Christian Today Digest – April 2015

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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 on recently.

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A well-known atheist visited three churches in one day ... this is what he made of it

From “Church” section

Sanderson Jones, a former stand-up comedian who leads the Sunday Assembly - also known as the “atheist church” - spent Sunday attending three London churches and tweeting about his experience.

What started as a visit to his friend Dave Tomlison’s church became an impromptu tour of London Christianity. The three churches he visited were St Luke’s, Holloway, where Tomlinson (author of “How to be a Bad Christian”) is vicar, Hillsong in central London, and St Mary’s Bryanston Square.

Contrary to popular belief, Jones said he found them welcoming places, and said churches should realise that there is much they are doing well.

“I think churches should recognise that they are already doing so much right,” Jones says, referring to the idea of having people welcoming on the front door, and people knowing where and when to set up for coffee after church. “I went to the American Humanist Association and they had a special lecture on why it’s important to be welcoming. It’s just the most basic things which you’ll take for granted in Churchland, which are in fact really powerful.”

Jones was there partly on a reconnaissance mission - always eager to pick up ideas for the Sunday Assembly, which is essentially church for people who don’t do God.

Sunday Assembly communities are non-religious groups that meet in town halls and schools on a Sunday morning. There is music, a thoughtful talk and an offering is taken. They serve coffee after the “service”. The motto is “live better, help often, wonder more”. The concept has proved hugely popular, with offshoots launched around the UK, as well as the US and Australia since Jones and fellow comedian Pippa Evans started the first one in London in 2013.

Without God at the centre of his experience, of course, Jones’ observations are focused on practice and procedure. Despite this, on his church tour he had some interesting thoughts about Communion.

“It was something that I was thinking about whether I would be welcome and included, and found it genuinely moving. It was really great that that happened. Finding those moments of making sure that people feel included is really important.”

But beyond that, he is intrigued by the spiritual experience Communion offers.

“It’s an idea that you can taste,” says Jones. “I have some imagination, so this idea of grace and forgiveness ... suddenly that idea of the divine is in your mouth. What a concept! It gets stuck in your teeth. It’s something which is really interesting for me - what can I learn from that? How can you give people an experience?”

Reflecting on the more contemporary form of spiritual experience on offer at Hillsong, Jones was suitably impressed by the church’s high-tech approach to worshipping God.

“Hillsong is just so great,” he says. “As someone who has a bit of a show background - the production values are amazing. Even the montage video at the beginning was really good. The songs. There was even a mash-up. What? There was moshing. There were people jumping up and down. Wow.

“I just love it. I feel so excited to be alive. It’s the sort of thing that if you were to contemplate - you know, contemplating death - it becomes a transcendental experience.”

Rather than being cynical about the style and expertise involved, he seems to recognise it as people putting their investment and creativity into the thing they love the most - God.

“They have found a way of talking about Jesus in a way that is so exciting and gets a tonne of people involved that might not otherwise be involved.”

Jones also says that while the Sunday Assembly had done well to create a fun atmosphere and “buzz”, the service at St Mary’s provided space for the reflective side of life, something that he thinks is under-valued by our society. He describes himself as a “mystical atheist”, interested in the way Christian mystics describe their relationship with God.

“I think in the secular world we’re really bad at helping people have an encounter with the part which is in them which feels divine,” he says. “I think it’s amazing that humans can feel that because I think it’s our wonderful biology.”

Jones was prayed for at St Mary’s for the first time. “It was pretty intense. You get the hand on the shoulder and they’re saying nice things and it was really emotional,” he says.

That too Jones saw as a learning opportunity for the more experiential side of the Sunday Assembly.

“Of course we’ll probably have to lose the word ‘prayer’,” he jokes. “But the technique is putting hand on the shoulder, whispering some words and saying nice things ... it’s going to have a powerful psychological effect.

“I think it’s just amazing that humans can feel these things,” he adds.

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Want to eradicate poverty? Here’s one place to start

From “Society” section

Christians must choose to live more simply and take personal responsibility for change if we are to eradicate poverty, a new Tearfund campaign says.

“Ordinary Heroes” encourages Christians to make simple lifestyle choices to better the position of the most vulnerable. At the campaign launch last night, the Bishop of London Richard Chartres said that there are important questions we must ask about the way in which we are pursuing development at the expense of the world’s poor.

“This is in many ways a golden age in which huge numbers of people have been lifted out of extreme poverty,” Bishop Chartres said. The Restorative Economy discussion paper, just published by Tearfund, claims that inequality between different countries is falling, life expectancy is rising and millions of children’s have better opportunities than their parents did at the same age. However, it also warned that these improvements could be at “greater risk today than [they have] been for many years.”

