Signs of the Times (8/31/15)

Southern Baptists to Cut up to 800 Missionaries due to Lack of Funds

The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention announced this week that it will need to cut staff and missionaries to balance its budget. According to Christianity Today, David Platt, the president of the board, announced Thursday that 600 to 800 missionaries and staff positions need to be cut to make up for a $21 million deficit. Currently, the IMB employs about 450 people and oversees about 4,700 missionaries. Over the past six years, the IMB has spent about $210 million more than it has brought in.

Illiteracy in America Reaching Epidemic Levels

Studies are showing that illiteracy in America has reached epidemic levels. U.S. military leaders have even gone so far as to term the illiteracy rate of young Americans “a national security threat,” according to Christianity Today. Only a third of America’s eighth graders–students who are 13 or 14 years old–scored proficient or higher on reading tests in 2013. Children from low income families are even less likely to be able to read and to attain a sufficient education.

  • In light of how integral reading is to Christianity with Jesus embodying “the Word” and the Bible being a printed document that we read, this is a serious spiritual problem as well.

ISIS ‘Growing Like Crazy’ Due to Obama’s Weak Response

September marks the first anniversary of the U.S. war against the Islamic State group (ISIS), but American efforts are showing little success, NBC News reported on Sunday. NBC’s Richard Engel reported on “Meet the Press,” that one U.S. officials said the terror group’s international branches are “growing like crazy,” spreading North and West Africa, Arabia, Afghanistan and into the Far East. “ISIS has expanded far more quickly and extensively than Al Qaeda ever did,” Engel said. The current strategy is based on three pillars, “and they’re all shaky,” Engel said. Retraining of the Iraqi army has been slow, and Iran often calls the shots, he said. Only a few Syrian rebels have been trained, and many have been kidnapped already. The airstrikes have been successful in killing ISIS leaders and fighters, but they all are quickly replaced.

  • It certainly didn’t help when Obama referred to ISIS as a Junior Varsity squad

Kerry signs UN Gun Ban Treaty against Wishes of U.S. Senate

Secretary of State John Kerry last Wednesday signed a controversial U.N. treaty on arms regulation, riling U.S. lawmakers who vow the Senate will not ratify the agreement. As he signed the document, Kerry called the treaty a “significant step” in addressing illegal gun sales, while claiming it would also protect gun rights. U.S. lawmakers, though, have long claimed the treaty could lead to new gun control measures. They note the U.S. Senate has final say on whether to approve the agreement. Senators note that the treaty raises “fundamental issues” concerning “individual rights protected by the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution.” Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., one of the most vocal opponents of the treaty, also sent a letter to Kerry declaring the treaty “dead in the water,” since a majority of senators has gone on record against the agreement.

U.S. Leads the World in Mass Public Shootings – By Far

When it comes to gun massacres, the United States is tragically exceptional: There are more public mass shootings in the United States than in any other country in the world, according to a new study published by the University of Alabama. Between 1966 and 2012, there were 90 mass shootings in the United States. Mass shootings are defined for the study as having four or more victims and don’t include gang killings or slayings that involve the death of multiple family members. The recent slaying of the on-air TV reporter and cameraman while high-profile, does not fit this definition. The 90 U.S. mass shootings are nearly a third of the 292 such attacks globally for that period. While the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population, it had 31% of all public mass shootings. In the United States, people have a greater chance of dying in mass shootings if they’re at work or at school. Overseas, these incidents typically happen near military installations.

  • In a world of good and evil, there is no perfect solution to the gun conundrum until Jesus returns to rule and reign on earth

Voter Fraud Alert! Look Many U.S. Counties Have More Voters than People

A public interest law firm is threatening to bring lawsuits against more than 100 counties across the United States that appear to have more registered voters than living residents. The Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), a law firm dedicated to election integrity based in Indiana, recently sent statutory notice letters to election officials in 141 counties putting them on notice of their discoveries. The group says if action is not taken to correct the questionable voter rolls, they will bring lawsuits against every single county on the list. “Voter rolls across America have been discovered that contain substantial numbers of ineligible voters, resulting in the possible disenfranchisement of legally eligible voters via ballot dilution that threatens to subvert the nation’s electoral process,” PILF states.

  • This is why liberals are so opposed to voter ID laws, since they benefit from fraudulent voting

University Sells staff and Students to Stop Using Traditional Gender Language

The University of Tennessee has told its staff and students to stop calling each other ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘him’ and ‘her’ – and to start referring to one another with terms like ‘xe’, ‘zir’ and ‘xyr’ instead. The Knoxville branch of the public university, which has 27,400 students, sent a memo round to its members filled with unusual new parts of speech to avoid referring to anybody’s gender. Donna Braquet, who runs the university’s Pride Center, wrote the guidelines, which are accompanied with a long table demonstrating how to replace the regular parts of gender speech. Officials have since insisted the the guidelines are not compulsory and that they do not want to ‘dictate speech’.

