Month: December 2012

Bullets only strengthened Texas couple’s resolve

PAYNE SPRINGS—Don and Teri Caswell thought they would just lay low when they returned to Yemen seven months after a terrorist attack on the Jibla Baptist Hospital where he had served as a pharmacist. As the last family on their flight to come through immigration, Yemeni officials couldn’t figure out why their passports had no reference to their prior travel to the country.

“They kept looking at the passports and looking at us as if to say we know you’ve been here before,” Teri Caswell recalled, explaining that they had been issued new documents before traveling back to Yemen. After retrieving their bags, Don Caswell finally satisfied the curiosity of the local authorities: He lifted his shirt, revealing the scars from the bullets that hit him on each side.

The attack of Dec. 30, 2002 claimed the lives of three co-workers—obstetrician Martha Myers of Alabama, hospital administrator Bill Koehn, a Kansas native, and purchasing manager Kathy Gariety of Wisconsin. Caswell was the lone survivor.

A day later, Myers and Koehn were buried at the top of the 22-acre compound where Jibla Baptist Hospital sat. The funeral attracted 40,000 Yemeni nationals, lining the street for a half-mile outside the hospital gates to pay their respects.

The Caswells and their two sons were flown to a safe location in the Middle East before returning to their home in Eustace.

“Every single person at the International Mission Board, from Jerry Rankin on down, were all so supportive,” Teri remembered. “Whatever they could do to help us, they did it. It was amazing.”

Their gratitude extends to the Southern Baptist churches that contribute to the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions. “Our missionaries go out on the field and they don’t have to worry about raising their support when they come back,” Teri added. ‘Because of that, we can send more people.”

Having served 18 months of a two-year commitment when Caswell was injured, the couple never hesitated in their desire to continue the work they’d begun, returning to Yemen in August 2003 and eventually settling in Payne Springs, Texas.

Upon their return to Yemen that August, Caswell assumed responsibilities at the Jibla compound, helping coordinate the work of volunteers from other countries. “It was a lot harder to keep a low profile,” he said, referring to guards stationed at their residence. “They would question anyone who came to visit.”

“We were going to try to lay low, but there was no way,” Caswell told the TEXAN. “The big sheik always wanted me to sit by him and show people my scars,” he recalled with amusement.  

Other scars remained under the surface. “I used to not believe in post-traumatic stress, but I do now,” Don said. When their term was completed, the Caswells headed to Winston-Salem, N.C., where Calvary Baptist Church provided counseling for the entire family before returning to Texas in May 2005.
Don struggles to find words to describe the many ways his life was changed by the experiences of Yemen.

“Things that used to be really important to me are just not that important anymore,” he said. “I used to get all up in the air about different things we were doing at church.” Now he sets his focus on taking the gospel to the lost.

“It’s not how big the church is but what you do outside the church in sharing the love of Christ,” he added.

When he can break away from his job at a local pharmacy, Caswell participates in mission trips with First Baptist Church of Malakoff, where he and his family are members. During a vision trip to Greece, he traveled to the northern region witnessing to Muslims who had migrated from Turkey.

Their youngest son joined Don on a trip to Malawi and ventured out with an interpreter to share his own testimony. Next summer he will travel with other teenagers from the church to serve in Costa Rica.

Ten years after the attack on hospital personnel, the Caswells speak with gratitude for the opportunity to serve with the three Southern Baptists who were martyred, having particular affection for Myers, who had served in the country for 25 years.

“She was dedicated to God,” Teri explained. “Her calling was to God and that’s who she answered to.”
That example inspired Teri to develop a similar resolve. “For me, that’s been the biggest thing that I learned. If God has called me to do something, by golly, I’m going to do it.”

For now that determination is channeled through Faith in Action Outreach, a ministry offering “life sustaining services to neighbors in need.” Begun as a food pantry by a small group from another church, the work was handed off to First Baptist Church of Malakoff with nearly 100 people volunteering.

As an outreach adopted by his Sunday School class, Don travels to Tyler each week along with other men to retrieve thousands of pounds of food from East Texas Food Bank.

The ministry provides food each month to 1,200-1,500 people representing about 350 families from Henderson County. About 100 undernourished elementary school children from four school districts receive grocery bags filled with kid-friendly items.

