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FIRST-PERSON: Christmas insights from Iraq

BAGHDAD (BP)–Last weekend, 68 Iraqis were killed and three more American servicemen lost their lives. I photographed oil wells set ablaze by the insurgents and watched a car bomb explode from my hotel. Yet in the midst of the turmoil and violence, the church of Jesus Christ is vibrant and alive. The Gospel is being proclaimed and new believers are following the Messiah, gathering for fellowship and discipleship across this land.

American foreign policy and military might has opened an opportunity for the Gospel in the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God is moving here, and Southern Baptists are responding.

It is a difficult and dangerous time for our world, and the future cannot be clearly seen. Each worker must live in the present, carrying his or her past into a future that cannot be known. What may be an acceptable level of risk today might shatter tomorrow — or five years from now — in events that might have implications not only for them, but for those they walk among.

It is not all that unusual a situation. More than 40 percent of the nearly 5,400 Southern Baptist international missionaries who serve across the globe live and minister in uncertain circumstances.

Here in this biblical land, the dust of time is everywhere. It swirls about you. Babylon, Ninevah and Ur are ruins, little more than toppled stone and fragments, historical memory. But Medes and Persians, Assyrians and Chaldeans are more than ancient words from an old book. They are very much alive. They are words people use to introduce themselves. It is who they are, their heritage. To walk among them is to walk among living history.

Out of this cultural mix came Abraham, framing his relationship with God, fathering a nation and the lineage of Christ, which is our heritage, too. To be here is to walk through our history, to walk on hallowed ground.

This is a land of violence, but it is also a land of hospitality. At the end of a long drive across country, I spent the night in a home. My driver and I had entertained each other by pointing at things as we rode along, asking, “What is this called, what’s that called?” learning words in our respective languages, laughing as we stumbled through them. At dusk we pulled into a town nestled against spectacular mountains. “My brother lives here,” my new friend said. “No hotel. Stay with him.” To refuse was unthinkable.

Hot tea, a pallet on the floor, a warm blanket. A cold rinse in the courtyard the next morning was followed by pecans for breakfast. We broke the pods with the point of a knife, then wrapped the meat in pieces of the flat bread that is so much a staple in this part of the world.

Ish is one of the Arabic words for bread. It also means life. In breaking that bread, the phrase, Bread of Life, and doing it in remembrance of Him, took on new meaning.

There is so much we need to do in remembrance of Him. A little child, born into an age of uncertainty and violence not unlike our own, would grow to offer the ultimate act of hospitality. Along the way, He would remind us that beyond loving God we are to be a people of hospitality. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves.

That He chose a Samaritan for His story to illustrate this is no accident. It is a reminder that when we walk in His name we find neighbors in unexpected places among unexpected people. And in the offering of ourselves, the Gospel comes one by one, like one hungry man offering another bread.
For security reasons, the writer/photographer asked to remain anonymous.

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