Christian Today Digest – April 2017

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6 ways to read the Bible for all it's worth

By Mark Woods

The Bible is God's gift to the Church. It contains everything we know about Jesus and it's the foundational document of the Christian faith. It tells of how God dealt with the people of Israel, and of how in Jesus that long history reaches its fulfilment. Christians everywhere are encouraged to read it, daily if possible, learn it and live by it.

But at the same time, it's not an easy book. Some people just aren't great readers. There are parts of the Bible we just find difficult to understand. There are others that don't seem to have much to say to us and some we struggle with for different reasons. And this isn't surprising: it was written over perhaps a thousand years by many different people, all of whom lived in a world very different from our own. So how can we get the best out of it? Here are six ideas.

1. Don't be intimidated.

Yes, it's a thick book and it can be confusing. But 'all Scripture is inspired by God, and is useful...' (2 Timothy 3:16). Sometimes, if we're honest, we might read a passage and not know how it relates to our own lives, or to other parts of Scripture. Instead of worrying about what exactly what parts of Ezekiel or Revelation might mean, it's wise sometimes just to read them and store them in our minds. Illumination might come later.

2. Get help.

Wise men and women have spend whole lifetimes studying the Scriptures and writing notes and commentaries on them. It's very arrogant to assume we have nothing to learn from them. Yes, of course God can speak to ordinary, unscholarly Christians, but that's no reason not to take advantage of other people's learning. Find Bible reading notes from someone you trust and use them – like Fresh From the WordBRFCWR or Scripture Union

3. Don't over-complicate things.

You don't have to know everything in order to know something. It's sometimes said, 'a text without a context is a pretext', and that's right – we can sometimes make the Bible say what we want it to say. But we don't have to be Bible scholars in order to benefit from the Bible. If we approach it prayerfully and reverently, God can use it to speak to us.

4. Be organised.

A reading plan, whether it's the Bible in a year or a few verses a day, is really useful. It helps you cover the ground, so you aren't just reading your favourite bits, and it's a way of helping you see how it all fits together.

5. Make notes.

Either scribble them in your Bible or keep an exercise book in which you note down things that strike you and questions you ask. That way when you go back to it you have something to build on – you're creating a resource that could nourish you for years.

6. Don't be legalistic about it.

Protestants are very, very keen on Bible reading. It's a precious resource. But we shouldn't allow ourselves to be pressured into doing it so it becomes a chore rather than a joy. We need to find our own rhythm of reading, which might not be every day; and we need to remember that it's the Spirit, not the Bible alone, that forms Christian disciples.

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'O love that wilt not let me go': How a blind pastor produced a work of genius

By Mark Woods

March 27th marked the birthday of the author of one of the best-loved hymns in the English language. O love that wilt not let me go was written by George Matheson (1842-1906), and its powerful meditation on the power of God in the life of the believer never fail to move.

Matheson was a Church of Scotland pastor who went blind at an early age. However, he was a considerable scholar, thanks in part to the care of his elder sister, who read to him, and his own astonishing memory – he could quote whole passages of scripture by heart, and many of his hearers did not realise he was blind.

It is rare that we know the date of a hymn so exactly, but he has left us a record.

'My hymn was composed in the manse of Innelan [Argyleshire, Scotland] on the evening of the 6th of June, 1882, when I was 40 years of age,' he says. 'I was alone in the manse at that time. It was the night of my sister's marriage, and the rest of the family were staying overnight in Glasgow.

'Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering.

'It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice rather than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high.' 

There has always been speculation about the occasion of the hymn. One suggestion is that a fiancée broke their engagement when she learned that he was going blind. There is more romance than reality about this, though, because Matheson was almost completely blind from the age of about 20. We shall probably never know.

In the hymn, he writes of the love that will not let us go, the light that follows all our way, the joy that seeks us through pain, and – most movingly of all – the 'Cross that liftest up my head'. That line refers to Christ being lifted up in crucifixion, and perhaps what follows, 'I dare not ask to fly from thee,' reflect his own acceptance of the limitations he suffered. Nevertheless, it ends, 'I lay in dust life's glory dead,/ And from the ground there blossoms red/ Life that shall endless be.'

Whatever the trial which gave rise to the hymn, this note of faith was typical of him. He once wrote of his life that it was 'an obstructed life, a circumscribed life ... but a life of quenchless hopefulness, a life which has beaten persistently against the cage of circumstance, and which even at the time of abandoned work has said not "Good night" but "Good morning."' 

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Christians displaced by Boko Haram being denied food, relief goods in Nigerian refugee camps

By Hazel Torres

Troubles are piling up on the beleaguered Christians in Nigeria. Already the target of persecution by the savage Boko Haram terrorist group, the Christians who have been displaced from their homes by the Islamist extremists are also being subjected to discrimination in the displacement camps run by local Muslim organisations, the Christian persecution watchdog Open Doors U.K. has revealed.