“We do more than just food,” Teri explained. “We have probably doubled the amount we give out and now we have the clothing closet serving about 350 families,” she said, adding that the donation of a building allows the ministry to house both the clothing closet and food pantry in the same location.
The Caswells saw the fruit of meeting basic human needs during their time in Yemen. “The best ministry we had was through the hospital and orphanage and in helping the widows,” he said.

Teri recalled one widow who responded to their offer of help, trusting Christ as Savior. “Then her children, one by one, came to know the Lord because we met a need first,” she added. “It’s really true that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

That approach to ministry has made a difference in the lives of people to whom they’ve ministered in East Texas as well as Yemen. “We’ve had six or seven salvations since we started. That’s not bad for one year in a country saturated with the gospel,” Teri said.

Thinking ahead to a time when their youngest child graduates from high school, Don said, “We still have a heart for missions and are hoping in the future that we’d like to go back overseas,” contemplating some type of member care role in support of IMB missionaries.

“Or maybe even use the experience we’re having now with the food pantry to do some kind of hunger relief,” Teri added. “I feel like God is training us for what he wants us to do next.”

Yemen hospital’s legacy: love and grit

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Baptist Press on June 22, 2007, and is reprinted here as the 10th anniversary of the Jibla Baptist Hospital shootings approaches on Dec. 30.

RICHMOND, Va.—Southern Baptist doctors Judy Williams and Bruce Roach used to have a friendly competition at Jibla Baptist Hospital in Yemen: Who would work the longest “shift” without walking out the front gate?

“I think the longest for me was three months,” recalled Williams, a surgeon who arrived in the isolated Arab nation in 1999.

“People would bring me food, and we had a commissary on the compound. I’ll be the first to admit I’m a workaholic, and my work was in the operating room. That’s where my friendships with Yemenis were made.”

Williams was one of the last in a long line of Southern Baptist workers who gave their skills, their hearts—and in the case of three missionaries slain on the job, their lives—to the hundreds of thousands of Yemenis who came to the hospital for care.

When Williams and several co-workers walked out the gate of the hospital compound for the last time this spring, their departure marked the end of four decades of full-time Southern Baptist presence at the hospital, which was begun by missionary doctor Jim Young in 1967.

Official involvement of Yemen Baptist Mission personnel at Jibla Hospital ended May 1. That date actually marked a second ending: The hospital passed from International Mission Board administration into Yemeni hands more than four years ago.

On Dec. 30, 2002, Southern Baptist workers were trying to complete a complicated transfer of the institution to Yemeni control when physician Martha Myers, hospital administrator Bill Koehn and purchasing manager Kathy Gariety were shot by a Muslim militant who burst into Koehn’s office. Myers died on the spot. Williams and other hospital workers tried to save Koehn and Gariety, but their point-blank gunshot wounds were fatal. A Southern Baptist pharmacist also was shot and seriously wounded in the attack, but later recovered.

Jibla reopened in early 2003 under Yemeni administration. Several Southern Baptist workers, including Williams, continued to serve on the staff, providing critical management and medical support. Late last year, the eight remaining Baptist workers (seven Southern Baptists and a Mexican Baptist doctor) decided the time had come to end full-time involvement at the hospital.

“We completed what we set out to do,” Williams said of the decision. “From a medical perspective, the hospital had been transitioned to the Yemeni government and was treating more patients than it ever had—with minimal input from Yemen Baptist Mission personnel. Regarding matters of the heart, they too were progressing. In many ways, our presence in Jibla was hindering growth.

“If we hadn’t completed our work, the rest of the team would still be living on the compound in Jibla, continuing to work in what can be a very difficult and yet rewarding field of service—both medically and spiritually.”

Yemen Baptist Mission workers will continue involvement in several ministries begun at the hospital, including aid to needy widows, orphans and migrant Bedouin camps in the area. One Baptist physician still works in the hospital’s outpatient clinic twice a month. Workers also hope to continue partnering with the hospital in medical education and life-saving community immunization programs in Yemen’s countryside.

In a letter to veterans and supporters of the hospital, Williams said: “We do not see this as a sign of failure, but rather as a sign of growth. That does not mean it will be easy or without a sense of loss and grieving. I know from previous experiences that this process may actually be easier for those of us physically here than for you from afar.”

Only the dedicated band of missionaries, workers and volunteers who served at Jibla can understand the depth of those words.

Over the past 40 years, they endured extended civil war in Yemen, a disastrous fire, numerous financial crises, ongoing personnel shortages, political pressures, legal battles that threatened to shut down the hospital, kidnappings—and the murder of three of their own.

