Christian Today Digest – June 2015

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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:

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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 recently.

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What not to do when someone you know is thinking of leaving the Church

From "Life" section

If the statistics to be believed, then people are leaving the Church in their droves. We're bombarded with figures that suggest millennials in particular are more disinterested in organised religion than ever, and though in some places Christianity is soaring, there's no denying that it's struggling in the West. The thing is, it's often not that people have lost their faith, but that they want nothing to do with the messiness of Church. Many of us will have experienced it ourselves, or will have friends that have gone through it - and quite often we get so tongue-tied and awkward when the subject is broached that we end up putting our foot completely in it. That being said, here are three things not to do when someone you know is thinking about leaving the Church.

Don't make it about you

It's easy to immediately think you've failed a friend who admits that they're struggling, but don't take it personally - it isn't about you. It's not your responsibility to keep someone in church; their salvation isn't down to you and neither is their attendance on a Sunday. Your job is to be around, be available, and definitely don't cut them out completely. Just because they don't slot easily into your perfectly-packaged circle of "church friends" anymore, it's not time to shut the door.

Don't try to argue them back in

The temptation can so often be to throw every apologetic argument you've ever heard at someone who expresses doubt, or desperately recall that one talk you heard five years ago that sounded vaguely convincing. There may be a time and a place for that, this probably isn't it. If someone really has been wrestling with their faith, the chances are that they've heard a thousand apologetic arguments and don't need another person to suggest that reading a Lee Strobel book will fix everything. Don't make your whole relationship about it, but if they want to talk about the big issues, don't argue with everything they say - listen. Again, this isn't about you and is not your opportunity to prove that you know all the right answers. No one falls in love with an argument, we fall in love with Jesus.

Don't be afraid to challenge

Sometimes, we try the opposite tack - well-meaning clichés like "We're all on a journey", "God is so much bigger than Church" and "You can let go, he'll still hold on" can fall out of our mouths before we've had time to stop and think. But if this is a close friend, don't be afraid to challenge their decision, as long as you've made it clear that you're not standing in judgement. Try to discern what the issue is; whether it's a specific situation with their church, its leadership or another member, or something bigger than that. Tell them you believe that Christian community is the best place for them to flourish, and don't just say "I'll pray for you", but actually do it - maybe even there and then, if they're up for it. And if they want to find another church, offer to help them research and try out some new places. Nowhere is perfect, but sometimes it might be best for someone to move on - and piling on the guilt will only drive them further away.

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Patrick Regan on the curse of false guilt and how to break it

From "Life" section

There are two types of guilt: true (or legitimate) guilt, and false (unhealthy) guilt. True guilt is something we need to listen to. It's the nagging feeling when we know we've done or said something we shouldn't have and we need to rectify it, or when we've left something undone that should have been done. It pushes us to be better, to learn from our mistakes, to make amends and to move forward positively. Pretty healthy stuff, in all.

But then there's false guilt. That's when we worry we may have upset someone without any real proof that we actually have. It's when we text someone, don't get an instant reply, and begin to think through all the ways we might have upset them. We can get into patterns of thinking like this, worrying we're letting people down and feeling guilty for things that are quite possibly figments of our imagination. We can also experience false guilt over things that are outside of our control. Someone who has been abused or cheated on will often feel guilt despite the fact they did nothing wrong. When someone we love turns out to be someone different than we thought they were, we blame ourselves for being stupid and not seeing what was happening.

In Will Van Hart and Dr Rob Waller's recently published "The Guilt Book", they unpack this issue in more depth and give some very helpful and practical advice. Will is a pastor and Rob a psychiatrist so they have spent a lot of time listening to people who are struggling in this area. They say the words that come up time and time again are should, must, ought, always, and never:

If we find ourselves using these words frequently, we may well be allowing false guilt to control us; setting ourselves impossible standards and making vows we can't and shouldn't keep.

