Christian Today Digest - Spring 2012

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From:-
TORCH TRUST, Torch House, Torch Way, Market Harborough, Leicestershire, LE16 9HL, U.K.
Telephone: +44(0)1858 438260, Fax: +44(0)1858 438275, email: info@torchtrust.org
The Torch Trust for the Blind, registered charity number 1095904.

Contents

Welcome!

Spring is the time when many people turn to thoughts of summer holidays. Have you booked one yet? Or maybe you're considering an extra one! At Torch Holiday & Retreat Centre in East Sussex, some holidays still have places. Maybe one is just right for you!

The first two holidays are suitable for people who can easily walk up to five miles and enjoy activities such as swimming, cycling or a day's sight-seeing on foot:

Now for holidays suitable for people who can easily walk up to two miles, have fun with games like ten pin bowling or enjoy going out for theatre trips:

For holiday enquiries call Gail at Torch HRC on 01273 832282 or email holidays@torchtrust.org

One thing many of us enjoy whilst on holiday is a good book. Don't forget that the Torch library is packed with great audio, giant print and braille books of all sorts. Call our library on 01858 438266 or email library@torchtrust.org

You may recall last year's big celebration of 400 years of the Bible in English. We still have two braille copies of Route 66 - a crash course in navigating life with the Bible by the popular author Krish Kandiah for sale at £8.99. This book comes in three braille volumes. It's also available to borrow from our library.

Here's what one reader had to say about it: "Route 66 doesn't make the Bible come alive. It shows that the Bible is alive - with the voice of God. In an age when even believers are bewildered by the Bible, Krish Kandiah shows us how all the parts of this most extraordinary book fit together and how each part makes its own contribution. He does this without either dumbing it down or ignoring some of the hard questions. He writes with a clarity and zest that make it a pleasure to read. Best of all, Route 66 has made me want to read my Bible more."

May this issue of Christian Today Digest have a similar effect as you consider the variety of challenges and questions in the articles which now follow.

Sheila and the editorial team.

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A missionary's service and honour

The year 2011 marked a special time for Ian and Caralee Loring. They celebrated both their 20th wedding anniversary and 20 years of living in Albania.

Then the year culminated with a surprise honour. In December, the Mayor of Korce, where they live, informed Ian that the town council had voted unanimously to make him an "Honoured Citizen of Korce" (equivalent to being given a "Freedom of the City" in London).

"I am both touched and honoured," was Ian's reaction. "I am thankful to God, and pray that this will give more opportunity to share the effects of a society coming to Christ."

The beginning of their remarkable journey that led Ian and Caralee to Albania began in the West Country. Before their marriage, both were part of an OAC Ministries (Open Air Campaigners) mission team operating from Bristol.

After his theological training, Ian, with Caralee and others, went into communist countries that allowed them to bring supplies to impoverished and suffering people. They also brought the reason for their compassion - the love of God which they shared in words and illustrated by painting on sketch boards.

Coming to Albania almost by accident is the way Caralee recalls what happened in 1991.

"We were working short term trips into Bulgaria when Albania opened. We were privileged to enter when the country first opened in May 1991, and led some of the early evangelistic teams into the country. It was so open and had such need that the call was just evident. That year we were engaged, married, and moved to Albania and haven't looked back! We've been so busy. It's hard to imagine being anywhere else, and the Lord has truly moved mountains and confirmed His call on our lives to be here."

During the civil war of 1995, the Lorings made the decision to stay in the country. At this distressing time, they undertook the daunting task of feeding the Kosovar refugees at their mission stations in Erseka. Also, they were able to re-establish three schools for local children. Their high profile has resulted in a large and thriving ministry.

One of their great success stories affecting different areas of Albania has been training Albanian students for Christian leadership. Over the years, church leaders have been raised up. Having returned to Korce, Ian is currently organising another programme for a training school.