And always, they faced the daily challenge of treating—and loving—the endless stream of patients who came to the little hospital from all over the impoverished Middle Eastern nation of more than 19 million people.

At its peak, the 77-bed mission hospital employed several hundred workers, treated some 40,000 people a year, performed more than 400 surgeries a month and operated a busy outpatient clinic. For a time it offered a weekly chapel that was the only public Christian worship service in the conservative Muslim nation.

Patients included everyone from villagers who had never laid eyes on a doctor to powerful sheiks and government officials. They knew Jibla offered some of the best—and most compassionate—medical care in Yemen.

“So many times I thought, ‘I can’t do anything else,’ and yet they just kept coming and coming,” remembered missionary nurse Kelly Hawkins*. “We struggled with the work setting, the intensity and just the length of hours we had to put in while trying to care for our young family.”

Hawkins and her husband, Doug*, also a nurse, directed nursing and ancillary services, ran the operating room and filled many other roles during their 15 years at the hospital. Doug served as interim hospital administrator several times when his close friend Koehn was on home assignment in the United States. Today, they help coordinate Southern Baptist work throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East.

Often, they treated entire families in the hospital’s renowned burn unit. They once cared for nine members of a single family who had suffered terrible burns in an accident.

“Just to take pressure off our other nurses, Kelly and I would go in every day and change their dressings,” Doug said. “You’re stripping off dead skin, so they would holler the whole time, just scream in pain. Those are the days that were tough.”

One frantic night during Ramadan, the annual Muslim period of fasting and repentance, most local hospital workers were at home with their families. Many foreign medical workers were temporarily out of the country because of tensions related to the first Persian Gulf War. The Hawkinses found themselves covering virtually the entire hospital. Kelly was the only nurse on the women’s ward with 37 patients—not counting the 10-bed maternity ward. Her only scheduled Yemeni helper didn’t arrive at work.

“Kelly had nine patients in the delivery room and four or five of them were in active labor,” Doug recalled. “Our 11-year-old daughter came to help. Kelly delivered premature twins, and both were in respiratory difficulty. This little 11-year-old girl sat there for an hour resuscitating those babies, helping them breathe with oxygen. One of them died, but she just kept going.”

Both of the Hawkinses’ daughters are medical professionals today. Jibla had a way of getting everybody involved.

“This hospital played a very important part in maturing missionaries, young and old,” Kelly said. “Many of us came to Jibla young, and we were mentored well. We learned a lot of hard lessons. I think God knew the type of people he needed in Jibla were ‘plodder’ types—not many shining stars, but people who were consistent and who would stay the course through the long haul.”

The ultimate “plodder” at Jibla was Bill Koehn, the low-key former grocery store manager from Kansas who led the hospital as administrator for 28 years. He was quiet, predictable, an old-school manager who operated on a strict daily schedule.

Koehn’s highly structured style enabled him to handle the countless details involved in running the hospital—and deal with the countless crises that threatened it. Yet he somehow had the time to make wooden toys for the orphanage he loved to visit, to assist needy widows in the community, to drink tea with Yemenis and listen to their struggles and needs.

After his death, Koehn’s wife Marty returned to serve at Jibla. She also petitioned the president of Yemen to spare the life of her husband’s convicted killer, Abed Abdul Razak Kamel (Kamel was executed last year). She came back to the United States in January to retire from missionary service.
Martha Myers, the polar opposite of Koehn, could not have been more different in personality and work style during her 20-plus years at Jibla.

A talented surgeon and a free spirit, Myers had a motto: “Things don’t matter, people do.” For her, “things” included not only possessions but rules and schedules, which drove some of her medical colleagues to distraction—but endeared her to her many Yemeni friends.

Myers alternated marathon days and nights treating patients at the hospital with unscheduled “house calls”—extended excursions into far-flung mountain villages to visit and care for Yemeni families, many of whom could not reach the hospital. She also pioneered several new types of surgery to help Yemeni women and led far-reaching immunization efforts in the region.

As different as they were, Koehn and Myers shared a deep love for Christ and for the people of Yemen. Today they share side-by-side graves atop a hill on the hospital compound.

A Yemeni man befriended by hospital workers once explained to Doug Hawkins what attracted him to the place.

“I remember him saying it was the people at the hospital taking time to stop and listen,” Doug related. “That was something that Martha and Bill embodied in their ministry—treating patients with dignity, making them see that they were somebody. Jibla couldn’t treat everybody, but she gave the best she had, no matter how much time it took.”

