Christian Today Digest – June 2014

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[Items in this magazine have been selected by the editor at Christian Today. All the articles were first published on the Christian Today website: www.Christiantoday.com over the past month.]

Contents

Richard Dawkins lends voice to atheist opera

Richard Dawkins is making his operatic debut in a new 90-minute work by University of Manchester lecturer Dr Kevin Malone.

“Mysterious 44” is based on The Mysterious Stranger, the unfinished final novel by Huckleberry Finn writer Mark Twain.

The Mysterious Stranger follows the meeting of three boys with Satan, an encounter that leads them to question superstition and religion.

Dr Malone wrote the narrative, libretto and music for Mysterious 44, which will be premiered to celebrate the launch of Manchester Opera Project at the Hallé orchestra’s new home, St Peter’s in Ancoats.

“Although it is not meant as an antireligious opera, it does argue for an approach to understanding the world which is based on science and reason, over superstition,” said Dr Malone.

“It’s a story of religious murder, deception, corruption, superstition, genocide, and a mysterious stranger who leads a lad away from it all to start a life of secular compassion.”

Four live singers will be accompanied by video animation, a surround-sound electronic score and singing computer. Dawkins will voice the alter-protagonist, August.

The opera has received funding from the Arts Council England and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Money from the latter will be used to film the show and distribute it more widely in schools and on YouTube.

Dr Malone said he was “delighted” Dawkins had agreed to take part.

“I became an atheist because the Bible is open to interpretation and can therefore be abused,” said Dr Malone.

“Science is more exact and objective so when science is proven wrong, it is easily swept away and replaced with something better - unlike the Bible.”

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Mother who lost both her sons in Arkansas tornado: “I know that God is good”

On April 27 a devastating tornado ripped through Arkansas; one of several to hit the state that month. April and Daniel Smith and their two sons - Tyler, 7 and Cameron, 9, lived in Vilonia, Arkansas; on a street that faced the eye of the catastrophic storm.

While they sheltered beneath a mattress in their bathtub, the tornado wreaked havoc around them. Their entire house was ripped from its foundations and tragically, Tyler and Cameron were among 15 people killed. April and Daniel miraculously survived, though they each sustained significant injuries.

April’s best friend Jessica Sowards shared the family’s story on her blog after visiting April in the hospital and finding that her friend, though devastated by the heartbreaking loss of her two sons, was still able to find hope through her unwavering faith in Christ.

“I know I have more pain to go through than I probably can understand. But I have supernatural peace. I don’t know what God has for me and my husband that our boys couldn’t be here for, but I do know that He is good. His plan is good,” April said, just two days after the tragedy struck.

“God can overcome even this.”

Jessica’s post has since gone viral, gaining millions of hits and reaching people all over the world. She receives letters and emails daily telling her that April’s testimony is inspiring many to come to faith.

Jessica shared the story with Christian Today and how April’s strength has brought her comfort in her own grief.

“We had just moved into our new house which is about five minutes from where April and Daniel’s house was, and we were just unpacking our truck and moving in when we heard reports that the tornado was on the ground and coming our way,” she recalls.

“So we took cover and I started trying to call April and text her because we saw on the news that the eye of the storm was headed for their house. I wasn’t able to reach her, so about ten minutes after the tornado had passed my husband Jeremiah drove over there to check on them, and when he got there he found out they’d been hit.

“He found their sons, and he was able to be there with April and Daniel and find medical help for them; he got there before the first responders.”

The news shocked their small community, and Jessica herself was devastated by the loss of the two young boys who had played with her own children just days before.

“I was just completely heartbroken,” she shares.

“I went to see April in the hospital, expecting her to be so different; bitter, angry and completely broken, but I got there and she started talking and within a couple of minutes I realised that her faith was unshakeable.

“She encouraged me, saying ‘Don’t be angry, God is good, this is all part of a good plan, whatever that means’. Obviously she’s hugely heartbroken, but she just kept saying ‘I know that God is good’.

“When I saw how strong she is, it immediately lifted a burden of bitterness off me. I felt like I couldn’t feel despair if she didn’t, and if her faith could be that strong, so should mine.”

Jessica says April and her husband are making a “miraculous” recovery; though a broken pelvis means she is still in a wheelchair, April’s cuts have all healed and “she looks completely herself again”.

“There’s minimal scarring, her scabs are gone and she looks incredible. I know she’s going to completely heal and use this for God’s glory,” Jessica says.

