Exciting and Innovative Supernatural Thriller from Lorilyn Roberts

The City“The City” is the fourth novel in the Seventh Dimension series from Lorilyn Roberts. I enjoyed the first three, and found this latest book to be just as exciting.

It is a cliché to describe a book as a page-turner, but that was exactly my reaction to this fast-paced, supernatural thriller. And despite being formally classified as aimed at young adults – a demographic I left some decades ago – it will surely appeal to older generations as well.

The action begins quickly. Shale, the teenage heroine of the story, is berated by her schoolteacher for bringing her Christian faith into a classroom science debate. Abruptly some kind of strange UFO-like aircraft lands outside in the school football field. School officials claim it is connected to the military. But is it really?

More unexpected events occur. Shale’s estranged father summons her to Washington. He wants her to fly to Israel in search of some ancient scrolls. And then, before we know it, the whole world is engulfed in war.

In Israel Shale meets up with her beloved Daniel, and is thrilled to learn that he is now a follower of Yeshua (Jesus). But Daniel is still seeking for his father. Together they fly out to look for him.

In the previous book, Daniel witnessed the trial and crucifixion of Yeshua. This time he – with Shale – encounters something vastly more sinister. I will not reveal the dramatic ending, though if you are familiar with your Bible you know it already.

As in her previous books, Lorilyn Roberts describes all these events with a riveting intensity. Her characters are strong and believable. We live the drama with them.

And some good news. I had thought “The City” was the final book in this exciting and innovative series. It seems I was wrong. I look forward eagerly to the next.

Pope to Visit One of the Saddest Places on Earth

Pope Francis plans to visit the Central African Republic later in November, and you do not have to be Catholic to want to pray for him.

For this country – a land-locked former French colony situated between Cameroon and South Sudan – has to be one of the saddest places on earth.

As if to confirm it, just last week the Legatum Institute, a London-based think tank that works to promote global prosperity, released its annual Prosperity Index, which ranks 142 countries in terms of both wealth and wellbeing.

It would be little surprise that heading the list was Norway, followed by Switzerland and Denmark. But right at the bottom, at Number 142, worse even than Afghanistan, Haiti, Chad, Syria or Sudan, was the Central African Republic.

The country has a Christian majority, though the “Operation World” prayer handbook makes clear some of the sins of the church.

“A failure on the part of leaders to demonstrate Christ-like humility and graciousness in their walk and ministry not only stunts their own fruitfulness but passes on their flaws to their congregations,” it says. “High moral standards and honesty are frequently lacking in the churches.”

Despite considerable natural and mineral resource wealth, the country has been beset by military coups, civil conflict and intense corruption.

This all came to a head in March 2013 when Muslim rebel groups seized control of the government. Muslims comprise only about 15 per cent of the population, and since that time the country has descended into bloody violence. It is often now described as a failed state in permanent crisis.

Armed Muslim groups have killed thousands of Christians and forced many more to flee. Christian militia groups have responded in kind – despite being condemned by many church leaders for their violence – with armed attacks on the Muslim minority. Some 10 per cent of the population are now refugees.

Pope Francis will arrive in the country after visits to Kenya and Uganda. He plans meetings with religious leaders, including senior Muslims officials, and will call upon refugees and attend a prayer vigil.

But as the violence escalates, there has been speculation that he might even be forced to cancel his visit.

So pray that it goes ahead, and pray that he might succeed in the role of peacemaker. Few countries in Africa – or anywhere – are more in need of peace.

“Deeply Troubling” – Terrorism Now the Biggest Threat to Christians

Christians will find little of comfort in the US State Department’s newly released International Religious Freedom Report. For, sadly, it confirms what many of us already knew – that the new phenomenon of non-state terrorism has supplanted oppression by government to become the main threat to religious freedom. And conditions are getting worse.

In the words of US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David N. Saperstein, speaking to journalists in Washington DC on October 14th at the release of the report: “The single greatest challenge to religious freedom worldwide, or certainly the single greatest emerging challenge…is the abhorrent acts of terror committed by those who falsely claim the mantle of religion to justify their wanton destruction.”

