Christian Today Digest – December 2015

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Contents

Christian Today Website Articles

To add to your further enjoyment of these articles, we thought a short description of how the website is organised would be of interest.

The Christian Today website has what we call tabs which are really just headings. It’s a way of categorising the articles. Here are the headings, which they use:

UK; World; Church; Mission; Ministries; Society; Life; Entertainment; Comment.

Torch will now include these categories at the beginning of each of the articles.

We have observed that sometimes CT include an article of interest, which is not necessarily a good-news item but rather the reverse and which has been included for readers to pray about. We hope therefore that including the headings or categories will enable Torch readers to also discern and pray.

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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 www.christiantoday.com recently.

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Thou shalt not spread thyself too thinly

From “Life” section

Relationships are a vital part of ushering in the kingdom of God, but Carey Lodge wonders about the consequences when we just don’t have time to give them our best.

Building intentional community and meaningful relationships are phrases that are drilled into us as Christians. We’re told that they are a vital part of bringing God’s kingdom to earth, and integral to his plan to make all things new. Hit-and-run mission tactics can only take us so far; we draw people into the kingdom by “doing life” with them, and - ultimately - loving them, day in and day out.

I wholeheartedly believe that, and I love that we get to partner with God in mirroring the community and relationship of the Trinity. It’s what we’re made for, and it’s life-giving.

It’s also absolutely exhausting.

“Being relational”, in my experience, often gets conflated with trying to be the best friend we can possibly be to every person we know. And in our people-pleasing pursuit of that, we end up spreading ourselves far too thinly; over-promising and under-performing. I’m definitely guilty of this; of trying to fit so many people in to my life - housemates, friends from school, university, work and church - that I’m probably not being much of a friend to any of them.

I’m tired of someone asking when I’m free, only to look through my diary and pencil them in for three weeks’ time. If we don’t have time for the people around us, really what’s the point?

The truth is, we can’t be there for everyone all the time. We have a limited capacity. While it’s important to be there for friends when they need us, and spend quality time with the people who give us life and encourage us in our faith as well as those who aren’t Christians, we also have to make time for God, and for ourselves. Rest is a vital part of our faith; we see Jesus do it in the Bible, and it’s played out in the story of Creation.

I think there has to be a better distinction between being radical in the way we approach community, and give ourselves away to one another, and learning where our limits are. We are called to empty ourselves in the pursuit of God, yes, and that does often look like spending quality time with people and being salt and light in our communities. But there comes a point where in trying to hold too many people at once, we stop giving them our best.

A colleague of mine was recently bemoaning his struggle to balance too many people to a friend. “What are you going to do about it?” was her reply. It shocked him; being busy is something that we usually complain about but don’t actually consider changing, either because we secretly enjoy looking popular or because we simply can’t bear the thought of “dropping” anyone.

But maybe, actually, she was right - there is something we can do about it. Maybe by putting up boundaries, we protect ourselves and also those around us.

Perhaps instead of trying to squeeze half-hour coffees in between appointments and small group meetings, it’s okay to admit that we need to pull back. That doesn’t mean you have to go quiet on friends without notice, but be honest and upfront: you don’t have a lot of time at the moment, but you’d love to spend some quality time with them further down the line.

In streamlining, we’re less likely to become that flaky friend, and we’re freed up to be more present in the moments that we do spend with people, rather than worrying about the next thing or person that we’re rushing off to. It’s okay to admit we can’t do everything, and surely it’s better to offer a few people our best?

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Friday 13th - unlucky for some? Andy Walton on a Christian approach to superstition

From “UK” section

Stevie Wonder once famously assured us that, “Superstition ain’t the way.” But we haven’t, as a culture, taken his advice very well. After all, it’s Friday 13th!

For some people that might provoke a furious crossing of their fingers or other quick responses in an attempt to ward off alleged “bad luck.” To many of us as Christians, this sounds like superstitious nonsense. But what makes Friday 13th special, and why has it developed these associations with bad luck, mystery and even evil?

Well, like many traditions, the actual root of the day is shrouded in some secrecy, with numerous theories abounding as to where it comes from. The Telegraph claims it may have Christian origins, “In the New Testament there were 13 people present for Jesus’ last supper on Maundy Thursday, the day before Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday.” But that isn’t the only allusion to 13, “There are 12 months of the year, 12 gods of Olympus, 12 hours of the clock, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 Apostles of Jesus, 12 Descendants of Muhammad Imams, among many incidences of the pattern historically.”

There seems to be some weight to the idea of Friday 13th being especially significant after the Last Supper. The Economist suggests that, “Those who seek explanations for the superstitious fear of 13 all seem to believe that its crucial quality is quantity. It was Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, who brought the numbers up to 13 at the Last Supper (never mind that the same could be said of any of the other disciples, or even of Jesus himself). It was the 13th era, the first after the dozen 1,000-year reigns of the 12 constellations, which supposedly presaged chaos for the ancient Persians, and which even now makes modern Iranians leave their houses and go out to cleanse their souls on Sizdah Be-dar, the 13th day of the year. It was women’s 13 menstrual cycles a year that gave the number a bad name when the solar calendar came to displace the 13-cycle lunar calendar. Or so it is said by credulous expositors.”