Asked to describe the legacy of the hospital, one Southern Baptist worker paused before offering a single word: perseverance. “Against all the odds,” he said, “we persevered.”

Martha Myers, reflecting on a similar question a few years before her death, put it this way: “I think the presence of the hospital is making an impact. Only eternity will really know what the impact is.”
One day, eternity will tell.

—*Names changed for security reasons. To order “Lives Given, Not Taken,” a book about Myers, Koehn, Gariety and other modern missionary martyrs, visit Written by Erich Bridges, International Mission Board

A decade after IMB shootings, Middle East remains on widow’s heart

The same seven pictures that hang in the International Mission Board (IMB) headquarters in Richmond, Va., hang above her couch in her living room inside her suburban home in Texas. The pictures, though, hang out of order—at least in relation to those at the IMB. In this living room, the depiction of the Middle East hangs front and center.

For retired IMB missionary Marty Koehn, the Middle East hangs in the center of her heart as well.

On Dec. 30, 2002, after a fairly normal morning routine in Yemen—then her home of almost 30 years—Koehn heard an “extremely urgent and atrociously loud” knock at her door. Koehn recalls being irritated at the nuisance on her way to answer the door.

“But when I opened the door and saw the face of the man standing there, my irritation disappeared,” Koehn said. “He said, ‘There’s been a shooting, come to the hospital.’ And he took off running.”

When Marty arrived at the hospital, she found that her husband Bill, an IMB missionary serving at Jibla Baptist Hospital as an administrator, along with three other IMB missionaries—Martha Myers, Kathy Gariety and Don Caswell—had been shot by a Muslim militant.

Marty had made it to the hospital in time to be with her husband for his last moments on earth—the memory of which remains etched in her mind. Myers died almost instantly. Hospital workers tried desperately to save Gariety and Bill Koehn. Only Caswell survived.

But as clearly as she can remember the events of the Dec. 30 shooting, Marty remembers the Lord’s hand of provision, comfort and faithfulness before and after her loss.

The missionary said the Lord worked to give her and Bill a few extra moments together that morning that they normally would not have had. She recalled having to make some copies at the hospital. After she finished, she stopped by Bill’s office to visit with him before chapel that morning.

“It was just neat that God gave me those precious extra moments with him that day,” Marty said.
The Lord had also orchestrated that Marty’s house helper was with her in her home when she had to answer the door that morning. Thus, she didn’t worry about locking the house or taking her keys. She just ran immediately after the man who was running back to the hospital.

Marty said the Lord in his foreknowledge even had his hand on Marty and Bill regarding their respective calls to the mission field.

As a young girl, Marty felt the Lord calling her to the mission field during a presentation a Nigerian missionary doctor gave at a Vacation Bible School she attended.

“She spoke to us and God just touched my heart,” Marty said. “I knew then that was what I was supposed to do.”

Years later Marty met Bill and married him in 1963. A few years later, she recalled, God reaffirmed her childhood calling to missions. Bill, though, did not sense the same call.

Despite her eagerness to pursue work on the mission field, Marty resisted the urge to convince Bill to share her calling. That, she said, was the Lord’s work.

“I was really grateful after the shootings to look back and say, ‘I am so glad that I did not manipulate my husband into going,’ because I would have felt terrible, if he had not been supposed to go, and I had made something happen that resulted in him dying,” Marty said. “It was a hard thing to do to stop and wait, but I’m really glad I did it that way. I’m sure the Holy Spirit had a lot to do with that, because I really wanted to barge on ahead. But he wasn’t ready, and I wasn’t ready.”

Nine years after Marty’s call to missions had been reaffirmed, Bill felt the Lord call him to missions as well. The two were commissioned as IMB missionaries in October 1974 and arrived on the field in Yemen in June 1975.

Once Bill died, Marty realized many decisions faced her. Should she stay in Yemen? Should she return to America? If she stayed, what would she do? Her chief responsibility had been as wife and homemaker. That had all changed in an instant.

God did not let these questions consume Marty, though; he gave her clear answers, she said.

“All of the sudden, out of the blue, the Lord brought to mind Elizabeth Elliot’s story,” Marty recounted, speaking of a time within 30 minutes after Bill had died. “I had never read the book, and of course the movie wasn’t out at that point, but I had heard a brief summary of her story, and the Lord reminded me of it. To me, this was his clear indication that I was supposed to go back to Yemen.”