He singled out Islamic State in Iraq and Syria for particular condemnation, along with Boko Haram in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

But a second challenge is also sadly familiar to Christians – blasphemy laws in countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan that are used to oppress minorities, especially Christians, whose religious beliefs offend the majority.

Nevertheless, the report did find a modicum of good news amidst the gloom. It noted “encouraging improvements in the status of Christians in Egypt,” including court convictions for some of the perpetrators of violence against Copts.

It applauded the new Egyptian constitution for providing increased human rights protections, including a stipulation of equality before the law irrespective of religion. “It also requires that parliament pass a new law facilitating the construction and renovation of Christian churches, which is without precedent,” said the report.

In his remarks to journalists, Ambassador Saperstein noted another pleasing development. He said he had visited China and found that, despite continuing abuses and restrictions, “many places of worship were nonetheless full and flourishing. In areas of the country where the government’s hand was lighter, faith-based social service and welfare agencies operating homeless shelters, orphanages and soup kitchens made highly positive contributions to the wellbeing of their society.”

He also found in Sri Lanka that, after some years of growing religious conflict, a new government was working to ease tensions.

But overall there was little to reassure Christians. When asked by a journalist if conditions were getting better or worse, the ambassador stated bluntly that over the past several years there has been a steady increase in the percentage of people living in countries with serious restrictions on religious freedom.

Then he added: “And of course…the escalation of the violence perpetrated by non-state actors, often in the name of their interpretation of religion, is a new phenomenon that has really escalated in the last 18 months. So on that level, there are trends that are deeply troubling.”

Christians and the Shaman

Daniel Pinchbeck has written a book “Breaking Open the Head”, an account of his efforts to achieve spiritual enlightenment through psychedelic drug-taking encounters with shamans.

Daniel clearly knows a lot about drugs, but less about spirituality, which is a shame, as I wish he could have told us more about one particular meeting, in Ecuador, with shaman Don Esteban.

He had been a shaman in his youth, but when the missionaries arrived he assumed that Christianity had greater power. He abandoned his traditional spiritual culture and became a Christian, working with the missionaries. They told him not to take ayahuasca [drug], so he didn’t. But as time went on, he realized that, as a Christian, he was no longer able to heal anybody. A nephew of his died, and he knew that with ayahuasca he would have been able to heal him. He decided that Christianity didn’t have all the answers and he returned, after a thirty-year hiatus, to ayahuasca.

I personally doubt that Don Esteban “assumed” that Christianity had greater power. Rather, he knew.

My wife is Korean, and before our marriage several times consulted a shaman about her future. According to her, the shamans say they cannot do their work if a devout Christian is present, as Christians possess a spiritual power much greater than their own.

When she was 24, and wanting to find a Westerner to marry, my wife consulted a shaman. He told her that when she was 27 she would marry someone from America or Japan. This was a shock, as she had no desire for a Japanese husband.

And then, after she had turned 27, I arrived on the scene, from Japan, where I was living. We were married two months later.

In 1992, shortly before we moved from Japan to Australia, she was back in Korea, visiting her family, and she went again to the shaman, to ask about our future. She didn’t tell me about this visit, as she knew I was extremely antagonistic to fortune tellers and the like.

“Your husband is going to turn to the cross,” the shaman told her. “Don’t ever come to me again.”

Shortly after we moved to Australia, I became a Christian. My wife never told me about the shaman’s message until some years later, and she never really pushed me into becoming a Christian. It wasn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Is there a connection between shamans and Christianity? Does God perhaps use shamans to build a relationship with those of His people who have yet to hear of Jesus? I wonder if Christians should perhaps recognize the good sometimes done by shamans.

Saints in Waiting – the Christian Martyrs of North Korea

Korea has the fourth-highest number of Catholic saints in the world. Why? Because present-day Christianity in Korea – particularly the Catholic stream – was molded from the blood of its martyrs, thousands and thousands of them. Probably more so than just about anywhere else.

Christians were also at the forefront of the resistance against the Japanese occupation, that ended in 1945, and they helped lead the fight in the 1980s for democracy in their country. Today, Christians comprise about 30% of the South Korean population, and a vibrant Christian expression is everywhere.

By contrast, North Korea is once again a land of martyrs.