  • Are gay activists so blind that they cannot see the absurdity of their proposal? Apparently so.

Company Plans to Ship Fresh Water from Alaska to Drought-Plagued California

An Alaska company is planning to ship massive amounts of fresh water to drought-plagued California, potentially as much as 10 million gallons a month. “We are prepared to deliver bulk water now, and we are currently working with customers who hope to be able to take delivery by the end of the year,” Alaska Bulk Water CEO Terry Trapp said. Trapp, who used to run a bottled water company, would perform the feat by shipping the water on a tanker. The water would be taken from the Blue Lake in Sitka, where the company has rights to up to 9 billion gallons of “some of the most pure water on Earth.” California’s drought is now in its fourth year, and 97% of the state is experiencing dry conditions, sparking water shortages and huge wildfires. Even though it’s been unusually hot and dry this year in Alaska — which is suffering one of its worst wildfire seasons on record — there’s plenty of water in Sitka, Trapp said.

Cuts in Disability Benefits Coming?

The future for Medicare and Social Security might not look bright at the moment, but it’s particularly bleak for the government’s disability insurance program. According to the Social Security trustees’ report released last month, the disability insurance trust fund will run out money in 2016 and it needs immediate attention. In the absence of any attention, millions of Americans will receive an automatic 19% reduction in their Social Security disability benefits in the fourth quarter of 2016. In 2015, the average Social Security disability insurance benefit amount was $1,165 per month, but beneficiaries can receive up to $2,663. Why the cuts? Social Security is precluded from spending money it doesn’t have.

  • However, most experts don’t expect lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to actually cut Social Security disability insurance benefits, but that will require some fancy footwork.

Economic News – Domestic

Wall Street ended a tumultuous week on a calmer note. The three major averages were mixed, but they all managed to post weekly gains. The Nasdaq led the way with a 2.6% advance. The Dow and S&P 500 rose 1.1% and 0.9%, respectively. However, stock indexes are still about 5% below their pre-crash highs and economists are mixed about whether stocks are still in a major correction or not. Stocks fell at the open Monday as uncertainty about the timing of Federal Reserve rate hikes and continuing fears about a China slowdown weigh on financial markets.

Crude oil prices rallied for the second straight day on Friday as a conflict in Yemen raised fears of supply constraints in the Middle East. West Texas Intermediate futures rose $2.66, or 6%, to settle at $45.22, a barrel after surging 10% on Thursday, capping the biggest weekly gain six years. The oil industry “has yet to feel the full impact of capital spending cuts and project cancellations that will provide a tighter market of oil in the future when the global economy comes back,” senior energy analyst Phil Flynn of the Oil Price Futures Group said.

The word of the week for investors was “sell.” Mom and pop investors are dumping their stocks and moving to cash at levels not seen since the financial crisis of 2008. It’s an “investor revolt,” is how Credit Suisse characterized it. Normally when investors panic about stocks falling, they sell stocks and buy bonds, which are viewed as safer. But that’s not happening now. Investors aren’t just fleeing stocks, they’re exiting bonds, commodities and international funds too. This week alone, investors have pulled nearly $30 billion from stock funds. That’s the largest weekly outflow since Bank of America Merrill Lynch began tracking the data in 2002.

The U.S. economy grew more rapidly than previously thought in the second quarter on stronger business stockpiling, commercial construction and consumer spending. The nation’s gross domestic product expanded at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 3.7% in the April-June period, the Commerce Department said Thursday, above the 2.3% initially estimated. The surge was partly a rebound from meager 0.6% growth in a first quarter hampered by harsh winter weather and a West Coast ports slowdown.

Construction of homes and commercial buildings is up significantly this year but the industry would be sizzling if not for a critical shortage of workers, industry officials say. The labor crunch is delaying projects, raising home prices and forcing companies to turn down work, which in turn curtails building activity and economic growth. Spot labor shortages began in 2012 as new construction slowly came to life following the 2000’s real estate crash. But they’ve spread across most of the country and have been accentuated this year by a strong recovery in both residential and commercial building. Nearly 70% of home builders surveyed in June reported a shortage of carpenters and 86% of commercial builders said they’re having trouble filling hourly or salaried positions.

