"The meaning of Christmas is pure and simple," he said.
Man was made to be with God, but something happened (a woman, if you want to know), and man became separated from God. Man lived in sin and pain and emptiness, until God, in his mercy, gave man the connection.

"In a miracle beyond our comprehension," Bisagno explained, "our perfect God became a man for 33 years in the person of Jesus, who lived a perfect life and died for us."

If you follow Jesus now, you'll come eventually to God's place, where the gates are like pearl and the streets seem golden, except that they are better than pearls or gold. All the riches will be better in Heaven, Bisagno promised, and so will our capacity to enjoy them. If you love your wife all you can on earth, "well, maybe that's a bushel-full," he said, "and I think in Heaven, it'll be a truckload."

If, on the other hand, you choose to live without the Lord, your mortal life will be spent in pain and godless emptiness, and you'll pass eternity not sifting through the riches of Heaven but barbecuing in the pits of Hell, where fires are said to burn hotter than any fire you know.

The choice is simple for Baptists -- eternal bliss over endless pain any day -- and it's hard for them to understand why anyone would choose differently, unless they've simply not heard the good word. To leave the ignorant to their fates, Bisagno said, would be like possessing the cure for AIDS and doing nothing but lying around watching football. This is the burden of being a Southern Baptist, a burden that is heavier now than ever before.

Bisagno wanted you to know (Merry Christmas) that the world is dying. Jesus, who was the Alpha, is also the Omega, the beginning and the end. He is coming again soon to lead his disciples into Heaven and to cast the rest into Hell. You see the signs in the newspapers -- the stories of murder and rape, of war and famine and disease. Open your Bible to Revelation, and you will see the sun black as a sackcloth of hair and the moon like blood, and Death riding in on his pale horse.

"It is doom," said Brother John, "and I believe in my heart Jesus Christ is the only hope. That's why getting his message out in every conceivable way is our priority."

That's why Baptists preach on radio and television and before hostile crowds. And that's why, each December, First Baptist stages the Christmas pageant. "It's probably the best thing we do," said the pastor.

?
One weekday afternoon, Bill Scott took off early and went to church to pick up Jesus' lines. He had spent the previous night looking over the Bible for "probably the first time in my life," he said. He had watched videos from pageants past, and he had just begun to understand the scope of his role.

"God," he said, "what a big production!"
His five-year-old daughter was most worried about the nails in his hands. Actually, he didn't know why, but he was also worried about the crucifixion. It didn't help when Raby, the artistic director, told him dying is always the hardest part.

"As a matter of fact, we have to measure you for the cross," Raby said with no trace of humor. "We've found in the past not all Jesuses fit the same."

"Not a one-size-fits-all, huh?" said Scott.
"No," said Raby. "We probably should have made it adjustable."
The cross was laid on the floor of the Worship Center, and Scott laid himself across it, while Raby told him how to place his feet.

"Okay," Raby said, "keep scooting down till we get the right look."
How could Scott have imagined it would come to this? He grew up in Houston without religion, the son of a doctor and a nurse. In high school, "a bad period in my life," he got involved with beer and marijuana and would get high and then go to class. One day in geometry, he asked a pretty girl if he could pay her to do his homework. Her name was Mary. She said no, but the ice was broken, and soon, Scott was involved with her, too.

After high school, he married Mary and began attending classes at the University of Houston. He was working on his business degree when he realized a degree wasn't necessary to sell stocks. He took a job with a local firm, and then four years ago, opened his own. By last year, Scott boasted, he was hauling in 200K and feeling pretty good about himself. And that's when he began going to Hooters with the fellas, drinking away his afternoons.

His two kids were in school, his wife was at work and there he was, out guzzling beer, gazing at buxom blonds. The devil was at work in that place, and Bill Scott began developing guilt for liking it there. He turned a corner the day one of the waitresses lamented the passing of a customer like himself, a man who was killed driving home.

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