It is sadly ironic that former US President Jimmy Carter, after meeting North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung, reportedly pronounced him “friendly” towards Christianity.

Yes, he was friendly when he thought Christians might help prop up his regime, and garner some international support. That’s why he occasionally sent North Korean “Christian” leaders to travel abroad for international conferences.

My wife is Korean, and a while ago some North Korean Christians came to Australia for talks. A pastor friend met them.

“They said that North Koreans couldn’t worship any more, because the Americans had bombed and destroyed their churches during the Korean War,” our friend told us. “They also said that North Koreans didn’t really need religion, because they had Kim Il Sung.”

And in a crazy way it was true that North Koreans didn’t need Christianity. After all, they already at that time had the father (the late Great Leader Kim Il Sung), son (his successor Dear Leader Kim Jong Il) and spirit (juche – the doctrine of self-reliance that supposedly inspires the populace).

Yet Christianity has persisted, even though any friendliness that might have been shown to the faith by Kim Il Sung was not replicated by his son. He was a tyrant. In the words of the National Association of Evangelicals, North Korea is “more brutal, more deliberate, more implacable, and more purely genocidal” than any other nation.

As many as 100,000 Christians are in concentration camps, enduring regular torture. Executions are common.

Prisoners unable to contain their horror at executions are deemed disloyal to the party and are punished with electrical shock, often to death. Others are sent into solitary confinement in containers so cramped that their legs become permanently paralyzed. Eight Christians working in a prison smelting factory died instantly when molten iron was poured onto them, one by one, for refusing to deny their faith.

Yet something remarkable is happening. A growing number of North Koreans are escaping, to China or South Korea, and many of them are turning to Christianity. There at last they find hope.

So while no decent person in a million years would wish on North Korean Christians their present sufferings, it is possible to see in them the seed of a future renaissance.

German doctor Norbert Vollertsen was stationed in North Korea in 1999-2000 for the relief agency German Emergency Doctors. Later he interviewed hundreds of North Korean refugees in China and South Korea. His message: what has been going on in North Korea for more than half a century bears a strong resemblance to the World War II Nazi genocide against Jews.

“Like the Jews then, Christians in North Korea face their executioners praying and singing hymns,” he related.

But as the church father Tertullian reportedly said at the dawn of Christianity: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Vollertsen, whose reports have made him a legendary figure in Japan and South Korea, found out that as a result of this Communist campaign of persecution an underground church was growing rapidly. “I am sure that once North Korea is free, Christianity will boom there in a way that will even dwarf its growth in the South.”

Christian Speed Dating – Does It Work? And Is It Christian?

Speed dating has become a feature of the modern dating scene. Essentially it involves roughly equal numbers of men and women coming together in a large room. Usually the women sit in place at a table, and the men circulate, spending several minutes with each lady. It is a way to meet a large number of singles in an evening.

Relationship agencies in several countries offer speed dating events that are aimed specifically for Christians. In the words of a British website named Christian Speed Dating (no longer online):

We appreciate that it can be hard to met other like minded individuals, and that it is often important to Christians for a potential partner to hold similar beliefs to themselves. The Bible tells us that we should seek out a Christian partner, but when we have exhausted our own church where do you look next?

The idea of Christian speed dating is designed to help single Christians meet other single Christians in their area. The emphasis is not so much going to look for a potential marriage partner, but more get to know more Christian singles and seeing where it leads.

A New Zealand website, SpeedDate, writes:

Believe it or not, religion was actually the force behind the speed date concept! It was created by a Rabbi in the States wanting to get Jewish people to meet.

And check out this article from the Christian Today website in the UK:

The largest Christian speed dating event in Europe takes place later this month at the annual Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham….Typically, some 250 people will line up in a marquee. Following a short prayer, a whistle will blow and 125 conversations will begin simultaneously, none lasting more than three minutes.

“The manoeuvre feels like a stratified version of the feeding of the 5,000 – without a religious miracle but with plenty of logistical ones!” explains Jackie Elton of Christian Connection, organisers of the event.

“A grand total of 1,800 conversations will take place in 90 minutes. That’s 1,800 concerted blasts of emotional energy and every ounce of social skills and charm available. Don’t let anyone tell you that going speed dating is a soft option. Some come for a bit of laugh – or so they say. Others are convinced that God will find them a partner.”

