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FIRST-PERSON: Testibytes in Tampa

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–Each of the 45 appointees was allotted 125 words of testimony. Once the individual or couple had said their piece, the spotlight dimmed and then reappeared on the opposite side of the stage, ready for another 125 words from a new speaker. They called these mini-statements “testibytes.” Delivered for memory, these snapshots of call and vision, spoken mainly by husbands and wives standing side by side, reflected the spirit of Isaiah: “Here am I, Lord. Send me.”

The occasion was an International Mission Board appointment service, this one held in March at Idlewild Baptist Church in Tampa, Fla. I’m guessing about a thousand souls were assembled –- joyfully tearful parents, local church choristers and prayer-meeting faithful, Tampa-area pastors and congregants, furloughing missionaries, IMB staff and trustees. As the global destinations of the new missionaries were named, I was reminded of a pillow, broken open, with feathers scattering on the wind — from Europe to the Pacific Rim, from North Africa/Middle East to South Asia.

We sang, “I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.” Well, we Southern Baptists also love to tell the stories that flow from The Story, and I enjoyed a feast of those.

Flying down to Tampa, I cracked open a Christmas book from one of my sisters and her husband, “Voices of the Faithful: Inspiring Stories of Courage from Christians Serving Around the World.” It’s a compilation of IMB reports, arranged in daily-devotional format. I always read with a pencil, making notes in the margin and inside the back cover. I had to keep cranking out more lead to handle my reminders of what goodies were on what pages.

Scanning down my endnotes, I see that I’ll have to reread such stories as the one about the Bible which miraculously stayed dry in the river, about the embarrassing question for a Hindu (“How can a pig do good works to improve his lot in the next life?”), about an encounter with a culture which blesses a baby by spitting on it (making it repellent to evil spirits), and about the way in which dreams of Jesus prompt pagans to ask vital questions leading to salvation.

Then at the service, IMB official Gordon Fort, talked about IMB worker Martha Myers, who was murdered at the hospital in Jibla, Yemen, in 2002. Her killer later explained his motive. It seems that his wife needed medical attention, but that she was finding little help among her neighbors. But when she went to Jibla, Dr. Myers was disarmingly gracious and effective in her care. Leaving the hospital, the Muslim woman reported the visit to her husband, going on about the stunning impression made upon her by this 24-year veteran of Jibla service. It was at that point that the husband “knew he had to kill Myers.” The witness of the doctor’s medical ministry was so strong that she posed a formidable threat to Islam and so must be eliminated. This was his thinking.

Martha had also been doing some thinking. Considering her own mortality and the disposition of her remains, she had stipulated that she be buried in Yemen. She reasoned that interment back in the States would mean just another grave, but burial in Yemen would leave a witness. And so her body rests today on a hill near the hospital, where Yemeni stop to consider her sacrifice for their sake in the name of her Savior.

Fort also spoke of a young woman in trouble in another Muslim country, this time for attending a baptism. The officials hauled her to the station and called her father, who expressed his ignorance of her dealings with Christians. He wanted to know what baptism was anyway, and an officer explained that those who profess faith in Jesus as Savior undergo a ceremony which represents their new life. Hearing this, he said that the family would take care of the matter.

Indeed, they did. On the way home, he asked why she had kept this good news from him. He said he too wanted to be baptized. Taken aback, she went to the missionaries for advice. They gave her Scripture for him to read, which he did and then repeated his request. After several sessions, it became clear he knew what he was doing, and he was baptized. He now serves as pastor.

Then IMB President Jerry Rankin preached from Ephesians, and told of a missionary who was sidelined by kidney problems. Through his ministry, he had already seen seven churches started among his people group. Understandably, he was frustrated to learn that he needed to return stateside for care, leaving the new believers and their many unbelieving neighbors without guidance. But God was not frustrated or sidelined. When the missionary returned two years later, there were 30 churches.

And so on it went, story after story, many from the new appointees. One man told of digging water wells in Central America, thus providing material water. But one day, he shifted to sharing Living Water, and to his delight, he had a new calling. A married couple spoke of God’s handiwork in pairing them for service. While he was a serviceman in the Pacific and she was a Journeyman in Africa, at the prompting of a missionary friend, they became acquainted by phone and e-mail. Though they didn’t meet for over a year, their love grew, and now they are going out together on mission. Then a young woman, who used to manage a sporting goods store, told of the weird way in which Zimbabwe kept coming up in conversation and her traffic patterns. God used these “coincidences” to point her heart toward mission service (which, by the way, will not be in Zimbabwe). There were dozens of these brief accounts of God’s grace and direction, one after another in quick succession. (You really must attend one of these commissioning services; they occur ever two months, at various sites around the country.)

And now on my way back home, I turned to another Christmas book, from one of my children and his wife. “To The Golden Shore” starts with Ann and Adoniram Judson setting sail from Salem, Mass., February 19, 1812. They were off to Burma, where their story plays directly into our Southern Baptist mission story.

As the accounts roll on, generation after generation, it becomes clear that Acts is itself a divinely inspired “testibyte” or collection of them, with snippets of missionary work, a story here and there, stories which take their place alongside the countless stories unfolded and unfolding in church history, of which we are a part today.

And so continues “the old, old story of Jesus and his love.”
Mark Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church and distinguished professor of apologetics at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Reprinted from the Illinois Baptist newsjournal, online at www.ibsa.org/illinoisbaptist.

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  • Mark Coppenger