Their local church has set up a fund, and Jessica notes that the Smith’s tragedy has brought the congregation together; uniting them in grief and support for one another.

“The whole church is completely behind her, and there’s so much love for the family. Their faith has reignited our church; we’ve always been a passionate congregation, but to see this kind of faith puts a fire in the heart of anyone who hears about it.

“This whole experience has completely changed me,” Jessica finishes.

“Going and standing on the slab where their house used to be and seeing nothing, seeing how temporary everything really is, made me want to invest completely in the eternal. All that other stuff is a waste of time.

“April’s strength has totally made me believe in the scripture that says ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’. If she can get through this standing, I can get through anything.”

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A missionary’s life in Honduras: “Crime has come to the doors of the church”

Swedish missionary Miriam Mondragon is working to see transformation in one of the world’s most dangerous countries: Honduras, Central America.

Supported by Tearfund, Miriam is passionate about seeing the Church mobilised to bring peace and reconciliation in a country fractured by civil war, violence and extreme political unrest. In addition to working directly with victims of horrific violence and sexual abuse, her organisation - Alianza Cristiana por el Diálogo y la Conciliación - thus partners with local churches to advocate for justice.

Currently in the UK for a short time, Miriam shared with Christian Today about her vision to see Honduras united.

CT: How did you first start working in Honduras?

MM: I came to Honduras for the first time 21 years ago; I was volunteering with a Swedish organisation working with literacy and education in slum areas - I got sent to a neighbourhood called “Little Hell”! It was a wonderful period, and I started working also in the justice sector.

The Alliance started after the coup in 2009, and by then I was really committed to Honduras, and I also married a Honduran man!

CT: Can you tell us a bit about the projects you work with?

MM: In Honduras I work in three main areas: in reconciliation, supporting pastors and leaders working in difficult and violent areas; coordinating a rescue programme for children who are suffering from sexual abuse; and coordinating a programme in slum areas where we help kids at extreme risk, and their families.

We have a special programme called Impact Club, which teaches young people about active citizenship, how to get and keep employment, social entrepreneurship and leadership, and we’re hoping that it will be replicated on a national level.

I’m also working at a national level coordinating a rescue team which is made up of a lawyer, an investigator, two psychologists and myself, and we take really difficult cases where there has been no justice, and help families with the legal process and restoration.

CT: How is the Alliance working with the local church?

MM: The Alliance is working to strengthen pastors and leaders who work in difficult and hard contexts. The Church in Honduras represents about 40 per cent of the population, and it’s a giant that’s beginning to awaken. Violence and crime has come to the doors of the Church - it’s getting extorted by gangs, members of churches are being victims of crime and people are being assassinated. It’s important that we as an Alliance can support them in this situation.

Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, and when people think of the most dangerous places they think of Afghanistan and Iraq, but really it’s Central America.

The only hope for Honduras is a Church that stands up, demands justice and makes proposals as to how we can move forward. Almost the whole population of the city are believers, but it’s not enough just to be Christians - we have to be brave Christians.

We have to be a prophetic voice, and that’s the part where the Alliance wants to give hope; so we’re sharing models with churches that they can use with youth at risk, and we’re showing them how they can work to end crime, how they can denounce acts of corruption and work towards a more just society. We want to be a tool for the Church.

CT: What impact could it have on Honduras, and the lives of those in poverty, if the whole Church was united?

MM: The whole difference would be made; there are so many believers in Honduras - 40 or 50 per cent are Evangelical and then there’s a big movement of revival in the Catholic Church - so if we were all united in being brave, then there would be a huge difference.

The Church is the only hope for Honduras; so many things are against us - crime, drug cartels, impunity, corruption - but if there are Christians on all levels in society, and these Christians become brave Christians, then the whole of society will change. We need inspiring people, and we need the Holy Spirit, because we need to transmit the sense of courage to stand up, and not only be listeners, but doers.

Miriam is one of Tearfund’s Inspired Individuals. Find out more at inspiredindividuals.org

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Christian sites in Europe face “tremendous” rise in vandalism

Cases of vandalism against Christian sites are on the rise across Europe, a new report has warned.

The report was compiled by the Vienna-based Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians in Europe.

It details instances of intolerance towards Christians throughout 2013, including in the areas of law, politics, and the media.

The report warns of a “tremendous” rise in cases of vandalism across European Christian sites in the last year.

In 2013, there were 133 reported cases of vandalism and 241 cases of intolerance against Christians.

