Christian Today Digest - June 2016

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

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Syria’s Refugees

[Reporter Hazel Southam finds out why Syria’s refugees need trauma counselling as much as food and shelter.]

Thirty-year-old Saraa is crying. She lives in one room in Irbid in Jordan with her six children. That includes twins aged nine months.

She fled her home in Deraa in Syria, in a bid to save her children’s lives. She’s done that, but at huge emotional cost.

“The war destroyed me emotionally,” she says. “When I first came here I was so broken and so aggressive. I had no-one to turn to and no-one to talk to.

“I used to scream at my children and I used to hit them sometimes. I’d hit my 12-year-old and then I’d go and cry in the corner, telling myself, ‘Why did I hit her?’“

Saraa is among tens of thousands of people who have taken part in trauma counselling in Jordan, run by Bible Society volunteers.

The scheme was first devised by the American Bible Society in 2001. It now runs in 76 countries (including Jordan and now Lebanon) and it is in 183 languages. It’s used by more than 100 different organisations.

In group sessions people look at big questions such as “Why is there suffering?”, “Where is God in suffering?”, rape as a weapon of war and how to care for traumatised children.

They also have the chance to talk about their own experiences—perhaps for the first time—and to look at what the Bible has to say about all of these things.

Naomi Dunn, Bible Society’s international advocacy support officer says: “Trauma healing works because it helps people find hope in their darkest moments. It’s not about burying the pain or forgetting what has happened, but about building a new identity that acknowledges the past without having to be defined by it, and then looking ahead to a better future.

“The Bible is vital to this as it helps people find meaning and purpose, knowing that they are loved and not alone.”

In Irbid, Saraa is one of 10,000 people who have taken part in the trauma healing programme over the last three years.

We sit on the floor in her one-room home. I ask her what difference it has made.

“I’m a lot more calm and have more patience,” she says. “It affected me greatly, just knowing how to deal with my anger.

“At first we used to ask God, ‘Why are you leaving us? Why are you putting us through this?’ But I’ve learned that God will get us through this in the end. He cares for us.”

Everyone who wants to comes along to the group sessions, whether they are Christian or Muslim. Jordan’s population is 97 per cent Muslim and three per cent Christian. So working with people from both backgrounds is completely normal to the Bible Society of Jordan.

In fact, it’s very obvious that the counselling is not about evangelism or even faith, it’s about pouring out your heart, being listened to and finding hope.

The Bible Society of Jordan’s programme co-ordinator for trauma healing, Haya Khoury, says: “Trauma healing is much needed. The refugees have been through so much. They have been raped, threatened, their houses have been destroyed.

“I imagine myself living a good life and then living in a camp in another country, not having any food. How traumatised can you get?

“The need for trauma healing is as big as the need for food and shelter.”

The worst thing for Saraa is that she doesn’t have her parents with her. They are in their fifties but Saraa refers to them as being “old”.

“My children are young: my parents are old. As soon as the bombing started I left my parents behind and came here alone with my children.”

With six children to bring up, she’s desperate for her mother’s help. “My most important wish is for me to see my Mum once more,” she says. “But I am thankful that we came to Jordan and found good people to support and welcome us.”

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British trust called in to clear mines from site of Jesus´ baptism

A British charity is appealing for nearly £3 million to help remove more than 1000 mines that surround churches at Qasr Al-Yahud near Jericho on the West Bank, one of the most sacred sites in the Christian world.

James Cowan, chief executive of the Halo Trust, told the BBC: “Our purpose is to help the Christian communities, the seven denominations here, help the Israelis, help the Palestinians to clear this site for all mankind. I believe it has an immediate value here, but has a purpose much more broadly across the world.”

The site is on the River Jordan and is where Jesus is thought to have been baptised by John the Baptist, as described in Matthew 3.

More than 300,000 pilgrims visit the site each year, and many baptisms take place.

But nearby there are churches built more than 1000 years ago, and representing several ancient Christian denominations, that are currently unusable due to the 136-acre area surrounding them having been mined with explosives during the 1967 six-day war.

The site was closed after the war, but the area used for baptisms reopened in 2011. However, parts of the site are still unusable. Restorations overseen by the Israeli Civil Administration and the Israeli Ministry of Tourism began after the millennium.

It will take up to 20 months to clear all the mines. The aim is for it to achieve national park status, and to be safely accessible to all who wish to visit.

The Halo Trust has been granted approval by both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities and all eight Christian denominations to begin mine clearance at the site. The Israeli National Mine Action Authority approached the trust after successful mine clearance projects elsewhere in the West Bank.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said: “It is a source of much pain that a traditional site of the Baptism of Christ is now a site scarred by the debris of war. In making the land safe again, the Halo Trust is bringing a symbol of hope to a region that struggles with deeply-held divisions. At the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of reconciliation, so it is an inspiration to see Halo’s work helping communities to overcome these divisions. Everybody wants to see this land returned to use by the local Churches as a place of peaceful prayer and worship. Halo is reaching across the divide to make this vision a reality.”

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Going to church helps you live longer, Harvard study says

Women who attend church more than once a week live longer than those who do not, according to a new study by researchers at Harvard University’s public health graduate school.

The University’s researchers wrote: “Religion and spirituality may be an underappreciated resource that physicians could explore with their patients, as appropriate.”