In fact, she added, “It’s just remarkable because I hadn’t thought of that story for years. In Scripture God tells us that he will bring to our remembrance the things we need, and he did. And it was very powerful because I needed that assurance.”

So after returning to the states to grieve and spend time with her two daughters, Marty returned to Yemen—to a land that had become her home and to people who had become her close friends. When she returned, the Lord had already provided her a role in which to serve. Gariety, one of the missionaries killed in the shooting, had worked as the purchasing agent and warehouse manager for the hospital. That position needed to be filled.

“To me, this was another indication God wanted me to go back,” Marty said. “That was the one job I could do because it required someone who knew both English and Arabic and it was a non-medical position. [The Lord] was preparing everything.”

Marty said the Lord’s provisions before, during and after the tragedy reaffirmed to her that she had indeed placed her trust in the right place.

“I learned that I could depend on him,” Marty said. “He was right there directing decisions and blessing my life.”

She said in addition to his protection and provision, the Lord dealt her a heaping dose of peace.

“I was never afraid,” Marty said. “I was surrounded totally by people of the same ethnicity as the man who had just killed my husband. I’m sure part of it was that they were my friends, but it was a blessing to not be afraid. It was peace that didn’t make sense. We should have been afraid.”

“There was just a keen sense of his presence and assurance that I was where I was supposed to be and the contentment of knowing that,” she recalled.

Jibla Baptist Hospital, begun by missionary doctor Jim Young in 1967, was to be transferred from the ownership of the IMB to the Yemeni government on Dec. 31, 2002—the day after the shootings. The Yemeni government reopened the hospital in February 2003, and continued to employ Southern Baptist workers, including Koehn, alongside their Muslim counterparts.

Jibla Hospital finally closed in May 2007 (see related story on page 10), and Koehn retired to Texas to be near family.

In retelling her story, Marty said her desire is for God alone to be glorified and shown faithful to those who obediently follow him. Though her decision to remain in Yemen after her husband’s death would easily lend itself to applause for her firm resolve, dedication or Christ-like love, Marty eschews the label of heroine.

“That was my life. That was all I knew. What else would I do?” she said, marveling that people are impressed that she returned after Bill was killed.

Marty takes pleasure in knowing that one of her granddaughters, who visited her and Bill in Yemen as a child and saw them minister there, is eyeing the mission field.

Former IMB trustee Ginny Dent Brant, who visited the Koehns and others during their service in Yemen to help decide if the IMB would continue with missionaries at the Jibla Baptist Hospital, said Marty’s story testifies to the faithfulness of God and the strength and grace he gives to those who endure hardship for his name.

“She is one in a million,” Brant said. “She just completely trusts God, and she keeps going no matter the circumstances, and honestly, her husband was the same way.”

Newsweek vs. the New Testament: It must be Christmas

LOUISVILLE, Ky.—The major festivals of the Christian year often prompt major cover stories in the nation's weekly news magazines. Time, Newsweek and US News & World Report all regularly featured major articles timed for Christmas and Easter. The days of these cover articles may soon be over, however, since US News & World Report is no longer publishing a print edition, and Newsweek's final print edition will be dated December 31, 2012.

In years past, these cover articles had featured the work of reporters who interviewed a range of scholars and authorities from several theological perspectives. More recently, both Time and Newsweek have instead featured essays written by a single author.

Timed for this Christmas, Newsweek just released a cover essay by Bart D. Ehrman, who is well-known for his belief that the New Testament is largely historical fiction. “Who is Jesus?” is the question on the cover. “The Myths of Jesus” is the headline on the essay itself.

Newsweek's agenda is clear, and it has chosen to feature a cover article denying the historical basis of Christmas as one of its last print editions.

Ehrman begins, predictably, by reviewing the controversy concerning the so-called “Gospel of Jesus' Wife” that emerged earlier this year when Professor Karen King of Harvard University claimed a tiny papyrus fragment to be a monumental discovery. Even as she insisted that the fragment did not prove in any sense that Jesus had a wife, she fueled the confusion in carefully-staged media appearances in which she referred to the fragment as “The Gospel of Jesus' Wife.”

A professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Ehrman's academic specialization is in the history of the New Testament and its times. As such, he dismissed the papyrus fragment as either irrelevant or a hoax. He writes, “As it turns out, most experts on early Christianity have come to think the fragment is a hoax, a forgery produced in recent years by an amateur who, unlike King and scholars of her stature, was not well versed in the niceties of Coptic grammar and so was unable to cover up the traces of his own deceit.”

