Christian Today Digest – January 2015

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To add to your further enjoyment of these articles, we thought a short description of how the website is organised would be of interest.

The Christian Today website has what we call tabs which are really just headings. It’s a way of categorising the articles. Here are the headings, which they use:

UK; World; Church; Mission; Ministries; Society; Life; Entertainment; Comment.

Torch will now include these categories at the beginning of each of the articles.

We have observed that sometimes CT include an article of interest, which is not necessarily a good-news item but rather the reverse and which has been included for readers to pray about. We hope therefore that including the headings or categories will enable Torch readers to also discern and pray.

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Unless otherwise stated, articles in this magazine are transcriptions of material selected by the editor at Christian Today and were first published on recently.

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“The one who believes in me will live, even though they die ...” Do you believe this?

From “Life” Section

Vince Vitale on why good works are never enough

“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26).

I recently shared these words of Jesus with the father of my oldest friend. Chris’s father, Joe, was suffering from a brain tumour, and the doctors had given him only weeks left to live.

When I walked in to see Joe, I didn’t know if he would want to talk about his approaching death. Joe had always been strong and capable. He had a voice so deep that no matter what he was speaking about, it resounded with confidence and authority, leaving little room for vulnerability.

But as soon as Joe saw me he said, “Hey Vince. Good, I’m glad you’re here. I told Chris I wanted to talk to you.” Joe went on to tell me that although he had always been confident that God exists in some way, he was finding himself increasingly scared about what comes next.

As we spoke, what became clear to me was that Joe’s understanding of the central message of Christianity was that you should try to do more good than bad in your life, and then just hope that in the end your good deeds will outweigh your bad deeds. If they do, something wonderful awaits. But if they don’t, you’re in trouble. And as Joe reflected back over his life, he recognised that if that was the case, then he had reason to fear.

Never was I so incredibly thankful to be sitting before someone as a Christian. As an atheist, I would have had to say there is no hope beyond the grave. If I adhered to almost any other religion, I would have had to tell Joe that he was basically right, and did have reason to fear what was next.

But as a Christian I was able to explain to Joe that while Christianity does say that God wants us to do good, that is not what makes us right with God. I was able to share with him that the message of Christianity is that what makes us right with God is not about anything we do or ever could do, but rather about what Jesus has already done - once, and in full, and for all. I explained that if we trust in Jesus, we no longer need to fear judgment, because when he died Jesus took the judgment for everything we have ever done or will ever do wrong. And we no longer need to fear suffering, or shame, or even death, because Jesus has joined us in all of it, and invited us beyond it.

I explained this at length, and when I asked Joe if this made sense, he responded - in classic New Jersey fashion - “That’s a hell of a realisation.” Emphatically he said it again, and then continued, “Sixty-nine years and I never thought of that. I thought Christianity was one thing, but it was something else entirely.” There was an extended pause, and then Joe said, “You know, Vince, you spend your whole life trying to make up for your [mess] ups, but this finally explains how we can deal with guilt.”

I asked Joe if he wanted to pray with me to accept this gift from God. He said he did, and with great conviction he thrust out his arm to me. We clasped hands, and we wept, and we prayed, and as we finished praying he exclaimed a loud “Amen.”

Joe asked me if my wife Jo knows this great truth about Christianity as well. I said that she does, and he said, “It must be a happy life.” And then, after a thoughtful pause, “Now I’m actually looking forward to what’s next.”

When Joe’s family saw him the next day and asked how he was, for the first time in a long time he responded, “Wonderful.” The transformation in him was so visible that his family called me immediately and wanted to know every word that I had shared with him.

Life after death, on its own, does not bring hope. Forgiveness brings hope. And I believe, because I was there to see it, that forgiveness, and therefore hope, can be found with a simple heartfelt prayer.

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Reflection: Wearing the world lightly

From “Life” Section

Jesus said to them: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. (Mark 1:17-18)

Have you ever played the “present game” at Christmas? We have, for years.

The rules are simple: everyone in the extended family brings several wrapped presents and piles them up on the floor in the middle of the room. You take it in turn to throw a dice, and if you get a six, you can pick out any gift and put it in front of you. No sixes - no gifts!

After a few minutes, all the presents have been taken. But they remain wrapped and you carry on playing. If anyone throws a six from that point onwards, they can take a gift from someone else’s pile and add it to their own - something which generates all sorts of tensions! At the end of a previously-agreed time span, a whistle is blown, and everyone keeps (and opens) whatever presents (however many or few) they have in front of them.

It’s pure luck, and not especially fair, of course - two facts which usually foster some fairly frantic excitement. And over the years the “gifts” have evolved into a mix of the wacky, the tacky, and the small and worthless disguised in deceptively large packaging.

Our family members do give one another “proper” presents as well! But there’s something about the Present Game which captures - in a fun way - the frenetic, ever-hopeful and acquisitive spirit of our age.