"Ten years ago when we returned to Korce, one of our greatest desires was to help the church regain it's credibility in society," Ian explains as they work together with a Christian foundation and others. "With the work of the foundation here and the churches' social projects, the vast number of volunteers ready to serve the town and the poor, the atmosphere has changed. So has the opinion of people who for many years saw the church as irrelevant."

Korky Davey, West Country Director of OAC, congratulated Ian on Korce Town Council's unusual decision to make him an Honoured Citizen.

"This is in recognition of much needed social action in establishing safe houses for deprived children and orphans, ministry to the elderly, a physical therapy programme, and special education class and work in an orphanage for the handicapped, street children's work, school, and church centre. All this flowed out of the successful proclamation of the gospel to a whole community."

Local residents have noted two firsts. This is the only case known of one foreigner being given this honour in two cities, both Korce and Erseka. Also, it was the first time in five years that the town council voted unanimously, encouraging the community to celebrate together with this remarkable family.

Yet the Lorings sum up their biblical view, "Wealth and honour come from you ... Now, our God, we give you thanks and praise your glorious name." (1 Chronicles 29:12-13 NIV)

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"Don't take care, take risks"

"Don't take care, take risks," is the advice that Canon Andrew White has for Christians in Britain.

In a recent Church of England podcast, the Vicar of Baghdad warned of a precarious future for Iraq's dwindling Christian population.

"I don't think the future is very positive," he said. "I think it's very, very fragile, and I think without supporting the church there, there is no chance of the church continuing."

Canon White leads St George's church, the only Anglican church in Iraq and home to one of the country's largest relief operations, providing food, financial assistance and healthcare. The clinic alone serves 150 people a day, including the local Muslim communities, and its stem cell centre is one of the foremost in the world, having treated more than 3,500 patients.

With the withdrawal of US troops, there are fears of more conflict as political factions remain fiercely at odds with one another.

Canon White said the political situation in the country at the moment was "terrible".

"We have to deal with religious leaders," he said. "In the words of William Temple, 'When religion goes wrong, it goes very wrong', and religion has gone very wrong and it has been the source of so much violence."

In a country that used to be home to around five million Christians, only 200,000 remain today. Many have fled north to the relative safety of Kurdistan, while others have left the country altogether.

Despite the hardship and instability, the church continues to grow and has built positive relations with the city's Muslim governor, so much so that he built the church's new overflow hall and school. The overflow hall is being used to hold Christian services for around 500 local Muslims, many of them women.

Canon White asked Christians to pray for provision and protection.

"And we need people to support us financially," he added, "so that we can do what we have to do running the clinic and the relief programme."

He encouraged Christians in the UK to find similar ways of meeting the needs of their local communities.

"Don't take care, take risks and make sure that the church is totally and utterly relevant. The reason I became a clergyman was because I was too bored sitting in the pews. There are so many churches that aren't full of life."

Canon White last week won the US First Freedom Award, becoming only the third Englishman to do so after Winston Churchill and Tony Blair.

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Online prayer service

If you have ever wished there was someone who could pray for you but didn't know who to ask, the answer may lie in the Church of England's new online prayer service.

Prayers can be submitted at www.prayoneforme.org. A network of churches around the country will take it in turns to pray in response to the requests left on the website.

The Church of England is hoping that the website will be a resource for those who find it difficult.

"You can pray about anything," says the Rev Alison Roche, vicar of St Christopher's parish in Leicester. "Some people think God's only concerned with the really big things in life. But some people pray for car parking spaces. God is concerned about the big things in life like disasters and relationships breaking up and the very small things. In a relationship with a human being you would communicate on different levels. It's the same with God. So go for it."

The website, launched on Ash Wednesday, builds on the success of a prayer website set up by the Church of England over the past two Lents. Requests submitted to the website asked for prayer for friends, family, guidance, thanksgiving and world issues.

This time, the website will be available all year round. It will feature short profiles about some of the people and groups who will be praying the prayers, and will also link to information for those wanting to know more about praying for themselves.