Many of us find this guilt creeps into our spiritual life. Often when I try to pray or read my Bible, my motivation is guilt rather than relationship. We can so easily use the amount of time we spend praying and reading the Bible as measures of how our relationship with God is rather than knowing that it's about so much more than ticking a box. Don't get me wrong, praying and reading the Bible are both crucial elements of being in relationship with God but I wish we could have the right motivations, and let go of the guilt we so often attach to them. Usually we beat ourselves up for not doing "enough" but what is enough? We're creating a self-defeating goal that can leave us trapped in guilt rather than coming to God out of love and relationship.

When I'd just had a major operation and was lying in bed, still drowsy from painkillers, I was aware of a voice telling me I should be using the time to pray. I was struggling to hold a thought in my head for a few seconds but I still felt guilty. A hospital chaplain came to see me and I nervously shared how I was feeling, awaiting the condemnation I felt I deserved. Instead she said, "My advice to you is not to pray." I thought I'd misheard her through my post-surgery fog. "What do you mean?" I said cautiously, waiting for the catch. "You've just gone through major surgery; the last thing you need is to be lying there feeling guilty because you're not praying. God understands." It was the opposite of the advice I thought I would get, yet was incredibly liberating. This is grace. When we don't hit the mark (God's or our own) it doesn't help if we beat ourselves up endlessly. We need to accept God's grace and forgiveness in order to let go of our guilt.

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Lucinda Borkett-Jones on how to cope when life doesn't work out as you planned

From "Life" section

It's both a blessing and a curse that life doesn't always work out the way we plan.

It's said that millennials are hardwired for disappointment. In the West, we've grown up in peaceful, affluent times, repeatedly told we're special and can do anything we set our minds to.

And then we graduated into an era of high unemployment and low financial security, while feeling enormous pressure to achieve personal and professional success. The Instagram/Pinterest life manual would suggest that by the time you're 30 you'll have launched and edgy start-up with an ethical dimension, found love with someone who looks as great as you do, maintained a healthy social life and found time to run an ultramarathon to raise money for Kenyan orphans.

In many cases, having a Christian faith doesn't seem to help matters, because we've been told in church that "God's got a plan" and skewed that into thinking it means goodness and blessing all the days of our lives.

Six months ago, my mother died from cancer - relatively speaking, she died before her time. A month or so before she died I had people telling me that God only had good things for me.

Yes, there are many good things in my life, and yes, there are many things God has taught me through her illness and death, but that still doesn't make it a categorically good thing that she died - well, not for me at least.

But that's just one example. I have some friends who can't get pregnant, others who would love to be married but haven't met the right person yet, some who are stuck in jobs they hate and others who can't get one, and a few with long-term health issues.

Most of these situations have caused my Christian friends to struggle with their faith to one degree or another. While there's nothing wrong with a questioning faith, a faith that stumbles at these hurdles isn't what we'd wish for our generation.

These things are the stuff of life, and particularly the life of someone in their 20s and 30s. We may not be prepared for difficulties, but sooner or later, we're all going to face them.

I can completely understand where the "good things" comment came from: an earnest desire to tell me "everything's going to be ok". I know, because I've certainly wanted to think the same thing sometimes. I'd love to believe that my mother's death was the only difficult thing I'll face - a survival attitude that says "Get through this and things can only get better". But that's not exactly a great foundation for our faith. If we're living for the next high point we're surely setting ourselves up for disappointment.

So far, so depressing. But there's hope.

I love what 17th-century archbishop Fenelon wrote in a letter to a young woman: "You will learn most in times of deprivation, deep mediation and silence of the soul before God. It is here where you will learn to renounce your own selfish spirit and love humility." How very different that is to what we're told we should be aspiring to.

The response to difficulties isn't to say "things will be better tomorrow", because there's a good chance that your health might not improve, it might not be the last job rejection you get, and you may well still be single. There are, however, other things that can help us do more than just "survive".

