Christian Today Digest - February 2014

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[Items in this magazine have been selected by the editor at Christian Today. All the articles were first published on the Christian Today website: over the past month.]


Welcome to the first shorter, but more frequent, Christian Today Digest. We hope to bring you monthly news updates from the Christian Today website, with our sincere thanks to Christian Today for providing the items. We trust you'll feel uplifted and challenged as you read on.

If you like to use the period of Lent for reflection and devotional study, please call us on 01858 438260 or email to find out what resources you could have in your preferred format.

As it's 100 years since the outbreak of World War 1, we've produced a free booklet called We will remember them. It's available on audio CD, in giant print and in braille. Please ask for this one for yourself or to give to a friend.

So, without further ado, on with this Digest.

Sheila Armstrong and the editors

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Girls sing in Canterbury Cathedral for first time

The addition of 16 schoolgirls will mark the end of the male-only choir at Canterbury Cathedral when they perform during Evensong on January 25. Dressed in purple cassocks and white surplices, they will break a tradition more than a millennium old.

Quoted in the Guardian, 15-year-old Ellen Spurling, from Pett Bottom, near Canterbury said: "It is all a completely new experience ... I have not done anything like it. We have had choral arrangements at school but nothing like this. The rehearsal was memorable, she said, but "to be able to sing like you have seen boys do, in the choir stalls, will be amazing".

Lynsey Spurling, Ellen's mother, said: "She has always loved singing, although there's no musicality in the family. She is very modest. She can do all sorts of things with her voice and I think she has realised quite early that this is something quite special. She has dabbled with the piano, she has dabbled with the guitar but it is her voice that is her forte."

The move comes two decades after Salisbury Cathedral became the first cathedral in England to have a girls' choir. Since their group's creation in 1994, they have been on performance tours in Italy and Austria. Salisbury's example has been followed so enthusiastically that there are now 765 girls in cathedral choirs all across England, compared with 1,008 boys.

The change at Canterbury is not as revolutionary as Salisbury. Boys will still take centre stage and will be younger. Their age range is 8 to 13 whereas the girls are 12 to 18. Also, unlike the Salisbury girls' choir, who share the services equally with the boys, the Canterbury girls' "voluntary" choir will only take services when the boys' choir, which is made up of boarders from St Edmund's school, are away on any of their twice termly breaks.

A Cathedral spokesman said in the Guardian: "The boys are practising every day and singing every day. The girls are starting off from scratch. We don't want anyone making comparisons between the two, or girls feeling they have not got up to the same standard. They are practising once a week for one-and-a-half hours. It is not a long time."

David Newsholme, the girls' choir director, said in the Guardian that the standard and enthusiasm among the 40 girls who auditioned in November had been "incredibly high", adding, "This is a very exciting time for the Cathedral and for these very talented young ladies."

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Singing God's praise in Pakistan

"A voice is a human gift; it should be cherished and used, to utter fully human speech as possible. Powerlessness and silence go together." (Margaret Atwood).

Amidst the trials and unending problems for Christians living in Pakistan, certainly no words or actions can pacify or comfort them. Under constant threats and the fear that something might happen which will shatter their lives in the form of persecution, attack or blasphemy law, God's hand is more powerful to strengthen the Christians of Pakistan in their faith.

Soon after twin suicide attacks inside the church of Peshawar, I relentlessly started to search out how the Christians living in Pakistan can ever have even a modicum of hope, and what they need to do among themselves to uplift and encourage others to keep up with the faith. A committed and dedicated spirit is needed to drive such motives to give the message of hope and peace. No one other than someone from among them can deliver this message.

In my search I found this young group of Christian worshippers who carry the message of peace, hope and love in their music. Formed in November 2011, with the name of Hallelujah - The Band, this musical group of six is not only blessed with the talent but also the power of faith and love for Jesus Christ.

"Hallelujah is not the name of our musical band rather the slogan that we carry and it's the word that everyone can say and affiliate their faith with," said Waqar Peter Gill, the band's spokesman and guitarist.

The motivation behind the formation of this gospel band is to give the message to the world and to tell Muslims - the majority population of Pakistan - about the love, peace and forgiveness that the Christians carry having the name of Jesus Christ. "We want to spread the message of hope amongst the Christians who are living in fear," Waqar said.

