Christian Today Digest–September 2016

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Christian Today Website Articles

Sometimes Christian Today also includes an article of interest, which is not necessarily a good-news item but rather one that has been included for readers to pray about.

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

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Taste and See: How meals in the Bible teach us about God

By Andy Walton

Meals in the Bible are one of the principle ways in which we understand the Kingdom of God.

Food is used time and again throughout Scripture as a means of showing God's interactions with people.

Think about one of the very first stories we hear in Genesis–the fall. The means used by the serpent to tempt Adam and Eve was a fruit: "When the Woman saw that the tree looked like good eating and realised what she would get out of it–she'd know everything!–she took and ate the fruit and then gave some to her husband, and he ate."

After the fall, the rest of the Hebrew Bible tells the story of God's plan to rescue His people from the consequences of their sin. It's no surprise that one of the main ways that He shows this is when they are being delivered out of slavery in Egypt.

Exodus 12 contains very specific instructions about the food that was to be eaten as the Passover meal. "You are to eat the meat, roasted in the fire, that night, along with bread, made without yeast, and bitter herbs. Don't eat any of it raw or boiled in water; make sure it's roasted... And here is how you are to eat it: Be fully dressed with your sandals on and your stick in your hand. Eat in a hurry; it's the Passover to God."

This meal that the children of Israel eat as they were about to be freed became in Judaism the main motif by which God's saving power was to be understood.

Ever since, Jewish people around the world have marked the Passover meal. It's one of the central acts of Jewish memorial and worship–and it was what the disciples and everyone else in Jerusalem was marking in the week that Jesus entered the gates riding on a donkey.

As Jesus and the 12 gather together to eat and celebrate the Passover together, he is preparing to remodel this most important meal.

In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul says "that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread." He goes on to describe how Jesus reconfigured the Passover Meal. "When he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 'This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."

Here is a meal doing more than just being used as a motif. Jesus institutes the Communion meal as a means of experiencing the ultimate act of salvation. Theologian Paula Gooder writes: "Jesus re-explained and reinterpreted the significance of the bread and wine in this new Passover commemoration."

She carries on: "The last supper reminds us that God is once more leading his people out of slavery and into freedom, a freedom that is achieved this time, not by the death of the firstborn sons of others, but by the death of his own, most beloved son... Every time we commemorate the last supper, we look backwards to Jesus' death and forwards to the Messianic banquet and that action of remembering, of making present what is past and what is to come, transform the present."

If the last supper is the paradigmatic meal of the Christian faith, there are other meals in the New Testament with significance. When Jesus appears to his disciples after his resurrection, he eats with them. After his appearance on the Road to Emmaus, he breaks bread with his companions.

We read in Revelation 3 words of affirmation, written to the church in Laodicea: "Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends."

Then that closing book of the Bible comes to a climax in Chapter 22, in a mirror of Genesis: "On each side of the river grew a tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, with a fresh crop each month."

As many of us will sit down for meals with friends and family in the coming days, let us be reminded of God's call to sit and eat with Him.

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5 countries where you might not know that Christians face persecution

By Carey Lodge

A report from the US Department of State on International Religious Freedom found that three-quarters of the world's population live in countries where religious freedom is severely restricted.

Many of the worst places for Christians to live in the world are well known–North Korea, China, Iraq and Somalia, for example. However there are a number of countries that don't make the news so often, but can be difficult places for Christians to live.

Maldives

This beautiful country in the Indian Ocean is better known as a tropical holiday paradise than for its increasingly fundamentalist religious practices. If you haven't been, the tourist brochures, with 'bare legs on the beach' shots, don't betray the fact that it is an overwhelmingly Muslim country.

The constitution requires that citizens and the holders of public office are Muslims, and proselytisation is illegal, according to the State Department. And there are signs that stricter forms of Islam are entering public life–for the first time a woman was recently sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, though this verdict was eventually overturned. Foreign workers have described increasing pressure to wear more modest dress.

There are restrictions on Bibles entering the country: the church there has to meet in secret and does not have a full Bible translated into the Dhivehi language, according to Christian persecution charity Open Doors. The Maldives is actually 13th on the Open Doors watch list for Christian persecution, which is higher than Saudi Arabia.

Laos

Laos has a repressive communist government, though the population is mostly Buddhist. The Religious Freedom report states that local authorities are often intolerant towards non-Buddhist religions, particularly Protestantism. According to the report, church leaders have been arrested and killed, and threatened if they did not stop preaching the gospel. Numerous Christians have been pressured to recant their faith under threats from local authorities.

Freedom of expression is not highly valued in the country, and so deviation from the norm is often treated with suspicion, according to Open Doors. When churches grow, tensions can develop between Christians and the animist local tribes over local resources. If Christians refuse to participate in Buddhist or animist religious services it can cause friction.

Eritrea

Eritrean people suffer a good deal of human rights abuses thanks to the one-party government and its authoritarian tendencies. Though roughly half the population are Christian and half Muslim, the government allows only certain denominations to exist and they must be registered and disclose their members.