We need to remember that God is always good. His character doesn't change despite our circumstances. It's so often said, but it's also true. Sometimes I've resorted to playing Hillsong's "Oceans" on repeat until I believe that "He's never failed and He won't start now."

God is with us. He weeps with us, and He doesn't abandon us. Even though it doesn't mean we won't sometimes feel desperately lonely, knowing that God sees, knows and cares does change things. Someone told me recently that God will comfort us, but we have to go to Him. That might mean turning away from some of the other things we crowd our lives with in order to call out for help.

He also gives us each other. There will always be people who say the wrong thing, and in times of grief, this can become uncanny (and I've definitely put my foot in it too on more than one occasion). But then there are also heroes who emerge in such circumstances. I have a few friends who have shown me what it means to "rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn", and for that I am ever in their debt. The friend who will jump in the car when you've reached at the end of yourself is worth her weight in gold. If anything, millennials - who are less likely to "settle down" young - should be championing and demonstrating what loyal friendships look like.

God gives us hope for tomorrow. It's not an empty hope that tomorrow everything will be ok. It's an eternal hope, through Christ, in a future with Him; and a daily hope, giving us the strength to persevere. If nothing else, knowing that Christ died for me is a pretty good reason to get out of bed in the morning.

We can seek contentment, not happiness. It sounds lame - as if we're "settling" - but it's remarkably hard to achieve, particularly when we're surrounded by things telling us we deserve better. It may mean letting go of the picture we had of what we thought our lives would be, or redefining how we think about success. I'm a big planner, so I'm constantly having to revise my plan when things don't work out how I thought, but mostly I'm grateful that I can't predict what's around the corner - both the bad and the good.

We can choose to worship. This doesn't mean a stiff-upper-lip approach that stifles what we're feeling, but it does acknowledge that God is worthy of our worship however we feel, rain or shine. For me that generally means showing up to church even when I'm not in the mood, and singing along, even if I'm not feeling the ecstatic vibe of those around me.

And lastly, we can better prepare ourselves if we expect difficulties. Life's hard, and yet we're told to give thanks in all circumstances. I like to think that "giving thanks" doesn't have to look pretty all the time, but we should recognise that our faith is something - or rather someone - worth holding on to.

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Who are the Christian Left in America?

From "Society" section

As Republican presidential candidates go out of their way to talk about and attend Christian events in order to appeal to the Christian right, there is a lingering question: what about the Christian left?

During the 2004 presidential campaign, Sojourners launched the famous "God is not a Republican, or a Democrat" campaign. It would appear the debate about God's allegiance is ongoing.

Evangelist Jerry Falwell and the co-founders of the "Moral Majority" are credited with the birth of the Christian right in 1979 - an idea that has proved incredibly powerful and long-lasting. Voting patterns among evangelical Protestants in the last three presidential elections have shown steady majority support of around 75 per cent for the Republican Party.

The reality is that almost none of the presidential candidates would claim to be an atheist - perhaps with the exception of Bernie Sanders. But the Christian right are generally looking for something in particular - someone who is conservative on social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, among other things.

Despite the fact that President Obama identifies as a Christian and speaks about Christ as his saviour, claims that he is a Muslim have become so commonplace that the president has even joked about them publicly - quipping at this year's Correspondent's Dinner that he prays "five times a day" in accordance with Islam.

Prospective Republican candidate Jeb Bush once again pitted the political agenda of the left against religious freedom in his recent commencement address at Liberty University. "The progressive political agenda is ready for its next great leap forward, and religious people or churches are getting in the way. Our friends on the left like to view themselves as the agents of change and reform, and you and I are supposed to just get with the program," he said.

But even though three quarters of evangelicals may vote Republican, that still leaves about a quarter who vote Democrat. And if we broaden the field, black Protestants and those of other denominations have overwhelmingly voted for the Democrat presidential candidate in the last four elections - ranging from 86 per cent to 95 per cent support. Catholics are more evenly split between the two parties, though it has been widely noted that Obama gained considerable support among Hispanic Catholics (around 75 per cent in both elections).