Economic News – International

Central bankers are swooping to the rescue of shaky economies, soothing investor panic for now but highlighting a global addiction to easy money. China’s central bank stepped in to shore up its flagging economy this week after a sharp stock plunge and fears about slowing growth triggered waves of selling across global markets. Central banks in Canada, India, Australia, and Norway have cut interest rates this year and most of those countries are expected to ease further. Rates in Switzerland have languished in negative territory since late last year. And policymakers in Europe and Japan are printing money as a tool to support growth. Five of the seven biggest economies are in cheap money mode, while the U.S. and the U.K. remain stuck in neutral — at least for now. The U.S. was on track to raise rates as early as next month, but the problems plaguing China and rest of world may put that off.

  • The world’s addiction to cheap money has built a foundation of sinking sand, and the house of cards is going to eventually come down in a resounding crash, as prophesied in Revelation 6:5-6.

Once a major economic success story, Brazil sank into recession on Friday. Its currency is plummeting, unemployment is rising, its stock market is down 20% from a year ago and its president, Dilma Rousseff, has an 8% approval rating. Its economy contracted 1.9% in the second quarter. It was the second consecutive quarter of contraction. Prices for all of Brazil’s key commodities — oil, sugar, coffee, metals — have tanked. Commodities are the engine behind Brazil’s economy and they’ve lost value fast. In addition, Brazil’s state-run oil company, Petrobras, is mired in a massive corruption scandal tied to many members in Rousseff’s political party.

China’s insatiable appetite for metals like copper is falling off a cliff. It’s destroying prices of raw materials, and killing U.S. jobs. Copper — a key indicator of global growth — has been hit especially hard by China’s slowdown. Prices have tumbled 40% since early 2013. There’s now an oversupply of copper in the world, because the frenzied demand from China has fizzled. Besides electronic products and cars, copper is widely used in wiring, plumbing and building construction — key components in China’s massive infrastructure development boom of the last decade. That building boom is now fading. Freeport-McMoRan, the world’s largest publicly traded copper miner, is slashing its mining employees and contractors by 10%.

Western investors have thrown Ukraine a financial lifeline worth $3.6 billion by agreeing to write off some debt and delay bond repayments. The restructuring applies to about $18 billion worth of bonds. It means Ukraine will avoid a costly default. Ukraine’s economy was brought to the brink of collapse by the turmoil triggered by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in early 2014, and a wider conflict with separatist rebels in the east of the country.

In what could be the largest natural gas discovery in history, Italian energy company Eni says it has unearthed a “supergiant” gas field in the Mediterranean Sea covering about 40 square miles. The gas field could hold a potential of 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Eni says that’s the energy equivalent of about 5.5 billion barrels of oil. The company won’t know the field’s true size until it begins to develop it. Found in the deep waters off the northern coast of Egypt, Eni claims the gas field to be the largest ever in the Mediterranean and possibly the world.

Persecution Watch

Heightened hostilities against Christians in India that began late last year continued through a hot summer, with Hindu extremists threatening Christians and forcing them to “reconvert” to Hinduism, church leaders said. In Rajasthan in the northwest, 10 Christian families in Nakhnool village, near Alwar, have fled after intolerant Hindus harassed and threatened to kill them, area church leaders said. “Since June 27, we have not been able to have any kind of worship meetings,” area pastor Malkeet Singh told Morning Star News. “The extremists threatened to harm us if we utter the name of Christ or conduct any Christian meetings.”

Two churches in Syria were hit by a mortar attack which killed nine people and left 50 wounded. The bombing hit two churches on the outskirts of Damascus, one a Maronite church, another a Catholic church, leaving the churches in ruins and people dead or injured. Christians in Syria also frequently suffer persecution at the hands of ISIS militants. “In my country, Syria, Christians are caught in the middle of a civil war and they are enduring the rage of an extremist jihad. It is unjust for the West to ignore the persecutions these Christian communities are experiencing,” Jean Clément Jeanbart, the Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo declared.

Persecution against Iraqi Christians will finally be addressed with the creation of a committee that will work to end human rights abuses against them. Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi has authorized the establishment of the committee, according to Christian Today. In 2003, there were around 1.5 million Christians living in Iraq. Currently, there are thought to be less than 200,000. This drastic drop in the number of Christians who live in Iraq is due in large part to the abuses they have experienced for their faith at the hands of the Islamic State.

A Pakistani man and his wife who converted to Christianity were severely persecuted and then shot by family members. The couple, Aleem and Nadia Masih, had gotten married about a year ago after Nadia converted to Christianity from Islam. Nadia’s Muslim family continually threatened the couple so that they fled Lahore, Pakistan and began traveling to a town called Narang Mandi, about 37 miles from Lahore, according to the Christian Post. Nadia’s father and brothers pursued the couple as they traveled to Narang Mandi, overtaking them on the road. They kidnapped the couple and took them to a farm where they brutally beat and kicked them before shooting them.