A close look at that statement reveals a strong critique of Professor King who, according to Ehrman's logic, should have been able to detect problems with a papyrus fragment probably manufactured by an amateur.

Ehrman cites that controversy, however, in order to make the point that there were hundreds of “proto-gospels” about Jesus floating about in the first few centuries of the Christian church, and that much of what modern people think they know about Christmas is actually not to be found in the New Testament.

He rightly states:

“As Christians around the world now prepare to celebrate Jesus' birth, it is worth considering that much of the 'common knowledge' about the babe in Bethlehem cannot be found in any scriptural authority, but is either a modern myth or based on Gospel accounts from outside the sacred bounds of Christian Scripture.”

That is profoundly true, of course. The New Testament tells us that Jesus was born in unusual circumstances and placed in a manger because “there was no room in the inn.” There is no innkeeper in the New Testament, however. There is no record of the number of the magi, no reference to Dec. 25 as the date of Christ's birth, and no mention of barnyard animals, much less a little drummer boy.

Beyond these rather familiar matters, Ehrman also points to a host of claims about Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the larger Christmas story that amount to “legends and fabrications” that are rightly recognized as implausible and untrue.

Ehrman then turns to press his case on the New Testament itself, however. After reviewing a number of traditions and non-biblical accounts, he then asks: “Are the stories about Jesus' birth that are in the New Testament any less unbelievable?”

He then says that the answer to that question “depends on whom you ask.” To leave no doubt, Ehrman answers the question directly in his essay. The New Testament writings “are not historically reliable descriptions of what really happened when Jesus was born,” he asserts.

Ehrman juxtaposes those who are “interested in affirming the narratives of Scripture” and those who are more interested in “knowing what actually happened in the past.”

He then explains:

“And there is indeed a very wide swath of scholars — Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, agnostic, and others — who have a very different view of the accounts of Jesus' birth in the New Testament and who realize that there are problems with the traditional stories as they are recounted for us in Matthew and Luke, the only two Gospels that contain infancy narratives. However valuable these writings may be for theological reflection on the meaning and importance of Jesus — and why should anyone deny that they are tremendously valuable for that? — they are not the sorts of historical sources that we might hope for if we are seriously engaged in trying to reconstruct the events of history.”

In other words, Ehrman argues that Matthew and Luke simply can't be trusted to convey historical truth. He points to what he insists are inconsistencies and erroneous historical claims, arguing that though some try to explain these questions in an attempt to affirm the veracity of the Gospels, it is better just to abandon them altogether if you are “seriously engaged in trying to reconstruct the events of history.”

Just as a practical matter, a reading of Bart Ehrman's many books, along with similar efforts, reveals that those who claim to abandon the New Testament in order to “reconstruct the events of history” find themselves coming back to the New Testament again and again. The reason for this is simple — there are no comparable sources.

But Ehrman reveals his real agenda in the sentence that follows his denial of the historical truthfulness of the New Testament. He asserts, “For some Christian believers that is a problem; for others, it is a liberation, as it frees the believer from having to base faith on the uncertainties provided by the imperfect historical record and the fallible historians who study it.”

In Ehrman's view, liberation comes in freeing the believer from a faith based in the claims of the New Testament, or in any historical record, for that matter.

The interesting point about Ehrman's proposed path of liberation for Christian believers is the fact that Ehrman is himself no longer a Believer. He was once a conservative evangelical, but now describes himself as an agnostic who has left the church.

Like many others, Ehrman tries to argue that the New Testament is still useful for “theological reflection on the meaning and importance of Jesus.” He asks, “And why should anyone deny that they are tremendously valuable for that?”

But the New Testament does not present itself merely for the purpose of theological reflection. It makes unvarnished historical claims and direct statements of fact. Ehrman attempts to sideswipe this truth, stating that the New Testament contains writings identified as “gospels” rather than “histories.” But the word “history” in that sense is a fairly modern invention. The Gospels do contain interpretation and theological elaboration, but all four Gospels, including Matthew and Luke, contain explicit and pervasive historical material — the bedrock historical claims of Christianity itself.

Christianity stands or falls on the truth concerning Jesus, and thus it also stands or falls on the authority and truthfulness of the Bible. What you believe about historical truth defines what you believe about Jesus Christ. Without the revealed truths of the New Testament, there is no Christianity, just superstitions and fantasies about Jesus.