The supporting Facebook page can be found at www.facebook.com/sayoneforme

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Churches get set for Olympics outreach

The umbrella organisation pulling together evangelistic efforts for the London 2012 Olympics is in the middle of its last church training tour before the big event begins in just a few months. More than Gold's nine-week tour will give churches in 15 cities a final heads up on effective engagement during the Games and the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

The Get Set training days will give churches valuable advice on how to prepare high quality activities and serve their communities. Sessions will cover how to serve as lay chaplains at key transport hubs or as "Games Pastors", how to run successful festivals and big screen events, and how to use the torch relay to engage with the community.

The tour began in Sussex and takes in Cardiff, Glasgow, Reading, Stoke, Bath, Gateshead, Barnsley, Weymouth, Bolton, Stevenage, Nottingham, plus three London venues.

David Willson, chief executive of More Than Gold, said: "For people who live a distance from Olympic venues, who are based near to the route of the Olympic Torch Relay - which most of the population are, or who can't afford the time to be official 2012 volunteers, these training days are for them. They will inform and empower the Church to find new and renewed ways of serving, being hospitable and engaging with their local community not only during the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and the Summer Games but for many years to come."

James Parker, Catholic Executive Co-ordinator for the 2012 Games, said community engagement would be a measure of the Games' success and how much they were a "wise use of taxpayers' money".

"Our churches continue, whether they believe it or not, to be the heartbeat of local communities," he said. "If we are well prepared to engage with the Games, which is the purpose of More Than Gold's Get Set training days in cities across the UK this spring, then we can inspire our communities afresh. Christianity will also be seen to be more relevant, and even attractive, to others as churches engage with this summer's events. The Christian community at large, like never before, is being offered a very rare opportunity to once again establish a firm grounding in the market square. Let's not miss this God-given chance."

Carol Ryan from a parish in Bournemouth attended the first training day. She said: "I have learnt so much today that I really need to come back for more, so I'll try and go to the Weymouth day."

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Christian Aid's work in Brazil

Ricky Ross has flown to Brazil to see for himself the progress that is being made in a land redistribution project he first visited more than 10 years ago. The Deacon Blue singer hopes his visit will highlight the challenges that remain in closing the equality gap in Brazil, whilst also uncovering some of the achievements that are being made.

During his visit, Ross was due to meet the MST, the Landless People's Movement, which is helping impoverished Brazilians acquire land. He planned to spend time in Sao Paulo before heading 250 miles north to the town of Promissao, where he was to meet people being helped into new lives by MST.

Ricky blogged about his experience on the Christian Aid website.

He writes: "In 1998 I was asked to visit Brazil and in particular, the work of MST in the state of Sao Paulo. This was a great experience for me then and the memories of that trip remain with me to this day.

"I learned that, no matter how impoverished we perceive our own country to be, there is a deeper, sadder and more brutal poverty in the developing world than we can ever imagine. Getting the opportunity to see this at first hand is wholly worthwhile."

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Friendships between young Muslims and Christians

Young people across Birmingham had the chance to turn holidays into holy days as Muslims and Christians explored their faiths together.

Workshops and events were held throughout the half-term break by The Feast, a local charity working to build friendships between teenagers of different faiths.

In a faith and fashion event, youngsters were given the opportunity to explore the impact of their beliefs on what they wear and how old or unused clothing can be given a new lease of life.

Other events during the week-long break included a comedy course and a movie marathon which saw youngsters watch 10 episodes of Dr Who throughout the night.

The film-fest, attended by 12 to 17-year-olds, raised £500 towards The Feast's work.

Local comedian Barbara Nice lent her wisdom to young people from Aston and Newtown as they prepared for the Faithful and Funny comedy evening. Barbara and the young performers were joined by comedian Shaista Aziz for the free show.

Hanna Warsame, a 20-year-old volunteer at The Feast, organised the faith and fashion event.

"It was much harder than I thought it would be," she said. "I never imagined there'd be so much to think about to run one event but I'm glad I did it and I'm happy with how it turned out."

Warsame is now organising a talent show to help raise funds to send a group of young Christians and Muslims to Turkey to teach youth there how to discuss faith appropriately.

