Christian Today Digest – January 2017

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The real answer to Google's most searched-for question

Mark Woods

Guess what one of the most searched-for topics of the year in the UK is, according to Google? Along with the US election and David Bowie, it's this: ‘How to accept myself for who I am'.

It's easy to pour scorn on this as meaningless psychobabble, and not entirely unfair. But beneath that Google search ranking there's a whole hinterland of unhappiness. Many, many people are discontented with themselves. They feel they ought to be happier, more confident, wiser, wealthier, better looking. They don't feel they can achieve their goals and they want to know how they can live with that.

Way up in Google's answers is an article from Therapists Spill entitled ‘12 Ways to Accept Yourself'. Among the suggestions offered by practising therapists are ‘Celebrate your strengths', ‘Create a support system' and ‘Shush your inner critic'.

It's all excellent advice. Anyone really struggling with low self-esteem or general unhappiness ought to read it. We can, to a certain extent, affect our mental state by being aware of what brings us down. We can practise good habits in how we think about ourselves and how we relate to other people.

But there's still something missing, and it goes back to the initial question: How do I accept myself for who I am?

It's a question framed in secular terms that seeks a purely secular answer. It focuses on the autonomous individual, with no reference to any kind of external authority or standard. It assumes we're OK, and that our feelings of guilt and inadequacy are aberrations, to be cured by therapy or self-help. Self-acceptance is a sort of secular heaven.

Christians want to offer a different vision – less immediately attractive, but more true to life.

We say, based on our reading of the Bible and our experience of human nature, that we're not OK. We've done things we ought not to have done and left undone things we ought to have done. We have dark places in our hearts. We sometimes think things we're ashamed of.

For Christians, that question ‘How do I accept myself for who I am?' isn't a bad one. We know the power of destructive and negative thoughts. We draw on the wisdom of therapists just like anyone else. But we ground our acceptance not in a rejection of guilt, but in an acknowledgment of it – and in the knowledge that we are loved with an infinite, passionate and sacrificial love anyway. ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us' (Romans 5:8).

And we believe the question needs to be followed by another one: ‘How can I change?' Because accepting ourselves as we are involves accepting that our dissatisfaction with our character and behaviour has a purpose. It isn't something to get over. It's God's way of holding us to account and challenging us to do better.

I don't want to accept myself as I am if that means accepting my bad temper, my laziness or my indifference to other people's needs. I'm glad of the divine discontentment I feel when I'm challenged about these things. I don't like feeling guilty, but that doesn't mean guilt is unhealthy; it's normal and right. It's meant to make us do better in future.

Sometimes Christians wonder where they can touch the lives of people who don't seem to need the gospel and appear to run their lives perfectly well without it. But there are millions who are asking a question to which the Church has an answer. It might not be one they like, but it speaks straight to their hearts.

‘How can I accept myself?' It starts with realising you are already accepted.

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Christian couple spend life savings on new home before handing it to refugees

James Macintyre

A Christian couple who spent their life savings on buying their first home have decided to lend the property to asylum seekers.

Steph and Matthew Neville, both 35, took out a loan and put a deposit down on a three-bedroom house worth £100,000 in Birmingham earlier this year.

But after reading about the plight of refugees and immigrants, they opted to hand the keys over to those in need having sought out tenants through the charity Hope Projects, which works with asylum seekers in the West Midlands.

The couple, who will continue to own the property, have even managed to raise enough money to cover the lodgers´ bills for a year while they remain in their community flat above a nearby church.

Steph, a primary school teacher, said: ‘Like so many other people, we have been saving for all our working lives with the aim of using our savings to buy a house for ourselves. But when it came to it, we realised there were people who were destitute and desperate and who needed a house more than we did. We don't need a house because we've been living at Carrs Lane Church for three years and are really happy there.

‘Matthew and I will continue to own the house but we have asked Hope to find tenants who will live there. It is the perfect solution because we are investing our money in a property, yet are helping people who literally have nothing. Whoever moves into the house won't have any money of their own, so we have managed to raise enough to keep them there for the first year. There are some very negative views of asylum seekers, so we don't want the house to be targeted and the people to be picked on. They have suffered enough in their own countries and the journey to get here, we don't want them subjected to abuse in their new home.'

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‘We have no fear... we are ready to lay down our lives for Christ': Chinese Christians to evangelise in North Korea

Carey Lodge

Chinese Christians training missionaries to share the gospel in North Korea – ranked the worst country in the world for Christian persecution – say they have ‘no fears' about the brutal treatment they may face.

Speaking to China Aid on condition of anonymity, the two pastors said they were well aware of the dangers, but they were determined to share Christ with the people of North Korea.

Their translator paraphrased: ‘He [one of the pastors] shared something about the cruelty of how people will be mistreated in North Korea if they are found to be Christians, or if they ever say anything about Jesus. If they are North Koreans, their family will probably disappear, and the men will probably be beaten or have their hands chopped off. If they are women, you can imagine; maybe they will be raped by many people at the same time.