The country is actually number three on the Open Doors World Watch List, as believers who do not belong to the official denominations have sometimes disappeared without trace, and face detention, torture, forced recanting as a condition of release, and other ill-treatment, according to the State Department.

Colombia

Colombia is a nominally Christian country, and it has protections for religious freedom in its constitution. But this doesn't mean that Christians don't face significant pressures–primarily in areas where gangs, guerrillas and criminals have the power. Christians have been threatened and killed for preaching the gospel. The US Religious Freedom report says that pastors often don't report crimes of harassment and extortion, for fear of retribution and also due to pacifist beliefs.

Jordan

Jordan is well known as one of the more tolerant of the Middle Eastern countries, and it has Christians in senior roles within the country. Its constitution protects freedom of belief, though Islam is officially the state religion. However the US Religious Freedom report states that converts from Islam to Christianity have been questioned by police and can face discrimination and violence.

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Pro-lifers in U.S. plead with mothers not to abort unborn babies afflicted with Zika virus

By Andre Mitchell

Is the Zika virus that has prompted a worldwide health emergency and confirmed to have caused birth defects among babies enough justification to start killing the unborn? Pro-life individuals do not think so.

Advocates for protecting the lives of the unborn are strongly opposing moves to allow abortion in areas in the United States, such as Miami in Florida, which have already been affected by the Zika virus.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio is one of the leading voices against killing babies who might be at risk of contracting birth diseases due to the Zika virus.

"I understand a lot of people disagree with my view–but I believe that all human life is worthy of protection of our laws. And when you present it in the context of Zika or any prenatal condition, it's a difficult question and a hard one," Rubio said, as quoted by The Catholic News Agency.

"But if I'm going to err, I'm going to err on the side of life," he added.

Rubio further said that he understands the difficulties that a baby born with microcephaly–a condition linked to the Zika virus–may face as he or she grows up, but these are not enough reason to deprive them of a chance to live.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life political advocacy group, agreed with Rubio's anti-abortion stance, saying that the Zika virus infection "should not be used as a springboard for a search-and-destroy mission against disabled babies.”

"Adults, children, and unborn children who are victims all deserve the same standard of care. Killing the patient is not medical treatment and we cannot make advances in medicine if we destroy patients before we find treatments for them," Dannenfelser told CNA.

"The United States strives to be a beacon for disability rights. To advocate abortion in cases of Zika and other prenatal diagnoses is a major step backwards for the rights of Americans with disabilities and a distraction from the urgent need to develop a vaccine or method to eliminate mosquitoes carrying the virus," she added.

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Syria’s forgotten families: One widow’s daily struggle for survival

“I hope no one will have to pass through what we’ve been through.”

These are the words of Avine (name changed), a woman who lost almost everything to the war in Syria. Her independence, her home, her husband.

Avine is one of an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in desperate conditions in Lebanon. Having endured the war that is tearing apart their country for as long as they could bear, Avine’s family fled to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where they have been living for the last two years. Shortly after arriving in the country, Avine’s husband tragically died.

Widowed with five children, Avine’s life is now a daily struggle.

The seemingly endless war in Syria has displaced more than four million people–most of them are sheltering in neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Some Syrians have been living as refugees since the war began five years ago. While the media moves on and people get tired of hearing about the plight of those forced to flee, the war for people like Avine goes on and on.

In Lebanon, refugees are not legally allowed to work, nor are official “refugee camps” permitted. This means many refugees have to work illegally for a few dollars a day in order to pay the extortionate rent charged by landlords. Whole families eat, sleep and live in one room. Their lives don’t resemble anything they knew before the war.

Not one of Avine’s five children is in school. They, and thousands of other children like them, have to spend their days hanging around their tent, helping with chores or working illegally. Children like these are at risk of trafficking, early marriage or falling prey to extremists–at risk of being plucked from the daily monotony of their lives and forced into something even more tragic.

Without the monthly food packages Avine receives from a local church, which is supported by UK-based Christian charity BMS World Mission, survival for her family would be even harder. “The church has been helping as much as they can–giving food packages every month,” says Avine. “Their support is very helpful.”

The church is also providing education for hundreds of Syrian refugee children, keeping them off the streets and investing in their futures. Giving them something to focus on and strive towards. BMS is partnering with this church, and you can help them support even more children by giving to the charity’s Syria’s Forgotten Families appeal.

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Aleppo: Church provides hope to Christians and Muslims amid the carnage

By James Macintyre

A Jesuit priest in Aleppo has described how the Catholic Church is continuing to help those remaining in Syria's city despite an upsurge of intense fighting that in recent weeks has killed scores, displaced thousands and cut water and power to up to two million people on both sides of the front line.

As rebel forces pushed forward to seize the city, Fr Ziad Hilal told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN): "I couldn't sleep well there because all the night we heard the bombardment and the fighting between the groups.”

