Friday, December 28, 2012

Pastor Andy Stanley and Church Mourn Loss of Staff in Car Crash

Pastor Andy Stanley and the thousands who attend North Point Community Church are mourning the loss of one of their staff members who died in a car accident Tuesday night.

The Alpharetta, Ga., megachurch made the announcement Wednesday, tweeting, "Our hearts are broken."

Celeste and Ryan McCormick, both 27, were involved in a collision with another vehicle in Alabama. Celeste, who was a passenger in a 2003 Honda, died after a 2003 Chevrolet struck them. Ryan sustained injuries but survived.

The driver of the Chevrolet, Brandon Ray Sellers, 20, was also injured.

Alabama State Troopers are investigating the crash.

The McCormicks are both part of the staff at North Point Community Church, one of the largest churches in the country. They served at the megachurch's Gwinnett campus, one of five campuses.

Gwinnett Church is located in Duluth, Ga., approximately 15 miles to the east of the main North Point campus.

In a brief message posted online for the congregation on Wednesday, Gwinnett Church stated, "It is with deep sorrow that I must let you know that Celeste died in the accident. Ryan is currently recovering at a hospital in Montgomery and his prognosis is good.

"Both Ryan and Celeste have done so much for Gwinnett Church. Ryan is on our Service Programming team and Celeste was a part of our UpStreet staff. We are heartbroken and we will miss her greatly. Please pray for Ryan, their parents, and our team."

UpStreet is a Sunday gathering for elementary-aged kids (K - 5th grade).

Members of the church and public have expressed their support with messages of prayer.

"What a heart-wrenching blow to all of us who loved her and fealt (sic) her love. Celeste will be greatly missed. It is comforting to know, that she is safe and whole in our heavenly Father's arms," wrote Bruce & Michelle Saarela on the church's website.

Scott & Stephanie Goodspeed commented, "I served on staff with Ryan at Dogwood Church and my wife and I enjoyed the privilege of doing their pre-marriage counseling. What an amazing love for Christ and thus each other and a testament to their great parents, pastors and disciplers in their lives.

"Like you, our hearts are full of shock, sorrow and hope as we pray for Ryan, their families and your church family."

North Point Community Church did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

[By Lillian Kwon , Christian Post Reporter]

Christian Pastor Saeed Abedini Imprisoned in Iran

A 32-year-old Iranian who is a U.S. citizen and a Christian convert has been imprisoned without notice of any formal charges while visiting his family in Iran, according to his wife and attorneys in the U.S., who are now hoping that a media campaign will help set him free.

The Rev. Saeed Abedini, who lives in the U.S. with his wife and two young children, was making one of his frequent visits to see his parents and the rest of his family in Iran, his country of origin and where he spent many years as a Christian leader and community organizer developing Iran’s underground home church communities for Christian converts.

On this last trip, the Iranian government pulled him off a bus and said he must face a penalty for his previous work as a Christian leader in Iran.

He is currently awaiting trial at Iran’s notoriously brutal Evin Prison, where he has been incarcerated since late September.

“When he became a Christian, he became a criminal in his own country. His passion was to reach the people of Iran,” Naghmeh, his wife, said in an exclusive interview with Fox News.

“He comes from a very close-knit family, and he loved evangelizing and passing out Bibles on the streets of Tehran. This was his passion,” she said.

In July, Abedini left his wife and kids to go to Iran to visit family and continue a humanitarian effort he began years ago to build an orphanage.

After a short visit to a nearby country, Abedini was traveling back into Iran to catch his flight back to the U.S. when members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard stopped his bus near the Turkey-Iran border and pulled Abedini from the bus, confiscating his passports and subjecting him to intense interrogation, according to his wife.

After weeks under house arrest and many calls to Iran’s passport control office about the status of his confiscated passport, Abedini was told that his case has been referred to the Revolutionary Guard, the Iranian government’s elite military force.

On Sept. 26, five men kicked open the door of Abedini’s parents’ residence in Tehran where they collected all communications devices and arrested him while placing the rest of his family members, who are also Christians converts from Islam, under house arrest.

The family remains under house arrest, according to Naghmeh.