‘So, he's saying that, since you're speaking of fear, their team is training [missionaries] who are fearless and also don't have family. Like, they're single, they're not married yet, but they're ready to lay down their lives for Christ at any time if they ever go to [North] Korea and meet any bad situations.'

The pastors spoke of a Korean-Chinese church leader who had spent 17 years evangelising North Koreans, but was killed.

His body was found stabbed 17 times in the Tumen River in northeast China. ‘He was probably assassinated by the North Koreans,' the pastors said.

‘So that's why we're now building this fearless team of people who are willing to die if they have to. Because it's not about ourselves, or about them, but all that matters is God's kingdom,' one added.

‘Because we love them, and God loves them, and God has mercy upon them, so we are willing to dedicate ourselves to them. We hope that everybody that can contribute their efforts to this ministry. We can be united together and accomplish the purpose together.'

The second pastor said: ‘We don't want to be known by people. We just want to make our own efforts for Christ. We're specially called by God to be in this ministry, which nobody else wants to do.'

A damning report released by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) in September said Christians in North Korea face rape, torture, enslavement and being killed for their faith. Freedom of religion or belief ‘is largely non-existent' under dictator Kim Jong Un's leadership, CSW said.

‘Religious beliefs are seen as a threat to the loyalty demanded by the Supreme Leader, so anyone holding these beliefs is severely persecuted,' the report said, noting: ‘Christians suffer significantly because of the anti-revolutionary and imperialist labels attached to them by the country's leadership.'

Among the documented incidents against Christians are ‘being hung on a cross over a fire, crushed under a steamroller, herded off bridges and trampled underfoot'.

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Miraculous story of drug addict who found Jesus, got clean and is now a successful businessman

Ruth Gledhill

A former drug addict and dealer has described how faith in Jesus helped him get clean and go on to set up a successful business.

Ryan Longmuir, from Cumbernauld in Scotland, is featured in a BBC report on the incredible transformation in his life after he found God.

He said he started when he was just 12 years old, and was soon taking drugs every day because they helped him feel normal.

‘I tried everything – cocaine, Valium, ecstasy, speed, heroin... I'd go on benders for two or three days at a time, and I'd take five or 10 ecstasy tablets in one night. From the age of 15 to 20 I took drugs every single day.'

He found God and got clean when he was 20. Four years later he set up a catering company, Regis Banqueting, and now aged 37 is regarded as among Scotland's most successful businessmen with clients including mobile phone network O2, luxury carmaker Bentley and investment bank JP Morgan.

In addition to his business, where he employs 65 people, he is active in the voluntary sector and is currently raising funds on JustGiving for a sleep out in aid of homeless people.

The strongest thing he imbibes now is a cup of tea.

His breakthrough came in New Zealand, where he had fled his problems for a fresh start, known as ‘doing a geographical' in recovery circles.

Drug addicts and alcoholics are taught in recovery that ‘geographicals' are doomed to end in failure, because the addict always takes themselves with them.

Longmuir was arrested for dealing in New Zealand and when he called a friend in Scotland for advice, she said she would pray for him.

Longmuir told the BBC: ‘I thought "you're off your head" but I decided to try it, and I got down beside my bed and I said, "I don't believe that there is a God, but if you're real then show me that you're real and I'll believe in you.'''

These words bear a remarkable similarity to those used by Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, when his own ‘white light' spiritual experience led him to set up the 12-step programme used across the world for recovery fellowships dealing with alcohol, drugs and many other problems. Many Christian organisations have also taken and adapted the Twelver Steps of AA for use in church recovery programmes.

The next step for Longmuir was when he met two hitchhikers who took him to lunch. ‘That was when I thought there was maybe something to this because why would two complete strangers do that? That was the catalyst for change.'

Suddenly, the desire to use drugs was lifted from him. He threw all his mind-altering substances into the sea and has been clean since.

‘I know most people who have been taking drugs don't have that experience. Most people do ok for a bit then they relapse. Everyone's journey is different but that was mine,' he said.

He returned to Scotland from New Zealand in 2000 and joined the evangelical Freedom City Church in Cumbernauld and also got married. His first job was working with drug and alcohol addicts. The idea for his catering business came after his church asked him to run their café.

He confessed to the BBC that he had no experience: ‘I had to phone my mother-in-law to ask how you make steak pie.'

Those who helped him included the Prince's Trust which loaned him £5,000.

He has now scooped several awards including Royal Bank of Scotland young business of the year and director of the year from the Institute of Directors.

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Six amazing things you might not know about the prodigal son

Martin Saunders

It's one of the most famous and familiar stories in the Bible, if not all of literature. Jesus´ parable of the Lost or ‘Prodigal' Son, who squanders his father's fortune on a whim, and returns with his tail between his legs to discover that his long-suffering dad is somehow still pleased to see him. It's a beautiful picture of unconditional parental love, and more significantly of the grace of God.