Camerin Courtney wrote amusingly (no longer online) in Christianity Today about her experience when she went speed dating (arranged by a secular company), together with a few friends:

Initially, we all agreed it was a fun way to meet new people. Once you’ve been in the same job and church for a while, meeting new singles is a challenge. One friend pointed out that speed dating can be a nice antidote to the extreme seriousness with which many Christians approach dating. That seriousness can be quite intimidating, and in many cases has led to a complete lack of dating in a lot of faith circles. Speed dating, in some ways, is a nice way to break that tension and to get singles loosened up and interacting again.

But as time went by, our positive reaction faded. It was easy to feel boosted or deflated based on the number of matches we received. That only reinforces our society’s idea that self-esteem comes from romantic love instead of from the truth that we’re valuable because we’re fearfully and wonderfully made by God. And my initial excitement at being in a room with a bunch of bachelors eventually was replaced by a reminder that it’s quality, not quantity I need. Good single men may seem scarce, but in reality, I only need one God-approved guy.

Did it work? She didn’t meet a compatible guy, and nor did her two girlfriends. However, she reported, a male friend who accompanied them was – at the time of writing – still dating one woman he had met on the night.

Britain’s Church Times was a little more positive, in an article (no longer online) on the Christian dating scene:

Christian speed dating has already proved popular….Greenbelt, Spring Harvest, and New Wine are among festivals that now offer speed-dating sessions. These have led to weddings. Coventry Cathedral played host last year to a huge speed-dating event that sold out.

At the end of the day, speed dating is just another means of meeting people, and surely there can be little that is un-Christian about that. Nevertheless, as Camerin Courtney wrote, “I learned that while you can speed up dating, you can’t hurry love.”

Korea’s Dynamic Christianity – Reflections on an Explosive Revival

Some years ago a Korean friend told me how she had been getting up at 5:30 every morning to drive to her church – one of several Korean churches here in Melbourne – for the 6:00am prayer meeting. They were looking for a new pastor, so for one month the congregation were meeting daily to pray, for one hour, for God’s guidance and provision. About 30 to 40 attended each morning, many driving 30 minutes or more to be there.

By contrast, my own church was at the same time looking for a new pastor. Most of our members live no more than a five-minute drive away, yet we were lucky to get half-a-dozen to a morning prayer meeting once a week.

Is it any wonder that one of the phenomena of twentieth-century religion was the explosive growth in Korea of Christianity, at the same time as it was stagnating in the West?

I have a Korean wife, and have many experiences of the dynamic nature of Korean Christianity. I remember once when we were staying with her parents, at their tiny apartment, in the Seoul suburb of Banpo, south of the Han River. Their home was part of a giant apartment complex, housing thousands. While I was there I was probably the only Westerner.

One day I stepped outside with my wife to walk to the shops, when two ladies stepped forward. “Please,” said one, pushing a pamphlet into my hands, then they walked away. It was a Christian evangelism tract, in English. Almost certainly those women had heard that a Westerner was staying in one of the apartments and had been waiting outside our building – perhaps for a couple of hours – just to hand me that leaflet.

In Seoul I attended services of the Yoido Full Gospel Church, around the corner from the country’s parliament. This church, established by the dynamic David Yonggi Cho in 1958, is now the largest in the world, with, incredibly, more than 800,000 members.

The church building itself holds 25,000 people in the main auditorium, with a further 15,000 watching on giant closed-circuit television screens in overflow chapels (“overflow” being the operative word; each of these chapels was jammed when I was there).

The church organized seven fervent, packed services each Sunday, two on Saturdays and several more during the week, as well as all-night prayer meetings every Friday. Members are also placed in small cell groups, which meet weekly for prayer and Bible study, with each member of a group asked to pray daily for each other group member.

The church has become something of a tourist attraction for visiting Christians. A special section of seating offers headphones with simultaneous translation of the service. On one of my visits the pastor began praying in tongues. The interpreter got carried away. She started speaking in tongues too.