There is also a notable trend toward progressive views among younger Christians. According to research by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released in 2012, only 17 per cent of those aged 18-33 are religious conservatives, compared to 47 per cent of 66-88-year-olds. And there has been a roughly even increase in those with moderate, progressive, and non-religious views. Among millennials, 23 per cent are religious progressives, compared to 12 per cent of the "silent generation".

Among Christians, the progressive agenda often particularly focuses on social justice issues. Common topics include concern for the environment, support for the minimum wage, calling for increased gun control and end to capital punishment. For some Christians there is also a desire to demonstrate support for the LGBT community - both in the Church and in society.

Key voices on the left

So where are these views given voice? Websites such as The Christian Left, who describe themselves as "Christians who think the political and Christian right-wing have got their priorities wrong" or Christian Democrats of America set themselves up in opposition to the Christian right.

Faith in Public Life is one organisation trying to advance the role of faith in society, but was set up to be a "positive alternative" to the religious right. They are involved with the "Nuns on the Bus", set up by Catholic social justice lobby group NETWORK. The "Nuns on the Bus" have campaigned on number of issues, including seeking to rally the faith community on immigration reform in 2013.

Sojourners, founded by Jim Wallis, has a broad religious base including evangelicals, Catholics, Pentecostals and Protestants, of both the conservative and progressive persuasion, united around social justice. They say their emphasis is on the teachings of Jesus, which is seen as caring for the poor.

Similarly, Red Letter Christians, the movement (and website) founded by Tony Campolo also places primary concern on the words and life of Jesus. Fellow Red Letter Christian Shane Claiborne has gained respect by living out the views he has written in books such as Jesus for President and The Irresistible Revolution in his lifestyle - founding The Simple Way, a faith community in Philadelphia. But though they don't claim that the Democrats have it all right, they certainly don't shy away from getting political; Campolo, who was Bill Clinton's spiritual advisor, also endorsed Hilary Clinton's bid for the presidency last month.

The Patheos Progressive Christian Channel hosts numerous blogs by prominent Christians, including Fred Clark's "Slacktivist" blog, Nadia Bolz-Weber, the pastor of All Sinners and Saints church in Denver, and Frank Schaeffer, son of Francis, who Frank has described as the "intellectual architect" of the religious right.

Then there are single-issue campaigns, such as the "Not All Like That" (NALT) Christians Project, for Christians who support LGBT equality and want to try and change the image of Christianity in America.

Or the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, with the strapline "Pro-faith. Pro-family. Pro-choice". Dr Willie Parker is on the board of the RCRC and has become a prominent pro-choice Christian within the medical profession, even seeing it as his a form of "ministry" to provide abortions.

Not all progressives are progressive

However, it doesn't necessarily follow that those who want to see a greater emphasis on social justice will automatically align themselves with the views of the Democratic Party. Nor does it mean that all "progressives" are progressive on social issues.

The American Values Atlas (compiled by the PRRI) shows that while younger Americans may disagree with their parents' generation over things such as same-sex marriage (almost half of young white evangelicals support it), they are often surprisingly conservative in their views on abortion, with roughly two thirds of evangelicals of all ages saying they think it should be illegal in all or most cases.

This kind of picking and choosing between policies was also identified by Pew Research's study on political typology last year, which identified a category described as "faith and family left". This group represent a diverse racial group with strong religious convictions, who support government aid for the poor, but oppose same sex marriage.

What both the data and these various communities demonstrate is that there are a number of people calling for a more nuanced relationship between faith and politics in America, and one that reflects the range of opinion among Christians. But despite discussion of the "rise of the Christian left", it may not be deemed to have fully "risen" until the distinction is not based on a polarised depiction of one against the other.

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