The culmination of the week was a workshop led jointly by Ulfah Arts and the Saltmine Trust. Nine young people came together to learn new acting skills and perform stories from the Christian and the Muslim traditions.

Organiser Jenny Creasy said, "Drama proved to be a great way for young people from different faiths to get together, and the young people said they had got a lot out of the workshop. They told us that it helped them realise that it's not too scary to talk about religion and built their confidence to perform in front of people they did not know."

Feast Project Manager, Tim Fawssett said: "This has been a wonderful week in which young people have come together in so many different ways to build deep and trusting friendships with each other. It is great to see teenagers gaining the confidence to talk about their own faith and growing in understanding of another faith.

"These kinds of friendships, this honesty and openness and the levels of trust we see between young people of different faiths are really important, not only for these individuals, but for their faith communities and this city as a whole."

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God at the heart of north-east communities

A church charity shop is providing a place for locals to find a listening ear as well as a bargain.

"The Church Shop" is the brainchild of the Rev Alison Phillipson, vicar of Coatham and Dormanstown, and has been set up with the help of lay members of her church.

"In a world where people don't stop and listen, we here will listen," she said.

To Alison, church outreach doesn't have to be big to be effective.

"I think a lot of Christian people don't quite know how to serve and how to live out their faith; the opportunities aren't always there for them to do high profile projects and [the Church Shop] has given everyone an opportunity to live out their faith, to show people that they are normal people who are living out their discipleship and it is valued by the community."

She is just one of the individuals living out the gospel in the north-east of England whose stories have been told on the Archbishop of York's website in recent weeks.

Other stories highlighted include a former drug addict and school bad boy who now contributes to the spiritual and moral development of school students, and a woman who wrestled with her call to become a vicar and struggled with depression along the way.

Dr John Sentamu said: "How wonderful it is to hear these encouraging stories. Across the country, so many people are proclaiming the Good News and putting God at the heart of their communities. This is where he should be! I hope that these stories will inspire you to listen to God, encourage you to live out your faith and help you discover new ways to worship."

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Investing in Bethlehem's children

In a context of instability, deprivation and conflict, a Christian school is offering Bethlehem's children a safe and happy place to learn.

St Aphrem's Christian School in BeithJala is one of Barnabas Fund's flagship projects in the region. At the start of the last school year, there were 232 students from the ages of 3 to 10, far too many for the building that was adequate when it first opened in 2002. Such has been the popularity of the school that it has seen a growth in attendance of around 30 to 45 children each year.

With tourism on the up and increasing stability since the end of the intifada, the school expects demand to increase.

To accommodate as many children in the area as possible, the school recently undertook a major expansion. Two new floors were added to the building last year and changes were made to the existing space to make even more classrooms. The additional space has made it possible to expand the range of programmes on offer to the children. One room has been fitted out with a science laboratory for the older children, and another for art and music lessons.

A large hall provides for gym and large group activities, such as drama and music recitals, and there are plans to create a resource room for students with special needs.

Something that many children in the UK take for granted in their own schools - running hot water - is a real delight to the children at St Aphrem's as most of them come from homes that have to make do without it.

New water tanks were part of the extension, meaning that the school has a constant supply of clean water, a real concern in Bethlehem, particularly in the summertime.

"Everybody is so excited with the new facilities," said St Aphrem's head teacher Amal Benham.

The school is keen to retain a strong Christian identity, with the children starting each day with morning prayers in their classes. They also learn hymns and Christian songs, and pray together before meals.

Despite being situated in the birthplace of Jesus, Christians in Bethlehem still face discrimination and although unemployment is decreasing, prices are continuously rising, putting additional financial strains on the children's families.

Despite the challenges, St Aphrem's keeps on expanding. In the last three years, the school's staff increased from 17 to 25 members, and a new kindergarten class got underway last year, providing education for 45 three-year-olds.

Ms Benham is positive about the school's future.

"This is what makes us strong and determined to stay here: remembering that this is where Jesus lived."