Two days before the home raid, Naghmeh reports getting a call to her cellphone in the U.S., from someone she thinks was an Iranian government agent threatening that she would “never see him again.”

Abedini is the father of a house church movement in Iran, a community of underground places of worship for former Muslims who convert to Christianity and are not allowed to formally pray in recognized churches.

Over the course of his involvement, his home church movement had about 100 churches in 30 Iranian cities with more than 2,000 members.

“It was just growing so fast. They see the underground churches as a threat and they see Christianity as a tool from the West to undermine them,” Naghmeh said. “They think if the country becomes more Christian, they are no longer under Islamic authority. That’s why it’s a threat.”

But “Christianity saved his life,” Naghmeh says of her husband, who converted at the age of 20, after becoming severely depressed from undergoing suicide bomber training by a radical Muslim group.

Abedini was recruited in high school and taken to the mosque to be trained, she says. The more he sought to be a devout Muslim and the deeper he went into training, the more depressed he became.

Under Shariah, or Islamic law, a Muslim who converts to Christianity is on a par with someone waging war against Islam. Death sentences for such individuals are prescribed by fatwas, or legal decrees, and reinforced by Iran’s Constitution, which allows judges to rely on fatwas for determining charges and sentencing on crimes not addressed in the Iranian penal code.

All religious minorities in Iran, including Bahais, Zoroastrians, Jews and Christians, have faced various forms of persecution and political and social marginalization throughout the regime’s 30-year reign. But the government saves its harshest retribution for those who have abandoned Islam.

During the many rounds of interrogations, Abedini has informally been told he will be charged for threatening the national security of Iran and espionage, due to his involvement with Christian house churches and foreign Christian satellite TV ministries.

The Iranian government offered bail in the amount of 500 million toman, or roughly $410,000. Abedini’s family has prepared the bail documents many times already but have not been successful in having it accepted or approved, they say.

Just this week they prepared yet again the bail documents but were told they were not going to be accepted. When they inquired, they were told, “Boro Gomsho!” or get lost.

“It’s hardest on the kids,” Naghmeh said. “Saeed was a stay-at-home dad. My daughter said she is forgetting Daddy’s voice and she asked me, ‘Do you think he has a beard now?’ I didn’t even think of that. She keeps playing the home videos over and over. It’s the hardest at night because he had a night routine with them when he would read them books and tuck them in. They miss that the most.”

Abedini and his wife had met in Iran in 2002, while she was there working for Iranian relatives, and were married shortly thereafter. Together, they worked as Christian leaders in the underground house churches. After facing persecution for these activities, in 2005, they moved to the U.S. together.

His first trip back to Iran was in 2009 with his wife and two children to visit his family when he came under government scrutiny. As the family attempted to catch their flight back to the U.S., Abedini was detained and told he would have to stay in the country for further questioning. His wife and children were put on a plane bound for the U.S., separated from their husband and father.

After the arrest and rounds of intense interrogation, in which the interrogators threatened Abedini with death for his conversion to Christianity, they agreed to release him, according to his attorneys, but only after he signed a written agreement in which the government would not charge him for his Christian activities, and he would be allowed to enter and exit the country so long as he ceased all official house church activities.

According to his attorneys, he had honored this agreement. “He thought if he honored his part, they would honor theirs. He was transparent about his humanitarian work there,” said Tiffany Barrans, International Legal Director at the American Center for Law and Justice based in Washington D.C, the organization representing Abedini’s U.S.-based family.

This was ninth trip since 2009 to visit family and to continue his humanitarian work on developing a non-sectarian orphanage in the city of Rasht on a family-owned land plot.

“You have a situation of arbitrary detention here. Iran is violating its own constitution and its international obligations. As citizens of the world, we need to wake up to these violations. Iran needs to be exposed for its violation of these laws,” said Barrans, who has been working very closely with Naghmeh to push for her husband’s release.

The American Center for Law and Justice is providing legal support to Naghmeh by working through the US government, members of Congress, various governments around the world, and with leaders in the United Nations to help release Pastor Saeed.