“There is a paradox that the more we succeed in economic development long the current path the more there are questions about environmental sustainability and the greater the risk of irreversible environmental degradation of the kind that has an immediate impact on those communities with the fewest resources,” the bishop explained.

He said that while social Darwinism says that different groups of people will always struggle between one another, “the Christian vision of the Kingdom offers a different story which challenges the widespread assumption that there are no alternatives to the way we live now.”

Christians are called to live in such a way that they are engaged in restoring creation rather than destroying it, he continued, “using opportunities to be producers rather than passive consumers”.

“The invitation to Christians and sympathetic friends is clear. Words must become flesh in changed lifestyles and ideas must inform a movement,” Chartres said.

“A community of people persuasive and powerful beyond their numbers because they have already made a start on the transformation of relationships fundamental to restoring rhythm to life and living the restorative community.”

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How Jesus redefines friendship

From “Life” section

“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved,” so said Mother Theresa, and Care for the Family’s Katherine Hill told a packed gathering at this year’s Spring Harvest that we were never meant to live life by ourselves.

“Friendship is important to us all - the last night of Jesus’ life, what did he choose to talk to his disciples about? Friendship,” she said.

“In 24 hours he would be dead, [but he spoke about] the closeness of the Father, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. He said: ‘I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.’ [John 15:15].

“We are not made to live life on our own. In Genesis, the first thing that is not good in the perfect world God has made is that man is alone. We are made for relationships.”

Hill said that we often take the idea of needing other people as a sign of weakness, but the worst thing we can do when we feel alone is to withdraw from those around us. “It is not weakness to admit we need a friend to comfort us when feeling low, or to admit we need someone stronger than us sometimes to lean on,” she said.

In giving us the Holy Spirit, Jesus gave us a close and intimate friendship. The Holy Spirit draws alongside us, as a comforter and a guide, and by his Spirit Jesus becomes a friend - even closer than a brother (Proverbs 18).

There are three aspects to the friendship we have with Jesus, Hill continued. As his life is entwined with ours, we discover that when we draw close to him, we can be real. Most people’s favourite disciple is Peter, because we recognise his flaws in ourselves, and appreciate his genuine friendship with Jesus. “On the Mount of Transfiguration, sinking in the Sea of Galilee or denying he even knew Jesus, Peter knew that despite all that - he was totally known and loved by his friend,” Hill said.

“To be close to Jesus, we need to be real. We need to come just as we are. The Holy Spirit frees us to be real with him, but also to be real with each other as well.”

When we draw closer to Jesus, we also discover we have nothing to prove. 1 John 4:10, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

She said: “In today’s society we can forget just how radical that was. We are totally loved.” “The world,” Hill continued, “teaches us that we need to earn the love of people around us. Children are loved if they get the best part in the school play, win ‘man of the match’, are pretty or popular, and things are no different with age.

“We still believe the message that we are loved if we are successful, have a good job, get married, have kids ... We believe we’re loved ‘if ...’.” Hill said.

“But the Bible gives a different message - that we are loved by a friend not because of what we do or what we look like, or anything else apart from fact of who you are. Jesus loves you as his friend, and we have nothing to prove.”

Finally, when we drawn near to Jesus, we find a place of shelter, and a friend in refuge, Hill said. Jesus likens his love to a hen who protects her chicks under her wing, while David pleads with God to shelter him under his wings in the Psalms.

“It’s about finding a place in our souls where we can spend time with our friend, and ... whatever disappointment we’re carrying, whatever conflict or pain we’re struggling with ... whatever our situation, our friend says come closer,” Hill said.

“When we draw close to him, we can be real. We have nothing to prove, and we have that refuge in the storm.”

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Naghmeh Abedini: “I haven’t questioned God’s goodness, I’ve discovered it”

From “World” section

In July 2012, Naghmeh Abedini’s life changed in an instant. Her husband Saeed, an Iranian-born American pastor, was arrested in Iran for his involvement with house churches. After two months of interrogation under torture, he was charged with threatening the security of the state and sentenced to eight years in Iran’s notorious Evin prison. He was later moved to Rajai Shahr prison, just outside of Karaj, where he has been ever since. Reports suggest that he has experienced brutal treatment in prison, with regular beatings as well as receiving death threats from radical Muslim prisoners.

When Saeed was first taken, Naghmeh - who lives in Boise, Idaho, with their two children Jacob and Rebekkah - says she felt only anger. “I cursed his captors, I wanted God’s judgement,” she said in an extended interview with Christian Today. “But over the next few months I prayed to God and read through the Psalms. I read David’s call ‘God destroy my enemies’, and the Lord touched my heart and said ‘That’s not the way - I want you to look at [Saeed’s captors] in a different way, in the way that I see them.’”