Gifted with the talent to sing in more than one language, this band magnificently mixes Urdu with English to make it easy for international listeners to understand. Not only this, but the group's song "Rahber" has become the first Christian video that has been played on TV music channels in Pakistan, and was entitled as "The true message of peace".

It's only in recent years that there is a trend of Christian bands forming and singing like professional singers. Before that, mostly Muslim singers would sing and make albums for psalms and Christian songs, which are still very popular. The professional Christian singers, then and even now, are very few. As I talked to Waqar, I came to know that the other purpose of forming this band is to show that the Christians have the talent to bring their own music and worship in true spirit.

This band is a project of Alfa Productions which only brings out gospel productions. It also trains young Christians as interns to give them a hands-on approach so that afterwards when they enter the professional world, they won't face as many problems in terms of practical knowledge.

Hallelujah band's story of bringing change in the lives of the Christians in Pakistan doesn't end here. They are also aspiring to run a blood donation network, the need for which they felt after the Peshawar church attacks. They are committed to help all the people irrespective of race, colour and religion through this blood bank after its formation.

I know one fact very clearly that whenever you are in the minority you either get strengthened in your faith or you give up in the face of insecurity, threats or persecution. For the Christians of Pakistan, the voices like the Hallelujah band will always keep strengthening their faith and deliver the message of peace for everyone. As it's just the voice that we all have.

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Clean water: an unlikely obstacle to Bible translation

A new clean water system at the Bible translation centre in the Democratic Republic of Congo has given fresh life to its work. Wycliffe Associates says that a lack of clean, running water has so far meant that their translators and other staff working in the city of Gemena have struggled to undertake their important work effectively.

There are many thousands of people in the DRC who do not yet have access to Scripture in their mother tongue, of which there are over 200 in the country, and translators are working to rectify the situation. However, tired facilities and no running water are a thing of the past now that a new 150-foot well has been drilled at the centre and a 5,000 litre water tower erected. A distribution system carries water from the tank to the office building as well as outside the centre for use in the community. Wycliffe also hopes to begin renovation on a disused building to provide extra office space in the near future.

According to the charity, "Having clean water means that Bible translators and the people they serve can avoid disease and find ways for small communities to thrive." It says a lack of clean water compounds problems brought on by political and religious persecution.

The DRC has struggled with political instability for years and has been ravaged by war and increasing violence. In addition to a history of civil war and unrest, the country also struggles with hunger and disease, and has high mortality rates as a result of the AIDS epidemic.

Wycliffe believes that providing the word of God in the nation's languages will bring hope and transformation to a desperate land. "Quite frankly, it is one of the most challenging places for Bible Translation," says Bruce Smith, president and CEO of Wycliffe Associates. "It is a place where many don't want to go or even talk about."

Wycliffe is also currently working in many other African nations, with four major projects taking place across the nation in the past twelve months. The most notable is perhaps in north-western Cameroon, where volunteer teams have taught locals to build their own home water filters, and now four micro businesses are functioning in the region to provide communities with clean water. Wycliffe's partner "Water for Cameroon" has drilled or refurbished 32 water wells in the past five years. Director Bart Maley says they are hoping technological developments will allow the number of people who have access to safe drinking water to increase.

"Two training teams," he says, "have introduced a form of hand drilling that will hopefully be an appropriate technology, allowing Cameroonians to gain access to safe water. We hope to be able to send more teams for this purpose in the future."

Wycliffe hopes to enhance Bible translation in all 10 languages of the Ndop Plain in northwest Cameroon, which is known as the "Ndop cluster". It is working to introduce safe drinking water for local communities and families.

Maley explains, "When our initial training teams travelled to Cameroon in 2008, one language within the cluster had the entire New Testament, and two had active translation programs. Translation activities were started in four of the remaining seven languages of the cluster in the spring of 2013, and the last three languages are scheduled to begin translation in early 2014. Our goal for assisting the Ndop communities with access to clean water has always been driven by our desire to see Bible translation begin in the remaining languages of the cluster, so it is incredible to see that actually happening."