The ACLJ previously played an integral role in reaching various government representatives in the case of imprisoned minister Youcef Nadarkhani, who was freed from an Iranian prison after nearly three years following a tremendous international outcry demanding his release.

Despite the fact that Abedini was arrested Sept. 26, the family elected to work through different private means to get him released. In that time, however, he was denied access to an attorney and was badly been beaten by prison guards. According to his wife, Abedini is also being severely beaten by his cell mates who self-identify as members of Al Qaeda. The family is greatly concerned for his health and well being.

The U.S. has not had formal diplomatic ties with the Iranian government since 1980 and relies on alternative efforts in such instances.

Fox News reached out to the State Department for comment on Abedini’s case but has not received a call back yet.

“We were hopeful that the Iranian government would have released him by now and that private efforts would have been more successful. Also, as Saeed has family in Iran, we had to be mindful of the fact that any public action taken could put his family at risk,” said Barrans.

“They see that the house church culture is alive and thriving. They believe that making an example out of their former leader will deter others from practicing and converting to Christianity.”

Several house church members, friends and distant relatives of Abedini have had to flee the country in recent months after being summoned by the government to collect evidence against him.

As a convert away from Islam, worshippers are not permitted to attend services at official churches. Underground house churches became a popular way to get around this restriction.

“They have denied converts the opportunity to worship in an official place of worship. Then they tell them they can’t practice their faith underground, and doing so is a crime against Iran’s national security interests. How is this not a violation of religious freedom?” Barrans said.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Merry Christmas

Don & Yvonne Brock
From our home to yours.

Leadership Development in 2013

As the year winds down, it’s a good time to reflect on what you've accomplished and learned as a leader and what you’d like to focus on for the coming year.  Creating an Individual Development Plan (IDP) is a great way to capture those actions and increases your chances of keeping your commitments to yourself.

Senior leaders often hire executive coaches to help them create their development plan.  A good coach has the ability to ask just the right question at the right time in order to create insight and inspiration to change. However, a good executive coach doesn't come cheap.  For those of you on limited budgets and working for frugal or cash-strapped organizations, have no fear, you've come to the right place.

When you are ready, take out a piece of paper and a pen, or a tablet for you techies, and answer each one of the following questions.  Managers, once you've created your own plan, use the questions to coach your team to create their plans.

Purpose and commitment:

  1. Why are you interested in developing your leadership skills?
  2. How is becoming a better leader going to help you achieve the results you are trying to achieve?
  3. What’s motivating you?  Are you challenged in your current role?  Do you have aspirations for a new role?  If it’s just to be a better leader in your current role, why is this important to you and what do you hope to achieve?
  4. How inspired and committed are you to changing?

Identifying the “what”:

  1. What does great leadership look like to you?
  2. Who is a role model leader for you and why?  What do they do?
  3. What leadership competencies (skills, knowledge, attributes) are important to your organization, for your current role, and/or for the role you aspire to?  Why?
  4. How do you stack up against these competencies?  If you don’t know or are not sure, how can you get feedback?
  5. What are your greatest strengths as a leader and why?
  6. What are your greatest opportunities for improvement as a leader, and why?
  7. What are the three areas (strengths or opportunities) you are committed to work on that if improved, will have the biggest impact on your desired results?  Why?

Identify the “how”:

  1. Is your current role the best opportunity to develop these three areas?  If not, are you ready to consider a new role?  If so, what would it be?  Why?
  2. What will you do, and who should you talk to further explore this possible change?
  3. What are some challenging assignments or projects, both on the job and outside of work that would give you an opportunity to learn and apply these new competencies?
  4. Who’s really good at any one (or all) of those things?  How can you approach them to ask for their advice?
  5. Who can you meet with on a regular basis to get further advice and/or support?  Your manager, a mentor, a coach?
  6. How can you find a good course, a book, articles, websites, blogs, podcasts, and other learning resources related to your learning goals?