Examples include the desecration of the St Cyriac Church in Duren, Germany, where the damage was so bad it was declared unfit for service.

The priest of Santa Chantal Church, in Dijon, was shocked to discover excrement behind the altar and smeared into a prayer book. The desecration led to the priest deciding he could no longer keep the church open during the day.

In Italy, inverted crosses and the number “666” were scrawled on two doors of a church in Ubrino Duomo, while in Vigasio, two girls spray painted a smiling devil alongside the words “hates the Vatican”.

The report recorded numerous instances of arson attacks and church items being stolen or damaged.

Christians opposed to abortion and clergy with traditional views on sexuality are among those who have been violently attacked in the past year.

In Belgium, an elderly lady died in hospital 10 days after suffering severe head wounds in an attack inside the church of Saint-Remacle in Marche-en-Famenne.

Social media is identified as a “new playground of intolerance” against Christians, while concerns are also raised over limits on freedom of speech, rights to conscientious objection, equality, freedom of assembly, and parental rights in sex education.

In December last year, Femen France posted a message to its Facebook page supporting “cancelling the birth of Jesus” as a protest against Christian pro-life campaigns. The post was accompanied by a photo of a woman pretending to be Mary having an abortion in front of the cathedral in Madrid.

Also mentioned in the report are the cases of British Airways worker Nadia Eweida, nurse Shirley Chaplin, relationships counsellor Gary McFarlane, and registrar Lillian Ladele who all faced challenges in the workplace over their Christian beliefs. Only Eweida’s legal challenge was successful.

Dr Gudrun Kugler, director of the Observatory, said: “The increasingly secular society in Europe has less and less space for Christianity.

“Some governments and players of civil society seek to exclude instead of to accommodate. Countless cases of intolerance against Christians are reported to us. By researching, documenting and publishing these cases we hope to create an awareness which is a first step towards a remedy.”

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A church destroyed by fire rises from the ashes

A church reduced to ashes by fire sixteen years ago has celebrated the completion of the final stage in its reconstruction.

St Brandon’s Church at Brancepeth, County Durham, held a service of dedication over the weekend for the installation of their new East (Paradise) Window.

The Paradise Window features stained glass with beautiful floral motifs and was the last step in the reconstruction process that began after the devastating fire on 16 September 1998.

The design of the window, which was set in place last month, is intended to represent the church’s hopes for the future and the life ever-after.

It was designed and constructed by Helen Whittaker, of Barley Studios in York, and draws from the story of St Brandon (or Brendan), who lived around 484 to 577 AD. St Brandon figures in The Voyage of Saint Brendan, written around 900 AD about his great journey across the sea.

Priest-in-charge at St Brandon’s, the Reverend Rick Simpson said: “In many ways, this marks the completion of the rebuilding of St Brandon’s, after the fire of 1998.

“The design and installation of a new East (Paradise) Window is the last major project of the re-imagining and restoration of the beautiful and historic building in which we have the privilege of praying.

“We did not want the window to be a memorial of the fire, nor a monument to the past of St Brandon’s, but something that allows us to look forward.”

The window was dedicated by the Bishop of Durham, the Right Reverend Paul Butler, who said he was “very impressed” with the restoration of St Brandon’s.

“We must seek paradise not just for the future, but seek it now in our communities,” he said.

“This is a contemporary piece of art giving hope for the future set in the context of an ancient building that symbolises new life and hope for the people of Brancepeth and the wider community.”

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“Soul Surfer” Bethany Hamilton: “I overcame everything through Jesus”

Pro-surfer Bethany Hamilton, who lost her left arm in a shark attack in Hawaii aged 13, has given a candid interview in which she shared how a strong faith in Christ has helped her get through her toughest times.

Speaking to Fox411, 24-year-old newlywed Hamilton said that she felt immediately comforted by God in the wake of her tragic brush with a 14-foot tiger shark in 2003.

“I remember after I lost my arm, I just had this sense of peace that God was in control,” she shared. “And that’s kind of weird for a 13-year-old to be like, ‘Hey God, you’re in control,’ like, I just lost my arm.”

Determined not to let the attack stop her from pursuing her passion, Hamilton got back on her surfboard less than a month after the incident, during which she lost a staggering 60 per cent of her blood. She has since participated in numerous world-class surf competitions and her courage in the face of adversity has inspired millions worldwide; she now travels as a motivational speaker, sharing her faith and encouraging girls struggling with self-esteem issues as well as meeting with other shark-attack survivors.