But, he said, the Church has stepped in to help feed the hungry–many of whom are Muslims–at the Missionaries of Mary facility in Aleppo. "We have a big kitchen, this kitchen was sponsored by ACN and other associations, and a lot of people who come–we give about 7,500 meals every day," he said. "It is a lot, and the team is a Muslim and Christian team, and a lot of the people who benefit from these meals are Muslims.”

The priest said that despite the siege, there was "hope" as the Church continues to carry out weddings, baptisms and even daily mass. "On one side things are dark, things are sad–on the other hand we see the activities of the Church there and how the people, especially the Christian associations are helping. These provide a sign of hope. Our mission is important there."

Fr Hilal added that "from midnight until morning it is black–a dark city–nothing happens" in Aleppo. Electricity was highly limited, he said, with generators giving people no more than two hours of electricity a day. "Without electricity we couldn't have warmth and a lot of people couldn't go to their job also–and the city [is] divided between two sides: Between the opposition and the government, then people couldn't move from one side to the other side," he said. "And a lot of people couldn't go from here to there, from there to here, to get to their jobs–and so they lost their jobs, they lost their houses."

Fr Hilal estimated that between 27,000-30,000 Christians–around 60 per cent of Aleppo's pre-war numbers–have left the city, while those who remain there are poor and desperate for work.

"I met a Catholic family where three children are working in a restaurant, one is seven or eight years old, the other one is 10 years old and the third one, he is 14 years old," he said. "Their father has died, we don't know how, and their mother is also working. And the boss of the restaurant told me–you see these three children are working and I couldn't tell them no it is summer now because they are helping their mother. I was choked.”

Fr Hilal went on: "What the people in Syria and especially in Aleppo need is security and mercy to continue their lives because it is a hard situation... It is important now to say what Pope Francis said a few days ago–'I encourage everyone–young and old people–to live with enthusiasm in this Year of Mercy, to overcome indifference, and firstly proclaim peace in Syria is possible. Peace in Syria is possible.' This is our cry today, that peace in Syria is possible, this is the only hope for us.”

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Pope Francis is offering beach trips and pizza to Rome's homeless

By Harry Farley

Pope Francis has offered seaside trips to those who cannot afford a holiday this summer as part of his ongoing "year of mercy" efforts.

The homeless people usually live around the Vatican where Pope Francis regularly offers support and help.

About 100 homeless people have been treated to trips to the beach followed by a pizza dinner en route home to Rome, courtesy of the pontiff.

The Pope's Almoner, who is in charge of distributing his money, runs the trips and has been on most of them. The usual format is he drives a van of around 10 homeless people to Passor Oscuro, a beach about 20 miles from Rome where they can swim and sunbathe.

Monsignor Krajewski said the outings reflect people's "desire for normality" despite their tough living conditions. The Polish-born official said everything is paid from the pope's charitable fund and the guests are given swimsuits and towels for their trip as well as a meal at a pizzeria.

"In the afternoon, using our van, I accompany groups of 10-11 homeless to go for a swim," Monsignor Krajewski said. "We are a sui generis [unusual] group since those who live on the street have very dark faces because of the sun, but bodies as white as milk," he said.

He added: "We always conclude the trip in a pizzeria, as do many people who are on vacation at this time. We certainly are not saving the world with some of these initiatives, we are not solving the problems of the homeless in Rome, but at least we are restoring to them a little dignity.

"I was very impressed to see how they behave in these situations. They know how to get along together, and when we are at the table, if one is talking and telling a story, everyone else is listening quietly. Even some of them, who are usually more agitated, cheer up.”

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Assyrian Christians plan to revive ancient language of Jesus

By Carey Lodge

An ancient dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, is to be revived in Syria, where a new education centre has been set up for the first time.

Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, or Syriac, will be taught at the Ourhi Centre in Qamishli, close to the Turkish border in north-eastern Syria.

"Our centre is responsible for training teachers specialised in the Syriac language to enable them teach different subjects in this language," director of the centre, Jan Malfon, told ARA News.

He added that it was the first time ever the Assyrian community had launched its own language and cultural centre.

Before the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, it was illegal to teach in any language other than Arabic.

"Learning the Syriac-Assyrian language would help us better understand our culture and history in order to pass this knowledge to the next generations and guarantee them learning their mother-tongue," said Mirna Saliba, a student learning Syriac at the centre.

An ancient branch of Christianity, the Assyrian Church of the East has roots dating back to the 1st century AD. Assyrian Christians have origins in ancient Mesopotamia–a territory which is now spread over modern day northern Iraq, north-east Syria and south-eastern Turkey.

Over the past few years however, hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled the region as a result of the Syrian conflict and the rise of Islamic State.

Qamishli has been hit by a number of militant attacks in recent months.

ISIS claimed responsibility for three terror attacks on the city in December that killed more than a dozen people, and in June a suicide bomber killed three people in an attack near a church that was believed to have targeted the head of the Syriac Orthodox Church.

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