When we stop and think about it, of course, we know that this consumerist zeitgeist is a dangerous deception. A man inquiring about the will of a deceased relative once asked a fellow mourner at a funeral, “How much did he leave?” The sobering response came back: “He left everything.” Touché.

And it’s here that Jesus’ invitation to follow him is so counter-cultural, especially in the run up to Christmas. We want to accumulate things - but Christ asks us to leave them behind. We look for the perfect present, whereas Jesus offers us the perfect presence - himself.

When Jesus invites Simon and Andrew to follow him in Mark 1 he is not inviting them out for a quick coffee, or to graciously consider spirituality as a lifestyle add-on extra. Rather, he is inviting them to walk out on a family business developed over generations. It’s a big ask! Yet he is such a compelling figure they have no hesitation in dropping everything there and then. “Immediately they left their nets and followed him,” Mark tells us (v18). And just in case we miss it, Mark makes a similar point two sentences later when recounting the call of James and John.

Jesus call to put everything else second to following him is an invitation to liberation. It frees us from the banality of much that passes for aspiration in western society today. As the great devotional writer Dallas Willard put it in Renovation of the Heart, “we will, as St Francis of Assisi said, ‘wear the world like a loose garment, which touches us in a few places and there lightly’”.

It is also a call to pass the message on by being disciple-making disciples. Jesus, picking up imagery from Jeremiah 16, wants his followers to “fish for people” - in other words, to be those who call others away from following worthless idols (even electronic “i-dols”) to serve the living God.

Finally, it’s a deeply transformational call. As one commentator on these verses says: “The gospel demands radical discipleship ... Half-heartedness has no place in a church built on the broken body of Christ. Jim Elliot, the martyred missionary to Ecuador, once wrote in his journal, ‘Make me thy fuel, flame of God’. Do you need a wake-up call?”

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From Kolkata slumdog to university graduate and entrepreneur - one young man’s story

From “World” Section

Janealam Sheik grew up in the slums of Kolkata, often going hungry and witnessing the tragic deaths of many friends. Now with a Master’s degree from Manchester University, he is setting up his own business to help those trapped in poverty.

Known as Janè to his friends, 23-year-old Sheik lived in a slum community of 10,000 people. Open garbage dumps and sewers littered his surroundings, and an open drain was the only toilet. When the rains came, the make-shift shacks, home to thousands of India’s poorest people, would fill with waste and human excrement. Unsurprisingly, disease was rife.

“Diarrhoea was common, as well as dengue [fever] and malaria. Many people died of these diseases,” he told Christian Today.

“I actually lost my father at age 16 to malaria, which caused multiple organ failure. And it’s not just diseases that kill people - in the summer it’s 40 degrees [Celsius], and there’s no electricity, so people die of heat.”

Janè’s family lived in an eight by 10 foot house, though many other homes in the community were much smaller. They all slept on the floor - there were no beds - and Janè recalls waiting for his father to come home every evening from his irregular job carrying bricks on a construction site.

“If there was work, then we would eat. If not, then we’d go to bed with just water,” he says. “Many nights you would hear babies crying because there were no jobs so they went hungry. As a young boy, I saw people all around me suffering, dying, going hungry and fighting. I grew up very scared and hopeless, and thought I would die soon, and if not, then I would struggle each day to live.”

However, Janè’s life changed when his father heard about a local Compassion International project for children. He enrolled his son in the project, and Janè became the first child out of all those in his slum community to go to school. He calls it a “God-intervention”.

“I remember the first time that I taught my father and mother to write their names,” he says. “It was amazing.”

Not only did he get an education, healthcare and a meal every day, but he was also taught about the Christian faith.

“One of the most delicious blessings is that I came from a non-Christian family in a community where you look around and much of what you see is evil ... Then I started going to this project where I heard about Jesus, about God loving us, and him promising to take care of us, and it gave me hope.

“I would come home and tell my father: ‘Don’t worry if there is no work, God will provide for us - he provides for the birds.’ That intrigued my parents, and so they started going to church and my entire family became Christians. The faith I have now is the best thing that has happened to me - it’s made me content, positive and optimistic. Everything did not change dramatically for my family, but we knew that God would take care of us.”

After finishing school, Janè says he wanted to “multiply the blessings” he had received, and so started volunteering with a church project to help women in prostitution start businesses to support their families. He then studied Business Management and university, and applied to do a Masters in the UK. A couple from Australia heard about his story through Compassion, and offered to pay for his studies.

“I am deeply humbled, because what I have been able to do, even though it’s not very much, hasn’t been just my effort,” Janè says, adding that his local church and its people have played a significant role in the transformation of his family’s life.

“So many people have been part of this journey, and it’s given me immense hope that what has happened to me could happen to all the children in my community. If they have the opportunities I did ... they could do so much more. It gives me a lot of hope to go back and do something. I feel very motivated and encouraged.”