She has also penned several bestselling books, and her inspirational story was even turned into a hit movie, “Soul Surfer”, starring Anna Sophia Robb, Carrie Underwood and Dennis Quaid.

Her latest book, “Body and Soul”, is aimed at teenage girls, and explores the importance of looking after their physical health, as well as their spiritual wellbeing, something Hamilton is passionate about.

“I wanted them to feel loved and encouraged to start making healthier life choices in their daily life,” she explained.

“On top of that, I wanted to encourage them in their faith. And I think God calls us to take care of our bodies and to love and respect our bodies and I think that can be done through the way that we eat and the way that we move but also in the way we think towards ourselves and how we think towards God.”

Hamilton, who also revealed that she saved herself for marriage and has only ever kissed one man - now her husband - said that her faith has been the “stronghold” of her life, and her relationship with Jesus is what helped her to pursue her dreams despite difficult circumstances.

In the past, Hamilton has declared “From what seems like such a horrible thing, God has just brought glory to Himself”.

“I think that we all go through different hard times in our lives and challenges and things to overcome and I just know that how I overcame was through Jesus Christ and that has been my stronghold,” she told Fox411.

“I think the thing God’s taught me is first of all he forgives me when I make a mistake and he calls me to forgive the people around me that make mistakes and hurt me.

“In that is just God’s gift of amazing love and forgiveness and that’s why he died on the cross for our sins so just know that God loves you and he has this amazing life for you and he just wants to be a part of it.”

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Michael W Smith: “I’m more passionate today than ever”

Having been around the music scene for over thirty years, and with three Grammy awards under his belt, veteran artist Michael W Smith would be forgiven for slowing down a little. But when he caught up with Christian Today about his new album, Sovereign, he insisted he’s not even close to walking away from his piano yet.

CT: Sovereign is your first studio album since 2008 - what prompted you to start recording again?

MWS: I felt it was just time to do the next thing really, and felt the need to reinvent myself again. I changed record labels and they got a bunch of people together so it was a real combined effort. It’s been a year in the making, it got me out of my comfort zone, working with all these young people - these young “kids” - and it’s really paid off. I couldn’t be happier with the outcome.

CT: How would you describe Sovereign? How is it different, creatively speaking, to your past music?

MWS: It’s really unique, and as a worship album it’s very vertically driven. It’s the first worship album I’ve done that’s not live, it’s a studio album, and it’s different because I think it’s anthemic. It’s got this pop side of me married to the worship side of me and it’s two worlds colliding in a good way. It’s interesting musically; it’s not just simplified - worship songs are so often simple - but it’s more creative, it’s got some art to it, and I think it’ll be interesting to see if the rest of the world agrees!

CT: What do you mean by “vertically-driven” songs?

MWS: Lyrically the album is vertical; all these songs are sung to God, talking to God, and they make a statement like “Oh God, I am a miracle!”, “Christ be all around me”, and in “Sovereign over us” we sing, “Your plans are still to prosper, you have not forgotten us, you’re faithful in the fire and the flood”. They’re not horizontal, but more vertical and that was sort of the goal from the very beginning of making this album.

CT: What’s your heart for this album? How’re you hoping people will respond?

MWS: I hope it’s received well! I think it’s a work for our time; there are some art moments and some things said differently in this album. Some of the songs are really powerful; “Sovereign over us” is about adversity and going through hard times. That song is for people who are struggling. “Miracle” is one of my favourite songs; it was the first one we wrote and it raised the bar. Bono said the other day “I am a miracle”, and you know, he’s saying there are people all around the world who have been changed by the person of Christ and I am one of them, and that’s what this song’s about. “Christ all around me” is also really powerful when sung.

CT: You released your first album over thirty years ago - how do you keep going?

MWS: Do you know what? I’m more passionate today than I ever have been in my whole life. I feel sure of my calling, I’m just hitting my sweet spot now, I’m not tired, I want to finish well. I’m pumped up, I feel energetic and I’m ready to go which might sound weird after thirty years but I’m probably more inspired and more energetic than I’ve ever been.

I don’t really know the reason for that! Maybe it’s that I don’t have anything to prove; in the early days it was about trying to impress and win lots of awards but I don’t care about that stuff anymore. And when you don’t care it frees you up and your heart’s in a better place. You’re not stressed or tense, and so I feel freer today than ever, which sets the stage for making great music. But I couldn’t have done it by myself, it’s a real combined effort, and lots of people contributed heavily to this project and for that I’m very grateful.

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