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Churches working to end escalating crisis in South Sudan

A charity working against the persecution of Christians has launched an appeal to help South Sudanese churches in the midst of escalating violence across the country.

Fighting erupted in the capital city of Juba on December 15, following an attempted coup by soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir's former deputy Riek Machar, who was removed from office last July after accusing Kiir of dictatorship. The violence then spread throughout South Sudan, and rebels supporting Mr Machar took control of major towns Bor and Bentiu in the north, among others. Reports suggest that the country is splitting along ethnic lines as the two political leaders belong to different tribes, Dinka and Nuer. The government has failed to establish a peaceful and stable state since declaring independence from Sudan in 2011 following two bloody civil wars, and there has been significant political unrest ever since.

International Director of Barnabas Fund Dr Patrick Sookhdeo described the current situation as "desperately sad". "Christian civilians of South Sudan, having gained independence from the Islamic North, now find themselves in the midst of another conflict," he said. "They have been let down by their political and military leaders, who are fighting along tribal lines as they strive for power."

Barnabas reports that the newest bout of fighting has so far claimed at least 1,000 lives, and has forced an estimated 200,000 people to flee their homes with few belongings. Many are now living in horrendous conditions, with a severe lack of clean water, food, sanitation and shelter.

Fides News Agency reports that almost two and a half thousand refugees have arrived in the Kakuma camp at the Holy Cross parish in Kenya, where there are over 130,000 people of different African nationalities. The situation has been described as "verging on the catastrophic" by Médecins Sans Frontières. Fides quotes sources as saying things are "desperate" in the capital of the Upper Nile State, Malakal, in particular, where the South Sudanese army is trying to regain control. "Forces of Machar have looted and burned the market town of Malakal. So there is no more food available," one source said. "The bombs have hit many houses. Among the victims there are several children killed by bullets and bombs. The only doctor left does what he can to treat the large number of wounded who continue to arrive in the hospital."

Dr Sookhdeo has labelled it "a humanitarian crisis", and has called for donations to help provide those affected with vital aid and resources. Barnabas is working with church leaders in South Sudan to help establish a plan to give aid to those who have been displaced. It is funding the provision of food, medical supplies, blankets and other essentials. Though ceasefire talks opened in Ethiopia on January 3, no significant progress has been made yet and the violence continues.

Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul Yak, Archbishop of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan, has asked for prayer, advocacy on an immediate process to establish peace and for humanitarian support from across the Anglican Communion. He wrote in a letter to Justin Welby, "We as the church are deeply concerned and worried that if the situation is not contained it will lead to chaos which is uncontrollable". The Archbishop of Canterbury responded through a letter to Anglican Communion leaders, in which he urged them to advocate for support from aid organisations. "I commend the appeal, because the church's own response through the Sudan Development and Relief Agency (SUDRA) will soon be promulgated through the Anglican Alliance," he writes, after noting that the humanitarian crisis has reached "breaking point" in the nation. His letter ends with a prayer that "the peace and healing of our Saviour may be the balm for all that is broken in our world".

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Most Christians not sharing the gospel

A new survey suggests that Christians are not sharing their faith despite many feeling the responsibility to do so.

In a survey of over 1,000 Canadian Protestants, 43% claimed they felt a "personal responsibility to share my religious beliefs about Jesus Christ with non-Christians". However, 78% had not "shared with someone how to become a Christian" in the past six months.

The survey was conducted by Nashville-based LifeWay Research, a group that offers qualitative study services to the Christian community to better understand both themselves and their mission fields. They asked questions including "How many in your city really attend church?" ... "How receptive are people to invitations to attend church?" ... "What are residents' perceptions of churches in your city?" ... "What affinity (interest) groups exist in your city and do they attend church?" The study looked into the activities of believers who reported visiting church at least once a month.

Lifeway Research described it as part of "an extensive discipleship research project" that was focused primarily on "measuring spiritual maturity". The organisation wanted to measure eight biblical attributes they believe are to be found in the lives of "spiritually mature" Christians, including selflessness, obedience and biblical engagement.

Other statistics emerging from the data proved similarly discouraging. Although 58% of those asked reported that they felt comfortable sharing their faith, 59% had also not invited anyone to church for at least six months. Twenty-one per cent said they had invited one person to church in that time, while only 10 per cent said they had invited three or more people.