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Loving God, rejecting food

The UK is affluent, educated, and home to as many as 1.6 million people who struggle to eat food each day (estimate of eating disorder charity Beat, based on NHS statistics). Not because they cannot afford it or don't have the time, but because they cannot bring themselves to.

Indeed, the UK has the highest rate of eating disorders in Europe and sadly the numbers are on the rise.

What you may not be aware of, however, is that some of these sufferers are praying, believing, churchgoing Christians. According to Christian organisation Anorexia Bulimia Care (ABC), a church congregation of 200 will typically have around four or five people suffering with an eating disorder at any one time.

"Research we've carried out at events and conferences," says Jane Smith, executive director of ABC, "found that 90% of church members knew someone who was suffering from an eating disorder. Seventy per cent of them knew someone in their own church. Of those that we spoke to who did know of someone suffering in their church, over half of them said that their church leaders did not know what was going on."

Given the church's emphasis on people being made in the image of God and its well-known commitment to feeding the hungry at home and abroad, the deliberate rejection of food by a Christian can be hard to understand.

So why do they do it? Are they just being selfish or silly? Or is there more to it than meets the eye?

Premier Christian Radio host Maria Rodrigues-Toth has taken many calls from listeners who have suffered from eating disorders. The details of each caller may be different but what they share in common is low self-esteem.

"A lot of the time it's a sense that they are not pretty enough," she says, "not interesting enough, they're not worth what God has made them to be."

Arianna Walker is executive director of Mercy Ministries, a charity that provides a six-month residential programme for young women suffering from life-controlling issues. She isn't surprised that there are girls in the church struggling with self-image and eating disorders. Every woman who comes to Mercy Ministries comes through a church and is from a Christian background.

"Being a Christian does not make you immune to the challenges of this world," she says. "Churches across the country are reaching out to the communities which is great and these people are getting saved and becoming Christians," she explains. "But then six months down the line it is revealed that individuals were abused, self-harming or addicted to drugs. Now they're in church and trying to discover what their faith in God looks like with all the baggage from the past."

With size zero models dominating the fashion industry and women's magazines with page after page of airbrushed beauties, it's not surprising that girls feel under pressure to "look like them".

Psychologist Dr Kate Middleton says, "If we have a culture where there are a lot of unrealistic images portrayed, this does place a pressure on the more vulnerable, especially teenage (or younger) girls, to believe that they 'should' be able to achieve this."

This is just a part of the problem, however, and the deliberate rejection of food goes beyond a desire to resemble slim models and celebrities.

"I can honestly say that I have only ever had one or two eating disorders that have been started by a diet to look thinner," says Jane. "I would say that 99% of all our calls are to do with emotional triggers, emotional trauma for the child. More commonly, we find family rows, breakdowns, bereavement and bullying are the major factors."

Eating disorders develop as a way to try to cope with traumatic events or bullying, says Dr Middleton. "They may appear totally destructive from the outside but they stem from an attempt to make things better and a belief that losing weight, or gaining control over weight would help. They are about people trying to feel better and do better. Every sufferer will have a different story, and understanding what led to the development of the eating disorder in the first place is often a vital part of recovery."

The psychological fallout of an eating disorder is that it is difficult for sufferers to talk about it. According to Jane, anorexics and bulimics can go for years without seeking help, convincing themselves that they don't have a problem.

"We have people ringing us who have plucked up the courage because they feel they can't go on anymore and they tell us they haven't spoken to anyone. They tell us we are the first people they've spoken to in ten or fifteen years. It's very distressing."

ABC works very closely with youth leaders in churches to support today's youth.

"Youth leaders are pivotal," Jane says. "Church youth groups are often open to the general public. The young people of the town will come in and that's the place where young people can be heard. I think also the church has to know what to do when somebody has an eating disorder and the parents come to the church leader and say 'I need your help'."

Jane clearly feels very passionate about equipping the church to understand eating disorders.

Resources are available for parents to help them cope with their child's condition. ABC has put together The Parents' Guide to Eating Disorders based on the questions they have been asked by parents over the years.