The study analysed data on more than 74,000 women over 16 years, and found that those who attended church more than once a week were 33 per cent less likely to die in that time than those who never went to church.

“Compared with women who never attended religious services, women who attended services more than once per week had a 33 per cent lower mortality risk,” the researchers wrote in a paper in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal.

“In examining the potential pathways from religious service to all-cause mortality, we found that depressive symptoms, smoking, social support, and optimism were potentially important mediators,” they added.

The new study was taken from information gathered for the Nurses´ Health Study, which asked American women, all of whom were nurses, to fill in questionnaires about their life from 1996 to 2012.

Almost a fifth of those surveyed reported attending church more than once a week. Forty per cent went once a week, one in six went less frequently and just a quarter never attended.

Between 1996 and 2012, 13,537 of the 74,534 women surveyed died. One third died from cancer, and a fifth from cardiovascular disease.

The study found that those in the first group were one third less likely to have died than those who never attended church, 27 per cent less likely to have died from cardiovascular disease and 21 per cent less from cancer.

Less frequent church-goers also reported health benefits.

Weekly churchgoers were 26 per cent less likely to die than those who never went, and those who occasionally went had a 13 per cent lower chance.

The data ties church attendance with longer lifespans for women, however the study “does not address philosophical or theological questions such as ‘Does God (or any higher being) exist?’”, Dr Dan German Blazer pointed out, writing in a commentary article on the data.

“The data do not validate claims made about some of the positive benefits of specific religious experiences, claims made even by medical professionals.

“Reasons for attendance at religious services may vary appreciably across individuals, such as religious devotion, lifelong habits, social pressures, and perhaps simple loneliness causing individuals to search for a support group with which to connect.

“We have no assurance that attendance at religious services is a marker of the strength of one’s religion or spirituality and no description of the extent of private practices of spirituality, such as prayer, or perceptions of spiritual well-being among the participants.”

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Mental health is not something that happens to ‘other people’

Katharine Welby-Roberts of Livability explores the need to change our perspective on mental health.

I have had many conversations around mental health, but one specific memory really stands out. The man I was chatting to was interested in how we could help “them to get better.” I paused, having registered ‘them.’ As we talked, I attempted to move the conversation closer to home, to the idea that we should consider our own mental state as part of the process of supporting those with mental ill health. He said: “But I don’t need to, I wouldn’t fall into that trap”. It was the end of the conversation, but one of a number of similar exchanges I’ve had that betray how many people view mental health.

The problem with this narrative is that it assumes that only ‘those people’ have mental health. I’m certain that we all have different ideas of who ‘those people’ might be. It’s true that at any given time only a percentage of people will have mental ill health, but we all have mental health that we need to care for and look after if we are to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

It is now generally accepted that if you eat healthily, exercise and try to live a good lifestyle you’re less likely to experience illness. There are of course illnesses that we can do nothing about—it is not the case that if we have a healthy lifestyle we will never get ill. But living well and caring for our physical health will help stave off preventable illness.

So, why do we not take the same approach to mental health? Why is it that we only really start to think about how we can care for our mental health when it begins to fail? At the point when we are the least able to take the necessary action to help us recover?

The reality is that we often don’t really want to think about our own mental health in these terms. We don’t want to consider the possibility that we might become one of ‘them’. A person who can’t hold it all together, who needs medication, who is weak ...

It becomes a vicious cycle when we think about mental health as a ‘them’ thing. It becomes about others, rather than us. We might study it, or think about and discuss how we can become more welcoming and inclusive to those with mental ill health. But this way of thinking exacerbates the ‘us and them’ mentality. It leads to ‘them’ being a separate group of people, and by separating them with our language and perceptions we automatically become exclusive. We create barriers which make it harder to be truly inclusive because we don’t really think about ‘them’ as ‘us.’

Unfortunately, this mentality leads to an increase in stigma around mental health.

I have been asked more than once if I would get involved in a ‘mental health-friendly church service’. But I’m not entirely sure what this means. We do need to create more welcoming environments for those with enduring mental health problems, however, we need to change the culture—so we are welcoming by nature, and not by design on one week of the year.

My work with Livability has included the Mental Health Access Pack; a resource developed with Mind & Soul to raise awareness on the key issues. We recognise that information is the beginning of the journey, and are currently consulting with church leaders and those living with mental health problems to explore the kind of conversations and training models to continue a culture change in church. This is as part of our commitment to helping churches become truly inclusive communities.

Seeing real change starts in a deeply personal place, For many of us, this involves confronting the fear that we will succumb to ‘their’ weakness. We need to change the way we speak, becoming more reflective and honest about where we are at, and we need to encourage others to do the same.

We are told in the Bible that our suffering leads to perseverance, character and finally hope. Engaging with honesty in our struggles increases our ability to love as Jesus loved us, accepting that there will be times when we will need to reflect on our own mental state, which in turn can enable us to love others who are often in a darker place than us. It will lend us empathy, and encourage us in the development of a non-exclusive community.

The reality is that all of us have, will have or know someone who has a mental health problem. It is not a rare thing, and we have to stop treating it like it is something alien. Also, as our physical health needs change relative to our circumstance, age and experience, so it is with our mental health. We need to be building open-minded communities that recognise that our mental health requires responsive care and must be considered for the rest of our lives.

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