In some instances, Muslim relief workers are telling Christian refugees coming to their camps that food and relief goods are "not for Christians," said Bishop William Naga, who fled his home in Borno state.

Emily Fuentes, the communications director for Open Doors U.S.A., attested to the discrimination being suffered by Christian refugees. In an interview with The Christian Post, she explained that although Christians are the main targets of Boko Haram militants, the latter also prey on their fellow Muslims in the Muslim-majority region of northeast Nigeria, prompting these Muslims to also seek refuge in the displacement camps.

Because of this, Muslim organisations running the camps feel inclined to give Muslims "preferential treatment," Fuentes said.

"Christians often get pushed to the back of the line," she said. "Because Muslims are the majority there, even non-extremist Muslims, some of their neighbours are typically going to get preferential treatment by those providing food and assistance because of their Muslim faith. Christians might be discriminated against and some of those cases have been reported. It's just preferential treatment because they are not the majority religion in that part of the country."

To help ease the plight of Christian refugees in Nigeria, Christian churches and other organisations have begun setting up displacement camps for Christians, which are being supported by Open Doors and its local partners on the ground.

"We have started informal, purely Christian camps because Christians were being segregated in the formal camps," said John Gwamma, the head of an informal Christian camp.

Fuentes said unlike the camps where Christians are discriminated against, the camps they are setting up will be open not only to Christians but to other people as well, regardless of their faith.

On its latest World Watch list, Open Doors ranks Nigeria as the 12th worst Christian-persecuting country in the world.

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Former jihadi used to believe killing non-Muslims pleased God — until Jesus appeared in his dream

By Czarina Ong

God is capable of transforming even people with the hardest of hearts, and this is exactly what He did to Bashir Mohammad, a former jihadist who once believed that killing Christians was the right thing to do.

Mohammad, 25, used to fight on the front lines of the Syrian civil war for the Nusra Front, according to The New York Times. Having been born and raised in a Muslim family, it's hard to imagine Mohammad converting to Christianity. When he became a teenager, Mohammad even dabbled in the most extreme interpretations of Islam — "even the ones you haven't heard of." 

He said he and his colleagues used to crush their Christian and other captives with a bulldozer. "They used to tell us these people were the enemies of God," he explained, "and so I looked on these executions positively." 

But after experiencing the horrors of war and witnessing "Muslims killing Muslims," Mohammad decided something was not right. "I went to Nusra in search of my God," he said. "But after I saw Muslims killing Muslims, I realized there was something wrong."

The following year, Mohammad and his wife fled from the war. They left for Istanbul with 2.5 million other Syrians. When his wife fell seriously ill, they got in contact with Mohammad's cousin who had converted to Christianity.

His cousin prayed for his wife, and when she got better, Mohammad became curious about Christianity. He asked his cousin to recommend to him a Christian preacher, and he was introduced to Eimand Brim from the evangelical group called the Good Shepherd.

It was a life-changing meeting. Mohammad learned to read the Bible. He said reading it gave him a sense of peace that the Quran never gave him. He felt more welcome in churches compared to mosques, and Christian prayers were far more generous compared to Muslim ones.

But it was only when Mohammad dreamed of Jesus giving him chickpeas that he decided to convert for good. Even his own wife dreamed of Jesus parting the waters from the sea. Mohammad viewed it as a sign of encouragement from Jesus.

"There's a big gap between the god I used to worship and the one I worship now," Mohammad said. "We used to worship in fear. Now everything has changed."

Earlier, a former ISIS member who goes by the name Abu Ibrahim told CBS News that their actions were all rooted in the Sharia law, so they didn't see their brutal actions as wrong. Even their public executions all had purpose.

"There were many hundreds of people there who observed. While seeing someone die is not something anyone would probably want to see, having the actual Sharia established is what many Muslims look forward to," he said.

However, ISIS imposed strict "restrictions," and it is almost impossible for anyone to leave the group. Personally, Ibrahim said being an ISIS member wasn't all it was cracked up to be, so he decided to leave.

"My main reason for leaving was that I felt that I wasn't doing what I had initially come for and that's to help in a humanitarian sense the people of Syria," he shared. "It had become something else."

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Pastor reveals horror of child sacrifices in Uganda, claims murder of innocents is big business

By Hazel Torres

Hundreds of children are being kidnapped and murdered in Uganda every year because of the thriving child sacrifice business in that East African country, a pastor has revealed.

What is utterly shocking and horrific in the West is a common practice in Uganda where businessmen and politicians pay big money to witch doctors who sell them body parts of children, believing these will bring them good luck, local pastor Peter Sewakiryanga told a CBN News team that recently visited Kampala, Uganda.