  • When have we ever heard of Christians murdering those who convert to other religions? Never.

Islamic State

A U.S. drone strike in Syria Tuesday reportedly killed a fugitive British computer hacker who had become one of ISIS’ top online recruiters. The Wall Street Journal reported the death of Junaid Hussein late Wednesday, citing two people familiar with the operation. The officials said that Hussein was killed by a targeted airstrike near the Syrian city of Raqqa, the de facto capital of ISIS’ self-proclaimed “caliphate”. Adopting the name of Abu Hussain Al Britani, he repeatedly called for young, computer-literate Muslims to come to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS. “You can sit at home and play call of duty or you can come here and respond to the real call of duty… the choice is yours,” Hussein tweeted in 2014, referencing the popular video game. In recent months, officials told the Journal that Hussein had tried to use social media to recruit would-be jihadis to carry out attacks against U.S. service personnel.

Turkey announced Saturday that its fighter jets have carried out their first airstrikes as part of the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group in Syria. A Foreign Ministry statement said the jets began attacking IS targets late Friday across the border in Syria that were deemed to be threats to Turkey. After months of hesitance, Turkey agreed last month to take on a more active role in the fight against IS. U.S. officials announced they had reached a technical agreement concerning their cooperation, which calls for Turkey to be fully integrated into the coalition air campaign.

Iran

The Democratic National Committee reportedly failed this weekend to pass a resolution supporting President Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, with Congress set to vote on the issue as early as next week. Obama and his White House team have worked extremely hard to get enough Capitol Hill votes for the resolution to pass, amid strong opposition from the Republican-controlled House and Senate. The failure of the Democrats to pass such the resolution is largely being considered at setback for what would likely become Obama’s signature foreign policy victory. Some congressional Democrats who are Jewish oppose the deal, fearing it will put Israel at greater risk of attack by neighbor and bitter rival Iran.

United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) states that the Iranian regime, a serial violator of its international obligations, cannot be trusted to uphold its commitments in the nuclear deal. Tehran has violated international agreements “at least 20 times,” including by building a secret uranium enrichment site deep inside a mountain. Iran’s record of cheating, coupled with a weak inspections regime that gives Iran up to 24 days to stall inspections of suspected nuclear facilities, are key reasons why America needs a better deal, UANI states. “We may wish that Iran change its behavior, but trusting this radical regime to do so is a very dangerous and risky proposition,” said UANI CEO Mark D. Wallace, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., and UANI Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman, former U.S. senator from Connecticut.

Europe

Austria, Germany and Hungary tightened border checks on Monday in new operations aimed at cracking down on human traffickers after 71 people died in a food truck near Vienna last week. The development comes as European authorities scrambled to find solutions to an unprecedented migration crisis that is claiming lives on land and sea. Austria increased inspections of trucks at its border with Hungary, creating an 18.5-mile traffic jam on the main Budapest-Vienna highway. Germany also introduced traffic checks on its highways near the border with Austria. And in Budapest, Hungarian authorities stepped up inspections of trains bound for other destinations in central Europe. European leaders announced over the weekend they would hold a summit on Sept. 14 in Brussels to try to devise a strategy for dealing with the crisis. Authorities in Greece said they rescued nearly 2,500 migrants from the sea in dozens of search-and-rescue operations over the weekend.

At least 150 people are believed to have drowned off western Libya after a fishing boat carrying migrants sank in the Mediterranean, Libyan and international relief officials said on Friday. On Thursday, the discovery of 71 dead migrants in the back of a truck in Austria came just a day after the Italian coast guard said 54 people lost their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean, highlighted once again the scale of the migration crisis gripping Europe. Another 3,000 men, women and children were rescued in multiple operations off the Libyan coast on Wednesday. However, migrants’ bodies were washing up along a stretch of Libya’s western coast in alarming numbers, over 40 on one recent day. More than 300,000 people are estimated to have tried the crossing this year, and at least 2,500 have died or are missing, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The death toll for the whole of 2014 was 3,281.

Environment

Thousands of Pacific walrus have returned to the northwest coast of Alaska in what scientists say is a sad annual sign of climate change. Once again, melting sea ice has left the animals with nowhere to go but the shores of Point Lay, Alaska. According to Associated Press, the walrus have been swimming to Point Lay for nearly eight years as the sea ice they rely on for survival disappears at a record pace. Unable to swim for long stretches, the marine mammals rest on ice and between dives for clams, snails and other food. Mothers will also often leave walrus pups on the ice as they hunt. Officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service have advised Alaska residents avoid large groups of the animals that are prone to stampedes when gathered in large numbers. They are easily scared by loud noises.