Interestingly, Bart Ehrman does believe that Jesus existed. In a recent book he debunks those who dismiss all claims about Christ as mere myth. He believes Jesus to have been a Jewish apocalyptic prophet, but not God incarnate in human flesh.

The cover article in the magazine, timed for maximum publicity at Christmas, was a premeditated act. Securing Bart Ehrman to write the essay set the course, and the cover art is intended to sell the magazine.

So, in the waning days of Newsweek as a print magazine, the editors decided to take on the New Testament. Readers should note carefully that it is Newsweek, and not the New Testament, that is going out of print.

—R. Albert Mohler is president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. This column first appeared at his website, Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook ( ) and in your email (

Why celebrate Christmas?

Christ never commanded us to celebrate His birthday or any other day. Early churches discouraged celebrating Christmas. Some even forbad it.

With Christian liberty, we can celebrate special days, or not celebrate them.

One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind—Romans 14:5. The Apostle Paul probably had reference to the Passover and other Jewish feasts rather than any distinctively Christian holy day.

Christians who choose to celebrate a special day should not be criticized for it, nor should they criticize others who choose not to celebrate the special day. So we can celebrate Christmas, Easter, and even the Passover, if we choose, or we may not.

Many pagans and secularists celebrate Christmas. They put up a Christmas tree, exchange gifts, and have a family feast. To them, Christmas is a cultural thing. Each year Christmas is getting bigger in Japan. In places in the United States where only four per cent go to church, almost a hundred per cent celebrate Christmas.

Many of the trappings of Christmas have pagan origins. The decorated evergreen tree was part of a winter celebration in pagan Germany before Christ. The Druids of Britain burned the yule log and considered mistletoe sacred long before Christians started celebrating Christmas.

Pagan Romans celebrated Saturnalia around December 18-25 by exchanging gifts and feasting. Probably this is how we arrived at December 25 as the time to celebrate Christ's birth. Christian kids saw their pagan neighbors exchanging gifts and having a good time. So the Christians started their own celebration. They “Christianized” the holiday season.
There is a modern parallel. Jewish children saw Christian children exchanging gifts and having a good time at Christmas time. Jewish parents then began exchanging gifts and sending cards to celebrate Hanukkah, the festival of lights that commemorates reconsecration of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 BC after its defilement by Antiochus Epiphanies. That celebration doesn't mean these Jewish people are participating in Christianity.

Some “paganized” Christmas, others “Judaized” Christmas, like Christians had “Christianized” Saturnalia. We can't surrender part of our calendar because pagans used those dates first. If we did, we'd lose the whole thing. Every day of the year was a special day to the Romans. All seven of our days of the week are named after pagan gods, the Sun, Moon, Tiu, Woden, Thor, Frigg, and Saturn.

Muslims can worship on Friday without worshiping the German goddess of love or Venus. Jews can worship on Saturday without worshiping Saturn. Christians can worship on Sunday without worshiping the Sun.

Christians must, however, be careful to keep paganism and false religion out of our Christmas celebration. We should not teach our children to believe in some supernatural being who can do things only God can do. Only God knows what you've been thinking, and knows if you've been bad or good. Only God can be in millions of homes at the same time. Kids need to know that Santa Claus is a fictional character. If we teach children to believe in Santa, and then when they get older they see it was all fiction, might they expect to eventually learn that Jesus Christ too was all fiction? We should explain to babies that Santa is pretend, but Jesus is real. Truth won't warp their psyche; it will strengthen it. They can still enjoy Christmas. And they can enjoy Santa like they enjoy Superman, the Roadrunner, and Mickey Mouse.

Christmas celebration is a valuable tool for evangelism because it gives us opportunity to tell the world what we're celebrating, the incarnation of Jesus Christ. When Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, He was God in the flesh. It was a fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy made 700 years earlier, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Immanuel means “God with us.”

Christians believe in Jesus Christ. Believing in Him does not make the Christmas story true. We believe because it is true.

Why celebrate Christmas?

First to commemorate Christ, God the Son, becoming flesh, being born of the Virgin to be our Savior.

Second, to have an opportunity to tell the world, “Jesus Christ is Born.”

Third, it's a great time to get the family and friends together and express our love for God and for each other, and enjoy good food.

Last, but by no means least, kids love Christmas.

—Joe Hewitt is a retired pastor living in Rockwall

First Person: “Surely, they are of God!”