However, recovery is a long journey. The NHS puts it at five years, setbacks notwithstanding. What is most important is getting to the heart of the issue and not simply treating the symptom, says Arianna.

"Eating disorders are like branches," she explains. "You can meet someone and very quickly see that they are anorexic. It is evident in their behaviour and body. Most people's approach to this is to chop off the branch - 'let's deal with the eating disorder'. Whilst that may be effective for a short time, it's like a tree. If you were to cut off the branch it would go, but if you don't deal with what's causing that branch to grow in the first place, ie the roots, then the branch is just going to grow back in the same place or somewhere different."

For those who persevere, recovery does come in the end.

Maria recalls a story from one of her listeners.

"I remember her relating that she was so thin that literally it was just skin hugging her skeleton. Doctors told her that her life was essentially going to end. It wasn't a scare tactic; it was just the reality that she was at the end of her life. She hardly weighed anything."

For this particular caller, it all began when she started receiving taunts at school and was being bullied. She wanted to fit in, so took to eating less and it eventually spiralled out of control.

Thankfully, she is one of the sufferers who recovered with God's help and thus changed the course of her life.

"I remember how she shared with me that she was literally lying on her deathbed and she felt like there was nothing she could do," says Maria. "It was at that point that she ended up crying out to God and she just felt filled with light and after that moment she began to get stronger.

"It was God that enabled her to begin to start the process of rebuilding her life. Now she ministers to other women who are also dealing with this issue."

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Ministering to the marginalised in Pakistan

Making their way through brick yards in Pakistan among destitute people seems remote from the comfortable life that Joseph and Rose Barkat once knew. Living in Bedford for 40 years, they faithfully served the Lord there. Yet four years ago they responded to God's call to help marginalised people who are neglected in their home country of Pakistan. Each year they have been able to provide more practical help for those who suffer. Now they have also become one of the projects of Siloam Christian Ministries.

"Due to poverty, entire families in Pakistan get entrapped in bondage," explains Siloam UK Director Richard Norton. "In particular, the brick works are notorious for ensnaring generations in debt poverty. Small children to the elderly work at brick making to pay for unscrupulous bonded labour."

These families are largely from a Christian background and meet with discrimination because of their faith. Without adequate medical or educational provision, these destitute labourers face a downward spiral.

But they are not forgotten by God - or his people. Joseph and Rose Barkat work closely with both British and Pakistani Christians. Through the efforts of British Christians, 25 schools have been started in various brick yards. Joseph and Rose co-ordinate with them as well as local ministers in Pakistan. When funds are available, they seek to help with practical needs. They have been able to meet together with parents, provide basic school supplies for children and bring hope for a better future.

"It's not enough to just teach," insists Joseph who teaches at the local Bible College. "If you show your love, people will come to Jesus. That is why we call our work Footsteps Ministry in Pakistan. We are just walking in the footsteps of Jesus."

This year marked the opening of the fourth sewing centre the Barkats have established. These provide self-sustaining means of protecting vulnerable girls and young ladies.

"These families are so poor that even young people have to work very hard," explains Rose. "Most come from a Catholic background and face persecution. They have to go to work young, doing unskilled labour like cleaning. Often girls are abused yet they cannot obtain justice. Learning to sew means that girls can be rescued from their abusers and earn an income. One young teenager was sexually abused and her parents tried to take the case to court. But they were discriminated against. Now she is at home with her supportive family and able to work sewing. Her teacher is a lovely Christian lady who has helped her come to faith, and her life has been completely turned around."

Although much of their year is spent away from their own children and grandchildren, Joseph and Rose return to Britain from June to September. They use this time to raise supportive interest for the marginalised people whose lives are being turned around.

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Outreach to Armagh's marching bands

A project led jointly by the Church of Ireland and Church Army has welcomed its first ministry bus for outreach to marching bands in Armagh.

The bus was inaugurated on 6 March by the Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Rev Alan Harper, as part of the Zacchaeus Outreach Project.