Fish, wildlife and ultimately people could be exposed to harmful levels of toxic chemicals in the waters of the Colorado River that flows through the Grand Canyon, according to a new study led by the U.S. Geological Survey. The study, published last week in the scientific journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, found that concentrations of mercury and selenium in the Grand Canyon’s food webs – the interconnected food chains that exist within an ecosystem – regularly exceeded levels considered risky for consumption by fish and other animals. Researchers from USGS surveyed six sites spread out over a 250-mile stretch of the Colorado River within the Grand Canyon, downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam, and found potentially harmful concentrations of the chemicals “in everything from bugs to trout to algae.” The presence of the toxic chemicals in a place like the Grand Canyon – “one of the most remote ecosystems in the United States,” the USGS points out – shows the far-reaching impacts that the industrialized world has on even largely well-preserved environments like our national parks.

Piles of bug carcasses covered the ground at a gas station in Lone Pine, California. They were inches deep on the sides of the street, dead after flying by the thousands toward even the smallest sources of light. Such has been the skin-crawling reality for the past two months in the high-desert communities at the foot of the Sierra Nevada’s eastern slopes, where residents have seen an explosion of the black-and-red seed bug species, Melacoryphus lateralis. Scientists say it’s the first such swarm they’ve seen in California. The bugs are getting into everything, including homes, cars and food. The influx has been driven by a mild winter and monsoonal weather, which provided healthier vegetation for the nutrient-sucking bugs, the scientists say. To the north, a different type of bug is infesting the site of the popular Burning Man counterculture festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. State officials are working to identify the green, coin-shaped insects swarming the outdoor venue and biting workers setting up for this year’s event, which starts Aug. 30.

Volcanoes

One of the world’s most active volcanoes began erupting again on Hawaii’s Big Island Thursday morning, sending a thick ribbon of lava from its summit down into the forests nearby. The volcano’s lava flow posed no threat to surrounding communities at this time. Lava from the volcano had moved about half a mile in less than 24 hours. Reuters reports that a magnitude 3.8 earthquake occurred beneath the volcano on Thursday, and “low levels of seismic activities continue across the volcano,” USGS added.

Wildfires

Infernos that have been burning for weeks in a part of Siberia have turned the landscape into what some say resembles Hell on Earth. Near Lake Baikal, the biggest and deepest freshwater lake in the world, large wildfires are sending huge amounts of smoke into the air, shrouding the popular vacation area in the middle of summer. These wildfires have burned more than 540 square miles in Russia. Aside from the environmental hazards created by the smoke rising into the atmosphere for weeks, there’s another problem: “Fires near the lake’s shores actually kill the water arteries, thus damaging the water balance in the lake,” said Mikhail Slipenchuk, deputy head of the Russian parliament’s committee on natural resources and ecology.

Weather

Tropical Storm Erika lashed Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic on Friday with heavy rains and wind after killing at least four people and causing devastating floods and landslides in the eastern Caribbean island of Dominica, where several people remained missing. The rain from Erika could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba and the Bahamas. Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency ahead of the approaching storm, which could impact the state by Sunday or Monday. However, as of Saturday morning, Erika was breaking up, but its remnant moisture is still bringing locally heavy rain to the Southeast U.S., especially Florida, as we start the week..

The governor of Hawaii declared a state of emergency Friday ahead of Hurricane Ignacio, which became a major hurricane Saturday morning. Forecasts are still uncertain, but current models predict the storm will pass just north of Hawaii’s Big Island Monday afternoon local time.

Two people have died after an unusually strong storm system moved through the Northwest, bringing down trees and causing power outages. Puget Sound Energy estimated 224,000 customers without power. Three other Seattle area utilities had 240,000 customers without power between them.

A massive chunk of ice that scientists say is roughly the size of Manhattan has broken off Greenland’s Jakobshavn Isbrae Glacier and begun floating into the sea, in what is likely one of the biggest ice calving events in recorded human history. This calving event broke off nearly 11 cubic miles of ice, which means this chunk of ice could cover the whole of Manhattan Island by a layer of ice nearly 1,000 feet thick. The world has seen three inches of sea level rise since the early 1990s and we should expect “at least three feet” more by roughly the end of the century, NASA scientists said in a press briefing Wednesday, as global warming accelerates the melting of the planet’s ice sheets and the slow but steady expansion of the oceans.

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