Hmmm ... So one plausible explanation is that the tradition of Friday 13th being a “bad” day goes back to the Last Supper - but it’s just one among a plethora of other ancient explanations too.

But all of this archaic speculation may not have been of much relevance to us in the 21st century, were it not for a book which apparently set out to challenge the old superstitions, but ended up having the reverse effect. The Guardian recalls, “The efforts of a high-profile group ... followed by a 1907 book about how Friday the 13th ‘misfortune’ is used to destabilise the stock market called ‘Friday the Thirteenth’ and features stockbrokers, not hockey-mask wearing, machete wielding murderers (although which is worse is debatable).”

So what might we, as Christians make of Friday 13th? Well, firstly, though it may have horror films named after it, frankly, it’s just another day. There may be those who assign special spiritual significance to it, especially those who are keen to whip up fear around dark spiritual forces. But there’s no indication that anything is happening particularly today to make us especially wary of that. As CS Lewis famously thought, it’s better to keep such thoughts in proportion rather than let them run away with us.

Lewis said, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” In other words, why not just let Friday 13th slip by without paying it too much attention? There are real spiritual dangers out there, but this day isn’t among them.

If you do want to mark the day, there are plenty of better ways to do so than worrying about whether it’s unlucky or even “evil.” For example, today the Church of England remembers the life of Charles Simeon - an evangelical heavyweight, who helped to found the Church Mission Society and the Bible Society - both of which flourish to this day, more than 200 years later. Here’s a prayer to help you remember Simeon.

Collect

Eternal God,
who raised up Charles Simeon
to preach the good news of Jesus Christ
and inspire your people in service and mission:
grant that we with all your Church may worship the Saviour,
turn in sorrow from our sins and walk in the way of holiness;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

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How about countering the fear some people feel about the day by striking up a conversation with a stranger? Maybe they’ll feel better about Friday 13th in future knowing that instead of anything bad happening, they met someone nice. Or maybe today’s the day to call that long-lost relative, pay forward a cup of coffee, or simply smile at someone who looks like they’re having a hard day.

Friday 13th may have ancient roots as a dark day. But there’s no need for us to play along. In fact, it may well be a day for fun, joy and remembering that superstitions don’t hold any power over us.

(Oh, and it’s my Mum’s birthday. Happy birthday Mum!)

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Beyond us and them: What real community should look like

From “Church” section

Society is often divided in two: the haves and the have-nots, the givers and the receivers, the professionals and the clients. We have professionals who deliver services meeting people’s needs. And people’s needs are met, but the way in which they are met reinforces the divide that this system perpetuates. Doctors stay doctors and patients stay patients.

What if the church could offer a radical alternative, where our identity is not found in our need or our skill, but in the innate truth that we are children of God?

It is not that providing services is bad, far from it. We need doctors, teachers and social workers. The problems begin when we start seeing church community engagement as a service meeting a need in a way that keeps the service-provider and the receiver separate; when a person’s identity as God’s child is usurped by what they can do or what they need.

Livability and Church Urban Fund (CUF) have produced a report - “Fullness of Life Together, Reimagining Christian engagement in our communities” - which suggests that rather than being restricted by the world’s “service delivery model”, which is ultimately “needs-based”, the church “should be a place where alterative visions are allowed to flourish and grow, where hope is offered and new approaches found (or indeed, ancient ones re-found)”.

The report highlighted four ways that this service delivery model is limiting:

There are places in society where professional relationships are helpful. But, if we start seeing church as one of these professional bodies of experts going into communities to service their needs, we are treading on dangerous ground.

Are we not invited to build real friendships and recipricol relationships with those the world deems on the margins? Doesn’t Jesus invite us all into community with one another united around him? He ate with prostitutes, tax collectors and fisherman. He treated them as whole people with things to offer and trusted that through relationship transformation would occur.

Jesus did not teach us to define others, or ourselves, by our skills or our deficits, but by the fact that we are the Father’s children.

The world’s service based model undermines this truth in three major ways, as highlighted in the report:

Rather than depending on systems that ensure service provider and user are kept at a safe distance, enabling the user’s need to be met yet ultimately disempowering them, might the Church pioneer the old model of reciprocal community and relationships?

Livability and CUF suggest there are viable alternatives to the world’s way that give truer expression to the gospel’s heart for community.

The first, the co-production model, seeks to empower those receiving public services by involving them in the process. This model radically reimagines the way that services are provided by seeking to engage those using the services, their families and neighbours in a recipricol relationship with the professional.

The report found that “where activities are co-produced in this way, both services and neighbourhoods become far more effective agents of change.”

Adopting this approach demands a culture shift from those who deliver and receive services, and “crucially requires people to believe that they make a difference.”

The second approach, Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) seeks to build on the assets that are already found in the community and mobilise individuals, focusing on the skills present in a group of people rather than their needs.

The shift of focus away from the need towards the gift seeks to enable and empower community members to participate.

