light, to be a shepherd, to be the way back to our Creator.  What would our lives be like if he had never been born, never completed his mission?  Paul tells us, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17).  I shudder to think what the world would be without the love of God manifest to us in Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection.

Linus in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” explains the true meaning of Christmas. “I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11).  Our Christmas hero.


Voting evangelicals are quite interesting to political scientists. One reason is that evangelicals comprise 25 to 35 percent of American adults.  Just who are these evangelicals?

Christians are considered evangelical in three ways: how we self-identify, what church we attend, and what we believe. Anyone can claim the label, and no definitive list of evangelical churches exists, so the most precise way to determine an evangelical is by beliefs.

The National Association of Evangelicals and Lifeway Research developed a method to measure evangelical beliefs using four statements. If you strongly agree with these statements, they consider you an evangelical.  Here they are:

  1. The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe. A friend once challenged me, “Since men wrote it, how could it be the word of God?”  Smart folks have written entire books on this.  I’ll just offer that the Bible has a consistent narrative that spans thousands of years, including prophecies fulfilled.  It offers a worldview that makes sense of the world as we experience it.  Risking a circular argument, I’ll add that it claims to reveal what God wants us to know.

2. It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior. One of Jesus’ last utterances in the flesh was, “Make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Mat. 28:19). Followers do what the leader says.

3. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin. The Hebrew prophet foretold a suffering servant who would be crushed for our iniquities (Is. 53:5). Peter confirmed that servant was Jesus.  “Christ died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18).

4. Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation. Defending his preaching about Jesus, Peter said, “there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). It is a free gift, received by faith (Eph. 2:8).

Exit polls in 2016 indicate that evangelicals do not agree on politics. But we do agree that in Christ “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male, nor female” (Gal. 3:28).  And no democrat or republican.  Our unity is not in our politics, but this:  When we consider what Jesus alone has done for us as described in the Bible, it lifts our hearts heavenward, and compels us to share that good news with anyone who will listen.  Such is the life and belief of an evangelical.


Speaking to Christianity Today, after his escape from Cuba in 2012, Pastor Carlos Lamelas described a life of constant surveillance, attempts at black market entrapment, assaults and beatings, false accusations and imprisonment. Yet world leaders memorialize Fidel Castro as a successful socialist rather than a tyrant.  He may be dead, but his intolerance of religious freedom in Cuba lives.

America’s founders envisioned a government that answered to the people, who answer to God.  Castro wanted the people to answer to him only.  He founded an atheistic state, typical of 20th century communism.  What it purports to offer comes at the price of freedom, a point today’s socialists might consider.

After the fall of the USSR, Cuba ended its official policy of atheism. Churches grew as people looked for answers and found Christ.  Since new church buildings are not permitted, a government official suggested home meetings.  Castro accepted overtures from the Catholic Church.  But the detente turned in 2015, with agents citing a new law to justify repression of churches.

Between 2014 and 2015, the number of religious freedom violations increased tenfold to 2300 cases according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide. In the first half of 2016, authorities targeted 1600 churches including demolition and confiscation of property, and imprisonment of church leaders.  Cuba still monitors and controls most aspects of religious life. “Serious religious freedom violations continue in Cuba, despite improvements for government-approved religious groups,” according to the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom (2015).

Despite the oppression, the church in Cuba is growing rapidly. Christians still meet in homes and historic church buildings.  When a church outgrows a home, it multiplies to other homes.  CBN reports that in the last 20 years, Cubans started more than 16,000 churches.  The Baptists helped reinvigorate a failing seminary, which in 2008 graduated 150 pastors from an enrollment of 650.  The boot-heel of government does not easily stamp out faith, love, and hope.

The church in Cuba, Iran, and China have something in common: Persecution and sustained growth.  History indicates that these go hand-in-hand.  Jesus wanted his followers to be prepared for this.  “If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (Jn. 15:20).  Peter wrote, “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing” (1 Pet. 4:12).

With travel restrictions lifted, American Christians are moving quickly to support our Cuban family. Franklin Graham has issued a call to purchase Bibles for distribution in Cuba.  We can learn from those who “have been distressed by various trials so that the proof of your faith…may be found to result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:6,7). Now that he has met his Maker, perhaps Castro has learned something too, that his tyranny of the church has failed.