Signs of the Times (12/18/13)

Voice of the Martyrs Launches Frontline Ministry Fund

Secret in-country printing… Underground seminaries training house-church pastors… Horses capable of carrying Bibles at high altitudes… Solar-powered video projectors for remote villages… Balloons and parachutes dropping Scripture into restricted nations and dangerous areas… Christian workers willingly serve on the front lines in areas hostile to the gospel. “Our friends often ask us what they can do to directly support our brothers and sisters who faithfully serve Christ in the face of hostility and persecution. In response, The Voice of the Martyrs is officially launching a new designated fund – the Front-Line Ministries Fund. We invite you to stand with your brothers and sisters in Christ around the world who are advancing the kingdom in restricted and hostile nations.

Judge Derails NSA Phone Data Program

A federal judge ruled Monday that the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of phone records likely violates the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable government searches and seizures.in a major setback for the controversial spy agency. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon granted a preliminary injunction against the program, but he also stayed his final decision “pending appeal,” giving the U.S. government time to fight the decision over the next several months. Even after the appeals court rules, the Supreme Court will probably have the last word. The ruling was the first major legal defeat for the NSA since former contractor Edward Snowden began exposing secrets about the NSA’s data collection over the summer.

Federal Judge Strikes Down Part of Utah Law Banning Polygamy

A federal judge on Friday struck down part of a Utah law making polygamy illegal. Family advocates say the ruling, if carried out, will harm children. The family of Kody Brown — made famous by the TLC reality series “Sister Wives” — filed suit against the law in 2011. In his opinion, U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups claims the part of the law making cohabitation illegal violates the Constitution. Jeff Johnston, sexuality and marriage analyst for Focus on the Family, said this case “piggy-backs on same-sex cases that legalize same-sex marriage.” “What these cases do,” he said, “is put adults ahead of the children. That’s the way we’ve moved in our culture — we’ve made marriage more about the wants and needs of adults rather than kids. The judge is just following this ‘logic,’”

Budget Compromise Clears Senate Procedural Hurdle

A federal budget compromise that already passed the U.S. House cleared a key procedural hurdle Tuesday in the Senate, increasing the likelihood it will win final congressional approval this week. President Barack Obama has signaled his support for the plan worked out by the budget committee leaders in each chamber that would guide government spending into 2015 to defuse the chances of another shutdown such as the one that took place in October. Tuesday’s vote overcame a Republican filibuster attempt that required 60 votes in the 100-member chamber to proceed on the budget measure. The count was 67-33, with a dozen Republicans joining the 55 Democrats and independents in support of the plan. Final approval in the Senate requires a simple majority of 51 votes. The budget plan easily passed the House last week on a 332-94 vote.

Six Million Insurance Policies Cancelled

According to Fox News, nearly six million people have had their coverage cancelled since the ACA became because their plans failed to meet the required essential health benefit guidelines, which provide coverage for things like maternity care and ambulatory services. It’s been more than a month since President Obama announced an administrative fix to allow people to keep their cancelled health-care plans through 2014, but that doesn’t mean all policyholders will get their old plan plans back. The president said Americans could keep their plans through 2014 at the discretion of both state regulators and insurance companies and states have had a mixed response to the fix: 30 states said they would allow insurers to re-instate previously-cancelled plans including New Jersey, South Dakota and Texas, 14 states and Washington, D.C. said no to the president’s offer, and five states are still undecided

Hispanics Abandoning Obama

They were among President Obama’s best supporters, but support for the president and his signature health insurance scheme is quickly dying among Hispanics. A recent Gallup poll showed Obama’s approval rating among Hispanic down 23 percent, to 52 percent in November from 75 percent in December 2012. That’s not good news for the president, who is in desperate need of Hispanic support for the Affordable Care Act. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation report found that Hispanics account for 32 percent of the nation’s non-elderly uninsured population — just the group he needs to buy into Obamacare to make it a success. But the Spanish language website, cuidadodesalud.gov, isn’t finished. The pages where customers select a plan are still in English. And then there’s a lack of general information with many Hispanics not even knowing about the healthcare law.