It has also inspired huge amounts of art and cultural response through the centuries, from famous baroque paintings to Legends of the Fall. But in our familiarity with the story, I wonder if we miss a whole host of interesting elements that would have been understood by Jesus' original audience. Is it possible that despite all the times we've heard it, there are still many things that we don't understand about the parable of this Lost Son? Here are just a few examples of what I mean:

1) This story is unprecedented

The account of the story in Luke 15:11–32 gives us much less narrative than we might imagine, especially as Jesus sets up the story. All we get by way of introduction is ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, "Father, give me my share of the estate." So he divided his property between them.' (v 11-12). In 2016, this might just be seen as extremely rude, or an innovative workaround for inheritance tax. But in the cultural context, this was totally extraordinary and without precedent. In his incredible book Poet and Peasant, cultural studies guru Kenneth Bailey writes that:

‘To my knowledge, in all of Middle Eastern literature (aside from this parable) from ancient times to the present, there is no case of any son, older or younger, asking for his inheritance from a father who is still in good health.'

Quite simply, this didn't happen. And not only that, it hasn't even happened since. Younger sons aren't even meant to inherit the family estate anyway – and yet this one impertinently asks for half, and receives it.

2) The son is wishing death upon his father

Again, in a modern context we miss the total outrageousness of the son's request. Since such a transaction would only ever take place when a father was about to die and could no longer head the family or its business, the son is effectively saying to his father ‘I wish you were dead.' This has been confirmed by those hearing the story for the first time in a Middle Eastern context, time and again. The son's request heaps shame upon his family, and particularly on his father who has raised this arrogant and self-centred child, but it also brings enormous grief to the older man, who is effectively told ‘you are dead to me now' by his son.

3) Jesus´ original audience would have been going crazy.

We might imagine meek-and-mild Jesus telling this story to a group of mild-mannered folk on a hillside somewhere, in reality his storytelling would have been much more rowdy and interactive. We read the text so quickly; in fact he'd have had to pause regularly to accommodate the gasps and shouts of incredulity from his original audience. The crowd would have been incandescent with rage at the behaviour of the son, full of schadenfreude at what happens to him next, and baying for his blood as the finale approached.

4) That pig-herding thing was never meant to actually happen

Another fascinating cultural insight from Kenneth Bailey reveals that the prodigal's descent from party animal to animal welfare officer was never an intended outcome. The citizen of the far country to whom the son attaches himself is actually trying to get rid of him with the pig herding offer. Bailey writes: ‘The text tells us graphically that he ‘glues' himself to a citizen of that country. This lad is known in the community as having arrived with money and thus is expected to have some self-respect left. The polite way a Middle-Easterner gets rid of unwanted hangers on is to assign them as task he knows they will refuse... However, the pride of the prodigal is not yet completely broken, and so to the amazement of the listener, the citizen's attempt to get rid of the younger son fails. He accepts the job of a pig herder.' In his attempt to retain control of a situation that has gone very badly wrong, the prodigal convinces himself that he can still win by working his way back up from the very bottom. Jesus´ original audience would have been rolling around with laughter at this.

5) The prodigal wasn't really repentant as he turned for home

Eventually the son realises that he's going to starve to death, and it's this realisation, rather than actual repentance, which drives him to leave the farm and travel back to his father's village. We know this because of the difference between what he plans to say (v 18–19), and what he actually says when he's confronted with the compassion and grace of his dad (v 21). He leaves out the offer of working as a hired servant, because he instantly realises that the father's grace covers any need to try to work his way back into the family. He set off still trying to control and manipulate the situation, but when he saw his father's love, he finally surrendered that control.

6) The father didn't just run because he was joyful...

For an elderly man to run in this culture was extremely unusual and very humiliating; Aristotle writes simply that: ‘Great men never run in public.' Yet the father runs, and not just because he is ‘filled with compassion.' In that culture, a Jewish son who lost his inheritance among gentiles would have been subject to a ceremony on his return to the village called the kezazah, in which the villagers would have broken a large pot at his feet and yelled at him, telling him that he was now cut off from his people. So when the father runs, it's at least partly because he wants to reach the son before the rest of the village can get to him. He is literally running to save him. Instead of subjecting him to the utter shame of the kezazah, he embraces him, shows the village that his son is forgiven, and then moves to quickly restore him through the killing of the fattened calf – another moment that would have had the audience's heads spinning. The entire village would have attended a feast that night, and the son would have been publicly restored – the son who was dead, made alive again.

We've not even had time to mention the story of the other son, who perhaps understandably feels aggrieved at his brother's restoration, or the situation of this parable among two other stories of the lost being found. A cultural studies approach provides a wonderful insight into the depth and brilliance of Scripture; and perhaps it should inspire us to dive deeper into the text at every opportunity. In this case, learning the extraordinary significance of the son's outrageous request and the father's even-more-outrageous response helps us to understand in a new way just how wide, deep and extraordinary is the love of God.

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