Implementation and follow-up:

  1. What’s your action plan?  Who’s going to do what, and by when?
  2. What resources and support do you need to achieve your goals?
  3. How will you share your plan with your manager?  What support do you need from your manager?
  4. In order to hold yourself accountable and gain additional support, who else will you share your plan with and how?
  5. How will you ensure you do what you say you were going to do?
  6. What roadblocks do you expect or need to plan for?  What are some ways to overcome them?
  7. On a scale of 1-10, how committed are you to your plan?  If anything less than a 10, why?  What would you need to change to make it a 10?
  8. What will you do to ensure those new learnings become a regular part of who you are and how you think and behave and a leader? 

Side note: It was an interesting challenge to limit myself to only asking questions, and to use as many open-ended questions as possible. I have to admit, I’m more of a “teller” than an “asker”.  Try it sometime, as a way to explain something you think you know a lot about to someone.  It will challenge your ability as a coach.

[from Great Leadership by Dan McCarthy]

Monday, December 17, 2012

Why Does God Allow It?

While being interviewed live on a radio station this morning I was asked, “Why does God allow tragedies like the school shooting to happen?”  I have given the question more thought since.

The problem of evil and suffering is the question of why God allows it.  Pain and suffering in themselves are not evil.  God can actually use them to help us grow.  Even death, from one perspective, is simply the beginning of a joyful eternity.  It is those of us who remain who usually suffer the most.

Even then, some of our concern over the problem of evil comes from imagining our own suffering and death rather than from our own suffering per se.  We imagine ourselves in the shoes of those who may have suffered only for a moment.  Sometimes our sense of the magnitude of the issue comes from fear as much as from actual suffering.

But if God loves us and is able to stop evil and suffering, then why doesn't he?  Here again, we do not know the extent to which he does.  God may be intervening all the time, constantly, without us knowing it.  We are mostly aware of the times when he doesn't.  It is quite possible that they stand out to us in great disproportion to the number of times he does step in and change the course of history.

Why doesn't he step in every time?  We must ultimately trust that he has some larger reason not to step in.  We must believe that he doesn't step in because there is some greater good either for us or for humanity as a whole.

For example, one old explanation for the bigger picture has to do with moral freedom.  It is not a perfect answer, but it suggests that a world in which we can choose the good (and thus can choose evil) is a better world than one in which we are simply God's robots playing out a script he has written for us.  But if some individuals will choose the good, then some will choose the evil, and suffering will result.

This answer to the problem of evil is the "free will" explanation.  In its classical form, it says that God gave Satan and Adam a choice between good and evil, and they made the wrong choice.  In Adam's case, the result was a world where people have a tendency to do wrong and where the created realm is enslaved to corruption and decay (cf. Rom. 8:19-21).  St. Augustine in the 400s saw the evil and suffering in the world as a direct consequence of Adam's sin in Genesis 3.

As someone from the Wesleyan tradition, I believe that God still empowers us to make choices for good in this world.  We can of course go with the human default of selfishness, usually with a resulting detriment to ourselves and others around us.  But I believe God makes it possible also for us, both individually and collectively, to do good in the world as well, if we will.

A supplemental answer to that of free will is the "Irenaeus" answer, proposed some two hundred years before Augustine.  Irenaeus suggested that suffering can make us stronger.  Without hardship, our wills would not face the kinds of choices that enable us to grow and become morally great.  We can understand natural laws as a mirror of the principle of freedom, where God allows the laws of nature to play themselves out without regularly intervening. Sometimes, those laws play out in a way that results in our suffering, and we face the choice to grow or become bitter.

But ultimately, it comes down to faith in the mystery of God's goodness.  By faith we believe that God is good.  I do not believe that God orchestrates evil or that he directly causes all suffering.  For reasons that are usually beyond our full understanding, he certainly allows it.  Sometimes he intervenes.  Sometimes he doesn't.

Ultimately, we must believe that there is a big picture that we often do not see.  We as Christians believe that, if God allows evil or suffering, he must do so because it is either beneficial for us in some way or that it benefits the big picture.  We do not see the big picture.  We cannot know how the alternative would play out.

We believe by faith that God is good and that the sovereign king of the universe will do right (Gen. 18:25).  Sometimes we can guess at why God might allow something, but we cannot be certain in this life.  We must have faith in the mystery of his goodness, that he is working everything for good in his ultimate game plan.

[from Quadrilateral Thoughts by Ken Schenck]