Janè now runs Pursuit, an organisation which partners with small, local Christian organisations in India and helps them to raise funds, while also providing management help.

“Local development organisations usually struggle with raising resources, but they are very good at addressing local issues because they are natives, they understand [the problems],” he explains.

“What I bring to the table is experience of growing up in the culture, so I can identify projects which are impactful, and help maintain relationships between people who support and those that are supported.”

Three projects Pursuit is currently partnering with are a microfinance project for women, a home for abandoned children from railway platforms in Kolkata, and a rehab centre in Bangalore for young people with drug and alcohol addictions.

Janè has never met the man who sponsored him through Compassion, but knows he’s from Ohio in the US.

“I pray that someday I will be able to meet the person who changed my life forever,” he says.

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Despite Syria’s turmoil, church leaders say new people are coming to the faith

From “World” Section

With a civil war that has torn the country apart and the Islamic State taking oppressive control of towns and cities, there is much cause for sorrow in Syria.

But among all the bad news, one Christian in the country has some good news to share about the comfort people are finding in coming to church - including some who are taking their first steps through church doors.

The Open Doors worker, who cannot be named for security reasons, told the organisation: “We hear church leaders saying that the churches are not empty. New people are coming to church, interested in the gospel and comforted by the message. We hear of people coming to Christ.”

Open Doors, a worldwide organisation supporting the persecuted church, is working through other Christian organisations and churches in Syria to provide relief to 9,000 families in the country.

Assistance is being given in the form of food packages, shelter, medicine and blankets. As many of the people who come into contact with the church have suffered greatly in the civil war or as a result of ISIS, Open Doors is also working with its partners to provide trauma counselling training for Syrian Christian leaders.

That assistance is even more vital as Syrians get through the cold winter months with few provisions.

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Pastor selling prized possession to raise money for charity

From “Life” Section

A Welsh pastor waited and saved for 20 years to buy the classic car of his dreams. Now he has decided to give it away to raise funds for charity.

Clive Owen, pastor of Wellspring Christian Fellowship Church in Langstone near Newport in South Wales, and married with two daughters and four grandchildren, had vowed never to sell the 1971 Gilbern Invader Mark II he bought in Bournemouth last year.

According to the South Wales Argus, just 287 models of the Invader Mark II were made at Gilbern’s factory in Llantwit Fardre in Pontypridd. Launched at the 1970 British Motor Show, the Mark II featured an improved front chassis design, with modified suspension locations, and the Watt’s linkages were replaced with Panhard rods.

The name, Gilbern, combined the name of co-founder Giles Smith, a butcher from Church Village near Pontypridd, and that of Bernard Friese, an engineer from Germany and former prisoner of war.

The company was founded in 1959 and the cars were considered expensive for the time. The Argus reports that because of VAT being put on kit cars, the price went up and finally, production stopped in 1973.

Mr Owen, who has been “born again” for 33 years and earlier this year raised £1,000 for charity with his grandson by climbing the “three peaks”, Snowdon, Ben Nevis and Scafell, in three days, paid £3,600 for the car 14 months ago.

It is now worth between £8,000 and £10,000. He wants offers of £10,000 or more to raise funds for three charities. Eden Gate is a homelessness and drug and alcohol rehab charity in Newport, there is also a Uganda charity, Life Ministries Trust Kampala, supporting 125 churches plus schools and hospitals, and the third is Shevet Achim, a UK charity dedicated to saving the lives of Arab children, mainly from Gaza, Iraq and Syria, born with congenital heart defects by funding their treatment in Israeli hospitals.

“As we speak there are two Syrian babies that have come through Jordan to Israel and are having their operations this week,” he said.

He had waited two decades to buy the car and when he purchased it, vowed that he would never sell it. He told Christian Today: “I am not selling it, I am giving it away, to anyone who will give me £10,000 for the three charities I support. I will be heartbroken to lose it.”

His mind was made up on his latest visit to Israel seven weeks ago, when he was at the main hospital in Tel Aviv. A little baby from Syria had just come out of the operating theatre. “As I looked at him he just gave me the most beautiful smile. I thought to myself, I’ve got to do more for these children. I thought, what do I love more than I love the life of a child? The answer was, nothing, not houses, cars or reputation, nothing. I went home and went walking, and thought, I will give the car away.

“I love that car. I waited 20 years for it. But if we don’t practise what we preach, they are empty words. Christmas is a greedy time. We call it greedmass. On one side of the line, people have more than they want. On the other side, they have nothing. At this time of year we must take stock of what we do. If we say, all for God, it must be all for God. If one person in the world realises by my selling my car that perhaps they can do something good, sell something, give something away, then it’s been worth it. My heart will rejoice and I won’t be sad.”

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