President of LifeWay Research, Ed Stetzer, said the researchers did find that mature Christians are more likely to evangelise than those who are new to the faith. "Many times we've been told new Christians are most active in sharing their faith," said Stetzer. "In reality, people who have been a Christian longer have higher responses for sharing Christ than newer Christians."

There was more optimism on the issue of praying for non-Christians to come to faith, with 10% saying they prayed for non-Christians daily, while 30% said they prayed for them several times a week. "If you are going to be intentional about sharing your faith," Stetzer said, "praying for others is a great way to start. We often acknowledge the importance of prayer in people coming to faith in Christ, but we also found it has an impact on the person praying."

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Religious people more likely to feel their lives have meaning

New research indicates that actively religious people are less likely to experience anxiety or stress at work than those who do not identify with a faith.

Dr Roxane Gervais undertook research with 34 full-time employees in the Caribbean, most of whom were young, female and single. The findings are being presented at the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society's Division of Occupational Psychology in Brighton today (January 10).

Dr Gervais' research concluded that those who are more actively religious were less likely to experience anxiety, depression or fatigue. Religious workers who took part in the survey were also more likely to feel that their lives had meaning. They said that attending religious services gave them greater self esteem, while also connecting them to a higher being.

Dr Gervais' research concludes, "religiosity in the workplace may act as a resource, making people more resilient to cope with the many challenges of working life". She said, "Such personal beliefs could be very helpful not only for employees, but also for employers providing people with a buffer zone."

She also notes that workers are now looking to find more meaning in their work "than just a big pay cheque at the end of the month". The increasing pace of life means that many are searching to find value and meaning in something bigger than themselves.

"In view of this," Dr Gervais said, "we should encourage employers to accommodate, where possible, employees' religious beliefs while at work. We must not shy away from the issue."

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Education initiative offers Ugandan girls a better future

A new education project in Kampala is providing more than 4,000 vulnerable girls with a hope for the future through innovative Creative Learning Centres.

Urban growth, rising costs of living, and traditional family structures are each contributing to statistics that show 4 in 10 girls live below the national poverty line in the Ugandan capital. According to children's charity Viva, most are considered a lower priority with regard to education in comparison to the men of the family.

Just 25 per cent of girls in Kampala complete primary education at the expected age, and less than one in five go on to secondary school education. An estimated 15 per cent of adult women in the city are illiterate. Many young women are vulnerable to harassment and abuse in the Ugandan culture, while marrying and pregnancy at a young age also often result in a premature end to schooling.

In response to this growing need for education for girls in Uganda, charities Viva and CRANE have partnered with the UK Government's Department for International Development to launch an education initiative that hopes to see a transformation in these statistics.

Twenty Creative Learning Centres which aim to re-integrate vulnerable girls into upper primary and lower secondary school through non-formal education have been opened across the city. Nearly 2,000 girls aged 10 to 18-years-old have enrolled. They are given the opportunity to learn about a wide range of subjects and will graduate from the centres after one or two terms before returning to some form of education. A further 2,300 girls are to receive teacher training and family mentoring, and will take part in educational working groups, while the project will also train and resource mentors and teachers to work with pupils, their families and the wider community.

When the project was first initiated last July, Viva's chief executive Andy Dipper called it "a landmark moment", noting that it would give a real opportunity to "positively impact the lives of thousands of girls in Kampala".

"I hope and pray," he said, "that it will be a springboard to our gaining further funding for other network locations around the world."

Martha is one of the young women being educated through the Learning Centres. She had to leave school after falling pregnant at the end of primary seven, the final year of primary education.

She explains, "I came to this centre to acquire the practical skills taught here and also to learn English. After leaving, I plan to use what I have learned here as a stepping-stone to what I want to become. I plan to pass on these knowledge skills to my siblings and other people so they can be like me. My dream is to become a teacher," she finishes.

Viva's Network Consultant for Uganda, Miriam Friday, said she was delighted with how the education project is working out so far.

"We are really excited by the way the first girls have responded to being in the centres," she said. "From hopelessness they are now confident and looking to the future. We hope this work will really demonstrate alternative ways of educating Uganda's children that will help them to become more independent."

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