Learning to forgive those who are thought to be persecuting her husband has been a long journey, but Naghmeh is steadfast in her response. She says the past three years have bought her closer to God than ever, and “spiritually, it is the best time in my life”. She has nevertheless campaigned tirelessly for Saeed’s release, even securing a private meeting with US President Barack Obama in January 2015. The President assured her that the situation was a top priority for his administration, though Naghmeh revealed to Christian Today that she actually spent much of the 10-minute meeting sharing her faith, rather than talking about her husband’s incarceration.

“It was encouraging for President Obama to meet with me, not just for me but for millions of Christians who’ve been watching the situation and praying,” she said.

“I knew he was avoiding the meeting so as not to upset the Iranian government, and so to have met with me - I see God’s hand in it. [But] I felt the Lord telling me this meeting is more for President Obama.”

Despite having hundreds of questions about Saeed, every time Naghmeh went to say something she felt God leading her to use the time to minister to the President.

“He [Obama] was surprised that I spent the time sharing God, and telling him that we as Christians pray for him and love him,” she said. “I was able to share God’s love with him, and it was a good time for making a personal connection.”

An online petition calling for Saeed’s release now has almost 250,000 signatures, and his is one of the most famous persecution cases in the world. Naghmeh believes it is this profile that has kept him alive so far - many people he studied alongside at Bible college have been killed, and Iran remains one of the most dangerous places to be a Christian. Despite a government promise to protect religious minorities, believers are constantly under threat.

Yet Naghmeh is adamant that God is at work throughout the country. Saeed, raised a devout Muslim, was radicalised as a young man and pursued by Hezbollah as part of a recruitment drive. He was planning to murder a Christian pastor then take his own life when a chance meeting with local Christians led to his acceptance of Christ, and later an encounter with Jesus during which he heard an audible voice calling him to preach the Gospel.

Naghmeh and Saeed first met not long after, when she moved back to Iran from the US in her early 20s and met him at a house church. Their married life as Christians in Iran was not easy, however, and the two were regularly arrested and interrogated by suspicious authorities.

Once, after picking up a teenage prostitute and sharing their faith with her, they were pulled over by police who got into their car and drove them to an alleyway in the middle of nowhere. Fearing that they would be killed, Naghmeh prayed for a sign that God was with them.

Almost immediately, a young boy, about nine or ten years old, opened the car door. “He wasn’t afraid of the guards. My [head] covering had been out of the door, so he pushed my clothes back in and then looked at me and said ‘Everything is going to be okay.’ Then he closed the door and was gone,” she recalls.

“That was the first time that I felt like maybe I had been visited by an angel - we don’t know when we are entertaining angels.”

Saeed had been sharing his faith with the guard in the front seat of the car, who was so taken aback that he let them go. Just before he left, he asked them for a Bible.

Naghmeh has many similar stories of escaping detention, but the family fear that Saeed’s current sentence may not end, even when his eight years are up. The Iranian authorities have threatened to keep adding on charges because of his refusal to deny his faith, and his beatings continue. He is currently suffering from a stomach wound, though Naghmeh says he is slowly recovering. She cannot visit him - Iranian officials say she would immediately be imprisoned upon entering the country - but Saeed’s parents are able to visit each week, and they have been allowed to exchange letters.

Despite the horrific situation, Naghmeh’s faith is unwavering. “When I’ve had little trials in life I’ve always got mad at God, but this trial was so intense that when I found out Saeed had been taken, I couldn’t run away from God. I felt like I was going into this dark hole of despair, and if I didn’t reach out to God, then I would just die,” she says.

“I was so weak, so anxious, so worried and so full of despair, and I remember my mom kneeling in front of me saying, ‘How can I help’, and it was then I realised that no human being could help me ... I always [wondered if there would be] a trial that could make me question the goodness of God, but this was so deep, that I had to discover Christ in a more intimate way.”

It is this hope in God that gives her the strength to get out of bed each morning, and keeps her going. “The peace that surpasses all understanding washes over me every day ....This trial has allowed me to taste God in a way I’ve never tasted him before, and say ‘Yes, he is good,’” she says.

“I don’t know how to explain it. I’ve discovered that God doesn’t say we won’t go through trials, he says his followers will be persecuted, tortured, killed and imprisoned, but he will be there with us every step of the way. In prison Saeed has no fellowship and no Bible, but he has Jesus Christ.

“I’ve discovered Christ in such a way that I can’t question his goodness, I can only say come and see that God is good; he is, I’ve tasted him. This trial has not made me question his goodness, it’s helped me to discover it.”

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