This church should not be a body of service providers seeking to meet the needs of the marginalised in a remote manner. We are not a professional institution with a set of skills which can meet the needs of a community while keeping that community at arm’s length. We are a body of believers seeking to serve and transform society through relationships.

As the report concluded, “We are called to stand alongside the most marginalised in our society, to work for justice and to create communities in which a new reality is seen: to offer glimpses, however faltering, of the incoming Kingdom of God. This requires us to be alert to the ways in which we might be uncritically accepting the status quo, by listening to God and to the people of our neighbourhoods, particularly those suffering marginalisation.”

If we can reimagine the church as a community, rather than a building, which extends beyond a Sunday, then this model of community engagement might begin to make more sense. It ceases to be a Sunday club with “outreach ministries” and is transformed into a prophetic community, existing in relationship with one another.

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Six signs of a dysfunctional home group

From “Church” section

Church home groups can be a curious breed, and it’s fair to say some work better than others. Most of us will have been part of a slightly dodgy one at some point, and here’s a few signs that yours might be one of them ...

Too much over-sharing

Tuesday night can quickly become therapy night if you’re not careful. Of course small groups need to make space for people to share what’s actually going on in their lives, and it’s no good having the same “How are you?” “I’m fine” conversations over and over again, but too many needy people in one room never ends well. If you find you have to stock up on tissues before each week, it might be time to have a rethink.

Too much under-sharing

The opposite problem can just as often be an issue. When “any prayer requests?” is met with a deafening silence broken only by “Err ... I’ve got a big meeting at work on Thursday,” you know you’re struggling.

Bad Bible teaching

We’ve all been there - someone has spent half an hour offering what they are convinced is a fantastic theological unpicking of Paul’s advice to the Corinthians, only for most of the room to look on, utterly bemused, and fairly certain that what they’ve just heard is heresy. Then whoever’s leading - afraid of suggesting that anyone might actually be wrong - awkwardly chimes in with, “Ah, yes. Fascinating perspective ... Well, I’m sure that’s one way to read it.” Nope.

Too many socials

Every week you gather, and every week it’s at the pub because the host fancied “getting out of the house.” Of course, you can’t pray or anything weird like that in public, so you stick to going over last night’s episode of Homeland at alarming length. Before you leave, someone makes profuse promises to plan a thorough Bible study on Habakkuk before next week, but no one’s holding their breath.

Weak conclusions

If you do manage to get a good discussion going, it more often than not trails off into, “Well ... we should probably all just try a bit harder to be like Jesus, really.” Mmm. Challenging.

Flaky members

It’s 7:36pm and you’re sitting alone, waiting for the inevitable stream of “terribly sorry”s and “I promise I’ll be there next week!”s, including from the guy who you’re yet to actually meet seven weeks in. In the end, it’s just three people and couple of sad bowls of Kettle chips. Again.

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How can you be a Christian and think that!? Loving your enemy in politics

From “Society” section

People involved in politics tend to be weird. Christians also have a tendency toward oddness. I feel I have a licence to say that as someone who is both of those things.

So I have to confess the prospect of a whole weekend with over 100 people who are both Christians and involved in politics didn’t thrill me. I anticipated it would be full of intense discussions and fractious arguments from people in different parties who couldn’t understand how someone could be both a Christian and a Tory or a Christian and a leftie.

And the first evening of Christians in Politics’ Show Up weekend did not disappoint. Shortly after I sat down for the first session my enthusiastic neighbour informed me he only ever wore blue to leave people in no doubt as to his political persuasion. Friday evening included an audience question about the godliness of Margaret Thatcher which riled at least half the room. One woman admitted to me that she felt such distaste for her fellow Christians who happened to be Tories that she avoided them at all costs. She could not understand how anyone could be both a Christian and a Conservative and wished a Tory councillor who attended her local church would move elsewhere.

But throughout the weekend a remarkable shift took place. Led by a mix of Conservative, Lib Dem and Labour members, this odd bunch of people from right across the political spectrum prayed together, worshipped together and ate together. There was laughter, joking and teasing. We heard from representatives of all the major parties and there was a genuine desire for Christians to be involved in all political parties and for “kingdom principles to be at the heart of British politics,” as one speaker said.

At the end of the weekend I ended up catching the train with the same woman who, at the start of the weekend, had told me how repulsed she was by Tory supporters. Her opinion had been completely transformed. While she assured me she would never agree with Tory on policies, she now recognised the genuineness and sincerity of Christian Conservative supporters and did not feel the same animosity.

Similarly my neighbour in blue from the first night stood up on Sunday afternoon (with a white shirt on) and said how powerful it had been that a collection of people who passionately disagreed could love, support and pray for each other.

This is the power of the gospel in politics. It is the power of sitting next to someone who would otherwise be considered your political “enemy” and learning to love them. It is the power of praying with people who you passionately disagree with and still wanting the best for them. One of Jesus’ remaining unanswered prayers is that “they will be one.” He taught his followers to “love one another”: “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Not for one minute does this mean Christians must agree on everything. Far from it. We should hold our beliefs passionately. But it does mean that we should disagree well. We should disagree lovingly and engage, as Jeremy Corbyn says, in “a kinder, more caring politics.”

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