In 1997, I entered a country far different from my own. As a trustee of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, I visited Yemen in July of that year. At that time, trustees were debating whether to keep Jibla Baptist Hospital open. The hospital workers requested the trustees see their work before making a final determination. I was ill-prepared for the experiences that awaited me.

Before my arrival, physician Martha Myers had been kidnapped and miraculously released. That news made my steps unsteady. After safely passing through customs and seeing men with machine guns on their backs and jambiyas (daggers) across their chests, I was alarmed.

After winding four hours through rugged terrain to Jibla Baptist Hospital, I heard alarming details that elevated my normally low blood pressure: Rabid dogs were wandering, malaria was spreading, water was scarce, electricity was sporadic, the hospital was under red alert due to threats from al Qaeda, and the airlines had just gone on strike. They had me at rabid. I was officially in culture shock. And who’s al Qaeda?

But this kind of news was status quo to the workers called to serve in Yemen. I would only sample a taste of their everyday lives. Yet, no complaints. Why, they should be begging me to rescue them from this. Instead, Bill Koehn, the hospital administrator, and others did their best to show me all God was doing, begging to stay.

My first day began with meeting the staff for devotions, prayer and a hospital tour. Hours later I was shuttled between prison and orphanage ministries. By the end of the afternoon, Bill escorted me to the sheik’s house. What an experience. As we prepared to leave, Bill’s face revealed his pain as he was unable to tie his shoes. A head-on collision on a winding mountain road had nearly disabled him, requiring hip-replacement surgery.

Sensing his pain and steeped in American culture, I leaned over, tied his shoes, and assisted him. I didn’t know my actions were taboo until I noticed all eyes glaring at me. In a culture where it’s forbidden for a woman to look a man in the eye, I shouldn’t have touched his foot. Bill quickly relayed my apologies in Arabic to the sheik and I was spared any punishment. The love and respect for Bill and the workers at Jibla protected me.

The last night of my stay, I apologized for any hurt board members had caused them. It was not that we weren’t pleased with their labor; it was a matter of safety and dollars spent at a time when Eastern Europe opened to us overnight. Before leaving I heard these unforgettable words from Bill, the hospital’s respected father figure: “Don’t worry about the danger. God protects us and we realize God may call some of us to give our lives to further his work.” My life has never been the same after spending time with such saints.

On Dec. 30, 2002, I was awakened to the startling news that Bill Koehn, Martha Myers, and Kathy Gariety had been shot and killed by a Muslim militant. Don Caswell, a pharmacist, was also shot and recovered. Grief shook me to my knees. Bill’s last words to me echoed through my mind.

Marty Koehn, Bill’s wife, was immediately summoned to his side. She held his hands as he passed into glory. Thirty minutes later as she made her way home, God spoke to her heart. He brought to her mind the example of Elisabeth Elliot, a woman who shared similar grief and pain, yet a warrior who returned to serve the tribe that speared her husband, Jim. Marty, just months from retirement, made a tough decision that day. She honored God’s call to stay in Yemen, serving four more years before returning to live in Texas near family.

Bill Koehn’s and Martha Myers’ predetermined requests were to be buried on a hill above the hospital grounds in Yemen. The outpouring of love and respect by the Yemeni people for these dear servants was extraordinary. Contrary to Islamic law, the people lovingly made their caskets and dug their graves with their own hands. They lined the streets to pay homage to these friends who had served them for more than 25 years, saying, “Surely, they are of God!”

To this day, their graves serve as a reminder of what their lives preached. The Bible tells us in John 15:13, “Greater love hath no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” To me they and their families are heroes of the faith. For it is easier to graduate to glory than to be the ones left behind—to be the ones left without a spouse and parent.

My brief but powerful time with them enabled me to see that freedom is so much more than having my American way. My definition of freedom changed. Bill and Marty, Martha and Kathy knew that true freedom and contentment was found in finding and following God’s will for your life. And I would learn from them.

Bill Koehn guided the hospital through tough times for nearly 30 years. Jerry Rankin, former president of the IMB, referred to him a “quiet giant.” His son-in-law called him “a nobody who became Christ to everybody who saw him.”

May others see Jesus in our lives and say … “Surely, they are of God!”

—Ginny Dent Brant is a speaker and former trustee of the International Mission Board and the author of “Finding True Freedom: From the White House to the World,” a memoir of life with her late father, Harry S. Dent Sr., who served presidents Nixon, Ford and George H.W. Bush. Her website is