29 Mass Killings, 147 Victims in 2013

In the year since the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School horrified the world and prompted calls for laws that would prevent mass killings, little has changed. The violence and victims in 2013 are in line with the average since 2006 — 29 mass killings and 147 victims a year, according to an exclusive USA TODAY database. The perception of a dramatic increase is understandable given the attention killings receive, says criminologist James Alan Fox, professor of criminology at Northeastern University and co-author of Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. Mass killings account for just 1% of all murders nationally.

Colorado Sheriffs Refuse to Enforce New Gun Laws

Colorado’s package of gun laws, enacted this year after mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., has been hailed as a victory by advocates of gun control. But if a majority of the other county sheriffs in Colorado offer any indication, the new laws — which mandate background checks for private gun transfers and outlaw magazines over 15 rounds — may prove nearly irrelevant across much of the state’s rural regions. Some sheriffs are refusing to enforce the laws, saying that they are too vague and violate Second Amendment rights. Many more say that enforcement will be “a very low priority,” as several sheriffs put it. All but seven of the 62 elected sheriffs in Colorado signed on in May to a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the statutes. The resistance of sheriffs in Colorado is playing out in other states, raising questions about whether tougher rules passed since Newtown will have a muted effect in parts of the American heartland, where gun ownership is common and grass-roots opposition to tighter restrictions is high.

North Dakota Sees Surge in Homeless Population

The oil boom in North Dakota has created tens of thousands of jobs, but its homeless population is skyrocketing with willing workers unable to find housing. While homelessness nationwide has declined in the past year, the number of people living in shelters or on the streets in North Dakota has tripled to 2,069. And that increase is likely understated since it doesn’t count all the homeless people who are staying in motels, RVs or other people’s homes. Meanwhile, North Dakota has become the nation’s second largest oil producing state, boasting the fastest-growing economy in the country. The oil companies have been hiring like crazy, paying high wages to those who are willing to relocate. The town of Williston, which is at the center of the action, has seen its population more than double from 14,715 people in 2010 to 33,547 last year as workers flock to the area. Unemployment is around 1% in Williston and less than 3% in North Dakota as a whole — compared to 7% nationwide. And while a number of new housing developments are in the works, they’re not coming online fast enough to keep up with the number of people who need housing.

Economic News

Rising home prices helped lift 4.2 million U.S. homeowners out of underwater territory on their home loans in the past year. As of the third quarter, 6.4 million homeowners with a mortgage still owed more on their homes than they were worth. That’s down almost 40% from 10.6 million a year earlier. Almost 13% of homeowners with a mortgage still in negative equity territory. In the third quarter, Nevada had the highest percentage of mortgaged properties in negative equity at 32.2%, followed by Florida, 28.8%, Arizona, 22.5%, Ohio, 18% and Georgia, 17.8%.

The cost of living was unchanged last month as lower gas prices saved Americans money and offset price increases elsewhere, the government reported Tuesday. November’s unchanged inflation rate followed a 0.1% drop for October in the Consumer Price Index. Consumer prices overall have risen 1.2% for the past 12 months. The so-called core inflation index, which excludes volatile food and energy prices, rose 0.2% in November and has increased 1.7% for the past 12 months.

TD Ameritrade’s Self-Employment and Retirement Survey found that 40% of the self-employed are not saving regularly for retirement, and 28% are not saving at all. The problem plagued all age groups: 29% of Generation X and 32% of Generation Y who were self-employed are not saving for retirement.

Holiday shoppers are busy online, while physical stores have some work to do to salvage what has been a challenging season so far, retail experts said Monday. Channel Advisor clients are generating same-store sales growth of more than 30% on Amazon.com so far this holiday, compared to the same period last year. On eBay, that number has been in the mid-20% range. In contrast, physical store retailers have had a tougher holiday season so far, with sales lagging a few percentage points behind last year.