The official dedication was to be joined by Vice Lord Lieutenant of Tyrone, Peter Acheson, and representatives of the Ulster Bands Association and the Ulster Scots Agency.

The bus will be used to transport volunteers to band parades and band meetings, where it will then act as a hub for anyone wanting to come and talk about faith and issues affecting everyday life.

The project is to be co-ordinated by Church Army sister and diocesan evangelist Valerie Thom and has the additional support of the Church of Ireland Priorities Fund, churches in the Armagh Diocese and the Armagh Diocese itself.

Archbishop Harper said he was pleased to see the Zacchaeus Outreach Project working with bands "so directly".

"It is always most effective to work with and listen to people 'where they are at', so this café-on-wheels is an innovative approach to really being there for people," he said.

"I commend everyone who has been involved in making it happen, not least Sister Valerie Thom, the diocesan evangelist, who has shown personal dedication in getting it going, and I feel sure it will lead to meaningful engagement and further valuable work."

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Rebuilding Haiti

More than two years after a massive earthquake crippled Haiti, Mission Aviation Fellowship continues to lend a helping hand in the rebuilding process. More than 30 relief organisations are being assisted by MAF flights, which are being used to transport aid and supplies to 15 different points around the country. The charity has been in Haiti since 1986 and today has three planes in operation.

Since the earthquake in January 2010, MAF planes have flown relief workers, medical personnel, and church and community development teams to areas unreachable by road. Many of Haiti's roads are in poor condition, making travel extremely difficult. Where roads are passable, there is the additional challenge of bandits.

"We have been encouraged by the progress made in Haiti over the past year, but we know there is still a long road ahead," said John Boyd, MAF president.

In addition to running crucial flights, MAF has offered practical assistance in other ways, such as by distributing micro grants to help families and small businesses get back on their feet after the quake.

MAF personnel assisted in repairing a school, providing meals for school children, and constructed 26 small homes for those in need. Its planes have also been used to fly medical teams and supplies to clinics and hospitals across Haiti, following the outbreak of cholera in late 2010 which killed more than 6,000 people.

Despite the difficulties of the last two years, MAF programme manager David Carwell said the country was "optimistic" about the future.

"We've seen many churches and mission organisations that have been strengthened and are moving forward," he said. "We pray that MAF can be a catalyst in the process."

Boyd shares the sense of optimism: "It is a privilege to serve the people of Haiti daily and we look forward to continuing our role in assisting with rebuilding efforts."

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Spiritual takeaways

[Tony Ward, a Bible teacher and evangelist, offers his thoughts on the spiritual diet.]

A recent survey revealed that in Britain over half of the meals consumed when eating out are at fast-food outlets.

This has been attributed to the current recession and constraints on people's disposable income, forcing families to cut back on restaurant meals and substitute with the take-away burger or fried chicken type of meal.

The oft-cited statistics highlighting the national decline in Bible reading has made me wonder whether Christians also are substituting a healthy diet with spiritual "fast food". I find increasingly that people want to be Christians without bothering too much with the Bible. They subsist on what has been termed "spiritual pot noodles" - often a daily inspirational text with maybe somebody's motivational comments about it.

Lest anyone should think that this is a characteristic unique to our present generation, the writer to the Hebrews himself laments that his readers ought to be on "solid food", but were instead making do with milk (Hebrews 6:12-13).

My own observation of the Church in Britain is that, on the whole, it does little to promote "solid food" to nurture a mature and strong Christian faith. Bible exposition has largely been replaced by observations on current affairs, and I have been to church services on a Sunday where the Bible has not even been publicly read. In many evangelical churches (who in times past had a reputation for being Bible-based) the preoccupation with "user-friendly" worship has led to a spiritual fast-food diet that is geared more to entertainment than to discipleship.