"Witch doctors believe that when you kidnap a child you get wealth, you get protection," said the pastor who runs Kyampisi Childcare Ministries, a Christian organisation that seeks to end child sacrifice in Uganda.

Describing the gruesome ritualistic killing of children, Sewakiryanga said the witch doctors first cut the neck of the child. "They take the blood out, they take the tissue, they cut the genitals or any other body organs that they wish that the spirits want," he said.

Child sacrifice has become such a serious and widespread problem in Uganda that government authorities have set up an agency primarily tasked with stopping the practice.

Mike Chibita, Uganda's top law enforcement official, told CBN News that superstition and the desire to get rich quickly are to blame for the rising cases of child sacrifice in his country.

"The connection is that these witch doctors come and tell people who want to get rich that in order to get rich you need to sacrifice human blood," said Chibita.

Ugandan lawmakers like Komuhangi Margaret are set to draft specific laws targeting those involved in child sacrifice.

"Every Ugandan must wake and and say, 'No to sacrificing our children'," said Margaret, a member of Uganda's parliament. "Our children are the future of this country."

However, some Ugandan politicians continue to believe in supernatural ways to get them elected to office.

During the election campaign in 2015, Uganda saw a significant increase in child sacrifice cases as desperate political candidates tried to gain advantage at the polls, Breitbart reported.

"Child sacrifice cases are common during election time, as some people believe blood sacrifices will bring wealth and power," Shelin Kasozi told Reuters.

Moses Binoga, coordinator of the anti-trafficking task force at the interior ministry, said they found mutilated bodies of children and adults, some with hearts or livers ripped out. In two cases reported last year the victims' heads were missing, he said.

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Christianity is 'over' in Iraq, but 'God is not dead despite terrible persecution,' says 'Vicar of Baghdad'

By Hazel Torres

An eminent Anglican priest known as the "Vicar of Baghdad" has just presented two contrasting images of Christianity in Iraq.

In a Fox News interview, Canon Andrew White said Christianity is "over" in the region from which the faith originated.

He also posted a message on his Facebook page, saying, "God is not dead ... despite the terrible persecution of much of the Church today in Iraq and the Middle East."

White went on to say that God "is alive and doing the greatest things ever. Resurrections, healing and angels are part of daily life. We in the western world just do not know of the real majesty, glory and presence of Jesus."

In the Fox News interview, White drew a bleak image of Christianity in the region, saying, the "time has come where it is over, no Christians will be left."

He noted the calls made for Christians to stay in the regions to maintain the faith's "historical presence," but commented that this has now "become very difficult," adding that "the future for the community is very limited."

White said the Christians who have been driven out of their homes in the Middle East by the Islamic State are saying one thing: "There is no way they are ever going back. They have had enough."

Fox News noted the sharp decline in Iraq's Christian population. It said 30 years ago, some 1.4 million Christians inhabited the country. The number fell to around 1 million after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Last year, it was estimated that less than 250,000 are left, with the numbers continuing to go down.

White directly appealed for American support. "If there is anything I can tell Americans it is that your fellow brothers and sisters are suffering, they are desperate for help," he said. "And it is not just a matter of praying for peace. They need a lot — food, resources, clothes, everything. They need everything."

Earlier on Saturday, White spoke at Truro Anglican Church in Fairfax, Virginia, where he again appealed for U.S. support for the Christians struggling to survive in the Middle East.

"There cannot be peace [in Iraq] without provision ... when people don't have what they need it's very difficult to make real or lasting peace," he said, according to a church member interviewed by The Christian Post.

White went on to explain that even though the number of Christians remaining in Iraq has been greatly reduced, God's presence remains in the region where He continues to transform lives.

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6 Scripture verses about the heart – and why they don't mean what you think

By Andy Walton

In the modern West, we know what the 'heart' symbol means. It's about feelings; that warm fuzzy glow of romance and affection. It's about love, as an emotion – whether it's between a man and a woman or a person and a city ('I heart New York'). 

In Bible times, the heart meant something different. It was the seat of the will, the centre of a person's being, the place where moral and intellectual activity took place – an altogether more serious organ. So when we read about the 'heart' in that sense in the Bible – and the word occurs more than 1,000 times – we need to be careful what we're envisaging. It isn't about how we feel; it's about what we think, what we decide and what we believe. It's what is at the very centre of who we are. 

Here are six Bible verses about the heart. 

Proverbs 12: 20

Deceit is in the hearts of those who plot evil, but those who promote peace have joy.

 Matthew 5: 7-9

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

 Romans 2: 14-16

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them. This will take place on the day when God judges people's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.

 Philippians 4: 6-8

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.

 Philemon 11-13

[Paul says of Onesimus]: Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel.

 James 4: 7-9

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.

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