Persecution Watch

It is estimated there are only 330,000 Christians left in Iraq, as many have fled the country due to violence and persecution. Pastor Tariq* tells Open Doors that “churches are targets for terrorists, especially on Christmas Day. Many Christians stay home because they are too afraid.” Tariq and Human*, another pastor, say that in the past, many families would purchase a Christmas tree, decorate the house and make special food. They would also buy new clothes and visit relatives and friends. However, because the situation is worsening in Iraq, they can’t do these activities anymore.

Three Coptic Christians in Egypt were given long prison sentences on Sunday over the death of a Muslim in a sectarian clash even though no one has been prosecuted in the deaths of at least five Christians in the same clash, raising allegations that the military-backed government was breaking its promise to curb bias against Christians. Beshoy Tamry, a Coptic Christian activist with the Maspero Youth Union, said many Christians had hoped for more equitable treatment after Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted in July. “But today proved that nothing changed,” he said. “The regime has not changed its system of using the judiciary against Christians.”

Lebanon

The government of Lebanon cried out to the world for help Monday over the strain the civil war in neighboring Syria is putting on its country. It needs a record amount of cash. The exodus of people fleeing lives and homes ripped apart by bombs and bullets for the safety of Lebanon does not appear ready to abate anytime soon. Aid workers from 60 agencies need more money than ever to tackle the mounting humanitarian crisis. And the coffers are nearly empty. Next year’s budget is only 5% funded so far, the United Nations says. The government in Beirut made an official plea for donations to help cover the $1.89 billion the U.N. thinks is needed to cover a projected 4 million Syrian civil war refugees and the communities they have flooded into.

Iran

Iran said Saturday it has successfully sent a monkey into space for a second time, part of an ambitious program aimed at manned space flight. The launch of the rocket was Iran’s first use of liquid fuel. It reached a height of 72 miles. It said the monkey was returned to earth safely. Iran frequently claims technological breakthroughs that are impossible to independently verify. The Islamic Republic has said it aims to send an astronaut into space.

Iraq

Another day of widespread violence has left at least 25 people dead across Iraq on Monday. At least four Iraqi police officers were killed and four others wounded when a car bomb exploded outside a police station in Baiji. Minutes after the initial explosion, gunmen stormed the station and clashes erupted between them and Iraqi security forces. At least four Iraqi soldiers were killed and four others were wounded when a suicide car bomber attacked a military base in Azham. Also Monday, militants stormed Tikrit’s city council building, clashed with Iraqi security forces and occupied the facility for a time. There are hostages and an unknown number of casualties. Local authorities have imposed a curfew in the city until further notice.

Yemen

Militants staged a deadly attack on Yemen’s Defense Ministry on Thursday, ramming the building with an explosives-laden vehicle, followed by gunmen who battled security forces inside. At least 52 people died in the attack in the capital, Sanaa, which targeted a military hospital. A Defense Ministry official said four foreign doctors were among the dead. Also, a relative of President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi died in the attack. Yemen is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, believed by many analysts to be the most dangerous affiliate of the terror network. The impoverished Middle Eastern nation also faces a growing separatist movement in the south and is frequently wracked by violence.

South Sudan

Fighting in South Sudan has killed up to 500 people, U.N. diplomats said Tuesday, and the United Nations fears the violence in the oil-rich East African country is “largely along ethnic lines.” The United States ordered its citizens to leave South Sudan immediately. The president of South Sudan, which is also the world’s newest country, has blamed the violence on a coup attempt Sunday by soldiers loyal to his former deputy, who belongs to a different ethnic group. As many as 20,000 people have taken refuge with the U.N. mission in the capital, Juba. South Sudan has been plagued by ethnic tension since it broke away from Sudan in 2011.

China

Chinese state media say 16 people were killed when assailants attacked police officers in the restive western region of Xinjiang. Two police officers died in the attack while 14 attackers were shot and killed. Another two assailants were arrested. Xinjiang has long been home to a simmering rebellion against Chinese rule among parts of the Muslim Uighur population.