The value of the constant drip-feed of Biblical teaching has been questioned both from within and outside the Church. Years ago, the writer of a letter to the editor of The British Weekly reflected the not unfamiliar mantra that he had been attending church regularly for thirty years and had probably heard 3000 sermons. However, as he couldn't remember a single one of them, he wondered if preachers might more profitably spend their time on something else. A number of editorial responses ensued, finally ended by this letter which said: "Dear Sir, I have been married for thirty years. During that time I have eaten about 32,850 meals - mostly my wife's cooking. Suddenly I have discovered I cannot remember the menu of a single meal. And yet, I have the distinct impression that without them, I would have starved to death long ago".

Fast food churches will surely produce unhealthy Christians with little staying power. The risen Christ challenged the lukewarm church of Laodicea by saying: "I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and dine with him and he with me" (Revelation 3:20). The outcome of a genuine commitment to Christ is that he comes in to bring a nourishing meal, not a snack. His promise to dine with us holds the promise of a spiritual feast rather than a quick take-away.

Our society today is crumbling precisely because our culture doesn't know how to tackle issues with a clear grasp of biblical principles of right and wrong. But many Christians are little better, victims of a famine of hearing the words of the Lord, as predicted by the prophet Amos. In such a scenario, Christians then regularly end up building their personal morality on the values of the world rather than the Word. The "Garbage in, garbage out" principle prevails. The famous preacher D L Moody used to inscribe memorable words in the front flyleaf of people's Bibles. He would write: "This book will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from this book."

No wonder Jesus told his disciples, "Do not work for the food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life" (John 6:27).

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The Christian among the non-Christians

Having been a faith-based and committed Christian for over a decade, you could easily think I had become accustomed to the strange looks when I tell people more about myself; for example, that on Sunday mornings I go to church instead of recovering from a boozy session with friends, that my life manual is the Bible, and that I have a personal relationship with God.

However, with so many prejudices attached to Christianity, it can sometimes be hard to speak candidly about my faith.

In addition to "being strange", the common labels attached to Christians these days vary from the "party pooper" to "cult follower".

As part and parcel as they are of being a Christian today, stereotypical generalisations are not without their impact. A law student and friend of mine recently confided that he was annoyed by the ignorance of many who equate the church with a religious cult without asking what the Christian faith is actually about.

Recently I had a conversation with a group of non-Christians and, aside from analysing current affairs, we somehow ended up talking about evangelical Southern Americans. It was clear that the consensus in the group was against the "conversion" aspect of evangelical work and the deprecating tone of the conversation silenced me.

Being a Christian is like a confession we have to make - indeed it is our responsibility to testify - yet even after all these years, "revealing my true self" has not become much easier.

There are many who can relate to my experience. Anna, a chemistry student and a friend back in my native Germany, shares that until the age of 18 she was embarrassed to even speak with her friends about her faith and adds that she still feels uncomfortable bringing it up when meeting new people.

When you are in your 20s, it's just not what people expect from you. You are in the prime of your life where you have all the freedom in the world to experiment and test your limits. When people learn that you are waiting for the right partner and will not share your bed with him until he has officially put a ring on your finger, they consider you to be a "hard-core Christian".

Anna shares that "people start treating me as if I was an alien" as soon as they find out she is abstaining from premarital sex.

Even though Germany is a predominantly Christian country, I always found it fascinating how I was put in a box labelled "fanatic" when people realised that I stand by my faith and live according to my Christian values. My family has been especially critical of my commitment. I recall how my final yearbook at school included personal descriptions and future job prospects for each pupil made by fellow classmates. It must be greatly disappointing for them to learn that the "pious" and "very religious" Charlene has not ended up in a convent as a lot of them expected me to.

The fear of being judged can hinder friendships with non-Christians. Most of Rishab's friends, for example, are Christians because he feels more "accepted" by them.

Notwithstanding some differences, I have never found it hard to make friends outside of church. They were astonished at first, but have accepted and respected my faith, which is most important for me. It has always been my aim to counter stereotypes and show that we are still "normal people with normal interests".

As Christians we can sometimes be scared of being discriminated against or mocked because of our faith. However, my experience has taught me that there is nothing to fear. My Christian belief is a substantial part of who I am and many non-Christians have been intrigued by my commitment and admire my positive outlook on life.

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