The Koreans are deeply spiritual. When discussing religion there are none of the frustrations you face when debating matters of faith with cynical, post-Christian Westerners. Rather, you are back in first-century Athens with Paul, arguing the merits of the gods.

My wife’s brother-in-law is a graduate of one of Seoul’s top universities. He speaks excellent English. Some years ago his son – my nephew – was punched to the ground in an argument with a soldier, and spent several weeks in a coma, before making a slow and only partial recovery.

Christian groups sometimes visited my wife’s brother-in-law in hospital and offered to pray for the family. He told me he tried prayer himself. “But I didn’t once have any feeling of God being there.” He complained that some of the prayer groups seemed just to want money.

He and his wife went several times to church, but he complained that as soon as they stopped attending the pastor and elders would be on the phone pestering them to return, offering to send a bus round each Sunday to pick them up. I suggested he try the Yoido Full Gospel Church. “They’re all fanatics,” he said.

He found great consolation through weekly visits to an elderly Buddhist priest, who taught him some simple prayers and passed on traditional Buddhist wisdom for dealing with the pain he suffers over his son’s condition. “Why is your god better than mine?” he once asked me. “Why is your heaven better than mine?” (How would you answer?)

The Yoido Full Gospel Church runs a retreat, known as Prayer Mountain, near the North Korean border, and I spent a night there. Here is how I earlier wrote about the experience:

At any time, thousands of people are gathered for community prayer and worship that lasts for days, or even weeks. Many are fasting. At night, most sleep – if they are not in prayer – on mats spread out on the floor of the large central worship sanctuary.

Hundreds of tiny grottoes have been dug into the mountain, and individuals occupy these, praying for hours at a time, sitting or kneeling on the hard floor, a flickering candle the only illumination after dark. I walked around the compound late at night. It was snowing and bitterly cold, but many people were in the grottoes, crying out or singing, in piercing voices, in prayer and worship.

Some even forsook the relative comfort of the spartan grottoes and knelt outside, among trees and bushes on the mountain. When I walked around once more, early the next morning, many of the same worshippers were still at prayer.

During the twentieth century Christianity in Korea went from virtually zero to about a third of the population. We now see Korean-style revival occurring in China. What can we expect if during the twenty-first century a third of all Chinese turn to Jesus? Is the world ready?

Bangladesh – Making News for the Wrong Reasons

Cricket is little known outside countries that were once part of the British Empire. Yet in some of those places, and particularly on the Indian sub-continent, it enjoys immense popularity. In India itself it is by far the most popular sport, and here in Australia our national team attracts a large and enthusiastic following.

So it was big news in early October when Cricket Australia announced that it had abandoned plans for a short series of test matches in Bangladesh, because of security concerns.

In the words of an official statement: “Following the most recent information from Australian Government agencies and our own security advisors, we have decided that, regrettably, we have no alternative but to postpone the tour.”

Unofficially, cricket executives were more blunt – they had received intelligence that Islamic State terrorists were becoming more active in Bangladesh, with foreigners a particular target. Now our national soccer team, the Socceroos, must decide what to do about its World Cup qualifying match in the country that is scheduled for November.

Sadly, this also has implications for Christians.

Until recently Bangladesh has not featured greatly in the concerns of Christians who follow the pains of the persecuted church. Yes, it is ranked at Number 43 in the latest Open Doors World Watch List of the countries where Christians face most persecution.

But even Open Doors conceded: “Bangladesh continues to be a secular country, and its constitution gives freedom to all religions to practice their own faith. The country does not have blasphemy laws or an anti-conversion bill.” It thus stands in contrast to Pakistan, with which it was once joined as a single nation.

But unfortunately, it shares one particular characteristic with Pakistan – a rise in extremist Islam. Open Doors has noted that radical Islamic groups have been pushing the government to modify the constitution, including demands for Sharia Islamic law.

On October 5th three men attacked a local Christian pastor and tried to slit his throat. He survived, and police have arrested a member of an Islamic political party in connection with the attack.

There have also been some recent attacks on foreigners in the country, with Islamic State claiming responsibility.

Bangladesh is not a country that is often in the news. I am guessing that it seldom features in the prayers of most Christians. It would be terribly sad if all this were to change because of the rise of Islamic extremism.