Ukraine

Russia will buy Ukrainian debt and slash the price Kiev pays for its gas, President Vladimir Putin says, throwing an economic lifeline to its neighbor, rattled by protests calling for closer economic ties with Europe instead. Amid a backdrop of continuous demonstrations in Kiev, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych met Putin in Moscow on Tuesday, where the deal was announced. They agreed on a joint economic plan of action, covering areas such as industry, agriculture, defense, construction and transport. Under the deal, Putin said Moscow would buy $15 billion in Ukrainian debt by investing in its national welfare fund. In addition, the cost of Russian gas supplied to Ukraine was cut from more than $400 per 1,000 cubic meters to $268.50.

Chile

Michelle Bachelet’s landslide presidential victory was the biggest in eight decades, yet turnout was the lowest since Chile’s return to democracy, suggesting she’ll lack a clear mandate to push for radical change when she begins her second turn in the office next year. Bachelet, a moderate socialist, ended her 2006-10 presidency with 84% approval ratings despite failing to achieve any major changes. This time, Chilean leftists vow to hold her to her promises, which include a $15 billion spending program to overhaul education, improve health care and reduce the vast gap between rich and poor.

Wildfires

A wildfire burning near the Central California coastline had destroyed 15 homes and grew to more than 500 acres in size late Monday. The so-called Pfeiffer Fire was sparked at around midnight Monday in the Los Padres National Forest and had grown as large as 550 acres by sunrise. No injuries were reported, but the fire spread quickly across the landscape near the Big Sur region, which is in the midst of one of the driest years in its history. Wildfires are rare occurrences so late in the year. The slow-moving fire near state Highway 1 had consumed 769 acres, or a little over a square mile, by Tuesday night and was 20 percent contained.

Weather

A winter storm whipped the Northeast over the weekend with six to sixteen inches of snow. Albany got at least 12 inches, the weather service said; the storm left another 16 inches in Biddeford, Maine. The storm spared major metropolitan areas like Boston and New York City, but some areas in Maine and along the U.S.-Canada border saw significant snow. The eastward-moving storm dropped snow earlier across the Midwest and western Pennsylvania, with 9 inches reported in Urbana, Illinois. On Tuesday, much of the northeast escaped with up to a few inches of snow, but totals were much higher in Boston and northern New England, where snow fell late into the night, causing slippery conditions, minor accidents and delays.

  • Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of distress, for the day of war and battle?” Job 38: 22-23

Meanwhile, record high temperatures were recorded in Phoenix and Tucson Arizona, both at 83 degrees Tuesday. Further south, Argentina’s power grid was unable to handle the extreme heat Tuesday. Power outages are plaguing Buenos Aires as temperatures soar above 95 degrees (35 Celsius) and everyone tries to turn on their air conditioners at once. Thousands in the capital and its suburbs are without power or water, since many buildings depend on pumps for water pressure. Government critics say years of energy subsidies and price freezes have left the industry unprofitable and unwilling to invest in improvements to the system.

Fueled primarily by phenomenal warmth in Russia, the Earth as a whole had its warmest November on record, according to data released Tuesday by scientists at the National Climatic Data Center. Russia had its warmest November since national records began in 1891. The USA, and much of North America, was one of the only parts of the world that was cooler than average. In November, the USA was 0.3 degree below average. November marked the 345th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th-century average.

Flooding from heavy rains forced some 40,000 Gaza Strip residents from their homes Saturday, including thousands who were taken to safety in boats and military trucks. The downpour that began late Wednesday was part of a storm that covered parts of Israel and the West Bank with snow, paralyzed Jerusalem and left thousands in Israel without power. Israeli TV stations showed footage of armored personnel carriers rescuing motorists and said it was the most severe snow storm in decades. Even Gaza with its milder coastal climate saw some snow, though lower-lying areas were mainly hit by flooding. Rescue efforts were hampered by fuel shortages and rolling power cuts that have become more severe in recent months, since Egypt tightened a border blockade of the territory, ruled by the Islamic militant Hamas since 2007.

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